Night Shift

Ain't much room to breathe out here in the black.

Truth be told ain't much room for anything and it don't sit quite right. A man needs his own company sometimes, a place he can just sit and be, and being stuck on a heap of flying scrap metal means ain't much in the way of actual space despite the big black floating outside.

Jayne Cobb was used to wide open spaces and fields and rolling hills and nothing but sky kissing the dirt on the other side.

Growing up on a Podunk moon that had more cows than people had its share of hardships but Jayne often thought the benefits far outweighed any potential pitfalls. Yeah, he may have had to walk about ten miles to get some schooling but there were plenty of hidden places where him and Julieanne Foster got some education of their own. Sure, summers were hotter'n hell and work was damn hard, but after a long day hauling hay and working the fields a body could run and jump in the ice cold creek and watch the neighbours' daughters with their short dresses and long tanned legs.

But, to Jayne's way of thinking, the best thing about that life was the sheer amount of room a man had when he was of a mind to get lost. He could ride for miles without seeing another living soul and he could set himself under a tree and stare up at the sky until the day fled and the moon came out and then he could stare at the stars and just think.

Mal and the Doc would laugh themselves stupid if they knew that what Jayne missed most was the open space to think.

Which was why he'd 'offered' to take the late shift on the bridge, keeping watch out for stray ships or incoming Waves. Of course he'd bitched about it being his turn, couldn't very well have Mal thinking he'd gone soft or was plotting or nothing, but secretly he was glad that he got to sit up here alone and stare out through the window at the shining stars glittering so close he could damn near reach out and touch 'em.

It was almost like being back under that oak tree watching the sky and having space to think.

He wasn't and never had been blessed with an overabundance of brains but he did like to think on the mysteries of the universe, like how did a caterpillar become a butterfly and whyfore did stars look so shiny from far away and so butt ugly up close and how to make protein shakes that didn't taste like crotch. He thought long and hard about his past and what he'd done and how he could learn some from the mistakes and he thought on his family back on that rock and the amazing things that whore on Io did with her toes.

He thought on Mal and his gorram stupid plans and Wash's kid that he never got to see. He thought on Inara's whoring and Zoe's crying and Kaylee's clever fingers and how lucky the Doc was that the girl had saw past the dumbass to the man beneath. He thought of the Shepherd and Badger and Reavers and he prayed for those on Haven and those feng le idiots who built a statue to him.

And at night, when it was safe; when there were no Readers around and his thoughts were his and his alone- he thought about her.

Yeah, the night shift was the only time it was ever safe to think on that little girl who had grown into a woman who defied his every expectation and every possible obstacle to become the one thing that he craved above all else.

River Tam, gorram genius and bite-sized weapon of death dancing around in combat boots and ribbons, smiling all shy-like and making big tough mercs feel things that they ain't got a right to feel.

He was born and raised hard, he didn't have no call to be thinking about all that soft skin and wondering on how it would feel under his callused hands.

He was tough and mean and that meant that he wasn't supposed to get all tender and concerned when she started crying over them nightmares.

He was vulgar and coarse and a real hun dan at times and it just didn't feel right that he tried to speak softly and spit less around the gently Core bred girl.

And yet he did. Somehow, without his say so, his brain had gone over all twisted and decided that he needed to impress River.

So he swore less and made sure he slipped her his bread roll to make sure that she was eating enough and kept an eye on her skinny ass when they went out on a job and he walked by her bunk when he couldn't sleep to make sure that she weren't having a nightmare and screaming the place down.

Or crying

He hated it when she cried; when those doe eyes filled with water and those tears that weren't bigger'n a raindrop rolled over the edges of those long lashes and just hung there, waiting for his large thumbs to smudge them away and promise her that everything would be all right.

Not that she'd see it that way; Jayne touching her wouldn't be anywhere in the vicinity of 'all right'.

Because she was still River Tam, gorram genius, scary weapon, Reader, pilot, the Doc's baby sister and Mal's albatross, Inara's confidante, Kaylee's play buddy, Hob's babysitter and Zoe's relief and Jayne's... nothing.

He was a joke.

The girl he was so sure that he had fallen head over ass in love with didn't even notice that he'd all but crawl over Reavers for her.

So much for being a Reader.

'Course he couldn't just come out and tell her, not without getting spaced... or drugged... or mutilated... or thrown out an airlock.

Damn the 'family' of Serenity for being so gorram protective of the girl that she couldn't spit without five people asking of she was okay.

If he did just come out and say anything to her, he'd be kissing those stars up close before she could turn him down.

