DISCLAIMER: Not mine
A/N: Trying to get back into writing after a hiatus to deal with real life...not overjoyed with the result but I guess it's a process of refamiliarisation.
Super belated birthday fic for Cede, who gave me some prompts, and DTS Guru. Sorry for this incredibly belated present, happy birthdays! Ended up choosing analysis :)
Jayne hissed in irritation as the oil in the pan spat at him. The stings weren't bad but the marks were starting to annoy him. Go se, he hated cooking. Still, he'd lost that bet to Mal (he should have remembered the former Sergeant's penchant for horseshoes…though frankly the amount of engine wine they'd drunk may have impaired him a little).
It had been a long time since he'd made protein cakes, but the movements felt the same. He grinned to himself as one bubbled golden on top, flicking the pan deftly to send the cake in the air, catching it easily. Years may go by but flipping cakes was forever. He looked around, suddenly annoyed that nobody had seen his efforts. He shook it off and flicked the cake again, this time sending it over his head.
He whipped the pan around the catch it neatly behind him, grinning wider when the satisfying thunk of protein hit the pan. Some things never change.
Suddenly the air in the room shifted.
He could tell it was her without turning around; nobody else could enter that silently and still scent the stale ship air with vanilla. He resolutely ignored her, though his sensitive ears picked up her barely there footsteps as they came to rest next to the dining table. The girl was a light sleeper and tended to wake fairly early. Her brother was usually up to fuss over her but Jayne had a sneaking suspicion that Kaylee had found a way to keep doctor Tam tucked away in bed.
As he turned to reach for the protein mixture he'd been pouring to make the flat cakes he glanced at her quickly. Black tank top, hair in a messy looking topknot, and a pair of what he could only assume from their size was Simon's blue drawstring sleep pants. The baggy material was slung low on her hips, revealing a thin strip of her taut stomach. He looked away quickly, not liking how much his eyes wanted to stay right where they were.
After a few minutes another cake was ready, and he'd almost forgotten about her as he flipped it over his head, catching it behind himself with a grin. He heard the most minute intake of breath and raised a private brow, secretly pleased that he'd surprised her.
He became aware of her hair tickling his arm as she appeared beside him, looking into the pan curiously. He was careful not to flinch back, unwilling to let her know how uncomfortable she made him when she stood that close. The thin cotton tank she was wearing clung a little too nicely to her slim frame, and he watched as she turned her head to him.
"Please repeat motion."
He stared for a second before he gestured to the pan.
"You want me ta flip it again?"
She nodded in a business-like manner. "Affirmative, please execute motion again for further analysis."
He shrugged as he complied, flipping it over his head and catching it deftly behind him.
She stared the whole time, eyes zipping over every minute detail of his movement. He'd seen her do this before, seen her ask for an action to be repeated, taking in every muscle movement, every angle, every catalyst, every single microsecond of action. As she silently held out her hand for the pan he knew what she was going to do.
Two weeks ago it had been the same thing. They'd been planetside and Kaylee had been so excited to see the grass she'd cartwheeled. River had asked for a repeat, and after that she performed the action herself. Unlike Kaylee's joyfully sloppy romp, River's cartwheel was a perfectly executed example of straight legs, graceful movement and silent landing. She'd done it again, this time using the momentum to spin herself into a handspring followed by a handless flip. Kaylee had blushed and sat quietly for the rest of the day.
About a month before that Wash had been proudly showing off his juggling when River had asked for a go. The pilot had handed over the three balls and the girl had whipped them into the air, keeping them in motion has she picked up random items (a spoon, a plate, a chopstick) and added them to the flying movements.
When Mal and Zoe had started a friendly game of horseshoes River had picked up the shoe afterwards, tossing it behind her without looking from the other end of the cargo bay. Zoe and Mal had grinned at the little display but something about it had annoyed Jayne no end.
Probably because she did it so perfectly. The arch of her hand, the movement of her fingers, the sail of the shoe through the air. Things weren't meant to look that perfect.
Girls weren't meant to look that perfect.
So now she wanted the pan. She was going to repeat the action, probably a dozen times better than he could do it, and then look at him waiting for some kind of praise. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head.
Her hand dropped and she looked confused, tilting her head to the side. "She has finished her preliminary analysis and would like the opportunity to execute theory."
Jayne didn't know what that meant but it sure sounded a lot like "give me the pan so I can do it better".
"Nope, ain't gonna happen."
She looked set to argue and suddenly Jayne's temper flared. "Ain't enough is it? Ain't enough that ya can dance an' fight an' do all'a that math-o-ma-ticks in yer head? Ain't enough that ya look like a gorram china doll an' smile so damn shiny. Naw, ya gotta always show off, don't ya? Ya went an' ruined Kaylee's day with that lil bit o' flippin', then ya took away Wash's talent, an' Buddha knows he ain't got many."
