Title: Seeds of Belonging
Author: alianora (with significant, amazing help and contribution of the intro from literarylemming)
Summery: A different life, a different way of becoming, a love in three.
Author’s Note: This Birdy is NOT Wingtip Birdy. She has different origins, and should not be mistaken for that Birdy. This is, essentially, an AU of an AU.
They would've never even known she existed, if River hadn't raised her weary head from his shoulder and croaked, "Stop."
Surges of adrenaline borne out of fear made him want to argue, but Jayne's bones were tired and his body aching, so when he slumped against the wall it was half in acquiescence, half because he couldn't move another step anyway. "What?" he panted, shifting her frail body in his arms in an attempt to keep her up. Once upon a time she would've been a featherweight to him; now he was having trouble keeping his shaking limbs from dropping her.
River's hand was pale, almost translucent, as she gestured vaguely towards a door directly across the corridor from them. "There," she murmured hoarsely, before turning her head to gaze at him with dark, bruised-looking eyes. A streak of blood ran down her cheek like war paint. "Put me down."
His arms tightened reflexively around her back and beneath her knees. "Gotta keep movin'," he mumbled, feeling terror make his muscles twitch. "Gotta get out."
River nodded solemnly, and pointed to the door again. "Put me down," she murmured, "and wait here."
Jayne wanted to argue. He wanted to remind her of where they'd just been, and what they'd just done, and what they'd both been through the last six months; but he was too tired to argue, and there was a fire in her eyes he hadn't seen since Ariel. Whatever she wanted she wanted bad, and it was behind that door.
He put her down. "Two minutes," he told her huskily. "Then I send in the cavalry."
She nodded and turned away, moving with far more surety than her brittle bones would imply.
Belying his words, Jayne slumped against the wall as soon as she'd disappeared through the door. His legs refused to hold him up, and he came down with a THUMP on the industrial tile. The world was spinning, and he only vaguely heard the crunching sound of bones breaking and flesh hitting flesh. River was hurting people; that was just fine by him. She was good at it, and everyone ought to do what they're good at.
Fifteen seconds later he heard her voice, as if from six stories up. "Jayne."
Then again. "Jayne, come here."
Moving on autopilot, he dragged himself back to his feet. The aches and pains had become second nature to him by now, and he propelled himself through the door and into the dark, cramped room beyond.
There was a desk. Sprawled across the desk were two men. Jayne was willing to pretend the dark liquid dripping on the floor was spilled ink.
There was a bed, caught in a triangular shaft of pure white light. On the bed were two girls.
One was River.
But so was the other.
Or... no. Not quite. River was sitting on the edge of the mattress, long hair obscuring her face as she reached out a hand towards the second girl, who sat huddled against the wall. The second girl, who had River's face, was wearing the same standard aquamarine body suit as River, but her hair was cropped short and her eyes, if at all possible, were even wider than her doppelganger's. And she was staring straight at him.
"Who are you?" she asked in a small, shaky voice, and then nearly jumped out of her skin when River laid a comforting hand on her knee. The girl's eyes darted away from Jayne to stare at her double.
"Friends," River soothed, patting the girl's knee. "Friends to help." Turning her weary head, she fixed Jayne with a dark, hollow stare. "Must take her with us. Not her fault."
"Yeah," he grunted with a sharp nod of his head. "Figured."
Turning away from the girls huddled on the bed, he began fishing through the pockets of the dead guards. He didn't find much: a couple of Identicards and two pouches of Alliance currency that amounted to next to nothing. Alliance flunkies didn't need much cash: Big Brother gave them everything their hearts desired.
More important than any of that were their guns. It felt good, strapping a holster around his hips, feeling the reassuring weight of a pistol against his leg. He grabbed both guns and all their spare ammo, then stood back, appraising the dead men with a skilled eye. "They clean?" he asked.
"Leave the dark one," River said, voice eerily calm. "Killed him messy. The blond one is your size. Killed him clean."
Jayne nodded and calmly shoved the dark-haired guard off the desk. The body collapsed to the floor, leaving a puddle of blood on the desk blotter. Yanking the blond guard upright, Jayne began tugging off the man's uniform, hardly noticing the awkward angle of his broken neck.
"Noooooooo, stop!" the new girl moaned. Jayne didn't spare her a glance as he began dutifully assuming the guard's outfit.
"Shhhhh," he heard River soothe. "All will be well. Covert dress is required to escape the planet alive."
"Speaking of which, we gotta get movin', girl," Jayne said, straightening the Alliance-issue cap and turning to face the girls again. The double was cuddled up against River's side, face pressed into the other girl's neck, thin body racked with sobs. "We gonna have a problem here?" he asked, frowning.
River shook her head, stroking the new girl's cropped hair. "No problem," she assured him. Then, softly, "Jayne?"
He sighed. "Yeah?"
"I can't walk."
Jayne felt like someone had taken a lead pipe to both his kneecaps. Carrying River had sapped his strength near to breaking; the thought of doing it again was almost enough to do him in completely. And judging by the new girl's birdlike wrists and narrow ankles, she wasn't in much condition to walk neither.
The old Jayne Cobb wouldn't have batted an eyelash. The new Jayne Cobb just felt tired.
