Disclaimer: None of the characters, objects or situations named herein belong to me. Firefly is the property of Joss Whedon. I strongly encourage anyone who enjoys fanfiction to purchase and read/view/listen to/imbibe/eat the source material, as applicable. See below.
A/N: Some dialogue borrowed from 'Serenity: Those Left Behind', the trade-paperback that covers the time between 'Objects in Space' and the Big Damn Movie. Everything during and after the bank job is based on said TPB, and will make more sense for those who have read it. If you haven't read it - shame! Go give of your money unto the Master! The story will still be here when you get back!
"Kaylee? Wake up, Kaylee."
Kaylee's eyes popped open, to find River's face inches from hers. River looked more than a little freaked... more than a little blurry, too, bein' so close. "River, what is it? What's wrong? It's... what time is it?"
River backed up enough for Kaylee to sit up. She sat on the very edge of Kaylee's bunk. For some reason, she had her blanket clutched in her arms. "Simon's all right," she said, even as Kaylee wondered if it was something to do with Simon, and if he was okay. "But he is an inappropriate ear."
"Oh... kay." Kaylee rubbed her eyes. "What's up, sweetie? Did you have a bad dream? Are you still feelin' poorly?"
"Discomfort flows in streams of red and black." River stared anxiously at Kaylee.
"It... I'm sorry, sweetie, I didn't get that." Kaylee yawned. She wouldn't usually be up for at least another hour, and she was an early riser. "Could you try it again?"
Jayne - he was really tryin', bless his secretly tender heart - had been the one to discover that asking River to try saying it again got her less tangled up than asking her to explain. River nodded, and scrunched up her face in thought. "I am a fountain of life."
"Still a little lost," Kaylee admitted after a moment of sleepy thought. "Could you maybe -"
River rolled her eyes as if Kaylee was being awful stupid, and held out her blanket, shaking it out. Kaylee was still puzzled for a minute, and then she saw the darker stains on the brown blanket. "Oh! Oh, sweetie, you got your flow!" She frowned. "Awful late to be starting, though..."
"Started and stopped," River explained, bundling up her blanket again. "No distracting pains or desires wanted in the Academy's best. Medicines to make childhood return, but they've worn off now."
Kaylee frowned. Every time she thought there wasn't no further depth those Academy bastards could sink to, she found a new one. Wasn't all the rest of what they'd done to River bad enough, they had to try'n stop something as natural as becoming a woman? "Oh, River, that's just awful. I'm so glad it's getting better now."
"Ambivalent," River said, staring at the blanket with a sort of confused expression. "Complications arise, and I already have so many."
"It's a good thing, even if it is complicatin'," Kaylee said firmly, leaning over to give her a hug. "And maybe having a natural cycle'll help."
"It might." River seemed to like that idea, snuggling up against Kaylee. "And having hormones naturally instead of artificially regulated."
"Yeah." Kaylee had gotten a wee bit lost there, but it sounded good. "And you didn't want to tell Simon, huh?"
"He's a boy." River hid her face in Kaylee's shoulder. "Will you tell him?"
"Well sure!" Kaylee beamed, stroking River's hair. It was so rare that River acted like an ordinary girl, and getting embarrassed about telling your brother about your cycles certainly was normal. "I'll just let him know tactful-like and you won't have to talk to him about it at all."
"I need... things," River said, her voice decidedly muffled by Kaylee's nightshirt.
"I know, sweetie. I gotcha covered. And... Hey, we should do something special, just us girls." When Kaylee had first gotten her flow, she and her Momma had had a special day to celebrate Kaylee growing up. Even if this was kind of a second first, Kaylee figured as it was definitely worth recognition, especially given as how hard it was for River to feel normal. "You and me and 'Nara and Zoe. Special girl time, maybe in 'Nara's shuttle. I bet she'd put together a real nice tea party or something for you."
"Really?" River was still muffling herself in Kaylee's shoulder, but she'd relaxed a bit now. "But there'll be questions."
"Oh, the boys don't have to know. We'll just say we're going to have a girl's afternoon, they don't gotta know why." Kaylee bounced a little. "It'll be fun! I'm gonna go ask her as soon as we've got you all set up."
