"And this is your life, the only one you've ever known, the only one you could imagine, the only one you would ever want." Future fic, oneshot.
A/N: So Fair-Ithil suggested that I see what else has been sitting on my hard drive for a while. Here's another. I hope you enjoy.
I blatantly stole the bit about the swing in the cargo hold from Michmak; I hope she doesn't mind.
Disclaimer: Joss is Boss.
Sometimes when your baby brother is crying and you can't sleep, you lay awake and listen to the sounds of Serenity breathing. You don't ever remember not doing this, or even how you could stop, but it tells you that she's a person, and not a rusty metal crate rattling through space. And you can tell when there's something wrong with her engine just by the sound she makes, long before anyone else can, the way you can tell when one of your brothers is going to get a cold. The first time you tell Mal this, sitting in his lap as he lands the ship—Aunt River was having one of her bad days—he laughs, and smoothes your hair away from your face and says, "You always were just like your mama, Little Bit."
But whenever you do something that Jayne likes to pretend annoys him—correcting his grammar is one of your favorite things, and so is just watching him while he lifts weights with a disapproving look on your face when he tries for too much (he is getting older, even if he won't admit it)—he growls and lets loose a few colorful curses—you giggle and store them away for future use, to let loose on your daddy and see him make that horrified face, though Mal and Jayne will laugh and Aunt River's face will curve gracefully till she bursts out into laughter that's like a thousand butterflies—and grunts that you're just like your go tsao de pa.
You like to think that you're a lot like your aunt on her good days. You love to dance and you love stories and you're good with a gun—when Daddy found out that Zoë was teaching you how to shoot, he was very grumpy, and Mama's eyes were just a little bit worried, but Inara's voice was soothing as always when she said that it was part of the life they'd all chosen and they should be glad you had talent in that area. One of your first memories is of Aunt River holding you in her arms—this memory is so far back that you really shouldn't even remember it, and everyone thinks you've just made it yours from hearing about it so many times and convincing yourself that you do recall it—and twirling around and around in the cargo hold, faster and faster in circles, and you laughing and laughing as her dark hair swirled all around and the colors blurred. You've never told anyone that, though you know it's impossible, your memory is colored by thousands of autumn leaves tumbling to the ground at her bare feet, dancing around you in a wind that shouldn't be able to blow through space.
Of course, you're a bit like everybody on the ship, you admit to yourself. After living in such close quarters for years and years, personality traits and quirks and habits and mannerisms rub off on each other, and you're the only one who spent your formative years in the midst of the confusion and warmth that is life on Serenity.
You love to dress up like Inara and nothing makes you happier than when she arranges your raven hair in a bunch of curls and braids on top of your head and you can strut through the kitchen while Daddy and Mal and Jayne tell you how beautiful you look. And you can diffuse tension, too, like the former Companion, with a gentle hand on someone's arm, even if your words aren't as gracious as hers. That will come with time, she says with a smile.
You can cuss like Jayne and you love to help him clean his guns. This appalls Daddy, too, but there's a lot of comfort and security in knowing that these pieces in your hand will go back together in exactly the same way every single time. You love to make them shiny and perfect and know that the metal you hold in your hand will save lives. You're fiercely protective of the boys, your two little brothers, and even when you were five or six, Mama never was anxious when she had to go on a job or work on the engine and leave the babies, not when you were there to watch over them. You're not tall or strong like the merc, but you understand him and he understands you, because you are both protectors.
You're as quiet as Zoë most of the time, and you can hide your sense of humor well. You notice everything like she does, too, and nothing ever takes you by surprise. When things get hot, you're always exactly where you're expected to be, and you're every bit as dependable as the warrior. You like to sit on the catwalk in the cargo hold beside her and watch as everyone moves around below, silent and content with your life, but a little bit wistful, too, just like Zoë.
Mal teaches you how to ride horses, and you're as good as he is. And everyone used to laugh at you when you were little, how you would follow behind him as he stalked through the ship giving instructions when things got crazy, your hands on your hips and a look just like his on your face. He taught you how to fly, too, though he was more learning as he taught you, with Aunt River, who is a much better pilot than either of you, smiling across the bridge. And sometimes in the middle of dinner, when everyone is laughing and teasing and swapping tall tales, he'll get this look on his face that you feel on your own more than once—wonder at belonging somewhere so completely.
And all of those things make you who you are and they and the memories are your life.
You remember all the nights you spent alone with Mama or Daddy or Inara or whoever they could spare from the job of the moment, sitting in the Common and pretending for the adult's sake that you weren't worried, while they smiled painfully and played like they weren't watching the clock and straining to hear the landing ramp going down to signal the return of the rest of the crew.
You remember all the blood and all the rush and hurry when jobs went wrong and Jayne would tumble into the infirmary with Aunt River in his arms, ignoring the blood pouring out of his own shoulder, or Zoë would walk stiffly as if there wasn't a gaping wound in her side, or Mal would gripe about the "little scratch" that time he almost lost his leg, and even the time that you couldn't help but burst into hysterical tears when that engine blew up in Mama's pretty face and Daddy's steady, gentle hands almost slipped as he tried to heal her marred skin.
