They didn’t get much meat on Serenity. Not real meat, anyways. Cost too much, for one, and then didn’t keep well once it was got. And even if it was got and kept, divvying it up between nine people became awfully depressing mighty quick. It was easier to just eat protein mush, or the synthetic meat sliced up real thin and stir-fried to take the taste away when they were in the mood for something that at least looked like real food.
Jayne weren’t one to complain about grub that was cooked for him and served regular at a decent temperature, but all that protein was starting to drive him up a ruttin’ wall. He could eat his fill at the table any day and start feelin’ hungry again not a half hour later. That synth crap went straight through you, didn’t stick to your ribs none, so that left Jayne on the constant prowl for something to eat. It got tiring to have to snack all the time, and while the cost of all that extra food that Mal made him pay for certainly took a chunk outta his ten percent, he figured it was worth it. It was kuang zhe de to fight on an empty stomach, and with this crew you never knew when the next tussle was coming.
Jayne figured what he needed was a good solid meal of real food to quiet his belly’s chatterin’ for a bit. But he weren’t gonna get that out here in the black, and when they were planet-side a drink and a bit of trim always seemed to outweigh the prospect of what little decent grub he could buy with the same coin, so he’d tightened his belt and resolved himself to wait for the next time they dropped Shepherd Book off at the abbey and picked him and his customary box of produce back up again.
But here they were stranded on some scrap of prairie rock for fuck knew how long with nothing but the gorram mash and recycled water until Kaylee found the wiring problem that had Serenity grounded and got them flying again. He didn’t even have his weights to distract him from the vague complaint of his insides seeing as how their little mechanic had seen fit to rip out all of the floors in the cargo bay in search of the elusive electrical short.
He oughtta’ve stayed, gotten out the welding torch and helped put Serenity back together again, but he’d gotten this mighty itchy feeling that couldn’t stand being cramped up in the ship much longer and he knew he’d seen rabbit tracks when he’d stepped outside to take a piss the other day, so he grabbed a small-caliber rifle from the rack above his bed and headed out.
Was his Pa who’d taught him how to shoot. He’d given him his grandmammy’s rifle and taken him out hunting one dusk after his shift. “Foreman says ain’t nobody can weld like a Cobb,” he’d said. “And I say ain’t nobody can shoot like one, neither. I’ve taught you one, now you’ll learn t’other.”
Weren’t nothing but some skinny-ass hares on the scrap of nowhere behind their place, and they were quick as hell and hard to shoot. Jayne’s pa didn’t take kindly to the notion of learning on stationary targets. He’d taken him to a spot the hares were known to frequent and the two had settled down to wait in the growing darkness, his pa whispering in his ear, showing with his hands.
When Jayne had finally spotted two yellow eyes glinting in the light of the setting sun he hadn’t hesitated or stumbled over the fact that he’d never shot a gun before, just shouldered it slow and easy like his pa had told him to and squeezed. The recoil had been a surprise and made him grunt. His ears had still been ringing as his pa led him to the point where those eyes had been, and they’d found a scattering of dust and a bloody trail. Jayne had been tracking bugs and small critters, his baby sisters included, since he could crawl, and within a minute he had found the wounded hare trying to jam itself into its burrow. His shot had gone clean through the hind leg. He’d caught it easily and slit its throat with his knife.
Jayne’d frowned because the leg wound meant less meat on their table tonight, but his pa had smiled and reached down to catch a handful of the dripping blood. Jayne had stood still as he smeared it lovingly on his son’s face, a rare gentle touch. There’d been no words exchanged between them, but walking home Jayne had barely been able to keep the skip out of his step knowing that everyone looking at him now knew that he’d just had his first kill. The blood had itched as it dried, but he hadn’t paid it no mind.
The air outside of Serenity was dusty and hot. Jayne knew from experience that this kind of country could be right pleasant in the early morning, when the air was cool enough to gather drops of dew on the long grass and the sun was only a pink disk low on the horizon. But it was nigh past noon now, and the midday sun burned on his neck. He squinted against the bright glare until he made his way around to the shadowed lee of the ship. There his eyes adjusted, and after a few moments’ searching he found what he was looking for. Tracks, a few days old, but rabbit ones for sure. He shifted his grip on the rifle and set out.
