GIFT OF SELF—reedited
River loved the Space Bazaar. True, there were a lot of people to crowd around her body and mind, but she actually found it easier to pick and choose whom to listen to in the jumble. Most people were considering merchandise—"I want that," "Oh, isn't that pretty?" "I wish I had one of those"—and many had list of things to buy that they mentally checked off. River could avoid the pickpockets because they tended to think the loudest as they narrowed down their prospective targets to the one gullible fool who wouldn't notice his wallet missing until he went to pay for his next item. The most interesting thoughts came from the barkers who were calling their wares and attractions. They spun stories and half-truths in their minds like cotton candy, their thoughts flying nearly as fast as hers to conjure interest in the audience of buyers.
She was also taking her second attempt at an Ice Planet. It had been so long since anything had really been a challenge for her, and River was determined to overcome the problematic food substance. Her concentration on the Ice Planet also gave her a new appreciation for her psychic abilities, such as they were. She didn't run into as many people while trying to get a bite of ice cream as she would have if she couldn't have sensed them in her way.
Jayne glanced back at the girl just as her Ice Planet once again smashed into her nose. He snorted a laugh when she flinched and wiped the vanilla ice cream away with the back of her hand. It was a constant amusement that the girl who could read minds, shoot folk without looking, and very probably kick his ass from now to next Wednesday without breaking a sweat if what Mal thought were true, couldn't figure out how to eat the frozen treat. Just went to show that brains weren't diddly without common sense, which he himself had in spades.
"Hey, Shepherd!" he called back. "You got her? I'm goin' that'a way for a spell."
Book nodded to Jayne that he would look after River. In fact, he was more concerned about Jayne and River being around each other as much as they were. He had no qualms about sending the merc away for a bit.
Jayne walked back passed River and reached out to lightly tug on a bit of her hair. She smiled slightly, but kept her focus on her ice cream.
"Keep walking, Preacher Man," River warned. "A collision is pending."
"Sorry, River," Book apologized and stepped out of her way.
The young woman went by him, still concentrating on her Ice Planet. It was somewhat of a surprise when she addressed the Shepherd while still staring at her ice cream. "Shouldn't contradict favorable attentions from boy to girl. She is happy, he is happy, and the family is in a state of peace."
"The state of peace will decline dramatically if you and Jayne form anything other than a friendship," the Shepherd warned.
Now River looked at him. "Why?"
"Because it wouldn't be appropriate. First of all, he's much older than you are."
"He has the maturity of a seventh grader."
"Which brings me to my next point: Jayne is not exactly the brightest star in the 'verse, River. He's hardly a match for someone of your talent. Wouldn't you prefer someone who could keep up with you?"
She sighed. "I am more intelligent than 99.52 of the known population of all the planets under the Alliance. No one could keep up with me, and those that could I would likely be more competitive with that amorous. Your point is moot."
"I'm violent. And so were you," she quietly reminded him.
Book unintentionally stiffened his shoulders, but soon forced himself to relax. Really, it shouldn't have been a surprise that she knew that much. Any one of the crew could have surmised as much from past encounters. He just wondered how much the girl knew beyond the obvious.
"Be that as it may, River, it doesn't detract from my argument. If anything, your acknowledgement to violence strengthens my position. What happens the first time you and Jayne had a spat?" River smiled at the term. Book pushed onward. "You and Jayne would be likely to do serious damage to each other when one of you got angry at the other."
"Fists should only be used as a last resort."
"Jayne's philosophy states otherwise."
"So does a pit bull's, but even they can be trained."
"Are you planning on training Jayne?"
Now there was a frightening concept. Book had to take a minute to absorb that. River training Jayne…to do what? For what purpose? To what end?
She giggled. "To be kind. In order to establish connection. To encourage friendship and empathy with intent of continued attachment." River's face sobered as she met the Preacher's eyes. "If the guard dog is to become one of my knights, he must be loyal. He must have a stake in the outcome."
Book didn't know what to do with that. On the one hand, it was disturbing and seemed to be a softened version of what had been done to River herself—behavioral training and modification. On the other hand, isn't that, in some respects, what everyone did when they wished to make human contact? Was there any difference in River's plan compared to the normal foundation of friendship?
"I don't like the idea of you two together," he reiterated.
"Just…be careful with this, River," Book warned. "I wouldn't like to see either of you hurt."
"All possible outcomes have been weighed," River assured him. "The risks of failure and back-fire have been noted and deemed acceptable. She will do her best to not let harmful consequences spill onto the crew."
