DISCLAIMER: The Firefly/Serenity characters are the property of Mutant Enemies, Fox, Universal, and probably someone else I'm forgetting. The story contents are the creation and property of Djinn and are copyright (c) 2005 by Djinn. This story is Rated PG-13.

Playing with Fire

by Djinn



Sometimes the ship got to Jayne. Those were the times he found his way to the cargo hold to work out. He usually found Book down there, too. Like now.


"Can't sleep?" Book asked as he curled two dumbbells.


"Something like that." Jayne snuck a look at Book's grip—the man never screwed up by putting his thumb on the opposing side. Somehow, Jayne didn't expect a shepherd to know to hold the weights right. Or to be so buff. Book was definitely more than he seemed.


"We've got company," Book said softly, looking up at the catwalk.


River was walking the grating slowly, placing one foot delicately in front of the other. After every four steps, she'd pirouette twice, foot going down at the end without a wobble.


Jayne watched her, marveling that she never lost her balance. "It's like a dance." He glanced at Book and saw him nod. "Seems like she's always dancing." Even in her head. Maybe that was what was wrong with her? Her thoughts didn't run true so much as dance around all ways?


"Was she dancing when she stabbed you?" Book winked at him.


"Maybe so, but it wasn't any kind of dance I want her to do again." That had hurt like a mother-humpin' devil. "You ever figure out why she did that to me?"


Book shot him a look. "Haven't the faintest idea. Do you?"


Jayne could feel himself turning red. "Nope. Wasn't provoked, that's for gorram sure." Unless you counted the fact that the girl was some kind of psychic, and Jayne had been about to sell her and her uppity brother down the river on Arial. He often wondered if she'd been punishing him in advance, or if maybe she'd been giving him the final push so he'd just go and get it over with. He'd had chances to sell her out since, and he'd ignored them.


Which was a good thing. He didn't fancy another spell in the airlock with Mal on the right side of the door and him on the wrong. He'd never been so scared. He'd also never been so ashamed. And shame wasn't a feeling he wore real well. Made him itch.


"Teach me something." River was at his elbow, looking up at him, making him jump since he hadn't seen her come down. Hadn't heard her sneak up on him, neither. Only she probably hadn't been sneakin'—just walking her normal scary way.


"Go away, girl. I'm busy." He lay down on the bench. "Spot me, preacher."


Book walked round behind him. "River, we liked your dance."


"The perimeter of the walkway is exactly equal to half the coefficient of the Seliki cosine. I paced it out."


"I'm not familiar with that one," Book said.


"And I don't care." Jayne hefted the barbell. "You got the weights uneven, shepherd." He looked over, saw that River was holding one end down. "Book, you're supposed to be looking out for me."


River was smiling in a funny way. "Captain says to lecture me on the special hell."


Jayne thought he saw Book flush a little.


"What does that mean? The special hell?" Jayne reckoned he was probably destined for it—all the bad things he'd done in his life. Had River stabbed more than just him to deserve anything worse than the crazy place she seemed to live most of the time?


"Preacher-man knows what it's for." River was giving Jayne the weird smile again.


"Well, get off my barbell, and he can lecture away." He didn't feel her let up, so he turned up the mean in his look. "I ain't kidding around, girl."


She let go and moved closer. "I want to take apart Vera."


"Ain't nobody takes Vera apart but me." Jayne hefted the barbell, doing it easily now that crazy-killer-girl wasn't taking her rest on half of it.


"You'll let me. Real soon, too."


"Yep, and the Alliance will invite me to a big fancy party. They're both going to happen real soon, aren't they, shepherd?"


Book laughed, but it was a half-hearted sound at best. "River, why don't you go find Simon?"


"I'm happy here." She walked around to where Book was standing. "I'll do it."


"Like I trust you," Jayne said. "You'd probably let the gorram thing fall on my throat." He glanced back, saw that from his upside-down vantage it looked like Book and River were having a stare-down. "What's going on?"


"River." Book sounded like it was real important that he won. But Jayne didn't know what he'd be winning.


River just smiled, dancing away again, and laughing. "Only a matter of time, now."


Jayne waited until she was out of range before he asked, "What the hell is she talking about?"


"You really don't know, do you?" Book sounded like he didn't want to go into whatever it was.


"Know what? Girl's crazier than any of us knew if she thinks I'll let her strip my Vera."


Book sighed. "Anyone ever tell you about the birds and the bees, Jayne?"


"I don't need no lecture on sex. I ain't had no complaints in that department."


"I'm sure not. Well. Hmmm. I'm not quite sure how to put this..." Book cleared his throat. "You need to be extra careful around River."


Jayne set the barbell back on the rack. "Why? She fixin' to skewer me again?" He sat up and got a good look at Book's face. Then he turned to where River had danced off. "You don't think that...she isn't..." He frowned. "She's just a kid."


"She'll be eighteen in a week."


Jayne knew that. He'd decided to give her a gun of her very own to mark the occasion. One of his smaller ones—it had never fit his hand all that well.


"Eighteen. An adult." Book said.


"You and me both know she's a long way from an adult." He grinned at Book. "It's just a crush. Probably a natural thing. Me being such a fine picture of a man."


Book's eyebrow went up. "And nowhere near as smart as her."


"You saying I'm dumb?"


"I'm saying the girl is interested in you, Jayne."


"Well, I ain't interested in her."


Book's eyes narrowed. "You're sure?"


"Yeah, I dream about bedding a crazy child-woman who's already stabbed me once for no reason. You figured me out, shepherd." Jayne gazed up to the catwalk, but River wasn't up there. Mal and Inara were, though. Mal was still walking a little gingerly from that poison that had ripped his guts up, and Inara was pretending she wasn't wanting to support him. He could hear them arguing from where he was sitting.

That was love. Two people who had chemistry. Who it was clear were using anger and sarcasm to hide something deeper.


River came out from the crew area. She was holding Vera. "Can I?"


"Give her here, girl!"


River took off, the way she did with Kaylee when she'd taken her apple. That's all that was, now, wasn't it? Just a game? Not some lunatic way she'd thought of to woo him.


"The special hell, Jayne. It's for people who forget that a matter of a few days doesn't make a girl a woman." Book glared at him.


"Give her the gorram lecture, Book. I just want Vera back." He was about to run after her, when River came flying back—she must have turned around to avoid taking out Mal and Inara on the walkway. River was uncommonly fond of the captain. How come no one was lecturing Mal on the special hell?


She stopped in front of Jayne, barely breathing hard, hair wild and eyes sparkling. "You aren't going to chase me?" The words were innocent; the look in her eyes was so far from pure that he gulped.


"I don't make it a habit to chase women." He could tell from Book's hurried throat clearing that it hadn't been exactly the thing to say. "I mean..." What the hell did he mean?


Girl was some kind of psychotic. Out of control. Scary with the mind reading and possible murdering with her thoughts—he'd never been sure if she'd been kidding when she'd told him she could kill him with her mind.


Besides, she was scrawny and short and she didn't even try to fix herself up. But, as she handed him the gun and their eyes met, he saw how strong she was. How wild and almost simple—like the air was simple. Like the earth and fire and water. What was that called? Elemental. River was elemental.