"Right then," he said, his voice heavy with exhaustion. He walked over to the bed. "Come on."
River gazed up at him. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
Jayne shook his head. "Just get on."
He bent down and scooped her up into his arms. Halfway into the motion he thought better of it and shifted her around so she was cocked on his hip, one arm under her bottom to hold her up. She looped her legs around his waist and held onto his neck, resting her head wearily on his shoulder.
Jayne turned to the other girl on the bed. "Can you walk?" he asked, voice rough with fatigue.
She stared up at him, eyes wide with fear.
"Few minutes from now, when they find the two of us ain't where we're s'posed to be, this whole gorram place's gonna turn mighty unhealthy for us, girl." Jayne fought down the spike of terror that threatened to tear him in half. "I include you in that, cuz you're like her, dong ma? That's why you're here now. That's why they took you ever at all. So you can stay and see what they got planned for ya, or you can come with us." River's weight was beginning to tax heavily on his left side. He shifted her higher; she didn't make a sound. "So, girl? You comin'? Or you stayin'?"
She was still staring at him, small hands anxiously clutching each other.
The voice was so soft, Jayne barely heard it, though it was spoken right near his ear. River lifted her heavy head to gaze down at the other girl, who was gaping up at her. "Birdy, come," River murmured, and Jayne saw her lips twitch in a soft smile. "Birdy, please." She dropped one arm from around his neck and stretched it out towards the girl on the bed. Jayne could see her hand trembling with exhaustion.
The double blinked, chewing her lip nervously. After a moment, she raised her hand and slipped it into River's. "I can walk," she whispered.
Somewhere deep in the bowels of the facility, a claxon began to sound.
"That's great," Jayne said gruffly. "Can you run?"
The money was enough to book them passage on a piece of go se heading for the Borders. It was a refugee ship, full of folk who hadn't passed the Alliance's strict code of standards for a Core inhabitant. Some of them had emigrated to the Core and were heading back home; some were Core natives who'd fallen on hard times. Everyone had a different reason for being aboard, and there wasn't a one of them didn't have a secret that needed keeping. Jayne figured he and the girls fit right in.
It was funny. He'd already started calling them "the girls," as if they'd always been a unit. River had adopted her double as an immediate best friend, and Birdy – that was the other girl's name – did likewise. The name fit the girl, Jayne decided. She was tiny and she was thin and she had a tendency to be a bit flighty. That was a pun Shepherd Book would've appreciated.
He wondered if he'd ever see the old preacher again. He wondered if he'd ever see any of the old crew again. He wondered if they wondered about him. He was sure they wondered about the girl.
Girls now. There were two.
He'd stolen them all some clothes before buying their way on ship. It would have been the height of foolishness to hop on a refugee carrier dressed like so many Alliance hun dans.
He'd kept the guards' sidearms. Had them tucked in his stolen boots. Jessie on his right, and Mabel on the left. They weren’t great pieces, but there were better than nothing.
River was wearing a pink dress with blue paisley swirls that hung around her knees and kept falling off her right shoulder. He'd stolen Birdy some boy clothes, thinking maybe he could dress her up like River's twin brother or something, on account of her hair being so much shorter. It kind of worked, unless she raised those big brown eyes of hers; then there weren't no way of disguising that she was a scared little girl in beat-up coveralls and a shirt two sizes too big.
The three of them were huddled in a far back corner of a converted cargo bay the trawler used to haul refugees out to the Borders, or further still to the Rim. There weren't any beds, just old blankets on the floor to hold back the chill and soften the grating. Food consisted of gruel twice a day and lukewarm water, but it kept the belly full and that was plenty. Jayne had set them up so they were a little behind one of the support struts that held up the overhead walkway, providing them a bit of cover and some privacy. The girls liked to sleep curled up in the corner, the solid wall to their backs. They usually slept in shifts, with one girl holding the other while she slept. During River's wakeful hours, she and Jayne would watch each other as Birdy slept soundly on her double's shoulder. They didn't speak; weren't much to be said. River would stroke Birdy's hair and rub her back and Jayne would watch them. That was just how it was.
When it was Birdy's turn to be awake, she'd always pretend to still be asleep, clinging to River as if the other girl were a protective blanket. Jayne knew she was afraid of him, so he didn't argue. He was too tired to argue anyway. He'd spend the time sitting up with his head propped against the strut as he tried to get some sleep himself. It never worked. Every noise of every person in the cargo bay went off like a rifle shot in his ears. Instead of sleeping, he'd find himself staring up at the honeycomb grating of the walkway above, focusing on the way the harsh white lights of the bay got fractured and disassembled to land in a pattern of dappled shadow across his face. Kind of like sunlight through bullet holes, or neon street signs through the slats of a set of whorehouse shutters. Wo de ma, it'd been too long since he'd been with a woman. Too gorram long.
The voice was firm and loud and right next to his ear, and he blinked, shaking himself out of his reverie. Dragging his eyes downward, he had to blink a few more times to bring the world back into focus before he found himself staring into River's dark eyes. The girl was virtually nose to nose with him, mouth set in a grim line. "What you doin' up?" he asked, clearing his throat to remove the rasp of exhaustion.
