The tapestry of pictures glowed amber and carnelian and gold with hints of colored topaz and emerald and sapphire and ruby, incandescent with beauty and joy and hope. But it was in an out-of-the-way nook, shuffled to the side, unnecessary to the ship's most basic functions, pretty but ultimately useless.
She ghosted through the passageways, the corridors, up descending staircases and down ascending steps, drifting without anchor, flitting from place to place. Told to stay out of the way, shuffled away from the day-to-day tasks, unnecessary to the functions the crew saw carried out—pretty but ultimately useless.
Inara was leaving, the desert retreating before the winds of change and fate, all her passion and conviction swirling about, tearing down intimidating dunes to nothing but particles of sand, lost to the sky. The captain's serenity wavered and flickered in and out like a candle, glowing still but more out of habit than any force of will, defeat tasting like ash and blood in his mouth, making him remember that he'd never really left Serenity Valley.
River watched them, listened to both the spoken and the unspoken, but they didn't see her, each a self-contained world, neither one willing to compromise. They didn't hear her own thoughts, didn't hear her advice or observations voicelessly uttered, could not see what she did. And so she ghosted on, a spirit ethereally moving from place to place, incorporeally passing through walls and minds alike.
Book nurtured the extra stars birthed within him even as he pretended he didn't notice the growing obsidian velvet on which they lay, turned all his efforts to pricking stars in the skies of the others around him, eager to pass on the silence and quiet of the faith he'd found, the Black enfolding and encircling the rough and simple towns that were Jayne. An odd kinship there, the city confined to land and the night sky that awoke imagination and inspired courage, alien to one another yet each completing the other.
They did not notice the moon between them, did not give thought to the tiny celestial body that was not important enough or large enough to become a star. So on she drifted, moving, always moving, never still, never stayed, always in eternal, restless orbit.
The mountains and the ocean needed no other, absorbed one in the other, the caressing shores and verdant valleys both beginning to whisper hints of a tiny baby brought to the 'verse like the one River herself had helped Simon bring out from its nurturing hiding place inside its mother, beginning to build nests and carve out warm places in the sun-bathed sand. Zoë and Wash were alone in their world, and even River knew she was an intruder on their islands, knew she was not welcome amid their murmured laughter and treasured dreams and soft kisses, knew she did not belong.
She fled their presence, affected more than she liked, eager to escape the feelings that rose in her at the sight and sound and feel of their open, unbounded love and their willingness to think of the future and their propensity for happiness. It was too alien for her, too alluring, too enthralling, and so she hurriedly removed herself from the temptation.
And then there was Kaylee…and Simon. Once, it had been Simon and River, but now it was Kaylee and Simon, leaving River once more alone and unnecessary, no longer half of a whole, now just a half missing a piece. If she wept, she knew, Simon would come for her, and if she screamed, he would comfort her, and if she laughed, he would laugh with her. But there was, now and always, a piece of himself that was no longer defined by River, but by Kaylee, the moon outshone by the sun, her glory dimmed in comparison. It was impossible to envy the sun, though, not when Kaylee laughed and played with her and triumphed over fear and trauma to brush out River's hair and tease her about things River might have once known about but now had only rudimentary knowledge of. Impossible to begrudge the stone his happiness when he'd been cold so long and now flourished with tiny green sprouts unfurling between the cracks and folds of rock, basked in the warmth the sun could freely give him and the moon had never been able to deliver.
She could not be angry, but it hurt nonetheless. Hurt because she had only one thing to call her own in the whole 'verse and now it was no longer hers alone, shared out between the two, and she had already seen how hard it was to be stretched between two beloved things, seen how the captain chose Serenity every time, unable to let go of it to reach out for Inara, left unhappy and unfulfilled and discontented.
It terrified her to think that would be Simon's fate, and yet…and yet she could not let him go. She needed him. She wanted him. She loved him.
Yet still the words would not come.
So she left Kaylee and Simon to each other and moved on, this time feeling the pain of removal and isolation, leaving behind a piece of herself there, tucked up still beside his heart, ready to catch the dry tears he shed over her when she screamed through the night and slept uneasily during the day and shied away from the blue-white-silver place he so loved.
She drifted, alone and unnecessary and cut off from the rest, which was ironic enough to make her laugh had she been so inclined—the one who could see into everyone's minds and hearts was the one alone. She who was most connected was the most disconnected of all. She could have laughed, but she didn't. All her laughter was left behind in Simon's pocket.
