Julie Frost, SFF writer (agilebrit) wrote,
Julie Frost, SFF writer

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Since I have nothing terribly urgent to write, I thought I'd work on the commentary for "Cerberus." And, lo, it is done.

Title: Cerberus
Author: babies stole my dingo (agilebrit)
Fandom: Firefly
Rating: PG-13 for rather considerable violence
Length: Short story (just under 3000 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: Another one of those rabid Plot Rottweilers. You always hurt the characters you love...
Notes: Niska decides to get back at Mal by selling a crewmember or two into slavery. Post-"Objects in Space," pre-BDM, so River's still crazy but not as nutty as she was at the beginning.

Jayne looked like a kicked puppy. "Aww. Do I hafta?"

Dog imagery throughout this--even in the title. Jayne is a little annoyed at having to do this task that Mal's set for him.

"Everyone else is busy, Jayne." Mal wasn't budging. "It's just for a little while. Here's a commlink if you get in trouble and need bailing out. Besides, it'll do you good to get off the boat."

The commlink was a plot point. I figured if Mal was sending Jayne and River off the boat, alone, that he'd want them to have some way of communicating if something went bad.

"Won't do me no good to babysit the crazy girl," he growled, shoving the earpiece into his pocket.

Not that Jayne thinks anything will go bad. Other than maybe River rubbing soup in his hair in the marketplace.

River stood beside them, watching the dialogue like a ping-pong match. Inara had done something to her hair, Mal noted, and it looked right pretty, held on top of her head with pins and such and out of her face for once.

The pins were another plot point. She'll use them later.

"I'm terribly sorry that you'll be inhibited from drinking and whoring with her along, but she hasn't had a chance to go shopping in awhile. We're far enough out that the Alliance won't be sniffing for her. Girl doesn't get to look at pretty things, she gets a mite frustrated. You wouldn't want River getting frustrated, would you?" Mal was enjoying this. Wasn't often his mercenary was discombobulated. "She might start thinking you look better in red again, she gets frustrated."

[Soup Nazi voice] No hookers for you! [/Soup Nazi] Yes, I realize that the setup for this fic is about as flimsy as rice paper. Sue me. Um, unless you're Joss.

"Gyah! Let's go, girl," Jayne said to River. "Sooner we go, sooner we come back."

Mal tossed her a couple of coins. "Buy yourself something fun."

Her face lit up with a rare smile. "Thank you. He'll protect me. All bark, no bite."

And thus the setup is complete. Jayne has a job. Protect the girl. We'll get to see just how seriously he takes his assignment in just a little while.

"I'll show you biting," Jayne muttered.

You wish, Jayne.

Mal smacked him on the arm. "Be nice."

You wish, Mal.


The merchant district looked like every other merchant district of every other backwater world Jayne had ever been on. Stalls and storefronts sold everything imaginable and a few things that weren't. Noisy, crowded, and chaotic, the place was a nightmare for anyone concerned about security; the constant jostling, the hawking of the barkers, and the real possibility of losing River amidst the multitude kept him from being bored, at least. He tried to keep a hand on her back or her elbow so they wouldn't get separated, but this weren't the easiest job Mal'd ever sent him on.

I can too set a scene, if I feel like I have to. Hopefully I've set it well enough that the reader can picture the complete chaos of such a place. Because this next part? Is even flimsier...

River stopped at a booth selling art supplies and looked wistfully at the colored pencils and various sizes of drawing pads the vendor had for sale. She checked the prices, checked the amount Mal had given her, and opened her mouth to start bargaining, when she was bumped into by someone in the crowd. She protested, but someone else shouldered her--then a third man pushed her again, while the first one maneuvered around Jayne. The throng of people in the market prevented him from going for a weapon, although River's panicked expression told him right enough that he probably needed one.

Before he knew exactly what had happened, or how, he and River had been shoved into an alleyway so casually as to make it look accidental. Three other men waited there with stun batons. Jayne reached for his knife with one hand and his gun with the other, but they zapped him before he could bring either of them into play.

