Title: A Solid Foundation
Pairing: Pre-Rayne if you squint
Disclaimer: Not mine.
AN: Cleo and I were trying to jumpstart our muses as we both have long-term fic to finish. This is from the prompt I sent her: any length with references to socks, ice cream and a tree. As usual my cuddly little plot bunny about three simple items turned into a bit of a monster, I apologize for getting wordy again. Thank you, Cleo, for all the advice and encouragement. All mistakes are mine.
"A Solid Foundation"
Jayne tracked his prey to the middle of a clearing at the edge of the scraggly forest. The settlers and town center weren't too far away, but back here a person may as well have been alone on this rock. No one would see what he was about to do.
He frowned. He might have had to permanently remove any witnesses and that would attract more attention than he really wanted. However, he knew he could leave no one left to tell this tale.
Jayne paused, turning back to listen.
Mal would be here soon. The merc could hear the captain's angry stride as he shoved his way through the woods, completely oblivious to the well-worn trail Jayne had used for a faster, safer, nearly silent arrival.
The mercenary quickly scanned the area again, craning his neck this way and that so as not to miss any details. Eyes narrowed against the harsh noonday sun even beneath the wide brim of his hat. The coast was clear. Determined no soft motives be attached to his actions, his mouth curled into a ferocious snarl that generally caused innocent, and not so innocent, bystanders to wet themselves. This little scenario was about self-preservation, nothing more.
Squaring his broad shoulders, he strode forward, stopped at the base of the biggest tree and raised his not empty gun hand. Throughout the maneuver, he maintained constant vigilance, eyes darting around the scene, searching for any appearance of that unexpected, unwanted audience. Maintaining steady pressure and careful balance, he stretched his arm to its full well-muscled length over his head, and waited.
Jayne's lips thinned impatiently. Mal's swearing was clearly audible now even to someone as unobservant as the doc would have been. Time was extremely short. It was now or nev…
Suddenly, his upraised hand was empty. Not a rustle or touch had brushed his senses. Very good.
Smirking mightily, he dropped his arm, resting his hand on the gun holstered at his hip. Mission accomplished. Jayne raised his offhand just as his captain burst through the last patch of undergrowth.
Mal's already dark frown deepened when he saw his merc.
Lifting one arrogantly inquiring eyebrow, Jayne leaned back against the trunk of the tree, and quickly licked around the entire edge of the cone clutched in his hand before the ice cream could drip down.
"Unexpected place to be finding you, Jayne," observed Mal tightly, as he stomped closer to the tree.
"Just enjoying the sunshine, Captain. Don't get any out in the black. Unless we're way off course and about to die, that is."
"Sunshine is not the only thing you seem to be enjoying today."
Both of his eyebrows rose forming as innocent an expression as the mercenary could manage. After a dismissive one shoulder shrug, his focus shifted away from the captain. He glanced briefly at the tall vanilla soft-serve then returned to savoring the creamy dessert. Wasn't much of interest here in the backwoods, but these folks surely did know their ice cream.
Mal glared. "Thought I was clear on the subject of ice cream, today."
Jayne pursed his lips momentarily then casually shifted to settle himself more comfortably, propping his heel on the trunk. Still maintaining his obviously affected guiltless veneer, he reminisced without breaking his licking stride, "Jayne, Vera ain't goin' visitin' today. Jayne, grenades ruin the look of that t-shirt ensemble, leave them off. Jayne, we need these people not to chase us out of town quite yet so steer clear of their womenfolk. Nope, don't recall ya restrictin' my food intake."
"Ain't yours I restricted. You heard just as clear…"
"Didn't have to hear. Wasn't mentioned."
Mal turned his glare upward to the dark-haired waif reclining gracefully on the thick tree limb above his merc's head. His frown intensified as she calmly returned to delicately nibbling her snack.
"Don't matter. He knew…"
River shook her head. "Wasn't mentioned. River, Simon, and Kaylee, yes, but no Jayne."