River was terrifying.


She smiled at him as she let go of Vera.


River was damned attractive. He gulped again. Her smile changed, became something satisfied and powerful. Gorram girl knew she'd just gotten to him.


"Get out of here before I put you over my knee." He saw by her look that she didn't find that much of a threat. Or maybe she liked things a little nasty? Did she have any idea what the hell she was doing? She was a girl. A child-woman.


Just a kid. If Jayne had a sister, he'd whup any man who was feeling the things he was feeling for Simon's sister.


"River?" Simon appeared as if by magic, calling from the infirmary. "Mei-mei, it's time for your medicine."


She made a face, and suddenly looked very much like a kid. Jayne tried to hold that image in his mind, tried to let it wash out the memory of the sexy way she'd been smiling at him.


The special hell. Jayne looked at Book, saw by his expression that the preacher knew what he'd been thinking.


He was humped.




Zoe watched Mal as he stared out over the catwalk, taking in all the fine goods they were transporting. He leaned down, resting his arms on the railing. He didn't wince, didn't even appear to have to think about how he was moving. That was good, meant he was healing up fine.


She'd been terrified that she'd come back from that mission they'd messed up so bad and find him dead. On account of her. She'd watched his back all through the war only to nearly lose him to a stupid drug deal that had gotten out of hand. Would have lost him, if it hadn't been for Inara.


Zoe couldn't quite figure out what she thought of the captain and Inara. Not that she had anything against the girl. In fact, she liked her a lot. But...maybe not with Mal. It was changing things. Not that Zoe had feelings for Mal. But she was used to having a certain kind of access. Used to him being there for her. Being free to talk.

Being alone.


That was kind of selfish, wasn't it? Wishing things would go back to the way they were when that really meant she wished her best friend in the world was alone.


She didn't want that, either. Walking over to him, she leaned in next to him, her arms on the railing just like his. "Admiring our fine cargo, sir?"


"That I am." He gave her a cockeyed grin. "Our fine, very legitimate, cargo."


"Yeah. How'd that happen?"


His grin faded. "Inara. Girl has contacts."


"Lucky for us."


"Yep. Real lucky." He pushed away from the view, turning and leaning up with his back on the railing, as if he suddenly couldn't stand to look at the stuff they were hauling.


"Something you want to say but think you shouldn't?"


"Not sure."


She waited.


"She's got a lot of contacts."


"Being a companion probably does that for a gal."


"Right." He sighed. "I guess I should be glad the fella she was dealin' with was more keen to move this merchandise than to bed her."


"He didn't want to?" Zoe couldn't imagine any man not wanting to bed Inara if they had the chance. Hell, there were times she'd thought about it and she didn't tend toward slyness. She'd wondered about Kaylee and Inara; they'd seemed awfully tactile with each other.


She didn't think she'd bring any of that up to her captain.


"Oh, I'm sure he wanted to," Mal said. "But she's sort of out of the business."


"She is?" That surprised her. Inara's feelings for Mal must be a hell of a lot stronger than Zoe had thought. That was the trouble with the girl. She held herself so close—just like Mal did. Couldn't tell when she was in love and when she was just contemplating doing her nails.


Although Zoe had never had any trouble telling her captain was head over heels for Inara. So why wasn't he happier? Girl had quit her line of work and all for him—hardly seemed right for him to be so morose about it.


"It's a little complicated," Mal said. He didn't seem inclined to say more, so she just nodded. "You and Wash—once you'd decided you were sweet on each other—did it take hold right away?"


"Did what take hold?" Lust sure had. She'd wanted Wash with such a powerful passion they'd barely left their bunks when they weren't on duty. She imagined Mal might have wished she'd been alone then.


"The ease. How long did it take for that to take hold?"


She laughed. At his almost hurt look, she touched his arm for a moment. "I ain't laughing at you, sir. I'm laughing at Wash and me. We still have moments where easy is not a word you could use to describe us."


"You got it more than you don't. Anyone can see you two are right cozy."


"And we've had a good while to work on that. What are you and Inara on? Day ten?"


"Day twelve." He started to laugh. "Think I'm making too much of this?"


"Well, no. But then I'm used to you being sort of obsessive about such things. I bet she's in her shuttle right now thinking along the same lines. Why don't you go talk to her? Maybe you two can sort it out rather than me trying to help just the one of you."


"You're uncommonly wise today."


She looked down, smiling. "I do have my moments, sir."


"I'll go on and talk to Inara."


"Talking's good." Her smile was getting silly, she could tell.


"Now, that's enough of that. Bad enough I have to worry about River and Jayne." He pointed with his chin over toward where Jayne and Book were working out. River sat on the floor near them. Taking apart a very big gun.


"Is that...Vera?"


"Surely looks like her."


"Does Jayne know that the girl's got his pride and joy in pieces?"


"He saw her come in with it, so he must." Mal sighed. "Then again, maybe she wore him down and he just gave up." He stared for a long time. "They make a powerful odd couple."


"They are not a couple, sir."


"Don't know. Girl gets something in her head; she tends to get her way."


"But...Jayne?" Zoe knew what her expression was doing. It was one of those grimaces that her father would have taken one look at and told her to be careful lest her face freeze that way.


"No accounting for taste. If there were, a lot more of us would be unborn than born."


She laughed. "You're probably right." Seeing him eyeing the shuttle, she said, "Go on, sir. I have a husband to go distract while he's on the job."


"Just don't distract him so bad he drives my boat into a moon."


Nodding, she turned away, her hand falling to her stomach as she walked. Only a few weeks along. But soon enough she'd start to show.


Wash smiled at her as she walked in; his smile got softer as he saw her holding her belly. For someone who hadn't been on board with the baby as a concept, he was awfully cute now that it was a reality. "So, you tell him?"


She shook her head.


"Why not?" He pulled her onto his lap.


"I decided we should do it together."


His smile was brilliant, and she realized that he'd wanted that all along. Sometimes she just didn't pay enough attention—maybe too much of that ease and not enough trying?


"We'll tell him later," Wash said, wrapping his arms around her and rocking slightly, the way he loved to do. "Maybe we'll tell everyone? At dinner?" Everyone but Simon. He already knew since he'd been the one to tell Zoe.




"Tonight. Let's do it tonight. Providing no one gets stabbed or blown up or something else dire."


She laughed. "Okay."


"A baby." He shook his head, as if he was having trouble figuring out how that happened.


She just laughed.


He stopped rocking. "I was thinking maybe we should rig a kind of dumb waiter next to the ladder. To take the kid up and down. Isn't always going to be safe trying to get him or her down by ourselves."


Simon also knew the baby's sex, but Zoe had told him not to say. She wanted to be surprised.


The dumb waiter thing was a good idea. "Kaylee'll help you engineer it once we tell her."


"She's going to be one fine built-in babysitter, I imagine." He smiled again, and it was such a sweet smile that Zoe just had to kiss him. "Whole gorram ship full of babysitters. Will let us go out and play sometimes." He seemed inclined not to wait for that play.