Book clasped his hands together before him and asked for faith and patience. When he looked over again, he saw that River was waiting for a response. "I understand." He frowned. "Your ice cream is dripping."
River looked down just in time to see a big drip of ice cream fall onto the toe of her boot. "Go se!"
Jayne wandered the Bazaar looking for one of the stalls he had seen the last time they were here, when Mal and Zoë got the dead guy in a box that wasn't really dead, tried to get them dead, and ended up getting shot and dieing anyway. Hopefully there wouldn't be any big crates delivered to Serenity this trip. Also, apparently, there was to be no stall that sold the good gun oil like he wanted.
In disappointment, Jayne started to head back toward where the crew was meeting up, but a flash of light caught his eye and made him turn his head. There was a booth off to one side that had little glass prisms dripping from the top beam over the counter. Lights set behind the prisms were strung on the inside of the booth. That was what had made the flash.
Curious and thinking about sending one of the light catchers home to his Ma—because she liked things like that—Jayne strolled over to the booth. There were glass prisms in the shapes of hearts, circles, sun bursts, tear drops, and even a few that looked like cut diamonds. While he browsed, the air currents moved the light catchers in circles on their strings, and again a burst of light caught his eye. The prism down at the end of the booth was one of the tear drop-shaped ones, but there was something different about it. It seemed to refract more light than the others, and when Jayne looked closer he saw that this prism was cut a little different. There was something going on inside that one that the others didn't have.
"Hey," Jayne called out to get the attention of the glass merchant. "How much for this one?"
"Which one?" the thin, dark man with wire-rimmed glasses asked as he came to Jayne' spot at the counter.
Jayne pointed up at the super-prism and watched the skinny man's expression morph from pleasure at the prospect of a sale into irritation and distress. The glass merchant looked over his shoulder and yelled. "Fassir!" Get out here! What is this?"
A boy of maybe fifteen, probably the man's son if the resemblance was any indication, came out from behind a long curtain at the back of the booth and walked to the man's side. He looked genuinely confused. Jayne was getting impatient.
"What is what?" Fassir asked.
"This. Look at this!" The merchant unhooked the super-prism's string from the booth and showed the glass tear to the boy. "This light catcher is cracked inside, and you put it out for sale. We don't sell flawed merchandise!"
"Wait a sec," Jayne jumped in, a little smile growing on his face. "Did you just say it's cracked inside?"
"Yes," the merchant confirmed. "I'm very sorry for the inconvenience; you'll have to make another choice. Fassir, you take this one in back and melt it down so we can reuse the glass, at least."
"You know what?" Jayne reached out and grabbed the prism before the boy could take it away, "I'm gonna take this one—for half price, since it's all cracked up—and that heart shaped one down there."
Jayne pulled out some cash and dropped it on the counter of the booth, his best menacing glare in place and trained on the man's face. "Now, can I get me somethin' ta wrap my purchases in so's they don't break, or should I use that hanky you're tryin' ta pass off as a necktie?"
The tiny merchant gulped ad motioned for his son to go and get the heart shaped prism Jayne had pointed to. The man took the money on the counter, not bothering to count and see if it was the right amount, and got a box filled with paper packaging material to put the two light catchers in. He handed the box to the large, scary man when he had closed it with a piece of adhesive tape so that the lid didn't pop open and spill the contents.
"Here you go, sir. Have a nice day."
Jayne took the box with a wicket grin. When he was far enough away from the merchant's booth, he stopped by a wall and put his other packages down, confident that no one was going to try to steal from such an intimidating personage as himself. With his hands now free, he pulled at the lid of the box, finally forced to use his blunt fingernails to dig under the edge of the tape to get the top off. He'd have pulled out one of his knives to get into the box, but he was worried I might cause a scene he did not need.
Once the lid was up, Jayne reached through the packaging paper and pulled out the cracked tear prism and put it in the Velcro pocket on the side of his cargo pants leg. He then re-closed the box and picked up the rest of his stuff and headed toward the post office where the crew was to meet up again.
Everyone was standing around, comparing purchases and getting mail. Jayne dropped the boxes he carried for the crew onto the table and walked up to the office window with the box that held the heart shaped prism for his Ma.
"Whatcha got there, Jayne?" Kaylee asked.
"Present for my Ma."
"That's nice! What'dja get her?"
"None'a yer business." He smiled when he said it to keep Kaylee from getting that kicked-dog look and then hitting him. The little mechanic hit hard. Thankfully, she just stuck her tongue out at him.