There was another voice, though, crowding her out and invading her places of refuge. One that was unfamiliar to her. One that hummed and murmured in a low bass that sent shivers up and down her spine. She couldn't quite catch the distinct words of the thought, could only feel a deep sense of uneasiness. He was a predator stalking his prey, a mind fixated on cold and sharp and pain. A mind that looked at a tool and saw only a method of intimidation—his voice, his words, his presence, any object he saw, anything and everything. It was a terrifying mindset, brutal in its simplicity, more savage than Jayne's rounded thoughts on his own weapons and wants. And yet it was also incomprehensible, almost absurdly flawed, and so deeply vulnerable in its lack of complexity, its overarching blindness.
"It's just an object," she told the voice. "It doesn't mean what you think."
But she didn't mean what they thought either, and so they tore the object away from her and forbade her from touching it. It was a simple command, and wholly unnecessary for already she had been forbidden from touching anything outside herself, from reaching fully past the bars that chained her to the shattered remnants of her mind to touch the others. She could flow through them, incorporeal and ephemeral, but intersecting with them physically and wholly was impossible for her now.
Their thoughts and dreams and sins drowned her without context, engulfed her in meaningless phrases and incomprehensible insecurities and too-powerful emotions, all of it swirling all about her until she thought she would go mad, or maybe she already had and they were all simply the results of a fevered mind shattering and speaking in eight different voices, overshadowing her until there was only a tiny pinprick of darkness-tainted light still left to be River. What was real and what was imagined? It was so hard to tell, so hard to pick out that which mattered and that which didn't.
She understood. She just couldn't comprehend it all.
"No touching," she agreed and fled, careful not to touch anyone, already rubbed raw without adding that physical bridge to her troubles. Simon's confusion and Kaylee's fear, up close and personal right before her, so different and altered from what they had been moments before, was too painful, and she avoided Simon's touch, avoided his eyes, avoided his rows and rows of comforting shelves. She dared not look at him and let the invader's thoughts taint his, dared not lead the predator to her brother.
"It's getting very, very crowded!" she warned them all, and then she hid, but there was no avoiding the whispers that echoed and resounded through the ship, carrying her name from room to room, through every corridor, past the nook hung with the pictures speaking of happier times, spiraling through the cargo bay and up to the bridge until Serenity was drenched in her name.
River, River, River…
It was, in a way, comforting, to hear her name, to recognize it as her own, to feel tiny bits of herself stitched into larger wholes with every rhythmic repetition. But in a larger, more important way, it was frightening and hurtful both because her growing awareness made it somehow her responsibility to stop hiding behind her brother and face up to the others, and also because the echoes of her name were shaded and adorned and painted with fear and uncertainty and surprise and distrust and wariness and a general, overriding aura of ambivalence. But there, laid beneath those shifting, writhing strands of emotion was a broad, vast canvas painted with deep overwhelming sorrow and protectiveness that were as familiar to her as the murmurs that constantly drifted all about her.
"She's just a kid," Simon said, and River recoiled from the enormity of his grief and the starkness of unwelcome truth. "She just wants to be a kid."
She was not the only one to flinch away from that statement, not the only one to look away and think desperately on other things. But in the end, it hardly mattered because it turned out there was just enough River left to feel something twisted and sharp pierce her deep inside.
Not a person.
It made sense. It fit. Not broken, really, just different. Alien. Something familiar taken and perverted, twisted…altered. And now…now there was only something other left where once had been sister/friend/ally.
Simon found her. He always found her, no matter where she hid, and despite all her knowledge of the scientific method, her testing still hadn't revealed to her how he was able to so unerringly follow her. Maybe he felt her presence in his mind, maybe it left tiny marks like a heat signature to trace back to her, or maybe he just knew her well enough to predict her. But then, that would require that she be the person he'd once known—that she be a person at all—and she was no longer certain of that, if she ever had been.
His footsteps rang through the grated steps, traveling across the metal, reverberating against her cheek and her palm and her stomach and her legs, all the way down to her bare feet. She pressed herself tighter against the metal landing, squeezed her eyes tightly closed, blocking out both the view down to the cargo bay far below her and whatever expression her brother wore. Beneath her, trapped between her ribs and the landing, her right hand was closed tightly, protecting the object held within its dubious protection.
Simon didn't say anything, not even her name, and the whispers that trailed everybody was muted almost to silence within him so that it almost seemed he brought a soothing cloud of focus and rest with him. She-who-had-been-River wanted to relax beneath that abstract atmo, but she couldn't allow herself to do so. She didn't deserve it, not if she wasn't really his sister.
