Author's Note: This chapter is a bit...non-standard. This is a sort of one-shot that ties in with the rest of the overarching plot, and is primarily a character piece. These "interlude" chapters will cover events that take place outside the standard format of each episodic story arc.
This chapter is, as you probably guessed already, heavy on Riverthink. In fact, its almost nothing but Riverthink.
Interlude: I Am
In the twilight between reality and dreams, she danced.
There was no such thing as a restful night. She would slide beneath the covers, hugging them tight to her skin, and close her eyes, surrendering to biological necessity, but the hours of transition were never still and relaxing.
Two tenths of her memory were seared and twisted, a myriad of cul de sacs and falsehoods intermixed with a reality too true and too cold to ignore. She saw it too often in her waking hours, but in her dreams, the memory became unfiltered, uncontrolled by such petty concepts as truth and reality. Their faces twisted behind their mouths, bulging and hissing, their hands growing long like knives. The pain wasn't normal pain, rising and falling like solar flares through the hydrogen layers of her skin.
She hated dreaming.
In between the dreams, though, was something . . . else.
She didn't understand it. It started three years ago, after the first treatment. When she wasn't dreaming, in the fugue state between REM cycles, she was aware, but not aware.
She felt emotions, thoughts, twitches of cognitive process, and the whispered caress of others' dreams. Her mind floated in a swirling sea of thought that she slid among, touching with her brain's fingers and soaking into with her mind's toes.
She didn't remember, she didn't think, she didn't make any conscious actions, she just . . . .
Eventually, the fugue would segue into REM sleep, and the seared unrealities would beat upon her again, ruining the rest and the being. She would twist, she would fight, she would cry, and she would feel warmth when he came in the night to hold her while she struggled, to whisper in her ears and tell her she would be fine.
And at the end of it all, her eyes would open again, her mouth dry, her eyes red, and her muscles almost as tired as when she'd lain down eight hours previously.
As always, and as it forever would be.
The cycle had ended, and once again she stared at the ceiling, blankets and sheets tight around her skin, bunched and coiled. Her hair was frazzled and curled, as it stayed, a tangled mess that she never got around to brushing. Physical appearance was irrelevant.
She rolled over, sliding the covers off her body. She glanced up, making sure the door to her room was shut, as it always was, before climbing out of bed and digging around for her clothes. It was her preference to sleep naked, and she didn't want anyone stumbling in on her.
She paused, halfway through pulling on one of her dresses. Why should she care if they saw her minus her clothes? Most of the crew had already seen enough of her naked anyway.
The answer came just as quickly as the question. So much of the last three years had been spent with control, and they had used her nudity as a weapon to keep her under control. Medical examinations, shower cycles, surgery, experimentation - so much of it had been conducted with no clothes, in cold rooms with harsh light, to capitalize on her vulnerability. To make her feel less human.
Now she controlled it. Now she was a person again.
The dress tugged down over her, and she ran her hands through her tangled hair. She rooted around for shoes or sandals, but stopped after a few seconds, before peering down at her toes. They flexed, gripping the carpet, and she stretched them out.
No shoes today.
The carpet scratched her rear as she settled down, knees hugging up against her chest. One hand tapped a rhythm on the fabric while the other crawled about, fingertips scrabbling and grabbing at a pad beneath the bed. She took it and pulled it out, and dark brown eyes scattered along the lines and words and ink she'd scribbled over it.
Kaylee had suggested a journal, a while ago. She tried it, but it didn't take too well, because words couldn't express everything she experienced. She wanted to splash the colors of the scents she had felt, the noise of the tastes, the tactile sense of their voices and everything in between. The paradoxes scratched and grated on everything logical, and all her efforts to quantify were meaningless, even after analysis was complete.
Such was what madness felt like.
