Hmmm. I tried to write Mal/Jayne slash. I got preslash instead.
Pairing: Mal/Jayne Preslash
When River's playing games and Inara notices some extra tension on the Serentity, the events of canon shift to create a whole new pattern.
Spoilers for Ariel and Jaynestown.
Big Damn Dog
"Jayne seeks to find the direction that he has never internalized," River announced a second before dropping into the seat next to Inara. Some days, Inara wondered why she even pretended that she had any privacy in her shuttle. She sighed and watched as River ran a finger over the gold threads embedded into one of Inara's silk pillows.
"When one speaks of others outside their presence, it is called gossip, and it is not acceptable behavior," Inara corrected the girl. She certainly didn't want to get into a discussion of Jayne. Of all the people on Serenity, Jayne was the only one for whom she felt a deep-set antipathy. The man was crude.
River tilted her head and frowned as though unhappy with Inara's response. "You and Jayne are equidistant to your goal, but your claims are mutually exclusive. You should consider the likelihood that Mal is a poophead that will never figure this out without someone telling him. You should tell him." With that, she stood up, twirled around once and was gone.
Inara smiled sadly at the child's antics. "While I agree that Mal is quite the poophead, I have no idea what I should be telling him." She reconsidered that. "Actually, even if I were to suddenly develop the ability to understand you, Mal is an adult who can figure things out on his own." In reality, Mal couldn't figure things out on his own, but Inara was not being paid to help him sort out his issues.
When she had first met the man, he had struck her as crude, uncivilized, self-centered and arrogant. She had reconsidered the part about him being self-centered. In fact, he was one of the most giving men she knew, but he was less self-aware than anyone she had ever met. Inara had practically thrown herself at him more than once and, in return, she'd gotten little more than a confused look or some wild tangent where Mal assumed she was trying to drop hints about needing the biofilters scrubbed. The man was, as River had put it so well, a poophead.
Two days later...
"I ain't one to complain," Mal was saying, which generally preceded a complaint.
Inara stepped into the doctor's infirmary to avoid the man. She had no intention of giving him a chance to interrogate her about her latest assignation. Some days, she thought that perhaps he had some interest in her. He certainly seemed to be jealous, but when pushed, he had the most annoying habit of either playing dumb or actually becoming dumb. Inara wasn't sure which. Either way, she had no interest in taking that problem up today. She wanted to find River and retrieve her favorite hair pins, which River had taken with unmitigated glee. Unfortunately, Mal was coming closer.
"Yer complaining all the time," Jayne disagreed with Mal.
"Considering just how aggravated I've been with you lately, mayhaps you best not annoy me, Jayne," Mal warned. Inara frowned at that warning. Jayne had helped save the Tams during that ill advised raid on the Ariel hospital, and considering just how protective Mal was of the Tams, Inara would have expected more gratitude from the man. It wasn't like Mal to be intentionally ungracious; generally he was simply oblivious.
"Ain't tryin' to annoy you. I’m just speaking the gorram truth," Jayne defended himself, and from the sounds of it, the two had stopped just outside the infirmary.
"You can speak a nicer gorram truth, seeing as how, in the end, I didn't push you out that air lock."
Inara's hand rose to her mouth in shock at the thought of Mal even threatening something like that. Mal was many things—handsome, intrepid, clueless, but he never turned on his crew.
"Ain't like to forget," Jayne quickly answered, and he managed in an almost polite tone of voice. "I'm just saying that you ain't been real easy to please lately, and I have been trying."
Inara wasn't sure whether she was more surprised by the implication that Mal had nearly put Jayne out an airlock or by the fact that Jayne could almost be polite when he tried.
"If'n you want to please me, try doing your gorram work right. I asked you to get the galley cleaned, and there's gou shi from one end to the other. Aiya. Just get your gorram work done." Mal's footsteps were fast and clipped as he walked down the passage toward crew quarters. He was clearly feeling very aggravated and for a half second, Inara wondered if she shouldn't come out and offer to talk with him. She had been in the galley, and while it was not as clean as she would prefer, it was actually cleaner than usual. It had been evident that someone had at least attempted to scrape off the worst of the grime.
"Tee wuh duh pee-goo," Jayne cursed softly. And truly, Inara had to agree. Mal did appear to be kicking Jayne, even when Jayne was being uncharacteristically agreeable. Jayne's heavier footsteps vanished in the direction of the galley, and Inara's eyebrows rose at the concept of Jayne doing menial labor without even a token complaint.
