They’ve been flying for three days, and Wash is tired. He’s glad to be able to get on the com and say “Pixley’s within sight. We can land in an hour.”
The whole crew assembles on the bridge, peering at the planet while Mal gives orders. He plucks playfully at Kaylee’s lopsided ponytail. “You’ve got a shopping list to make, young lady.” He elaborates when she frowns her confusion. “Pixley’s s’posed to have one of the better junkyards in this corner of the ’verse, least that’s what our client on Mahaladu said. Good man, Linden.” Now she’s looking a little dazed, so to hurry her along, he swats her bottom lightly. “Hop to it, mei-mei. Half the credits from Mahaladu for engine parts.” She squeaks her delight and runs along to coo over the engine, figure out what exactly Serenity needs.
He closes the door behind her, wanting her out of earshot before he discusses the Pixley job. “Zoe,” he says, turning to her, “you remember what Linden said about women not bein’ welcome to do official business on Pixley? That means the buyers don’t see you. You’ll be off keepin’ an eye on Kaylee.” He stops her before she has a chance to protest. “Let’s call it girls’ day out, alright?” He knows she’d rather be skulking around with a rifle, watching his back, but he can’t risk the deal. “And no guns; they’re illegal on Pixley. Knives only,” he says, nodding at Jayne, making sure he gets the message to leave Vera, Meena, and their sisters in his bunk. “Wash,” he turns to the pilot, “we’ll land and Jayne and I will locate the buyers. We’ll bring ’em back to the ship and you’ll let down the ramp and bring down the goods. That’s all. Easy as . . . somethin’. Everyone good?”
Kaylee’s making her list when she sees Jayne, shirt in hand, walk by the engine room’s open door. “Hey,” she calls, part playful, part seductive as her eyes follow the line of hair that runs down his flat stomach, “come here, big man.”
He grins at the appellation but he’s shaking his head. “Cain’t. Gotta get ready for the job.” He keeps walking towards his bunk, and he pulls a well-worn Blue Sun shirt out of a drawer. It’s a little loose on him, and it won’t reveal all of the weapons strapped to his body. He pulls tight black bands high on each arm, sheathing small throwing knives there. Larger knives are placed at the front of his waistband and at the small of his back. Nelle is tucked into his left boot, and he wears Raji boldly on his hip. Job’s perfectly legal, but that’s no reason to go in unarmed.
He reports back to Mal for final instructions. “What’s the cargo?” he thinks to ask.
“Spices and all kinds of dried food. Mayor of Pixville’s gettin’ married, wants a proper feast for the shindig. And willin’ to pay mighty good coin.”
“What’s all that?” he points to a slim flat package lying on top of the captain’s coat.
Mal smiles and picks up the packet. “If you can believe it, it’s official paperwork declaring our goods legal. And taxable.” Neither one of them has seen an official Alliance goods seal that’s not a forgery and they laugh nervously over it, running surprised fingers over its embossed richness, as Serenity begins her descent.
Kaylee, her list, Zoe, and the credits the captain promised are all on their way to the junkyard as Mal and Jayne walk down the main street of Pixville towards the mayor’s mansion. They stop when they hear a voice close by ask, “Captain Reynolds?” They pivot as one, and Jayne automatically drops a step behind as Mal locates the speaker and answers, “That’s the name I answer to.”
The man smiles charmingly. “I’m Mayor Jenkiss. Welcome to Pixville. Have you got my goods?”
There’s something a little odd about his eagerness, and Mal smiles back, equally charming. “If you’ve got my coin.”
“Good fellow! Lead on, Captain,” Jenkiss says, as one of the many men behind him holds up a small sack and shakes it to make the currency jingle. He keeps up a steady stream of commentary as they head to the Argent Docks. “Oh, look at that ship! Quite nice, quite nice. If yours is anything like that, Captain,” he nudges Mal jovially, “you’re sitting pretty.”