And then he sat next to her, still mute, and set his warm hand on her back. He didn't coax her to rise, didn't tell her she needed to rest, didn't ask her how she felt. He simply sat beside her, gave himself that tactile proof that she still lived, his hand moving up and down with each of her breaths, calming himself with her presence as she so often was calmed by his presence. And River suddenly felt tears spring to her eyes, felt recognition of self flood back into her, felt relief and horror in equal measures.
"Simon," she whimpered, and she scrambled up into his arms, settling herself beside him, leaning into him, kept in place, fixed in existence, by the weight and warmth of his arm around her shoulders and the touch of his brow resting in her hair. Relief flowed between them, mutual, equal, matched so that it was impossible to tell who had initiated the emotion, which seemed fitting. Relief and affection and the awful, foreboding knowledge that this moment might be the last peaceful one they shared, that they needed to grab hold of it and savor it and store it up for all the coming days when Serenity might be taken from them, given so transiently as a glimpse of what they could have, should have, wanted to have, and then cruelly, unfairly snatched away.
"Simon, I would never hurt you," she breathed, left hand clutching a fold of his sweater, right hand curled up between them with its hidden cargo safely out of sight.
He made no reaction, no flicker in his thoughts, no rearranging of his rows of shelves, no movement of his body. "I never thought you would," he said simply.
And finally her tears slipped free as she burrowed deeper into his hold, gratified beyond even her own understanding at how he welcomed her embrace, relished her warmth as much as she craved his. Finally she allowed the dull, searing memories brought into the forefront by Kaylee's recitation to bob up into her consciousness. Not the decaying corpses planted there by blue hands, but three bodies dressed in black armor, helmeted and uniformed—why were they always uniformed?—their thoughts a blanket that disappeared like smoke with nothing more than the click of a simple object.
"They were just toy soldiers," she told him, the words bubbling up out of her now that someone was listening, all the words she might have wanted to say during their meeting if she had only known then that she was still real. "Toy soldiers just like before. Place an object in her hands, point in a direction—toy soldiers falling like dominos. Don't look, don't see, don't know. In and out, point and click, pain ends. Just a game—Kaylee was playing hide-and-seek and the dominos were out. We're doing such good work."
Sobs erupted into being within the pit of her stomach, forced their brutal way up her chest, climbed up out of her throat, and were released into the air only to be tamed and softened and gentled by the caress of her brother's fingers down her cheek, the tender way he tucked her hair back behind her ear, the steady beating of his heart, the lack of fear in his expression.
"Please, Simon," she begged him, "I don't want to remember what they said! Please take them out! Reach in and remove the poison, stitch up what's left, tie her together with bandages and pills. Just get rid of their words and their hands and their games! I don't want to remember—"
"Shh," he calmed her, his hand on her chin turning her to look at him through a curtain of tears. "We won't, River, we won't. We'll remember something else. Think back—before The Academy. Think of a good memory. Tell me what you remember."
For a long moment—or maybe it was only a short collection of seconds—she rested her head on his shoulder and thought very hard. Glass gleamed from a thousand different directions, in a hundred different shapes, colored with dozens of shifting shadows and reflections. They swam like fish, distance and form distorted by the dimension of water, always just out of reach, never more than a flicker at the edge of her awareness. It was exhausting, usually, to try to catch hold of a single thought or memory, but now, wanting so hard to capture something good, she made the effort and came away with a tiny snapshot of life before.
"The Independents attacked us with dinosaurs," she said, smiling as she examined every facet of the memory, holding it cupped in her hands like water that reflected back a wavering, blurry image of herself. "Cannibalism was our only option. Daddy came, granted wishes, basked in the approval, dreamed of the future."
"I remember." There was a smile in Simon's voice; River could see it without even looking up. "He let me have a dedicated source box. You wanted one too, though I'm not sure why since when you did get one, you still spent more time on mine than yours."
Another memory, darting after the previous one, a school of memory-fish swimming past her so that she could see them one by one. "Yours was in your room with you," she said simply, then frowned as the memory turned and let her see another angle of it. "You got in trouble when I used yours and Mother found out."
"And you stayed with me the whole week I was confined to my room. You brought games and paper and imagination and kept me company. I don't remember us ever laughing so much."
River hadn't remembered that, but it pleased her to know that Simon didn't blame her for getting him in trouble. That seemed an important concept, but the reason for it darted away too quickly for her to follow. Desperate, not wanting to slip back into the confusion of nothingness, she reached deeply for another memory, another anecdote that had happened, story that mattered, jokes that were funny.