Her fingers traced the markings on the pad, flipping through the pages. Some of the pages were blank save a single sentence or a nonsense scribble. Others were black with scrawled reams of text and images. Here, a page-long prose describing in detail a job Mal and Jayne had done, with neatly organized lists of all the mistakes they had made during the operation. There, a lyrical interpretation of the songs Kaylee liked to hum, written with wavy lines representative of the frequency of the individual chords (she refused to anything as cold and impersonal as normal musical notation). There, a short questionnaire on existing unified field theory, pointing out three major failings in current understandings of the concept that didn't take into account the off-center universe postulate.
On the last page, however, were two simple words:
She stared at those words for a long while, toes flexing and tapping. She found a pen with her other hand, and tapped it against her jaw. Her eyes slowly traced the words, mentally twisting them in a dozen different languages. She chewed on the blunt end of the pen, and then tapped it against her earlobe, causing her hair to wave up and down with each passing impact of plastic on flesh.
The pad sank to the floor, the pen settling down beside it, and both went to sleep as she stood.
What am I?
They were the first words she'd written in her journal, on the very first page, with the final two words at the very end. They were the last words she would need to write, because once she reached the end, and finished the sentence, she wouldn't need the journal anymore.
At least, that was what she hoped.
Tonight was clear. There was very little cloudiness in her mind. Maybe she could find a piece of the answer to that sentence.
Her fingers drummed against the metal by the sliding door, and she bit her lip. Would Serenity help her tonight?
The clock by her door said fifty-two minutes until it was time.
The door slid open, and she decided to ask.
The passenger dorm was empty. Only three rooms were ever used regularly, and now that was down to two. Simon spent as much time in Kaylee's bunk as he did in his own. He didn't say it, but she knew part of the reason was to protect her. The sounds and noise and feel and smell and taste of lovemaking permeated the walls, making it hard to sleep.
What he didn't know was how the ship echoed with it, the noise and emotion bouncing off the walls, colored by the beating hearts of nine people who were all too aware of it.
She drifted toward the entrance to the passenger dorms, but paused by one sliding door. Inside, she heard the steady breathing of a sleeping preacher, and the echoes of the blocks of text issuing from symbols and nonsense.
She had one of her own, borrowed from a church on Greenleaf which she had never given back. Its pages were red with ink, dog-eared and torn. Part of her railed against it, unable to understand the contradictions of God and His plan.
Part of her couldn't reconcile God and the last four years of her life.
Something else lingered in his thoughts - thin and red, crystalline and secretive. She knew it, and he knew she knew it, and she knew he knew she knew it, and he knew she knew he knee she knew-
A recursive line of thought. She terminated it.
She frowned, hand hovering over his door. Her fingertips touched it, and the cool plastic and fiberglass was drenched in emotion: worry, fear, concern, love - vast amounts of that last emotion. The love of a father, of a friend, of a grandparent and mentor and teacher.
They still needed to talk. She knew very little of what he knew, and didn't know if he knew much at all. He was so confused, so worried recently, for her and everyone else, and that made her afraid. The last thing she wanted was for others to hurt and worry on her account.
Five months ago, she'd asked Simon to put a bullet in her to prove that much.
There were too many secrets, and she didn't want to ferret them out. She'd let them lie and grow and sprout in their own time. She knew too many herself.
The stairs rose up before her, and she gingerly made her way up.
Serenity's heart beat, close and familiar. It spun and arced, electricity bouncing and coursing and responding and screaming through the ship, a symphony of machine operations that she felt like a lightning rod. It was familiar after all this time, a warm embrace of metal and life and protection that she embraced back.
Her hands ran along the wall panels, fingertips tracing lines in the very thin layer of dust that had accumulated since the last clean-up. She wandered up the access corridor, hearing the dance of electricity as it tickled her ears.
The galley was empty.
Her stomach was dull and quiet, no risk of throwing up just yet. She passed through the room, dropping down the steps one pace at a time, transitioning from the cold metal to warm cloth to rough straw back to cold metal again. She paused, scanning a nearby time piece, and did a quick calculation.
The crew corridor loomed up and swallowed her, and she edged her way down it. Hearts beat in multiple rhythms, and from their echoes she could tell who was where.
Wash and Zoe lay together in their bunk. She paused by it, crouching at the hatch, and let the warmth slide over and through her.