As he lost consciousness, he heard River whisper, "Niska."

Dun, dun, DUN!


River awakened on the floor in a cinderblock room, metal shackles around her wrists and ankles, connected by chains locked to a ring on the wall. She looked up and saw that Jayne was fastened by his wrists, ankles, and waist to an X-frame arrangement, shaking his head like a big bear and starting to come around. She was fairly certain that Mal wouldn't approve of the language issuing from his mouth.

Check me out. More scene-setting! My (published) Mom would be proud. I have since found out that my X-frame is a St. Andrew's Cross. Um, don't ask how.

She sat up and noticed a table behind Jayne. A series of malevolent implements, some she recognized and several she didn't, were arrayed on it, and a cold chill settled over her as she realized what they meant.

Three men also populated the room; they were different from the ones who'd taken her and Jayne off the street. Two were large and muscular in a meaty sort of way, not fat exactly, but not defined like Jayne was either. The other was a small, fussy-looking man wearing a natty suit and wire-rimmed glasses. "Niska."

Careful, little reader...

He walked over to her and stared down curiously. "Ah? You know who I am?"

"You have a reputation. People fear you." But he was afraid too. The assault on his skyplex had made people talk behind their hands. If a ragtag bunch of insignificant space pirates could best Niska, maybe he wasn't as powerful as everyone said. This worried him; she could feel it--but she wouldn't say so. Doing that wouldn't be good for her health. She shrank into herself a little, trying to look as harmless as possible. At this point, Niska's underestimation of her was her only weapon.

"That is right, little girl. And now I make sure that reputation does not suffer any more because of Malcolm Reynolds." He gave her a fatherly pat on the cheek, which made her wish fervently that she could scrub it with lye soap.

Because, EWW. No touchy!

"Leave her alone," Jayne said, frowning thunderously and testing his bonds. "She don't know nothin'; she don't got nothin' to do with any of our business."

And Jayne goes into "job" mode. Protect the girl...

"No? She is with you, is she not?" Niska turned his back on River and stared at Jayne. "My men tell me you seemed very concerned for her welfare in the marketplace."

"She ain't a member of Mal's crew." She had one microsecond of hurt feelings before he said, "She's my cousin." The lie startled her. He was taking the order to protect her seriously, and the best way to protect her in this particular situation was to make Niska think that she wasn't related to Serenity in any way. "She's a little fong luh; half the time she don't even know what's happenin' around her. Leave her out of this. Let her go."

Slightly out of POV in this 'graph, but she's reading him, and that's what he's thinking. You walk a fine line when you're doing a scene from the POV of a psychic.

"Perhaps I do that. Later. If no witnesses, then no talk about what happens to people who...how you say? Cross me?" Niska nodded at one of the henchmen, who picked up a cat o'nine tails from the table and popped it a few times with an evil grin.

Jayne snorted. "You think you can scare me with that bitty thing?"

"Perhaps not," Niska acknowledged. "But I am fairly certain we can hurt you with it."

The fear comes later, after they've tortured you for awhile and you start to be afraid you're going to live rather than afraid you're going to die.

River couldn't help counting the blows that began raining down on Jayne's back. And doing the math. One times nine is nine...two times nine is eighteen...three times nine is twenty-seven... She closed her eyes and flinched every time the whip landed. Jayne's thoughts were jumbled, but he wasn't afraid. Angry; she was used to that. Concentrating on not giving these bastards the satisfaction of hearing him holler. Mostly thinking about how Mal would kill him if anything happened to her--and more frightened of Mal than of Niska, which she thought imprudent under the circumstances, especially by the time she got to Fifty times nine is four hundred and fifty... She opened her eyes when the sounds stopped.

I'm a compulsive counter and a compulsive reader. I can imagine that River is a compulsive multiplier.

And saw the henchman switch hands.

A little trick I picked up from an inadvertent hit on a Google search. You get some...interesting things, when you search "cat o'nine tails" on the internet.

