Spoilers: Post-BDM.

One OC, a child.

Disclaimer: Firefly: The Series and Serenity: The Firefly Movie and all related characters are copyright 2002-2005 Mutant Enemy, Inc., Universal Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. This is a work of fanfiction. No copyright infringement is intended

River Gorge

An Imperfect Metaphor

River was in a near-embrace, folded in on both sides by strength and a quiet power. But the walls of the narrow canyon didn't actually touch, of course, and there were other people here, too, so it wasn't a monogamous relationship. Standing looking at the granite rising around her, and the barren peaks nearby that disappeared into angry grey cloud-cover, River was reminded of something. But that sensation only flirted around the corners of her mind and she couldn't quite grasp what it was.

It was just another rough tough rim world, or would have been if there were enough people on it to make it that way. As it was, with fewer than 700 sapient denizens, 'wild' was a better description. Wild in a inhuman way River was unaccustomed to; terraforming had happened here, but only slightly, just enough to make an area under 1,000 square km barely livable. Foremost features were a few small salt oceans and, on land, impossibly tall steep mountains. A visitor knew on sight that those who lived here did so because they had no other choice. Since Serenity had landed, Mal had had four separate requests that he find room and work for one more crewperson, all of which he had firmly turned down.

It wasn't that they couldn't have used one more hand. But it had been three years since Miranda, and Mal hadn't even interviewed anyone for a permanent position. Everyone now counted as crew; they had stepped up, adjusted, undertaken new roles. Things had been working out all right, and River knew Mal didn't want a stranger running around his boat. Truthfully, besides the passengers they sometimes took on, no one else did either. If they needed an extra hand on a job, or expertise not available among their crew, they hired on a temporary basis only. They were comfortable.

Sometimes here lately, River had caught the thought from her own head, maybe a bit too comfortable.

The river – the real river, for she knew the difference easily now - that had carved this small gorge had been reduced by the settlers to a wide shallow stream that meandered the gorge floor, chuckling lowly to itself. River could only suppose it was happy not to be a river anymore. Or perhaps it was just smug, knowing it had made the canyon what it was, and that now it could rest. The people had dammed the river up, a few miles away at the ravine's mouth. She wondered if its change had been as painful a procedure as her own had been. Rivers were not meant to be dammed up, after all, despite others who tried to divert their courses or use their power for their own ends.

River had asked to go see the dam while the crew was dirt side, but Mal had refused, saying they didn't have time for her to ride there and back.

"It's not much to see anyway, sweet," the kind woman who'd packaged up their supply order had tried to comfort her, having observed her disappointment. "Just old concrete and water-works, in need of some repair." She'd shaken her head and gone on to talk about the weather. It seemed there had been large quantities of rain at higher altitudes over the past week, and a storm had blown up nearer by this morning.

Rain and weather were both things that in recent years she'd had little close acquaintance with. River acquiesced calmly to Mal's refusal, and maybe that was why the captain said yes once they'd loaded the pack horses and she asked to cross the street, and the rocky stream-strewn rift floor, to view the monument the settlers had placed there. Or it could have been Jayne's, "Aw, let 'er go, Mal. One of us might as well get some sight-seein' in."

"All right, guess we can handle the rest of the unloadin'," Mal allowed, meaning himself, Jayne, and Kaylee, "But an hour after we get back we'll be unloaded, and you'd better be back too 'cus we're going then. I want to get off this world before that weather hits." Distant thunder underscored his words. Mal gave her a timepiece, but not a comm, because they'd discovered the signal didn't reach within the canyon walls.

"Thank-you, Captain," River beamed at him, and Mal gave her his small smile as he ordered the others to head out. Serenity was perched on one of the few level patches of ground they had found in these mountains that was large enough for the purpose. It was up out of the gorge near the small moon's only off-world cortex link.

They'd been far out on the rim for a long time, and were running low on fuel and supplies, when they caught the automatic broadcasting signal saying there was such to be had here, if in limited amounts. River had wondered aloud why the few people who were here had chosen to live right in the canyon, instead of along its upper edge. Jayne had answered her. There wasn't enough level ground, elsewhere, for a settlement, no matter how small it was or how they terraced the gardens. River saw that her partner was right, as he usually was about such things. The mountains rose steeply, straight up for kilometers in some areas. But down here, the river had turned the ground's angles softer.