After Jayne had mailed his post and picked up the latest letter his mother had sent him, he rejoined the crew and gathered up the boxes he'd set down. There were times he felt like the Mule. River still had her Ice Planet, but it was melting fast, all over the floor. Jayne shook his head in amusement and let slip a comment about River's mental capacity in relation to frozen desserts. The next thing he felt was a thwack to the back of his head with something cold, wet, and sticky that proceeded to drip down his neck.
Jayne turned around to find River smirking at him. "My food may be problematic, but you do not have to be."
Jayne thrust the boxes and bags he carried at the rest of the crew who had turned around to see what Jayne's cussing had been about. River backed away, the smile never leaving her face. When Jayne took a step toward her, River squealed and bolted. Jayne was fast on her trail.
"Run, River!" Kaylee cheered.
"Get back here!" Mal yelled, but his two crew members ignored him and were soon out of sight in the crowd.
"We have to go after them," Simon said.
Wash shrugged. "They can't exactly go far."
"Yes, but what kinds of havoc will they create as they go?" Zoë pointed out.
Not a minute later, Jayne came strolling back with River slung over his shoulder, her two tiny wrists held in one of his hands. The Ice Planet was nowhere to be seen, and River was laughing as she hung. The crew could hear her all the way down the corridor. Jayne, no surprise, was looking mighty pleased with himself.
Simon rushed to his sister. "Mei-mei, are you all right?" He saw, when he got around Jayne, that River's face was red from laughter and the blood rushing to her brain as she hung over the mercenary's shoulder.
"Shiny," she assured him. "Just hanging out." River started cackling and buried her face into Jayne's back.
"What happened to the Ice Planet?" Wash asked, never one to turn down sweets.
"I think it's in her hair," Simon reported, which caused a new eruption of giggles from River. Her hair was matted into sticky, vanilla scented dreadlocks that either clung to her arms or hung down to Jayne's knees. The Doctor had been about to insist that Jayne put his sister down, but now he wasn't sure whether River would be able to walk, she was laughing so hard.
"Let's get goin'," Jayne said and headed back to the ship, leaving the rest of the crew with what he had been carrying so that he could tote one crazy girl.
"Can put me down now," River told him half way down the docking bay.
River wriggled her hands in his grip. "Put me down, please."
"Could make you."
"Not likely from where you're hangin'."
"If a Jayne falls in the docks, but no one is around to hear him, does he make a sound?" she asked.
"Don't know what that's gotta do with anything, but I ain't puttin' ya down 'til we're back inside the ship."
"Could fell the tree, but then we would have to drag dead lumber home, and that would make the Captain grumpy, as the tree is heavy. Put. Me. Down."
"N. O. Way." Jayne jiggled her a bit. "Quit gripin', we're almost there."
River snorted and tried to look over both of their shoulders to the door of Serenity, which Wash had gone a few steps ahead to open. "Jayne, beware. Historic symbolism is imminent," she warned. "I am Osirian, not Sabine."
He ignored her since he had no idea what she was talking about. The rest had didn't know what she meant, either, but Book wracked his brain, knowing he knew the reference, but unable to recall it.
River tucked her head into the small of Jayne's back again and enjoyed the rest of the ride, a secretive smile curled up on her lips. "A doorway approaches. No turning back now."
Book remembered the reference to the story of the Ancient Romans carrying the Sabine women back to the city too late; Jane had already carried River over the threshold of Serenity. Once inside, he put her down just as he said he would, River stood for a moment in front of him with her head spinning.
Once she got her eyes to see straight, she sniffed delicately at Jayne, attempting to seem un-amused. "Jayne is not nice. Snips and snails and puppy dog tails!" She stuck her tongue out. "Going to take a shower," she said, and headed off to the passenger dorms with regal dignity and sticky hair.
"Oh, 'cause your all sugar an' spice?" he called after her. "More like fruit cake and crackers!"
Jayne continued grinning. He'd finally gotten her and it gave him no small amount of satisfaction. Of course, now his hands were goopy and sticky with vanilla icecream "I gotta wash off this gorram icecream."
As soon as he was out of ear shot, Kaylee started up. "Aw! Jayne and River, sittin' in a tree! K-I-S-S-I-N-G!"
"But not on the mouth!"
Wash and Kaylee gave high-fives amid a duet of laughter. Apparently they were the only ones who'd thought it was funny.
Mal cleared his throat as he set down one of the mid-sized boxes of parts his mechanic had ordered. "Little Kaylee, I'd hate to think you knew somethin' inappropriate was goin' on between them two and you didn't tell me."