"Where were you?" she asked, ignoring the question.
Jayne frowned at her. "What you mean, where was I?" he asked defensively. "Was right here, jus' like I always am."
"Not here. HERE." She raised a hand and tapped his forehead with a stern finger.
Jayne grabbed her wrist in a lightning fast grip "Don't do that," he said, voice low and dangerous. "Don't you ever do that again."
A soft, terrified whimper from behind River drew his attention, and he saw Birdy peering at him over the first girl's shoulder. "You were far away," she whispered, small fingers tapping nervously against her lips. "Couldn't bring you back."
"Gorrammit, I weren't nowhere," he snapped, tossing River's hand aside and glaring at Birdy. The skittish girl drew back with a little squeak, hiding her face in River's hair. Jayne frowned deeper and turned his glare back to River's face. "Why ain't you sleepin'?"
River tilted her head, watching his face with eerie calm. His warning of moments before didn't appear to faze her. "Birdy awoke me when she couldn't rouse you," she murmured.
"We will be landing within the hour. The captain announced over the com."
Jayne blinked. "Ain't right," he said, shaking his head vaguely. "Week long passage, that's what the man said when he sold the tickets."
River sat back, kneeling in front of him. Birdy rested her chin on her double's shoulder, and Jayne found himself facing down two identical pairs of brown eyes: one set placid, the other set worried.
"Yes, Jayne," River murmured with a nod. "Week long."
"But... it ain't been no week."
"Yes, Jayne. It has."
Jayne frowned, brow furrowing as he tried to remember the passage of time. It hadn't been a week. Couldn't've been. A couple days maybe; three even. But a week? He'd've known. He'd remember.
Soft fingers on his cheek made him blink and look up again. "Stay here," River commanded firmly, palming his cheek. She was nose to nose with him once more; he could feel her breath against his mouth. "No more wandering or we will lose you."
Jayne didn't know what the ruttin' hell she was yammering about, but he went along with it. "You girls just make sure you got everythin'," he muttered. "Cain't be leavin' nothin' behind that might lead back to the Alliance somehow." Birdy whimpered at his use of that name, and he felt a pang of fear in his own gut.
River seemed unconcerned. "Nothing to leave," she murmured, thumb tapping against his nose. "Just each other."
"Yeah, well, ain't leavin' none of us here neither. You make sure you keep tight hold of Birdy when we're gettin' off, dong ma? Don't want her gettin' swept away in the crowd."
"She won't. We won't. You will protect us." Birdy nodded vigorously behind her double.
Jayne sighed heavily, rubbing his weary eyes with a calloused hand. "Tha's what I do," he affirmed, head dropping back against the strut.
Delicate fingers touched his face and he dropped his hand to find not River, but Birdy touching him. "You need sleep," she said worriedly, and he realized her fingertips were tracing the outlines of the dark circles that hung like bags underneath his eyes. "You never sleep. Sleep is what you need."
That was the most Birdy had ever said to him, and he couldn't resist a small, amused smile. "Guess you learned to talk, huh?" he murmured. The girl blushed and pulled back to huddle behind River once more, tugging self-consciously on her short hair and dragging it over her face as if to hide.
Jayne sighed; he hadn't meant to scare the girl, but he was too tired to apologize. "Sleep when I'm dead," he told them, shifting his back into a more comfortable position against the post. "'Sides, I sleep plenty. You jus' don't see it cause you're sleepin', girl."
River's eyes burned as she stared at him, but he refused to meet her gaze. She knew he was lying.
"I'm gonna go grab us some grub," he muttered, pushing himself to his feet. "Don't neither of you move."
Turning away, he marched into the main body of the cargo bay before River or Birdy could say anything to stop him. Problem with the new girl finally finding her voice was it meant now he had two big-eyed girls who were gonna want to boss him around. Didn't know how he felt about that. Right now he was too damn tired to care.
They spent the next two weeks on three separate ships, hopping from planet to planet. After that first trip, Jayne didn't bother to buy tickets. For one, they didn't have the cash, and for two, the last thing he wanted was to leave a paper trail for the Alliance to follow. River was a dab hand at finding them back doors and opening locked hatches, and once they were in with all the rest of the 'fugees, it was easy enough to blend. It was getting even easier now that River and Birdy didn't both look like Death warmed over. River's hollow cheeks were beginning to fill out, and the shadow was fading from her eyes. Birdy did a lot more smiling and a lot less hiding these days; sometimes she even smiled at him. Jayne made an effort to smile back, because life was gonna be hard enough without having to worry he'd scare the girl into running off like a jackrabbit.
River had explained to him that Birdy wasn't some sort of clone or long lost sister. "The old wives’ tale that everyone has someone somewhere who looks like them," she told him earnestly. "It is not reserved solely for old wives. Somewhere there is another Jayne."
"Ain't nobody else like me," he'd grunted back.
"No," she'd sighed, laying her head on his shoulder as they watched Birdy sleep on the floor nearby. "No one else like Jayne."
