by Shan


If there had been a planet that was less attractive than Higgin's Moon and its sad mudder town of Canton, Simon would be have been hard pressed to name one. Until this planet, whose angry broiling landscape of geothermal unrest was rolling by two hundred miles beneath Serenity's helm windows. Her atmosphere, though breathable, was thick with rolling orange clouds and the strong smell of sulphur that even Serenity's filters could not keep out. Her terrain was twisted and explosive in some places, quiet and simmering in others. Here and there, patches of stable land, amidst a network of shallow shifting seas. Her whole countenance was a mottled yellow and black and red, glimpsed between the thick orange clouds and persistent haze.

The whole of Serenity's crew crowded into the cockpit, staring at the vision of hell named, aptly, Perdition.

"Perfect place for new crime," said Mal, grimly. "Don't think there are any settlers left, so no Alliance. Ideal for a contraband swap."

"There were settlements here at all?" asked Shepherd Book, looking dubiously at the angry planet.

"Terraforming don't always take the first time around." said Zoe. "There's a reason there's a financial incentive for primary settlers."

"You mean sacrificial lambs," said Mal, pointedly. "Perdition used to be called Lucia, one of those planets where the geo-chemistry is shifting back to the original gaia configuration. It was settlers named her Perdition. Alliance finally picked up the last of them little over a year ago, them as survived." He paused a moment, gazing speculatively. "Year or two, her atmo won't be breathable anymore."

And Perdition did not make it an easy visit. Day and night were too harsh on this planet - business had to be conducted in the shifting band of twilight where the land had quieted down before the still bitter cold of the nightside. Dawn in this world meant a reawakening of geothermal activity, the extreme temperature differential triggering more magmal shifts in the thin unstable crust. Wash had to fight fierce upper-atmo turbulence and pea-soupy visibility on the way in. They had all come to take Wash's effortlessly smooth piloting for granted: this difficult landing lent a further edge of unease to the job.

The job - a furtive meeting-and-exchange with another brigand's barque, the Hovenweep, on a piece of mostly-stable ground called, appropriately, Smuggler's Flat. Serenity's cargo of precision tools and parts for the other cargo of high-yield grainseeds and protein packs, and genetically-enhanced grass seed and oxygen-producing single-cell organisms in stasis. Highly-prized Alliance materials, a black market cash-cow and automatic jail-time for possession of such contraband. Mal was anxious for the exchange to happen, to get off this angry little planet, and make himself scarce in this sector as soon as possible - much as he liked screwing the Alliance even more by pedaling their contraband, he simply wanted to get it out of his hold, get away from being this close to the fringe and getting paid.

He even went so far as to have Wash keep Serenity warm on idle, while everyone else stepped out for the meet. Show of force to help things go smooth.

But, as usual, things didn't go smooth.

Blindly, Simon ducked and stumbled, his knuckles bone-white-fisted around Jayne's shirt as he half-hauled half-dragged the big man into the small putrid opening in the ground. He ignored the strangled groan of pain as he bundled Jayne into the hole, scrambling in feet first, his hands grabbing loose yellow earth and rocks before finding Jayne's heaving body in the pitch dark.

Gasping for breath and ignoring the sulfur burn in the air, he tried to quiet his breathing, pressing back up to the opening to listen for footfalls in the hazy dusk. He felt blindly beside him, and his hand encountered damp t-shirt and tense muscles.

"Shhh!" he hissed.

Jayne's harsh rasping quieted to a shuddering gasps, and then, "D'ya see them? Are they Reavers?"

What he could see of the outside was a thickly backlit orange fog. There were moving shadows, the sound of the receding gunfire, but nothing he could make out.

"They're leaving," he whispered, straining to hear.

"Stragglers ... look out for stragglers."

Simon laid a hand on his chest, trying to quiet him. Jayne twisted spasmodically, slapping Simon's hand away. Turning in some irritation, Simon pulled his hand up. In the dim light seeping in through the hole, he could see sticky dark blood. Outside, the skittering sound of footsteps. In the dimness, he could hear Jayne rustling around, and then the soft metallic click of gunmetal. Something cold pressed to his chest, and reflexively, his hand closed around a large handgun.

Hefting the solid metal in both hands, scrambling on his belly, he peered out once again into the orange dusk. More shadows, moving in that odd crab-like gait that wasn't quite human. In a panic, he cocked the weapon and jerked the trigger. The explosion in the small confined space was deafening. Outside, the crab-like shadows kept coming.

"Gorrammit, doc, where'd'ya learn to shoot? Squeeze, don't pull!" Jayne's voice rasped out of the darkness.

"Sorry - I missed Discharging Your Weapon 101 at the Medacad." Near panic undermined the derision Simon tried to put in his voice.

A heavy gloved hand descended on his shoulder with a grip of iron. There was no intended hurt in it, and Simon found himself calming under the steady press and grip of Jayne's hand.