The ground was scraggly with brush and prairie grasses that crunched and crumbled under his boots. He walked for a long time, just enjoying the feeling of the sun and the non-canned air, until Serenity was a small, huddled shape in the distance. His tread scared up small game, mice and birds too tiny to waste shot on, but instead of darting instantly back into the safety of their dens they looked at him questioningly. On a rock like this, it had likely been ages since any human soul had headed this far away from the towns. It was quite possible that no one had been here since it’d been terraformed. Good. That would make Jayne’s task easier.
His eyes glued to the ground, he soon spotted the tell-tale sign of fresh rabbit dung. There was a rustling in the brush ahead of him. He raised his rifle, silently releasing the safety, and fired as soon as he spotted the tell-tale ears.
The shot echoed out over the flat plains, and a small group of ground birds fluttered briefly out of the grass before settling again. Jayne walked towards the spot he’d just shot at, and found the still body of a prairie hare lying in the dust, a small pool of blood leaking out of the neat hole through its skull. Hare wasn’t rabbit, but it was close enough. Jayne grunted in satisfaction, reaching out to prod at the oozing bullet hole.
The blood was red and slick on his fingers. He brought them up to his nose to sniff, relishing in the subtle difference between it and its human counterpart. It’d been a long time since the copper tang of blood had meant anything more than gunfire and death, wounds on his body or somebody else’s. On an impulse he dragged his bloody fingers across his face, painting a red line underneath his eyes. His nose was full of the blood smell, now, and the wet warmth of it on his face felt right.
The sun had swung wide across the sky when Jayne finally stepped back into the cargo bay with three hares slung in a sack over his shoulder. Not a bad haul, he thought. They were skinny as hell, as you’d expect on a backwater planet like this, but he’d gotten a clean head shot on each of them, so none of the meat would be wasted.
His body was still geared up and itching from the hunt, and he was suddenly aware of the now-tacky line of blood still on his face. Loathe to wash it off, Jayne squared back his shoulders and marched defiantly through the ship. The metal corridors were empty of any that would challenge him, however, and it wasn’t until he reached the mess that he heard the soft echo of voices. He entered to find Zoe and Wash reclining in the lounge, Zoe with her feet on her husband’s lap, their heads close. They turned towards the door as Jayne’s boots thudded heavily on the metal stairs, and Zoe nodded in greeting.
“Hello, Jayne. You’ve got something on your face.”
“Yeah, I know.” He tossed the bag onto the mess table and moved on to the kitchen. “Got us something to eat.”
“Food?” asked Wash, perking up right quick. He made a move to stand, and Zoe lifted her legs to let him. He bounded over to the table and snagged the bag to take a peek inside. “Don’t tell me you managed to find a Groce-Mart all the way out heaaaagh!”
Zoe shot upright, her hand shifting to her holster as her husband dropped the rucksack with a yelp and backed quickly away from the table. “Wash?”
“Eyes,” muttered the pilot, wiping his hands on the front of his loud shirt. “Beady little eyes…”
“Don’t you worry none,” Jayne assured from the kitchen, opening and shutting cabinets in search of a tray for the meat and the plastic bucket they had stashed in there somewhere. The tray he found easy, but the bucket wasn’t in its usual location. “Won’t be eatin’ the eyes. Heard tell they don’t taste so nice.”
Zoe’s puzzled gaze shifted from Jayne’s nonchalant form to the still clearly creeped-out Wash, but she took her finger off the safety of her shotgun. “Jayne? Just what exactly do you have in there?”
“Rabbits,” whispered a voice from the doorway, and they all whirled to see River looming there. She stared at the bag on the table, her fingers twittering nervously at the end of her too-long sleeves. “Hares. Two young, one old.” She quirked her head to the side, as if listening. “Had a good life. Sun. Played chase with the wild dogs. End came sharp and sudden, too quick to grow sad over.”
There was a beat of silence as everyone stared, then River shook her head and straightened, as if coming awake. “Law of the food chain. The girl will eat.” She turned and left, her bright skirt twirling around her bare legs.
“Well, that’s one of us,” said Wash, still looking a little white around the edges.
