The day little Jayne turned 10, he was still the smallest boy of the town. Still scrawny and scruffy, still a prime target for all the bullies of the neighborhood (although he was getting a lot better at fighting back these days).
And his wrist was still as smooth as the day he’d been born.
He knew Mama was watching, had been all day. It made him itch, just a little, the curiosity and hope in her eyes.
He went about his chores as quick as he could, trying to get outside and away. He stolidly ignored his own brief swell of hope , of today, maybe today, after years of waiting… and dwelled instead on his own lack of anticipation.
It was easier once he was outside.
Little Maddie insisted on following him around, wanting to see it himself, he said. Jayne had a suspicion it wasn’t entirely his own idea, but there wasn’t much he could refuse his little brother.
By the time they were all sitting around the dinner table, Maddie still watching him like a hawk and Mama glancing up every now and then, Jayne could feel the frustration and confusion building and building. The quiet ting of cheap metal spoons and forks, the scrape of knives on plates, his Pa’s solid presence to his left, but even Pa was looking at him now and again, eyes narrowing curiously, and the feelings were building and building until finally he was throwing his fork down, ignoring the sudden stillness, screaming, shouting ‘bout why wasn’t it there ? Why was she ignoring him? Did he do something? Did he… Was he …?
“Don’t you never say that, Jayne Cobb, you hear me?” His Mama’s face was white, pinched.
Jayne could just see Maddie’s wide blue eyes out of the corner of his vision and his Daddy’s dark look below him.
…Huh. He didn’t remember standing.
“Sit down, boy,” came his father’s gruff voice, “No more fuss.”
The moon was getting on midnight and Jayne sat staring at his stubbornly blank wrist, urging on his as-yet nameless soulmate. Maddie snored softly beside him, slumped against the headboard where he’d eventually drifted off since joining Jayne on his silent vigil.
Jayne was barely aware that he was mumbling under his breath, a continuous stream of words like c’mon, c’mon and some creative Mandarin his Pa had used the other day and then finally it was just please, please, please, over and over ‘til he looked up at the creaking of the door.
“Jayne, you’re still up?” Mama had her hair up and was wearing her house coat. She sat next to him and Jayne had to fight the urge to bury his face in her familiar smell. He was 10! Not a baby anymore. He was ready, more than ready, to go out and find his missing part… He glanced down at his still blank wrist and suddenly had to fight the much more horrifying urge to cry.
He bit his lip, hard. “Why, Mama? I just don’t… You said I wasn’t—”
“And you ain’t ,” she returned fiercely, putting her arm around his shoulders. “Baby, you ain’t. Soul-marks come at different times of people’s lives, you know that.”
“Yeah ‘course, but I always thought…” he trailed off, unsure why he was convinced it would’ve come today. No anticipation. He should’ve known.
“What you think and what’s really gonna happen: two entirely different things, Jayne Cobb,” she smiled at him, then leaned real close to whisper. “You wanna know a secret?”
When he nodded hesitantly, she said, “Your daddy? He didn’t get his soul-mark ‘til he was 13.”
Jayne looked at her in amazement. “ Thirteen? ” That was years away. Would he have to wait that long?
When she nodded and continued to smile, he looked away again, thinking. “But you got yours when you were 10, right Mama?”
She laughed, just a little. “It’s not something that’s handed down through the family, Jayne. Everyone’s time is different.”
“I don’t wanna be different,” Jayne said, pouting before he could quite stop it.
His Mama sighed and shifted, gazing across the darkened room. “Day may come when you change your mind ‘bout that.”
Jayne Cobb was a virile 28 years old and had already made quite a name for himself. A name people – high up people – were beginning to bandy about like a household one. A name some feared to speak and others loved to curse. A name the curvy brunette from The Blooming Orchids had been all but screaming earlier on.
Now she lay partially entwined with him on the not uncomfortable bed smiling vaguely at the ceiling and idly twirling a piece of her own hair. The last job had been real lucrative and Jayne had decided to spring for a classier brothel, one that would allow him to hire a girl for the night and even get room service later on. Room and board with a meal and a willing woman thrown in… Hell, he should do this more often.
Still smiling kinda moony, she dropped her hair and slid her hand down his arm, lingering on his biceps. She paused when she got to his wrist, starting as she realized it was uncovered. Jayne lay still, utterly relaxed and uncaring. Emboldened, she ran a finger allow the inner skin of his wrist and cocked her head.
“Huh,” she murmured sleepily, “Now I don't s'pose you'd mind me asking what that's about?”
He shrugged sloppily. “Nothing to tell.”