Jayne half-leaned forward on the frame where it crossed itself, gasping for breath between clenched teeth, blood running in rivulets down his back and soaking into his shredded t-shirt and his trousers. "That...all you got?"

Still doing the job, keeping their attention on him rather than her...

Niska raised his hand, stopping his thug before he landed another blow. "Perhaps we try something a bit...more." He nodded toward the table, and the other thug--she began thinking of them as Minion One and Minion Two, just to keep them apart, even though they were really interchangeable--picked up a chain scourge and positioned himself behind Jayne. The links made obscenely musical sounds as they clinked together, and each of the five chains had a small spiked metal ball at the end that glittered in the light.

Took me awhile to get the description of the chain scourge just right. And I've since realized that I didn't really need two henchmen for this scene, and I have no idea why I decided to go with two rather than one. Just had the picture in my head, I guess.

This was worse by an order of magnitude than the cat had been. The force of the strikes slammed Jayne's stomach against the X-frame, and she could swear she heard ribs splintering. He endured it in as much silence as he could, but he couldn't prevent some noise. River leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes again, tears leaking in a steady stream from beneath her lids--counting, because she couldn't turn that part of her off any more than she could stop her heart beating. One times five is five. Two times five is ten. Three times five is fifteen...

They stopped at twenty. She risked a peek and slammed her eyes shut again, unable to bear the sight of a semi-conscious Jayne hanging by his wrists and shaking like a leaf. All that blood...how could he lose so much and live? Her own shaking was making her teeth chatter.

"Much better." Niska's voice grated on her ears. "But I think we are not done just yet."

Jayne unleashed another gasping torrent of colorful language, and River's eyes snapped open, seemingly of their own volition. She stared in horror as Minion One brought what looked like a battery for some sort of engine over in front of Jayne. A wire connected the posts, leading up to some sort of device with a bare metal end and a push-button.

It's primitive, but they're not in the Skyplex, and it's functional.

Minion One pushed the button a couple of times, making sure he had current, then tore the remains of Jayne's bloody shirt off and pressed the metal end against the bared chest. Jayne's body jerked spasmodically as the electricity coursed through it...and this time, he couldn't help it; he screamed.

River closed her eyes and counted off the seconds in her head. When she got to five, the sounds stopped, and she sneaked a glance before quickly shutting them again. Jayne had a burn mark on his chest, and the scent of scorched hair filled the room. He'd bitten his tongue as well.

And she knew he'd bitten his tongue because now he's got blood running down his chin, but I didn't know how to describe that without it being awkward. So I told rather than showed. Meh.

"Ah, yes." Niska sounded satisfied. "Certain forms of pain are fundamental. Again, if you please."

Three more times, taking five seconds longer each time. Twenty seconds lasted an eternity. Jayne was fading fast, and all she could do was huddle against the wall with her arms over her head. "Please stop please stop please stop," she babbled over and over.

Footsteps, and Niska stood over her. "You wish us to cease hurting this man? You would rather we perhaps hurt you, instead?" He seemed genuinely curious.

"Don't. Touch. Her." Jayne's words came out in a low, raspy growl.

Oh, Jayne...

She had to stop this. They were going to kill him if it kept on any longer. She looked Niska full in the face. "He's no good to you dead. A dead slave can't work." Niska's eyebrows crawled up his forehead. "That was your plan, to sell him into slavery. Make the Captain pay through the nose to get him back, if he could even find him...and even if he did get him back, he'd be a broken toy. No more winding up the Mercenary Action Figure clockwork and making it go anymore. Cerberus becomes a puppy, gate to Hell open, unguarded, for good."

I particularly liked the imagery in this. Jayne as Mal's toy, as a guard dog. So, yeah, more with the dog theme.

She rummaged a little. Jayne's head wasn't someplace she liked to spend time, but she was relieved that his mind was mostly intact. They hadn't killed the essential part of him just yet; having very little imagination was an asset in a situation like this. His body, though, was breaking down. It couldn't take much more.