There was stability there, love and honesty and closeness that couldn't be broken. One was a solid rock, the other an uncontrolled balloon. One anchored, the other lifted. They were opposites in every possible way, which just made the union more complete.
That made her sigh and slowly rise, pushing away from the honey warmth of their presence. She enjoyed the two of them, but she also disliked the feelings it gave her. Longing, familiarity, and a reminder that she was alone.
She'd told Simon before that she didn't think she had a future, and that all there was ahead of her was darkness. The sun would come out briefly, but it couldn't heal what was ruined. They'd taken her childhood, and in turn, had taken her future.
All that was left was a little girl, walking down a passage, feeling thoughts that weren't hers in an effort to feel real again.
She stopped next to the other occupied bunk.
Two more hearts beat within, intertwined in raw and tight and passionate embrace. They slumbered, but the aftereffects reverberated like drumbeats, and they made her shiver and back away. She didn't want to feel those thoughts from him, of all people.
It was a sudden and wild union, unlike the warmth and maturity of the other pair. Both of them drank of life in its fullness, both aware acutely that this life afforded danger. They all bore the scars of that.
He still loved her, with all his heart, but love had pulled him in multiple directions. In a way, it was a blessing, for as he was pulled away, it gave her room to grow within his loosened embrace. Room to breathe on her own, to walk and to stumble and to stand back up without his arms wrapping around her every step of the way. He still held on to her, helped her stand and helped her center herself, but now . . . .
The other heart was passion incarnate, happy and living and enjoying every minute, a font of existence that kept the heart of the ship and the ship's crew alive and well. And her heart had brought itself into her brother's, and together, she brought him peace and serenity.
That made her smile.
She pulled away from the hatch, warmth tracing and tailing her, and worked her way toward the bridge.
Tonight, he couldn't sleep. So tonight, they did what they often did.
She wandered up the stairs into the heart of the mind of the ship, hands tingling along the cool railing. The bridge was always cool, but it was warmed by the heat of bodies and instruments. She heard the familiar, low-key chorus of beeps and hums that meant all was well, and with the heartbeat pumping up through her toes and legs, she knew all was well.
He was thinking, and his thinking was a drum: a canvass, spread over a vast unknown. Impacts resounded against him, reverberating and deflecting away, and the inside reacted, but she never knew what was in there.
Or was that the right word? He was a mask, too. Many masks, too many masks, a thousand-thousand masks of steel and wood and cloth and paper and stone and glass, a bouncing chaos of interchanging contradictions.
Our chaos is the same. Except he was sane, while she wasn't.
"Evenin', Albatross," he said, smiling at her in his usual way, by not smiling at all. She liked the smarmy smirk he affected unconsciously, especially when the smile was honest and certain.
"Good evening," she responded. She wanted to mimic his accent, but that would be rude. Rudeness was reserved for Jayne. Instead, she found her way to the copilot's chair, settling into the cloth and letting the bottoms of her feet kiss the air.
She peered out at the Black, at the needles of light dancing across the dark canvass past them.
"Do the stars ever talk to you?" she asked. She frowned as she spoke, not sure why she'd asked that.
His mind worked, the pages of his book slowly flipping and rustling. They were worn and complex, covered in ink and dog-eared from too much turning.
"All the time," he finally replied, and there was honesty in his words. He wasn't humoring her, but answering her in his own way. He glanced her way. "What do they say to you?"
"Nothing," she answered. "They just . . . sing."
Anyone else might have dismissed what she said as crazy, which was true, or humored her, which was belittling. But he understood, after a fact.
He nodded, and went back to his silent vigil, and they both peered out at the stars.
After a few minutes, she looked over at him, and asked his mind what it meant to be an adult. The response was a jumble, a whisper and a shout and a laugh and a sob. She felt a rolling pile of emotions and memories and sensation tumble into her.
It was a tidal wave of conflicting thoughts and histories: a warrior, a hero, a soldier, a man of honor, a man of dishonor, a thief, a killer, an old man, a youth, a farmer, a captain, a torturer, a healer, a father, a son.
