Space is working.
Good, River thinks, and stops staring out the window and draws herself back into herself and looks around the table at everyone else who is here because Serenity is working because space is working. Testing, testing.
Testing Jayne, sitting across the table. Jayne is eating. Jayne's body is working because Jayne is eating because sometimes Jayne gets paid. Jayne likes getting paid. Jayne didn't get paid, and he got coal and he is lucky he didn't just melt away, melt ...
Kaylee is asking her a question. River. River. She likes Kaylee, and Kaylee is working today too, but she is saying River, River, which is like testing, testing. Testing to make sure River is working. Space is working and maybe if River doesn't think about Jayne and money and melting melting
(and two blue hands)
then River will be working too and Kaylee will not have to look worried. River likes it when Kaylee is working, because Kaylee working means Serenity working means space is working, and when space is working everything is beautiful, which means Kaylee is beautiful too and so River accepts a tin of baby carrots and gives Kaylee a smile and for a few minutes they are both working just fine.
It is Book's turn to clean up their supper today, and Kaylee asks River if she wants to go play jacks, but River does not care about playing jacks. River understand that when Kaylee asks her to play games, Serenity is working and Kaylee is working and she thinks River is working too, all systems functional, nothing to worry about, Cap'n. River always beats Kaylee at jacks. It's a simple matter of finding out the exact diameter of the off-sphere that is the little swirl of rubber ball and dropping it at the correct angle for the precise velocity and curve River needs in order to use her quick little fully-functional human hands to scoop up all the jacks and then Kaylee laughs in admiration because she thinks that because River can calculate the whole thing and win every single time, it means River is working.
River does not want to play jacks. There is no challenge in playing jacks.
"I want to help clean," she tells Kaylee clearly. This is what Simon calls a lucid moment. Poor Simon. Simon thinks that ordinary means lucid means functional and working well and getting better. There is no getting better. There is only getting different. That isn't something they taught Simon in medical school.
Kaylee is sceptical, but she thinks about getting better the way Simon thinks about getting better. Kaylee thinks about Simon. Kaylee is not thinking about Simon now. She is thinking little guilty things, little cogs and gears that don't fit quite right. Kaylee is sorry, and Kaylee is not sure what she is sorry for. She is scared and she is sorry for being scared and she wants things for River and she wants things for Simon and she wants things for herself, and all her wants are getting all tangled up and she is sorry because she doesn't know how to fix it fix it fix it
but she smiles her sweet little smile, strawberries and the heartbeat engine that functions right because she loves it so, and she goes.
Testing, testing. Testing Book. He feels funny things. Book is not working. It makes River's hair ache. She hands him plates, and she dries them with a symbol, because everything Shepard Book touches turns into a symbol. All the plates turn into symbols too. River is afraid that Book is not working because he is drowning in all his symbols. He doesn't know how to walk and he's being crushed by the weight of all his thoughts, because they cannot get out. They cannot get out because they are trapped in his hair. Too much hair. And Book does not know how to walk so he is trying to fly but it isn't quite working. Book wants to talk to River. He asks her politely how she is doing, because Book is always polite and Book thinks that he is testing River and that maybe he can help to fix her and get her working but how can he fix her if he needs to be fixed too and how can anyone who is broken know how to fix other people who are broken but Simon?
So she answers him, carefully. She says she is fine, because in Shepard Book's world maybe she is fine and so that means she isn't lying. He asks her what she has been doing. She thinks, and she thinks of the world Book inhabits and then she tells him that she has been in the engine room with Kaylee and that they talk and talk and make sure Serenity is working. Book likes that. He likes to think things are working because then he can think that he is working too, and maybe Book isn't so different from River after all, so River gives Book a hug and skips off dressed in a beautiful symbol that used to be a dress before it touched Book.
The symbol is too beautiful to wear, so River takes it off. She wants to show someone her symbol. She cannot show Simon her symbol because Simon wants her fully functioning, all systems normal, because Simon is her brother and she loves him but sometimes there are things Simon cannot see like other people can see. River runs up endless steps with the symbol streaming out behind her, and these are not steps near the infirmary because she does not want to run into Simon. She runs into Wash.
"Dear God in Heaven," says Wash. Testing. Testing Wash. Wash has saucer-eyes, like the plates that were plates before Book turned them into symbols. Wash is fully functional. Wash is surprised, and a little worried, and Wash is staring at River and trying not to stare at River, so River holds out the symbol and says, "Look, Wash. It's pretty," because Wash knows when things are pretty.
"It's a very pretty dress," Wash tells her, and in Wash's world the symbol is a pink dress so River stares at it and it is a pink dress and she is not wearing the pink dress, and Wash is trying not to stare at her and Wash is working but Wash is wishing he isn't working and River is worried. Wash is so uncomfortable so loud that even though all he says is that River has a pretty dress, Zoe can hear him from across the ship and so Zoe is there and Zoe takes the pink dress and helps River back into it. Testing. Testing Zoe. Zoe is working. Zoe is working so well that River begins to laugh, because Zoe will not laugh because she can hear Wash as loudly as River can hear Wash, and she doesn't want to make Wash not work by laughing at him, but River can feel Zoe working so well that she starts laughing. She laughs and she twirls around in her dress that was a symbol, and once upon a time River did something right because Wash and Zoe both smile at her and let her go twirling back down the stairs.
Once upon a time, they would have told Simon. But once upon a time they realised that there are two Tams on board and that Simon can fix things that bleed, but River can fix things by making them see her world instead of their world, and that is valuable. They don't say it like that. Only Jayne would say it like that, and Jayne knows what River can do to him so Jayne doesn't say anything.
