"You've noticed, haven't you?" River asked.
"Huh?" Jayne looked up from where he was scrubbing the lower cabinets.
They were charged with cleaning the kitchen together. All the way down to pulling out all the food, cleaning and reorganizing all the compartments. Lately all their chores seemed to throw them together.
"Noticed what?" Her ankles? Since the only thing he'd been noticing was the slim ankles and shapely feet beside him, her meaning escaped him.
"Noticed how we're suddenly scheduled for all our chores together, for one thing." River looked down at her feet. She'd caught some of that last thought. She went back to scrubbing the countertop.
"Hum, yeah, I guess. But 'Nara and Mal want to do everything together and Simon and Kaylee too. Makes sense don't it?" Jayne tore his eyes off his crewmate and forced himself to watch what he was doing instead. The way her whole body moved rhythmically while she worked was entirely too sexifying. Her feet were safer.
"That was true months ago too." She protested. "A year ago. But it's only been just over a week that every chore we've done is a two person job paired with each other."
Jayne thought back. She was right. It was just since their last planetfall.
The posted schedule had thrown them together so much that between working together and Kaylee's not so subtle prodding he was having trouble editing his thoughts.
He didn't want her to overhear thoughts she wasn't supposed to. They were friends, at least he hoped they were. He didn't want them to stop being friends.
"You're right." Jayne agreed. "Do you know why?"
"I have a pretty good idea." River said, starting to look as mad as she sounded. "Who wrote up the assignments this week?"
"Uh, Zoë I think. I like when she does it, she doesn't automatically put me on septic duty like Mal does." Jayne stopped cleaning. River already had. She was leaning against the counter.
River blew out a noisy breath. "That means Zoë is in on it, then. Kaylee must be too. I've known for sure about Inara since she gave you that new soap."
Jayne sniffed at himself. He could still faintly smell the sandalwood soap on himself. He liked the scent more every day.
"What are you getting at?" Jayne frowned slightly.
River might not rightly be crazy anymore, but she didn't always make sense.
"They're matchmaking." River frowned. "Lets sit down." She threw her scrub brush down.
"Matchmaking?" Jayne thought immediately of the times in the past week that Kaylee had wanted to talk about River. Right. Matchmaking. Clearly true.
"You don't want to finish this?" Jayne gestured towards the half sparkling kitchen.
"Later." River growled. She crossed to the food cooler and pulled out two bottles of beer from the back. She popped the lids off and set one on the counter above Jayne.
"Come on." She led the way to the seating area.
Jayne stood, flexing his knees and took a swig from the bottle. "I thought these were Mal's."
River held her bottle up and looked at the label. "No. I got them on Persephone a few months ago." She grinned. "We had a girl's party for my birthday. I'm legal now, for drinking I mean. I bought vodka too."
Jayne felt his eyebrows raise. "Vodka?"
"Interesting stuff." River sipped at her beer and put her feet up on the little round table. "Can't say I'm really fond of either taste." She admitted.
Jayne sat across from her. "You're sure they're matchmaking? Throwing us together on purpose?"
"Yes, I'm sure." River chewed on her lip. "I thought it was just Inara, but…"
"What's Inara done?" Jayne couldn't think of anything, but he remembered that time River got so mad a few days ago.
River breathed in sharply. "The sandalwood soap. I… Mentioned…" Her cheeks reddened. "I said I thought…" She sighed and fell silent.
"You like sandalwood." Jayne guessed.
River nodded. "Something like that." She agreed, hiding behind her bottle.
Jayne sat back, putting his boots on the table across from her bare feet.
"You ain't never seemed half interested in me… that way." He probed gently.
River shook her head. "I'm not." She said firmly.
Jayne wasn't prepared for the sharpness of his own disappointment. He'd known. He'd always known, but hearing her say it crushed a fragile secret little hope that he didn't want to admit even to himself.
He looked up to see the young Reader eyeing him curiously.
"I'm not." She repeated slowly. "But you are."
Jayne grimaced. "Not if you ain't." He took another swig from his bottle.
"You're my friend, Jayne." River's voice was small but firm. "I don't want us to be uncomfortable with each other."
"Neither do I." Jayne nodded. "I'm glad you think I'm a friend. Means a lot."
