Exaggeration and Blank Verse
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Wash took the steps down from the bridge two at a time, boot heels tapping a bouncy rhythm across the floor as he entered the mess. "We're on course and all systems are go, Captain." He dropped into the chair next to Zoe and leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Wave just came in for you, Jayne," he added, uncovering his plate.

Jayne looked up from his food with a frown. "You sure you ain't getting your wires crossed up there? Can't imagine who'd be sending a wave to me."

Wash shrugged. "It's been bounced halfway across the 'verse, looks like. I didn't take the time to trace it back."

Still frowning, Jayne pushed his chair back, balled up his napkin, and stalked out of the mess. The rest of them turned back to their meals, laughter and chatter echoing out through Serenity's metal halls.

Mal glanced up when Jayne returned a few minutes later, but the crewman's face was carefully blank.

"Captain," Jayne said after a moment, "how bad you reckon you need me for that job on Jericho?"

Mal stared across the table at him and swallowed down a curse. "I'm gonna need all the hands I can get, Jayne, like you know perfectly well since you helped me set it up."

Jayne nodded briefly, eyes still distant, face still stony. "Okay." He stood up and put the protein bar back into the dish, carried his plate over to the sink, and turned to go.

"What was the wave about, Jayne?" Kaylee asked, staring at the protein dish.

"My mama's dying," he said flatly, not breaking stride on his way to the door. "My brother wanted me to get myself home, if I was able. Have to tell him that I ain't." He turned the corner and they listened to the metallic ringing of his boots on the catwalk down to the cargo bay.

Mal went ahead and let himself curse then, trying to avoid the seven pairs of accusing eyes aimed his way. "Well, if he'd said that first of course I'd've told him he could go," he muttered, pushing his chair back. "I'm going to talk to him right now, quit looking at me like that..." The last was mostly for Kaylee and Inara, who between them had perfected the art of not saying a word and still making a man feel about six inches tall and ashamed of himself.

Jayne was moving boxes from one side of the hold to the other. Mal didn't see any particular reason why those boxes needed to be on the left instead of the right, but he held his tongue. If Jayne needed to be doing something right now, better moving boxes than breaking things. "Jayne," he said quietly, standing a few feet back. "Didn't realize it was a family emergency. Course you can go home."

Jayne glanced over at him and turned his attention back to the boxes- big damn boxes, it had taken Mal and Wash both to move some of them. Jayne was tossing them across the hold like they were nothing. "There ain't a problem, Captain- you need me, I'll stay. Ma would understand- hell, she's the one who taught me about working."

"Still, it ain't right," Mal said, staring at the boxes. "I'll find somebody on Jericho to get us through the job. Not a problem. You head back home, be with your people."

Jayne paused for a minute, wiping his face with his arm, and finally turned to look at Mal. "She's gonna die whether I'm there or not," he said in his credit-counting voice, the one that meant he'd wiped the human side of the slate clean for the moment. "Your call."

"Go on and go." Mal nodded. "You ought to be there. You mind telling me where to have Wash lay in a course?"

He gave a short, humorless laugh and turned back to the boxes. "Mal, if you took me all the way back to where I come from, you'd never make your meetup on Jericho. We're passing by Dalby Station, right? I'll catch a transport."

"Okay." Mal shoved his hands in his pockets and squinted up at the ceiling, juggling dates and routes in his mind. "Can probably make it to Persephone in two month's time. Think you can meet up with us there and then?"

He didn't pause in his restless shifting of the boxes. "All right."

Mal waited another few minutes, but Jayne seemed to have forgotten anyone else was there.
*****
Probably Jayne didn't want a big sendoff at Dalby, but that was just too damn bad with this bunch. Even Simon and River turned out, and Mal would've thought those two would be throwing a private party to celebrate Jayne walking off the ship. The whole crew was lined up in the cargo bay when he came down from his bunk, bag over his shoulder and, in what Mal considered an admirable show of restraint, only one gun at his hip.

"See you on Persephone, Jayne," Kaylee said, and he nodded and grunted in her general direction, not slowing down. Book's question brought him to a stop, though.

"Jayne, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to say a prayer for your mother."

He stood still for a minute, hitching the bag up higher on his shoulder and keeping his eyes fixed ahead. "Thank you, preacher. I reckon she'd like that. She liked Shepherds...we never had one in town, but whenever a missionary came around she'd clean up all us kids to hear the sermon. I'd appreciate you saying some words."

"What's her name?" Book asked quietly, and Jayne actually looked back over his shoulder, then. There wasn't any innocence left in him, not after the life he'd led, but something very like it flickered in his eyes.

"Layla," he said, coughing slightly. "Layla Cobb."

"Oh, that's a pretty name," murmured Kaylee, staring down at the floor. Inara reached over and squeezed her hand.

"Yeah," Jayne said, his eyes going distant and unfocused for a moment. "Yeah." He came back to himself with a start, clearing his throat loudly and glaring around the cargo bay like it had said something nasty. With a short nod to the captain, he walked off the ship. Mal rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead. This trip was just a regular barrel of laughs.

"All right," he said when the last echo of footfalls had faded and they were all blinking at each other in the empty bay, "Zoe, let's go hire us some help and get underway to Jericho. Have to pay the bills around here."
*****
The problem with hiring mercs on a temp basis, Mal reflected sourly as they scuttled through space toward Persephone, was that once the job was over, they didn't have any reason not to try to rob you blind.

"Right glad we keep you around, doctor," he told Simon, wincing as the younger man stuck a syringe into his shoulder. "That's a painkiller, I hope."

"That's right," Simon muttered absently, adjusting the sling holding the captain's left arm up out of the way. "Not broken, but go easy on it until it's healed. Kaylee, the cold pack doesn't do any good unless you actually hold it against the bump."

She made a face at him but brought the bag of pale blue gel back to her forehead. "He seemed pretty nice right up there till the end."

"Usually how it works." Mal scowled at the thought of that lying, sneaking snake...and how damn lucky they all were that he wasn't as mechanically inclined as Early or as chemically equipped as Saffron. "Well, we're done with him, anyway."

"Yes, and I'm sure he has an excellent chance of making it off that moon you left him on," Simon said, washing his hands at the sink, "considering that Fed base has only been abandoned for seven years or so."

"I'm sure he'll find some old rations to munch on while he waits," Mal said loftily, smiling a little as the painkiller kicked in. "Ah, my good man Wash!" he said, sketching a salute with his free hand as the pilot appeared in the doorway. "What's the news?"

"Wave from Jayne," Wash said. "Text only, so I went ahead and put it on a datasheet for you." He held out the transparent page and Mal and Kaylee leaned in together to squint at the message.

Mal-
Won't be at Persephone. Brother's found trouble, gotta help him out. Sell my gear. Wire the credits. Keep Vera if you want. Sorry for the trouble. J. Cobb


"Well," Kaylee said, her face crumpling into a frown under the gel pack, "that don't make a bit of sense."

"Sure don't sound on the level," Mal said, trying to think around the painkiller. He couldn't manage anything more than a vague feeling that something wasn't right. "Wash?"

"Already started tracing it back." He shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. "It's from way out in the back end of nowhere. Where terraforming crews go to die."

"You've already got the course locked in, don't you," Mal muttered, leaning back against the cushions. Wash grinned.

"Well, I have to admit I'm curious about any crisis that can keep Jayne Cobb landlocked and off the hunting trail."

Kaylee glared at them, rolling the pack across her forehead. "I hope he's all right."

"Best keep on our toes," Mal said, closing his eyes and settling into the nice warm fog spreading outward from his belly. "Backworld like that, who knows what kind of bandits we'll find."
*****
The girl would've been just about the cutest sight Mal had seen in half the 'verse- huge green eyes, yellow hair in pigtails down her back, button nose, missing front tooth- except for the fact that she had a rifle aimed at him.

“Who gave you that gun, miss?” Mal asked, keeping his hands up and swallowing back an irritated sigh. What kind of a gorram idiot would put a rifle like that in the hands of a kid who couldn’t have seen more than eight summers and ought to be playing with dolls or kittens or some such fuzzy thing…

“My uncle.” Zoe elbowed Mal lightly in the ribs and nodded at the girl. Mal looked again, trying to figure out what his crewman was getting at. She had a good stance for her age- legs square under her shoulders, elbows loose, hands confident on the weapon...ching-wah tsao de liou mahng, of course, the way she was holding it was a perfect image of…

“Your uncle, he teach you to use that thing, too?” She nodded and gave a smug, gap-toothed grin. Mal raised his hands a little higher. “Remind me again,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth facing Zoe, “why I didn’t just shoot that man the first time I laid eyes on him?”

“Because he was the one holding a gun on you, sir.” Zoe cooly sized up the kid, who returned the look without a flinch. Mal wondered if his mind was going in his later age, the way he hadn’t seen it straight off the mark. Girl was a Cobb from her bare feet up to her hairline.

“You folks here about the mortage?” Mal blinked and almost dropped his hands without thinking. That wasn’t quite the question he was expecting from a pint-sized border patrol. What the hell did she know about mortgages?

“No, miss,” he said carefully, “no, we are not.”

“Damn,” she said regretfully. “I got permission to go ahead and shoot anybody who’s here about that.”

“Well, we’ve got nothing to do with it,” Mal said hastily. “I’m here to see your uncle, actually, I believe. Looking for a Mister Jayne Cobb.”

“What’s your name?” she demanded, bringing the barrel up a little higher.

“Malcolm Reynolds.”

Her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open- but to her credit, the gun didn’t waver. “Jien tah-duh guay,” she gasped. “You’re a ruttin’ liar. You can’t be Captain Reynolds.”

“Well, setting aside for a minute the fact that I am,” he said slowly, shooting a puzzled glance at Zoe, “why can’t I be?”

“You ain’t a thing like he described you.” She jutted out her jaw fiercely, bringing the gun up again.

“And how would that be?” Mal asked, biting back a string of curses on Jayne and all his ancestors, Lord only knew what stories that bun tien-shung de ee-duai-ro had decided to spin…

“Ten feet tall and bulletproof,” drawled a voice from over to the left, and they all whirled to see a boy of about fourteen climbing down from a tree, gun braced casually over his shoulder. “Way Uncle Jayne tells it, the sun rises and sets at your orders and you don’t so much walk as…hover above the ground.” He spit into the dust at Mal’s feet. “Gotta say you're a bit of a disappointment.”

“Cause he ain’t Captain Reynolds,” the girl said with a certain amount of satisfaction. “Which means he’s a liumang liar and we can shoot him full of holes.”

“Shut your mouth, Jesse,” the boy said wearily, rubbing at his forehead with one hand. “He’s Reynolds, all right. Cal Hollis told me that a Firefly landed outside town last night. Everybody saw a browncoat and his crew walkin’ around this morning.” He shrugged and dragged one of his boot heels irritably through the dirt. “Don’t know what y’all think you’re doing here, since ain’t nothin’ on this rock that concerns you, but you ain’t a liar, anyway.”

“Uncle Jayne is,” Jesse muttered darkly, glancing at the stunned crewmen gathered behind Mal. “Only four of them...Guess she must be Zoe, then?”

“And how did he describe me, just for the sake of knowing?” Zoe’s voice was as dry as could be, but Mal had known her long enough to see the laughter hiding out in the corners of her eyes.

“Fine lookin’ piece of woman-flesh who looks like she could gut you soon as look at you,” the girl quoted promptly. The boy shook his head and snorted.

“That one’s gotta be Wash,” he said, pointing at the pilot. “Scrawny. And wearin’ a gorram foolish shirt.”

“You’re the one who can make the ship dance?” Jesse asked, squinting at Wash. He shrugged. “And outfly the Reavers? Ta ma de.”

“Mama’ll tan your hide if she hears you cussin’ like that,” the boy growled at her, taking a swing at the back of her head. She dodged him easily and took refuge behind Kaylee.

“You ain’t ugly enough to be Inara,” she said thoughtfully, looking up at the mechanic.

They all choked in unison. “Ugly? He told you Inara was ugly?” Mal finally gasped.

Jesse’s brow furrowed up a little. “Well…what he said was, one look at her was about enough to make a man take to his bunk for six months or so, and way I figure it, a woman’s gotta be powerful ugly to make somebody that sick…”

“That ain’t what he meant, you yuchung jing tzahng mei yong duh…” The boy groaned in theatrical disgust and spit again. “Anyway, look at her, dummy. Look at her smile.”

Jesse squinted up again, then grinned herself and bounced a little on her toes. “Oh! Wide as Crawford’s Creek in thaw-time. So she’s Kaylee.”

"He said that?" Kaylee flushed, her smile getting even a little wider. "Well, that's real nice of him."

"Yep," Jesse said, scratching the back of her leg with the rifle. "He said some other stuff, too, but I didn't understand most of it. And when I asked him what it meant Mama sent me out to feed the dogs and I never did find out."

"Guess we'd better get y'all up to the house and let you meet Mama," the boy said hastily, grabbing his sister's shoulder and hauling her away from Kaylee. "Long walk from town in this heat. And since you'll probably be walkin' back again before sunset, you'll want to sit a spell."

"Mama'll feed you," Jesse said, escaping her brother again and sidling up to Mal. "She always feeds company. Strawberry iced tea and powder biscuits."

"She don't get to see folks very often," the boy muttered, kicking at the dust. "She'll likely go half nuts over the likes of you."