River couldn't eat her breakfast. She sat in front of it, poked it with her chopsticks, but her stomach was all knotted up. She felt exposed and nervous - and there was a dull pain in her abdomen which Kaylee said was cramping and to be expected.
"River? You feeling okay?" Wash sat down opposite her, making a crumpled, inquiring face. "Did your breakfast make you angry today?"
"No." She couldn't look him in the eyes. He would be sincerely happy for her, if he knew, and it would be terribly embarrassing. "My stomach hurts."
"That's never a good thing." He smiled kindly at her. Wash was always kind. Except sometimes to Mal, who was the only person Wash ever showed his crest to. "How about some nice hot tea?"
"Tea is acceptable." She pulled her knees up under her chin. That helped the ache a little. "Thank you."
"Hey, no problem. I'm always glad to be useful. It's kind of my life's mission, being useful." He grinned at her, and she managed a lopsided smile in return. "But don't go around telling people that. I like to pretend that my life's mission is to make as many witty remarks as is humanly possible. Not only are the witty remarks enjoyable, but it keeps people appreciative of my helpfulness because they don't realize that I'm driven to it by my secret calling."
Wash talked almost as oddly as River did sometimes. She liked it. It made her feel less confused. "I won't tell. Won't endanger the secrecy of your mission."
"Well, good." He set the cup in front of her, smiling again. "There. Drink that, and maybe you'll feel better."
She sipped her tea while he ate, and was almost calm when Jayne ambled into the galley, yawning. Her stomach promptly tied itself into a whole new series of knots - she thought one of them might be a bowline.
She liked Jayne. He was kind, in his gruff, thoughtless way. He taught her things. She could have drawn them directly from his thoughts, of course, but they were easier to hold onto if Jayne put them into short, clear words that lay like strings of stones in the chaos of her thoughts, linked together and hard to lose. But he was absolutely the last person she wanted to see right now. If he found out about that, she would turn herself inside out with embarrassment and her insides would fall off and be lost.
"Morning." He poured himself a cup of cheap coffee-substitute and slouched at one end of the table, staring at the cup with his eyes unfocused. She reached out cautiously, and was relieved to find no sign that he'd noticed anything unusual about her. Until the coffee-substitute started to kick in, and he noticed the full bowl in front of her. "Ain't eating?"
"She has a tummy-ache," Wash said helpfully. "Which is why the tea."
River pushed her bowl over to Jayne. "You can have it."
"You sure?" She nodded, and he shrugged and dug into the lumpy protein. Jayne was always ready for an effort-free meal, even if someone else had played with it a bit first.
Wash gave River a concerned look. "If you're still feeling bad when you finish your tea, maybe you should go see Simon. I know you're trying to cut back on the medications, but maybe he can do something about your stomach."
River shook her head, letting her hair slide forward to cover her face. She didn't want to have to talk to Simon about this. He had to know about the other things, about the psychosis and the nausea and all the other little gifts the Academy had filled her with, like a Christmas stocking full of coal. He didn't have to ask her about this, or give her a needle for it, or fix it. It was fine. She wasn't broken, not any more, not in that part of her. "Simon can't help."
"Ahhh." Wash nodded. "Well, tea and maybe some rest." His thoughts smelled of understanding and affectionate concern, but he was careful not to show his suspicions to her for fear of embarrassing her. Wash was always kind.
River found herself watching Jayne eat. He ate quickly, and his table-manners would have horrified her mother, but he wasn't messy. He didn't raven, like a wolf. He ate efficiently, wasting neither time nor a single scrap of food. River wondered if it meant anything. Did he eat quickly because he was used to food being snatched away if he took too long over it? Was he so careful not to lose any to spills or drips because he was used to doing without?
It wasn't until he stopped in mid-chew to look at her that she realized she was staring. "Wha'?"
"Nothing." She looked away hastily. "The eye naturally gravitates to whatever object is in motion."
She watched him frown and repeat the words silently, then nod as he worked out what it meant. He shrugged, and went back to his food. Her food.
River had to finish her tea quickly and go away, before she could find herself watching him again.
"We should be on Persephone by tomorrow afternoon. We dump the cargo, then you and I go see Badger. He has a job for us." Mal sipped his tea. This was shaping up to be a good week. "It's probably not so much legal, but he was making noises about big payoffs in the wave he sent, and you know how much we like the money."
