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Serenity/Firefly fic: We'll Go Home (And Start Again) (1/2)

December 6th, 2016 (08:35 pm)
uncomfortable

feeling: uncomfortable

Title: We’ll Go Home (And Start Again) (1/2)


Disclaimer: I own nothing.


A/N: Missing scenes toward the end of the movie, River’s POV. Unbeta'ed, fills my taking care of someone square on hc_bingo.


Summary: Love is a choice.





-o-


River remembers the moment she was born, small and crying. She shakes her fists at the world and gathers her breath so deep it hurts. She’s not ready yet, she’s not ready.


But someone puts her in her mother’s arms and her father cups her head. But River doesn’t stop crying until Simon’s face appears above hers and she understands.


Everyone else sees what she will do for them.


He sees all the things he can do for her.


River’s not ready, but for that. For that she’ll try.


-o-


It feels like she’s lived an eternity by now.


Somehow, she’s still not ready.


But Simon.


-o-


Everything is falling apart.


River just helps it along.


(She’ll never be ready.)


-o-


Reavers are on the ground, beneath her feet. It’s funny; they look more like men this way.


The Alliance breaks through the wall, and River’s not surprised. Predictable, to a fault.


When she looks back the other direction, she sees Jayne (angry) and Zoe (broken) and Kaylee (numb) and Inara (still standing). She sees Simon (her Simon), blood starting to pool on the floor beneath him. He’s hurting, and bad, and it has nothing to do with the bullet lodged in his gut.


On the far end, there’s Mal, beat to hell and limping his way back to them. He looks worse than she’s ever seen him; better, too. She almost wants to smile.


You can lose for winning, and you can win for losing. Sometimes you do both.


The trick, no matter which way it goes, is learning when to stop.


-o-


Stop.


Stop killing, stop fighting.


Stop thinking, stop being.


Stop running, stop hiding.


Stop.


And start again.


-o-


River stands, axes heavy in each hand. She’s breathing hard -- adrenaline, exhaustion, it’s impossible to say -- and every inch of her is humming while her heart pounds in the absence of anything else. She’s covered in blood.


None of it is Simon’s.


(All of it is Simon’s.)


-o-


They take her.


Swarming, they surround her. When she drops the axes, they pat her down, pushing her against the wall and spreading her legs. They’re gruff and schooled, but no matter how much they touch her, they can’t touch her at all.


This is the choice, and she makes it because she can.


(The reasons matter; the reasons make sense.)


Because they bring stretchers for Zoe, Jayne and Kaylee. Because someone takes Mal by the arm. Because someone leads Inara with deference. Because someone opens a medical kit and looks at Simon.


Their freedom, she knows, is a small price to pay.


(Because she can.)


Besides, River smiles as they turn her around with restraints on, they may be able to take her.


But they’ll never hold her.


-o-


Still, bright lights, white walls; it makes her shudder. It turns her insides, and she feels anxiety crawling up through her stomach and into her chest. Her head hurts, a point in the middle, and she rubs it absently while it throbs.


River doesn’t miss the Alliance.


She’s never been on this ship, but she knows the layout, design, classification. She knows the name of the commander and its mission. She knows how many officers were lost to the Reavers. She knows the name of the maintenance worker who is hiding in a janitorial closet and still praying for his life. No one has told him it’s over.


He’s the one who cleaned this room. Scrubbed the corners and bleached the coffee stain near the door. It even smells clean, like antiseptic.


You only clean like that if you have something to hide.


The sensation tingles on her skin, and she rubs at her arms to try to make it go away. It doesn’t help, not when secrets are oozing through the bulkheads. They come through faster than anyone can clean, and the bleach can penetrate deep enough.


(Serenity has secrets, too, but the good kind. The way Jayne puts himself in front of her and Kaylee when a fight breaks out; the way Zoe and Wash kiss when they’re alone in their bunk; the way Kaylee scribbles her name Kaylee Tam in hearts on her notepad when no one’s looking. Serenity still keeps Book’s secret, about the ident card and why he can’t let it go, and Inara’s sentimentality clings to the bulkheads like traces of incense. Serenity knows Mal will never leave her because truth be told, he almost doesn’t regret losing the war for her sake.)