All was one.
Why couldn't she be like him?
"Captain?" she asked, and he looked up at her.
"Am I real?"
He was silent, and she saw the pages flipping, ink scrawling and erasing. He knew by now that when she asked nonsense like that, it had another meaning to it.
"You're flesh and blood, a person and a smile, and a voice with a mind behind it that makes me look like a big damn idiot," he said, smirking again.
She nodded, understanding his intention.
"Way I see it," he added, "If you spend your whole life asking what you are, you don't spend no time finding it." His hand dropped to the console, sliding along the metal.
"You've found what you are?" she asked, and he frowned.
"Not sure yet," he replied, his voice smelling of honesty. "I'll know who I am when I find him."
She was silent, mulling over that, and finally rose. She stepped past him, ruffling his hair and eliciting a frown and a grumble that brought a smile to her lips. Few people touched that most captainly of hair, but he'd tolerate her.
The crew corridor still sang of the warmth of being together, and she slowly drifted through it, drinking it in.
Privately, she asked herself if she'd ever feel that way again.
She remembered the firelight, and the face of the pretty girl, and that familiar name, and the warmth in her belly and the fluttering in her chest. She remembered desire, and she remembered the sweet taste.
That was strange. She wasn't supposed to like girls, and she didn't really. Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was the memory.
Maybe it was three years not learning things a teenage girl was supposed to learn. Three years where the only love was . . . .
Echoes of Simon, and something else.
Thirty-one minutes left.
It was those memories and those thoughts that led her down here, into the cargo bay. It was familiar, a place of scent and flowing air and open.
It was dirty and it was cluttered and it stank of sweat and dried blood and oil and chemicals and solvents and thousand illicit cargoes. There was rust and there was functionality and gratings and warm air, caressing her skin.
It was everything the other placewasn't.
Toes and feet pressed down in the warm metal grating of the catwalk, heated by the spotlights overhead. She wanted to stop and hug the catwalk, finding a point of equilibrium between the heat of the lights and the shade of the corners where she could stretch out and relax to the hum of Serenity's heartbeat.
Instead, she found a door, and lingered outside.
Incense drifted out, even through the airtight seal. It was in her thoughts, in her poise and her grace and her skin and her heart. It permeated every aspect of what she was.
But what lurked beneath? Fear, worry, concern? She was so similar to the preacher whom she was so different from, reflecting the maternal strength and love that was a mirror to his paternal guidance.
And mixed in with that was desire, for one person, a desire that their mutual beliefs and differing philosophies and conundrums couldn't satisfy. She could see the electricity between them, could understand why they loved each other and yet couldn't speak on it.
Part of her hurt to see that between them, and wanted to bridge the rift. Part of her was scared what might blossom if the two ever put away their masks and bared themselves to each other.
That much she could tell in their talks.
They met when she felt like meeting, and they talked of nothings. She would draw, and she would teach, and she would listen while she spoke of what she smelled and heard and tasted from the rest of the crew and from the places they visited. They both understood the need for this, and she understood that not everything could be explained to a rigid, solid mind like her brother's.
The Companion could feel and empathize, and that made her unique among this crew, more so than the others. In a way, she was the closest to a kindred spirit she had.
Perhaps she would talk again, soon. Talk about something other than the smells of thought and the taste of emotion, of calligraphy and its ultimate meaninglessness in the entropy of reality. Talk of what she felt when she'd kissed that girl, of what memories she held in her from that placethat had raped three years from her.
She checked the clock on the wall, seeing it far below with sharp eyes. Twenty-seven minutes.
She pulled away from the shuttle doors, and inched her way down the stairs, eyes scanning, thoughts playing over and through, scanning the vaults and twisting corridors of the mind for one memory in particular.
She padded along the smooth metal and ceramic floor, dust caking the sides of her toes, rust roughly tickling the bottom of her feet. She paced, the slow circling of a hawk descending on still prey. As she moved, she lowered herself to the deck, fingers sliding over the grating and grazing over the dust, picking it up and carrying it in her wake. Finally . . . .
