Jayne was hot, tired, grimy and, most of all, stinking as he returned to Serenity. When Mal had told him to go and load a client's cargo that morning, the captain hadn't mentioned that it was several skips of large, heavy crates involving multiple trips out and back on the mule. And the final load Jayne was bringing in now still had to be unloaded and stowed when he got back to the ship.

So the last thing he needed as he approached the cargo bay ramp was to see more work waiting for him in the form of another pile of crates on the ground. Gorram citizens!

Mal was talking to one now, probably the new crew Jayne had heard some buzz about yesterday. He looked short, shorter than Mal, anyway, and he was wearing robes from head to toe. Probably some punk kid fresh out of flight school. Wouldn't be any kind of replacement for Wash. Jayne was sure Zoë wouldn't think so, anyway.

He parked the mule and trailer and got out to walk over to where the pair was standing. As he approached, Mal turned towards him and started speaking.

"Jayne, this here's Kitty. I hired her on as cook and general housekeeper. That'll free up Kaylee to tend the engine now that Wash – well, you know..."

But Jayne wasn't listening. As the figure turned around and he saw that it was a burqa he was looking at, he immediately focused on the two open slits in the facial area that revealed a pair of bright blue eyes outlined with kohl, and even without the rest of the face Jayne could see the warmth in them as they twinkled with humor.

He managed to stutter out, "Pleased ta meetcha," and tried to pay attention as Kitty and the captain outlined where he was to put each of the new crew member's various crates and boxes.

Surprised at how light the last one was, Jayne hefted the crate up on one shoulder and proceeded to the guest quarters. Kitty had been assigned a regular bunk in the crew quarters, Kaylee's old one across from his, but she also had some deal with the captain about renting a spare room in the guest quarters for her own use, and that's where he was taking the crate when Kaylee appeared at the doorway from inside Simon's and her room.

"Hey, Jayne," she said, wrinkling her nose when he got near enough for her to smell him. "Workin' hard today?"

"Yup," he replied, stepping over the sill into the unoccupied room and lowering the crate to the floor near three others. "Hear you don't gotta cook no more. Too bad. You was gettin' pretty good at it."

Kaylee, pleased with the compliment, smiled and lowered her eyes to the decking for a moment before looking up again at the big man, who was now stepping back out into the companionway.

"What a sweet thing to say, Jayne," she observed.

"Sweet ain't got nothin' to do with it," he replied. "Easier to eat good-tastin' grub than nánwén swill, is all."

"Well, I'm sure you'll have no problem now with a real cook on board, not that you ever did have any problem. Oh, and you might want to have a quick shower and change your clothes afore mess," Kaylee said, looking him up and down, noting the liberal amounts of dust and grime and the large patches of sweat under his arms and down the front of his tee shirt.

"What fer?" he demanded, brows bunched together over his nose. "Ain't one pantywaist on this crew enough?"

"Sorry, Doc, no offense," he added, smirking, as Simon, appearing beside Kaylee in the doorway, tugged on the bottom of his vest and checked to make sure all the buttons were done up correctly.

Turning sharply and sauntering off in the direction of the cargo hold to finish his other job, Jayne chuckled to himself at the doctor's indignant exclamation of, "Hey!"

Hoping he wasn't going to miss out on all the food, Jayne strode a little faster than usual towards the galley when he got a whiff of the heavenly smell of cooked meat wafting through the passageway. Looking down so as not to trip on the bulkhead, he stepped over and onto the top stair, letting his long legs take him past the next few stairs to the lower level of decking. When he finally raised his head, he was unprepared for the sight that met his eyes.

Everyone was there before him, already seated, their full plates in front of them. All seated except for one, that is. He registered a compact set of shapely hips encased in tight-fitting twill pants, buttocks brushed by the end of a long honey colored braid, and he stopped in his tracks, his eyes widening and jaw swinging open.

Faces swiveled towards him and conversation around the table ceased, replaced by various sniggers, as Jayne, still dumfounded and looking more than usually stupid, continued to stare. At the change in the room's atmosphere, Kitty turned around, fixing him with her sparkling blue eyes, serving platter and fork in her hands. Now he was regretting not having that shower.

"Well, set yerself down, man," she said, indicating a vacant chair along the side of the table with her serving fork.

Sidling hesitantly at first towards the chair and then hurrying ahead of the woman, flinching as though he were afraid she might touch him, Jayne sat and looked up in time to have his field of vision dominated by a pair of full breasts in a low-cut tank top as Kitty leaned across him to plunk a thick steak, twice the size of everyone else's, onto his plate. Gulping in confusion and wearing an extremely guilty look, Jayne turned his head around quickly and fixed his gaze on the table in front of him.