Besides the hair, he was beginning to pick up other differences between the two girls. First off there was the obvious point that River was a crazy teenage assassin mind reader, whereas Birdy wasn't more than a sweet, giggly girl who shared some of River's quirky tendencies, sans the psychoses. Jayne figured there weren't a better argument for strangeness being genetic; he wondered if the weirdo gene was somehow connected to their eyes. They had the same damn eyes and no mistake.
Birdy was a little rounder than River; a little softer. On the occasions when Jayne found himself having to lift the girls up to high places, he could tell who he was lifting without even looking. River had sharp hipbones that seemed a hairsbreadth away from tearing through her skin; Birdy's hips were round and soft and giving under his fingers. She also giggled when he touched her, like she was ticklish all over. Kind of made him smile, same way he did when River's hair would brush his face as she leaned down to take his hand and help him up to wherever it was he'd hoisted them.
Now that Birdy'd gotten over her fear of talking, Jayne discovered it was hard to shut her up. She and River would have long chit-chats as they snuggled together like two peas in a pod, giggling frequently and taking turns playing with each other's hair. When River was sleeping, Birdy would turn her attention his way and talk eagerly about all manner of things he couldn't really appreciate, on account of being a mean old mercenary and not a sweet-natured young woman. Plants especially; girl was nutty about plants. Flowers, shrubs, trees, grass, even weeds; you name it, she loved it. He made the mistake of mentioning his mama's roses one day, and spent much of the afternoon listening to her eager babbling about the different rose varieties and what made each one special and sweet. Didn't actually bother him much, all her yammering; it was kind of nice listening to someone talk about life and growing things, after spending so much time all wrapped up in death.
He still wasn't sleeping, and he knew they knew. He dozed when he could, sometimes even made it to something resembling sleep; but then he'd have the nightmares and BANG! Awake again.
It didn't do any good to talk about it, so they didn't.
Jayne figured the blue handed hun dans from the Academy would expect them to hightail it to furthest Rim planet they could find, which was why he was determined to stay in the Borders. Firstly because there were more people and he and the girls were less likely to stick out, but also because he wanted to pull a little more wool over those sick motherhumpin' sons of bitches eyes. Two by two hands of screw you, that was his motto. Kinda catchy. He oughta get it on a t-shirt.
He knew they'd found the planet to stay on when, during a stopover, Birdy went flying past him down the ship's ramp and flung herself headlong into what look like a thorn bush, laughing with delight. This was one of the Borders' less populated worlds – some hick moon called Ayodele. The soil was too rocky for anything but subsistence farming, there wasn't much in the way of valuable ore, and about the only commodity of any value on the rock was its water, which got shipped out to be sold in ritzy bistros all across the Core. Jayne thought it was pretty stupid for a dust bowl planet to make 75 percent of its living exporting water, but to each their own. At least it meant the place had low visibility; no one came here that didn't have to.
A small white hand full of berries was shoved unceremoniously in his face, and he looked down to see Birdy beaming up at him, lips stained with juice. "Look!" she enthused. "Raspberries! And there are blueberries, and little wild strawberries, too!" Without waiting for his response, she stuffed some of the berries in his mouth before cramming the remainder into her own mouth and munching happily.
Jayne near choked on the handful of berries, but he managed to chew after a few seconds. Gorram, it was nice to taste something other than gruel and dry bread, which had been their steady diet since the escape. He thought maybe his eyes were crossing from the sweetness, and knew it for fact when he heard Birdy's answering giggle. "River will want some, too!" she chirped before running back to the bushes.
Jayne finished chewing and swallowed, letting his body sag down to sit at the bottom of the ramp. Their ship had landed at the far end of some dusty dockyard outside of a rinky dink cow town he'd heard somebody call Magnolia. His aunt Lisbeth had had magnolias when he was a boy; no way there was magnolias growing on this desert rock of a planet. He was surprised there were even berry bushes.
"The water." He glanced to the side to see River standing next to his shoulder. He'd managed to get his hands on some spare clothes for the girls during their travels, and today she was wearing a soft yellow sundress that made her look like a brown-eyed buttercup.
"What about it?" he asked, turning his attention back to the deserted dockyards. The rest of the ship's inhabitants – crew and passengers alike – had all headed for town as soon as the ramp came down. Jayne and the girls were enjoying the peace and quiet.
River floated down to sit beside him, her chin resting on her knees. "Good water, " she murmured, hugging her legs. "Strong water. It runs deep down, underground. Feeds and nourishes the thirsty roots. Life learns to thrive."
Jayne grunted in assent but didn't say anything. They watched Birdy as the girl continued to pluck berries, prattling on to the bush as if it were her new best friend. Jayne couldn't resist a smile; of the three of them, Birdy was taking all this the best. Maybe because she didn't know what they would've done to her back at that Academy, so it helped her sleep at night. Or maybe she just had one of those personalities like Kaylee: always cheerful, unless you broke her heart. He didn't rightly want to find out if that was true; he liked the way she smiled when they talked.
"Cannot run forever." He turned his attention back to River, who was still watching Birdy with fond eyes. She pulled her gaze away from the other girl and looked at him. "Cannot fly free," she murmured, sad acceptance painted across her face. "Not without Serenity."
"Ain't nothin' here for us, girl."
"The better to start from."
"Don't know how I'm gonna keep you and Birdy girl fed."