"Zoe, are you listening?"
"We like money, sir. I heard." Zoe shook her head, drawing herself back from whatever place she'd been staring into. "Going to see Badger. Will we take Jayne?"
"If we can restrain him from the drinking and whoring available on Persephone for that long, sure." Mal tilted his head, looking at Zoe thoughtfully. "Your mind is wandering a mite this morning. Something up?"
"No, sir. Well, nothing important." Zoe smiled a small, thoughtful sort of smile. "Won't be around this afternoon. Kaylee's taken it into her head to introduce River to the joys of doing girl stuff. I've been invited to a tea-party in Inara's shuttle."
"A tea-party?" Mal set his cup down, his eyebrows ascending. "Kaylee thinks River needs to learn about tea-parties?"
"Mm." The smile got wider. "I think it's a good idea. Let her do something normal for a change - and Kaylee's all excited about it. Looking forward to it myself."
"You? Really?" Too late Mal realized that that had sounded just a little tactless.
Zoe raised one eyebrow, looking more amused than offended. "I do occasionally get the urge to paint my nails and put my hair up, sir. I wasn't required to hand in my uterus and associated organs when I was issued with my tags and gun."
"Now there's a mental image that'll be with me for a while." Mal shook his head, grinning. "Right. Secret girl time in Inara's shuttle this afternoon. Should I round up the boys and stage some kind of raid?"
Zoe grinned back. "Not if you value your life. I may not be able to kill you with a nail-file, sir, but I'll warrant I could hurt you real bad."
"There's hurting? Do I hear arguing?" Wash peeked into the galley. "Zoe, why do you want to hurt the captain with a nail file, and can I watch?"
"There's going to be a Secret Girl-Stuff Meeting in Inara's shuttle this afternoon," Mal said, before Zoe could open her mouth. "Kaylee's doing. Apparently the pink frilly dress has worn off and she needs to do something girlish again."
"Oh! Special girl time! Well, I'm sure you'll all enjoy it." Wash grinned, taking this excuse (as he did every excuse) to come over and kiss his wife. "I've always wondered what it is girls do during these secret meetings. I have reason to suspect it involves braiding."
"It may do. But I cannot reveal the secret rituals to an unbeliever." Zoe grinned, the wide grin that had only begun appearing after she'd taken up with Wash. Mal had put up with a lot on account of that grin.
"Maybe we should do some guy stuff while you're all locked in the shuttle." Wash grinned back. "I understand that the consumption of alcohol is considered manly. I can drink alcohol. Mal, shall we drink alcohol this afternoon?"
"I could handle a little alcohol." There were days when Mal could almost understand what Zoe saw in Wash. "And after I've had some, I may also be amenable to a game of cards for stakes of some kind, which I have always understood to be a very manly pursuit of an afternoon."
Zoe laughed, a loud honest-to-god laugh that tipped her head back and seemed to warm the air. "If I weren't otherwise committed, I would pay money to see that."
"Well, you can't. It is secret man business. You females may not know of our secret rituals of masculinity." Wash made an exaggeratedly serious face, and even Mal had to chuckle.
"What secret rituals of masculinity?" Jayne leaned in the other door, giving Wash a suspicious look.
"The ladies are going to have a girl-stuff tea-party this afternoon. Kaylee's doing, apparently." Wash grinned. "So I suggested that perhaps those of us who are not girls should engage in manly activities while they're shut up in Inara's shuttle. Drinking and cards seem to be on the agenda, and I do hope you'll be able to attend. I can drink and lose at cards, but I'm not much on the belching. I have a girly belch. I'm counting on you to cover for my deficiency in that area, because as I understand it belching is an essential component of any gathering of manly men."
Jayne grinned. "Usually, yeah. Booze and cards, huh? I'm in."
This was going to be... interesting. "What the hell." Mal grinned, draining his cup. "Sounds like fun."
"It sounds scary, is what it sounds like." Zoe shook her head, still grinning widely. "I'll come up here and check for bodies when we're done braiding each other's hair."
"Simon?" Kaylee peeked into the infirmary. Inara had been delighted at the idea of having a special tea-party for River, doing fun girl things and all. Zoe had seemed pleased with the idea too, although more for River's sake than because she liked having her hair played with or anything. Now Kaylee just had to have that little talk with Simon.