Here, the secrets scream.


Someone cheated on their husband; someone buried their best friend on a backwater moon. Someone lied for a promotion; someone doesn’t know what they are doing there at all.


Oh wait, that’s her.


It’s okay this time.


It’s okay because you only clean if you have something to hide.


For once, River has nothing, nothing at all, to hide.


-o-


They try to put her in a room.


This is not their first mistake.


It is by sheer self control that it is not their last.


She stares down an officer three times her size, tilting her head and narrowing her gaze.


“You will take me to see my brother,” she insists, because she’s not afraid of them. They made her, in a place like this, but they will never hold her unless she allows it. They want to erase her, like they erase everything else, but River can’t be washed away with bleach. She gleams.


The man -- she knows him without knowing him at all -- with black sideburns and a face like stone -- dares to smirk.


She’s smarter than him, and stronger, too. He failed advanced math at an Alliance academy and his father paid for him to get by anyway. He doesn’t think anyone knows.


River does.


It’s his fortune that the door opens, and the assassin comes in.


“You best do what she says,” the assassin advises.


The officer scoffs. “Please, this is a child--”


“As entertaining as it might be to see her prove you wrong,” the assassin demures. “Stand down.”


The officer doesn’t want to, but he does. The Alliance has all forms of mind control; some succumb a lot easier than she did.


“Anyway,” the assassin says, smooth as silk as she moves toward River. “We have some interesting things to discuss.”


-o-


River doesn’t sit.


“Sit down, please,” the assassin says, gesturing to a chair with one hand. The other is in a hasty if efficient splint. He's trying to hide it, but he favors one side and the damage to his face is evidence enough of the fight he lost.


River shakes her head.


“Do you need something to drink? A wash basin, perhaps, to clean up in?”


“Take me to my brother,” she orders.


The assassin smiles congenially. He's good. You almost can't tell how much he's hurting. “In good time,” he replies diplomatically. “Certainly you can appreciate the need to tie up loose ends, as it were.”


“You can tie and tie and tie,” she tells him. “It’ll all unravel again, worse than before. You’ll be holding the universe by threads when you’re through. Tangled, knotted until you cut yourself free.”


Most people, they think it’s gibberish.


He understands, though.


She can’t decide if this speaks to his intelligence or his viciousness.


“It’s a universe where sacrifices must be made,” he contends politely. “It’s merely a debate as to which ones are justified.”


Both.


Definitely both.


“Until you get cut out along with the rest,” she says.


He shrugs. “I have never had any doubt that it could come to that.”


She studies him, head to toe, inside out. She reads the names he’s given up, the people he’s left behind. She feels every cut he’s ever made and every drop of blood he’s spilled until she’s almost drowning in it.


“I never chose this,” she says, shaking her head.


“What?” he asks.

“To kill,” she tells him. “I never asked to be a killer.”


“For what it’s worth, neither did I,” he returns. “I only wanted to serve, to be a part of the greater good. But when I asked what I could do, I made the decision to follow through on my calling.”


She shakes her head. “That’s not quite true, though,” she says. “It’s a performance to you. You have it scripted so well you almost believe it yourself.”


He is nonplussed at her accusation. “Such a script is sanity in my line of work.”


“Sanity is love, family,” she says. “Not hate. Disinterest.”


“That dichotomy doesn’t ring true,” he says, like he’s apologizing. “The universe doesn’t function that way, I’m afraid.”


“It can, though,” she says. “You said it yourself. Love is more powerful than anything in the verse.”


“Which is why it must be monitored and controlled,” he says.


She stares at him, hard. He doesn’t scare her. (She scares him, instead.) “Which is why it can’t be stopped.”


There’s an argument, written in his eyes. She can hear it, echoing in his head and she almost feels it as he swallows it back down with a smile. (It tastes bitter; like dirt.) He wouldn’t have, three hours earlier. But Mal took his steadfast belief and crippled it. (His shoulder have been put back in their sockets, but the rest is not so simple.) It’s not an easy thing when the truth holding up your world turns out to be a lie.


Not that River would know.


(Simon’s her truth; Simon’s her pillar.)


“Is that why you’re here?” he asks. “Your love?”


He’s skeptical; cynical.


