Serenity didn’t much like being planet-side, and neither did her captain.
Mal squinted into the blinding sky of North Mountain, on the planet of Athens. It felt like all they did these days was make visits to someone’s homestead. This time around it was Jayne’s. His mother had sent a series of irate waves demanding that he bring that girl he’d gotten in the family way home to meet them once and for all. Mal and Zoë had been teasing Jayne at just about every free moment about how he’d land planet-side only to have a shotgun wedding greet him.
Mal noted with amusement that Jayne did indeed look a little skittish as he disembarked.
“Where in the hell’s River?” Jayne snapped at Simon.
Simon jumped at being turned on so unexpectedly. He backed away under the burn of Jayne’s glare. “The terrain here looks a little rocky. She went to put some shoes on!” he exclaimed. “She can put shoes on, can’t she? It’s not against the law?”
Simon gave Mal a questioning look, silently asking why Jayne was so on edge.
Mal merely shrugged laughingly and turned to Jayne. “Nervous about River meetin’ the folks Jayne?” he asked with unbridled amusement, slapping him on the shoulder.
“I’m nervous about a preacher meetin’ me with at the door with two shiny gold rings,” Jayne hissed.
“And pray tell, just what is so wrong with marrying my sister?” Simon asked archly, though his eyes twinkled mischievously.
“We’re happy as we is, that’s all,” Jayne retorted, kicking at the dirt.
Zoë came down Serenity’s ramp, Hobie perched on her hip. “Fear of commitment is a terrible thing Jayne,” she sighed regretfully.
Inara came down the ramp, dressed casually, for Inara anyway, in a green bustier, black slacks and knee-high boots with pointed heels. She looked at them all admonishingly as Mal came up behind her and wrapped her in a cheerful embrace. “Leave him alone. I think it’s sweet that he’s bringing River to meet his family.”
“Yeah!” Jayne said forcefully. “And besides, I ain’t afraid of anythin’.”
River came clomping down the ramp in her combat boots. “Except for Reavers. And me. And very large scorpions.”
“Scorpions, huh?” Mal raised an eyebrow.
River nodded cheerfully. “When he was six one stung him on the—”
Jayne grabbed her arm and yanked her away. “Thank you for that darlin’. How’s about you stop taking them walkabouts in my head?”
River just smiled up at him as he pushed her along. “You’re all testy, like you need to shoot something.”
“Ain’t you happy to be home?” Kaylee asked.
Jayne fidgeted, shrugging noncommittally. “Just prefer it in the black is all. Less expected of ya,” he said enigmatically.
“C’mon people. If we’re makin’ a house call let’s be getting on with it,” Mal said, shutting up Serenity. “Sun’s baking me up out here.”
Kaylee bounded up beside Jayne merrily asking him about his family as he growled back in reply. The skirt of her red dress fluttered around her thighs as she went, and Simon was a few feet behind her, trying in vain not to stare as the breeze whipped the hem of the skirt precariously high.
Zoë walked past him with a smirk. “Put your eyes back in your head Doc,” she intoned.
Simon jumped and coughed, straightening his shoulders and averting his eyes – for a few seconds at least.
“Is that your house Jayne?” Kaylee asked, pointing.
Jayne gave her a terse nod and heaved a sigh, leading the way. The sprawling farmhouse appeared before them over the hill, a murky heat shimmer making it waver and sparkle in the distance. So they were about to meet the elusive Cobb family. Mal had begun to think they weren’t even real, Jayne talked about them so little. Even at that, he hadn’t realised there were so goddamn many of them – two parents and six children, including Jayne.
Jayne’s mother Alexa was there at the end of the winding dirt road up to the farmhouse, hands on her hips. She was a small woman with blonde hair pulled back in a long braid. Mal guessed her to be in her mid fifties, but she still had that soft look of youth about her pretty face. Beside her was his father Eli. He was a huge, hulking man with dark, greying hair and he was balancing on a sturdy walking stick. He had a quizzical frown, seemingly permanently etched into his lined and scarred face. Down his arms were several more scars and tattoos as well.
Alexa smiled bracingly at Jayne. “About damn time kid,” she exclaimed, embracing him tightly. A few stray tears made their way down her face and when Jayne tried to pull away she yanked him back.
“Geez Ma, no need for hysterics,” Jayne said gruffly as they finally pulled apart.
“Son,” Eli stated. Apparently, that was to be the entire length and breadth of his greeting.
“Pa.” Jayne’s was just as brief. Immediately, he turned from his father. “Well, this is the whole crew then.”