Which she would. Girl had never even hinted that she wanted his company let alone any sign of a relationship. She'd probably laugh those gorram combat boots right off if he suggested they just sit down and talk. Hell, the Doc would probably have him in the infirmary checking him over.

Except, there were times when they had a few minutes alone- he was an early riser and little girl didn't sleep near enough and oft-times she was sitting in the galley drawing when he woke up and hauled ass to breakfast or to down that first cup of pretend coffee like a life line.

He'd sit at the table and she'd be there all quiet and soft and he'd wrack his brains on something to say that didn't make him sound like an idiot. Once he even managed to ask her what she was drawing and she answered him with actual words before Zoe stumbled into the kitchen and cut short their first potential conversation.

Those few precious seconds before anyone else was awake; before her brother came racing down the corridor and ushering her away from the big bad merc, those few seconds, well, they were his favourite time of day.

Not that there was much difference between night and day out here in the black.

Jayne shifted in his seat and glared at the hunks of rock millions of miles away shining like they weren't just big old balls of dust up close.

"Not all dust," said a tired voice behind him. "Some are gas."

He turned his head slightly to see the object of his musings stumble wearily into the cockpit, a large purple blanket wrapped around pale shoulders. Soft pale shoulders with satin like perfection.

He cleared his throat and shifted his boots off the dashboard.

"She didn't intend to disturb his thoughts."

His eyes widened slightly before he realized that she was talking about disturbing his peace and not being the one thing that rattled around in his all but empty skull.

He shrugged. "Ain't nothing. Can't ya sleep?"

"Can," she said softly as she eased into the co-pilot seat across from him. "Don't want to, being chased by the shadows does not lend itself to restfulness. She will not return to circadian rhythms tonight, she will take the remainder of the shift."

He eyed her dubiously. "Girl you look like you're gonna land face down on the pilot's seat, nightmares or not. Why don't you ask the Doc to give you some soothers or sleeping pills or somethin'?"

"Pills and potions force sleep they do not stop the shadows, the shadows follow and she cannot escape."

"Huh," Jayne nodded thoughtfully, "guess you wouldn't want ta be dreaming all that go se and not be able ta wake yerself up."

"Girl can watch the stars."

It didn't take an overabundance of smarts to realize that she was offering to take the shift from him and he wondered if it was because she wanted to be alone but as his heart sank and he turned to accept her offer he caught sight of her doe eyes.

There was something in them, some sliver of hope and disappointment but he couldn't tell what it was that she was hoping on- was she wishing that he would go or was she disappointed that he was leaving without a fight?

The way she watched him so careful-like made him pause slightly and the hope increased.

"I was finding it a bit hard ta sleep myself, girl. Mind if I sit here with ya?"

A shy smile slipped over her lips and he suddenly felt ten feet tall. Maybe, just maybe, she wouldn't turn him down.

Maybe she had been hoping and wishing and wondering on him too but 'cause of the well-meaning, but nosy as hell, crew she couldn't say anything.

Or she was too afraid.

Or maybe he was reading too much into it. Maybe she didn't want to be left alone after her nightmare.

Whatever the reason, it was the first time that the two of them had been in a room together without anyone else or there being a chance that there would be interruptions and, while Jayne wasn't ever gonna be the smartest man ever, his ma didn't raise no fool either.

If this was his only chance at being near to River then he was sure as shit gonna take it.

"Turns out I was hoping a genius would turn up, got me some questions I been pondering." He settled back in his chair.

"Such as?"

"What'd happen if we got a Wave and one of us was in the head? Or had fallen asleep or gone ta get a drink, then it would be missed. I was thinking mayhap we could use two lookouts. But I doubt Mal would go for that."

River gnawed her lip. "Captain Daddy can be stubborn. Usually two is not needed as the Wave records and replays in intervals lengthy enough to account for breaks and refreshment periods."

Jayne nodded.

River continued shyly, "But Jayne and this girl could attempt the hypothesis together to assess the verisimilitude."

He blinked. "Huh?"

"Trial run, you" her voice was so hesitant that she all but whispered the last words transforming herself from genius to girl in less than a heartbeat.

Jayne felt his lips curl. She did want to be around him, she was offering for the two of them to be around each other without the intervention of the crew.

They could sit up and stare at the stars together and get to know each other this way.

He breathed deeply and could almost taste the sweet scent of oak tree and wide open spaces and a horizon that kissed the dust.

He had a feeling that the night shift would become his favourite time of day.