"Take a breath, doc. Narrow your field of vision. Get still." The merc's voice was tense and low, bitten off. "And squeeze."'

The shadow loped nearer. Simon pressed down to still himself, almost nestling into the sulfurous yellow earth. Shutting everything out, he focused on the human-like shadow, his breathing dropping low and shallow and even.

And then the smoke suddenly cleared, and Simon could see the disfigured mutilated face of the Reaver, eyes wild, fetid drool smearing its cheeks. He understood in an instant, what it meant to look into the face of madness. The Reaver survivor had been an early hint, but a true Reaver was a wholly different creature.

Simon drew a deep even breath, and squeezed.

The creature arched back, arms wild, as if it hit an invisible wall. It's mouth was open wide in a death-scream, but there was no sound save for the gurgling that bubbled up through the blood fountaining from its throat. For a moment, Simon was horrifically fascinated, watching the creature fall backwards, it's brackish blood arcing gracefully behind it. But further back in the fog, two more Reavers were loping, their shapes becoming more distinct as they neared.

Simon glanced from one to the next, trying to remember to get still, to squeeze. Another explosive round, swallowed by the fog, but the Reavers kept coming.

"Nearest first. Hit `em both quick, don't wait." Jayne's voice was close to his ear, harsh but low, accompanied the sharp slap on the shoulder. "Quit thinking, Simon."

Biting back the smart-ass reply that rose instantly to mind, Simon did just that. His breathing evened as he forced calm, sighted and squeezed easily, one after the other. He didn't even hear the explosions this time, only saw the two Reavers fall, blood spraying to mist, disappearing into the blanketing fog.

In the sudden silence that followed, he could hear distant gunfire, soft pops of muffled sound. And then, underneath that, the sound of thrusters firing.

"They're leaving," he whispered in dismay. Again.

Two sets of thrusters. The first, the Hovenweep, was already climbing out of atmo. The second set, Serenity's, seemed to be approaching. And then the fog swirled in thick horizontal vortices, rolling away into the darkness, parting for the belly of Serenity, flying low overhead. Her thrusters fired hard, lighting up the sky as she turned and buzzed them, and then disappeared into the dusk. And then, behind it, a third set of thrusters; the Reavers' ship was chasing.

"They gorram left!" Jayne shoved Simon aside, struggling towards the hole, as if to claw his way out to stop the ship. "Wash, you hwun-dan! Come back!"

Simon heard the panic in the big man's voice. He turned and pushed Jayne back further into the hole, all but throwing himself on top of him. Jayne tensed, ready to throw him off in his panicked fight, the big muscular body pulsing with heat and tension, and hard as a brick wall. But Simon took advantage of the momentum and hung on, sprawling over Jayne in a way he never thought he would, pushing his face close to the merc's.

"Jayne! Jayne, look at me! They'll be back!" he barked, with more confidence than he felt. "They'll come back!"

The panic faded a little in the blue-gray eyes. Simon waited, holding onto Jayne, feeling the other man's heartbeats slow, wondering if the merc could feel his own heart rabbitting away, fueled by the familiar dismay of being left behind.

Jayne squirmed. "Gerroff me, doc!"

Simon drew a breath and lifted himself off, settling on the floor of the tiny cave beside the big man. There was rustling and a metallic click, and then a bright pencil light cut through the thickening darkness, almost blinding him. When his eyes began to adjust, he could see that the cave went further back than he thought, although it was hardly more than a crawlspace. The penlight flashed across his line of vision a few times before he batted irritably at it.

"Doc," Jayne had it pointed on him somewhere.

Simon looked. The source was a graze from a bullet that took off a good chunk of his shirt and his left arm, and left dark wet stain. And now that he was looking at all that blood, it really hurt.

His vision swam suddenly, "Ta mah duh!"

Jayne's strained chuckle caught him completely off guard, and he looked up in surprise, to see the big man's lopsided toothy grin gleaming at him out of the darkness.

"Whaddya know," Jayne smirked. "You can cuss."

"They came out of nowhere, Mal. They were likely tracking the Hovenweep," said Wash, as he flew, his eyes fixed on the horizon. "Perdition's geothermals are mucking up the proximity sensors."

Mal crouched by the helm, trying to squint through the yellow fog. "Are they following us?"

Zoe sat back by navigation, wrestling with the controls. "I read ignition bursts on the ground. It's a cool red burn, long-count sequence, trajectory coming our way."

Wash spared the screen a glance. "Looks like an Omega class transport. Even older than Trans-U's."

"Let's just get her off planet and away from Jayne and the doc," said Mal. He reached for the com. "Kaylee! Prep the Siren to pitch."

"Sir?" from Zoe.

"Wash, can you slingshot around the star?"

The pilot turned around with a sly smile and a dangerous light in his eyes. "Flip a U-ee? That's dangerous hot-doggin' shenanigans, Mal."