When he let her up for air, she said, "Captain said for me not to let you steer us into a moon."


"Ain't a moon in sight, wife."


She took his word for it and let him kiss her. After all, there wasn't a better pilot in the black than her man.




Mal knocked gently as he walked into Inara's shuttle. "You decent?"


"That's probably a more involved question than you want to ask." She was sitting on her bed, unwrapping something that looked like a statue.


"Present?" From the owner of their merchandise, maybe? Had Inara really given up her work? How would Mal know?


"Yes, for River."


He realized with a start that she was wrapping it, not unwrapping it.


"It's Kali. A destroyer goddess and a protector. She seemed an apt gift for River's eighteenth birthday." Her smile was brilliant. "I saw it on the way to meet my friend."


"Your friend."


Her smile faded, and he wanted the brilliance back. "That's what I'm going to call them, Mal." At his look, she said, "I think I've proven I can provide some very lucrative business opportunities."


"Witness our full hold."




He paced around the shuttle. It was suddenly too small and too red and too fancy.



He turned, nearly ran into her. Reaching out for her shoulders to steady himself, he caught a hint of her perfume, felt her hair brush across his hands. That was all it took for him to forget to be angry at her and just wonder why he wasn't kissing her.


She leaned in and kissed him, her mouth sinfully lush and sweet against his own. He knew part of what he felt was a reaction to her not inconsiderable talents for kissing. But most of it wasn't that. It was because he was kissing her. Kissing Inara. The woman he'd wanted for so long.


"I'm sorry. I'm trying." He pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her in the way he'd discovered she liked. He'd never expected her to react this way to his more protective instincts. But she seemed to relish that he wanted to cherish her.


"We're getting better. You didn't call me a whore this time."


"I haven't called you a whore for some time." Not since she'd kissed him, in fact. He frowned at her. He really was trying.


"We've never talked about that. You and me and that word. What it means to you. What it means to me when you use it to hurt me."


"I don't want to hurt you."


"I'm twisting my whole life around for you, Mal. If you ever call me that again, I'll leave you and never come back."


He'd known that somehow.


She met his eyes, and he hated that she looked like she might cry. She took a deep breath. "I just...I needed to say that."


He ran his fingers down her cheek, then over her lips. "I understand."


"And about my friends. You don't need to wonder if I'm lying to you. I'm not. But they represent opportunities. Money that we both need to survive."


He nodded. "It's just that I don't like the thought of them. I didn't before I knew you were partial to me, and I particularly don't like them now."


She laughed. "Well, dislike them all you want. But don't throw them in my face. And don't act like my bringing in honest transport work is a sin. That's what you do. Transport stuff. Sometimes more legally than others."


"It is sort of nice to leave it in the main hold and not have to go to all the work of hiding it."


"Imagine that?" Her eyes flashed at him.


"You're so smart."


"Just don't forget it." She kissed him some more, which probably wasn't the best way of making him remember anything except how good her lips felt.


When they backed off a bit, he asked, "Now, can I say something?"


She nodded.


"Doc cleared me for full duty this morning."


She started to smile.


"In case that was...interesting to you?"


"I find that it is."


"Do you?"


They'd held off on doing much more than kissing and cuddling up close together. She'd been too afraid he'd pull some stitches out and he hadn't wanted her to hold back. When they finally did it, he wanted them to really do it.


She began to unbutton his shirt. "I find that very interesting."


For a moment, he had a vision of her doing this to other men. Undressing them. The witty banter. The soft eyes. The silken skin that he would soon see.


Then she looked up at him, a goofy smile on her face. Her eyes were a little bit...scared.


He started to grin. "Are you nervous?"


"Hard as that is to believe...I am."


He didn't have to ask her if she'd been nervous with any of her clients. He knew better. This wasn't that Inara. This lovely, slightly trembly young woman who was letting him take off her robes was his alone.


"I love you, Inara. I'm probably going to be an idiot more often than not."

"That's not entirely unexpected, Mal." She bit down on his earlobe softly, the motion reaching parts of his body far south of the ear area.


"Anyone ever die in your bed?"


"Would you like to be the first?" She smiled, but there was something dark in her expression.


"I'm not going to die. You saved me. Remember?" She'd saved him in so many ways.


She finished with his clothes, and they stood naked in front of each other, nothing hiding them from the truth that he wanted her and she wanted him.


"I love you, Mal. I wish I could—"


His finger on her lips shushed her. He wasn't sure what she wished, but he didn't want her regretting her life. "I know I may not always want to admit this, but your past is what brought you here. To me. So while I'm probably going to be uneasy with it a lot of the time, I can't regret it. Because I wouldn't have you if you'd lived some other life."


"That's a very nice speech."


"You think so? I liked it." He grinned at her.


She grinned back, then pushed him toward the bed, kissing him deeply. As she eased him down and followed him, she said softly, "If you do die in my bed, you'll die a very, very happy man."


"I have no doubt of that," he said.


And then he quit talking for a spell.




Wash leaned back in his seat and thought of his bachelor days, living alone, when he could have let loose a satisfying belch to commemorate a fine meal like the one Book had just made them. It was the only thing he missed from his bachelor days.


Zoe shot him a look, her eyebrows going up in a questioning fashion.


"Now?" he mouthed.


She nodded.


"We've got an announcement."


Seven sets of eyes turned to look at him. He could hear Zoe take a deep breath.


"It's good news."


Zoe punched him softly, her way of telling him to get on with the telling of it.


"We're gonna have a baby. You're all going to be doting honorary parents." He nodded at Jayne. "Even you, mister."


"A baby?" Kaylee looked delighted, as he'd known she would. Girl was so damn sweet. She got up and hurried around the table, hugging Zoe for all she was worth. Then she hugged him, too.


Mal was grinning like a fool.


"Comment, captain?"


"Finally, a back-up pilot. About damn time, I say." Mal lifted his cup. "A toast to our expanding crew. And Zoe's soon-to-be-expanding waistline."


Everyone drank to their new baby. Dinner lasted longer than normal, as they planned and plotted and joked about a babysitting roster. Book started a pool on delivery date, and Simon lectured Zoe on nutrition now that he had her cornered long enough to listen to him.


Finally, it was only Mal and Inara left on the other side of the table. Mal had moved down, was sitting tucked in tight with Inara, his arm around her. He wasn't hiding how much he loved the woman, and Wash was glad of it.


"So," Mal's voice dropped down to his "this is serious" tone. "You're sure about staying on?"


Wash looked at Zoe. They'd talked about this. She just smiled at him.


"Haven't seen a world yet that called out our name to settle on it."


Mal looked so relieved that Wash was touched. "Did you think we'd up and desert you?" he asked.


Mal shrugged. "It's dangerous out here. On a ship."


"It's dangerous on a planet, too," Zoe said. When they'd discussed this, they'd talked about the risks they were putting their child up against. They'd decided it was the life they were meant to lead. The life they wanted to lead. Any child of theirs was choosing it when he or she chose them for parents.


"I guess that's true enough," Mal said. "River wasn't too safe on a world."