A strong breeze was kicking up, bringing an invigorating earthy scent. As she crossed the small footbridge provided a few meters upstream of the store, River remembered how interested Jayne had been when he saw the mountainous terrain they'd landed in. And how he whined to go out and do a little 'climbing', to keep his skills up – though the 'climbing' would have been straight rappelling, for the most part. River had gotten the sense that Jayne missed walking uphill and eating without a roof.

That was what that niggling elusive remembrance had been, River realized with a little shock of surprise. This wilderness reminded her of Jayne, the man who had become her cohort in violent persuasion. She tried to sort the similarities while she mounted the monument's bottom steps. They ticked off in her head, one by one; power. Ruthlessness (a word that amused her, for Ruth was an old Earth-that-Was name for a woman. Apparently it meant something to be without her. And since she, herself, had no personal acquaintance with any Ruth, did that mean she too was ruthless? Either way, at times Jayne was). He also had an untamedness, and a steady arrogance, and what seemed an ageless solidity.

Jayne was a man mountain, rocky and harsh, unforgiving and weathered, immune to everything but time's erosion. Solid as rock, and as deeply gouged.

The bare jagged landscape suddenly attracted her in a new, odd way. River had felt a bit sorry for Jayne, when Mal had refused to linger on 'this ball of dirt' any longer than the time needed to stock up. Not that there actually was much dirt, River had felt compelled to point out; it was mostly rock. Not much was growing, especially at this altitude. There was only sharp, coldly forbidding stone and a bit of cold flowing water to soften it.

Jayne had pouted, like always, but he'd also kept his focus on business, like always. He was always, River had found, able to concentrate on his job. Today that only seemed to consist of making sure his gun was in evidence, and doing what River thought of as putting on his hard face when Mal started bargaining for goods. However, once or twice she knew Jayne had stolen glances through the windows of the few small shops they patronized. River slowed on a few of the steps she was climbing, as she recalled watching his face, the unproclaimed want there. It caught at her heart somehow. The second time he had turned abruptly away from the window and they caught each other. He dropped his gaze, before darting another look back to her.

The wanting of the wild was still there. River was still staring. His brows beetled and he didn't look away again.

Time slowed, a beat, then picked back up when Mal dropped two sacks at River's feet. The moment shredded and River jerked, a little. Then she bent, lifted them, swiveled and walked out to the mule knowing Jayne was still watching, following her movements. She could feel it.

Slightly winded now from the thinness of the air, and something … else … River paused in her climbing to nod to herself and look down behind her. Aside from the few buildings clustered here and the trickle of water, the mountain canyon was quite empty, she realized. If Jayne was kin to it . . . maybe that explained that shuttered longing she'd seen behind his eyes. Her own eyes fell again to the rocky gorge floor. Maybe if they had not dammed the river.

Feeling her thoughts beginning to tangle in a way that long hard experience had taught her she couldn't handle, River turned back to her climbing. The sky had grown very dark and it sounded as if the storm was approaching. She might be well-off hurrying.

This was a tall edifice compared to the buildings below, and far sturdier, built somewhat like a small ziggurat from Earth-that-was, two sequential sets of stairs with a landing between, and an outsized stone woman perched at the top. The base she stood upon and her own shape looked to have been formed from one giant piece of mountain rock. She held a gun in her hands, chest-level, and its raised tip was nearly even with the lip of the old river channel. She reminded River of Zoë, with her long tied-back hair, her calm stance, proud face and readied weaponry.

More than half-way up now, River paused to push her wind-blown hair from her face and read a bronzed plaque fixed above the landing. The depicted woman was a war hero from the planet these people had fled. River smiled as she ran her fingers over the insignia of an Independent planetary army. The woman had commanded a small group of soldiers who fended off an Alliance advance squadron long enough for their family members to lift off-planet and head here. River's smile faded; the plaque said it was assumed by these survivors that the defenders had all perished. That was always the way, the way of the 'verse as the captain would say.