As a child, he asks why until his mother tells him audacious, impossible lies that he believes wholeheartedly until he’s 13. He wanted to be a monk once.


It’s almost too easy.


For as smart and well trained as he is, he can’t win with a moral equivocation. Because River’s got no place to judge, not when it comes to him.


But River’s got something better.


“No,” she admits calmly. “I’m here because eight people made the choice to love me. And it beat the Reavers; it beat the Alliance.” It’s her turn to smile. “And it beat you.”


“It seems almost petty to think,” he ventures. His look is diplomatically, but he’s broken inside. He thinks he can hide it. (He can’t.) “That the whole of the universe can be changed by such primitive and volatile emotions.”


It doesn’t have to change the whole of the universe.


It just has to change him.


“You can’t stop it, though,” she says. “The Alliance, they tried. You, you tried.”


He offers a magnanimous smile, but River sees him sleeping in his underwear, laid flat on his stomach.


“Besides,” River says. “Love isn’t a petty emotion. It’s a choice.”


“Ah,” he says, looking bemused now. He wants to see something he can equivocate; he needs that. It’s not so much his pride as the entire structure of his mental landscape. “So now you’re falling back on sentimental rhetoric.”


“No,” she says, not flinching. He’s seven when he breaks his arm, and he cries the whole time, loud wrenching sobs she still hears. She isn’t very worried about the structure of his mental landscape. Less so about his pride. “I’m saying they chose love. And you, if you value your life, will let me choose it, too.”


The threat is scary because they both know she can.


They both know she will.


He studies her, closing his mouth. He once killed a girl her age with his bare hands, fingers wrapped around her throat as he squeezed the life out of her. He impaled a young boy on a sword while his father watched. He’s a bad, bad man.


He’s also a very smart one.


“Of course,” he says, gesturing to the door. “Let’s take you to see your brother.”


-o-


River, she always gets what she wants.


It’s not hard, and her parents are easy marks at first. Teachers, nannies, other kids on the playground, they’re not much harder, all things being equal.


And Simon, he’s the easiest of all.


Other girls, they wanted ponies and tiaras. She had lobbied for extra classes, more books and trips to libraries bigger than her imagination. She’d gotten them, too, more and more and more and more. She’d gotten everything, including her parents’ permission to go to an Alliance school that would take her far, far away from home.


All the things she wanted, she’d never wanted anything more than getting back out, though. She’d wanted to run, to leave it behind, to erase the Alliance school from her memory along with everything, anything else.


Psychological torture will do that to a person. Brainwashing, lobotomies, the like.


She’d known, of course, how had it would be. She knew the safeguards meant to keep her there, and how unlikely it’d be that anyone would be able to break her free. She’d knew it’d be a risk, a terrible, horrible risk, and if she’d been in her sane mind, she’d never have sent Simon that note, asking him to put it on the line.


But she had.


She had because she’d never wanted anything more.


Until now.


-o-


She counts the tiles on the floor, and multiples the number by a factor of three.


As a child, she’d always asked why?


Now, she’s starting to ask herself, why not?


-o-


“You don’t want to see him,” the doctor tells her.


River cocks her head. The man is old, but that’s not the problem. He’s also rich, but again, that’s not the problem.


No, the problem is he’s got an over-inflated sense of importance.


And he’s just not as good as he thinks he is.


“Why not?” she asks.


He presses his lips into a fine, little line, and he wants it to make him look grave. He looks diminutive instead, as if it’s possible to make himself less, too.


This is one of the reasons his wife left him; that, and the pretty gardener with soft brown hair and supple breasts. The ironic thing is that he hired the gardener for himself.


His friends assure him that doesn’t make him less.


But that line is so thin that it almost doesn’t exist; for a second, River hopes it doesn’t.


It’s a shame, then, that he opens his mouth again. “He’s still in surgery,” the doctor explains, as though it is a difficult concept to comprehend. “It’s very delicate--”


River stops him with a look, then she looks through him. She can feel it, the bullet in Simon’s gut. She feels it, perforating the bowel, spilling the contents of his stomach throughout the abdominal cavity.


Simon doesn’t feel it now, though. He’s drugged and on life-support while the surgeon’s work.


She looks at the doctor again. He’s not the surgeon. That’s not a choice, and River’s glad for it.