“A shining introduction. Thank you Jayne,” Mal said smoothly. “I’m Captain Malcolm Reynolds. My second-in-command Zoë Washburne. Her son Junior. My mechanic Kaylee Frye. My… uh… Inara. Yeah, Inara Serra. And our doctor, Simon Tam and his sister River.”
“Ah, this is River! We finally meet!” Alexa said warmly.
Despite her warm welcome, she was concealing sharp surprise at the sight of Jayne’s girlfriend. She looked River over, this little slip of a girl in a yellow dress, standing in the arms of the doctor with the fancy threads on. A part of her couldn’t believe that she was to be the mother of Jayne’s child. She hardly looked more than a child herself. Alexa couldn’t even tell she was pregnant, though apparently she was more than five months gone.
River looked at Alexa, merely smiling in greeting. She didn’t attempt any hugs or any further conversation. She supposed she just felt nervous. This is where Jayne had come from, these were the people he’d come from. For so long Jayne had just been… well, Jayne. Big, loud, violent Jayne. Quiet, tentative, unexpectedly affection Jayne. Now he was Jayne Cobb, son of Eli and Alexa, brother to five siblings. It was just strange, seeing Jayne’s roots, seeing his past.
“Jesus H. Christ. Gone and gotten yourself a child bride or somethin’ Jayne?” Eli snorted. His eyes raked River over and he dismissed her with a scowl.
Simon bristled, holding his arm tighter around River’s shoulders. Jayne shot his father a look that could kill. It seemed that both were united in something for once – indignation on River’s behalf.
Mal felt the compulsion to step in then, and he clapped his hands. “All righty. Let’s move on up to the house, huh?”
“Good idea,” Inara agreed, sensing the tension as he had.
She and Kaylee linked arms cheerfully, while Simon still kept his own arm closely around River. Alexa motioned for Jayne to walk with her. When he idled a few feet from her, she gripped his coat and wrenched him over to her. Meanwhile, Eli tapped his stick on the ground and gestured for Mal to join him.
Eli’s eyes crinkled into tiny beads as he smiled. “You’re the famous Captain Reynolds! Heard you’re a Browncoat.”
Mal was wry. “Yes sir. For what that’s worth these days, anyhow.”
“Very good, very good. And where’s this boat of yours boy?”
Mal nodded over his shoulder. “Just out behind us sir.”
Eli gazed over the hill at Serenity. He let out a hoarse cackle. “Dear God. That thing looks like it could fall outta the damn sky.”
Mal smiled tightly. “I can see where Jayne got his charm from,” he muttered, before walking off behind the group.
The Cobb homestead was utterly chaotic, yet inviting. It was a large, ramshackle house, its white wood blinding in the sun. The porch’s roof was drooping precariously low and there was a well-used swing bolted under it. A barn lay to the right, some long past their time combines and tractors inside. Chickens were scattered across the front yard, and what there was of grass was overrun with fluffy white rabbits. There were a few ragged horses whinnying and neighing in a fenced paddock to the left as well.
Over by the barn were a series of fresh-tilled fields rolling across the hills, and apple trees in neat rows. Out back behind the house was a thicket of gnarled trees, the Cobbs’ very own wood, in which a never-ending passel of fearsome creatures had resided during their childhood, according to their father anyway – perfect canon fodder for some frightening bedtime stories.
Inside, the house smelled like engine oil, earth and fresh baking. The decor was comprised of faded curtains, worn rugs, embroidered cushions and scuffed wood. The place was a cluttered assortment of ancient and brand new furniture, hundreds of ornaments, knick-knacks and photographs. In short, to River, and indeed to Kaylee too, it was charming, rustic, well-lived in. It was a home.
All of the Cobb children still lived there, but for the oldest, Asa, who lived in town with his fiancée, and Jayne obviously. The middle children were twins Casey and Careen, with Matthew and Darcy being the youngest. The crew of Serenity had arrived just in time for supper, and the Cobb children had been putting the finishing touches to the spread in the little-used dining room while Eli and Alexa had been greeting them.
When they saw Jayne, Matthew and Darcy immediately pounced on him. River knew suddenly as she watched them that they were his favourites, and that they too thought of Jayne in especially high regard. He’d gotten off of Athens when they’d been just children of ten and four respectively, so he was this near hero in their eyes, this mysterious missing sibling that they rarely saw but heard much about.