"Can you?"

"I can. And Serenity can. Don't know about the Omega, unless they've tricked her out."

"That's what the Siren's for." Mal straightened. "Do your best not to fry us."

"No, Cap'n, sir. Planning to enjoy this ride."

In the cargo bay, a flurry of activity. The bay doors on the floor stood open, while Kaylee and Book rolled what looked like a large 55-gallon drum attached to a booster rocket into the crude drop-launch mechanism inside it. Silver duct tape adorned the drum, on which was written in black marker SirenSong #2. Kaylee's modification of the Crybaby. Kaylee finished setting the small on-board computer, and climbed out of the cargo bay doors, as Book closed them back up tight.

"You sure this'll work?" called Inara from the catwalk.

Kaylee looked up, smiling cheerily. "She mimicks Serenity's heat signature. We send her one way and we go the other. Long as we can keep the sun between us, by the time they figure out they have the wrong boat and adjust for the star's gravity field, we'll be back to Perdition to get Simon and Jayne, and on our way to Paquin."

"If they're all right," said Inara softly from her vantage point. A slight stirring in the air across the way attracted her attention, and she looked up into River's overlarge hazel eyes. "Oh, honey - they got away. I'm sure they're fine."

"One flesh-wound, upper arm, non-lethal. One through-wound, clean exit, non-lethal. One lodged bullet, toxin sub-coating, left thigh, onset of sepsis and endotoxicity within three hours, followed by anaphylactic shock," River rattled off, her voice flat and expressionless. Then she seemed to come to, and she reached for the handrail to steady herself. Inara stepped forward involuntarily, her arms out to the girl. River pressed her forehead against the companion's shoulder.

"Don't fly too close to the sun," she whispered.

Inara grasped River by the shoulders and bent a little to catch her eyes. Something she saw in them had her almost running toward the bridge, yelling for Mal...

Simon tore the sleeves from his formerly-white shirt without too much regret, and bound Jayne's thigh. Using his belt, he tightened a tourniquet above the entry point, trying to ignore Jayne's howl of pain.

"Sorry," he muttered. "I have no painkillers on me."

"S'okay," gritted Jayne. "once doped is enough."

Simon grunted as he remembered the train job at Paradiso, and that even doped, Jayne could be very dangerous. He checked the rough bandage he had made around the shoulder, wishing, not for the first time, for the dermal mender. At least the cave wasn't cold - fed by sulphurous warm air coming up from vents inside the cave system. He had nothing much in the way of a blanket; he didn't want Jayne to go into shock, on top of everything else. He only hoped this little crawlspace of a cave was not some kind of magma vent.

Angling the penlight, he squinted into the back of the cave, starting to make his way back there to see if there was more space. He felt a heavy hand clap onto his arm.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Just want to see where this goes." He started to move again, but not only was Jayne's grip unbreakable, he was summarily hauled back into his position by the hole.

"Wha -"

The merc was pulling out a rumpled red bandanna and folding it diagonally one handed. He dragged Simon closer, and, using one hand as a brace, wound the red material tightly around the angry still-bleeding gash and tied it off using his teeth.

Simon stared at his newly acquired bandage as if he'd never seen a thing like it before.

"Uh - thank you, Jayne," he said, after a moment.

The big man shrugged. "Don't want you bleedin' out and blocking the entrance, is all."

The crawlspace remained tight and claustrophobic for about ten yards before opening up a little, allowing Simon to graduate to crawling on his hands and knees rather than the graceless belly-scramble he was doing. In addition, it seemed to be getting warmer. Simon glanced around at the sandstone rock once more, trying to remember his long-ago schooling in the geology of lava tubes and magma floes and steam vents. The bright sharp beam from the penlight was not the most efficient for scoping out spaces, but as far as he could tell, the crawlspace snaked back a long way into the mountain range, if it ever grew into a space big enough to even sit up in. In any case, there was no way Jayne could crawl that distance given his injuries, and no real point of wandering too far from the entrance. And so far, he had not seen dangerous volcanic activity evidenced in the rocks around him, no probability of pyroclastic flows rocketing out at them at 200 miles an hour... He made an effort to stop over-thinking and found his way back to the entrance with the penlight.

He felt the tremors off the cave-floor first, in the seat of his belly, a fluttering that grew steadily to a rumble. Ducking his head, he was showered by fine sandstone grains, but the rumbling did not increase to a roll, and, as far as he could tell, nothing big was falling on him or anywhere else. Feeling extremely vulnerable in the tight space, he scrambled back to Jayne. By the time he reached the entrance, the seismic activity had stopped.

Pressed up by the small cave opening, the daylight was seeping orange and pink light over Jayne. There was no mistaking the relief in the blue-grey eyes when Simon scrambled up beside him.

"Felt that?"

"I think the seismic activity is volcanic, not tectonic," said Simon. "It's tied to the geothermal dynamics of this area."