Mal glanced around at his crewmen, but none of them seemed to have a reply to that either. "A drink would be welcome," he said finally, which earned another contemptuous snort. Jesse solemnly took his hand in the one of hers that wasn't clutching the rifle, and they started up the long, dusty pathway to the Cobb homestead.
*****
The woman standing on the porch was just as obviously a Cobb as her daughter, but Mal couldn't quite put his finger on why. She wasn't musclebound or particularly tall, she wasn't scowling, and she didn't have a gun in her hand. But she was kin to Jayne, all right; he knew it from twenty yards out.

When she cocked her head to the side and both kids came to heel like a pair of well-trained hunting dogs, it finally clicked. It was the same general sense that if she decided to take you out, you'd never have a chance to see it coming. Of course, considering that she wasn't much bigger than Kaylee, she'd probably do her damage with words rather than fists.

She shifted her weight and he belatedly noticed the pistol at her hip. Right. He should've predicted that.

"It's Captain Reynolds, Mama!" Jesse chirped, grabbing hold of her mother's hand. "And Zoe and Wash and Kaylee. Can you believe it?"

"Big as life and twice as ugly," muttered the boy, earning a sharp glare. Gently untangling her finger's from her daughter's, the woman stepped down from the porch.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," she said, smiling and offering her hand to each of them in turn. She had a strong grip; Mal did predict that before her callouses met his. "Jayne didn't tell me y'all were coming."

"That's because he didn't know, Mrs..." He trailed off as tactfully as he could.

"Ryan," she said, a faint smile twitching her lips. "Charlie Ryan- born Charlie Cobb, of course."

He should've predicted the name, too.

"Takes a bold man to sneak up on my brother," she continued, raising an eyebrow. "Fortunate for you that he isn't here."

"Well, he did train the border patrol personally," Zoe pointed out, looking pointedly at the children.

Charlie turned, one hand settling on her hip. "Did you try to shoot Captain Reynolds?"

"Didn't know he was the Captain," Jesse protested. "He could've been one of the mortgage men from the company."

Charlie closed her eyes. "I am going to kick his ass from here to the back forty," she muttered. "Jesse, go put that gun away and don't touch it again without my say-so." One child pouted; the other smirked, right up until his mother added, "You too, Daniel. Neither of you needs to be running around armed in the middle of the afternoon."

"Daniel?" Mal asked mildly as the children vanished into the house. The edges of her mouth twitched again, then relaxed into a broad grin.

"His father thought the Cobb family naming tradition was a good laugh in its way, but not enough to follow it for his son."

"What about his daughter?" Wash asked.

"My mother insisted on naming her first granddaughter herself. Eventually the two of them split the difference." The sorrow in her voice was still fresh. "Nobody but a gorram idiot argued with Mama once she made up her mind."

"And I would never stoop to presume that a woman such as yourself would marry an idiot," Mal said with a gallant smile. She laughed again.

"Jayne said you were a smooth talker, but I figured he might've been comparing you to himself." She glanced back at the house, where two sullen little faces had appeared in one of the windows. "Tianna, take their guns away and you'd think they'd had a beating," she muttered. "My brother has many useful skills, but child-rearing is not one of them." She blinked and ran her hands over her hair, squaring her shoulders. "Shouldn't there be a few more of you? A preacher, a doctor, what Jayne so kindly calls a crazy girl, and a...a woman of certain skills?"

"That's not the phrase he used, is it?" Mal asked dryly.

Charlie rolled her eyes. "Tact is another one of those useful skills he's failed to pick up in his travels."

"They're back at the ship," Zoe interjected. "It was a bit of a walk for folks not used to it."

"Suo-yo duh doh shr-dang, where are my manners? Mama must be spinning in her grave." She sighed and rubbed the heels of her hands over her temples. "Come on in, of course, cool off a bit. I'll get you something to drink...and you'll stay for supper...Daniel!" she shouted at the house. "Get the buggy and go pick up the rest of Captain Reynolds' crew over at the shipyard."

"You don't have to go to any trouble, Mrs. Ryan," Kaylee protested.

"Charlie," she replied firmly, twitching her skirts straight. "It'll be nice to have folks around who don't insist on 'The Widow Ryan,' anyway. And it's no trouble. It'll be an absolute delight to cook for somebody other than the kids and my brothers- none of them would notice if I fed them their own boots with gravy." Daniel gave her the evil eye as he slunk down the porch steps and headed for the barn.

"I'll go with him, Mal," Wash said, glancing up at the sun. "Wouldn't want Simon to go all panicky. You know how he is about strangers."

"He gets a mite twitchy," Mal explained to Charlie as they followed her up the stairs into the cool dimness of the house. "But that's not an uncommon state for our doctor."

"So Jayne said," she replied with a smile, gesturing for them to sit down in the worn but clean parlor. Mal spent a moment puzzling over the bookshelves taking up one wall- given Jayne's unwavering indifference to books, he'd assumed the man came from a home without them. Of course, just because books were there didn't mean a boy would pay them any mind. Or a girl, for that matter, he thought wryly as Jesse scurried back into the room. The shelves weren't gathering dust, anyway; somebody around here was using them. He’d put his money on Charlie, and maybe Daniel.

Charlie was still talking as they settled themselves. "He's told so many stories about y'all, I've just been dying to meet you. Of course..." She hesitated for a moment, staring out the window toward the barn. "Some of it has to be exaggeration, right? Jayne does go off on a tear now and then."

"Which particular stories do you have in mind?" Zoe asked carefully. Charlie blinked and turned back to them, quickly putting her smile back in place.

"Oh, just some foolishness about the doctor's sister. I mean...she's just a poor mad girl, right? She isn't really...dangerous, is she?"

Zoe glanced at Mal and Kaylee for help, but they were both deeply engrossed in studying the floor.

"No," Zoe said finally, carefully folding her hands over her knee. "Not at all. Not in the slightest."

Charlie nodded, staring at them skeptically. Mal cleared his throat.

"Your daughter said something about tea?"

"Oh, yes. I'll get it." She hurried out of the room, and Jesse came over to climb up on the arm of the couch next to Mal. She examined the material of his coat.

"So, Jesse," Kaylee said, smiling at the girl, "where's your Uncle Jayne?"

"He's at work." She turned her attention to the worn cuffs of the coat. Mal watched her with a bemused smile. "Over at the big mine."

"The mine?" Kaylee threw Zoe a puzzled glance. "What's he do at the mine?"

"Takes rocks out of the ground," Jesse said with exaggerated patience. "Gets all dirty and cranky. Where'd this coat come from? It's awful nice."

"Got it in a war," Mal said, watching her little fingers move across the heavy material.

"The big war?" she asked indifferently. Of course; it had been over before she could remember.

"That's right."

"We don't have wars out here," she informed him, looking up as her mother came in with a tray of the promised tea and biscuits. "The company don't allow it."

"The company?" Zoe asked cautiously, accepting a glass of tea.

"Blue Sun," Charlie said, holding the tray out to Kaylee. "You must've seen the signs in town."

"They own the mine," Mal said, rolling the cool glass between his palms.

"They own everything," Charlie said with a tight smile. "Everything you saw in town that wasn't moving under its own power- and some of those as well. Let me get some extra sugar if you want it for your tea..."

"What's Jayne doing working in a Blue Sun mine?" Kaylee asked softly once Charlie had left the room. Jesse swung her legs and kicked the side of the couch in a random rhythm. Mal took a sip of his tea and shrugged.

"Don't rightly know, Kaylee. Let him explain it when he gets here."

Jesse giggled. "Uncle Jayne don't like to do any talking when he gets home from work. I told you, it makes him cranky."

"Crankier than usual?" Zoe asked, raising an eyebrow.

"One day," Jesse said cheerfully, reaching for a biscuit, "he came home madder than a snake-bit dog and beat Uncle Kait bloody right in the middle of the backyard." She shook her head, crumbs falling from her lips as she chewed. "Wish I could hit like Uncle Jayne."
*****
Dinner was a special experience from the categories of tense and strange.

Jayne sat at one end of the table in stony silence, eyes never leaving his plate. Charlie sat at the opposite end, worried eyes fixed on her brother over all the extra boards she'd added to the table so they'd all fit around. Kait Cobb- a blander, softer version of Jayne- sat at her left hand, chair pulled back from the table at an angle so he was as far away from the rest as he could get. The kids seemed to be stomaching their food fine and ignoring the grim silence between their mother and uncles, a trick the crew of Serenity couldn't quite manage. Simon was as pale as his starched shirt collar, and even Wash hadn't eaten more than a few bites.

"I think that's just about enough, don't you?" Charlie said quietly as the basket of rolls made its second trip around the table. Jayne looked up from his plate.

"What?"

"You've done your pouting. You've made your point. Now act like a man instead of a gorram child. These folks came a hell of a long way to talk to you."

"I did not," he said, pointing at her with his knife, "ask them to do that. At all. Don't call me to task for trouble they brought on themselves."

"Aw, c'mon, Jayne," Kait said, smirking down at his meal, "wouldn't want to miss out on another chance to play the martyr."

If anything, the quiet became a few degrees more strained. Jayne set his knife down with exaggerated care. "Was I talking to you, Kait?" he asked softly. Too softly. That was the voice Mal remembered hearing before folks got hurt in ways that didn't heal pretty. Not when Jayne was flying off on a wild temper- when he was coldly, deeply, truly mad. "Cause I don't believe I was."

"Course you weren't, Jayne," Kait said, knuckles going white around his knife and fork. Zoe eased her chair back from the table a fraction, and Mal found himself doing the same. "Why would you be talking to me? I'm nothing but trash, the scum of the earth."

"Keep pushing me, Kait," Jayne near-whispered. "Just keep walking down the way you're going, see what you find at the end."

"That's enough," Charlie said, her voice cracking slightly at the end. "For God's sake, can't you two make it through one gorram evening without this?"

"I'd love to, Charlie," Kait said, eyes still glued to Jayne's. "Ain't nothing in the verse I'd like more. But see, I'm still being punished for not doing things the way his royal highness down there would've liked-"

"This ain't about me, Kait, it's about Ma and the whole family and you being too gorram stupid to-"

Charlie slammed both of her hands down on the table. "Stop!" All eyes turned to her, except for Daniel's and Jesse's. The kids continued quietly eating their meals, as if nothing odd in particular was going on. "We are not doing this. Not in front of guests."

"They ain't guests, they're Jayne's friends," Kait muttered, slumping back in his chair.

"Shut up, Kait," Charlie snapped, looking from him to Jayne and back. "I don't want to hear it anymore."

Daniel chuckled bitterly. "See that, Captain Reynolds? Just like a dog pack. They can snap and growl all they want to, but the head bitch lays down the law."

"Watch your mouth unless you want me to come over there and make sure you can't open it for a while," Jayne shouted, shoving his chair back from the table.

"Jayne, don't," Charlie said, as Daniel locked eyes with his uncle and smirked. "Daniel, go upstairs. Don't come down till morning."

"Aw, but Mama, I'll miss the rest of Uncle Jayne's performance as the Heroic Sacrifice," he said, rolling his eyes and tossing his napkin aside. "And he plays the part so well. He'll go down in history for his temper tantrums, don't you think? Ain't you folks glad you came all the way out here to see it?"

"Jesse, go with your brother." Charlie had gone a little pale. "Don't argue with me, just do it."

Jayne pressed his hands flat against the table, staring down at his plate and taking slow, deep breaths. "Don't look at me like that, Charlie," he muttered as the footsteps on the stairs faded away. "I ain't gonna lay a hand on your kids and you know it."

"I know it," she said quietly, "but I also know that Daniel knows exactly how to get to you."

"Not like you exactly have a problem whaling on kin, either," Kait said. Mal saw Kaylee flinch a little out of the corner of his eye as Jayne's head came up again.

"Since the kids are out of the room," he said, the too-quiet coldness back in his voice. "How about we give Mal and everybody the story they came all the way out here to get? Y'all refill your glasses and get comfortable. I'll walk you through a little history of the Cobb homestead.

"Mama loved this place as much as she loved any of us," Jayne said, glancing down at Charlie and Kait. "Maybe more. Her great-granddad came out on the terraforming crew and claimed it. All her brothers died young, so she got the land when her daddy died. And she knew how to make this place run sharp and turn a profit, even in years when everybody else wasn't farming nothing but rocks." He took a sip of his water, his gaze shifting entirely to his brother. "But a few years back she got sick. Ranch goes to the oldest son, but I wasn't here."

"And no way in hell was he coming back," Kait added. "Farmer's life never was good enough for our Jayne."

"Ever since we were kids," Jayne continued, still staring at his brother but acting like he hadn't spoken, "Charlie was the one with the knack for the land. But she'd gone off and married Matty Ryan. Had her own family to worry about. So Kait took care of things, in his own special way."

"You wouldn't have done a damn thing different."

"Even when Matty got sick and they all moved in here, Kait still wouldn't take Charlie's advice on the place. Naw, that ain't what a man would do. What a man does is take every damn acre, one or two at a time, and sign it over to the bank."

"And by the bank, you mean Blue Sun," Mal said slowly. Jayne's scowl grew darker.

"Blue Sun wants a new ore refinery," Jayne said, picking up his table knife and spinning it slowly through his fingers. "Turns out this little piece of land is smack in the middle of prime location. How's that for luck?"

"Probably why I got such a good price on the mortgage," Kait said with a bitter smile. Jayne dragged the knife slowly against the edge of the table.

