Black Days: River (7/7)
Using all her brain power, River concentrated on finding a path back into her dream. She had been a lepidoptera and had been happily flitting about her mother's garden. Flying from the heliotropia to the amaranthus caudatus, she happily fed on the sweet nectar until her butterfly eye had fallen on a woman calmly pruning her prized Queen Elizabeths. Butterfly River recognized the woman as her mother and tried to fly to her but a bright purple and red striped ladybug as well as the cloying scents of the roses kept diverting her attention and River woke without ever reaching her mother. She wanted to be back in the dream world - not to reach her mother but because she enjoyed being a butterfly.
The trail of her dream became hopelessly lost, however, as images from the crew assaulted her. River's eyes snapped open, immediately focusing on some random point on the ceiling. It wasn't the imperfections and discolorations of the ceiling that drew her attention; her mind was not registering what her eyes perceived. Her mind was being inundated with the colors and waves of emotion that flowed through Serenity. Black for the Captain, hollowed but not empty, sitting on his chair in his bunk staring at nothing. Purple for Zoë, flush with grief, making herself complete another twenty push-ups. Yellow for Kaylee, rousing out of a dream of Reavers and dead children, trying desperately to keep hold of her optimism. Simon…
"I'm awake," she called out, turning her attention away from the others to greet her brother.
He slid the door open smiling at her. "Ready for your meds?" He asked, overly bright.
River frowned; she didn't need to be psychic to see the strain in the smile or to hear the tension in his voice. "I don't need it!" She exclaimed grouchily and looked back up at the ceiling. One brow raised as she saw that a spot was moving across the dingy expanse. As it moved, it grew until River was able to identify the ladybug from her dream. How had it escaped from her head?
The sound of Simon tapping the hypo brought her back to reality. Frowning at him, she scooted down in her bed pulling the covers over her head. "I'm better."
"Yes, but are you better because of the meds?"
Her brain didn't feel quite as broken as before Miranda - her jumbled thoughts had indeed cleared. Somewhat. Instead of mass, chaotic confusion, she just felt chaotic confusion. She wanted to believe that purging Miranda from her mind had put her right but she could still feel madness creep through her broken brain. Jumping across severed nerves and flitting from one side to another just like a butterfly.
Still under the covers, she rolled onto her side and faced the wall not wanting to watch him administer the shot. She wondered if the ladybug was still on the ceiling. "Kaylee comforts you," she said, squeezing her eyes shut as she felt the prick of the needle.
"Yes," he said.
"She comforts me, too." She imagined the gold colored medication flowing up through her vein mingling with her blood as it travelled to her heart and made its way to her brain. "But she won't be able to if you make us leave."
He didn't answer her.
"I'm sad that Kaylee will be sad." River's voice softened - more from the effects of the medication than from what she was saying. A sense of languid tranquility spread through her. She pushed the covers off her head and looked up to find that the ladybug had grown even larger. The black and purple of the beetle's back was so bright and the contrast was lovely against the boring, faded yellow of the walls.
"I don't know what we're going to do, River," Simon snapped. "I just can't live like this. Feeling useless. Everyone hating me."
"They don't hate you." She sat up watching as the bug inched down to rest just behind Simon's head.
"Jayne?" His mouth turned up in a bitter grin.
She looked from the ladybug to Simon. He had leaned back against the wall and was gazing at the empty cylinder. She smiled and touched his arm. "But he likes hating you. That's different than hate hate."
"Much as I enjoy being the object of Jayne's recreational hate, I cannot ignore the fact that things on Serenity are bad right now." He sighed heavily before meeting her gaze. "I think it will be best for everyone…us."
"You, you mean."
"If the Captain is intent on doing what I suspect, then, we - you and I - have no business being on this ship."
"The Tam children on a smuggling vessel!" River affected the stilted accent of one of their Langsford cousins. "Whatever would Aunt Miriam say?"
"You're bored," River said.
"It's not that. It's just that…I feel like a burden." In his mind, he returned to his world on Ariel where he was most assuredly not a burden of any kind. Simon had loved the bustle of hospital life; barking out orders, people coming to him for advice, the smiles of grateful patients, easing pain, prolonging life...
