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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
For the first time in over two decades, Jayne returns home to Sunderland for his brother Mattie’s funeral, and the memories and emotions that are stirred up make for tough going.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 661 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Title: That Which Shapes A Man
Chapter Seven: Back to Sunderland
Disclaimer: All belongs to Joss.
Characters: Jayne, ofc, oms this chapter –
Setting: About the time of “Those Left behind”
Word count: 3,152; chapter eight of thirteen.
A/N: From the first time I watched Firefly, I wondered what circumstances might have shaped the character of Jayne Cobb, an exceptionally complex man. The given name "Jayne" was a common variant of "John" in Victorian England. This story emerged from the questions I asked.
Thanks to ArtemisPrime for beta. Italics represent internal dialogue, emphasis, Chinese phrases. Reader comments are sincerely appreciated.
Chapter Eight: The Prodigal Returns
With a slight turn of the shuttle’s yoke, Jayne banks the small craft away from Serenity’s bulk and points her nose down through the sooty cloud cover that blankets Sunderland. He doesn’t often have occasion to pilot the spare shuttle and has to work extra hard to keep his mind on the process. There are other folks back on the Firefly more skilled at piloting than he – Wash or Zoë or even Mal – but this is a journey he has to make alone. Mal had understood.
He peers out through the shuttle’s viewscreen at the dirty cloud-wrack that Sunderland’s refineries and factories pump out in an endless stream. “World ain’t changed a gorram bit,” he pronounces. The small moon looks much as it had when he’d left it twenty-two years before.
“Didn’t never plan on comin’ back here…” the big man mutters as he slows the small craft’s descent, his scarred, scabbed knuckles tightening on the steering yoke. He swallows hard against the knot of emotions that threaten to overwhelm him and focuses on the control array. There’d be time enough for all that, once he’s dirt-side.
As the shuttle breaks free of the greasy cloud cover, Jayne can see the dark sprawl of Ironton’s jumbled refineries and manufacturing facilities. Wild, jagged mountains rim the northern horizon and to the east, the vast unlit area is ocean. Below, the freight docks glitter, brightly lit for the benefit of the off-world freight scows constantly coming and going.
The merc scans the clutter for the small-craft landing pad, finally spotting it. Guess this is it, then, he thinks, resignedly. He flips a switch and picks up the comm mike to request permission to land. The flight coordinator directs him to the first empty slot, and the big man carefully noses in.
With a soft ca-chunk, the shuttle settles into the mooring clamps on the pad and Jayne powers the small flyer down. Wash probably couldda done it smoother, but at the moment he’s busy piloting Serenity toward Bethany where Mal has contracted to pick up and transport a shipment of illegal whiskey.
When he opens the shuttle hatch, the familiar sulphurous stench assails him, as harsh and suffocating as he remembers. Night falls early on Sunderland, and the sky is heavy and starless. In the distance, the burning gasses vented by the refineries light the horizon with a ruddy, lurid glow.
“Must be what hell looks like. Probably smells like it, too,” Jayne says to himself, and lights up the cigar he pulls from his pocket. “Can’t nobody claim I’m stinkin’ up the air, anyways.”
The big man stands silently for a moment, drawing the bitter-sweet smoke into his lungs and looking out at the misty horizon, then shrugs into his coat and grabs his duffel bag. He secures the shuttle hatch and heads out across the pad toward Ironton.
It’s a long walk from where he parked the shuttle to the poor, slummy neighborhood where Jayne grew up. He thinks briefly about renting a horse from a livery stable or snagging a ride on one of the dray wagons that pass through the factory sprawl and on to Ironton’s muddy streets. Ultimately, the hulking, silent man decides he’ll save the coin and be grateful for extra time to pull his scattered thoughts into some semblance of order.
Jayne gnaws the cigar stub clenched in his teeth and swaps his heavy duffel from shoulder to shoulder as he walks, long legs carrying him instinctively toward the home he’d left all those years before.
Mattie was dead.
It seems unreal. Little brothers aren’t supposed to die first. Jayne always figured he’d be the first one to go, probably killed in a firefight or perhaps spaced by Mal in a fit of pique. And while Mattie survived a long series of ailments until the recurrent damp lung claimed him at thirty-four, in Jayne’s mind, Mattie is always the slight, frail thirteen-year-old whose dark eyes were bright with tears the night he waved farewell to his beloved older brother.
