The first secret: the dinosaurs really do talk.
Deep in space means no such thing as night, means no such thing as bedtime. People sleep when their heads get fuzzy. River's head is always fuzzy; she doesn't take it personal. Doesn't trust the startling clarity of her dreams. She likes it when the others turn their brains off, though. She can finally stop listening and relax.
What no one realizes is that everyone's mind has flavour, texture, odour.
Mal is the bright tang of blood in the mouth, clammy sweat, gunpowder, leather. Fighting thoughts. War thoughts. He is at war with everyone, all the time, even his own self.
Zoe is a sword: steely, sharp, soundless. Deadly. Focused: a bullet can go off in any direction, but a skilled blade is bound to end up sliding into flesh. It's a wet sound.
Kaylee's mind is a fine place—thready and densely packed, but melting into sweetness, like cloud candy on the tongue. River had her first taste of cloud candy at Sky Plex—the sugar made her heart flutter, a tiny bird struggling to break free of her chest. When she said it tasted like Kaylee, though, everyone laughed, not understanding. Simon, absently combing sticky strands from River's hair, wondered if it might be true, which was exactly what Kaylee hoped he might be thinking. Jayne made a crude joke and everyone rolled their eyes. River is the only one who knows that sometimes he only says those things because he is expected to.
Jayne's mind is an engine—noisy, smelly, rudely mechanical, but mostly moves in a predictable pattern. He prefers to think only of his own body: keeping it safe and whole, cramming it full of food, making it stronger and faster, helping it feel good. He doesn't like to dwell on some of the things he's done. He knows his mother wouldn't approve.
Inara is a gulp of heated, perfumed oil, sliding down your throat. The oil has gold sparkles in it. River sometimes hides under Inara's bed. Other times she simply curls up inside one of the large, ornate trunks containing the Companion's clothes. Inara is wise enough not to question these visits, but simply accepts them for what they are: expressions of affection. Inara draws River out by singing her own mother's baby songs. She strokes River's hair and lets the girl lay her head, so heavy with cares, on Inara's knee. No one else knows that Inara sings.
Simon is a pebble, smooth and warm. She knows every inch. There are a few chips in the stone's surface, but they don't show on the side that faces up.
Wash's thoughts are feather pillows, drifting softly on a breeze—River feels as though she could curl up on one and fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. Wash's is a mind without any sharp edges or unexpected corners—only softness and comfort. A mind at peace with the world and his place in it. He usually only thinks about three things: flying, eating, and Zoe. Wash likes to fall asleep with his hand cupped around Zoe's breast. The right one. It's his favourite. He tells no one this, not even Zoe. He thinks that she would be angry. He pretends that his hand just landed there accidentally, in a dream. Zoe does know, but she doesn't say anything. The secret is what's important. It's actually the second secret. The first is about the dinosaurs.
The dinosaurs are the voices in Wash's head. He makes them talk when he is alone, to keep him company, or to help him make up his mind about things. Sometimes they talk to him, sometimes to each other. No one thinks it the least bit odd. For some reason, plastic dinosaur voices-in-the-head are less crazy than the regular type.
When she can't sleep, which is frequently, River sometimes visits Wash in the cockpit. They don't talk much; she just likes to sit a spell, knees folded to her chest, head on her arms, and rest her weary brain amid a field of his gentle thoughts.
River likes it when Wash makes the dinosaurs talk. He makes them all sound different—which is fitting, as they have different personalities.
Once in a while River talks to Wash through the dinosaurs. She never uses the stegosaurus, though. That one is his favourite, and she respects that. She has favourite toys, too, and special quiet places where she likes to hide. She knows Wash would understand.
Wash is puzzled by River, but not really frightened. When she dips into his thoughts, she can see herself as she appears to him: a doll filled with sawdust and intricate clockwork innards, her workings off-kilter, tiny movement parts missing, stolen. He pictures Simon as a watchmaker, piecing his toy sister back together with an eyeglass and miniature tools.
Sometimes, Wash lets River co-pilot for him. She is careful not to mention this to Simon; she suspects—correctly—that he would be angry, and would restrict her time in the cockpit. Or, worse still, he would insist on hovering over her every moment she was there, worry hammering through his anxious brain, and she would have lost one of her best quiet places.
The second secret is the stowaway on board. It is such a private secret that even Zoe doesn't know it yet, though she has begun to suspect. She doesn't want to tell Wash until she is certain; she knows that he doesn't want any child of theirs born into this hardscrabble existence, living off of the takings of crime before it's even out of the womb. Zoe, on the other hand, is fierce with want for a baby, and she doesn't share Wash's optimism about one day being able to leave this crooked life. Who knows when such a day might be?
Wash doesn't know, although he has noticed that her right breast has gotten slightly larger. He doesn't wonder about these things; he simply accepts them.
One night, River cradles the tyrannosaurus rex in the palm of her hand and decides she can't take it anymore. She has to tell Wash the third secret.
"Nice flyin' weather," Wash remarks.
"He's going to die," says the T-Rex to the stegosaurus.
The pilot shakes his head. "Steady, now." Wash thinks of everything in terms of flying. Like the skies, River has her moods. Best to ride them out. He knows she can't help it—Simon explained it once. Something in her brain was either stolen, or switched off, he can't remember which. He will call Simon for help if she gets too ruffled. It never occurs to him that this girl could snap his neck like a twig if it took her fancy.
"Soon," says the T-Rex, in a gravelly girl-voice. "Here. He'll die here." Sometimes she hears the sound in her dreams—the wet, squishy thud of Wash being impaled.
"Steady," he repeats, patting her knee consolingly. "No one's doing any dying today."
Her whole being aches. She concentrates as best she can, through the noise and distractions in her brain, but the words just won't come. "A leaf," she says finally, in her own voice now.
"You are a leaf. On the wind." Gone in an instant—swept away, dried to dust, crushed underfoot.
He grins. "That's actually kinda poetic. I like it. I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar."
"And then you die."
Wash shrugs. "We all die someday. I'd be lucky to pass while doing what I love. Passengers might be something put out though." He chuckles. "All right, that's enough talk about dying. Let me show you a little trick I've been working on—do you know what a nav-sat is?"
She nods, and he starts to explain his project, the dinosaurs interjecting with questions at crucial moments. He is patient, kind, inventive. This is the sort of father he would have been.
He pays no mind when River starts to weep. She'll gentle soon, and then she'll have a rest. He still can't fathom why she's taken to him so strong, but he has no objections to her company.
She knows he doesn't understand, and won't, until it's too late. But maybe… if she thinks on it hard enough… she can prevent the others from dying too.