It's later, after the new drugs have kicked in, after there's a little quiet in her head, that River realises. Two days after Ariel, and everyone else is still a little crazy (but not like she is) from their victory, living high on the sweetness of triumph. River likes the feel of that, the way they're all brighter in her head when they're happier, even if she can't feel it herself. Simon is hopeful, now, like he wasn't before, like she might be fixable after all, but River's just trying to enjoy the quiet while it lasts. She's spent most of her time with Kaylee or Inara, because they both know how to let her be, not to expect too much of her.
Inara makes her tea, puts her to bed, like River's still a child, even though, when she was, her parents rarely had time to do that kind of thing. River's so grateful for the kindness, and yet, she's never said anything.
"I didn't say thank you," she says. Her voice sounds small, ashamed, and she wishes it didn't.
But Inara stops smoothing the blankets down and smiles at her. It's a real smile, warm and sweet; River's looked for trickery and artifice in it before and always found none. "You've no need to, mei mei," she says. "I promise you." That, too, is sincere, which is baffling, because of everyone on Serenity, Inara's usually the smartest person about this kind of thing. She turns out the light, and kisses River's forehead. "Do you think you can sleep now?"
River nods, even though she knows she won't. She'd like Inara to stay a little while longer, to tell her stories of her clients and her life in the Academy the way she sometimes does, but she doesn't want Inara to feel she has to, and besides, she has to go find Simon. Because she didn't say thank you. She's supposed to say thank you. It's a rule, like a scientific law, like an equation to make everything turn out right. Her mother taught her that, over and over; that and a hundred other things like it: things to make her a real girl, a proper girl, not the girl who would only dance for the joy of it, the girl who ran too fast, because the world was always moving faster and River wanted to catch it, wanted to know it. She's neither girl now, but the rule doesn't change just because the girl does.
So she slips out of bed once she's sure Inara's gone elsewhere, and she creeps along Serenity's corridors in the dark. She doesn't need any light to guide her. She memorised Serenity long ago, gathered in her secrets as easily as shells swept in at high tide. She only feels a little guilty for not doing as she ought to. She's never been very good at that, even before she went to the school, and she's better here, closer to Serenity when she's moving through her. She's almost glad when Simon isn't in his bunk, because she gets to keep going, loving the way Serenity feels beneath her bare feet, the way she's quieter when her people are.
If she tried, she knows she could find him, reach out her mind and catch him, but that would be cheating. So she takes the long way around, and she's surprised when she finds him in the cargo hold, even more surprised to find Mal with him. They both look serious, and though River's far less good at reading Simon than she used to be, she thinks he looks unhappy, the way he never lets himself be when she's around.
Neither of them notices her, which is as it should be. She's been trained to go unnoticed. She steps back, because Mal probably wouldn't take kindly to her wandering around when she's supposed to be sleeping, safe and doing no harm, and she can't bear to see Simon's expression shift back to reassuring, like even his feelings aren't his to have, anymore. But she listens in, even though she knows she shouldn't. This is knowledge she wants, too, the Simon she never sees and the captain she doesn't understand.
"I shouldn't have let them tell me everything was fine for so long," Simon says, and there's bitterness in his voice River's never heard before. It makes him sound older, somehow. More like their father, so she'll never mention it. "It's not like they had any interest in considering everything might not be wonderful. We were window-dressing to their perfect life. A surgeon son and a clever daughter. Of course," he adds, "it might've been better if River had been a little less smart. No man wants a wife who's cleverer than he is, after all. Or so my mother used to say."
He shakes his head, and River smiles to herself. Simon had always been quietly outraged when their mother said that kind of thing, defensive for River the way he never got when she suggested he was too reserved at their dinner parties, or that girls liked men who obviously wanted to impress them. River had never cared. If the men at their interminable dinner parties were indicative of the kind her mother had in mind, River was more than happy to be overlooked. Simon said she was too young to know, but River did.
"Sounds shiny," Mal says. River can't see his face from where she's hiding, but from the tone of his voice, she can imagine the sneer there, the lip curled in distaste.
"More than you can imagine," Simon says. He pauses, and River can feel his uncertainty, the weight of needing to say something and not knowing how. Finally, he clears his throat. "It's unfamiliar to me, knowing that someone will risk their safety for mine." And then he surprises River again. Hands behind his back, he tips his head forward; sketching the kind of bow that he had made, years ago, to their father's friends and associates. "I am grateful," he says, because he knows there's a rule for this, too.
