Disclaimer: Firefly: The Series and Serenity: The Firefly Movie and all related characters are copyright 2002-2005 Mutant Enemy, Inc., Universal Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. This is a work of fanfiction. No copyright infringement is intended

A/N This is pre-relationship, River and Jayne at a beach party. Utter fluff. Not much plot at all, but still manages to go on for 9 pages. Also the sanest I've ever written River. You've been fairly warned . . .


The night was clear and sweet. The stars strewn across the darkening sky above were almost as thick as could be seen in the Black. River tilted back to stare at them, twisting her head to make them dance. The resulting illusion was faster than the actual rotation of the planet, too fast for her mood, so she stopped. Slow was good, tonight. Flames did a crackly ballet in the nearby bonfire, a fiddle sang from across it, and a few of the villagers did their own dance a little farther off. The night needed no quicker rhythms than those.

River closed her eyes to absorb all the tempos. A few hundred meters away, waves of foamy water slid in to stroke the sand. That beat was the most pervasive of all, a backdrop seeping through her bones with a wet warmth that made her feel clean and soft. She breathed deeply through her mouth; that was salt she tasted. It was on her lips, too, from an earlier swim. She couldn't remember ever having immersed herself in an ocean before today. It had been glorious. She'd breathed deep and sunk beneath the waves until the clamoring tumultuous world was gone. The water's surging had buffeted her gently while she sat on the sandy bottom and became a length of seaweed.

Until she had to breathe again. She smirked to herself, remembering the sense of her brother's panic when she'd reappeared above the water, back in the world. It had hit her extra hard after that brief respite, but she'd been learning appropriate responses and interactions, and had sternly admonished Simon to calm down before she'd ducked beneath the waves again. She remembered hearing Jayne laugh at her brother. The laugh had made her smile to herself as the water closed back over her head. She and Jayne had slowly adopted a mutually snippy, snarky and rather juvenile relationship in the year since Miranda. Everyone else on the crew seemed to have become resigned to it, and to the occasional puerile pranks they pulled on each other. Eventually the two of them had become almost friendly; but not quite, because there was always an unacknowledged tension just under the deceptive surface of their verbal wrangling.

River knew Jayne enjoyed the beach. He didn't make a big deal of it, but he'd bounded out into the waves like a big child and then began powerful swimming strokes that propelled him a distance along the shoreline. She'd observed him with a fondness that she didn't want him to know she felt.

The day was gone now, and night had sneaked over them with its potent peacefulness. They had all been in need of a little rest. The villagers of this little planet had hired Serenity's crew to retrieve some stolen merchandise, a years' worth of hemp crops, from a gang of thieves who'd been terrorizing them for the past few seasons. The festivities occurring around River now were a celebration of their successful delivery of the raw hemp to the appropriate buyers. They'd gotten a nicely sized commission from the grateful locals and no one had wanted to refuse this impromptu party, even Zoë, who River knew always felt melancholy at bonfires. The rest of the crew was now dispersed throughout the group of villagers, most of them smiling and feeling festive.

"Food's ready," Jayne called from another fire a small distance down the beach. Instead of helping provide music, he'd volunteered to be the one to chemically alter the animal muscle with heat. It was actual meat, from animals caught and killed that day. River's mouth watered at the thought of it slowly roasting over the flames, and she rose to her feet to join the line of hungry people. Jayne stood at the head of the line, wielding a spatula with authority and serving up what he'd cooked. They were at the beach, it was a warm night, and Jayne had taken his shirt off much earlier in the day. He now wore an apron over his bare chest and shorts. He was appealing when the view of his musculature was unobstructed; River had noticed this before.

She observed him silently as she moved up in line. He seemed to have absorbed the mood of the night as she had; he was in an inordinately good temper, even grinning at her as he plopped a succulent steak on the plate she held out. River was still caught up in the softness and good sentiment of the twilight and couldn't bring herself to pick at him. Wanting to share the good place she felt herself to be in tonight, she smiled back, sweet and soft. It wasn't an expression she frequently focused solely on Jayne.

Jayne's hand paused over her plate as their eyes caught. He blinked. River's smile slowly faded. Little frown lines appeared between his brows; he looked puzzled. Finally, he nodded, and seemed to be forcing himself to turn to the next person in line. River reminded her legs to move her, and stood out of the way but not far from the focus of the increased softness in her chest.

She knew Jayne could tell she was still there, just out of his field of view. She could see it made him antsy, too. That was understandable, she nodded to herself. There had been no more knife incidents in which he was the victim, but there had been a hand glued to a chair, clear plastic wrap over a urinal, cracker crumbs in his sheets ... she didn't know why Jayne was always the focus of her little practical jokes, except that he had the most entertaining reactions.

