Exaggeration and Blank Verse
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The docking clamps latched on with a dull thunk, the atmo evened out with a hiss, and Mal's hands dropped off the shuttle controls in relief. Home.

Jayne was staring at the door, pushing himself as far back into the corner of the shuttle as he could. "Can't do it, Captain."

"You've got to." The tension coming off the big man probably could've powered the shuttle generator all on its own. "Just settle yourself now. It'll be all right."

"Could you maybe-" He licked his lips, eyes still fixed on the door. "Could you maybe go out there first and see that they're not all standing there at once? Staring at me?"

"Sure. I can do that. No staring, right." Mal nodded and ran a hand through his hair. "I'll go on out there and talk to 'em, and you can kinda slip off the shuttle while I've got their attention. Cause I tell you what, Jayne, not one of 'em's gonna agree to leave that catwalk till they see you."

Jayne nodded, fingers drumming out a wild beat along his forearms. "Sure. A distraction works just fine, Mal. As long as they're not all looking at me."

Mal hit the door release and stepped off the shuttle, holding up his hands to ward off the expectant-eyed crew. "He's in there, don't worry," he said calmly. Like trying to simmer down restless horses, this bunch. "Just wanted to prepare you, is all. He ain't quite...the way you remember him."

"Does he need medical care?" Simon asked, glancing down toward the infirmary. "I can get my kit-"

"Nothing urgent." Mal waved him off and tightened his shoulders to keep from glancing back into the shuttle. "I will want you to give him a good looking-over later on, though. They ain't easy on anybody down there. That whole planet ain't easy." He still imagined grit in his lungs. "Just take it slow with him, is all I'm saying," he went on, rubbing his palms against his trousers. "And even if he tells you a real touching story about a dog, do not agree to shoot him."

They stared at him like he was insane. He folded his arms across his chest and shrugged.

"So you've done your warnin'," Kaylee said. "What's the waiting for?"

"He's afraid," River said, toying with the zipper on her coveralls. Mal glanced at her; it wasn't so easy to tell when she started prophesying anymore, she was so matter-of-fact about it. But her eyes would narrow, her focus sharpening down to something the rest of them couldn't see.

"Of us?" Wash asked incredulously.

"Ghosts of us. Memories of us." She looked up and pinned Jayne to the wall with her eyes. He'd been slipping sideways into the corridor.

Now everyone was looking at him, just like he hadn't wanted, but he didn't even notice. River's pale face and dark eyes were all that he could see.

"Your head's all full of screaming," she said. She turned on her heel and hurried off down the corridor. Jayne stared after her. The rest kept staring at him. Mal closed his eyes until he felt someone tugging at his elbow. When he opened them he saw Wash, a question fit to bust from his lips.

"Where's the rest of him?" he asked.
*****
Kaylee woke up walking down to the engine room. She was used to that; the hum of the ship's life would shift in her sleep, or something would come to her in a dream, and her body would start moving before her brain could catch up.

She could see another body through the doorway, already standing by her engine, and she breathed out a string of curses Mal would blush to hear her say. They'd upgraded security and modified the hatches half a dozen times and if another gorram bounty hunter or thief had breached her ship she was going to wrap the hull in barbed wire, swear on her mama's life she would-

It was Jayne.

He was standing there in the middle of the engine room, hands loose and slack at his sides, head tilted slightly, staring down at the rotating heart of Serenity. She let her boots clang against the floor the last few steps- River had slipped into the mess on her little cat feet earlier and startled him. Kaylee knew the taste of the kind of pure panic she'd seen on his face, had felt it in her own throat, but it didn't belong with Jayne.

He looked around and she smiled at him, waving her hand and doing her best to look harmless and reassuring. She ought to be good at that, but then he'd seemed plumb terrified of River, and he could probably break her in half even now.

"Serenity's still talkin'." He was staring at the engine again. "Just like before. She sounds just the same." He swallowed and glanced over at her and then back to the turning motor. "Everything's different- every little thing- but you've kept her sounding just the same. Singin' the same song." He jerked his head toward the crew bunks. "Heard it when I was trying to sleep, before. Wanted to come down and hear it better. Didn't mean to disturb nothin'."

"I borrowed your hat," she blurted, and he turned to look at her in puzzlement. "The one your mama made you. We- we had to turn the heat down sometimes, to save juice, and I was real cold and I didn't have nothin' and I didn't think you'd..." She stuttered to a halt. "I'll give it back," she whispered.