Matthew was as tall as Jayne and Eli, but not nearly as broad and strong. He’d been a premature baby, prone to sickness all his life. Darcy was a small and darkly beautiful girl of nineteen. She was demanding and spoiled, cheery and loving.
Jayne swung Darcy around delightedly, his coveted, protected little sister, the youngest of the entire bunch. River knew Careen wished Jayne treated her like he treated Darcy. She stood in the furthest corner, her blank and sunken eyes gazing at Jayne, waiting for the acknowledgment that would never come.
It was Careen’s twin Casey that Jayne greeted next. Casey was the only Cobb man who wasn’t towering over six feet. He was a slender, lean and lithe man in his late twenties, with an energetic countenance and a smile-prone face. Jayne gave him a hug that nearly crushed the life out of his diminutive frame, but Casey just laughed good-naturedly.
As the Serenity crew were introduced to the Cobb clan, River took it upon herself to approach Careen, who was idling unnoticed in the corner. Careen looked up as she came over, shaking a curtain of thick black curls out of her face.
River smiled. “Caroline Maureen. Careen. It’s pretty.”
Careen smiled. River had the notion that she did that very little. “Thank you.”
River scooched closer to her. “I heard you’re crazy.”
Careen blinked at River’s bluntness. “I heard the same about you.”
“Well I don’t believe everything I hear,” River said decisively.
Careen laughed tentatively. “Neither do I.”
Jayne looked over and caught the two of them deep in conversation. That wasn’t exactly a surprise – the two crazies bonding. But damn it if he hadn’t wanted River to stay as far as possible away from Careen. Something about the two of them getting to know one another just made him irksome.
It was supper for fourteen, what with Serenity’s crew being there, so another table was dragged in and pushed against the long dining room table. Supper wasn’t a quiet affair. Eli’s voice was loud and raspy, rising over everyone’s as he traded war stories with Mal.
Jayne had been forced into a chair by his mother, who kept smoothing his hair down and examining scuffs on his clothes. Eventually Jayne gave up protesting and just turned to converse with a quietly amused Casey on his other side. At the other end of the room, at the extra table, River, Careen, Kaylee and Darcy made a noisy party of their own, their conversation changing pace and direction every thirty seconds.
In the middle of the meal, the eldest Cobb, Asa, turned up. He was as tall and imperious as the other Cobb men, bar Casey of course. He looked a lot like Jayne, with the same long nose and sharp eyes, but he hadn’t Jayne’s sly, smirking mouth or the colourful language that went with it. Despite the physical similarities, his personality was the opposite of Jayne’s. He was a serious man with a resonant voice, who only spoke when he had something in particular to say.
He took the saved place at the top of the table beside Eli and opposite Mal. Jayne cast the three of them a guarded look when they began talking. The war veterans had all gravitated toward one another. How convenient. He felt that same old bitterness rise in him again, and he looked away.
River sensed the change in Jayne’s feelings. She could feel the resentment emanating from him in red hot spikes. Talk of war, talk of the military, talk of the soldier’s life, he hated it all. As she watched Jayne thoughtfully, someone was watching her. Eli had pointed River out to Asa, and he was now staring down the table at her, judging her with the same eyes Eli had so swiftly judged her with earlier.
As evening closed in, the noise and chatter didn’t die down, and Mal wondered if it had ever even once been quiet in the Cobb house. Alexa was handing out sustenance in the form of pie, while Eli was handing out his own kind of sustenance – whiskey. When Mal tasted the pungent drink, he decided it must have been some kind of engine oil in a past life.
Later, he stumbled out of Eli’s den, needing to get away from the smoke and whiskey for a little bit. There weren’t many empty rooms to be had in the rest of the house – his crew and the Cobb kids were scattered all over the place. Through the window, he even spotted Simon and Kaylee making out on the porch swing.
He wandered aimlessly, unable to shake that enclosed feeling he always got when he was inside a house. Serenity was his house, his home, but it wasn’t bound by walls or floors or earth. It was bound by the black.
Sighing, he looked to the wall behind him which was virtually covered from top to bottom in photos. It seemed the only damn purpose of the wall was so there was somewhere for all the photos to hang.
“All the Cobbs that ever did live, huh?” Mal mused to himself with a little laugh.
He looked over the photographs before him. Some of them were ancient, almost looking like they’d come off of Earth-That-Was, and others were more recent. His eyes fell on one photo, passed it by, and then snapped right back to it. He recognised something. There was a middle-aged man, tall and rough-around-the-edges-handsome – Eli Cobb. He was standing with two young men who were wearing the same thing. The brown military uniform of the Independents.
