River perceives with her senses and thinks about love.
WARNING: this is a Simon/River fic, a.k.a. Crazy Space Incest, so if it's not your bag, leave now.
Disclaimer: Don't own a thing. The anecdote at the start came from a Philip Kerr novel, I think Philosophical Investigations.
Is it any wonder I
All I have is all you gave to me
Turn to the gates of heaven, to myself be damned
Turn away from light.
- The Smashing Pumpkins, Eye
There are voices outside her room. She lies still and listens, counting breaths to keep time.
"So eventually the wife finds out about the affair, and she swaps their, um, lubricant, with… well, you know those water-based thermal deep-muscle rubs that you can get for athletes? The ones that emit massive amounts of heat when you apply friction?"
The sound of giggles. "No way."
"I swear to god. The couple came in with third-degree burns on their… you know… they were howling in pain and no one in the hospital could keep a straight face." A pause, then quiet laughter.
More giggling. "That's terrible…"
"That's nothing. Wait until you hear about the guy who came in with a limp. Short guy, really inconspicuous until I get him in an exam room, and he takes his boots off…"
He laughs when he is with Kaylee. She gets him to tell the stories, gets him to relive the old life, and he gets to push all the other thoughts away.
When she creeps back into his mind, unbidden, a pale wraith from the darkness, does he push her away, too, set her aside for another day? She'll get better, he will tell himself, she is getting better. Things are becoming easier every day. And then he will turn back to Kaylee, and he will laugh, and begin to tell another story.
Sometimes the voices don't belong to them at all. Sometimes they belong on the inside, like bells, or angelsong, chiming out of her skull. Most of the time they sing in Latin, though Greek seems to be popular also. She has grown to take comfort in that; when they sing loudly enough they can cover the screaming.
Love, she tells herself, is enough. He loves her; it's already a gift she has used too freely. She understands the position she holds in his heart; she understands that when things come down to it he will still throw it all away just for her.
If things came down to it. If the sky were to open up above their heads.
But right now they are just cruising quietly through the blackness, and he tells her she's getting better, and he is smiling more, his sarcastic comments growing easy and careless. Once she even heard him say ain't. As a joke, granted, but he said it nonetheless, chuckling low in his throat, and Kaylee had giggled in mock indignation and there was the sound of her smacking his arm. More laughter.
All this River hears lying here in the deep dark, staring up at the unseen ceiling.
"I don't want to. No more needles."
"River, you have to. This will make you feel better."
"It hurts. Too many things poking holes in me. It gets under the skin, and then things won't make sense anymore. Your bones are alien when you touch the metal, so don't make me."
There is exasperation in his gaze now, even though he tries to hide it. "Mei mei," he says with a small sigh, and he looks down at the syringe.
She sometimes sits in the infirmary when he's fixing people, her legs tucked beneath her, up on the spare bed by the side. Doctor, they say. Medic, they say, the one who does the stitching-up, but she knows he does more than that. He puts people back together when they are broken: angled limbs, internal miswiring, bullet wounds with shining rivulets of red. His hands are steady as he works, his face drawn in concentration, but there will be a keen light in his eyes, a kind of happiness. He fixes everything. He knows it's what he's here for.
But he will glance over when he thinks she isn't looking. She doesn't have to reach in deep, or even reach at all; it's written plainly enough in his gaze. He fixes everything. Generalisations are subject to exceptions. Sometimes she thinks he should hate her for it.
There is a pensive arch to his brow. She doesn't remember it being the case before she left for the Academy. The newfound gravity suits him; he carries it elegantly, like a mantle of fine silk about his shoulders. But at the same time she knows the weight of it, the way he sometimes wakes gasping, this new life pressing down over his mouth like a leaden hand. At times like these she will rest her cool fingers against his forehead, but the words she wants to say will dry up and instead she will utter auguries that she alone can understand. It is another code, of sorts.
But this code is far more complex than the one that came before. They are hurting us. Get me out. Pain is easy to understand, as is the command and the plea. The difficulty lies in the nuances, of the things she wants to communicate in other ways. She wants to say that when he laughs hard enough there are dimples, and his eyes get that squinty half-moon shape to them, as though he's seeing the world differently. The way that Kaylee might see it, tinted golden-pink with flowering vines curling around the edges. She wants to tell him that he never laughs like that when he is alone with her; there can be no laughter here in this sterile room, blue upon silver, blue upon white.
"Please," he says. "Be brave for me. It'll help."
She touches his cheek, traces where the dimples ought to be, but they have disappeared and all she sees is the worry and the intent, the colour of his eyes like fragments of sky. River isn't River inside. She was waiting to be but she forgot. Now she sees sky and she remembers what she is. She swallows and averts her gaze.
