Kaylee eyed the gun with something akin to dread.
It was smaller than the only other gun she'd ever held--that one had seemed enormous in her small hands, but she'd taken it from Book without question because it was for the captain. She'd held it with both hands, so sure she'd be able to pull the trigger, because Mal had done it for her, and she should be able to do it for him. Really thought she could, right up until the moment when River had taken it from her unresisting fingers and killed three men without even opening her eyes.
This gun was tiny, by comparison.
"C'mon, it ain't gonna bite ya," Jayne prompted, and Kaylee started.
"I know, I know," she murmured, brushing her hair out of her eyes.
It had been her idea, asking Jayne one night as he'd done pull-ups in the cargo bay. She'd sidled up to him, and he'd been surprised but game all the same. When they'd touched down on Prairie's Landing, Jayne had greeted her at the door and off they'd gone. Everyone else was in town, stocking up on supplies, except Simon and River who rarely left the ship anymore unless they had to. Simon had given Wash a shopping list--pie in the sky, Captain had called it, but Wash had promised if he could even find any of the items the doctor needed for the infirmary on a barren rock in the middle of nowhere, he'd do his best to haggle and cajole, and bring 'em back to the ship.
Jayne knew the town--he'd spent some time there years back, he told her as he steered the mule through the tall grass to a clearing way on the edge of town. It was quiet enough, folks didn't bother them what had no business with them, and that was good enough for Jayne Cobb. He liked it just fine.
He'd parked the mule and pulled a satchel out from the back and some crates. He'd unrolled a cloth and set out seven guns--all sizes, some of them she'd seen once or twice before. The little one she couldn't recall, and he'd pointed to it and said he'd start her off on that one and then they'd move on up to the rest later if she wanted.
It was shiny--looked more like a child's toy, and he'd told her he won it in a dice game and it weren't much more'n a toy, but it was a gal's gun and she was a gal. To him, that logic seemed simple enough to follow, so she'd just nodded, staring transfixed at the bit of steel and plastic. He'd shown her how to load the clip, even bent down to pick up the ammo she'd dropped, trying to jam it into the clip while holding the spring down with her thumb, feigning bravado she couldn't feel.
"Hell, this was your idea," he grumbled, and tired of waiting for her to pick it up, pressed it into her hands himself.
"I'm sorry. I just... they make me nervous, is all." She inclined her head to include the arsenal he'd brought with him.
"Ain't nothing to be scared of," he said with a gruff sort of kindness. "I mean, hell. it is, but gun's just a tool. You gotta treat it with respect, but think of it like any other tool too, same as in your engine room, dong ma?"
"Don't point it at anything you plan to keep, first off. That includes me, your feet, any bit of you, you hear? That's the best thing to start off with--that whether it's got a full clip or not, just think of it that way. Then you won't never make the mistake of forgetting. This one hear is what they call a Dragonfly. Takes the same ammo as some of your bigger'uns, but it's small enough to fit in a boot or a pocket, see?"
He'd taken it and tucked it in the top of his boot, and it was all but an invisible. He pulled it back out and set it back on the cloth next to a box of ammo, waiting for her to take it.
She pick it up. It felt light in her hand. Not real at all.
He'd set up a row of empty Blue Sun cans on crates a few dozen meters away. Prairie's twin suns glinted off the sides of the cans and Kaylee squinted in the glare. The sun was at her back, and she could feel sweat beginning to pool beneath her shoulder-blades, and she was beginning to wish she'd brought something to tie back her hair and keep it up off her neck.
She emptied the first clip without ever hitting a single make-shift target, wincing with each crack of the pistol. Little puffs of dirt rose in the distance, where her shots finally landed. Jayne didn't say much, just adjusted her arms, moving her into position with big hands on her shoulders and hips, little sounds of approval as her shots at least began missing by inches rather than feet.
"My daddy tried to do this once," she said as he handed her a new clip, and she gave him back the empty one. At her feet, the brass shell casings caught the sun, and she knew better than to try and pick them up, but wait for them to cool enough to touch without burning her fingers.
"How come you didn't?"
"Ma said it was bad enough he had me working in the shop with my brothers and cousins. Never you mind she had a squirrel gun, from back when she used to hunt with my Grandpap."
"Ain't nothing wrong with knowing how to shoot a gun," he said with a shrug, and stepped back as she fired again. She didn't wince this time, and her shots were closer, but the cans remained on top their crates, mocking her with their stillness.
"Hunting's not so bad," she said as he checked the clip and the chamber to make sure the gun was empty.
"But shooting people is?"
