Squinting in the dim, dusty light, Zoe finally spots him and indicates her success with a hand on Mal’s arm, over the scar he acquired on Pixley. They stride over and wait for Monty to raise his gaze from his drink. When he does, the riotously shaggy beard parts to let them see his broad, surprised smile. “Mal and Zoe,” he crows, clapping them each hard on the back, “what in the good gorram are you doin’ here?”
“Hoped you might help us out,” Mal says as he slides onto the barstool next to Monty’s.
“With what exactly? What are you up to?” he asks Zoe, knowing that any straightforward answer would come from her.
“Gettin’ married,” she smiles.
Monty’s jaw drops as he swivels jerkily to face one and then the other. “But you . . . no . . . that ain’t . . .”
“I ain’t the lucky man, Monty,” Mal breaks in before his old friend dizzies himself further. “But Zoe’s tellin’ you true. She’s gettin’ hitched. Can we do it here?”
Monty holds up a finger and quaffs his drink in one long gulp. He shakes his head like a wet dog and looks back up at the two of them. “Certainly!” he says in his normal voice. “Fact, the Thalia ceremony’s kinda cute.”
“Cute?” Mal asks as Zoe looks perturbed.
“You know . . . quaint. But nice and short. No fuss.”
“Sounds good.” Mal stands to go, offering Monty his hand. “Would you like to meet the man? Come back to the ship with us.”
“Not today, but I’ll be by to talk business with you soon.”
Thalia weddings, at least those between a man and a woman, Mal is surprised to find, require four participants. As he waits for Zoe, he wonders what the procedure is when two men, or two women, wed. Jayne’s been teasing him all day about his role as “Bride’s Best,” and he wonders if there’s an alternate title. He tugs a bit on the leather bands that Zoe had stripped from her own throat and wound about his. “Doesn’t seem bridal, Sir,” she’d said, her voice teasing and her eyes glowing, “but I’d hate to think that if somebody got shot at my wedding, we wouldn’t be able to fashion a damn good tourniquet.”
“Don’t get sentimental on me now, Zoe,” he’d joked half-heartedly, but the laughter turned real when they saw Jayne bearing his wedding gift.
“Last of my pop’s gun oil,” he bragged as he set the small bottle down before Zoe.
“Speaking of sentiment . . .” Zoe smiled, halfway between tears and mockery.
Jayne flushed a bit. “Figured you could always use it,” he mumbled, and his hand gestures grew more vigorous and vague, “and . . . I thought . . . I want . . . your marriage to be as happy as his,” he finished quickly, the last words coming out in a tangled rush.
Zoe’s eyes brimmed, and Mal was surprised to find himself brushing away some moisture from his own. She smiled sweetly at Jayne and reached out a gentle hand to pat his abdomen over long-healed scratches and they flashed a conspiratorial glance at each other. “I’m givin’ Wash some soothing cream, since I know what those nails of yours can do,” Jayne smirked as he wrapped a careless, fraternal arm about Zoe’s neck. He allowed Zoe to shoo him out of the room, but at the last minute he turned. He met Mal’s eye briefly and nodded like a comrade in arms before vanishing.
The sound of Monty clomping toward him brings Mal back to the present moment. He’s in no mood to be greeted so cheerfully by someone who’d tossed out the innocent word “cute” without explaining it. “Monty,” he says, as he advances as threateningly as he can, “what exactly does being ‘Bride’s Best’ entail?”
Monty reddens a bit and kicks the dusty ground. “Shoot, Mal, it’s an honor. Know how many brides never actually became wives because folks lookin’ to be Bride’s Best got a little too competitive?”
“What are you saying? People have died and killed for this job?”
“Well, not killed exactly. More like . . . temporarily put out of commission. More’n a few times, there was no one left standing to be Bride’s Best and the couple had to wait until injuries had healed.”
“That’s crazy!” Mal starts, about to begin a fine long rant, when he realizes that Monty’s nodding his head mournfully as if he’s in complete agreement even as he tries to sidle away. Mal reaches out and collars him, none too gently. “If you don’t tell me what I’m going to have to do, I’ll hold you down and shave off that beard of yours with my dullest knife.”
