Fic: Mare Imbrium (2.5/6 of The Man In The Moon) - this chapter has been split into seven parts due to size
Author: Green Owl
Rating: PG-13 (Jayne broadcasts inappropriate thoughts again)
Summary: AU. River, meet Jayne.
Previous Chapters: Pareidolia (Prologue), Mare Imbrium (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
Disclaimer: I don't own or buy/sell/process this mind crack - I just abuse the hell out of it.
River hesitated as she closed the rear passenger-side door to her aunt’s vehicle, her hands shaking as she struggled to keep hold of the covered dish of barbecue fare Uncle Mal had given her to hold in her lap on the short drive over.
There were a number of people already congregating at the Cobbs’ home. A very large number.
Itching, scratching, cackling, crackling, tingling, tickling, tricky, sticky and slick, she had to bite her lips to hold back a whimper as the entities gathered and smoldered in the frontal lobes of her cerebral cortex. She wanted nothing more than to demand to be taken back to her aunt and uncle’s house so she could rush up to her room, bury her head under the pillow and wait for her little grey cells to cool down. But she had a gastronomic gift for the Cobb family in her hands and it wouldn’t be proper to dump and dash just because her filters were not functioning properly.
River almost jumped as she felt her aunt’s gentle hand settle on her shoulder, her calm presence muting the volume to a manageable level. “Are you all right, sweetheart?”
She nodded, forcing a smile as she made the conscious choice to block all signals. It would make it harder to Read people, but it would make it easier for her to mingle without feeling the urge to dig her fingernails into her palms.
Inara squeezed her shoulder. “Good. I would hate to see Mal’s ambrosia salad splatter all over your pretty dress.”
River glanced down at the plastic-wrapped bowl as they followed Kaylee and Zoe through the gate to the Cobbs’ backyard. The moniker for the chaotic pastel mixture was most confusing because it didn’t look ambrosial or even vaguely salad-like. It looked like a mess, and a very mushy mess at that. It consisted of items that seemed to have been thrown together at the last minute without any sort of forethought: orange slices, pineapple bits and shredded coconut mixed into a muddle of sweet and sour creams with bits of soggy marshmallows dotting the top.
She made a mental note to stay away from the somewhat revolting concoction as she stepped through the gate to the Cobbs’ backyard.
One of the Cobbs liked to work with the earth, River noted as she followed Kaylee and Zoe through the crowd to a trestle table that was groaning with food. A large vegetable patch planted with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans and peppers sprawled lazily in the sun, vying for light with an herb garden that featured dill, chives, basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint and lavender. The scents were delicate, but not totally overwhelmed by the smell of meat cooking over an open fire in a metal box.
Mr. Cobb was tending the animal protein, one hand gripping a pair of tongs while the other waved hello and gave one-armed handshakes and hugs to the men and women who were filing past him. He wore khaki slacks, a pale blue loop shirt and a deep red apron that had “What Part Of ‘It’s Not Done Yet!’ Don’t You Understand?” printed on the chest.
“What’s that ya got there, lil’ Kaylee? That yer daddy’s tater salad? Lord an’ Lady, we’re gonna hafta let out our belts a few notches!” he exclaimed as he hauled Kaylee into a one-armed bear hug and gave her a hearty kiss on her forehead. He then turned and saluted Zoe with incredible sharpness. “Ready for your tour of duty, Corporal Alleyne?”
Zoe, hands full with a pot of franks and beans, clicked her heels together and threw her shoulders back. “Ready, sir! Water guns locked and loaded!”
“Well you two just set those dishes down on the table and git!” Mr. Cobb suggested. His eyes turned soft and fond as he looked at Inara. “Mrs. Serra, why yer ‘bout as pretty as a Sihnon sunset! When ya gonna leave that useless husband o’ yers an’ run away with me?”
“I almost forget I look like I swallowed a moon when you sweet talk like that,” Inara murmured before letting Mr. Cobb kiss her cheek. “Good to see you, Lee.”
“Hey!” Mal exclaimed, elbowing his way in between his wife and Mr. Cobb and holding his cheek up to the host. “Where’s my kiss?”
“Ladies first, Mal,” Mr. Cobb said, and turned to River. “How are ya, Miss Tam?”
River curtsied as gracefully as she could managed with both hands full. “Very well, Mr. Cobb. It’s so lovely to see you again.”