"You gave me a present," she said slowly, unwrapping each instant of the past event like a luxury to be savored. "When you were leaving for MedAcad. A Telefonix all my own, with a number just for us so I could call whenever I wanted to. Parents laughed when they found out how much we talked."
"Who else was going to help me with my exams?" He nudged her with his shoulder, a mischievous sparkle in his eye that temporarily drew her out of the past memory long enough to stamp this moment in her mind for future replay. "Besides," Simon added more seriously, "everyone was always saying what a good brother I was to let you call so often, but I thought you were a good sister to let me call so much."
There were no more memories, but she didn't need them to think of something good, not when he was holding her so closely, looking at her that way, saying these things that made it seem he didn't regret at all having her for a sister. Gingerly, afraid of what she would find, River peeked into his mind, hesitantly explored the rows of shelves, searching for any hint that he was lying.
She found none.
"Your name was the first word I said," she murmured.
Simon laughed, and she tightened her hand over the object she held hidden, imbuing it with even more meaning than it already possessed. "Yes. I remember Mother being upset about it since my first word had been ba-ba; she had wanted yours to be ma-ma."
River glanced up at him curiously, wondering who he called Mother on the ship before realizing that he had misunderstood, had thought she referred to the first word River-that-had-been had said. She herself could remember the cold and the shock and the fear and the voices, the voices, the voices! And then Simon, touching her, calming her, soothing her, there. And she had said his name, and he hadn't disappeared, hadn't vanished, had stayed, had put his arms around her and told her she was safe.
And she had believed him.
Now he was the one afraid and shocked and overwhelmed, so sure that Mal would send them packing, that he'd have to start all over again without the sun or the Black or the desert or the ocean, without Serenity. She looked at him and wondered if he would believe her as easily as she had believed him if she told him that they were safe.
"Objects are only tools," she said softly, raising her empty hand to run a finger quickly and lightly across his face. "And people can't be objectified."
Simon's smile was slight but sincere and fond. "You're probably right, as usual, mei-mei."
They sat there in silence, then, but it was not the heavy, overbearing silence that sometimes haunted River's nights; it was a companionable, restful silence that eased the pressure of the others' thoughts, always present, hanging there like a thick cloud of smoke, yet held off by Simon, as if he were the oxygen mask that allowed her to breathe normally without being slowly poisoned.
A frown passed over River's features. Oxygen mask. There was something there, something linked to a bass voice that hissed ominously.
"Early," she whispered aloud.
Simon stirred and looked down at her. "More like late. Are you tired?"
She scarcely heard him, her eyes drawn away from him and down to the cargo bay below…the suits hanging there in their usual places.
"Tired," she lied, and smiled at Simon, keeping her right hand out of his sight.
She allowed him to lead her back to her bedroom, changed into the nightclothes Kaylee had found for her, let him come back in to fuss over her and settle the blankets around her as he did every night.
"I'm sorry, River," he said then, jerking her focus away from the parasite latched onto Serenity. "I promised you I'd find a way to keep the nightmares away, but I haven't, and now…now they may not let us stay here."
"Home," she said simply, and clenched her hand into a fist, crushing the object held within.
"I know." Simon looked away, shaded blue eyes reluctant to meet hers, a sense of failure coating his orderly boxes with dust. Then, with a surge of coiled lightning flashing and ridding the rows and rows of the dust, replacing it with determined purpose, he met her eyes. "I'll do my best to convince them to let us stay. The captain…I think he might. But, then, I'm never very good at guessing what he's planning."
River swallowed and picked her words carefully, spelling each one out in her mind and examining it to be sure it was the correct one before speaking it aloud. "We'll be all right, Simon."
The box where he had packed away his knowledge that she heard thoughts aloud, read minds like books, was suddenly in a more prominent position. He studied her closely, then nodded. "Okay, then. Good night, mei-mei."
Words couldn't be trusted—the odds were against her saying what she meant twice in a row—so she just trailed a feather-light caress down the side of his temple all the way down to his chin and fashioned a small smile for him. It was enough to make him relax; she could feel his muscles uncoiling a bit, see his thoughts unwinding, sense him slow his frenetic planning for what they'd do should they be sent away from Serenity.
But that wouldn't happen. River would make certain that Serenity was saved, that Simon would be able to stay aboard the ship he hadn't realized himself was where he belonged, that the crew wouldn't have to worry anymore about objects being made weapons.
