A/N: This is REVISED AND UPDATED but not all new.
I don't own anything to do with Firefly or Serenity.
Nor do I own the ghosts in this story. They belong to my co-'ghost'-writer, and good friend, 24K.
All I own is the plot and the setting.
Part One: Walk Among Ghosts
The Serenity sat, nestled in a shady clearing, waiting for her captain to return. For once the engineer was not lounging in her favorite lawn chair either. Her attention wavered from the panel that she was securing to the scene around her. Her face was slightly troubled instead of her normal open cheer. On the ground, River gracefully floated between the trees, in and out of view. Simon was inside, both taking stock of his supplies and helping Kaylee when she called for it. They waited for the tougher looking crewmembers, Mal, Jayne, and Zoë, all of whom were off with the mule making a drop. After experiencing River in combat mode, Kaylee couldn't call her weak. Her eyes followed the green-clad slim gal for a moment.
Bare feet padded over the forest duff, toes reveling in the feeling of dirt instead of metal for once. She could dance with joy. Quiet joy, for sure, but joy all the same. She'd been blissfully happy and surprising sane for the last few weeks. While the good emotions threatened to wipe out her natural jitters, she was enjoying them too much to care at the moment. Synthetic silk rustled pleasantly in the comfortable air around her bare legs as she moved with rare freedom through the trees. She lifted herself up on her toes and did a graceful twirl, arms up over her head and the wispy sleeves of her dress flowing around her head. Ignoring the watchful eyes of the engineer and her medically inclined brother; River gave into her inner child and let her body move gracefully in a dance that expressed her sweet happiness. Sometimes she danced to a tempo that only she could hear usually when no one else was watching, but today she was beyond caring if someone saw her.
The engineer in question felt the chill of the shadows where she was perched atop the firefly class ship. Just inches away from her hand were patches of sunlight, and the warmth of them called to her. Faint strands of the wind breezing through the high trees, distant water murmuring over rocks, the slight hum of Simon in the ship below her all served to center her. Which was good. Because for some reason every time her mind wandered she began to feel like there was something wrong. She looked around for the source of her unease and sighed. Dappled sunlight and the faint sound of rushing water should sooth nerves not make them string out to the breaking point, Kaylee observed. Something about this place wasn't right. Times like these she missed the sound of Wash over the headset, playing with his toys, cracking jokes… River would be inside but for the insistence that the drop didn't need the ship ready to come to the rescue. Considering that she was fixing it, that was good too. She went back to fastening the last few bolts on the panel.
Watching the mechanic as she worked usually kept Simon well occupied. He found that her ability with mechanics was enthralling, particularly as he learned more about the intricacies involved. Not that he had thought the job was easy, no. But he hadn't really known how much Kaylee knew, nor how truly brilliant she was with machines until he started really paying attention to it while they repaired the ship together. His respect for the woman he loved had grown in leaps and bounds. Never again would be make her feel like she was simple, or below him. Her knowledge might have not come from books or the university, and she might not have degrees in it, but those bits of paper didn't matter anymore. She was more than his equal. With that thought, Simon lifted the hatch and glanced around. "Kaylee? You about done?"
She nodded and moved across the hull toward him. Her discomfort fading as he took her hand and helped her inside the ship. She smiled. "Yep, all done. And glad to be, too."
He matched her smile, "River seems good today. In fact, she almost seems to be doing too good. Should we check on her?" Simon would care about his sister, Kaylee knew. She threw her arms around the doctor's neck, kissed him soundly, and nodded that they should go look at whatever it was that River was up to. Simon hugged and kissed back before ushering her down the catwalks and stairs that lead outside.
The slight young woman that drifted about her life in an unusual state of hyperawareness was, at that very same moment, paused in a ray of sunlight. Her dark wavy hair glistened with a rich brown radiance as it flowed around her shoulders. Slim legs and bare but dainty feet held an amazing amount of grace as they peeked out from the wispy hem of her rich green dress. Waves and eddies of warm and cool air lightly swirled over her pale skin. The hairs at the back of her neck rose with the touch of a rather bone-chilling current. She swiveled her head the direction the feeling came from and her rational mind whispered, 'Wait for the others. Show them that you have not gone crazy again.' The chill seemed to know she was resisting and it returned to wrap itself around her arms. River felt an undeniable pull. "Simon?"
