It was an hour or so later, after she’d gone about the house handing out the food she’d prepared, that Alexa looked out the kitchen window to see if Jayne and River were still on the porch. She saw that Jayne was staring out into the backyard where River and Careen were swaying back and forth on a swing, each with a little bunny cradled in their arms.
Alexa went out, coming to stand by Jayne. He looked around at her, an ill-tempered expression on his face.
“Not lookin’ for no argument son. Hardly seen you in three years, so I’m gonna forget about what you said earlier,” she said “Come ‘n’ have a chat with me. C’mon.”
Jayne, despite his misgivings over what this chat might entail, followed her over to the porch swing. Both watched River and Careen in rapt silence for a while.
“She’s young,” Alexa commented evenly.
Jayne didn’t disagree, he merely shrugged. “But she’s smarter than anyone I ever met.”
Alexa pursed her lips. “Smart maybe, but still just a girl.”
Jayne snapped his head in her direction, that impatient, irritated look he’d gotten from his father etched on his face. “You gonna be happy for me or not?”
His mother laughed. “Sure. I’ll be happy for you. Long as I know you’re not kiddin’ yourself. Or her. You’re in it deep Jayne. She’s carryin’ your child. You can’t just up ‘n’ leave her like you left us.”
There was an uncomfortable silence then, and Jayne shuffled away from his mother somewhat, wary of the past being dragged up. “Wouldn’t do that.”
“You sure about that son?”
Jayne wheeled around on hearing his father’s stern voice on the porch. His father limped across, his walking stick pounding on the wooden floor.
“Eli…” his mother said in a warning tone.
Eli shot her an innocent look that she didn’t believe for one second. “Lexa, how’s about you give me ‘n’ my son some time to reminisce?”
Alexa stood between them, giving each of them admonishing looks. She knew what they were like when left together. She’d spent too many years refereeing shouting matches between them to forget. “Long as that’s all you’ll be doin’,” she said sternly.
Eli watched his wife go to the door, the merriment and laughter inside escaping for a moment before she shut it behind her again. Jayne turned away from his father, staring obstinately out across the yard, where Careen and River were now giggling and chasing the rabbits as they hopped away across the lawn. Eli kept his distance, going to sit on the porch swing, merely watching his son’s tense back from where he was.
“Ain’t ya gonna say nothin’ Jayne? Nothin’ for your ol’ pa after all this time?”
Jayne scowled obstinately. “It’s not like you haven’t seen me for twenty years or somethin’. I’ve hardly been gone but a few seasons. I’ve been back to visit plenty.”
“That you have, that you have,” Eli nodded, stamping his walking stick on the floor. “But you ain’t never been here with this crew. Mighty interestin’ bunch. ‘Specially that Mal. War vet, ain’t he? I could tell a mile off he was a Browncoat.”
Jayne blinked repeatedly, a sarcastic look coming to his face. “Maybe that’s on account of him wearin’ a brown coat.”
Eli pointed his walking stick at Jayne. “Don’t get smart-mouthed with me kid. I was just makin’ a observation.”
Jayne turned around, glaring at his father. “I know what you were doin’! Tryin’ to make me feel guilty and all apologetic for not bein’ the big damn war hero you wanted me to be. You’ve spent more time with Mal since I been back that you have with me. I guess you wish I was more like him, dashing off to fight the good fight like a proper little soldier.”
Eli raised his eyebrows and scratched his stubbly chin. “I guess if that’s how ya wanna see it…”
Jayne’s narrowed his eyes. “That’s how it is, not how I see it,” he snapped.
“It could’ve been a great life for you Jayne,” Eli remarked.
Jayne shook his head incredulously. His eyes wandered over to River. She was picking daisies. A smile flickered across his face. Then he remembered his father, sitting there, glaring at him, and he sobered up. He turned to him. “I got a life,” he stated, nodding to River. “But you just don’t see that, ‘cause it’s off this rock.”
“And what exactly is that life?” Eli asked pointedly.
Jayne rolled his eyes. “I work Pa. May not be leadin’ a damn brigade of soldiers like you’d have me doin’…”
“No. Instead of killing people for a cause, for a belief, for freedom… you kill them for money,” Eli simpered, coughing gruffly.