"So I get back here to see my mother die, and I find out that the land she loved...the land we buried her in...the land with her blood and tears and whole gorram life soaked down into it...was one or two missed payments away from being turned into a smelting pit. And that my little brother couldn't quite tell me where all the money went, except that it was gone. Lucky for me, the boys down at the mine could account for some of it." He leaned back in his chair. "Mal, I have the real lack of pleasure of introducing my brother, possibly the only man in the verse still falling for a pyramid scam."

"Sorry I haven't been running around learning all the ways to cheat people, Jayne."

"You are so stupid," Jayne said, the contempt in his voice pure and sharp enough to degrease an engine.

"Jayne," Charlie murmured, and he looked back down at the table.

"Anyway, it turns out that the salary they're paying over at the mine will just about cover the interest payments. Kait still knows this place better than I do, so I figure he can't screw it up too bad as long as Charlie's giving the orders. She runs the house, he does what he's told with the crops and the herds. And that's where she stands." He pushed his chair back and stood up, picking up his plate and utensils. "If y'all can excuse me, I'll be heading up for bed. Whistle blows at the mine bright and early. Probably you'll all be gone by the time I get back tomorrow. Or at least, you oughta be." He looked quickly at each of them, ending with a short nod to Mal. "Now ain't you sorry you made the trip for that?"
*****
"I'd like to apologize for my brothers," Charlie said quietly, leading Mal across the yard to the bunkhouse, both of their arms full of blankets. "Jayne hasn't stopped digging at Kait since he got here, and of course Kait didn't mean to lose the land, it was just one of those things..."

"Ain't nothing fair in this verse," Mal murmured, trying to keep his balance in the tall grass. "Gotta say, though, it ain't the kind of behavior I'd expect from Jayne."

"What, the growling and yelling and carrying on?"

"No, no, I expected that," he chuckled, giving up on trying to walk while he was talking. "Never thought I'd see him give up chasing credits across the galaxy to hold still and work for a flat wage."

She looked at him, a slight frown marring her forehead. "You think he's going to get fed up and run off."

"Going back to his past can change a man," Mal said after a moment's hesitation, "but the Jayne I know would burn his bridges, cut his losses, and go." She chuckled and shook her head. He shrugged and gestured for her to clarify.

"He'll stay," she said with simple certainty, tilting her head back to look up at the moon. "He'll cuss and he'll snarl and he'll make all of our lives miserable, but he'll stay. I know my brother, Captain Reynolds. Kin looks after kin, out here." A sad little smile crossed her lips, and she looked down at the grass. "But it won't work."

"Why not?"

"He'll work himself to the bone at the mine every day," she said softly, "and that'll make just enough to cover the interest. And let's say we have a couple of good seasons, and the ranch makes a little more profit than what we need to eat, and we can make a dent in the principal. They're not just going to sit back and applaud us for a job well done. Maybe he'll get hurt- lots of accidents happen down in the mines. Or maybe a harvester will break, or the barn will burn down, or the stock will take sick. Anyway, something will happen, the money will go and that'll be an end on it." She shook her head. "My brother's as stubborn a man as ever walked in the verse, Captain Reynolds, but Blue Sun's not a man at all. It's a machine. And you can't beat a machine. In the end it just...wears you down."

"Maybe so," Mal said slowly, the beginnings of an idea starting to itch in the back of his brain. "But I think there might also be a chance that you're wrong, Mrs. Ryan." He took her arm, pulling her around to face him. "The thing about machines is, they work in a straight line. In order to beat 'em, you've gotta think in a circle."

She stared at him. "And you have a knack for thinking in circles?"

"Ma'am," he said sincerely, putting his hands in his pockets, "you have no idea how much time we spend up in that ship just going around and around."
*****
"Well, well, look who finally decided to leave the bunkhouse," Wash chuckled as Mal came into the dining room the next morning. "Not setting a very good example for your crew, Captain, sleeping the day away."

"No reason you couldn't have woke me," Mal muttered, staring at the platters of food lining the table from end to end. "Where did all this come from?"

"You wouldn't believe us if we told you," Kaylee giggled, holding out a plate of biscuits. "But take a look around and see who's missing."

He let his eyes take a quick tour of the table. "Shepherd, Simon, and River. Where've they run off to?"

"Apparently this town doesn't have a Shepherd of its own, which makes for quite a backlog of unbaptized babies," Inara said, gracefully offering him the jam. Her hair was pulled back and she was dressed in faded cotton, but she still managed to shine. "He's being driven all over the district today."

"And the other two?"

Zoe gestured at the kitchen door, where River appeared in a cloud of flour. "The temperature," she announced in an aggrieved voice, "is insufficient."

"What would you like us to do about that?" Wash asked politely.

"I require more combustibles." She looked pointedly over her shoulder back into the kitchen. "Simon isn't helping."

"Simon is being force-fed within an inch of his life!" The doctor's voice carried plaintively from the other room. "Simon is being overdosed on rolls!"

"He has to taste-test." River planted her hands on her hips, looking profoundly annoyed. "To prove that I'm not poisoning you all."

"And why does it have to be him?" Mal asked, hiding a smile behind his coffee mug. River tilted her head to one side and stared at him until all the laughter in the room faded.

"What kind of person would I be if I poisoned my own brother? Blood is blood." She shook her head and turned back into the kitchen in a swirl of apron and flour. Mal blinked and looked down at his plate.

“I guess if Book’s dealing with babies all day, we’re not going to be able to get out of here today after all, Captain,” Kaylee said after a moment.

Mal shrugged. “Suppose not.”

”Jayne was pretty firm about us getting gone,” she pressed, glancing at the others for confirmation. “Don’t you think we should do what he wants?”

“Well, can’t help it if the Shepherd wants to exercise his calling,” Mal said. They frowned at him. “What? I ain’t against preaching in general, just when it’s directed at me.”

“You’re up to something,” Zoe said, pointing at him. “I can tell.”

“You have your up-to-something face on,” Wash added helpfully.

Mal rolled his eyes. “It’s not that obvious.”

”Yes, it is,” Inara murmured into her water glass.

“When I’m really up to something, ain’t one of you that knows it!”

“We just pretend we don’t know, sir.” Zoe reached for another roll with a bland smile. “We find that it keeps you docile.”

He glared at her for a long moment before lifting a forkful of eggs and deliberately changing the subject. “So, what are our plans for today?”

“I told Kait I’d take a look at his baler,” Kaylee said. “And maybe give all the tractors a tune-up. He’s got a whole barn of ‘em and they ain’t seen a mechanic in a few seasons.”

“He said he’d been patching them with fence wire,” Zoe said with a sympathetic wince.

”Kaylee almost cried.” Wash reached over to pat her hand.

“I’m helping Mrs. Ryan go through some old wardrobes and tear things up for quilt squares.” Inara smiled faintly. “River’s going to help.”

“Tesselations,” River said matter-of-factly, depositing a platter of something covered in cinnamon. “Mathematical patterns arranged in a manner that holds body heat.”

“Quilting?” Mal asked mildly as River swished out of the room again. “Isn’t that a bit…downmarket for you, Inara?”

She tipped her head in smooth acknowledgement of the hit. “I do have an appreciation for the more traditional feminine crafts, Captain, and Mrs. Ryan’s quilts are lovely.”

“Also, someone’s got to mind River,” Kaylee said. “A neighbor’s dying of a lung-growth and they’ve sent for Simon to come take a look.”

“They are going to give him back, aren’t they? Because I’m not doing the whole hanging-out-of-the-ship thing if they want to keep him.” Wash started to cut himself a slice of the cinnamon concoction.

“No, they’ve got doctors of their own, just Simon’s closer.” Kaylee smiled. “And he has all that fancy schooling from Osiris.”

“What about you two?” Mal raised an eyebrow at Zoe. “Holing up in the bunkhouse for the day?”

“No, sir,” she said, squeezing her husband’s hand, “we’re going out riding.”

“Riding.” Mal shifted his gaze to his pilot, who was attempting an eager smile. Not quite succeeding, but it was a good effort. “Really?”

“They’ve got game trails running up into the hills. Supposed to be real pretty.” Zoe dropped Wash’s hand and lifted her fork again. “I think that’ll make for a nice afternoon.”

”Not so nice a morning tomorrow, when I won’t be able to walk, but today…great.” Wash nodded firmly. “Just wonderful.”

“Sounds fun,” Mal said, draining the rest of his coffee. “Mind if I come with you?”

“Of course not, sir.” Zoe grinned at him. “Kait said they’ve got some real fire-eaters down in the barn. Hope you haven’t lost your seat, all these years flying instead of riding.”

“I’ll wager that I can sit anything that comes off this rock,” he sniffed. “You’ve seen the stock we bring up on Shadow.”

”Oh goody,” Wash said faintly, “I can be left in the dust by both of you. I hope there’s some kind of fat, slow-witted pony for me.”

They both ignored him. “And,” Zoe said with a grim smile, “you can tell us just what it is you’re up to.”

“Oh, I don’t want to miss that!” Kaylee protested. “Don’t tell until you get back, Captain.”

“There’s nothing to tell! I’m not up to anything!”

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Liar."

River swished back into the room and snatched the plate from under Mal's hands. “The seeds are barely in the ground, Kaylee, give them some time to grow. He's only thinking at the speed of a man, after all.”
*****
Book got back to the ranch just as the sun was dipping behind the trees, in time to join them on the porch for tea and lazy conversation. River and Jesse had a basket of kittens they'd found in the barn. River wanted to name them after chemical compounds; Jesse preferred honoring war heroes. It was a spirited debate.

"You get all the kids right with the Lord, Shepherd?" Kait asked with a smirk as Book pulled up a chair.

"All the ones on the west side of the district, anyway. Plus a wedding and some Last Rites." He shook his head and smiled. "Apparently these folks haven't seen a preacher in the better part of a year."

"There used to be one over in White Creek, about two hours out," Charlie explained, running her fingers through Daniel's hair, "but he died of fever, and there aren't as many travelling Shepherds as there used to be. When we were kids, we had one about every other month, remember, Kait?"

"Oh, yeah," he chuckled, tilting his chair back on its hind legs. "You'd get all dolled up with ribbons and curls, and Ma would dunk Jayne and me in the horse trough, and sit behind us at the meeting with one hand on her Bible and the other one in a fist."

"Well, you two were terrible," she giggled, pointing at him with her glass of tea. "Remember that poor young Shepherd, the one with that whole text done up on do unto your neighbor as you'd have done unto you, and Jayne hollered out that awful thing about Rilla Pritchard in the Orrens' hayloft..."

"Rilla ran out crying, and Ma smacked Jayne so hard he couldn't hear for a week!" Kait threw his head back and laughed. "Oh, Lord, that was worth it for the look on the preacher's face alone, even if it did mean I never got a chance to go up in the loft with Rilla."

"Her daddy shipped her so far off-world she's probably still trying to find her way back." Charlie shook her head, still grinning. "She was stuck on herself anyway."

"Jayne was just mad because she was sneaking off into haylofts and doing unto Jeb Orren instead of him," Kait said, stopping as Jesse scrambled to her feet, accompanied by the wails of displaced kittens. She pointed down the drive, where the bulky shape of the company hover-transport could just be seen through the twilight.

"Uncle Jayne's coming home." She hurried into the house. River gathered the kittens into her lap, whispering to them about objects in space displacing air and water and time. Jesse appeared again a moment later with a bar of soap and a towel and went over to the pump at the edge of the yard.

Kait got to his feet and set his glass aside with extra care. "Guess that means it's about time to feed the stock that needs it," he said. "Daniel, you want to give me a hand?" Charlie squeezed the back of her son's neck gently, and he rolled his eyes before following his uncle to the barn.

Mal watched the scene unfolding in the yard- a perfect replica of the evening before. Jayne sauntered up the drive and walked over to the pump, setting his lunch box aside and peeling the dirt-crusted t-shirt off over his head. He handed it to Jesse, who solemnly held out the bar of soap. Jayne took it with a brief nod of thanks, washed the uppermost layer of black grime off of his face and arms, and traded the soap for the towel. Once dry, he took the t-shirt back, picked up the lunch box, and turned to the house.

He looked more resigned than angry, for which Mal was thankful. "Captain. You're still here."

"Yep." Mal shrugged. "Neighbors borrowed the doctor. Can't leave without him."

"I won't allow it," River said, peering around Mal's chair. "And Serenity won't fly unless I give permission."

"For all I know, that might very well be true," Mal said serenely. "Don't care to test it."

Jayne shook his head, bringing the towel up to his face again. Mal had a hunch he was hiding a trace of a smile. "Do what you want. Never thought of this place as a vacation-spot, but I ain't crazy." He reached for the door, pausing as Charlie spoke.

"Are you staying for dinner tonight?" Her voice was so neutral it was strained.

Jayne dipped his chin and didn't look at her. "No, I reckon not."

She looked away, and he went into the house, shutting the door a little harder than it really needed. Kaylee threw a questioning glance at the Captain.

"Tomorrow's the mine's day off." Charlie sounded amused, but horribly tired. "So he'll be heading into the bar in town tonight."

"Come back piss-drunk and bloody." Jesse sat down next to River again and reached for a kitten. "But whoever gets on his bad side won't be walking for a week."

"Unless tonight's the night somebody pulls a weapon," Charlie snapped. "Fight can't always go his way, no matter what you think. Or what he thinks."

"Should we try to stop him?" Book asked. Charlie rolled her eyes, attempting to smile.

"I wouldn't get in his way if I were you, Shepherd. He's got a week's worth of steam built up tonight."