She eyed him a moment, obviously wanting more of a story. When none was forthcoming, she turned her own arm over and began unwinding her wrapping.
Curious despite himself, Jayne glanced at her bared mark when she'd finished. It wasn't a name or even a word. It was a drawing, crude and amateurish, of a mountain with a sun just peeking out from over its top. It was also so faded it took Jayne a moment to figure out that much.
“Why you keep it covered then?” he asked gruffly, looking back at the ceiling.
“Eh, sometimes the mystery is enough to get me hired for the night,” she replied. Despite her casual tone, Jayne couldn't help noticing she re-wrapped it with intimate care. When she'd finished, she added, grinning wickedly, “And sometimes they like to imagine they're with someone else's mark. Does something for 'em.”
“Huh,” was Jayne's only answer.
She peered at him a little closer, raising herself up on an elbow. “Don't seem like I'm here for that reason though,” she observed.
“Hell, I don't care what's on your wrist,” Jayne admitted offhandedly. “Reckon you don't mind so much neither.”
She grinned, settling down against his shoulder again. “Nah, I reckon not.”
Later on, after another couple rounds and some more cuddling, which Jayne would never admit to liking as much as he did, they were sprawled on the floor eating languidly from several trays scattered around.
“Never met her, by the way,” she suddenly muttered. Jayne stopped chewing long enough to give her a confused look. “My mark,” she elaborated.
Jayne hummed noncommittally and went back to his meal. He didn't ask how she knew it was a 'she'. He knew he'd known. Once. Seemed so long ago now.
“Know you don't care one way or t'other,” she said quietly. “It's just nice to say it to someone who don't, for a change. It's just...” She hesitated, trailing off, then jumped back into speech. “It's just I never met a blank before.”
He gave her a skeptical look. If she'd any experience whoring at all, she should've seen tons of 'em. True blanks were rare, sure enough, but patrons of whorehouses tended to be ones who either hadn't gotten their marks yet or didn't want you to know they had one. There were all sorts of skin-paint for covering them up, not to mention the technology, though that was a damn sight more expensive.
She laughed. “You can always tell,” she explained. “Whether they're waiting or trying to hide it, it's pretty simple once you know what to see.”
“How you know I'm not just extra good at hiding it?” he asked.
She scoffed and pushed at his shoulder playfully. “Oh, I know. You ain't once even glanced at it; didn't even flinch when I was holding it down earlier. Ain't no one that good an actor.”
She sobered a little as they went back to their food, a thoughtful expression creeping onto her face. After a few moments, she seemed to come to a decision. “You're not waiting though,” she said, looking at him questioningly.
He shrugged and half-nodded. It was true enough.
“So, you one of those who never wanted one?” she asked gently. She seemed trying to be as considerate as possible. “...Or maybe you gave up?”
“Ain't nothing to give up on,” he answered, downing the last of his drink and toppling her onto a fallen pillow, her laughter ringing in his ears.
It was nearly four in the morning planetside according to Jayne's battered old data rod 1 . He groaned sleepily, rubbing his eyes and trying to work out what had woken him. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary he could see or hear. The brunette was still sleeping peacefully next to him, completely oblivious to his disorientation.
After a moment, he flopped back down to sleep, deciding it must've been an unremembered dream. A few moments later, his left hand began prickling like a particularly vicious case of pins-and-needles. Irritated, he shook it out, then clenched and unclenched it several times when that didn't work. Scowling when all he achieved was to make it worse, he sat up to examine it...and promptly bit back a grunt of surprised pain.
“What the gorram...” His wrist. It was his wrist .
Something was happening, lines pushing up through the surface of his skin, red and irritated looking, forming letters and numbers. He stared in fascinated disbelief, barely feeling the pain through a haze of No, no, no , why now, this ain't real, it can't be happening...
A few minutes later, there was a brisk knock on the door and a darkish older woman edged through. She stepped to the bed and roused the girl lying tangled in the sheets.
“C'mon, ta xiao 2, you'll want your own room before the early ones come in,” she said, gently helping her sit up.
“Oh, did we sleep late?” she asked, glancing confusedly at the still dark sky outside the window.
The woman laughed, starting to strip the pillows. “No, no, your fellow just left. Looked like he was late for something or other, actually, way he hightailed it out of here.”
“Huh,” said the girl, pulling on the sleep-clothes the woman was holding out to her. “Felt sure he was the sort would say goodbye.”
“Can't always judge that, you know,” answered the woman distractedly.
The girl looked once more around her, sleepily fixing her hair. She glanced once at her wrapped wrist. “No, s'pose not.”