Jayne nearly flinched at his dad’s acidic tone, but refused to give him the satisfaction. He simply shrugged nonchalantly. “That’s how it is. Life of a mercenary. But then you’d know that, wouldn’t you? Bein’ as you were one your own ruttin’ self,” he said in a dangerously low tone.
The muscles in Eli’s tightly clenched jaw twitched. “Long time ago.”
Jayne crossed his arms. “For you maybe, but it’s what I do in the here and now, and I’m damn good at it. I’ve pulled heists with this crew you wouldn’t even believe. Done jobs all ‘cross the Rim, in the Core too. Gotten outta some mighty tight spots. And I’ve never regretted a second of it.”
“How proud you must be,” Eli sneered. “I know I am. Oh yeah, I’m real proud of my outlaw son! Wanted by the gorram Feds on a dozen planets!”
“Ain’t wanted no more.”
“It don’t take back what you done Jayne!”
Jayne shrugged. “Times are tough. I got a job to do and that job is on Serenity. I can’t help if it ain’t always honest work, and I can’t help it if it takes me away from home!” he spat, his voice rising.
Eli made a face and snorted. “There was always somethin’ to take you away from home even ‘fore you got on that boat.”
“Itchy feet I guess,” Jayne muttered.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Eli returned.
Jayne signed heavily and shook his head. This was a no win situation. He was known for his stubborn nature, but this man right here is where he’d gotten it all from. It was like fighting with himself.
The edgy silence was broken by Eli’s softened, quieter tone. “Was watchin’ that new woman o’ yours. Mighty odd little thing, ain’t she?” he said, pointing with his stick at River out in the garden.
“No odder than anyone else,” Jayne said defensively.
“How’d you meet her? Man like you don’t just stumble across a child like that out on the Rim. Her brother’s a trauma surgeon, Jayne. I ain’t even sure what that rightly means. Both of ‘em talk like they’s readin’ from a encyclopaedia. And she talks like she knows everythin’ ‘bout everythin’ besides that.”
“She does. She’s a Reader.”
Eli guffawed with laughter. “She’s a what? Ai ya, there ain’t no such thing as Readers boy. They’s about as much of a lie as Reavers are.”
“Reavers and Readers exist,” Jayne said stubbornly. “River’s smarts most ain’t even heard of. Regular school was too easy for her so she got sent off to some Alliance place. ‘Cause she was genius and a Reader to boot, they did stuff to her. Cut her head open, changed things, trained her to their likin’.”
“Why would a school do that to a child, even one that’s as smart as you say she is?”
“’Cause they were makin’ an assassin! All of us have seen what she can do. Ain’t no one I know that’s faced two hundred Reavers alone and lived to tell the tale. No one ‘cept her.”
“Ruttin’ hell Jayne! First it’s talk of your genius, psychic woman, then it’s Alliance schools makin’ child assassins ‘n’ now it’s Reavers? Just what have you been doin’ out there son? What have you gotten mixed up in? What has this girl gotten you mixed up in?
Jayne made a face. His eyes were fierce. His father hated that look of his. There was no mercy in it, no affection. He didn’t know how or when Jayne had gotten so hard-hearted, but it was it was mighty awful thing to behold in a son.
“This ends now. I ain’t talkin’ about her to you no more. And I don’t wanna hear you nor none o’ the damn family takin’ her down. You say one word against her ‘n’ I’m outta here for good. You won’t see me nor your grandchild for dust,” he spat.
With that, Jayne stomped inside. His mother, who’d been at the window listening, sighed heavily as the argument came to an end. She knew they’d end up battling it out. They always did. Jayne was just going to fly off-planet again, and barely speak to them for another three years. It took him that long to cool down, and it took Eli that long to acknowledge Jayne’s existence again.
It was always the same with them…
“Why you gotta be so stubborn Jayne?” Eli raged.
“I am what I am. Can’t help that you don’t like it,” Jayne shouted back.
Jayne was twenty-three years old, and he’d just finished his service in the military. He’d hung up his brown coat for good – he’d rather he’d burned it in a fiery blaze though. He was out of the military for good, and he wasn’t looking back for a second. His father was devastated and furious, and he wasn’t afraid to make it known.
Asa sat in the corner, his hands laced before him contemplatively. He’d just completed his first tour of three war-torn planets on the far reaches of the Outer Rim, and gotten a medal of bravery for his troubles. He was the marker that Eli kept comparing Jayne to. Both Asa and Jayne were tired of it. Asa didn’t want his younger brother to hate him because of their father.