"My entire medical expertise has been boiled down to doling out shots. No one gets wounded…" He shook his head surprised and appalled at what he had verbalized. He looked over at River. "I'm not saying that I want someone to be hurt…but…" Simon trailed off and gazed at the opposite wall.
"You're figuring me out." River needed to remind him that he did have a purpose. Unlike her who was content merely to exist, Simon needed a purpose.
"That will take a lifetime." He smiled and this time there was no tension in the smile. Just love. For her.
"Are you finished?" She asked abruptly. Instead of comforting her, his loving smile had spread an unwelcome feeling over her and she wanted him to leave.
"Yes, let's go eat--"
"No," she said. "I'm ready for you to go."
Simon shrugged and left her alone.
River slid out of bed and grabbed yesterday's dress that she had thrown on the floor. As she dressed, she looked for the ladybug and frowned when it couldn't be found anywhere. Kneeling down, she opened one of the bins under her bed and rummaged through the assortment of oddities she had accumulated since her stay on Serenity until she found the particular protein bar that suited her today. Since the last month had seen more than enough mealtime unpleasantness, River steadfastly refused to be a part of it and kept a stash of protein bars in her room. She far preferred to eat alone in various nooks throughout the ship.
She grabbed her book and stepped out into the small corridor looking around to make sure no one was around. Satisfied that she was not being observed, she climbed up the ladder. Once at the top, she squeezed into a small accessway where she crawled until she reached another vent that opened into the space just below the cockpit. While it wasn't really hidden, it was used so infrequently that it began to feel like her space where she could while away the hours undisturbed.
She sat on the floor with her back against the armory door and opened the battered book. When River had first found the book, it had been practically brand new. The plastic cover and paper pages were crisp, looking as if they had been perused but once. The first night she began reading it aloud to Simon, Kaylee, and Inara, she had focused on the task of speaking the words on the page. Then, she concentrated on dissecting the meaning of every single word in the sentence but she hadn't yet realized that a story was behind all those words. The second night of reading, her brain pieced it all together and she was stunned. So stunned that she sat down abruptly and stopped reading aloud. Simon was worried that she had reached a catatonic stage but she waved him off and ran to her room where she huddled on her bed and greedily read the entire book.
In the past several days, River read the book seven times. It was old…old as in Earth-that-Was old but it wasn't the kind of book on any reading list in Classical Literature at the Academy. It certainly hadn't been in her parents' library. It was too…plain…too honest and straightforward, too heartfelt for people who liked lofty things. Maybe that's why she loved it so; she felt she had discovered something beautiful that no one else knew about. She would bet that Professor Yanamato had never read this book and that fact alone made her love it even more.
She unwrapped the protein bar and mindlessly ate while she read her favorite passages. It took her mind off herself and out of Serenity. When she read, she didn't hear the others. She just listened to Ponyboy. His voice alone penetrated her brain as she read of his family and friends.
"What are you doing?"
River jumped, startled that someone had found her. She looked up at the Captain who was looking at her sternly.
"Not supposed to be in here, you know."
She gazed at the Captain for a few moments trying to come back to Serenity. "Johnny died," she finally said.
"Who?" Mal's voice was impatient.
"He saved the children and then he died."
He took the book from her hands. "The Outsiders," he read. He looked at her for a few moments before sitting on the step facing her. "What's it about?"
She looked up surprised at his interest. He looked back at her while she tried to discern if he was actually interested in her book.
"Greasers. The Outsiders. They were greasers and society ignored them. They were poor and helpless and ignorant. Ponyboy…" The words coming out of her mouth failed to adequately represent how the book made her feel. "I think you're Darry."
"And that means what?"
She shrugged. "Darry's parents died and he had to take care of his brothers. Had to do whatever he could to take care of them. He loved them. But was mean to them. Nice mean." That wasn't it at all. Why couldn't she express to the Captain how Darry really was? That he loved his family more than anything and traded his future to keep them together.
