Mal needs a man in the back, but Zoe and Jayne already got their positions. He doesn't want to take River at first. "No place for a girl," he insists.
It's Zoe who suggests, "Sir, what if she weren't?"
The disguise isn't perfect, but it'll fool anyone who doesn't think to look at it. The clothes are a little too big on her, but not enough to keep her from moving. Her hair gets tucked up under a big hat to shield her face. Mal tells her to say nothing and keep a hand on her gun and to try to act like a boy best she can.
"Ain't safe for you there like you are," Mal tells her seriously, and River understands better than he thinks she does.
It's not hard to act like a boy, though. She watches the men of Serenity carefully, and at first she mimics, but soon it's natural. Her grace isn't gone, but it shifts. She carries herself different and walks different and moves different and he almost forgets once the shooting starts. He's even laughing, because there's no real contest here and he knows they're gonna get away with the money and a few minor wounds, and when his hat gets knocked off and he feels the brush of long hair against his neck she freezes.
It should be familiar, it should be right but it's wrong wrong wrong and she's all thrown off.
Mal doesn't yell too much about her freezing because the fight doesn't last long after that. She listens to him and then she goes into her bunk with a pair of scissors and cuts her hair boy-short.
Serenity wraps around her like a cold metal bed. Her eyes open and close and the blackness doesn't change. "River," she whispers, and tries to make her voice different, deeper. "Riverriverriver," but she can't make it sound wrong enough to be right.
"Simon," he says, and Simon doesn't look up from his supplies.
"Simon," and it still sounds wrong, too quiet, too rough and she falters, closes her eyes and thinks smooth, thinks right.
"Simon," and this time Simon looks up and he smiles and he smiles.
"What is it, mèimei?" Simon asks, and River shakes his head. Simon looks at her and he's seeing her but he's also seeing medicine and needles and bandages and he doesn't see. "Nothing?" he guesses.
"No." He sits up straighter and he looks Simon in the eye. "Not mèimei."
And now Simon just smiles, till slightly bewildered, but he kisses her on the forehead and shakes his head. "You will always be my mèimei."
"No," he insists. "Dì dì," he insists, and Simon's smile falls away.
All the men are bigger than him and sometimes lost in their clothes he still feels like a little girl playing pretend.
(Simon left so many things that didn't fit him anymore when he went off to med school and Mother kept saying she'd clear out his room, but she never did. River would sneak in and curl up at the bottom of his closet, in the clothes that fell off the hangers when he was in a rush, and breathe in until his scent was so familiar she couldn't smell it anymore.
Sometimes she'd pull the older clothes out of the back of his closet, the things that hadn't fit him for years, and pull them on. First over her dresses, and then one day she took the dress off and slid his clothes on like crawling into a new skin and lay on his bed like she'd always seen him sprawl.
She liked his pants and his vests so much better than her skirts and dresses.
She was allowed to miss him, wasn't she?)
It's Inara he goes to and asks for help. Inara who still smiles at him the same way, who never slips and says she and her. She runs gentle hands through his choppy hair and speaks softly, soothing words of how she'd love to help and how handsome he could be. When he curls up on her bed to sleep, it still smells of sex and happy and Inara and it's nice to know that one thing hasn't changed.
Inara is as good as her word and better; she helps him find clothes that make him look like a boy, clothes that feel natural against his skin. She takes him to fix his rough haircut.
When they get back to Serenity, Kaylee tries to hide her surprise when she tells him he looks good but she can't. Zoe kinda smiles and Jayne kinda frowns and Mal doesn't look at him twice while his mind runs around numbers. River only smiles, accepting the praise and accepting the acceptance.
Simon just doesn't look, though, and no amount of acceptance can balance out the hurt of that.
When he says her name she feels like a child again, but the words that follow are so desperate that River starts to feel like the grown-up.
"It's a side-effect, of the medicine or... of what they did to you. I just have to find the right medicine." Simon rests a hand on his shoulder and it's meant to be reassuring, but River wonders if Simon's trying to hold himself up this time. It makes him sit up straighter. "I can fix this."
"Can't," he says, his eyes fixed on Simon's face. "He was always waiting to be this inside."
"River, you've never shown any sign of this before--"
"Hiding. Hide it away, push it down. It's wrong. She just wants to be right. But gē ge, he is right."
"You're supposed to be this way. This is how you were made."
"Sometimes things get made wrong," he whispers, and takes hold of Simon's hand. "This is me. Same me as always."
"River," Simon says, but this time he just sounds lost and River keeps holding him up.
It takes weeks for Simon to look at him properly, months for him to stop saying her and she and mèimei, but eventually he does.
"Gonna need your help," River says one day during his treatment, scowling at the needle in his arm but too tired on this medicine to do anything else.
"I'm doing the best I can," Simon says, and it's not feigned ignorance, just distraction.
"He knows," River says, and Simon doesn't even flinch anymore. "But not for that. To make him whole."
It takes Simon a moment to get it, and his eyes widen as he steps away. He takes his time cleaning up so he doesn't have to speak.
"Simon," he says, and Simon still doesn't look up. "Please help, gē ge."
"I don't know, River," he says weakly. "What if you change your mind?"
"Won't," River says, certain and firm, but then he softens. "He can wait a while."
"Wait a while," Simon echoes, and nods. "Yes. We'll give it a while."
Simon still holds hope, and River can see it; but then Simon smiles, and looks at him.
"Go have dinner, dì dì," he says. He doesn't sound happy to be saying it but he says it anyway.
River only smiles. "Yes, gē ge."