“Serenity’s a firefly,” Mal answers shortly. He’s not used to prattle, and he’s thinking maybe legal jobs aren’t the way to go after all.
“Oh, a firefly! Delightful, delightful!” Mal’s never met someone so in love with the sound of his own voice. Jayne’s sour face says he agrees.
“Here we are.” He sees Jenkiss open his mouth to say something, so he keeps talking. “By the way, I never congratulated you, Mayor, on your marriage. All the best to you and the future Mrs. Jenkiss. Hear tell she’s quite a looker.” He’s lying through his teeth; Linden had said the woman had a face marked by inbreeding but the credits to cancel that out.
“She’s well enough,” Jenkiss answers. “How about you gents?” There’s an unsettling look in his eyes. “Any ladies on board?”
Mal pats the exterior of his ship in a swift rhythm. “Nah. Serenity here’s the only girl I need,” he responds, thankful that Kaylee and Zoe are not on board. Wash hears the signal and opens the main hatch and lets the docking ramp descend. “You can see your cargo, Mayor, right there,” Mal continues with a broad gesture. He pulls the papers from his coat pocket. “Just sign there and I’ll have our pilot bring it down.”
At Jenkiss’s nod, one of his men hands the coin pouch over to Mal, another produces the official signet ring, and a third moves forward with a hot wax dispenser. Jenkiss presses the ring to the small puddle of wax and gestures for Wash to bring the first of the crates down. “Have you no one else to help him, Captain?”
“No rush, is there?” Mal smiles, but Jenkiss understands that there’s no one else on board.
It’s clearly the cue he’s been waiting for as he shakes a small knife down his long, flowing sleeve and plunges it high into Mal’s left arm.
“It’s a tough decision,” Kaylee says, gnawing her lower lip worriedly.
“You can make it. Fact, you’re the only one who can,” Zoe reminds her. “No one else can tell which one of these parts is most likely to need replacing but you.”
“Okay. Let’s take these then . . . but we’ll leave that one till the cap’n’s in a good mood from gettin’ paid again.”
“Good plan,” Zoe nods approvingly.
The parts are well wrapped, making several neat bundles that can be carried easily under the arm. They walk along in a comfortable silence. Kaylee brightens when she sees the familiar silhouette of Serenity, small and stark black against the dusky sky. She looks happily at Zoe, and says, “She looks right pretty there, don’t she?” Zoe smiles in response, leading the way back to the ship.
Jayne moves faster than thought, snapping the neck of the man who scooped up the money sack Mal dropped when he was stabbed. He’s got Raji in his hand, ready to plunge into Jenkiss’s heart, when one of the gang throws a knife that buries itself in his shoulder. He loses his grip on Raji, but catches her with his other hand and slashes the nearest man across the chest.
Jenkiss shouts, “Come on, boys! Kill the big one! We can take the ship!” and starts toward the docking ramp. Mal manages to trip him and one of his men, and flings his blade into the follower’s heart. Jenkiss is too quick to be killed though, and is up again in an instant, knife in hand. “You’re a lot harder to kill than the mayor of this gorram backwater and his ugly bride-to-be were,” he grunts as he faces Mal. Mal’s hands are wrapped around Jenkiss’s wrist as the knife comes closer and closer.
Jayne has a knife in each hand, and his arms and chest are covered in bloody slashes from the weapons the bandits have been throwing, which lie scattered around him. Each time he gets a bandit within arm’s reach, though, he’s able to thrust with enough force to spill the man’s lifeblood on the dirt of Pixley. He wonders how much longer his strength will last.
Jenkiss pushes against the knife embedded in Mal’s arm with his free hand, shaking Mal’s grip on the knife poised at his face. Mal howls as the blade rips through his skin; a thin and bloody river, from the edge of his eyebrow to the bottom of his ear, appears on the map of his face. His empty hand closes around Jenkiss’s neck.