He was cleaning - he sure spent a lot of time doing that - but he put down the cloth and the spray when she came in, turning to smile that devastatingly sweet, shy smile at her. "Kaylee. Hello."
"Hi." He was so pretty when he just gazed at her like that. If he could just stop screwing it all up when he opened his mouth..."Could I have a word with you 'bout River?"
"Yes, of course." He frowned, looking all fretted all of a sudden. "Is she all right?"
"Sure, she's fine!" Kaylee grinned. Oh, River had been SO cute when she got all embarrassed. "She's just... uh... well, she had this thing that she kinda didn't want to talk to you about, and she asked me to talk to you about it."
His frown turned puzzled. "Why wouldn't she want to talk to me about it? Is she upset about something?"
"Not exactly. It's just... well, sometimes there's things girls like to talk about with other girls." That didn't seem to click, so Kaylee spelled it out for him. "She's just started getting her monthlies again."
"Her mon- Oh. Oh, I see." Simon went brilliant pink. "Er... yes. That's good news. It means her body-chemistry is starting to settle down into something approaching a normal pattern."
Kaylee giggled. That blush was just so cute. "Yeah. I think she's pleased about it, even if she is awful embarrassed. Me and Inara and Zoe are going to give her kind of a little party this afternoon."
Simon's eyebrows rose slowly. "A... party? For a biological function?"
"Sure! It's a real big deal for a girl, Simon. I mean, not that you should make a big deal of it, 'cause she'd just about die of embarrassment, but it's important. Especially for River. There ain't hardly anything for her to celebrate, these days, so I wanted to make this a special thing."
"That's very kind of you. Really." He was doing that smile again, making Kaylee's knees go all weak. "You're probably right that I shouldn't... well, say anything. But I'm grateful to you for doing this."
"Oh, it ain't nothin'." Kaylee beamed at him. "It'll be fun. We'll all do each other's hair and do other secret girl stuff."
"Secret girl stuff, huh?" Simon shook his head, still smiling. "I... actually, I don't think River's ever done secret girl stuff. She never really got along with the other girls when she was young, and our mother wasn't... she didn't like to fuss."
Kaylee was pretty sure what that meant, and she laid a consoling hand on Simon's arm. "Well, don't you worry about it. We'll make sure she has a real nice day."
"Thank you." He covered her hand with his own, his fingers slipping in between hers, and Kaylee was sure that her face was as pink as his. "It... I hate to admit it, it being the Jayne-ape's idea, but keeping her occupied and having other people watch her and teach her things really seems to be helping. She gets so much less upset when her energy is turned outwards instead of brooding over things." He ducked his head, looking embarrassed. "I'm a little inclined to brood myself, so I guess I didn't realize that's what River was doing."
"You do get kinda mopey sometimes," Kaylee said, fighting to resist the urge to just lean in and kiss him. Damnit, she was going to make him at least do that much before pouncing on him. "But she really is doin' better, the last few weeks."
"I know. And I have to stop calling him an ape." Simon grinned ruefully. "River nearly concussed me with a pillow last time she heard me do that. She likes him now. I still don't know why, but she does."
"It's 'cause he likes her. We always like folks as like us." And one day, Simon Tam, you are going to realize just how much you and me like each other and you're going to do something about it.
Wash sat down and looked at the table. They had cards. They had money to play for - not too much thereof, because nobody wanted to be broke when they got to Persephone, but enough to keep things interesting. They all had alcohol... he, Mal and Simon drinking Kaylee's inter-engine brew, the Shepherd with tea, and Jayne with a bottle of the whiskey-slash-engine-cleaner he bought when he couldn't afford better. "Okay. Jayne, what happens now?"
Everyone looked at Jayne, who blinked. "Why're you askin' me?"
"Well, you do this a lot. The whole manly activity thing." Wash gestured to the table. "How do we start? Do the cards come first, or should we make some sort of disgusting noise to kick things off? Or do the noises come after the drinking?"
Actually, what he'd wanted to make sure that things kicked off in a nice friendly mood by making everyone laugh, which had worked perfectly. Even Jayne was grinning, and that wasn't always easy to do.
