Chapter 1: Remorseful
It wouldn’t have happened, if they’d made her stay on the boat. Her good days were nearly normal days, now, when insanity was only a whisper in her stance or her glance and most of her words made sense. Her bad days . . . were still bad, although in subtly different ways than before they revealed Miranda’s dirty little secret. So when the good came, Simon determined to make the most of them, and the crew – except for Jayne – did not object. She went on-planet with them, as she always had, and no one thought twice about it. No one figured it might be unsafe to let her eat in the ice cream parlor with only Kaylee for company, while everyone else finished picking up various supplies. No one thought Jayne might be in any danger, alone with her at the train station guarding the last of those supplies while the rest of the crew was busy elsewhere.
No one felt the need to accompany her into the ladies’ room, certainly not Jayne.
That was how she came to be standing, trembling, tears tracking her cheeks, good days gone and bad days back with a vengeance, staring at a fragile lifeless form. Life gone, life lost, because she’d removed it. Crushed it away. Her Academy training hadn’t been triggered, but she knew that training was what screamed into her mind that the murder didn’t matter, was inconsequential. But no, that wasn’t right, was it, she had re-learned the truth,
“No life is inconsequential”, she muttered, staring at the blood, then with ascending volume, “No life, no life, NO LIFE -“ screaming, and she was crouching, covering the back of her head with her hands. On Serenity this would not have happened, it was pure there. It was home and only the approved were allowed on board. This one wouldn’t have been approved, would never have been allowed in – she, River, would not have been brought to this.
This was not the same as reavers or a bar full of thugs and criminals. She’d felt no remorse for those lives. But this one had been a true innocent, a mere annoyance, and surely had lacked even knowledge that she’d been annoying-
“I’m sorry, sorry,” River crooned to the corpse, as the door to the restroom flew open and Jayne burst through it, pistol out, searching the dingy cement room for a target. Finding none, he slowly lowered Wilma to frown at the crazy girl, who was crouched rocking crazy-like in a corner but appeared otherwise whole.
“What’s yer problem?” he growled, stepping away from the open doorway and stalking in her direction. “You look fine. Can’t be hollerin’ like that in these public places, for no reason.”
“The reason is obvious! She has killed again! She cannot control it! It was wrong, it was wrong, but she could not tell it at the time, not in time-” She gestured wildly at the bloody body, at the innocence slaughtered by her own hand.
Jayne stared where she indicated. Wrinkled his nose. Crouched down beside her, his boots treading on her outflung skirt, and put a hand to his mouth.
“Gorram, girl. That’s a mosquito.”
Chapter 2: Peeking
She was up there again, and Jayne couldn’t figure out why her idiot brother didn’t do something about it. Where was that moron doc? If it was his little sister, he’d have her down on solid deck plating in a heartbeat. ‘Course, she wasn’t his little – anything – so it wasn’t his problem.
He’d gotten right hungry during the small job they’d just pulled, and beaten the others back to the boat. Heading to scrounge something to eat, he’d spied crazy-girl (she still was, no matter what that brother of hers said) up on the catwalks. But not just on the catwalks like a normal person; she was up higher on the guard rails.
If that wasn’t proof right there that she still wasn’t right in the head, he didn’t know what was. And it was only a few weeks ago she'd lost it in a planet-side bathroom, because she'd killed a mosquito. The doc had had to leave the boat to get her and drag her back to it, though by that time she'd calmed down a bit. Her brother hadn't seen the screaming and cowering.
He should probably see this, though. The killer woman's eyes were shuttered. Her bare feet were balanced on parallel bars, arms just hanging, head cocked at an angle. Her long, too-large rose gown swayed slightly about her limbs.
Jayne's gaze snagged in the long brown fall of her hair for a moment before his own head tilted to the side. He drifted nearer, his hand absently fondling the handle of the gun at his side. Those catwalks were pretty much opaque; all you could see was light or shadow when someone walked on them. But with her up higher than that, from below and slightly to the side, you could –
“Jayne!” The captain’s voice snapped through the quiet of the bay, and Jayne jerked guiltily before turning around with the “innocent me” look he’d used on his ma when he was a kid.
That look had never worked on his ma. It didn’t work on Mal now. The captain strode nearer as Zoë closed the bay doors.
“What in hell do you think you’re playin’ at?” It was his low, intimidate-the-crewman voice, and it worked. Jayne swallowed, flailed mentally for an explanation, failed to come up with one. It appeared one wasn’t really expected, anyway.
“I ever catch you at that again, you’ll really wish I hadn't. Zoë or Kaylee ‘r one thing, they can handle themselves. The little crazy girl’s another. Dong ma?”
Jayne nodded quickly, though mentally he sorted the inconsistencies in Mal’s little speech. The captain’d been insisting along with the doc that the former stowaway wasn’t really crazy no more, just a little “unstable”, but here he was using the old label. And if any one on the boat could fend off unwanted attention, surely it was the psycho martial-artist genius girl. It was just a little up-skirt peek, anyway, what was the big deal?
But he nodded anyway, to keep the peace and his head, and Mal nodded back, sharply, before striding off. Zoë trailed him. Jayne glanced up. The girl was still poised where she’d been, but her head now inclined in his direction. As itchy as the captain had made him, meeting her gaze now was somehow even more uncomfortable. So he raised his brows in a challenge. She leaned forward, till her hair swept the rail, and he lurched a half-step toward her in fear she’d fall.
“Girl’s name is River,” she whispered, but he heard her. And then she smiled.
Chapter 3: Hairy
She just plain made him nervous, that’s what she did. Like right now, sneakin’ her head ‘round the door, remindin’ him of a certain time in the infirmary and the phrase “kill you with my brain”.
“A person should be in the room, or out of it,” he muttered toward the door without lifting his head. “Stop pussyfootin’ around and pick one.”
She picked ‘in’, stepping through lightly on her bare dancer’s feet, and instead of heading to the kitchen like he’d expected, stopped on the other side of the table where he was working. She was wearing a shorter dress than she usually did, it ended right around her knees, and was full enough to kick up further when she walked. She had nice legs, he noticed, dancer’s legs, like her feet.
“I haven’t ever seen you pouring over paperwork before,” she said. He grunted.
“Don’t usually have any.”
“These are blueprints.”
“Ah, there’s that genius brain come outta hidin’.”
She was silent, and he glanced up to see if he’d offended her. Not that he cared, just that she had her non-crazy voice on, and it was – not nice, no, but – normal. And normal was good, if she had to be in here with him. Better than not-normal, anyway.
But she was only circling around to his side of the table, to stand on his right and bend over the blue-inked paper.
“What type of building does this depict?”
She tilted her head, not having heard the term before. Her unbound hair brushed his arm. He swiped at it, but she leaned in closer and it was back. He gave up. River stared intently at the print.
“A business establishment in which water is set aside for saving, investment, loan, or exchange?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Rationing, too, in this case.” Her head hair was tickling his arm hair.
She shook her head. Her zhouma hair slid up and down his arm and he clenched his jaw. Thing was, he didn’t really want it gone. Smelled pretty good, and looked softer and fuller than usual.
“What’d ya do, borrow some a’ Kaylee’s shampoo?” he asked before he thought better of it. He hoped she hadn’t noticed him noticing her hair yesterday, when she was up on that catwalk. Body parts were one thing; he was a breast man, a leg man, an anything-female-that-was-covered-with-skin man. But there weren’t no such thing as a hair man, it weren’t . . . manly.
“It is Inara’s shampoo,” River informed him, still studying the blueprint. “But she will show me where to buy it when we are next near a suitable shopping district.”
He didn’t know what to say to that and fell back to looking at the blueprint, although his train of thought – which had only been a few cars long, really – was completely off-track. He stared blankly until she spoke again.
“We are going to steal water?”
“Pretty much. Well, we’re gonna set it up so some locals can steal it, later, when we’re gone. Break in, ‘subvert’” – it had been Zoe’s word, and he’d looked it up on the Cortex, good word – “their surveillance, and give the locals time to put a tap in two or three of the reserve tanks. It’s a dry area, and locals have to pay for anything above their ration, see, only some pay more’n others dependin’ on their connections. They figure that’s not fair, and they’re willin’ to pay us to help ‘em get it fer free.” He fell silent abruptly, wondering why he was talkin’ so much.
“Surely fluid levels are monitored closely. Unwarranted drops would be noted.”
“They will be caught.”
He shrugged. “Not till after we’ve left.”
The side view of her face didn’t look happy, but she didn’t say anything. Steps could be heard coming from the engine room, and Kaylee entered the galley, carrying something engine-ey. She was glaring down at it and muttering under her breath, but seeing the room’s two occupants, her daylight smile reasserted itself.
“Whatcha doin’?” she asked curiously, taking mental note of how close to Jayne River was standing, and how quietly Jayne was letting her stand there. But the girl straightened away from him, now.
Her hair went with her. Jayne rubbed the arm that now felt naked while River answered the mechanic.
“We are debating the morality of transitorily righting a social wrong when the beneficiaries will be worse-off, in the long-term.”
Kaylee’s eyebrows described amazement. “You’re what? Jayne is – what?”
“Whatever that was she said, we ain’t doin’ it,” Jayne growled, as Mal entered the room. The captain’s eyes landed on Kaylee.
“Got that little valve problem figured out yet?” he asked her. Kaylee gestured at the piece of engine sitting on the table. “Figured out, yes, but we’re gonna be needin’ a new one of those.”
“What is it?”
“It’s the valve.” Kaylee picked it back up, and led him off into the engine room. Behind them, the galley was quiet. River began to hum as she spun herself in a little circle. Jayne eyed her, her legs, and her hair sideways.
“You come in here for a reason, gir – River, or just to bother me?”
She stopped the twirl, stepped back over to him, bent over him; closer this time. That hair fell down over both his shoulders, and even through his t-shirt he could feel it. He didn’t flinch away from the scented envelopment, or the voice that breathed into his ear;
“To bother you, of course.” She chuckled. Her warm breath gusted across his neck. “It worked.”
She straightened away and was out the door. He was left to reach under the table and adjust an area that was suddenly uncomfortable.
Chapter 4: Reading
Inara stood on the catwalk and leaned her elbows casually on the railing, watching the energetic ballgame taking place below. She turned at the sound of footsteps and smiled.
“Hey you,” she greeted River, who was wrapped in that long off-white duster which in Inara’s opinion should have been in the trash way before now. It wasn’t the only such article of clothing in River’s wardrobe, either. Much of what she wore had been scrounged up as cheaply as possible when she and Simon first arrived; he, in his stuffy vests and white shirts, she, in her square box and pale skin. Inara made a mental note to do something about the attire issue, now that River was going out on jobs and earning a cut of the take.
“Your hair looks lovely,” Inara offered, when River stopped beside her and imitated her posture, elbows on the rail, chin cupped in her hands. Inara pulled in her smile to hide it when she saw the younger woman glance down and move her lower limbs to copy Inara’s also; knees slightly bent, legs aligned, no crossing of the ankles.
“Thank you. The scented shampoo had the desired effect.” River responded gravely.
Inara lifted her brows, inquisitively. She hadn’t known there’d been a ‘desired effect’, other than to look and smell feminine. “Was there something specific you wanted it to do, sweetie?”
River nodded, her eyes distracted by the ball in the air beneath her. As she traced its movement she lost the studied pose she’d been in and fell into a familiar Riveresque one, holding the railing with both hands, her head and upper body weaving side to side in rhythm with the game. Or -- actually, that was so while Jayne had the ball. But after he passed it, Inara didn't think River's gaze followed it. Instead, they followed Jayne. In light of past activities, this might once have worried Inara. But she reminded herself of another set of past activities and told herself it was nothing to worry about. River hadn't answered her question, so she assumed she’d been forgotten, and turned to move away.