“The bowel repair is going well,” she says, feeling the tug of stitches as Simon’s intestines are sewn together again. “But you’ll want to use the most aggressive antibiotic regimen possible to reduce the risk of septic shock.”


The doctor gapes at her. She thought the thin line was bad, but this looks like a gaping abyss to nothing. This is fitting, she figures. There’s nothing inside; some people are vacant.


It is, perhaps, his most employable attribute.


“I’d like to see my brother now,” she says.


He is beside himself, sputtering. Like a fish. An ugly fish.


A stupid fish.


“I -- but--” he says. “You can’t--”


She smiles.


A smile can be disarming. It can be a universal sign of friendship.


It can also be terrifying.


“And do you want to stop me?” she asks. She wiped off most of the blood, but it’s still on her clothes, in her hair. She can smell it in her nostrils, and she wonders if he has any idea. Some people, they have to see to believe. That’s why everyone will understand Miranda now.


Only a select few, however, will ever understand her.


The doctor closes his mouth and swallows hard. He’s sweating like a resident in med school, trying to pass a test. “No,” he says, trying to sound like it was his idea. “Of course not.”


She smiles again, placating.


He passes.


Barely.


“That’s all I need, then.”


-o-


Words, they’re not exactly easy. She feels clearer now, like a pond finally settling, but every move she makes muddies the water some. So when she opens her mouth, the words fall like rocks sinking to the bottom. They get mixed up and jumbled, pouring out over each other when they really ought to take turns and skim over the top of the water like a skipping stone.


(Simon shows her how, takes her hand in his. “Flick your wrist, just like this.” She does, and she’s better at him, skips one all they way across the pond in their backyard and clear out of view.)


Words quantify the moment; they provide an anchor to reality. It’s not that River has difficulty with reality, but she sees it differently than most. Preset, future, past, they’re all equal to her, all immediate, and it’s hard to remember which comes first sometimes.


This isn’t wrong, not exactly. After all, sometimes she’s right about the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sometimes reality is a game of multiple choice.


This, though.


This is clear like glass, like the crystal sea outside the city limits where they grew up. She remembers falling in off their father’s speed boat, spiraling through the waves until Simon appeared above her, hand breaking through the surface to pull her back.


She remembers to breathe.


She presses her fingers against the glass, leaning close to watch the surgeons as they work. She won’t go in -- it’s a sterile environment, and that matters this time, that’s a good thing -- and in truth, she’s afraid.


She knows what they’re doing, cleaning out Simon’s inside like he’s a dirty carpet. She feels the beat of his heart and the quietness of his mind, pulled under by the sedation.


He won’t remember this.


If he dies, he won’t see it coming at all.


Her nose hits the glass, and she grinds her teeth together. Her stomach hurts, and she clenches her fingers into fists.


She’s under water again, watching reality slip by on top of her. Simon won’t pull her out this time; Simon can’t.


It occurs to her how much she’s come to rely on that. She’s smarter than he is, stronger, faster, better, but he’s the one who has always, always protected her. When they took her to pieces at the academy, he’d been the one constant to keep her grounded.


Simon was her sanity.


Simon was her salvation.


Killing Reavers, that’s easy for someone like River. Risking her life; executing justice; that’s more second nature to her than she knows how to admit. She’d saved his life.


(After she’d ruined it. She’d known -- she had to have known -- what he’d do to break her out of the academy. She had to understand the sacrifice she was asking him to make. She had; and she’d understood just how readily he’d offer it, no second thoughts.)


Her turn.


She still feels Simon’s hand around her shoulders, huddling close to her back on the boat. It was the one thing Simon was always beat her at: compassion.


Her breath fogs up on the glass, and she closes her eyes. It’s easier to see that way, see the things that matter.


Her turn.


Eyes open, she watches as they pull Simon’s insides together with string and gauze. It’s clinical, what they’re doing. Textbook. You can save a person with training and equipment, but you can’t save a person without sacrifice.


He wouldn’t ask for this sacrifice, which is all the more reason why River needs to give it now. It’s more than a split-second decision; it’s the commitment to something you can’t see the end of. It’s when the ends actually do justify the means.