"Ain't got no call to be," Mal says, exactly like Inara did, like Simon really doesn't. "You're on my crew." There's a certainty there, not in the words, but in all of him that's bright and sharp and unmistakable. River recognises it--the same surety that kept her writing to Simon month after month, the same knowledge that he would come for her whenever he could, however he could.
Simon starts to speak again, and Mal cuts him off. "Keep thanking me, Doc," he says, "and I'm apt to change my mind."
That makes Simon laugh, and it's a sound that's almost new to her. "Okay," he says, smile still in his voice. "No more." He straightens up, and River turns back the way she came. It's a conversation she wasn't supposed to hear, she knows. Her thanks can wait until morning, and for Mal, at least, she's going to need a new strategy.
Simon's easy. She finds him doing inventory of their medical supplies, and she spends the day helping him. She's careful to do only as he asks, and she listens while he talks about new medical treatments, and things he'd like to try, new ideas he's had since he learned some of what's wrong with her. She doesn't talk much, because he remembers her when she used to talk in straight lines, and it makes him sad when he can't understand her now, or when she says things she isn't supposed to. It takes her most of their time to figure out what she needs to say and how she needs to say it, but when they're finished making lists and reorganising their new supplies, she says, "Thank you for nearly getting yourself burned alive for me. And saving me all the time." His face lights up, like it did the first time she proved Pythagorus' theorem by herself. "Also, I never blamed you for what happened. You shouldn't, either."
She leaves before he can answer, because that's all the truth she knows how to articulate. Everything else about him is too big, too much feeling she doesn't have a vocabulary for. Not yet, anyway. Maybe never will. For now, she has something less complicated to deal with.
"Ain't you got--things you should be doing?" Mal says, as she settles on a stool in the kitchen and watches him set a few carrots up for chopping. It's a rare day that they actually have fresh produce, and she assumes Zoe doesn't know, or she'd be the one in charge of cooking it, rota be damned.
"This is what I have to be doing," River says. He's wary of her, and that's going to have to change now.
"Well, you can't just go on staring at me. Makes a man nervous after a time. That time, you understand, being now."
She smiles, and says, "I could help you. You can't cook, you know."
"There ain't nothing wrong with my cooking," he says. But he scratches the back of his neck and looks away. "And 'sides, it don't seem like the best idea to be letting you loose with all the boiling water and the knives and such."
She sighs and reaches across the table to pull the carrots and the knife toward her. The knife feels right in her hand, another kind of dancing when she lets herself feel the rhythm of it. When she looks back at Mal, there's a pile of finely chopped carrot in front of her, and he's staring at her, mouth open.
"Did you want them smaller?" she asks, self-conscious. In school, they weren't allowed to cook, and it's been a long time since she helped her mother in the kitchen.
"It ain't--" Mal swallows and looks again at the carrots. "You ain't ever gonna come near me with one of them, right? Because Jayne's one thing, but I'm, you know, the captain."
She smiles again, bright with relief. "Wouldn't be able to do it like that," she says. "Flesh and bone are much denser, requiring a commensurate increase in effort."
She meant it to be reassuring, but he looks like she might not have done a very good job. He doesn't make her leave, though, probably because he's weighed up the danger she poses against the danger of Zoe if he ruins dinner, and River's already figured out that Mal isn't stupid, no matter what he might pretend. So she gets to stay, and dinner isn't nearly as bad as it would've been if he'd been left to his own devices. Simon looks proud when Mal tells him, and even Jayne brings himself to eat it after he's stared at it suspiciously for long enough.
"If I'd wanted you dead, I wouldn't use your food," she tells him, because it's true. Simon chokes, and Mal laughs, and Zoe says, "Eat your damn food, Jayne, or I'll take it," which gets the job done.
It's progress, of a sort, and she spends the next few days going where Mal does whenever she can. In the evenings, she teaches Kaylee to count cards, because Jayne definitely cheats, and River knows it's just math. Mal's generally around, asking questions about supplies or cleaning his guns, and when she and Kaylee are finished, River goes to him, sits quiet and watches him. He's very nearly stopped being twitchy about it.
"I ain't complaining," he says, finally. "On account of how I've seen you with a knife, and you're not necessarily stable. But is there anything specific you're doing over there?"