Little Liza and Rachel are grown women now. Married, with a passel a kids and husbands he’d never met. And his Ma - well, he guesses - she’ll be an old woman. She’s never understood why he left Sunderland, and, he suspects, never forgiven him for going.
It wasn’t like he’d had a choice.
Once he’s cleared the industrial part of Ironton, Jayne finds himself walking through an unfamiliar area, built up in the two decades since he’d left. The strip is a mix of closed up storefronts, bars and trashy nightspots where the factory and refinery workers blow off steam after their long workdays.
The evening’s wet and raw, with a stiff wind blowing down from the mountains that pushes the drizzle into every gap in Jayne’s clothing. The merc stops in front of a darkened building out of the wind and set down his duffel. He strikes a match and bends to re-light his cigar, surprised to realize his hands are shaking.
I need a drink, somethin’ ta steady my nerves a little. Didn’t tell nobody when to expect me, Won’t matter if I git there a little late. He scans the street and spots the gaudy neon that proclaims a bar. Yeah, just somethin’ to help me ease up. That oughtta do it.
Picking up the heavy bag, he hoists it onto his left shoulder and then automatically runs his right palm down and over the comforting bulk of the big revolver strapped against his thigh.
Twenty-two years is a long damn time, but just maybe not long enough.
When Jayne steps through the door into the bar, his sharp eyes quickly scan the room. The air is thick with the fetid smell of sweat and smoke and booze as the dingy, crowded space fills with off-shift workers from the plants and refineries, getting hammered on payday. Same as his Pa had done every Friday night, all those years ago. No one there he knows or recognizes, but then, that wasn’t so surprising. With any luck, no one’d recognize him, either.
He spots a small empty table well off to one side and makes his way over to it, making sure to have his back to the wall. Parking his oversized frame in the rickety wooden chair, he wedges his duffel under the table between his knees so nobody can snitch it without him noticing and sets his old black hat down on the well-worn table-top in front of him. Sunderland. He’s back on gorram Sunderland. Back on the one place in the whole ruttin’ verse where he once swore he’d never be again. So much for that.
Out of long habit, he thumbs loose the peace strap across Cassie’s hammer, just in case, then pulls his coat back over the pistol.
The barmaid swings by with a tray loaded with drinks for other tables and gives him a friendly smile. “What can I bring you, traveler?” She looks him up and down warmly.
“Gimme a whisky. House brand’ll do.” She’s attractive enough, but Jayne’s in no mood for flirting. “An’… can you tell me how to get to Weaver Street?”
The woman nods – ai ya, he’s a handsome one. “Lemme deliver these and get your drink and then I can draw you a map. Ain’t so hard to find.”
Might not be hard to find, he thinks, but sure ain’t easy to go there.
Draining his glass, Jayne tosses down a handful of coins onto the table and sets his hat back on his head. Guess I’ve put this off ‘bout as long as I can get away with, so I best get on with it. He stands and slings his duffel over his shoulder, then pushes his way through the crowded bar and out into the street.
The rain has stopped for the moment and the wind seems to have died down. Thank God for small favors, Shepherd would say. The mercenary recalls the map the waitress drew for him on a napkin and turns left at the corner, then heads on uphill toward his boyhood home. He occasionally passes someone on the dark, muddy street, but doesn’t speak, lost in his own thoughts.
Place sure looks different. The industrial sector is definitely larger – probably ‘cause a the war and all that steel The Alliance needed. Don’t seem to have benefited the local folk, none, ‘though. The houses are just as tumbledown and raggedy-assed as they ever was.
Another left and he reaches Weaver Street. At the end of the second block on the right is his mother’s house. That’s how Jayne thinks of it, seeing as how his Pa had moved out so long ago. It looks much as it had the last time he saw it, twenty-two years ago.
All the years that have passed are gone in an instant.
The big man stands silently outside the door, head bowed. Upright, he’d have nearly knocked his head on the top of the doorframe. He stands listening to the ebb and flow of sounds within the small house, as emotions wash over him and memories flood back.
Taking a deep breath, Jayne knocks on the door and waits.
