Jayne cleaned the rifle he'd taken on the latest job at the kitchen table. Zoe was doing the same for her favorite shotgun. She glanced up when he said her name, and he continued, keeping his eyes on his work. "Mal know you ain't wearin' your body armor lately?"
Leave it to him to notice something that might leave him a gun short in a firefight. She dropped her gaze back to her polishing rag. "You going to tell him?"
"Not really my place, I reckon." He put his rifle down and finally looked at her. "You ain't okay, are you?"
She opened her mouth to say "What are you talking about, of course I am," but the lie stuck in her throat. Six months. Nearly to the day. And everyone was still walking on eggshells around her. In fact, this was the first time since...it had happened that anyone had really, truly said anything. Funny that it was Jayne--but he'd naturally pick up on it, since it affected their teamwork. She swallowed and tried again. "I'm really not," she said, her voice low. "How'd you know?"
"I see stuff. I might not be the sharpest knife on the wall, but I got eyes and ears. Hell, Kaylee cried more'n you did, Zoe, and that ain't natural."
She'd gotten through the days and weeks and months by shutting down, concentrating on the Job, and plain not thinking about how much she missed Wash. Every time a thought tried to sneak in, she ruthlessly shoved it back, unwilling to break, especially not in front of anyone, and not even in the privacy of her bunk. You did the job, and that was that. If people died while you were doing it, well, that was the way of the 'verse--you mourned 'em for two seconds, and then you moved on.
No matter how much it gorram hurt.
Jayne was continuing, in a musing sort of fashion. "I miss him and them silly-ass shirts a lot more'n I figured I would. Glad the Cap'n left the dinos on the bridge..."
Her heart clenched in her chest, and suddenly she couldn't breathe. It hadn't hit her--she hadn't allowed it to hit her--but Jayne's ruminations were an odd sort of catalyst. No one else had been willing to talk about Wash, at least in front of her, and so she'd been able to avoid the subject. Until now.
She collapsed forward, buried her face in her arms, and cried.
Jayne sat staring at her, open-mouthed. In all the time he'd known her, Zoe's iron control had never cracked, not like this--certainly not in front of him. The huge gasping sobs racking her body were as strange as a...very strange thing.
And he had no idea what to do.
He heard running footsteps from the direction of the bridge, and Mal burst into the room, stopping in considerable consternation. Didn't stop for long, though. He rounded on Jayne. "What did you do?" he demanded furiously.
"I didn't do nothin'!" Jayne's own temper was a bit frayed. "Why is it I always get the blame when somethin' goes wrong around here?"
"'Cause you usually are to blame!"
Attracted by the shouting, the others filed into the room. Glances flew between the two arguing men and the sobbing woman. That weren't right, Jayne decided. A woman such as Zoe should have some privacy for her grief. This was something he could do. He stood up and grasped her shoulders, gentle-like. "C'mon, Zo'. Let's get you to your bunk, away from pryin' eyes." He drew her to her feet and held her up, whilst she kept her face in her hands. Damn, she couldn't hardly stand on her own...
Mal's face had turned even more thunderous. "Don't you dare take advantage--"
Jayne slammed his fist on the table, making everyone jump. "Tsao ni zuzong shiba dai! I oughta put a bullet to you for even thinkin' such. But right now? Zoe's more important'n that."
He half-carried her to the crew quarters and had a moment of real concern when they got to the ladder. She made it down okay, though, and fell into the unmade bed. Hadn't stopped crying the whole time. Jayne pulled the blankets over her, patted her shoulder awkwardly, and left.
He stationed himself outside her door, arms crossed, and glared daggers at anyone who came (oh-so-casually) by. Including Mal. This was one thing he wouldn't back down from. The Cap'n might put him out the airlock later, but, gorramit, Zoe was gonna be able to cry herself out in a bit of privacy.
Jayne didn't pretend to understand womenfolk at all, but he knew Zoe weren't like Kaylee or River, wearin' her emotions on her sleeve like they did. She would think of this breakdown as a display of weakness. He knew that, if she had her druthers, she wouldn't want the others to see her like this.