"It was implied."
Jayne cocked an eyebrow. Since when did he follow blatant orders without question, much less the merely implied ones?
"Only said I wasn't allowed to have any coin for ice cream and the marshmallow duo could not buy any for me, even if I used the eyes."
"Didn't realize my security was vulnerable to the eyes. Can't say I feel terribly secure knowin' he is."
Jayne snorted. "I ain't the one who caves for the eyes."
"I do not cave..."
"Can I land by myself today, Captain Daddy? I'll need a gun of my own to defend Serenity from the badder guys before they can beat you up again, Captain Daddy. I have fond memories of the butcher knife, Captain Daddy, may I keep it under my pillow for good luck?"
Mal's jaw clenched. "We are gettin' a mite off track here. Besides, I ain't the one she slashed across the chest and rendered unconscious more than once and who is now sneaking her restricted treats. So to my way of thinking, the caving seems slightly more insane on your side."
Jayne laughed heartily, shaking his head at the captain's usual shortsighted lack of comprehension. "I ain't the one punishing her the day before a job. I'm the one who satisfied her sweet tooth. So whose back ya think she's gonna have first come tomorrow?"
Grimacing at his hired gun's use of actual logic, Mal could feel his head start to pound and possibly the universe begin to crumble around his ears. Time to get back to the yelling.
"She knows how to end the punishment."
River clutched her knees to her chest, covering her legs with her long skirt. "You said I was old enough to stand on my own two feet. Move forward. Make my own choices. Be a fully functioning member of the crew. You said that to do that properly I need a solid foundation, starting with correct footwear..."
"Your own footwear."
"But you don't need them anymore."
"They are mine."
"But you weren't using them."
The muscle beat in Mal's jaw again. "For a reason."
"Never waste anything. We ain't got the coin for waste," reminded Jayne, nonchalantly interrupting the argument. Having added in his two cents, he just as casually returned to the remainder of his ice cream, unconcerned by the captain's renewed glare.
"They weren't being wasted. They were being… kept..."
"Weren't being utilized. Lacked their true function. Functioning, now." River wriggled her toes out from beneath the hem of her skirt to demonstrate her point.
Trying a different track, Mal cajoled, "Kaylee bought all sorts of pretties…"
River hastily recovered her toes. Vehemently shaking her head, she rejected the replacements once more, "No pretties."
"Complicated geometric designs. Lace edging."
Wrapping her arms more firmly around her legs, she continued to refuse, "No. No pretties. Need these. These are good."
Disturbed by his pilot's increasingly agitated rocking especially while in such a precarious position, Mal quickly opened his mouth to try again.
A large dollop of creamy goodness slid down the scantily clad figure beckoning from the mercenary's t-shirt. Jayne rolled his shoulder forward to glare at the dropping then he turned his hardened stare on Mal. He jerked his head toward River demanding Mal get on with it. This whole stupid argument had lost its charm two days ago. The captain couldn't even control a gorram teenager anymore, which would have been right embarrassing if she wasn't a government-trained psychic assassin. Jayne wanted to say as much aloud, but had to rescue his own ice cream from melting destruction. He wasn't wasting real food for this petty feud.
Mal glowered at the larger man then redirected his grim expression to the girl. Mouth twisting between anger and concern, he noticed the now dripping mess she held in her hand as she ignored her treat, too focused on defending her feet.
"Eat your gorram ice cream!" commanded the captain. "I ain't got all day to holler at ya. So clean up that drippy, sticky confection thingy so I can get back to my manly yelling."
Stilling suddenly, River's tentative gaze met Mal's. When he squiggled his fingers in the direction of her ice cream, she cautiously lent forward and licked at the gooey mess.