She couldn't remember, for certain, whether she was an object or a person herself, but she was confident that she would remember in time for…well, in time.
When the lights dimmed in Simon's room and sleep blanketed his mind, River slipped out of her bed and padded barefoot down to the cargo bay, easily avoiding the captain as he made his way to his bunk, his thoughts a miasma of simpler and young kid and shouldn't be this hard to decide and saved Kaylee/could hurt Kaylee or Inara.
The Black welcomed her, though for a moment she was disoriented by the realization that she and the predator had switched places. He had slid into Serenity and was taking his place at her brother's side while she slipped into his ship and removed her helmet to breathe the air he had breathed earlier, recycled and cleansed and renewed. It was only temporary though, she thought, and anyway, this was a challenge posed her, a test of her skills.
She had forgotten how much she enjoyed a challenge, the games the mind played, the art of manipulation and strategy and moving pieces on a board and outthinking and outguessing an opponent. Something else they'd stolen from her, ripped away from her along with so much else. Something else she now reclaimed, just as she had begun relearning bits of everything else they'd stolen from her, piece by shard by memory.
It was a fun game, and almost laughably easy, and strangely freeing…until it wasn't. Until it was terrible and frightening and more threatening than even The Academy because at least there she had known Simon was free and safe, but now there was only emptiness and vulnerability and awful, crushing silence—so searingly empty of glib retorts, sarcastic comments, or gentle whispers—and frustrating, infuriating helplessness because she knew he was hurting and suffering and she couldn't get to him, couldn't touch him, couldn't heal him! He was there and she was here and it might as well have been infinity between them.
"Simon!" Every time she called his name, he came, bursting into her room to chase away the night terrors or dashing toward her call to help her remember who she was or stand between her and the others' clamoring thoughts. But this time, the only answer was a gunshot and her own scream rending the tiny atmosphere encircling her.
The gunshot. It wasn't a toy gun, he wasn't a toy soldier, and it wasn't a game at all; it was painful and heartbreaking and the scariest thing she'd ever faced except that she knew—knew because she knew Simon—that as long as he was still breathing and conscious, he wouldn't stop. She'd seen him, been in his mind as everything was pared down to essentials, as a vortex formed around his single-minded resolve, and she knew that was happening now, could see him standing and throwing himself after her dangerous plaything.
And then there was only her voice. Only her words. Only her stuttering, unreliable means of communication to think past the quicksilver adrenaline running through her veins and to keep Simon from shaking off the blows to his ribs and his face and his side and the hot-cold agony in his leg, setting it aside as unimportant so he could once more go after whatever threatened his beloved sister, heedless of the danger or his own safety or River's overriding plan, and she should have known, should have factored this into her plan, should have realized that Simon would not let her—object or person—go.
Only her voice to keep him still and calm his unconditional love's demand for unbelievable sacrifice.
Only her words and yet, even after all this time, she still hadn't been able to tell him the three simple words she'd been hiding, protecting, keeping close to her heart.
He was getting up again—she felt the flares of pain erupt anew all over his body as if his flesh were the sky lit by fireworks—and all she had to give him were the same words he'd given her every nightmare-soaked night, every tedious morning, every nausea-painted afternoon, every fearful or angry fit, every time the voices and secrets and terror-filled memories got the better of her. Unbeknownst to even her, she'd been storing up the words he'd given her, collecting them, planting them in the rushing river of her own mind, and now she drew them out, pebbles worn smooth and round and glistening with water and light, and she gave the liquid-curved stones back to him.
"Shh, shh, it's all right, I'm here. It's okay, it's all right, Simon, I'm here."
He was a knight, a prince riding to her rescue, heedless of the fact that she had been rescuing him and that he had no steed and no weapon and no reason to save her. Princes didn't save sisters, and they didn't get hurt saving them, and they didn't have to battle the same dragons over and over again to keep their wards safe. But Simon had never listened to the fairytales as intently as she had so he didn't know any of that, and anyway, he had never listened to anyone at all when it came to protecting her.
"Shh, it's all right, I'm here, Simon. I'm not going anywhere. I'm coming, Simon, I'm coming for you."
Within her glove, she felt the soft, worn fabric that she'd held cradled in her hand. She'd carefully retrieved it from where she'd hidden it deep in Serenity's bowels, held it close and knew that it didn't belong to not-a-person, determined within herself to give it back to Simon. And then he'd come and there'd been memories dressed like fish and happiness dousing all her purpose, and she had known she could keep the memento—keep him—safe, protect it as adroitly as he protected hers, nestle it close to her heart that had finally remembered how to be more than just an organ.
