"I want to keep it."
Simon frowns at her, big brother face, big brother knows best. "We don't have any food for it, River, and the captain isn't going to go and get you more every time you run out. Besides, where would you keep it?"
"It eats protein, like us," she argues and holds the bag up to her face. Little blue fish, fins twirling likes scarves as it dances in the water. "Bigger fish in a bigger sea," she murmurs and the fish looks at her and knows. His sea has plastic sides - hers has stars.
Simon argues with her all the way back to the ship, gets the captain to argue with her. Kaylee's on her side because Kaylee's her friend even though she's afraid of her.
she shot three men, she glanced, she closed her eyes, pointed and killed them, all three, never held a gun before
But Kaylee's her friend.
"Where'd she even git it?" Jayne's voice is muffled, mouth half-ful of the bland protein they eat, and he's looking at the fish, not her. He doesn't address her, doesn't usually, hasn't at all since she cleaned the red out of his shirt, stitched it up pretty and new. Shiny, like a new toy wrapped in plastic.
Simon isn't angry, but he's annoyed and frustrated. She knows. She can hear it in his voice, feel it in her mind and in her heart. Big brother knows best, but big brother's afraid.
took it out, they took it out, they cut into her brain and they took it out, she feels /everything, she can't not, my little sister, genius, bratty little sister, she's a gift
"Some carnival thing. She tossed a ring around a bottle neck."
The captain raises an eyebrow, looks at her but doesn't speak to her. She isn't really there to most of them and she knows it, so she looks at the fish. But she knows where they're looking, knows what he's thinking, knows the captain's thoughts.
crazy little girl, just a little girl, no place to go, no place to run, gotta keep moving, safest place to be is in my sky
"They rig those."
Jayne's mouth is still full, not particularly attractive when he snorts. "Don't really matter with her, does it? C'in figure out all their little secrets by reading their brains."
"Oh, that's not it!" Kaylee protests, Kaylee, sweet Kaylee, she's trying so hard, sitting next to River. She puts an arm around River's shoulders, rubbing and gives her a sort of half-hug. "River's just smart, is all. She can figure out when she's bein' cheated, can't'cha, River?"
She doesn't answer - doesn't need to. Besides, sometimes they're spooked when she speaks. So she turns and smiles at Kaylee, getting one back. Then it's back to the little blue fish, who thinks they're all crazy.
"Sometimes they are," River murmurs, bringing the bag close so she can bump it with her nose.
"What was that, honey?"
She doesn't answer and the fight breaks up. She wants the fish, she'll keep the fish. If she can't get it food, it'll die and she won't make a fuss. River agrees, but only because the fish says its foolish to fight about him. He'll only live a year or two, anyway.
"Me, too," River replies softly.
A soft grunt calls her attention- they're alone in the room. The others had left, but she's here with the fish, and he's still eating at the table, watching her with wary eyes. She turns her own on his, innocent and dark, knowing too much and knowing too little. Who's that, asks the fish.
Another grunt and he drops his eyes to his food. "What?" is half mumbled and thick through the tasteless protein in his mouth.
What's he doing here, asks the fish.
River cocks her head, looking at him from a new angle. She has to do that a lot with him- watch him from new angles. If she doesn't, she only sees him one way. Two-dimensional, boring character with two lines in the whole book. But when she twists and pokes and prods, he's real. He's there. She can hear it.
crazy girl, stupid girl, fixed my shirt, why'd she do it, she stabbed me, right across the chest, fixed my shirt and brought it to me, didn't want her to do it didn't ask, why's she looking-
"What?" he asks again, and his eyes flash like the bear he is, but flicker back, nervous. He's a fish, says the fish.
River giggles but can't remember the words to explain. So she opens and closes her mouth, lips puckered as if to kiss.
He rolls his eyes, groans and mumbles, "Yeah, pretty fishy, go back to the fish," and shovels in more food.
The fish turns a single eye on her and River listens. Water doesn't carry sound well and plastic doesn't either, really, but together they cancel out, like bone and flesh and brain, and she hears him. "Can I have a bottle?" she asks.
Eyes flash again- the fish fears. Not the one in the plastic cage, but the one at the table.
what's she want a bottle for, crack it open, stab me with the glass-
"To put my fish in."
She lets the silence go by, lets him think about it and rebuke himself for his foolishness. She made her point. She doesn't need to hurt him again. "Go get one if you want one," he grumbles finally.
"You have the biggest ones. Liquor bottles. He'll fit and have room to swim. Everyone needs room to swim."
Part of her tingles when he understands - a sense that he gets it, that she explained it well. She likes that feeling. But he doesn't answer and goes back to his food.
Later, in the bedroom she shares with Simon, she draws pictures. Her ocean and the fish's, stars and plastic walls. Perfect blue. Simon walks in, pauses, backs up and examines her pet. Brows knot together with confusion- and mild alarm. "River-"
"Water bottles hold an average of a quarter of a liter," she says without looking up. "Cruel to give him so little room. He needs to swim."
Simon says nothing and goes to his bed, but the alarm and the disaproval is still there.
River looks up and smiles at her fish. He peeks at her, first from the bottom of the bottle, then zipping up, hidden by the label, and up to the top again.
Eyes on the label, River murmurs, "Smirnoff is a good name..."