A Time of Change

Pairing: Malcolm Reynolds/Jayne Cobb (with full post-big damned movie ensemble)
 
Category: First time, developing relationship, humor, romance, love, loyalty, family
 
Rating: PG13
 
Summary: Change is hard and sometimes unwelcome.
 
Notes: Minor spoilers for the show, big ones for the Serenity movie.
 
Thanks to: Jennixen and Audaxfemina for their input and Ladyivy for the beta (even if I know there were passages that drove her nuts LOL). And a special thanks to Nicci_mac, because she helped me turn this idea from a passing thought into an actual idea.

Mal played the message again. It gave him that hollow feel in the pit of his stomach. Change was a-coming. He remembered feeling it back when he'd looked out over Serenity Valley, moments before the Alliance ships had filled the dark skies, before they'd launched their deadly attack.

Getting to his feet, Mal took the message and left his quarters, heading for the infirmary. Serenity was quiet, the day-cycle only having reached early morning. He stayed in the open doorway for a minute once he got there, reluctant to enter.

Simon was busy with something, his back to Mal, head down over something on the table.

There was a quiet hum from Serenity herself, a sound that helped Mal's calm a lot.

"Is something wrong?" Simon finally asked, not turning around.

Huh. So Mal hadn't gone unnoticed. "I, eh..." Mal's hand tightened around the message. "Got a wave for you 'n' your sister," he finally said,.

This time Simon turned around, giving him an inquiring look. "A wave?"

Mal nodded and handed it over. He turned around and left before Simon could say anything. Mal knew what the message said. He didn't have to hear it again.

He reckoned he didn't want to. The words in the message told him all the needed to know. Change was about to hit his ship.



'Simon, River..., if this reaches you...'


Mal sat back in the pilot's chair. Since they'd lost Wash, he'd spent more and more time up here, sometimes as pilot, sometimes he just sat there, having odd conversations with River when she occupied the pilot's seat.

Wash had been a weird-ass pilot, but a good guy nevertheless. He knew that they'd have to get someone just as unique... It was also a fact he couldn't ignore, that it was easier for the crew to accept River in the chair. Easier than letting some outsider into their midst.

Mal felt the same way. Girl was good and a fast learner. And these days she was a lot more lucid to talk to. Still couldn't call her 'normal', but Mal reckoned that description didn't fit any of his crew.

Now, the question was for how long he'd have her in that seat...

"Sir?"

Mal turned his head a little. Oh yeah, another conversation he'd rather be without. "Zoë..."

"You given it any thought?" she asked as she sat down in the other seat.

Mal's eyes strayed across her midsection, then back to the star-filled void outside the ship.

"Mal..." Mal had stopped wondering years ago how she could pack consternation, annoyance and fondness into his name, just like that.

"A baby, Zoë...?" Mal sighed. "Aboard Serenity?"

"I'm still not sure if I should stay or possibly find a place to give birth," Zoë said quietly.

Wash's baby. Two crew members had lost their lives when they'd crossed the Alliance, done what they'd thought was right. Seemed only right that at least one life should come of it as well.

"You're thinking about taking a lengthy visit with Inara, right?" Mal knew the answer. Zoë had tried to talk to him for the past two days. It wasn't that Mal didn't want her to have Wash's baby. He just knew that he'd be without her at his side for the first time since the war.

"I am.. though I'd rather have a doctor around that I trust," she admitted.

"Might not have him 'round much longer." It was the first time since the wave had come in that Mal had put words to his worries.

"Capt'n?" Zoë shifted in the seat, leaning forward.

"He 'n' River will have to tell you the details. Ain't my place," Mal said tiredly. He'd violated enough of their privacy by watching the wave. And he'd watched it more than once, trying to see through it, trying to find something in it that might scream 'trap'.

For all his instincts, he'd found nothing.

"Mal..."

Mal shook his head. "This job's almost done. I think we'll be heading towards the core next."



"Osiris?!" Jayne sat back in the chair, giving Mal a look like he thought he'd gone around the bend.

"I've asked around," Mal said quietly. "There are no orders on us, but even if there were, we'll be using the public transport traffic to hide."

"Captain, they have tech set up to scan for ship names as you know," Zoë put in.

"I've asked Kaylee to look into that," Mal argued.

"Why not book passage on a freighter?" Zoë asked.

"Why go at all," Jayne growled, giving Mal a dark look.

"Mal..." Simon straightened up in his seat. "River and I can get there on our own. Without endangering the ship."

Mal shot him an annoyed look. "I can't let two crew members go off like that on their own," he said. "It wouldn't be right. Besides, we made it to Ariel without too much trouble."

Jayne leaned back on his chair, shaking his head. "They know who we are now," he said.

"There are plenty ships of the firefly class flyin' 'round," Mal mused. "If we cover our insignia and we can send out a signal that we're another ship than we are..."

"It's not impossible," Kaylee mused. "We could do that. Then pick the harbor nearest the Tam residence..."

"It's not too far away," Simon put in.

Mal turned his head toward River, who was being very quiet. "What about you, little one? Any insights?"

River cocked her head to the side. "It's not impossible," she said. "I could help Kaylee rig something that could work. But we would still need a legitimate reason for being there."

"Yes, of course," Simon mused. "The port authorities will want to know what our business there is... and quite frankly, I'm not sure telling them that you're bringing us home is a good idea."

Jayne snorted but didn't say anything.

"We're setting down on Beaumonde in a few hours. We can see about getting us a legitimate reason for visiting Osiris," Zoë suggested.

Mal allowed himself a small smile. Even with differences in opinion, they were working together. The smile faded. He could just hope it wouldn't be the last time.

"And how do we know it's not a trap?" Jayne suddenly asked.

Mal sighed. And here he'd thought that what they'd gone through half a year ago had changed Jayne. Well, it had, but he still voiced his concerns. Which weren't few.