Jenkiss’s men are not happy. The big one is not going down, apparently not weakening at all. The only knives they’ve got left aren’t balanced for throwing; they’re meant for close combat, but no one wants to challenge the mercenary and his formidable wingspan. They can’t edge past him, and the pilot has dropped the cargo in order to carry a very large gun and hold Serenity. “Not worth it,” one of them mutters, and soon it’s their chorus as they retreat.
Mal sees Jayne approach and removes his hand from Jenkiss’s neck, pushing him roughly away. Jenkiss, caught off balance, lands hard on his backside. In a single fluid move, Jayne drops to one knee and slices Raji across Jenkiss’s throat so savagely that the blood spurts out in a heavy spray, underlining the words “Blue Sun” on his shirt. He looks over at Mal to judge the shape he’s in and sees Zoe heading over to the captain and Kaylee staring at him with horror on her face, carefully wrapped engine parts falling from her nerveless fingers to lie among the scattered bodies of the men he’s killed.
Zoe’s just gotten an arm around Mal as he stumbles backwards when she hears a crash. She looks over to see Kaylee’s empty hands shaking and the packages lying at her feet, metal peering out from the cloth wrapping. Girl’s lucky she didn’t slice off a toe with that trick. She should get inside. “Kaylee,” Zoe calls, “can you get the captain into the infirmary?” She waits until Kaylee has looped Mal’s arm over her shoulder before she turns to Jayne. The mercenary is covered in blood, and his breathing is a little hitched, but he’s looking into her eyes steadily. He stoops suddenly to pick up Nelle and she asks, “They get away without paying?”
“Naw,” he grinds out; the quick movement was not a good idea for someone getting lightheaded from blood loss. She can see he’s about to drop, so she does it herself, turning over the slashed corpses with the toe of her boot, nudging them aside until she gets to the bottom of the pile. She turns over the last one and finds his hands still clutching the money pouch. She’s surprised to see that there’s not a drop of blood on the bag when she plucks it from his grasp, and she quirks an eyebrow at Jayne. He knows what she’s thinking and he answers, “Broke his neck.” She nods at his pragmatism and turns toward the ship. She looks at him again when he doesn’t move. She’s about to reach out to him when she realizes he’s so used to doing the final sweep, to being the last one to board, that he’s waiting for her to go ahead of him. She runs swiftly up the ramp and hears his heavy steps behind her. She knows he’ll follow, so she heads for the infirmary.
“Seal her up tight,” she can hear Mal bellow to Wash, “and get us off this planet.” The next world over is easily half a day’s journey, and the sky is clear of other ships, so Wash simply takes off and lets Serenity fly. He checks the control panel once more and then hurries back to the infirmary. He nearly collides with Zoe, anxious to tend to Mal; she shoves something into his hands and he looks down to see the coin pouch.
She’s already pulling the alcohol and gauze out of the cabinets when she looks the captain full in the face. She bites her lip and gets out the needle and thread. “We’ve still got the goods, and we’ve got their money,” he announces to the group gathered around as she reaches for him.
“Shh,” she says, beginning to swab the long, grim line that splits his face.
“We need to figure where we can sell some of this cargo,” he continues from his perch on one of the beds.
“I can make you shut up, Sir,” she tells him, and he buttons his lip obediently. She’s cleaning the cut as best she can, but he’s starting to sway a little, and some of the alcohol is dangerously close to getting in his eye. She gives up on that for the moment and unbuttons his shirt. He looks at her with mock malevolence as she peels it off, and hisses a bit. “Shh,” she soothes again, her voice slipping easily into a low melody. He recognizes after a moment that she’s humming one of the tunes that kept them sane in the trenches, a bawdy drinking song. He smiles, remembering that she was the only one who knew every verse. He sings along softly, his head back against the wall, groaning when she cleans the stab wound in his upper arm. It’s deep but not jagged, and she wraps it quickly in a tight bandage. She turns her attention back to the cut on his face. He tries to help by leaning forward, but his head is lolling like a heavy blossom on a slender stem. She needs him still if she’s going to sew him up. She gets up on the bed and pulls him into the light. She’s got a good grip on his thick hair as she cleans the cut again, but he can’t keep from moving a little. She sighs and pulls his head onto her chest, looping her left arm tight around his neck. She swabs him one last time, then slides the needle steadily into his skin.