Inara waited a few minutes, her mind sorting through new information the way she might take the body language of a client and sort through possible interpretations until she could find an explanation that matched. This time, she could not imagine what had happened between the two men to change the dynamics so drastically, and she could not imagine how all this had happened in the short time she had been gone.
Since she really had no hope of getting information out of Mal if he didn't want to share, Inara decided to follow Jayne for a little reconnaissance. Jayne might be crude and disagreeable, but if Inara couldn't get him to openly talk, she was turning in her companion license and finding a nice job digging dirt.
Inara composed her most airy expression and walked to the galley. Standing at the entrance, she could see Jayne with a bucket and a scrubber in hand, but he was just staring around at the galley looking very much like a lost child.
"Have you see Dr. Tam?" Inara asked in a tone so sweet that on Ariel, young doctors tripped over themselves to please her after she'd used it on them. Jayne looked over with a frown that seemed far deeper than she expected.
"I ain't the Tams' keeper," Jayne snapped.
For a second, Inara blinked at him, not sure what had caused that overreaction. "I never expected that you were. I was hoping he had been through here. Are you doing something with that washwater?" Inara finally asked the last question because Jayne had gone back to staring at the galley in confusion and obvious dismay. He looked like a virgin hiring his first companion and then discovering he had no idea what to do with her. It was an expression Inara saw often, but the context was rather bewildering.
"Goin' to clean."
Jayne frowned again. "Ain't sure. Don't it look clean in here already?" he asked, turning to her with an honest bewilderment that made him look young for a half a second. Then he frowned and that great hulking, dirty mercenary returned. "If he wants his gorram galley cleaned he can damn well show up and tell me what I'm supposed to be doing. Da shabi." Jayne dropped the bucket so fast that water slopped out the sides.
"Mice feet through flour!"
Inara was distracted by River dancing into the room, wearing Inara's hair pins. Inara smiled at the girl, but she ignored Inara and danced over to Jayne, grabbing him by the arm. A week ago, Inara would have placed a large wager that Jayne would not have suffered that sort of familiar touch. She expected Jayne to send River flying, she expected ugly names to be hurled through the air. Hell, after River cut Jayne's stomach, she expected bloodshed. Instead, Jayne stood there and let River cling to him.
"I can kill with my brain," River announced to the room.
"Ain't likely to need to if I can't figure out what's making the captain so gorram twitchy," Jayne said. But it was the tone and not the words that caught Inara's attention. He was confused and distressed. In the years that Inara had been on the Serenity, she had seen Jayne arrogant and defiant, furious and amused, homicidal and drunk. She had never seen Jayne lost, and right now he appeared lost.
"Not equidistant, but the fulcrum of the balance has an effort arm and a resistance arm that have numbers that do not match. Tell Mal he's a poophead." River was clinging to Jayne's arm, but she was talking to Inara.
Jayne snorted. "This makin' any sort of sense to you, 'cause I'm just hearing the crazy."
"She's been less articulate than usual," Inara agreed. She considered the room for a second. River was looking at her with an expectant expression that suggested the girl was running out of patience and Jayne looked... Jayne looked defeated. Pirates, the Alliance, Reavers, a tranq gun, alcohol—none of that had ever made him look so defeated.
"The undersides of the spill panels are dirty," she told him, pointing to the galley area. "If this were an Alliance ship, someone would be assigned to pull up each panel and clean that area so that the floor water ran clear. Then you'd have to take a disinfectant to the floor and the panels on the cupboards."
Jayne looked at her like she was crazy. "What's the point of cleaning a floor?" he asked, but he didn't sound as defensive as she had anticipated. "Ain't gonna eat off the floor, and as long as the counter's clean enough, what difference does the floor make until it's slippery or crawling with some sort of pestilence. Now maggots, them I understand havin' to clean up off the floor."
For a second, Inara just shook her head at this new evidence that Jayne was clearly far too crude for any sort of respectable company.
"That's just how it's done when one cleans a galley," Inara settled for saying. Explaining the value of cleanliness to Jayne was likely a lost cause.
"I'll get a screwdriver," River offered and she finally released his arm and went dashing out of the room. Instead of arguing, Jayne just looked down at all the spill panels. He looked disgusted, but at least he didn't look distressed anymore, which was one more piece of evidence in what was starting to become a rather alarming picture.