“I didn’t forget you,” River murmured, and Inara swiveled back, now hiding a frown. River was so much better without Miranda’s secrets locked in her head, but she could still set Inara on edge. If there was one thing the courtesan guarded, it was her privacy, and with River around, that always seemed in jeopardy. She didn’t think the girl read minds on purpose, but there was no denying that it happened. Was happening now, she judged unhappily, as River’s shoulders slumped further and further and her head began to curl into her chest.
“Not on purpose. And I really do like to hear you say it.”
“All of it. All the things you think.” When she raised her head, her eyes were a little desperate. “I don’t want to hear thoughts. They’re - most of them aren’t whole, just pieces, and they’re real, some of them, and some of them aren’t. Some match the words people say and some don’t, and I can’t tell which ones to value and which to throw away, of the thoughts or of the words . . .”
Inara sighed slightly, and interrupted the River babble to lean over and cover her hand with her own. Apparently her intention of doing so hadn’t been something River read, because the girl jumped before stilling herself with obvious effort.
“I’m certain it must be confusing. People tell so many lies, to others and to themselves. We act one way, talk another, think yet another, and underneath all of that there are usually truths we know but never act on, talk about, or consider.” She reviewed what she’d said, especially in relation to a certain obstinate captain, and shook her head in newfound admiration. “If you hear bits and pieces of all of that from all of us, I don’t know how you stay sane, River.”
She flinched the moment the words were out, which of course River saw. Inara really felt off her stride, lately. It wasn’t like her to be so benzhuo*.
“I didn’t,” River whispered. “I didn’t stay sane.” Inara meant to rush in with reassuring words, but the pure sorrow on the pale face somehow shut her words off. All she could do was squeeze the hand she held. River’s eyes were liquid mysteries, for a moment, before she tilted her head and a smile ghosted in to frighten off the melancholy.
“But I’m better than I was. Not everyone could do it, get better.”
“I absolutely believe that,” Inara affirmed.
The spectral smile acquired a smugness. “Most could not.”
“The top three percent of any medical school on any world could not.”
“Um, that’s correct. River –“
“The doctors who cut up her – my – brainpan could not. The upper-level government personnel who approved the project could not! The b-blue hands could not!”
Inara stepped in to what looked to become a full-blown rant and wrapped an arm around the thin shoulders. “No, sweetie, they couldn’t, that’s why they thought they needed you.”
In the loop of Inara’s arm, River turned to stare down over the catwalk again, but Inara knew she was seeing more than just Mal’s little butt-wagging victory dance. Distracted herself for a moment, she blinked back in time to hear River whisper, “Who needs me now?”
Well, it seemed she couldn’t say anything right today. Asserting that the crew of this boat needed her, while Inara believed it was true, seemed like too pat an answer. Willing to concede defeat in the ‘cheer-up River’ arena, Inara withdrew her arm after attempting a comforting squeeze. The players were exiting the bay, and the noise level was dropping. She was two steps down the catwalk when she heard River’s undertone, “I know who needs me.”
Once more, Inara turned around, and was a little horrified to see that River’s eyes were now definitely focused, with intent, on the only person left down below; Jayne.
River shook her head. “No. Jayne is self-sufficient,” she said slowly, without looking at Inara, “he doesn’t need me yet. But he gives me ideas.”
Chapter 5: Needy
Zoë’d known it was a big mistake, her staying on the boat and Kaylee -- Kaylee, for the love of Buddha-- going instead. The captain’d had all kinds of reasons, like he needed Kaylee to outwit the water bank’s computer systems, and that he already had two guns with him, namely Jayne and River, and that Zoë had been working way too hard and needed to take a break. He’d nailed her on that last one, she admitted only to herself. But this was the first job he’d done in years where she wasn’t his number two.
And she was angry at the forced ‘break’. Didn’t he know she couldn’t take the nothingness? She had to keep moving, or she would notice how much the boat lacked, with her husband gone. She’d nodded in final acquiescence, but fumed as she went into the kitchen to make dinner. He could make her stay on the boat, but he couldn’t make her not work.
She stayed angry through the meal preparation, so when she heard the noise the four of them made coming back, the anger in Mal’s voice and the protestation in Kaylee's, she felt vindicated. She went down to the common room, and they all four eventually tumbled through the door, arguing back and forth. They brought a load of sand with them, shaking it out of their boots and hair and the bandanas they’d worn to protect their lungs.
Mal finally banged his fist against the wall and demanded silence. Inara, who'd poked her head out of her shuttle at their return, slipped into the room as Mal stood before Kaylee, River and Jayne in his most captainy stance. Zoe adopted an at-ease posture just behind him, and Simon, drawn out of the infirmary by their arrival and level of agitation, sat on the arm of Kaylee’s chair and wound his fingers in her hair. Zoë flashed on Wash doing just that when she perched on his lap up on the bridge, and couldn’t breathe for a moment. It took a blink of time, with a grit of her teeth, to bring herself back to focus on Mal’s swelling tirade.
“- and never, never pull a stunt like that again without telling me!”
Simon had left his favored spot at Kaylee’s side and rounded to hover protectively by his sister, asking her what had happened. She, however, didn’t seem to feel in need of any protection. She looked calmly at the finger hovering two inches from her nose and said,
“So I may pull a stunt like that if I tell you first?”
Jayne snorted. Kaylee giggled. Zoë didn’t feel like smiling, but it was kind of nice to see that reaction in others.
“NO!” Mal exclaimed. “What possessed you, anyway? We could’ve been in there and out a lot faster without all that jawin’ and waitin’ for the extra-tap-puttin’ we had to do.”
River curled her feet up beneath her. The gaze she focused on Mal was suddenly intense.
“They needed me,” she said.
Whatever that meant. Maybe Inara knew, because her eyes narrowed on River thoughtfully.
Jayne leaned forward from his slump against the wall and raised his hand.
“This is not school, Jayne, and you are no longer a boy,” River admonished. Then, teachery; “Ask your question.”
He frowned at her, like he was debating not asking to spite her. Zoë knew Mal could see the meeting’s reins slipping away from him and he tried to grab them back.
“Not now, Jayne. We gotta lay some ground rules, here.” He was noticeably calmer, though.
“If I may, sir,” Zoë interjected, “what happened? No one looks injured.” Simon nodded agreement, as if she’d asked him. “Did you get paid?”
“Eventually,” he begrudged. “But we might’ve lost the job all together.”
“Oh, no, captain, I don’t think so,” Kaylee protested. “She had it figured pretty good.”
“Had what figured pretty good?” Zoë asked, not frustrated yet, but an end to her patience in sight.
Mal waved at Kaylee. “You think you got it down so well, you tell it."
Kaylee put her nose in the air. “All right, I will.” She smiled. “I had the best view, after all. River was brilliant, Zoe. Captain said it was setting up to be a fairly typical job”-
“Which is why we all made sure we had the safeties off our guns,” Jayne commented. Zoë nodded while Mal scowled. No use denying obvious facts.
“Anyway, they all left me sitting on my mule – an actual mule, long ears and big teeth and everything – and met with these three bearded men outside the town. Well, first Captain got agitated ‘bout a change in personnel, the skinniest one with the scraggliest beard was a last-minute replacement, I guess.”
“Hey, things like that can blow the whole operation.” Mal obviously felt his judgment was being maligned.
“O-kay! Anyway, our contact was the Least Scraggly Beard, and he explained ‘till Captain felt better, and everything looked all right”-
“Which was when River decided to step in and truly disturb things.” Mal, again. With his interruptions, this story was taking twice as long as it needed to. Kaylee nodded impatiently and went on.
“River steps up, and pretty as can be, says, ‘your plan is not going to work.’"
Yeah, Zoe could see how that would disturb things. Kayle continued.
"Mal got his ‘I’m bewildered and enraged’ expression”-
Zoë nodded, she knew the look well.
“And opened his mouth to shut her up, but the LSB – Least Scraggly Beard, I’m meanin’- stopped him. She said”- Kaylee turned to the other girl. “What did you say again, River?”
“When the water-counters measure the fluid levels in the tanks, which occurs every 1.5 hours, discrepancies will be noted and security stepped up. I calculate from the circumferences of your taps and tubes and the estimated water pressure in tanks this size – depending on placement of the taps - that you will gather at most 64.83 liters before you are caught, tried in a kangaroo court, and summarily executed.”
There was quiet in the common room, before Simon’s “River”- which was cut off by Kaylee’s enthusiastic nodding.
“That! She said that! The Captain’s face was furious, and the scraggly-beards were all confused but angry, and Jayne backed up I guess to get out of the crossfire.”
“Hey! I was adjustin’ my strategic position!”
“Jayne!” Mal again. “Stop interrupting and let the girl talk!"
“Me? You’re the one-“
“SO”- Kaylee raised her voice to override the men - “LSB didn’t have much to say, so Middle Scraggly Beard spoke up about we shoulda told ’em way before now, or screwed ‘em and kept the money. And River, she just grins at him like he re-invented the photon reaction drive, and says ‘There is a solution.’ And of course, Captain finally got words out just to threaten, and told her there’dbetter be a solution or we’d be revisiting the burning-at-the-stake he was regretin’ rescuin’ her from.”
Inara had been following the story intently since the 'need' comment, and at this she glared at Mal. He smirked at her and gestured at Kaylee. “Keep going.”
“So River bends over and pulls up her skirt. Jayne 'bout got whip-lash, turnin' to see"-
“What? Jayne”- this was Simon. 'Oops', Kaylee’s face clearly said, and she hurried on.
“From underneath there she pulled out these little packages wrapped in plastic, and put them on the ground. She didn’t explain what they were, so after a minute, LSB grunted. ‘I gonna get an explanation, or do I just hafta shoot all of ya?’” Kaylee was getting into her story, doing voices and trying to imitate accents. “Tell her what you said, River.”
River’s mouth moved in exasperation, much as Zoë imagined it had originally.
“Displacement,” she said. “Taps with reverse valves, for putting in instead of taking out. Sand. It will settle to the bottom and not contaminate. For example only, they will have to find more of their own.”
Kaylee giggled. “She looked around kinda disparagin’, after that, like she thought there in all those dunes they weren’t bright enough to get hold of their own sand. Well, they still weren’t getting it, and people’s hands were getting’ close to their guns. Then Jayne of all people kinda rolled his eyes and stepped up holdin’ his own hands out and empty. And he told them what she said, only simple so they understood.”
“Which was what?” Zoe asked bemusedly. She noticed Kaylee watching her face, which did feel the most animated it had in months. Kaylee looked at Jayne. “Explain what she meant, Jayne.”
“Ain’t so difficult. She was saying, attach the reverse taps when you do the regular ones, and when you drain off water put that much sand back into the tank. It’ll settle to the bottom, the water’ll stay clean, and the, uh, water levels won’t go down. They wouldn’t. get. caught.” He shook his head at the end, like the thickest baichi* in the ‘verse could’ve worked it out.
Zoë had seen Jayne treat people like they were idiots before – he did it to the doc all the time - but it wasn’t every day he was actually in the know when the others weren’t. For the first time since Wash left her, she felt a smile nudge at the corner of her mouth. It gained no access, of course, and the sensation was quickly gone. She wasn’t sure she approved of its presence, either. She kept her face soldier-set, as if all her nerve endings had one setting and that was numb.