"Well... yeah. 'Less they's trying to shoot you. Then I 'spose it's okay. Mostly." Kaylee felt a blush run up her neck that she couldn't blame on the late afternoon sun. She didn't want him to think she was passing any kind of judgement on him, because that wasn't what she meant. Just that it was easy for him to point a gun at somebody, especially if they was shooting back.
She'd thought it would have been easy for her. But the memory of those men, shots whizzing past and her own hand frozen on the trigger haunted her. She couldn't shoot to save the captain. She couldn't shoot to save herself.
"That's just about everybody I ever met," he grinned. "How come you didn't ask Zoe to teach you to shoot, anyway? Her being a gal and all."
Kaylee shrugged. "Why would I ask Zoe, stead of you, just 'cause she's a gal?"
"Dunno. Just figured you would."
"Didn't want to bother her."
"You was chicken, is what. Like Zoe would make fun of you, or something."
"That's not why..."
"You asked me, though, and you know I'd give you hell."
"Well... yeah. But I dunno--I'm used to brothers and cousins, and you ain't much different. And anyway, you have a whole mess of guns, and Zoe's only got a couple..."
"That ain't a reason."
"Could be," she said, lifting her chin a fraction.
"Ain't." He took the gun from her hands, despite her sounds of protest.
"Good enough start for today." He began packing up, despite the fact that they'd been out less than a full hour.
"I didn't even hit nothing!"
"Weren't about that."
"What was it about?"
"You just holding the damn thing without looking like you was gonna drop it."
She didn't know what to say to that, so she busied herself with picking up the now-cool shell casings instead. They rattled in her pocket like loose change.
"How come you wanted to shoot, anyway?"
"Everybody else... I mean, even Simon can shoot a gun."
"Yeah. Wouldn't have thought it, him being all high class and all. Preacher says he couldn't hit the broad side, which don't surprise me. Top three perfect don't mean a damn thing in a fight. But I don't get as why you care."
"I just want to know... I want to be useful, is all."
"You're damn useful when that engine breaks down."
"That ain't what I mean at all and you know it. I just want to help if I gotta, with stuff that don't involve the engine. It ain't that hard to understand, so stop pretending you don't know what I mean."
"Nah, I know. I ain't dumb."
"Never said you were."
"Sure you did. Plenty of times."
"It ain't like a meant it. Dumb like a brother or a cousin, dong ma? Ain't the same thing at all."
There was a long pause. "So I'm family, that what you're saying?"
"Well... yeah. I mean, there's family your born with, and family you choose."
"I s'pose the doc, though, he ain't family." He somehow managed to scowl and leer at the same time. "'Less you have kissing cousins."
She rolled her eyes. "Course not."
"Course not," he muttered. Kaylee could tell she'd said something to put him off his feed, but wasn't sure what it was.
She helped him re-load the mule in silence, the afternoon sun beating down on them. The shell casings rattled in her pocket as they worked, and in no time at all, it was as if no one had ever been in the clearing.
"Do your sisters shoot guns?" she asked as they set off back towards the docks.
Jayne shook his head. "No sisters. Cousins, but haven't seen them since they still had their milk teeth. Home might have been tough, but it wasn't so tough little girls still in pigtails had guns tucked in their dresses."
"Duìbùqî. I guess I just thought--"
"That all the Cobbs were like me?" He laughed. "Oh, hell no. Though there's a fair number of 'em I wouldn't mind having my back in a fight."
"How come you left home?"
Jayne shrugged. "No work. A man ain't worth nothing if he can't find work, my daddy always said. So I got work."
"You ever miss it? Home?"
"Nah. I miss my folks I guess. Sometimes. But not home. You?"
"Yeah. Me too."
She thought about her family. Sometimes she missed them something fierce, and woke up in her berth with tears wet on her cheeks. But the life she'd had in Riverside? That she didn't much miss at all. It all seemed so small, after three years out in the black. She was so different from the girl Bester had picked up in port because she hadn't been able to tear her eyes away from that aught three shining in the summer sunshine like an angel.
Sometimes, she worried that she wasn't different enough.
"You think maybe next time I'll hit something?" she asked, and Jayne slowed the mule and pulled over to the side of the road.
"There gonna be a next time?"
"Just asking," he said with a shrug, then eyed her like he'd only just met her, and hadn't known her since the day she'd come onboard. "Yeah. Just takes practice."
"I can practice."
"Good." He pulled the mule back onto the road. "And, um, maybe we shouldn't tell Mal yet."
"You think he'd be mad?"
"Maybe... maybe we can just keep it between us, is all." He kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. "I don't know as he'd be all that fired up to see you strapping on a gun like me, is all."
She grinned. "Kinda like our secret?"
"Yeah." He smiled. "Our little secret."