"I'll leave you to your work then," Inara said softly, but Jayne just continued to stare at the galley floor like he could find some answers in the metal grid.
Two hours later...
Inara walked down the stairs into the main cargo area. Right now, they had very little cargo. The medical supplies they'd stolen from Ariel took up very little space, and they were safely hidden. For the most part, the bay was an empty area, and right now, Mal was using it for target practice. Luckily, he was using a small ball and a wire hoop because the look on his face suggested that he would be dangerous were he in possession of a firearm.
"Mal," Inara offered. Mal didn't even look at her. He threw the ball, missed the wire loop entirely, and then had to jump to the side to recover the ball as it rebounded off the interior wall of the bay.
"Ain't you got some whoring to get ready for?" Mal asked.
Inara frowned at the unnecessary vulgarity, but she was not about to be distracted from her goal. No, if Mal wanted to put her off her game, he would have to try harder than that. "I understand that Jayne is in no small amount of trouble with you," she said mildly. Arranging her skirts, she sat on the lowest step of the stairs and fanned the blue and silver fabric around her feet.
Mal positively glowered at her. "And where might you have heard that?"
"I deduced it."
"Well deduce something else," he snapped before he went back to throwing his ball.
"I take it that he has committed a sin so great that even he understands that he has truly made a mess of things." Inara kept her head tilted as though considering her ring, but Mal was within her peripheral vision, and she could see him pause, his hand raised to throw the ball. For a second, he was a statue. Then he threw the ball and danced to the side to catch the rebound.
"From his willingness to pull up the spill panels and scrub them, I would say he feels actually guilty."
"He should, and it's about time he did the job right," Mal offered without even a blink. Ah, so he was being his usual oblivious self rather than torturing Jayne with any sort of foresight. Sometimes Inara wondered how a man as noble and self-sacrificing as Mal could be so utterly clueless when the matter involved any sort of relationship.
"He would have done the job right far faster had you explained what you wanted."
"I told him to clean the galley."
Inara sighed at Mal's obdurate behavior. "Would you have truly put him out the airlock?" she asked. As she expected, that made him spin around to face her. The ball bounced past him and rolled toward the far end of the cargo bay, but Mal was ignoring it.
"He told you about that?"
Inara didn't answer the question. "Mal, when a child is two or three, the universe revolves around them."
"Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn. Are you going to go off into some gorram companion crap?"
"I'm trying to," Inara said with a tight smile. Sometimes she thought life would be far easier if she could simply gag every man on the ship and force them all to listen to reason.
"I don't need to hear it." Mal started to walk away.
"Then you're destroying Jayne," Inara said firmly.
Mal stopped and frowned at her. "I ain't doin' nothing to Jayne. Seeing as how Jayne tried to sell out the Tams, I thought you'd be voting to put him out that airlock."
Inara felt a wave of vertigo go through her as she heard Jayne's crime. If the Alliance had found River and Simon on Ariel, it wouldn't have been enough for them to take the Tams. They would have destroyed Serenity and paraded her burning remains on the newsfeed to show what happened to those who stood up against the government. Wash and Zoe and Mal and Kaylee... they all would have died because Jayne was a crude and imbecilic man. However, she was too well-trained to allow emotion did to rule her. Inara traced the swirl embroidery on her skirt and looked at Mal calmly.
"In the war, you were a sergeant, and yet you ended up leading men in the final battle."
"Is there a point here somewheres?" Mal asked.
"If you would let me make it, I have been trying to make the same point for several minutes."
"Then get it out so I can go back to ignoring you and Jayne and this whole gorram mess."
Inara nodded and struggled to condense years of study and psychology and experience into a short enough lesson for Mal to understand his crime. "You were a sergeant, yet you ended up leading men while other sergeants did not. Why?"
"You want to talk about the war?" Mal reached down and grabbed the ball. Standing there turning the ball over and over in his hands, Mal wasn't exactly exuding confidence, but Inara persevered in her attempt to get him to understand his own forceful personality.
"I want to talk about what kind of man you generally are," she explained. "Why did you lead?"
"Because there wasn't anyone else to do it. The front... it was chou ba guai. Those who could lead, did."
"And you could lead."
Mal didn't answer, but Inara took that as an affirmative.
"Imagine that Jayne was there and that he had achieved the same rank. Would he have led others into battle?"
Mal snorted in disgust. "He would have run the other way."
"But he hasn't. We've gone up against Alliance and Reavers, and Jayne continues to follow your leadership."