"We don't," Simon said before Mal could answer. "And I know that I'm biased when it comes to my family..."

"We can land," River said slowly. "In Whitewater. From there we can take the shuttle. It's not very far. We'll land close to the house. Not close enough to set off the alarms but..."

Simon's eyes widened. "You can't possibly get close enough to the house to sense anything..." he hesitated. "Can you?"

"I can," she said confidently.

Mal didn't miss the sideways glance that earned her from Jayne.



"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

Mal didn't answer at first, just checked their flight plan. Again.

"Mal..." Jayne's voice was low, but not the growly way it normally was when he disagreed with Mal on something.

"It's family to them and they're crew," he finally said.

Mal thought for a moment that he could feel the gust from Jayne's sigh. There was a time where the mercenary would argue beyond reason with him. These days Mal rarely caught a glimpse of that man.

Oh, Jayne still argued with him, still opposed him on occasion, but... quite often he made more sense than Mal wanted to admit. When Jayne was being unreasonable and just looking out for himself, Mal could shoot him down. When Jayne voiced concern that might be for the entire crew?

Those were the times where Mal wondered if he wouldn't eventually lose one of their arguments.

There were no other words, no other questions coming from behind Mal and it itched between his shoulder blades. He knew Jayne was still there. He hadn't heard him leave and the urge to turn around to check was very strong. But Mal knew he was a stubborn bastard. Prided himself thereof too.

"When will we be arriving on Osiris?" Jayne finally asked.

Mal felt a little of the tension leave his shoulders. "We'll be entering Osiris' atmo in about twenty hours," he finally replied. There was the itch again, but this time he knew that Jayne was there. He could feel him right behind his left shoulder...

A heavy hand landed on his shoulder. "Go get some rest, Mal."

Mal turned the pilot's seat a little. He looked up at Jayne, but couldn't read the blank expression on his face.

"You're a loose cannon on a good day, but you're worse when you haven't had enough rest. Go grab some sleep," Jayne told him.

Mal raised an eyebrow.

"I figure it'll increase my chances of not getting shot at if you're workin' on all cylinders," Jayne said, and this time Mal caught a flicker of amusement in the blue eyes.

"Is that so?" Mal said, trying not to grin. "You think you can handle her?"

Jayne snorted. "She's pre-programmed for the flight, if anything comes up it's not like we're alone aboard the ship," he grinned.

"I still don't..."

"Mal... I don't wanna get shot at," Jayne whined.

Mal coughed to hide his grin. "Okay, okay, crazy húndàn," he muttered as he left the cockpit.

"I heard that," Jayne called after him.

Mal just shook his head and headed toward his own bunk. He'd been feeling jittery ever since they'd received the wave from the Tams and it had meant very little sleep on his part.

Jayne was right. It'd be better if he was rested and using his brain to think.



...we are unsure if this message will find you, but your mother is ill and we are unsure of how bad it is...


"See?" River nodded toward the land below. "The riverbed is full of chalk, making the rocks white. That's why the port is called Whitewater."

Mal gave her a small smile. It was beautiful country under them. Mal knew that it was nature that was seen to, kept down. Yeah, beautiful, but he'd seen far greater beauty on border planets.

In the pilot's seat River chuckled. "It is man-made beauty," she admitted. "Except the white effect of the river."

The white river below them slung itself through the landscape and Mal had to admit that the shine of white gave the area an almost ethereal look.

Mal tweaked the radio dials, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "This is Captain Johnson of the Jewel, do we have permission to land?"

- Captain Johnson, came the cackled reply over the radio. - We are experiencing some slight traffic trouble at the docs. Would it be possible for you to stay out for a few hours?

Mal frowned. If they were designating him a remote landing spot, he'd know it for a trap...

- We are a little overrun at the moment because of the local festival, so we currently do not have space to offer you, continued the port official.

Mal shot River a questioning look. She frowned for a moment, then nodded. "I'd forgotten about the festival," she said, looking contrite.

Hitting radio silence for a moment, he turned to her fully. "Is there anyway you can tell me if he's telling the truth of not?"

She shrugged. "No... but we're coming up on Whitewater Port in a moment, and we can see for ourselves."

Mal reopened the radio. "We might be able to find an alternate location," he said in his most pleasant voice. "What would be the estimated time before we can dock?"

There was a moment of silence. - I should think, a day at most, the official sighed. The festival has become increasingly popular these past few years and we've been getting more guests than we've anticipated this year...

Mal tuned out the blabber for a moment. Excuses. Sounded almost apologetic enough to be true. Looking down as they cleared the hill they'd been flying along, Mal almost whistled.

Exchanging a look with River, he nodded. "We'll find a place to land. We are not carrying perishables and we are in good time so we'll have no trouble with our client," he told the official.

- Thank you, sir. You've taken a little of the load off my shoulders, the man said, audibly relieved.

"We shall check in again in a few hours to see if you can accommodate us then," Mal said lightly.

The port official signed off and Mal grinned. He could see how swamped the port was and with a little luck, the official would have forgotten him in five minutes or so.

A small chuckle drew his attention to River. She didn't say anything, simply nodded her agreement.



They'd landed two miles from the Tam residence, on the outskirts of the Tam family's land. They were waiting for nightfall before heading any closer to the house.

Mal was sitting in the shade of a tree, watching his ship with a small smile. Yeah, River was shaping up to being a damned fine pilot. She'd landed them as close to the trees as possible. Huge trees, bigger than any Mal had seen on the border planets.

His thoughts drifted here and there. They were going to check up on the Tams and he figured if what the message had said was right, if this wasn't a trap... Could he run his ship with a crew of...

How many would be left?

If Zoë eventually left? To take her unborn child to a safer place?

If the Tams left? He'd grown kinda fond of them both. And what would Kaylee say? Mal sighed. If the doc stayed on Osiris, would Kaylee do so too?

