This is a weird story that gets a lot of love. It was written for the first-line prompt run by cobb_and_tam, a now-defunct LJ community, in 2006.
It was last edited for style and clarity (and some embarrassing gaffes that have bothered me for years) in 06/2012. (This is an ongoing process.)
There was something off about today; River could feel it in her bones. She didn't really like feeling things in her bones. Bones weren't meant to sense things. Bones existed to provide structure for her muscles and to house the blood-producing marrow.
Bones weren't meant to break, either, but there'd been plenty of broken bones in the aftermath of the Reaver fight. Mal was the worst off—besides Wash and Mr. Universe. She felt a strange connection to the latter, as though they were the same.
That wasn't right. She was River—couldn't be Mr. Universe, too. Or was she Mr. Universe and dead? There were all those screens, all that information: constantly coming in, feeding in, running in, streaming in…
There was no room for other humans—not with all the screens, the signal that couldn't be stopped.
Mr. Universe and River were sexual beings, and Mr. Universe had married the LoveBot to meet his physical needs. That made sense. He didn't want to procreate, but his body pushed him to it. It was a matter of maintenance.
River had her own maintenance. Her hands were very useful and skilled, nimble and tiny. They weren't quite what her body craved, in the end, but they got her through well enough, when the urges flowed.
It was frightening to think that her sexual peak was still years away. The hormones that commanded her muscles to find sexual gratification washed through her at the strangest, most inopportune times already. She wasn't quite sure she could survive if they got stronger, more frequent, and more distracting.
And they were distracting. She'd be trying to explain a fighting strategy to Jayne and he'd look her in the face and there those tingles were. They'd be sparring in the bay and Jayne's hand would brush her neck; her thighs would warm. She'd be piloting and planning her free time on the next planet, thinking about what everyone else would do: Kaylee and Simon shopping for produce, holding hands; Inara pretending to keep an appointment; Mal and Zoe finding needed supplies or visiting a bar; Jayne drinking and visiting a whorehouse, his big frame sliding over a small, dark-haired woman, seeking his own sexual gratification—and her whole body would start to hum.
The need to find sexual fulfillment had grown exponentially in the past few months; she could barely sit at the dinner table and look at her crewmates—Jayne's blue eyes looking at her peripherally, his big mouth wide open in a grin, teasing Inara or Kaylee or Simon—without needing to run for her bunk.
So she had gone to Inara for help. After today, she hoped, her body's sexual drive would become much more manageable. Sometimes, she reasoned, it made sense to give her body what it wanted—no matter how illogical.
They were docked on Osiris—a fact that, not long ago, would have frightened River—and Mal warned them all to behave themselves during the 10-hour stay. River didn't plan to be anywhere she could make a scene, though she did worry that Jayne might find himself in a much more attention-drawing situation. He always attracted attention, no matter where they went, from women—too many women, River found herself thinking.
It just wasn't helpful for him to have so many options, she told herself. It would take him far too long to choose between them, which meant he would have only enough time left for far too short a sexual interlude and leave less-than-optimally satisfied. And, being Jayne, he naturally ended up choosing the options that would suit him least, River had observed.
She'd begun to worry about him even more after she'd noticed a decrease in the frequency of his visits to brothels. A diminished sexual appetite, especially in a man with such large appetites as Jayne, might mean depression or another illness. She'd asked Simon to insist on a physical, but the boob had assured her that Jayne was perfectly healthy.
"I'm his doctor, mei mei. I'd know if something were wrong. Buddha knows he's in the infirmary often enough as it is."
That was exactly her point. What if during the last job Jayne had sustained a deeper wound than Simon had found or Simon had mistreated a wound and made it worse? Simon wasn't perfect, after all. Top 3% wasn't exactly number one, now was it?
Stupid Simon. Jayne was probably going to die because Simon couldn't recognize basic signs of distress. And then they'd have to find someone new who was intimidating, good with guns, big, selfish, sweet, sweaty, with dark hair and blue eyes and arm muscles that just screamed to be touched… There weren't a lot of men around like Jayne.
It was all Simon's fault.
River met Inara at her shuttle, docked near—but out of sight of—Serenity. The butterflies in River's stomach were making her slightly nauseous and she willed the bits to stay down as they walked gracefully along the busy urban streets. Inara led River past boutique after elegantly decorated boutique, pausing briefly now and then to admire a particularly lovely window display.
It was a deliberate attempt on the Companion's part to calm River's nerves, the younger woman knew. Though she appreciated Inara's thoughtfulness, however, she wanted to see her mission through to its conclusion as quickly and satisfyingly as possible. Finally, the Companion paused in front of a small, intimate-looking shop, its windows made translucent by the sheer white and pink silk artfully draped across them.