But inside she wasn’t numb. She’d never been numb. She prayed nightly for numb, but all she ever got was this clawing screaming empty-but-not amputation feeling in her dark deep parts. Something had been there, something precious and unique and beloved had filled all those parts up. There was hurting like it was still there; ghost pains. But she knew that preciousness was gone because those special functions were lost.
It had been awhile since Miranda, how long she wasn’t exactly sure. The days all blurred together into one big ache in the back of her throat and behind her eyes. But they’d celebrated River’s 18thbirthday, a month or two back. So it had been awhile and nothing was changing. Time, the huaidan*, wasn’t healing anything. She did her duty every day, and without that she’d have had nothing but the pain. Duty, her captain, the boat, the crew – that was it. It was paltry, compared with what she’d had. And some days hurt worse than what she imagined having nothing would feel like.
She’d drifted again, and Kaylee was talking again, explaining that they did the job, with River’s modifications, after Mal asked whether the contents, not just the levels, of the tanks weren’t ever checked. LSB said they were, but it was a periodic dip-stick process just to check purity. Sand lying on the tank’s bottoms wouldn’t interfere. River inserted that since they would now be getting free water, someone would have to get their official rations in sand, or the tanks would fill with it and that would surely be noticed. The locals seemed to think they could manage this, though Zoë didn’t track exactly how.
So here they were back on Serenity. Simon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder, smiling. “That was a good thought, River.” She smiled back up at him. Kaylee nodded. “It really was, Captain, you gotta admit.”
“I don’t gotta admit anything. She should’ve informed me ahead of time, instead of just opening up and yapping to the locals and ambushing the rest of us. Things could have gone a lot worse.”
“Yeah, but they didn’t,” Jayne said, standing away from the wall he’d been holding up. “I’m ready for my cut now, Mal.”
“First the ground rules! This can’t happen again!”
They sat through the ground rules everyone had heard before, and finally were allowed to disperse. As Zoë passed River on her way up to the bridge, she paused when River reached her hand out. The young woman leaned toward her and whispered, “Smiles are strength. They’re not wrongness. But tears might have to come first. The broken parts will work again.”
Zoë didn’t pretend she didn’t know what River meant. She met her gaze briefly before nodding, just slightly. Maybe time was changing the hurt, a little and slowly. She wasn't sure if that was good or bad.
* * *
River stayed sitting while everyone else filtered out; it was Mal’s turn to pilot them off-world, so she didn't need to hurry anywhere. She fiddled with the hem of her skirt, waiting. It only took about five minutes. He re-entered the room, huffily. She slanted her chin up and smiled at him, raised her eyebrows. He folded his arms over the front of his t-shirt, and looked like nothing so much as the little boy she’d told him he wasn’t.
“What’s a kangaroo?"
River smiled. She'd known that word caught him. She didn't let her eyes leave his as she began the description.
Chapter 6: Girly
“River needs clothes”, Inara announced baldly.
The crew, minus Jayne, was sitting at dinner in the galley. Jayne was off doing something on the Cortex that was apparently urgent enough for him to pass up food. Inara could not imagine what it might be. Of course, she hadn’t been privy to the conversation between him and the resident psychic two days ago, which had run along the lines of;
“A kangaroo is an animal from earth-that-was. Strange in appearance. Jumped upright on its large back legs, and carried offspring in a pouch on the abdomen.”
“What’s that got to do with a court?”
“A kangaroo court is one in which trials occur without regard to legal strictures, or where objectivity is lacking. The outcomes are often determined before the trial begins.”
Jayne processed what he could of that for a moment then shook his head. “Well, what’s that got to do with some extinct weird-lookin’ animal what hops around on big hind legs?”
River hadn’t been expecting that question, he could see from her expression. He knew it when she said, “I am uncertain of the colloquial origins of the expression.”
Wait a minute – did that mean she didn’t know? He’d found something she couldn’t explain? He was tickled, just tickled. But better make sure;
“You mean, you don’t know where it comes from.”
River’s bottom lip pushed out, minisculely. “Just because I am uncertain of the circumstances surrounding the first use”-
“Hah! You don’t know.” He left before she could get in the last word. He’d noticed she liked having it, the last word. It tickled him further, not to let her get it.
The other people at the dinner table, and markedly Simon, paused now to look River over at Inara’s comment. Inara disliked being so abrupt, but the gentle hints she’d been dropping into male ears had the usual effect of subtlety on those two; none.
“What she has on does look kinda scruffy, Captain,” Kaylee submitted.
“What’re you tellin’ me for? She earns her own money. She can buy what she wants with it. Believe it or not, there’s one thing I don’t want to be in charge of on this boat, and it’s what my crew wears. Long as y’ aren’t naked.”
“Mal,” Inara was only a little reproachful, “we haven’t been anywhere near a decent shopping district in months.”
They hadn’t been anywhere near a place to pick up a decent client, either, but there were about ten different reasons why she didn’t want to bring that up. However, her once-large financial reserve was beginning to get a little meager, and she would have to do something to start replenishing it soon, or she wouldn’t be able to afford the rent on her shuttle. She pushed that thought away, though, for more immediate and less daunting concerns.
“What does the schedule look like for the next few weeks?”
Mal tried to figure out how to explain away the dearth of anything or anyone moneyed in their orbit, and found he couldn’t do it without revealing his reluctance to transport Inara to any more clients.
Zoë spoke up before he could.
“We’ll only be a half-day’s flight from Shore’s Leave, on the trip to Lilac. We could be there in two, three days.”
Inara was unsure of this. She’d never heard the name. “Shore’s Leave? It sounds rather military.”
“Used to be, but now it’s a clearance post for anything you can imagine. A lot of it’s black market, but mostly untraceable. You’ll find some nice things there.” Zoë nodded, as if that made it final.
Inara didn’t know about trusting the ex-soldier’s judgment, given her strict adherence to things brown, black, and leather. Then she recalled the dress she’d worn to Wash’s funeral and nodded.
“I’m willing to give it a try, if River is.”
River, who had agreed wholeheartedly when Inara first broached the subject with her, looked at Mal and smiled. He grunted.
“Fine, then, we’ll call ahead and tell ‘em on Lilac that we’ll be a bit later. Won’t hurt much. And”- he eyed his first mate speculatively- “Zoë, you know the place, so you’ll take them around and give them the lay of the land.” It was a last-ditch effort to distract her and give her anything to do besides work, eat, not-sleep, and pretend not to be in pieces inside. Very last-ditch; Zoë wasn’t a shopping kind of girl. But he’d already tried everything else he could think of.
A few minutes later, Jayne came clumping down the corridor. Pleased that there was food left, he took his usual seat beside River and filled a plate. Then he sulked some when he saw the bread basket was empty. It had been Kaylee’s treat, real yeast and flour bought with her cut from the water bank job, to make real bread. Of course, every slice disappeared right away.
None of the expressions he met held any sympathy.
“You wanted some, Jayne, you should’ve gotten in here earlier,” Mal lectured.
Jayne sighed and took a bite of protein something-or-other. Around his mouthful, and apparently addressing thin air, he said; “The first use of the phrase was during the California Gold Rush, and the first known written use was in North America in Earth-that-were-year 1853. It’s pr’sumed it came from the idea of leaping to conclusion – the trial’s, that is. Like the kangaroo, y’know.”
He chewed and swallowed.
River nodded and picked up her glass.
The rest of the crew was paused in various stages of food consumption. Glancing around after choking down a giggle, Kaylee saw what she never thought she would; Simon’s mouth open with half-masticated food still inside.
Oblivious to the reactions of anyone else, Jayne was perturbed when he elicited none from the person his little speech was aimed at. He kicked her leg. Simon mustered enough gumption to form a weak protest at this abuse, and was roundly ignored.
“Is there some specific reason you’re sharing this – obscure – information with us, Jayne?” The captain enquired mildly.
“Wasn’t talkin’ t’ you, was talkin’ t’ her. Hey, y’ hear me?” He jabbed River’s arm with his spoon. Simon stood up; Kaylee pulled him back down.
“How could I not hear? I am right here. Thank you, Jayne, for the illumination. The increase of knowledge is always desirable.”
River leaned over to pinch his leg, not the one nearest her, in retaliation for the kick and the jab. And because she leaned over that far, he got a face full of fancy-smellin’ hair and the press of her chest against his arms. Huh, girl had more under those big dresses than he’d given her credit for. Not huge, but nothin’ to be embarrassed about.
And he was startin’ to clue in that she did these little things on purpose, touching and showing and teasing, and that was just all manner of exciting. She’d just done it right there in the open, in front of her brother and Mal; the girl had balls. Well, not really, or he wouldn’t be interested. But she was gutsy!
He hadn’t figured yet how he was going to respond, but respond he would. Speaking of which;
“What yer sayin’ there, is I increased yer knowledge level,” he pushed.
River sighed long-sufferingly. “Yes, this once, you did.”
Satisfied, Jayne nodded sharply and turned back to his food. “Damn right I did.”
She took up her water glass with her left hand while her little right one landed on his knee and proceeded to inch up, but not high enough for anyone else seated to see. Yup, definitely doing it on purpose.
Then he felt something else, and glanced down. She laid a slightly crushed bread slice on his thigh and lifted her hand away.
He wanted that hand back more than he wanted the still- warm, buttery bread.
The arrival on Shore’s Leave caused a stir of excitement in Kaylee, and Mal did feel a mite guilty when he heard her talking about how long it’d been since she’d shopped for anything besides supplies or engine parts. So he declared it a girls’ day out, shooed all four women off-ship, and pulled Jayne to go over the upcoming Lilac job in lieu of Zoë.
“Where’s yer staunch right arm? She sick?” Jayne wanted to know.
Mal blinked at the word “staunch”, but refrained from commenting on all the new knowledge Jayne seemed to be accumulating lately.
“No, they all went shopping.”
“Good. We need more snacks.”
“Not grocery shopping. Girly shopping. For girly things.” Mal waggled his hand vaguely.
“No snacks? What, then, tampons?”
“No - well, maybe, I guess – I don’t wanna discuss tampons with you, Jayne.” ________________________
Kaylee was very animated as they left the ship and Zoe knew it was going to be a long day. But she hadton’t been able to get River’s words out of her head, and supposed she’d try to act on them; she was getting weary of the morass her soul was in, and had no better way to try to break free of it, so she supposed she’d try River’s suggestion.
Having bought bread ingredients and butter, Kaylee didn’t have enough money left to purchase another fancy dress, but she thought maybe Inara could help her pick out a nice clip or comb for her hair. She was more excited about River getting new things; when they’d counted out her accumulated earnings since Miranda, it came to quite a bit. River hadn’t spent any of her income.
This moon was a bit chill, which they’d dressed for but in layers. They had to leave the mule in an attended lot, which Zoe obviously disliked but had done before, and enter a bank of elevators which dropped them about five stories below ground. Inara’s opinion of Zoe’s shopping expertise was dropping rapidly, and she was expecting an unappealing cave-like environ, dark and dank.
What she got when the elevator stopped and they exited was warmth and light, scents wafting softly from strategically placed air vents, and a colorfully varied clientele wandering about. It was a cave, one enormous room with shops built in rows curved to fit the wall’s contours. The walls themselves were formed of some soothingly reflective mineral which transmuted the calm yellow light into pinks and oranges.
Zoe observed Inara’s pleasantly surprised reaction and let herself smile, albeit a bit grimly.
“Nice, isn’t it?”
“It’s grand,” Kaylee enthused, “Just like a fairy tale, Zoe.” She looked for River’s reaction, and found her gone.
