Title: I Sing the Spirit Electric
Summary: An AU starting halfway through the last act of Objects in Space and continuing on through until . . . well, forever. River Tam learns a new, better way to dance, run, and hide; and the crew finds that sometimes the simplest answer isn't the correct one.
Disclaimer: Some mild spoilers for Serenity, though unless you've seen the film you probably won't know what the go seh I'm talking about. It all belongs to Joss Whedon, but if he doesn't learn to play nicely with them, they're going to get taken away. (Guess who's more-or-less devastated by Wash?)
I Sing the Spirit Electric
Mal deals Jubal Early a crushing uppercut that lands silent but precise, and the bounty-hunter goes spiraling away from Serenity's hull – a prisoner of his own momentum. A body in motion stays moving until friction stops it, and space is frictionless.
Mal rubs his knuckles, not because they hurt but out of satisfaction. "Mighty good plan of your'n, River." He drawls into the suit's comm.
Static on the band. Mal looks up, at the alien craft leeching onto his own, at the blank window where he thought the girl would be. "River?"
Nothing, except the faint hissing sound like waves on a shore.
Mal looks everywhere on Early's ship. It's a small model, a Leapfrog, hardly any places on it to hide or be hidden; and River, though he calls and searches, is in none of them.
Even Jayne is awake by the time Mal gives up, puzzled, and returns to Serenity. Wash and Zoe take Simon to the infirmary, to be guided in pulling the bullet from his leg. The rest of them search the whole ship, every smuggler's cranny, places they haven't searched in a powerful long time. They find missing socks, bullets that have dropped through the cracks, even a crate of contraband they long since forgot they'd hidden.
But they don't find River.
They meet finally in the kitchen, where they started the search, and give each other puzzled glances and say nothing. Except of course for Simon, who is injured and frightened and panicking. He accuses, demands, gripping the tabletop. "She must be somewhere!"
And then the seashell voice rings out once again. "I'm sorry, Simon. Didn't mean you to worry. Wanted you to know. Had to look for yourselves. I'm not here."
Simon rises on an aching leg. His voice is suddenly afraid, and he trembles as he says weakly, "But Early . . . he saw you . . . River?"
Disembodied, hollow, the voice is like an echo of something already said. "Not anymore, Simon. Nobody sees me. Early was broken. Easy to make him see. Not really there. Not anywhere. Not everywhere."
Realization dawns between them. Nobody says anything, though they all make hushed noises in the back of their throats. The seashell voice is dreamy.
"Hid where they can't seek. Two by two, hands of blue, nothing now for them to do. Run anywhere now; run everywhere."
Kaylee makes a small sound, neither laugh nor sob. "No power in the 'verse," she says, awed.
Amusement permeating the air. River's voice, Serenity's voice, ringing through them all.
"No power in the 'verse can stop me."
And familiar laughter thrums between the ship's walls – not amplified but omnipresent, traveling not through the air but on the currents of thought and emotion that run between the crew.
River Tam has finally escaped; now it's time for Serenity to run free.
Days fade into weeks as they drift through the Black in their impossible more-than-ship, all of them slowly learning the thousand ways in which life is different now.
Of all of them, strangely, it is Jayne who takes it the best, who needs the least adjusting. But then, Jayne is a simple man; it takes little effort for him to reduce the situation to its bottom line.
"Girl was always spookifyin'." He says gruffly. "'Leastwise now she ain't comin' at me with a meat cleaver."
And if his gruffness softens some, if he takes to making jokes that aren't jabs, if the rough edges seem smoother and he wears his Cunning Hat a little more, nobody notices – or they all pretend not to. The change wrought in him is simple change, like the man himself.
Kaylee all but leaves off with her old habit of chattering to Serenity while she works. What she does now has moved beyond the mechanics, is less repair than surgery, more ministry than maintenance. She is tending a living thing now, not just a thing that seems alive; and that the living thing was once her friend does not escape her. She is still sunny, but more serious, and the change is not a bad one. Simon notices.
Simon, as once promised, has grown a black moustache – and a goatee, as well. It fails to make him look villainous, but it makes Kaylee laugh. What she has gained in gravity, Simon has shed; it strikes a balance between them, draws their teeter-totter orbit into stability, pulls them closer. Without River (or at least River's body) to tend after, Simon loses the worry-lines between his eyes. He begins to look his age, Kaylee's age; they look, in time, like they belong together; and they find, not surprisingly, that they do.