"Happy book," Mal commented smiling at her.
She responded to his smile. It lifted her spirits – he so rarely offered one.
"Jayne is Dallas. I'm Johnny."
"The kid who dies?"
She nodded tears welling in her eyes. "I'm dead."
"Then we're differing on our definitions of dead." He grinned again but this time it didn't reach his eyes. She could see by the slight slump of his shoulders that his burdens had taken hold of him again.
"I know what you're thinking," River said.
"I know you know what I'm thinking."
"No. I know what you're thinking in the regular way."
"She cries for made up people but not real ones."
"It does seem a mite odd."
"But my insides hurt," she said suddenly, her chin quivering. "All fiery and…I feel it."
"It's just a story," Mal said.
She shook her head thinking of the tragedy of Johnny. Of death. Images that she tried to keep at bay invaded her mind – images of friends and families laying dead on the ground at Haven.
"What makes my life better than theirs?"
He was quiet, thinking over his answer. "People decided yours was more valuable. They're the kind of people who find it very easy to step on them they dismiss as no account."
She frowned, unhappy with his answer. It didn't answer her question at all. But then, he couldn't know her real question because she couldn't figure out how to ask it.
"Ain't your fault. Nothing in all of this is your fault." Mal smiled. "Except your affinity for peeling labels and spying on people."
She didn't respond to his attempt at a joke. "Simon should have left me there. At the academy. Those people would still be alive."
"No, River," he said, his voice was gentle but stern. Mal tilted her face up to meet his gaze. "He did the right thing. Can't believe he pulled it off, mind you, but he did the right thing. Not ya'lls fault bad people are after you."
"Simon gave up his life for me."
"He'd do it again in a heartbeat."
"It's not fair."
He shook his head and gave her a rueful smile. "If you're needing someone to expound on the fairness of life, I ain't the man for the job."
They sat in silence, Mal absently thumping the book against his knee. River watched him think purposefully not listening. She concentrated and put up a wall…No, a flowering hedge that buzzed with bees and butterflies who got along and made happy sounds together. She looked over the Captain's head to see the ladybug flying over him heading up to the bridge. River refused to be distracted and focused on the hedge, on the buzzing of the bees, on the colorful butterflies and forgot to hear the constant murmurs that plagued her to no end. As she realized her achievement, her excitement grew and she forgot about the hedge and the barrier fell. No choice. Too far gone. No choice. Really gonna do this, aren't you? No choice.
The Captain's worry bombarded her. She wanted to help, needed to help this man who had done so much for her and her brother. "What are you going to do?"
"Was hoping you'd tell me," Mal said, studying the cover of the book.
"Can't you rob a bank?" The heist on Lilac had gone well. At least before the Reavers showed up.
"What bank? If you got a bank in mind that we know's got untraceable cash that we can get to, then I'm all ears."
"Smash and grab and git the hell out quick," she said quoting Jayne.
"Yeah, but those kinda jobs get people killed." Mal rubbed his eyes. "I'm hoping we can steer away from those for a spell."
She fell silent again forcing herself to pay attention to this one problem. This time she didn't need to focus on the hedge, the distant hum of wafting thoughts quieted as she became immersed in trying to find a solution for the Captain.
"Blackmail!" She exclaimed, suddenly excited. "I know of a Parliamentary official who has an incestuous relationship with her brother. They have a special house together and pretend they're married…"
Mal held up a hand, his face slightly appalled at the thought. " 'Preciate the offer, little one, but that ain't exactly the kind of work I'm lookin for."
"I know other things about important people…"
He shook his head.
"…even stuff that doesn't involve sex?"
"Let's avoid that, okay? Any more secrets percolating in your brain need to stay put."
"What are you going to do?" She asked again.
"I don't know. I do know that I'm ready to get the hell off this gorramn rock. Wanna help?"
River looked into his eyes and saw the olive branch he offered. She smiled at him happy to realize that he hadn't forgotten about love. How could she have thought that when everything Darry did was meant to keep them together?
"I suppose you remember how to take her out?"
