Learning Experience

Sunlight beat down across his back, warming the muscle shirt that stretched tight across his back. He could feel sweat gathering underneath it every time he shifted his shoulder. Wind whispered along the top of the hill, brushing grasses and bushes and lifting up bits of sand and dust that flicked off his sunglasses. That same breeze brought a caress of relief as it cooled him, just a bit, while he lay in the dirt.

Jayne Cobb didn't notice. Instead, he simply lay prone, caked in dirt, one hand very slowly working the scope on his long sniper rifle, his ling digits extending from fingerless gloves. A kilometer away, he could see the target he'd set up on a hill, a couple of paint cans he'd placed on an old wooden post someone had set up years back. The visual was tinted just a tiny bit by the sunglasses he wore.

He kept adjusting the scope, zeroing his sights. He made sure to do this whenever he had time on a planet that had this much open space, and this visit was no different. Finally, as he was satisfied his sights were zeroed, Jayne gently squeezed the trigger. A nasty impact slammed into his shoulder as the weapon fired.

A resounding crack split the still midday air, and he checked the scope again, settling it on the paint cans.

One was blown completely apart, the round hitting dead center. He grunted in satisfaction.

"Good shot."

Jayne jerked in surprise, and rolled over at the voice, not a meter away from him. Behind him, peering across the landscape at the target with squinting eyes, was River Tam.

"Gorram it, girl," he snarled, and start pushing himself to his feet, heart pounding in his chest. "Don't you go sneakin' up on a fella with a gun like that."

She glanced down at the scoped rifle he carried, and then back up at him. She was wearing a thin pink cotton dress and black boots, with a wide-brimmed hat on her head, and her brown hair was loose and disheveled, as per her wont as a crazy person.

"You weren't going to shoot me," she said, tone dancing with confidence, and that just made him more annoyed.

"That ain't the point," he growled. "I ain't everyone. Other folks with guns might take a dislike to you sneaking up on 'em like that."

He saw her mull over that for a second, and grunted, turning back toward the paint cans. For a mind-reading genius of a killer, the girl could sure be stupid.

"You're a good shot," River said, after a few seconds. He grunted again, and nodded, about the closest he'd come to appreciating her compliment. He peered down the scope, this time standing, and sighted the paint cans once more. He stilled his breath, and squeezed off two shots while standing, feeling the powerful kick of the rifle beating against his shoulder. He missed the first time, while the second round skipped off the can.

He lifted his head from the scope, and Jayne snorted in satisfaction.

"You missed."

Gorram girl.

"Yeah," he replied, glancing back at her for a moment before lowering the weapon.

"Then why are you satisfied?" she asked, and he turned toward her. She was watching him with a curious expression, and he got the feeling she understood exactly why he was pleased with how well he'd shot.

"Hit a can a klick and ten meters out, firing from my shoulder," he said. "Good enough for me."

"I can shoot better," she said, and Jayne knew a challenge when he heard one, and saw an impish smile forming on her face.

"You wanna try it?" he asked, and flipped the rifle over, holding it barrel up toward her. The thing was nearly as tall as she was. "Show me them math skills of yours."

Her hands rose up slowly, and he saw a shift in her posture, along with a hint of surprise. She hadn't expected him to actually give her a chance to fire the weapon, and now she was eyeing him suspiciously. Well, she could keep eyeing him, for all he cared, but he wanted to see her prove she was a better shot than him.

Finally, she took the weapon, grunting softly at the weight of the rifle. He stepped back and watched her as she tried to handle the unwieldly weapon, flipping it around with that cute little expression of frustration she got when she couldn't figure out how to eat an Ice Planet. Finally, River got the long rifle around and raised it to her shoulder, in a good mimicry of what Jayne had done – though she had her finger on the trigger.

As soon as he noticed that, she took her finger off, cheeks coloring a bit. She may have been built into a psychic killer, but those Alliance hun dans hadn't bothered teaching her how to handle a long rifle or anything like trigger discipline.

"Alright," Jayne said, stepping back. "Let's see you hit them paint cans."

