Jayne was used to things not going smooth, so when the shit hit the fan he didn’t flinch, just grabbed the girl and ran. Normally he’d be the one doing the shooting, but the captain had pulled him aside before this job and told him to get the girl and haul ass should things go wrong. He and Zoe could handle it. Jayne seriously doubted it, but he figured he could get the moon-brain stored out of the way before heading back to save Mal’s stubborn ass yet again.
Explosions that he was not the cause of, on the other hand, Jayne was not used to. The warm heat picked them up, threw them forward, slammed them hard into the dusty street. River screamed as bits of building rained around them, and Jayne tried to ignore the distinct smell of burning human flesh.
How he found their little hideaway, he’d never know. He vaguely remembered scrambling them to their feet and running until they hit something solid, groping until he found a crack big enough to slip through and cramming the girl in there before tumbling in after. It was dark and cramped, but there were four solid walls and a roof as far as he could tell, and he figured that so long as nobody got slap-happy with the grenades again, they could sit there for a spell and catch their breath.
It wasn’t until he reached up to brush away the bright spots clouding his vision that he realized he’d been hit. Blood oozed from a gash on his forehead, slick under his fingers, and he fought to stay awake and upright.
River was going ape-shit. Pinned beneath his weight, she thrashed as much as the small space allowed, clawing at the front of his t-shirt
“No!” she sobbed. “No no no no no!”
“Hush,” he slurred, trying to clear his thoughts. “Hush…”
She did, amazingly, her cries lowering to whimpers. Jayne closed his eyes and tried to drown them out, focusing instead on not throwing up and the sounds of the battle outside. Too much noise to tell who was who, and until he could stand without everything doubling, they were better off out of harm’s way.
“They’re coming,” she whispered, breaking into his train of thought. “They’re done with the girl, don’t want her back. Going to say the magic words and turn her off, put her back in the toy chest with the other outgrown dolls.” Her hands kneaded into his side restlessly.
Jayne itched to squirm away from her touch, but their hiding spot was too small for it. A distant explosion made their little shelter quiver, raining dirt upon them. “What the hell you talking about, girl?”
“They’re coming,” River repeated. “Two by two, hands of blue.” Her cold fingers wormed further up his side. “Need to hide.”
“What do you think we’re ruttin’ doing?” he said, twisting in her grip enough to peer through the gap in the wall out into the chaos beyond. He could hear gunfire and the roar of ship engines approaching fast. Serenity, he hoped, and not the gorram feds like crazy said.
“Not good enough!” she wailed, clutching at his arm now. “Find her today, find her tomorrow! Never stop looking! She needs to hide!”
Jayne slapped a hand across her mouth. “Shut up! They’ll find us right now if you keep your squalkin’!” In the dim light he could just make out the whites of her eyes, wide and terrified. Her soft lips trembled against the calloused skin of his palm.
He pulled away tentatively, not letting himself relax until it seemed that the girl had gotten the hint to be quiet. River was still shaking, but her lips were pressed resolutely closed, so he leaned back again and set to thinking about how the hell he was gonna get them out of there.
Tentatively her fingers returned to his side, stroking him in careful, soothing motions. Jayne tensed at her icy touch, then sighed, allowing himself to relax slightly into the crazy girl’s soft ministrations. Slowly, she worked her way up his chest, across his shoulders, and up his neck to cradle his skull. She frowned at the wetness she found there.
He shrugged. “T’aint all bad. Take more’n that to take me down.”
The worried expression didn’t leave her face. “He is hurt because of her.”
“Naw. Weren’t you. Was that hun-dan with the explosives.”
Slowly her fingers started petting him again.
“Jayne has done the girl many favors. Bought her apples, pushed her out of harm’s way. He feels bad about Ariel.” Jayne frowned and tried to shift away, but her fingers gripped him hard, causing the pain in his head to throb.
“Many favors. Only one more, and the debt is repaid.” Her voice was soft, sad, and she stroked her fingers through his hair once again, wiping away the blood. “She is sorry. Please try not to scream.”
Her cold fingers slid through his skull and into his brain. Wherever she touched, there was ice.
Jayne couldn’t help it. He screamed.
He awoke on Serenity, still screaming. Mal was shouting something at the doc, and he and Zoe were struggling to hold him down on the infirmary table. Something was wrong, and Jayne didn’t know what, but he wasn’t going to shut up until they understood it, too.
Sharp prick of a hypodermic gun on his right bicep. Jayne’s body quieted and stilled, but his mind continued to race all the way down into the blackness, down, down down, to where River was waiting.
When he fought his way back to the real world for the second time, there were straps around his arms and legs and chest and a gag across his mouth. He struggled briefly against his bonds, but stopped when he saw Mal sitting at his bedside, his pistol resting across his lap and his eyes as hard as steel.
“Mornin’, Jayne,” he said casually. “Got some questions for you. You gonna start hollerin’ again if I take the gag off?”
He wanted to keep screaming until the too-full feeling in his head went away, but one look at Mal’s loaded pistol was enough to convince him that that might not be such a good idea, so he pushed back the urge as much as he could and shook his head.
The captain got up and went around behind Jayne to undo the gag before resuming his perch at his bedside. He stayed an arms length away from Jayne the entire time, and his hands never went anywhere near his mouth. It suddenly occurred to Jayne as he tried to unstick his parched tongue that Mal thought he would bite him if he came too close.
“The job,” said Mal, and by his tone Jayne knew that Mal wouldn’t trouble with the airlock this time if Jayne’s answers were unsatisfactory. It’d be a bullet in the brain-pan for Ma Cobb’s boy, which Jayne figured was a bad thing even if it was mighty tempting at the moment. “Tell me what happened.”