(Simon broke laws, spent all his money, gave up his career, but that’s not the impressive part; he doesn’t regret it, not for a second, no matter how far in the black they go. That’s the impressive part.)


It was her turn to save his life.


The job just isn’t done yet.


-o-


Inara moves in silence; when she moves, the air parts around her like she’s a force of nature.


She is, more or less. A surging flood that can pull you under, no matter how calm it looks on the surface.


That’s what she missed most when Inara left.


The silence.


Most people don’t realize how hard it is to train yourself for silence, to quiet your body, your voice, your mind.


It’s telling, then, that Inara’s feet are like rocks behind her.


River looks at her in the reflection on the glass.


“You’re relieved,” River says.


Inara laughs, tired and short. “I didn’t expect to survive all that, so I think that’s an understatement.”


River shakes her head. “No, not that,” she says. “You’re relieved that Mal came to get you.”


Inara’s face betrays her, just for a moment.


It doesn’t matter, though.


River already knows.


“I can only imagine what might have happened to the entire house and all the companions where I was living--”


River turns around (and keeps her breath in time with Simon’s). “No, not that either,” she says, and Inara knows what she’s talking about. Inara knows. “You didn’t want to be there.”


Inara lets out a snort; it’s a good mask of incredulity. “It was a respected position at one of the most renowned temples--”


“And you hated it,” River says. “You were relieved Mal came back and dragged you out without giving you a choice. That way, you never had to admit that you missed it.”


Inara’s too smart to pretend like she hasn’t been had.


She’s too tired.


There’s blood on her hands, too. Simon’s caked beneath her fingernails, and they all feel Wash’s absence like a hole in the chest. Book has been burned out of them until the air taste like ash.


Mal’s biggest mistake was wanting to protect them when all they wanted was to belong.


“I suppose there’s no point in denying it,” Inara says with a deflecting smile. “I never thought it’d turn out like this, though.”


“Me neither,” River says. She doesn’t say she expected it to turn out worse.


Inara moves closer, coming up until she’s side by side. She’s not looking at River anymore. “He’s strong, you know.”


River doesn’t turn. She nods. “I know.”


“He wanted to go after you, even after the doors closed,” Inara continues, smiling a little.


“I know that, too.”


At this, Inara turns to look at her. “Is there anything you don’t know, River Tam?” she presses. “I use my training and intuition to make logical guesses about people based on their looks, movements and reactions, but you -- you knew the Alliance’s darkest secret even when you didn’t want to.”


River turns back toward Simon. “Secrets are just truths we don’t want to believe,” she replies. One of the doctors throws a bloody patch of gauze onto the floor where it incinerates itself immediately.


“I never thought of it as being that simple,” Inara comments, still watching the surgery.


River looks at Inara. “That’s not simple at all.”


Inara chuckles dryly, dropping her head. When she lifts it, her dark eyes are soft. “The ironic part?” she says. “Is that I never wanted to keep it a secret. So many others, they contract for my services, and I have the power to choose among any of them at all. Many of them -- more than I can count -- fell in love with me. I had offers to settle down, to be a permanent companion. A few even asked me to marry them, many of them rich and attractive and schooled. But all I wanted was for him to ask.”


“You would have said no,” River reminds her.


Inara smiles, tight and sad. “But I would have stayed.”


Two people can want the same thing and neither of them may know how to get it. They can know it, and they can dance around it, but they have to admit it.


They have to say it.


Because secrets only have power in silence.


That’s why she screamed at night; that’s why they broadcast Miranda all over the universe.


“You’ll stay now,” River tells her.


Inara’s smile widens knowingly, and she looks at Simon again. “Yes,” she muses. “I suppose we all will.”


-o-


River understands now.


Simon gave up everything to save her, but the rest of them, the gave up enough. They risked their lives; they risked their jobs; they went with her to the edge of her mind and trusted that the reason was worth it.


They’re broken now; River’s never felt stronger.


She steps away from the glass that separates her from Simon.


My turn.


-o-


Zoe’s in a bed, face down. She’s strapped in, the leather pressed taut against the smooth skin of her back. (There’s a spot, on her left shoulder, where Wash used to kiss her when they made love.) Biofoam has been sprayed and set, and River watches the molecules knit themselves together.