“Where’s River?” Inara asked in the next instant, and after some anxious scanning, they found her partway down the nearest corridor of storefronts, peering into windows and bending over and around exterior displays. Grateful she hadn’t entered any of the stores on her own, Kaylee led the others to catch up with her. Which they hadn’t but just done when River dashed across the path and in through an entry marked with the emblem for some type of craftsman. Automatically, all three started after her. But when she realized the entire storefront was glass and they could observe from the outside, Zoe stopped them.
“Wait,” she said, “let’s giver her some space.”
Inside, River was questioning the grizzled man at a low counter. He listened a few moments, nodding, then shook his head. River began to gesture with her hands, evidently indicating shape and dimension, but he continued to tell her no. Finally she pointed over his shoulder at something, and when he retrieved an electronic pad and stylus for her, bent over it and began to scribble away at it. She made a few corrections to whatever it was and handed it back. He looked at it, then at her, eyebrows up. She nodded firmly, handed over some of the contents of her money-holder, and then pointed to the digital time readout on his wall. He bobbed his head at her, and she looked triumphant as she exited.
“River, you didn’t just pay that man upfront for something he hasn’t done yet?” Kaylee questioned concernedly.
“Half now, half upon completion,” River responded. Happier with that, Kaylee turned in the direction Zoe led them.
“What did you order?” Inara wondered out loud, following along towards what she assumed was the apparel district.
River hummed for a moment before answering. “I don’t wish to disclose it now.” She glanced over her shoulder at the companion, silently asking for understanding. “Perhaps later.” So Inara let it be.
They passed one store which Inara stopped them and backtracked River to, where they purchased a specific type of shampoo. River was looking very pleased, skipping an occasional dance step by the time they reached the windows with mannequins posed behind them. But then she herself was posed before a mirror, and the enjoyment was gone from her.
The mirror girl didn’t look like her. It was disturbing. Slowly, she counted in her head; four girls in the room, one girl in the mirror with three crowded behind her, oohing and giggling. Well, no giggling from Zoe, but she was smiling, and not in a small way. Zoe in the room, Zoe in the mirror; Inara and Kaylee in the room, Inara and Kaylee in the mirror. River in the room (she was almost certain, anyway); did it follow, then, that was River in the mirror? Maybe the mirror lied, but she didn’t know what its motive might be.
She looked forward to meet the eyes of Inara who was behind her, which was strange, but that was the way of mirrors. This one reflected the truth about all the others, so that meant . . .
“I don’t know me.” It was the tree branch and the gun, all over again.
The other faces became concerned at the quiet words.
“What does that mean, River?” Kaylee questioned.
“Or this mirror is a deceitful thing. Who can tell, who can know?” Lines of distress rode River's forehead and nose.
“River, it’s you,” Inara inserted decisively. “Clothes are just a layer, meant to hide or reveal what’s beneath them. What’s beneath stays the same, except for some added or subtracted confidence or self-awareness. Your body, your mind, and your soul are unchanged. Do you understand me?”
River didn’t intend to mindread, but she felt the thoughts behind the words and knew Inara believed what she said. Bolstered by that thought, she nodded, then paused.
“Will he know me?”
“Oh, mei mei, he certainly will. And then”- Inara’s delicate brows rose suggestively, “he’ll want to really know you, which is the purpose of this trip, isn’t it?”
River nodded a bit shyly, while Kaylee exploded with questions and Zoe’s own eyebrows rose enquiringly.
Kaylee’s hands were fists clasped in excitement.
“Will who know you? Jayne, do you mean Jayne? Oh, I knew it, I KNEW it that day you were both in the galley-”
River interrupted. “Will he like it?” she asked uncertainly of Inara’s eyes in the mirror.
“Sweetie, no man could fail to love it. If you’re certain you want him to.”
River turned around and faced the real companion, not the reflection one. “I know your opinion of Jayne, Inara. But I want him to.” The last words were resolute.
“You’ll blow him away,” Kaylee asserted. “In a good way, not a gun way.”
Under Inara’s instruction, River bought the light rose Mandarin-styled pant outfit she stood in. Other additions were a shimmery flowing dress in a cream tone, some pastel sundresses that fit better than her current ones, and everyday shirts and pants. Inara enquired about the state of River’s underclothes, and then an intimate apparel store had to be visited. Zoe recommended a pair of boots that wouldn’t slop up and down on their wearer’s feet.
Finally, Kaylee got her hair clip and Inara replenished her tea and incense supplies. In the lingerie store Zoe had even purchased new underwear. Inara paid attention, curious. She was right; both pairs were black.
Bags and packages weighted all eight arms, even Zoe’s, by the time the quartet felt ready to head back to Serenity. Once again, when they reached the correct lane River darted off to the same shop she’d visited before, was given something for which she paid, and came back out cradling it carefully in the crook of her arm.
The curious women waiting for her were disappointed when they saw it was a plain white box.
River shook her head before any of them could ask. “I am not telling. Asking is pointless.”
Kaylee protested, pleaded, and wheedled all the way back, but River stood firm.
Chapter 7: Dressing Up
The boat was oddly quiet when they returned, just as the lunar planet-set was beginning. River stood as the doors were closed behind her and cast her glance around. Kaylee saw the disappointment in her slumped shoulders when a certain large and appetizing mercenary didn’t appear.
“Hey,” she called, “let’s go stow your goodies in your bunk.” River responded to the chipper voice and trailed after her. An uncommon look of shared knowledge passed between Inara and Zoe.
“So,” even in the silent bay Zoë’s voice didn’t seem loud, “River’s crushing on Jayne?”
Inara sighed. “Actually, I’m afraid it might be a bit more than just a crush.”
“And you don’t approve?”
Inara moved her head in negation. “It’s not for me to approve or disapprove. But I’m concerned. River is very young. Jayne is very uncouth. River has so many problems, and Jayne can be so clueless.”
Zoe nodded. “But then again, they might surprise you.”
“Mmm, maybe.” Inara made sure her smile was very, very gentle. “You would certainly be in the best position to see a romance that wouldn’t be obvious to everyone else.”
There was pain under the smile but Zoe managed it. “I would, wouldn’t I?” Her voice was pensive. Then she refocused on Inara and her smile had a bit more force behind it. “Wait, are we discussing Jayne and romance at the same time?”
Inara laughed softly. “You’re right. River and a one-nighter, or one-hourer, seems wrong. River and romance are a given. Jayne and romance . . .?”
Together, they shook their heads. The “no” was in stereo.
“But then again,” Zoë’s voice trailed off as they left the cargo bay. Inara nodded and finished; “they may surprise us.”
River had let Kaylee brush her hair till it shone, and Inara applied light lip gloss and mascara. When she asked if she didn’t need more makeup, Inara kissed her forehead and told her she shouldn’t cover up her perfect skin. Now, River smoothed her hand over the silk of the rose Mandarin tunic she wore, then frowned at the hand which shook a little.
“There is no reason to be nervous,” she told it, “we are fine. It is only a new outfit. Jayne will like it.” She tilted her chin determinedly before she slid open the screen to her bunk and moved through the opening, following cooked food smells to where the others were gathering for the day’s last meal. When she arrived just outside, Simon, Mal, and Kaylee were as yet absent (the men having been handily diverted for an extra five minutes by Kaylee). She hesitated nominally before ducking her head and filling her customary seat to Jayne’s left.
Unbeknownst to him, Jayne was the focus of two women’s gazes as River began to fill her plate. He eyed her sideways, finishing his bite before speaking.
He’d noticed! River drew breath, turned her head and half-smiled. “New attire.”
“Yeah, I see.” He snorted. “What’s that for?”
River blinked in some confusion. If Jayne had looked across the table at Inara or Zoe, he’d have rethought his words, but he didn’t look anywhere but at his plate. The girl beside him completely lost her animation when he added, "chi* thing to do."
River’s voice was very small when she spoke. “She wore it in hopes that he would like it.”
Jayne’s spoon paused noticeably before continuing it’s descent to his plate. “Oh,” was all he had to say, and then sat glaring at his plate.
Simon and Mal’s return cut short the words poised on Inara’s tongue. When Simon’s eyes lit on his sister, his response to her appearance was all that could be hoped for from a brother. Kaylee beamed at him proudly when his compliments elicited a smile. Mal even put his two cents in that his “li’l albatross” looked “very fine.”
For once, Simon’s hypersensitive River-radar didn’t alert him to her quietude. Jayne, though, felt it all during the meal, and wasn’t surprised when she finished first and left. He watched her go from the corner of his eye, noting the long length of leg outlined by her pants and the alluring span of her back and shoulders under the tunic. When she’d been beside him, the rose of the silk had pointed up the rose in her cheeks and the alabaster softness of her skin.
He’d craved a feel of it. And, apparently, her new look had been aimed at him.
Well, he’d sure screwed that up royal.
Others at the table would’ve agreed with this assessment, if they could have heard it. Kaylee of course caught on that the unveiling of River hadn’t gone as they’d wished, and directed her harshest glare at him the instant his line-of-sight crossed hers. Once River was gone, Zoe sat her cup down with unnecessary vigor, and left the table next, with an under toned comment about a “ben huaidan* who didn’t know a good thing from an apocalypse”. Mal watched her leave confusedly, and was about to question this behavior when his mercenary also stood up abruptly, dumped his plate and utensils in the sink, and exited.
Kaylee and Simon were getting up to leave, too. He stopped them. “Wait. Either of you know what that was about?”
Simon shook his head. Kaylee frowned thoughtfully and said nothing.
“Won’t work, Kaylee. You know anything? Is there something of a, uh, intimate nature going on between Zoe and Jayne?”
Kaylee gasped, then chortled. “Um, I don’t think so, cap’n.” She grabbed Simon’s arm and made her escape good before she could give anything away, which left Inara to blandly meet Mal’s stare.
“I don’t suppose you plan on enlightenin’ me,” he grumped at her. She rose, walked past him with her dirty dishes, and placed them carefully in the sink. On her way back he reached out and snagged her sleeve. She paused at his side, heart thumping, its accustomed reaction to every such casual touch, or near-touch, or eye contact that lasted a second too long. I either have to do something about this or get back off the ship, she realized as she stood there. Her emotions weren’t going to fade; wasn’t that why she’d returned to Serenity in the first place?
I will always love this man. It was the first time she’d allowed herself to think the words all the way through, and they shook her.
There was an insistent tug on her arm and she blinked, looked down into Mal’s face. “Hey, you plannin’ on answering me?” he demanded.
“Ah- what was the question?” He hadn’t let go of her, and she hoped he couldn’t feel her trembling.
“Jayne and Zoe. Anything going on there I should know about?”
“If Zoe and Jayne want you to know anything, they’ll tell you in their own time.” She even managed a smile. Then she knew that was a mistake as he zeroed in on it. “Inara, what’s wrong?” He stood, and was abruptly way too close. But she couldn’t have backed away if she’d been attached to a tow mule. When she didn’t form a response, the frown on his face intensified, and his hand slid down her arm to curl around her fingers.
She might pass out, here and now; her blood pounded so fiercely through her ears she didn’t think she’d have heard an engine explosion. He was only holding her hand, for Buddha’s sake, she was a Companion! She’d performed probably every sexual act in the ‘verse. But never with Mal. His skin was so warm on hers, his fingers firm and steady but gentle. The scrape of his palm’s calluses against her knuckles was maybe the most erotic thing she’d ever felt.
“Inara, please,” his tone was worried, “Are you all right?”
She opened her mouth, and managed a gasp. “A little trouble – breathing”- mustering strength, she pulled away from him and was out and down the corridor. But of course he followed her, demanding she go see the doc. When he caught up with her she stopped of her own accord, to keep him from touching her again. She couldn’t handle that right now, she needed to think. Plan.