"Watching you," she says. "And thinking about your name. You deserve a better one. A truer one."
He lays another gun out on the table, strips it down and doesn't speak until he's finished. "There ain't a thing I can think to say to that," he says, finally, and she laughs.
"I know. It's your words that make you stupid. Better when you're just doing." He looks like he might be about to say something, probably prove her right, so she doesn't give him the chance. "I like it. Most people, it's the other way around."
"Okay," he says, and he sounds as though it might be. "Now please get away from me. It ain't gonna be my responsibility if you're not properly rested for our trip into town tomorrow."
River smiles and stands. She's already looked up where they're going, mapped it out and understood its demographics. It's not Alliance, not by any means, but it is, at least as far as she can make out, a town full of Jaynes. The kind of place Mal is more than likely to say the wrong thing in, find himself in trouble just because he doesn't walk away.
She isn't the only one to have reached that conclusion, and she only gets to go because Book and Inara argue for her with Simon (a change of scenery seems to be good for her, and You can't make her just another kind of prisoner, even with good intentions.). He relents, because he loves her enough to keep trying, even if he has plans to go scouting for engine supplies with Kaylee and won't be with her. He offers to stay, but Book promises to take care of her, and Kaylee smiles at him, and Simon doesn't want to resist that, River can tell. She hopes it's that he's started trusting the rest of them, too; she wants him to find something in this new life, even though he expected nothing. She wants that, too.
It's a bright, clear day, and the rest of them stay together for most of it, a trip that's more about downtime than business. They only diverge later, when Zoe and Wash get bored of pretending they don't want to be alone. Jayne thinks he's struck lucky with the barmaid, and River knows he hasn't, but she's not going to tell him. Mal's busy playing cards with three men who might be only twice his size, if he's lucky. River watches them, and ignores Book watching her. She's learned he's more than he seems, too, gaps in him she doesn't like to probe at.
She sips from a glass of water and listens to the kind of music her mother would never tolerate--played by ugly men on what are probably homemade instruments--and she thinks that some rules change, too. Sometimes, it's not the words that count. When Mal makes to leave, and the men surround him, River's behind him, and for once, she isn't sorry she has that kind of ability.
"Rudimentary math suggests you won't beat them," she says, quiet, just to Mal. "Not by yourself."
"Gorram," Mal says, wheeling around to face her, taken aback and apparently forgetting whatever macho posturing he was about to do. Book's already here now, anyway, and even Jayne. Everyone but Mal and Book looks like a fight would be the best thing that could possibly happen, but Book's got words Mal doesn't, the kind of authority people believe in, even when there's no reason to. Soon enough, he's shepherding them all out of the bar, out into the dark and back to Serenity.
For the first five minutes, Mal walks in silence, nothing but tense angles and lines ahead of them. When he finally turns, he glares at River.
"You ever," he says, and his voice is quiet, and somehow still powerful. "You ever do that again--"
"Mal," Book says, but River breaks in, because this has to be hers to set right.
"Captain leads by example," she says. She brushes her hair back from her face, makes her words come clear and true. "You're a good captain." Then she pauses. "You're on my crew, too."
Mal looks at her for a moment, so surprised it's not just his words he doesn't have; his whole mind is a blank. Then he turns and walks away. Book smiles at her, says, "We'd best follow our captain," like he's proud.
River doesn't know if he should be. All she knows is that Simon saved her, that Mal saved them both, that debts have to be paid, maybe most when they're not asked for. She follows anyway, because he is her captain, and she meant what she said. In the cargo hold, Mal looks at her for a long moment, quiet, like he's picking his words as carefully as she did.
"You still can't do that," he says, gentle now. "Your brother'd kill me if anything happened to you, just for starters, and he's a sneaky bastard. It'd probably be something mighty painful and unexpected." He reaches out and touches her hair, just for a second, tender with her like he normally is with Kaylee. "'Preciate the thought, though, darlin'," he says. "Don't you go thinking I don't."
River smiles at him. He doesn't know what she's been made for, and that's fine, too. "Your system of accounting is lacking," she says, and he laughs.
"Can help me out with that, if you want to."
River nods. She will. It'll be the least she can do until this little bit of peace slips away, too, or until he needs her to be the new girl she's been turned into. Either way, she'll do what she can to be worth saving. It's the best thanks she knows how to give, now.