Some things never change. Some things do.
Miranda was half a year ago, strange as it seems. They’re not shook of it yet, not quite. They’re landed on a border planet, like they always seem to be, and they’re…quiet. Tired, worn down, ready for a rest.
The Alliance hadn’t reacted real well to the news, and there were rumblings of another rebellion on the horizon. No one knew, yet, what was gonna happen. Well, River might know, but she wasn’t telling. Or at least, telling where anybody could understand. She’d been better, much better, after Miranda. But slow and sure, the madness had crept back in. Miranda, it turned out, wasn’t the only huge and horrible secret eating away at her mind. The Alliance men she’d met had held other secrets in their heads, too big and ugly and wrong to know like River knew. She was still mad, still — they didn’t use the word crazy. They said “touched” or “mad” or “strange” or “funny turned,” if it was Jayne talking.
But some things changed. Zoe’s belly started to swell. Kaylee and Simon felt like they could touch in front of her now. Mal and Inara, well, they were back to the start again. And Jayne had been calm around River ever since Miranda, treated her just fine. He understood, he’d say if anyone asked him, what it was like to have secrets that ate you up inside. No one asked what he meant. No one asked a lot of things, anymore.
Some people asked some things, though.
“When did you read that poem?”
“The one about the albatross.”
He looks at her, and like always there’s enough hidden meaning in that gaze that she could almost swear it was a language, like he’d come from a world where you weren’t allowed to speak your mind and you had to communicate through codes and glances and half-truths. And the funny part (without being funny, the sad part, really) was that it was the other way around, because Sihnon had been full of secrets and Shadow had been free and open. But here they sat anyway, trying not to say anything and trying to say everything, like always.
“My ma had some books.” He looks back to the incomprehensible jumble of papers in his hands. “One of ‘em had poems in it, just old stuff. I always liked the one about the albatross, about sailin’.”
“What other poems were in the book?” Her voice doesn’t shake, not a bit, and if it takes every last bit of training to keep her face blank then it was all worth it.
“One about a vase, and another about some flowers. They weren’t near as interesting.” He shrugs, like it’s nothing.
“No, the one about sailing was your favorite right off.” She smiles, one of the smiles that means she’s teasing but from a place of affection — most people can’t see the differences, but sometimes he can.
He smiles back.
“Jayne, what’s your ma’s name?” Kaylee had oohed and ahhed over that night’s protein, like it was some good meal instead of a block of nothin’.
“Why you wanna know?” He growled, but before she could answer, said, “Radiant. Mattie’s my sister, and my other sister’s Jules.”
“She’s the one who married that fuyu offworlder, right?” Kaylee says through a mouthful of mush.
“Yup.” Jayne picked over his protein, thinking idly of the way Book had managed to make it almost taste like food. “Jules always was the pretty one.”
“Where’d you grow up again?” Zoe frowned at her plate of protein and pushed it away.
“Why’s it ‘get to know Jayne’ day on this ship?”
“Come on, Jayne, I’m bored. Cap’n’s out talkin’ to Inara and Simon took River to see the cows and I’ve shined every bit of metal on Serenity ’till I can see my face in it.”
“Yeah, Jayne,” Zoe said with a smile, “tell us a story.”
He made a face, but no one could ever tell Zoe no, not anymore. “Fine. One story, an’ then I’ll be in my bunk and y’all can entertain yourselves.” The ceiling of the kitchen didn’t have anything written on it, but he stared at it like that might have changed in the last few seconds.
“Damplung’s what Mattie’s got. Ain’t nowhere near as bad as Bowden’s, but it’s not nothin’ neither. On Jimson we’re not miners or nothin’. Mostly ranchland, a few little towns, but there’s all this dust. The ‘formin’ didn’t quite take, and it’s hard to keep green on the ground long enough to keep it there. So one day Ma took Mattie to see a doctor, some big-city kid earnin’ his stripes. He told Ma to keep Mattie still and keep the dust out the house.” Jayne let out a chuckle.
“But Mattie, she’s a real fighter, and she keeps runnin’ around with the neighbor kids, kickin’ up dust and trackin’ it in the house, and so Ma tore into her about it. And Mattie, she’s layin’ in bed with a rag on her face, just sayin, ‘Yeah, Ma, there’s no dust in space anyway,’ ‘cause she wants to be a space pilot.”
“So is it cows in particular, or all animals? That you feel this connection to, I mean.” Simon looks only marginally more comfortable out of the ship than in.
“That’s good, then, that they’re here, right?”
A noncommittal noise.
“We should really get back to the ship, River, they’ll be wanting to leave soon.”
A long silence.
“River, wait, don’t just—wait up!”