“Same here, darlin’,” he said. “The Mrs.’s been cluckin’ somethin’ fierce ‘bout how excited she is to have ya meet our boys.”
River was confused. “Boys?”
Inara shared a brief, knowing look with her husband as he deposited a basket of blue cornbread on the table and they left in search of a cozy spot for her to settle down and rest.
River gently laid the heavy bowl on a bare spot on the table next to Mr. Cobb and eyed the protein sizzling on the smoking grill. It smelled very good, even if it didn’t look much better than the ambrosia salad.
Mr. Cobb shrugged his shoulders as he flipped a burger and adjusted a hot dog. “My Nellie’s got some bee in her bonnet ‘bout a girl like ya havin’ some kind of good influence on ‘em, mayhap teach ‘em a thing or two ‘bout mindin’ their manners.”
“Oh.” River thought of the striking, bothersome young man she’d met this afternoon and prayed the Cobbs’ sons conducted themselves with more class than that vulgar excuse for a primate. “Are they very difficult?”
“Matty’s a good kid, but his brother…” Mr. Cobb shook his head and grinned ruefully. “Been a handful since the day he was born. Mean as a snake he is, drivin’ all the girls crazy with his teasin’ an’ prankin’. Kid’s a looker, too, which makes it double hard for any girl to give him what-for.”
“Is he the one you wanted Mrs. Cobb to execute?” River asked.
“Bullseye, darlin’,” Mr. Cobb said, inclining his head towards her. “Smart as a whip, aintcha just?”
River smiled up at him, warming to his crusty and straightforward manner. “Your gardens are very beautiful. Mr. Cobb. Do you tend them yourself?”
“Nope, that’s our Jayne,” he replied. “Gotta helluva green thumb.”
“That you out there, River Tam?”
River turned to see Mrs. Cobb standing in the doorway, her arms weighed down with dishes, napkins and cutlery.
“Yes, ma’am, it’s me,” she said, curtseying.
“Come here, sweet girl, let me getta look at ya in yer fancy dress!” Mrs. Cobb called, her smile warm and open.
“Aw, Nellie, I ain’t done visitin’ with her yet!” Mr. Cobb complained as River made her way towards Mrs. Cobb.
Mrs. Cobb rolled her eyes. “Always hoggin’ the pretty girls, Lee! I swear, yer as bad as Matty!”
“Here, ma’am, let me assist you with those,” River said, holding out her hands for a load.
Mrs. Cobb carefully handed over the enormous package of napkins as she admired River’s outfit. “Gosh, but dontcha look so purty, makin’ this little shindig seem like a real fancy party in that rig!”
When in doubt, dress better than you believe the occasion demands, her mother often counseled her.
“Thank you, Mrs. Cobb,” River said, glad that she had heeded her mother’s advice for once. She had chosen to wear a ballerina-length dress made of white-patterned red cotton and pulled her hair off of her neck into a ponytail in deference to the heat.
“Looks a good deal cooler than that get-up ya had on yesterday, too,” Mrs. Cobb observed, duly noting River’s lack of hosiery.
“Yes, ma’am,” River said, using the table to steady herself as she set out the napkins. She was wearing a pair of white platform sandals that were as precarious as her pointe shoes. “I did my best to pay attention to your warning about the weather.”
“Good thinkin’, sweet girl. Hotter today than it was yesterday,” Mrs. Cobb said, and then noticed a fine sheen of sweat dotting River’s forehead. “Are you thirsty, little one?”
“Yes, ma’am,” River replied, touching her hairline cautiously. She’d applied a bit of face powder to her skin before they left and that was looking to melt right off in the next ten minutes.
“Well, let’s go in an’ getcha a glass o’ sweet tea afore’n ya ya get all liqueficated,” Mrs. Cobb suggested leading the way into the cool sanctuary of the house.
The Cobbs’ residence was as comfy, if not more so, than Uncle Mal and Aunt Inara’s house. With eight children to their credit, Mr. and Mrs. Cobb had to be prudent regarding their choice in furniture and the kitchen’s battered table and mismatched chairs attested to years of hard use and the occasional replacement. The kitchen echoed with laughter and hugs and horrible punning jokes and River felt at home like she never had in Mrs. Dao’s culinary bastion of polished steel and granite.
“Have a seat, sweet girl,” Mrs. Cobb said, opening the massive refrigerator and pulling out a large jug of brown liquid. “Lemon?”
“Please,” River said.