“Dad. I think you should leave it be. Jayne’s made his decision,” Asa said in his quiet, deep voice.
“He ain’t made no decision!” Eli spat.
“You’re dreamin’, old man,” Jayne said viciously. “I ain’t goin’ back to the military. Maybe you want death ‘n’ glory on some battlefield, but I don’t. I want a damn life. And I’m not gonna get it with you lookin’ over my shoulder all the time! You just steer clear o’ me from now on, you got it? ‘Cause I don’t wanna hear none of what you gotta say!”
He stormed out of the room, slamming the door so hard it fell off the hinges again. Asa sighed, and rolled his eyes. His mom wasn’t going to be happy.
“The more you try ‘n’ control him, the further he moves away,” Asa said softly, getting up to go and fetch some tools to fix the door.
“Yeah well, good riddance then,” Eli blustered. “Glad to see the back o’ that no good waster.”
“You don’t mean that,” Matthew said softly, appearing in the doorway looking sickly as ever.
“I mean every word boy,” Eli snapped.
Outside, Jayne stalked across the yard, kicking squawking chickens out of his way as he went. Careen sat on top of the fence, looking at him with those huge, empty eyes of hers. Her face was pale in the sunlight, her skin almost translucent. The girl had never looked healthy a day in her life. She hopped off the fence and silently followed him as he walked away.
Jayne held up a warning hand. “Don’t even start Careen. Don’t wanna hear none of your moon brain talk!”
Careen frowned mournfully. “But I saw a prairie demon!” she insisted. “It tried to chase me. They want your eyelashes, y’know. They try ‘n’ pull ‘em all out in your sleep! They won’t get mine though. I’ll stay awake forever if I have to!”
“Shut your crazy little mouth!” Jayne exclaimed, hopping into a battered old land racer.
“Where are you going? It’ll be dark soon. I don’t want the prairie demons to get you!” Careen hollered.
“Just go ‘n’ take your meds Careen!” he growled.
He sped off down the road, leaving her standing in a cloud of dust. He drove to town, cutting through the streets, and hardly stopping even when he almost battered a herd of cattle Ezra Vincent was moving across the road. Arriving at a violent stop outside a house on the other side of town, he pressed his hand down on the horn, and didn’t let up.
A woman came to the door of the house with an irritated look on her face. When she saw Jayne, she narrowed her eyes and stalked back inside. It was Marla-Ann Mason, the mother of his… well, he supposed she was his girlfriend, but Jayne didn’t like to put such names on things. He didn’t like constraints, or titles, or protocol. That was probably why Mrs. Mason despised him so very much.
“You comin’ or not Delilah?! I’m leavin’ in ten ruttin’ seconds!” he yelled.
At that moment, Delilah came spilling out of the house with an eager smile on her face and her red hair flying behind her. She hopped into the land racer beside him and Jayne bolted off into the sunset without saying a word to her. When they arrived at BlueCanyon, Jayne jumped out of the racer and headed straight for the edge of the bluff.
“You’re angry,” Delilah commented.
“How could you tell?” he replied sarcastically.
“You ‘n’ your daddy have a tussle again?”
Jayne picked up some rocks and tossed them out into the canyon. “It’s gone on long enough Lilah. I can’t stay here no more. My father’s drivin’ me crazy. This place just ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
Delilah’s face crumpled. “Don’t you talk like that! What would I do with myself if you were to run off to some other planet?”
Jayne stared at the horizon, his expression set as hard as the planes of the mountainside. Delilah sighed and wrapped her arms around him from behind, resting her face against his broad back. She hated when he got like this. She’d known Jayne since she’d moved there and started high school a few years below him. He’d always kept everything bottled up until it came out in one big explosion of rage.
It wasn’t until the sun had set and the world was dark that he finally calmed down. They lay out under the stars. Delilah rested against his chest, listening to his heart beat erratically. Jayne hardly paid attention to the shapely redhead pressed against him. Any other night, and they would have thrown caution to the wind – along with their clothes. He was much too preoccupied for such things just then though.
“Jayne are you really sure you’re gonna leave Athens?” she asked tentatively.
