WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SERENITY.
They don't manifest themselves as vague incorporeal beings. They're not white or see-through or veiled beneath a sheet. There are no chains, there is no blood, no accusing eyes and they don't take flight, or sweep around the room. They don't appear in thunderstorms or hovering above their graves, either; that's all myth, River has learned.
The stories always got it wrong. You can't see ghosts.
She can hear them, though. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish them from thoughts of others, but they have a quality to them, those that are lost. Despair, mostly, because in the usual cases those with an unhappy end have the most to say. Victims of Reavers scream so loudly that her head fills to bursting with their pain, but the worst were the dead on Miranda.
They said nothing at all, and it nearly killed her.
They've quieted their nothing now, and have finally found the kind of peace that can't be simulated with drugs. The Reavers, however, still do not lie down. She suspects they never will--especially not in death.
Wash still talks to his dinosaurs. And to Zoë. He doesn't always know he's dead.
Book has simply disappeared, an enigma even after everything, even to the psychic who knew more than most. As for their dead allies, she tries to block them out. She can't hold that much weight; she's faltering as it is.
She glances up. It's Simon. He's alive and she smiles. He's leaning on crutches, but her brother is used to pain.
"Are you alright?" he asks.
She's as close as she gets, she almost tells him, but he wouldn't understand that this is the end of the line for her. She's as unbroken as she'll ever be. "I'm fine," she says softly, and he smiles and hobbles away.
His thoughts are compartmentalized. Organized, sparkling clean. It usually has a soothing effect, but today it takes her breath away and leaves her spinning. She lands in the pilot's chair. Not Wash's. The other. Away from the dinosaurs.
They're speaking to each other and it's disconcerting. His voice always echoes loudest here.
She can't hear Zoë, not anymore. Her thoughts had always been guarded, faint, slightly out of reach, but now it's like they're not there. She knows that's an illusion. Zoë has many thoughts. River can see the gears turning behind her eyes, she just can't hear them. She'd like to know how Zoë manages that, and whether or not she could teach everyone else to do the same.
Of course, by now, the crew of Serenity is white noise. She knows them well enough that she can mostly filter them out.
Zoë doesn't meet her eyes, either. She's not sure if this is something new or if that had always been the case, she can't remember and she's not about to ask. After awhile, the silence grows disturbing. It's too much like Miranda, and not fitting for her.
Maybe you can see ghosts, River decides. Maybe Zoë died with Wash and none of them noticed.
"He's not scared," River tells her. It's a mistake. She realizes this too late.
Zoë's eyes hold too much fire for this silence. With that much anger, she should hear something. "Who isn't?" she snaps. She knows.
"Wash," River says, because she's started this now, and it's too late to slip away. "He told me. He still talks loudly. Sleep is problematic."
Zoë stills. "You hear things. Don' make 'em real."
"He doesn't scream," River tells her softly. "He never screams."
"Wash is dead, River," Zoë snaps.
River nods. "That's why I can hear him so clearly."
Zoë, naturally, doesn't understand. She doesn't speak for days.
His voice grows fainter the farther from Haven they get. He's anchored there, now, stuck to the ground. If he would only let go he could be free. She has her suspicions he's entrenched himself in limbo for Zoë's sake. Maybe he's done it for all of them. Whatever his motivations, he's fading away.
Most days, Wash is still flying Serenity, chanting to himself in the pilot's chair; he never makes it to the ground, and no matter how close she watches, the dinosaurs never move. He's not really there, but he thinks he is and that's nearly enough. "Lie down," she tells him. "Lie down."
It's not his own life he's fighting to get back, so he never takes her advice.
Zoë enters the room, very obviously avoiding River's gaze. She sits in Wash's chair. Her shift, then. She takes them more often than anyone else, no matter how often Mal tries to get her to reconsider. Wash taught her tricks, she tells him. She's not useless as a pilot and she likes the silence there.
Only, it's not silent at all.
"I realize it doesn't make any kind of linear sense," River says abruptly.
Zoë barely glances in her direction. Her back is straight. She doesn't slouch like Wash. If you could see ghosts, he'd be right behind her. They've sat like that before. "I didn't come here for conversation," Zoë says.
"I didn't either," River tells her. "He talks to me anyway." Zoë stiffens. River didn't believe it was possible for her back to lock straighter, but it did. Her eyes were straight ahead; maybe watching stars, maybe seeing no color at all. "You never do," River continues. "I can't hear you at all."
"That's how I like it," Zoë says.
"Yes, but he can't hear you either," River says. "And he needs to."
Zoë turns sharply, glaring at her. Chaos everywhere, but River still can't hear a thing. "Am I really supposed to believe you've been conversing with my dead husband?"
"Dead is relative," River says, "and an eventuality none of us can avoid. He still exists. Everyone still exists."
Zoë turns back to the stars. River hears faint counting; distraction, but futile. "And what does he say to you?"
River smiles faintly. "He says he's a leaf on the wind."
Zoë's control starts to crumble. River can hear it. She gets to her feet, and walks silently across the bridge. She kneels down, beside the chair. "Let go," she tells her. "He needs you to, or it's all for nothing."
Zoë falls upon the controls, and the noise comes rushing in.