But you also remember the babies were born and Mama cried out in her and Daddy's room and Daddy's soothing voice wafted out to the Common where you sat in Mal's arms and he told you war stories Daddy would never have wanted you to hear. And you remember the birthdays when Mama managed to get real sugar for the cake and strawberries for the side. You remember when Jayne hung that swing for you in the cargo hold and then groused for days when you spent every spare moment swinging as high as you could go and squealing your lungs out—though his eyes kind of twinkled and there was a curl at the side of his mouth that wasn't a sneer. And you remember Aunt River painting the mural on the wall of your room, gorgeous rivers and lakes and green hills that she remembered from her childhood and then the mountains and horses you remember from your own. And you remember when she taught you how to really dance, not just the dancing of a little girl. And you remember when Zoë bought you your first airgun and let you wear one of her brown coats that was much too big for you, and the time she gave you those plastic dinosaurs on your birthday. And you remember Mal chasing after you on the floor on his hands and knees and you screaming as you ran to get away from him, even though you let him catch you so he could tickle you till you couldn't breathe you were laughing so hard. And you remember all the times Inara tried to cook and got so frustrated when she burnt everything—it was funny, even if she said it wasn't. And you remember Daddy letting you listen to his heart with his stethoscope and rocking you to sleep at night and taking you to little towns and buying you completely useless little baubles.
You remember walking into the engine room sometimes and finding Daddy kissing Mama over in the corner as if there was no chance anyone could just walk in at any moment. Neither of them would ever know you were there, and you giggled a little as you went off in search of Mal or Aunt River or somebody to amuse you. Sometimes Daddy and Mama would spat about one thing or another, and their tension and sniping hurt you, but they loved each other so much in between that it almost didn't matter.
You remember the last time Inara went out on one of her "jobs" (nobody told you what they really were, but you figured it out for yourself when you got older). She'd been going less and less often, not like in the old days that people talked about when she tried to get a job every time they put down. You remember that she looked breathtakingly beautiful all made up and wrapped in silk, but you thought she looked a little…fake, like the china doll Mal bought you after the Osiris job, and her eyes were a little too red when she came back. After that, she never went out on her jobs again, but helped with the ones the rest of the crew pulled. And you were the one waiting on the landing ramp that once several months later, feet dangling over the edge onto the sand of the world below, when she and Mal came back from their jaunt to town and Inara had a ring on her hand.
You remember the nights when you would wake up and need a drink of water and you would creep out of your room and see Jayne sitting on the couch in the Common watching the Cortex, Aunt River curled up against his side with her head on his shoulder, sleeping with his arm around her. And later you remember how many times they would just look at each other and there would seem to be so much that they never said and no one else ever knew they felt.
You remember how many times Zoë's gotten shot—thirteen, since you started counting. And how many tattoos Jayne has—five, including the one you helped pick out of a very pretty gun. And how many pieces of jewelry Inara has had to sell off to make sure that there is enough to eat—twenty-four, though she still has the ruby hair pens and the sapphire necklace, and she says she'll leave them to you if she doesn't have daughters of her own. And how many times Mal has almost crashed the ship—six, though it was only once that it was bad enough that Mama couldn't get her back up in the air with what she had on hand. And how many bad days (Daddy calls them relapses) Aunt River has had—thirty-one, that you remember. And how many new compression coils Mama's had to install on the engine—seven, if you count the one from last night. And how many bottles of adrenaline Daddy's gone through in the infirmary—twelve of the big ones.
And the things that you can't remember shape you just as much.
You can't remember a time when there wasn't a little bit of darkness around the corners of Mal's eyes or a blankness that sometimes filled Zoë's. You can't remember when Jayne didn't have a bit of grey at his temples or when Mama didn't have that scar across her face. You don't remember Wash or Book, two people whose presences and memories and ghosts so fill every room of the ship that you feel like you knew them, but you never did, and that is a great tragedy.
But, on the other hand, you don't remember what Aunt River was like before Miranda (everyone speaks that name with a note of fear in their voice, when they speak of it at all), when the bad days weren't just every few months or so but almost every day. And you can't remember the tension that everyone says used to grow so thick between Mal and Inara when neither of them would bend their pride even a little. And you don't remember what it was like when everyone wasn't sure that Jayne wouldn't sell them out if the money was good enough. And you don't remember when Zoë couldn't bear to go onto the bridge or to look at the box of plastic dinosaurs that you love so much. And you don't remember when your Daddy was stiff and too formal and didn't feel like he belonged. You don't remember when Mama cried herself to sleep at night because she thought Daddy would never love her—this one seems especially preposterous to you.
There are so many people and so many memories and so many gaps that fill up Serenity and fill you up just as much.
And this is your life, the only one you've ever known, the only one you could imagine, the only one you would ever want.
And it is perfect.