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The Sound Of Clay And The Colour of Coffee

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Bare feet soundless on the metal grates, she drifts about the ship, like debris in the deep blackness of space. Can't sleep - won't sleep, not while the pressure behind her eyes makes her dream of sharpness and heat.

Hands come up, stop in front of her face, fingers curled with powerless frustration. She flexes and lowers them again.

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She's recited in her head the normal prime numbers until she got distracted by the plastic dinosaurs still on the cockpit's dashboards. Wash is here, and yet he's not, and it confuses her so she concentrates on Mersenne primes now, a better challenge.

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Numbers are easy; neat and orderly, all lined up like the vegetable cans in the stores when Kaylee has put them away. They stay where she puts them, if she puts them in the right place. It calms her. Feelings are not so easily contained. Feelings are untidy and restless, won't stay in place.

Much like people, and she has trouble discerning those who are there from those who are physically there at the best of times. Everything is real, but some things are more solid than others. The quiet hum of Serenity feels like coffee, the real, priceless stuff made from beans - even though they never have that aboard.

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She floats through the doorway and into the den, wishing she could put on music. It's a trick Shepherd Book taught her, though he used choral music and she prefers fast beats and pulsing rhythms. Loudly. Shepherd had laughed. She is eighteen, after all. He taught her to focus on the sound and breathe, focus and breathe, until everything else falls away and there is just music. No voices.

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River is alone in her world, yet never alone, not really. There are always voices and she struggles to discern which ones are those she hears, in voice or thought, and which ones her mind produces of its own accord.

Sometimes it feels like she's drowning inside herself, like there's so much other that she can't find River, because the one she started out as was broken and shattered, changed and taken.

The prime numbers are an intact piece of River – she remembers learning about them at age eleven, and the astonishment of the teacher when she could calculate in her head what took a machine weeks to do.

An interesting but completely useless skill to retain, only good for distraction during long sleepless nights.

Her trajectory eventually deposits her in the cockpit, and she's through the doorway before she realises it's the captain standing there, dark shape against the faintly lit dashboards. He turns and she backs away instinctively, until the cold steel bulkhead brings her to a halt, mind and body. She breathes out and unclenches her hands, because here is now and Mal is Mal.

He tilts his head a little, but she feels no pity from him.

"Bad night, little Albatross."

The words are somewhere between purple and blue. She's not sure if it's a question or a statement or both. His mood is hard to sense. He shields well.

"The quietest sounds that humans can discern have an amplitude of approximately twenty micropascals," she hears her mouth say. Frowns, tries again. "I apologise."

"You didn't wake me," he says mildly. He's looking at her, the captain look. Assessing. Her hands toy with a seam of her nightgown, avoiding his eyes. Too intense.

She gasps when his hand suddenly closes around her wrist, and her back is hard against the bulkhead again, muscles rigid with the tension of resisting her reflexes. His fingers burn her skin like bright yellow.

His grip gentles, and he pointedly looks down to where his fingers circle her wrist.

Circle it with quite some overlap.

"Ain't been eatin'," he says gruffly, dropping her hand and brushing past her out of the cockpit. He makes his way to the galley, speaking as if he knows without looking that she trails in his wake. Maybe he does.

"Ship's no place to be wastin' away."

She tells herself it's curiosity, or boredom that makes her follow him. Truth is that the captain is as solid as his ship – far more solid than anything or anyone else on it, and has pulled her into his orbit. He focuses things, gives them purpose. Everything takes its proper shape around the captain. She shakes her head to dismiss the idea of a weight on a rubber sheet, or any of the other scientific metaphors.

She sits down at the head of the table and watches him rummage around in the galley. Serenity sounds at ease, happy with her captain for company.

Mal is Mal, and he knows that something that can't be heard or seen can still be real. He accepts the workings of her brain with little comment and no pity – and somehow it makes her feel more like a normal person than she has in a long time.

"Nourishment is necessary to sustain the human body," she says sotto voce, watching him put slices of cheese and spice between protein slices. He looks up, corners of his mouth quirking as he puts the sandwiches in the cast iron holder that goes onto the hob.

"There are better ways to self-destruct, darlin'," he says, almost gentle.

She shakes her head, and the fragments of what almost made sense scatter again, cold grey light glinting at many angles. She sits down at the head of the table.

"We men live in a city without walls," she quotes, because she doesn't know how to answer him.

"Don't know about that," he says easily. "Do know that if self-destruct is what you wanna do, ain't nobody able to stop you. Just do us the kindness of not making us watch. Ain't a pleasant sight."

His words are sorrow and gunpowder, heavy like blood, but she only hears that because she listens hard. The others can be overwhelming when they are worried about her. The captain doesn't crowd her with his emotions. That makes it easier to open up to him.

"Want to live," she tells him, hands clenching at that last word. Living isn't what she's doing right now, and she doesn't know how to start. "Didn't – couldn't eat. Don't know why."

They are silent for a long moment, and the scent of melting cheese fills the air, yellow and smooth. She frowns as it twinges something in her stomach.

He puts the sandwiches on a plate and sits down at an angle to her, his knee almost touching hers. It's too close, but she doesn't move away.

"My experience, person stops eating to punish someone," he says after he's eaten a few bites. The second sandwich is still on the plate, giving her accusing looks. She stares back at it.