“I’m fine, Mal, really. Breathing normally, now.” She demonstrated. “See?”
He was distracted for a moment by the rare opportunity to stare openly at her breasts, rising and falling in front of him. “Um, yeah -- that’s not normal, Inara, to get short of breath like that. ‘s it happened before?”
Her laugh sounded strange, she knew. “Oh, yes, it’s happened before. Thank you, Mal, but truly, you don’t need to be concerned.”
So he let her go. Watched her the whole way to her shuttle, though. Then went to discuss this with Simon.
Jayne holed up in his bunk until he could hear that the sounds of everyone else moving around had settled down for the night. Then he waited another canny half-hour, to be sure that brother of hers was in either his bunk or Kaylee’s for good. Only then did he slip out of his own and down to River’s, to knock quietly on her door.
It didn’t slide open right away, and his knocks got louder until he heard her soberly bid him to enter. He did so and skimmed the screen tight behind him. Then he stood with his arms crossed, uncomfortable. He’d never been in here before. It was nicer than his own, of course, but pretty bare for what he figured a girl’s room would look like. River was sitting cross-legged on her mattress, and she was back in one of her old too-large sundresses. He cast a glance around and saw a pile of rose silk dropped carelessly in the corner. The sight dashed guilt over the discomfort he was already experiencing. At the meal, when she’d practically said she’d gotten all dressed up for him, he’d felt it like a punch in the gut. No girl had ever done that, not for him, not in his whole life.
He cleared his throat. She hadn’t looked at him yet, and that didn’t feel good.
“’bout the clothes,” he ventured, shoving his hands into his pockets. “They was really for me?”
She didn’t turn but he could see her eyeballs slide his way and her lids squinch together. Right, what was he thinking, like she was gonna admit to it now when her pride was hurt. And she wasn’t gonna help him along here, either.
“I didn’t mean they ain’t pretty, River, you’re all kinds of beautiful all the time.” Her head rose, and he rushed on past that, “but you shouldn’t be lookin’ like every other planet-dwellin woman out there. You’re not every other woman, you’re you. I liked your old clothes just fine ‘cuz men – people, I mean, didn’t look at you and – well, now they will, and know that you’re”- he chopped the sentence off there, having said way more than he intended.
But she was looking at him now, and of course she’d gone and fastened onto all the stupid, self-revealing things he’d just said.
“What? She is what?”
She was callin’ herself ‘she’ again, and had at dinner, too; weren’t a good sign. He scrubbed a fist in his hair, walked nearer, and crouched down on his heels by her bed. “I don’t like the thought of every diao* in the system takin’ notice and thinkin’ they can have ya.”
River firmed her lips. “They can’t have me,” she asserted. “I am very picky.”
“Good!” he exclaimed. “That’s good, because you’re”- he pulled himself up short again, looking away from her large brown eyes.
“Don’t stop,” she pleaded, “say it. Please? Already called me beautiful . . .” He winced, and caved. She could read it, anyway, so what was the use of not sayin’ it?
“Look, yer special, everyone knows it; I’m not so dumb I don’t know it too. Don’t mean anything.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t do that, don’t be like them. You know it means something.”
“Be like who?” He was honestly bewildered.
“All the rest of them. You match, Jayne. Your mind doesn’t think what your words don’t say. Except for Ariel, all correlates, contiguous”-
“Whoa, hold on, you’ve totally lost me. And Ariel – was a long time ago. All right, y’ look good in that outfit. Hen yan*. If it’s fer me . . . I liked it. Hell, y’ can read me and know how damn much I liked it, my thoughts ‘r definitely matchin’ my words, here. Just, don’t let ‘nara start puttin’ yer hair up, hear? Leave it down.”
That was quite enough soul-barin’ for the night, and the month, and maybe the year. He straightened away from her, and caught sight again of the garments discarded in the corner. He bent over, picked them up, and shook them out. “Now, look, these’re all wrinkled,” he said, his back to the now bright-eyed girl on the bed. “You gotta take care of this kind of silk, can’t just fling it on the floor like that.” Mid-lecture, he looked around for a hanger. River followed his movements bemusedly, then pointed. He took hold of the hanger she indicated, carefully attached the pants, and hung the tunic on it, smoothing all the layers down. He used the backsides of his hands so the calluses on the palm sides wouldn’t snag the material. “You watchin’, River?”
“Yes.” She was, very closely, in fact. And he was becomin' many kinds of warm, running his hands over the cloth that had recently touched all her girly skin in very intimate places. He hooked the hanger over her clothes bar, stopping to check out the other items hanging there that he’d never seen on her. Then, unaccountably uncomfortable, he clomped over to the entry.
She left the bed and was in front of him in what seemed to be one fluid motion. He paused with the doorframe in his hand as her bare toes touched his boot tips and her up-tilted face drifted scant inches below his down-turned one. “Is this all you want to do, Jayne? Care for my clothes? You don’t want to do anything else, in this room with a bed, late at night, with this girl?”
He had to swallow before he could answer. He felt melted to the floor. “No,” he bit out, “That ain't all. I definitely want to do somethin’ else. Lots of somethin’ elses. You offerin’, up front and clear?”
She lowered her head until he could only see brown hair and white shoulders. “Not yet,” she whispered. “There are steps.” She took two precise steps back, and he could move again. “I am not one of your whores, Jayne.” She looked at him severely.
His hand clenched on her doorframe. “Hey! Did I say y’ were? Did I think it? Didn’t that whole spiel I just went through tell ya anythin’?!”
Her eyes crinkled in the corners, and were glowing again. “Yes, it did. But clarity is necessary. Now we are clear. Good night, my Jayne.”
The next thing he knew he was on the other side of the door staring as it slipped closed. They were clear? He’d been clearer about the physics of reacting photons when Kaylee’d tried to explain the engine to him.
But she had called him “my Jayne”. Had to mean somethin’.
- ben huaidan; stupid bastard
- diao; penis
- hen yan; very sexy
Chapter 8: Dressing Down
This boat was turning into a strange place to be, Mal mused, and he was disgruntled because he had no real way of controlling it. Since that meal where Jayne spouted something off about kangaroo courts, he and River had been running around engagin’ in some peculiar and slightly creepifiying competition. Creepifyin’, because he couldn’t get used to Jayne knowing or caring that baby kangaroos from Earth-what-were had crawled down their mama’s birth canals on their own and were about two inches long when they did it.
It wasn’t quite as bad when River responded that in poor grazing seasons the mothers would nurture the little female joeys and let the male ones die. In fact, Jayne’s reaction to that had been right amusing. They were all used to oddities from River, even as improved as she was. But this, the only thing he could see was that it was a strange brand of flirting. With Jayne. Who apparently was flirting back.
Aside from all the wrongness he saw in that, he wondered what had happened with Jayne and Zoë. Nobody ever told him anything.
And Inara had been odd, lately, too. The whole breathing-trouble thing was just a part of it. She didn’t seem to take their little back-and-forth spats as lightly as she’d once been able to. More than once her eyes had crossed with his and seemed to be trying to communicate something he couldn’t quite figure out. Or, if he was honest, it was more that he wasn’t certain he dared try.
He passed two of his oddities, Jayne and River, in the corridor, both with mounds of clothing in their arms. He didn’t ask. But when Zoë was the next person he met up with, he stopped her.
“Zoë, with everything that’s going on, are you OK?”
Used to being on the same wavelength as her captain without having to stop to think, Zoë stopped to think. Didn’t get it.
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“I’m not blind, I’ve seen all the flirting, if you want to call it that. It doesn’t bother you at all? If you weren’t that attached, then that’s . . . good.”
Now completely lost, Zoë adjusted the leather vest she wore.
“No idea what you’re saying, captain, you’re gonna have to be clearer than that.”
Mal shrugged, resigned.
“All right, if that’s how you want to be. Inara and Kaylee told me about you and Jayne. But if it really doesn’t bother you, I’ll leave it alone.”
He moved to continue past her. Zoë blinked as what he’d meant dawned on her, then she grabbed his arm. The action was so far from something she would normally do that he stopped in surprise, and registered the quizzicalness of her face.
“Captain, I appreciate that everyone on board had been trying to cheer me up. Is this your idea of a little joke? You have to tell me these things so I know when to laugh.”
For a moment he so enjoyed this reemergence of her dry humor that he only looked at her. Then he shook his head confusedly.
“Are you telling me, you and Jayne never had a thing?”
Zoë dropped his arm.
“Are you telling me that wasn’t supposed to be a joke?” Mal’s jaw set. “Kaylee and Inara . . . well, I guess no, really just Inara. Why would she ever – later, Zoë”—
“mm-hm,” she waved her fingers at his retreating back.
River followed Jayne down to where the laundry was, her soiled clothing piled in her arms. He’d told her it was time she learned. She’d never had to do it at home or the Academy, of course, and here Simon had been doing both of theirs. Jayne said it had to stop. Though she didn’t see why, she went along with it so she could have time with him. Even though it meant time with the washing machine, too.
The machine was a little alarming; it moved about on its own sometimes after Simon turned it on, in ways its designer had not intended. It was unnatural. Kaylee said that was because Simon didn’t ‘balance his loads’, but River wasn’t certain Kaylee knew what she was talking about. The big grey thing was attached to the wall by a single small cord, and who knew when it might decide to burst its flimsy bond and progress through the boat, shaking and spilling out cleaning fluid? If it did that it might do anything. Another reason she had come with Jayne; she didn’t want to be in here alone with it if Simon suddenly decided she needed to do her own laundry.
Jayne dropped his pile on the floor and opened the maw of the appliance, wanting to show her something. She approached apprehensively. He retained all his fingers, just as Simon did when he touched the monster, but she still wasn’t sure it was tame.
She noted that Jayne had nice fingers, with blunt-tipped nails that he kept clean. She wholly approved of that. The digits were a good size, strong and long like the rest of him, but not so bulky that they weren’t adept at handling things.
They would be good at handling her, she thought, moving a bit closer. Their tips were callused and she could imagine the scraping feeling they would make on her bare skin. Veins sketched themselves up and around them; she visually traced the course of a large one that began at his longest finger before languidly sliding over large browned knuckles. She imagined doing the same thing with her tongue.
With one deep breath, the fiendish cleansing equipment was forgotten as she followed the vein’s licentious path. It caressed his powerful hand up to his well-built wrist. Here she contemplated the myriad little bones ridden by his supple skin until another vein entranced her. This one tunneled sinuously beneath that warm man-skin and a dusting of alluring short dark hair, driving itself higher and harder against the flow of the blood within it.
River thought she could sense the pulsing of that blood, hot and fluid and alive, pumping rhythmically again and again, deeply and wetly and hard . . .
Her mouth was very dry. She felt her own heartbeat’s slow heavy thud as she continued tracking greedily; the privileged blood vessel was just all overJayne’s arm, moving on him wantonly, probing into the warm depths of his elbow and nuzzling there. Then it plunged higher yet, up to the hard places that truly robbed her of breath.
Brachioradialus, biceps brachii, deltoid; these are my paradise, she though muzzily. The vein whose intimacy she so coveted curved clingingly over gorgeous firm muscle that rippled smoothly, undulating with movement, swelling and flexing, relaxing then contracting . . . She was panting.
“River.” Fingers, lovely agile fingers, snapped in her face. “Hey, River, you in there, feng le girl? That’s all ya have to do, it’s easy. Now let me see you do it.”