Kaylee's smile dampened. "No, sir. Don't know no such thing. Certainly not 'inappropriate'. Besides, I'm only teasin'. I'm just guessin' what's goin' on between Jayne an' River." Her smiled perked back up. "Gotta say, tough, that was some pretty shiny supportin' evidence!"
"What other evidence do you have?" the Captain asked.
"First of all, I don't care what you think, that was just cute," Kaylee defended her friends. "Also, there was that whole ballerina carving thing, what with Jayne fixin' it for her when it got broke. Oh! And he's been pullin' her hair."
"'Pulling her hair'?" Simon asked, confused and alarmed.
"Yeah. You know, like when you was a kid—okay, maybe not you specifically—but normal folk," Kaylee amended. "And to get a girl's attention you'd pull on her braids?"
"Jayne's doing that?" Zoë asked.
"Uh-huh," she confirmed. "Whenever he comes in a room where she's at, or leaves a room she's in, or the other way 'round, he reaches out and kinda pulls on a bit of her hair. It's adorable, even if it is pretty element'ry school. Like just now."
"Ah, yes," Wash said, the light finally dawning. "The old 'kiss-tag' game."
"Care to explain, husband?" Zoë raised an eyebrow to give him a spill-it-before-I-hurt-you look.
"Not that I ever played such a game…ever…unless it was with you, lamby-toes."
Kaylee giggled. "You know, the game where you go up to a boy you like and shove him, then take off running so's he has to run after you."
"So River was…flirting?" Simon asked. "With Jayne?" He felt a headache coming on.
"Son, I honestly don't think she ran because she was afraid of him," the Shepherd said. "I believe Kaylee is right in thinking that River ran because she wanted Jayne to run after her; to catch her, more to the point. Perhaps it was a part of his training."
"Training?" Mal asked. This was all getting very complicated. And weird. Extremely weird.
Book nodded and explained to the crew what River had told him about her plan to train Jayne from a pit bull into her knight. Mal recalled River once saying that if the crew went back to the Academy to rescue the other students they would need Jayne on their side when they went in. Something about Jayne only sticking his neck out for his family, and her and the Doc not being a part of that family. It seemed the girl was trying to bind herself to Jayne in the most basic way. And Jayne, whether he knew it or not, seemed to be going along with it.
Mal cursed quietly and looked down at his boots a minute. "Wash, go take us out. Kaylee, you take your parts and see what you can do with 'em. Doc, you go handle your sister." He gave the boy a significant look that the young doctor completely understood and agreed with. "Zoë, let's get the rest of this stuff stowed. I'll handle Jayne later."
Simon walked back to the passenger dorms and tried to think of what to say to his sister. Was he supposed to sit her down and giver her The Talk? He figured that River knew everything he could tell her about sex, and probably more besides. Who knew what she'd read, in what books, at what age? Not to mention, trying to have The Talk with his sister would be excruciating. But he still had the problem of what to do about this thing between her and Jayne As much as Simon hated to admit it, River was old enough to be curious, and the man-ape was the only unattached male on Serenity who wasn't her brother. There was the Captain, or course, but River consistently referred to Mal in father-like terms, so he didn't think she would turn there for her first crush.
He jumped at the sound of his sister's voice, muffled through the door of the passengers' toilet and the sound of running water. "What is it, mei-mei? Are you alright?"
"Towels, please! I forgot them. Ice cream was distracting."
"Oh. Okay, be right back."
Once Simon had fetched River her towel from her room, he knocked on the bathroom door. "River?"
"Put towels on the floor. Hygiene is not complete."
Simon sighed and opened the door a crack so that he could toss her folded towel onto the floor within easy reach of the shower. "River…we need to talk."
"Later, Simon. Temperature is equalizing. Close the door!"
He shut it. He would just talk to her later. Little brat.
Jayne had nearly forgotten about the glass catcher he had stowed in his pocket. Chasing the girl down and proceeding to smash her own ice cream into her hair had been distracting. Now that he'd washed all the gunk off of himself, he remembered what he'd wanted the prism for.
Jayne jogged down the stairs to the passenger dorms. He got to the common room in time to see the Doc shut the door to his room. The shower turned off a second later, and Jayne popped down on the couch to wait.
Inside the shower, River wrung out her finally clean hair and picked off the loose strands from her fingers. Gross. She opened the door of the shower and found one single towel waiting for her. Simon was such a boob. Obviously he had difficulty remembering that a person with long hair would need two towels. Dope.