"Sure wasn't." Wash hated to think that his child might end up hurt like River had been. But then, River hadn't had people like Mal and Zoe looking after her back then. Her life would have been mighty different if she had.


"Do you know if it's a boy or a girl?" Inara smiled at Zoe, her beautiful serenity shaken up a bit by the joy she'd carried so marked on her face. Joy that Wash hadn't expected to see, and he'd bet Zoe hadn't either. Inara cared for them more than he'd realized.


"Doc knows," Zoe said. "We want it to be a surprise."


"So you won't know if you need to knit pink or blue booties?" Inara's tone was gently teasing.


"Zoe knitting?" Mal laughed. "Besides, knowing her, there's only one color they'll be: brown."


Wash chuckled at the thought. "Brown leather if I know my wife."


"Have your little fun." But Zoe didn't look upset. She was smiling, one hand resting high on her belly, as if she was already in some silent communion with their baby.

Wash wasn't sure he'd ever seen her look more beautiful. Or sexier. "Can you guys clean up here?" he asked, pulling Zoe up.


She grinned like she knew exactly what he was thinking.


Mal was quick to answer. "Hey, it's not our turn."


"We'll owe you."


"But...we did it last time." Inara sounded seriously put out.

Wash guessed that companions didn't get sick of sex, not if it was with big, strapping captains named Malcolm Reynolds.


"It is our turn," Zoe said to him softly, as she kicked the ladder open and climbed down.


"Tough." He followed her, then pulled the ladder back into closed mode. "I want my wife in the worst way."


"I got that impression," she said as she raced him to the bed.


Turned out she wanted him just as bad.




Inara bumped up against Mal as they straightened the dining room. She wanted nothing more than to drag him back to her shuttle and get his clothes off him.


"Taking real advantage of our good will, those two are," Mal said as he stuck the dishes they'd washed back in the cupboards.


"Yes, they are." She was about to kiss him when she realized River was standing at the top of the stairs. "Honey, are you all right?"


River nodded. "Are you and the captain getting ready to disappear for the night?"


"We were thinking about it, yeah." Mal looked at the girl as if daring her to make something of it.


"Can I talk to Inara before you hole up?"


Inara turned to look at him, giving him an amused smile and a shrug that told him she was as surprised as he was by this sudden intrusion.


"Go on," he said. "I'll finish up here."


She followed River out, catching up with her on the walkway to her shuttle. "Is everything all right?"


River nodded and hung back a little as if she wanted Inara to lead the way into her ship. Once they got there, River didn't say anything, just walked around the room, touching things that she'd looked at plenty of times before.


Inara sat, preparing some of the tea Mal liked best. "River?"


"Is sex nice?"

Inara took a deep breath. She hadn't expected to be the one to give this talk to River. But then it was probably preferable to Simon trying to do it. Inara wasn't sure he'd ever actually had any sex, much less enough to give a lecture. "It is nice."

River just nodded, kept moving around the room until she made Inara dizzy.


"River, you said you wanted to talk."


"I want...I want a lesson."


Inara could feel her eyebrows going up.


"Not in sex. But in kissing." River walked over to her. "I want you to tell me if I'm doing it right."


"Is there someone you want to kiss?" Mal had told her about River's seeming crush on Jayne.






"Can I kiss you?" The girl looked desperate.


Inara wondered if Mal would consider this part of her old life or not. "One kiss."


River leaned in, her lips soft as they bestowed a very acceptable kiss on Inara. She leaned back. "Did I get the parameters right?"


Inara laughed. The girl treated it like a math problem. "You'll do fine. Now, who are you thinking about kissing?"


"Isn't it good to be prepared? Don't kissing opportunities arise spontaneously?"


Inara laughed again. River had such a great way of putting things. She smiled up at her. "They do at that." She patted the couch next to her.


River sat.


"Is this about Jayne?"


River's look changed into something wary.


"He's not a nice man, River."


"I'm not a nice girl."


Inara frowned. "Who told you that?"


River fidgeted. "I just know. They took me, and the nice girl died, and all that's left is me."


"Did they hurt you? In a sexual way?"


River shook her head. "But they made me confused. They made me afraid of everything. The voices were all talking and the world had too many layers."


Inara remembered when River had said it was getting very crowded in her brain. "Jayne can't make that better."


River laughed, the noise so adult that it was a little shocking. "Didn't think he could. But maybe I can help him." It wasn't really a question.


"I don't think so, sweetheart."


"He's the only one who doesn't treat me like a kid."


"Well, that's because he thinks you're a scary psychopath."


River got up, smiled down at Inara. "He might have the right of it."


Inara realized that River was starting to talk like Mal and Zoe and the others. As if she'd been on Serenity, out in the black, all her life.


"You're you, River. And that means you're a lot of different things, but I don't believe any of them is scary."


Leaning in again, River kissed her on the cheek. "I'm glad you and the captain are happy." She took a last look around the shuttle, then tripped off in her graceful way.


Inara frowned and went back to making tea. Then she sat meditating until Mal came back.


"She gone?"




"Can you tell me what she wanted? Or was it female stuff?"


"Kissing lessons."


"Zaogao. I'm always missing the woman-to-woman hijinks." He pulled her up and into his arms. "And...?"


"I let her kiss me once. She didn't really need lessons."


"Interesting tidbit." Kissing her, he maneuvered her to the bed. "Can we stop talking about River?"


"Yes, please." Laughing, she let him push her down. She soon forgot all about River or anything else but the man in her arms.




River followed Jayne and Simon and Kaylee as they walked through the market.


"Stay close, mei-mei," Simon said, as if she was still a little girl.


She wasn't a little girl. She was eighteen now. Today. This day in this space on this world with these people, she was eighteen. But she would be eighteen on another world in another space with different people—as long as it was this day.


"River, honey, keep up." Kaylee was also treating her like a kid.


Jayne ignored her. When he wasn't shooting nervous glances her way. He veered off, getting away from them, heading for the luxury goods. They were all flush with cash. The captain had even given River some, had told her to buy herself something for her birthday. It was his way of giving her a present, and it was probably a good one. If he was like Simon, he'd give her some terrible boy-gift that she'd have to take back if she were on a civilized world. Out here? She'd be stuck with it. By giving her the money rather than a gift, he opened up the possibilities to a limitless extent.


River took a quick look around the market, decided limitless was an overstatement. But there were some possibilities. "Simon, I'm going with Jayne."


Simon was tickling Kaylee with some kind of bright feather device. "Okay."


Kaylee frowned, turned to look at her. "I don't think Jayne really wants company."


"I know. That's why I want to follow him around—he hates that."


Simon laughed. "There's not much market, Kaylee. She'll be okay." Her brother grinned at her. "She's an adult, after all."


River realized that he hadn't gotten her a present yet and was trying to get rid of her so he could shop and then pretend he'd had it for weeks. She wasn't sure why he thought he had to do that. She hadn't gotten him anything for his birthday. But maybe he'd forgotten that since any lack of sibling generosity had been overshadowed by the engines exploding and them having to leave the captain all by himself.