She swung the rifle up, overcompensating a bit and swinging around a bit too far. He reached out and steadied her with a hand, and he saw her cheeks coloring a little bit more. River finally raised the rifle up, cradling it in a good stance, legs spread and braced, weapon held steady. She peered down the scope, glanced up out of the scope to check her target, and then peered down it again, just like Jayne did. Her fingers tightened around the trigger, and the weapon roared.

Ninety pounds of teenage girl went toppling backward with a yelp, crashing down to the dirt.

Jayne didn't bother holding back, and he started laughing, a deep, resounding belly rumble that had him doubling over a bit. It only got worse when River sat up, her hat having slipped down and covered her eyes, a particularly annoyed frown on her face.

"Xi nui hou zi," she muttered, glaring at him after tipping the hat back up, and that just made him laugh even harder. "I am the crazy person. I play tricks on you."

She clambered up to her feet, and then bent down and picked up a rock. Jayne was busy laughing, but the second the rock started flying, he got his arm up and blocked it. He stared at her, still chuckling, and started to push himself up too.

"Girl, you really shoulda seen that coming," he said as he rose, and then she kicked him in the stomach – not hard but with enough force to toss him back down in the dirt.

She may have been a psychic killing machine, but that didn't mean she wasn't a bratty kid. He sat back in the dirt, and kept laughing, and finally she smirked, which quickly became a giggle, and then outright laughter. She sat down in the dirt beside him – her dress was already covered in dust anyway from before – and they both let it out for a minute or two.

Finally, Jayne sat back up, feeling as good as his last visit to a well-stocked whorehouse. River did so as well, brushing her face. Wetness streaked her features, and it turned to thin mud as her dirty fingers wiped the tears. He rose and walked over to the dropped rifle, picking it up and pointing it at the distant paint cans.

"Aw, hell, you missed," he said.

"Liar," she protested, and he handed her the rifle. She swung it up and around drunkenly, and peered through the scope. She lowered the rifle a moment later and glared at him, as she realized he hadn't been lying. "Jerk."

"Least that was in English," he said, chuckling. River handed the weapon back to him and sat down in the dirt, an annoyed frown on her face, while he went about checking the rifle to make sure nothing had broken when she'd dropped it. He doubted it – the weapon was made to be smashed over people's heads in a pinch, after all – but he didn't want to find out he was wrong when someone's life depended on it.

He finished checking the rifle a minute later, cleaning off the dirt, and glanced back down at the crazy girl, to see she was still sitting there, and still looking like someone had punched her puppy.

"What's bugging you?" he asked. "Panties in a bunch after that fall?"

"I don't wear panties," she said, not looking back up at him. That triggered a couple hundred thoughts entirely on instinct that would have gotten him slapped and/or castrated if he'd voiced them. She glanced back up at him.

"I wear shorts," she said, eyes making it very clear she knew exactly what that last sentence had done to his brain.

"Ah," Jayne said, not trusting his mouth to make anymore complicated noises without getting him killed. Damn mouth. Damn libido.

"I missed," River said, after a moment, looking back over the valley.

"Yeah?" he asked, not troubled by the girl's wounded pride. "And?"

She curled up a bit, pulling her knees up against her chest, and Jayne watched her, trying to figure the crazy – but today less crazy and more annoying – girl out. She was upset about missing the target, obviously, but hell, he couldn't hit it from the shoulder at a kilometer, so why should she expect to . . . .

Then he understood.

"You don't miss," he said, and she looked up at him, for a heartbeat.

Jayne Cobb wasn't brilliant, but that didn't mean he couldn't figure things out.

The girl had spent eight months on the ship being dead weight. She'd been protected, cared for, and had caused a whole mess of trouble that lead to people dying. She'd come out on the other side of that with these skills that not only didn't leave her as dead weight, but actually made her useful. Skills that had been hammered into her in that place that had driven her crazy.

And now she'd discovered that there were some limitations to those skills that had been raped into her mind. To someone who'd just discovered how capable she was, realizing she had limitations had to at least deflate her confidence. It was a blow to her pride, and for someone who'd built her confidence entirely on something that had been raped into her brain for three years, that had to hurt.

"Well, you ain't invincible," he said, quietly, and sat down beside her. "But that just means you ain't learned everything yet. All folks got their limitations."

He hefted the rifle.

