A/N: This is the third of my stories in the Five Random Songs series. This particular one was inspired by Pat Benetar's 'Painted Desert' before it veered off in a slightly unexpected direction.

Disclaimer: Not mine. Never will be either.

Spoilers: post-BDM

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Painted Desert by Pat Benatar

I hear your heartbeat but you're never there
Like a mirage, you haunt me everywhere

She misses him.

If someone had told her a few weeks ago that she would have felt the absence of Jayne like a nagging toothache, she would have given them that look that she directs at her brother when he's being a boob, which is most of the time.

When she walks past his bunk, empty as it is now, she hears an echo of his presence and it makes her ache with longing. She finds herself hearing him interject his particular brand of low wit into the conversations, though the blank looks the others wear as she sniggers to herself tell her that she is the only one to hear. She thinks she sees him sometimes out of the corner of her eye, only to turn and find nothing but shadows.

I'm lost in a painted desert
In a painted desert without you

She distracts herself by dancing alone in the cargo bay, where she can drown out the whispers of his memory, his ghosts, but sometimes she closes her eyes and imagines him there, watching her, dancing with her, and her eyes burn with holding back the tears.

I've done some thinkin', now that you're not here
I know your reasons, and they're still not clear

Once, she had tried to approach him in a romantic sense, trying out her fledgling wings on an attractive and available mate. His refusal had been categorical. Actually, he had stumbled backwards over some crates in his haste to get away from her and knocked himself out on the airlock door. When he came to, she had graciously refrained from mentioning the original subject matter, and had even helped him up to the infirmary so that Simon could examine his contusion.

He had watched her somewhat warily after that, as if afraid she might pounce at any moment. Now, as she wanders the ship, a sad and lonely cloud, she half-wishes she had. At least she would have the memories to clutch tightly to her chest, to snuggle up warm with on nights when Serenity rings deep with emptiness.

I burn for you, lonely in the night
I tried to live alone, but I just can't get it right

The nights are the worst, when she rides the dreams of those around her, lost in their sensual world of caresses and sighs, feeling the lack of her own mate to cling to. Sometimes, she feels that if she stretched her mind out far enough through the vastness, she might be able to reach him, nestle up in that core of stone and steel where she feels safe. She doesn't try it, though. Failure would just make her feel worse.

Walkin' in the sundown, I search in vain
Waitin' on the wind that whispers out your name

By the time they touch down on that warm desert moon, she is pensive and sad. It feels as though something has changed inside her and she doesn't understand it, doesn't know how to stop it, doesn't know if she even wants to. A part of her wants to embrace the melancholy, wallow in it until she's immersed up to her chin in sorrow and yearning.

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The others head into town for some social relaxation and she takes the time to wander away from the ship, finding a rock formation that is bathed red in the light of the setting sun and looks strangely like a camel if she puts her head on one side and squints. She decides to call him Clyde. Sitting on his back, she listens to the whispers on the wind and passes on the tale of a man called Jayne, who robbed from the rich and let the poor take care of themselves, who could take down a whole posse by himself but was scared stiff of one crazy little girl with a drinks tray.

"I weren't ruttin' scared, you loony. I was holdin' back on account a' not wantin' to hurt ya!"

"He chooses to believe this," River told Clyde conspiratorially, "because it makes him feel better about losing to a girl. He is sadly delusional."

"Who the hell ya talkin' to, girlie? Ain't nobody 'round here 'cept me, and I only just got here. Had to gorram walk most a' the way an' all," he grouched, coming over to sprawl next to her on the rocks. "Ain't had a decent drink in weeks an' I think I got a stone in my boot."

"You've got your elbow in Clyde's ear," she pointed out, and sighed when he just put on his 'gorram crazy girl' expression. "And it was your choice to visit with your family for so long." She paused for a moment, stroking one finger delicately down Clyde's hump, watching sadly as he turned back into rock and stone. "Serenity has missed you."