Finally locating the elusive bucket, Jayne returned to the table and picked up the dropped sack. “You goin’ vegimatarian on me, little man? Cuz I’ll eat your share, if you want.”
“No, no, I like meat. Meat is good. Real meat is fantastic. I’m just used to it coming in a can or shrink-wrapped on a little bit of plastic, not looking at me all plaintive-like.”
“Pansy-ass Core boy,” Jayne sneered. “Did they even have any animals other’n the ones in the zoo on that great big city you like to call a planet?”
“I dunno,” Wash replied. “Did you ever visit? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure you’d’ve counted.”
Before Jayne could snap back with some rather choice suggestions in Mandarin about Serenity’s steering column and certain bits of the pilot’s anatomy, they were interrupted by the soft jingle of bracelets and scent of incense that announced Inara’s entrance. “I heard Jayne shot some game,” said the companion by way of greeting.
“Three hares, actually,” said Zoe, her eyes still on the tense standoff between the two men. “It’ll be a nice change from protein, won’t it, honey?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah. Sure.” He broke his staring contest with the mercenary and rejoined his wife in the lounge.
Grumbling to himself, Jayne took one of the hares from the bag and spread it out on the table, pulling the wickedly sharp hunting knife from its sheath on his belt.
He looked up questioningly into Inara’s shocked face. “What?”
“You don’t plan on cutting those things up right there on the table, do you?” asked the equally horrified-looking Wash.
Jayne rolled his eyes. “Yeah?”
Inara looked simply scandalized. “Jayne, we eat on that table! Could you please take it someplace else? Someplace outside of the ship, if at all possible?”
Jayne scowled, but starting gathering things up to move it outside. Three pairs of eyes watched him as he resheathed his knife, stuffed the hare back into the bag, and picked up the bucket and tray. Halfway out of the door he turned to address them again. “Any of you girls need new mittens? I’m figurin’ on savin’ the hides. Hare ain’t rabbit, but it’s soft enough and hella warm. I could brain-tan it for ya.”
“Outside!” Wash and Inara chimed, pointing. Zoe smiled quietly, amusement glittering in her eyes, and gave Jayne half a shrug.
Still grumbling, Jayne made his way back to the cargo area. Ruttin’ sha gua wouldn’t know a generous offer if it up and kicked ‘em in the face. He certainly wasn’t going to let the hides go to waste. He weren’t that good with a needle and thread, but if he could tan and cure ‘em proper he could make some mighty fine linings for the pockets of his coat. Maybe Kaylee would be more receptive to the gift. She’d come from prairie country, and he knew from their trek out to that idjit Tracey’s home planet that she didn’t have no gloves other than the leather ones she used when workin’ on Serenity.
Dusk was falling when he stepped out of the ship. Above his head the cloudless sky stretched seemingly forever in every direction, dark blue in the west and lightening to pink in the east, the backwards sunset a mark of the planet’s clockwise rotation. Dropping his burdens onto the grass, Jayne crouched down and removed the first hare from the bag.
Nobody’d had to teach him to do this. He’d seen his ma butcher enough small game growing up that he could probably do it with his eyes closed. His knife, Betsy, was sharp and glittered in the failing light as he set to work cutting off the head and feet. The hare wasn’t particularly fat so the pelt didn’t slide off as easy as it could’ve, but he got it off whole and put it aside for later. Betsy slid clean through the muscle of the legs, cutting neat circles around the hips and shoulders, and with a quick tug he pulled them out of the joint and dropped them on the tray.
Now came the tricky part. He pressed down on the blade gently but forcibly, exerting just enough pressure to cut through the skin but not the organs as he sliced the hare from sternum to anus. He scooped the offal out into the bucket with his hand, fishing out the edible organs as he went: liver, heart, spleen, stomach, kidneys. He examined the liver for cysts and grinned when he didn’t find any. It’d be a damn shame to have to toss the carcass and boil down everything after all that just because of some damn rabbit fever.
Jayne made quick work of the rest of it—taking extra care to get all the meat he could from the ribs and tenderloins—and moved on to the other hares. The work was methodical and soothed him, made him think of his ma in their tiny kitchen. He’d have to keep this butchering business in mind in case he ever lived to see the day where cuttin’ on people lost its appeal. He chuckled slightly. As if that’d happen.