His face was all twisted up, but she couldn't tell if he was trying to smile or fighting back something else. "Don't worry none about that, little Kaylee. I'm glad someone was getting some use out of it. Right and proper."

She shook her head, hating the sudden hot splash of tears against her cheeks. "No, it weren't right, I shouldn't've touched it. And Mal shouldn't've sold your guns- we needed the cash, we were starving, but he should've found something else, he shouldn't-"

His hand was so light on her shoulder she almost didn't feel it. "Don't cry about none of that," he said, looking down his arm like he couldn't really believe he was touching her. "I weren't never expecting to see any of 'em again anyway, and it would've been damn foolish to starve to death with all of that sittin' right there. Don't worry yourself about none of mine, Kaylee."

"What happened to Vera?" she asked, wiping her face with the back of her hand. "You had her when you were- when we left, right?"

His hand fell away. "Yeah." He looked off into the corner of the engine room, where Serenity's shadows gathered. "Feds got her when they took me in."

"So she's livin' it up with some officer now," she said, trying to find her brightest smile. "Bet he treats her real nice, cleans her up on Sundays."

Jayne shrugged. "'Liance officers got all the guns they need. Reckon they melted her down for scrap."

She bit her lip and wasn't sure if she should say it for a minute, but the words pushed their way out past her tongue. "Did they- did they hurt you awful bad, Jayne?"

"Bad enough," he said, still looking off at nothing. "Ain't something you ever want to volunteer for, all right, Kaylee?"

"Got my bullet all picked out already," she said with a tight little smile that wasn't. He glanced at her, startled. "Been a few close calls, while you were away. Feds and Reavers. I had time to think about it."

"Reavers?" His eyes widened a little, looking back in time, and a shiver went through his body. She remembered- too late- that Reavers were the only thing she could remember that he'd feared. He lowered himself to the floor, leaning back against the bulkhead. "Ain't thought about Reavers in a good long time."

She chuckled, a bitter little sound without much humor in it, and settled down next to him. "We've seen our share, let me tell you. Seems like there's a few more of 'em every year."

He shook his head and rubbed absently at his arm, hitching the sleeve up to expose a twisty scar running along the muscle. She tilted her head to study it.

"You get yourself checked out by the doc?" she asked. He nodded.

"Ain't gonna drop dead anytime soon, is what I got out of what he told me. Threw lots of words and letters at me I didn't understand- P, T, D, somethin', I don't know."

"Post traumatic stress?" she asked, thumping her head back against Serenity's smooth metal insides. "Yeah, I've had that conversation with the doc before."

"What d’ya mean?" He tucked his chin close against his chest and studied the marks of wear on the flooring.

"Well, we were way out on the fringe, you know, and some men out there don't have the same respect for a girl's virtue as the gentlemen we keep on Serenity." Her face hurt from holding up a hollow smile. "Three or four men out there, at least."

"Right sorry to hear that, Kaylee," he said in an almost whisper, tracing his fingers along the welding lines in the floor. "Can't believe Mal would let that kind of thing happen, in fact."

"Well, he didn't have much of a say, considering he was strung up by his heels and bein' poked with cattle prods at the time." She stretched her arms out in front of her, fingers interlaced, and cracked her shoulders. "Simon rescued us, actually."

He looked sideways at her. "The doc?"

She chuckled. "Yeah. Simon Tam took up arms and rode to the rescue." She dipped her chin, letting her hair fall down over her face. "Him and Zoe. Very heroic."

"Little doctor's all grown up." He shook his head, and she decided that it was getting easier to see the smile in the twist of his face. "Guess I shouldn't be so knotted up in my head, you all had troubles just as bad as mine."

"Oh, no, don't do that," she said quickly, pushing her hair back behind her ears again. Couldn't abide it tickling her nose for long. "You gotta acknowledge what you're feeling and deal with it, not push it away. Simon explained all that to me with the traumatic stress thing. You should talk to him about it, he's knows all kinds of stuff like that."

He shrugged and tipped his head back against the bulkhead. "You ever manage to have your way with him, like you wanted way back when?"

"Oh, yeah." She grinned down at her boots. "Finally. We were together for a little while, out there, but then it ended." She glanced over at him and bounced her shoulders carelessly. "That's how it goes, you know? Things end."