She sank to the deck, curling her legs up against her chest, arms wrapping around them, and she remembered.
Dust hung in the air, mixed with steam. A thousand-thousand different sensations rolled through her at once: cold, heat, boiling skin, electricity, different sections of her brain firing at different times, one arm moving, the other still numb, bile punching into her throat, skin crawling and twitching as ice water and searing heat rolled though her.
Confusion, uncertainty, and one string of curious, perverse interest flickered out, lashing her mind as she clambered up, punching her way back into the waking world, and collapsed to the warmth of the deck. Scents rushed in, assaulting her with things she was unfamiliar with. Disorder loomed on all sides, darkness and heat and presence and family and concern and biting lights and rust and he was there, in front of her, his mind latching onto hers and twisting and pulling and wrenching her back into reality.
" . . . Simon?"
And she broke. Every piece of sanity she'd been clinging to crashed and shattered in a babble of chaos, terror, confusion, happiness, uncertainty . . . .
His arms warmed her, and she sobbed in his shoulder, babbling everything she knew, everything she wanted to know, chills lancing up and down her naked body while he held her close.
She could hear his heartbeat, and mixed in with it, rising through her back and her rear and her feet, she felt another heartbeat.
Serenity thrummed through her, and in his arms, in this dirty and confusing and chaotic place, surrounded by lechers and bad old men and good old men and iron-hard soldiers and prostitutes and crazy pilots and cheery mechanics and her brother, she was home.
It wasn't a question, or even a statement. It was just a word, grunted because there was nothing else to grunt. It hung in the air, bouncing off her ears, and finally she looked up.
He was standing by the weight set, frowning, all muscles and hugeness. The pages of his book were BIG and BOLD and red and black, all clear and simple. Right now, they were a mixture: confusion, wariness, and a tiny bit of concern.
"You cryin' or somethin'?" he asked, walking toward her, a scowl on his face.
"No," she replied, retaining clarity as best she could.
His thoughts were the most intrusive, and the most troubling. Some of them hid theirs so much that she could ignore them, some of them hid nothing but directed it elsewhere, but his were everywhere and simple and impossible to hide. His head was like a big radar jammer, sending out signals that flooded everything else with that simple and that everywhere.
And though his thoughts were easy to understand, they were not pretty. They flicked like automatic machines, his eyes automatically tracing figures and faces and making evaluations. Was it a woman? Yes. Was there a weapon? No. Was she pretty? Yes? Could he bed her without a problem? No. Move along.
So simple. So crude.
But there was a sliver of redeeming in here, somewhere. She'd tasted it after they'd been on Higgin's Moon, and then whenever he looked at her after Ariel. He'd tried to turn her once he thought she was trouble, but he'd been scared. He admitted it to no-one except himself, and to Mal when they had enough alcohol.
And, a tiny bit to her, after everything they'd suffered together.
"Well, its sleep-cycle, and you need some sleepin', so git," he said, frowning and gesturing.
That made his scowl deepen, and he strode up beside her, looming over her. His hands twitched, and he wanted to just haul her up and shove her out of the bay, if only because he could. Fear stayed his hand, and something else . . . .
A few moments' silence passed, and he growled in the back of his throat, before turning and loping toward the weight rack. He settled down, grabbing a pair of one-handed weights, and started doing bicep curls, all the while staring at her.
Finally, she rose. The tickle of rust and dust flowed up her legs as she took a few steps forward, stretching her legs out. He watched her move, and she caught the automatic thoughts tracing through him as he watched her move.
"You were right," she said, suddenly, and he blinked, eyes rising to meet hers.
"'Bout what?" he asked, but she didn't answer. Instead, she simply drifted past him, toward the door.
"Better get to sleep," he grunted over his shoulder, and she smiled to herself. He was right on that matter as well, but she hadn't meant sleep. Not yet.
Nineteen minutes, she noted, passing another clock.
The infirmary floated past, but she ignored the cold and the sanitary. Her fingers caressed the warm softness of one of the chairs in the common room, and she turned, drinking in the cool amber of the passenger dorm. So empty, save for the wizened thoughts of scriptures and reality drifting from the Shepherd's room.