"Week's worth of ornery," Jesse chirped, tossing a kitten into the air. River frowned at her and flipped the apron she still wore up over the furry bodies in her lap.

"Pressure builds as a function of force and area," she said. "The contents must be vented, or the vessel cannot hold. Where's Simon?"

"He'll be back soon, mei-mei," Inara murmured, brushing the girl's hair out of her face. "And you can tell him all about your day."

"Yes, and that...lovely quilt you made," Charlie said, smiling across the porch at River. "It's so interesting."

"It looks better if you view it in four dimensions," she replied matter-of-factly, allowing Jesse to swap the tossed, unsettled kitten for another one. "The pattern is much more clear."

Jayne stepped back through the doorway, dressed in clean clothes with a hat on his head, a gun on one hip, and a knife at the other. "Probably be late," he said flatly, looking at Charlie. She turned away and looked out over the pasture.

"Suit yourself."

He shrugged and started down the steps. "Want any company?" Kaylee called, her smile a little frozen around the edges. He glanced back.

"Reckon it ain't gonna be your kind of bar, Kaylee, or your kind of night. Kind offer, though." Zoe glanced at Mal, but before either of them could speak, Jayne strode off into the dark, and Charlie let out an unsteady breath.

"Be careful," she muttered, but he was too far gone to hear.
*****
Simon finally got back just after the rest had finished their third or fourth refills of after-dinner coffee. River hurried to the kitchen to get the plate they'd saved for him, babbling under her breath about wifely duties and caretaking. The others pulled the doctor into one of the sitting-room chairs and interrogated him about his day.

"From that first house I got sent on to three others," he chuckled, fumbling to undo the top button of his shirt. "Word spreads faster than I would've thought possible without a local Cortex."

"How was Mr. Orren?" Charlie asked, pouring him a cup of the lukewarm coffee. "His lungs have been bad for an awful long time now."

"Well, there's nothing that can be done for that," Simon sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. "If I'd seen him six months ago, I might have been able to operate and take out enough of it to give him a few more years, but it's too late now. I wrote a prescription, but who knows if the store in town will have the medicine."

"Still, that's a shred of hope they didn't have," Zoe murmured. Simon shrugged, eyes still firmly shut.

"I'm not sure giving them hope is what I ought to be doing. Telling them all to stay as far away from that mine as they can get, that would be the best way of fulfilling my oath." He jumped as River set the warm plate in his lap. "Gah! Oh. Thank you." He blinked at the food for a minute, then glanced up at them and went on. "Blue Sun is a modern company, I just cannot understand why they don't have more precautions in place than this. All four of the cases I saw today were at least influenced by chemical exposure."

"All cancers?" Inara asked.

"Two cancers, a respiratory infection, and a baby..." He trailed off, staring into space for a moment. "What should have been a baby. Prenatal exposure to teratogenic substances. It was...well. It didn't live very long." He closed his eyes again. Kaylee reached out and touched his shoulder gently.

"Happens sometimes," Charlie said indifferently. Mal glanced at her, startled by the flatness of her voice. "Mostly just the ones who work in the refinery. Sometimes a new hire will take sick two or three months in, but some people work there twenty years and never miss a day. Can't predict it."

"I'm sure there's a common thread, if I took enough case histories." Simon was drooping over his plate, staring dully down at the floor. River picked up his fork and pressed the handle into his hand.

"Got to eat," she told him. "Convert to glucose, keep up your strength."

"Yes, yes, mei-mei, I know..."

There was a dull thud and a loud curse from the porch. Nine heads snapped around in unison to look at the entryway.

"Who put that step there?" Jayne's voice drifted into the room, trailing off into an awkward giggle. "Oooh. Gorram floor keeps moving."

Mal got to his feet, but Charlie shook her head. He sat back down slowly, looking over at the door again. The whiskey smell hit them all at once. Inara's nose wrinkled gracefully; Kaylee covered her mouth with her hand.

Jayne stumbled into view, eyes focused on the stairs and his face set in a look of stubborn determination that Mal knew well- or at least, the parts of his face they could see around the blood and filling-in bruises. "More- gorram- stairs," he mumbled, swaying unsteadily and glaring at the offending objects. "Who the ruttin' hell came up with that idea?"

Charlie settled her chin in her hands, watching him make his slow, unsteady way out of sight. When Simon set his plate aside and wiped his mouth, she shook her head again.

"Don't."

"He ought to be looked at," Simon protested, glancing around for his bag of medical supplies. "That cut on his head might need stitches..."

"It doesn't." She got to her feet and walked over to the sideboard, taking a small box out of the cupboard. "He might still be looking for someone to fight, doctor, and you don't need to put yourself in the line of fire."

"But you do?" Wash asked, frowning, as she disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a bowl of water in her hands and a towel over her arm.

"You all really don't think much of him, do you?" she said, the same faint, weary smile on her face that Mal had seen the night before. "He won't hurt me."

"You're sure about that?" Mal asked. Her jaw hardened, and he saw the Jayne in her again, for lack of a better term. The side that didn't take kindly to having to explain itself.

"Very sure," she said, balancing the box on top of the bowl and walking over to the stairway. "Don't trouble yourselves about a thing."

An uneasy silence filled the room. River prodded at Simon until he started eating again, and the others watched him, but their focus was on the sounds from upstairs. A few thumps and crashes, two voices- one low and steady, speaking with quiet firmness, the other loud and raw, rising up into bursts of indistinct words that broke off with more crashing. Mal put his cup aside and walked over to the foot of the stairs, looking up them and hesitating for a moment. It had gone very quiet up there.

He glanced back over at the crew; Zoe nodded, her face furrowed with concern. He went up as quietly as he could and paused again on the landing.

All of the doors were closed but one. Through it, he could see Charlie, quietly dipping the towel into the water and squeezing the excess out again. Jayne sat in a chair beside her, his face buried in his hands. She carefully began dabbing at the blood near his hairline, wrapping her fingers around his and gently moving them out of the way.

"'M sorry," Jayne mumbled, his voice thick and heavy with drink. "Real sorry."

"It's all right," she whispered, gently tilting his chin up and pressing the cloth against a small cut on his cheekbone. "I know."

"Sorry about all of it," he said hopelessly, looking up into her face. "I wanna help, I wanna- do right by you all, but I don't-"

"You're doing fine, ge-ge," she soothed, taking some gauze and tape from the box.

"Ma was the only one who ever could get us all to straighten up and walk right," he said, flinching and closing his eyes as she pressed the bandage into place. "I just wanna- I'm trying, mei-mei, really I am, but I just-"

"Shh, shh," Charlie murmured, dropping to her knees and catching Jayne's face between her hands. "It's going to be all right..."

Mal came back to himself with a start, standing there on the landing and spying on a moment he had no right to see. He slipped back down the stairs, knowing it didn't really matter if he was quiet or not. Neither one of them was going to hear a thing right then. People didn't hear things outside when they were in the middle of a once in a lifetime moment, which as far as Mal was concerned, it was. Certainly something he never thought he'd see.

He hadn't thought that Jayne even knew how to cry.
*****
"I'm telling you, it's something about that bunkhouse," Mal muttered as he slid into his seat the next morning, once again the last at the breakfast table. "Knocks me out colder than a Fed's stun gun."

"Doesn't seem to have that effect on anyone else, Captain," Kaylee giggled. "The rest of us get up bright and shiny."

"Lost the Shepherd again, I see," Mal remarked, glancing around the table. "No more cooking lessons today, doctor?"

"I've completed breakfast," River informed him, looking solemnly over her glass of milk. "Today I'm going to learn about pies."

"But not yet," Simon said, smiling at his sister. "We're going to go for a walk first."

"Assuming you don't get called out to heal the sick and lame some more," Kaylee pointed out, turning her brightest grin on the doctor. Mal and Zoe glanced at each other and rolled their eyes. So Kaylee wasn't quite yet done with her chasing.

"Jayne not up yet?" Mal asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral as he reached for his coffee.

Wash shook his head. "Actually, he's already eaten and gone. Something about checking fences in the back pastures- Kait took the east and Jayne took the west, right, Zoe?" She nodded.

"Huh." The captain sipped his drink and thought about how if it was literally possible to die from curiousity, they'd better start measuring a coffin for Kaylee. "Maybe I'll ride out there, see if he needs a hand."

"Yes!" Kaylee said eagerly. "You do that, and tell him whatever plan you've got cooking up in that big blocky head of yours, and see if you can't coax a smile out of him. Because really, Captain, for all his growling I think he's awful sad."

"Since when do I have a blocky head?"

"Since always, but we generally play to your vanity," Inara said. "And you're still pretending you're not up to anything, I see."

"Ain't a pretense." He summoned up his best lofty and superior face, the one he had a right to as a captain. "I hope you're all going to do something useful with yourselves today."

"Of course," Inara said, reaching for the sugar and arching one eyebrow. "We're going shopping."
*****
Mal caught up with Jayne about twenty posts down the west fenceline. He slid off his horse and tied the reins up, watching the other man cuss under his breath and struggle to simultaneously hold the slumped post straight and twist the ratchet tensioner wrench. "Need an extra hand there?"

"Two would be better," Jayne muttered, grunting in relief as Mal caught the weight of the post. "Thanks." He gave it a few more twists, then thumped the wire with the flat of his hand to check its tautness. "That'll hold her, I think." He settled back on his heels as Mal released the post. "I see Jesse let you take her horse."

"Yeah." Mal glanced over at the tiny gray gelding, who had already started chewing on Jayne's mount's mane. "Quite a kid."

"She's a hellion." Jayne got to his feet and shoved the wrench into his back pocket, moving a rock over to the base of the post with his foot. "Reminds me a lot of me when I was a kid."

"Think she'd love to hear that," Mal chuckled, putting another rock in place. Wouldn't actually hold the post up against a high wind or an animal determined to get out, but, across the verse, ranchers feel better doing it. "Girl flat-out worships you."

"She wouldn't be half-bad as a merc." Jayne kicked another rock into place, gave the post an indifferent look, and walked back over to his horse. "Charlie was about ready to kill me when I gave her that gun, but hell, if she does end up having to look out for herself, she'd better know what she's doing."

"You want to see her in that walk of life?" Mal asked, swinging himself back up into the saddle. Jayne shrugged.

"Ain't about wanting, it's about reality. She could make a decent living, if she has to, but only if she's good. And since she's a girl, she's gotta be real good. Otherwise, she's dead." He nudged his horse forward and they started down the fenceline.

"What about Daniel?" Mal asked, squinting up into the sky.

"Kid's mouthy and moody as all hell, but he's smart." Jayne pulled his horse up at the next post and looked at it, then reached over and pushed. It didn't budge; they rode on. "Got good hands, and a knack for fixing things. He'd make a good doctor- pretty sure that's what he wants to do." A broken wire was all snarled around the next post. He slid off his horse and tied the reins up, reaching into his pocket for the wire cutters. "I mean, he'd never see a MedAcad or nothing fancy like that, but we could've sent him to work with the doc over in White Creek. Probably would've gone next year, when he's fifteen, but now..." He cut the wire and tossed it over the fence into the bushes. "Can't spare a set of hands. Can't really spare him this season, but Charlie wants him to finish school. End of this year, he'll probably sign on at the mine." He walked back to his horse and took the spare roll of wire down from his saddle horn. "Help me wind this out, will you?"

Mal took the end of the wire and started backing off paces. Jayne waved for him to stop. "That why he's got such a chip on his shoulder?" Mal asked, watching Jayne measure a few arms-lengths and cut.

"Who the hell knows why kids do what they do?" Jayne twisted one end together with the old wire and threaded the other through the ratchet-wheel on the post. He started tightening it, grunting with the effort as the slack wire reluctantly came tight. "He don't like the idea of working in the mine, don't like the fact that his daddy's dead, don't like much of anything that I can tell."

Mal held his peace after that as they worked their way down a few more fenceposts. At one stop, he could see the Blue Sun smokestacks peeking up over the treeline. "What do they mine off this rock, anyway?" he asked, shifting his grip on the rough-cut post. Jayne wiped his arm across his forehead and squinted up at him.

"Octanite, mostly. Low-grade, but there's enough of it here to be worth their while." A burdock plant was pushing the wires aside; he grabbed it down low by the roots and yanked it out of the ground. "They're all excited over there right now- think they've found a new site that might have something fancier. Couple of the tests are showing calladium." He swung the plant once around his head and let it fly out over the fence into the brush. "Won't know for sure for a few days, till they get the shaft open. But if it's as big a chunk as they think it is, it'll put this rock on the map." He shook his head and turned back to the horses. "I don't really give a damn. They point me at a wall and I hit at it with a hammer. Don't really care what's in the dirt."

Mal nodded silently and climbed back up in the saddle, filing all that away in the back of his head, where he hoped some sort of a plan might come together. Apparently half his crew was looking for one. He'd hate to disappoint.

The sun rolled on across the sky. At one stop, Mal casually looked down at Jayne's hand on the fence post. The merc's usual fingerless gloves didn't cover his split and raw knuckles. "Looks like you had a hell of a night down at the bar."

Jayne looked down at his hands and grinned. It did interesting- and not terribly pretty- things to the bruises on his face. "Yeah, it wasn't too bad." He settled a rock against the post. "You'd've loved it, Mal. Guess what got the fighting started."

"I honestly don't have a clue." There was another rock a few yards away. He started over to get it.