"They do at that." He was looking over at the slowly turning heart of Serenity. "But then sometimes they start up again."
*****
“So what’s the word, doc?” Mal asked, leaning against the door frame of the infirmary. “How’s he look?”

Simon glanced up from the drawer he was restocking, fingers all tangled up in vials. “Well, aside from a certain degree of malnutrition, he’s physically all right.” He’d learned to cuss and carry on as well as anybody else on the ship, out there in the black, but get him talking about doctoring and he slipped back into old cadences, old words. “There are a good number of scars and broken bones, but they’re all healed solidly, if not elegantly.” He shook his head. “No point wasting a mender on a prisoner or a slave, I suppose. Stitches and splints, it looks like.”

“Not so uncommon outside the Core, Doctor,” Book pointed out, stepping into the infirmary with three mugs of hot coffee balanced in his hands. “Menders are pricey, and they break. Stitches and splints are the basics.”

“I suppose they just offend my sense of aesthetics,” Simon chuckled, wrapping his hands around his mug. “They do work, though, you’re right. Physically, there’s not much I can do for him beyond giving him the run of the kitchen. I tried to give him some vitamins and such, but...” He looked pointedly at a metal tray crumpled in the far corner, surrounded by broken bits of glass and metal. “He objected to the idea of injections. Strongly objected.”

Mal winced. “Oh. I should’ve- he mentioned needles, back on the shuttle. I should’ve warned you about that, Doc, sorry.”

“Makes sense,” Book said thoughtfully, taking a careful sip of his drink. “Alliance interrogators wouldn’t have to rely solely on the classics of torture- hot, sharp, loud and the like. Chemical coercion adds a whole new dimension to the process. And of course the psychology of seeing the instruments of torture is always a big part of the process.”

Mal and Simon glanced at each other and hid their smiles in their drinks. They’d probably killed at least a year of their voyage speculating on the story behind Book’s cryptic, un-Shepherdlike comments. Finding out the truth would most likely be a letdown.

“Well, anyway,” Simon said with forced lightness, “physically, he’s all right. As for emotionally and psychologically...well, that’s just going to take time.”

“Time and God’s will,” Book murmured. Mal laughed.

“If we were gonna wait around for God’s will on this ship, preacher, we’d’ve been waitin’ a long time by now.”

Book just smiled and took another sip of coffee. Simon turned back to his drawer.

“Are we still stopping at Winter Station, Captain?” he asked, counting vials of something blue.

“Yeah. Kaylee needs a few things, and Zoe and I are going to see about a job. Why?”

“There’s a good medical supply depot on Winter.” He held one of the vials up to the light, frowned at whatever he saw in it, and set it aside. “I could use some things.”

Mal glanced over at the crumpled tray and broken syringes in the corner. “Those kinds of things?”

“What?” Simon followed his gaze. “Oh. No, I’ve got plenty of those. That doesn’t matter.” He began sorting through vials of something red. “I want to see about some things for River...and I might be able to get something to take that slave-mark off Jayne’s back. If you think he’d want that.”

Mal shrugged. “Can’t speak for the man, but it’s a thought. Should get there in about two days. Give you time to ask him.”

Simon winced a little. “I’m not sure he’ll be willing to discuss that with me, Captain, and you two have already-”

“Yeah, we have, and I don’t think either one of us wants to anymore.” He drained the last of his coffee and pushed off of the door frame. “I’m for bed. We’ll figure something out before we get to Winter.” He nodded curtly at Book. “Preacher.” And he was gone.

Book shook his head. “That man insists on putting an awful lot of weight on his shoulders that nobody asked him to carry.”

“Part of being the captain, I suppose,” Simon murmured, tucking his vials into the drawer. “And I can’t believe that after eight years you’re still needling him about God.”

“It’s what I do,” Book said with a smile that was far from innocent. “I’ll talk to Jayne for you, if you like, Doctor.”

“That,” Simon said, closing the drawer with a satisfied thunk, “would be excellent.”
*****
Jayne smiled politely, eyes on the careful progress of a ladle of soup from kettle to bowl. "Right kind of you, preacher, but I'm done with God."

Over at the table, Kaylee elbowed Mal sharply until he stopped grinning. Book looked genuinely distressed.

"Oh, but Jayne, it's in times of hardship that-"

"I ain't sayin' I don't believe in God anymore, preacher," Jayne said patiently, adding another ladleful to his bowl. "Course I still do. But I made a deal with Him- back there planetside. If He let me see the Captain one more time, tell him that I didn't sell you all out...then He wouldn't have to trouble himself with me anymore. And He did. So He's done with me." He set the bowl down and turned to rummage through a drawer for an eating-spoon. "And that's that, the way I see it. Thanks for the offer, though."