Seemed these days everyone was leaving. They'd lost the Shepherd to the Alliance, Wash to the Reavers and Inara... Inara had left again.

"I can't get through to you even on a good day." Her words flittered through his mind. She'd accused him of guilt trips, of broody behavior... And Mal had to ask himself if she'd ever really gotten to know him. He'd always been like that, even more so when he lost people...

Dammit, he'd have to hire new crew if everyone left... He was unaccustomed to that. Always made him a bit of an oddball. Way things were, Jayne would...

A rustle in the grass made him turn his head, hand twitching for his gun.

"Don't get you panties in a twist," Jayne grinned as he closed the distance between them, sliding down to sit next to Mal. Almost a little to close for Mal's comfort.

Biting it down, Mal told himself to stop flinching away from Jayne. They didn't have too much room aboard the ship and he shoulda been used to being close but... It was like an itch he couldn't scratch because he couldn't quite locate the problem.

"We're ready to go at nightfall," Jayne told him. "Doc's a little annoyed that we want him to stay with the ship."

"I only want you, me and River going in," Mal said, knowing full well how annoyed Simon was. He'd been at the receiving end already. It was pretty much why he'd retreated to sit outside the ship.

"She's fast 'n' quiet," Jayne nodded his approval.

Mal's eyes narrowed. He'd noticed the hostility toward River being pretty much gone now. Made a man wonder... "You're spending a lot of time with her lately, aren't you?" he asked lightly.

"Why'd you ask?" Jayne frowned.

"Is there... something going on I should know about?" She was a lot younger than Jayne and... it kinda irked Mal to think about it...

"Huh?" Jayne's expression turned to the familiar look of trying to figure out what the hell Mal was saying. "Oh! Mal! She may not be crazy anymore... well, not as much as she used to be... but..." He made a face.

Mal leaned back on his hands, watching Jayne thoughtfully. "We've been dirt-side plenty these past months and not once have you gone to a whore house."

"You takin' an interest in my sex life now?" Jayne asked with a leer.

Mal glared at him. He was not going to answer that one. His brain refused to come up with a sufficiently flippant reply, for once.

"I... got mah reasons," Jayne said with a shrug.

"As long as those reasons ain't River..." Mal warned.

Jayne looked at him like he'd gone crazy. Which might not be too far from the truth.

"Just sayin'" Mal repeated, finally giving into a smile. River wasn't a helpless little girl; she could take care of herself.

Jayne just shook his head and lay back in the grass. The fact that he seemed so relaxed with his eyes closed felt a little odd to Mal. He rarely saw this side of Jayne. Nary a twitch to let Mal know that Jayne was on his toes.

Mal sat there, looking at Jayne for a long time. He couldn't quite tear his eyes away. Pants were pretty tight, as was the t-shirt that had pulled up a little as Jayne had put his hands behind his head.

Shaking his head to clear it, Mal lay down next to Jayne, trying to get his wayward thoughts into some kind of order. Any thoughts that might've related to Jayne's tight abs, complete with fuzzy treasure trail, were resolutely shut away.



"Gettin' anything?" Mal whispered, barely audible.

At his side, Jayne shifted a little, and ahead of them, River turned her head and nodded. "But only my parents and the help," she explained.

"When would be the best time to go there?" Mal asked.

"Morning," River said with a shrug. "They'll both be up and we won't cause as much commotion as we would going in by night."

"We still don't know if there are any Alliance traps left behind." Jayne's voice was low in Mal's ear, sending a not unpleasant shiver down his spine.

Mal pushed it aside. Now wasn't the time for showing that having Jayne breathing on him turned him on. "Kaylee's working on it," he told Jayne, forcing himself not to flinch away from Jayne's warmth against his side.

Signaling for the other two, Mal pulled back, making sure to make as little sound as possible as he made his way back toward Serenity. He hardly noticed River's presence. The girl was that quiet.

On the other hand, he was so aware of Jayne that Mal wondered if he'd burn brightly before they got back to the ship. He felt his body was radiating so much heat at that moment that it couldn't go unnoticed.

As they finally made it back to Serenity, Mal stopped as he felt River's hand on his arm. Letting Jayne enter the ship first, Mal turned around, giving her a questioning look.

"You worry too much," she said in a soft voice before letting go, following Jayne inside the ship.

Mal frowned, then sat down on the metal ramp, watching the first flicker of daylight color the dark night.

He could have followed her inside, asking her to clarify what he shouldn't worry about, but Mal was no fool. Even if she was far more lucid these days, she still spoke in riddles at times. Sometimes Mal figured she did it either for the fun of it or because she'd forgotten how to do anything else.

Worry? Him? He was the captain of his ship, he had to worry a little about everything and a lot about a few other things...

"Sir?"

Mal turned his head a little at the soft footfall down the ramp.

"Zoë...?"

"Everything okay?" she asked as she sat down next to him.

"Of course it is," Mal said lightly. "Just wanting to enjoy the clean air for a bit." He couldn't gorram well tell her what he was worried about and how he was cluttering it all up with thoughts of Jayne as well. Thoughts he weren't none to keen to put words to.

Zoë stayed quiet, a dark silhouette next to him.

Mal got to his feet. He knew how persistent Zoë could be and she'd eventually drag it all out of him. "Just enjoying un-canned air for a little while," he said before heading inside the ship.

As he walked the ship to get to his bunk, he occasionally ran his hand over the metal of his ship. 'I'm an old sentimental fool,' he admitted to himself. 'I'll probably stay with this ship until she can't fly anymore. 'Til she drops out of the sky'



Mal didn't miss the odd looks that Gabriel and Regan Tam gave them as they disturbed their breakfast. He wasn't really surprised. It wouldn't be every day that your kids came home, dragging along a few people who weren't exactly high born and bred.

Hey, he was wearing his good shirt and even Jayne had showered and put on a t-shirt that didn't mention violence, sex or other suggestive ...things. They were making an effort. Zoë had begged out of it, and Mal was fine with that. Someone had to stay with the ship. Kaylee had stayed with her on Mal's request. He wanted to know it was safe before letting anyone else near.