So he stood guard.
He didn't time it or nothin', but the Doc come by sometime later and nodded at her closed door. "Any change?"
"She ain't come out yet."
"I wonder if I should..."
"Leave her alone. She's needed to do this for awhile. Your needles ain't gonna help her deal with it none."
"River hasn't stopped crying." Simon made a frustrated noise. "I feel like I should be doing something."
"Letting Zoe be is something. Go see to your sis. She's carryin' a burden that ain't hers right now."
"Aaah. She just waves me off." He crossed his arms and scowled.
"Which is what I'm doin'. Zoe'll come out when she's good an' ready. If'n she wants to talk, she knows any of us'll lend a willin' ear. Dong ma?"
Wasn't it funny, Simon mused, that it had been Jayne that brought Zoe out of the shell she'd crawled into since Miranda? He wondered what the big man had said to bring things to a head, decided that it was probably something crude that didn't bear thinking about, and nearly got angry--before he remembered that they'd all been whispering that something had to happen with Zoe soon.
River was asleep, thank goodness. Maybe that was a good sign for their First Mate as well. He smoothed his sister's hair back and pulled a blanket over her shoulders with a sigh. He looked up as Kaylee poked her head in. "How is she?"
"Sleeping." He moved out of the room and into the common area, lifting his arm for Kaylee to snuggle under as he sat back on the couch.
"Poor thing. Can't be easy for her, bein' inside our heads all the time..."
River dreamed. She walked along a cliff on a barren, dusty planet, and encountered Zoe standing at the edge in her white funeral dress, the wind billowing it back behind her while she stared out over a blasted valley. One step, and she'd be over the rim and gone forever. River knew she wanted to take that step, oh so badly.
"Lost without him. He made the rough edges smoother, the hard life softer. Made a life worth living out in the black."
"It should have been me." Zoe's voice was hoarse, her face tear-streaked.
"He wouldn't want you to think that. Do you know what he was about to say before the harpoon got him? After 'watch how I soar'?"
Zoe snorted out a laugh. Wash could still make her do that. "Probably something about 'any landing you walk away from' being a good one."
"He made sure the ship got down safely for all of us...but mostly for you. He couldn't bear the thought of your death, any more than you can bear the thought of his. Less so." River took her hand. "Don't let his sacrifice have been in vain."
"It's hard. No one knows..."
Zoe blinked. "Jayne? Our Jayne?"
She opened her door, and he was standing right outside it. Guarding her, alone in the hall. She frowned a little at that, but took a deep breath and tried on a smile. It came out a bit lopsided, but sort of fit. "How long you been standing there?"
"Awhile. You needed that." He gave her a concerned look. "Feelin' any better?"
"A little." She took a deep breath. Her chest still hurt. "River said I should ask you something."
"She wanders around in your dreams too, huh?" She stared at him unbelievingly, and he continued. "Dunno what she wants in my head, don't seem proper somehow, but every onc't in awhile she's there." They began walking towards the crew's common area. "What're you s'posed to ask me?"
"I said...I said no one else understood what it was like. And River said I should ask you."
He froze for the merest second, then continued on through the kitchen into the sitting room. Jayne sprawled onto the couch, and she settled on a chair. He rummaged in the cushions and came out with a flask. Uncapping it, he took a swig while his eyes wandered around the room and finally stopped on her face. "All right. Had a friend growin' up. Geordie. We used to get into all manner of mischief together. Closer'n brothers, we was." He put his hand up. "Not sly or nothin', just real close, you know? And one night..."
They'd pissed off the neighbors, right enough--enough so that they was comin' after 'em with guns this time. Maybe stickin' a fox in with Farmer Hatcher's chickens had been a bad idea, although it'd seemed a pretty funny one at the time. And now they was runnin' through the woods with a bunch of angry armed people chasing them.