"Lady." The voice was high-pitched but not unpleasant. River started momentarily, but of course the warrior hadn't spoken to her. She turned but didn't meet anyone's face, because the person who talked was much shorter than she was. She had to direct her gaze downward before it landed on a small girl who stood with her hand outstretched, about to tug on River's dress. The hand dropped when the child saw she had attention.

River paused, uncertain what to do in this situation. Since being one herself, she had not been around any young children. She could not recall learning proper adult-child interactions, and acting on what she recalled of her parents' example didn't seem appropriate. But she could feel that it didn't seem right to address the child from such a height disparity. So River bent her knees and crouched in front of the smaller person, which brought their heads approximately level. This must have been acceptable, for the girl seemed entirely comfortable with the arrangement. She was possessed of skin far darker than Zoë's, and a short corona of hair that fluffed out around her head in a kinky black halo. River smiled.

"Hello, tiny angel."

The little girl blinked. She wrinkled her nose for a moment, and then apparently decided to disregard that. "I'm Darwhen. My mama sent me with a message," she announced importantly. She glanced behind her at all the steps her short legs had climbed, as if to say River should take note of the fact that she had been sent not only across the street but up this high to deliver it. River nodded in acknowledgement of the important responsibility. This must be the daughter of the keeper of the shop they had been in. River rifled through the growth and development information stored in her mind and decided Darwhen must be five or six years old.

"Your ship called on our cortex, cuz the comms don't work down here." The girl closed her eyes and scrunched her nose up in a way that made River want to laugh. She refrained, however, fearful of denting so prodigious a dignity. The air felt oddly still as she waited. In a monotone voice that sounded as though it had been much-recited on the climb up, Darwhen continued, "There are flash flood warnings on the broadcast, and your captain wants to leave now. He says, 'get your pigu back to the boat.'"

Having safely delivered her memorized message, Darwhen opened her eyes again with an expression of relief. She had a semi-captive, audience, though, so she added, "I know what a flash flood is. Mama says we're leaving the canyon soon as I get back."

Her audience, though, wasn't listening to her any more. River had half-turned away, head tilted, frown lines between her delicate brows. With a shrug, Darwhen swiveled around to head back down the stairs. But she never got down the first one; River gasped, then grasped her up, pulled her tight to her chest, and began to run the other direction; up.

Up, her heart pounding urgently, higher up the steps, as a distant rumbling sound filtered through the oddly still air. Drops of rain were beginning to fall but River disregarded them, as well as the cries of the child who struggled, frightened, in her arms. Darwhen wasn't large for her age, and River had been working hard to keep all of her muscles well conditioned, so she was able to grapple with her and hold on.

"We need to get high," she tried to explain as she ran as fast as she ever had, locking down the flailing arms and kicking legs as best she could. "High, the river has broken her bounds, we are not safe."

The rumbling was no longer distant. River pushed herself and garnered a bit more speed. They were almost there, almost – she reached the highest step as the ground trembled below and a wall of seething grey surged around the slight curve of the upstream canyon. Darwhen gasped and suddenly the limbs that had fought River clutched at her. Her own arms were now free, and she used them; standing on the highest stair, she tucked both her upper limbs around the larger-than-life statue, twisting to wedge the little girl as deeply between those stone legs as possible. With her ears now deafened by the water's roar, fear twisting through her veins, she moved feverishly; wrapped both arms and legs around one stone limb and one living child, trying to protect the small head with her hands, and bent her own head in as a living torrent of water overtook them.

It struck her back, slammed her up against the warrior woman – Zoë, protect us, she thought fuzzily – and tried to rip her away, tumble her from her anchor. Her head slammed into the stone. She clung as fiercely as she could, eyes closed as the water surged over their heads. Darwhen's small arms had been wrenched from her neck and only River's body-clench and their stone guardian kept them from being torn apart from each other. River clung, the breath pounded out of her by force, and lost sense of time and space and everything except that she had to keep hold of what she clung to. She prayed a prayer she'd prayed before: "Please God make me a stone . . ."

pigu -- butt