Then again, he had been worried that Jayne might not be the best choice to bring along. During a fight of any kind, he wanted Jayne along, if for nothing else, then because he liked keeping an eye on him. Not that the man wasn't capable. He was. Ruttin' good.

He just wasn't the most subtle of men and he had a tendency to be rude to people.

So far he was behaving and Mal noticed that Jayne kept looking to him for cues. Nothing too obvious, but Mal caught it. Good, at least that meant a quiet Jayne.

It took only a moment for the silence to be broken as Regan Tam stood from her seat, looking as if she weren't sure which of her children to greet first. Simon was closest to her and was embraced first and then River was engulfed in a hug that made Mal wonder if she could even breathe.

It was far more interesting to watch the interaction between Simon and his father.

The two men stood about an arm's length apart and Mal found the closed off look on Gabriel Tam's face more than a little odd. From what he could understand from the few time Simon had mentioned their family, they hadn't parted on the best of terms, but still...

Simon had been right about River...

"We didn't expect to see you here," Gabriel finally said, an odd expression on his face, as if the man didn't know what to do. Mal thought if his children were returning home after such a long time, he'd be overjoyed to see 'em. If his Ma was still alive, she'd be welcoming him and his crew with open arms.

"We would have come earlier," Simon said. "It was an old message when it reached us."

Mal knew he was lying. They wouldn't have come. Even if the Alliance no longer kept the Tam residence under surveillance, they would have had, back then. Simon would've never risked his sister for a message -- even one...

"Mother..." Simon tore his attention away from his father. "How are you?" Mal knew worry when he heard it, even as well-disguised as Simon's.

Regan Tam took a step forward, ignoring her husband's stern expression. She put her hands on Simon's shoulders, watching him for a moment with intense eyes. "It wasn't as bad as we feared, Simon, but I am still so very happy to see have you both returned safely to us." She blinked a few times, obviously trying not to cry as she pulled Simon into another quick hug.

Mal didn't miss the brightening of Simon's eyes and he mentally reviewed his crew-list. He had already put a mark on Zoë's name and he only had to look at Simon's face to know he could do the same there.

He was about to add River to it when he turned his head and caught her eyes from under her long hair. Mal frowned. She didn't look as happy as Simon so obviously did.

Mal never found the time to ask her as a moment later the Tams turned their attention to him and Jayne. It didn't escape Mal the way they frowned when they saw his gun-belt, even thought he had the coat covering the gun itself. Made Mal damned glad that he'd told Jayne to leave Vera and conceal his weapons.

Simon seemed to notice it and he gave Mal a small reassuring smile. "This is Captain Malcolm Reynolds and this is Jayne Cobb. Two men to whom we owe our lives," Simon explained, unconsciously putting himself more than a little defensively between his family and Mal and Jayne.

One more way of dividing the room between a life lived and one to come.

"Sir," Mal gave Gabriel Tam a nod, turned to Simon's mother and swept a bow. "Ma'am."

"If we owe you the lives of our children, Captain Reynolds, you are more than welcome here. You too, Mr. Cobb," Regan Tam said, although Mal didn't miss the suspicious look she shot Jayne.

Gabriel Tam didn't look like he liked either Mal or Jayne so Mal plastered on his most pleasant smile, feeling the falseness of it. He'd ruttin' well rather be dealin' with two-timin' bastards out on the border planets than play nice with a core-bred family.

The things he wouldn't do for his crew, though.



Mal told himself that very same thing as the evening came 'round.

He shoulda gone with Jayne back to the ship. Looking around the table Mal bit back the urge to just get up and leave. The Tams weren't... bad, but Mal knew when he was unwanted.

Normally he wouldn't be takin' this go se from anyone, but this would be where he'd be dropping off River and Simon and as much as they'd bought him a shit load of trouble back when he'd taken them aboard, he figured he owed them a little civility.

Didn't mean he didn't long to be back on his gorram ship.

Across from him Zoë gave him a small smile. Yeah, Jayne had had the right idea. Offered to go back to the ship, so Zoë and Kaylee could join him and the Tams for dinner...

Mal took a deep breath and put up his best smile as he tried to ignore the tension in the room.

"Captain Reynolds?" Regan Tam's voice broke Mal's thoughts.

"Yes, Mrs. Tam?" Mal gave her a more sincere smile. She obviously didn't know what the hell her children were doing with Serenity's crew, but she seemed more open than her husband toward them. She was a little too pretty the way that the core people often were to appeal to Mal, but he could see where River and Simon had their looks from. Their father could be considered handsome too if not for that foreboding look on his face.

"For how long will you be staying?" she asked.

Mal groaned internally. Yeah, they were happy to see their kids, but they would be just as happy to see the 'ride' leaving.

"We won't be staying for too long," Mal said pleasantly. "Thought we might visit your festival now that we're here."

Something made Mal steal a glance at River who looked oddly remote, as if she'd shut down a little. He wished he could get a moment alone with her, but she and Simon would be staying with their family for the night so Mal figured he'd have little chance of that happening.

"Well, it is a beautiful festival," Regan said.

Oh joy. Mal could just hear the sincerity in her words. What he had no trouble hearing either during the dinner, was Simon's obvious attempt to give Kaylee a good introduction to his parents.

Yeah, Mal figured with her wide smiles and winning personality, he could mark Kaylee off the crew list as well. Right now she seemed to be thawing up Gabriel Tam's reserve, in a way that Simon had most obviously not been able to do.

Mal steeled himself and got through the rest of the evening, even if he did have to ignore the concerned looks that Zoë was giving him.



Mal leaned against one of the trees and took a deep breath. He'd been walking around since they'd gotten back, trying to bring some sort of order to his thoughts, but all it had gotten him was fresh air.