"That's supposed to make me feel better when the roof falls in?"

"The likelihood of a roof collapse is less," explained Simon. "Slightly less."

He noticed that Jayne had obviously done some sort of inventory. In front of him on the yellow dirt lay the gun, Jayne's favorite knife and sheath, a lighter, half a stogie.

Simon felt in his pockets to see if there was anything he could add to the meager stash. He pulled out a small battered notepad, a pencil and a drawing of Russian nesting dolls. He looked at the drawing, remembering River for the first time since their escape and hoped that she was all right.

"Well, at least they'll burn," Jayne cut into his thoughts. .

"I question the wisdom of lighting anything with an open flame under these conditions." Simon pointedly folded the drawing and put it back in his pocket. "There's probably measurable methane and other combustibles in the air mix."

"Signal flare," slurred Jayne irritably. "For when they come back. They can't see through rock."

Simon glanced over at the big man, snarky comment at the ready, when he noticed the sheen of sweat, the unhealthy pallor of Jayne's skin, and the faint odor of unwellness that emanated off him. It was so unlike Jayne's usual testosterone-heavy aroma that Simon crawled a little closer to the merc and touched his face.

Belatedly, Jayne tried to pull away, but Simon felt down to the pulse-point at his throat, not liking the slow faint rhythm he found there. Jayne's skin felt clammy and cold, and the blue-grey eyes were dilated and unfocused. With the penlight in his mouth, he moved to inspect first the wound in his shoulder, and then the one in his thigh.

"How do you feel?" Simon asked.

"How d'ya think I feel?" the slur in Jayne's voice masked the causticness of his words. "What's going on?"

Simon picked up Jayne's knife and sliced easily through the canvas pants around the tourniquet, noting that the merc made no attempt to stop him. Surrounding the wound, the pale flesh was mottled and ugly-looking. Simon glanced at his patient.

"Tell me," a rasp from Jayne, as he slapped ineffectually at Simon's good shoulder.

"Poison." replied Simon softly. "The bullet was poisoned."

The trick, Wash was judicious in pointing out, was to keep just ahead enough of the Reaver Omega ship to lure them into the slingshot maneuver, but just far ahead enough to slip out of visual behind the star's glowing corona.

"But that's the easy part," Wash continued. "We have to pick up enough speed to slingshot out of the way so that we clear when the Siren takes over. The closer we are to the star, the faster we go, and the easier to lose our signal."

"What about our fuel stores?" asked Zoe.

"That's the beauty of it - needs very little fuel. The star's gravity is gonna give us a huge shove in the ass. It may even do a number on the Omega - old ship like that may not hold up under so many G's."

"The thing about not frying still holds, Wash," said Mal.

"We won't, and it'll be a pretty ride." Wash was truly in his element, certainly the most relaxed person on Serenity at that moment. "We'll be back on Perdition in a couple of hours."

Mal's face was grim in the glaring sunlight. "The quicker the better - don't know how fast-acting that poison is."

"Is River right?" Zoe ventured, her voice uncertain. "Reavers got poisoned bullets?"

"No reason to doubt the girl and not be prepared at this point. Got the Shepherd in the infirmary rounding up every milligram of anti-venom we have on board. And - " Mal glanced around the crewmembers on the bridge significantly, "Prepped the cryo in case we need to deep-freeze. Could be we need Alliance medical help."

"Even if it's Simon?" Zoe was incredulous.

"It's not Simon." River's flat voice silenced them all. They looked at her standing in the hatchway for a long moment, and then, without a word, turned their attention back to the huge broiling sun's surface glaring in through Serenity's filtered panes.

A rasping strangled groan was all the sound that Jayne made, but his body shook, spasming violently. When the thrashing began, Simon got his arms around the reluctant merc and held him tightly, murmuring low nonsense calming words. He removed his coat and, pulling Jayne against him, covered them both.

"Stay calm, Jayne," he said, trying to keep the despair out of his voice. "The poison won't spread as fast. Stay quiet."

The tremors came in waves and it took all of Simon's strength to restrain the bigger more muscular man. In the next period of calm, he looked down at Jayne's pale sweaty face, illuminated by the dim glow of dusk still lingering outside their tiny prison. Jayne's eyes were closed, and Simon grabbed sleeve of his formerly black top coat and wiped back the sweat and drool. Jayne murmured incoherently, and pressed closer to Simon, tightening his grip.

Simon stared down at the face softened by discomforted sleep, lit by the orange dusky glow. Jayne looked years younger, the hard lines of his life erased from his face for the moment. Then he sighed and rubbed his face against the remains of his shirt in a sleepy childlike manner. Simon smiled a little.

"How many years has it been since anyone saw you like that, Jayne Cobb?" he said softly.