He covered the bucket of leftover bits and left it just inside the hatch to clear off later. Back home they would’ve composted it to fertilize the little scrap of a garden Ma had managed to keep all those years. She’d never grown anything fancy, none of them flowers that Jayne’d seen Core wives keep, just a few hardy vegetables to supplement the mostly Alliance-ration diet of her large family. Other than the goats she kept for their milk and hair, that scrap of fertile earth had been her pride and joy.
Something stuck in the back of Jayne’s throat, and he coughed to clear it away. It didn’t budge, just settled heavily further in his chest, where it festered, dark and melancholy.
Back in the now-empty mess, he put a small pot of water on the stove and set it to boil. Digging the salt and pepper out of the pantry, he added a generous amount of each to the water before adding the organs and leaving them to simmer. He rinsed Betsy off in the sink and started cutting up the rest of the hunks of meat on the tray. He’d not been at it long when Mal walked through on his way from the bridge to the cargo bay. He paused when he spotted Jayne, his expression slightly confused as he watched him chop the meat off of the bones. “Ain’t it Kaylee’s turn to cook?”
“Yep,” said Jayne, not looking up. “Figure she’s busy enough getting’ us the hell outta here. Sides, sweet as she is, her take on protein mash ain’t nothin’ special.”
Mal nodded absently, his eyes still stuck on the hired man. “You know, you got something on—“
“I know,” Jayne snapped.
“Right. So… What’re you making?”
“Stew.” Jayne pulled one of the big pots down from the wall and started to fill it with water. “Shot some hares this afternoon, figured some real meat’d be good for a change.”
“Hares?” The captain peered at the simmering pot of offal. “Did you check to see—“
“They ain’t sick, Mal,” Jayne snapped, banging down the rice as he brought it out of the cabinet. “Dammit, you might be the one grew up on a farm proper, but I ain’t no Core boy like Wash and the doc who ain’t never had to butcher his own meat afore.”
Mal held his hands out defensively and backed away. “All right, Jayne. I’ll just… leave you to it, then.” But once out of the mess, he popped his head back in to shout further instructions at the mercenary. “You cook that meat thorough, dong ma? Don’t want my crew gettin’ sick ‘cause you fancy your meat bloody and screaming.”
He popped back out again before Jayne could retort, and sighing, he turned back to the stove only to nearly jump out of his skin when he found River standing not three inches away from him, staring.
“Jesus, girl! What’re you doin’?”
“Helping,” River replied. “Brought an ingredient for your stew.”
She held out her clenched fist, opening it to reveal a large rock. She dropped it into the pot of water he’d just set to start heating, splashing them both.
“There,” she said, smiling up at him. “Now the concoction will be edible.”
He made a face at her retreating back and fished out the stone. Gorram crazy girl and her crazy-ass ways. With all the rocks she had rollin’ round her head, it figured she’d want to munch on ‘em.
An hour and a half later, Jayne stared down at his nearly complete stew with grim satisfaction. During his searches of the cabinets, he’d managed to come across some bullion cubes and one of the shepherd’s tins of rosemary, which he’d added for flavoring along with the salt and pepper, and a package of instant dumplings. The dumplings were mostly protein mash masquerading itself as balls of dough, but they cooked up better than they normally did, so he was all right with it. They were trying to be sparse with their canned goods, but he’d found a small tin of mixed vegetables he’d figured nobody’d miss and added that as well.
Kaylee burst into the room, covered in grime and looking a little frantic. She stopped short when she saw Jayne there.
“Jayne,” she gasped. “Sorry, I… ‘Sposed to be cooking… Forgot…”
“’S all right,” he drawled. “Figured you’d be busy, so I did it for ya.”
“Really?” She spotted the simmering pot of stew. “Aw, Jayne, ya didn’t hafta…”
“Weren’t nothin’,” he grumbled. He grinned and punched her arm playfully. “’Sides, I’m sick a your mash.”
She punched him back, but her mouth was smiling, too. “Meany! Is there anything I can do to help?”