"Because he wants to take the captaincy from me." Mal snapped those words out, and for a second, Inara could not imagine what twist of reality one would need to imagine to even consider that a possibility.
"So, Zoe would follow Jayne if you were to get yourself inexplicably shot?"
"Hell no. She'd put him out an airlock first." Mal smiled as though amused by that thought.
"So Wash and Kaylee would follow him, then." Inara raised an eyebrow and waited for Mal to put the pieces of this rather simple puzzle together.
A frown turned down the edges of Mal's mouth. "No, they wouldn't. But just because he has worse odds than findin' a virgin in a whorehouse, that don't mean that Jayne understands that. He's trying for my job without ever understanding that he won't ever get it." Mal gave her a smug look at that piece of logic, and Inara had to admit that might be possible in Jayne's case. The only person on the ship who understood relationships worse than Mal was Jayne. That made this a poetic sort of solution that she was working on.
"But right now, he's scrubbing a floor when he doesn't understand why the floor needs scrubbing. He's not challenging you; he's following you."
"I'm the captain." Mal walked back to his starting place and started bouncing his ball again.
"A week ago, he was convinced that he understood the danger better than you, and he tried to betray the Tams. Today, he doesn't understand the logic of scrubbing a floor, and yet he's in there doing it."
"Proves that sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks." Mal hit the center of the wire ring and the ball bounced back toward him.
"Are you truly this stupid or do you fully intend to torture Jayne until he is so lost or confused that he has no choice but to leave the ship?" Inara finally demanded.
"What?" Mal looked genuinely shocked.
Inara took a deep breath and attempted to exhale the frustration she felt for both men right now. "You've shown Jayne that he lacks the skills to lead. You have forced him to see his own failure, and now that he knows he cannot depend on himself, you are going out of your way to try and prove he cannot depend on you either."
"I'm not the undependable one..."
"Today, you were. He truly did not understand how to please you, and you pushed him away. Have you no awareness of what it means for two people to exchange power? Are you truly so uneducated in the most basic forms of relationships?" Inara stood up and stepped forward, right into Mal's personal space. He was glaring at her.
"It ain't like Jayne and me have a relationship." Mal held up his palms out as though he could push her away—her and her truths.
"Yes, yes you do. Now, if you care to develop that relationship into the sexual expression of your shared power, that is another conversation. However, you have already put yourself into a position of authority. You are not Jayne's employer—not now. Now, you are the man to whom he has decided he must look for guidance on how he should act. Turn from him, and he is left with nothing. He knows he cannot trust his own judgment, and yet you deny him the information and support he needs to trust yours. If you deny him, what does he have left?"
"And you got all of this, how? Did you read Jayne's tea leaves?" Mal retreated into his normal mode when he found himself trying to defend the indefensible—sarcasm. Inara, however, was not going to be put off.
"Companions are trained to see those who have been stripped of their power, through choice or force. The exchange of power can be a powerful and stable foundation for a relationship. Many people simply choose to allow another's judgment to take precedence over their own, and a companion is trained to help make that transition easier or to help a person find their way back from a position of vulnerability."
"If you can see all this so clearly, take him on as a client," Mal suggested.
"I would rather cut out my own genitals." That came out slightly harsher than Inara intended, but the sentiment behind it was still true.
Mal blinked at her for a second. Slowly, he closed his eyes and seemed to be struggling to find some word that escaped him for long minutes. "I don't know what you expect me to do."
And that was the crux of the matter. Inara considered the options. Obviously, Mal needed clear and concise rules as much as Jayne did. "Either apologize and use your apology to give him back his power," Inara started. Mal started puffing up like an indignant peacock. "Or," she continued before he could explode, "take control of this situation before things turn ugly. At best, Jayne could start to trust his own judgment again and we could have a repeat of this situation. At worst, he could self-destruct in ways that would do far more damage than you could imagine." Inara remembered a young woman who had fallen apart after the abandonment of her husband, a man to whom she had turned for everything. Her family had never been able to recover from the emotional trauma caused when the woman had murdered her own child, a child she had shared with the unfaithful husband. And the woman had committed suicide not long after. Inara had helped the woman's brother, but she sometimes wondered if her week with the family had been enough to sooth any of those wounds. To open yourself, as Jayne had, and to then be wounded through that vulnerability... it was more than the human psyche could bear.