Inara took River's hands in hers, looked her in the eyes, and gave her a genuine grin.
"Let's go shopping."
River's eyes widened as they entered the boutique. There were so many varieties of merchandise—even her research on the Cortex hadn't prepared her for this. Inara noted her friend's astounded face and smiled. Her eyes took on a distinctly mischievous glint.
"Many men find themselves concerned about their personal adequacy when they see the inside of shops like these," the Companion confided.
River laughed in response, drawing the attention of the shop's proprietor, a lovely woman in her mid-forties. The woman's face lit up when she saw River's shopping companion.
"Why, if it ain't Inara Serra!" River was surprised at the accent in which the woman spoke. It reminded her of Jayne's. She wondered if he had felt up to visiting a brothel today and smirked at the unintentional wordplay.
While the two women exchanged pleasantries, River explored the small store. There was a plethora of options! Some of the appliances were plastic, others metal, and still others made from synthetic materials designed to feel like "the real thing". Some had a long column modeled on the male sex organ; others were designed to be worn under clothing and stimulate the clitoris. River imagined sparring with Jayne while wearing one of the latter and shivered.
Then she saw it. The Rocket. It was perfect: bright red, with a large phallus and a clitoral stimulator. It had a remote control, so she wouldn't even have to bend down to adjust the settings—and there were many. She studied it to be sure of her purchase, and by the time Inara and the older woman joined her, she had decided.
"And this is my dear friend, River Tam, Serenity's pilot," Inara said to the woman. "River, I'd like you to meet Josie Cobb."
River, in the process of extending her hand politely, froze. Inara and the older woman noticed River's discomfort and Inara took pity on her. "She's our Jayne's sister."
Josie laughed. "Yup. Lucky for us all, I ain't a thing like that ugly brute."
A loud voice called from somewhere off of the main shop, "Hey! I don't say stuff like that about you!"
Jayne? Here? In the store where River had found the answer to her problems? The embarassing answer to her very private problems?
She was going to kill Inara with her brain—just as soon as she found a way to resurrect herself from death by embarrassment.
"Jayne Cobb, don't you come any closer to this front room, or so help me, I will whip that hideous white pi gu of yours till you can't walk. I did when you were eighteen and I can do it now, respectable Core woman or not," Josie hollered to her brother.
"I ain't got a desire to see your fake cods anyway, Jo," came the smug reply. "Know ain't none of 'em come close to the real thing I've got."
River, as red as her intended purchase, couldn't help but laugh at Inara's unladylike snort and Josie's rejoinder.
"Seems there's some women out here think you're just a little too confident, baby brother!"
"Send 'em back, Jo. I'll show 'em what a real sex toy looks like!" Jayne yelled.
"Watch this," Josie whispered conspiratorially to her customers. "Jayne!" she called. "I think we've got somethin' out here that's got your equipment beat!"
"Jo, ain't a dong in the 'verse can take my member in a competition!" Jayne sounded slightly hurt that his sister would challenge his manhood, but retained the teasing tone in his voice.
Josie laughed evilly in anticipation of her brother's reaction, which caused Inara and River to erupt into giggles. She raised her voice and instructed, "Storeroom, second shelf on the right. Pick any box; they're all the same. It's my most popular model."
She paused for a moment, then shouted, "You find it?"
"What kinda fool name is 'The Rocket'? An' how come this looks so damn familia— JOSEPHINE MORRIS COBB, you are goin' straight to the special hell!"
Josie laughed a gleeful belly laugh that spread to the two women with her. "But, Jaynie, you did offer…"
The sound of heavy stomping boots grew louder and River just had time to hide her own box behind her back before 6'4" of furious man-flesh burst onto the sales floor. "I was drunk and joking and you knew it. Sure, I stuck my piece in that mold you gave me, but this is an invasion of my gorram privacy, Josie! Besides, how am I supposed to compete with a ruttin' vibratin' head!?"
River noted his blue eyes flashing in a way she'd never seen before. He wasn't angry with his sister for the reasons he'd mentioned, she realized. He was embarrassed—and worried.
Worried? What could possibly be worrying him? River was curious, but a beeping from Inara's bag caught her attention. River remembered her appointment. She and Inara locked eyes, and Inara looked at Josie, sending a silent message with her gaze. River shifted uncomfortably in the moment it took for Josie to understand, feeling Jayne's eyes studying her. No doubt he would be even more furious if he knew just what she intended to purchase.
"Jayne Cobb! Off my sales floor! Now, little brother, or I'll plaster your face on the next shipment's packaging!" The threat did the trick, and Jayne all but ran from the room, leaving River and Inara to finalize their purchase.
Note: At least one kit for making models of what Jayne calls "man parts" existed at the time I wrote this story. This is really true.