The alcohol and the needle burn, but it’s been some time since he felt this comfortable. Zoe’s scarlet shirt is soft under his cheek, and her heartbeat is about to lull him to sleep in her arms. He remembers the last time she held him like this; his scalp was stinging from a medicinal wash as she was raking through his hair with a fine-toothed comb, looking for lice. Makes no sense that trenches worlds away from earth-that-was should have lice, but they did. He remembers having to paw through the short mass of curls on her head when she was done with him. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for her.
She feels him sink heavily into her and she’s amazed that he can succumb to sleep when she’s got an inch and a half of metal piercing his face, but it does make her task easier. She finishes and lays him down full-length on the bed, turning to the patient on the other bed. She’s surprised neither Wash nor Kaylee has thought to at least clean Jayne off. She gets a bowl of warm water and a rag and approaches him. He’s sitting mostly upright, but his eyes are unfocused, and she needs to strip him to determine how much of the blood that’s covering him is actually his. She starts with his face. She wipes the grime and blood gently off with the wet rag, and she sees that his skin has gone grey. She drops the cloth and cuts his shirt off with the knife he’s got lying on his lap. The broad expanse of his chest is a raw and bloody mess, and around several of the wounds the skin is puckered angrily. He slumps forward and she throws the knife to the side so that she can catch him. He catches himself when the knife rings loudly against the stainless steel bowl, and collapses against the wall at his back.
She’s startled by Mal’s long string of curses behind her; she hadn’t realized the crash had woken him. She turns to consult him, only to find him looking tearfully at Jayne like a long-lost lover. “Kaylee,” she says, pleased that the girl hasn’t screamed or fainted, “go through these drawers and see if you can find a small orange tin. Round. Size of your palm. And Wash, come help me lay him down.” She leaves Wash to unlace and pull off Jayne’s boots while she gets up on the bed, sliding her arm around Jayne’s shoulders, letting his head lean against her collarbone. He’s groaning in pain and shifting restlessly; he’s close to kicking Wash in the face more than a few times, but he quiets down when she pulls him close and hums softly, just enough for him to feel the vibration. Kaylee appears next to her, holding out the tin, her eyes fixed on Jayne’s chest with a horrified fascination. Wash finally swings Jayne’s legs up onto the bed, and she shifts so that the back of his head is lying on her chest. She washes out the wounds as best she can and starts applying the medicine, trying to pinpoint exactly which poison must have been on the bandits’ blades. The harsh odor of the ointment is making her eyes water, and Jayne starts to choke. She pushes him upright as quickly as she can, seeing hazily through her tears Mal bounding across the infirmary to steady him. Wash, suddenly, is next to her, his arms filled with pillows. While Mal holds Jayne up, she slides off the bed and puts the pillows in her place; together, the three of them gingerly lay Jayne back down. She finishes as quickly as she can, covering all of the wounds with the cream and then with gauze. He’s fighting for consciousness through the whole thing, so she hums melody after melody to give him a lifeline.
When she’s finally done, Mal mutters, “Wash. Get up on the bridge and make sure we’re headed someplace decent. Kaylee, you best get going too.” He stands at Jayne’s side and, along with Zoe, watches the mercenary at last sink into unconsciousness.
She can’t stand seeing her captain look so lost. “Sir,” she says, waiting until he drags his eyes from Jayne to meet hers, “we need to figure out what happened.”