"Guy made a toast to the bar in honor of Unification." Mal stopped and glanced back over his shoulder; Jayne was standing upright now, grinning even wider. "You weren't there to stand up for the browncoats, and nobody else was saying shit, so I ran up the colors and gave him what for."

Mal turned on his heel and folded his arms across his chest, staring at Jayne. "You fought for the honor of the Independents?" At the resulting nod, he burst out laughing. "Well, ain't that something."

Jayne shrugged and turned back to the post. "Hell, there weren't nothing else to fight about." He smacked the wires lightly with his palm and nodded in satisfaction. "Anyway, turns out that Alliance-lovers can't fight for shit."

Mal brought the rock over and set it down in place. "Looks like he did a decent number on your face."

"Nothing to write home about." He hesitated, frowning at the rocks. "Course, I am home..."

"Are you now?" Mal asked mildly, starting back over to the horses. He stopped and looked back when he realized Jayne wasn't following.

"Home's where you come from, ain't it?" Jayne asked, the glare on his face even uglier than usual through the bruises.

"I don't know," Mal said slowly. "Anymore, when I say home, I'm not thinking about Shadow. I think about Serenity."

"Well. That's you." Jayne walked past him to his horse and hauled himself into the saddle hard enough that the animal huffed in protest. Jayne dug his heels in, and they took off, Mal's little horse scrambling to catch up.

It was two or three fenceposts before Jayne spoke again. "Kaylee says you're planning something. Got one of your little missions in mind."

"And if I am?"

"Don't." Jayne had a decent no-shitting-around voice, especially when matched with that godawful black-and-blue glare. "Ain't none of your concern, Mal, so don't go getting yourself involved."

"I don't know about that," Mal said, staring back at him and not giving an inch. "I think I've got a powerful concern. Blue Sun's holding one of my crew hostage. I'd like to get him out."

"Mal, this ain't a damn crate of medicine and it ain't giving guns to a bunch of whores." Jayne hit the wires hard enough that they sang, a high shivery note that made Mal's teeth ache. "This is life, out here. It's how it goes. Don't stick your nose where it don't belong." He turned back to the horses. "Somebody might bust it."

"That a threat?" Mal snapped at his back. Jayne stopped but didn't turn.

"Just facts."

Mal swallowed and gritted his teeth, then looked up at the sun. Far enough over. "Might be time to head back up to the house for lunch. I understand River's making pie."

Jayne glanced back at him, then shrugged, some of the tension going out of his stance. "Yeah. I need more wire anyway."

They kicked the horses up into an easy lope back toward the house. Mal tried to switch off the troublesome itch in the back of his brain, the one that was trying to put all the little bits and pieces together. Just focus on the wind in his face, the muscles of the horse bunching and releasing beneath him, the trick of shifting his weight and balance to help the animal with every move...

They dismounted out behind the barn and led the horses through the gate, their silence more companionable than strained after the run across the field. Something about sitting horseback just drained tension right away. Mal missed that about his boyhood days on Shadow, when he remembered to think about it.

They stepped through the double doors of the barn and Jayne's horse spooked, throwing its head straight up in the air and jumping sideways as a slim shape burst out of the shadows.

"River!" Mal threw his horse's reins back to Jayne and grabbed the girl by both arms. "What are you doing down here?"

"It's a game," she breathed, smiling up at him.

"You're playing down here? Charlie must be worried sick about you." He tried to move her toward the doorway, but she dug in her heels and broke his hold.

"It's a game," she said more urgently, grabbing his wrists. She turned his hands palms-up, staring down at them in fascination. "You take with one hand-" she squeezed his left wrist- "and give with the other-" she squeezed his right- "and the pawn never opens his eyes." She released him and stepped back, beaming with evident satisfaction. "Checkmate."

"Aw, hell, she's crazier than you are," Jayne muttered irritably, trying to straighten out the four twisted reins and two anxious animals in his hands. "Lucky we came back or she probably would've climbed up in the hayloft and broke her gorram neck."

"I wouldn't fall," she protested, sticking her tongue out at him. "I would fly."

"Get her up to the house," Jayne said, shaking his head in disgust. "I'll take care of the horses, just get her out of here before Charlie panics herself sick."

Mal took River's hand and led her across the lawn, stopping at the pump to wash his hands and face. "River," he said wearily, "things never do get dull with you around."

"You'll miss the start of the game," she said, idly picking at the grass. "The bell's about to ring."

Mal splashed some water on his face, frowning slightly as her words ran through his head and met up with the vague itch of an idea he'd been carrying for the last few days. Take with one hand and give with the other...the pawn never opens his eyes...

"Well, I'll be damned," he muttered, looking up at her silhouetted against the sun. "You're a gorram brilliant girl, you know that?"
*****
Jesse looked up from her plate, squinting out the window into the dusk. "Somebody's coming."

Daniel twisted in his seat to look. "It's Cal Hollis and his dad. Wonder what they want?"

"Only way to find out is to let them in," Charlie pointed out, setting her napkin aside and going to the door. Mal, fairly comfortable in the assumption that the neighbors weren't looking for him, turned his attention to his dinner. He and Jayne had finished the rest of that fencing in the afternoon, and even after all these years off Shadow, it felt good to know he'd filled his mother's expectations of "a good day's work." Honest work, a real man's work, and if he kept going along that path of thought he was going to wreck this nice satisfied mood, so best to drop it.

He looked up again when he realized that Mr. Hollis was talking to Simon. So no, not looking for Mal, but for someone Mal had a stake in.

"Well, y-yes, I'm a doctor," Simon stuttered, "but I don't know anything about..."

"Daniel told Cal you trained at some fancy place in the Core, that you're some kind of genius doc." The big farmer scowled at Simon. "It's just a cow."

"Exactly. I've never...I don't think I've even ever touched a cow, I wouldn't know where to begin..."

"It's skin and muscle and bones, doc, just like a person." Jayne rolled his eyes. "And a cow won't bitch at you about leaving a scar, either."

Simon nodded slowly, his eyes a little glazed. Mal couldn't help but smile; the kid was just getting all kinds of an education, flying around on Serenity. "This a special cow, sir?" the captain asked, casually picking up his knife. "Any particular reason it needs fancy Core doctoring?"

The man transferred his glare to Mal, as planned, giving Simon some breathing room. "We ain't all high and mighty like the Cobbs. Some of us can't spare an animal, 'specially not a good breeder."

"Don't go getting yourself into a temper, Deke," Jayne said warningly, reaching for his drink. "Course the doc will come take a look. Right, Simon? You don't think you're too good to get your hands a little dirty and help out folks, do you?"

"Jayne," Kaylee hissed, reaching out to punch his shoulder.

Simon wadded up his napkin and stood. "Let me get my bag."

"I'll come with you," Zoe said. "I've dealt with injured animals once or twice in my day, and it never hurts to have an extra pair of hands."

"No," Mal said. A series of puzzled faces turned to him- all except Jesse and Daniel, who were once again ignoring all things grown-up in favor of their food. Smart kids. "Zoe, I need you to stay here."

"Why's that, Captain?" she asked.

"You maybe have something to tell us?" Kaylee piped in eagerly. Mal took a sip of water and tried to look composed. Even without looking at Jayne, he could sense the thunderclouds gathering at that end of the table.

"Maybe," he said, shrugging and keeping his eyes close on his plate.

"Can I go?" Wash asked, studying Mal's face warily, "or am I part of this maybe as well?"

"You don't know anything about cows, dear," Zoe murmured.

"I was mostly just trying to find out if I get a piece of the maybe."

"I'd like you to stay too, Wash, yes."

"What about me?" Kaylee was wiggling in her seat like one of River's kittens, just shining with pride that her Captain hadn't let her down on the plan front.

"I need everybody here but the doc and the Shepherd-"

"-who also doesn't know a thing about cows," Book said drily, putting his fork down. "I suppose I could learn."

Simon appeared with his bag. "Ready."

Daniel shoved his chair back hard enough to leave marks on the floorboards. "Ni ta ma de. Tian xia shuo you de ren dou gaisi."

"Language," Charlie said warningly.

"I'll go," the kid went on, ignoring his mother. "I've helped Cal with the cows lots of times. And I know how to do stitches, too. So y'all can just stay here and have your fight..."

"Ain't gonna be a fight," Mal said.

"Jien tah duh guai," Daniel shot back. "I'd check with Uncle Jayne before you make any promises."

"Kid's got a point," Wash murmured into his water glass, wincing when Zoe elbowed him under the table.

When the Hollises, Daniel and Simon had filed out, all eyes went to Mal again. He gave up on the last of his pie and folded his hands on the table, trying to decide where to begin.

"Well, Captain?" Kayle asked, glancing anxiously from Jayne to Charlie and back to Mal. "What's the plan?"

"It's a circle," River said with a little smile. "They walk in lines, two by two, and he curves around them. Give and take, just like I told him. He's a very bright boy, I knew he'd figure it out."

"I get it," Wash nodded. "We'll send River to Blue Sun to renegotiate the mortgage, and she'll talk at them until they start crying and promise anything if she'll stop and go away."

"Not quite," Mal said, leaning forward in his chair. "But we are gonna make 'em cry."

"Don't keep us in suspense," Zoe prodded. Mal took a deep breath.

"What I'm thinking is this..."
*****
When he finished, there was a long silence. A very long silence. To absolutely no one's surprise, Wash was the one to break it. "I like it," he said, pointing down the table at Mal. "It's sneaky, underhanded, excessively complicated...it's very us. I'm in."

"Not excessively complicated," Kaylee protested. "It's just complicated enough. Good job, Captain. River's right, you are a clever boy."

"Kaywinnit Lee Frye," Mal said wearily, "in the future I'd appreciate it if you didn't refer to me in terms usually reserved for dogs."

"Aww, it was a compliment, Captain..."

"I don't get it," Jesse interrupted, frowning down at her plate. "Won't the Company notice you doing something like that?"

"Of course they will," Jayne said, standing up so fast his chair went over backwards with a crash. "And they'll all get arrested, and then they'll all get shot." He grabbed his plate and stomped into the kitchen, continuing at the top of his lungs, "But somebody will write a gorram song about it, because it's the greatest of all the stupid, suicidal plans Malcolm Reynolds ever came up with in his batshit crazy life..." The kitchen door slammed hard enough to make the house shake.

"I've had just about enough of the-" Mal pushed his own chair back, wiping his mouth with his hand and automatically checking his gun belt as he stood.

"Don't worry about," Charlie said sharply. "You leave him to me." He looked down at her; she was staring at him intently. "You really think you can pull this off? He's right about one thing, it is crazy."

Mal glanced at his crew. "Wash? Kaylee? Zoe?"

"Our part's doable, Captain," Zoe said after a moment. Kaylee nodded.

"Inara?"

"I'm thrilled to be invited to play," she said, smoothing her hair. "And I even get to dress up." At his pained look, she smiled. "It'll be child's play, Mal. Not a problem."

He turned to the final crewman in question. "River?"

She blinked at him. "Were you talking to me all that time? I wasn't listening."

"Of course not." He closed his eyes briefly. "You want to help, though, right?"

"The more the merrier, but too many cooks spoil the soup." She frowned. "There's no soup. I'll help."

"Shiny." He glanced at the clock on the wall. "Now's as good a time as any, don't you think, kids?"

"Wouldn't miss it, sir," Zoe said as she, Wash, and Kaylee got to their feet. Mal nodded.

"Wonderful. If you'll excuse us, Mrs. Ryan, we have to go do some highly illegal reconnaissance on Blue Sun."
*****
"We can do this, Captain," Kaylee said, clasping her hands on top of her head and smiling up at the stars. "We've got all the stuff right there on Serenity. It's just exactly like when we stole the Lassiter."

"I prefer to think of it as 'liberating' the Lassiter," Mal corrected, closing a gate behind them. Walking across the fields was a shortcut, but it made the ranch-kid in him paranoid.

"It's actually going to be easier than the Lassiter," Wash remarked. "You would think a company the size of Blue Sun would have more high-tech security than that."

"They probably don't get too many people trying to redirect their ore carts, honey." Zoe squeezed his shoulder. "Our little project is kind of unique."

"We'll get started first thing tomorrow." Kaylee nodded decisively. "Right, Wash? Head back to Serenity as soon as we finish breakfast."

"Before Mal even makes it out of bed."

"Hey..." The mock-protest trailed off as they reached the yard and he saw Jayne sitting on the front porch, cigar in hand. Mal had just about had it with the sulking and the temper trantrums. Time to quit messing around and have it out with the man, get to the bottom of all this don't-help-me crap. "Y'all go ahead and get some sleep, I'm going to swing by the house for a minute."

"Courting the lovely Miss Charlie?" Zoe asked, not quite hiding a smirk.

"What? No!" He stumbled to a halt, staring at them. "Ho-tze de pigu, Zoe, Jayne would feed me my own liver."

"He seems to want to do that anyway, sir."

"Besides, I ain't interested in Charlie."

"Of course not, sir."

"Which is good," Kaylee added thoughtfully, "because she's not interested in you."

He blinked. "She's not?"

"No. Not even a little." She glanced at Zoe, who nodded in somber confirmation. "We girls can tell."

"I haven't been paying the slightest bit of attention," Wash said, shrugging. "Can't help you, Mal."

He waved his hands. "Go on. Get out of here, all of you. Go to bed. Quit messing with my head this time of night."

With a final set of satisfied grins, they headed off to the bunkhouse. Mal rolled his eyes and looked back at the porch. Missed his window of opportunity, gorram it. Somewhere in the middle of having his ego deflated, Charlie had come out of the house and sat down next to Jayne.