Mal hastily looked at the title at the bottom of the photo: ‘General Eli Cobb of the 33rd Brigade and his sons Asa and Jayne, also of the 33rd’.
Mal’s mouth dropped open and he stared uncouthly at the photograph. “Jayne was in the military?” he spluttered, unable to even get that thought straight in his own mind.
“That he was.”
Mal wheeled around to see Alexa smiling fondly at the photo. “All four o’ my fine boys were part o’ the 33rd Independent Brigade at one time.”
Now Mal really did feel like he was having himself a hallucination. “Jayne. Jayne Cobb. Jayne Cobb, your son, was an Independent?”
Alexa smiled gently up at Mal. “I’m guessing Jayne ain’t never talked of his past much.”
“Much? Try ever?” Mal snorted. “This is a shockin’ piece o’ truth Mrs. Cobb. I was part o’ the 57th myself, so was Zoë. Couldn’t stand to see them purple bellies spreadin’ ‘cross the ‘verse. Weren’t exactly my best day ever when we lost the war,” he mused. “But all Jayne’s ever done is give us grief about bein’ ex-military, ‘n’ all along he was one of us.”
Alexa raised her eyebrows warningly and tilted her head. “Wouldn’t go that far Captain Reynolds. Jayne may have been in the Independent army, but he weren’t never a true Independent. He’s got an equal dislike for both sides. Don’t care much for the Alliance or the Independents either way. Broke his daddy’s heart when he left the army and lit on outta here,” the woman sighed. “Don’t take what he says to you to heart. It ain’t really you he’s got issue with. Jayne hates the military ‘n’ all it stands for Captain. You won’t ever find a Browncoat in him.”
Mal merely shrugged his eyebrows and looked back at the photo. Jayne Cobb was the black sheep in a family of military men. Wonders would never cease. Shaking his head, he went into the living room.
He found Inara immediately, her opulent deep green bustier and matching shawl standing out among everyone else’s muted clothing. He collapsed beside her on the sofa and she turned away from her conversation with Darcy and River as he dropped his head onto her shoulder.
“Tired?” she asked laughingly.
Mal let out a long stream of breath. “Those men can drink! I mean, I can drink, but they can drink. Ya know?”
Inara laughed. “I think so.”
“Should be headin’ back to Serenity for the night soon,” Mal murmured. “Your bed’s lookin’ mighty invitin’.”
Mal pouted childishly. “Yeah well, it’s got them soft sheets I like. You know how sensitive my skin is. And plus y’know, my bed, it’s all messy. Didn’t bother makin’ it this morning. It’s best all round if I just bunk with you.”
Inara just arched an amused eyebrow. “Oh?” She took his face in both of her hands and kissed him chastely. “I think I can spare room for you this once.”
Mal smiled contentedly, snuggling his face into her perfumed neck. “Well that’s good. Thought I’d hafta ask Mrs. Cobb for a room. She’s a fearsome woman. You see the way she slapped Jayne for cussin’? Wouldn’t wanna cross her, no way, no how. No siree, no.”
Inara stroked her hand down his face and neck, smiling wryly as he continued to ramble. Hobie wandered across the room dragging his blanket, looking a bit lost and bereft. Zoë was back in the den with the Cobb boys, so Mal held out a hand to Hobie.
“Wanna sit with us?”
Hobie nodded forlornly.
“C’mere then boy.”
Mal bundled the toddler into his arms and then settled back down into Inara’s embrace. Inara looked down on the both of them, and smiled to herself.
After Alexa had left Mal looking at the photos in the hall, she contemplated what she’d told him about Jayne.
Little did Mal know, that photo he’d seen showed both of the reasons why Jayne had left Athens – his father and the military.
Eli had been career military. Ex-Independent. Ex-sniper. Ex-mercenary. All of Eli Cobb’s sons had joined the Independent army, just like their father had. Asa, his eldest, had remained in the military, becoming a pilot and fighting for the Independents during the Unification War. He’d been one of those shot down during the Battle of Firestrand, though he’d miraculously survived. He still had a bad limp from shrapnel caught in his leg that day.
Matthew had been discharged from the army because of his health. He had loved life in the military, but had always been much too sickly for it. Casey had also remained in the army for a time, but found he wasn’t suited to it. He was an intensely clever young man, fascinated by his twin sister Careen’s mental illness. They would never have had enough money to send Casey to a proper MedAcad like he deserved, so he studied to be a medic at the humble college three towns away. He didn’t learn anything fancy, just the basics, enough to be a local doctor. He’d never be out of work though because there were so few of them around.