He knows she’s right. “What happened is a bunch of whoo dahn bandits with a shiong-muh duh kuang-ren for a leader murdered the mayor and his bride-to-be and tried to make it a clean sweep by takin’ out Jayne and me.”
He stops, but she knows that’s not all. “Are you sure he wanted to kill you, Sir?” she asks. “’Cause a wound in the arm and one on the face aren’t fatal.”
It’s a good point, and he stops to consider. “Well, he said something about me bein’ hard to kill, but he might have meant to keep me alive to take the fall for killing the mayor. But sure as certain he meant to get rid of Jayne. He told his men to ‘kill the big one.’”
She follows his gaze back down to Jayne’s recumbent form. “What else, Sir?” she asks, turning to face him squarely, her voice as detached as she can make it.
“They were gonna take Serenity,” he confesses, his voice so low she has to lean in close to hear him.
She steps forward a bit until his eyes are locked on hers. “They didn’t get her, Captain. She’s still yours.” He nods and watches her remove Jayne’s belt and cover him with a light blanket. “Both of you need your rest,” she says, nudging him back to the opposite bed. She turns out the lights as she leaves the infirmary.
Zoe nearly knocks over Kaylee, lurking just outside the infirmary doors. “What are you doing here?” she asks, surprised that the girl would disobey a direct order from Mal.
“The engine parts,” she stammers, “they’re still in there. I didn’t want to interrupt.” She’s wringing her hands, and there are tears on her cheeks.
Zoe remembers that the girl has in all likelihood never seen so much blood before. “Kaylee, you don’t have to go in there. I’ll get the parts.” She turns but sees the mechanic’s hand shaking as she tries to steady herself against the wall. She thinks maybe Kaylee hasn’t stopped trembling since she saw the evidence of the massacre back on Pixley. She reaches out and cups her chin, but Kaylee’s eyes are still fixed on the infirmary doors. “Kaylee,” she tries. She moves so that she’s in the girl’s line of sight and the mechanic seems to come to herself.
“There was so much blood,” she moans. “Did he do all of that?”
“Jayne and the captain both,” Zoe answers. “It was self-defense,” she says, thankful that she’s able to say so truthfully; she’s done plenty of killing herself that she couldn’t so easily justify.
But it’s not enough to comfort Kaylee, who continues rocking from side to side like a beaten animal. “Self-defense? How . . . how could he have the strength if there were so many of them?” she whispers, sounding ever more lost.
“We saw him save the captain’s life,” Zoe says, trying to remind the girl of the end since she evidently can’t justify the means in a way that will mean anything to Kaylee. But it means something to her, and, she’s sure, to Jayne as well; it’s hard to sit still when you’ve killed someone before knowing he was out to get you too. “I’ll get the parts,” she says as she turns back to the infirmary.
Kaylee climbs into her hammock, nearly upending it when she can’t control her trembling limbs. She’s safe here in the engine room, her queendom. No one around to insist that she realize that the eyes that so often gazed at her could coolly look at a man and judge how best to end his life, that the hands that have been all over and in her are instruments of death. She’s shuddering more violently now, not quite crying, as she remembers the angle of Jayne’s knife, the brightness of the blade, the sweeping motion of his powerfully muscled arm. She dreams it again and again until he’s bending over her and the knife begins its dark descent, slashing across her own throat.
Everything is different when Jayne finally wakes up. He wishes the light overhead were a bit brighter, as the skin on his chest feels uncomfortably taut, and he needs to see the damage those bastards wrought. He blinks and then realizes that the light isn’t dim; it’s just that Zoe’s standing next to his bed, her head shielding his eyes from the light. She opens her mouth but doesn’t say anything, and he’s surprised to discover he understands her silence. Her eyes are offering him an apology; she wants him to forgive her for tending Mal first. He knows quite well that in healing the captain first, she was really ensuring the survival of two: Mal and herself. And self-preservation is an instinct he’s well acquainted with. He nods as best he can while still lying down and she relaxes. He motions a bit with his chin and she moves to help him sit up. It’s worse that way; his skin pulls even tighter and it hurts to breathe. He slides back down and looks at his chest. “Hell, Zoe,” he says as he takes in her handiwork of small, neat gauze patches, “I look like a ruttin’ chessboard.”
