As Jayne stepped onto the bridge he realized it was already occupied. Uncertain of his welcome he lingered by the door. He wasn’t even really sure why he’d come in the first place, in the middle of the night and all. But with the repair work behind them and Serenity once again sailing through the black the draw had been powerful.
"Zoe," he greeted with a quiet grunt.
Sitting in the pilot seat mutely fingering one of Wash’s stupid plastic dinosaurs Zoe appeared lost in her own thoughts, or maybe just lost. Sensitivity not being one of Jayne’s long suits it took him a second or two to understand the depth of his intrusion and begin to back away. "Sorry," he muttered simply.
As Zoe set the toy on top of the instrument panel and finally looked up at him she snapped back to her all-business persona. "Did you need something?" she asked coolly.
"Not really. I... uh," Jayne stammered as he indicated the chair. "I just came to pay my respects is all. I didn’t know you was up here."
"Oh," Zoe said in surprise. Her face softened in a way Jayne had never seen before. Not directed at him anyways. "That’s... That’s real decent of you. Do you want me to leave?"
"No," Jayne told her quickly. "I don’t wanna run you off or nothing. If anybody got the right to be here it’s you. I just, you know, I guess I miss him is all."
"I know," Zoe whispered. "Me, too."
"Ain’t right, what happened." Jayne swallowed the lump in his throat but couldn’t think of anything else to say. "All right then," he growled softly after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence. "If there’s anything I can do... " he added like his mama taught him for such situations as he made a hasty retreat.
"Jayne, wait," Zoe said as she got to her feet. "There is something."
He froze at the door and slowly turned back to face her, trepidation clearly written on his face.
Zoe smiled as she approached him but it didn’t take away any of the sadness from her eyes. "Relax. I ain’t gonna ask for kidney or anything. And it’s not like they couldn’t grow you another one if I did."
"You know I ain’t good with this stuff," Jayne answered defensively when they were face to face. "Whatever it is you need, I’ll ruttin’ well find a way to mess it up."
"I just need somebody to hold me for a minute," Zoe explained in a voice husky with grief as her resolute stoicism finally slipped.
Pole-axed, Jayne gaped at her. "Hold you?" he finally managed. "Me?"
"Forget it," Zoe rapidly changed her mind, sounding mortified as much by her own request as by his reaction to it.
"I’ll get Mal," Jayne said as he once again headed for the door.
"No!" Zoe jumped to cut off his retreat by blocking the exit with her body. "Just forget I said anything, okay?"
"Okay," Jayne agreed, now desperate to leave. "I won’t say nothing."
"I can’t... not with Mal," Zoe explained frantically. "Just forget it."
"Gorramit," Jayne spat out in exasperation. "I already said I won’t say nothing."
"Okay," Zoe sighed in relief but didn’t budge from the doorway. Jayne fidgeted in front of her, looking ready to bolt if she moved so much as an inch. She took another deep breath and let it out slowly as she pulled herself together. "You haven’t had anyone to spot for you since the Shepherd left," she said in an attempt at a normal conversation.
Jayne blinked and tried to keep up. "I do okay," he murmured as he rubbed at his recently healed shoulder.
"I’ve been thinking about getting you to show me."
"You wanna lift weights?" Jayne barked out with a laugh.
Zoe’s expression grew mean. "And why is that funny?"
"It’s not funny, exactly," Jayne backpedaled. "It’s just that you’re already the scariest... okay, the second scariest female I ever met without getting all bulked up."
Jayne snorted his affirmation.
"You saved my life and I never even thanked you. At the time I suppose I wasn't all that grateful."
Confused again, Jayne’s brow wrinkled as he sorted out the new non-sequitur. "You mean with the Reavers?"
"You faced the thing that you fear most in the whole verse to pull my sorry ass back behind that barricade."
"You’d a done it for me," Jayne said gruffly.
Zoe smiled again. "You sure about that?" she teased.
"Yep," Jayne answered. "Pretty sure," he amended after a moment of thought.
Shocking him a second time in as many minutes Zoe slipped her arms around his neck and laid her head on his shoulder uninvited. With a panicked gulp Jayne stood stiffly and held his hands far out to the sides.
"Jayne," Zoe murmured, caught somewhere between making a request and a plea.
"When we first met," Jayne reminded her only half seriously, "You said if I ever laid a finger on you I’d pull back a bloody stub. That still go? I’m mighty fond of my hands; they’re useful for all manner of things."
Zoe ducked her head and allowed herself to laugh at the memory but the belated emotional release proved too much for her. As the laughter dissolved into sobs Jayne self-consciously eased his arms around her. The intensity of her pain, the real pain she hadn’t even hinted at up until now tore at him. He closed his eyes and squeezed her tight as he felt a circle of moisture grow on his chest.
But the storm passed quickly and as she quieted she released the iron grip on his shirt to lay her hands flat against his back. "Sometimes a woman just needs a human touch," she explained sheepishly without letting him go.
"Ain’t no shame in that," Jayne agreed with a suspiciously moist sniff as he patted her back.
"Just one more minute."
Still afraid to say or do the wrong thing Jayne merely nodded his agreement. Soft footfalls sounded in the passageway and he glanced up to see the captain just the other side of the doorway. Careful not to alert Zoe Jayne shook his head at Mal to warn him off. But Zoe tensed in his arms and pulled away.
"Sir," Zoe said without looking as she scrubbed a hand over her face, carefully keeping her back to the door.
Jayne untucked his tee-shirt and offered her the hem. Zoe huffed lightly but took him up on it and used it to dry her eyes and wipe her nose.
"Everything all right in here?" Mal asked, eyeing Jayne distrustfully.
"Everything’s shiny, sir," Zoe assured. When she stepped out of the bridge and brushed past him only her slightly reddened eyes gave her away. "Goodnight, Captain. Jayne."
"Zoe," Jayne called after her. "We’ll start you on a weight program tomorrow. Figure to be sore for a couple a days."
Zoe paused but didn’t turn around. "Thanks, Jayne," she said firmly before moving on.
Jayne backed up to let Mal through the door. "What?" he asked when Mal glanced down at his damp shirt. "She didn’t want you to see her like that, that’s all."
"She came to you?" Mal queried.
Jayne shrugged. "Sorta. Look, I can’t explain why she didn’t go to Inara or Kaylee or the doc."
"Reckon she wanted somebody who wouldn’t get all sentimental like on her," Mal approved. "You done good."
Jayne held his gaze for a minute then nodded miserably. "I wish Book was here."
Mal flinched. "Well he ain’t," he said, not unkindly. Before he could comment further more footsteps sounded outside the door on the metal grate.
"What is this? A ruttin’ night owl convention?" Jayne complained.
"Serenity’s purring like a kitten, Cap. And I’m headed for bed," Kaylee reported as she poked her head in.
"Now just who’s bed would that be?" Jayne asked her with a leer.
"How’d you get all wet?" Kaylee countered curiously without answering the question.
Jayne peeled off his snotty shirt and started to use it to wipe his chest but thought better of it. "Ain’t wet," he replied as he tromped by her and down the corridor towards his bunk.
"Looked wet to me," Kaylee told the captain as he settled into the pilot’s seat.
"Nope," Mal disagreed. "Not wet at all."