Vacancy

by Ana

Rating: R
Pairing: A teensy bit of Jayne/m, but more gen than slash Spoilers: Makes a slight reference to the Heart of Gold script, but you won't realise what it is unless you've read the script. Disclaimers: Not my characters, not my Firefly.

Notes: Basically, I wondered what might happen if Jayne left the ship. Thanks to the lovely and talented Unovis for the beta!


Something's stewing, and Mal's been trying to put his finger on it for days. Usually when it feels like this on the ship, someone's got a bug up his or her ass, and Mal's made it his business the last few days to figure out if that's the case.

He'd set his eyes on Zoe and Wash first, mindful of the tension lately between the three of them. As far as he can tell though, things are good. There's been some talk about babies the last few weeks, which makes Mal all manner of twitchy, but so far it's just talk. Talking and getting along are just fine, so Mal's willing to let it go. For now.

When Mal had asked Kaylee about the engine, worried she was keeping something from him, she had just about bubbled over with praise and reassurances. Mal had nodded, smiled, and moved on to the next possibility.

River hasn't thrown a fit since just before the bounty hunter came aboard, and that's making Simon relaxed and almost happy.

The Preacher is his usual self.

Inara hasn't gone through with her latest threats to leave Serenity, but she has taken a client off-ship for a few days. She's due to meet up with them on Persephone, and Mal took it as a good sign that she said 'bye to him before she left.

That leaves Jayne. And it's not like he's ever eager to share his thoughts, and even less so of late. Things haven't been right between them for a while now, since Ariel at least, but Mal had figured that was just the way it was going to be for a good long time. He's grown used to it, and as far as he can see, Jayne has too. Mal's not entirely sure he has thoughts up there beyond want and anger and contentment anyway.

So, he can't for the life of him figure out what might be pissing off Jayne this time, but it could be anything, from leftover anger about losing the money on Ariel, to a problem with one of his favourite guns.

And the 'verse help them all if it's Vera acting up.

It's not like he can exactly go up and ask Jayne what's eating at him. It's apt to make things worse, and Mal's not looking to get anyone shot or cut up by Jayne when he's in a mood.

Instead he watches and tries to calm things down. Jayne goes from his generally surly self to down-right ornery and mean as they get closer to Persephone. He gets cruder at the dinner table, and Mal's forced to lay down the line again.

His more-than-usual aggression starts to put everyone on edge. Eventually, after one more meal where Jayne ragged on Kaylee near enough to make her cry, then started up on Wash and Simon, Mal figures he's let this go as far as he can.

A little later, he stops by Jayne's bunk. He doesn't bother to knock, just pushes the door open and climbs down. What he sees doesn't make him happy, but it goes a ways in maybe explaining things.

He's been in Jayne's bunk a few times, and it hadn't been Mal's idea of homeyness. Girly pictures and guns, dirty clothes and knives -- but Jayne had seemed happy enough. The room had smelled of gun grease and dirt, unwashed clothes and musk.

It had been a mess. Not so much now though. It still smells the same, not entirely unpleasant, but the clothes are packed up, and the pictures are down from the walls. There's a trunk at the side of the bunk, and Jayne's carefully taking weapons off the walls and putting them inside.

Mal stands and watches for a few moments, taking in the exaggerated care Jayne uses on the weapons. He's never seen the man handle anything in such a way. Jayne doesn't look at him or speak. Eventually, Mal crosses his arms and asks, "You leavin'?"

"Yep."

Huh. "You wanna explain that a little more?"

"Nope."

"It ain't really a request."

Jayne turns to look at him, his face closed. "Got no reason to stay."

"Is this your way of sayin' you want a bigger cut? 'Cause you know I can't just --"

"If I wanted more coin, I'd say."

And he would, Mal knows it. "So what then?"

There's a long pause, enough that Mal starts to think maybe Jayne's done with the talking. Then, "I know what you all think of me. You 'specially."

"Huh?"

"I ain't part of the crew in nothin' but name. Hell, even the doc's more like to be included. Trusted." He turns away. "Back with Niska. Zoe didn't even ask me to come and help, you know that? She just went and figured it was up to her and Wash. Maybe I ain't the stand-up guy you and she think I should be, but I ain't scum either. I helped with gettin' you out. No askin', no tellin', just doin'. Don't get much regard for that."

The words surprise him. He expected ranting about the Feds and bounty hunters, maybe something about the doc and his sister. "Jayne, I ain't real good at this kind of -- I never figured you'd want me to get all sentimental about hirin' you."