Well, he'd probably run her off in a minute or two and then Mal could have his little chat. He slipped up into the shadows around the porch and leaned against the wall.

For a few minutes, they just sat there and looked out over the land, Jayne's occasional long draw on his cigar the only sound. “Why are you fighting them on this?" Charlie asked finally. "I know you want to go.”

“That ain’t true." He knocked the back of his hand against the railing, sending ashes falling quietly into the dark. "I’m not going to leave.”

“Jayne, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” She took his hands in hers, gripping them tightly until he looked at her. “Day comes in everyone’s life when you leave the family you were born to for the family you choose.”

“You didn’t.”

She rolled her eyes, letting go of his hands and smacking him lightly on the shoulder. “I got married, didn’t I? I left home when I fell in love with Matty Ryan.”

He blinked and looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “I hope you’re not suggesting that I fell in love with Mal Reynolds, Charlie.”

She laughed, threading her arm through his and resting her head on his shoulder. “No, you big dummy, I’m saying that you fell in love with the sky, and being free to wander.” They were quiet for a minute, looking out at the stars over the pastures. “And that’s okay, ge-ge. It’s your choice.”

"It ain't a family, Charlie, it's a job." He put the cigar in his mouth, took it out again, stared at it like he'd never seen it before. "It's just a job."

"Right. Because a job follows you halfway across the verse, and a job is something that means enough to you that you don't just throw them all out of the house and lock the doors."

"Well, how could I do that when you'd already invited them in?" he grumbled.

"Tell me another one, brother mine. It's more than a job." There was another moment of silence. "All right, I won't make you say it. But don't try to fool me- you'd be gone in a heartbeat and yelling for full burn if things weren't such a mess here."

"Things are a mess."

"Captain Reynolds has a way to fix that."

“But I’ve got to stay,” he said slowly, unhappily, rolling his cigar between his fingers. “I’ve got to stay and help…I’ve got responsibilities to you all…”

“Jayne, I love you,” she said, lifting her head to look him in the eye, “but the truth is, you are the worst rancher ever to set foot on this rock.”

“Hey, now,” he chuckled, raising an eyebrow at her.

“You hate horses,” she said, holding up a finger.

“Not all of ‘em, just the stupid ones.”

“You hate cows.”

“Well, that one’s true,” he admitted, turning his face away to take another drag on the cigar. “I do hate cows.”

She settled her head on his shoulder again. “You let them get Blue Sun off our backs and we’ll be glad to send you back to your stars.”

He turned and kissed her hair. “I did miss you, mei-mei.”

“Yeah.” She smiled. “Of course you did, whenever you had to wash your own socks.”

Jayne’s mock-outraged protest faded into the cricket song as Mal slipped away from the porch and headed to the bunkhouse. They had a plan to kick off in the morning.
*****
"You sure we only need six, Captain?" Kaylee held the guidance motherboard up to the light and smiled with satisfaction. "Cause I could do this all day. We could make every car at the mine come running straight to Serenity."

"That might catch a few eyes, Kaylee," Mal said patiently, nodding at Wash to go ahead and lift his end of the metal hopper they were placing in the cargo bay. "We're only taking half the day's haul out of that new shaft- three cars."

"And replacing it with three cars of junk," Wash added, setting the bulky thing down with a grateful sigh. "It's so clever and mean. I love it."

"Only clever if it works." Mal kicked at the edge of the hopper. "You sure we can fit three of these in here?"

Wash shrugged. "You sure we need them?"

"Better safe than sorry." He scowled around the cargo bay. "I hate turning my ship into a scow."

"It's not for long, sir," Zoe said from her seat on the catwalk, swinging her legs idly. "That is, if it works."

"Oh, it'll work," Kaylee said cheerfully, setting the reprogrammed motherboard aside. "At least, the part where the cars go where we tell 'em, that'll work. The part where Blue Sun doesn't notice? That's iffier."

"Thanks for bringing that up," Mal winced. "Reminds me, we've still got to talk to River."

"She'll do it," Kaylee said firmly. "She wants to help. Of course she'll do just that one little thing."

"I'm not worried so much about her doing it as her doing it right, and not getting confused or forgetful or having a fit right in the middle of things..." Mal kicked at the bin again. "Wash, when can we pick up the other two of these?"

"Tomorrow morning."

"Nice of folks to lend us stuff," Zoe remarked.

Mal rolled his eyes. "Think the neighbors just want us to get gone."

"Why would they want that? They have a doctor at their beck and call." Wash picked up one of Kaylee's reprogrammed devices and tossed it in the air. She caught it and put it away again.

Mal kicked at the hopper again. "They've also got a preacher lurking around where there wasn't one before. Oh, and all the girls of marrying age are sniffing around after Simon."

Kaylee looked up sharply. "They are?"

Wash and Zoe hid their smiles, but not fast enough. Kaylee blushed.

"Anyway," Mal said, squinting out the open bay doors at the sun, "we'll run those over tomorrow night and get the cars started our way the next morning."

"So River and Inara have to do their part tomorrow." Zoe shook her head. "Guess we'd better talk to River now, Mal."

"Don't worry," Kaylee said, squeezing Mal's elbow as they filed off of the ship, "she wants to help."
*****
This wasn't going well at all.

"No no no no can't go in there won't go in there." River paced around the room, her hands striking out at random intervals, her eyes fixed on the floor, her words coming in a constant stream without pause for breath.

"Mei-mei, Inara will be right with you," Simon said soothingly, reaching out to her and jerking back when she smacked him.

"No! They're the ones- with the- it hurts, I can't go in." She shook her head fiercely, backing into the corner and baring her teeth at him. "Can't go out in the sun."

"Can someone else do it, Mal?" Inara asked quietly. "Kaylee, maybe?"

The mechanic shook her head. "I can put a path on the disks, but I wouldn't know where to start to get past Blue Sun's Cortex protections," she said. "River's the only one who knows how to think that way."

"Simon, you're pretty good with a Cortex, aren't you?" Mal asked. The doctor glanced back over his shoulder and shrugged.

"Not as good as her. Not good enough." He turned back to his sister. "River..."

She looked up suddenly, over his shoulder, locking eyes with Mal. "You thought of this," she said.

He nodded. She frowned and took a step forward, still staring intently into his eyes.

"Your plan. The only way to put things back the way they were." She reached up and brushed her hair out of her face, and he could see her mind coming back together, untangling itself from the fear, all its focus on this new puzzle forming before her inner eyes. "Only way to bring the family back...all the pieces in the same box, together..." She stopped and looked up at the ceiling. Her eyes flickered back and forth like she was reading something. "It's far from its mother," she mumbled. "Very far. Just a little monster, cut off from the nest...and it wants rocks, not brains." Her gaze wandered down to the floor. "Rocks, not brains..."

"I think we broke her," Wash muttered.

She looked up again and turned to Mal. "I'll do it," she said.

"Shiny." He nodded at Inara. "You'll have to get an outfit together for her..."

"I'll need to be protected!" River interrupted, hands fluttering wildly again. "I need wards and charms. Even baby monsters bite."

"Right. You do what you've got to do." He raised an eyebrow at the Companion.

"Everything will be fine, Mal," Inara said with a smile. "You played to my strengths with this one. It might even be fun."

"Don't be thinking about fun, be thinking about not getting caught."

"Don't worry so much, Captain," she laughed, reaching out to touch his cheek. "We won't even be a blip on their radar."
*****
"Rocks, not brains. Rocks, not brains."

"Hush, mei-mei." Inara rested her hand on River's shoulder, trying to keep the girl close. The lobby of Blue Sun planetary headquarters was brightly lit and pleasantly warm, but she could feel River trembling even through three layers of swirling robes. "Don't be scared, darling. They won't even see you."

"Rocks, not brains." River peered out from under the heavy black veil. It hadn't been part of the outfit Inara originally planned, but River had insisted. "I can see them, but they can't see me. They're not looking for me. They want rocks, not..."

"Hush," Inara whispered, tightening her fingers around River's arm as the door into the main building swung open. "Time to go to work."

Inara had spent years learning to size men up with a single glance, and this one was obviously a mid-level flunky with delusions of grandeur. He paused in the doorway, gathering himself, and attempted to face Inara with an intelligent frown. He was blushing too badly for it to be entirely convincing. "Miss Serra, I'm afraid the vice-president has no recollection of you."

"What?" She pushed her hair back behind her ear with a careful hand, directing all of her energies into a perfect smile, a delicate flush to her skin, a subtle sparkle in her eyes. "That's impossible. Dear Mr. Dreighton, is he sure? He's forgotten me?" She let her hand fall to her chest and gave a theatrical sigh. "Oh, I shall die of a broken heart."

"He did say to bring you back to his office," the man offered quickly, stepping forward and extending his arm. "So the two of you can straighten this whole thing out."

"Wonderful." She accepted his hand, holding out her other one to River. "Come along, dearest."

"And who is this?" Dreighton asked, giving the swathed figure a puzzled glance.

"My niece," Inara said, keeping her chin high and her smile in place as they walked down the hall. "My sister recently died, so I'm taking her back to the Core with me...she's a bit touched, poor thing, and can't live on her own, but she'll have the finest doctors on Sihnon."

"Of course," Dreighton said, nodding his head so eagerly she feared for his neck. "I've only been to the great city once. It's a lovely place, Miss Serra, and I'm sure you'll find the best of care for your niece."

"I certainly hope so," Inara murmured, squeezing River's hand tighter as the girl's constant low murmur of "Rocks, not brains" rose to audible levels. Dreighton and Inara came to a graceful halt outside an office; River skittered back and forth across the corridor for a moment before taking shelter behind Inara.

"Mr. Reichert, may I present the Companion Inara Serra, and her niece..." He trailed off, blinking. Inara brushed past him into the office, tugging River along behind her, schooling her face into its brightest smile and then letting it fall with equal theatricality.

"Oh! Oh, goodness, I'm such a fool!" She threw her hands in the air, releasing River, who stood stock still for a moment, whispering her mantra, and then made a beeline for the desk. Inara caught up the vice president's hands in her own, pulling herself a step closer to him and meeting his eyes. She let her own fill with tears as Dreighton closed the door and beat a hasty retreat down the corridor. "How can you forgive me for disrupting your day like this? My most sincere apologies, sir..."

"It's quite all right," he chuckled, and she sneered in the back of her mind, though of course her face didn't waver. A fat, short, foul-smelling man like this...yes, of course it would be quite all right to have a Companion standing in front of him. "It seems we just have a little case of mistaken identity, is all. Now, how could that have happened?"

"Well, I knew a Marcus Reichert back on Sihnon," she said, raising one hand to her cheek and batting her eyelashes. She heard her House Priestess's voice in the back of her mind, steely calm- Don't overdo it, Inara. Rein yourself in. "He was studying engineering and business and all such things...it wasn't too terrible a stretch of the imagination to think of him at Blue Sun..."

"I'm afraid I've never been to Sihnon. To my everlasting regret." He smiled slightly. "And I'm sure I'm at least a decade older than any man you knew as a schoolgirl!"

"Rocks, not brains," River hissed, and Inara widened her smile, tightening her grip on his hand to keep him from looking back. She could see over his shoulder; River's fingers were dancing across the Cortex control panel. Swapping certain feeds, rerouting others, adjusting projections and numbers. Hopefully it was all happening fast enough.

"I really am so dreadfully sorry, Mr. Reichert. I've wasted your valuable time. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?" River's lips curled up in a dark, triumphant smile. She turned away from the control panel and fumbled through the sleeves of her robes. Inara wanted to scream. Channel that, snapped the Priestess in her mind. Put that away for later. Now, he is the entire world.

"Rocks!" River shouted, and Reichert turned. Inara summoned another theatrical gasp.

"Oh! Darling! What have you done?" She hurried past him to River's side, easing the girl out from behind the desk.

"Not brains," River whimpered, burying her face in Inara's shoulder. "Don't let him touch me, I don't have any stones."

"It's all right, it's all right," Reichert said, leaning over his Cortex panel. "She doesn't seem to have hurt anything."

Things are not always as they seem, are they, you silly old fool?, Inara thought triumphantly as she stroked River's hair. She felt River's face twist into a smile, pressed up against her. "I'm so terribly sorry, sir. We'll leave immediately, we've spoiled your entire afternoon, I'm sure."

"Time to go," River whispered. "Must get out of the sun. Sunstroke, heatstroke, fire burning up from inside..."

"Hush," Inara breathed, wrapping her arm around the girl's waist.

"Just playing about with the Cortex," he said, hitting a button on the panel and stepping back around the desk. "No harm done. Are you sure you don't care to stay for some tea, Miss Serra?"

River moaned.

"I'm afraid I must see to her, Mr. Reichert," Inara said apologetically. "She has strange fits, you see...and her medication is back at my ship, so I hope you're not terribly insulted if we decline. You must have so much work to do..."

"Quite all right." He smiled blandly, and she inwardly rolled her eyes. Having tea with a Companion would give him bragging rights for a year on this dump of a planet. "Would you like an escort?"

"My servant is waiting outside." He walked them back down the hallway to the lobby. Inara met Mal's eyes from across the room and nodded subtly, a bare inclination of her chin. His shoulders slumped with relief.

"Rocks, not brains," River growled, pushing past him and out the massive glass doors.