“As sure as the day is long. The next time a cargo ship stops here lookin’ for crew, I’m on it. I’m outta atmo,” he said stubbornly.
Delilah looked away. “So you’re just gonna up and leave me, that it?”
“I gotta do what I gotta do,” was all he said.
“I thought we had something…” Delilah fought back tears. She knew he hated it when she cried, he never did or said the right thing to make her feel better, and just ended up blaming her for getting upset. “Everyone told me you’d never settle, that you were too wild. I never did believe ‘em. Thought they was all wrong-headed ‘bout you. Turns out they were right though.”
Jayne sighed and pulled her closer to him in a half-hearted effort to comfort her, all the while still staring unwaveringly at the black sky. “Don’t start actin’ like everyone else Delilah. I just weren’t made to stay put! I ain’t gonna be a military man, I ain’t gonna be a Fed, I ain’t gonna be a farmer. I don’t know what I’m gonna be, but I know it won’t be here on Athens. There ain’t nothin’ on this rock but dust and critters, babe. You should get yourself outta here too.”
Delilah didn’t care what he said anymore. She’d hung onto him for so long, even as he’d pulled away from her, always distracted by something else. Something better. Something away. Nothing could still the wild grief raging inside her. She knew now that Jayne didn’t love her. Had he ever?
“Y’know… I had my heart set on marryin’ you Jayne Cobb,” she said softly. “Guess it weren’t never gonna be.”
That shook Jayne from his reverie and he looked down on her head, her fiery hair only dulled now by the darkness. She had been wrong in thinking he didn’t love her. He did, though he’d never actually realised it himself. He’d been with her for so long now, more than two years; she’d almost become a part of him. But this was something Delilah couldn’t be a part of and they both knew it. Jayne’s need to escape and to finally be himself overpowered his feelings for her.
“Marry me? You gotta be kiddin’ Delilah. I ain’t the marryin’ type. And you don’t wanna marry me anyhow. What am I gonna give ya? Huh?” He snorted, shaking his head at the sky. “Nah. Go find yourself some fancy landowner. Some good ‘n’ holy preacher. An upstanding member of the community. I ain’t ever gonna be nothin’ like that. Don’t wanna be neither.”
Delilah shook her head, sitting up. His arms felt empty without her. “Then what do you want Jayne?” she demanded angrily.
Jayne looked away from up and up at the sky. “I want the black.”
For the next couple of months, that’s all he could think about. The black. Space. All the planets he’d heard about but never seen. This world was stifling him. He wanted out.
He and Delilah finally drifted apart for good. It was for the best. He wasn’t one for tearful goodbyes. He let her slip away from him, hating it, but knowing that’s what had to happen.
He hung around the docks most days, watching the cargo ships come and go, combing the notice holoboards for job openings. And then he found one. An Azura Bolt, Mark IV, Dock 9, looking to fill an unspecified crew vacancy.
Jayne immediately went to Dock 9, and found the huge Azura Bolt, named The Merry Maiden. An Asian man named Carson Rye captained the ship, and when Jayne asked what job he would need him to do, Captain Rye’s answer was simple.
“I need you to shoot people while I steal their money,” he said, deadpan.
Jayne raised his eyebrows and then grinned slowly. “I can do that.”
So the deal was done. The Merry Maiden would depart Athens in a week, and Jayne would be on it. He was home that day by sunset. When he told his family that he’d gotten a job and was leaving, there was uproar at the dinner table. Most of them were protesting because they would miss him, but his father’s shouts rose over the din, angrily condemning him.
“Shut your mouth Eli!” Alexa exclaimed. “Jayne’s leavin’ us for who knows how long, and I won’t have you sayin’ such awful things to him.”
“Ain’t nothin’ he don’t deserve,” Eli said bitterly.
Eli left the dinner table and spent the evening brooding upstairs. Meanwhile, all of the kids were running on sugar and excitement, rallying around Jayne, asking him where he was going, when he’d be back, telling him they’d better bring them back presents.
It was eight o’ clock that evening when Jayne sat on the back porch with Matthew. Darcy was on the floor, clinging to his leg, saying she wasn’t going to let go so he’d have to bring her with him. Mattie was sick again, so he was bundled up in a thick blanket, coughing sharply. By rights, he shouldn’t have been up out of bed, but he was fiercely attached to Jayne, and he was so upset over his leaving that it made Jayne want to stay just on account of the mournful look on his face.
