A/N: I need to work on Firefly High and Born To Be Wild 4, I know I do, but this idea kept bugging me ever since I rewatched Ariel recently, and it had to be written! Hope you like :-)

Disclaimer: Firefly and all recognisable characters belong to Joss Whedon and other important persons that aren't me.


Jayne had a headache like none he'd ever had before. Coulda blamed the knock to the head he took fighting off he Feds. Coulda blamed the wrench Mal had swung at him a couple of hours ago. Nope, Jayne knew the lumps on his head weren't what made him feel so bad, that was the guilt.

Weren't something Jayne Cobb was much used to feeling. Hell, he weren't used to feeling much of anything, truth be known, but the Cap'n had made him feel plenty bad about what he'd almost done today, as if he hadn't already started to feel awful enough afore that.

Sat here now, back against the wall, staring at the airlock door that was thankfully now closed up tight and set to remain so, Jayne's mind went back to St Lucy's on Ariel. Pushing River in a wheelchair through the trauma unit, watching Simon rush to save a man's life. One of the weirdest experiences of his life was seeing that scene play out before his eyes. Reminded him the Doc was a better person than he normally let himself believe. Twas easy most of the time to call him a gorram pansy ass kid and make remarks about dropping him off the ship onto his head. Even easier to call the Doc's little sister a crazy witch, 'specially when she was cuttin' on Jayne with a butchers knife this very same day.

Course, after what he saw on Ariel, Jayne knew t'weren't so cut and dry with the little woman. What them ruttin' Alliance hwun-dahns had done to her, weren't somethin' to be done to some innocent girl, and she had been that back then, he was fair certain. They made her a freak, made her crazy, and scared the livin' daylights outta her, til she was so far gone she did the same to everybody else, just by livin'.

Jayne would shoot a man, and mean to kill if'n he had to, but them folks he went up against meant to do the same to him, or thems that were payin' him, or thems he cared enough about he'd do it anyhow. Girls like River, probably never hurt nobody and wouldn't know how, til them kuh wu hwun dahns got a hold o' her, and messed up her pretty little head.

There weren't no way in the 'verse he could let her go back to them what did this to her, not when he knew. Had to get her and her brother away from that place, any way he could. Course he was too late to just run and escape, ended up havin' to fight his way out, kill with his hands in front of the girl and her brother. None of today was Jayne Cobb's finest hour, not a gorram second of it made him proud.

Footsteps outside the airlock caught Jayne's attention. He had to assume Mal was finally coming to let him out of here. Got the shock of his life when he stood up and peered out through the little glass window, seeing nothing at first then suddenly coming face to face with the little woman who had been on his mind.

"Strange place to hide" said River, an odd smile on her face as she stared back at him through the glass a while.

Jayne considered asking for her to release him from his would-be prison, but thought better of it within a second. Alone with her down here oughta be safe enough, but he had no guarantees of that. She saw in peoples heads, said the weirdest things. Chances were good if she was the little witch he figured she had to be, she knew what he did. Certainly sounded that way when they was sat in front of the Feds, her accusing him of stealing Christmas or whatever she was rambling. Made little or no sense to anybody else, but Jayne had a notion he'd understood her words a little too well.

River stopped smiling then, danced a few steps away on ballet points and pushed the button to open the door to the airlock. Jayne had been leaning there and tripped out into the open space beyond, before the door was closed just as quick as it opened. It took him a second or two to get his bearings as a rush of cleaner air hit him and his head swum too much from moving too fast.

"Healing badly" River's words didn't shock him half so much as her fingers ghosting over the lump on one side of his head, "Need to take care"

"Ain't nothin' I ain't had before" he said gruffly, pulling away from her fast and making to walk away.

Jayne wasn't sure if it was his aching head or what, but he couldn't for the life of him figure how a second later River was in his path again, two steps above him on the stairs, gazing down at him with big beautiful eyes a man could get lost in.

"Christmas went away" she reminded him of her earlier words, whether she had another ramble in mind for him or she was just readin' stuff out his head, Jayne didn't rightly know and wouldn't ask, "but Santa got it wrong. Naughty and nice both, so presents he shall have" she smiled warm as any sun, her hand moving down the banister rail and not quite touching Jayne's own fingers, before she turned and began walking again.

He was expected to follow and since it was the only way to his bunk he had little choice but to do so. Jayne didn't know she was taking him back to his bunk with plans to tend to him, the whole thing seemed crazy to him, but then that's what he always said she was, what he always thought. Her fault or not, she was more than a little cracked in the brainpan, and she must know that much as he did.

"Not as much as he thought" she said, glancing back at him a moment, before opening up the door to his own bunk and letting herself down the ladder.

He wouldn't understand, she knew. River was aware she made little sense to anyone else most of the time, but in her head almost all of what she said was fine, understandable, clear. He might assume she meant she was not as crazy as he assumed. In actuality, she had been talking of Jayne himself, being as he was not half so dumb not half as mean as he would let the crew believe. She knew better, but she wouldn't tell, not outside the sacred walls of the room belonging to man-called-Jayne.