A sundowner draft found its way in through the opening, shockingly cold, making Simon glad that their cave had it's own natural heating system, however chokingly sulfurous it smelled. He pulled the coat more tightly around Jayne and hung on, waiting for the next thrashing episode. When it came, he wrapped his arms and legs tightly around the mercenary and hung on, trying to minimize the pitching, The big merc alternated between struggling to break free and clinging bruisingly tight to Simon, half-gloved fingers digging into his waist and back.

Another temblor; Simon could feel it emanate from deep in the bowels of the range. He hung onto Jayne, holding his breath, watching for the fall of debris. Beyond covering them with more yellow dust, the tremors faded away without incident. He glanced outside - Smuggler's Flat remained empty and desolate and dark.

Checking over Jayne again, he noted that his movements had re-opened the shoulder wound, staining the makeshift bandage a dark red, but that the thigh injury, though remaining dry, had darkened even more. Simon looked down at the distressed face pressed to his chest, and stroked away some of the sweat and grime.

"Please hurry, Mal," Simon whispered.

There were still a few things left in the `verse to inspire him, Mal decided, as the corona of the star swept by beneath Serenity's thrusters. The bright arc of the sun's surface filled the port, even though he knew intellectually that it was millions of miles away. Solar plages, prominences and sunspots drifted by as the occasional coronal mass ejection reached bright red fingers up towards them. The star's surface seemed to move slowly, but Mal knew they were traveling fast and picking up more speed. In the rear vid, the Omega was still on their tail, just within visual, the occasional plasma burst obscuring them.

The broiling surface of the star curved away to the right, and Mal fought the urge to lean in, bobsled-style.

"On my mark, Kaylee," Wash's voice was calm, rock-steady. Zoe hung nearby, but never close enough to touch her husband; she knew better. Riding the dangerous and volatile tides around a moody broiling star was only for hopelessly insane or the criminally foolhardy. The slightest uncalculated coronal surge and larger ships had been torn apart or knocked off course into the star or sent careening helplessly into space.

But none of that showed on Wash's face as he pushed steadily on the throttle and Serenity started to pull away from the Omega. As it curved out of sight, Wash began an abbreviated countdown.

Serenity was still picking up speed when the bay doors open and the Siren popped loose, riding in Serenity's shadow for some distance before its telemetry began to take it out in a straighter direction. Wash gunned the throttle, and Serenity tipped into the curve, sweeping in over the tops of plasma bursts, dragging coronal wake, her ass-end lighting up so that she resembled nothing so much as a firefly darting around a lightbulb.

Mal and Zoe were glued to the sensors, only half-hearing Kaylee's "Siren's away!"

Mal looked at his first. "The second they change course." He felt her tense affirmation even as he turned back to his pilot.

Wash's mouth was set in a firm line that was a tiny smirk. Serenity tipped, picking up more speed as she went, whipping around so fast as to drag coronal wake like a comet's tail. The nose and starboardside of her glowed red against the star's chronosphere. The little firefly was mostly around the bulk of the star when the Omega corrected its trajectory to follow the Siren, the miniscule shift occurring over the lip of an arcing prominence, causing a fatal wobble and then a sudden disintegrating dive. The ship's outer thrusters broke apart first, followed by the main drive, and then the fuselage snapped in three places, all the skeletal pieces of the ship stringing out in a jewelry-chain of glowing debris and parts and bodies, falling inward in a fiery splashdown across the face of the star.

But all that was felt on the Serenity was the occasional shudder, the tension in Wash's steel-muscled arms seemingly the only thing that kept them on course. Climbing out of the death-spiral, she fired up her drive, a puny spark compared to the inferno of the star's surface, propelling her back towards Perdition at almost three times drive-speed.

Wash whooped with joy, his hands tight but not choking on the helm, instrument lights and telltales flickering madly around him, claxons clamoring. There was a slight shuddering along Serenity's stern, accompanying the whine of sensors. He might have had more fun toasting Reavers in full-burn atmo, but not by much. Flying fast in the slick cold black was different thrill than the hot raspy burn of atmo, but spit-licking a G-class sun ... well.

Mal glanced back at Zoe, relieved at her terse headshake. The black of space did not look substantially different as they rabbited back towards Perdition, but the large disk of the star was shrinking behind them at an unnatural rate.

"How soon, Wash?"

"We'll be back in the world before sunup."

"Has to be before sunup," Mal's mouth set in the grim line. "Don't wanna know what happens to that world when you light a match to it."

Night on Perdition was surprisingly quiet. A thin slicing wind sang sharply and constantly outside their little cave, and Simon had no doubt that hypothermia would set it within three minutes of exposure. Again, he was thankful for their tiny cramped crevice and its venting of warm air.

Jayne was quiet now, but earlier his thrashing had taken all of Simon's strength to contain him. In the quiet time, Simon re-dressed the shoulder wound as best as he could. Occasionally, violent shudders shook the big man's body, and reflexively, Jayne clung to the doctor, arms wrapped tightly around the more slender body. The sheer muscle still in those arms left Simon aching, but he found that rubbing circles on Jayne's back, much the way a mother would comfort a sick child, seemed to working calming wonders.