Monty sputters a bit. “You’ve got to be the one who knows Zoe the best.” Mal nods. “And you’ve got to be the one she can always turn to.” Another nod. “And you’ve got to love her.” Relieved grin; this isn’t so bad. “And you’ve got to publicly declare your love for her and officially state that you support the union into which she is entering.”
Monty had been right; the ceremony was quite short. Nevertheless, he’d felt dazed throughout, as if he were half a step behind everyone else. Jayne’s striped shirt was too loose on him, and Zoe’s leather bands were too tight around his throat. Monty had neglected to mention that Bride’s Best actually functioned as Bride’s Seat for the duration, and he’d had Zoe’s warm, pliant weight on his lap as he struggled to find words fitting for the occasion. He heard little of Wash’s words, spoken in a voice excitement had raised an octave and a half. He felt Zoe’s words as a vibration. And then it was his turn to speak, to bare the heart Zoe had sheltered for so long. He spoke the words she’d pledged to him on Serenity, and Zoe nestled back against his chest and his lips found the spot just under her ear as he breathed her name. Then she stood, leaving him shivering from the sudden cold, and let Monty guide her hand to Wash’s and the three of them spoke in unison and smiled.
She can hear the captain coming, unfocused energy evident in his quick and heavy steps. Before he can finish bellowing out her name, Kaylee steps into the hallway with a smile. He doesn’t miss a beat. “Saw the job you did on shuttle two for Zoe an’ Wash.” She can’t catch his eye, dancing here, there, everywhere; can’t tell if he’s pleased or pissed. “Looks mighty nice,” he continues, talking a mile a minute. “Could you do more of the same for shuttle number one? No need for leaving around bottles of engine-brewed wine and flowers everywhere, but it could stand to be spruced up.” She nods willingly. “Good,” he says, deliberately not letting her get a word in. “I’m gonna stay with Monty for a few days. Says he’s got a fair few ideas about who might want to rent our shuttle,” he finishes with a brittle grin.
She watches him scurry off the ship and makes her way up the stairs. Halfway up, it strikes her. She’s alone on the boat with Jayne; she can’t tell if the shudder that runs through her is evidence of fear or desire. She turns and heads for his quarters.
Turns out it’s easier than that. He’s got a mat spread near his weight-bench, and he’s lying on it doing sit-ups. His movements are extraordinarily smooth, fluid rather than quick, so that her eye can barely capture one image – the roundness of his shoulder, the tautness of his stomach – before the next confronts her. “Jayne,” she finally says, closing her eyes and opening her mouth. Her eyes flutter open and she sees him sit up one last time, ending his routine so abruptly it seems as if he’s lunged at her. His eyes are boring into her. At her silence, he flips over and begins his push-ups. Now she’s watching him snap into place each time his elbows lock, and she feels like she’s being hypnotized. “I’m sorry,” she ventures.
“Sorry what? Sorry I play with knives?”
“No, you ain’t.” It’s a statement, devoid of emotion.
“Truly, I swear,” she avows, carefully hedging around any specifics.
And he’s on his feet, towering over her, and she takes a step backward. He grins and advances. “You still think I might hurt you.” She can smell his sweat, and her body betrays her again. He takes in her parting lips and darkening eyes. “Say it,” he demands.
“I still want you,” she says instead, capitulating, and reaches for him.
He steps back. “My way.” She stills, uncertain of what that might mean. His eyes are giving away nothing. Finally, she nods. “No talking,” he says as he pulls her top over her head. He’s bending down to unfasten her pants when she stoops to kiss him. He gets her lower lip between his teeth and tugs her mouth open for the kiss that comes after he releases her. He uses the sides of his feet to strip her pants off her, the underwear tangling around her ankles. She breaks the kiss, stumbling away to rid herself of clothes entirely, and he takes the opportunity to do the same. He turns back to her, twisting at the waist, his arm raised and bent at the elbow. She stiffens, a cold sweat suddenly drenching her as she reacts to the knife he’s got in his hand. It’s her dream all over again. But she doesn’t feel a blade when he drags the backs of his fingers heavily across her breasts and the nightmare begins to dissolve. Her mind seems to shut down entirely when he brushes the rough pad of one long finger insistently over her clit. She’s barely standing, but she has just enough wherewithal to reach down and lace her fingers through his, pulling first that hand and then the other away. Joined only by their clasped hands, she walks backward until she can sense one of Serenity’s smooth, welcoming walls behind her. She lets go of his hands then, and he’s on her, teeth, fingers, tongues, palms. Her back is skidding up and down the wall as he pushes into her, not seeming to tire.