"Trick to that is, you gotta learn how to beat 'em. My pappy always said, stuff you learn is always better'n stuff you're just given."

Jayne wasn't much of a talker, and he didn't know why he was chatting to the crazy, annoying brat like this, but he guessed it was because she'd made him laugh. Or maybe he felt a little sorry for her.

. . . . no, that was a stupid notion all to itself.

"I'm guessin' they never taught you how to handle a long gun like this," he said, and she frowned.

"I don't know," she squeaked. "I don't know what they taught me. I just . . . do."

"Well, that there's your problem," Jayne said. "Just doing it ain't enough if you don't understand what you're doing. Is that why you closed your eyes when you shot them bastards going after Kaylee?"

She nodded after a moment, and he grumbled in understanding.

"Okay. Come here." He gestured for her to move closer. She frowned at him, and he gestured again. "Come on, I ain't gonna bite."

She sidled up closer to him, like a wary puppy, and he handed her the rifle.

"Now, here's how you handle it," he said. "You had a good grip and stance, but your aim is off. Here, do it like this." He twisted around and lay down on his belly. She did the same, bracing the rifle like aiming it was instinct. It probably was.

"Okay, make sure the rifle is braced," he said. "Barrel set on something that won't shift, like that rock there. Good. Now, buttstock against your shoulder. Good. Now basic trick to hitting something with a scope like this is to time your shots so you pull the trigger between heartbeats . . . ."

River got the shot on the tenth try, and now that they were walking back across the kilometer or so of desert scrub toward where Serenity. As they trudged across the desert, he could feel he pride beaming off of her, now that she could shoot as well as Jayne. He had to admit it felt satisfying, too. Somewhere he'd heard that you only learned when you were teaching others, and while he wasn't sure about that, it did feel good to show the girl how to aim and handle a sniper rifle.

Of course, there was the unsettling notion that he'd just educated the crazy killer woman in how to pick off a target at more than a kilometer. If she went woolly again, and got her hands on a long rifle . . . .

He heard her stop, and he glanced back at the girl. River had a blank, distant look on her face, but after a moment it focused again, and she met his eyes. He frowned, and grumbled again, guessing she'd picked up what he was thinking, but he wasn't apologizing for having a legitimate concern.

There was a moment there, a lot of words passing between him and her, about how he was worried about what kind of danger she represented, and how afraid she was of the killing machine she could become. Neither of them said anything out loud, for nothing needed to be said.

After a long while, what felt like a couple of days of just standing there, staring at each other, she broke eye contact, shifting in place. River finally spoke.

"I promise not to touch your weapons," she said. "If . . . I'm not . . . ."

"If you're crazy, you won't know you are," Jayne grunted. There was no gentleness or apology in his tone, just the straight facts. She was silent for a second, and then nodded.

"You need to know," she said, looking back up to him. "If I lose control, you need to know how to make me quiet again."

"Them words makes you sleepy?" he asked, and she nodded. "Eta car-fu, namy smacker?"

The look on her face was reserved for the most impressive of idiots, and that got him a bit annoyed when she flung it his way.

"Well, fine, you tell it to me," he said. "I taught you something, you teach me."

"That would be a fair trade," she murmured, nodding in agreement. "I can't say it all, or I'll fall down, and you won't catch me."

"Damn right," Jayne muttered. She managed a flicker of a smile, and then went back to being all sad-serious.

"The first words are eta karoom," she said.

"Etna kauroom?" Jayne said, mangling the words with a fury that was only slightly intentional. Her glare left him grinning a bit.

"No," she grumbled. "Eta karoom. Repeat it."

"Eta kauroom," he said, and frowned, knowing he'd mangled the words anyway despite being serious. They kept that up for a bit, before finally landing the pronunciation right.

"Na smech," River continued.

"Nasmak," Jayne immediately replied, and scowled. "Gorram it. No sack? Na sack. Hun dan. Na smech. Smech? Na smech, like that?"

She grinned and nodded.

"So, it's . . . eta karoom . . . na sme-"

River clapped her hands over her ears and started humming loudly. He guessed that meant he'd done it right, and she grinned and nodded.

"Well, good," he said. "Now I can make you shut up when you get too noisy."