"Potatoes, Jayne?" inquired Kaylee, offering him the pot and spoon from her place next to him.

"What?" he shouted into Kaylee's face as he jumped in his chair, completely panicked now, his eyes wide and uncomprehending.

Zoë could hardly contain herself as she shook with mirth, clutching her stomach and gasping out, "They're tubers, Jayne. I hear they're good."

Kaylee took pity on him and scooped mashed potatoes and boiled fresh vegetables onto his plate, then poured gravy over top of everything, and by the time she was finished, Jayne had pulled himself together enough to turn his head until he located Kitty again, standing on the opposite side of the table, spearing a piece of meat and setting it onto her own plate.

When he saw that she wasn't laughing at him like the others, just smiling friendly-like, he relaxed and smiled back at her, dropping his eyes to linger briefly on her impressive cleavage before moving them back up to her face.

She turned away for a moment to put the platter and fork on the countertop behind her, and when she turned back, she looked directly into his eyes. It made Jayne feel a little funny but not in the same way as before. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, and he was just starting to puzzle it out when Kitty, hands on hips, said, "I ain't spent the last coupl'a hours over a hot stove so's you could goggle at the food, man. Eat!"

Jayne was only too happy to comply. He picked up his fork in one fist, his knife in the other and sawed off a large chunk of meat, shoving it into one cheek and beginning to chew. His eyes closed as the flavor was released, and everyone around the table who had been either smiling behind their hands or outright laughing, even Inara, flushed as a decidedly orgasmic moan bubbled up from somewhere deep in Jayne's chest.

Kitty, observing him closely, merely nodded once, satisfied with her work. She sat down, placed her napkin on her lap, and picked up her knife and fork to begin her meal.

After supper was over, Kaylee started stacking plates and cutlery to bring them around to the sink. Kitty stopped her with a curt, "Hey, girl! That's my job now," and shooed them all away and into the lounge area.

Jayne, full to bursting, sat heavily on the couch and plunked his booted feet onto the coffee table in front of him, stretching his legs out and smiling, and began to scratch his crotch until he noticed Kaylee looking at him with that disapproving civilizing look that all women seemed to know from birth.

Grinning at her, he dug in and gave a couple more enthusiastic scratches just to make his point and settled back into the cushions, sighing deeply and looking around himself idly, nothing in particular on his mind.

River and the captain had already gone up to the bridge to see about lifting off and Zoë had disappeared somewhere or other, maybe with the captain and River. Kaylee and Inara were setting up a game of checkers on the table in the corner and Simon was sitting in a chair flipping through a big, thick medical book he had bought planetside. Being educated in the core and all, the doctor didn't have to move his lips to work through the words when he read the way Jayne did.

Contentment. That's what he had felt when Kitty had looked at him and that's why it had taken him a while to get to what it was. He was feeling it now. And he hadn't felt that in a very long time.

Jayne was just beginning to doze off when the couch moved beside him. Opening his eyes, he saw another pair of booted feet on the table, about half the size of his, and when he turned to look at the owner, she was concentrating on the contents of a large cloth bag, her head bent, one arm reaching in to the bottom and pulling out some knitting. Jayne's face split into a grin and he shifted his weight so he could face Kitty a little more directly as she figured out where she had left off and started adding new stitches to the garment.

"My ma knits stuff fer me," he stated eagerly. "I got a nice hat, real warm. I kin show it to ya, if ya like."

"I'd like ta see that," was the response. Jayne was disappointed, though, when she didn't take her eyes from her work.

Frowning slightly, Jayne opened his mouth, took in a breath, then closed it abruptly, not sure whether to keep speaking. The sudden need he felt to have Kitty look at him again was overpowering, however, and he gave it another shot.

"Woman, that was about the best horse steak I ever et. And that apple pie sure was tasty." This one had done the trick. Kitty paused in her knitting and turned her face to his, her look stern.

"Well, man, don't get used to it," she replied. "That there fresh food was payment for my work room, kind of a barter 'til I kin start makin' some real money to pay the captain for the space. Tomorra you all are back on rice and protein packs."

Lowering her head once again, busily clicking her needles, she added, "So let me get back to my handiwork so's I'll have somethin' to sell on the next world."

Jayne, happy that his plan had worked, if only for a few moments, was perfectly content to sit quietly and watch Kitty knit, wondering how it was done.

And there was that feeling again: contentment. It sure was popping up all over.

nánwén - stinky