“Anyone see where Careen ran off to?” Casey asked worriedly, coming out onto the porch.
“She’s probably hidin’ under the crawl space again,” Jayne snorted. “She says there’s demons out in the bush.”
“Don’t mock her Jayne,” Casey said sharply. He was protective of Careen, she was his twin, and he hated people making fun of her eccentricities. If she didn’t have them, she probably wouldn’t be able to cope, so he was glad she had her own way of doing things.
“Boys, take your sister in.”
They looked up and saw Eli standing there. Mattie got up with a wheeze, casting a worried look back at Jayne as he went in. Casey took Darcy up in his arms and followed his little brother inside. Jayne rolled his eyes in the darkness, bracing himself for a shouting match.
“So you’re really goin’. You’re really leavin’ us.”
“I really am.”
“What did we do to ya Jayne? You hate us so much you gotta go half way across the ‘verse to get away?”
Jayne growled. “It ain’t about anyone else. It’s about me! I went into the military like you wanted me to, I did it! Now I done my time, I’m goin’ off to do somethin’ I wanna do.”
Eli huffed and crossed his arms. “You know war’s brewin’, right? The Alliance don’t like us folk so far away out here on the Rim, not havin’ no control over us. They gonna take measures to tame us, to keep us down. It’s comin’. Don’t you wanna be here? Don’t wanna fight for your people?”
“You’re always talkin’ about a war comin’ Dad! Ain’t no war, none except the one you been imagining fighting in your head your whole life,” Jayne said derisively.
“So ya wouldn’t even support us? Help us fight our cause?”
“Independents… Alliance… it’s all the same. It’s just one jailer or t’other, in the end.” Jayne shrugged.
Eli pressed his lips together, beyond frustrated and tired with Jayne. “You go off out there, and you won’t never come back Jayne. That’s what happens. You just get caught up in the vagabond life. You got family here, what about us? And how are you ever supposed to have a family of your own, if you’s always on the move?”
“I guess I won’t have a family then,” Jayne stated indifferently.
Just then, they heard far away howls and barks. Nearer, there was rustling in the bushes. Frowning, Jayne stood up. Careen emerged from the trees, a panicked look on her face.
“I told you! Prairie demons is comin’!”
“Prairie demons?” Eli exclaimed. “Daughter, what are you talkin’ about?”
“Listen,” Jayne said sharply. The howls and barks filled the air, getting louder by the seconds. “Ain’t no prairie demons… them’s prairie dogs!”
Before anyone could react, the prairie dogs came tumbling out of the bushes, right behind Careen. Eli was shouting for his rifle, Jayne was shouting for Careen to get into the house, everyone was shouting at once. Asa and Casey had come outside with their shotguns, and threw Jayne’s to him. Eli had run down the back steps to get Careen.
A dog lunged at Careen but Eli grabbed her just in time. The dog turned its’ jaw on him then, clamping onto his leg. Eli fell, pushing Careen away. Casey yanked her into the house, while Jayne and Asa shot at the dogs. Everything was moving so fast, the dogs were so loud. The blood was rushing in Jayne’s ears. All he could see was his father getting mauled.
Suddenly, nothing else mattered but Jayne, Eli and the dog. Jayne inhaled a calming breath, took aim and fired. The dog went down immediately, blood spurting everywhere. Eli was collapsed on the grass, several chunks taken out of his left leg. His leg was irreparably damaged. The dog attack would be the reason why he always walked with a limp and used a walking stick after that.
Jayne came up upon Eli, who was breathing shallowly and bleeding copiously. Asa, Casey, Matthew and Alexa were now crowded around him, but Eli’s eyes went right to Jayne standing beyond them.
“Don’t you see now how much we need you?” he wheezed. “You can’t up ‘n’ leave us now.”
Jayne shook his head. “I’m still goin’ Pa. I gotta.”
Eli looked near to tears, and it wasn’t because of the pain in his leg. “Then you’re no son of mine,” he spat.
Jayne just stared at him, his gaze dark and steely. “That’s fine by me.”
Eli was still sitting on the porch swing later when Asa came out and joined him.
Asa gave his father a crooked look. “Jayne’s stormin’ around in there like a bull in a china shop. What’d you say to him Dad?”