But it was Jayne that Eli he’d been most proud of. He had watched Jayne excel in every area during his military training. He’d never seen anyone shoot so fast with such precision, or take a man down with one punch, or learn how to handle hundreds of weapons from hundreds of eras. It had devastated him when Jayne left the army after the minimum amount of service.
He hadn’t been able to understand Jayne’s plain indifference to the Independent’s cause. Jayne had cared nothing for them. Cared nothing for the Alliance. Cared nothing for politics and war. He’d cared nothing for the freedom of the ‘verse, so long as he was free. And free he was.
He’d been away from Athens for almost fifteen years now. He’d come back for visits of course. Now and again his mother had convinced him to stay on and take a job nearby, but soon enough he lit on out of there all over again, breaking his father’s heart all over again as well.
With a sigh Alexa returned to preparing yet more food. It seemed all of her helpers had deserted her, so she was arranging sandwiches and desserts by herself. A long shadow appeared across the floor and she looked behind her to see Jayne in the doorway. It was a foreign sight to her, after all these years. Having Jayne wandering about the house was like turning the clock back fifteen years, when she’d still had lots of little children to look after, and a few less wrinkles to fuss over.
Jayne had that look about him though, like he had something to say. Alexa cast him a cautious glance, wary of trouble brewing. He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms.
“What’s this go se I hear about Careen gettin’ married?”
Alexa sighed. He was bound to find out. He’d always been simultaneously resentful and protective of Careen, two things which mixed dangerously. “Don’t fret now Jayne. He’s a nice fine fella what she’s engaged to. Got his own store in town. Old Man Jameson’s boy, Arthur.”
Jayne snorted. “Art? Art Jameson? He’s Asa’s age. He’s way too old for Careen. And besides, that isn’t even the point Ma. Careen’s ruttin’ crazy in case ya’ll forgot. How much are you payin’ Art to take her off your hands?”
Alexa turned on Jayne, her expression uncompromising and severe. “We ain’t seen you in three long years Jayne,” she said in a carefully controlled voice. “We been missin’ you and then some, so I’m not gonna start no ruckus over this… But if you ever talk about my Careen like that again, you won’t be welcome back in this house again. You got that boy?”
Jayne lowered his head and muttered something.
Alexa glared at him. “What’s that?” she said sharply.
Jayne looked at her with that same attitude he’d had since he was a teenager. “Yes ma’am,” he stated with difficulty.
“Good.” Alexa broke eye contact with him when she saw someone entering. “Well there you are River. Have you tried my apple and pear pie yet? You look like you could use some meat on your bones.”
River was about to say something when Jayne grabbed her arm.
“Jayne, where are you draggin’ the poor child off to? Me and her ain’t gotten to have a little heart-to-heart yet!” Alexa protested.
“Good,” was Jayne’s short reply as he pulled River out the back door.
Alexa rolled her eyes and pursed her lips resignedly. Well that was Jayne for you. It was Eli he’d gotten this surliness from. Asa had the same kind of dark silence about him, only it was just in his nature, and not because he was perpetually angry, like Jayne seemed to be.
How was she ever supposed to get to know this girl if Jayne kept spiriting her away? She had six children and not one of them was yet married, or had kids. If someone had told her Jayne would be the one to give her her first grandchild she would have laughed in their face. Jayne was the very last of her children that came to mind when she’d thought about them having kids of their own. She’d seen him run from any woman he might have married, and then he’d run to the black, and God only knows what kind of dalliances he’d had up there.
Alexa had no idea what the attraction between Jayne and this teenaged girl was, but she wanted to find out. River Tam was one of the strangest little things she’d ever met, stranger than Careen even. And given Jayne’s attitude toward her, Alexa couldn’t quite fathom what he’d see in a girl just like her.
Maybe she didn’t need Jayne’s reasons for being with River to be explained to her though. As Alexa caught sight of them through the window, everything seemed as clear as day.
Jayne was leaning against a porch pole, River standing between his legs. In the warm summer twilight, River’s yellow dress was illuminated, the material tight over her rounded stomach, which was now clearly outlined in profile. She said something to Jayne and Jayne chuckled, reaching out to cup her cheek. River ducked her head and tilted forward into his embrace, Jayne’s arms swallowing her up.
Alexa raised her eyebrows. There it was. The answer to her question. It was just plain old love. Nothing any more complicated than that. With a laugh, she turned away and resumed her work.
The second half.