Not that the angry folk knew the "who." They didn't know it was just a couple of fourteen-year-old kids having a lark. But they knew the "what" right enough--and a slaughter of fifty chickens weren't something that anyone took lightly. Jayne and Geordie had been somewhat appalled theirownselves. But it was done, and now they had to get away.
"There they are!" A gun roared behind them, and Geordie stumbled, fell, and lay still, arms outflung and a hole in his back between his shoulder blades.
The pursuers pounded up a few seconds later and found a gangly, tear-streaked teenager cradling the body of his dead friend in his arms...
"And so I've never let anyone get inside me that close again," he concluded, taking another drink. "Hurts too much to lose 'em."
"I never meant to. You survive a war, you learn real quick that it's a bad idea to form bonds like that."
"Yanno, though..." Jayne mused. "I'm glad I knew Geordie. And I bet you're glad you knew Wash. Looking back, I'da been sorry not to have had a friend like him."
"Yeah." She held her hand out, and he capped the bottle and tossed it to her.
They sat in companionable silence, passing the hootch back and forth between them, lost in their own thoughts.
A day or so later, they had a job--which went south a lot quicker than usual. At least this time they weren't outnumbered, and she, Mal, and Jayne all had their guns out, which was a piece of mercy, Zoe reflected. But their contacts were in an ugly mood, and sweet reason weren't having no effect on them at all. They were really going to have to quit going to Badger for jobs, this sort of thing kept up...
The big one in the middle swung his gun to cover her, then her vision was blocked by Jayne's bulk as he jumped in front of her even as the BOOM of the weapon echoed in her ears. Jayne fired as he fell, taking out all three of their adversaries before he hit the ground, and leaving Mal blinking.
She dropped to her knees beside him, tearing at his t-shirt. "You fung luh hun dan. What'd you go and do that for?" Shit, the bullet had gone through his armor, directly into the right side of his chest. Since when did Jayne wear armor?
Since she'd stopped, she realized.
"Had to." He coughed, sending a spray of blood into the air. "My job. Mal said...keep you safe."
She practically choked. Job! She screamed for Mal to get Simon as her hands worked feverishly at the armor fastenings, finally getting it open. Bunching up the torn shirt, she applied pressure to the wound.
Images from the past six months flashed through her mind. Jayne sitting beside her at dinner, wordlessly passing the rolls. Jayne coming into the common room while she was reading, tossing her an orange that he'd gotten God-knew-where. Jayne cleaning his gun at the kitchen table while she cleaned hers. Helping her cook when it was her turn--and helping her clean up too.
"Aw, Zo'." His hand reached up to touch her cheek, but only made it halfway before falling back. "Don' cry on account o' me."
Why hadn't she noticed before now? He hadn't been stalking her; there was nothin' creepifyin' or scarily obsessive in his manner--he'd just been...around. Not sayin' much, but watching over her in a sort of not-quite-big-brotherish way.
Waiting for her to see him.
Well, she damn sure saw him now. Felt the blood he was still spilling for her soaking through the shirt onto her hands. Where the hell was Simon? "Don't you dare die on me, you sonofabitch..."
"'Member what I tol' you, 'bout never lettin' no one inside me?" Cough, more blood. Crap, crap, crap. "'Cause it hurt too much to lose 'em?"
"Yeah." Keep him awake...
"I lied. Gonna hurt me--" Cough. "--a hell of a lot--" Cough, cough. "--to lose you. Don't reckon I'll see you...where I'm goin'..."
"That's crazy talk. Doc'll fix you up, good as new."
"Might," Jayne acknowledged. "But if he don't...just wanted you...to know..."
His lips were turning blue, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head. "Simon!"
"Right here." The Doc knelt beside her. "What've we got?"
"Chest wound, right side. Armor-piercing round into his lung, looks like. Didn't come out the other side, else I'd be--" She swallowed.
"It's not enough?"
"I can fix this. Help me get him onto the stretcher."
Jayne woke up in the infirmary to see Zoe watching over him. "I ain't dead?" he croaked.
"Not this time, you idiot. What on Earth-that-was possessed you to do such an insane thing?"