He stirred the stew and gave it a quick taste. “Set the table and fetch the others. I’m about done here.”
She set to work cheerfully, putting out bowls, spoons, and cups and starting a pot of tea. She didn’t have to go and hunt down the rest of the crew, though; the smell of Jayne’s soup did that. The scent of cooking meat had finally drifted throughout the ship, and in ones and twos the rest of Serenity’s inhabitants made their way to the mess, their noses sniffing the air hungrily. They seated themselves at the table, their eyes on Jayne expectantly.
Feeling the sudden pressure, he turned off the burners and gave the stew a last, nervous stir. Hefting the pot over to the table, he quickly slopped a generous helping into each bowl before sitting down heavily at his place. Running quickly through grace in his head, he shoved a bite into his mouth in order to keep from talking, barely able to taste it in his haste.
The rest of the crew looked at their bowls with vague uneasiness, torn between the prospect of real meat and the sudden abrupt reminder that it was Jayne who had done the cooking. The stew he had made was dark and bloody, gritty from the cut up offal, with chunks of roughly cut hare floating amongst the half-drowned dumplings and vegetables.
“It looks interesting, Jayne,” said Kaylee, always the one to look on the bright side of things.
He swallowed heavily. “’S nothing fancy. Somethin’ I saw my ma toss together a thousand times.” The melancholy thing in his chest twinged as he said it.
“Common wisdom,” said River. “Way to the heart through the stomach. Anatomically impossible, but quaint.” She eyeballed her bowl of stew and made a face. “He didn’t tell her that the vicera would be included in the dish.”
Wash, who had been poking at his food as if half expecting it to come back to life, looked up at Jayne and then back at the stew with renewed horror. “What did you do? Dump the poor things into the pot, organs and all? Should I be worried about finding a bit of fur in here?”
“Certain organs are edible,” said Simon cautiously. He didn’t look as if he trusted Jayne’s cooking any more than Wash did, despite his own horrific skills in the kitchen. “If cooked properly, they can taste quite nice. The liver of many animals, for example, is considered a delicacy.”
“We’re eating liver?” Mal frowned at his own bowl. “Jayne, when I gave you the okay on this little culinary experiment, I don’t recall giving you express permission to stick liver in this goulash.”
“Not just liver,” said River mournfully. “Put in everything but the sweetmeats. Jayne doesn’t like them.”
Jayne ruffled at their doubting comments. “Hell. Y’all should be thankin’ me for thinkin’ kindly of you enough to not keep ‘em all for myself. There’s good eatin’ in them suckers, and a lot of that there nutrition-stuff, as well.”
River looked anything but reassured. Her eyes on her bowl, she shook her head slowly back and forth. “Won’t eat the liver. She fears tularemia.”
“You best eat it,” said Jayne, feeling suddenly like his ma. “Got vitamins in it. C so ya don’t get scurvy.”
“Won’t happen,” she said. “Simon gives her shots and pills so she doesn’t catch the space pirate diseases.” But she picked up her spoon and, after carefully picking out all of the cooked bits of offal, took a bite.
When she didn’t immediately keel over and die, the rest of the crew took their first few tentative nips and nibbles. Jayne steadily ignored them all, focusing his attention on the enjoyment of his own meal. Gorram but it was good to chew something solid again.
The mess was quiet for a spell, everyone focused on tasting the food in front of them. Kaylee immediately reached for the pot and added more to her bowl, filling it up to the brim. Zoe did the same, ladling out more for her husband as well. Book gave him an approving smile. Simon seems stonefacedly determined not to like it, and made exaggerated faces even as he took another large bite. River ate hers dispassionately. Inara approached the meal the same as she would any other, plain or fanciable, with a grace and dignity befitting of her station.
Halfway through his own bowl, Mal seemed determined to break the silence. “It’s good, Jayne,” he said disjointedly, as if it pained him to admit it.
Jayne shrugged and scraped the dregs from his bowl with his spoon. He hadn’t washed his face yet, and while the rabbit blood was dried and brown now like old dirt, in the half-light of the mess he could pretend that he could still feel it hot and slick across his face, the ghosts of his pa’s big hands smearing it carefully.
“’S all right.” he said thickly. “I’ve had worse.”