Not that he hadn't given as good as he got. She was recalling a few of his more memorable stunts as she sank her teeth into what had to be the most tender steak she'd ever had. Juice ran between her fingers and she let out a soft surprised moan. It must have been louder than she'd thought, because Jayne's head twitched in her direction. He didn't look at her, though. He concentrated on what he was doing, nodding and handing out portions of meat. The person currently in front of him, though, was a particularly attractive redhead, who was giving him a blatantly flirtatious smile. And he didn't seem to have noticed. River moved closer to observe this interesting turn of events, still not able to hold back her little sounds of enjoyment as she ate. She thought she was entitled to them, anyway. It wasn't often she got real meat, and Jayne was apparently a master at this type of cooking.

Jayne offered a serving to the man behind the redhead, and she moved off with a look of disappointment. River slipped even closer, pulled by something she didn't quite understand. Jayne eyed her sideways as he helped the last person in line. Then they were alone in the cozy darkness, the smell of roasted meat and burning wood a perfume around them. River swallowed another bite and sighed in appreciation.

"Good?" Jayne asked, his voice just short of gruff, as he pulled the grease-stained apron off over his head. He busied himself cleaning the rack he'd used for cooking.

"Superior," River replied, her eyes on the patterns that the firelight threw over his unclothed back. She reached for another bite and saw that her plate was empty. Jayne had glanced her way, and he saw the comic expression of regret on her face. He grinned at her again, and some of the old snap was in the expression, but so was a friendliness that River found herself enjoying.

"Got room for more?" he questioned. River nodded eagerly, moving nearer as he added one of the few remaining slices to her plate before helping himself to one, too. They ate in silence, on their own by the cooking fire since the other partiers, including crew, were mingling over at the other one. River didn't want to leave this spot, and didn't want to question her reasons too closely. She knew Jayne didn't feel motivated to leave her, either. He just stood there beside her, large and warm and real, chewing his own food as he watched her consume her second steak.

"Eatin' almost as much as me," he commented. River shrugged. She'd found a name to describe the slowness and softness that was around and inside her; romantic. She was feeling romantic, in this starlit darkness, and had no one to share it with. She frowned.

"Now I'm thirsty," she told Jayne, raising a hand to her mouth to lick her fingers clean. Jayne's eyes narrowed as he watched. He swallowed, shifted his feet, and reached down to the sand beside him.

"Here ya go." He handed her a bottle. River took it, but glanced around toward the main group of people around the other, bigger fire. A large number of them were now dancing, loosened up by liquor and good food.

Jayne smirked. "Checkin' to see yer brother ain't lookin'?"

River threw her chin up. "I don't wish to make him uncomfortable. He is having trouble allowing me to grow."

Jayne raised his brows challengingly. "Yeah, but ya are, aren't ya? Gotta make yer own decisions sometime."

River regarded the bottle with pursed lips. She brought it to her face and sniffed; Jayne sniggered when her nose wrinkled.

"It's quite odiferous," River stated, distancing her olfactory receptors from the liquid.

"You get used to it," Jayne answered, shrugging. He watched with interest as she raised the bottle again, this time to her lips. She took a small mouthful. Her face screwed up, and she leaned over to spit it out in the sand away from the fire. Jayne guffawed.

Her shirt dipped as she moved, and even while he laughed Jayne's eyes followed the line of her clothing. River wasn't trying to read him, but caught a glimpse of an image of herself from earlier in the day. She'd been wading out of the sun-dappled ocean, a tank top and shorts molded to her. She hadn't known that Jayne was watching her then, or that he noticed how her clothing had clung to her, but she now began to feel very warm under her skin as Jayne's mind's eye zoomed in and slow-motioned the memory of her body's movements. River edged away from the heat of the fire. It didn't help.

"I'm making my own choice," River said, "I do not care for this flavor." She was holding the alcoholic beverage out to him and using that one mouthful to excuse her breathlessness to herself. Jayne reached for it, but instead of pulling it from her he slowly wrapped his warm calloused fingers around hers against the cool glass. River's breath left her in a rush. Her heart picked up speed and spread a pleasurable heat through her cardiovascular system. She moved her hand away, slowly, after a minute of trying to decide what to do.

Jayne lifted the bottle and chugged a large portion of its contents down, watching her intently. Something was there in his expression, more openly than she'd ever seen before. It whispered along her already sensitized nerve endings.

"I'm gonna go dance," he said finally. "Wanna come?"

