Title: Evolution
Chapter: A Stranger's Arms (6/10)
Author: ILB (or an ardent rain)
Disclaimer: I do not own.
Rating: PG
Pairing: none (over-reaching for the story, though, is Rayne)
Set: post-BDM about a month
Written For: the LJ comm 2by2 Fics
Prompts: 1: Yellow; 2: "Her clothes spread wide, and mermaidlike awhile they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, as one incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and indued unto that element." -Queen; Hamlet (IV.7.173-178)

-Notes: Whoo! Chapter six, and in good time, too! I hope everyone enjoys it. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it, but it's sort of what I want. Thanks to all to the reviewers for chapter five! And can I encourage all you story lurkers to review this chapter, too? I'd really like feedback!

River wrapped herself in the thick, yellow blanket that the Cobb matriarch had made for her. There was a dull hammering at her temples – it had been there for hours (pounding, pounding) and she still hadn't found the cause.

Jayne sat down beside her in the little lounge area, nursing a cup of pungent black coffee and a hangover – she could taste his remorse in sour, vigorous waves that he had had so much to drink the previous evening. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and grunted.

"Greetings to you, too, man with a girl's name."

Jayne made a disparaging sort of noise and took a long sip of his coffee. "Yeah, whatever you… girl with a water's name."

River gave a soft, half-hearted giggle. Jayne's feeble attempt at an insult was actually quite amusing to her, but the headache she'd had since she woke up overrode any humor. She could certainly sympathize with Jayne's plight, though she felt that his achey cranium was very richly deserved. He'd spent the evening prior in pursuit of cheap whiskey and cheaper women. Whether he found the first, she could only speculate (his hangover a rather telling symptom), but she knew he had found the latter. She never really meant to spy on him, but, on occasions that were growing more and more frequent, she found herself seeking out his mental signature.

"My name is perfectly acceptable; you should not malign it."

"Yeah, acceptable." He looked at her intently. "So's mine." He growled and took another sip of his coffee. River closed her eyes – Jayne was enjoying his drink so much it registered on her radar, and she could almost imagine it sliding down her own throat. "Gorram," he muttered, rubbing his forehead with two thick, grimy fingers. "My head's killin' me."

She sniffed in disapproval. "Perhaps you should not have consumed such a large volume of alcohol."

Jayne shrugged. "The girls kept pourin', so I kept drinkin'."

"Girls?" River asked.

He grinned lasciviously. "They were some damn fine whores. The one I got – she was like what's 'er name… yeah, like Nandi. Used to be a Companion once." He shook his head in – what was in River's opinion far too fond – remembrance. His mood had lifted several rungs already; very few things in the 'verse could cheer Jayne up like the thought of voluptuous female bodies. He turned to her to say something else, when suddenly there was a pop of realization.

He touched the soft knitted yellow of the blanket, right at her knee; River could feel the soft, accidental brush of his hand through the thick weave. A little startled, she pulled her leg closer to her body, looking up at him through her hair.

"This is the blanket my Ma made for ya, ain't it?"

River nodded. "Yes." She pulled it a little tighter around her shoulders. "It is very warm."

"O' course," he said with a frown, "you think she'd be sendin' you somethin' shoddy?"

She shook her head vigorously. "Would never accuse her of such," River assured him. She knew, perhaps even better than Jayne did, just how much time and effort had been put into the present; since the subject of payment had been closed quickly and definitively, River had insisted on thanking her benefactor personally. Jayne – more forced than willing – had reluctantly agreed to wave his mother, and after a little light coercion on River's part, had agreed to let the two converse. It had been formal and brief, but very satisfying. Mary Cobb was a delightful woman; it was a pity, in River's opinion, that she had to have such a rough, untamable son. "I could not have been more pleased."

She pulled the blanket out of Jayne's hand, swaddling herself in it further and rubbing her cheek against the fold of fluffed Rim yarn at her neck.

Jayne watched her. "Well good," he said gruffly. "I know 'er knittin' an' there ain't no way you got any cause to complain."

