Author: babies-stole-my-dingo (agilebrit)
Length: Short story (around 2100 words)
Disclaimer: Joss is the genius behind these characters; I am but a lowly follower. I make no money from any of this, so please don't sue me.
Feedback: Concrit adored! If you see something that can be improved upon, please let me know.
Written for: Space Santa, for pukajen. Prompt was: Wash/Zoe, Mal, or River. Angst, but not so the reader wants to jump off a cliff after, comradeship, or hope.
Notes: Well, this isn't at all what I planned...Hope it fills the bill okay.
River whirled around the cargo hold, dancing to a song only she could hear. Jayne lifted his weights without benefit of a spotter, watching her out of the tail of his eye. She could feel his thoughts on her, troubled and confused--snakes eating their own tails. She spun to a stop next to him, nearly causing him to drop the (heavy damn thing CRAP) on his chest until he got himself back under control. With some effort, he placed the bar back up on the rest, then sat up. "Whatcha need, girl?" he growled.
She cocked her head. "You don't like me."
He stood up and grabbed his towel. "You're useful, I s'pose. In a downright spooky and unnatural way." He wiped the sweat from his face and glared at her.
"Whereas your own usefulness is the untrustworthy and betraying sort. You're afraid." She sat on the bench and looked up at him guilelessly. "Since I can do what you can do, why should the Captain even keep you around anymore? That's what you're thinking."
"See what I mean about spooky and unnatural? Stay outta my head, girl. You ain't welcome there." He gave her a ferocious scowl and made to walk away.
"Plenty of room in it." She leaped to her feet. "You're Pooh, I'm Tigger." She pirouetted around him in a circle and stopped dead right in front him, her finger on his sweaty chest. "And I could bounce right off your cranium, my Bear of Very Little Brain."
"I ain't your'n. And besides, the Cap'n still needs me. You might be able to kill twenty Reavers single-handed, but it don't never hurt to have a extra gun on a job." Jayne turned on his heel and stalked out.
River smiled after him, then made her way up to the cockpit and surveyed her own personal Hundred Acre Wood through the window. It was so much fun to wind him up.
River had something far different on her mind a few days later when she approached Jayne while he was doing pull-ups in the hold. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Huh?" He did a couple more reps and eased himself down. "What about, girl?"
"I don't like this job we're on. Arnold doesn't feel right to me. Badger put us on to him, right? A badger is just a big weasel. Taxonomically speaking. So what would an Arnold be?"
"You talk to Mal about it?" He stretched his arms out, loosening the muscles.
She made a face. "He pretty much patted me on the head and said it would be all right."
"Did he?" Jayne snorted. "Well, that weren't too bright. Has he got a plan for if things go south on us? I don't much fancy bein' at the wrong end of a gun."
"Oh, he's always got a plan. Whether it's a good plan or not is anyone's guess."
"That's so." Jayne looked pensive for a second. "Speakin' of guns, I need to go and check mine. See ya later." He walked out, leaving her staring after him.
No one saw the wave he sent out to Arnold later that evening.
She kept a worried eye on Jayne on their way to the rendezvous. Before they landed, she brought up her concerns with Mal. "I think Pooh-Bear's going to do something dumb soon."
Mal lifted an eyebrow. "Pooh-Bear?"
"Jayne," she clarified.
"Oh. Dumber than normal, you mean?" She gave him her Look, and he relented. "Okay, why?"
"He thinks you don't need him anymore. He thinks you're going to replace him. With me."
Mal snorted out a laugh. "Darlin', you can shoot a gun with the best of 'em, but ain't no one as intimidatin' as Jayne in a bad mood. No offense, but nobody's gonna be scared of ninety-pound you. 'Til they see you shoot. And by the time shootin' starts, it's generally too late."
"Have you told Jayne that?"
"Wasn't aware I needed to." He frowned.
"You might think about it."
Mal was thinking about it, real hard, as he, Zoe, River, and Jayne stood on another dusty world with their hands in the air and five guns trained on them, as yet another gorram contact tried to double-cross them. How come it never went smooth? River'd even warned him, and Arnold had still gotten the drop on them. Made Mal feel a special kind of stupid. And even though they still had their guns, it was pretty hard to get at them while they were reaching for sky.
This particular low-down dirty wang ba dan had conceived a unique twist on betrayal, though. "You're Jayne Cobb, ain't you?" he said. "Yeah, Marco tol' me all about you. Sold him out for a lousy extra three percent and your own bunk."
"I go where the money is. Kinda the definition of 'mercenary,' ain't it?" Jayne had a calculating expression that was making Mal all sorts of uncomfortable.
"Very true, very true. So." Arnold waved his gun in the air a bit. "Marco said you was pretty handy. Good shot, good tracker, and stuff. How much would it take for you to come over to my side?"
Jayne tilted his head. "Got it pretty cushy, now. Ten percent, my own bunk, full run of the kitchen, surrounded by gorgeous women..." He gave Zoe a slap on the rear that Mal just knew she was going to make him pay for later--if they got out of this.
"But if a better deal came along, you'd jump on that, right? Not like these folks actually mean anything to you; you're just waiting for a bigger payoff?"
"This weren't never more than a temporary berth. Why? You offerin'?"
"Jayne!" Mal protested.
"What?" Jayne shot back belligerently. He crossed his arms over his chest, apparently forgetting about the people with weapons who wanted to blow holes in them. "None of you actually like me in particular. I'm a useful dog you let off the leash ever' once in awhile. Now that Crazy Girl's not so crazy anymore, it ain't like you need me so much--hell, her shootin's superior to mine, a little, much as it pains me to admit it. There a specific reason I oughta hang around if somethin' better comes along?"