"Well, in my experience, you start with the cards and the drinkin'. Noises are improvised when and as they seem appropriate, as are swearin', threats, and the breakin' of stuff." Jayne looked up at the windows. "There'd usually be some shootin' at the ceiling to celebrate a big win, but that probably wouldn't work in here."
"No, definitely not. And there will be no breaking of stuff." Mal grinned, knocking back some of Kaylee's wine. "Swearin', threats, and noises are fine, though. Who's gonna deal first?"
"Really? A whole day?" Zoe took another of the delicate little biscuits Inara had provided. "When I started, all I got was some tamps and a little manual explaining what was going on. I was convinced for years that it was classified information."
"See, that's why you gotta do something nice." Kaylee gestured widely with her spoon. "If you start off thinkin' it's some kinda bad thing, you won't never think it's good."
"She's right." Inara was brushing River's hair. "A good first experience can make a lifelong difference, in this as in many other things. When a Companion-in-Training first menstruates, there's a ceremony and gifts, and a special meeting with your mentor where you can ask any questions you might have and be reassured. I was ecstatic when started - I felt so special."
"I feel normal," River murmured, her eyes half-closed in contentment.
"For you, sweetie, that is special." Kaylee reached over to pat her knee. "Hey, do you have any questions? I mean, I guess you got a talk or something when you started the first time, but if you got any new ones, we'd be happy to answer 'em."
"Of course we would. And it doesn't have to be right now - if you think of anything else later, you can always ask." Inara drew her fingers gently through River's hair.
"I will." River pushed her eyes open, seeming like she had to make a real effort. "My emotions feel circular. They spin on my axis."
"If by that you mean they're going up and down - and sideways, and upside down sometimes - then that's fairly normal." Inara smiled over River's head at Kaylee. "Most women experience mood-swings at certain times in their cycle - even Kaylee gets a little weepy sometimes, and that's usually not like her at all."
"I mostly get ornery, myself." Zoe grinned. "Not that I usually let it show, but my temper gets powerful short at times."
"I don't have that problem at the moment, but only because I had a long-term contraceptive implant that artificially regulates my hormone production." Inara made a rueful face. "I won't be able to replace it when it wears off, though, not on my current budget. When it does, then you'll find out how ornery I can be!"
Zoe snickered. "Now there's something I'll look forward to. Especially if you don't warn the captain beforehand."
"Warnin' 'em is cheating." Kaylee grinned. "I bet Wash don't need warning."
"Not now he doesn't. It took him a while, but he learned all right."
"What is the difference between love and lust?" Everyone looked at River, whose eyes were open again. "How does one discern the difference between a simple chemical reaction and a true inclination of the heart?"
"That's one of the hardest questions ever asked, and I've never yet found anyone who claimed to have found a definitive answer." Inara sighed, twining River's hair around her fingers. "I'm afraid I can't help you there, sweetie... Companions are discouraged from ever even admitting that romantic love might exist, at least in relation to themselves. We're taught to consider trust and friendship as the highest goal for a relationship."
"Zoe? You're married." Kaylee pulled her knee up under her chin. "How'd you know Wash was special?"
Zoe smiled, and Kaylee sighed happily. She just loved that warm, private smile Zoe got when she thought about Wash. It was so romantic. "Well, I don't know... I don't usually discuss it."
"Please? How else are River and I ever gonna know?" Kaylee batted her eyelashes coaxingly.
"Well, all right." Zoe smiled again. "At first, all I knew was that something about him bothered me. Couldn't for the life of me figure what, but I tried my hardest to talk cap'n out of hiring him."
"Thank goodness Mal's stubborn." Inara chuckled.
"Oh, yeah." Zoe shook her head. "I kept finding myself watching him... to figure out what it was bugged me, I thought at the time, but even when he stopped bothering me I couldn't help myself. And he made it easy... he was always cracking jokes, trying to get me to laugh. He said I was too solemn."
"You are, sometimes." Kaylee grinned. "So, did he like you then?"
"Says he did." Zoe shook her head. "Thing about Wash was... well, I'm a mite intimidatin', if I do say so myself."
"Just a little," Inara murmured.