Afore long he was sat on the edge of his bed, her wandering around his room seemin' all kinds of weird to Jayne. How she come to know where he kept his one bottle of booze, he hadn't an idea, since he never told no-one. Girl either went snooping around where she shouldn't or she was readin' every thought right outta his head, not that Jayne thought that'd be hard since right now he was lacking in thoughts, especially clear ones, not least when she came hovering over him with the end of the wrap she'd been wearing now damp with alcohol and made to put it to his head.

"What're you...?" he began asking, a dumb question she thought as evidence by the way she rolled her eyes at him.

"Dirt seeps in, infection starts. Death does not become him" she stated as if obvious, continuing in her actions and cleaning the cuts on his forehead.

Jayne woulda argued more, coulda launched her into next week all too easy given how the damn thing stung, but when that pain stopped just a second after it started, he had to admit it was kind of a nice feelin' to be tended to like this. They had womenfolk enough on this boat, but none of them was much for caring for him. 'Nara was too far up her own pigu at times to lower herself that far, and it wasn't as if he had the coin to pay her for the pleasure. Kaylee was sweet as candy but blood scared the hell outta her, and Zoe figured if she could tend her own wounds without flinchin' everybody else oughta do just the same.

"Caring, one for another" said River softly as she cleaned him up, "Family ties and honour bound" she rambled on, though Jayne was barely listening, kind of enjoying the odd feeling of her light touch, til just as sudden it was gone.

His eyes, which had fallen shut of their own accord sometime before, opened quick and stared up at her as she stared back just the same.

"What you lookin' at?" asked Jayne, wonderin' some on the expression she wore - caught somewhere between mad at him and tryin' to puzzle him out, he reckoned.

"Traitor" she said bluntly, and though he knew she must've seen her words hit home with him, she smiled genuinely again, "Not important" she assured him, as she turned her attention back to the wounds on his head and declared them now clean.

"Thanks" muttered Jayne, figuring she was leaving now and so leaning back to lay down in his bed.

Sleep was what he needed, that'd heal him up better'n any of the crazy girls ramblin' or even her tendin' to him like she had been. Unfortunately for Jayne, River had other plans for tonight, and even they wasn't his usual favourite alternative to sleep.

"No" she instructed, by him in a second, hands stopping his head from hitting the pillow by the narrowest of margins, urging him to sit up some.

"Listen here you crazy little..." he began what she guessed would be one of his threats never followed through, and so she interrupted.

"Sleeping now could be forever" she told him plainly, arranging his bed so he could sit somewhat comfortably without actually lying down and sleeping.

He didn't know why she cared if he lived or died. Didn't know why he was letting her tend to him this way or why she ever decided she wanted to. Still, he weren't gonna complain, if'n only 'cause he was hurtin' still and there was little enough comfort to be had here on this boat as it was. 'Sides, he couldn't yell at her, he owed her somethin' as it was, least he reckoned he probably did. She cut on him, that hurt like hell, but he nearly gave her back to them that'd screwed up her head, her life, her everything. That put him still in debt to her, as far as Jayne could figure, 'specially since it seemed she probably knew what he did and was still playin' nursemaid without a care.

"Gonna be a gorram long night if I can't sleep" he muttered, trying not to let his eyes fall shut since he knew what she said had been true, however annoying that was.

"Sleeping is over-rated" she said, lucid as she'd ever been as far as he could tell but afraid of that she was talking about too, as she shuddered involuntarily whilst moving to sit lotus style on the end of Jayne's bed, facing him, "Tell her a story" she urged him, "So many to hear on the inside, but better voiced than read" she told him with a smile.

Jayne knew what that prob'ly meant. She'd been reading things clean out of his head, things he'd rather she didn't by all accounts but that was just how it was with a Reader type on the ship. Seemed to him if'n she went digging around in his head, t'weren't his fault she found things she shouldn't.

"I ain't got no stories like you'd want" he told her, "Nothing fancy and fairytale like" he warned her.

"She knows" River nodded easily, "That world is not hers anymore. Never can be. Tell her all your tales, Jayne-man, and she will be brave by proxy"

He frowned a moment then, tryin' to make her out, but for the life of him Jayne couldn't come to any sorta answer on the puzzle that was River Tam. She was too many conflictin' things all rolled up in one little package, he didn't stand a gorram chance o' knowin' where to start in figurin' her out - so why try?

"Okay" he nodded once, "Now I tell you this stuff, you keep your mouth buttoned on it" he warned her, as he began to spin a tale from the old days, something damn heroic and mighty.

River knew he was embellishing here and there, but she didn't let on. She had her reasons for being here tonight, reasons no-one else would ever understand. She was as smart as her brother had said the day they boarded Serenity and joined this crew, and not half so fried in the brainpan as she knew she seemed to them at times.

Jayne had done what he thought he wanted to today on Ariel, but he had conscience enough and it had caught up to him. She couldn't blame him for what he did, she scared them all with her knife-slashing antics that seemed as if she wanted to harm the crew. That was untrue, she had seen nothing in that moment but the blue symbol that taunted her...

Closing her eyes a moment, River pushed away all thoughts of that nature and concentrated only on the low comforting drawl of Jayne Cobb's voice, telling her tales of the past that could only make her love him more, not that she'd say a word on that tonight; he wasn't ready yet.

- The End -