Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox again.
Note: Immediately follows the events of "Fractured" in a continuing Mal/River storyline. Many thanks to Midnight Obsidian, for the use of his wonderful characters, the crew of the Hit or Miss.
Adam sat at the galley table, swinging his legs as he worked on a new drawing. River, ever graceful, slid into the chair beside him with the faintest whisper of fabric against wood. Adam's legs abruptly stilled, the only evidence that he was aware of her presence.
River sat motionless for a time, her mind whirring with the impossibility of the conversation she needed to have with her son. How to handle the tender, new scars marring Adam's innocence in the aftermath of his connection with the little boy who in actuality had been a grown man and, unfortunately, a psychotic killer as well? Though she had no frame of reference as to what other mothers must deal with in their children, somehow she could not imagine a thornier problem than the one she faced with her Reader child now.
Slowly, she became aware of a slight presence in her psyche, skimming along her thoughts with the faintest of scratches. She turned large, liquid brown eyes to look at Adam in surprise. "Are you reading me?" she asked in astonishment.
Adam blushed, caught out by his wily mother. "Maybehaps, a little," he offered by way of a half-hearted admission.
River blinked slowly, mentally fingering Adam's presence in her thoughts gently. "It's not polite to read other people without their permission," she said quietly, though she did nothing to bar his intrusion just yet.
Adam had heard this same statement from her ever since it had become evident that he was indeed a Reader like his mother. And, up until now, he had taken it as a given. But something had changed forever for him with the nightmares that had wormed their way into his sleep, the nightmares of another child entirely visited upon him viciously night after night until recent events had abruptly stopped them.
"Why?" he asked, the barest hint of a challenge in his voice.
River sighed, knowing that she herself had often wondered at the ethical issues involved. If one was naturally endowed with the ability to see into the thoughts of others, was it actually wrong to use one's native abilities? People without the gift used their own perceptive powers to understand the 'verse around them, did they not? It was an old argument, a puzzle that she herself could not quite come to peace with. Clearing her mind of her own doubts before they could be easily read by her son, she said with an assurance she scarcely felt, "Because it can cause all manner of trouble to everyone involved."
Adam's brow wrinkled. "But sometimes it can help folks," he insisted. "Like the time I could find Daddy in the snow when the shuttle crashed."
"Yes," River conceded. "But that was an emergency, and it called for….unusual methods."
Half-formed shame flickered behind Adam's eyes, and River resisted the urge to do exactly what she had just told him not to do and pluck the thoughts from his mind. "It ain't normal, is it?" he asked in a small voice. "Bein' like us, I mean."
"'Normal' is a difficult concept to define," River replied. "There is no shame in having an extraordinary ability, Adam. And you, baby mine, have many extraordinary abilities." She smoothed the ever-present cowlick at the crown of his sandy brown hair.
Adam leaned into the softness of his mother's touch, needing desperately at just that moment to be reassured that he was not horribly different from other children. He slid out of his chair and into River's lap in one fluid motion.
River's arms encircled him and held him close. "Your unusual talents are not the sum of who you are, Adam," she whispered into his hair. "They are only a part of what makes you so special."
"Don't want to be special," he murmured, unable for the moment to look into his mother's sad eyes.
River smiled, tucking the sliver of heartache his words invoked away for later contemplation. "That's too bad," she said. "Because you are special, even without the ability to read people's thoughts."
"Am not," Adam said forlornly.
River pulled away from him, forcing him to look up into her eyes. "Are too," she insisted.
"Well," River began. "You are very brave, maybe the bravest little boy I have ever known. And you are kind, a trait that not everyone in the 'verse can claim."
Adam took a deep breath. "Everybody on Serenity is brave," he said dismissively. "Even Hannah, and she's just a little baby."
"Perhaps," River agreed. "But bravery is not a trait that is all that common in the general population. And kindness is even more elusive."
Adam rested his head back against his mother's breast. "Captain Marcus killed that man, didn't he?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject to the one River had originally needed to discuss with him.
"Yes," she answered directly. "He did."
"And then that boy, the one in my dreams….he was just….gone," Adam said softly. "Where did he go?"