They sat silently for several minutes more. River had the murmurings in her head to occupy her, and Jayne had his coffee. He took the last long draught, tipping back his head and gulping down the remainder of his drink. He let out a contented sigh, resting his mug on his knee. He looked over at River. "Hey. You know how long we're set to stay in the Black?"

She shook her head. "Still waiting to hear from the contact. Captain does not yet know where we will be setting down."

"Hmm." He stood, smacking his lips a little. River's attention was drawn and she stared at the swatch of bristly hair above them. Though he had no problem with dirt and grime on his clothes or body, Jayne always seemed to keep his hair – that on his scalp and his face – clean and neatly trimmed. He was not the ape that he'd been branded; secretly, River felt his mother was right. If Simon intimated again that Jayne was just an ape, a punch would certainly be appropriate enough to discourage him. She was against violence towards Simon as a rule, but verbal sparring would leave Jayne slashed to ribbons. "See you later, ni zi," he said absently, walking off. "An' don't tell Mal I'm the one that drank his coffee."

The pounding in her head was getting worse. She quirked a smile at the mercenary's broad, retreating back. "As long as he does not ask."

After her conversation with Jayne, River felt her day's social quota had been filled. She had no desire to deal with Simon's petting, and if he noticed she wasn't feeling her best – which he inevitably would – then there was certain to be worrying - and excessive petting. She lay down on the bed in the passenger dorm that had become her bunk, pulling the thick yellow blanket over her head. There were the faint echoes of voices along with the pounding, and River felt nauseated at the pain she felt in those silent screams. Whatever it was had been getting louder and closer, and she wasn't sure what she would do if she had to meet that chaos she felt head on.

Serenity was trying to calm her, but River still felt too close to out-of-control. None of the crew noticed her distress; she hadn't said anything to anyone, and as it was her custom to occasionally hide away from everyone for hours at a time, no one saw anything unusual in her behavior. The feeling only got worse as the day wore on; she stayed in a tight ball, her arms wrapped around her middle, waiting for the pain to pass.

A little before the evening meal was planned, Mal came looking for her. "Albatross," he called, "you in there?" There was a taint of annoyance in his voice; they'd had some turbulence, and it was River's duty as acting pilot to steer them through safely. Mal had not appreciated having to leave Inara's side to go and do River's job. "Got somethin' I need to say."

From inside the dorm there was a whimper. Mal paused mid-knock, his anger dissipating a little. "River?" There was still no answer, and with a sigh he shook his head and turned. It seemed to be a bit less simple than the mere shirking of responsibilities. The best course of action would be to find Simon.

So Mal retreated, heading towards the infirmary to see if he could find the doctor. River was left alone once again. There were colors rushing in rainbow swirls past her eyes, one after the other after blue and indigo and violent violet and the stinging, stifling pain of thick, angry swatches of red. She put her hands over her ears and pulled at her hair, tugging hard at the long, tangled strands. Something was coming… No. Something had come and gone, tearing apart everything in its wake, leaving only the pain, the dark, the badness.

River's vision went black and she rose up on her bed, the blanket falling off her body like a curtain of water. She grabbed her stomach, her hand a claw, clutching at her dress as she dry-heaved. There was a sudden moment of stillness and then two things happened: the proximity alarm went off in the cockpit, and River began to scream.

It echoed off the ship's metal walls – a sharp, piercing sound. She couldn't stop herself and she vomited all over the floor. Only two seconds passed before Simon was barreling towards her, panic rising in his gut like bile. "River!" he called. "River, are you all right?"

He rushed into her room, the captain only seconds behind him. River was sprawled out on her bed, her hair fanned out in soft waves around her drawn, pale face. One hand dangled limply off the mattress and her dress was puddled in shallow pools of fabric around her knees.

"Wake up," Simon instructed worriedly, slipping an arm under her shoulders. "River... tell me what's wrong." He sat her up, her body leaning against his arm. She groaned raggedly, her head moving slowly from side to side.