"That's right. Keep with the whole emergency licking thing. Just hurry it up." As his pilot carefully sucked up the fast melting treat, Mal bitterly crossed his arms and waited. Nothing ever went smooth. Why did nothing ever go smooth? He smirked evilly as Jayne chanced a moment from his midday snack to try brushing the glob from his t-shirt only managing to enlarge the smear instead. The smirk curled off in disgust when the merc angrily shrugged his shoulders in resignation then licked the splotch's remnants from his fingertips before returning to his treat.
When the girl's ice cream resumed a more manageable form, the captain attempted to patiently restart the original conversation, the one she'd been hiding from for three days.
"Just give them back and we'll forget this whole disagreement ever happened."
River temporarily paused her systematic reduction of her snack, staring intently at the dwindling dessert rather than the captain. "Can't. Need them."
"You don't…" Mal cut his own argument off. He had solved nothing by continuing it this long. She wouldn't even look at him now. At first, she'd been astonished, then confused, nervous, scared, and now she wouldn't meet his eyes. He found reading people easier when they looked at him… and were at least somewhat more sane. Rubbing his hand down his face, he began a new angle, "You stole them from my room."
"You stole them."
Lifting her gaze to meet her captain's, River tilted her head, baffled by this new tactic. "We steal all the time. It's our job."
"You stole them from me." Mal slapped his chest, emphasizing his point. Trying to step back from his once again escalating temper, he added not quite as lightly as he would have preferred, "We do not steal from each other. We reserve the stealing for outsiders and the like."
"But you weren't..."
Voice roughening despite his best intentions, Mal barked, "They are mine, River. I shouldn't have to explain to you why they will remain mine. Why you can't have them."
Lowering her face again, River began eating her ice cream as if she wasn't sure when she would ever have another. Her legs curved farther under her, removing the bone of contention from sight.
Jayne rolled his eyes. At this rate, he was the only one who wasn't going to get shot tomorrow.
Still devouring her ice cream, River mumbled, "Old enough. Stand on my own two feet. Move forward. Make my own choices. Fully functioning. Solid foundation, starting with correct footwear."
In his aggravation, Mal's hands automatically dropped to his holster. Frowning frustratedly, he couldn't comprehend why she kept repeating that whole gorram conversation. All he had wanted her to do was wear gorram shoes on the gorram job. How the situation had spiraled down to this, he knew not. He should have left her shoewear problem to her brother.
River's mantra continued as she commenced crunching her way through the cone. "Move forward. Fully functioning. Correct footwear. Move forward."
Mal blinked. Move forward… fully functioning… His hands fisted around the worn leather, knuckles whitening.
…we must now move forward, set aside our differences and become fully functioning members of the new Union of Allied Planets…
Mal wrenched his offhand away from the holster to rub his eyes. Having an only partially sane reader on his crew was not nearly as straightforward as the brochure suggested.
"River..." His voice cracked.
Visibly shaking, River had halted her ingestion of the cone when the captain's emotions had spiked, his memories slicing through her.
Fighting through the lump in his throat, Mal started again, ordering her to face him. "River."
When she turned up eyes brimming with tears, the captain's voice failed him momentarily. He really was a marshmallow for the eyes, and the tear-drenched ones broke the heart he usually pretended not to have.
Disturbed by the deepening emotional undercurrents, Jayne's fingers unconsciously tensed around the butt of his gun. Trapped and unable to shoot his way out, he all but forgot his sweet as his comfort level plummeted.
"This ain't like that. I ain't like him. I'd never want you to pretend the past don't matter because it does. I ain't asking you to be something you're not. I just want you to wear shoes so as not hurt your dainty little dancer's toes."
River's face contorted in confusion.
"Albatross, the socks aren't important, neither are any long-dead words they might be somehow broadcasting to you."
Her face scrunching in anxiety, River struggled to clarify her reasoning, "But I have to move forward. I need a solid foundation in order to stand on my own two feet, starting with correct footwear."
"But these aren't correct footwear or a solid foundation. You can't build on ashes. These ain't what you need."