But that had been before the gunshot, before the surging vortex of purpose and denial and terror flowing between them, filling the conduit that bound them and reverberating through them both until River had screamed and cried and now murmured and soothed.
"River," he got out between gasps of pain. She couldn't hear him, not really, but she didn't need ears to hear him, didn't need eyes to see the darkness cloaking the rows of his thoughts and memories and dreams, didn't need hands to touch the pure emotion rising from him like waves of feverish heat. "Don't go, River. Don't go."
"I'm coming," she promised, and for once, she had no trouble remembering that she'd made a promise, no trouble keeping it.
The captain brushed aside the parasite that had threatened to leach all life and hope from Serenity, and he caught her when she fell, and for a moment, she was certain that he was the very personification of the Black and the Rim and Serenity. The ship spoke to her, noted her oddness, accepted her even knowing she was flawed, and then he mentioned her brother and the pain and fear and hurt sparked in her once more. So much trouble, so much overwhelming, over-abundant emotion, so much uncertainty. And yet, if these few, varied souls could accept her even with her frailties and flaws, then why did she think Simon, her own flesh and blood, couldn't?
Because he was bleeding out on the deck of the ship. Curled up, alone in his own nightmare, her voice no longer there to calm him, and terror such as she'd known only while deep in the clutches of the blue hands cradled him in prickly arms that ripped and tore at him until his eyes glazed over and he could not see her even when she ran to him.
Zoë and Wash were there, but she didn't see them—heard their voices but paid them no heed—nothing there but Simon and the bullet she'd put in him.
He was white like final death, silent like unwelcome peace, motionless like starless space, and for the first time, there was no diamond-sharp lightning to illuminate his thoughts, only heavy, cloying darkness.
"Simon," she keened, and she fell at his side, the suit that still clothed her making her awkward and graceless and unbalanced. Against the back of her hand, warm inside the glove, his piece of their memento burned as if it held a fever, mute reproach for what she had not been able to stop or protect.
"River?" His voice was tiny, dwarfed by vulnerability so immense it almost drowned out the tiny seeds of hope.
"I'm here," she whispered, and though they were words that should have made him wince and sigh and adjust his shoulders under the staggering weight of his burden, he let out a shuddering sigh and reached up blood-stained fingers to ghost wonderingly across her face and fear faded away, only echoes of it left to resound and rebound through the brightening shelves of his mind.
Then they took him away from her, carried him to the infirmary, set him down and brought out needles and knives and gloves, and River flinched away. She dared not look at Simon, now that he was safe and awake and making noise once more, dared not step foot over the threshold of the blue-white-silver place, dared not let him know her audacity in thinking that she could actually protect him.
Kaylee slid an arm around her shoulders, tentative and ashamed, and led her to the cargo bay, helped her take the suit off. River twisted her hand and hid the memento she carried, not wanting anyone to know that she had endangered Simon by bringing it out of its safe hiding spot. Fear and shame and regret and compassion moved through Kaylee, so much that River almost flinched away from it, and so she tried to move her mind from Simon, reached out her arms and hugged Kaylee and marveled at how easily all the shadows were banished from between the sun and the moon.
Games and balls and inappropriate stories, like sunbeams, poured outward, embraced River in liquid warmth. Smiles and laughter and being a real girl, gifts bestowed on her in Serenity's care. Jayne and Book laughed and teased one another, Inara hid herself away, Mal wandered the ship, searching for other invaders, reassuring himself that his metal Valley was safe, but River ignored them, consigned them to the outer edges of her thoughts. It was new, being able to ignore or avoid things she did not want to feel or think, and precarious, but it seemed too easy now. Because behind her, above her, Zoë and Wash tore a tiny enemy from beneath Simon's flesh, stitched up the skin and hid the blood away, and capsules of rest and healing moved through Simon's body until he slept.
River watched him sleep, matched her breathing to his, listened to the thrum of his pulse tucked away at the back of her mind, and caressed her fingers over the worn blanket she held. Her feet rested just outside the infirmary, toes curled up against the threshold, edging forward, halted by insecurity.
She had had a plan. Simon and Serenity would have been safe, and she…she would have proved something to them all, especially herself. She thought that maybe the others thought she had proved her worth, but the one who had never questioned her worth in the first place, the one who had accepted her without ever once balking or hesitating, now had a scar jaggedly burned into his skin as he slept an unnatural sleep, nightmares making sweat bead on his brow and his eyes move behind closed lids.