He'd picked a hell of a time, Mal thought, to let this all come to a head. River was giving him that Look again. Zoe's expression told him she'd back him no matter what. "Now, Jayne, that ain't strictly true--"
"Ain't it? Hell, the only person who ever talked to me like a human being was the Preacher, and, well...He ain't around no more."
"Kaylee--" Mal knew immediately that that was the wrong thing to say, as Jayne's fists and jaw clenched. How had he missed those particular signals all this time?
"Kaylee's wrapped up in the Doc. Won't even notice if I'm gone. So," Jayne said to Arnold. "What's your offer?"
"You big boob," River hissed to Mal. "He needs to hear that you want him to stay."
"What? 'Course I want him to stay! Figured that'd go without sayin'."
"Apparently it doesn't, Sir," Zoe pointed out, as Arnold offered Jayne twelve percent and a bigger bunk on a boat that wasn't a "deathtrap like that gorram Firefly is"--and Jayne stepped away from them to stand next to him.
"Jayne, are you gonna let this hun dan take what's rightfully ours, right underneath your nose? It's your cut too, you know."
"Not anymore," Jayne said coldly, drawing his gun and pointing it at them.
Mal swallowed. The big man was pissed off, right enough. "Look. I ain't gonna beg or cry for you to come back to us. And I can't offer you more than what you already get, because we got more mouths to feed than Arnold does. But I'd really like it..." He took a deep breath. "...if you stayed with us."
Arnold scoffed. "Can you believe this guy? He--" He stopped talking very suddenly as he found a gigantic arm around his throat and a gigantic pistol pointed at his head.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do." Jayne waved his gun at Arnold's men. "Drop 'em, or you'll be unemployed. You too, Arnold." Five weapons clattered to the ground, and Mal, Zoe, and River pulled their own out. "I have you worried there, Cap'n?"
"Huh?" Mal was bemused. "Oh, not a bit. Really." He walked up to Arnold, who was still in a headlock, and grabbed the money pouch off his belt. "I do the job. I get paid for the job. That's how it works. Dong ma?" Arnold nodded as best he could, and Jayne released him, giving him a little shove as he did so.
Arnold stumbled a bit, but reached for his gun on the ground as he recovered. Cold steel beside his eye froze his hand. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," River said conversationally.
"All right, all right," he grumbled back. "You at least gonna tell me where my goods are?"
"Oh, sure," Mal answered. "Unlike some people I could mention, I prefer square dealin' to the other kind."
He pointed Arnold in the direction of the merchandise, and they piled into the Mule, leaving their contact behind to face the wrath of his men, who had thought they were getting a double payoff. "Not today," he muttered. He turned to Jayne. "Wanna tell me what that was all about back there?"
"Not in particular. We got paid, that's what counts."
"Jayne, if there's something goin' on with you, I need to know about it."
"I'm all right," the big man snapped. "Didn't see you comin' up with a plan, so I made one of my own. Maybe next time you'll listen to our little witch when she tells you a job's about to go bad."
"That was your plan all along, was it?" Mal could feel himself getting testy. "Might have helped if you'd let me in on it. I am the Captain around here, in case anyone's forgotten."
River turned around to face them from the front. "He couldn't do that. Your reaction had to be natural."
"Oh, were you in on this too? How about you, Zoe? They tell you anything?"
"No, Sir." Zoe faced straight ahead, concentrating on driving.
"And he didn't tell me anything. I just knew," River said.
"Did you, now?"
"You honestly think I'd go work for someone else for a measly two percent extra?" Jayne asked. "Especially with a gun pointed at my head? I know you don't think much of me, Mal, but damn."
River had that Look again, and he knew he'd better smooth things over right quick with Jayne before this got blown all out of proportion. "Well, no, Jayne, I don't think that of you. That's why I was a mite surprised when you went and stood next to that hun dan. You're my crew. We take care of each other."
"And that's what I was doin'. So. We square?"
Mal essayed a smile. "We're square."
Jayne grinned back at him. "All right then."
Everyone was happy when they got paid. River danced around the cargo bay with a little more abandon than usual, while Jayne lifted his weights with a tad more vigor. Mal and Simon watched from the catwalk. "Your little sis is growin' up," Mal commented.
"I know." Simon frowned when she spun to a breathless, laughing halt beside Jayne.
"Hey, there, little Tigger." Jayne's voice carried up from below.
"Pooh Bear." She gestured at the weights. "Can you show me how to do this?"
"Huh? Sure. Only you want to do it like this..." Jayne took all the discs off and put a smaller one on each end. "Lots of reps, with low weight. You don't want bunchy muscles like a guy." He toweled the bench off for her. "Go on and try it; I'll spot you."
"Looks like Jayne's got a new lifting buddy," Mal said, casting a sideways glance at Simon to see how he was taking it.
"Mmm. Well. She's almost eighteen now. If she wants to make a pet out of that musclebound freak, I guess she can." Simon huffed out a sigh through his nose. "You can still put him out the airlock if he does anything inappropriate, right?"
"Oh, yeah. I don't think that'll be necessary, though. It's an improbable friendship, and that's why it'll work. At least, around here. She sees into the truth of things, and she won't let him hurt her. Besides, she can kick his ass."
"Didn't you have something in the infirmary you wanted to show me?"
Their footsteps faded away from the unlikely pair, while Jayne's rough chuckle and River's girlish laughter floated up to the ceiling. All was right on his boat again, Mal thought.
And that was how it should be.