"Wash was the first man in a long time... or ever, really... didn't seem bothered that I could tie his feet in a knot behind his head if I wanted to. It wasn't that he didn't know, 'cause being too stupid to see danger coming doesn't appeal to me, and it wasn't that he thought he could take me, 'cause he knows damned well he ain't a fighter." Zoe's smile got all soft. "He knew, and he just kinda liked it. There's something powerful in finding someone accepts you just as you are."
"That's so romantic." Kaylee sighed happily.
"I wonder if I'll ever find someone who isn't afraid of me," River said quietly.
"Sure you will," Kaylee said firmly. "Someday, you'll look around and there he'll be." She felt her smile dim a little. "Doesn't look so good for me, though."
"Simon likes you as you are." River smiled a little, tilting her head as Inara started to braid her hair. "You're clear, like water. He sees you smile and knows that you're happy, and when you frown he knows he's screwed up. You're honest. He isn't."
"River, that ain't a nice thing to say!"
"I know what she means." Inara shook her head, twining a red silk ribbon into River's hair. "Simon was raised in the Core, in the aristocracy of wealth. He was trained almost from birth in an elaborate maze of manners and appropriate behaviours that make it almost impossible for anyone to clearly and openly express their feelings. Simon feels things deeply and sincerely, but he has trouble showing those feelings, and he's uncertain of his ability to interpret the actions and emotions of others." She smiled, reaching over to smooth Kaylee's hair lightly. "You let him know just how you feel. He still gets all tangled up trying to show you how he feels, but at least he knows you're sincere."
"Really?" Kaylee hadn't realized how plaintive her voice would sound. "You don't think he'd rather have... well... someone more refined?"
"Simon was terrified of girls at home. He always said the wrong thing and they laughed at him." River's eyes were closed again, but she was smiling fondly. "He does that with you too, but you don't laugh. You let him keep trying. He'll get better."
"Simon is very shy, and very uncertain of his ability to secure genuine affection." Inara gave Kaylee an understanding look. "I doubt he's ever been seriously involved with anyone before. Give him time, sweetie... he's terribly nervous and he really doesn't know how to say what he feels."
"So it ain't me?"
"No, it's just that Simon's a boob."
"River, that's not entirely fair. Simon is doing his best, but he's trying to conduct his first real relationship in a social structure with which he's completely unfamiliar as well as under the burden of a lot of unwarranted self-doubt and fear that he's being selfish for wanting something for himself. It's going to take time for him to find his feet."
"He's a good dancer, but only if someone teaches him the steps." River sighed deeply. "And I can't teach him this dance."
"He'll figure it out. Give him time." Inara spoke to River, but she was looking at Kaylee. "He'll manage to drag his foot out of his mouth eventually."
Kaylee blushed, hugging her knees. "I hope so. I do like him an awful lot."
"Honey, I think everyone on the ship but him knows that." Zoe chuckled. "He's a little slow is all."
Kaylee nodded, feeling more than a bit comforted. As odd as it seemed to her that a brilliant doctor from the Core could be shy around girls, it was much better than thinking it might be her fault. And River should surely know.
"There. You're all finished." Inara turned River to the mirror. Her long hair had been twisted into a high braid that hung over one shoulder, two red silk ribbons twined through it. "The ribbons are for you. I was given a pair just like them on my ritual day."
"Thank you." River stroked them with her fingertips, looking a little dubious. "We have wandered from my question."
"We have, haven't we?" Inara rested her chin on River's head, smiling at her in the mirror. "Well, judging by our shared experience, you'll know love by the way one special young man annoys you more than anyone else in the entire 'verse."
River frowned. "What if he stops annoying me and I start liking him?"
"Then you'll know that it's serious." Inara grinned. "Although he probably won't stop annoying you altogether. He'll still be male... unless it's a girl you find yourself liking, of course."
"Then you'll have a whole other set of things to worry about." Zoe rolled her eyes. "Come here, honey, and let Kaylee have a turn having her hair done. I'll paint your toenails... and don't look so shocked. I do know how." She chuckled. "Never liked doing my fingernails - feels foolish trying to fancy myself up when I do the work I do. But nobody can see through my boots."
River scrambled over, putting her delicate foot in Zoe's hands. "I want purple."
"Let's see what Inara has..." Zoe rummaged through the little bottles, and held up two. "Do you want the light or the dark?"