“It’s worse than it looks. I should be up and about in an hour; sooner if these uptight Alliance doctors listen to reason.”


River tilts her head, and sees Zoe moving her head just enough to look back and up toward her.


“You might as well come closer,” Zoe says. “That way I can at least talk to your shoes.”


River obliges, shuffling her feet into Zoe’s field of vision. The boots have fared worse than the rest of her outfit, still glistening with blood. It’s a bit macabre, but Zoe won’t mind. Reaver blood won’t bother her; no amount will equal the blood they took from her.


“How’s everyone else?” Zoe asks, but her voice is strained. Not from exertion or energy but exhaustion. She hasn’t talked about it yet.


(He’s not coming.)


“Simon’s in surgery,” River replies.


“He going to make it?” Zoe asks, and she’s thinking about the bullet she fished out of Simon’s leg, even though she knows this isn’t the same.


(It’s exactly the same.)


River can still feel his heartbeat in her chest. “Yes.”


Zoe nods her head. “Good. Good.”


It’s not that Zoe lacks sincerity; it’s that the pole that impaled Wash went through her heart, too. Not everyone gets death as an easy out. The unlucky ones are the ones that just keep living anyway.


River looks down at her shoes.


(The pitter patter of combat boots.)


She considers.


There’s a mathematical justification for Wash’s death, one that talks about the overall benefit to the universe and the rights of those who died on Miranda, those who still suffer in a primitive state as Reavers. But framing them as victims may not be the best approach.


River scuffs her foot on the ground, leaving a dull, red smear on the white floor.


“He understood her,” River finally says.


“What?” Zoe asks.


“Serenity,” River says. “Wash understood Serenity.”


Zoe’s posture goes a little rigid, her shoulders stiffening. “The man did have a way with anything in the air.”


(I am a leaf on the wind.)


“It’s more than that,” River tells her.


“And how do you figure?”


River wets her lips. “He flew her like he was a part of her,” she says. “Like the controls were made for his hands. She was a part of him.”


Zoe can’t bring herself to answer.


“And he’s a part of her,” River continues, making another smear with the other foot. “When she flies, you’ll still feel him.”


“Ship’s not going anywhere,” Zoe says, abrupt and short.


“She will,” River says. “Both of you will.”


Zoe’s laugh is twisted. “You sure about that?”


“I know you don’t want to, but you’ll find a reason,” River offers. She looks down Zoe’s exposed back again, and Simon’s heart is still pounding in her chest, but Zoe’s strength is deeper than she realizes. It fills her in her belly, warm and satisfying like a hot meal. “Wash is a part of you, too.”


It’s probably easier to say she’s sorry. It’s probably more appropriate to thank her for her sacrifice.


But River watches Zoe breathe, life fluttering inside of her.


(Somewhere a baby cries. It’s not her this time; no one is ready.)


River smiles. “You’ll see.”


Zoe exhales heavily, and she takes a moment to compose herself. (She’s thinking about her wedding day, wearing a dress that fluttered. Like a leaf on the wind.) “I hope so,” she admits finally, voice shaking.


River steps closer until her feet cover the red. She reaches out, fingers hesitating. “You’ll see.”


Her fingers press against the skin on Zoe’s shoulder, settling with a squeeze.


It’ll be time to let go soon enough.


But not yet.


-o-


Jayne doesn’t trust the Alliance, but he likes their food.


“Best damn meal we’ve had in months,” he says, stuffing his face with another piece of bread. “And they give you seconds here, no questions asked.”


River reaches up, pressing her fingers into his wounded arm.


(This will scar, but he’ll never be able to identify it later; not with all the rest.)


He curses, pulling away with a glower of indignation. “What’d you do that for?”


“It’s suppose to hurt,” she reminds him.


“Of course it hurts,” Jayne tells her, sounding perturbed. He’s not one for nuance. “Ain’t no reason to let perfectly good food go to waste.”


He’s selfish and inappropriate (the money was too good), but River actually understands that better than anyone might think. She knows what it’s like, after all, to live on the fringe. It makes you desperate, it does. It makes you put yourself first, all consequences be damned.