He hears footsteps approaching and the snick of the door latch sliding back, then the door swings open. Before him stands a tall, slender woman in her mid-thirties. She’s solemnly dressed and her ash-blond hair has been neatly combed into a bun. At the sight of the visitor, she gasps, her hand lurching up to cover her mouth. For a long moment, brother and sister look at one another.
Finally Jayne clears his throat and softly asks, “Ain’t ya gonna let me come in, Rachel?”
“Jayne! Of course… I, I’m sorry. I just wasn’t sure you’d actually come. It’s been so long…”
“I know,” he agrees guiltily. “I’d a waved you but wasn’t sure where to send the message…” He ducks through the doorway and sets his duffel down to one side of the door, then takes his hat off.
“How’s Ma holdin’ up?” he asks, twisting the hat nervously in his hands.
Rachel latches the door. “She’s awfully upset. The doctor gave her something to help her rest and I’ve got her lying down now. Liza and I’ve been taking turns staying with her ever since…” She pauses, then smiles faintly.
“It’ll mean the world to her to see you again, Jayne. She’s missed you terribly; never got over you takin’ off like you did.”
There, a stab in the chest. He knew someone would say it.
Jayne unbuckles his gunbelt, feeling Rachel’s curious eyes on him, and hangs it on the old oak coat rack, then drapes his jacket over the weapon. “I know.” He turns around to examine his youngest sister.
“You growed up purty, Ray. Figured you would.” He glances about the parlor, amazed at how little the house seems to have changed. “Any chance I could get a cuppa coffee an’ somethin’ to eat? I been on the road a long time.”
His sister returns his gaze for a moment and then heads toward the kitchen. “Of course. Several folks from church brought over food. You know how word gets around when there’s… a death. We got a ham, lots of casseroles and I think somebody even dropped off a chocolate cake.”
At the mention of all that food, the merc’s mouth waters and he follows his sister into the old kitchen. “A ham sandwich an’ some a that cake would be great,” he tells her, pulling out one of the worn old oak chairs. He’s surprised at how familiar the wood feels under his hand, how the house even smells the same: a mix of wood smoke and the soap his Ma uses to scrub the floors with. He pictures how it might be to have Kaylee along, to share this with her.
Taking two mugs down from the cupboard, Rachel fills them with the dark, aromatic beverage from the pot on the stove and sets them on the kitchen table. Several oil lamps softly light the room – still no electricity, he notices.
It occurs to Jayne that he’s never drunk coffee with his sister before. After all, she was only 10 when he moved out. “Any milk an’ sugar?” he asks.
“Of course.” She sets a spoon, the sugar bowl and a tin of milk on the table, then makes a ham sandwich and placed it and a fat slice of the cake on a plate in front of him. While Jayne devours the sandwich, Rachel puts the food away, then pulls out a chair and sits down to study him.
“Thanks, Ray.” He licks his fingers and proceeds to stir a generous amount of sugar into the steaming coffee, along with a glug of milk from the tin. Cupping the mug between rough hands, Jayne finally asks her, “What happened? From Ma’s last couple a letters, I thought he was doin’ better.”
Rachel lightens her coffee with a little milk, no sugar. “Well, actually, he was. He’d even gotten strong enough to work a little for one of the dry-goods stores, keeping books and handling stock orders for them.” She looks at Jayne’s scarred knuckles curiously, then sighs. “There’s been an influenza going around, and he caught it. Always was prone to sickness, you know.”
“Yeah, I remember…”
“Just knocked him flat and nothing Doc Beasley could do seemed to help. It went into pneumonia on Sunday and he died on Wednesday. Took my husband Wallace all day Thursday and most of Friday to finally track you down through your postmaster.”
Jayne blows on his coffee, takes a tentative sip. He studies the tablecloth awkwardly, not sure what to say to this sister who is, for all purposes, a stranger.
“Wallace, huh? He treat ya good?”
“Of course he does.” Rachel seems surprised at his question. “We have two little boys. Jonathan is five and James is eight. I’m a school teacher now, and Wallace manages one of the fabrication plants. I have a good life, Jayne,” she adds in afterthought, as if to reassure him.