She followed Jayne, not getting too close. Despite what she'd told Simon and Kaylee, she didn't want him to know she was there. But he seemed to sense her, kept turning around, and she had to move quick, hiding in a tent full of silky scarves or dodging behind a big man buying potatoes.


Suddenly, he veered off, and he had a look on his face she could only call rapturous. He probably wouldn't call it that, though. She didn't think he knew that word. What would he call it? Happy? Enchanted, maybe? He probably knew that word. Might not use it much, but knew it.


He stopped at a table with a small box of peaches displayed with all the other rare produce. River hadn't had a real peach since she'd left for the special school that had been more special than anyone had bargained for. She had to close her eyes, had to fight off the vision of blue hands coming out of darkness, adjusting something over her eyes. Tightening something on her head. Then pain—blinding, raging, for-no-reason-at-all pain.


"Honey? You all right?" An older woman touched her on the arm. She reminded River of her aunt Lucille. "Too much sun?"


Sun. Blue sun. River knew there was a connection to that school and the blue men and the company. But she couldn't say why she knew that. She just had one of her feelings. It was why she'd torn all the Blue Sun labels off the cans in the galley when she and Simon had first come to Serenity. "Too much sun," she echoed, giving the woman her best, non-crazy smile.


The woman patted her hand and moved on.


Jayne was still at the peach table. He was staring down at the fruit, was reaching for his money when a blonde woman came up to the table. She was dressed all shiny with her hair piled up on her head. And she had a fan—ivory and some kind of lace that looked old and expensive. She fanned it outward, as if Jayne had a bad smell and she was trying to keep it away from her.


River moved closer.


"I believe I was here first?" The woman shot Jayne a look that sort of went past him, like she was too good to meet his eyes. "Or were you doing more than just loitering here?"


River expected Jayne to tell the woman off. Maybe even punch her—did Jayne hit women? But he didn't. He just turned red. And not just a little red, really red—River had never seen him turn so red. Then he turned and walked off, his back stiff, his walk a little more aggressive than normal. He knocked up against a man, then another, nearly snarled at a third who happened to be standing where Jayne wanted to walk.


Closing up her fan, the woman said. "You promised me the peaches." She tapped the vendor's cheek a little harder than was necessary with the ivory side of the fan.


"You didn't show up first thing like you said you would." The vendor looked peeved with her. "I have to make a living, Miss Helene."


River walked up to the table. "I sure hope those aren't the same peaches poor old Mister Tracey ate. He's dead now."


Helene looked at her. "Must have been a different vendor."


River made a show of looking over the booth. "Nope, same one. Big time sick, then poof! Dead." She went for the sincere look that so rarely worked on Serenity.


This woman didn't know better. "I'm sorry, Valle. I can't take a chance." She walked off.


"Ain't no other peaches on this whole world," he yelled after her. "And ain't nothing wrong with these." He turned to glare at River. "Why'd you go and do that for?"


"How much for the box?"


"You can't afford these."


She gave him her "I'm slightly crazy and I'm getting tired of waiting" look. He named a price; it was more than she could afford.


She held out what Mal had given her. "Best I can do." She'd seen the captain cave to a buyer once when he'd done this. She tried to copy the earnest expression the man had worn.


The vendor bought it. "Doesn't hurt my feelings not to sell to Helene. And, well, maybe I was marking them up a bit for her."


River studied him, saw a mess of futures running across and around him. Like paintings come to life and spilling out over him. One was brightest—it wasn't good. "Don't eat any dog this week."


"I don't eat dog."


"You will this week. It'll be the last thing you ever eat. Say no to the skewers."


He frowned. "You a far seer or something?"


"Or something." She took the peaches, carried them carefully through the crowd, trying not to think too hard about what she was and how she got to be that way.


"You found peaches?" Kaylee was suddenly at her side. She was such a fruit slut.


"You can have some later. After you eat what's on your plate." River winked at her. "Tell Simon I went back to the ship."


Kaylee nodded, and River pretended not to know that she had rushed out to keep her from seeing that Simon was buying her one of the silky scarves she'd hidden next to. At least it was pretty. Kaylee seemed to be a good influence—even if she'd made some questionable choices in her own wardrobe.


Book was sitting on the ramp when she got back. "What do you have there, River?"


"My birthday present from the captain. It'll go with the cake I'm not supposed to know Kaylee's going to make." She saw Jayne, walking up, moved so she was in his way.


He stared down at the peaches, and she thought she saw his eyes dilate. "Where'd you get those?"


"Little booth in the market. I'm not sure if they're ripe." She took one out, held it out to him. "Try it?"


Book, who was just in the process of sipping some coffee, began to choke on it.


Jayne looked as confused as ever. River wondered if Adam had been this dull when Eve had asked him to test out the forbidden fruit.


She moved the fruit closer. "You know you want it."


Book laughed this time. Maybe that had been a little much? But Jayne wasn't looking at her. He was looking at the peach. He reached for it, his hand deft as he snatched it away.


Then he took a look at her face and he did that gulping thing he seemed prone to when she was around. Taking out his knife, he sliced into the peach, juice going everywhere as he held it out to Book, the slice kept safe between his finger and the knife until the shepherd took it.


"Interesting answer to the challenge," Book said, popping the bit of peach in his mouth.


Jayne mouthed a lot of words that weren't nice. He cut off another slice and held it out to her. "Why'd you decide on peaches?"


"I haven't had them in a long time." She sucked on the peach slice, tried to keep the juice from running down her face. "Mmmm." When he went to give her another slice, she shook her head and pushed past him. "You two finish it."


She walked slowly, so she could hear if Book had something smart to say to Jayne.


He did. "Finish the rest. You know it's forbidden fruit?"


"Don't have to tell me that, preacher."


"I think I do."


"No, you don't," Jayne said. "And why don't you tell her about that. I'm the victim here."


But he didn't sound very unhappy about being a victim as he slurped away at his peach.




Kaylee smiled as she watched the captain and Inara trying not to look at each other during dinner. They both had that cute "Can't wait till we're both naked again" expression. Kaylee wondered if Simon was physically capable of making that expression.


Not that he wasn't coming along. He was—just real slowly. They seemed to be stuck a little bit past that awkward "does he like me?" stage. And she was glad to at least be past that. But...wasn't there anything more?


She'd be worried that he was just making do with her until something better came along if Inara and Zoe both hadn't noticed that Simon didn't seem capable of relating to anyone. Excepting, of course, his sister. Kaylee was a little ashamed to say that she'd thought there might be more between those two than just sibling affection. She'd mentioned it to Inara once when they'd been on her shuttle, Inara brushing her hair like she used to do.


"People say we're awfully close," Inara had murmured, her hand never stopping the wonderful motion of the soft brush. "But we know the truth."


Except Inara didn't. She thought they were close as sisters. But Kaylee hadn't always felt sisterly toward Inara. There'd been times on the shuttle that she'd almost blurted out how she'd felt. That had been before Simon. He'd shown up, and Kaylee had found herself powerful interested.


Plus she'd known Inara and the captain had a bad case of lust for each other. Just took them a whole lot longer to catch up to the concept.