River turned her eyes toward the moving mass of people about the other fire. The one they stood beside was burning down, slowly, with no fuel being added to keep it going.

"No," she decided. She was wrapped in the softness of the night and didn't feel impelled to join that merry group. Slow, she was slow tonight, a river that meandered and took its time.

"All right," Jayne shrugged. He drained the rest of the bottle, tossed it into a nearby trash pit, and grabbed another from a cooler. Then he set off toward the dancers. A flute had joined the fiddle, and pure high notes scintillated in the air. River watched Jayne go, feeling a little deserted. She glanced down at the cooking fire again. It was going to die, and she suddenly didn't want it to. She cast about for something to keep it going. There was nothing close, so she wandered toward the ebony line of trees that edged the sand.

She found suitable combustibles there without actually having to enter the woods, and carried them back, seating herself and beginning to slowly feed the fire. It flared up satisfactorily and she propped herself against the large, stacked logs that were there for that purpose. They were surprisingly comfortable. Content to recline there in quietude and watch the villagers and her crew from a distance, she leaned on one arm and listened to the notes of the music.

Mal and Inara danced. Zoë didn't, just sat off to one side with her arms propped on her knees. Simon and Kaylee were nowhere to be seen, and River cocked her head a moment before catching a sense of their essences flaring brightly and fiercely from the same tree line where she'd gathered wood. She pulled back hastily from that, grateful for having gained enough control over her senses to do so. Once she'd have been fascinated by what they were doing. But since she'd become more cognizant, she'd began to doubt she could have it, that meshing of desires and mutual pleasure. So she shied away from it when she could.

She realized those feelings were a lot like what Jayne had stirred up in her tonight. She shifted her focus back to him, locating him unerringly in the gyrating cluster of revelers. He'd found that redhead, or she'd found him. They were dancing up close. He had another bottle in one hand, his third River counted, while his free fingers were against the woman's spine. River felt her lower lids crinkling, and an uncomfortable lump rose at the back of her throat. She moved her gaze again.

The night went on, the songs changed, the stars spun. River felt herself collapsing into the wood at her back and the sand beneath her. She breathed, the air thick and sweet on her taste buds, the melody soothing her ears and the fire moving warmth over her skin. The fiddle scraped to the end of a rollicking number, and switched to a slow low counterpart for the delicate notes of the flute. She waited.

A footstep stumbled in the sand not far away.

River scooted halfway upright to see Jayne coming towards her. A half-empty bottle swung between his fingers. The redhead was nowhere in sight. He stopped to peer rather blurrily at her, and she returned his regard solemnly. Flute and fiddle sent out ribbons of notes that fluttered around them on the low breeze.

"Mind if I sit?" Jayne asked her, his voice muzzy. It must be the alcohol making him so polite. He'd imbibed a lot of it. River shook her head to indicate that she didn't mind, so he advanced and folded his long legs underneath himself. He was unsteady, but got there, although River put a hand out to safeguard him from toppling into the fire. He made it all the way down until he was leaning against her log. Close enough to touch but not touching.

"Change yer mind 'bout wanting some?" Jayne asked, waggling the bottle at her. She shook her head and countered his gesture by lifting the can of water she'd found in the cooler. He tipped a corner of his mouth at her, and she let herself smile back. That was two he'd pulled from her this evening. Soft, soft, the night battered at her like a pillow. The lump in the back of her throat got bigger. She swallowed against it and turned her head to stare at the fire.

"Shouldn't do that," Jayne croaked from beside her. She tilted a question at him with her eyebrow. He wobbled his head in the general direction of the flames. "Eyes get fire-blind at night. Someone comes up on ya, yer not gonna be able to see 'em. Could gechyerself hurt." Then he seemed to reconsider. "Guess ya don't really need yer eyes, though, huh? Got that psychic mind ta help ya out."

River didn't deny it, as that would have been a pointless exercise. Jayne nodded to himself sagely, held his bottle up unsteadily, and drank a few swallows from it. Afterwards it fell forgotten to the side.

"It's a good thing ta have," he muttered, seemingly to himself. "Glad ya got it. Keep yerself whole."

His drunkenness was making it hard for River to decipher his emotions, so she wasn't sure if he meant her to hear what he was saying. Until he turned his head and pinned her with a gaze that would have been fierce, had it not been smudged with inebriation. "Don' wancha hurt. Wanta see ya dance again. Woulda liked ta see ya kill off all them Reavers".

River didn't breathe. He'd never admitted out loud how he felt about that day on Miranda. They just didn't discuss personal things like this, except on a superficial, argumentative level. The alcohol seemed to have enabled Jayne to delve deeper than that.