Above the clearing that they'd parked Serenity in, the night sky was lit by a thousand stars. Mal remembered his nights as a small boy, back home at the farm... The skies could be so clear that he'd sometimes thought he could reach out and touch the glowing stars...

He'd lost a little of the awe when he'd started traveling among them. Then it had all come down to a strong hull, sufficient fuel, sufficient supplies...

Mal shook his head and sighed. What was he doing out here? He should gorram well be in his bunk, asleep.

The ship was quiet when Mal entered. Kaylee would be in her bunk. Zoë in hers... Jayne of course...

Mal frowned. The sound of footsteps on the metal walkway overhead made him cautious as he walked up the stairs.

"Jayne?" Mal took the last few steps and stood in front of Jayne, raising his eyebrows when he saw he was carrying River. Who seemed completely lost to the world.

"Hush," Jayne said in a low voice. "She's finally asleep."

"I thought we'd left her and Simon back at the Tams' house," Mal said, still blocking Jayne's path.

"So did I... but I found her in the back of the machine room," Jayne said with a careful shrug.

"What the hell were you doing in the machine room?" Mal asked with a frown.

"Thinkin'" Jayne said defensively. "When Kaylee's not there I sometimes go there to think..."

Mal sighed. "Yeah..." He knew what that was like, needing a place to think.

"Like I said, I found her in the back of the engine room. She said it was the only quiet placer right now." Jayne pushed past Mal, heading down toward the guest quarters where River and Simon normally slept.

Mal followed behind a silent Jayne. He found it kinda intriguing to see this side of Jayne. Whether it was a good side or not, he wasn't quite sure of. Jayne had once assured him that he wasn't interested in River that way, but still...

Mal stayed at the door, watching Jayne pulling a blanket over River, who was out for the count. Mal stepped forward and reached out, brushing hair away from her face. "She should be back asleep at the Tams'," he whispered, more to himself than to Jayne.

"I think that's what she meant with it bein' quieter here," Jayne mused, standing back next to Mal.

"Well, she's a reader and she ain't too good at blocking," Mal agreed. It made sense. "She's used to us, to our thoughts."

"Reckon that might be it," Jayne nodded.

"She say anything else?" Mal asked as they stepped out of the room, closing the door behind them.

"She said... things," Jayne admitted, as he walked the quiet ship back toward their quarters.

Mal frowned and gave Jayne a sideways glance. Unfortunately Jayne was as unreadable as ever.

"Personal stuff," Jayne said, looking at Mal and then quickly away again.

"Personal to her or...?" Mal had to ask.

"No... to me. Dunno how to handle it all right now. But I will... don't worry, Capt'n." Jayne stopped at the hatch to his own bunk.

Mal stopped at his, as he watched the other man. Jayne really wasn't the worst guy to have around. Heck, he'd come a long way since that day Mal had talked him into turnin' on his former employer.

Whether he could trust him or not, Mal wasn't sure, but Jayne was a good guy to have around in a tight situation. And other times as well.

"Jayne?"

Jayne keyed his hatch open, but stopped with one foot down on the ladder. "Yeah?"

"What'cha gonna do... you know... with the kids staying and Zoë getting off not long from now as well...?" Mal stopped, waiting for Jayne's answer.

"Capt'n?" Jayne frowned.

"Everyone's gonna leave. Ya know that."

For the first time this evening there was a ghost of a real smile for Mal. "Now, Mal. Don't you go paintin' no devil on the walls here." With that he disappeared down his ladder.

Mal found he could smile a little himself. "Next time you ain't getting outta no fancy dinner plans," he called after Jayne, feeling a lightening of his load with the deep chuckle that drifted up before Jayne's hatch clicked closed.



Next morning Mal was making another of his restless rounds on the ship. He couldn't seem to find anywhere where he could rest or feel at ease. Even Zoë had gotten tired of his pacing and had volunteered to take the shuttle into Whitewater to see if they could get some kind of job.

He was waiting around for her to check in with him before leaving and as he leaned against the metal railing above the cargo bay, he caught the movement below, where Jayne normally worked out.

And he was... working out that was. Mal caught himself staring down at the rhythmic movements as Jayne lifted the weights. The tight green t-shirt was darkened by sweat, clinging to Jayne's muscular body...

Mal allowed himself, for once, to actually look and enjoy the view. He'd be a fool to start anything there. Wouldn't bring anything but a shit-load of trouble his way.

Yeah... trouble. Mal licked his lower lip.

"You might want to wipe the drool away unless you want him to notice... sir."

Mal turned around and found Zoë watching him with a frown. "Huh?" Yeah, he was articulate... absolutely.

"You ain't exactly being subtle, Captain," she told him.

Mal sighed. "There's nothing to be subtle about, Zoë. It's not something I can do anything about. But I figure a man can admire from afar."

Zoë sighed deeply. "You have trouble enough as it is, Captain. Don't know why you have to go lookin' for it, too."

"I ain't lookin' for no trouble, Zoë," Mal told her as sternly as he could. "I know what I can have and what I can't."

Zoë looked like she was going to argue, then shook her head. "I'm gonna head off, sir. Simon gave me some names of people who might be possible clients."

Mal nodded. "Good. Let me know how it goes."

Zoë shot him a last look, then nodded and headed off toward one of the shuttles.



"You like the Tams, don't you?" Mal asked, watching Kaylee fiddling with Serenity's engine.

For a moment her shoulders stilled, then she stood up straight and turned to look at him. "I'm not sure," she mused as she wiped her hands off in a dirty old rag.

"Oh?" Mal leaned against the cool metal of the doorway and waited for her to explain. He might've preferred keeping her aboard the ship, but if he was leaving her somewhere, he wanted it to be a place she liked, with people she liked. Apart from Simon, of course.

"I like this place," Kaylee said with a sunny smile. "I like Simon 'n' River's mom..."