Until she'd taken up on Serenity full time, Kaylee had always loved with a sort of distance. She'd felt a more enduring emotion for the engines she tinkered with and cajoled and generally made sing than she did for people. Not that she didn't love people. She did. But she'd never felt such a strong urge to settle down with just one. To commit some part of her heart and soul to another.


It was scary. And it hurt a lot of the time. Most probably cuz she didn't think Simon was ready to do that. And even once he was, she wasn't sure it'd be her he chose to settle down with.


He was so fine and pretty and smart. He belonged on one of those steel and flash worlds, not on the backwater planets they usually frequented. He needed a steel and flash woman.


Simon suddenly leaned over toward her. "What are you thinking about?"


She could feel herself blushing, caught making trouble, even if it was only in her head. "Nothing."


To her surprise, he reached under the table and squeezed her hand. Then he let go and went back to his dinner, laughing at something River said to Jayne, and the way Jayne started to sputter.


Pushing back from the table, Kaylee went to fetch the cake she had a pretty good idea River knew about. But it was tradition; birthday cakes were supposed to be a surprise, and she'd uphold that to the bitter end. She lit the candles. Only eighteen. She could remember turning eighteen. Could remember how possibility seemed to open up once you were an adult, once you could legally go wherever you wanted and do whatever you wanted. Not that she'd done much other than hang out at the spaceport. But it had been what she'd wanted to do and where she'd wanted to do it, so that had been fine. And she met Serenity that way. Her good girl.


"Do you need help?" Simon walked behind her.


"Nope. I'm fine."


"You seem very quiet."


"Just woolgathering. Maybe I got too much sun?" She smiled. The open, easy smile that people seemed to accept before going on about their business. Kaylee had learned that nothing hid secrets as well as pretending to be an open book.


Simon pulled a wrapped present out of his coat pocket. "I put both our names on the card."


She felt a pang. That was such a together thing to do. "But I didn't go in on it with you."


"You helped me pick it out. This year she might actually like what I got her."

Kaylee wondered about that, though. There were plenty of times she thought something was pretty and Simon didn't. She hoped River fell out on her side of the taste spectrum more often than on her brother's.


"Thank you, by the way." To her surprise, he leaned in, kissed her gently on the mouth.


It took her a minute to pull herself together enough to say, "For what? For helping. T'weren't nothing."


"For being patient with me. And for making a real cake this time."


She smiled. Finding real eggs had been a coup—and an expensive one. It'd been why she hadn't bought a gift for River. A real birthday cake was going to have to be her treat.


Picking up the cake, she let Simon lead them back in. Wash started the singing as soon as they hit the stairs. Between all of them they had about four keys going, but somehow the song still sounded okay.


River smiled at Mal. "Vanilla."


"Vanilla." He grinned at her, and Kaylee was struck by how at ease the captain was with River now. He'd been the last holdout, never getting too close. But since he'd been hurt, he'd been real gentle with her. Spending time together—when he couldn't run from River's different way of just being—had done them a world of good.


Kaylee handed River the knife and went to fetch the peaches she and River had sliced up. As she carried them back, she saw River grin and pretend she was going to stab Jayne.

"Ain't funny, girl." Jayne glared at River, but not very convincingly.


River turned her attention to the cake, cutting into it as if she expected heavy protein product. She let up immediately as her knife slid through the airy confection. She stared at it for a long time, then looked up at Kaylee. "This is real?"


Kaylee smiled and shrugged. "Found some eggs. Thought you might like a true cake. Only turn eighteen once, after all."


She was shocked to see River's eyes fill with tears. "Thank you."


Sometimes the simplest kindness seemed to be too much for the girl. But River blinked the tears away and turned a brilliant smile on the rest of them. "Who wants cake?"


Not a soul turned it down, or the peaches, neither.




Simon saw that Kaylee was eyeing his peaches with definite lust. He smiled. "Open your mouth and close your eyes."


She did it without question, and he thought she looked very alluring. Slipping the peach slice into her mouth, he watched as she closed her lips around it, an ecstatic sigh escaping from her as she ate it.


"Anybody else getting hot in here?" Simon asked softly, and Kaylee laughed, her eyes opening.


"Just a peach," she said.


"Yes. A peach for a peach." He touched her nose. Then he turned back to the others. No one was paying them the least bit of attention, primarily because River was opening her presents. She'd started with his and Kaylee's. The red scarf looked beautiful on her as she wound it around her neck. Just the right tone to set off her coloring.


"Thank you," she said.


"See. Perfect," he murmured to Kaylee, and she smiled.


"We're eating the captain's gift," River said. "He bought the peaches."


Mal smiled. "Best present ever." Winking at River, he went back to eating his second piece of cake—Kaylee had outdone herself on the confection.


Zoe and Wash gave River a soft wrap of some kind.


"Pretty-pretty," River said, holding up the pink thing, then wrapping it around her shoulders. "And warm." She buried her nose in the fabric, smiling happily.


"Gets cold on board," Zoe said gruffly, but she was smiling.


Book got her a bible. "Thought you might like to mark up your own copy."


River laughed. She opened Inara's gift, admiring the statue and how the black material shone with a deep gleam in the light. "Kali Ma."


"That's right." Inara smiled. "She protects."


"And destroys." River met her eyes, then looked at the captain. "Like a gun."


"Guns don't usually have a choice as to how they're used."


"Good point." River opened the last gift. It was from Jayne, and Simon wondered why she'd left his present for last.


It was a gun. River beamed.


Simon looked at Jayne. "Are you out of your mind?"


Mal stepped in. "Girl's been learning to shoot and take care of weapons, and Jayne's been the one teachin' her."




"But nothing." Mal looked like there was no sense in debating this. "She's already killed. Might as well make sure she doesn't kill one of us because we were too timid to teach her up right."


River met Simon's eyes and grinned the way she had since she was a little girl and had won a point from him. "I'm good. I can get better."


Simon sighed. "I guess it's all right." He felt Kaylee twine her fingers with his.


"It's only a little gun," Jayne muttered. "Never did fit me right."


"Thank you," River said, staring at him with unusual intensity.


Simon wondered if she was thinking of shooting Jayne with it.


Thankfully, she put the weapon down and asked Kaylee for another piece of cake. Mal took that as a sign to have thirds. Kaylee and Jayne split what was left of the peaches. The rest drank coffee and watched the others gorge.


It reminded Simon of old family holidays. Before River had been taken away and family no longer meant what it had.


Once he'd rescued River, he'd thought she was going to be his only family. Now he had this strange group of people who, if not his family, at least looked out for him and River better than his parents had the last few years.


He squeezed Kaylee's hand, and sipped his coffee, for once not in a hurry to get anywhere else.




Book found River in the small living area. The ship was quiet; everyone else was asleep, or at least in bed.




He smiled. "Did you have a nice birthday?"


She nodded. "Nice presents. Feel a little sick, though." She'd ended up having three pieces of cake—Book had warned her not to take that last bit. She grinned at him. "I won't throw up here."


"Do it on Simon's bed."


"That's the tradition."