Jayne, he figured, was probably not touched much as a child. Certainly not touched kindly. He couldn't imagine that Jayne got that good at shooting and fighting surrounded by tender loving care. He remembered the dispatch of Stitch Hessian in Mud Farmer Central - quick, brutal and final.

He edged closer to the entrance, and looked out over the dark alien landscape. Most of the hazy fog had cleared, and he could see the black outline of distant mountains and ridges silhouetted eerily against the cold clear stars. Funny, he thought idly, that he was uncomfortable seeing the stars while they were out in the black, yet he could admire their cold beauty from the ground. He spent some time gazing at them when he realized that the eastern sky was subtly shading lighter.

Dawn was coming.

Across Smuggler's Flat, along the ragged mountains, a different glow laced the distant summits even as he watched. Against the deep purpling sky, the stars were still bright and stark, but the mountains themselves were burning. Bright gasses fogged the low skies, the occasional magma flow illuminating the dark earth like a strung fire jewels. So beautiful, so deadly, Simon thought, wondering if they would be any safer out in the open, and how he might get the injured big man out there.

Suddenly, Jayne's grip tightening spasmodically and Simon sighed at what he knew would be fresh bruises. He heard a deep rumble, a murmuring from within the earth. He knew the geothermic grumbling would continue and build as sunlight heated up the terrain. Their cramped sanctuary would no longer be safe.

Over the deep rumble came another sound. It was a distant roar that sounded like no part of this planet. Simon almost didn't hear it as Jayne's grip tightened on him, and an incoherent moaning filled the small space. Extricating himself, he inched nearer the entrance and stared out, searching for any movement in the sky and the ground. The dark forbidding landscape with its knifing wind remained empty, but the roar was unmistakable.

Looking around, Simon fumbled for the penlight, his cold nerveless fingers searching blindly for the lighter and the note pad.

The cold swept in from the cargo doors as they opened, biting through the coats and parkas they had donned to step onto Smuggler's Flat. The wind was stiff, not too strong, but cold, cold, cold. Mal emerged, followed by Zoe, Book and Kaylee, all armed with flashlights. Wash had flipped on Serenity's exterior floods, which illuminated the immediate area around the ship, the rest of the terrain receding into darkness.

Mal lifted to com to his lips. "Is this it, Wash?"

"I set her down right on top of the coordinates, Mal. This is where the Reavers hit us."

Mal glanced over to the horizon, the fiery geothermal glow heralding the deadly sunrise, as mesmerizing in its beauty as it was frightening. The powerful beam of his flashlight seemed to be sucked into the landscape of darkness, just as the frigid air vacuumed up the sound of their shouts.

Some distance away, against a dark outcropping of rock, a tiny light flamed, a paltry spark almost swallowed up by Perdition's darkness. But Zoe saw it, yelling and running across the hundred or so yards, with Mal and Book close on her heels. It was Kaylee, taking up the rear, who slowed a little as she passed the three grotesque and frost-eaten bodies of the Reavers, cemented into their pools of black frozen blood. When she reached the others, Jayne already was being pulled from the tiny crack in the ground, and as Zoe and Book dragged him aside, she and Mal reached in to grab Simon. It took the three of them to support Jayne's considerable weight, while Simon leaned on Kaylee, his legs wobbly from non-use.

"It's about d-damn ti-time." Simon's chattering teeth took most of the bite from his complaint.

"Didn't want you to miss the beautiful sunrise." Mal's voice held no scorn.

Jayne managed to get his feet under him, as they hobbled back to the waiting cargo doors. Simon trailed a little behind, stepping up onto the ramp, as Kaylee hit the com.

"We're on, Wash."

Kaylee turned back as the ramp started lifting, Simon riding its lip, his face turned towards the distant mountains, now alight with volcanic flame and billowing broiling gasses eerily backlit by the dawn, advancing on the small cave that had been their sanctuary and warmth against the killing cold. She was a beautiful twisted vision of hell that threatened to boil or freeze them, but had sheltered them and kept them warm - and he wanted to somehow say thank you. To say goodbye.

To let Perdition reclaim what was hers.

Then he stepped back through the inner airlock doors and headed for the infirmary, even as Serenity locked back up tight and fired her thrusters, lifting off into the safety of the black as a hellish new dawn broke over Smuggler's Flat.

As it turned out, there was more than enough anti-venom aboard to do the trick for Jayne. The man's own manifestly healthy physiology and speedy metabolism did most of the grunt work, as the serum Simon applied began working almost immediately, the sickly pallor fading from the skin, the breathing evening out and deepening, and the blood pressure climbing back to normal. Tired as he was, Simon didn't fail to express his appreciation for all the drugs gathered for his quick dispensation, for the bandages and cleansing agents and dermal patches and IV drips already prepped for immediate use. On his walk in, he'd noted the portable cryo unit, primed and ready to load and spewing dry ice, but he made no mention of that.

