River put her foot forward. Leaves crunched.
They were movin' slow, taffy-soft and dreamlike.
Kaylee was on her knees, folding a rock up on itself and peering under at the grubblies. She turned her head, hair trailing in the dry-leaf cover.
Her lips were rouged, and her eyes lined, just liked when Inara had had a sleep-in and done cosmetics on the women. She beamed. "Hi, Meimei." Her lips formed River's name but her voice came out different.
River's eyelids fluttered, and someone asked, "Looking?"
The tree above her shook and she stared up.
Inara stared back, perfect hair in two little-girl braids and no smudge or color on her face. She was hanging from a branch by her knees. "We're searching!"
River turned away and lurched off, parts of her running before others. There wasn't any path, and she had to go through some of the trunks because they were too close together.
A bear clawed at some bark and showed the termites under. And then he turned around, furry and nose wet and with that same growl. Gruff as ever. "The hell is it? Haven't got f'rever t' go digging for it."
"Dig for what?" River gasped, choking on twigs. "What for dig?"
He roared. She ran.
Book was picking through the outer layer of an anthill with a simple stylus. Low and meditative, he said, "Everyone has layers. Things hidden."
He turned to her and sharp, wolf's teeth poked out over his lower lip. "Just tell us."
Warm and supine. A firmness at her shoulder, a rock to hold in a stream. Zoe's hair was down and free, her dress was white. "You don't have to, Meimei." Her lips didn't match again. "But we'll find it eventually."
Wash slid up behind, put his arms around his wife and she didn't turn around. His neck was a hundred times too long and he was purple everywhere and light shone off the false plastic scales. He had to talk around the grass he was chewing at. "I vote it's between her toes. I keep most of my layers there."
She walked backwards and away. Breathing shallow, shuddering, terrified.
Mal was lying on his back, sky-gazing, hands behind his head.
She walked closer, very gingerly. "Look not?"
"Not looking." He shrugged, shoulders pushing leaves away to make tiny wings when they settled back. "Figure the best place to not find mulch is up high. Air gets scarce, slows down the rotting process."
"Never keep your eyes off the empty for long," she agreed. She took another step and nearly brought her bare foot down on his chest, but froze.
"No touching," she reminded herself, and stepped over to the other side.
She walked again.
Warm hands parted the hair at the back of her head. "Hold still. I can just about see it."
River held still. "Simon. Everyone's looking, but they don't see."
His voice was reassuring. "It's part of the natural cycle. People have layers, hiding secrets and feelings. Everything buried under something else until it's all just mulch and turning to earth."
"River's not mulchy." Simon stopped touching her hair, and she turned to take his wrists and pull his arms around her shoulders. "Mulchless."
"It's somewhere, Meimei." His lips matched. "I'll find it."
"No layers," she promised. "None."
"I'll get your mulch back, Meimei."
She let go again, backed away some, stopped touching. "None. River's all there is."
Simon took an Earth-That-Was old time stethoscope and put the ear parts in his ears and set the cold metal part on River's forehead.
"We'll find it, River." His lips didn't match anymore. "By accident if we have to."
She sighed. "You look. You don't see."
She pulled away from the stethoscope. "Maybe you will, if you unlearn some parts first."
And then she walked away into the woods, and opened her eyes to see the underside of Serenity's belly.
They could see all of her, but they kept trying to find the mulch…