Book opened and closed his mouth without any sound coming out for a few moments. "That's not how it works, Jayne," he finally managed. "God doesn't make deals with us- He's always with us, no matter what, He doesn't sign off on His children..."

"I made a deal, preacher," Jayne said, a little more firmly now, picking up his bowl and heading toward the door. "And I reckon I'll stick to my side of it. I won't bother the Almighty and He don't have to bother with me. Guess I'll eat this down in the cargo bay." And he was around the corner and vanished in the time it took to blink.

Wash let out a long sigh and slumped back in his chair. "It's a little unnerving how he can do that now."

"Do what?" Mal asked, glancing up from his own soup.

"Disappear!" Wash leaned forward again. "It's like having a ghost on the ship- like River was, back when she first came on board. Except that I'd never expected a man that big to be able to sneak around like that! He's crept up behind me on the bridge once or twice, and I almost rolled the ship over!"

"We're in space," Mal pointed out calmly, taking another spoonful of soup. "There's no up or down. You can't roll the ship over."

"Unnerving, is all I'm saying." Wash scowled down at the table. "Creepy, even."

"He has a point, sir," Zoe said, tapping her fingernails against the edge of her chair. "It's not exactly comfortable, right now, having him on board...for us or for him, I think."

"What are you suggesting I do, Zoe?" Mal asked her, in the slightly-too-calm voice that meant trouble ahead. "Tell him 'sorry the rescue didn't work out, good luck on getting over the whole torture and enslavement thing' and toss him out on the next planet?"

"Of course not," she said, as Wash looked up and asked, "Could we maybe take him back to his home soil? Maybe it would help to have his family around him."

"He ain't never expressed an urge to go back to the homestead," Mal said curtly, shoving his half-full bowl away. "And I very much doubt that his family has the time, money, or inclination to take care of him while he gets his head straight again."

"And we do?" Zoe asked quietly. Mal gave her a look that would've scorched Serenity's bulkheads if it hadn't been matched by the ice in her own eyes.

"We do indeed," said the Captain. There was a long, stiff silence in the mess before he went on. "But I agree that something's got to change."

"Can't you talk to him?" Kaylee asked Simon, who sat in the far corner with River, trying to convince her to eat her soup instead of lecturing on the whys and wherefores of its chemical makeup. "You helped me an awful lot, back before."

"That was different," Simon mumbled, looking very hard into the bowl. "Post-rape trauma's covered in the intro psych classes every med student takes. Post-torture recovery? Post-slavery? Those are, um, higher-level subjects. I didn't get that far into the textbook." He took his sister's spoon away from her. "River, don't make me feed you like a child."

"Well, you might not be a psychologist, doc," Mal said flatly, watching as River clamped her lips together and shook her head, "hell, you might not even be the smartest Tam on board...but you're the best we've got, and I suggest you give a try at talking to him."

Simon opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again as Jayne slipped through the doorway. Wash gave Mal a pointed look as everyone at the table jumped, startled.

"Just bringin' the bowl back," Jayne muttered, edging over to the sink. There was a crash as River knocked her bowl out of Simon's hand and jumped to her feet. She pointed accusingly at Jayne.

"Doesn't the screaming ever stop?" she demanded, stomping her foot. He stared at her blankly. She burst into tears and ran out the door. Jayne turned on his heel and hurried out the other side of the mess, disappearing into the shadows leading toward the engine room.

Simon looked over at Mal and swallowed, nodding slowly. "I'll...I'll come up with something. Perhaps I can find some things at the med supply station on Winter that would help him. And I'll talk to him. I'll try."

"Thank you," Mal muttered, pushing his chair back from the table. "I'll be in my bunk. If anything goes wrong...fix it yourself."
*****
The ship emptied out on Winter Station, everyone chattering eagerly as they walked through the airlock, eyes fixed on the lights and chaos of the station promenade. Kaylee wanted to find the parts depot, of course; she had some elaborate plan to coax two or three percent more power out of Serenity's engines. Mal and Zoe were going to check on that with her, and then meet up with a contact about a job running cargo- legit work, the kind they couldn't afford to pass up. Wash and Book were talking about just having a chance to stretch their legs a little, and catch up on the news going on out there in the 'verse. River...River just loved getting off-ship, for any reason or none at all. Simon wanted to collect more pills and potions. And as for Jayne...well, who could say what was going on in his head, except that the fact he was getting off Serenity at all seemed to be a good sign?