The card game had gone a lot better than Jayne had anticipated. Wash got mighty entertaining when both he and his listeners had had a few, and he lost pretty consistently. Jayne liked that in a man. It had been... what was that word River had suggested... insidiously enjoyable. He'd been a touch relieved when it came time to fix dinner. If things had kept going, they might've actually gotten friendly.
"Well, don't you all look a picture. I think I'm underdressed." The captain was smiling as he looked along the table. "Zoe, I think I may have to insist on that seduction Wash was suggesting back when we was getting tortured."
"Try it and die, sir." Zoe grinned. She did look mighty fine, with her curly hair twisted up in some kind of knot, held in place with golden combs.
Kaylee looked pretty too, with her hair in two cute little buns tied with pink ribbon. Jayne saw the doc sneaking glances at her, and blushing when she caught him. The doc had loosened up just a little after a couple of drinks, and had even told a joke. It hadn't been a really good joke or anything, but it had been something.
It was River who kept catching Jayne's eye, though, as he worked his way through the mediocre meal. Her dark hair was braided in some fancy way that went right up the back of her head, and tied up with red ribbons. It made her face look different. Less childish, more like the grown girl she would be if the Alliance hadn't messed with her.
It pissed Jayne off, in some way he couldn't quite pin down. He'd never had much faith in 'fair', being as in his experience there wasn't nothing in the universe that was fair or just, unless someone was strong enough to force it to be. But it wasn't fair that River should be comin' so late to ribbons and girl-talk and other such things that most took for granted. She was seventeen now - one of his sisters had been married at that age, and another walking out regular with the guy she'd eventually married. She should be thinking about boys and picking out names for kids she'd like to have one day, not being chased across the system while she tried to put the broken pieces of her mind back together. Simon should be fretting over his sister getting caught in the back of a skimmer with some boy, not holding her arms while she screamed and tried to claw her face off. It wasn't fair on either of them, and it made Jayne want powerfully to shoot something.
Maybe it was that thought that made her look up suddenly and smile across the table at him, a happy smile that took the haunted look out of her eyes for just a second. Jayne smiled back, then glanced around hastily to make sure nobody had noticed. Girl was making him get all soft. He'd hardly thought about his sisters in years before she'd brought them to his mind - they were good respectable ladies, and he didn't embarrass them by showing his unlawful, uneducated self on their doorsteps.
"The prodigal son is welcomed back with a fatted calf." River spoke up, her voice dreamy. "But he must leave his pride for the pigs to eat before he can return." Jayne tensed, but when he looked up slowly she had her eyes trained on the Shepherd. Even so, he knew she was talking to him. "The myth celebrates humility and surrender. The moral is questionable."
"Scripture isn't a myth, River, and I think you've missed the point of the story." Book had his patient voice on. "The Prodigal Son was greedy and wasteful, and caused his father much grief. When he accepted his wrongdoing, he was forgiven."
"It presupposes that anyone who crosses the will of the father is wrong and will inevitably fail." River frowned down at her plate. "Independent enterprise is discouraged."
"She has a point," Mal said, although Jayne suspected it was mostly just to rile the Preacher. "If the Prodigal Son had made a success of his endeavours, it wouldn't've made nearly such a fine parable on the importance of obedience. But sometimes the Prodigal Sons do just fine, and ain't no forgiveness wanted nor needed." He glanced down the table. "Seems to me Simon here defied his father and threw away his fortune, and unless you think Serenity here is the pigpen he needs rescuin' from, he ain't doin' so bad."
"Simon acted to save another, not merely to please himself." Book smiled on River, who was still frowning at her dinner like it was being rude to her. "Motive is always important."
Jayne frowned, thinking it over as the conversation eddied on around him. River seemed to be saying, in her twisted-up, roundabout way, that going off and leaving his family to be a merc was okay on account of he'd done it 'cause they couldn't afford to feed him no more, not because he didn't care.
He caught her eye a minute later, and she gave him another of those sweet smiles that were gonna break hearts when she was better and could settle on a planet and meet boys again. He returned it, not even noticing that Zoe saw.
Late that night, River walked barefoot through Serenity, humming along with Serenity's silent song (the percussive clang of steel on steel, the thrum of deep engines and the high counterpoint of life-support, all playing against the faint, persistent tinkle of silver stars and the rich notes of planets and moons.) She lay flat on the walkway for a little while, and then she let herself flow up onto the railing, walking it as easily as the walkway itself, enjoying the faint vibration of steel against the soles of her feet.