"I can still crush your jewels," she countered, and he grunted at her.

"You're fast, but you're tiny. I get my hands on you and I reckon to hurt you, I'd break you in half, believe you me."

She peered back at him, and once again, they had one of those silent conversations, except this time it wasn't about worries or insecurities. This time, it was a challenge. He'd made the claim, and now she was calling his bluff. Only it wasn't a bluff; Jayne Cobb was fairly confident if he was so inclined, he could toss River Tam face down in the dust, psycho psychic assassin or not.

Of course, she'd beaten the hell out of him twice already. But once was an ambush, and the other time he hadn't been trying to hurt her and she'd grabbed his John Thompson and the two warhorses. Not fair at all.

A few seconds into that stare, she reached up and took off her hat. She gently set it down, and as she looked back up, Jayne was taking off his gunbelt and his rifle. He set them down, and put the belt on the brim of her hat to keep it from flying away.

He wondered if she really wanted to muss up that dress of hers by scrapping with him like this, but the look in her eyes told him she did. She may not have liked her crazy killer skills, but she took pride in what made her useful. That was fine, but he was gonna teach her a bit more about fighting up in close.

Then she leapt at him, a flowing, rising motion like a cutting blade, leg lancing up at his forehead in a single fluid strike.

Jayne caught it on his burly forearms, and he snapped his right hand down to grab her ankle, doing his best to ignore the fact that his left forearm went numb at the impact. He grabbed her leg and, with typical Jayne Cobb finesse, subtlety, and delicacy, he spun around and wrenched the girl into the air like she was a sack of flour. He didn't have an angle or a free forearm to slam her down like he would have liked, so he ended up just tossing her four meters away.

River hit the dirt in a roll that brought her right back up onto her feet like he hadn't just tossed her like an uppity housecat. She stared at him, and started stalking around him, neither of them doing anything fancy like sliding into a guard or taking up a stance. They were just circling predators.

The look in her eyes was a mixture of things he'd seen before. He saw that gleeful smile in her expression that she got when she was enjoying herself, but at the same time he saw a bit of that icy, brutal gleam that he'd witnessed when she'd emerged from that hellish battle with the Reavers.

Good. She was going to give him a fine tussle before he beat her senseless.

She closed in, and he obliged her, taking a step toward her, and then she struck again. It was another of those hard, fast blows that by no rights should have come from someone so small, this time a rapid jab. He blocked and deflected it, and caught a couple more hits, before she got a stinging strike against his ribs and then a snapping toe-strike against his shin that made him hop back a bit, leg smarting.

She pressed in, relentless, attacking and weaving, arms slicing and legs striking, all speed and viciousness. He took the blocks, watching her movements, picking out her attacks, and then he set his feet and reacted.

She jabbed, he deflected again, and then snapped his hand down to grab her hand. She saw that coming, and saw it coming, and was weaving that same arm out of the way. He shot his other arm forward in response at her throat, and she arched her head backward to avoid his grabbing hand.

As her head moved backward, her hair snapped up with the motion, and he grabbed it with his off hand, if only for a second. She twisted aside, momentum suddenly arrested, and an arm flew up at his face, an iron-hard blow that would have left him dazzled and stunned, if he hadn't caught it with his own arm at her elbow.

She was fast and brutal and a psychic killer with ingrained combat training, but she didn't have experience, not like Jayne Cobb, and she sure as hell didn't have his raw strength. His hand clamped over the inside of her elbow, and he wrenched it upward, using all of his impressive strength to pull her up and toward him, while he circled behind her.

She lashed out with an elbow as he spun around her, but he saw that coming, as instinctively as she was striking out at him. She was relying on the programming to fight for her, and he caught that elbow with surety, clamping his other hand over it and stopping her cold.

Both of her elbows in hand, he wrenched them around behind her back, and then lifted her up before she could put her legs to use. He'd seen her smash men before while her arms were restrained, and he kept her up in the air so she couldn't get her arms down at his battle cannon or the magazines. Then, just as quickly as he got her legs off the ground, Jayne spun, dropping her to the dirt hard, putting all of his weight behind the impact.