"Mal," Inara said in a softer tone. "If you want him to turn to your judgment, then you have to be willing to let him lean on you. Set him tasks, but don't leave him so lost and confused that he doesn't know how to please you. He was distressed in the galley. That alone shows how much he is willing to let you lead if you will just give him the guidance he requires."
Mal didn't answer, and the silence was interrupted only by the slow rumble of Serenity's engine. Time drew out into an awkward space that filled the whole room. Eventually Mal rubbed his hand over his face in fatigue. "You can't ask me to take responsibility for someone else. I can't take care of myself most days." Now it was Mal who looked confused and desperate.
"You already did take responsibility for him. I have no idea what you said, but you have convinced him to give up on himself. He isn't defending himself against you, Mal. You could hurt him badly. Fatally."
Mal's face twisted at that word.
"Give him a task, but make sure he understands it. Praise him when he does it well, explain what is wrong when he does it badly. Expect a lot of him, and let him feel good about accomplishing truly difficult tasks, but you cannot strike out at him. Not now. Right now, he has no defenses against you."
Inara turned to leave. She had said what she could, but it was up to Mal to take this situation in hand.
"He was willing to die." Mal said the words so softly that Inara thought for a second that he had imagined them. She turned around and looked at Mal. "I hit him. I locked him in the airlock." Mal's eyes darted off to the side, refusing to meet Inara's gaze. "I was going to let him get sucked out into space because I was tired of not being able to trust him. I want to feel safe with my own crew, and he betrayed us because he's either gorram stupid or gorram greedy. I don't even know which one it was."
"But you didn't kill him." Inara reached out and rested her hand against Mal's arm. He'd carried this burden and this confusion, and yet he had never once come to her, the only person on the ship who was trained in psychology. It wasn't a good feeling, but Inara put that hurt aside as she focused on Mal and his needs, at least for now.
"I was going to. He didn't care about us at all." From the flinch, Mal didn't even believe that. Inara certainly didn't. Jayne was crude and ignorant, but he would die before letting anyone touch Kaylee and he had a lot of respect for Mal and Zoe. "But then he thought he was going to die, and all he cared about was the rest of you. His last request was that I not tell you guys what he'd done. He wanted everyone to think there'd been some sort of accident."
Inara imagined the scene. Jayne had accepted his own death. He'd realized that his actions were so unforgivable as to justify dying. She thought back over the difficult times Jayne had in the past month. Jayne had been confused after Canton, Inara had seen that as clearly as she could see the stars in the black. For the first time in his life, he'd seen what kind of hero he could have been, and he had to have noticed the stark contrast between the way those miners saw him and the way he truly was. Coming so soon after that ordeal, Mal's threats had clearly changed the dynamics.
"He cares about us," Inara said softly, even though she wasn't sure she should include herself in that group.
"It'd be a good site easier if he didn't," Mal agreed. "I don't rightly know what to do with him."
Short of sending Mal for companion schooling, Inara wasn't sure what advice to give in such a difficult situation. Clearly, Mal had gotten in over his head. She hated simplifying such a psychologically complex situation, but she could think of only one metaphor that might work to get these two great fools though this mess. "Think of him as a very large, very trainable dog—one that looks to you for instructions."
Mal gave her a dubious express. "A dog?"
Inara shrugged. "It's a valid comparison. Perhaps if you think of it that way, you will remember that if you kick him too often, you will either have a dog that cringes and can no longer function or..." Inara looked at Mal expectantly.
"Or he'll turn on me and rip my throat out."
"I was going to say he would bite your hand, but this is Jayne we're talking about," she agreed.
Mal didn't look happy. In fact, he looked almost terrified, but he gave her the same sort of nod he would sometimes offer Zoe before engaging on some idiotic mission. Throwing the ball at the corner, he turned and headed toward the galley with long strides.
A figure moved in the shadows. "He's a poophead with this stuff," River suggested. She pulled the hairpins out of her hair and offered them, holding them in the palm of her hand and reaching out for Inara.
Inara took them. "Thank you."
"Thank you," River answered solemnly. And then, with an impish smile, she raced up the stairs, her bare feet slapping the metal. Some days, Inara wondered if the girl didn't have more sanity than the rest of them. After all, Inara had just sent the man she liked to court another man. She truly wondered at her own sanity at times, and as a companion, she was trained well enough to say, with some expertise, that they were all poopheads on Serenity.
Inara closed her fist around her hairpins and headed for her shuttle.