As Inara smiled her goodbye and disentangled her arm from Mr. Reichert's, Mal reached into his pocket and flipped a switch on the tranceiver that had let him listen in on their trip to the office. There was a hiss of static, and it picked up the other channel just as they cleared the doors. He heard a few low clicks and thumps as the bug River planted came to life, and then Reichert’s voice buzzed from the speaker.

“Get me Major Selzan on the wave.“ Mal’s blood froze in his veins. “Charles! You’ll never guess who came into my office this afternoon...heh, no, even better. Registered Companion. Oh, yes! From the Core...please, Charles, are they ever anything less than, ah, scrumptious? Well, she thought I was someone else, but I set her straight, of course...oh, she was most apologetic...“

Mal allowed himself a smile as he switched the device off entirely. Setup phase complete. Now it was time to wait.
*****
Kaylee grinned and tossed a pebble over the cliff. "It's real pretty, ain't it?"

Mal squinted down at the little road below them. Automated mine cars rolled from left to right, leaving the refinery with junk ore to dump out in the scrub lands. From right to left, more cars carried the calladium-rich rocks from the new mine shaft. As Kaylee counted off the beat under her breath, three of the calladium cars made an abrupt turn to the south, onto a narrow path Wash and Zoe had hacked through the undergrowth. Three of the junk cars spun into a cul-de-sac, changed direction, and took the place of the diverted cars. The sensors at the refinery would count the same number coming in as the sensors at the shaft had seen going out. The computer system would conveniently not notice that it was processing the same rocks twice, thanks to River; it would just note that not as much calladium was coming in as expected.

And up in the offices, after the last five days of this, some Blue Sun employees were sweating.

"I think it's just about the prettiest thing I've ever seen," Mal said sincerely, watching the last car throw itself into reverse and start back to the refinery. "You did good work, Kaylee."

"Well, we all did, Captain," she said, beaming at him. "Everybody had a part!"

"True enough." He got to his feet, wincing a little as his knees and back protested the motion. "I'm getting too old for this," he muttered. She pretended not to hear him; he knew there was a reason he loved Kaylee.

"Let's get back to the ranch and have some dinner," he said, watching the last edge of the sun shiver its way down below the treeline. "We've had a busy day of stealing Blue Sun's rocks. Wears a body out."

"Don't we have to go help Wash unload those three?" she asked, waving after the cars.

"Nah. This is the last run for the night, tomorrow's the mine's day off, we can wait. I'm sure Wash is already back at the ranch and facedown in his meal."

She rolled her eyes and scrambled down the path ahead of him. "Hope he hasn't eaten everything," she said, easily dodging all the rocks that were doing their best to drop him on his face. "I'm starved."

No need to worry about that. Mal blinked in confusion as they entered the dining room; there was a table full of food with only Book, Wash, River, and Jesse sitting around it. "Where is everybody?" he asked, reaching for a chair.

"Calving," Jesse said with a shrug. "And foaling. At the same time."

"Apparently it happens every few years," Book explained, handing them each a mug of coffee. "Something about the planet's rotation and seasonal drift...anyway, every so often the breeding-cycles wind up concurrent."

"But what takes so many people?" Kaylee asked with a frown. "Can't be the whole herd at once..."

"Yeah it can." Jesse grinned over her plate. "At least, all of both herds over two or three nights. It's the craziest thing when it happens. Baby animals everywhere, all over all the ranches."

Mal glanced around the room again and felt his eyebrows crawl up to his hairline. "Inara's out helping birth calves? Never thought I'd see the day..."

"No," Book corrected softly, "Inara's over at the neighbor's, watching the children. Apparently when it's a year like this one, everyone sends their younglings to one house. Inara volunteered to help watch them to free up another pair of hands."

"Oh." Mal clumsily spooned some potatoes onto his plate, sternly denying to himself that the idea of Inara surrounded by children stirred any emotions whatsoever. "That's real...civic-minded of her."

"Why didn't you go with her, River?" Kaylee asked, reaching for the rolls.

"Children carry disease," was the matter-of-fact reply. "And I wanted to try making the dinner. For Simon. But he isn't here..."

"He'll be back soon," Book said, in the tone of a man who had been repeating those words for several hours.

"You help her cook, Shepherd?" Mal asked.

"I...was not allowed to actually participate," he replied dryly, "but I did supervise."

"I'll go over and help Inara out, as soon as I finish eating," Kaylee said, frowning a little over her plate. "I bet she's tired."

"She's having the time of her life," came a voice from the doorway, and they looked up to see Zoe and Jayne saunter in. Zoe dropped into the chair beside Wash and kissed him quickly, smiling as he held out a ready plate of food. "She refused to come back with us."

"We're on shifts for the rest of the night," Jayne explained with a half-smile, taking the coffee pot from Book. "The doc was supposed to be on break with us, but I guess nobody explained to him what taking a break means."

"Some neighbor kid came running over and said they had breech twins a couple farms down," Zoe said, closing her eyes and wrapping her hands tightly around a warm mug. "Simon went tearing off before we could stop him."

"He's hungry," River said, glaring down at her plate. "He's so stubborn."

"Very much in need of looking after," Mal murmured to her, and was rewarded with a small twitch of her lips that could have been a smile.

"He'll be sorry when he keels over all light-headed and lands face-down in birthing gunk," Jayne said, demolishing the bowl of potatoes. "That stuff don't wash out, either. Wreck his pretty white shirt."

"We'll save a plate for him, River," Book said, patting her hand. "He'll eat when he gets back."

"Charlie and Daniel out in the fields?" Mal asked, draining the last of his coffee.

"Yeah." Zoe chuckled. "That boy's having the time of his life, telling everybody what to do. Simon showed him a better trick of repositioning the forelegs if they're crooked, and he won't show any of the hands...insists on doing it himself every time. It's cute."

"He's got a knack for it," Jayne said with a shrug. "Makes sense to let him do what he's good at."

"Either one of you want me to take your shift?" Mal asked, glancing from Jayne to Zoe. "I don't mind, if you'd like to grab some sleep."

"Take it, Jayne," Zoe said, stretching her legs out under the table and rolling her head back to crack her neck. "You've been up since daybreak. Wash and I, hmm, slept in this morning." The pilot smirked and Mal held his hands up in surrender.

"Say no more."

"Please," Jayne muttered, rolling his eyes and grinning down the table at Kaylee and Mal. "Don't need to hear about it."

"Those of us who sleep in the bunkhouse already heard about it," Kaylee pointed out.

"Anyway," Zoe said quickly, hurrying over the end of Kaylee's words before they got a chance to blossom into a round of mockery, "we've got about two hours before we're supposed to switch again, sir."

"Two hours." Mal stared into the dregs of his coffee and pondered the wisdom of having more. "Whatever shall we do with ourselves for two hours?"

Jayne shrugged and leaned back in his chair, tugging open a drawer on the sideboard. "Anybody up for a game of cards?"
*****
Five rounds of tall-card and an hour and a half later, Simon came staggering in.

To his credit, he wasn't being carried. Wasn't far from it, though.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," he said, waving his arms feebly as Kaylee, River, and Book descended on him en masse

"You overdid it," Kaylee said sternly. "You can't be any good to anybody if you have a nervous collapse, Simon."

"I'm not nervous," he mumbled, shooting her a puzzled frown.

River presented him with a plate and whisked the covering napkin off dramatically. He winced.

"Oh, River, I can't...I mean, I'm sure it's great, but I just...not right now..."

"Here." They all turned, startled, at the sound of Jayne's voice. He held a coffee cup an inch away from Simon's face, looking over it at the doctor with a kind of patient amusement in his eyes. "Take a minute, get something warm in you, get your mind settled. Then you'll want to eat."

Simon stared at the cup like he'd never seen such a thing before.

"Hold out your hand," Jayne said. Obediently, Simon raised one palm. "Now the other one. Take the handle. Good work, doctor. Drink." When Simon had the mug under control, Jayne rolled his eyes and turned away, heading for the stairs but still smiling. "I think you're done for the night, doc. Tie him to the bedpost if you have to."

"Who gets to do that?" Kaylee asked mildly, not even blushing when Mal whirled to stare at her. "Just asking."

"I think River will make sure Simon takes better care of himself," Book said with a small grin. Mal could see what he meant; River was perched next to her brother like a hawk, scowling at his every move until he finally picked up his fork and made an effort in the direction of the meal. Strong-willed girl, she'd get her way. Simon never stood a chance.

"Well, Mal," Zoe said after a moment, squeezing Wash's hand and getting to her feet. "Let's go birth some babies."

"Zoe!" Mal said, throwing a hand over his heart in shock. "Right in front of your husband, too! For shame."

"You never were funny, you know that, sir."

"You cut me to the bone, Zoe."

"It's why you pay me the big money, Captain."

"You make big money?” Wash blinked mock-innocently. “How come I never see any of that?"

"Goodnight, dear. Don't wait up."

"There was never the slightest chance of that."
*****
It was lunchtime the next day before Mal got them all corralled around the dining table. “All right, boys and girls,” he said, getting to his feet and clasping his hands behind his back with a bland smile. “According to our ears in high places, Blue Sun’s starting to panic about not making the quota they promised the high mucky-mucks back in the Core. Poor kids.”

A series of insincere and not just a little evil grins went around the table.

“Which means that it’s just about time to proceed to phase three...which is just fine with me, I hate having my ship working as an ore transport. She's a lady, shouldn't be all full of rocks..." He held up one hand quickly. "I know, River, I know, at least it ain't brains." She smiled approvingly, and he turned to his mechanic. "Kaylee, this afternoon, let’s get Serenity back up in orbit. I think if we make a pass out to the edge of the system and loop back, that oughta look good enough that they won’t put two and two together…” He trailed off, blinking, as he noticed one of his crew had a hand raised. “Yes, Wash?”

“I want to do this part, Mal.”

Mal looked from him to Zoe in bafflement, but his first mate’s face was unreadable. “I don’t quite follow your meaning.”

“I didn’t get to do anything fun on this plan.” Wash shrugged, folding his arms over his chest and jutting his chin out. “I want to play the captain and sell Blue Sun the ore. C’mon, Mal, let me do something important for once.”

Now Zoe reacted- arching one eyebrow at Mal. Silent yet eloquent. She really didn’t leave him an option. “All right, Wash, if it’s that important to you.” And to Zoe, which frankly was a bit more of a point.

“Really?” The pilot grinned and bounced a little in his chair, eager as a puppy. “Great! I’ve got a whole routine planned. I’m thinking of using an accent.”

“Don’t make it too complicated,” Mal cautioned, settling back down in his chair. “Just stick to the plan. You do know the plan, right?”

“Of course.”

“Me and Kaylee will be up there keeping you out of trouble, of course."

“You worry too much, Captain," Kaylee scolded, digging into her food with a blissful smile. “Everything’s gonna be a-OK.”

“And by saying that, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that it won’t. First law of flying on Serenity.” He shook his head, smiling despite his words. “This whole thing has gone entirely too well. We’re due for some bad luck, ain’t we?”

“We had plenty of bad luck before you got here,” Charlie said with a little smile. “Maybe it’s just our luck balancing out and canceling yours.”

“Let’s stick with that theory,” Mal said, grinning down the table at her. “I like it.”

“You like my brilliant mind, you can help me with the dishes,” she said, rising from her chair and starting to collect them. “Y’all have been here long enough that you’re not guests anymore. We can start putting you to work.”

“Except Simon,” Inara said, glancing at the still bleary-eyed doctor. “I think he’s on bed rest right now. River’s orders.”

“Yes, sorry about that,” Charlie said with a wince. “We’ve overworked your doctor terribly. I promise, for the rest of your stay we’ll only haul him out for emergencies.”

“He has a rather loose definition of emergency, you’ll find,” Mal said, following her into the kitchen with an armload of plates. “Pretty much anyone who asks for help seems to qualify.”

“The sign of a good doctor,” she said, settling the dishes in the sink and handing him a towel. “Did you see Jayne giving us the evil eye? I do believe my big brother’s getting himself all worked up to protect my virtue. He’s so sweet.”

“Is there reason to think your virtue’s at risk, Mrs. Ryan?” he asked, widening his eyes innocently. “I can’t imagine where such an idea would come from.”

“I certainly hope it didn’t come from me,” she said with a wry smile, glancing sideways at him. “You’re charming, Captain Reynolds, and as nice-looking a man to come around here in ages, but I have very strict rules for my heart. And right up near the top of the list is keeping it away from men who aren’t planning to stick around too long.”

He tipped his head in acknowledgement and took a plate from her. “Sounds like a very wise policy.”

“Glad we’re not going to have any hurt feelings over it,” she said, scraping another dish over the scrap pail. “Besides, if I was going to try to trap any of y’all into staying, I think I’d go after the doctor. Now that’s a shiny face to wake up to every morning.”

“You’d get the sister, too,” he said with a grin. “They’re a package deal.”

“She’s wonderful,” Charlie said warmly, tucking a loose curl back behind her ear. “Really. Simon and Inara told me some of what happened to her at that school, and I just can’t imagine what sort of people would want to hurt a girl like that, so innocent and sweet and quick to learn…”

“Apparently that last part was what they were interested in.” He set the plate down on the counter and paused for a moment, staring at her. “You’d really choose Simon to stay over me?”

She laughed out loud and threw her hands up in the air. “Men! I swear, the whole lot of you share a common hobby of getting irrationally jealous over the silliest things.” She reached out and placed a firm hand on his shoulder, looking directly into his eyes. “My dear Captain, I’d be able to talk that boy into staying here on this hopelessly backward rock a million times over before I could stop your wandering feet. That would take divine intervention. You’re not meant to settle down; any fool can see that.” She took her hand back and selected another plate. “And like you said the day you got here, Captain Reynolds, I’m nobody’s fool.”