She looked at him vacuously for a long enough period of time that he knew she hadn’t heard a word of his instruction. Sighing, he re-opened the washer to start over, and wondered why she flinched away from the lid. But then she leaned over to look uneasily down into the depths of the drum.
“Jayne’s t-shirts are in there?” She asked dreamily.
“Yeah, most of ‘em were dirty.”
“The machine will deliver them up whole and safe? Undamaged?”
She straightened away, satisfied about he didn’t know what. “Good,” she said, “Jayne should always wear t-shirts. Ones with short sleeves.” Her brow furrowed a minute. “Cannot recall, does he have any with no sleeves?” ___________________________
There was quiet in the room except for the machine swishing to itself. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it wasn’t exactly light, either. River had told Jayne there were ‘steps’ to whatever it was they were doing, and he mused that there musta been a million of ‘em, ‘cus they’d gotten nowhere in the past week. Maybe she thought they’d gotten somewhere, but until they got physical, he knew they hadn’t gone nowhere important.
True, it was kinda nice, and different, to have maybe-sex out there waitin’ and not go charging to it. Anticipation, and all that; risin’ sexual tension. He’d not felt it since he was maybe fifteen, sixteen years old. Since then, if he needed some, he went and paid and got some.
But River’d never even come close to it before, he was sure, and so if she wanted waitin’ they’d wait. Till it killed him. And it might.
When after five minutes his own load of now-clean clothes hit the dry cycle, he told River she could put hers in in another five because the drying would be finished.
He watched her bend over a chair and sort colors. Bein’ it was her doing that simple job, it didn’t seem so simple no more; she was so graceful it made her look like a story or a portrait-picture, ‘Girl Loading Washer’.
Make that ‘Feng Le Girl Loading Washer’; she got no closer than arm’s length to the open washer’s rim, tippin’ her clothes in from the side instead of from above, as fast as she could, while never lettin’ her fingers dip over to the inside. He decided to not even ask.
But as she dipped and turned, the new green sundress moved’ ‘round her body and dipped low in the front so he caught a glimpse of cleavage. Ah, cleavage, weren’t nothin’ like it on a woman what still had her clothes on.
‘Cept maybe a pair of pants stretchin’ tight when she bent over. He eyed River’s backside, figurin’ it’d look pretty good in that position. He’d noted her hair and her legs many times before, and her feet. He glanced down; her toenails were painted blue. He wondered if Kaylee’d had something to do with that.
“Jayne is ogling,” River interrupted his survey of her feet.
“Yep.” He didn’t even have to ask what the word meant, he’d been accused of it more’n once before, ‘n it was usually true. They were the only people in here, and he wasn’t gonna deny it anymore. Hell, if’n her brother or Mal were here, he’d still say it. He wasn’t usually one to hide anything, anyway.
He’d considered the probable upset amongst the others if he decided to chase River back like she’d been chasin’ him. And he knew angry crewmembers wouldn’t be what stopped him. Nah. If he wanted River, he’d have her. He was gettin’ less afraid of that airlock the closer he got to the girl; or maybe wantin’ her so much was just makin’ the fear seem smaller.
River swayed a little, side to side, like there was music but only she could hear it. He watched her, wishin’ he could hear it too.
“You like the way I look,” she asserted.
He nodded firmly, wantin’ no more misunderstandings in that area. “Yer shiny as a sun,” he confirmed. “Supernova, even.”
Her lips up-tilted, then straightened. “What do you like besides the looks?”
He frowned. She wanted compliments on somethin’ besides how good she looked? He’d never had to give out anythin’ like that. His brain scrambled, and came up with exactly nothin’.
Her eyes rounded, then dulled. Her head tucked.
Wo de ma, he groaned mentally. Here we go again. Maybe he should re-think this chasin’ thing, if all he was gonna do was hurt her.
“He has always hurt her,” she whispered, swaying more forcefully, eyes closed, “since their beginning, cuttings and stabbings and small deaths. He is sharp on the edges, wounds her tender parts . . .”
His chest was tight with a feeling he recognized as pain. He had to cut her off.
“Girl, you’re breakin’ me,” he rasped. “Whaddaya want with a big ole’ lunk like me, if I only hurt ya?”
“Didn’t say only hurt,” she told him, opening her eyelids; no tears spilled but they washed her eyes to an unnatural brightness. He could tell she was forcing words out past a constricted throat, wanting him to understand. “She can care for him . . . sharp things, if well-cared for, are very, very shiny. Worth holding unto.”
He clenched his hand around the back of his head, couldn’t look at those eyes. His own throat was closing up on him.
“Well, I don’t wanna hurt ya anymore.”
His clothes were done, he had an excuse to go. They mounded up soft and warm in his arms as he left. River was gonna hafta do hers alone, he had stuff to consider. _________________________
Simon had come to see Inara last week at Mal’s urging, to assess her respiratory status. She’d gently laughed him off, but he’d insisted.
“How often does this shortness of breath happen?” He asked, sitting in her shuttle with her tea table between them.
“Well – daily.”
He shook his head. “How long have you been noticing it?”
“Mm, for about two years now.”
He frowned in professional concern. “Inara, you should have told me. Daily for over two years? This is serious, you’re lucky you haven’t ended up seriously incapacitated. We need to go to the infirmary, I have to do a full workup”-
Inara sighed, suddenly just weary of it all. “Thank you Simon, but that’s not necessary. I know what the problem is.”
Now his frown was puzzled. “You do?”
“Yes. I know the trigger.”
She pressed her lips together, then just said it.
He considered her face, and understanding crept across his. “Ah.” He rose from his seat and offered her one of his sweet, sympathetic, slightly sardonic smiles. “I’m afraid there’s not a lot medical science can do to cure that.”
She smiled back at him. It had felt oddly relaxing to tell someone what she’d guarded so jealously for so long. “I do appreciate your concern, Simon. Please, think of something to tell him, all right?”
“All right.” He nodded his head to her, ever polite, before exiting.
He later told Mal something about the differences between planetary and ship-board atmospheres affecting some people, nothing serious. Mal had accepted the explanation.
So when the captain entered her shuttle, unannounced as usual, she was a bit surprised. It had seemed he’d been avoiding her, lately.
He stood just inside the door hanging and squinted at her, as though she was a species of creature he’d never seen before. She raised her brows at him and ignored the thumping of her heart with practiced ease.
“Did you want something other than to stand and stare at me?” She enquired with that gentle edge to her tone that prodded all his irritation buttons.
He walked a few more steps into the shuttle.
“What kind of game you trying to run on me?” He didn’t sound angry, just confused.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.” He frowned at her.
“No, Mal, I don’t.” She tipped a hint of long-suffering into her voice, to spur him along.
“I mean your insinuating right to my face that Zoë and Jayne were thinkin’ on each other, when that’s not the case at all!” Now he was getting hot and bothered, and that was what she wanted, because she was feeling that way and didn’t want to be the only one. “I’m just trying to figure,” he continued, his words getting hard, “if there was an actual reason, besides the usual sick desire to play with my feelings, why you would purposely mislead me when what I asked for was enlightenment as to what was going on!”
Play with his feelings? The ones he didn’t let out into daylight? Where had that accusation come from?
Angry herself now, she rose from her graceful seated position and faced him. She drawled her own words cruelly over his nerves; “Oh, Mal, there are so many kinds of enlightenment you need.” Her usual half-smile, to sign that the insult shouldn’t be taken seriously, was missing.
His lips firmed into each other, sensing a deeper meaning there than he could readily decipher.
“You calling me blind?” he questioned harshly. “You, Miss I-Can-Screw-Everyone-In-The-Verse-For-Money-And-Still-Be-Clean-And-Whole?”
She flinched, and his own wince said he was sorry, but he was also too irate to take it back.
That had hurt, but he hurt her all the time, she thought, and she was usually better at hiding it. She wasn’t sure what had happened to all her defenses. Maybe opening up that little bit to Simon had left her more vulnerable that she’d thought. Her layers of sophistication were deserting her.
“That sounds a lot like jealousy, Captain I-Am-In-Command-Of –Everything-And-Never-Need-To-Feel-Anything.” Her words were short, cold and bitter. Yes, something had definitely happened in that time with Simon. Or she was just at an end. An end to all this ridiculous, wearying pretending they’d been doing for so long.
Mal’s eyes had narrowed at her, and his face was a study in anger balanced on confusion. This was a too-sudden change for him, the open emotions. He didn’t know what to do with it, except revert to anger – the emotion he most readily displayed.
“You telling me I don’t feel? Don’t have emotions like a normal man?” He was just this edge of shouting at her, which he’d rarely done, and a morass of feelings he didn’t want to name was rising in his chest.
She flung her hands out in fiery exasperation. “How would I know, Mal? You never let me know! You dance around the truth and hint and raise my hopes and then you cower away from it. I’m tired, Mal, I don’t want to do the dance anymore.”
“Dancing?!” One of his hands jerked harshy through the air. “That’s what you think we’ve been doing? This has been a gorramdance?! You want to know what I think?” Now he was shouting, control gone. Her release of charge over her reactions freed him to let go of his.
“Yes!” she cried at him, breathing fast and hard. “I want to know! Truth, Mal, I’m so tired of hiding it!”
“Truth?!” he bellowed back at her. “Truth is too hard!”
He stopped abruptly, tortured realization in his expression, and bowed his head, rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “I-I have to go, Inara.”
He turned. He was leaving. She couldn’t let him, they were so close to something. She had to make him stay and face it.
“Please,” she called softly, all the temper gone from her voice and from her heart. “Please, Mal, don’t. Just say it, for once, for you or me or us or whatever it takes to get you to tell it. The truth.”
She was frozen in fear he’d leave. He didn’t. He could have gone the well-traveled back-up-and-pretend-it-never-happened route. He didn’t do that either.
What he did was turn around. Maybe he was tired of it all, too. He impaled her with his gaze. His next words were quiet, and ragged, and naked.
“Truth is I want you so bad it hurts, and for more than just a bedding and for longer than just a night, but I know I can’t have you. Truth is we’re as far apart as two people can get in this ‘verse, and all the pihua that’s in between us . . . I can’t, Inara, I can’t get through all that, to get to you, by myself.” His voice was raspy and unsteady.
“I know you don’t belong to anybody but yourself, but truth is I hate, I despise every one of your clients becausethey’ve had you, and I can’t do anything about it. I hate them with a hatred so deep, it chokes me. And I hate you for that, Inara, and I have too much hate in my life . . .” he just stopped talking, drained and soul sore. His eyes were gritty with the salty tears that he was fighting back.
It was a long speech for him, and Inara stood pale and silent through the entirety. Her heart was split open and bleeding inside her chest, her chin was trembling with the effort not to break apart.
She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to do, after all this time of fighting and hiding and silence. What move could you make when everything you’d worked to conceal was spilled out in the open in all its dirt and glory?
Her move was to him. She didn’t know if she could force her body to obey her but it did, and got her over in front of the raw, exposed man who stood there still, still.
She worked her throat and her lips but no sound would come out, so all she could do was what she’d wanted to for an eternity; she tilted her head in till her forehead rested on the broadness of his chest. She raised her arms and linked shaking hands behind his back. Then she stood there as still as she could on trembling legs, nearer Heaven than she’d ever been and fearing she’d be turned away.
He was shaking too. That was all he did for elongated seconds, not meeting her action but not backing away either. When his arms twitched on either side of her, then slowly rose to slide up her own, she couldn’t think. Heat thrilled through her brain and spilled down her spine to center between her thighs as he cupped her chin between both palms, and raised her face until she could see his.
