The fibers of the blue yarn caught on her calluses, the needles slipping and twisting in ways that River didn’t want. The process should have been easy, methodical, not so different from dancing or fighting or flying or the hundreds of things that she’d learned over the years. Some had come easy, but none were quite so as frustrating as this.
River had watched dozens of vids, downloading them from the Cortex when the rest of the crew was busy, taking care where she went, knowing the code the Alliance had planted before Miranda was still out there. The women in the vids made it look so graceful, but River’s fingers were too small or the needles too big, the yarn going where she doesn’t want to, not following her directions, the loops wrong, too tight or too loose, knotting unforgivingly in her attempts to salvage something from the disaster on her lap.
When River was very little, she remembered watching her mother knit like a proper Core-bred woman. But mostly she recalled the frustration and disappointment her parents felt when she had no interest in such things, hiding from her tutors. They’d been relieved when she took to dancing so quickly, but that relief was quickly overshadowed by annoyance as her interests shifted towards science, absorbing it all, and angering many when she found faults in their research.
When the yarn didn’t move when River tugged at it, she scowled down at the hopeless mess in her lap. In irritation, she threw it towards the wall, barely missing Jayne’s head as he walked by.
Shooting her a slightly suspicious look, Jayne asked, “You ain’t going all crazy on us again are you, girl? Need me to find your brother?”
“The girl is sorry and did not mean to worry anyone. Simon is not needed.” Rising, River bent down to retrieve the mess, but Jayne beat her too it.
Jayne observed the miserable lump of yarn in his hands for a moment before looking back at River. “Taking up knitting?”
River nodded miserably, a flush hot on her cheeks as she looked down at her bare feet on the floor grating, her hair hanging in front of her face.
“Needles are too big for this yarn. Meet here at the usual time, and I’ll show you.”
River looked up startled, blinking at Jayne’s retreating back (her eyes definitely didn’t rest longer than was appropriate on his derriere). “Jayne knows how to knit?” she asked, voice high. She had not expected… Men did not knit in the world she came from, but she realized it was practical.
“Grew up on a sheep farm, didn’t I?” Jayne threw over his shoulder.
River contemplated his words, and then realized he’d walked off with her yarn.
Something had shifted in the way that Jayne had looked at the girl after Miranda. She was shiny, a weapon, but now she wasn’t a weapon that he feared. Mal had yelled when Jayne gave her a gun, but Jayne had trusted her. In the end, it had been a good decision, giving her the opportunity to kill the gunman that would have shot Zoe.
That’s when the workouts began, the mock fights that caused Simon to flit around in worry, applying salve to all her scrapes and bruises, until he realized that it was actually doing her good. They weren’t out to hurt each other during their bouts, the fights actually releasing endorphins that calmed them both and ultimately meant that Simon gave her fewer drugs.
River hated the drugs, hated the way the way they made her feel, but she understood why he did it. It had actually been Jayne who pointed it out, that she was doing better, was being less of a moonbrain.
After Miranda, the Alliance had been weakened and people had begun to cut loose as other secrets were revealed. When the news that River’s school had been exposed and a list of its victims hit the Cortex, she and Simon had gotten a message from their parents, welcoming them back home.
River had run.
It had been Jayne who found her tucked under his bunk, Jayne who took her to Simon and told him not to drug her.
“Oh, mei mei,” Simon had said with a sigh, brushing her hair back out of her face and wiping at her tears.
“Please don’t make me go back there,” River had begged. Their parents had known, had sold her off like a commodity that meant nothing to them. She wanted nothing to do with them.
Simon had laughed, a startled desperate sound that held no amusement. “River, I burned those bridges a long time ago. After what they allowed to happen to…” Simon’s face had darkened, an unhappy sound coming from his throat.
“But your work,” River had said, hating how much Simon had given up for her.
“River, I don’t miss it. I miss the idea of it, but I don’t miss those people. Somehow this has become—”
“—home,” they had both said at the same time, startling smiles of understanding from each of them.
And somehow it had, but River hadn’t realized it until that moment. She’d never had a home before, someplace she felt safe and welcome, loved even, not really.
Two years had passed and Mal no longer gave Jayne sidelong looks when he followed River to the cargo hold for a fight or workout, didn’t find it strange to find them both cluttering up the table with their guns, cleaning them with expert movements.