She nodded, her smile growing even broader. She wanted to fly. Fly like a butterfly or a ladybug, or a firefly. "Can't."
Mal eyebrow rose in surprise. "Care to fill me in on why not?"
"Jayne and Inara aren't back yet."
"What?" He exclaimed, quickly standing. "Where'd they go?"
River shrugged taking the book back from Mal. She saw the ladybug flying toward the bridge and wondered why she didn't dream of fireflies.
"Zoë!" Mal bellowed, running up from the stairs. River followed him and the ladybug as he stalked to the dining area.
"Zoë, you know where Inara and Jayne are?"
"They ain't here?" Alarmed, Zoë set down the coffee pot she was holding with such force that the lid rattled.
"Kaylee! Simon!" Mal called into the com. "Get up here. Now."
"You two know where Inara and Jayne went off to?" Mal called out as they approached the dining room.
They both looked surprised at the information. "They ain't here?" Kaylee asked.
"Gorrammit! I'm ready to get the hell out of here."
The ladybug was flying over the Captain's head. River pointed to it and everyone in the dining area looked up to see what she was pointing at. She smiled unaware of their resigned looks.
"So they went to town," Zoë said, walking to the Captain. "What's the rush anyway?"
"You talked to Tito?" Mal asked, meeting her gaze.
Zoë sighed. She straightened even taller and looked at him steadily for a moment before speaking. "How low you plan on sinkin' us?"
"Thought we talked about this." His voice dropped.
"You did the talkin' but looks like I'm the only one doin' the thinking." She emphasized thinking.
"Zoë…" Mal began but was interrupted as Jayne came bounding into the room.
River's mouth fell open as she observed the big man practically skip over to the dining table. "See Jayne skip," she said to no one in particular.
"Problem solved folks!" Jayne was jubilant. With great satisfaction, he dumped a great deal of cash on the table. "We're back in business!"
Astounded, Mal and Zoë exchanged a quick glance.
"Jayne, how'd you come by this?" Zoë asked, sifting her hand through the money. "Do we need to get outta here quicklike?"
"No, Zoë. This is purely legitimate money. Earned mostly honestly and with alotta luck." Jayne smirked at everyone in the room.
"How?" Mal asked.
"This is Inara's money?" Mal's tone turned from wonder to dismay.
"Well," Jayne grinned. "Actually it was a coupla fellas money but it's ours now."
"What fellas?" Mal looked sick.
"You shoulda seen her. She was magnificent!"
Jayne looked at the Captain for a moment a knowing grin soon appeared. "Those guys didn't stand a chance. I tell you watching her was like watching an artist at work." He sat down pleased to have the undivided attention of everyone in the room.
"You watched?!" Mal was horrified.
"Hell yes!" Jayne leaned back and propped his feet on a chair. "Learned a few tricks, too," he said with a wink.
"Jayne, please," Zoë said pushing his feet off the chair. "Offer us some clarification."
"Poker," Jayne replied. His tone not as arrogant as before.
"Who poked her?"
"No, Mal. The game. Poker. Cards. Gambling. I tell you she is a natural."
"She won this money?"
"Is that a problem?" Inara called out as she walked into the dining room. "I assume you will take ill-gotten money of any kind." She paused, putting on an exaggerated contemplative look on her face. "Although, gambling is legal in this town. And I know how you frown on money earned legally." Inara winked at River.
"Can't take this," Mal said pushing the money in her direction. Charity. No. Can't. Yes. Weak.
"You should take the paper," she said softly. She picked up a bill from the table and turned it over in her hands smoothing it out. "They used to make these from trees." No one paid her any attention.
"I'll pay you back."
"Consider it payment for my room and board."
"Mal, please, just take it." Inara stared at him silently begging him to be reasonable. He stared at her until she turned and left. Kaylee followed her.
River rolled the bill into a tight cylinder. She held it up to her eye and looked at Zoë through it. Zoë turned away.
Mal walked over and took the bill from her. "Doing's like that ain't earning anyone's confidence."
River's chin rose slightly, "Yes, sir."