"You're gonna fall off there someday."
She swayed and almost fell, surprised by his presence. Jayne could, it seemed, even creep up on her if her attention was elsewhere. "Only if people's voices jump on me without warning." She swiveled, glaring down at him, his face framed between her painted toes.
"Figured you'd hear me coming. You usually do." He shrugged. "Still feelin' off?"
"A little." Her emotions were still confused. She was glad to see Jayne, but she wanted him to go away. His presence was as soothing as ever, but somehow it made her feel unsettled. "Inara fixed my hair."
"I figured." He looked at it critically, then shrugged. "Looks nice, I guess."
River frowned. She knew that, from Jayne, that was a compliment of high order. She was annoyed that he hadn't made a bit more of an effort. "Laziness will get your nose tweaked."
"I ain't lazy. Come down before you break your fool neck." He smelled of concern, spicy and half-smothered in the funk of testosterone.
"Don't have to." She curled her toes around the warming metal.
"If you fall off and die, I ain't cleaning it up." He tried to sound as if he wouldn't care at all, but River could taste his vague, unfocused worry that she would take a crazy fit unexpectedly and fall.
She laughed suddenly. "All right, I'll come down. But if I die it will be your fault."
She wouldn't. She knew even before she stepped out into the air that his arms were extending to catch her. So she was ready for the impact of broad arms against her back and legs, the shock of having her brief flight stopped short just short of the crash.
She wasn't prepared for the second jolt, when she looked up at his scowling face and felt a sudden yearning uncurl somewhere in the area of her left ventricle. She was suddenly fiercely aware of his arms curled around her, and the smell of sweat and gun-oil and cinnamon from his shirt. Distracted by this new awareness, she didn't even realize when his arms opened and he dropped her. His startled curse when he realized he'd actually succeeded in letting go - he never had before - rang in her ears as he dropped fluidly to one knee, catching her again before she could hit the floor. "Gorrammit, girl, pay attention!"
"Chemical reactions are both infinitely predictable and infinitely surprising," she said, bewildered. "I fell like a star and like a star burned. Now I've gone out."
He shook his head, getting up and setting her firmly on her feet. "Well, you've been pretty clear for a while," he said philosophically. "Guess the occasional spell of no sense can't be helped. Next time I won't drop you until your eyes're focusing again."
There would be no next time. Her short flights were fun, but the startling new quality of Jayne was far too worrying. "I should go to bed. Inara says proper rest is important."
He chuckled. "Gettin' yer beauty rest, huh?" He looked at her again, from her braided hair to her painted toes, and shook his head, smiling a little. "Growin' up, finally."
"The process seems inevitable." River frowned. "Some aspects are very disturbing."
"Yeah, I remember." He grinned, and she almost certainly wasn't supposed to pick up the secret memories of embarrassing, thrilling moments like the one in his arms, where hormones raged of their own will and new urges made themselves felt. "Go get your sleep, lao ren jia."
"I'm not an old woman." River stuck her tongue out at him. He laughed, and she stamped her foot. "You're very annoying!"
"Yeah, well, I do my best." He tried to look modest, then lost it as she kicked him hard in the shin and turned on her heel, running back to her room as he cursed and laughed behind her.
Curled up with her blanket over her head, River tried to quiet her racing heart. Moments of physical awareness were normal. Actually having one had come as a shock, but it was a well documented physiological reaction and essentially meaningless. Merely an indication of coming into contact with a genetically compatible person of one's preferred gender.
But he could be terribly annoying, and that was cause for concern. Jayne was a most unsuitable focus for the juvenile crushes she knew should occur before more serious attachments. Perhaps if she concentrated she could have one on the captain instead?
It was certainly worth trying. Fortunately, she'd gotten to see him naked that time when Saffron stole his clothes, so she had something to work with.
lao ren jia - (respectful) old person, elderly woman
xiao gui - (affectionate) little demon
dong ma - you understand?
wu dong - I understand
sheng ben dan - holy idiot
yao guai - monster, devil (I have no idea how to do plurals, sorry)
ni zi - little girl
mei mei - little sister
hun dan - bastard