Niska turned back to Jayne. "Your cousin, she is a very clever girl. Once more, please," he said to Minion One.

River screamed with Jayne this time, and joined him in unconsciousness.


She awakened to the sensation of movement. She was still chained, but not attached to anything. Jayne, where was Jayne? She sent out a questing probe and found a tiny spark. He was here in this room with her...wherever "here" was.

She wrinkled her nose. Old animal smells, hay beneath her. Light coming through vertical slats in the walls. Livestock truck? Not on a road, too smooth. Livestock car in a train, then. But no actual cows, which was nice, and no one in the car but her and Jayne. Apparently, Niska thought they were trapped and had decided not to waste any men guarding them.

Because I didn't need any more complications. Yes, I realize that I'm lame.

Time to make his underestimation of her work to her advantage.

She pulled one of Inara's pins from her hair and went to work on the locks of her shackles.

Remember the pins in the very first scene? This part was planned from the first.


Jayne floated. His back was on fire, his skin felt as if it wanted to vibrate off his muscles, and he was freezing and sweating all at the same time...but it all seemed like it was happening at some great distance. He wondered, clinically, if he was dying. Didn't seem to matter much. Couldn't move, anyway--fastened to the floor somehow, wrists and ankles, on his side. Niska still thought he was a threat. This struck him as pretty comical, considering the fact that any attempt at motion sent shooting sparks of agony through his entire body.

We put up an electric wire around the wall around our property because the dog decided that going over it and roaming the neighborhood was more fun than being confined to our half-acre lot. I hit it with the back of my hand once, just to see what it felt like, and my skin did a sort of buzz-y thing for awhile after. It was weird.

A small hand laid itself on his cheek, briefly, and then he felt someone working away at whatever had him tied to the floor. A few moments later, he was freed. "Jayne?" River's voice. Oh, shiny, she'd got out. "Don't you leave, Jayne, you hear me?" He weren't goin' nowhere. Couldn't, nohow. "Stay awake. Wuo me da, if you die on me--" Huh, it mattered to her if he died? That was new. Well, he should make some effort, then.

He opened his eyes--and that seemed to cause a huge granite boulder of pain to come crashing on top of him. He shut them again, quickly, but it didn't help. He felt River flinch beside him. The job. Do the job. "Commlink...in my pocket," he said between teeth that chattered, no matter how hard he tried to clench them shut. "Don't think...they got it." He was so cold.

That's because he's in shock. Poor guy.

She scrabbled around and pulled it out. "Captain?" he heard a few seconds later. "Can you hear me?" Then she moved out of his earshot.

...so I could change POV's again.


"River! Where are you? Did that tama de hundan try to turn you in to the Alliance again? I swear, I'll put him out the airlock for real this time--"

I hope everyone had the same cringing reaction I did when I wrote that line, because it's so far off from what actually happened--but it's exactly what Mal would think.

She interrupted his rant. "It was Niska. Not Jayne's fault. He's..." She swallowed convulsively. "It's bad, Captain."

"Are you okay?" His voice was suddenly gentle.

"I'm fine. They didn't hurt me. Only made me watch." She huffed out a small, humorless laugh. "'Only.' It's Jayne. They..." She couldn't finish.

"All right. We've got a fix on your position, but you're moving. What have they got you in? Focus, girl."

Being able to track them via the commlink was something I actually pulled out of my ass. I don't know if they actually can, but I needed it for this fic. Whatever serves the story, I guess, as long as it makes some sort of sense.

Right now she was focused on finding something to cover Jayne with. He was shivering like an over-energized superstring. "A train. We're livestock, branded and sold."

I was trying to find something that a really smart person like River would compare his shivering to, and found some cool stuff about string theory via Google. bigsciencybrain told me that the correct term was actually "string" rather than "superstring," but "superstring" sounded better, so I took a liberty.

"Okay, we can work with that. Are you loose? Can you move around?"