"Don't look like she's in a mood for violence," Mal said, keeping one wary eye on River. "You got her, doc?" Simon nodded, shifting River gently towards the edge of the bed. "Good, 'cause I got to check on my girl."

She let out one choked, helpless scream as the captain rushed towards the bridge, and Simon was there beside her, stroking her arm and whispering soft, soothing assurances. "I need to take you to the infirmary, River," he told her gently. "I'm going to give you something to help you calm down." He could ascertain what had caused her fit just as soon as she was more stable; all he was focused on then was just helping put her back at ease. He led her out of her room and towards the infirmary, one guiding arm around her shoulders. She moved slowly, stiffly - as though walking through knee-high water.

Jayne was waiting in the infirmary doorway, his arms crossed over his chest. He was frowning.

"Move," Simon said hurriedly, nervous despite his need to get a sedative to River.

The impediment snarled but stepped aside. "What the hell's wrong with her this time?"

Simon led River in and sat her down. "Something's upset her," he said coldly, opening a pre-packaged syringe. "It's not… it's not bad, but because she's been so well lately I think it's affecting her more than it would normally." He paused a moment to look at River. "She can't tell me exactly what's wrong."

River was rocking back and forth, covering her ears with her hands. Simon went over and swabbed her arm, then gave her the injection.

Jayne's frown deepened. "She don't like the drugs, ya know."

"It's just a sedative." 'You ape,' he thought. River batted at his shoulder with one limp hand.

"She, uh…" Jayne looked around, rubbing at the back of his neck in something Simon could only call embarrassment. "She ain't gonna be scrambled again, is she? I mean… it ain't permanent 'r nothin' right?"

That was… that was concern, he heard, Simon was sure of it. "N-no," he stuttered, "it won't be permanent. Whatever stimulus is causing this fit… a-as soon as it goes away, she should be better." He stood in front of River, one hand clasped tenderly on her shoulder. "She'll be better."

"Think I got an answer for you, doc," Mal called, walking into the infirmary just a moment after his words. "Got a ship – looks cold, though. Might 'a' been Reavers. Might 'a' been just a bad accident. Doc, you want to come help assess?"

The captain was not really asking. "Oh, I… If you think there are people aboard that may need me, then I – "

Mal smiled tightly. "Don't ever hurt t'be prepared."

"Hey," Jayne barked. "If'n the doc's gone, who's s'posed to watch his crazy mei mei?"

For a long, thoughtful moment, Mal stared at Jayne bemusedly. "Since you're so concerned, Jayne… how 'bout you?"

Jayne balked. "No way in hell, Mal, I ain't…" But the captain had already turned and walked out. "Hey! Mal!"

"I don't like this any more than you do," Simon said waspishly, his brow puckered in irritation. "Just listen in case she gets upset again. You don't… don't even have to stay with her. It might be better if you don't. Just listen – make sure she doesn't get worked up again. I gave her a good dose so she should fall asleep soon."

"Why are they here?" she asked suddenly. "I tried to do the equations; followed every formula. Tested again and again and again, but there is no solution. Does not exist." She drew in a harsh breath. "They don't know why they're there – all alone. Cold. It's dark there." She looked up at her brother. "Does not exist. People aren't numbers." Her face crumpled and she bit her lip hard, letting out a quick, high-pitched whine.

"Don't worry, mei mei. We'll find them." With a smile at River, Simon ducked out, leaving a scowling Jayne behind him.

"Can't believe I'm stuck here with you," he complained, scowling deeply at River. "Well... get your ass up, girl," he told her impatiently. "I'm hungry, so you can just... sit 'r somethin' while I eat."

River slipped off, her feet landing silently on the floor. "Cold," she said simply, her arms crossed over her chest as her hands clutched her sharp little shoulders.

"This got anything to do with your…" He made a swirling motion at the side of his head.

River nodded, looking up at him with sad eyes. "There is no warmth where there is no life."