"All right," Mal said indulgently as they approached the station center, "we'll meet up here again in an hour or so, see what's what. Jayne, you want to go with Simon and River or-"

Jayne wasn't following. He was standing stock-still, face gone dead white, staring at one of the big restaurants across the promenade. A squad of Feds in full uniform sat at one of the tables, laughing and carrying on in off-duty exuberance. They were young, Mal could tell at a glance; probably trainees who'd never even seen a prisoner before, much less taken one. Didn't matter. The uniforms were crisply pressed and the guns at their sides glittered in the light. Those were all Jayne could see.

River started laughing. That didn't bother Mal much, girl was always reacting dead wrong in any given situation. But then she started to talk, quick and easy, in a low dark voice that didn't belong in her throat.

"Just tell us which ship they're on, and its destination. That's all we need to know, prisoner. Tell me that and I'll make it stop. I'm the only one who can make it stop, you know. I've got the antidote right here. You tell me which ship and where it's headed and I'll make all the hurting go away. My word as an officer."

"River..." Simon tugged at her arm. She shook him off, laughing again, looking over at the Feds.

"Don't be stupid. Your friends know you're gonna squeal. Nobody beats the Feds, especially not scum like you. Now just make it easy on yourself, tell me what we need to know. Oh, that's very impressive. Also stupid. Mr. Tregves, hand me that device there, won't you? You might've heard of these, living as you did, prisoner. Popular among underworld boss-types. It sets on your chest- like so- and when it's activated, the electrodes burrow under your skin and throughout your central nervous system. Have you ever seen one at work?"

Jayne was shaking now, his whole body trembling like Serenity breaking atmo. Mal's hand came up to his own chest, to the scars he still carried there. Echoing under River's laughter, he heard Niska's.

"Oh, now, I can't abide screaming. Mr. Tregves, get that syringe there. Yes, the one with the paralytic. Inject his throat, if you please. Thank you. Now, prisoner, you may think this now makes it impossible for you to tell me what I want to know, but I'm sure if you try just a little harder..."

"Simon," Zoe snapped, her voice cutting through the spell River's words were casting, "get River and Jayne back to the ship. Now. Get 'em out of here before somebody notices."

The doctor came out of his trance, ducking his head and putting an arm around each of his patients. Jayne was an immovable object, staring and shaking as River's horrible voice twisted around all of them. Simon pushed a little harder, and Zoe clapped her hands sharply in front of Jayne's face, breaking his line of sight to the Feds. He shook his head slowly, blinking down at her.

"Follow Simon now, Jayne," she said quietly. "Go on. Don't worry about them, we'll take care of it. And Simon," her voice rose a bit, "make her shut up. I don't care what you have to do."

The doctor's mouth flopped open, and he looked helplessly at her sister, but she'd already fallen silent. She smiled sweetly up at him. "Where we going?" she asked.

"Back to the ship," he muttered.

"Oh, no, Simon, I wanted to see the station!" Her voice got louder and she flailed her arms, trying to pull away from him. Jayne was following a pace behind them, eyes fixed on the floor, like a loyal dog. Simon winced away from that comparison as he herded them back to the airlock. So much for things getting better.
*****
Fortunately, space stations had to deal with ships running on all manner of day/night cycles. The med supply depot was always open. Simon made his purchases and got back to the ship in the middle of Serenity's night.

He probably should've been surprised to find Jayne rummaging through his medical supplies at that hour. But there wasn't much point in being surprised by anything onboard this ship. He'd figured that out when he first came on board, and it only became more true with time. "Can I help you find something?" he asked, setting his purchases aside and wincing as he watched the man knock various expensive little bottles aside as he squinted at the tiny labels that weren't mean to be read by anyone who hadn't learned the physician's secret code.

"Sorry, doc," Jayne mumbled, holding another vial up the light, "I was just lookin' for something to help me sleep."

"Well, you're not going to find it there. You're looking at the coagulants." Jayne glanced back over his shoulder, frowning slightly. "They stop bleeding." He moved forward, reaching for the vial. "Here, give me that and take a seat. I'll find something for you."