"Yes." A discarded horse blanket, crumpled in a corner, caught her eye. Perfect. She folded it in thirds and knelt down next to Jayne, arranging it over his shoulders and smoothing his hair back, trying to soothe her injured watchdog. Part of her wanted him to go to sleep to get away from the pain, and part of her was afraid that if he fell asleep, he'd never awaken again.

This was my own thought process. I mean, on the one hand, poor guy, he hurts so much, pass out already. On the other, passing out might = dead, which would be bad.

"Look up. Should be a ventilation door up on the roof. If you can slide it back, we can get you out."

Since we saw a door on a train roof during "The Train Job," this wasn't too far of a stretch. I was picturing some sort of stall arrangement in the cattle car that would enable River to climb up to it easily, but that mental picture didn't actually make it into the story. I suck at description.

"I see it. Just a minute. Jayne? Don't die. They're coming for us."


He passed out when they moved him to a hanging stretcher, and woke up in the infirmary awhile later. The Doc had worked his magic with the painkillers, and Jayne was all floaty again. The Captain sat on a stool beside the bed. "I done the job, Mal." Jayne's voice was a hoarse, slurred wheeze. "They din't hurt her."


"River said it was Niska and his men?" Mal asked quietly.

"Yeah. That li'l sumbitch is gonna kill one of us one of these days." Jayne closed his eyes. "We oughta do somethin' about him."

Really should. *shakes fist at Fox network idiots* I sure wish we could have seen him a few more times.

Mal made a noncommital noise and stood up. "Get some rest. You done all right, Jayne."


Weren't often he got praise from the Captain. Felt kinda good, he thought, even if he did have to get beat near to death watchin' over the crazy girl for it to happen. Speakin' of the crazy girl... "River's okay?" His mind started going fuzzy 'round the edges.

"River's okay," was the last thing he heard as he fell asleep. Right before he went out, he thought a hand touched his head from behind.

Mal met River's eyes across Jayne's recumbent form. "And my mercenary's okay, little reader?"

"You can wind him up and make him go when the repairman is finished fixing him." She grimaced at Jayne's back. "Mostly cosmetic damage, scratches and dents. Nothing wrong with the actual mechanism, structure, or motherboard."

If Jayne is a clockwork toy, then this is how River would relate to it. I think.

"Ye-eah. I'm very disturbed that that made perfect sense to me." He gave her a questioning look. "You gonna stay with him?"

"The guardian doesn't require a guardian in this place, but that lack of need isn't taken into consideration by human psychology." Mal frowned, not understanding, so she clarified, "He'll feel better if someone's here when he wakes up."


She settled onto a chair as Mal started to leave. He paused at the door and looked over his shoulder; his last view of the infirmary, before he headed out to do Captain-y stuff, was of River running her fingers through Jayne's hair as if he was her own special, injured Bullmastiff.

Who knows what kind of dogs they'll still have, five hundred years in the future? We know they have Beagles. I would have used "Pit Bull," but I know a lot of people don't like them, and I didn't want to throw them out of the story at this point, so I picked the Bullmastiff. Because they're massive and sweet, but also intimidating.

It made him smile, just a bit.


And I thought it was, until I got the following review from an anonymouse: It would be cool if you wrote an alternate ending where Jayne and River weren't saved immediately. *laughs evilly* Would it? Would it? Because River and Jayne would be all snuggly puppies and smoochies and mad monkey sex after he's just had the snot beat out of him with a chain scourge and been electrocuted! Yeah, my reviewers give me hives sometimes. Say it with me, people: Jayne isn't Spike. Jayne is a human man, albeit he's strong as an ox (and about as clever), and he therefore would not be in any shape to do anything but lie there and moan and possibly pass out from blood loss and die if they weren't saved immediately. Dude, I don't even like River and Jayne as a 'ship anyway; the thought of them together is icky to me, and the thought of them having sex squicks me the hell out.

And thus my commentary turns into a rant. Heh.

Tags: cerberus, commentary
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