Jayne struggled to remember through the haze of drugs and his pounding headache. “Got separated. Grabbed the girl just before the fireworks started, hid us away. Gorram crazy started goin’ off about them blue-handed guys again, said she had to hide. She did somethin’… somethin’ funny to my head. Dunno what happened after that. You’ll have to ask her.”
Mal’s jaw tensed grimly. “And therein lies the problem.”
“Can’t ask River anything no more, Jayne. She’s dead. Found her curled up cold as a stone on your chest, you screamin’ your head off like a Reaver was gnawin’ on your insides. Not a mark on either of you.” He cocked his head to the side and cocked his gun pointedly. “Now, you either tell me what in the gorram hell happened, you sick sack of shit, or I’ll bring the doc in here to ask you again. And let me tell you, he won’t ask near as nice as me.”
They think you’re crazy.
Jayne jerked, craning his neck as much as the restraints would allow him to locate the voice. There wasn’t anybody else in the infirmary besides him and Mal.
“Did you hear that?!”
Think you snapped, killed the girl. Not sure how. Simon can’t bring himself to do an autopsy. Suffocation, maybe. Jayne has big hands, strong enough to snuff the breath out of her if she was screaming.
Mal’s eyes were hard and unamused. “Hear what, Jayne?”
The voice giggled.
“That!” he hissed, straining again to see into the corners. “The girl!”
Something dark slid its way across the captain’s face. “Girl’s dead. Done told you that.”
Jayne could feel the blind panic that had consumed him earlier creeping back up again. “She done something, Mal. I dunno what, an’ I dunno how, but it feels like she crawled inside a’ me. Something’s wrong!”
Ah ah ah… River chided. Not your secret to tell. Time to be quiet, now.
He could feel her fingers inside him again, stroking the soft, secret parts of his skull. Something in him seized, and he was suddenly thankful for the leather straps that held him to the table as his whole body shook uncontrollably.
Jayne was still strapped down when he awoke hours later, needles in his arms and wires coming out of his chest and head, making Simon’s precious instruments beep steadily. His head was pounding something fierce, and underneath the sedative hangover he could feel River shifting, prying.
“You hurt me,” he whispered to the empty room.
“Where are you?” he asked, even through he knew the answer.
In you. In your head.
“What are you doing there?”
“Well, get out. You’re not welcome.”
Can’t, she sing-songed. Got no body to go to. No-body to go to. Nobody nobody nobody. Just you and me now, alone in here.
“You get out,” he hissed. “I’ll holler, get your brother in here. See what he does with you then.”
Simon’s heard your screaming. Doesn’t care. Hates crazy-Jayne, wants crazy-sister back. Nothing but an empty shell. He’ll get The Shot, the one he mixed up special Just In Case, and come make you an empty shell, too.
A cold chill washed down Jayne’s body, making him twist and strain frantically against his bonds. He felt the leather give slightly.
Shh… River soothed, and touched something in him that forced his body to relax. Not time yet. Timing is key. Patience, patience.
“What you got planned, crazy girl? What you gonna do with me?”
The silence lasted so long that Jayne began to suspect that he had hit his head harder than he thought and hallucinated the whole thing, but eventually River spoke, shattering the illusion. You have a good skull, Jayne Cobb. Thick, lots of shielding. His eyes crossed and his stomach heaved as he felt her tapping at it with those long, cold fingers that cut through his thoughts.
Good brain, too. This time he did throw up, barely managing to turn his head to the side so he didn’t choke on his own vomit. The sound of it, liquid and real echoed throughout the small room, rang in his ears.
Amygdala completely intact. You could have gone far with this brain, Jayne Cobb, if you’d had the mind to. Instead you dropped out of school, worked at the mines until you were big enough to convince some third-rate captain to take you off-world. Thought you were big and brave. Got a tattoo to commemorate the occasion. Fucked your first whore.
It was wrong. So very, very wrong. “You can’t know that. You can’t!”
Why not? It’s all here. In your head, tucked within the wrinkles and folds. Simon thinks the man-ape has a smooth brain, but he doesn’t. Lots of crevices, lots of places to hide.
Suddenly everything clicked. “Is that what you plan on doin’, settin’ up camp and callin’ it a day? Got news for you, little girl. Cap’n ain’t pleased, he’s liable to shoot my ass next time he walks through here. An freaky little disembodied thing that you are, I don’t think that even you can take a bullet ‘twixt the eyes.”
He allowed himself a smirk, thinking he had won the argument.
You’re wrong, she whispered. Captain Daddy can’t trust you anymore, but he won’t kill you. Kaylee won’t let him. He’ll kick you out the next time Serenity touches dirt. Then I will make my way across the worlds and find a place to settle. Somewhere quiet. Somewhere free.
His toes wiggled seemingly of their own volition, followed by the muscles in his legs, torso, arms, creeping slowly up his body. A cold chill settled in his stomach.
“What about me?” Jayne asked, panic creeping into his voice. “What in the gorram hell am I supposed to do? Just sit back and ruttin’ watch?”
He felt her mental shrug. “Freedom isn’t free,” she said, only it was his voice saying it, and there was somebody else straightening his arms and legs as far as the straps would allow, settling themselves into his limbs, turning his eyes to look at the mirrored glass window. Jayne’s reflection stared back at him, but it wasn’t him in there anymore. Trapped in a corner of his own mind, he could only watch as the muscles in his face twitched experimentally, went through a range of emotions—anger, sadness, humor, fear—before settling on the serene Cheshire-cat smile River had been so fond of.
“Besides,” said River in her new Jayne-suit. “Jayne is a girl’s name.”