"Creepifyin' little witch," Jayne muttered to himself. He knew he was going to end up watching her, no matter how much he tried to convince himself he didn't have to. He was worried; he didn't want her to stay crazy, and it bothered him more than he knew how to express that he was even remotely concerned about her. It left him with a uncomfortable, itchy feeling, and all he wanted was for Simon to return and make his sister right again so he didn't have to deal with her anymore.

River shuffled towards him, oblivious to his thoughts. "I am hungry, too, man-called-Jayne."

He rolled his eyes and huffed. "An' you think that's my problem? Puh. C'mon, girl, we're goin' to the galley." He took a step, but then abruptly stopped and turned back towards her. "You still cold?" River nodded. "I'm gonna go grab your blanket – you go on in an'... an' don't do nothin' crazy."

Jayne strode quickly out, headed to her dorm. River ignored his instructions and plodded along behind him. She grabbed the back of his shirt. "Wha – Girl, what the hell are you playin' at? Don't got a lick of sense, do you? I tell you to do somethin' you best listen." He draped her soft, yellow blanket across her shoulders, then scooped her up into his arms. "You think Kaylee'd notice if we snuck two o' her bananas?" he asked hopefully, not really expecting an answer. River signed 'K' with her right hand. He noticed, but didn't understand. "Still feelin' off your rocker, huh? Bet that damn sed the doc gave you ain't helpin' none."

"There are marshmellows. In my head."

"Ain't even goin' to ask what that means."

"You would not understand. Neanderthal."

"Huh? Don't know what that means, but it sounded like an insult. An' if you're well enough to insult me..." He pantomimed dropping her.

"It was an insult." River put her head against his chest, one little hand in a fist in his t-shirt. "But I am sorry."

That appeased him. "No skin off my back," he shrugged. "An' I am tall."

They went into kitchen, River still in his arms. He adjusted his hold a little so he could get a hand free; rummaging through a cabinet, he pulled down a bunch of bananas Kaylee had kept hidden behind a block of protein. "Here," he told River as he sat down on the little couch in the lounge. "Get us two o' those off."

River nodded. She pulled off two bananas and pulled down the peels.

They ate in relative silence and when River finished, she dropped the banana peel to the floor and stretched out across Jayne's thighs. "I am going to sleep now," she told him matter-of-factly. "The voices are quiet now."

"Good." Jayne pulled the blanket up and tucked it around her. He hummed a little as he watched her eyes close. "Take me out to the black, tell 'em I ain't comin' back. I don't care…" He brushed back a lock of hair. "I'm still free."

River yawned and curled into him.

Jayne grunted and almost smiled. "You can't take the sky from me."

When Simon and Mal returned from the other ship, Jayne and River were still there on the couch. Jayne was flipping through a magazine he'd found under a cushion and quietly singing an old song about the Chinese zodiac.

"Is she all right?" Simon asked, clucking over his sister like a worried mother hen. "She... She didn't have another fit, did she? Is - "

"She's asleep," Jayne told him, a little disgusted with Simon's incessant worrying. "An' she's fine. Got 'er wrapped up, gave her a banana and then she fell asleep."

"A... wh-what?" Simon gaped at him a little, still shell-shocked at the sight of River splayed out carelessly across Jayne's lap. "You gave her a ba- That's not innuendo, is it?"

"Got your unders in a twist there, doc," Mal said casually. He picked up the two banana peels from the floor.

"What was goin' on over there?" Jayne asked.

Both Mal and Simon looked down at River; the captain shook his head.

Jayne sighed and rolled his eyes. "Whatever." He stretched his arms over his head, cracking his neck. "Time to get rid o' her, then. You want I should take the moonbrain to 'er room?"

"N-no," Simon answered quickly. "I'll do that. Thank you, for... for watching her."

"Weren't like it was any trouble. As long as the little freak don't try to stab me, we get along just fine."

"Yes," Simon agreed, clearing his throat. "She hasn't wanted to stab you in, uh... in a very long time."

Thanks for reading! Reviews would be greatly appreciated. And last time I encouraged everyone to go nominate for Pretty Deadly, but soon it'll be time to vote! Chapter seven is coming soon.