Even the drugs were a rare thing now, but still River was always the girl, the crazy moonbrain girl, Simon’s little sister. It didn’t matter that she’d just had her twentieth birthday; she was still a child to all of them.
Except Jayne. But even he did not see her as a woman, not one her could have. She was likes the pictures he kept above his bonk. Unattainable and untouchable.
And she was one now, a woman, with a woman’s wants. But she was broken, twisted, missing pieces, and she didn’t know how to explain to make them see. She could never be what she once was, but she was still herself. She couldn’t go to Simon; there were just some things a person didn’t share with their brother. Inara would be a good choice if not for the fact that she would undoubtedly tell Mal. Mal tended to shoot things first and ask questions second, so that wasn’t even an option. Kaylee didn’t know how to keep a secret, and River never knew how to approach Zoe.
River wanted Jayne, so she came up with a plan. Not knowing much about women on the outer-rim planets, River had turned to her past, remembering her mother’s knitting, remembering that Jayne’s mother often sent him knitted things. She would start there.
Which is what brought her to now, legs swinging over the edge of the catwalk as she waited for Jayne to make his appearance.
The bag in Jayne’s hand drew her attention when he appeared, and River’s eyes followed it as Jayne made his way down the stairs.
Reaching the bottom, he turned and addressed her, “You coming or you gonna sit up there all day?”
River swung herself down, feet splayed and knees bent to absorb the impact as she landed.
Pulling the weight bench out from where it was stored, Jayne sat down and opened the bag, bringing out a tightly wound ball of blue yarn that had once been a hopeless disarray of knots. “Sit,” Jayne said, patting the bench beside him.
The needles Jayne handed River were thinner and shorter and didn’t feel so strange in her hand. When Jayne began to explain the needle gauges and yarn thickness, River found herself nodding, absorbing Jayne's lesson as his words rushed over her. Her eyes fell to Jayne’s hands resting on her own, guiding her movement, showing her how it should be done, correcting her position with a smile in his eyes.
River didn’t think as she raised her head and brushed her lips against his.
Jayne froze, his hands tightening fractionally over hers. For a split second he returned the pressure before he jerked back as though burned. “River, girl,” he began, all but choking on the words.
Chin rising challengingly, she said, “Not a girl.”
Jayne’s eyes dropped, raking over her length, gaining heat. “No, definitely not,” he agreed.
“You are always looking at her, always wanting her, but you do not touch her, not like you want.” And he did. Want her. At first it had scared her, the intensity of the feelings directed at her, and somehow along the line that had turned to annoyance as he did nothing to act on that desire.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with a man controlling himself. No different than my thoughts about the other women on this boat. Nothing wrong with fantasizing.”
“You don't think about her like the 'other women on this boat.' It’s me you dream about,” River drawled, letting the words hang there. Heat rose to her cheeks as she remembered the things she’d seen in his dreams, how her own fingers barely lessened the ache.
It was Jayne’s turn to blush, but he didn’t get angry at her for trespassing in his dreams, having long realized she had limited control over what she read from others. “I ain’t a good man.”
Setting the knitting aside, River pressed up against him. “You fight for me when no one else will. You see me and do not run.”
Jayne trembled against her, desire raging against the nobility that was counter to his nature. “I’m a selfish man. Sold you out once, wanted to leave you behind.”
“You were scared; we presented a threat. You do not fear her anymore, wish to protect her from the bad men.” River liked that, that he wanted to protect her, but knew she was capable of it herself and didn’t coddle her. Broken she may have been, but she was not fragile.
“I’m too old, too mean. Should find someone your own age,” Jayne said desperately, but he didn’t try to pull away as she moved to straddle his thighs.
“You growl and scare the boys off. I like that. I don’t want them. They’re dumb. I want you.”
Hesitantly, Jayne’s hands fell to her waist. “I’m possessive, and the others won’t like it.”
“She wants Jayne,” and she did. River gazed over Jayne’s shoulder to where Mal stood in the shadows of the catwalk, his hand resting on the handle of his gun, his face hard. Please, she begged silently, trying to make him understand.
Finally Mal’s head tilted and he turned, leaving River alone with Jayne again.
When River pressed her lips against Jayne’s again, he didn’t fight it, returning it eagerly. She pressed down against the bulge forming beneath her as Jayne’s tongue sought entrance into her mouth, smiling at his groan. River wiggled against him, needed more, and decided that maybe knitting wasn’t so bad after all.