Under demand to do fluff after the last angst/'tragedy' ;-) piece, here it is. Mostly fluffy, I believe!
Disclaimer: characters and 'verse not mine, Joss's
River regarded the long face before her and tried to discern the meaning of its expression. The mind behind it held a vague scorn, but otherwise no real interest in her. She leaned forward a little and walked around the horse assessingly, searching for a way to follow the command Mal had given before he walked off. The saddle was on; a stable hand had done that. The dun-colored animal swished a long tail and lowered its head to the grass at its feet.
“Hey!” a rough hand grabbed her arm and jerked her sideways. Jayne scowled down at her. “Tryin’ to get yerself kicked, moonbrain? Should know better than to walk that close behind a horse.”
River rubbed her sore arm and regarded the placid grass-chomping, tail-swishing, ear-flicking creature. It looked about as likely to kick as Jayne was to burst into poetry. But she was willing to concede that this was one subject he was more knowledgeable of than she. He was walking away, toward his own assigned horse.
“Jayne,” she called hesitantly. Mal and Zoë were inside the little shack next to the corral, finalizing the details of their rental of four horses for the day. Jayne turned back toward her. “This is problematic.”
“What ya mean?”
“I have never been on the back of an animal.”
His eyebrows went up. “You can’t ride?”
She shifted her shoulders uncomfortably. “No.”
He shook his head in disgust, striding back towards her. “You didn’t think to mention this before we got here?”
“Didn’t know it would be required. We could have landed much closer to town . . .” her voice trailed off as she regarded the desert nothingness that surrounded them.
Jayne snorted, stopping in front of her. “Yeah, buncha paranoid go-se. Wouldn’t let us land the boat closer’n ten miles out. An’ closer in it’s narrow, cliffs too close for the mule to get through. How come ya never been up on a horse before?”
“Unnecessary form of transportation, as a child. Amusement and exercise only.” She shook her head. “I was not allowed much amusement. Danced for exercise.”
“Well, you’ll just have to get up there and learn.” He turned to head back to his horse.
“Jayne.” Her voice stopped him. He swiveled back around.
“What?!” he was aggravated, but since that was his permanent state, River disregarded it.
“I will need help.” She tilted her head in the direction of the shack, where cantankerous voices were being heard. It sounded as though the price negotiations would take a bit longer. Jayne sighed, saw the truth of what she was saying.
“All right, c’mere.” He moved to her horse’s side. She obligingly followed. “I’ll give ya a leg up,” he said, “which means ya gotta step on my hands with the foot that’ll end up hanging down on this side. Throw the other one over her back. Dong ma?”
River nodded. He crouched down and made a stirrup with his hands, and she placed her foot in it. She noted not for the first time how large his hands were; they enfolded her big combat boot with ease. She blinked, a mental image of them doing the same to her bare foot surfacing from some mysterious part of her brain. Obviously the damaged part. She shook her head.
“Ain’t got all day, feng le,” Jayne admonished. She leaned her weight into his hands and stepped up unto them. They balanced her steadily as she maneuvered a leg over the ridged back of the horse and grasped at its neck to steady herself. It was an odd feeling, to be perched on top of something alive and moving beneath her. The horse snorted in apparent disgust and shifted a few steps backward. River gasped and leaned in to grab its neck tightly in both arms. Jayne laid a soothing hand on the annoyed animal’s flank and grabbed River’s arm with his other one, loosening her grip.
“Quiet, now,” he told her, inwardly chortling at the sight of her fright, “ya don’t want to spook her. Sit up.” River obeyed hesitantly. “Ya can hang unto the saddle, here,” he demonstrated, “but ya gotta hold the reins.” He picked them up and handed them to her. She let go of the saddle reluctantly to take them.
As Jayne talked her through using the reins to direct the horse, he was eying the skirt hiked way up the girl’s thighs. Well, he eyed the thighs, actually. They were lean and muscled, white and smooth. Looked good for doing . . . lots of things. He frowned to himself. Why hadn’t any of them noticed she was wearing a dress, not really appropriate to horseback travel? He thought back to the lecherous gaze their host had directed at both Zoë and River when they arrived, and reached out to tug the edge of the skirt down. River startled when he touched her, and the horse tossed its head. Jayne shook his as he untied the lead rope.
“Stop movin' sudden like that,” he told her, distracting her somewhat from the hand he hadn’t moved from her thigh. His long fingers spread out over her skin above her knee. River felt oddly, intensely aware of it; she wasn’t certain what the feeling spreading through her from that spot was, but it was some kind of tingly pleasantness. She didn’t get thought impressions, just something, an emotion, from him. It was comparable to . . .
Jayne was talking and she forced herself to listen. This riding was apparently a necessary skill in her new job, and she was determined to conquer it.
Still, when Jayne made a clucking noise with his tongue and lightly hit the horse’s flank, River jerked as her mount moved forward. Jayne sighed again, notably loudly.
“Fer a graceful woman yer not gettin’ the hang of this too quick, are ya?” He flexed his hand around her leg where he held it, as though he was just hanging unto it to keep her steady. River didn’t think that was true, though.
She listened to his directions and did what he told her with the reins and her knees. A thrill of victory shot through her when she directed her horse left and she went. Stop, she stopped. Back up . . .
But in her head she was reviewing his words. Graceful woman. Graceful. Woman. She liked them. Was that how he thought of her? She’d gotten good at shielding herself from others’ mental lives, and rarely caught anything more than an occasional strong emotion, if she was close to the individual. He still called her Crazy Girl, but maybe in his head she was Graceful Woman. She sat a bit straighter in her saddle, and a pleased smile nudged at her lips.