"And their dad?" Yeah, Mal figured he knew the feeling. Not that he liked either Tam enough to stay, but he got some strange vibes from Gabriel.

"I don't know what it is between him and Simon, because Simon won't tell, but..." Kaylee trailed off as she came over to him, a perplexed look on her face.

"Tense," Mal said with a nod, squeezing her shoulder.

"You ever have trouble with your dad?" Kaylee asked softly her usually cheerful face dark with worry.

Mal shrugged. "I was raised by my Ma and the farmhands," he said lightly. "Never had a dad to have trouble with."

"But I don't get why Mr. Tam seems so... standoff-ish toward Simon," Kaylee complained.

Mal took a deep breath. "I reckon I can guess," he said slowly. "Simon said he was good at what he did, had a promising career."

Kaylee nodded. "Threw it all away to get River out."

With a nod, Mal pushed away from the wall, half turning to leave. "Even if it was the right thing to do, Gabriel Tam doesn't strike me as someone who'd willingly accept such behavior."

"Probably not," Kaylee admitted with a shrug.

"Besides, Simon's a sarcastic bastard when he wants to," Mal grinned as he left the engine room. He could hear Kaylee's laughter behind him. At least she seemed a little less worried now, if she could laugh like that.

"Mal?" Mal looked up to find Simon stepping aside to let him pass.

"Heard that, didn't you?" Mal said, not at all sorry. Kid was a sarcastic bastard.

Simon smirked. "Coming from you that's a downright compliment, Mal."

"I reckon it is," Mal admitted. Breathing in deeply he nodded at Simon and continued along the hallway. "Take good care of them," Mal muttered, probably not loud enough for Simon to hear. Not that he waited around to hear whether or not Simon responded.

Yeah, the Doc was a good guy, even if he and Mal didn't always see things eye to eye. Come to think of it, his entire crew tended to voice their objections if they had any. All of them. Even back when Wash and the Shepherd had been alive and aboard.

Never let him get away with too much shit.

Mal reckoned he even liked that aspect of them.



Another dinner party... Mal felt like turning it down, but it wouldn't be long before they... he'd be leaving, probably with Jayne and Zoë... for a little while at least, they'd be three...

Zoë still hadn't decided what to do, but she'd stay onboard until Mal could get someone else. Not a replacement, because no one could ever replace Zoë.

So there he was and this time they'd moved the ship closer to the Tam residence, so he didn't even have to leave anyone behind to guard Serenity.

Much to Jayne's annoyance and Mal's amusement.

"Stop squirming," Mal told him in a low whisper as they sat at the table.

"Not used to fancy parties," Jayne muttered back, "or fancy threads. That's more your style," he added.

Mal almost snorted. "I'm just real good at fakin' it, Jayne."

That got him a small smile and a glimmer to Jayne's eyes.

As the dinner wore on, Mal made polite conversation and once again vowed to have a talk with River before they left. He hadn't caught her yesterday and this morning she'd slipped out without him noticing.

Zoë was darned good at polite conversations, Mal acknowledged as they were led into the library after the dinner, and glasses of fine smelling liquor was poured. Sure was better than what Mal was used to out on the rim. Both conversation and liquor, he mused with a small smile.

Something made him turn his head, and he caught the familiar shadow of River, leaving the room. Well, this was it, if he wanted to catch her for a little chat.

He excused himself and left quietly. The hallways of the mansion were pretty quiet, but somehow he knew where to go. Two doors down was another fancy room with big glass doors that lead outside into the twilight.

A few minutes after leaving the house, Mal found River by the small pond. The dark water was glittering in the small lights that lit the path from the house down to shore.

At first he didn't talk, he just stood there, next to her. He found it odd that although they'd come here, to her home, she hadn't started wearing the fancy clothes that her mother did. She was still wearing her simple dresses and her hair...

Mal realized one thing he hadn't been able to put words to earlier. Since Miranda, she had become more open, didn't hide behind that curtain of hair quite so often. Kaylee had even occasionally gotten her to tie it back which only made the girl look more confident and open towards them all...

Now it was like back in the old crazy days. Only difference was that these past two days she'd been quiet as the grave and her face had been unreadable.

"Something troublin' you, Albatross?" Mal asked softly.

For a while she didn't answer, then she just turned her dark, unreadable eyes on him.

Mal sighed. "I don't think you parents like us very much," he tried in a lighter tone

This time he was rewarded with a small smile. "Of course they don't. They don't understand you, can't figure you out."

"Yeah... there are worlds between us 'n' your family," he admitted.

"They're loud," she said softly.

Mal nodded. "Jayne mentioned you'd said that."

"Did he say anything else?" she asked curiously.

Mal shook his head. "Not really." He was curious as to what she was talking about, but Jayne had mentioned that she'd said things that he needed to think about.

"Gorram bèn dàn," she muttered.

Mal wasn't sure he wanted to ask her why she was referring to Jayne as an idiot...

"I can hear them," River said softly after a moment of silence. "They're loud and they're ...wrong."

"Wrong?" Mal turned to look at her. "They're family, River."

"Their thoughts are all wrong," she tried to explain. "My father... when he looks at Simon, I can taste his disappointment... I can feel their inability to understand."

"And when they look at you?" Mal asked.

"Fear..." River bowed her head. "Fear and confusion. Simon's told them... he told them about where and how he found me," she explained and as she turned her head and met Mal's gaze, he could see the unshed tears.

"They aren't sure what to do with you," he guessed.

River shook her head. "They think if they ignore it, it won't ever have happened."

Mal sighed.

They stood in silence for a while until Mal finally got his thoughts together enough to say what he'd known he'd have to put words to, since they'd gotten the message.

"I guess it all means I'm gonna have to go lookin' for a new pilot..." Mal trailed off. "Gonna have to find myself a new doc too..." Mal was startled as River put her arms around him and leaned against him. She wasn't usually so free with the touching.