Jayne stared at him for a minute, something Simon didn't recognize flashing through his eyes, before he shrugged and complied. Simon took a deep breath and moved to the next cupboard. This was as good a time as any to attempt that talk the captain had insisted on. Where to begin...

"Those things River was saying on the station," he said, opening the proper cupboard, "they were from when you were interrogated, right?"

It was undoubtedly a good sign that Jayne was able to give a look of such pure disgust, even fleetingly. Absolutely, it was wonderful that he could still made Simon feel like an utter idiot. "Yeah."

"Do you..." He tapped a few drops of pale blue liquid into a glass and added some water. "Do you want to talk about it?" He held the glass out.

Jayne met Simon's eyes for a good long minute. "Depends," he said finally, taking the glass. "Don't think you really want to hear about it. You're just asking because Kaylee told you to."

"It was the captain, actually, not Kaylee." Simon crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the counter. "I won't lie to you, Jayne. My personal preference isn't to learn anything more about what happened to you than I already know. But personal preference can't always be catered to. If you want to talk...and I do think it would help you to do so...I will listen. I won't make judgments." He shrugged. "I'm right here."

Jayne looked away from him, over into the far corner that wasn't full of crumpled tray and smashed syringe anymore. Simon almost missed it when he started to speak. Soft and low and steady, a restless stream of words came from his lips, tumbling through the still air of the infirmary. Dark words, cruel words, words that Simon had a hard time translating into pictures in his head.

It felt uncomfortably like he was taking the man's confession. The low voice, the averted eyes, the mingled shame and helpless desire for comfort coded into his posture. Simon had no absolution to offer and no words with which to reply. He simply bowed his head, closed his eyes, and listened.
*****
The next day he sought Book out in the cargo bay. He didn't reveal anything that Jayne had told him, both because he'd promised and because there was no reason for anyone else to have to carry those awful pictures in his mind. But he did ask what the church's position was on laymen taking confessions.

Book smiled faintly. "The Lord's will cannot be denied," he remarked. "I didn't think He would show it this way, but so it goes."

"I don't understand," Simon said wearily. "You're going to have to be a little more clear."

The shepherd clapped his hand down on Simon's shoulder. "Jayne refuses to believe that he can speak to the Lord, directly or through the church. But God still wants to hear him, to help him, to heal him. And so He's using you to do that."

"So it's all right for me to listen to him," Simon translated. He wasn't sure if he felt disappointed or relieved.

"More than all right," Book said. "It's a calling."
*****
It became a nightly ritual, one that Simon simultaneously dreaded and...and what? Not anticipated. Not enjoyed. But it never occurred to him to seek ways to avoid it. He never considered telling Jayne to stop. He went to the infirmary each night, after the rest of the ship had settled into silence, and sat down on the examining table next to the man he'd once considered nearly an enemy. And Jayne would talk. The same low, rapid, unedited stream of words, barely broken by breath, draining the horrors of the last eight years out of his own mind and into Simon's.

Or were they just multiplying? Simon remembered the old saying, that pain shared was pain halved, but he wasn't sure it applied here. He wasn't sure of anything in this situation. He was exhausted and confused and couldn't remember the last time he'd felt anything else, and there were horrors in his head that he didn't know how to deal with.

So on the night when Jayne's voice faltered, and he glanced over at the doctor apologetically, mouth slightly open to draw breath and begin again, and Simon leaned over and stopped him with a kiss...he didn't know if what he was doing was right or wrong. And he didn't care. He was so tired, and aching for something he couldn't describe, and he couldn't bear the words anymore.

Difficult, so difficult, to keep control of his mouth, his body, the things it was saying. So important to make no demands, only requests, ghostly hints, suggestions. Jayne's body had been turned against him for too long, forced to obey the orders of everyone else. There could be none of that here. No demands, Simon, no orders, no forcing. It has to be his choice...

But oh, it had been so long, and Jayne felt so good under his mouth, slowly, hesitantly beginning to kiss back.

It was the most awkward sex he'd had since he was seventeen years old. Definitely the slowest, most frustrating sex he'd had ever. His brain knew how important it was to go slow, to be gentle, to never ever push or force or be demanding, but his body wasn't interested in any of that and his dick was desperately impatient to get on with it already.

Hands and mouths, sweat and whimpers, salt on the tongue and skin under the palm. Jayne shuddered and bit down on his lip until it bled when he came into Simon's mouth, and Simon cursed softly when he finally let himself spurt over Jayne's hand. It was over.

