by Edmondia Dantes

Disclaimer: Joss Whedon's brainchildren.

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There's a joy to her when she's dancing, and after all they've been through, he finds that it's just not enough to sit back and watch in awe the way he used to, back when they were small and she was the star and pride of their home. (Their parents loved them both back then, he thinks, but sometimes - more often now than before - he doubts it. They never knew them after all, and it's always them, but that's okay, it might be better this way.) He'll never be as fast as she is, never be as brilliant, but that's all right. (Things change but stay the same, and in some ways he's the strong one now, and that's why older brothers are born first, to protect the ones that come after.)

It's sometime that's night - when isn't it, out in the black? - and he's not so long out of school that he can't remember the wildness of those nights when he was careless and free. (Laughing and playing and even drunk he remembers the smell of the flowers she crushed to make perfume.) The insomnia plagues them all, sometimes, and he's learned how to duck away into every nook and cranny he's found when he doesn't want to be seen. (Another gift from Kaylee, sunshine in the gloom, and he thinks he could love her someday.)

River dances in combat boots (sometimes she capitulates when he tries to coax them on her feet, sometimes not, but it's been a good day and she's not yet wandered off to bed) and oversized dresses, spinning in the cargo hold - empty again, pinched bellies all around, but at least they're all alive and relatively undamaged - and he strolls down the steps like he's not barefoot in pajamas, the metal grating on the soles of his feet. (His last pair of shoes, thin-soled and fading after so many months, were sold eight weeks ago for strawberries, a treat for River that the crew wound up splitting, and as ever he finds it's worth the new pain for the joy of that moment.)

She pauses mid-step when she sees him, but he's got the pattern now, and he bows like he was trained to do, so many years ago, on a warm evening in summer at a dinner party, smiling stiff-lipped at a stranger. (Everyone is a stranger now, everyone but the Us that was Them, and maybe this broken little family is better than the one that betrayed them, maybe maybe maybe.) River curtsies, well-bitten fingernails tugging at her skirt, and he steps forward and gives her a smile. She returns it, blinding and bright, and they whirl away, old-familiar and newly strange, and he always just a moment behind. (Moments are precious now, moments of joy a rare and beautiful treasure, and he knows that they will never be perfect again, never be what they were, and he mourns and he grieves and sometimes, precious sometimes, he rejoices.)

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