“You can call me Mal, you know,” he said, taking another plate. “It’s what friends do.”

“Friends!” She smiled. “I like that, the idea of being friends with a dashing Firefly captain. You can send waves back here, and I’ll casually mention them in town, and all the girls will go mad with jealousy.”

“Ah, so you admit that womenfolk do the jealous thing as well.” He ducked the towel she playfully swung at him. “Sure we’re friends. Now, you’ll make sure to explain that to your brother, right? Don’t want him coming after me with a shotgun or whatever the preferred disciplinary weapon is around here.”

“Crowbar,” she said helpfully, passing another plate along. “And don’t you worry about Jayne. Y’all really set your expectations for him far too low. He’s got more brains and heart than you give him credit for.”

“Can’t tell by the way he acts, most of the time.”

She rolled her eyes. “Honey, I’ve only been married once, but I can tell you, if you’re going to try to judge a man by the way he acts, you’ll get nowhere in a hurry.”
*****
"Now that's just nice," Kaylee said as she walked onto the bridge. "Feeling an engine humming under your feet? I mean, don't get me wrong, I like going planetside, but there's just something about Serenity."

"No argument here," Mal said, smiling at her and getting up out of the pilot's chair. "Where's our acting captain for the day? Wash!"

"Right here, sir! Ready for duty!" He bounced up the steps, adjusting the patch over his left eye.

Mal looked up at the ceiling and asked any gods or ancestors that might have been listening for patience. "Wash. You don't need a costume."

"I want my performance to be authentic, sir. I have to get myself into a captain frame of mind."

"You're wearing Zoe's jacket and an eyepatch."

"I made up a whole persona to go with them. In case Blue Sun asks."

"They're not gonna ask, and will you take that fool thing off?" Mal reached over to take care of it himself. The console buzzed and Wash dodged away.

"There's our call! Get back out of the way now, kids, and let's get this show started." Dramatically, he hit the button to accept the wave. The screen flickered twice and a pale, skinny man in a Blue Sun Mining uniform appeared.

"Firefly class vessel Tranquillity, state your business."

Kaylee nudged Mal in the ribs. "Tranquillity? You told them her name was Tranquillity?"

"I needed something I could remember," he hissed back. "Now hush, I want to make sure Wash doesn't talk us right into prison."

"Word out on the Cortex is that y'all are looking for calladium," Wash said, leaning back in the chair with his feet up on the console and a ridiculous grin on his face. At least he'd reined in the accent from the indecipherable brogue he'd tried out on Mal earlier in the day.

"I'm afraid you're mistaken, Captain O'Boole," the man said stiffly, and Mal did a double-take. O'Boole? Tianna, Wash had been running his mouth while Kaylee was talking.

"Really?" Wash sat up, swinging his legs down to the floor and frowning. "Well, that's a shame. Got a whole hold full of calladium ore, first-class stuff. Hauled it all the way out here looking for a sale. That's a damn shame, is what that is."

"Yes, a shame," the man on the screen muttered, glancing at something just off-camera. "Tell me, Captain, how many tons is a 'hold full?' We've no shortage, you understand, but, well, there is a certain vested interest in not seeing the local market glutted..."

Wash grinned that same eerie, extra-wide grin that Mal had never seen on him before and devoutly hoped to never see again. "Aw, well, now we're talking business, buddy!" He named a figure, casually brushing his fingers over the cheat-sheet of weights and prices Mal had posted on the console. Mal hid a smile. By the calculations they'd ripped off Blue Sun's internal cortex, that was about two tons more than they'd promised the home office, and five tons less than what was actually in the hold. Five tons we can sell somewhere else for a hell of a lot better price. Nicely done, Wash.

The company man's face stayed professionally impassive, but Mal saw his shoulders slump in relief. So did Kaylee, and she giggled, quickly covering her mouth with her hand when Mal grabbed her shoulder. Her merry smile still glowed out around it, though, and he couldn't help but return it in kind.

"Well, Captain, we certainly don't want that much ore running around the market without our mark on it, you understand..." He forced out a wheezy laugh. Wash just kept grinning. Mal was fairly certain he'd be seeing that crazed smile in his nightmares for longer than he'd want.

"See, now you've played your hand, buddy," Wash drawled, putting his feet back up again. "I'm gonna screw you like a Persephone streetwalker on the price, you understand."

Kaylee choked. Mal stared. This was not in the plan.

The bland smile faded from the image's face. "Well, sir, I could also send up a patrol ship to seize the cargo while we investigate where and how you obtained it. Our internal investigators would handle the case, of course- no need to trouble the locals with it."

"Say no more, buddy, say no more," Wash said, holding his hands up in surrender. "Let my mouth get ahead of my sense. I see the picture now, real clear. No need for trouble." He sat up again, properly contrite and respectful. "What's the going rate per ton?"

He named a figure that was a good ten credits lower than the one Kaylee had pulled off the trading Cortex not an hour before. They'd counted on that. Mal gave a subtle nod, but Wash wasn't looking at him. He had all the numbers in his head.

"That'll do, my good man, that'll do," he said, noddding and making a great show of entering something onto a datapad. He passed it back over his shoulder and Kaylee stepped up to take it. She held it up for Mal to see the message Wash had typed in: Screwed, as planned, right on schedule!

Mal rolled his eyes and half-listened as Wash and the company agreed on a meeting place and a bank account to transfer the credits to. One of Zoe's accounts, under a series of fake names, based on Greenleaf. From there they'd bounce the payment over half the verse before Jayne took it back to Blue Sun. All the traces that led it around again would be wiped clean.

"We're not half bad at this crime thing," he remarked after Wash shut down the transmission and pulled his eyepatch off with an eager whoop.

"Maybe we could make our whole living out of it," Kaylee said, stretching her eyes wide and innocent and grinning at him across the bridge.

"Why, Kaywinnit Lee Frye, what would your mother say?"

She shook her head, still grinning, and reached over Wash's shoulder to kick the engine speed up a notch. "She knew I was doomed since the day I took off with a bunch of strange men on a Firefly, Captain."

"Strange? We ain't strange, are we, Wash?"

"No sir." The pilot moved the speed back down again, slapping at Kaylee's hand. "We're gifted."
****
It was going to be a very drunk party. Mal had a sneaking suspicion that even Daniel was going to be allowed a little moonshine with his meal- and that he was going to regret it heartily, which was probably part of Charlie's plan.

Kaylee'd wanted streamers and balloons, but they didn't have those sort of things out here. Charlie let her and River cut up a few old bedsheets and wind those around the ceiling-beams, but the effect was more spooky than celebratory. They wound them back up and stashed them in cupboards for future use as bandages. Thrifty folk, around here.

Mal poured himself a second glass of not-half-bad homemade whiskey and tilted his chair back. They were all out on the porch right now, while dinner waited in the kitchen, watching down across the pastures toward town. Waiting for Jayne to come back.

He was taking his own damn sweet time.

"Shoulda gone with him," Kait muttered, taking a swig straight from one of the bottles he'd pulled out from under the back porch. "Ruttin' idiot with his pride, probably got himself robbed or thrown in the lockup..."

"He's fine," Charlie said, frowning in concentration as she twisted River's hair up into coils on top of her head. "Just indulging in his sense of the dramatic. Wants to make a grand entrance and all that."

"Jesse's down at the roadside anyway," Daniel added, perched on the porch railing and swinging his legs out in the evening air. "She'll shoot off a signal when he's in sight, I bet."

"Who gave her her gun back?" his mother demanded, looking up from River's hair. Daniel grinned.

"Nobody. She lifted Captain Reynolds'."

"What?" Mal sat up so fast he almost dropped his glass. "Why, that little..."

"Jayne taught her well," Zoe said, collapsing against Wash in a fit of helpless giggles. "Oh, Mal, you should see the look on your face. Didn't you pay any attention at boot camp, sir? Whole day of speeches on taking care of your guns, and yours gets stolen by a kid about four feet high..."

He was saved from having to answer that by the sound of three quick shots coming from way down in the treeline. Charlie finished pinning the last of River's hair in place and got to her feet, carefully brushing her hands on her apron. "Daniel, go break me off a switch, because I'm going to tan that girl's hide when she gets back up here."

"Aw, c'mon, Mama, it's a party," he chuckled, squinting through the dusk to where they could just make out a tiny figure tearing across the fields at full speed. "And now you know you can put the biscuits in and they'll be ready just when we sit down."

"Give her a free pass just this once," Book said with a faint smile. "Consider it a personal favor, Miss Ryan."

"Even the preacher's ganging up on me," she muttered, rolling her eyes and throwing up her hands. "I swear, I'll be glad to see you all gone so I can get back to raising my kids without interference..."

Daniel slipped off the railing and followed her into the house, shooting a shy grin at Simon as he passed. The doctor grinned back, taking a cautious sip of his moonshine, then choked as Mal prodded him in the back with his foot.

"What was all that about?"

"Oh," Simon said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, "I gave him a book, a very old one, from my first year at MedAcad. I don't really need it, I mostly kept it for nostalgia, and it'll help him out if he gets to go over to White Creek next year." He frowned a little, swirling the liquid in his glass. "He really wants to go. I hope it works out for him."

"Not our concern," Mal said, getting carefully to his feet as he saw a taller figure cutting its way across the pasture behind Jesse. "We'll be half the verse away."

Simon shrugged. "I can still hope for the boy, can't I?"

"Might do more good if instead of hoping, you put in a word with his mother," Kaylee pointed out, offering her hand to help the doctor to his feet. "I bet she'd listen to you."

"I'll do that..." he murmured, smiling as he saw River in the doorway, a kitten each hand and her head held proudly high under its crown of artfully crafted hair. Dark braids twined around each other on the back of her head, twisting up to pile in shining coils that added an inch to her height. "River! You look beautiful!"

"Local custom," she said, rubbing the kittens against her cheeks and smiling. "It means I'm all grown up. A lady. Someone must escort me to dinner."

"Allow me," Mal said, stepping in front of Simon and offering her her arm. She carefully wound her own through it without disturbing the kitten. "You know you can't bring those on the ship, right?"

"Sheh-sheh, Captain," she said, rolling her eyes, giving such a perfect imitation of Kaylee that he burst out laughing as they stepped into the house.

"Laughter crossing the threshhold. An omen of good luck." Book smiled as he placed a tray of food on the table. "Prosperity and blessings on the house, I believe."

"I sure hope so," Kaylee said, pouring herself another glass of moonshine. Mal made a mental note to keep the jug away from her for a while. "Nice house. Deserves it."

Wash glanced out through the window, where Jayne and Jesse were going through their ritual at the pump. "Well, he's not bleeding or kicking things, so I think it went well."

"Course it went well," Zoe said, planting a kiss on her husband's forehead. "We're criminal masterminds, after all."

"Not me," Jayne said, stepping through the doorway with Jesse under one arm, "I'm just a hard-working son of the dirt." He solemnly placed his niece on her feet in the and produced a bottle from each of his jacket pockets. "And tonight, I've got drinks and the deed to this particular chunk of dirt."

A round of cheers went up all around the room. "A toast!" Kaylee cried, sloshing half the liquid out of her glass as she flung her hand into the air. "To cows, and ranching, and Mal's evil mind, and Charlie's cooking, and..."

"Slow down, Kaylee, you're gonna be toasting all night," Jayne laughed, twisting open the two bottles. Mal could smell the contents from down the table: plum brandy. Well-aged. Shiny. "And then we won't ever get to the drinking part."

"What about the dinner part?" Charlie asked wryly, standing in the kitchen doorway with her hands on her hips. "Doesn't that get any attention?"

"Yes, ma'am," Simon said devoutly, dropping down into a chair. "For the food we are about to receive, Lord, may we be truly grateful..."

"Here now, boy, don't steal my job," Book laughed.

"Gotta finish toasting," Kaylee said aggrievedly. Jayne glanced down the table at her and raised an eyebrow, a sly grin spreading slowly across his face. Mal couldn't quite recall the last time he'd seen his crewman look that simply happy.

"Damn right, Kaylee-girl," Jayne said, raising his glass and glancing across the table at his sister. "And I think Charlie should do the honors, since she's the one who wrestled this whole thing into working out."

"Oh, well," she said, grinning back at him and pouring a glass of the brandy. She waited for them all to raise their glasses before she got to her feet. "To family- the one you're born to and all the ones you choose."

"To family," they chorused, and drank deep.

Mal looked around the table at his crew. "First thing in the morning?" he said quietly. None of them had to ask what he meant.

"First light," River murmured, tilting her head back to look at the ceiling. "Leave with the rising sun. A new day."

"And similar metaphorical goodness," Wash added.

"And where should we lay in our course for, Jayne?" Mal asked, grinning as he reached for the potatoes. "Now that we've got our prodigal mercenary back on board, I think it's only fair to let him choose the destination."

"Aw, thanks, Mal," Jayne said, rolling his eyes. "Make me make a choice..." He glanced at Charlie. "What was that story Ma used to tell us when we were kids? With the pirates and the treehouse? There was something they said, when they were trying to get where they were going, a way they had to fly..."

She swallowed her drink and smiled. "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning."

"Yeah." He looked back down at his plate, then glanced around the table, the grin on his face as wide as the sky. "That'll do just fine."

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