"We will find a way." She tilted her head and gave him a bright smile. "I will learn to cook!"
Jayne snorted, shaking his head and turning his attention back towards the town. "Gonna have to use Birdy as the guinea pig on that, girl. Don't reckon I fancy gettin' food poisonin' from a ruttin' genius. Liable to catch real smart sam and ella."
"Salmonella, and no you wouldn't. I will be a very good cook."
"Mebbe." He sighed and rubbed a weary hand over his face. He was tired and sore to the bone. Every muscle, every sinew ached, and his brain felt like mush. The incessant lack of sleep was taking its toll, and he could feel his limbs shaking with exhaustion.
Soft fingers touched the back of his neck, but he was too tired to raise his head. "You know we will stay," River murmured, voice tight with anxiety as she massaged the nape of his neck. "Please don't fight. You are too tired to fight. You cannot win a battle you are needing to lose." Her fingers moved from his neck and she stroked her knuckles over his cheek. "You will be able to sleep if we stay. You will be able to rest."
Lao tian, that sounded good. Sleep. Real sleep, in a real bed. He thought if he had a real bed, maybe he'd sleep so deep he wouldn't have no need for dreams.
"Please, Jayne," River murmured near his ear, propping her small chin on his broad shoulder and rubbing his back. "We could be happy here."
Jayne took a deep breath. The sun was warm and soft on his face, and a dry, gentle breeze rippled his clothes and made tendrils of River's long hair tickle his arm. The air smelled like sagebrush and sand, with a faint tinge of snowmelt from the mountains to the north. He could hear the noises of people in town, and beyond that, the unbroken silence of open country.
"Yeah," he murmured. "Maybe we could." He pushed to his feet.
"Jayne?" He felt River's small hand clutch his larger one. "Where are you going?"
"You keep this." He crouched down and tugged up his pant leg, drawing one of the Alliance pistols from his boot and holding it out to her. When River shrank away in alarm, Jayne grunted and forced the gun into her hand. "Anyone comes by you don't like the look of, don't you be afraid to use that. I know you know how."
He didn't look at River as she murmured, "Where are you going?"
"Where do you think I'm goin', girl?" he asked, standing straight again. "Find us somewhere to live."
The town was small and dusty; a series of alleys and side streets clustered around a central thoroughfare lined with storefronts. Most of the other 'fugees were clustered around the transport station, booking passage on air carriers to take them to the water refineries on the other side of the mountains, in search of work.
Jayne bypassed the group and wandered down the main street. Only one hotel to speak of, and its sign read NO VACANCY. The saloon probably had some rooms to let, but the thought of bringing Birdy into a place like that didn't set right in his stomach. River could hold her own, but that didn't mean he liked bringing her in there much, either. Besides, places like that were where outsiders tended to congregate; too much chance of someone catching sight of the girls and recognizing them.
A little shop at the mouth of a nearby alleyway caught his attention. The front of the store was lined with rows of flower boxes and seedling cups. If Birdy were with him, she'd have caught sight of it right away, he was sure. As it was, he found himself wandering over, drawn by a particularly showy flower with glossy green leaves and a funny oval head. He gave it a sniff; not too strong, but nice.
Jayne jerked his head back and looked sharply to the side to find an older middle-age woman leaning in the doorway of the shop. She had a red bandana tied around her head to keep her iron gray hair back from her face, and was wearing a sturdy flannel shirt and worn denims. He had a sudden recollection of his mama on Saturday afternoon's, leaning in the doorway, watching daddy breakin' colts in the paddock. "Huh?"
The woman nodded to the flower. "Peace lily," she repeated, pushing away from the door frame and standing beside him, gazing at the flower. "Pretty things. Ain't much good outside, but they pretty up a Sunday table. Haven't sold any since the War." She snorted. "Wonder why."
"Oh." He was suddenly uncomfortable. The last thing he wanted right now was undue attention.
"You got a girl with you?"
Every alarm in Jayne's body began to go off. "Why'd you think that?" he asked defensively.
"Cuz no offense, son, but you look about as horticulturally inclined as the sole of my boot." At Jayne's confused blink, she clarified, "Means you don't look much like the gardenin' type. Figure you must have a lady friend around that's made you interested."
"Oh." He scratched the back of his neck anxiously. "Yeah. Uh, girl's crazy 'bout plants."
The woman gave him a genuine smile that took the edge off his worry. "Really? Don't get many of those out here." She sighed, turning her gaze down the dusty main street. "Nope, most of the folks we get through here make a beeline for the factories up north. Like sellin' water to the rich folks in the Core is some kind of respectable thing to do." She spat to the side, dusting her hands as if rinsing them clean. "Piss on 'em, that's what I say."
Jayne snickered. He liked this lady. "Don't like the Alliance none I take it."
"Hell no. Born and raised an Independent, that's me." She darted a look in his direction. "Reckon you aren't too fond of them neither."
Jayne kept his face emotionless as he shrugged. "Don't give no nevermind about 'em."
She moved a step closer, so they were almost shoulder to shoulder. Or shoulder to elbow – she wasn't a tall woman. "That bulge down by your boot ain't a bunion, son," she told him.