Her brother smiles ruefully at her. “Well, I’m glad. I always knowed you was the smart one, Ray.” He scrapes at a smear of frosting remaining on the plate with his thumb and sucks the sugary residue into his mouth. “How ‘bout Lizzy?”
Rachel laughs wryly. “You’d best not call her that to her face if you want to keep your head! She goes by ‘Liza’ now. She’s married, too – remember Tommie Sutton? They have a boy and girl and another on the way. Live over by Hamilton. Tommie’s a wheelwright.”
Jayne nods. “That’s good. You both done good, an’ I’m glad fer ya.”
For the first time Rachel reaches out to touch him, laying her hand gently on his wrist. “What about you, Jayne? Are you still on that starship you wrote Ma about, that Serenity?”
Before he can answer, a quavering voice calls out softly from the back bedroom. “Rachel? We got company?” It is a voice Jayne has not heard in almost twenty-four years and the sound clutches at his heart.
He looks questioningly at Rachel. “Can I see her, Ray?”
“Of course. But you’d best let me go in first – she’s had enough shocks of late.”
Rachel stands and gently takes her brother’s hand. “Come on, Prodigal.”
Together they cross the small room and Rachel opens the bedroom door just enough to stick her head in. “We have a visitor, Mother, someone I think you’ll very much want to see.”
“Is it Preacher Cortland?” the old woman inquires.
In the soft light of an old oil lamp, Annalee is propped against a pile of pillows, bundled in a nightdress and knitted lavender shawl. Her once dark hair, neatly braided and wound into a crown, is now silver. Hard living and grief furrow her face, and her hands, as they lay on the counterpane, are twisted and thin.
Jayne peeks in over his sister’s head and smiles apologetically at his mother. “Would ya settle for a good-for-nothin’ son who ain’t been home in way too long?”
“Oh my boy, my dearest boy! I feared I’d never see you again.” Annalee flings up her arms to reach for him as fresh tears spring from her eyes.
As his sister steps aside, the big man crouches to take his mother into his arms, shocked by how tiny and frail she seems. His thoughts and feelings whirl chaotically as emotions wash over him. Pressing a kiss to Annalee’s cheek, Jayne whispers, “Oh Ma, I’m so sorry. Sorry about Mattie and… all the rest, too.”
Rachel sits down on the foot of the bed, her own eyes filling with tears as she watches the reunion. She takes a handkerchief from her pocket and blots at her face. Jayne is home. Her big brother is home. Surely there are answers to prayers.
Finally loosening her fierce grasp on Jayne’s neck, Annalee asks, “Can you pass me my glasses, Rachel? I want to see your brother, now he’s all growed up.” The old woman settles her bifocals onto her nose and instructs, “Now stand up, Jayne, an’ let me see you proper.”
Feeling silly but willing to indulge his mother, the big man does as she directs, standing self-consciously as she gazes on him. “Well, I knew you’d be a big’un, but never figured you’d turn out like this. Easy on the eyes, you are, too, although I’d prefer ya without that scruff on yer chin.”
Jayne instinctively reaches up to smooth his carefully-trimmed goatee. Scruff? he thinks, indignantly. This ain’t no scruff!
He’s dressed in his second-best clothes, a deep blue band-collared shirt that draws attention to his eyes and a pair of good black pants. He’s even polished his dress boots before leaving Serenity, although his walk through Ironton’s muddy streets has taken its toll on their gleam.
Always keen-eyed, Annalee notes the scabs that crust the knuckles of her son’s right hand. “How’d ya hurt yerself, son?”
Jayne glances at his hand dismissively. “Ain’t nothin’, Ma. I skinned ‘em up workin’,” he lies.
“Well, pull up that chair and talk to me. It’s been a long, long time and I’ve a powerful hankerin’ to catch up on your life.”
Rachel quickly stifles a yawn. The past week’s events have been exhausting.
Noticing his sister’s fatigue, Jayne pulls the old armchair closer to his mother’s bedside and says, “Look Ray, I know you’re bound to be tuckered. Why don’t you go on home to yer family? I’ll be here with Ma if she needs anything tonight. We can talk more tomorrow.”
Nodding, Rachel rises, placing a hand on her brother’s broad shoulder. One brother lost, another regained. Jayne was home.
Chapter eight of thirteen
Monday, January 22, 2007 3:18 AM
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