The door slid closed behind her, and she locked it as quietly as she could manage. The lights dimmed, and the dress slowly rose, before crumpling to the floor. Warm closeness caressed her bare skin.
Her fingers dug up the journal once more, and she flipped through the pages, one hand curling strands of brown-black hair between index and middle fingers.
She reached the end, and she analyzed the words once more. A pen ended up in her fingers, and it tapped the side of the journal.
In the lightless depths, she felt like she was in the Black once again. There were no stars, but there were no memories. No songs, no words, no worries. The journal settled to the floor, and her fingers rose, touching her temples, her jaw, and her chest. There were spots there, lines of soft flesh that were hardened a fraction. Each line was a memory, and each memory was pain.
That was part of being a person. That much, the captain had taught her.
And now, what was she? A person, certainly, but . . . .
What had the mercenary said? The big hulking man-ape that pretended he never cared about her when he quietly doted on her like a sociopathic big brother?
His words, the words he'd spoken to her before she'd gone off to fight for her other brother, resounded in her ears. What she'd gathered from Serenity, from its beating heart and its living crew, its captain and its pilot and its soldier and its mechanic and its heart and its soul and its father and its doctor, all came together.
The pen settled down to the paper, and she traced the word. It was long and slow, a flowing, singular stroke that stretched out beside the two words. Her hand and wrist rose and fell, tracing the letters, even as she remembered what he'd told her, and what he'd taught her.
She leaned back, peering through the gloom, and though her eyes couldn't see the word, she knew she'd written it as perfectly as possible.
I am functional.
She closed the journal and slid it under her bed.
It was the truth. It was a promise, and it was her future. At the end of the journal, and the end of the journey, those three words were all that would matter.
She wouldn't despair anymore. She wouldn't be helpless. She was a person - damaged, frail, and insane, certainly, but a person nonetheless. No longer a child, no longer a plaything, no longer a burden to be borne on a shoulder or a charge to be safeguarded or a weapon to be feared.
"Happy birthday," she whispered, and clambered back into bed. She pulled the covers about herself, closed her eyes, and descended once again into the murky expanse of sleep.
Seven minutes and forty-nine seconds later, according to the atomic clocks in every scientific institution in the 'Verse, she turned eighteen.
For the first time in four years, River Tam slept in peace.
Author's Notes: This chapter, I'll admit, was something of a self-indulgence. As I've said before, River is my favorite character from Firefly, and this story is River-centric. I've been really wanting to delve into the nature of her brain, and the inspiration for this interlude came along after finishing with the last chapter.
The basic idea of this chapter is to show the sort of psychological transition River would need to make to shift from being what is essentially a passive, nonaggressive character into something stronger and more mature. At the most basic level, throughout most of Firefly and Serenity, River exists in a state of quiet despair, knowing she'd never be healed, and even though she began transitioning away from that at the end of the movie and has continued throughout this story, there comes a critical moment. Even with everyone around her helping her along, River is the one who is going to have to make the choice to be strong and be independent, even if she can't always be that way due to her madness. She has to make the choice to move forward, instead of linger in the past.
In this chapter, she finally made that choice, and commemorates her eighteenth birthday with a promise to be no one's slave, tool, or victim ever again. She is an adult now. Woe betide anyone who tries to break her again.
Now, to address something that has been popping up in a lot of reviews. Consider this your warning for this story.There will be a pairing between River and....someone....later on in this story. I'm not going to say who it is, or even if its going to be one person or multiple, or even the gender. All I will say is that I plan to have it be somewhat unconventional, and, in traditional Joss Whedon fashion, any romantic development involving River will be chaotic and difficult and bumpy. Because let's face it: nothing ever comes to River easily, and it wouldn't be River if there wasn't screaming, tears, madness, and face-smashing along the way.
And to tell the truth, it wouldn't be Firefly, either.
Next story arc, we're back to the gang as a whole, as they line up exciting new crime!
Until next chapter.....