River's anxiety grew into utter desperation. Nodded her head vehemently, she argued. "I do need them. I do. I need a solid foundation in order to stand on my own two feet. To move forward."
Mal threw his arms wide to his sides. "They're just socks, River! Old, ugly, patched socks filled with bad memories you ain't supposed to know and certainly ain't supposed to follow! You got pretties waitin' back at the ship for you, pretties that are fresh and clean for you to fill up with happier thoughts!"
Shaking her head just as vigorously as she had nodded, River denied his description, her speech fracturing in her panic. "No! No empty pretties! Solid foundation! Stand on my own two feet! Move forward!"
Mal clenched his fists and looked ready to burst a couple dozen important blood vessels. He could never leave his socks with her now, knowing the horrors she could read from them.
Ashen faced, River swayed on the branch, still struggling for a way to justify her actions.
"If they're just old, ugly, patched socks filled with bad memories, why do you even keep them?" asked Jayne quietly.
"What?!" Startled, Mal's next argument stuttered to a halt before it could begin. He had forgotten the mercenary's presence.
" Why ain't ya pitched 'em long ago?"
"Because…" Mal glanced up at River, bewildered by her newly expectant stillness, her hope for understanding perched precariously behind her eyes. "Because they're mine… Because I…"
… trudged through the mud and the blood in them every gorram day. Because I washed the sweat and the tears and the death from them every time a cup of water could be spared. Because I patched their holes whenever supplies could be scrounged. Because I had to keep fighting and scrabbling and surviving, and to do that I needed my feet underneath me, a solid…
Mal's gaze met and held River's, watching as tears trembled on her lashes.
The fingers of her free hand clasping her patched brown toes, she whispered, "A solid foundation. To stand on my own two feet. To keep moving forward."
Releasing a painfully pent-up breath, Mal realized maybe all the memories weren't exactly bad. He had discovered who he was, and who he wasn't. He had fought on the losing side, but he had never counted himself a loser. Those memories were hard earned but not all bad. If those socks, and all the memories therein, could support her, help her stand tall despite all that she'd been through, he would not, could not, deny her their use. He'd already learned those lessons. He could share.
"Life lessons to be passed down…"
There went his breath again. Girl certainly knew how to steal. She stole his socks and his air and his freedom from unsought responsibilities. Mal laughed ruefully under his breath. He would have liked a little more of the fun of making babies before he had to start raising them up, teaching them stuff. Maybe Inara could help him with that?
A wry smile transformed Mal's face. Only he could start his parental duties with a psychic teenager on the run.
River wiped away the tears with the back of her hand when Mal nodded his acceptance at last. Smiling, she returned to the last few soggy bites of her no longer illicit ice cream cone.
Straightening up, Mal ordered in his captainly voice, "Now, if I let you keep them, you have to promise to take care of them. Respect them. Wash them. Darn them. Maintain them all proper like."
River nodded eagerly to each rule.
"Best wear boots over them, too. They aren't meant to meet the ground without a middle man in between to protect them… take a bigger cut than agreed upon… stab 'em in the back for a lollipop and some magic beans."
When Jayne's snicker blended with River's giggle, Mal smirked. Heading back to town, the captain waved a hand in the direction of his crew as he sauntered away. "Yup. You can keep those old Independent issued socks as long as you need 'em, Albatross. Just give them back when you're ready. Until then, Jayne'll make sure you take good care of them."
The merc blinked. "What?!" He was going to have to keep an eye on the crazy girl's stolen footwear? The socks the captain had fussed about for all this time? "No! No ruttin' way!"
Mal smiled cheerfully as he stepped into the undergrowth.
"No! Mal, come on! Captain!" When the brown coat completely faded from view, Jayne slouched down. "Aw, gorramit. What did I do to earn that job?"
"You bought me ice cream."
Jayne glared at his last bite of cone. "That ain't a fair exchange."
River merely giggled.