He didn't know if either of them would be respecting anyone in the morning.
*****
When he went back to his quarters, River was still awake. She sat up and looked at him for a long moment, and he cleared his throat, frantically trying to think of some way to explain why he was coming back so late, so disheveled, so sweaty.

"It's about time," she said. He stared at her, and she laughed at him before she turned over and went to sleep.
*****
A few days later the captain cornered him in the corridor down by the mess. "I'm a little curious as to the medical reasoning behind your current plan of treatment, doctor," he said, a vicious glint in his eye and a set to his jaw Simon hadn't had directed at him in a long time. "And before you start stuttering about how-do-I-know...well, you've learned a lot in the last eight years on this ship, Simon, but you ain't learned to be subtle yet." He took a step back and leaned against the bulkhead. "Also, your sister talks. A lot."

"River," Simon muttered, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, Mal was still leaning, still glaring. Still waiting for an answer. Simon shrugged helplessly. "I don't know what you want me to say."

"I want you to tell me what the hell you were thinking, and how you decided that this will help Jayne." The captain was getting thinner again, the doctor's part of Simon's brain noted, the shadows under his eyes darker. The combined effect made the anger burning in his eyes positively frightening. "And I want it to be awful convincing, Simon. I ain't never thought you were anything but a good man, but if it comes out sounding like you're taking advantage of the situation, I swear on my mama's grave I'll-"

"I don't know what I'm doing." There. He was finally making his own confession. Unburdening his soul. And if it got him kicked out the airlock, then so be it. "This isn't anything I've ever dealt with before, Mal. I'm making it up as I go along. I don't know if this is the best thing for him or not." He hesitated, swallowing hard, knowing that this wasn't doing a bit to make the captain less angry. "But I wouldn't do anything to deliberately hurt him. I'll swear that on whatever you want. River's life, my own. I will not do intentional harm."

Mal stared at him for another long moment, but the rage faded from his eyes and by the time he spoke again he just looked tired. He looked away. "Yeah, you took an oath to that effect, didn't you."

"I did," Simon said softly, staring at the captain's haggard face. I should've paid better attention. Some doctor I am. "Mal..." He reached out and touched his arm. "You know that what happened to him wasn't your fault."

"Not most of it." Mal stared off down the corridor at nothing. "But I seem to be the only one interested in taking any responsibility for it, don't I?" He jerked away from Simon and walked off into the dark.
*****
Simon and Book were in the kitchen when they heard it; Mal, Zoe, and Wash on the bridge. At first, the doctor thought maybe an engine was dying, or they'd encountered some strange area of space debris. Definitely a new phenomenon; he didn't recognize this sound at all.

Book got it before he did. Slowly, a wide grin spread across the shepherd's face. "Well, I'll be..." he murmured, hurrying out of the room. Simon followed on his heels, all the way down to the catwalk over the cargo bay, and a moment later the others joined them, staring down at the scene below.

Kaylee and River, sprawled gracelessly across the floor, thrashing in matching fits of high-pitched girlish giggles. And over by the airlock doors, clinging to the mule to keep himself upright, Jayne.

Laughing.

That was the sound that had rang throughout Serenity, the one none of them recognized till they saw it at the source. Honest, uncontrolled laughter from deep in the chest, bursting free and wringing out the body until it was out of breath and tears streamed down the face. It would be impossible to put a date on the last time Jayne laughed like that, in any case, but Simon found himself wondering the last time anyone had laughed like that on Serenity at all.

Zoe started chuckling softly, up there on the catwalk, and a breath later Wash joined in. Then Book, and finally Simon, and it was seven voices raised in raucous laughter that echoed through the cargo bay until it sounded like a whole pantheon of mirthful spirits had gathered. The group above had no idea what had happened to start the laughter, and the three below didn't try to tell them. It didn't matter anyway.

Mal hung back in the doorway, watching his delirious crew. He wasn't laughing- but he felt his face stretching slowly into a grin, and that was more than sign enough, if anyone had been looking. They weren't. Good. That's as it should be.

He reached out and placed his palm flat against the smooth metal innards of the ship, his ship, his Serenity. He felt her life humming under his hand. Some said that a ship always flew smoother when her captain was happy. He imagined systems clicking flush into place the moment that laughter began.

"You keep carrying us, old girl," he murmured, stroking the metal. "I think we might finally have it together again."

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