His body had somehow gotten closer. Had she moved, or had he?

Jayne's voice had gotten quite husky. He nodded slowly, and she couldn't look away. "Yeah, Ida liked ta see that. Hadda be beautiful." He squinted at her in the firelight and the starshine, and his head moved through the darkness toward her. The fire crackled. River sat very still, immobilized by his closeness. "Gorgeous," Jayne mumbled, and she felt a stroke from his rough hand down her cheek.

She parted her lips to let pent-up breath out between them, and he was so near it stirred his hair. He tilted his head, his gaze drawn to her mouth. His hand moved again, and this time his thumb sketched the outline of her lower lip. It trembled under the contact. River's hands curled into themselves, her fingernails digging into her palms as he applied pressure that pulled her jaw further open.

She tried to drag a breath back in and it wouldn't come against the pounding of her heart. Slow, slow, all her muscles were like the night. His nearness was inebriating her as no alcohol could've done. She blinked sluggishly, while his thumb scraped against her teeth. It dipped further into her mouth and touched her tongue and she tasted him. Salt, electrolytes, electricity, he must have rinsed his hands in the ocean recently. Her thought processes were just as muzzy as his, and she couldn't get beyond that one sensation; he was salty. He was salty and tangy, and she let herself lick.

Slowly, a sweep of her tongue over him. He groaned, hoarsely. So she raised hands that were weighted, heavy with desire, to the broadness of his shoulders. She angled her head to suck more of his thumb into her mouth, and his fingers tightened along her jaw. She heard a husky cuss word, and his face dipped in close enough now that when he closed his eyes she felt the brush of his lashes against her forehead. And then he slanted his head, and for all his impaired senses and reflexes he moved his thumb and replaced it accurately with his mouth.

Her fingers spasmed into his muscles and she arced up against him, the intimate contact of his lips freeing the inner warmth that had been garnering fuel since he'd grinned at her over the steak. It seeped into her bones and she opened her mouth further, instinctively angling her head in response. There was more taste now, he tasted like what he'd been drinking, and suddenly the flavor wasn't so repulsive. He deepened the kiss, lapping at her lips with his tongue until she reached her own out to tangle with it. She gasped at the wet warmth of that, even though she'd initiated it, and suddenly the lilting flute notes that had been a constant backdrop ceased.

The world seemed utterly silent, for a moment. They both stopped moving. River closed her eyes, now, for the first time, so she felt but didn't see Jayne lurch away. She heard him bump up against the logs. She heard him murmur "Can't. Shouldn't."

When her heart had tamed somewhat, when she could breathe without struggling for it, she let her lids open. Jayne had found the bottle he'd dropped, and was drinking the rest of it straight down. She wondered why he didn't leave. Maybe he couldn't walk; she knew she'd have been hard-pressed to, if it had been required of her right then. She dropped back against the logs, leaning her head into them and staring up at the stars once more. Jayne was still and silent next to her, until she heard his head fall back too.

She didn't look at him, but she knew when he lapsed into sleep. It made her a little angry, that he could so easily move on into the distancing effects of slumber. Of course, his path was eased by the amount of liquor he'd imbibed. She was stone-cold sober, as clear-headed as a crazy person ever got, and couldn't escape the remaining tingles of his nearness and the ache he'd stirred inside her.

She was trying to fight off thoughts about whether he'd remember what they'd done in the morning, when she felt him tilting sideways. He leaned into her side. He was heavy, and when she shifted her shoulder out from under him he slipped farther, into her lap. She stared down at his head, at the flickering shadows on his face, and swallowed. She should push him back up and leave him here, that's what she should do.

Maybe it was the starlit beach and its beauty. Maybe it was the peacefulness spread by the flute that was raising one last song into the darkness. The dancing had nearly ended, River sensed, and a sharp regret pricked her at how soon she was going to lose the night. Maybe that was what made her scoot a little and settle Jayne's head and upper arms on her thighs and against her tummy in a position that looked more comfortable.

Then she sat there, one hand on his bicep and the other hovering in the air over his head. It settled down, finally, into his hair. He had grown it out some, and its thick strands curled crisply against her skin. She rubbed a bit of it between her fingers wonderingly, and then let her hand cup his skull. He stirred a little, his brow puckering, and she stroked his bare shoulder soothingly. He settled down again, his features relaxing. Affection rose foreignly behind her ribs as she stared down at the dark length of his lashes lying against his cheek. His hair swirled in whorls behind his ears, and she rifled her nails gently through it, combing it out. Her other hand slid down to lay against his chest, where it rose and fell with the breaths he took. He was starting to snore quietly, and his chest vibrated under her palm.

