Disclaimer: None of the characters described herein belong to me. Take no offense and hire no lawyers. Or, as I've gleaned is customary for fic of this nature... Joss is Boss.

Everyone on Serenity is mislabeled, and it irritates River endlessly—like an itch she can't quite scratch or a stray thread tickling at her skin. Nomenclature, etymology, anthroponymy… these things are important. The constants are treated like variables, and solving for x would be so easy if only they would let her.

The Shepherd may be named Book, but it's Kaylee who is easy to read. She's open and dog-eared from years of affection and half-awake perusal; warm and comfy like bedtime stories. When she's happy, River can feel it at her very core, bubbling in her belly like champagne—Kaylee's effervescence buoys the whole ship. And when she's sad, well… when she's sad, it feels like the entire 'verse is broken. But it never lasts long. Kaylee still believes in fairy tale endings, and pretty dresses that turn mechanics into princesses, even if just for a night. She loves like breathing and loves Simon most of all, and somehow that's enough.

Book, on the other hand, is no novel—as guarded as Kaylee is plain. Books are supposed to have plots; even the mysteries have clues to follow, puzzles to solve. But the preacher is a book where you've started in the middle, and everything he says is a quote out of context. She giggles when she thinks of the old adage her mother used to say: "don't judge a Book by its cover." And it's probably for the best that his past stays buried… like his hair, his secrets aren't meant to run wild—else they halo him and overwhelm the man he's become. She likes him better tied back, anyhow.

Jayne, at least, is easy; like so much of him, his inconsistency is right on the surface. Girl's name for the hired gun, a joke too easy to be quite called irony. (She'd told him as much once; got them both in heaps of trouble.) There is nothing effeminate about the mercenary: even his love for his mother is boyish—messy and uneven and unconditional. Simon thinks he's dangerous, but River knows better. His loyalty doesn't stretch much further than his meager pay, but it does stretch—further and farther every day. She watches it happen, and he grumbles at her when she smiles like she knows something. He doesn't want the others to catch on. Mostly she respects that.

Wash tried to fix his name, which she appreciates. It's clear to everyone that he's not a Hoban Washburne at heart. But he's not a wash either; he's bright bursts of color, Hawaiian shirts and dinosaurs on the dashboard. Sometimes he tries too hard to wash things away—tense moments when the crew doesn't agree, or the tales of war that follow Zoe and the Captain around like ghosts, putting lines on their faces and keeping money from their pockets. She appreciates him for trying, but knows too well that certain things, no matter how painful, should be left alone. (Erasing too hard rips the paper, yet the smudges of old stories still remain. It's never as clean as you want it to be.)

Zoe herself is stubborn to the point of absurdity, which is amusing in its own way—that such a steadfast warrior could be so hilariously wrong about such a minor thing. She kept her last name when she got married, but it's obvious it doesn't fit her anymore. She holds Alleyne close to her like a shield, one last defense—an unenthusiastic, just-for-show effort—to keep Wash away from the deepest corners of her heart. Absurd. Everything about her screams that she is His, from the tension between her shoulders that keeps her posture straight to the lace around her neck that says so much more than a ring. But River doesn't worry. Denying Wash is like denying gravity—Zoe can hold out as long as she wants; she'll fall back into his orbit every time. It's simple physics.

The Captain tried to fix his name too, and she doesn't appreciate that nearly so well. She remembers her French (though she can't recall if it's her French to remember); "mal" is "bad," and it's just one more piece of armor, a mask to protect the man he used to be. She counts them sometimes, makes it into a word game: malcontent, maladjusted, malicious, maladroit, malevolent… he puts on mal in layers and hides himself in them. It makes him a very good smuggler but not a very good person, so he surrounds himself with the pieces that he's lost, the crew roster reading like a list of luxuries he no longer affords himself—trust, innocence, arrogance, lust for life. She doesn't worry about Zoe, but she does worry about the Captain, sometimes. That he'll burrow so deep into Mal that he'll forget the soft underbelly the armor's supposed to be protecting.

He and Inara are too much alike, in that way. River asked her about her name once. She'd said it was Arabic—that it translated into something like illuminating or shining. River isn't sure if she believes that, but Inara does, which is enough… and they both know that her light is slowly going out. Zoe may be stubborn but Inara is proud, which is another thing altogether. Companions, after all, are defined by their secrets—mystery and allure hand in hand with silence, and even if Inara thinks withholding the truth is different from lying, River isn't so sure. The truth fights to get out of River, all the time, only she's forgotten how to tell it right and it all comes out encrypted. Keeping unpleasant truths in and letting them fester when you have the choice to speak… it's anathema to her; baffles River and breaks her heart. (And the Captain is too used to fireflies, teasing creatures that flicker for their own amusement and are more fun to chase than to catch—he won't see until it's too late.)

Simon is the most frustrating—a tangle of almosts and half-truths. When they were younger, she'd called him Simple Simon… they hadn't had a sibling rivalry so much as sibling hegemony. She shined brighter without trying, reigned sovereign over their playthings and finished his homework for fun. Now her life is Simon Says, an endless loop of do this, try that, forget and go to sleep, wake up and remember. And she doesn't mean to tantrum but she has to lash out, because she does remember, she knows this is not how the game was played. She tries to be good for him, wants to be like she used to be but that means she has to be in charge, be the one in control. He was always the nurturer but never the leader, and it chafes.

Book's Bible has him all wrong, too… or maybe too right. There was more to fix than false physics and mistaken allegory. Simon, from the Hebrew: "he has heard my suffering." She went to Sunday school (or parts of her did), she knows the parables and chapters. Knows the story of Simeon: how his sister Dinah was raped, and how he and his brother burned down the world for her, reaping bloody vengeance on the whole city of Shechem; they killed all the men they could find in defense of her stolen honor. But Simon has never been a slaughterer of men, nor was he meant to be—she can feel the cracks and fissures in his soul, a break in his spirit for every life he's ever lost under his knife. Doctors can't be killers, so Genesis had to be fixed. She also knows the story of Simon of Cyrene, the layman forced to bear Jesus's cross. That one hits a little too close to home. She knows she's a burden on him, that he's sacrificed everything for her and would do it again in a heartbeat. She's not so selfish that she wouldn't change things, if she could—so Mark, Luke and Matthew had to be corrected as well.

It doesn't occur to her, really, to consider herself, but she's just as poorly named as any of the others. It wasn't always so—she'd been a river once, flowing and graceful. Coherent, powerful, steady. But they put a dam in her, blocked her up, and only the tiniest streams of what she used to be can seep through the holes in the dyke. These trickle-through days are few and far between, though, so she finds other things to be in the meantime. Some days she's the ocean and some days she's the black, but she hasn't been a River in years.

(And if she isn't to be River, then she wishes to be stone—but if wishes were horses, we'd all be eatin' steak she can't control the things she becomes.)

So she fixes the Bible when the Shepherd isn't looking and switches the labels on the cans in the pantry… small things she can do in a 'verse full of can'ts. It helps her itch less; makes easier to deal with the last and most paramount paradox—Serenity herself. The firefly ship with a name like a prayer, named after the battleground where the Captain lost his faith. It is home and chaos and sanguine struggle, and late at night when the others dream too loud and begging does nothing (wo xiang mei er, mei xin, bian shi tou… please, God, make me a stone) she repeats its name like a litany: Serenity, serenity, serenity.

On some nights it works, and perhaps that is the biggest contradiction of all.

A/N I started this story in December of 2006, when I watched Firefly for the first time. It has sat in my hard drive, half-finished, since then. Completing and posting it is kind of surreal, and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, on and off, for the past three years.