Finally, the argument inside seemed to reach a conclusion, and Mal, Zoë, and the tall, thin owner trooped out. Jayne called to Mal before they could mount up.
“Mal, girl’s not gonna be able to make a ten-mile ride, much less twenty with the round trip. Never been on a horse before.”
Mal stopped. “Never been on a horse before?” he repeated incredulously.
River shook her head, offered the same explanation as she had to Jayne. Mal shook his head, too, at the end of it.
“Gonna have to ride with Jayne,” he told her.
“What?” Jayne erupted. “Hey, I’m the biggest one here. Crazy should get on with you or Zoë.”
Mal negated that with a short hand gesture. “You’re biggest, you got the biggest horse. Zoë and me’re packing all the gear.” He gestured at the saddlebags that Jayne’s horse observably lacked. “She goes up with you.” And he swung back to their scarecrow of a host. “We’ll have to renegotiate, for three instead of four,” he said. The man glared, grumbled, and Zoë moved in to support her captain.
Jayne moved River and what had been her horse back to the rail, and re-tied the animal. River swung her leg over and slid down to the ground without his help. She followed the disgusted line of the mercenary’s back to his own horse, and regarded it with trepidation. It was much larger than the one she’d just debarked.
“What is his name?” she questioned. Jayne shrugged. “Think the guy said Slappy, or Shaggy, or something. Dunno.” He was doing some sort of last minute check of the various bits of leather and metal drapped about the gelding. River observed patiently, and accepted the hand-up Jayne offered after he’d mounted. She settled down lightly in front of him, her legs tense, not sure exactly where she was supposed to be. His arm crossed in front of her and gripped her hip, slid her backwards until she was wedged up against him. Her heart picked up a bit of speed as her bottom snuggled in between his thighs and her lower spine contacted his abdomen. He was hard muscle, everywhere. She wondered why that would affect her heart rate.
Mal, Zoë, and the corral’s owner once more exited the shack, Mal with obvious impatience. The owner hovered around while they prepared to leave, stepping over to the right of Jayne’s horse. Jayne watched the man’s eyes follow the line of River’s exposed leg with a leering gleam. Something irate rose inside him. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he acted without thought. Transferring his reins to his left hand, he slid his right down River’s skirt till it reached bare skin and the other’s line-of-sight, and leaned in over the slight form of the girl. He twitched a hard warning grin that had always worked well for him. The owner startled and then stepped back, hands rising slightly in a submissive gesture. Mal was heading out, Zoë following, so with a low growl of satisfaction Jayne sat back and twitched Slappy’s, or Shaggy’s, head around and set after them.
River was aware something had happened back there, and her lizard brain was tingling with a knowledge it didn’t deign to share with her forebrain. They rode in silence, her body slowly finding the rhythm of the fast-paced walk they were in, so that she jounced less. She began to relax some, too, until she was leaning back against a broad chest. Encapsulated by the strong arms on either side of her, she felt things she rarely had before. She tried to enumerate them in her mind; when she was fourteen, her first year at the Academy, there had been a boy who made her tingly when he looked at her. But that had not been as strong as this. Since then, the only times had been on Serenity. Watching Jayne lift weights; tingles. Seeing his exasperated look when she swiped food off his plate; joyful, teasing little tingles. That time he’d watched her dance in the cargo bay, his eyes dark and half-lidded; more than tingles, that time.
“You’re not cold, are ya?” Jayne asked in disbelief. The sun was beating down and the air was dry. River shook her head.
“No,” she murmured, “something else.”
He glanced down at her tone and met her eyes. His hands stilled on the reins. Shaggy or Slappy or whoever wouldn’t get off-track; he’d follow his mates who were up ahead. Once again Jayne transferred the reins to one hand.
River felt him moving his arms, but didn’t look because he still had her gaze trapped with his. Her eyes widened when she felt his hand light on her hipbone, hover there, then trace its curve. His fingers tightened into the cloth of her dress and the skin beneath it before tracing their way slowly across her abdomen. There wasn’t any pretense, now, just a blatant caress. He was touching her because he wanted to. He was touching her for pleasure’s sake, staring at her face and daring her to stop him. She didn’t want to.
Her throat felt tight as swirls of heat radiated outward from the contact, up into her chest and down toward her legs. Her abdominal muscles were tense and trembling under his touch. He pressed his thumb into her navel and circled it before sliding his hand farther across to her other hip. He grasped her there and applied pressure, moving her more firmly up against his body. Her mouth opened and a small breathy moan came out, her head fell back unto his shoulder, her eyes drifted closed.
The sight inflamed Jayne. He hadn’t done anything but touch her tummy, and they were both wound tighter than he could ever remember being. Watching her eyelids flutter as he caressed her hip and then edged down to her outer thigh, Jayne dipped his head in and touched his lips to the paleness of River’s neck. It arched to give him access. She was so small and dainty, sitting against him, and he felt large and more masculine than he ever had in his life as he licked her skin and drew responsive little pants from her. When he lifted his head she opened her eyes and started to protest, but that faded away when he moved his mouth to her ear and sucked her lobe inside. She whimpered and turned as far around as she could in the saddle, to slide an arm under his and press her fingers out along his spine.
The horse was flicking his ears back and forth but otherwise gave no sign he was irked by the activities occurring on his back. He plodded along, unguided, unwilling to be left behind by his two equine mates who paced calmly ahead.
“’Bout there,” Mal called over his shoulder without turning. His voice was a harsh intrusion. Jayne jerked upright, while River turned to face front again. They rode in utter silence for a moment.
“Haven’t felt that before,” River’s voice was breathless. He glanced down at her, quirked a grin. He thought about not saying anything, but then he told her the rather frightening truth.