Book sat down next to her. "So. You're an adult now."


"Seems like." She sounded like the captain.


"Blending in here well, too."


"Blending's good." Now she had Zoe's tone.


"Yes, it is if you want to fit in with the natives." He met her eyes, kept his expression stern. The shepherd's face folks couldn't lie to. "Maybe native things take on an extra allure? Or native people?"


"Like who?"


"I'm not blind to what's going on with you and Jayne, River."


"You say it like it's a condition contrary to fact. But you're not blind at all, so it doesn't make sense."


"You're stalling with semantics."


"Is it working?"




"Aiya. Huai le." She looked down. "You should leave this alone."




She smiled, the smile secretive and full of power. "Because I said so."


"I could tell Simon." Boy hadn't been able to see Kaylee was sweet on him until she about clobbered him over the head with the fact. It was a cinch that he wasn't seeing what was going on with his sister and Jayne.


"You could tell him." She didn't sound the least bit worried.


"Maybe I will."


"I'd think long and hard about that." She reached over and took his hand. "You've been nice to me. No matter how crazy I got, you were there."


"I care about you, River. It's why I care about this."


"And I care about you. It's why I'd hate to see Captain Mal kick you off his boat."


He just stared at her.


"You remember Early? The bounty hunter?"


He'd been out for most of that. But he remembered how things had changed—primarily with River—after that. "What about him?"


"I could hear what he was saying to Simon. He said you weren't a shepherd."


"He was crazy. Simon said so."


"Crazy like I'm crazy, shepherd." She smiled. "I could start digging. How long do you think it would take for me to find the truth?"


He wasn't sure if she meant digging in the central databases or in his thoughts. He wouldn't put either past her.


"You'd hurt me that way?" He tried to pull his hand away, was going to have to use force if he wanted her to stop touching him.


"Don't want to." She let go of him. "I have my own reasons for what I'm doing. You need to let me do what I want."


"Not with Jayne."


"You work out with him. You joke with him. You like him."

"That I do." He couldn't explain it to the girl. Just that he felt protective of her and more than a little for Jayne, too. And he didn't see this crush of hers going anywhere good.


"You like me, too?"


"River, you know I do." He took her hand back in his, sure that he'd hurt her by trying to pull away.


"Then trust me, Book." She met his eyes, and he felt like he was looking into his grandma's eyes. So wise. So sad. His gram had seen too much of life and had been tired of most of it. But she'd always been full of faith in things that mattered. Her own worth and his, too. And in God and the way He worked. Mysterious ways—just like River's.


"Girl, I don't have a good feeling about this."


"I accept that. Just don't get in my way, okay?"


Book sighed. "Okay."


"No running interference. No meddling. And no warning him off."


That was harder to agree to.


"Book, please?" She smiled, again conjuring up his gram.


"Just be careful." He leaned in, kissing her on the forehead. "I do care about you, River."


"I love you, too, Book." Then she got up and walked into her room, sliding the door shut gently.


Book sat for a long time, pondering the ways God—and wise women who'd tasted pain young and too often—worked. They were, indeed, mysterious.




Jayne sighed, trying for the third time to work up his courage to meet River's crush head on. He managed to get words out this time. "We gotta talk, girl."


River sighted down the little pistol he'd given her. It looked just right in her hand, didn't seem so small when his meaty paws weren't swallowing it. "You talk," she said. "I'm gonna stick to shootin'."


He studied her, frowning. She never used to talk like that. She'd been like her stuck-up brother, all proper—even with the crazy thing—using full words, words that ended in "i-n-g." He sighed loudly.


She squeezed the trigger gently, both eyes open, sighting flawlessly. He heard a metal container go flying off the rock—a perfect shot. Letting the gun fall to her side, she stood in the early afternoon sunshine, her skirt and red scarf blowing softly in the breeze that smelled like dust and sagebrush and all the things that made worlds like this hard and unwelcoming.


Staring up at him, she said softly, "The others are all gone."


Even Book had left them to go into town. Jayne couldn't believe Book had deserted him, although it had been with a stern look that seemed to dare Jayne to make the wrong choice.


He tried to answer her in a business-like way. "The others aren't learning to shoot."


She rolled her eyes. "I know how to shoot." She lifted the gun. Didn't even sight, just squeezed the trigger three times, moving the gun between each shot. Sizing up the target even though her hair was blowing in her face. The bullets flew perfectly into the other containers, which went flying off the rock like mad things.


"Well, then you don't need me." He turned, ready to make the right choice.


"Are you sure?" Her voice dropped, turned husky. "Are you sure you know what I need?"


He stopped. "No, I'm pretty sure I don't know what in the gorram hell you need, girl. I know one thing, though. I don't need you. Don't need this kind of headache. Don't need to be lookin' over my shoulder every time you come near me, wondering if you are going to flirt with me or stab me deep."


"With a knife?"


He turned to look at her. "What else you gonna stab me with?"


She walked toward him, and this time her look wasn't teasing. It was sad. It was full of some kind of pity that he didn't think he liked too much. She laid her hand on his chest. "You were stabbed here long before I did it." Her hand was warm; he could feel the heat of her through his t-shirt.


He swallowed. "Leave me be, River."


Her eyes never left his, her voice dropping so he could barely hear her. "She was pretty. Hair like spun gold and blue-blue eyes and soft ivory skin."


Half the women he'd pinned up on his wall fit that description. More than half, maybe.


River leaned in. "She said she wanted you."


He tried to look away, found he couldn't.


"She said she needed you."


He could feel his mouth settling, could feel something rising up inside him. Powerful and hurtin'. Pain he'd pushed down long ago.


"She said she loved you."


"Stop it."


"She laughed at you. She let you take her somewhere quiet. Somewhere pretty. With water running and grass growing. Smells that should be happy, but aren't for you."


"Shut up, girl."


"She had friends there. Watching. Hidden. You spoke your heart to her." A tear spilled out of River's eye, running down her cheek, and Jayne was finally able to look away from her and watch the tear collect at her cheek then fall to the ground.


It landed hard. The way he had. Hard and jumbled up inside when Melania's friends had started to laugh, when she'd batted him with her fan and begun to giggle in the way he'd always found cute till she'd used it as a weapon.


"You loved her," River whispered.


"I didn't."


"She was the last person you loved."


He'd been fifteen at the time. Crazy in love. Not caring that he was nothing like Melania. Suddenly, it hadn't mattered that he'd been known for being big and strong and simple. He'd been more than just someone destined to be a welder like his pop and his grandpop before him. Up to then, he'd never felt like he was special. Particularly, not compared to Melania. He'd watched her all his life. Always out of reach. Till one day, when he'd grown taller and bigger than all the other boys, she'd begun to show him some attention.


He'd thought she was sweet on him. That his dreams had come true. But it had all been for the sake of meanness. He'd never been good enough. And never would be. After her, the only thing left had been to be bad. He couldn't be less big, or any smarter. Couldn't make a smaller mark in the world. But he could change. He could make sure no one ever hurt him again. By becoming mean in his own way.