Shrugging, Jayne keeps putting things in the trunk. Some of those things look mighty interesting, weapons Mal hasn't seen Jayne use. He suppresses the urge to take a closer look and tunes back in to Jayne's voice. "That ain't what I'm lookin' for."

"Then what?"

"You hired me 'cause of the trackin', right?"

Mal has to smile a little. "Well that and I had a gun pointed at my head."

Jayne ignores the half-joke, and it's a bad sign.

"You and Zoe, you hid your tracks pretty good that day. You musta known I could look real close, see the little bitty things the others didn't."

He nods, not quite sure where this is going.

"So you know I ain't stupid."

Again, Mal nods. Jayne is greedy and sometimes slow with the big words. He's impatient and crude and sometimes the things he does make even Mal frown. He harasses Kaylee and looks at River in a way that makes Mal the slightest bit nervous. He doesn't like others getting too close and he's selfish. But he isn't stupid.

"The others think I am. I hear what they say. Weren't always like that. Somethin's changed, but it don't much matter, they're kinda right. It's stupid for me to stay here, always worried about the Feds. You and Zoe, you got some kind of axe to grind with the Alliance, but I don't. Not like you." He closes up the trunk, putting the few remaining weapons into various hidey-places on his person. "I ain't got no reason to stay no more. Next stop, I want off."

Mal stares at him and says, "Next stop's Persephone, you know that."

"Yep. And I want off."

He's not sure what to say, so he nods. "We land in the morning." Jayne grunts and turns back to his arsenal, and Mal climbs out of the bunk.


Mal thinks about it and decides they can't do without the extra hands. When Jayne leaves, he'll have to find a replacement. It makes him edgy to think about bringing someone new to the crew, what with River and Simon and Mal's own growing number of enemies. He can't count on others to keep their mouths shut the way Jayne mostly did.

Then again, there are mercs out there a hell of a lot more trustworthy than Jayne. He'll just have to be choosy when hiring.

After they land on Persephone, Mal tells everyone but Simon and River to take some time off-ship. Nobody sticks around. Book takes the chance to visit his abbey, and Kaylee mutters something about some men she met at the ball, and wanting to talk to them again. Wash and Zoe are gone faster than Mal anticipated.

By the time Jayne makes it to the cargo hold, Mal's the only one left standing there.

Jayne's hauling his stuff, which actually ain't so much. He nods at Mal and walks right on by, and Mal should let it go, but instead he asks, "What should I tell the others?"

Jayne looks back, his face tense. "Huh?"

"About why you're gone?"

Shrugging, he turns away. "Don't matter. Doubt they'll ask."

Mal stands at the airlock and watches Jayne's back as he walks away from Serenity.


Something keeps Mal quiet about Jayne moving on. The first few days, the others don't seem to notice. Some come back from leave the first evening, and most of them eat together. Kaylee cooks something with real tomatoes, and it's a fairly happy evening. Mal is the only one subdued.

When Inara meets up with them the next day, Mal still hasn't heard any questions about Jayne's whereabouts. There's another crew meal, everyone but Book, who is spending the night with his brothers.

Inara tells amusing but non-specific stories and regales Kaylee with tales of dresses and parties. Wash listens and randomly mutters about Zoe in slinky dresses, earning grins and warnings. Simon and River eat, their eyes a little wide, their smiles genuine and somewhat envious.

There are no crudities, no appalling table manners.

No one breaks in to tell stories about guns or gutting people. There are no random insults directed towards crew members.

There's food leftover at the end of the meal. And not one of them says anything about Jayne.

They could be thinking he's holed up with a whore for a few days of fun. They might think he's being antisocial. They might just be relieved.

Still.

Later that night, people are congregating in the common area, small groups talking or reading. It's just relaxing. Mal stands at the door and watches for a few minutes, then clears his throat. They all turn to him, some fast, some slow.

"I'm gonna be hirin' someone new."

Kaylee sits upright, a smile spreading across her face. "Really?" She starts whispering something to Inara, who laughs but keeps her eyes on Mal.

Zoe asks first, as he expected. "Why, sir?"

Before he can answer, Wash asks, "Don't you think we're stretched thin as we are?"

Simon stands. "No offence intended, but do you think, given," he gestures at himself and at River, "maybe we shouldn't bring in..." His voice trails off.

Mal just looks at them all, somehow feeling a little mean. "Jayne's gone. I gotta replace him."

There's a silence. Kaylee looks surprised, Simon slightly relieved but conflicted. Zoe looks like she has an answer to a question she hadn't quite known to ask, and Inara stares at him, an odd expression on her face, like she's trying to figure something out.

"Why'd he leave?" Kaylee's frowning a little, and Mal can't tell if it's a good or bad thing.

