Exaggeration and Blank Verse
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He went outside at night to look up at the stars. Every night before bed, while River combed out her long dark hair and braided it smooth for sleeping, Jayne went out to stand in the yard and watch the sky.

He'd known that sky once, taken it for granted. Been so casual about the freedom to flit from star to star. Talked about how he'd die before he'd ever be grounded.

Turned out that he wasn't the one who had to die. Funny how the 'verse worked out the way it gorram wanted to, whether the humans caught up in its workings agreed or no.

"Jayne." She called him from the front entryway, voice sweet and high and uncertain. Every night, she would stand and call. Every night, he would turn and answer.

"Yeah?" He looked at her, standing in the doorway, thin and pale as the ghost of a memory gone. Even if their farm hadn't been the dismal failure that it was, she could've eaten all she wanted for ten years and never fill out or be strong. Health and prosperity melted away from her; it was part of being River.

"Will you leave me?" She always asked the same question, in the same way, very formally with her hands clasped in front of her. He shook his head, standing there under their little patch of sky.

"Never."

"Because you promised." If he met her eyes then, they would bore into his brain, tease open the doors of his memory, throw him back into the terrible last moment of his promise. The things she could do with her eyes...she was not a normal girl. Woman, now. Hard to remember that when she looked so lost.

"I promised." The first year they'd lived here, he'd thought about leaving. He could find a way off the planet and she wouldn't be able to follow. No one would ever know he'd left her behind.

Every night that he let himself have those thoughts, he'd go back to the shuttlecraft in his mind. He knew she was sending him there, playing with his mind. She was a master at crafting punishment. Not enough to make him see Simon dying there on the shuttle floor, bleeding out slowly while they fled the burning wreck of Serenity. No, he had to smell it- blood, stale sweat, fear- and hear it- her crying, Simon's ragged failing breath, his own voice promising to take care of her, watch over her, never leave her.

"I promised," he repeated, nodding. She held out her hand and he went to her, not looking back at the stars.

She had certain very set ideas about how married folks behaved. While he undressed for bed and she turned off the lights, she would ask him questions in that formal way. He had a vague idea that she thought they were questions a husband ought to answer, and an even vaguer one that his responses never failed to subtly disappoint her. He was missing his pages of her imaginary script, and his improvisational skills were not up to par.

"What did you do today?" she asked gravely, looking across the dark bedroom. He took off his shirt and slipped it onto a hanger, bracing one boot against the other to kick them off.

"Fixed the fence in the back pasture. Put the stud out with the new mares." He glanced into the bureau mirror and saw the expectant look on her face. "Oh. What did you do?"

She beamed at him; when he managed to remember his lines, it made her so happy she absolutely glowed. "I mopped the front hallway and turned dust into peach preserves. And I made tea and had the most wonderful talk with Marcus and Aleeah."

He nodded, smiling at her in the mirror as he folded his trousers over the chair back. Marcus was the house dog, a big raw-boned mongrel who followed River like a shadow and would run out across the fields to bring Jayne home if she had a fit of terror in the middle of the day. Aleeah, she would tell anyone who listened, was her dearest friend. Jayne remembered when he introduced them, carefully pressing the wide-eyed ball of black and white fluff into her hands. That was the first time she really smiled for him, after Simon died, after they wound up here on a dying farm out back beyond nowhere. When he gave her the kitten he'd found up in the hayloft, she told him it would keep all her secrets. He wasn't entirely sure from who.

Aleeah was sprawled across the bed, a full-grown cat now, with the air of cool disdain mastered by all of her kind. Jayne could never shake the feeling that she looked at him that way because she knew, knew he was only here because of guilt. I've stayed, he thought at her as he crawled under the sheets, wincing as the muscles in his back refused to relax. Doesn't that mean anything to you?

"What will you do tomorrow?" River asked quietly, standing beside the bed with her hands clasped before her.

"Check the cattle for hoof rot," he said wearily, closing his eyes and picturing the misery of looking over two hundred head times four hooves. "Pray it don't rain."

"I'll have a word with the weather," she said, utterly serious. He smiled without opening his eyes.

"Thank you."

She was so light, the bed barely even shifted as she slipped under the sheets. Her foot brushed down the length of his calf, and he clenched his eyes tighter, the breath catching in his chest. There was one fairly large gap in her ideas of what married people did, one that he was simultaneously terrified and desperate that she would fill in. So far, she was content with holding hands at church on Sundays. And he was almost certain that it was best for both of them- she was so scarred, so fragile, that if he lost control of himself she would most likely crumble into shattered glass and a broken promise. Better by far to be left frustrated but safe.

He fell asleep quickly- there were miles of fence in that back pasture that had to be walked and checked on. He had to be out of bed again before sunrise to get ahead of the day. It was the life he'd vowed to never live, a slave to sun-cycles and the whims of livestock.

He woke up suddenly, when the clock showed midnight. From his place alongside the bed, Marcus whined softly. Jayne knew why- the same reason he himself was awake. Like most nights, River was crying.

He reached over to rest his hand on her back. She was curled up tightly, facing away from him, sobbing helplessly. "River," he said slowly, trying to clear the sleep from his throat and mind. "It's all right. Go back to sleep."

"You want to leave," she said with numb certainty. He rubbed between her shoulder blades slowly. The sexual tension of earlier was gone; she was purely a frightened child now. It had taken him a few years to learn how to deal with this; he'd never liked children.

"I won't leave," he told her, keeping his hand steady against her back. Contact. He was real, he was there, she wasn't alone.

"Simon left," she whispered, and the ache in her voice was still raw after all this time. She would never stop missing him.

"He didn't want to go." He moved his hand to her shoulder. She shook her head slowly.

"He loved me." Her voice was uncertain. She was still sniffling.

"He loved you very much," he affirmed with absolute conviction. One thing that he knew for certain. "He loved you more than anything."

"He went away," she whimpered. "He went away and left me here with you. And if you go away, I'll be left wtih no one but the shadows."

"I'm not going away," he said, feeling her shudder under his hands as she began to cry in earnest, her whole body racked with sobs. Carefully, he wrapped his arms around her and drew her back against him, like he was handling a statue made of glass. Tears ran down her face and fell onto his hands. He held her tightly, letting her feel his heartbeat, his breath, his presence there with her.

"I'm not going away," he repeated, bringing his mouth close to her ear. "I'm here. I'm right here. I won't go away."

The promise was long ago. The choice was every night, when fear of being alone in the dark made her cry. And though he'd never been a man who could read other people, he knew himself. Lying there in the dark, listening to her catch her breath and feeling her heartbeat start to slow, he knew what his choice would be, always.

The universe kept marching along to its master plan, sweeping all of life relentlessly along. Fight or follow, his place was set, beside her.

"You're still here," she said, her voice thick with tears, reaching up to squeeze his hand.

He nodded, closing his eyes against the softness of her hair. "I'm here."

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