Mrs. Cobb poured her a tall glass of tea, plucked a lemon wedge from a huge bowl waiting to be taken outside and shoved it onto the glass. She set it in front of River and said, “Now ya drink all that down, but careful-like. It’s liable to ice yer brain if’n ya gulp it too fast.”
River had never gulped anything before in her life, but she didn’t feel the need to point this out to Mrs. Cobb. She sipped the beverage cautiously, pleased with the sweet-sour-dark flavor. “If you please, ma’am, do you have any pictures of your children about? I would very much like to see them.”
“Surely,” Mrs. Cobb said, wiping her hands on a handy rag. “Come with me into the den an’ I’ll give ya the roll call.”
Taking up her glass and a napkin to blot the moisture from her forehead, River followed Mrs. Cobb through a doorway to an even cooler room paneled in dark wood. A long, battered leather sofa sat in front of a fireplace, a sturdy coffee table sitting between the two and a card table with four chairs to one side. The windows were set high up in the wall, making it difficult for the sunlight to penetrate this room and the translucent curtain also helped to keep the heat out.
River almost dropped her drink when she saw the small bookshelf with tattered copies of pulp fiction paperbacks.
She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth, tasting cherry-flavored lip gloss as she seriously contemplated committing an unforgiveable breach of manners by attempting to stealth-filch such respected titles as “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia”. She recalled her promise to her aunt, but only just in time as Mrs. Cobb gestured to the row of portraits marching along the mantelpiece.
“That’s Thomasina,” Mrs. Cobb said, pointing to a picture of a woman in uniform. “My eldest. She’s got ten years in the Allied Marine Corps and looks to be making lieutenant any month now.”
“She’s stunning,” River commented, noticing the woman’s golden hair, deep-set bright blue eyes, high forehead and squared jaw.
Mrs. Cobb puffed up with pride. “I’m in complete agreement with ya, but don’t go tellin’ Tommie that. My girl prides herself on bein’ a ‘long, tall, tough broad’. Says she don’t truck with no beautifyin’.”
“How tall is she?” River asked, noticing that Tommie Cobb’s arms were very long.
“’Bout six feet five, last time we measured her,” Mrs. Cobb said, indicating her daughter’s height by holding it almost six inches higher than her own head.
“My goodness!” River exclaimed. The woman was almost a foot taller than she was!
“I know,” Mrs. Cobb said. “And she was so tiny when she was born, too. Only ‘bout seventeen inches long.”
River had no experience with babies’ measurements, so she took Mrs. Cobb’s word for it.
“After Tommie came Vivian,” Mrs. Cobb said, pointing to the next picture. The dark-haired, hazel-eyed man looking back had his father’s strong cheekbones and jaw, but his mother’s nose. “He’s a shrimp compared to his older sister – only ‘bout five eleven an’ a half. Very insistent on that half, by the way. Says he needs it to beat Jo in the family’s height competition.”
“Joe?” River asked, looking at the next picture down the line. It was another man, but his features were not as strong as Vivian’s. The man had an almost elven look about him with his lanky build, green eyes and cheeky grin.
“My second girl,” Mrs. Cobb clarified. “But we gotta go in order. That’s Marion and he is six feet one and a half inches.”
“Is he also very insistent on his half inch?” River asked, a smile curving her lips.
“Absolutely. Needs it to beat out my youngest girl,” Mrs. Cobb confided. “Ian and Rion are in the Army, while with my charmer, Matty, is in the Marine Corps with Tommie.”
Matty Cobb was gorgeous, River decided. He had his father’s strong jaw, eyebrows and cheekbones, and his mother’s blond hair, blue eyes and winning smile. The look in his eyes was one of kindness; River liked his features very much.
“Only five feet ten,” Mrs. Cobb said, shaking her head, “Runt of the litter. In the Marines, too, an’ somehow manages to deal when his fellow jarheads pick on him for bein’ seven inches shorter than his sister. My next baby, Joella, is an inch taller than him and in the Bounty Hunters’ Union. We call her ‘Jo’.”
Jo was as beautiful, if not more so, than Tommie. She had her mother’s graceful features and her father’s wide, laughing mouth. Her hair was brighter than Tommie’s and her eyes were a bit greener, and she looked like a sleek, regal swan in her black leather apprentice uniform.
“And behind her is Jayne, her twin, five inches taller than her, the problem child,” Mrs. Cobb said, indicating the young man standing behind Jo. “Trouble with a capital ‘T’ since the day he followed his big sister outta the womb.”