“You do, somewhat,” she concedes with a quick smile. “Do you know what they had on their blades?”
“Naw. Where we goin’?”
“Wash and the captain figured something out. Want some food?”
He shakes his head. “Mal good?” he asks when he sees the bed across the way is empty.
Zoe’s got the tin of medicine in her hand as she stands in front of the infirmary com. “Sir? Jayne’s awake.” She turns back to the bed, holding up the tin. “I need to put this stuff on again,” she says as he sighs. She’s peeling off the first white square of gauze when she hears Mal’s step in the hallway. A moment later, she’s shouldered aside.
“Let me,” says Mal. “You go up and convince that crazy pilot that we don’t need to be stopping on any Alliance planet.” He doesn’t bother to watch her out the door, trusting that she will obey. He looks down at Jayne’s prone body and peels away the gauze. Every wound is staring up at him, and it’s hard to believe that they could have looked any worse. But their original blistering red has faded to a painful pink, and the swelling has reduced a little. He unscrews the lid of the ointment tin, forgetting to keep it as far from his face as possible; the acrid odor makes his eyes well and his throat close. He jams the lid back on and waits for his eyes to clear. Once they do, he dips a clean finger in the tin and starts applying the unguent to Jayne’s wounds. Over and over, he finds a wound, scoops out some ointment, and applies it, his finger making careful circles. He keeps his mind closed against the horrific injuries, knowing that they might well have been on Zoe’s body had he allowed her to accompany him. This could easily be Zoe writhing wretchedly under his insufficient ministrations; this could easily be Zoe scarred and weakened. He owes Jayne everything.
“How is he?” Wash asks before she’s even stepped fully into the room.
“Not good,” Zoe replies evenly. “Not yet. But there’s nothing Alliance doctors could do for him that we can’t.”
“Alliance?” he asks, his face crinkling up in a puzzled frown.
“Captain said you were looking to land on an Alliance planet,” she says.
His face clears. “Yeah. Bolus. Where I’m from. My mother’s a healer; not a doctor, but knows natural remedies. It’s less than half a day from here.”
It’s a good idea, and she knows it, but there’s one thing she needs to get straight before she persuades Mal. “Did you fight against the Independents?”
“Didn’t fight at all.”
She nods and pushes the com to connect to the infirmary.
Mal nearly runs her over because she’s moving about without looking where she’s going. His hands curl familiarly over her shoulders and she’s vaguely aware of their grip and his crimson shirt. Only Mal and Zoe wear this red, the color of deserts and dry, dusty battlegrounds where your lips would crack because your canteen was empty; she remembers her uncle’s letters. It’s red like blood, life spilling on the ground. She squirms a bit under his touch, trying half-heartedly to avoid the dull buzzing sounds in her ears. When he shakes her a bit, she realizes he’s been talking to her.
“What’s the problem, Kaylee?” he asks, not quite sure if he’s amused or troubled by her inattention. But she doesn’t answer, looks like she can’t even process his question. Truth to tell, she’s like a nervous animal, the ones his mama taught him to gentle so’s they wouldn’t break. He runs his hands up and down her arms, keeping his voice soothing. “Kaylee?” He follows her gaze to a huge, bloody handprint wrapped around the jamb of the common room arch. Jayne’s handprint, from when he stumbled onto Serenity after the Pixley job. He swings her around so her back is to the doorway and makes sure he’s got her full attention before he asks, “Want to get rid of it?” At her nod, he smiles. “We’re hittin’ a likely-looking planet today. Pick up some paint. For your room too if you’d like.”
“shiong-muh duh kuang-ren” “violent lunatic”
Continue: Part 12/21