Jayne couldn't keep his eyes from darting down to his feet, and he saw a glint of blue steel peeking at him from out of his boot.
"The only folk I know who carry Alliance pistols are Alliance soldiers, boy," the old woman said in a low voice. "And if you're an Alliance soldier, I'm a lily white virgin debutante from Ariel."
Straightening up, she gave him a warm smile, as if they hadn't just been talking about life and death situations. "How 'bout you come on in, join an old woman in some hair of the dog that bit you." She grabbed his arm in friendly fashion, but with a steel tight grip that said she wasn't going to be trifled with. Again, Jayne was reminded of his ma. "It looks like you could use a drink."
The inside of the shop was cool and a little humid. Plants of varying sizes lined shelves and tables. Through the back door, he could see sunlight streaming into a well-stocked greenhouse.
"Name's Hannah Dawkins," the woman said, as she lifted a bottle of liquor and two glasses up onto the counter from behind the cash register. "Folks 'round here just call me ma'am. Come 'ere."
It wouldn't pay to argue at this point. Better to find out what the old woman knew, then deal with her however seemed appropriate.
"I got no love for the Alliance," she explained as she poured them both a glass of the liquor; smelled like a mix of whiskey and bourbon. Holding his out to him, she waited till he took it, then downed her own shot. "Way I see it, anyone who's an enemy of the Alliance is a friend to me."
"How 'bout Reavers?" Jayne asked, knocking back his shot. He hissed as it burned down his throat. "They ain't friends of nobody."
"Depends," Hannah said as she poured him another glass.
"On whether or not they're killin' Alliance soldiers at the time I meet 'em."
Jayne took his second shot; it still burned, but not so bad this time around. "Damn, woman," he said with a fierce chuckle and a shake of his head. "You hate 'em bad."
"Damn right I do." She gestured, glass in hand, to a picture that hung behind the counter. It showed a younger Hannah with a man who was obviously her husband, two young boys playing in the grass by their feet. "Had me a husband once. Roger Dawkins. Best man a girl could ever ask for." Her voice got a little misty. "Gimme two strapping boys, Roger did."
Hannah chuckled and turned back to face him. "Gave 'em his good looks and his gorram high ideals." She downed her second shot, then followed it closely with a third, rubbing the back of her hand across her mouth. "Born Browncoats they were. When the war broke out the oldest weren't more'n eighteen, but of course he went and followed his daddy out to them killin' fields. It was all I could do to hold onto little Jamie for the two years until he turned eighteen, too. Then he was off after 'em."
Jayne watched her sigh, staring into the swirling contents of her glass as she relived old memories. "We had a little house, Roger and me," she murmured. "Sweet little farmhouse a few miles outside of town. He built it by the river, so I could have water for my garden. Man knew how much I loved my garden. Used to grow the biggest gorram vegetables you ever clapped eyes on. Even had some roses." She smiled fondly.
It only lasted a moment, and was soon replaced with steely calm. "Day they signed the Armistice I moved out," she told him, voice flat. "I knew they wasn't coming back."
They stood in silence for a few long minutes. Jayne didn't drink his third shot, but he watched Hannah go through four more like they was water.
"You say your girl likes plants?"
Jayne looked up to find Hannah staring down into the bottle. "Loves 'em," he agreed. "Talks to 'em and all."
A soft smile touched Hannah's hard mouth. When she looked up, Jayne was floored to see tears in her eyes. "They like that," she said. "When you talk to 'em, treat 'em like they're people. Makes 'em want to grow big and strong, just like any child you ever met."
She hit a button on the register and the drawer popped open with a DING! Fishing around in one of the compartments, she came up with a set of keys and dropped them on the counter in front of Jayne.
"Follow the river and go five miles northwest of town," she told him, ignoring his confused expression. "I go out there two or three times a year, just to make sure nobody's gone through lootin'. Nobody has. They all know I'd whip 'em till they bleed if they laid a finger on that house. Mind you, it needs a bit of work. Some of the wood's rotted through and the garden's a mess of brambles, but I reckon a strong fella like yourself can straighten that out soon enough. And if this girl of yours is such a green thumb, she'll have my garden growing again in no time."
Jayne picked up the keys as if in a daze. He wondered for a minute if the lack of sleep was making him hallucinate; he'd heard that could happen. Moving his eyes from the keys to the woman and back to the keys, he asked, "Why?"
Hannah sighed, pushing the alcohol aside. "I ain't sold a damn Peace Lily since the war ended," she told him honestly. "Ain't even bothered growin' 'em. Lately I've been thinkin' that's ripe foolishness; 's just a plant like any other. That one you was lookin' at is the first I've put out there in goin' on ten years. It's first day on the street and it brings you over: a man who somehow got his hands on an Alliance pistol and just happened to end up on a refugee ship out here to the ass end of the universe. And then you tell me you've got a girl with you who loves plants like I did, back when I was a girl. You aren't lined up with all those other damn fools headin' over the mountains to the water mills, so I know you're looking to set down some roots. You also smell like you haven't had a bath in near forever, so I know you don't have the cashy money to rent a place, let alone buy."