Oh well. River used the one towel to pat the ends of her hair so that it wouldn't drip all over her, and then wrapped it around her body, under her arms, and tucked the far end into the top so that it would stay put. She gathered up her pale pink dress she'd worn at the Space Bazaar, her socks, and her big clunky combat boots and moved to the door.
Jayne was outside.
Her stomach squeezed, but she made herself exit the room. Honestly, who was being the dope now? She had on a towel, and really, everyone was naked under their clothes, anyway.
Jayne stopped tapping his knee and looked up when he heard the click of the latch releasing. River walked out in nothing but a white towel that covered from her arm pits to her thighs, though it left most of the later bare. The girl had great legs, no doubt about that. In fact, all of the bare skin he was seeing was pretty shiny. He couldn't help thinking back on all the skin he'd seen when she'd first come out of that box her brother had her in. Lots and lots of skin. Skin which was starting to turn pink from her shoulders to her hair line, as a matter of fact.
Jayne cleared his throat and opened his mouth. "Uh…" was as far as he got. What was he there for?
"Time is of the essence," she told him. "It's cold."
It was cold and she was barely dressed. That meant goosebumps and hard nipples, and just the thought of it got him stiffening, too. He stood up from the couch and reached down to the pocket on his pant-leg. He dug inside and pulled out the light catcher and held it up by its string.
"Here. Found this back at the Bazaar. Thought you might like it."
Jayne held the prism out to her, and River, after setting her clothes down in a chair, came forward the three steps it took to stand in front of him. She didn't take the glass tear from Jayne, but watched it spin on a thread from his fingers, letting light shine through it and bounce about the room. The overhead lights weren't at the correct angle for the prism to change white into bands of color, but it did do its job and turn simple matte lighting into bursts and rays as it twisted in the gentle wind from the O2 vents.
"Why what?" Jayne snapped himself away from trying to get a peek down the top of her towel.
She looked up and found his watchful eyes. "Why this?"
"'Cause it reminded me'a you—cracked inside." A corner of his mouth went up as he said it, and he nodded his chin at the prism. "'S what the wang ba dan de of a merchant who sold it to me said, anyway. That it was cracked."
"Also refractive," River murmured. "Takes what is outside, internalizes, and sends it forth scattered and changed."
"Yeah, ya both do that, too, I guess."
"Yeah." There were little beads of water still on her shoulders that were distracting Jayne from whatever she was saying. What would they taste like coming off her skin?
River reached up, breaking his fascination with her shoulders, and took the string that the prism dangled by, brushing Jayne's fingers in the process. "Thank you." She shook her head as she smile up at him. "Have never been so beautiful in anyone else's eyes. Means a lot."
Jayne's mind went blank as to how to deal with this. He remembered the manners his Ma had tried to teach him and responded the only way he could think of at the moment. "You're welcome."
"Jayne, gorramit!" Mal's voice yelled down from somewhere in she ship not close but not too far away. "Where the hell are you?!"
"Qing wa cao de liu mang," Jayne muttered, though he was thankful for Mal's interruption. "Comin'!"
He'd gotten only to the second stair when he felt a hand on his arm and he looked down to find River on the first step, still in just that towel, which was a whole list of wrongs. But River didn't stop on that stair below him; she kept climbing so that her face was nearly level with his. With a smile, she leaned in, just to the side, and kissed his cheek just like she had when he had returned her ballerina to her, fixed. He could smell her—clean and wet and warm—and he forced himself to swallow passed his suddenly tight throat and keep both of his hands on the railing at his back so they wouldn't do something stupid like pull her closer.
River pulled back and smiled up at him, sparkly and kind of cracked. Her damp hand was still on his arm, and she was sucking up his warmth through her palm. "Thou hast me, if thou hast me, at the worst; and thou shalt wear me, if thou wear me, better and better…" she promised. "Flawed, cracked, incomplete, but she is not made of egg shells, and she is mending."
She gave him a last little grin, and started back toward her room. The synapses fired so quickly in Jayne's mind, completely unbidden by higher brain functions, that he was almost unaware of his own hand flying out to catch her arm, keep her with him, just for a minute.
"Jayne!" Mal shouted again.
"River?" Simon asked, coming out from his room to see what was taking her so long.
I am getting' tossed out the air lock, Jayne thought.
Henry V, act V, scene II, lines 231-33
Hu che—shut up! (meaning connotation: "No way!")
wang ba dan – son of a bitch
Qing wa cao de liu mang—frog-humping son of a bitch