Distantly her brother's voice carried to her, "Yes, Mei Mei?"
Kaylee sounded closer, "River? You okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."
She felt warm hands, her brother's hands, grasping her arms over the same area the chill had settled. River turned her head to look into her brother's eyes. Worry, compassion, fear… She could read Simon like a book. Images filled her mind from someplace, someone or something attempting to communicate with her. The jumble was confusing and scary and undeniable. She felt compelled to follow. Ignoring the pull, grounding her mind and placing the images into some sort of context would take way more than she had. Instead she looked at her brother and tried to draw from his force of will. It was enough to let her form a sentence or two that was not total gibberish. A breath of air filled her lungs before she forced a happy smile. "They want us to follow, Simon. They are that way." It was all she could manage.
Kaylee looked the direction that River indicated with one graceful movement, unsure of the wisdom that might make someone actually move off into the unmapped woods around them. She fidgeted and looked back at River. Simon was trying to regain his sister's attention but not being overly successful at it.
"Who, River? Who wants us to follow?" Simon wondered sometimes if his brilliant but damaged sister would ever recover from what was done to her. He knew though that if she felt something, if she knew something, then the chance was that eventually everyone would get caught up in whatever mystery lurked about anyway. The expression on River's face once the smile faded did not bode well. She looked horrified. "River?"
It was that emotion of terror on River's face that was the nail in the coffin of Kaylee's bravery. She reached for the pair, "Let's go back to the ship, Okay?" The feeling of unease hammered at the mechanic, growing stronger by the minute. Kaylee felt River's strong slim hand take hers and tug her toward the ship. She was fine with that; thrilled with it. Anything to get away from whatever it was that made this planet feel so wrong was brilliant as far as she was concerned.
Simon cocked his head at his sister's sudden acquiescence with his lover's panicked suggestion. It was not like Kaylee to be fearful when planetside, and it was not like River to go the opposite direction from where she was being pulled. Something about this tickled his nerves. Ice crept up his spine. He hurried to keep up. The sound of the mule, a welcome hum met them as they crossed the clearing. Mal and Zoë were in the front; Jayne was in the back next to what should have not been in their possession anymore. Simon called out; "You didn't make the drop? We came all this way and…"
"It was a no-show." Zoë answered as she powered down the craft. Her voice was slightly irritated sounding but her face was a stanch as ever. Jayne made a face as he landed on his feet outside the mule. The captain shrugged. "We can get better pay for this cargo elsewhere, doctor. It's not our loss," she continued.
Hearing that the mule had returned, Inara walked out of the cargo bay and into the sunlight, watching the entire conversation. Her face was natural, lacking the artificial color of makeup, but her clothes were still what a companion would wear. It was freeing, in a way, to take off that old mask and let these people, her adopted family, see her as she really was. For the most part they didn't seem to mind. She let her eyes drift to River. The slim wisp of a pilot was looking back over her shoulder like something was calling to her. Inara begin to move toward the other woman, fearful that River would bolt. Zoë passed everyone with an armload of the cargo that they had hoped to sell; unaware that River was acting anything unlike River.
The dark haired girl, well nearly a woman, mostly a woman… rather the system's kick-ass secret weapon, was walking toward Serenity. She focused on Inara. Something in the companion's dark eyes spoke of understanding, an awareness that by rights shouldn't be there. River gave her a sassy eyebrow raise, one of her 'what-do-you-know, really?' looks that the slim woman was so good with. Inara responded with a quiet 'nothing-more-than-I-should' expression. But the companion knew that River was far more sensitive to eddies and currents that made up the flow of life and love, death and hate, than even she was. Her eyes revealed a kind of haunted emotion that only someone in current contact with the other side could manage. A feeling of chill, cold and icy, rose in the companion's chest that threatened to root her feet to the metal ramp. It intensified until it hurt.