She nodded to the keys in his hand. "It's a good place. Sturdy, strong. Running water and all, once you fix up the pump. The river's just a hop, skip and a jump down from the back steps and through the garden. Got a water-powered generator, so you don't gotta worry 'bout 'lectricity. I'd've sold it, but I'll be damned if I wasn't gonna let that garden go to someone who wouldn't know the first thing 'bout how to keep it. Some of my happiest days were spent in that garden; ain't right to sell it off just to have it gone."
Jayne didn't know what to say. "I ain't got no money..." he muttered.
Hannah raised her hands to him, palms outward. "Don't want any." She gave him another genuine smile. "Listen, son, don't try and say thank you. I can tell by your manner you ain't the thankin' kind. But don't go lookin' a gift horse in the mouth neither." She put her hands back on the counter. "That house has been sittin' out there, empty and heartsore, for near a decade. It used to be a home once. I like the thought of it bein' a home again; just not to me." Her smile turned bittersweet. "Too many memories."
Jayne felt his stomach twisting. "Mama taught me it ain't right to take charity," he said gruffly, fingering the keys. He made no move to give them back.
Hannah took pity on him. "All right then. I told you I had me some roses out there." She nodded. "You get your girl to grow me some roses. We'll call it square."
Jayne stared at the keys. They were heavy and smelled strongly of metal.
He nodded sharply. "Right."
Her smile wrinkled the corners of her eyes. "Right then." She came back around the counter and looked up at him. "You'd best be getting' back. You leave next couple of hours and you can make it there before sunset."
Jayne nodded muzzily; his head was spinning. "Will do, ma'am."
"I don't know your name, son."
He blinked. No name. He didn't have a name here; none of them did.
"John," he said. "John Kopp."
"Well, John Kopp. You take your girl that Peace Lily on your way out. Call it a house warmin' gift, dong ma?"
She ushered him out the door, stooping over to pick up the Peace Lily and its pot and place it in his arms. "Remember now; I want some roses," she told him with a warm smile.
"Yes, ma'am." He couldn't think of what else to say. The keys were cool and heavy in his pocket, and they were making it hard to think.
"Your mama raised you right, John Kopp," Hannah said with feeling. "I knew it by your eyes. You're a good man."
Jayne gave her a tight smile. "Don't know 'bout that, ma'am," he told her. "But I'm tryin'."
Birdy immediately christened the lily Theodore, and she was hugging it lovingly as the three of them wandered along the bumpy trail that followed the lazy curve of the gurgling river. Most of the above ground water got siphoned off by the bottling companies on the other side of the mountains, but this river somehow managed to escape. Jayne figured it was only fitting that the house they'd just been given was situated on the banks of a fugitive river; they were all cut from the same cloth.
"And Theodore says that when the rainy season comes, the river rises up, up, up and floods its banks," Birdy was telling River. The girls were walking arm in arm ahead of him, Theodore clutched protectively to Birdy's belly. "But it's the dry season now, so the river is sleepy and snuggles down in its bed."
Jayne chuckled, turning his attention back to the river. It was definitely low, and the water was muddy and brown, but he saw the occasional tell tale splashes of fish, which meant it was healthy. Hell, it'd been years since he'd gone fishin'. Years upon years. He made a note to rig himself up a pole, go see what he could catch.
It was just a little exhalation from one of the girls in front of him, but it was enough to get his attention. And good thing, too, because he would have walked right into them if he hadn't looked up just at the right moment. "What?" he asked, looking between the girls’ awestruck faces. "What's wrong?"
"Oh Jayne," Birdy murmured, staring straight ahead. "It's so PRETTY..."
Jayne looked up, and saw the house.
It'd been white once, but years of neglect had stripped paint off the clapboards and left them peeling and gray. A sturdy farmer's porch wrapped around the two-story structure on all four sides, with white painted posts and a rose trellis that rose up beside the front stairs. One window was broken on the first floor, but everything else seemed in order. He'd have to see inside, of course, to see what more damage had been done over the years; but staring at it now, he was tempted to get down on his knees and thank God for the first time in near thirty years.
A small hand grabbed his larger one and he looked down to see River beaming up at him. "Come on!" she enthused, and he realized that Birdy was already running headlong towards the house, Theodore bobbing along in her arms. Jayne let himself be tugged forward by River's eager hand, but he let her go when she started to run. He was too tired and sore for anything more than a slow jog. River flew down the track ahead of him, hot on Birdy's heels. The girls ran around the back of the house together and disappeared.
Jayne felt a momentary twinge of panic when he lost sight of them. He didn't like having them where he couldn't see them. "Girls!" he called out, picking up his pace a little. When they didn't answer, he tried again, "GIRLS!" This time he managed to get his feet to take up a stuttering run.
He rounded the house in no time, and came to a skidding, panting halt in the backyard, staring at the scene that met his eyes. Birdy had put Theodore down on the back porch steps, and she was currently walking, slowly and carefully, up and down the weed-choked rows of Hannah's abandoned garden. She looked up at his entrance, and he could tell – even from this distance – that there were tears in her eyes.