He was struggling to keep his voice low but couldn't hide the venom as he loomed over her.
"Lil rich girl always gotta be the star don't she? Genius girl, some gift. Yer half my gorram age an' a gorram crackshot; ya correct yer brother; even 'Nara ain't as graceful as ya!"
Her face was still and her body taut but the eyes?
Something in those eyes was bleeding.
Jayne didn't care.
"So no, girlie. No ya can't have the gorram pan. No ya can't have the memory o' me doin' that fer my brother's when I was lil, ya can't take away that day when Pa said I done did somethin' special cuz I flipped a cake so well. Ya can't have it."
He turned back to the stove, away from those eyes, and didn't exhale until the scent of vanilla and tears left the air.
He didn't care. Gorram crazy girl needed to be brought down a peg or two. Looking to her brother and Mal for pats on the head. Always looking for an approving smile, a nod, anything to confirm that she'd done something good. Always working so hard to be the best, always trying to impress, always needing validation that she was…
As if she couldn't bear the thought of not being the best at something. As if she thought something terrible would happen if she wasn't the most talented anymore. As if being anything less than perfect would mean…
He followed the scent of tears and vanilla, trailing it to the cargo bay. She wasn't perched delicately on the railings, wasn't elegantly practicing her ballet, wasn't even sitting in that ramrod straight, perfect way she normally did.
She was sitting cross legged on a crate, playing with the drawstring of her sleep pants, her top knot leaving messy tendrils curling around her face. She was slouched forward, the pose making her seem even smaller than normal, and Jayne smelt the wetness on her face from where he stood.
"Ya can't help it, can ya? Yer jus'…yer jus' like that."
He leant against the wall beside the crate, looking down at the thin, slouched girl.
"Yer scared, ain't ya? Scared Mal won't let ya stay, scared the crew won't like ya no more."
She shivered against the cool air of the cargo bay, shrugging without lifting her head.
"Love is given to those who succeed."
Jayne snorted, his mind flashing back to the first time he got into a fight at school. His mother had washed him off, given him some cocoa, kissed his head and then whacked him over the ear. Told him that if he ever put himself in harms way again she would make him look like an eggplant.
She'd had to show him the vegetable to make her point, but he got it eventually.
River looked up, tilting her head. Tears had streamed down her face, glinting in the harsh lights of the bay. Her voice was soft.
Jayne grinned and shook his head.
"Naw, she was jus' scared."
She moved to her knees on the crate, rising until her face was close to his. He couldn't bring himself to move as she looked at him, well aware that she was looking for something beneath the surface.
"Scared you would be hurt. Loved you. Didn't love you because you succeeded. Just…loved you."
He nodded, his chest hurting a little as something seemed to break behind her eyes. She lowered them, though not fast enough to hide the tears that welled up.
"Only Simon…Simon loves just this, crazy and all."
Jayne cocked a brow, his hand reaching out of his own volition to tuck a stray tendril behind her ear. When she looked at him her eyes seemed to light up for a moment, the ghost of what could have been a smile crossing her face.
"I dunno girlie. Yer eyes is all red, yer skin's blotchy, an' ya sure could use some meat on yer bone. Ya don't look perfect right now."
The smile disappeared, her eyes growing dull as he paused. She didn't look surprised or hurt, just accepting. He didn't move his hand, letting it rest against her neck. He rubbed a thumb against the soft skin below her ear. His voice lowered, gravelly and quiet against the silence of the cargo bay.
"But I sure as hell ain't ever seen anythin' more beautiful than you right now."
He meant it. This wasn't a crazy fit or an Academy elicited dance of death. This wasn't reciting facts, performing lightning fast calculations or saying anything morbid and creepifying. This was a sad, frightened woman who didn't believe she could be loved if she wasn't perfect. And somehow seeing this vulnerable side made her…something a little more than special.
It made her River.
And as a slow, beaming smile broke across her face the room seemed to light up. All of a sudden the crazy, the wild, the graceful, the morbid and the genius moments all blended into something real, something human.
The eyes, the face, the lips…he stared.
Somewhere in the ship a toilet flushed and the moment was gone. He stepped back, looking anywhere but at her face, clearing his throat and scratching his head uncomfortably.
"Right, better be gettin' ta bed now girlie."
He turned and strode back towards his bunk, refusing to turn around to look at her again.
The next morning she was still looking tousled, tired and fragile.
But as she slid a wobbly, misshapen protein cake onto his plate she had a sweet, private smile on her face.
And Jayne thought that was just…perfect.