“Everyone just assumes it’s me that’s gone ‘n’ pissed him off,” Eli griped.
Asa just gave him a pointed look and Eli relented.
“We had ourselves a disagreement. Mostly over that child there,” Eli told him, pointing with his walking stick at River, who was now pottering around the yard alone, Careen having gone inside.
“His choices are his choices. You can’t change that none. You couldn’t fifteen years since, and ya can’t now,” Asa said plainly.
“Don’t you think I know that boy?” Eli snapped. “Jayne’s a stubborn hun dan, always has been. He’d argue anythin’ just so’s it meant goin’ against me. Maybe I ain’t been right about everythin’ over the years, but that won’t last,” he said, nodding at River. “He got her knocked up and now he’s gotta stick by her just ‘cause she’s on the crew. If it weren’t for that he woulda left her in the dust.”
“You don’t know that,” Asa remarked.
Eli snorted. “Oh I know it all right. I know Jayne,” he said darkly. “He don’t like bein’ tied to nobody nor nothin’.”
“He’s been gone for fifteen years. That’s nigh on half his life. We don’t know how much he’s changed,” Asa said firmly. “And these stories, it ain’t just hogwash he’s spinnin’. All of the crew are sayin’ the same thing. Reavers are real, and the Alliance created ‘em. And if Reavers really are the monsters we fear they are, then it’s no wonder Jayne’s changed. Seein’ brutality like that, it does somethin’ to a man.”
Eli could tell by the tone in Asa’s voice that he was thinking of his experiences in the War. “It was a whole ‘nother story with you son. You were doin’ your duty. Fightin’ a cause. Maybe you seen brutality, maybe you done it yourself, but it weren’t no campfire story, it were real, it were wartime.”
Asa snorted, showing some of his little seen emotions, and a bit of that bad attitude that seemed to be a Cobb family trait. “Dad, when are you gonna get it through to your head? We lost. And harpin’ on about how honourable we were in fighting won’t fix that. I’m glad Jayne didn’t go to war, I’m glad he got to live the life he wanted. At least he’s usin’ what he learned in the military for somethin’, he’s makin’ a living out of it. Me? What did I get for all my skills? A pound of shrapnel in my leg and an early retirement.”
Eli blinked at Asa’s outburst, but seemed not to have really heard what he’d said. “But you were brave! And your medals show that! You’re a hero, Asa. An honest to goodness hero! Jayne’s a con. Nothin’ but a no-good con.”
Asa shook his head and pursed his lips. “You just don’t get it, do you? A man can show his bravery in places other than the battlefield. Maybe Jayne’s done that already and we just ain’t seen it.”
With that, Asa limped off, slamming the back door as he went in. Eli was left sitting there bewildered as to why all of his sons seemed to be storming out on him today.
“They don’t understand.”
Eli flinched and looked up on hearing the small, girlish voice. It was River. She was standing right in front of him. Girl moved like a cat. He hadn’t even realised she was on the porch. He looked down and noticed she was barefoot. She was as peculiar as Careen was, and that was saying something.
“They don’t understand why you love the military so much. Even Asa. He loved the military, but he doesn’t love it like you did. He went to war because it was required of him, but when you went it was because you wanted to.”
Eli arched an eyebrow. “This some kind of Reader trick? Huh? Or did Jayne just tell you all about how much he hates his daddy?”
River sat on the swing with him, her weight barely making it rock at all. “No. He never talks about his family. None of us knew your names, or anything about you, or about his past. Well, I did. I know without him having to say it, but the others didn’t.”
Eli just looked at her. He was utterly confounded by her. She seemed so detached, but when she spoke it was with complete clarity. She was an enigma.
River smiled. “Don’t try to figure me out. You’ll just give yourself a headache.”
Eli paused and then laughed loudly. “Girl-child, you are a mighty strange little thing.”
River shrugged. “It’s not so bad being strange.”
“Well that’s always what them that are strange always say,” he retorted.
River tilted her head. “You sound like Jayne.”
“Dunno whether that’s an insult or a compliment.”
“It’s both,” she said decisively. There was a lull in the conversation while he chuckled to himself, but then River turned to him seriously. “Jayne was right, wasn’t he? When he said you wanted him to be more like Mal?”
Eli groused and shifted where he sat. “He told you about that huh?”