"Don't matter. He's gone, that's all we need to know, and I need a replacement. We can't do without the extra hands these days."

The others start discussing it, like they have a say. Mal listens to the worries and uncertainties and questions for a few minutes then coughs. All eyes turn to him. "I'll be lookin' at the prospects in the next couple of days. There's plenty to be found in this port." He turns to Simon. "You just trust me to find someone who ain't a friend to the Alliance." With that he turns around and leaves the room.


The first one is young, younger than Simon. He's well-built though, and when Mal asks for a demo of his shooting, the kid shows well. He seems straightforward enough, and after Zoe nods ever so slightly, Mal sticks out his hand, offers the kid a job and asks his name. Turns out it's Ryan, and he's never heard of Serenity or Mal Reynolds.

Mal figures that's a good thing.

The three of them leave the bar where they met and head back to Serenity. The kid keeps his mouth shut, except to say that Serenity looks sturdy. Mal grunts, pleased that he at least won't rub Kaylee the wrong way.

Judging from the kid's smile and bright eyes, he might rub Kaylee in all the right ways, if she ever gets her eyes off the doc. Shipboard romances are a complication he prefers to avoid, but almost all of them can see Kaylee's fixing to get her heart broke by Simon. Mal'll tolerate it if Ryan catches her eye instead.

On board, he shows Ryan his bunk then takes him around the ship, showing him this place and that.

They come upon Simon and River holed up in the common room. She's drawing pictures, he's not so much reading as pretending. Mal and Ryan walk into the room, and as soon as Ryan sees the girl, he stops dead and says,

"River Tam."

Later, Mal laughs at the memory of what happens. At the time, it's less funny than it is chaotic. Simon jumps up and tries to drag River away, his expression simultaneously appealing to Mal for help and sending out 'I told you so' looks. River throws a fit, screaming as Simon tugs at her arm, and the pencil in her hand goes straight into her brother's thigh.

Cursing and limping ensues. The girl has a wicked aim.

Warily, Mal turns to Ryan, who has a guarded look on his face. He's watching Simon leave the room -- hardly gracefully -- with River in tow. Mal can just imagine what Simon is going to say to him later. He half-smiles, almost looking forward to it.

"You got wanted fugitives on board."

Mal nods. "Yep."

The kid is quiet for a few minutes as he stares at the doorway. The silence is long enough that Mal starts to get antsy. Then, "I seen those arrest warrants. Always figured she looked like my little sister."

He turns to Mal. "She was a nice kid, a little simple, kinda pretty. Went wanderin' one day while we were all out busy with the harvest. She got used up by some fucker whose daddy was captain of the local Alliance presence. Told us it was our fault for letting her out of our sight, then dumped what was left for her on my ma's front porch. She died pretty fast." The kid pauses, and Mal watches the play of emotions across his face. "Ma pulled down that porch."

It almost sounds like a line, but Mal doesn't think it is. The kid hasn't learned to lie yet.

He cocks his eyebrow and the kid shakes his head, his face earnest. Mal figures it's enough.


Things go well with Ryan. The others come back, and they leave Persephone. The kid gets settled in. Jobs get found and they get paid enough to keep flying.

Mealtimes are different. Ryan doesn't have the doc's fancy table manners, but he manages not to spit or belch. He keeps his mouth shut and doesn't tell stories that make even Mal cringe.

Simon relaxes somewhat, although Mal notices him chewing on his lip more than before. River just carries on as always, but she doesn't seem to be as attracted to Ryan's weaponry as she was to Jayne's.

Ryan doesn't have Jayne's array of guns, but after the first payday, he goes out and comes back with new weapons, like he's real serious about the job. Mal nods in approval.

Things are good, real good. And then Ryan gets himself shot to hell in an ambush on Bell's World, and Mal finds himself dragging the kid back to Serenity, all the while listening to his gurgled last requests.

In the infirmary, Simon takes one look and shakes his head. He tries anyway, but there's too much damage.

The kid dies on the operating table, leaving Mal with the task of forwarding Ryan's earnings to his ma.


The next one ain't young at all. They meet up by accident on Unification Day, shortly after Mal starts a brawl in some out-of-the way bar on Kalla. She comes out of nowhere, fists swinging, and Mal finds himself flanked by Zoe and some mystery woman, who, it turns out, ain't so fond of the Alliance either.

Or maybe she just likes a good brawl.

Brawl doesn't last too long, and in the end, it's Mal, Zoe and the mystery woman who are left standing. Later, as they're sitting outside in the sun, letting the warmth soak into bruised skin, Mal offers her water and his thanks, and asks her what she was doing during the war.