(Five brothers, seven sisters. Three died as children, one right next to Jayne in bed while they slept. His father went to work one day and never came back. No one asked why because no answer wouldn’t hurt. He was his mother’s favorite, though, and she gave him his first gun.)


“You’re a hero, you know,” she tells him, solemn as possible.


(Also, I can kill you with my mind.)

He makes a face, worse than before. “That’s a hell of a thing to say.”


River all but grins, pushing against the wound again until he flinches. “I know.”


-o-


On Simon’s first day of school, she follows him there and screams and cries when she can’t go in with him. On his first date, she waits up for him and spies on him out the front as he kisses the girl on the cheek.


When he goes to college, River goes into his room to fall asleep.


She’s still not ready.


-o-


Kaylee is propped up in a bed, looking anxious.


River contemplates her options. It feels a little like a game of jacks. She’s not sure how many pieces she can pick up after she lets the ball drop.


She’s fast, though.


Fast enough.


Across the room, Kaylee sees her, and River has no choice now. She approaches, apprehensive.


Kaylee swallows visibly. “Simon,” she says. “Is he okay?”


“He’s in surgery,” she replies. “But he’s Simon.”


(He’s still 12 years old and she’s doing his math homework. He’s 18 and she’s writing his application to college. He doesn’t hate her for it, even when he should.)


This answer doesn’t seem nearly as reassuring as it sounds in River’s mind. Kaylee looks more deeply concerned than before.


(Some things are broke and you just can’t fix it.)


Vexed, River frowns and does her best to focus. Human interaction is easily quantifiable; it’s not a mathematical quandary to communicate effectively. “It’s just that he’s never left me behind before,” she attempts to explain.


At this, Kaylee tries to smile. She nods, faintly. “He’d do anything for you.”


Anything may as well mean nothing where Kaylee is concerned.


River feels inexplicably like apologizing again.


(No power in the verse can stop me.)


She grinds her teeth and doesn’t.


“You make him smile,” she says abruptly as an alternative.


Kaylee simply looks confused.


“Simon,” River clarifies. “You make Simon smile.”


It’s not a mathematical quandary, but it sure is harder than it looks.


“I mean, he’d do anything for me,” River says. “What he needs is someone who will do something for him.”


Kaylee’s eyes are still a little dilated from the drugs, and her brow furrows slightly.


River sighs heavily. “I mean, he likes you,” she blurts finally. “And I’m glad. For both of you.”


It takes a moment for Kaylee to collect herself, and she’s thinking about her daddy back home. She’s thinking about a boy coming to ask for her hand in marriage.


She’s thinking about whether or not she needs to ask River.


She’s thinking either would be good.


River smiles.


“Things are just so complicated sometimes,” Kaylee commiserates, pulling vacantly at the sheets covering her legs. They don’t work quite yet, her legs.


They will. River can feel sensation tingling down the back of them even now, and she wiggles her big toes, watching as Kaylee does the same.


“Then one more entanglement won’t really matter,” River advises.


Kaylee studies her, not because she doesn’t know, but because she isn’t sure she wants to know. As far as River is concerned, reality is hard enough without obfuscating it with self-awareness. River’s problem isn’t that she loses herself; it’s that she misplaces reality. That’s all.


“Are you giving me your blessing?” Kaylee asks.


“I’m asking for you to take the initiative,” River says. “If you leave it up to Simon…”


Chuckling, Kaylee nods. “It’d take another Reaver attack for him to kiss me.”


“He’s sort of a boob,” River says confidentially. “A nice one, though.”


“Very nice,” Kaylee agrees, and now she’s starting to smile again. “Thanks, River.”


River nods, feeling satisfied. “Oh,” she says, remembering. “Also, feet.”


Kaylee frowns again.


“He really likes feet,” River says.


“I--”


“During foreplay,” River says, shrugging nonchalantly. “And maybe during sex--”


Kaylee’s mouth drops open. She sputters. “River, I -- I mean, I don’t--”


It’s River’s turn to frown. “What?” she says. “Isn’t that where this is headed?”


“Well, I maybe had hopes, but I can’t--”


River rolls her eyes. “Enough of hope,” she says. “It’s time for action.”


Naturally, Kaylee doesn’t disagree.


At this point, she doesn’t think anyone in the verse would disagree.