"Parts are all there, but the machine malfunctions," she blurts. "Tube in the nose and pushing food like geese for—" she halts, eyes squeezed shut at the memory, "for - for liver pâté. Everything is broken - the software – it isn't right!" her voice has risen until it echoes around the common room, and she abruptly quietens down to a whisper, not wanting to wake anyone with her craziness. "Wuo-shang mayer, maysheen, byen shr-to…" she prays a familiar plea. "Please, God, make me a stone…"

The plea goes on inside her head, and then slowly fades, balance – such as it is – restored. Demons back behind doors.

"They shouldn't have done that," he says after a few minutes silence. River looks up, liking the deep orange colour he gives to the words, the acceptance that they shouldn't have but they did, and that the past is the past and here is now. "But you ain't theirs no more. You're yours."

"Ours. Mine. We," she shakes her head and stops. "Don't know who to be."

"River is River," he says, as if that should make perfect sense – and it does, yet it doesn't, because she doesn't know if there is enough River left. "River is the only one punished if you don't eat. Way I see it, River has to take care of River. Nobody else can do it."

He takes another bite of his toasted sandwich, watching her as he chews. She looks away, back to the other sandwich. Imagines what it will feel like in her mouth. The toasted crust crunchy, the cheese soft.

"Hunger is mediated by molecular signalling pathways. I feel no hunger."

"You have it – you must," he says. "Maybe you're not lettin' yourself feel it, chick."

She smiles at that endearment. It's not the deep red 'chick' Jayne would speak of when he talks about a night on the town. Jayne is metal and oil and the smell of flint struck. Mal is wood and clay, shards bigger than her own but just as broken. Brown, Mal is brown in her mind. And when he calls her 'chick' it's the colour of coffee and the feel of a warm hand.

She stares at the sandwich and wills herself to want it. The sandwich stares back, taunting her.

She holds her own keys. Just hasn't found them all yet, she hears coffee and smells sorrow in her mind. Mal is projecting, and she smiles because she likes that thought. If there are keys, and if she does hold them, that means that she has control, even though she hasn't found it yet.

She frowns at the sandwich, looking in her mind for the memory of eating before – Sun Ya rice and lychees shared with Simon. Delicious smells and heat from the inside, long before eating became about nourishment to sustain her for a life she didn't want, and the constant fear of it coming back up, burning in her throat.

She finds what she looks for and without knowing how until she does it, she takes hold of the memory and pushes—

She breathes deep and takes a bite.

"How you doing' with the navigation preps?" he says casually when half the sandwich is gone. "Need help on that?"

"Points in space are a human invention to contain the uncontainable in numbers," she says with her mouth full. "Navigation is wishing with numbers. Serenity will bring us there."

He quirks a grin that sounds like coffee.

"Good."

She pushes the plate away a few minutes later, the last crumbs disappeared. Her stomach calls for more, but she ignores it, for now.

Something is moving in the back of her mind, and she waits quietly, knowing that whatever it is, there's no avoiding it. Like bubbles in boiling tar… or in something else thick and unpleasant… thoughts and memories surface when they will.

This one doesn't feel all that crazy as it rises, and she's relieved, because she hates to fall apart and would especially hate to do so in front of the captain.

"Two to the 24 036 583th power minus one."

It's shot out of her mouth before she even realises she's speaking. Mal blinks.

"What was that?"

She doesn't know how to answer what he's really asking, so she just quotes.

"A Mersenne prime is a prime of the form 2P-1. This one has 7 235 733 decimal digits."

He clearly grasps around for the appropriate response.

"You calculated that number? In your head?"

She nods, feeling the next question before he asks it.

"Why?"

"I don't know," she shrugs. "Crazy, I guess."

But the captain doesn't let her get away with that, even if the others do.

"You ain't crazy, chick," he says, and it has the familiar colour of coffee. "Just fragmented. Dong ma?"

She tilts her head, applying the metaphor. Hundreds of shards, with only a few still as they had been before they started. Some changed, some missing, some not really hers at all.

"Actual, if not quite whole," she says.

If she sorts long enough, maybe she'll be able to make a whole again. Might not be the same as it once were, but maybe it doesn't have to be.

"I sorted most of Miranda, put them in a box," she says, and it's true. That memory still surfaces now and then, but not as overwhelming as it did before. Being on the dead world made her understand which of the pieces belonged there, and they have less power over her now.

"Got any of me in there?" It sounds casual but it isn't, and she doesn't know how to tell him that he sometimes dreams so loudly that she would have been able to feel it lightyears away.

She has let the silence too long to wave it away now, and he closes his eyes with a grimace.

"That ain't right. You shouldn't have to carry that, as well."

"Shouldn't, but do, and don't mind," she answers in the same orange tone he used before. His dreams are loud and heavy and full of the crushing loss of faith, but they are his, and she can always recognise them by the sound of clay and the colour of his voice. Like with Miranda, knowing the source makes it easier to separate the pieces.

"Experience; don't become. Don't carry." She gives him a strict look. "No self-flagellation."

He chuckles, wry and rough like sandpaper.

"I won't do that if you keep eatin'. Come see me if you're havin' trouble, hear me?"

"Hear you," she agrees, offering her hand in accord. He shakes it, a smile lurking around his eyes.

"And don't turn into a stone. Ain't good for flying. Be the albatross, chick."

She smiles at that, feels something of peace. Serenity is home, a little world that they've allowed her to find her place in, and she loves it fiercely, the ship and all that live on it. She was broken into a million pieces, but though the girl was lost, doesn't mean she can't rise again. Different, woman, but River. A phoenix in the guise of an albatross. Here is now; Serenity sails gently through the black, and, though some assembly is still required, River is River.


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note: I'd be interested to hear how this worked for you. I had fun with the Synthesia aspect; it just seems to fit River.