"Private Sara Ahrens, Black Dogs."

Mal feels Zoe tense a little beside him. He doesn't blame her, the Dogs being the elite, covert ops types. Best the Independents had, willing and able to do all manner of jobs. Crazy, sometimes, he heard. Ran in packs and didn't do so well alone. "Thought they all got killed outside Serenity Valley." That had been a blow for morale, one of the worst, but not the last.

She turns to him, her face blank and hard. She's giving Zoe a run for her money, with that kind of expression. "They did. I got caught mid-job before that. Spent six years as a POW." Something flashes behind her eyes. "Feds got a real kick out of tellin' me how the rest of my squad were killed."

Mal nods and thinks about that. She might have been caught, but he's seen her fight. Good skills, and he knows where her loyalties don't lie. He stands, brushing the dirt and dried blood off his pants. "Lookin' for a job?"

Turns out she is.


The crew doesn't take to her the way they took to Ryan. They're still getting over Ryan's death, but there's more to it than that.

Wash says she creeps him out, the way her face never shows any emotion, how her eyes are blank. The way he puts it is almost poetical, but Mal thinks maybe if Wash had spent six years as an Alliance POW, he might better understand her.

Kaylee just avoids her, as does River. Probably just as well. Mal can't imagine this woman dealing well with one of River's fits.

Simon starts shooting Mal meaningful looks, although Mal can't for the life of him figure out what those meanings are.

Zoe stays silent about the whole thing, but Mal sees the way she smiles less and less. It makes him think of times way back when a smile didn't cross her face for months.

The war doesn't get brought up, ever.

The only one of the crew Sara shows much interest in, besides Mal, is Inara. Mal comes upon them a couple times, Inara quiet and slightly tense, Sara just looking at her like there's something she wants to say.

He asks Inara about it, later, asks if she's getting trouble. She just puts her hand on his arm and shakes her head. "No. I think I remind her of someone she's tried to forget. She'll say when she can. I don't mind. I don't think she'll hurt me." There's a pause, and when Inara speaks again, her voice is very, very soft. "They broke her."

Yeah. Mal can see that now, and that ain't the kind of thing he needs on this boat. Sara ain't what he'd call a soothing presence, and a few weeks after he hired her, he starts to wonder how big of a mistake he made. He's not sure, but he thinks maybe it'll surpass taking on River and Simon.

Still, Sara's good in a fight. More efficient than most. They get a series of jobs that keep them all on their toes, and Mal appreciates the extra body around. So he keeps her on, and the tension on Serenity settles in and sets up house.

Mostly, it's low-level tension that means less fun during the down-times. There's less time spent in common areas, and meals aren't so friendly. Mal can't remember the last time he stumbled on the crew playing some game in the cargo hold.

Other times, things get more wild. River's fits get worse and more frequent, and Simon starts to tie himself up in knots. Inara takes more jobs that get her away from the ship for longer. Wash starts grousing about wanting time off, and Zoe isn't talking babies anymore.

And one night, after a quiet, grim evening meal put together by Book, Kaylee looks at him and says, "I miss Jayne. Never thought I'd say it, but I do."

Mal's had some grousing from the Preacher about letting Jayne go, but this is the first time any of the rest of them have talked about it. As he watches Kaylee leave the room, he's surprised to find he understands what she's getting at.


They're on Whitefall when Sara leaves them. They land for a short job, as far from Patience's home base as Mal can get, even though he hears she's been sick of late. Mal, Zoe and Sara escort the goods, some genseed and minor contraband, to the meeting place.

It goes pretty smooth right up until they're heading back to Serenity. Mal's walking fast across uneven ground, Zoe pacing beside him. He isn't even aware that something's wrong until he hears the gun cock behind his ear.

He should have learned by now to never turn his back on mercs, employed by him or not. Slowly he turns around, and he doesn't like what he sees on Sara's face. "There a problem?"

She just stares at him, not even looking at Zoe. Her eyes aren't quite focussed, and after too many months of River's antics, Mal recognises crazy when he sees it. Sara hasn't been like this before, and he figures something just snapped inside of her.

He briefly wonders what it is about his mercs holding guns to his face, but then Zoe's moving real fast, and taking Sara down to the ground. There's barely even a fight, and Mal gets even more twitchy about whatever is going on with her.

They drag her unconscious body back to Serenity, and there's a sit down about what to do with her. Simon dopes her up and looks her over, but can't make many conclusions. Wash makes noises about her oddness, and finally, Zoe says, "She's trouble, sir."