But they still think of it like that, River is valuable and Simon is valuable and they are always thinking of what things are worth, especially the Captain, and the Captain always thinks things so strongly that until once upon a time River could not look at the Captain for long because he thinks things so strongly, but then once upon a time happened and everyone trusted crazy River and now even the Captain trusts River and he thinks she is valuable because she is crazy and he thinks she is valuable because she is a Tam because the Captain thinks the Tams are valuable. And maybe River wouldn't have trusted him for that, but the Captain doesn't think she and Simon are valuable the way Jayne thinks they are valuable, and sometimes River thinks that she is like the Captain even more than she is like Book.
River is swirly. River is swirly because she is happy and no one is going testing, testing, River, River. Her feet fit into funny places, and she is still laughing, and she goes swirling and laughing all around the ship because today Serenity is a laughing place and Serenity is working. Their cargo is completely legal. Inara has a client scheduled three hours after next planetfall. River stops laughing because Inara was not at dinner because Inara was scheduling her client that is three hours after next planetfall, and River did not get a chance to test Inara. It's her job to make sure of everyone because it's Simon's job to make sure they are working so it's what the Tams do so it's what River does, and so far everyone has been working the way they are supposed to be working but she hasn't caught up with Inara, so she swirls swirly to Inara's shuttle.
Inara is pretending. Right now Inara is pretending to sleep. River presses her ear to the door and feels incense. Inara is getting ready to pretend to be important. Inara is trained to pretend things. Testing Inara, but Inara is just working the way a Companion is working, and she isn't working like Inara is working because Inara doesn't know how Inara is supposed to be working. River still likes Inara, because it's a pretending with layers, but right now the layers and the pretending are saying Go away, and River is swirly like Inara's incense so she goes swirly down the steps and doesn't wonder.
She goes swirly into the Captain.
He is surprised, but he is not surprised like Wash is surprised. He is surprised because he didn't expect River to run into him. He grabs her shoulders and steadies her, and she laughs up at him and says, "All systems functional, Cap'n," because maybe in her world they are even if they aren't in the Captain's. But the Captain smiles back, a quirked little thing that River is very talented to bring out because only she and Kaylee and sometimes Inara can bring it out, and he pats her shoulder and returns the words seriously, "All systems functional."
Testing. Testing Mal.
The Captain is a wall. He walks on past her, and River stares after him and tries again. Testing. Testing Mal.
The Captain is okay. All systems functional. Working. The Captain is working because Serenity is working because space is working and that makes it a good day. River frowns and sits down on the steps. Not testing the Captain. Anyone can test the Captain. Everyone does, because if the Captain is working then everything is working, and if the Captain isn't working then no systems are functional and everyone has to do something to make things better. But Mal isn't the Captain and Mal doesn't want River testing testing because he thinks things no one is supposed to know, not even Mal, and River understand that because there are lots of things about River that River doesn't want to know, and that's part of the problem because sometimes Simon wants to know the River things that River doesn't want to talk about, and River thinks that maybe Mal is lucky because there is no one to ask him about the Mal things instead of the Captain things, and then maybe River is the lucky one because River has Simon and Mal only has Mal, and if River only had River she would still be
(two by two, hands of blue)
and Simon is sitting next to her on the steps and helping her gently to her feet and saying, come on, River, come on, it's okay, let's go sit down, and River laughs and says, Silly Simon, we were sitting down. But she has stopped being swirly and no one's hands are the right colour, and that means that she isn't lucid anymore, poor Simon, poor Simon, he has to take care of his sister. So she goes with him.
They go through the ship that is still working like River isn't working, and they don't go to the infirmary and River is glad of that, because the infirmary reminds her of things and Simon knows because Simon is Simon and he is her brother and he understands things and so they go to River's room and they sit down on her bed and today Simon is being her brother first because maybe Simon knows that he is supposed to be her brother before he is anyone's doctor, and River cries into his shoulder because she knows that this is the last place in the 'verse he wants to be and it is all her fault and she can't stay swirly.
"My dress was a symbol, Simon," she murmurs. "It stopped."
"It's okay," he tells her, and strokes her hair.
She pulls away and takes his face in her hands. "It was a pretty symbol. The world doesn't want things to be in symbols. I had to put it back on."
Simon doesn't understand. Sometimes River becomes upset because of Simon, and that isn't fair to River and it isn't fair to Simon, but Simon doesn't hear things the way some people hear things, because maybe if they'd done things to Simon then he would be able to follow, but he is still a very different sort of creature from everyone else here and he sees things in little measurements and the periodic table and things that can be seen by looking very closely if there is a microscope to help, and River can't get through to him right now. He doesn't see.
Testing. Testing Simon. River doesn't need to test Simon. All systems down. All systems down and nothing functional and they need to reconfigure because Simon is programmed all wrong and he's only just learning how to be programmed the right way. And he's doing it to himself. Simon is doing it to himself because he needs to for River, and all the time Simon is still being Simon but he's learning how to reconfigure himself, and maybe one day it won't be Simon River's brother and Simon Dr. Tam and another Simon that is Simon River's brother who is trying to use Simon Dr. Tam to be Simon making Serenity function like everyone else makes Serenity function, and maybe one day all those fractured bits of Simon will become Simon Tam like River is River Tam and she can be swirly laughing and sad and lucid and wearing nothing but a pink dress, and then everything will be better.