River took a deep breath, tempted to simply tell Adam an easy lie. But she resisted the urge, knowing he deserved as reasonable an answer as he could understand, considering what he had been through. "He died as well," she said gently.
Adam jerked upright. "Captain Marcus killed him too?" he asked, shocked at the thought that the man he considered a friend could do such a thing to a child.
"Adam," River said somberly. "The little boy whose thoughts you could feel was not really a little boy at all."
"What do you mean?" Adam asked, slightly agitated.
"The man who took your father and Elizabeth was…..sick. He was mentally unbalanced."
Adam stared at her in wide-eyed confusion. She went on. "Sometimes, when something terrible happens to someone, it affects his ability to function rationally. And occasionally…." She paused for a moment, to be sure Adam would pay attention to her next words. "….Very rarely, the horrible thing that happens might make a person's mind splinter…..sort of like wood broken into pieces for a campfire. And some of the pieces of his mind might stay the age he is, while other pieces grow into manhood and make him become someone else entirely."
Though Adam was gifted with River's intelligence, the concept was almost out of reach of his young mind. "Like…another person?"
"Sometimes several other people," River said, relieved that he seemed to at least grasp the basics of what she was saying. "So, the little boy that you read was not still a little boy, but was actually one of the splintered pieces of the man's mind."
"But he was not a bad boy," Adam said slowly. "He was scared all the time. He didn't want to be where he was. He wanted to…..to get away from the monster."
River nodded sadly. "But he could not get away, because he was the monster, even though he did not know it."
"And then he died," Adam whispered, tasting the words on his tongue gingerly.
"Yes," River said.
"That wasn't fair," Adam replied softly.
"No," River admitted. "It was not."
They sat silently for a long time, both immersed in their own thoughts. Finally, Adam spoke again. "Wasn't there any way to save the boy?" he asked wistfully.
"I don't know," River answered honestly. "But Captain Hazzard did what he did to protect as many innocent people as he could. The man who took your father had killed many, many people. And the boy had not been able to stop it from happening. He was not strong enough to fight the grown man."
Adam nodded, shuddering slightly at the memory of what the boy had seen. "He was a very bad man," he said.
Adam shifted uncomfortably in River's lap, unable to reconcile the feelings roiling within him just yet. "Will I dream of him again?" he asked, his voice trembling around the edges.
"I hope not," River said gently. "But if you do, you will know that it is only a dream. Nothing more. And nothing that can hurt you, or the people you care about. Dong ma?"
Adam nodded, acknowledging the reassurance. He thought about it for several minutes. "Why do you suppose the boy….picked me?" he asked finally.
"I don't believe that he did," River answered gently. "I think that he was not aware of you at all. He was frightened, so very frightened that his mind was calling out to someone…anyone….across the 'verse. And you were simply the one that heard."
"But you did not hear him," Adam observed.
"No, I did not," she confirmed. "I think he was calling out to someone…like him, someone young and impressionable like him. I could only sense fragments of the man, never the little boy." When Adam frowned, she admitted, "I don't know why."
"Did you….see what the man was doing?" Adam asked hesitantly.
"Just glimpses," River answered. "His mind was very….slippery. Splintered into too many parts for me to follow coherently."
"But I could follow the boy," Adam said.
River smiled softly. "Perhaps you are a more powerful reader than I am," she suggested.
Adam's eyes widened at the novel thought. "Is that a good thing?" he asked doubtfully.
"It can be, I believe," River replied calmly. "It might mean that you will be able to more successfully control what you read. And that can only be a good thing. Because, like any gift you have or tool you use, you need to be able to control it if possible. Does that make sense?"
"Uh huh," he said, absorbing her words carefully. "So….how do I do that?"
River smiled her encouragement. "We can practice," she said. "Just you and me. We will build walls and take them down. We will learn together. All right?"
Adam nodded eagerly, pleased and relieved to have some way to cope with the new emotions that he'd been exposed to in his nightmares. Feeling the sudden burst of hope shining in her son like a beacon, River said softly, "Let's begin, shall we?"
To be continued