It ain't in him to leave someone behind, especially one who got broke by the Alliance. Still, she disturbs the ship and sooner than later, Mal figures she'll snap worse than today. He ain't interested in Kaylee or River getting in her way when she goes. So, they pack up her stuff, sets her down in a shaded hollow with food, water, money and her guns, and leave.

She'll wake up, probably at the sound of Serenity leaving, and Mal knows enough that she won't blab about River and Simon to the Alliance.

It's kind of low, leaving someone like that, but she'll find work easy on Whitefall, 'specially if she lets it be known Mal Reynolds screwed her.

Silently, Mal wishes her luck.


The third one lasts two weeks before Mal kicks him off -- barely intact -- for not taking 'no' for an answer from Kaylee. He spends the next few days with his arm around Kaylee as much as possible, trying not to think of finding her shaking and bruised in his bunk.

She'd managed to get away before things got totally out of control. He makes sure to tell her how brave she was and then instructs Zoe to teach her basic self-defense. It's about time, anyhow.

The fourth one takes one look at the Preacher and walks right back out of Serenity. Book just shrugs when Mal looks at him hard.

Fifth time around, Mal mistakenly hires a bounty hunter with her eyes out for River and Simon. She ends up spaced, but not before drugging half the ship.

After that, the low-level crew mutterings peak. When he brings up the possibility of another hire, he almost gets a mutiny on his hands. Kaylee threatens to muck up the ship so bad they drift, and Zoe isn't quick to dissuade her. Simon starts talking about behavioural modification drugs, and not for River.

Mal drops the subject for a while, but tells Wash to bone up on his aim.

They take a series of low-paying, but low-risk jobs and run a minimal profile for a while.

They're back on Persephone again before things quiet down enough on-ship for Mal to get another chance to look for a new merc. He finds the sixth one at a run-down, but clean, bar.

More precisely, Mal finds him out back of the bar, having a little fun with what looks like a two-bit whore. Word is the guy is looking for a better job, being a little bored with the lack of action where he is now. Folks speak highly, at least by low-class scum standards. Far as Mal can tell, they guy's got no debts, handles himself well in a brawl, and has no habits which are truly objectionable.

Mal figures it's too good to be true, but they need the extra muscle. Low-risk jobs won't keep them in fuel and food for long.

When Mal gets to the alley behind the bar, he figures the man on his knees ain't the one he's been told about. He hangs back a little in the shadows, not too eager startle a man likely to be heavily armed.

Mal looks over what he can see of the man being...serviced. He's wearing some kind of ugly uniform, looks to be house security. Lots of the rich folk here hire mercs to guard their houses and women. That's about all he can tell about the man for now.

It don't take long, and Mal guesses they must have been at it for a while. When they finish, the whore gets paid and walks away, winking at Mal as he goes. The merc zips up and turns to Mal.

"You like watchin' that?"

Mal ignores the question. He ain't here for that kind of pissing contest. "I hear you're lookin' for work. I got a vacancy. I'm lookin' for someone good enough not to get shot up all the time. And loyal." He weights the last word, and nods slightly.

There's a small pause. "What's the pay?"

"10 percent cut, your own bunk. Free run of the kitchen, during meals and other times. Food's basic, but it passes and there's usually plenty."

"Ain't much."

"It's better'n standard, we both know it. I got a good crew and you won't have no fancy house-boy uniform to wear."

He gets a scowl for that comment.

"We'll meet the kind of trouble you don't get guarding the pretties of some rich bastard." He says it like a warning, redundant of course, but really, it's an incentive.

"I ain't scared of trouble."

Mal tries not to smirk. "Didn't say you were."

They stare at each other for a while, then the merc jerks his head. "I'm gettin' tired of wearin' this pansy-ass uniform anyway." He tugs at his shirt, which Mal admits is utterly lacking in dignity and taste. Rich folk. They probably get a kick out of making the help dress up like that.

"Only took the job 'till I could get somethin' else. You know how it goes."

Mal does. He's done things he had to grit his teeth to get through. Him and Zoe both, before Serenity. "Yeah." He almost smiles as some measure of understanding passes between them. "You want to get your stuff now? The bunk on the ship's all set. We got a job in the mornin' too. Nothin' fancy or off-world, but decent enough pay. You join in, you'll get paid real fast."

There's a slight pause, but Mal gets a nod in response.

They walk out from the alley together, easily falling into a matching pace. It's comfortable. After several minutes, Mal says, "A few months back, Kaylee mentioned she missed you." He glances over.

Jayne's cheek twitches, but other than that, he doesn't acknowledge that he heard the words.

In the poorly lit street, Mal smiles.

End


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