The tension was broken when Simon finally dropped the last bloodied swab in the disposal pan next to the spent bullet, adjusted the IV unit and said, "Well, he'll live to out-crude us all."

He sat down heavily on the other table then, and was warmly amused when Mal, Inara and Kaylee immediately leapt to his aid, helping him sit while Mal rather expertly cleaned out his gash and re-wrapped it with gloriously sterile white gauze. Despite a tiredness that was bone-deep, the feeling of the comfort of home washed over him, especially when his ruined shirt was removed and he was sponged-bathed by soft hands and put into a clean velvety flannel sweater, all the while as River looked on, smiling as broadly as he'd ever seen her, rocking happily on her toes.

Inara had looked speculatively over at Jayne, wrinkling her nose. "Do you suppose we could bathe him, too?"

"Now, now, Inara. No fair taking advantage," said Book slyly.

She batted her eyelashes at him "I have incense-scented soap..."

"Evil. High-larious, but evil," said Mal, smiling.

The good-natured banter was like a soft quilt, warm milk and real butter cookies. He let the varied conversations wash over him, drifting...

... pressure, tight around him, suffocating. He was caught in a tight crevice in the ground, in the dark; he couldn't move, couldn't escape, couldn't breathe. Shapes in the foggy shadows loped towards him, animal-like, resolving to faces no longer human, eyes wild and ravenous, jaws salivating, teeth dripping with bloody tissue. The gun was hot in his hand, but he couldn't stop jerking the trigger, couldn't get calm enough to squeeze. They kept coming. Closer...

Simon jerked awake, his breathing harsh, his heart hammering away in his chest. He sat up slowly, trying to catch his breath, seeking the still center, telling himself it was just a dream.

Heard tell, even just seeing Reavers does nasty things to your mind, to your dreams, Mal had said. Like as we seen our true damnation.

Intellectually and medically, Simon knew it was a passing phase, simply recuperation from the stresses and strains of their little adventure on Perdition. But the dreams were persistent and felt too immediate to be easily sloughed off as an inconvenient but transitory experience. It left him awake and jittery during the late sleep-cycles on Serenity, when everyone else was in their bunks, and the ship was as empty as Smuggler's Flat.

No, not quite empty.

Jayne prowled as well.

They had run across one another the first night-cycle out from Perdition. A flicker of understanding passed in the look between them, but neither said anything, and each went his separate way. It was as if there were shadows they could not yet acknowledge. During the ship's day, things returned to normal; they traded their goods on Paquin, got paid, and moved on. More apples appeared in the kitchen after they left port, along with mangoes, and this time everyone thoroughly enjoyed them without making mention of who gifted them.

But mostly, Simon cleaned his instruments in the infirmary and Jayne cleaned his guns in his bunk, and neither exchanged much in the way of words. But neither was getting much sleep, and the tension grew in tiny increments - and the others didn't know quite what to do about it.

It was the second time that same night that Simon jerked awake. Only this time, he'd had enough. He sat up, hunched over the edge of the bed, chest heaving, hoping his gasps did not wake River, his heart still fluttering from the manic dream images, and his frustration and annoyance at a peak. And as he had done so many previous nights, he looked over at the nightstand, where the freshly-laundered bandanna lay neatly folded.

But tonight was different, and he reached for the bright red kerchief.

Jayne came instantly awake when he heard his hatch-door open. Under other circumstances, he would have been ready to jump the intruder, but this time, something made him stay put in his bunk, alert but unmoving.

He was curiously unsurprised when Simon climbed down ladder. The young doctor paused a moment as the hatchway sighed close and he took in the small room for the first time. He, too, was unsurprised when he saw that Jayne was awake and sitting up in his bunk, waiting.

Jayne watched, his gaze transmuting subtly from assessing to hungry, as Simon padded across the small space and placed the neatly-folded bandanna on the upended crate that doubled as a nightstand. Simon was wearing old sweats and a t-shirt, his scent emanating from him, sleep-warmed and spicy, and he stood before Jayne, in a bed-rumpled tanktop and boxers, his knees just inches from the merc's, looking down intently at him.

Jayne said nothing, as Simon slowly pulled off his t-shirt, their gazes locked. In the same measured movement, he dropped the t-shirt on the floor and hooked thumbs into the waistband of his pants, shedding them and turning very slowly. Jayne thought at first that this was part of the come-on, the tease, but as Simon turned, he could see the dark splattering of green and yellow bruises across the pale skin of his lower back, his hips, his buttocks. Finger-sized pressure bruises. By the time Simon faced him again, the desire and raw lust sparked the glitter in Jayne's eyes, the same look he saw reflected in the hazel gaze staring down at him.