The remnant of her childhood blanket was crushed in her fist, new creases made by the curve of her palm and the pressure of her fingers.
When Simon woke, he looked for her. She watched him from her perch at the infirmary's window, peering inside as he looked around, called her name, spoke to Kaylee. The warm mechanic pointed back to River, and Simon smiled at her, but she looked away. It was too bright, too sharp, too clean for her there, and so she hovered at the edges.
When he limped to dinner, she sat beside him but did not look at him, did not speak to him. When he brushed his hand against her shoulder, she drew away. When he came to her room to tuck her in as he did every night, she pretended she was already asleep and did not respond to his voice.
He had given up everything, had stepped into immolation for her, had almost been taken by them, had braved the Black for her sake, and now he had almost died. She had done enough, and every shard of glass within her, isolated and singular, agreed with her decision to set aside her selfishness and finally let Simon go.
Why, then, did every avoidance of him cut like serrated knives? Why did his smiles disappear and his shoulders slump and his limp become more pronounced? Why did her usual nightmares leave to be replaced by images of being completely alone and wanting to cry out for her brother only being unable to because she had forgotten his name? Why, why, why? The word resonated through every thrum of the ship, every beat of the mechanical heart and the pulse hidden in her head and breath she took; the question touched everything, made the ship hot to the touch beneath the soles of her feet, made the voiceless voices of the crew around her sizzle with curiosity and worry and uncertainty.
She had no words to give him, so she uttered no words at all, and she pretended she did not hear when Simon spoke to her, a ceaseless stream of sentences and questions and pleas that inundated the shards-of-her with memories and thoughts and hopes she dared not look at. He made the shards less sharp, the splinters less isolated, the glass less reflective, the girl more prominent.
In fact, in his presence, the shards looked almost liquid, the reflection smeared as if atop water that moved and shifted and rippled. In his presence, she was more fluid, more able to bridge the gulf between the pieces of herself, better at catching hold of herself and remembering. He was more than an anchoring stone; he was a light, a guiding star, a piece of home and familiarity and comfort and safety, and without him, she drifted eternally, wispy and misty and incorporeal and untouched by anything real and solid and warm.
So she stood up and she left, untouched by the curiosity of the crew as she ghosted past them, moving to the blue-white-silver place where Simon had holed himself up. She stood at the doorway, regarding him through the fog that blanketed her. He limped, and sometimes a grimace of pain passed across his features, but his eyes were focused on his work and his notes, chronicling all his efforts in healing his sister.
His medicines helped, she knew, could feel them even now coursing through the safety net of her veins, keeping her latched onto this moment of time as it happened. And yet…and yet it was him that kept her aware of who she was and what she had once been and what she could be again. It was his voice and his presence and his face that healed her more than anything. She had thought he stitched up the pieces of herself into a fractured whole that stayed together yet still showed clearly the effects of its shattering.
But that wasn't it at all.
All this time, meaningless minutes and hours and days and weeks blurred all together in a long line of large events and quiet moments—all this time she hadn't been glass at all.
Simon turned and saw her and something moved in his eyes, but he checked his immediate movement toward her. "River?" he asked, and that was it. He'd been telling her this whole time, trying to get her to see, but she'd missed the message he'd been sending her, so clearly spelled out that she'd overlooked it in search of hidden codes.
River. She wasn't glass or shards or splinters or even broken. She was a river, liquid that moved and flowed, unbreakable but splitting up around the obstacles thrown to sit inside her and pierce her flesh and strain for the sky. Not broken, just diverted. Not altered, just interrupted. Not alone, just different from the rocky riverbed through which she flowed, complementing it, completing it.
"Simon," she murmured, and a light flicked on in his eyes to illuminate the truth in stark, brilliant lines. He stepped toward her, responding as always to her, but he set his weight down on his wounded leg and hissed in pain.
It had always before been hard to enter this blue-white-silver place…but not now. This time she didn't even notice entering it, only knew that she had been on the outside looking in and then, suddenly, she was inside, helping Simon sit down, touching him for the first time since he'd leapt to her rescue as quickly as always.
"Sorry," he gritted through clenched teeth. "I was supposed to get Zoë to help me check it again, but she was with Wash and I didn't want to interrupt."
"I can help," River murmured, and fluttered her fingertips over the place on his leg where she knew the bullet had entered with destructive force and painful ramifications.
"Are you sure?" Simon asked gently. "We have to do it in here."
River rolled her eyes, amusement bubbling over the surface of her river. "I've been in here before, Simon."