"River, please. It's important. I think I figured something out this time. This new compound… it might make the voices go away. There shouldn't be any side effects. I'm sorry it has to be taken intravenously but…"
"Smile for me, Simon."
He looks so taken aback that for a moment she thinks she said something different altogether. It has been known to happen.
Then the puzzled look creeps back into his eyes, the one shaded with indulgence as though he is entertaining a very small child. He leans forward and strokes her hair, and he smiles. "Is that better?" he asks.
She looks for the dimples, the joy, the measure of abandon. Instead she finds only appeasement and calm concern. There is love also; there is always love. But she is beginning to understand - even if she doesn't comprehend - that this love is deficient in its own ways.
"They've stolen your smiles from me," she says, and thinks she may weep.
He got his aftershave from Osiris, before he went away for good. There is half a bottle left, but she opens it up and tips it over and liquid spills out. His bunk is suddenly and blissfully flooded with the smell of him, and she smiles and curls up on his bed, and she waits.
He closes his eyes as soon as he opens the door, the usual long-suffering frustration settling over his features. The room is full of it, the sharp pure scent of foliage and rainwater, the darker notes of wood and embers. He says nothing as he cleans up, but she sees the tense dismay in the way he squares his shoulders. It was the last tie to the old life, the voices whisper to the tune of lullabies.
"It's better this way," she murmurs, in vain hope that he would understand for once. It's better because the smell of him is everywhere now; it clings to her hands and hair and skin and after he tucks her into her own bed and leaves she can still feel him here, and that is comfort in its simplest form.
She wants to say all that. Instead she only lies awake, staring into the blackness. Slowly, she places her hands on her body, one against her burning right cheek, one over her heart, and she breathes him in.
The next day is a bad day. She can feel it before it comes, like the quiet electricity in the air before the storm breaks. Her senses hum with the weight of it, gathering momentum, the static, the isolated terror, and she bites down hard and holds it in until it rises up and crashes over her head with the distant sound of rolling thunder, and then the world falls away.
She will come to her senses a few minutes later to find his arms wrapped around her, fingers encircling her wrists like possession. It's all right, I'm here, I'm right here. His whispers are a litany by her ear, or the backwash of a wave. He holds her through the aftershocks, the ebb of scorching images as they fade from her line of sight. She leans back against him, and he is reassuring and solid and warm, and his grip isn't tight enough to hurt. She gradually relaxes, easing into him until she is pliant and restrained in his embrace. "Simon," she says, and the syllables are coloured with the sound of quiet sobs. She doesn't recognise her own voice.
"I'm here, River." He unclasps her and turns her around. "Tell me what happened."
She can only shake her head. She doesn't have words to describe the descending chaos, the empty landscapes rushing away to points on the horizon, the earthquake and the flood.
He gazes at her for a moment longer and then gathers her into a tight hug. "It's okay," he murmurs. "I've got you. You don't need to be afraid anymore."
'Rainforest' has been an obsolete word for several centuries. She'd only come across it by chance when she was leafing through the yellowed tomes in their father's study. Artefacts from the earth that was, books but not as she knew them: sheaves upon sheaves of crisp paper, smelling of dust and dry ash and they didn't speak their words out loud. Rainforests in the Amazon, she had read. She knows about Amazons: bronzed skin, steely eyes, good aim. If Zoe hacked off one of her breasts she'd fit right in.
But rainforest is the word that sticks. It's what she thinks about when she buries her face in the soft skin of his neck. He smells like rain, and leaves, and beneath that heady pine and the soft clean scent of soap. She is suddenly sorry that she had spilled his aftershave, because what would he smell like once it's all gone? Too far to tell, doesn't bear thinking about. She stifles another sob.
The voice is tinged with uncertainty. He begins to pull away but she holds on.
"Don't stop hugging me."
He duly obeys. She nuzzles deeper into his neck, trying to lose herself in the forest. Behind her eyes there are leaves unfurling.
She kisses the warm skin that stretches over his collarbone and feels him draw in a shuddering breath. "River," he says again, his voice fading to a scratchy whisper.
"You say my name like it means something," she mumbles and inhales. Rain and forest. A sense of time passing. She tightens her hold and presses up against him, wanting to melt into the familiar scent. Like raindrop to ocean; perhaps if she pushes hard enough, the liquid membrane will break and they will both spill over and then she wouldn't have to be alone in the darkness.
There is a pause. "Mei mei," he says, and gently eases himself from her grasp. "Try and get some sleep."
"Don't leave me."