"Oh Jayne," she murmured, sniffling. "They're so lonely. They've been alone so long. They know their mother was hurting, but they've missed her for so many years... Shhhh...," she soothed, reaching out to run her hands gently over some piece of bracken that Jayne thought was dead, but he must've been mistaken. "Shhh, little ones. Birdy will make you dance again. Birdy will make you green." She smiled and bent down to kiss one of the withered, crackling plants, then looked up to turn that sad, bright smile in Jayne's direction.
"Birdy's gotta walk soft," she whispered, raising her sandal-clad foot for him to see. "Or else she'll scare them at the root."
Jayne nodded. "Where's River?" he asked, still regaining his breath.
Birdy laughed, a far cry from her tears of a moment before. "Down by the river," she giggled.
Jayne nodded and moved away from the house, down the gentle slope towards the river.
River was standing ankle deep in the water, bent over at the waist and staring down into the rippling current. "You okay, girl?" He asked, coming to a stop a few paces away from the water's edge.
"River is standing by the river," the girl answered dreamily, tilting her head as she watched the fascinating interplay of sun and shadow on the floor of the river. "River by the river. Poetic."
"River in the river more like," he observed gruffly. "You're gonna catch cold, standin' in the water like that."
"This girl is in good health," she murmured, not looking up. Tendrils of her hair left ripples on the surface of the water. "And the water is refreshing."
Jayne remembered Hannah's observation that he hadn't bathed in a long time. "Warm or cold?"
Which was the clear-cut kind of vague he'd come to expect from River. "Maybe I'll take me a swim," he mused, sitting heavily on a nearby tree root that thrust up from the riverbank. "Haven't gone swimmin' in damn near forever."
River looked over her shoulder at him, eyes shining but concerned. "And then he will sleep?" she asked.
The word alone was enough to make his muscles sag with exhaustion: sleep. "Yeah," he muttered with a gruff nod. "Then I'll sleep."
His promise turned into a lie, of course, and he didn't find himself ready for bed until well into the evening. His swim woke him up and left him feeling refreshed and human for the first time in weeks. He spent much of the afternoon assessing the damages to the outside of the house – there weren't many, but they were big'uns – and taking stock of the interior. Every piece of furniture and available floor space had been covered with sheets and blankets to fend off dust. The first floor was mostly kitchen and living room, with some other bits between. The second floor had two bedrooms, and he spent the remainder of his afternoon swapping furniture so the single large bed in the master bedroom was moved into the smaller bedroom at the top of the stairs, and the twin beds from that room were in turn moved back to the master. He didn't have need for the girly furniture that had once been Hannah's, feeling much more at home with the clean, spare lines of her sons' simple bedroom set. Besides, he figured the girls would like getting to have their own bathroom, and even a small vanity with a tidy mirror that hung on the wall.
By the time he was ready for bed, the moon was high and the air was dark. They hadn't started up the water-powered generator yet, so they all got ready for bed by candlelight. Jayne was busy making preparations in his head for what he was going to do the next day: fix the back porch swing; rehang the first floor bathroom door; go fishing, for food and to have some goods to barter in town. He fancied the idea of getting some chickens. A home weren't a home unless there were some speckled hens running around and getting underfoot.
He was about to tumble face first into bed when a small hand stopped his movement. He looked down to the side and found Birdy looking up at him, dark brown eyes wide with anxiety. "Jayne?" she whimpered.
He sighed. "Yeah, girl?" He pictured another sleepless night ahead of him.
"Please, we cannot sleep without you." She gestured vaguely. "The nightmares come when you don't watch us."
Jayne rubbed his eyes wearily. "Girl, ain't nothin' gonna get you here, dong ma? You're safe. You and River is both safe."
Her eyes got even bigger, if that was possible, and her lower lip started to wobble. "Please, Jayne," she whimpered. "It's too scary in the dark all alone."
Jayne sighed again, deeper this time. "Fine," he said. "Let's go."
Birdy took his hand gratefully and led him down the corridor to the master bedroom. River was curled up in one bed, and contrary to Jayne's belief, Birdy didn't automatically make for the other one. Instead, she climbed into the twin bed beside River, and the two girls cuddled down together under the blankets. "Jayne may have the other bed," River told him dreamily as Birdy nestled up close.
Jayne wasn't in the mood to argue, so he stumbled over to the other bed, tore down the bedclothes, and dropped down on the mattress. Oh, sweet Jesus, it was like falling into heaven. It was a hard mattress, not much padding, and the bed linens smelled old and dusty. But to his tired bones, it was Shangri La.
"Sleep." The voice was firm, and as he looked in the direction of the other bed, he saw two sets of warm brown eyes gazing at him in the candlelight. River was the one who had spoken, though Birdy's eyes seemed the more concerned.
"I'm gonna," Jayne assured them, voice slurring.
"We'll watch," Birdy told him with a little nod. Then, as an afterthought, "Sweet dreams."
Jayne thought about that. It had been a long day, but a good one. They'd found a planet. They'd found a home. They'd found a garden for Birdy, and a namesake for River, and a laundry lists of projects to keep Jayne's idle hands busy. They were safe and, for the first time since the escape, they were comfortable.
Outside, the night noise of crickets touched his ears like angel song.
"Yeah," he mumbled, already drifting off. "Sweet dreams... the sweetest..."
His voice trailed off, and for the first time in weeks, he slept.