He smiled contentedly, even through his pain, and River swelled and chuckled and easily gushed over the obstacles they had planted in her liquid flesh at the sight of it.
Tools became healing kisses, implements became medicines that soothed red, angry flesh, and her hands turned from destructive weapons into gauze that bandaged and mended. And her presence, her words, her smiles, they made Simon smile, made him reach out and so tenderly brush her hair back out of her face as she tended the wound, made his shelves gleam with inner light, his boxes lighten and brighten, his mind adorn itself with rich, happy colors, the same colors she often wore, purple and red and coral white and warm brown.
"I thought you were mad at me for messing up your plan," Simon ventured when she had finished calming the flames in his leg, his voice dipped in that teasing tone, feathered with that terrifying vulnerability still shadowing his eyes.
In answer, not trusting her voice, River shyly took out the piece of the memento she carried with herself. It weighed almost nothing, and yet its weight was substantial on her palm as she showed it to Simon. A tiny crease marred his brow as he tried to understand, but without even hesitating, he pulled out the piece he carried. Carefully, intently, both of them—Simon-and-River, she couldn't help thinking, pleased—bowed their heads over the matching pieces of fabric, matching them up so that the torn edges lay against each other.
A tiny breath sprouted wings and flew away from her mouth when they did match up perfectly, unmarred by the extra creases and faded colors and tattered ends that had been added to both pieces since she'd ripped one whole into two halves.
"Perfect," Simon whispered with a small smile that made something sharp and soft and painful and pleasant all at once, all impossibly swirled together, pierce her heart.
"I thought I couldn't keep it," she admitted, the words broken and staggered but there and true. "Thought I had to give it back and let it go, learn how to be alone."
An immediate denial leapt from Simon, vehement and genuine and accompanied by the feel of his hands once more framing her, forming the riverbed that kept her flowing straight and true despite the nightmares skipped over her surface and sunk to her bottom.
"She doesn't want to be alone." Concentrating, determined, River repeated, "I don't want to be alone. Words don't come right. They play games with me, switching places with each other and dancing out of reach and laughing at me. She can give you codes and slip you hints, but she can't say what she wants to."
"It's okay, River." Simon ducked his head to look straight in her eyes, the meaning imbuing his next statement underscored by the earnestness so apparent in every line of his body, every feature of his expression, in the words he spoke and the pauses between each word and the things he didn't say, all of it so plain and clear to any who chose to look and listen. "Mei-mei, I will always be there for you. I'll follow you anywhere in the 'verse, and I'll never let anyone hurt you again. Okay? But…but you can't leave me. All right? I…I need you, River, need you with me. We'll be okay; we just have to stick together. Promise me?"
"I promise," she told him simply, and all the words were there, laid out before her like treasures placed prominently on the fabric of her memento, waiting for her to look through them and pick out the perfect collection. One hand holding his piece of fabric next to hers, spread across his lap, she lifted the other to trace his features, not framing him, just defining him, making sure he was real, communicating her meaning through touch as well as voice. "I never said it, but I meant it all the time. It connects everything, makes halves become whole, leaves a clear trail to follow, cause to so many effects—I love you, Simon."
His gaze was caught on hers for a long moment, his voice stunned away, his blue eyes—shaded and nuanced and substantial—gleaming with crystal tears that shimmered and melted. Finally, he swallowed and said, "I love you too, River."
All of that reaction, but no surprise anywhere inside him. And River blinked away her own crystal tears, and stepped closer to his side, and slid her arms around his form, feeling his strength and his vulnerabilities, wrapping both of them up in her slender, fragile frame and feeling them succored and nurtured while she herself strengthened and sheltered, in turn, in the safety and refuge of his arms around hers.
Words eluded her, but love never had. He had played with her, and encouraged her, and followed her through the Black, and rescued her from darkness and pain, and given her back self and safety and solace, and he needed her, wounded and weary and confused and sometimes mute as she was, just as much as she needed him.
Words eluded her, but Simon never had, and that was enough, more than enough, to make her, finally and blessedly, whole.
"Mei-mei," Simon murmured against her hair, and his-River smiled and laughed and knew, for the first time, that it would be all right because one word out of every language in the 'verse had never eluded her and never would. One word. The only word she needed.
A/N: Thanks to everyone who's read and reviewed - I really appreciate it. And thanks to the writers and actors of Firefly who made the show so easy to love and the Tam sibling in particular so intriguing to write about, as well as those whose dialogue I borrowed. :)