Their gazes trapped each other, fraught with so many things there were no words for, and Inara no longer needed to breathe.
She could see uncertainty in him, though, an aching hesitancy that burned her and motivated her to find her voice.
“Mal”- it was such a dark harsh sound she didn’t recognize it- “Beloved.” Her voice cracked and she had to pause, then continued, low and forced and intense. “No one’s ever had me but you. No one ever will.”
Brown-lashed lids closed tightly, once, then lifted again.
“Beloved?” he whispered, dragging his thumbs across her cheekbones. She wanted to smile, and tried, but tears spilled over unto his hands instead.
“Beloved”, she affirmed fervently. And he dropped his head, sighed release, and then covered her lips with his.
She didn’t know how her heart would stand the joy.
Chapter 9: Considering
Deserted, River wandered mentally after Jayne but knew he didn’t want her to follow. So she applied herself to the task at hand and after gauging the humming washer/dryer from all angles, decided she could take it if it chose to attack her. She would have no warning of impending assault, however, being unable to read its thoughts, so she hurried as much as she could when the timer announced its cycles were completed. Feeling the warm softness of clean laundry against her skin calmed her on the walk back to her bunk. So once inside, she spread everything around on her mattress pad and lay down on it. She knew Inara might mention wrinkles, later, but this was now. Calmness was necessary.
She rolled her head over to hang it off the bunk; underneath, pushed way back in the corner, was the smallish white box she’d picked up on Shore’s Leave. She contemplated it morosely; it seemed she’d been beforehand in purchasing it. It might sit there for a very long time, until it was old and lonely and abandoned. She had been foolish that day.
There was a job to do that afternoon, and River was glad of it. She needed something to fill up the spaces of her mind that only wanted to consider a tall, dark-headed, sometimes obtuse Jayne. She arrived in the common room before anyone else, anxious to get on with it. Folding her legs into a lotus position on the floor beside the couch, she waited for the other players in the imminent criminal enterprise. She determinedly did not think about ridiculously sensuous lips or sexy rough beard stubble or the way his hair caressed the back of his neck.
“Woman does not live by testosterone alone,” she told the empty room, paraphrasing the Shepherd’s Book. Since his death she’d been trying to read it, more; he had been a mystery to her in ways most people were not, and she thought maybe his precious ancient literary work would give her some insight into who he had been. It had, actually, but not in ways she’d expected. Of course, lately all her thoughts had been taken up by one large mercenary. “It is not healthy,” she continued insisting aloud, trying to convince herself and the furniture. “I need a more varied mental diet.”
Unfortunately for her willpower, the next person into the room was Jayne. He hesitated at seeing her there on the floor, then seated himself on the end of the couch nearest her. She tipped her head back to look at him, while at the same time trying to throw up walls within her skull. She’d attempted to do it before, block out the thought impressions she got from others, with fluctuating levels of success.
This time it worked, and all she knew of what he was thinking came from his expression and body language. She wasn’t very fluent in that language, yet, having been bombarded with actual thoughts for so long. Now she was left wondering. Was he angry? Pulling back from her? No, he’d seated himself beside her. Maybe he wanted to tell her face-to-face, like a man, that it was over.
“It hasn’t even started yet,” she told him anxiously. He frowned down at her.
“What?” When she didn’t answer, he twisted his body and slanted his legs toward her. She couldn’t remember what that meant. Aggression? Defensiveness? She was about to drop those mental shields out of frustration.
“Lookit, River, we gotta talk.”
She pursed her lips at him. “Jayne is very feminine today.” She didn’t want to talk.
“Hey,” he pulled back, looking distressed, she could comprehend that; “I thought we were past the whole ‘Jayne is a girl’s name’ thing. I done told you”-
“No,” she interrupted, “Not the name. The line, it is usually in the woman’s purview.”
He shook his head. “No idea what yer sayin’. River”-
Zoë entered, and he shut up.
The three of them waited. And waited. And waited for the Captain. When he did finally show, slightly out of breath, River was pushed up against the wall at her back by the emotions radiating off him. Astonishment. Amusement. A little fear. But mostly, nearly overwhelming joy and . . . love? River stared at him, dazed, while Jayne made a disgusted remark about the time and Zoë questioned him with a raised eyebrow.
“Sorry, I forgot,” he said somewhat sheepishly, offering them a grin that could only be termed goofy. River leaned toward him hungrily, basking in the flow of his thoughts. Her walls couldn’t keep them out. “Your miracle has happened,” she murmured, her expression dazed.
“Er – yeah,” he glanced a ‘keep quiet’ look at her. It seemed he wasn’t ready to talk, either. She sat back, and he set off on a description of the job that allowed no room for interruptions from Jayne’s or Zoë’s curiosity. River sat there wishing for her own miracle. She was beginning to see how much she and Jayne had to overcome to get to serious togetherness. His short-term approach to life and her long-term craziness were just the start of it. She recalled an excerpt from Shepherd’s Book that discussed miracles and belief, and determined to look it up when they got back from the job.
If Mal had been in the mood to notice anything about any of his crew, which he wasn’t, he’d have noticed that Jayne’s behavior just got stranger and stranger. Inara had an excuse for being preoccupied, too, and thus not discerning the extra quietness, which might have denoted consideration, in River. Zoë, Kaylee, and Simon all took note, however.
The first time Simon realized something was going on was when he was giving a hand (at the captain’s direction) to Jayne, sorting and re-stowing boxed cargo since they’d off-loaded some on their last job. River had entered, ignored them both in the way she sometimes had, and crossed to the stairs leading to the catwalk, all with her hair hanging forward to hide her expression. Once she was up to the next level, she started to dance.
Simon winced at what the grating would do to her bare toes and heels. But she looked so delicate, and lost in her inaudible music, that he didn’t have the heart to interrupt her. With a smile he watched her for a minute, seeing out of the corner of his eye that Jayne did the same thing. The hulking ape stood there kind of gaping in that way he had. Then he started, like he was coming out of a trance, reached into one of the many pockets his pants sported, and whipped out paper and pen.
He frowned down at the cream-colored scrap, pressed it out against the nearest box, and began laboriously scribing something unto it. His tongue was between his teeth in concentration; it seemed a big task for him. This was curious enough to draw Simon’s attention away from his sister. “Need some help with that?” he inquired half-seriously half-sarcastically, venturing nearer to get a look at what the paper held. Jayne snapped upright and stuffed it away, with a ferocious “cai bu shi”. Simon held his hands up in peace-offering. “Shide, just trying to be nice.”
Jayne rolled his eyes and hefted the box he’d used as a desk. “Get back to work.”
Simon told Kaylee about it later that night, and she chewed her lip a bit while listening. He watched her with growing suspicion as she glanced around her cabin and played with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Kaylee, what’s going on?”
She wrinkled her nose in a pleading, please-don’t-press-me way. “Simon, I think you need to talk to River.”
“Talk to River? About Jayne? You’re serious.”
She nodded. It was her serious face. He groaned. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”
She shrugged and gave him a sympathetic smile.
Mal finally clued in to something not-back-to-normal with his merc following a job that had gone a bit south. Shooting had been involved, and River had had to drop-kick a few guys. She’d done it so smoothly and elegantly it had hardly even seemed like violence. They were able to salvage the pay, so all considered he felt pretty good when the four of them piled into the mule to head back to Serenity.
Zoë drove, and Mal half-turned in his seat to address a remark to the pair in the back. Jayne had a piece of paper out over his knee, and was bent writing on it, eyes narrowed in concentration. He looked up to snarl at Zoë when she whipped the mule around ninety degrees to turn in through the bay doors. Then he looked back down. “Think twelve is enough,” he muttered.
“Whatcha got there, Jayne?” enquired Mal lightly, having never seen the man with writing implements unless he was making out a letter to his ma. Jayne shook his head and tilted it away from prying eyes. He finished as Zoë cut power, and climbed off the mule with everyone else. Mal switched his gaze to River. She shook her head at him in a reprimanding fashion. “Do not ask me to know. I am experimenting with walls.” She walked off in one direction, Jayne in another. Mal reflected that at least the bizarre flirting thing had stopped.
River had studied up on the miracles in Shepherd Book’s symbol, and decided that the teaching meant; one could not cause or force a miracle, but could perhaps inveigle one from a friendly deity. Upon its commencement, one then had to take advantage of the opportunity posed. So all she had to do was; endear herself to a Superior Being, convince that being that her cause was worthwhile, recognize the opportunity when it arrived, and effect whichever actions would afford the best outcome.
She didn’t need to be especially clear-headed to doubt the feasibleness of this sequence of events. Jayne had not interacted with her since that day with the laundry, except for polite hellos or nods. She was getting better at shielding her mind from everyone else’s thoughts, and tried not to invade privacies, so she didn’t know what he was thinking. However, she remembered how well his thoughts and words and actions usually melded. Her hopes for a future with Jayne wanted to fade off.
She clutched them stubbornly and forbade them to do so. She finally collected Kaylee and Inara in Inara’s shuttle and tried to compel them to change something about her to regain Jayne’s attention. Inara protested.
“Do you think that you want him if he only notices you when you’ve made an effort to be physically appealing?” she questioned as she poured tea. River shook her head, hands pressed to her sides. “No. But he still wants . . . I think . . . is just reacting to obstacles.” Her brows drew together. “I am not prepared to dither as long as you did,” she said flatly.
Inara, who had never considered herself a ditherer, was about to protest this too when Kaylee put a hand up to hide her smile. Sighing, she put the tea pot down and raised her steaming cup to her lips. “Yes, I suppose it was a long time.”
“But worth it!” Kaylee enthused.
“Oh, yes.” The tea cup lowered, revealing a full smile on Inara’s lips. “Every minute.”
“Jayne is worth effort,” River inserted. Kaylee, who was all for the scheme anyway, clasped her hands and “awww”ed. Inara nodded in rather amused resignation.
So she instructed River in makeup application and apparel, admonishing that for River a natural look was best and not to overdo it. River followed direction industriously, noting color and style combinations. Inara nodded in satisfaction as she laid the last makeup brush down. “And now, for your hair,” she said, rising to her feet. She was unprepared for the reaction she received. River scooted out of her chair and backed toward the entrance.
“Not the hair! The hair is sacrosanct. Not to be up!” River used her hands and arms to try to cover it up, as though Inara might rip it from her head.
“That’s fine, it’s all right dear,” Inara soothed, surprised. “We can leave it down. But just a little trim, I think, to even out the ends?”
“And sparkles!” Kaylee put in, holding up some little shiny clips of her own.
It took a little more cajoling, but River came back to her chair and let them proceed.
Later that evening, after they ate, Jayne found her down in the common room. Her brother was puttering about in the infirmary, so he waited around impatiently. River watched him standing against the wall with crossed arms. She didn’t speak. He didn’t say anything. Simon clunked something heavy down on the counter.
“You ‘bout done in there, doc?” Jayne called. Simon poked his head out the door.
“Very nearly,” he said politely. “Did you need something, Jayne?”
“Not from you,” Jayne snorted. Simon’s eyes drifted to River, sitting with her feet beneath her on the couch. She was looking at the floor and seemed unaware anyone else was in the room. Simon hung there a moment, debating with himself, then pulled back into the medical bay. He finished quickly, exited, shut the door behind him, and crossed to the common room exit, too. “Good night,” he said softly to the room at large, and left. Jayne blinked slowly.
“Huh.” He said. “That was diff’rent.” But only momentarily distracted from the reason he was here, he eyed the girl on the couch warily. They’d had little to say to each other for days. He wanted to know what she was thinking.
“What ya thinkin’?”