"I was wearin' armor, you wasn't. Didn't know they had armor-piercers in their pistols. Might not-a, if I'd-a know'd that." He grinned as roguishly as he could, considering.
"Uh huh." Her tone told him that she weren't buyin' what he was sellin'. "Jayne..."
"What?" He tried on an innocent look. "Did I say somethin' I ought not've while I was out o' my head dyin'?"
She crossed her arms. "You telling me you don't remember anything?"
"Uhm." Busted. "All right, maybe I do. But I thought I was gonna die. You can't hold me accountable for somethin' I said under those circumstances."
"Been my experience that folks is mighty truthsome under those circumstances." Her gaze slid away from him.
"Mal'd space me, he thought I'd made a play for you. Honest, Zo', I wouldn'ta said nothin', if'n I thought I was gonna live. Weren't proper for me to do that, and I'm right sorry if I put you in a awkward spot."
"You needed to say it, I suppose." She still weren't looking at him.
"You got no call to feel obligated by what I said back there, you know? I'd hate like hell for us to be all awkward 'round each other just 'cause I spoke out of turn. You didn't make me no promises, and even if you had, I wouldn't hold you to 'em." Aiya, this was not going well. And, Lord, but he was tired.
"Jayne." She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. "You took a bullet for me. That's not a nothin'." Her voice was husky.
"Hell, woulda done that for anyone. 'Cept maybe Simon." He let out a laugh that turned into a coughing fit.
"I heard that," the Doc said, coming into the room. "Zoe, are you wearing out my patient?"
"Might be," she said, concerned.
"Naw, it's all right. I'm fine." Jayne coughed again. "Really."
"Shoo," Simon said to Zoe. "You can talk to him later. Let everyone know that he'll be bothering us for awhile longer."
"Okay." Turning and leaving, she gave Jayne a brittle smile, and he wondered if she was having some bad memories. What a dumbass thing to do, getting hisself shot like that.
"Ni shi bai chi," he muttered at himself, closing his eyes.
"No one will argue with that," Simon commented.
"Least of all me." Who'da thought that the mere act of closing his eyes would feel so good? Before he knew it, he'd fallen asleep.
Zoe sat at the kitchen table. She'd made herself a cup of coffee, but now that she knew he was going to be all right, reaction was setting in, and she was feeling a mite shaky. She still couldn't believe that Jayne (of all people!) had thrown himself in the path of a bullet. No one had ever done that for her before. Not Wash, not Mal. Mal'd shoved her out of the way a time or two, but never jumped in front of her like that.
She smacked her fist on her forehead a couple of times. She wasn't going to cry. No need to. Jayne was going to be fine. Seemed like her breakdown of a couple of days ago had opened some floodgates she didn't know she had, and it was all manner of embarrassin'. Having been so used to keeping a tight rein on her emotions, it discombobulated her plenty now that they seemed to be running rampant on her. Crap.
Jayne had as much as confessed his love for her. The thought spun her about. She had no idea what to do with that information. She liked him well enough, she supposed, in an I-can-kick-your-ass-if-you-step-over-the-line sort of way. They were on equal footing, pretty much, as far as the shooting and fighting went.
Damn him. She wasn't like the other women on the ship; he didn't have to protect her--and yet he had anyhow. That made her feel warm and wanted on the one hand, and like a gorram fragile flower on the other. And she didn't like the fragile flower feeling, not a bit.
"Not how he sees you," River sang, dancing through the room. "Cherishes you, yes. But that's because you can beat him up. Prickly cactus, not a flower. But cacti have flowers too. Beautiful ones." River's smile could light up an entire room, and it was doing so now. "A desert in bloom is a lovely thing. He'll wait for you." She continued her dance, pirouetting toward the cockpit.
Zoe sighed. Jayne might have to wait a good long while for her, but River generally saw into the truth of whatever was happening around her. A cactus, was she?
Well. That wasn't necessarily bad.
Tsao ni zuzong shiba dai: Fuck eighteen generations of your ancestors
Ni shi bai chi: You are such an idiot
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