"Zoë, go give this to her." He threw down the bill on the table and gestured toward the money.
Mal cocked his head before turning to face Zoë. His expression was a mix of anger and disbelief.
"Ain't taking her money, Zoë!"
"Am I recollectin' correctly that not more than one week ago you were callin' on Inara for her freeloadin' ways?"
"I never said that!"
"I'm sorry," Zoë said, her voice sounding soft and deceptively contrite. "Must have been Simon that called her a 'destitute prostitute'."
Mal crossed his arms and glared at Zoë whose own gaze narrowed. They didn't notice Simon and Jayne quietly and quickly vacating the dining area. River, caught behind them in the galley, shrank back against the storage compartments making herself as invisible as possible.
"We don't take charity on my ship." He spoke slow trying to keep his anger at bay.
Zoë shook her head, any patience she had all but gone. "You won't take Inara's winnings that she went to some trouble to get for us but you'll jump at the chance to drag Kaylee into dǎi work?"
Mal continued to glare at her, his jaw tightening.
"Captain," Zoë walked closer stopping inches from Mal. She called him 'Captain' but River could hear 'Sergeant' in her thoughts.
Zoë raised her chin, taking a deep breath. "I will escort her off this boat myself if you follow through with this luàn xiàng."
Mal broke their gaze and River knew Zoë had won.
"I'm waitin' for you to be reasonable," Zoë said softly.
The glare faded from his eyes. "How long you been waiting on that?"
Zoë smiled with relief. "Long time, sir, long time."
Mal nodded. "Ok, then. Don't think I left Oklahoma too cold, did I?
"I suspect he's more interested in business than grudges."
"I think so, too," River piped in wanting to remind them that she was still in the room.
He looked over at River and smiled encouragingly but his reluctance to take Inara's money still hovered about him.
"Alright, let's seal this deal."
Inara and River sat outside Serenity waiting for Mal, Zoë, and Jayne to return from the meet with Oklahoma.
"I know what they're thinking!" River said, looking in the direction of Simon and Kaylee who loitered near Serenity's idle port engine.
Inara looked back at them. "I think everyone knows what they're thinking."
"I could have helped, you know," River said.
Inara paused, mentally calculating the abrupt subject change. "I know."
"You wouldn't have to bluff."
"Bluffing is fun."
"You wouldn't lose."
"No!" Inara patted River's arm to emphasize her position on River gambling.
Inara and Simon must have anticipated her request because he had said the same thing. It irritated her that her keeper of a brother would prevent her from helping the crew. She would be the best gambler ever. It wouldn't even be gambling…
River looked up abruptly at the sound of a gaggle of geese flying overhead. Maybe tonight she would dream of them and could fly point leading her flock to warmer climes. She and her geese friends would all take turns heading the great vee. Each taking a turn leading the way when the other dropped back for rest.
She watched them fly away until the roar of the mule replaced the sound of their distant honking. Mal, Jayne, and Zoë had arrived back at Serenity. They looked much happier than the last time they had pulled into the cargo bay.
Jayne hopped out of the mule. With great self-importance, he strutted over to Inara and offered his fist.
Smiling at River, she touched his fist with her own. "Did you get your money back?"
"I did," Jayne said patting his pocket. "If you want, I could try to get your bow back. That guy paid way less than it was worth."
"That's alright," Inara said quietly. River caught an orange flash from Inara as she thought about killing Reavers.
"Suit yourself," Jayne said shrugging out of his drab green jacket. "Told the Cap'n how much you got fer it. He'll give that back to you, at least."
He nodded to Mal who had approached them.
"So…you two buddies now?" Mal asked as Jayne walked off. Don't you have any idea what Jayne thinks of you?
"I suppose so." Inara leaned back in her seat. Renci de Fozu! Please tell me you aren't thinking that Jayne and I…
"Well, here's what Jayne said you sold your bow for." He handed her a small stack of cash. I hate giving her money. Not like it's that kind of money. This is her money. Not like we…
River watched their exchange fascinated. Of all the conversations that took place aboard Serenity, the Captain's and Inara's were by far the most interesting. They never said what they thought. Unlike Simon and Kaylee who said too much and thought too little when they were…otherwise engaged.