They both wanted something else, and the desire of it hung palpable in the air between them.

But it was when Simon lifted his arms just a little, palms turned outwards, a gesture of supplication, that Jayne moved, blurry with his accustomed deadly speed, his hands closed around the slender waist, and Simon found himself unceremoniously facedown in the bunk. Jayne's aroma now surrounded him - his healthy aroma - earthy and piquant and indelibly male.

He shuddered as he heard Jayne's deep-throated lust-heavy growl, and felt the rough calloused hands stroke his back, his thighs, moving up between his legs, strong fingers parting his buttocks and the brain-stem sizzle of a hot tongue stroking his pucker. He gasped and shuddered, hearing Jayne's deep chuckle of satisfaction, his back arching as once more his anus was wetly stroked and probed. And then lips and tongue moving up his crack, along his spine, tracing and licking his vertebra, sending shivers fluttering over shivers, rippling outwards to the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet, until he felt hot breath caress the nape of his neck.

He bent his head forward, offering mutely, and hearing that evil chuckle again, before teeth claimed his flesh, before the radiating heat off Jayne's body translated into skin to skin contact, as the merc lowered his now naked body on top of Simon's slender form. The younger man spread his arms, relishing the hard heavy body on top of him, feeling muscles more powerful than his own surrounding him, pinning him. Jayne ground against him, and Simon could feel the hot hard erection pressing against his spread crack. He lay quiescent, allowing Jayne to move as his injuries dictated.

There was fumbling off to the side, and Jayne's body lifted. The rush of cooler air between them made Simon feel almost bereft, and then the hot hard body reclaimed him again, pressing him down, something large and hard and smooth pressing irresistibly for entrance into his body. He felt the scrape of beard against his shoulder and neck, felt a calloused hand reach around his hip and close tight around his cock, making him moan. The fingers squeezed the moment his sphincter gave and Jayne's thick hardness sank into him.

He knew he cried out something then. Jayne grunted and eased forward, forceful but not brutal. The hand that held his cock lifted his hip a little, the angle compensating for Jayne's injured leg, and Simon pushed back against the painfully exquisite intrusion, gasping as his prostate was roughly stroked, setting off sparks behind his eyelids.

His body opened to the slick rigid intruder, relishing the feel of the sheer power of the body behind it. He met each inward thrust with as much force as he could flex from his position, and the blood started to pound in his ears when, with devastating wrenching suddenness, Jayne withdrew.

Stunned, Simon froze, his protest dying in his throat, his heart sinking, as he felt hands on his hips, taking him and turning him easily. His back dropped back on the bed, his thighs were parted brusquely, and the hot solid column of muscle that was Jayne hovered over him. He stared up at the merc, their faces inches apart. Jayne's expression was feral, his eyes never leaving Simon's as he guided his cock back to the hot tight entrance and thrust in easily. Simon arched automatically against the burn, but consciously corrected his body and rose to meet him, claiming Jayne as much as Jayne had claimed him, smiled slightly at the look of surprise that flickered across the blue-grey eyes. For his temerity, he had his cock taken roughly, calloused thumb stroking the long ridge, the sensitive lip around the head, the tender piss slit. He groaned in surrender. Then the slick fingers tightened and pumped, matching the rhythm of the cock that pistoned into him.

He reached up, pressed fingertips hard against Jayne's nipple, sliding around the solid ribcage and grasping Jayne tightly to him as he jerked into the hand that pumped him. His vision swam, and a tidal heat rushed up at him, star bursts and fireworks behind his eyes, his teeth finding the hard pectoral just above Jayne's left nipple, as he came convulsively in Jayne's hand. And then he skidded into sensory overload as Jayne started to pump first in earnest, and then forcefully and erratically. His large body tensed, muscle turning to pulsing stone, as he buried his face against Simon's neck and muffled his climactic roar against the fluttering pulse at his mouth.

He finally collapsed, almost toppling on Simon, who merely tightened his grip on the big man, holding on like he couldn't conceive of letting go. The only sounds in the small space were their twin ragged gasps for air. Gradually, heart-rates slowed, muscles relaxed, and still Simon held Jayne, rubbing his hand absently in circles on the broad damp back. He grew sleepy, feeling Jayne relax against him, mingling salt and sweat and semen.

There was a new dampness on his chest that more than sweat. The big man moved a little and glanced up, looking surprised himself, and Simon saw something that few had ever seen - eyes bright with tears, cheeks damp with evidence of their passing. Some instinct bade him stay quiet, and continue rubbing the comforting circles, waiting.

Jayne's voice was hoarse and hushed, "I remember this. In the cave, when I was hurtin' so bad." The big muscular arms tightened and Jayne nuzzled the pale throat, breathing deep. "It was you."

And Simon spoke his first words since coming into the bunk. "Yes. It was me."

The End

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