Book is Book; and if the concept of a soul surviving outside its original body bothers him he reveals it to nobody but Serenity. Whatever secrets he brought on board, he has long since left them behind in Serenity's gold-fire wake. The only change Book reveals is his hair, which he shears close to his head. Serenity makes a half-comment about sheep and scapegoats, a joke maybe; Book seems to understand.
Wash nervously admits to Zoe that sometimes he feels something towards the ship, not exactly love but closer to it than to any other thing. Zoe responds by promising she'll not envy Serenity if Wash will for the love of all gods stop envying Mal. And they laugh over it, lighthearted, as if it were only a joke: but something shifts, so subtle they hardly notice it, and some unseen things fall away, and they find that on this impossible ship they have grown, impossibly, closer than ever.
Inara chooses to stay, for a time at least; and without River they can venture closer to the Core, where she can find better work. But as the weeks wear on into months Inara finds that her customers are nevertheless few and far between; that doing anything onboard feels too much like letting the woman-child who no longer exists watch what goes on. In her heart she knows that she has only two choices; love Mal only, or leave forever. And Serenity won't let her leave; the ship sings powerfully of home, of belonging, of truth and love. The seashell voice whispers in her dreams, binds her with that belonging until at last the day comes when she lays aside the guild tokens and steps out to admit her love to Mal.
Mal finds, quite by accident, that he is regaining his faith. For once you have lived for a space with one omnipotent (or nearly so) being, it is no large stretch to believe in another. River has become his ship, and he cannot well hate or deny her. Once he cannot do that, it seems foolish to do so with God. The believing softens him, evens out his contradictions, salves old wounds that have never stopped hurting, fills an ache he'd forgotten he felt. On the day Inara walks out to embrace him he is already on his way to her. They meet like ships set on a course long ago, meeting at last after too many delays; and Serenity whispers"this is right" just soft enough that they cannot hear it, only feel.
Months become a year, and another; and the firefly with the voice of a half-mad girl waltzes them through Black, keeping them safe, nurturing them. As the time ebbs on the voice grows saner, though never sane; Serenity grows easier within herself, hits a stride, finds a rhythm that seems unbeatable.
This is not to say that things go smooth, or that they stop their mad rush from world to world in search of everything and nothing. There are fights, and near-misses, and jobs gone powerful wrong; Niska comes for them again, as does Saffron. Serenity laughs at all of it, and chants her nonsense-prophecies, and outruns everything in a headlong dance of golden light.
She takes them in time to a place called Miranda; but there is no dying this time, no burned villages, no sudden shower of broken glass and blood. There is Serenity's mad howl as she plows fearless through Reaverspace; there is Mr. Universe's grin as he crows "Can't stop the signal!", but there is no sword, no shots, only the flickering message from a long-dead woman and Serenity says "Now. Now it starts to stop. They didn't lie down, they never lie down, but they'll have to, now. They all will."
Nobody knows what she means; nobody knows that Serenity/River is ending the Alliance like Serenity Valley ended the Browncoats. All anyone knows is that they are right and truly glad to be shut of Reaverspace.
On the night he does not die, Zoe stares at Wash and asks what on Earth-That-Was the leaf on the wind nonsense was, and Wash says he's always wanted to say it, he heard it in flight school once; but he was too drunk to ask what it meant. And they laugh and make love and later, months later, Zoe guides his fingers to the butterfly-heartbeat, dancing within her as the girl-who-was-River dances now and forever within Serenity.
Their child is a girl, and Kaylee thinks they should name her River. But that doesn't ring quite true, to name her after someone who is alive but doesn't exist. They name her Tamlyn instead, an old name from Earth-That-Was, a name that rings of magic besides echoing River's name. She grows up with her father's dinosaurs and her uncles' stories, and with Serenity's voice like a heartbeat-lullaby in her ears; she grows up as her brother does, and her sister, and their cousins.
Serenity nurtures them, protects them, lulls them to sleep with nonsense murmurs that fall into place in their dreams, fragmentary clues congealing into gentle revelations. She is mystery, puzzle, lullaby, prayer; their ship, their home, their second womb. Years dissolve together in a shimmer of golden light, and in a 'verse full of powerful wrongs, Serenity is powerfully right.
In time nobody can say how her crew died, or when they died, or even if they died; they say at last that they just set out one day for the Black, and that they're out there still. Some say the children of the children's children still crew that living ship, passing on the knowledge of her genesis, and the ship herself plays mother to generation after generation, dancing free and flickering in the spaces between the stars.