River could make out that the boy was taller than Jo and had brown hair, a strong nose and nice teeth, but the beauty of his twin sister distracted her from making out his face.
“Is Jayne in the military as well?” River asked, still mesmerized by Jo’s radiant symmetrical beauty.
“No,” Mrs. Cobb said with a sigh. “Still hasn’t figured out what he’s good for, so he’s home with us until he gets his head together.”
River nodded and directed her attention to the last image. “Another set of twins, Mrs. Cobb?”
Mrs. Cobb sighed. “Why the Lord and Lady saw fit to gift us with twins two times in a row, I have no idea. But They did…Hilary and Helena are our last, and possibly most well-behaved, efforts.”
“How old are they?” River asked, liking the looks of the tall, gangly girl and boy with matching sunny smiles. They were both sundarked, with amber hair and hazel eyes.
“Fourteen. Lennie’s already got her growth spurt, but I think Lary’s gonna surpass her.” Mrs. Cobb looked at River and said, “In answer to your unposed question, Lennie’s six feet one and Lary’s gaining on her at five feet eleven.”
“Are they both at home?” River inquired, sipping more of her sweet tea.
“Sakes no!” Mrs. Cobb said, shaking her head. “They’re visiting with their grandparents on Aetna. Only Matty and Jayne are here now, though Ian and Rion are due to visit in a few months.”
“Why do you call Jayne your ‘problem’ child?” River asked, feeling a strong kinship for the boy just from his mother’s description.
Mrs. Cobb ran a hand through her short hair and sighed heavily. “That boy’s got more wickedness in his pinky finger than the rest o’ his sibs have in their entire bodies. We’re talkin’ highly inventive phrases spray-painted on farm animals, cherry bombs under trash cans, trout gettin’ dynamited in the lake, not to mention respectable church-goin’ folk gettin’ an eyeful of my child’s bare backside while drivin’ home in their cars from Sunday services.”
River’s eyes widened. This “Jayne” was very creative! Perhaps he wouldn’t be averse to liberating some contraband for her from the library…?
“And then there was the latest incident,” Mrs. Cobb confided as she folded her arms. “Someone determined that there needed to be a repeat performance of Doc Hammond’s cow finding its way up onto the roof of Preacher Book’s house of worship.”
River hid a giggle by taking a sip of sweet tea. She liked this boy’s style.
“Ma? You in there?” a young man’s voice called from outside.
“In here, son!” Mrs Cobb called.
“Ma?” – the voice got closer – “Pa says he’s ready to serve the hot dogs and we don’t have the catsup, mustard or relish out on the table yet. Where’d ya put ‘em?”
He was silhouetted against the doorway and River could barely make out his face, but as he stepped down into the room, she saw it was Matty.
“Matty, honey, this is Miss River Tam, the girl I’ve been tellin’ ya so much ‘bout,” his mother said, guiding her over to him. “River, this is my son, Matty.”
He was even more handsome than his picture and River felt something warm and gentle and soothing settle over her as he smiled at her and extended his hand in greeting.
“Quite a pleasure, Miss Tam,” he said, shaking her hand in both of his. “Gosh, yer ‘bout ten times prettier than Ma said ya was.”
River blushed as she smiled. “Thank you, you’re very kind.”
Mrs. Cobb patted Matty’s back as she passed by them on her way into the kitchen. “Condiments are in the fridge, my boy. If’n ya two could bring ‘em out, that’d be right nice.”
“Shall we?” Matty asked, offering River his arm.
“I’d like that very much,” she replied, enjoying the cool, kindhearted way he smiled at her as she linked her arm through his.
He guided her up the steps into the kitchen and then released her so he could open the refrigerator door.
“Do ya play croquet, River?” Matty asked as he retrieved bottles labeled “catsup” and “mustard” and a large jar that said “pickled relish”.
“I’ve been known to on occasion,” she replied, picking up mustard bottle.
“Well,” Matty said, picking up the relish jar and catsup bottles and offering his arm again, “yer in for a mean game o’ wickets. Favorite pastime here on the Rim.”
“Truly?” She sighed with relief. At last, something she could understand.
“Yep,” Matty continued, leading her out of the house to the picnic table where they put the condiments down, “I’m pretty good, but Jayne’s the master. My lil’ brother’s got skills even I don’t know ‘bout.”
"He must have very good aim," River observed as she added another point in Jayne's favor.