River pushed harder on his chest. "She cut you all up inside. Left a mark—a big old knot. It keeps you from letting people in. Keeps you from loving anyone." She pulled up his shirt so quickly he didn't have time to stop her before her lips were lying soft on the spot where she'd stabbed him. "I tried to cut the knot out. That's why I stabbed you."


"That's not what it seemed like you were doing."


"I was confused back then. Everything was all jumbled." She moved her lips, following the scar.


He pushed her away, enough that her lips didn't feel like they were burning through the wound she'd made and diving down all the way to that older one. "Don't matter now."


"Matters to me."


"Shouldn't. I ain't a good man. You know what I did on Arial."


"I know." She pulled his shirt down.


"River, you got to let up on this. I don't have one single thing you need. Nothing I can do for you that other men can't do better." The smell of sagebrush and dust had faded; the smell of tall grass and a summer stream were strong in his head. He felt small. Felt used up and thrown out.


He turned away from her, brushed at his eyes.


"She was pretty."


He nodded.


"I'm not." River's voice reminded him of how he felt. Like she knew what she was and found herself wanting.


He wondered if she found it easier to ignore that kind of knowledge. If that was why she focused on crazy things that kept her mind off hardness, off shortcomings and how easy it was to be hurt when you didn't understand how the world worked.


He turned to look at her. "I think you're pretty."


She didn't ask for more, just stared up at him all calm and waiting.


"You move like a deer. Not one wrong step."


She smiled.


"And you smell good." He remembered when he'd tried to tell Melania why he loved her. He'd tried to dress up his words, known they'd come out wrong from her expression. Mocking. Amused. He'd stopped with the words, moved on to kissing. That's when her friends had laughed. That's when she'd pulled away, her eyes so cold they froze him where he sat.


River's eyes were warm. "You're a bad man. But you don't have to be."


"I'm not sure I've got any use for being good. A bad man may be all I'll ever be."


She pulled him down, her hands on his neck surprisingly strong. Her lips were soft, and they opened under his a little, her small body pressing against his.


He was kissing her. He didn't kiss women on the lips. Not ever.


But he was kissing her. And it was sweet. He wanted to kiss her forever.


For a moment, he let himself have her. For a moment, he imagined pulling her onto him the way he'd wanted to pull Melania onto him. The way he'd pulled a lot of other women onto him since. Women he'd never let give him a proper kiss.


He pushed River away gently.


He expected anything but her smile—a strange smile. Not hurtful or mocking. Not amused and ready to call the others back and make fun of him. But...proud. She looked proud. Of him.


She touched his hand softly, letting it linger for a moment in a way that made him feel warm inside in a non-special-hell way, then she turned and walked to the targets, setting them back up again.


He watched her as he wiped his hands on his pants, trying to get control of his breathing. He had to stop himself from touching his lips.


She walked back, her eyes completely business like as she held out her hand for more bullets. Reloading, she looked up at him, smiling gently. Then she pointed her gun at the targets, and, without appearing to have sighted where the new placements were, she fired. They all went down, one after the other.


Her eyes never left his.


"A bad man wouldn't have stopped." She held her hand out for more ammo. "A bad man would be on top of me now."


He felt off balance, a little dizzy as he handed her the bullets. "You think I don't wanna be?" He moved his feet a bit, planting them farther apart. Making himself steady—or as steady as he was going to get around her. "You can't kiss a man like that and not get him to wanting you bad."


"It was a good kiss?" She seemed very young. Very innocent.


"Well, I ain't the best to judge that." He'd kissed a total of two women in his life: Melania and River.


She smiled again. "A bad man would lie about that." She let out her breath, like she'd been holding it or something. "Let's go hunting. There are rabbits on this world."


"You think?"


She nodded. Then pointed at something he'd already seen but hadn't thought she had. Rabbit pellets. Old but not too old.


"You've got your gun, haven't you?" she asked.


"Course I got my gun. You think I'd come out here unarmed with a crazy person like you?"


She grinned. "You might. You're not all that smart." She looked worried, like she thought that had been too much, too mean.


Grinning, he tried to show her he was okay with it. "I'm smart enough. Don't see as how being smart's been a blessing for you." He looked at her quickly, afraid that he'd taken it too far.


He had hurt her. But she didn't pull away. Instead, she reached for his hand, and he let her take it. Even though he didn't like to hold hands, not this way, with arms swinging easily as they walked. It felt too much like it was all good and innocent and leading up to something he ached for suddenly way too much.


"What do you want from me, River?"


"Just treat me like you always do."


"You want me to be mean to you?"


She nodded, making a little shrug that was so helpless and confused and downright cute he wanted to scoop her up and kiss her some more.


"River, you better tell me about the special hell."


Her laugh was sweet and girlish. It was the sound of Melania's laugh before it had turned mean. For a moment, he felt as if he was standing watching his younger self walk by. "It'll be okay," he murmured. Half to River, half to that younger version of him that was going to have his heart squashed.


But not forever. Maybe not forever.


Her hand tightened on his, and she hummed a little song as they walked. He saw that she'd stuck the gun in the pocket of her dress.


"You put the safety on, didn't you?"


The look she shot him said volumes.


"Look, you're a crazy person. I have to ask."


"And you care."


He didn't answer. Could feel a grin threatening to take over his face.


"And you care," she said again, bumping up against him.


"Maybe. A little."


"Ooh. There's one." With one cool movement, she dropped his hand, pulled the gun out, poked off the safety, and shot the critter.


She ran out to it, her steps like a ballerina. Holding up the rabbit, she smiled as she pointed at the hole—the bullet had gone right through the beast's head, killing it instantly. Easy to dress the meat. No shattered bones. No metal fragments. And no fear—Jayne thought fear made meat taste kinda funny, even though he'd never admitted that to anyone.


She waited for him to catch up. "Your turn," she said, as she turned the safety back on with one quick move of her finger, then twirled her gun like some badass cowboy before jamming it back into her pocket. An eyebrow went up, her eyes sparkled, and she reached for his hand again.


As he scouted around for a bunny to take out, she started humming again and swinging his hand. He felt like some weird mix of dirty old man and kid again. Looking down at her, he smiled, then smiled bigger as her eyes turned soft.


"You're real pretty, River. Don't let anyone ever tell you you're not. You've got the cutest freckles on your no—" Movement stopped him. He dropped her hand, had his gun out and ready to fire nearly as fast as she had. His shot wasn't quite as good, but damn near. He gave her a triumphant grin, as he said, "Go get our food, woman."


She just stood there, not moving, except to swing her trophy a little.


"Yeah, I didn't think you'd fall for that." As he trudged out to gather his first kill, he decided that River was very, very sexy.


"Thank you for my gun," she said.


"You're welcome."


She ran after him and took his hand, smiling up at him, before scanning like mad for the next thing to kill.


Damn, she was hot.


Jayne knew it was going to be a very long afternoon. Probably the first of many. This wasn't going to be easy. And that was okay. Because for the first time in his life since Melania had cut him down, he didn't want to rush a woman into his bed.


River looked up at him, a brilliant smile on her face. As if she could read his thoughts.

For all he knew, gorram girl could do just that.