Every time one of her moans is cut short by the hitching of her breath, Jayne knows he can’t let this be over anytime soon. She’s afraid of his hands and the weapons they carry. But at this moment, his fingers are slick with her wetness. She sees him as an animal; he delicately grasps her shoulder with his teeth, teasing the flesh with his tongue, and she responds with hard little biting nips along his jawline. And all the while, he’s thrusting insistently into her, and the thick brushed-metal wall behind her is getting hot. He comes, finally, and afterwards, in the stillness before he lets her slide down and out of his arms, he sees the tears leaking from her eyes; she bit her lower lip to shreds trying not to speak. “Kaylee,” he says gently, cupping her cheek; he didn’t mean for her to be so slavishly obedient.
She looks up to meet his eyes. “Jayne,” she says, leaning forward to wind her arms around him once more.
He opens his mouth to ask Barak what it felt like to lose a limb, then decides he’s not drunk enough to ask the question innocently. He knows Barak wouldn’t be offended – he’d been the one to keep the rest of Barak intact – but he knows too that Monty and, hell, maybe even Barak and Riddler and Jenny, would know what he really meant was that he felt lost without Zoe.
Well, fine. God lets you down; Zoe never will. There’s no shame in putting all your faith in her. But he never thought he’d feel this wide open, cracked crookedly from side to side, just because she wasn’t standing beside him.
He gets up, a little unsteady on his feet, and waves off Monty’s fuzzy offer to put him up for the night. Back to Serenity, where Zoe loves him, where Zoe will return. He hears Barak saying something in a tone befitting a nagging wife and he nods noncommittally, raising his glass in a last salute before he turns and heads home.
He wakes with Kaylee’s firm hand wiggling his arm. “Cap’n?” she greets him inquisitively. “Got a wave from someone . . . Berrick? . . . about your appointment tomorrow?”
“Barak,” he murmurs sleepily, correcting her pronunciation. Then he hears the rest of what she’s saying. “What appointment?”
“Someone to see the shuttle,” she reminds him, looking a little surprised. “It looks as nice as Jayne and I could get it.”
“Early tomorrow?” he asks, smiling at her pride. At her nod, he rolls over, mumbling, “Wake me?” before he falls back asleep.
It’s illegal to own an image of a registered Companion, unless it’s the work of an Alliance-approved imagist, and had been commissoned by the Guild or the Companion herself. Naturally enough, a black market had sprung up, and along the course of his journeyings about the ’verse, Mal had seen several counterfeit images, garishly colored and elegantly drawn, cheap copies and quality reproductions. He’s never seen anything to match her.
She walks in with a smile that lends a glow to her black clothes and the dim hallway, even though it’s barely polite. Her beauty overwhelms him. He doesn’t like feeling off-balance. In his mind, he begins to pick her apart, anything to lessen the power she evidently has over him. Prob’ly not very pretty without all that face paint, he thinks, cursing silently as she walks into the light to get a view from the shuttle’s bridge, casually wrecking his theory. His disappointment takes verbal form as he needles her about running away, and she stiffens – but only slightly – in response. Hoping for more of a reaction, he casts about and baits her by announcing that the ship she’s on is captained by a proud Browncoat. But she smoothly sidesteps, and he can’t believe he’s spent so long talking to someone who calmly avers that she supported the Alliance. But then he remembers who she is, what she does, and knows his surprise was naive. Makes sense that she would favor unification; without it, her precious guild would be powerless; if all worlds were independent, she’d have to stay put or hack out a new life each time she moved. So she’s taken the easy way out, and that makes sense, given that she’s never worked a day in her life. Only the nights, because she’s a whore, spreading her legs for the highest bidder. In his last effort to get her off his ship, that’s what he tells her.
Continue: Part 16/21