River smiled and it caught him in the gut. He looked away before it could catch him lower.
"You're real pretty." Jayne grimaced again. "Man'd have to be dead not to notice. Don't want to uh… have you think I'd try to touch when you didn't want me to. I ain't like that. Any gal I'm with wants to be with me." That had always been a point of pride for him.
River took a deep breath and smiled softly. "Mal notices too, but he's farther from trying to touch."
Jayne felt his gut twist. Mal had Inara. He shouldn't be looking…
"Man'd have to be dead not to notice." River copied his accent.
Jayne laughed, relaxing. River grinned back.
"You don't mind too much?" He asked when his chuckles stopped.
"You've always been… polite about noticing. Except…" She paused. "Except last week."
"Last week in that bar?" Jayne winced. "Didn't realize you…"
"It was stronger than usual because you were looking at me, thinking about me." River picked at the label of her bottle.
"I'm sorry." Jayne was embarrassed. "I didn't realize…"
"Most people wouldn't." She made a face. "Most people can't read minds."
Jayne nodded. "So it don't normally come up."
"But you ain't interested?" He wanted to hear the answer again so he could maybe stop hoping.
River shook her head. "No." She smiled shyly, hiding behind her lashes. "Even if you do smell exceptionally good in sandalwood."
Jayne nodded. "Good. Then we can just work together without wondering." He grinned. It was sort of a relief. Almost. "Just, um, let me know if you change your mind."
River made a face at him, which made them both laugh.
Over the next few weeks their changed friendship grew.
River made faces at him whenever his thoughts intruded amorously into her mind.
She also took to saying "No" aloud at random intervals.
It hurt a little every time, but Jayne was getting used to that. It even made him laugh, well, most times.
Serenity's other ladies continued to push them together at every opportunity. They seemed a little confused at the lack of romance between the two, but they were pleased by the improved friendship.
For his part, Jayne took advantage of the lighter chore load that came with being River's partner.
He got better at watching her admiringly without letting on and accepted that she would most likely always say no. Accepting it didn't make the little painful feeling any less when her no crushed his fragile hope again and again.
Naturally the crew noticed.
"No what, River?" Mal asked one day.
River's eyes darted towards Jayne. Their glances collided and they snorted with laughter.
Mal turned to Inara, who shrugged.
Mal's confusion prolonged their mirth.
"Are you laughing at me?" Mal asked.
The two of them had settled down a little, but the question started them up again.
They never did explain themselves.
Jayne and River started spending their free time in each other's company too. Jayne would clean or fiddle with his weapons, River would read or draw or plenty of other things.
They got to be comfortable together. They found they could talk easily to each other about most things.
And River kept saying no. Until one day, almost a year later…
"Jayne?" River marked her book with her fingers and looked at him from the far end of the dinning table.
"Yeah?" He barely glanced up from the bitty gun part he was filing down to fit into one of his girls.
"I…" She looked away. "Would you please repeat the question?"
"What?" They'd been quiet for hours, he had no idea what she meant. "Which question?" Jayne put his project down, certain this was important and would require his full attention.
River glanced at the page she was marking and put her book down.
"The one I always answer 'no' to." She avoided his eyes, looking at her own hands instead. "Would you please repeat the question so that I may determine if I am answering appropriately?"
Jayne could hardly breathe. "I think… That is…" He swallowed hard. "I…" He forced a full breath of air into his lungs. "River, would you be interested in courting me?"
"I…" She licked her lips. "Yes."
They stared at each other silently for a long time.
"You serious?" Jayne asked in a low voice. "Ain't half funny as a joke."
River nodded slowly. "Yes." She repeated. "I'm serious."
They went back to silently staring.
"Why?" Jayne asked after a long time.
"I don't know." River said quietly.
"We'll go as slow as you want, until you figure it out." He offered.
"Or as fast?" River asked.
"We're more likely to hurt each other if we go fast." Jayne warned. "I… could already be hurt by you pretty quick like."
River nodded. "I… me too." She smiled shyly.
Jayne twisted up his face. "Well, lets start by trying to avoid that."
River rose and walked around the table. She stood next to him a moment, looking down at him. Excitement and anxiety rolled off both of them in equal proportions.
Then she took his face in both hands and kissed him.