She laid the back of her knuckles on his cheek, and he moved his head against her thighs, turning into her touch. Her heart twisted, and she laid her own head back against the logs. He was out of her line of vision that way, but the warm weight of him against her lap wrapped her in a blanket of tenderness. The fire was dying, the flute's sweetly lilting song was coming to a close, and many of the partiers had left the beach. The dark was claiming everyone. River could feel all those things, along with the tilting of the planet and the rustle of the moderate breeze and the beat of Jayne's heart. She let her eyes close. She let her breathing even out. She felt sleep claim her.

Hours later, Zoë found them like that. The warrior was given pause, taking in the sight of big bad Jayne curled into River's side with his head pillowed in her lap. River's small hands were braced about him protectively, comfortingly. There was such an aura of quiet tenderness about the pair that hot tears pushed suddenly against the back of Zoë's eyes. She swung away, pressed in by memories and emotions, the unexpectedness of the moment temporarily swamping her defenses.

She pulled them back up quickly, though, and reached her foot out to tap the bottom log that supported River. The girl's eyes opened immediately. They met Zoë's in the pre-dawn light.

"Time to go," Zoë told her quietly. River nodded, but for a moment she didn't move. She looked out at the sea, and to the lightening eastern horizon. Then she looked down at Jayne.

"Unexpected bonding through mutually enjoyable activities," the girl murmured. Then she bent over him and shook his shoulder.

Zoë turned away. She didn't leave, but it seemed a moment that required privacy. She heard River's voice murmuring, a querulous inquiry from Jayne as he roused, and then a taut interlude of silence. Finally, there was the sound of Jayne rising to his feet. When Zoë heard a muttered ai ya from him, she swung back around.

River hadn't yet risen, and realizing her legs were probably numb from Jayne's not inconsiderable weight, Zoë offered her a hand up. River accepted it with an uncharacteristic shyness. Zoë guessed she was feeling awkward about having been found with Jayne that way. The glance the psychic sent the mercenary as the trio began to move in the direction of Serenity was even more hesitant.

Jayne wasn't looking at River. But he slowed his normal pace down to walk beside her while he brushed desultorily at sand that dusted his bare skin. So Zoë dropped back some, giving them space. And watching with interest.

River was looking straight ahead but her focus was all to her left side, where Jayne walked. He was moving with care, so River guessed his head hurt. That wasn't too surprising.

He glanced down at her a couple times, then away. She bit her lip and didn't say anything. He rubbed a hand over his bleary eyes, and then scowled at the sandy path ahead.

"Seems to me there was some – uh – some stuff, last night."

Some stuff. River nodded silently. The sound of the waves was receding as they moved away from the beach.

"I – don't really remember ..." Jayne's voice trailed off as River jerked her head up to glare at him. She knew that wasn't true. He remembered, and somehow she couldn't take it if he was going to lie about it.

"Right," Jayne muttered. "Guess I do remember." There was quiet again for awhile, until the ocean had disappeared from sight. They were nearly to the ship when Jayne reached and grabbed River's hand and pulled her to a stop. Zoë walked around them and up the ramp. None of the other crew were in sight. River tightened her fingers around Jayne's and stared up at his tired face. He needed to shave. The tenderness she'd felt last night returned in strength, threatening to overwhelm her.

"We don't have to discuss it right now," she told him. "When you're rested would be better."

He nodded. But they didn't move. He had something more to say.

"I remember it was good," he told her finally. His voice was tight and he stared off over her shoulder. "I remember I thought I'd gotten as close t' paradise as I'm likely to, and that I'd no gorram right to be there."

River bit her lip. She stretched up on tiptoe and tilted her head to catch his gaze. It burned into her.

"You have the right I give to you," she managed to say. She hoped that was clear. Apparently it was, because light flared behind his blue eyes.

He didn't speak again. They resumed walking. But he still held her hand. All the way up the ramp, into Serenity, and past Simon and Kaylee he held it. Simon sputtered; Kaylee cooed. A few minutes later, Mal groaned when Zoë told him about it. A half hour after that Inara told him it was 'to be expected', and laughed when he stared at her with incredulity.

So it wasn't really a shock to anyone that a week later Jayne moved into River's cabin. But Simon nearly had a stroke anyway. Jayne explained to him that his own bunk was really too small for two people. Simon gasped that that wasn't the point.

Jayne nodded, and said "exactly". River patted her confused brother's hand and told him to grow up. Then the mercenary and the assassin locked themselves in their cabin and commenced certain mutually enjoyable, no longer unexpected, bonding activities.