She grunted in shock and honest surprise as he used his own bodyweight to press her to the ground, and he moved quickly to lock his legs around hers to keep her from lashing out with them. She struggled beneath him for a moment, as he looped one of his arms around inside her elbows and cinched them against his chest, and his other arm shot up around her neck. She gagged for a moment as he pressed against her windpipe, choking her just a tiny bit.

River stopped struggling after a moment, once she realized he had her pinned, and she sputtered dirt out of her mouth before relaxing.

"Ouch," she whispered.

"Toldja I could take you down," he said.

"My hair," she muttered, trying to twist around to look up at him.

"Weren't trying to be gentle and cuddly that time," he replied, not the slightest bit of apology in his voice. He relaxed, releasing her slender neck and arms and pushing himself up, untangling his legs from hers. She rolled over underneath him, and stared up at Jayne for a moment, before managing a pained smile.

"Good shot," she said, and he grunted.

"Didn't hurt your pride none?" he asked, and she shook her head, lying back in the dirt.

"Knowledge learned is worth more than knowledge given," she said, and looked back up at him with that same icy, predatory gleam of amusement that she'd had while they were fighting. "We are still unequal."

"Huh?" he asked, and she started to sit up on her elbows. He suddenly realized he was still straddling her waist. A bit of wind whispered past, picking up some of her unkempt hair and lowing it in her face.

"You've taught me two things, and I've only taught you one," she said.

She was awful close to him, and his heart was still pounding from their tussle. That thin pink dress of hers was mussed up and rode halfway up her thighs. Her lips had parted just a tiny bit, and despite the dirt smudged across her face, her skin was still clear and smooth. He could feel the heat of her body through her clothes, the warmth of her waist rolling up into his own nether parts.

And that deadly, killer gleam in her eyes.

"Yeah?" he asked, his pants now a few sizes too small. "What the hell else you gonna try and teach me?"

She smiled up at him. He wasn't sure if she was just reacting to what had happened in the fight and her teenager hormones firing off, or if it had something to do with her reader powers building off his reaction to being this close to her. Maybe she was just being crazy again. But that didn't change the fact that she was close and she was dangerous and gorrammit, she was damn appealing right now.

"Maybe," River breathed, and one hand rose up, brushing the whiskers on his face, "I think some knowledge might be better if it was given instead of learned."

Oh hell. Oh hell.

She rose up a bit, closer to his face, arm looping around his neck and the back of his head to pull him down onto her. His heart started racing, and he felt pressure against his waist, and every instinct in his body screamed at Jayne to scoop her up and just explore.

Those very soft and pretty lips rose up toward him, and his mind whirled as he fought to remember what needed to be done.

His hand clamped over her face.

"Eta karoom na smech," Jayne hissed, remembering what to say and hating having to say that before his libido made the choice for him.

River shook her head free of his hand, her eyes wide with surprise. That quickly turned to angry annoyance, right before her tensed body relaxed and flopped back down onto the dirt.

"Yeah," he exhaled, pushing himself off the unconscious girl.

Gorram crazy teenage killer-woman.

There was a little group of trees about a hundred meters from where they'd had their tussle. He'd carried her over there, because he was not going to explain to everyone that the girl was suffering heatstroke because he'd left her lying there after he'd knocked her out with her sleep-phrase after she came onto him after he'd slammed her into the dirt because she wanted to fight him after he'd taught her to shoot a sniper rifle.

Doc would be enraged, Mal would go into one of his killing moods, and Kaylee . . . .

Jayne shuddered.

So it was purely out of self interest that Jayne Cobb had picked the girl up, carried her to the copse of trees, and let her wake back up while he cooked some lunch. Self-interest was the reason why he'd also left her propped up on the tree, put her hat back on her head, and made sure she was comfortable; he didn't want her in a murderous mood when she woke up.

He'd tried convincing himself that self-interest was why he'd wiped her face a bit with his handkerchief, too, but he gave up after a bit.

Lunch was a box of protein and vitamins wrapped up in sealed plastic and mixed together into a straightforward mass of gray-brown. It made for a decent soup, when mixed in with some water and some beans, which he had a small tin of. It all went together with in a small pot he'd carried in his pack, and he stirred it with a metal spoon over a fire made from kindling while waiting for the girl to wake back up. Sure as hell he wasn't carrying her ass all the way back to the ship, even if he could handle her weight without much trouble. She'd walk back under her own power, dammit.