River blinked. “No.” She paused. “But I just wanted to tell you that he can’t be. Jayne can’t be like Mal. Not wired that way. Just like I’m not wired to be not strange. I am what I am. I understand Eli. Why you can’t accept that Jayne’s different? I understand. Simon couldn’t accept that I was different at first. But then after a while, he learned to. And then he didn’t waste so much time worrying about me.”
River stood up, smoothing her dress down. He squinted up at her, the very last of the sun’s blood red rays illuminating her from behind. He saw then, not so much a girl, but the hint of a woman, looking back at him through that sheet of long hair. She had knowing eyes, and a smirking mouth, and an uncommon beauty. She had that air about her that told him she’d been to war. Maybe not the kind of war he was used to, but war all the same.
She reached out and put her hand to his face, his thick beard scratching her palm. “Don’t need to worry so much about Jayne anymore. He’s got Serenity. And when he goes to battle, he’s got me looking over his shoulder… and nobody gets past me.”
With a final look, she turned and went inside, leaving Eli Cobb stunned to silence for the first time in all his sixty-one years.
For over a week, the crew of Serenity invaded the Cobb household.
It wasn’t like they were just idling there though, everyone was busy at something. Kaylee and Mal shopped around the scrap yards that were dotted all across Athens, buying and bartering for perfectly good used parts for Serenity. Kaylee then whiled away her days replacing some of Serenity’s just-about-to-break innards.
Simon discovered that even if Jayne wasn’t exactly the most educated and articulate of people, his brother Casey certainly was. He was shocked and intrigued when he found out that Casey was a medic-in-training. Casey was eager for Simon’s wisdom, both from working as a trauma surgeon in the ER in Core hospitals and from treating serious wounds out on the Rim. Casey was interning with the local doctor, and Simon accompanied him on his rounds for several days, also giving Casey access to drugs and books he never would have had otherwise.
It was time for the harvest, so Jayne was roped into helping with that on the Cobb farm. He was dragged out of bed and down to the fields at the crack of dawn and there wasn’t rest in sight until at least seven in the evening, but the work had been known to go on until eleven sometimes. Zoë, who’d been born and bred aboard a ship, loved learning about life on the land, and being a quick study, she picked up on everything within no time, and helped out the Cobb boys and their father.
While Jayne was working in the fields, River found herself very at home in the Cobb homestead. Darcy was a lot like Kaylee, a tiny ball of energy spinning about leaving cheerfulness in her wake. Once they’d broken the ice, she and Alexa warmed to one another as well. They weren’t the best of friends by any means, and hadn’t exactly grown close, but with Jayne out of the way, they at least got to speak to one another.
It was Careen though that River really enjoyed spending time with. River had had to deal with psychological problems for a couple of years, but Careen had had them for her whole life, and that garnered the highest respect for her in River. Careen talked at length about the long trek it had been to try and find some semblance of normalcy and calm. She’d felt ostracized and alone for a long time, Jayne being no help with that of course.
River had never felt Jayne’s disgust about this so strongly as she had in the last few days he’d been around Careen. She brought it out in him full force. When River found herself acting a little eccentric now and again, he’d snapped at her all the quicker for it, quicker than he usually would have. He hardly looked at Careen, let alone engaged in a proper conversation with her. It didn’t help that every evening when he came home, he found her and River thick as thieves.
That evening though, she was nowhere to be seen when he and the boys trudged in, weary and hungry. Casey informed him that the heat, combined with a natural predisposition to faint during pregnancy, had made River feel a little light-headed, and he and Simon had both recommended she rest up.
Jayne and River had been staying in the Cobb house, in his and Asa’s old room, which had been empty since Asa had moved in with his fiancée. Jayne traipsed upstairs to the room, finding River curled on the bed, looking back at him expectantly.
“Knew I was comin’, huh?”
“Don’t need to be a Reader to hear you coming Jayne,” she replied, that child-like precociousness present as ever. “You’re kind of loud.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, exhaustion weighing him down. Nothing like a day in the fields to take it out of someone. No matter what kind of work he’d done out in the black, none of it had ever tired him out as much as his daddy’s slave driving on the farm did.
River reached out and ran her hand over his chest. “You’re covered in dirt.”