Mal dropped his own arms around her slim body. There was a lot of deceptive strength in this girl. He knew that, had seen it more than once.

"Gonna have to find me a new mechanic as well," he muttered against her hair. "New first mate..."

River's arms tightened around him. "Talk to them," she said softly. "Don't just assume."

Mal shook his head. "Jayne and I can't be bad guys on our own. He'll start lookin' for better work. Serenity needs a crew and I'll have to find a new one for her."

He paused for a moment, but the words he was going to say came from River instead. "Her crew's her lifeblood."

No arguing with that. Didn't even feel unsettling anymore when she picked his thoughts out of his head.

"Sure gonna be empty without you crazy people around," he muttered.

River didn't answer, but nor did she let go of him. Mal had no idea for how long they stood like that, but he figured they'd both been lost in their thoughts because the next thing he knew was a hand grabbing his shoulder and he was nearly pushed into the pond.

"My daughter is still a child and even if you people do things differently on the border planets, I can not stand idly by, watching you violate her."

Mal stared at Gabriel Tam's enraged expression. What the gorram hell was the man babbling about? "Violate?" Mal asked with a disbelieving laugh. "I gave her a hug!" Shaking his head, Mal tried to clear his thoughts. "Technically, she was hugging me."

"You are a grown man, Captain Reynolds," Gabriel argued loudly, poking a finger at Mal's chest. Made Mal want to punch him. He'd always hated when people thought they should punctuate their arguments with poking. Always made him want to start breakin' fingers...

Mal pushed the poking hand aside and brushed past Gabriel Tam, walking toward the house.

"I'm not finished with you," Gabriel yelled. "It does not become a man like you to..."

Turning his head a little, Mal caught River's exasperated expression, although he could see that it was directed toward her father. "Yeah, yeah, special hell and all," Mal broke off the man's tirade. He kept walking the narrow path, aware that Gabriel was nearly running to keep up with his long stride.

"Don't think you know what we're like, how we live," Mal hissed over his shoulder. "How do you think we cope with what we've seen out there? How do you think your daughter copes? Do you even care what she's gone through?"

Mal stopped right inside the doors to the room he'd gone through to get outside and found it lit now, occupied by both his crew and Regan Tam. Turning around he faced Gabriel Tam's angry expression.

"First there was the shit with Alliance, using her as a guinea pig, then your son acts like a man, busts her out and runs away with her. Somehow I don't think you showed half the balls he did," Mal said in a low, deceptively calm voice.

The look in Gabriel's eyes told Mal that he'd hit home on that one. So did the sad look on Simon's face when he looked at the people around him. Zoë looked her usual quiet self and Mal knew she'd step in if she thought he was getting out of hand. But she wasn't saying anything. Jayne's expression was pretty unreadable and Kaylee looked at him with surprise.

She really shouldn't be surprised. She knew he had a temper.

River... Mal gave her a sad smile as she went to stand between Simon and Jayne. Her eyes were watching him like a hawk. Well, in for a dime, in for a dozen.

"She kept my crew alive in the end, during a Reaver attack. I have the utmost respect for your daughter and for your son, which is more than I can say about you..." Mal gritted his teeth, then pushed, none too gently, past Gabriel again, and back out the door to the garden.

He walked down the pathway and halfway around the pond, trying to pull his anger down a notch or two. How could these people not see what they had? Out on the border planets people like River and Simon might not exactly fit in, but they had proven more than once that they were capable and willing to fight for what they wanted.

Mal tensed as he saw a dark figure walking toward him, coming the other way around the pond. Until he recognized the walk.

"Jayne..." Mal stood still and acknowledged Jayne when he stopped next to him.

"Mal..." Jayne stooped down to pick up a few pebbles that he started dropping into the still pond water. "Quite the speech you gave in there."

Mal shrugged. "I don't normally go off like that."

Jayne chuckled. "Ain't nuttin' wrong with a bit of a temper."

Mal stood silently for a while. The light along the path to the pond cast ghostly shadows across the water and the sheen from them gave him just enough light to see Jayne's face. Dark shadows sharpened the face more than normally.

"You gonna find 'nother place too?" He finally asked.

Jayne didn't answer, just stood there, dropping pebbles in the water.

"'Cuz you know," Mal continued, "I can't pay you without work and without a crew, Serenity ain't flyin' for much longer."

"Mal..." Jayne sounded mildly annoyed and it pushed Mal's buttons. He figured he could get a new crew, but he wanted to push Jayne to admit that he would either stay or go.

Make up his ruttin' mind.

"If you wanna take her from me, that'd be a good time, but she'll be empty, you know," Mal muttered. "Dead, even."

The fist came out of nowhere, it seemed, and Mal found himself sitting on his ass on the cold ground, staring with surprise up at Jayne.

Jayne knelt next to him and shook his head in disgust. "You were always the strong one..." Jayne's voice seemed to break a little, then he continued in a low, exasperated tone. "You got us through so much shit we shouldn't have survived. You pulled us through Reaver space and back again."

Mal blinked and felt the familiar ache. He'd lost friends and crew from that little stunt. He flinched when Jayne pulled his fist back again.

"We followed you because of who you are. You're stronger than I'll ever be, and we followed you because we wanted to..." Jayne's fist unclenched and his shoulders sagged as he watched Mal with a sad look. "I followed... follow you... because I want to, because I want..." With a sharp intake of breath Jayne fell silent.

"What?" Mal asked. He reached out toward Jayne's shoulder, but halted with his hand hovering over one strong shoulder.

Jayne just kept looking at him, not saying anything.

"What!?" Mal nearly shouted.

"You made me believe..." Jayne began, then sighed and stood, giving Mal a hand up. "I'm not a good guy, Mal," Jayne said as he looked down at their linked hands.

"But even a bad guy can sometimes do the right things," Mal said softly. He put his free hand on Jayne's chest, feeling it rise and fall with every breath.