"Didn't mean for you to sell your bow." By the way, why exactly would she have a bow?
"Let's hope I won't ever have a need for that again." Have I ever done anything that makes anyone think I am at all interested in Jayne? It's Jayne. I know Jayne's interested in me. Well, not me me - he's interested in every woman he sees.
"Yeah." If that bow is some sort of client thing then I really don't want to know.
"Why did you have a bow?" River asked. Mal glared down at her. She shrugged at him.
"Just for fun." Inara's voice deadened imperceptibly. River glanced sharply at Inara whose mind had closed with an abrupt slam. Almost as if she had closed off a musty old attic room that contained loads and loads of forgotten junk. How did she do that? It was like she had just grown a flowering hedge of her own.
"Huh," Mal said. Keep outta my head, kid. Just don't think. How can I not think? She looks so pretty right now. Don't think that! Are you sending me a message? He looked at her suspiciously.
"No, Captain. I don't think I can do that." Your fly is undone! Your fly is undone! The Captain didn't react. Guess she really couldn't send messages but that would be really neat. The fun she could have with Jayne.
"Well, that's a comfort." I have to remember I'm mad at her but it's hard when she looks all pretty- beautiful even when she's looking at me like I'm an idiot. She can't know what I'm thinking not like YOU. Don't think. He shook his head and grinned at River giving her a wink.
River's eyes widened in delighted surprise. Jumping out of her seat, she beamed up at him waiting for him to say the words.
"Ready to chart us off this rock?"
"Aye aye, Captain." She hugged Inara, ran over to Simon and Kaylee, hugged them and then skipped up to the bridge.
River plotted Serenity's course but the Captain had taken Serenity out. That was alright with her - she could still feel the worry of everyone over her ability to stay focused on the task at hand. Even she didn't want the responsibility of having everyone's lives in her not quite sane hands. Not now but maybe soon. Her hedge was growing and the flowers were blooming.
"Good to have a job, little one, ain't it?" Mal said as they cleared atmo.
"Inara was helpful. You thought she --"
"Don't matter what I thought," Mal interrupted. "Should've known she was a gambler."
She sat next to him happy to be back in his good graces. They looked out the window not speaking. After some time passed, River began telling him about the story of The Outsiders and filling him in on all the important details. He leaned back in the pilot's seat and listened to her disjointed explanations.
"Have to go, Captain."
"My reading group awaits."
"Thought you finished it."
"I not them." She paused at the hatch. "Will you come listen?" She asked shyly.
"Got things to do, little one," he said, turning to the console.
She shrugged and strolled down to the common area. Simon, Kaylee and Inara were waiting for her.
She looked down at her audience and frowned. Kaylee was once again on Simon's lap. "No lap sitting," she said.
Kaylee slid off Simon's lap to sit between him and Inara on the couch. They all looked expectantly up at River.
"Well, whatcha waitin' for?" Kaylee asked.
Kaylee leaned back and snuggled closer to Simon. River rolled her eyes and gave them an irritated look. Kaylee gave her an irritated look right back.
The room was silent as they watched her watch them. River remained standing still for a few minutes until Mal came in.
He nodded to Simon and sat down on the chair next to Inara.
Kaylee beamed, throwing River a pleased look. "Cap'n, you don't know the story. River's readin' the last bit."
"She filled me in."
River stood straighter and opened the book. She practically had the thing memorized but she liked letting her eyes feed her brain. Her reading strengthened as she went on. She paused only a few times to admonish her audience. "Please stop playing with his hair!" "Captain, please look at me I'm the one talking."
She didn't let herself become too immersed in the story. She needed to be aware of her surroundings for River could see what the others couldn't. Jayne had wandered closer from his weight bench and stood at the door listening.
She tippy toed over toward the bulkhead next the stairs. On the other side, out of view, was Zoë. She was sitting on the steps listening, too.
River faltered in her reading. She was happy. Everyone was almost where they should be.