He almost hesitates. A first. And then he pulls up a chair next to her bed.
"No," she says and sits down on the bed, slipping her bare feet under the covers. "In here."
Another pause. "I don't think that's a good idea, River. Maybe you should sleep by yourself tonight."
"Because," he says and busies himself with rearranging her bedclothes, never getting around to finishing the sentence. He tucks her in and sits in the chair, holding her hand. When she tries to look into his eyes, she finds that the sky has clouded over and she sees only tangled vines.
She falls asleep to the thought of sunlight filtering through a canopy of leaves, and to the faint smell of rain.
Sometimes she thinks about his body.
She thinks first in letters, and then words, then pictures. Slender. Taut. Muscle. Skin. Different configurations thereof, warm and shining, Simon flickering in and out of focus behind them and in between. She can touch him at those times; she reaches out and her hands close around air, but she can make herself believe otherwise. Here are the lightly muscled arms. Here is the arch of his brow. Here is the sharp angled ridge of a hipbone. She doesn't stop the images, the way they feel on her fingertips. Doesn't. Can't. Won't. She closes her eyes and he is in this bed, his warm breath stirring the hair at the nape of her neck. She forms the concepts and then connects the dots slowly. Love, she thinks. Comfort. Safety. With these words she can feel his hands on her, a smooth gliding action, hovering millimetres from the surface of the skin, telling her that her body is made of light.
Love, she thinks again, rolling the word over her tongue. It feels dense and insubstantial at the same time, like velvet and dry ice; it feels the same as Simon, when she says the word to herself in silence. She thinks about brother also, the meaning of it and the connotations. But she gets distracted by the hands slowly travelling downward, and if she concentrates hard enough there could be lips too. She shivers, whether from cold or delight, and all of a sudden there is that feeling again, the horrible certain clarity, and she squeezes her eyes shut and moans her protest but the ground cracks open beneath her bed and she falls through the gap. The black, thick as tar, pulls her in. She cries out and the hurt feels like burning needles behind her eyes.
Her door is wrenched open; a wide swathe of light cuts across the darkness. "I'm here, River," he exclaims as he rushes in and takes her into his arms. "I'm here."
"Simon," she cries, frantic. "Simon, they were reaching for me, and one got under my skin and I couldn't shake it off and what if it dies and rots there and I can't do anything to stop it…"
He is only wearing drawstring pyjama bottoms. She can feel the heat of his skin through her thin nightgown and the images bleed into reality and she can no longer tell the two apart. "You were only dreaming," he whispers, his hand resting on the small of her back. He is pushing her gently into him and away from the void, although he may not know it. "Everything's all right now," he says, the sound of his voice like wind over water. "Shh…"
Her fingers scrabble over his shoulder and dig in until she hears the stifled intake of breath. She is hurting him, she knows that, but here, on the ship and in this time, she doesn't know how it could be otherwise. "There were too many of them," she murmurs as she buries her face in his chest. "They reach out and try to touch you and… their fingers are like ice. There's so much white noise…"
"It doesn't matter. I've got you. I won't let anything happen."
She can feel her body move of its own accord, slowly, as though she is underwater. One hand up across his back, travelling past hard knobbed spine and softer flesh. She tangles her fingers in his hair, wraps her other arm tightly around his waist, shudders and sighs. Slender. Taut. Muscle. Skin. "You're here," she murmurs, sliding up against him.
There is a tremor to the breath he draws in and lets out again. "River," he says quickly, his voice cracking somewhere between the two syllables and the word no longer sounds like her name.
"No talking," she murmurs, letting her eyes fall closed. She traces over the firm curvature of his jaw, the skin there with day-old stubble like fine sandpaper. She touches his lips, the straight rise of his nose; she sees with her fingertips.
There is a note of panic to his voice now. "I have to," he says, "um…"
But he gets cut off as she reaches up and presses her lips to his.
He tastes like the standard-issue mouthwash they have on the ship: sweet ersatz mint. She whimpers a little as she kisses him, her tongue flicking out against his lips to collect the flavour. The air rushes out of her and suddenly she is lost in space; there is no anchor to these movements, no gravity, generated or otherwise. She holds his face in both hands and pulls him to her and for a moment he stays very still and lets her drown. Waves crash overhead, or it may be the roaring of blood in her ears.
Then he pulls away abruptly. "River, no," he says and jumps to his feet, takes one step away from the bed. He drags the back of his hand across his mouth. "You can't… we can't…"
She stares up at him. Without quite realising it she licks her lips, gathering the last trace of mint. He is breathing quickly, and his gaze flickers from side to side, as though he is looking for a way to escape. "Do you understand?" he asks frantically. "It's… it's not right… you can't do that, River; you can't."