Jayne looked down at the hand, a funny expression on his face. "You shoulda fought for 'Nara," he said, sounding less than convincing.

"It wouldn't ever have worked between us. She didn't understand me and I didn't get her," Mal said with a soft smile. He'd beaten himself up over that in the beginning, but these days he'd learned to live with it.

"It was..." Jayne began, but then stopped, looking searchingly at Mal.

"It was my last futile attempt at a relationship I knew never could work," Mal said with a shake of his head.

Jayne snorted and Mal could feel the movement under his hand. "Normal's overrated," Jayne muttered gruffly.

"Yeah," Mal agreed, feeling the tightness in his chest ease a little for the first time in a long while. Mal tightened his fingers in Jayne's fancy shirt and pulled him a step closer, leaning forward to rest his head on Jayne's shoulder. "You've changed," he muttered.

"And you haven't?" Jayne snorted.

Mal smiled as the hand around his tightened a little and Jayne's free arm came up around his waist. "You still gonna turn on me?" he asked softly.

Jayne didn't answer, but the arm around Mal tightened a little.

"Jayne... the pay ain't ever been that good," Mal said, hiding a grin against Jayne's shoulder.

"True..." Jayne muttered and Mal could feel the huff of breath against his ear. "But it ain't ever been boring 'round you either," he chuckled.

"And you got your own bunk," Mal continued.

"Ain't necessarily my own bunk I want," Jayne mumbled.

Mal grinned openly this time. "So you want me for my bunk and the adrenalin kick?" he asked jokingly. It couldn't be this ruttin' easy, could it?

Jayne let go of his hand and put the other arm around his waist as well.

Maybe it could be that easy.

"I ain't good at this shit," Jayne whispered. "Ain't my style."

"You're doin' fine," Mal whispered back. "And we can do things more your style when we get back to Serenity... and a bunk. Yours or mine, I'm easy," Mal chuckled.

Jayne's laughter shook both their bodies. "Crazy húndàn," he muttered.

Mal allowed himself to take a deep cleansing breath, filling his nose with Jayne's not unpleasant, musky smell.



Mal sat back in the pilot's chair, waiting for... well, for the rest of his crew. He'd cornered Kaylee, but she hadn't yet given him a definitive answer and he hadn't even bothered asking Simon about his choice. His and River's exile had been mainly involuntary so now that they were home...

A sound at the doorway made him turn the chair around a little. "Zoë," he greeted with a smile.

"You got a moment, sir?" she asked.

Mal shrugged. "Sure. Cargo all set?" he asked.

Zoë nodded. "Yeah, all the papers are in order. We got ourselves a legal run this time."

Mal grinned. "Yeah... feels kinda odd, don't it?"

Zoë's grin faded. "Would you be against me staying?" she asked, right out.

With a sigh, Mal sat back.

"It's no more dangerous here than it is on the border planets," Zoë said as she sat in the other chair. "There are still Reavers out there who can hit a planet without warning... and there are people who..." she trailed off. "I wanna stay," she said firmly.

"You wanna have your baby here?" Mal asked. "But we don't even got a..."

A cough from the doorway had Mal turning again.

"You still got an opening for a doctor?" Simon asked lightly. He looked like he always did. Not in the fancy suit he'd been prancin' 'round in since they'd gotten to Whitewater.

Mal tried to hide his smile, knowing from the twinkle in Simon's eyes he wasn't doing too well.

"You see, I heard there was this firefly class transporter hiring..." Simon continued.

"Did you, now?" Mal said.

"Yes," Simon said firmly. "And I hear it has a pretty good crew and a pretty decent infirmary."

"Well, we can't hire you and take off before we find a good mechanic," Mal said with a shake of his head.

"I think I know someone," Simon offered.

There was a chuckle from behind Simon and he twitched to the side when Kaylee punched him in the arm. "Serenity's got her mechanic already," she said with a wink to Mal.

"So you think you can add birthin' to bullet wounds?" Mal asked Simon, this time more seriously.

"Top 3 of my class, remember?" Simon said with a grin.

Mal narrowed his eyes at him. "We still need a," he began.

"Pilot? Sorry, Mal. But what would you want with two pilots?" River asked as she slipped by her brother, walking over to Zoë who stood from the chair with a grin and let River slide into it.

Mal looked around the crowded cockpit and nodded with a small grin. As he looked out the front of the ship, he felt a warm, solid presence behind his chair. Ah... crew was complete again.

"You need to go say goodbye to the family?" Mal asked softly, turning his head toward River.

River shook her head. "Simon and I were up early this morning to talk this through..." she said. "We've said goodbye already." With that she gave Jayne, who was standing behind Mal, a small smile. When she met Mal's eyes she looked all innocent, but Mal still wondered what she and Jayne had talked about.

River's smile turned to a smirk.

"Well, mei-mei," Mal said with a mock-glare, "If you're all ready?"

"We are," she said. "Permission to take her up, Captain?"

Mal nodded. He turned a little in the chair and glared at the others. "Don't y'all have work to do?" he asked gruffly.

"Work... right," Simon said, trying hard not to laugh. "I should go... inventory the infirmary."

"Absolutely, sir," Zoë said with a cheeky grin. "I'll go check on the cargo."

"And I'm sure I can tweak Serenity's engine a little," Kaylee said as she bounced off after Simon.

A warm, heavy hand landed where Mal's shoulder and neck met. The warmth felt great and it brought heat to Mal's face to remember how that hand had explored and held him down halfway through the night.

With a quick squeeze, Jayne left the cockpit as well and Mal leaned comfortably back in the seat. Turning his head he found River watching him with flushed cheeks and a grin as her eyes swung from him to Jayne's retreating back.

"Eyes front, Ms. Tam," Mal warned, biting back his own grin.

"Aye, aye, Capt'n," she replied and launched the starting sequence, lifting Serenity up toward space, swiftly and smoothly.

The End