Suddenly River was in motion, twisting away from her brother and darting back to the woods. Everyone else seemed to move in slow motion to Inara as her body took over. Things happened so fast that she actually had no chance of reaching the wispy pilot before the green fabric of her dress was nothing but a flash in the trees. Still, her mind was in the backseat, she did not think but instead she allowed her body to move in instinct in an attempt to keep up with River's form. Inara ran. Sounds of the others being startled behind her nearly made her shout, but River was moving fast, faster than Inara thought she could move. And the pilot's feet were nearly silent against the soft forest floor. Inara glued her eyes on the fleeting figure in front of her and hoped the others would follow.
To Mal, the entire episode was surreal. Well, River always was odd, but 'Nara? Running at full speed, a flash of rich golden silk and streaming black curls… He never thought he'd see such a thing. Zoë tapped his arm, "Better follow them?" he asked. She nodded and set off in a jog behind Simon and Kaylee. Mal sighed and broke into a run.
Jayne watched and stopped long enough to hit the hatch of the cargo bay to close the ship before also following.
Simon had been beside his sister when she turned. He cursed himself in the most colorful manner ha could think of, mentally, for taking his eyes off of her for even a moment. It took him a second to realize that Inara, of all people, had sprinted after River, her colorful floor-length tunic flashing as her black clad legs carried her off into the woods. He didn't think past that, really. His own pursuit was less graceful than Inara's, and if it were not for the vivid gold of her tunic he doubted he could follow at all. River had been doing so well. He honestly believed that the Reavers in her head had been the problem. And yet, she was still unable to filter out feelings around her, so anything could happen. He was aware of the others following him, Muttered curses, warm teasing in Zoë's rich voice, and Mal's rather ironic laugher… Kaylee was running next to him, nearly in a jog, really. Her worried look damped his spirits. He'd tell her it was all right, if he could spare the breath for it. Instead he smiled, as if to say that this was nothing more than River being playful after months in space. He sure hoped that was the case, anyhow.
The tree trunks flashed past her eyes, but she was not fully aware of them. Her focus was on something that no one could see. River could still feel the pull of the cold hands, like someone was floating ahead of her, tugging her forward. She burst out of the cover of the trees, alongside a brook, fast moving and rocky, that wound its way through the rugged terrain. She felt the impetus to go upstream. The path was steep. 'Fei hua!' she cursed. She needed to wait, to resist this drive until the others caught up. River fought the tug and managed to pause a moment. Inara stepped out of the trees nearby. The pull redoubled its efforts at Inara's appearance. Not having the strength to keep fighting, River looked at her. She needed the companion to understand, "It wants us to go that way. I – have to…" River moved off, easily scaling the boulders and muddy path, slower but with more grace than any of the others would ever be able to manage.
Again, there was no time to reach the pilot before her feet carried her away, "River, wait!" Inara tried to get the pilot to stop, or slow, or something. Anything really, just so the others could catch up. But if the girl heard she wasn't obeying. At this rate, River would be out of sight before the others even cleared the trees. Inara set her jaw and set about scaling the path without wasting any more air with talk. She was about halfway up the steep path before Simon and Kaylee emerged from the forest. She turned, waved to catch their eyes, and resumed her climb. River was already out of sight.
Simon emerged into the sunny bank of the stream and looked around. Where was River? Beside him Kaylee almost didn't pause, her eyes spotting 'Nara, "There, Simon. Look. Inara is waving. She must have seen River. Come on." She tugged his sleeve and ran to the path. He was amazed by how Kaylee charged up it like this was the most natural thing. Simon watched her with wide eyes, caught a deep breath, and trudged on. Just as Inara and Kaylee moved out of his line of sight, Mal, Jayne and Zoë jogged into the sunlight. Kaylee's voice carried back on the breeze, "Gwai-gwai long duh dong!" The curse was enough to make all four scramble up the cliff-side in rather a panic.