-o-


Of course, the verse is wide and vast.


It’s as full as it is empty.


Somewhere, Zoe cries while no one’s looking, and Jayne falls asleep. Inara tucks her hair behind her ear and wets her lips. Kaylee wiggles her toes with a smile and Simon’s heart beats a steady, uncertain cadence.


Thump, thump, thump.


Farther still, Book folds his hands in prayer but keeps his eyes open. (Love is patient, love is kind; it keeps no record of wrongs.) Wash winks and makes a joke so funny that the stars themselves convulse and flare with laughter. (And we shall call it This Land.)


Mal stands on the edges of it all, though, and waits.


River gets it.


She’s not sure she’s ready either.


-o-


Mal is sitting on a hospital bed, stripped to his underwear and covered in bandages. The bruises on his face have started to settle, deep and ugly, and there’s a slightly vacant look in his eyes that isn’t entirely from the obvious concussion he’s suffered.


Part of her thinks she’d be doing him a favor to let him be.


That part is the rational part of her, small though it may be.


It is also wrong.


She’s next to him before she knows what’s happening.


He looks about as startled as she feels.


“You’re...fine,” Mal says, trying to focus his eyes on her. (Yeah, but she’s our witch.) He blinks a few times. “How is it that you’re fine?”


“Subliminal programming,” she says, matter of fact. “I don’t know how to die.”


“Huh,” Mal says, looking at her for a long moment. “Well, that’s something.”


He’s going to let it stand there, because that’s how Malcolm Reynolds is. He knows he’s lost the war, but he doesn’t know how to stop fighting.


(And he’ll never lay down his gun. Even now, he’s thinking about it, confiscated by security when they were admitted aboard the ship to receive treatment. He misses it, more than a little. His trigger finger hurts.)


River flexes hers.


It’s a wonder he doesn’t kill everyone he meets.


That’s not the point.


Mal’s hurting now, and it’s not so much about the cuts, scrapes and bruises covering his body. It has everything to do with Wash slumping over in the cockpit and Book going still in his arm. It has everything to do with all the men and women he lost in the war, and how he remembers all their names, every one.


It’s about dropping Inara off and cleaning out her shuttle.


It’s about pushing Simon out the door.


And picking River up off the floor.


Mal only wants to be a heartless bastard.


But that’s a fight he lost long before it started.


“It’s not about whether or not it was worth it,” she says.


He looks at her, eyes tracking slowly.


“It’s about doing what’s right,” she tells him.


He looks at her, stares. He’s not sure what to say.


“You always believed, that was the problem,” she explains. “That’s what scared you so much.”


He presses his lips together for a long moment. “Is that a fact?”


She nods back at him. “It’s not that you’re looking to pick fights; it’s that you have an over-developed sense of justice.”


“Tell that to Wash and Book and everyone else I got killed,” Mal says.


She shakes her head. “Tell that to Kaylee, Zoe, Jayne, Inara and Simon. Tell that to me.”


(Fair wages and a place to live; Serenity is more than that.)


“Just because you survived, don’t mean you’re better off.”


“There are many ways to save a life,” she says.


(He holds Zoe’s back on the battlefield; he offers Kaylee a job; he gives Jayne a fair cut, and rents Inara a shuttle. He gives Wash the driver’s seat, and he takes Book on board. He lets Simon stay and he’s gentle when he picks River up and takes her with him.)


(The Miranda broadcast plays to all corners of the verse. Mal is still pressing the play button.)


“I thought you were crazy,” Mal says.


“Oh, I’m crazy,” River agrees, her fingers unfurling by her sides. “But so are you.”


He smiles at that.


He smiles.


River feels them all, each and every one. Zoe’s stomach turns, and Inara’s head aches. Jayne rubs his arm, and Kaylee wiggles her toes. Mal’s hands unclench, and he lets go while Simon’s heart pounds in time.


Thump, thump, thump.


It slows.


Thump, thump.


Skips a beat.


Thump.


River gasps, staggering backward. She reaches for her chest, head dropping down as she struggles to collect herself.


“River?” Mal asks, startled on the bed.


River tries to brace herself, but it’s hard to breathe through the pressure on her chest. Her eyes widen, and she lifts her head.


“Simon.”


NEXT