"But I love you."
They've had this conversation before. She vaguely recalled another time. What did he say then? On some planets. But only pretty bad ones. She's really crazy. Fragments. White noise. Makes no sense.
"Not in this way, River! Not… not like this." He sounds like he is close to tears as he buries his face in his hands and takes another step back. "No," he whispers. "No. How can I make you understand…"
"I understand," she interrupts quietly. "You think there's a line drawn in the sand. But there isn't, Simon. The tide comes in and it all gets washed away; there's foam and salt and debris, but the line isn't there anymore. You're the one who doesn't understand that."
His hands fall away and she can see his eyes now; behind them the sky splits open and spills nothing but black. "No," he whispers again. "River, you can't… it doesn't work that way."
"You think I taste like cherries."
He recoils as if stung. "What?"
"Cherries in the snow." She almost smiles. "And you liked it."
"I did… I did not!"
She just looks at him. "Simon."
He opens his mouth and closes it again. His pale cheeks suddenly flood with colour and he wrenches his gaze away. "I can't have this conversation," he says, his voice like the dry rustle of leaves, and he makes for the door.
But she is quicker than him. She is quicker than everyone else here when she wants to be. She slips off the bed, nimbly, and gets in his way. "No," she says, and as she speaks these words she can see the rapid pulse at the base of his throat. "I want you here," she whispers as she breaches the distance between them, stands on tiptoe and kisses him once more.
He makes a vague sound of protest, something caught between a whimper and a sob, but she clasps her hands around his wrists and he doesn't pull away. Songs in Latin. Fragments of sky. The smell of rainforests, the touch of skin, saccharine and mint. There is a deep hollow cave in the bottom of her stomach, and as her lips travel over his she feels a sharp ache there like burning acid. Warm blood, cold fingertips. Her hands clutch and pin his arms to his sides, her mouth shifts against his. Everything I have is right here.
A tiny moan rips its way out of his throat and he tilts his head back, just a little, like acquiescence or surrender, and his mouth opens to let her in. She almost cries with relief, and suddenly there is the crashing of waves again, drowning out all other sound. Here are tongues sliding up against each other, slick and hot and wet, and he is kissing her back, desperately, the images in his head bursting into glittering flame. His hands break free of their constraints and for one singular moment he wraps his arms around her and clutches her body to his, presses the two of them together and she can feel the surface tension break and it feels almost like dying. No more angels' voices, no more white noise; just the endless black of space. Serenity.
And then he pulls away. "No," he says again, pressing a hand over his mouth as though he is going to be sick. "God, no…"
He stumbles past her and out the door. She can hear the echo of his footsteps as he staggers down the hall and through to the infirmary. There is the sound of a door sliding shut.
She puts her hand to her mouth and wraps her lips around her index finger: teeth against nail; tongue against flesh. There is salt, and a faint tangy sweetness. She closes her eyes.
The walls on this ship are much too thin. When she reaches out they part like water, and she feels everything as she goes into freefall.
Jayne runs his tongue down the blade of his knife the way he sometimes does to a woman's arched neck, and he is happy. Wash's hand is resting against the small of Zoe's back, and she smiles a secret smile, one that only he can see. Kaylee is unbelievably and giddily happy. The captain walks through the door of Inara's shuttle and for a moment it seems like there is the possibility of happiness, even though it gets swallowed up in the space of a heartbeat. The preacher reads his broken book and, when he is absorbed enough, is happy, though that tends to fade even faster.
Simon isn't happy.
He is drunk on tian xiao de what concocted from Kaylee's inter-engine fermentation system, the room swings woozily in and out of focus and he is kissing Kaylee, waves of desperation emanating from him so thick that River thinks she will suffocate, here in the darkness, here in this bed.
She presses both hands to her skull and tries to crush away the images, but of course that never works. Skin. Hair. Tongue. Flesh. His hands travel over foreign territory, his teeth tugging on Kaylee's lower lip. An easing back onto a bed, a shifting of limbs and bodies. Kaylee's gold-glowing happiness flickers and there is a building liquid pressure in River's chest. No, she whispers, please, Simon, you're hurting me, but this time he elects not to hear.
She cries alone in the dark. Something edges through the ether, white light like a shard of glass, and it slices her open and splits her down the middle like the mermaid in the fairytale who wanted something more than just sea foam and anemone. Time ceases to have meaning and it takes her hours, or perhaps only moments, to realise that the light is comprised of words also, a whispered mantra in his head, one that he repeats to himself again and again as he sinks into Kaylee's embrace.
River, he says.
River, and love.