She was high strung and uneasy, jumpy and generally afflicted with the jitters all day long, every day, for a couple of weeks. It got so bad that Simon started asking concerned doctor-type questions instead of just brother-questions, and Kaylee hovered with all the concern of a mother cow trying to nuzzle her newborn calf to its feet.
But River wasn’t a calf and what ailed her wasn’t anything her brother’s doctoring could fix.
It was how Mal and Inara had started burying their axes when Inara had come back on board, and how they smiled more easily now and Inara held her tongue when before she would’ve scolded him and didn’t take quite so much offense when he called her a whore. It probably helped, too, that he didn’t call her that quite so often anymore.
It was enough to make River want to start biting her nails and she knew better, knew it wouldn’t do anything but send little scraps of fingernail scraping down her trachea into her belly. She was tempted, still; wondered if there was a way to claw out of herself from the inside if maybe she bit them off with sharp edges. But it hurt the first time she tried to chew through the thick white curve on her thumb and she ran her tongue over her teeth, almost checking for chips though she knew the enamel was stronger than that.
Strong nails -- her mind skipped close to a thought she’d picked up from someone, once, of fingernail scratches down a strong, muscular back and she thought she might choke because, though she didn’t understand it, it triggered the same gnawing hunger in her belly that she’d so often felt rolling off of Wash and Zoe in waves.
Sorrow crashed against desire and she felt split in half, suddenly - sad and somber on one side, hot and itchy and wanting on the other. Awash in the emotions -- and she might not be crazy anymore, but there wasn’t any way to fix the way her feelings couldn’t be told to queue up and wait their gorram turn -- she missed the approach of footsteps, even missed the warmth of his mind entering the room until it was brushing so close up against hers it felt like a physical hand, and she jumped, gasping.
He didn’t speak, just settled down beside her on the metal grating of the catwalk that overlooked Serenity’s cargo hold. She watched him closely, did her best to close her mind off from his, afraid of what she might find there if she looked at it straight on. Afraid of where she’d land in his estimation if she and Inara were tossed up in the air side by side. Who would come down first? And closest to him?
“I ain’t good with words, and I can’t read your mind, so I’m just gonna ask you straight out. Huo shì?” he said abruptly, and she’d been so preoccupied with worrying that she hadn’t expected him to speak at all.
She nodded, not trusting her voice, and he took a deep breath.
“What’s got you all knotted up inside, little River?” His voice was almost guttural, and she couldn’t help the smile that swelled up from the inside and curved her mouth in reaction. That was the voice that came out when something was important, when the answer meant something. It told her that she meant something, and nothing could have been more welcome to hear.
”Strung up and strangling,” she whispered, and her forehead wrinkled. “New to me, jealousy and want. Never knew it before, not like this. Not like when Simon got a dedicated source box and I didn’t. Not like when something pretty, shiny caught my eye before Christmas. Different. Stronger.” She swallowed. “Worse.”
“Hurts. Inside. Quit crying after the first night, though. Woke Simon up and he was worried, couldn’t sleep again. Just bite the pillow now, my hand sometimes.”
She knew he’d understand the reference; knew he’d remember the way he’d stuffed a sheet-covered fist into his mouth the day he’d buried his mother and bit down until he could tell himself the tears that squeezed out of his eyes were from the pain in his hand and not his heart.
He caught his breath and she looked at him with eyes that shone with a fearful kind of honesty.
“Want you the way you wanted her back,” she whispered. “Need to feel your hands the way you wanted to hear her voice, just one more time. Wanted to see her again to say goodbye proper, not half-cursed denials in the snow, not buried in hatred toward the wolves, toward Alliance.”
“That bad, huh?” he grimaced, and she binked, looking away from him quickly, scrambling to keep her mind inside her own brain and shut his out so that she would only hear his rejection from his mouth and not his heart.
“That bad,” she confirmed, and despite her best efforts, tears pooled in her eyes and she held her breath, trying not to blink. If they didn’t fall, she didn’t have to admit she’d cried.
“C’mere,” he said finally, after what felt like eternity stretching out as far as the eye could see. She didn’t move though - couldn’t - and he scooted closer to her, putting his arm around her and pulling her into his side. His other arm came around and rested on her cheek, his fingers barely tangling in her hair, as he gently coaxed her head to his shoulder. She submitted, but stiffly, and it wasn’t until he started caressing her hair and skin that she started to relax.
“I ain’t gonna lie and tell you I got everythin’ figured out just yet,” he sighed. “But I ain’t gonna do anything to hurt you, either, little one. There’s somethin’ in you that...” he stopped awkwardly, and she ventured to open her mind a little, found what he hadn’t been able to say, and smiled.
Hope and fear swirled in her chest and she closed her eyes, the tears finally falling, dripping down over her smile, and she slipped her arms around his waist as she held her breath and let the moment crystallize in her memory.
If nothing else, she would always remember this moment when his arms were around her and he admitted, at least inside his own head, that there was something in her that he needed.
huo shì? - “Okay?”