River stirred back awake right as the stew was getting ready to eat. The girl mumbled something, and then her eyes flashed open, as if she'd been jolted awake by a bad dream. She glanced around for a bit, gathering her bearings, and then looked to Jayne.

She started to glare at him, but then saw the pot of stew, and the empty bowl Jayne had out. He glanced to her, the stew, then the bowl, and she stood up and scrambled over. Even this far away, he heard her stomach growling. She looked up at him again, a question in his eyes, and he let a low rumble pass through his throat before leaning back and letting go of the spoon.

She finally smiled, spooned out some of the protein-and-beans, and went to work on it.

Jayne watched her, noting how she ate with precise motions, but did it quickly and aggressively. There was an impatience to how she ate, that reminded him of Mal or, well, himself. Like she'd been taught how to eat nicely and culturized and they'd become part of her muscle memory, but she didn't care to be neat and polite.

The finished, sitting up prim and polite, and offered him the bowl with a satisfied grin. He reached out to take it, grabbing it from her hands with enough force to remind her that no, Jayne is not a nice person and don't you forget it, and started spooning some stew for himself.

Then she burped. He glanced up at her, and she giggled a bit, covering her mouth, but refused to excuse herself.

He ate quickly, just like her but without the niceness. She watched him, just the same as he watched her, and he stared back at her while stuffing his face.

As he finished, he set the bowl back down, and they went on staring at each other. Blue and brown eyes stayed locked on each other for a good long while, and he guessed she was trying to make him uncomfortable, but he could play that game just as well as she could, because no one out–stubborned Jayne Cobb.

They kept that up for a while longer, and he saw her fidget a bit. He leaned forward a tiny amount. Her lips pursed a little, and he stayed dead still. Her hands twitched a tiny bit, and he managed a grin as his own secret weapon in this little contest manifested itself.

She moaned a tiny bit, and finally broke eye contact, shooting to her feet, and hurried around the tree. She squatted behind the tree, and he let out a little laugh, which made her glance around the trunk and glare at him, a look that promised soup in his hair tonight..

By the time she was done, he was packing up his utensils and standing up, ready to go. River glanced around the little encampment, then up at him, and jerked his head toward Serenity's landing area insistently. She exhaled through her nose, and they stepped out of the shade of the trees and started back toward the ship.

They never spoke on the way back to the ship. He didn't want to speak, and he wasn't sure why she didn't talk either – maybe because she didn't need to, or maybe because she was scared to speak first, after what had happened.

They both knew if they'd started talking, they would have spoken on what happened, and doing that would acknowledge it and make it more real. And neither he nor she wanted to do that, not until they'd sorted out how much was real and human, and how much was animal and primal.

But for now, Jayne Cobb and River Tam walked home, a little tense, a little content, and thinking a lot and speaking a lot without ever saying a word, and still trying to feel out what had just happened.

One thing was definitely for certain, though: they'd both learned something new that day.


Author's Notes: So, apparently computer crashes lead to inspiration. The idea for this particular story came to me out of the blue, and I knew I'd have to write it or it would kill me to leave it hanging. This story doesn't directly connect to my main "Forward" series, and instead is more or less just a one-shot. The Rayne pairing has always been interesting to me, and I think there's a subtle undercurrent of it in the series itself, but of course one of the major issues it has is that the characters in question have an antagonistic relationship of the threatening and beating-up variety. Of course, that antagonistic dynamic makes it all the more fun to write.

One of the core ideas I had for this story is that I really wanted to make River not be perfect and unbeatable and infalliable. She's incredibly dangerous, but she's still human and has her limitations and Jayne is still more experienced and a hell of a lot stronger than her. That's why he uses his experience to beat her ingrained programming - he thinks while fighting, while she just fights and lets the programming take over while her brain analyzes what's going on. I feel it makes the story more interesting when River is a dangerous and respectable threat but can still be defeated by either a more experienced or better-preparded foe. And even though River is my favorite character, Jayne is a close second. :P

I might follow up on this story, but I might not. I never know with my brain.

Until next story . . . .