“You betcha. Him an’ Kaylee been havin’ a contest these past five years to see who’s got the best game an’ he’s been whuppin’ her somethin’ fierce the past three,” Matty continued as wandered on down a gentle slope to the larger expanse of the backyard where the guests sat on quilts under oak and ash trees. “Ya see, he’s got this strategy – take no prisoners. Brutal, I tell ya, just brutal.”
“Hmmm,” River commented, raising her glass to take a sip from of her sweet tea. “Sounds like a formidable player.”
Matty nodded and turned his attention to the lawn where Kaylee and a very, very tall young man were wildly gesticulating with mallets while trading good-natured insults. “Well, speak of the devil, there he is now. Hey, Jayne!”
River’s steps and hand slowed as she felt her filters start to leak.
It couldn’t be.
The very tall young man turned around and raised a hand in greeting to Matty.
River stood stock still, glass halfway to her lips.
It just couldn’t be.
River recognized Mr. Cobb’s jaw, nose and forehead in the young man’s face, as well as a sinfully beautiful smile all his own that died a hasty death as recognition registered.
River’s mouth went dry as she met the bright blue eyes Mrs. Cobb had passed on to her son.
He was just as handsome as he’d been an hour ago when she’d seen him in all of his bare-chested, dripping wet glory, but this time his hair was dry and he wore clothes. A pair of well-worn denims covered him below the waist while the tight white t-shirt stretched across his chest was partially covered by a black-piped blue short-sleeved shirt with “Jayne” embroidered in black on the pocket.
River was intensely aware of her own clothing as her body surged to life, her heart rate shot up and her filters went haywire. She tasted the chaotic mélange of his shock, his egotism and his outrageous predilection for iniquity as they slammed into her all at once, almost knocking the breath out of her.
“Jayne, this is my cousin, River,” Kaylee said, making the introductions. “River, this is Jayne Cobb.”
River shifted her glass to her left hand and carefully extended her right. “Hello.”
He grinned at her, an ugly smirk full of malice and spite, but his words were completely civil as he shook her hand and parroted his father’s introduction to her. “Charmed, Miss Tam, quite charmed.”
“Likewise,” she said, withdrawing her hand and surreptitiously rubbing it against her skirt. It felt like it had been dipped in butter laced with battery acid and she didn’t know how to shut out the sensation.
Neither Kaylee nor Matty seemed to notice the silent exchange.
“Scotch twosome?” Kaylee suggested to Matty, holding up a choice of blue or green mallets.
“Groovy,” Matty replied easily, grabbing the green mallet. He slung an arm around Kaylee’s shoulders. “Hey, why dontcha play on Jayne’s team, River? He can teach ya ifn’ ya don’t know the rules.”
River smiled wanly as Matty and Kaylee bent their heads together and started strategizing.
“Trespassin’ again, Core girl?” Jayne sneered softly as he flicked his deep-blue-sea eyes up and down her body.
“No, I was invited,” River replied icily, briefly indulging in the fantasy of pouring what remained of her drink over the top of his head…if she could only reach that high. Now that they were out of the water, she saw that he was much taller than she, even in her platform sandals.
“Well, now that I know that, guess’n I best make ya feel at home.” He took a step towards her, looming over her as he glanced down at her glass. “So, ever played with the big boys before, darlin’?”
River kept her face serene as another of his graphic images burst inside of her mind, this one involving the two of them, the Cobbs’ kitchen table, a marked lack of clothing and a significant tangling of limbs. He was trying to intimidate her with his size, his penchant for sexual innuendo and his overall offensiveness, and she was fast becoming bored with all of it.
“I am not your ‘darling’, Jayne Cobb, I am your guest,” she replied, channeling her mother’s famed poise in the face of irrelevant pests such as he. “And as your guest, I claim the right to choose our team color.”
She reached behind her and blindly selected the red mallet.
“Acceptable?” she asked haughtily.
The strong tang of his overconfidence was there, as well as the musk of his masculinity, but another flavor had crept in that she hadn’t yet tasted. It felt like some twisted form of near admiration.
“Gotta give it to ya, Core girl,” he admitted with a reluctant smile. “Sure got style.”
River inclined her head proudly, gracious as a queen.
“Shiny,” Jayne said, taking the mallet from her and slinging it over his shoulder. “Let’s play.”
Prompted by and dedicated to romanceguru.
P.S. Here's the dress and shoes River wore to the barbecue.