"Sure," he said sarcastically. "Gorram ship's been pinin' for me, I bet." He leaned over towards her and she could smell the musky scent of fresh sweat from his exertions – it was not unpleasant, she admitted grudgingly. "Sure it ain't you that was missin' me, girl? Ya know, I seem to remember ya was awful struck on me few weeks back. Threw yerself at me, as I recall."

"Did not!" River huffed in indignation. "Merely an experiment carried out on the only possible component."

"Whatever, girlie." Jayne settled back on his elbows, cocky grin firmly in place. It made River's palm itch. "I think ya like me. 'Course, what's not to like? 'S a wonder ya kept yer hands off me this long, all things considered."

"You made it quite clear that you wished me to keep my hands to myself," River said pointedly, a little of the hurt rejection she had felt creeping into her voice.

"Hurt yer feelin's, did I?" Jayne said, moving closer again. River resisted the urge to sidle further away. His proximity had strange effects on her constitution, but she wasn't about to let him see that. "I could try kissin' ya. Might make ya feel better." He was leaning right over her now, strong arms braced on either side, his breath warm on her neck. She thought whimsically that he resembled a large cat stalking its prey, a mountain lion, hair tawny and washed with golden sunshine.

She reached out a hand to touch. "Too handsome for his own good," she muttered.

His grin split his face, white teeth shining, ready to tear her limb from limb. Why did that thought not disturb her more? "Knew ya couldn't resist me," he said, his eyes sweeping down her body and making her flush.

"I do not comprehend the change in heart," she said. "Two months ago, you wanted nothing to do with her, too young, too crazy, too fond of knives…" She picked nervously at a loose thread on the front of his shirt, scared to meet his eyes, scared this was all a dream, a drug-induced hallucination.

"Well, that's all still true," Jayne admitted. "Stop pullin' at that – you'll unravel the whole gorram shirt." He pulled her hand away and trapped it with one of his own, which left him free to lower his whole length down on top of her, effectively pinning her to the rocks. Her heart fluttered nervously to itself, like a hummingbird in a cage.

"'Course," he said slowly, "six weeks stuck in the ass-end a' nowhere gives a man a lotta time ta think. Ain't much else to do out this way. An' my mind just kept on circlin' right on back ta you, every time I turned around. Now, I ain't the cleverest man, ain't never seen much point in book-learning in my way a' life, but I ain't stupid neither. Seems to me if a man can't keep his mind off a woman, he oughta maybe think about doin' somethin' 'bout that. Somethin' like makin' sure he's on her mind all the time, too."

"Already are," she said, a shy smile on her lips. "Six weeks, two days, four hours and seventeen minutes have never gone so slowly."

He grinned. "You were countin'?"

"No…"

"Were too."

"Was not!"

He shouted with laughter and swooped down to catch her lips with his own. River felt the contact right down to her toes. They quivered. It was most peculiar. Perhaps they were connected to her lips by a network of nerve endings…

She knew now why cold-blooded creatures basked on sun-drenched rocks. The heat warmed her from all sides. She felt that she might sink into him and never feel cold again. Her hands settled onto his shoulders, feeling the solidity of muscle and sinew. Not a dream, she thought. Real. Her eyes opened and stared into his, and she saw her own startled pleasure mirrored there.

They drew the kiss out, neither wanting to end the moment of quiet tenderness. His lips moved awkwardly on hers and she tentatively followed his lead. Neither of them was very experienced at this; Jayne was more than a little rusty and River had only her clumsy teenage fumblings to guide her. Somehow, in this moment, it just made it that much sweeter. Noses bumped, breathing got heavy, and they would both have a stiff neck in the morning. Feeling the rising tide of happiness that swelled up inside of her, River didn't care a bit.

"Damn, River-girl," he said eventually, pulling slowly away then rising and hauling her to her feet, her hand dwarfed in his own. "You're as good as a drink a' water in the desert."

"Have you slaked your thirst, then?" she asked, slanting him a coquettish look.

His answering grin was that of a pirate, a desert raider, her own personal mountain lion. "Honey, I ain't even started."