She stopped looking at the floor and started looking at him, which she hadn’t done in awhile. The impact hit him like a fist in his gut. He straightened away from the wall, hands in his pockets.
“I am wondering what you’re thinking,” she told him.
“Uh.” He moved over to her. She pulled her legs out from beneath her and rose. He’d missed being this close to her. “Wait,” he said, in case she’d been about to do something. “I’m, well, I made somethin’. Fer you.”
Her head tipped back in curiosity. His lips twitched, but didn’t quite make it to a grin, ‘cus he was nervous. “Here, just take it.” He pulled his hands from his pockets. In one was clenched a cream-colored bit of paper. She recognized it. She reached out, hesitantly, and he shoved it into her palm. Her fingers curved over it.
“Gotta read it,” he instructed, backing a step away. He didn’t have any idea what to expect as her reaction.
She opened the folded sheet and turned it right-side up. There were words there, in large slightly crude hand-written letters. She began at the top, felt her breath catch. It was a list, outlined in a way that wouldn't have passed with River's second-grade teacher. The words were misspelled and there were cross-outs and a hole in one place where the paper had been rubbed through by something. But slowly, she made it out.
REASONS I LIKE RIVER TAM (BESIDES HER LOOKIN’ GOOD)
First: ain’t like anybody else in the ‘verse
2, only treats me like I’m stupid when I am
3) puts up nice with her chunren brother
4 - dances like she means it
5) fights like she dances
6) thinks she can take care of me
7, makes me want to protect her
8)can protect her own damn self
9) sees stuff nobody else does (kinda like but not the same as #1)
10- brain’s pretty clear, considerin part of its missin, and all kinds of shiny
11) makes me consider on things
12) wouldn't matter who the pa was, would make beautiful babies
Once she’d gotten to the bottom, she went back to the top and started over. Jayne stood and fidgeted, began to make growling noises, and finally reached out to snatch it back. But she was too fast for him, twirling away, pressing it close to her heart and fixing him with wide eyes and open mouth as she came full circle.
“He – you made this for me,” she got out, sounding as though she’d just finished a twenty-mile hike up steep hill country. He nodded.
“Don’t like hurtin’ ya,” he told her as he shuffled his feet. “Next time I do, kick me ‘r somethin’. Then read that there, maybe it’ll help.” He moved his shoulders around. Waited. She looked down again at the List.
“Well?” He queried. He sounded as though he was trying to make it impatient. But it came out as anxious.
“Well what?” She smiled at him, tilting her head up on that long neck, and his tight insides eased somewhat. Nevertheless, he huffed impatiently, because that was what Jayne did.
And that was how she liked him.
“Well, now what are ya thinkin’?”
Her smile left and she closed her eyes. Sensed the crinkles of the paper against the skin of her hands, and it felt like, felt like . . .
Not like Kaylee and Simon. Not like Captain Daddy and Inara. Not like Zoë and Wash. It was its own, different. It was good. Her eyes opened again, and were very very bright.
“I’m thinking”, her words were solemn; “this is the most precious piece of paper in the ‘verse.”
Chapter 10: Gifts
The quiet on the boat was deep and still, the homey thrum of the engine and the various lighting and heating elements the only noise. If elsewhere anyone was still up, they remained in their bunks, and the two in the common room weren’t aware of them.
“What things do I make you consider, Jayne?” River still held her gift clutched to her breast.
He opened his mouth, and then closed it. Her eyes dropped to the next, final item on the list.
“Children? Do you consider children, when you think about me?”
He sighed air out his nostrils, forcefully. “Yeah. I do.” He appeared perturbed by this information. She lifted up and down on her toes once, wanting to dance. But this needed tending.
“You think things, about the future? Far from now?”
“Yeah, farther than I’ve ever thought before.” He was tired of being so distant from her and stepped in close. Really close. She had to tip her head back to see him, so all her lovely hair brushed his bare arm as he slowly wrapped it around her waist, tentative, as though she was going to leap away like a startle rabbit.
When she didn’t, he fisted his hand in her dress and hauled her up close against him. Her lithe softness crushed into his broad hardness, and her hands were caught between their bodies. She twisted them out, guarding the List jealously, and bent backward over his arm in an agile move he never could’ve managed, to lay it carefully on the couch behind her. Her abdomen pressed into his groin when she did that, and he hissed out a breath. He moved both hands to tangle in her hair and pulled her back up, roughly. His fingers and palms entirely encased the back of her head. She’s so little, he sighed mentally, while dainty fingers landed on his shoulders.
“Or maybe you’re just big,” River answered out loud, and it didn’t bother him, that she’d read that. The fingers on his shoulders hesitated, then slid downward. River slanted her neck to one side to watch herself, stroking her hand down his t-shirt sleeve until it ended and she hit real skin. She let out a moan of contentment when she felt the hard bulge of the muscle there, tensed around her. His own hand was sliding below her waist when she leaned her head in where she’d been looking. He felt her wet tongue land on him and lap slowly down into his elbow. Groaning out loud, he cupped her buttocks, small but round, and lifted her to grind her pelvis into his. She wrapped both arms up around his shoulders and turned her head to nuzzle it into the hollow of his shoulder, switching her attention to his neck. He paused to wonder through a red-heat-haze where she’d learned the thing she was doing with her hips.
“Hey, River,” he gritted out, “you done this before?”
“No,” she told him, “but I’ve seen lots. In your head.”
He winced and jerked a space away from her. “That seems really wrong,” he said, staring down at her. She stared back up, eyebrows lifted.
He shook his head. “Those weren’t – those women – they weren’t you. I don’t want you bein’ like them.”
She furrowed her brow in perplexity. “I believe there are a finite number of ways to do this,” she said.
Now he had frown lines between his eyes. “Finite?”
“Limited.” She raised her fingers and began to tick them off. “Standing unsupported, as we are now. Standing supported, as in up against a wall. Seated, female on top. Seated, male on top”- she had to stop talking, because any further words would have been unintelligible. Jayne’s hand was clamped hard over her mouth.
“I get it, moonbrain.” Then his smile was wolfish. “Maybe so, but on that limited number of ways, there can be ifn – infinite variations.”
She smiled back. “You will teach me? So that I am following your directions, instead of copying the others. The others are gone. I will be me, and you will be you.” He was reaching for her again when she reached out to hold his forearms off. “They are gone, my Jayne? They will be no more?”
He folded his arms in to just lie along hers, and stroked her elbows lightly. “Don’t need ‘em, if I got you,” he told her softly. Her glinting smile was his reward. But she still held him off, and then backed away.
“I have a gift for you, too,” she whispered, and stopped a moment to snatch her List off the couch, before dashing out. Leaving him standing there, now truly impatient. He didn’t want a gift, he wanted sexin’, and thought he’d been mighty gorram patient about it too. He thought about following her to her bunk, but figured clomping around the boat might wake somebody up he didn’t want awake. So he dropped down on the couch, sprawled his legs out, and waited for her return with the fingers of one hand drumming out his edginess on his other arm.
It wasn’t really that long before she was back. There was a white box cradled in her hands. She looked at him all starry-eyed and he couldn’t hold back a grudging smile in return. Especially when she crawled up to straddle his thighs, box in her lap, and manually uncrossed his arms so she could push the container into his keeping. But she held his fingers down over the lid.
“Do you love me?”
His lips pursed together and he breathed in deeply, but didn’t reply. She clenched her fingers tightly around his, around the box. “Please,” she uttered quietly.
He muttered something in the direction of her toes. She angled her head in and under his, looking up, just like some gorram duck – or swan, or something.
“Didn’t hear,” she said with wide-eyed earnestness.
“You’re a gorram mind reader! You need out-loud words?”
”I like to hear you say it.”
“Well, I said-.” He had to stop to relax his jaw, and finished quieter but audibly - “always will.”
Just like that. It had been scary, but not so difficult when he got to the actual doin’ of it.
Her brilliant smile heated his soul.
“The emotion is reflected back, full-force," she returned.
He leaned in to pull her to him, but she stiff-armed him away. He let out a howl of frustration. Now she was the one covering up his mouth, and she was giggling. “Will wake the boat. Captain Daddy will arrive, and bluster. Brother Simon will see, and stutter.”
He nodded. She dropped her hand, and lifted his, the now slightly crushed container still there. “First things first.”
He sighed with great forbearance, and pulled the lid off. Pushed aside some concealing tissue. Stopped dead. His mouth dried right out, instantaneously.
“Erm. River.” How did he say this?
Her dark head obscured his vision for a moment, as she peeked into the box.
“It is for insertion and stimulation,” she informed him, “as preparation. I had it made to order. At first the craftsman was rather recalcitrant, but after I drew him a picture and became very specific about size, he acquiesced. I believe the dimensions are correct, bigger than me but smaller than you.”
“Yeah. River, I’m pretty sure you know your ‘natomy better’n I know mine, but let me just say, I’m the man here. The MAN. And you don’t – you don’t – in my ‘verse, those are for women. Women only.” He pointed a finger at the box. His legs under her were tense, though she could tell he was aroused just by the sight of it.
“Yes,” she affirmed, rooting through the paper to pull the phallic shape out, “it is for me.”
He relaxed a little. “Then why are you givin’ it to me?” His mind wobbled, trying to wrap around the image of her drawing this out for some sales clerk, earnestly attaching length and width measurements. Wait a minute, smaller than him? How did she know –?
She smacked him lightly on the chest. She wasn’t using her mental shielding at all. “Silly. Jayne thinks about it a lot. You feel that size is very important.”
She held it up in front of his face. He flinched back a bit. She grinned at his reaction.
“The answer to your question; you said so before. I am small. You are very big.” He couldn’t help his smug smirk. She shook her head but smiled back. “It will be less difficult, if I am made ready for you. You will not have to go as slow. You will not have to worry about being as gentle.” She laid the dildo back down in the box and leaned into him, her hands linking behind his neck. He moved the container on her lap down to the floor, grabbed her hips in his hands, and pulled her flush against him. “All right, then,” he rumbled at her sexily, “if that’s what it’s fer, then I guess its fer me. Thanks.”
She sighed contentedly. “I know you like it rough,” her breath tickled his ear. He laughed, and she treasured the sound.
“Sometimes,” he acknowledged. “But not always.”
He leaned his head back, and smoothed her hair away from her face. The strands didn’t want to stay, and he struggled with them awkwardly until they obeyed. She watched his face.
“River,” he said hesitantly, fingernails caressing the bone ridges he found below her scalp. He discovered one line that was longish and puckered. A scar, from where the Academy had mutilated her brain. He gently rubbed his forefinger over it while she leaned back into his touch, eyelids shuttering in catlike contentment.
“Yes?” a little grin, self-satisfied, tipped her lips at what she knew he was thinking.
“Wanna kiss ya.”
Her eyes re-opened, and she leveled her chin to look at him square on. “On the mouth?”
His twitched up at the corners, while he eyed hers. “Yeah.”
“That would be . . . good,” she breathed. His smile turned full-fledged. “Uh-huh,” he agreed, and angled her chin, and angled his, and touched her that way. Lips just open, glancing off each other, barely moving. Then returning, tender and deeper as he flicked his tongue across the underside of her top lip and she gasped at the sensation. When he nudged her mouth further open to let him in, she met his wet heat with her own, slipping her tongue under and around his and swallowing the vibrations of his groan. Reveling in the feel of him, she pressed up as close as she could get with her feet and thighs and chest and arms, trying to take him into her soul. He chuckled lowly as he wrapped both arms tight around her, never leaving his ministrations to her mouth. He tilted them over sideways unto the couch cushion and they were lost.