“That’s on account of the fields bein’ covered in dirt,” he said sarcastically, pulling the shirt over his head and throwing it over a chair. He poked her arm teasingly. “Come on now, no need to be a hog. You ain’t gotten so big yet you gotta take up the whole bed, have ya?”
River gave him an arch look and moved back to the middle of the bed. Jayne collapsed exhaustedly where she had been.
“Heard tell you went all weak at the knees.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Just a little.”
“Or a lot.”
“You gotta be so smart-mouthed all the time? Don’t your brain ever get tired?” he snorted.
At her amused look, Jayne just pressed his lips together. He threw an arm over her and pulled her to him, scowling at her like she should have been there already. River felt a warm wash of sleepiness come over her, like she’d been doped.
She ran her finger over the thin scar on his chest, the one that she’d given him with the slash of a knife, oh so long ago. A life time ago. She’d been much crazier then. He’d been much meaner. How could they ever have imagined the horrors to come? How could they have imagined the joys to come?
She was such a ranting little moon brain; he never thought he’d share a sane conversation with her, let alone a bed. It had been easy enough to respect her for what she could do – how fast she could shoot, the precision with which she threw knives, how smooth and deadly her hand-to-hand fighting was. Once he’d accepted her as a real person, an actual girl, wanting her and desiring her, that had been pretty easy too.
But being alone with River, when they weren’t fighting others, or one another, or having sex, it was a whole different challenge. This casual comfort, bodies close, silence blanketing them – that had taken a while. He wasn’t certain he’d gotten used to it yet. It was strange and foreign, but so were most things when one hadn’t felt them in a long time, or indeed, ever.
Jayne had never been the sentimental type, wasn’t sure he even was now, but he felt some kind of something being with River. Just lying there with her. Maybe it was peace, or contentment, or any number of girly feelings he shouldn’t acknowledge. But it felt right.
With that thought in mind, Jayne lowered his head and kissed her. It was the kind of kiss she usually gave him – sweet and chaste. His arm dwarfed her as he held her close to him, the new curves of her usually lean body moulding into him.
As night drew in, moonlight seeped into the darkened room. In the glow, his eyes moved across her body. Her bare leg curled across him. The long length of her arm. The curve of her neck down to her breasts. She was falling asleep now. The straps of her dress were slipping down, forgotten. The skirt was wrinkling across her thighs. She was warm and firm against him.
“Jayne?” she murmured into his chest.
River’s fingers danced down his arm. He shivered.
“Jayne. You should be nicer to Careen. She loves you.”
Jayne frowned up at the ceiling as River drifted off.
Hours later, when the night had blanketed the world like a dusty curtain, Jayne blinked awake. He’d found that he’d slept right through the evening. As he tried to get his bearings, a noise permeated his consciousness, and he realised what it was that had woken him. A repetitive, even squeaking. The swing.
Through bleary eyes he looked out the window. A lone figure were swinging back and forth, barely visible in the coal black night. He looked back at River, curled down deep in his childhood bed. He didn’t know what possessed him, but he grabbed his shirt and boots, and went downstairs. Feeling annoyed about missing supper, and even more annoyed that no one had woken him for it, he took a fresh red apple from the bowl on the table, and then stood at the back door, his hand hovering over the handle.
He could see her out the window, still languidly swaying on the swing. Careen. He’d risen from bed, gotten dressed and forgone raiding his mother’s larder all because of this compulsion to go outside to her. Why? Jayne rolled his eyes and gave up pondering wherefores and art thous and just went outside.
His grabbed a flickering lantern from the porch, and moved across the grass to the swing set. Careen saw the light creeping across the grass and whirled around, twisting the swing chains.
“Aren’t you afraid the prairie demons are gonna getcha?” Jayne said evenly.
Careen’s expression didn’t change. She wasn’t sure how to react to his suddenly talking to her in something other than a yell or an order. “Not really. A very long time ago someone kill all them prairie demons. I ain’t seen none since.”
“Damn right,” Jayne agreed. He sat on the swing River had been on earlier. He felt like a child, but he supposed that was the point of an adult sitting on a swing – to feel like a child again.
He became very quiet and then he carefully looked at Careen over the lantern light. “Hi,” he said simply.
She smiled slowly, and then reached over and stole the apple from him. “Hi,” she replied.
High up, from the bedroom window, River watched them in contented silence.