There was that look in Simon's eye again, and she always knew what it meant.
"May I be excused to finish studying?" she asked her mother politely.
Mrs. Tam nodded.
"As soon as you eat your carrots, River."
River scowled, but stuffed the remaining carrots into her mouth in one go. With a cheeky smile, she hopped down from the table, and raced away.
As soon as she got to her room, she started laying out the supplies. A heavy sweater, a blanket, a flashbulb.
Simon came into her room 15.4 minutes later.
"You know we have to wait till they've gone out, right?"
"Mother wants to get there early. She wants to gossip with her friends before the show starts," River said. She could usually 'read' her mother's shallow emotions pretty well. Her mother was an open book. Simon was too, most of the time. It was her father that that took some concentration to understand. His emotions were quiet, a rumble in the back of his mind that River had to strain to hear.
Simon sat down on her bed.
"We'll wait till they're gone, and then go to bed early. I'll say I have homework, and you can pretend you're a baby that has an early bedtime."
"Sukie isn't a very bright maid," River agreed.
River wasn't very good at waiting. She let Sukie put her to bed, but jumped out immediately after the door was closed, and changed back into her warm clothes. Then, she paced the room, waiting for Simon. It was 10:32 – 2 minutes after he had promised! – when he quietly opened her door. He tucked the blanket under his arm, and handed the flashbulb to her.
Sneaking out of the house was easy. Simon knew all the back ways, and River helped by telling him when someone was coming. They made it to the lawn without a lot of trouble, and giggling they raced each other down to the brook. It was far enough away that the light from the house wouldn't bother them.
Simon laid the blanket down on the bank, and flopped down on it. River lay beside him, and they both stared up. The only sound was their breathing and the babbling of the stream.
"Bet you can't name all the constellations," Simon said.
"Bet I can. The Ship, the Tree, the Seven Sisters, Gilgamesh's Purse, the Umbrella, Lacuna, the Three Fates, the Cat, and the Lazar Spanner." She pointed to them each in turn.
Simon just laughed.
"You're such a know-it-all, River."
"You should know better than to bet I can't do things," River replied. She looked up again, at the dots of brilliance in the velvety night. "You know what they look like?"
"What?" Simon asked.
"They look like the diamonds on Mother's necklace. The one Father gave her when I was born."
"Do you want someone like Father to give you diamond necklaces, River?" Simon asked, concern in his voice.
"I won't go off and get married and leave you, Simon," she said.
"I don't mind if you get married some day," Simon amended. "I'll just miss you."
River reached out and took his hand.
"We'll always be best friends, ok?"
"Ok," Simon agreed. His attention shifted back to the brilliance above them. "You should pick one."
"One star. The brightest one."
River considered this.
"Bright is a comparison to how close the star is to Osiris," she said.
Simon gave her hand a playful squeeze.
"Just pick one!"
"Ok," said River, pointing. "That one."
"Ok, now make a wish on it."
River looked sideways at him.
"It's an old Earth-That-Was myth. When you wish on a star you dreams come true. I read it in my book today."
"Ok," said River. She closed her eyes, and wished.
The Cat. The Umbrella. The Seven Sisters.
They were all there. No denying it. No pretending otherwise. Just like with Simon, she could see them.
Randomly dispersed light patterns making shapes. It was the same. The very same as the cracks on the ceiling. Making patterns out of chaos.
The stars were elsewhere, too. In the minds of the men with white labcoats and blue gloves who cut and cut and cut. It was there, burning out of their eyes. But they weren't Mother's diamond necklace, they were angry balls of fire and there was no Simon to hold her hand.
Simon. Where's Simon? Simon would make this better. Simon! Simon! SIMON!!!!
The cracks were becoming more visible, the patterns more easy to spot. Did they think she was an idiot? Did they think she couldn't work out the algorithms required to solve the pattern?
The Ship. The Lazar Spanner. Gilgamesh's Purse.
Connections and connections and connections.
They were all connected.
Hard mattress on the floor, but she doesn't mind, the girl in the bed. She can see the stars.
And one day they're GONE. The hands-of-blue take them away from her because they can see, with their fire eyes, they can see that the stars help keep her a girl, and not a puppet on strings. So they take the stars away, and it's just cracks in the ceiling again.
They've fallen, they're all falling. Falling stars.
Why wouldn't she search for them? Why wouldn't she look for her mother's missing necklace? Tear everything apart. Search under every rock. Did you check behind the dresser? Did you look in all your pockets?
"Are you worried that I cut up my mattress for no reason, or that I had a perfectly good reason that you can't see?"
Serenity was in sleep cycle. Dark, quiet, restful, the only sounds being the hum of the engine as it propelled the ship forward. It was Mal's favorite time. Just to be alone with Serenity, without any crisis interrupting. Slowly, Mal made his way from the kitchen to the cockpit, mug of tea in hand.
It was dark and silent, but somehow, he wasn't surprised to see River there as well, curled up in the co-pilots chair. She'd been spending more and more time there lately, staring out the viewscreen. Seemed to him she was trying to drown her troubles in the Black. And while the Black was a good listener, it wasn't much for advice.
"Sometimes listening is enough," River murmured
Mal shook his head, and slid into the pilot's chair. He never could get used to River plucking the thoughts right out of his head.
"Can't help it," River defended herself. "You think so loud."
"What're you thinking about, Albatross?" Mal asked, stretching his long legs out under the console.
River pulled her knees up to her chin, hugging herself.
"Stars," she answered, nodding towards the Black. "You can always see the stars on a ship."
"S'what I like about bein' on my own boat," Mal said. "You can always look out at them stars whenever it pleases you. See light n' high beauty that nobody can touch. Means hope, them stars. You look at them n' you know – evil can't win forever."
"There are Reavers among the stars," River reminded him.
Mal shook his head.
"Even their crazy can't taint 'em."
"Among the jewels but the jewels aren't touched," River murmured. "Part of Mother's necklace, in between the diamonds." She fell silent, as if considering this for a moment.
Mal let his eyes drift back to the viewscreen.
"Simon used to tell me to wish on a star," River said, breaking the peace that had settled over the two of them.
"What'd you wish for?" Mal asked.
"Not this," River replies, putting her cheek on her knee. "But maybe if I had known Serenity was here, I would have wished for it."
"Ain't never much taken with wishin' on stars," Mal said. "Even when I was a boy on Shadow, mostly just wanted to visit 'em. Tis a right pleasure to fly with them. Man can be free out here in the Black. Room to breathe, to expand. Ain't nobody holding you back out here."
"A star is a massive ball of plasma held together by gravity that releases energy through thermonuclear fusion," River said in a sing-song voice. "It doesn't signify."
"Ain't what I star is, Li'l Albatross," Mal said. "Tis only what a star is made of."