The cave was cold tonight; the bats huddled close for warmth, their rodent-like feet clutching tight to the damp stone ceiling. She could see their fur - her and Simon chased moths at night their laughter echoed off the stars she missed him - and their talons. Did the chill of the rock hurt? She reached out and skimmed her palm across the wall to see - what color was it? green red blue - and let the jaggedness tenderize her fingers until they tingled. It was wet and cold. She pulled her hand back - it would seep into her bones and freeze her and then it would hurt to touch her too, except for the bats - and held it protectively against her belly.
The dark was pressing in all around her - its embrace was not warm not like a hug not like Simon like metal bars to keep you where you didn't belong - and the bats were only so much comfort. They chattered and shuffled - always there, peripheral sound like running water - and it was nice to have them there, a reminder that she was not alone, but in the cave they echoed and their shadows crept with grabby claws - they would invade her and torture her and tell her things she didn't want to know; they didn't want her to know them either - across the ceiling and down the walls. It was cold and wet and dark in the cave - cold and wet and dark.
"I don't want them to touch me," River said into the silence. The silence did not respond.
The wind murmured softly from beyond the mouth of the cave. It sounded familiar and sweet - it's just me, River - and beckoned to her with the lightness of the sky, whispered promises and endearments and told her she was safe here - I won't let anything hurt you. She knew it was lying, but she went toward it anyway. What would it do if she told it what she knew?
"Liar," she said, as she reached the opening. The wind hushed - what do you mean? - and withdrew. She rewarded it for the space with a grateful smile.
The wind hovered at her back as she stepped out into the blankness outside her cave - it wasn't really hers she hated it why did they keep her there? - and she stood straight and still and breathed in the air. It smelled like roses, and then there were roses. River picked some, smelled them. Their thorns pricked her - there's always another side ulterior motive catch let-down - but she just stuck the scratches in her mouth and savored the copper taste - sharp taste made sweet smell sweeter like pepper in corn bread.
"I like the sweetness," River informed the wind. The wind was sad, so she turned to look at it, even though it wasn't really there. "Don't worry," she told it, remembering her earlier harshness. "I still love you. I just need space right now."
"Be careful," said the wind as it faded. "Don't hurt yourself."
"Why would I do that?" River wondered.
The roses all died in the blizzard. River cried for them as their soft petals were coated with frost and they fell from the whole and shattered on the ground like glass. She felt their pain; it stung and it burned - it was cold so cold why was it so cold?. She yelped in pain as she stepped on a ruby-red shard and it dug into her foot - the blood would be coppery if she tasted it, she knew. She bit down on her hand and leaned on a tree. It was frozen too - dying - and hurt to touch.
"Stop," River pleaded. "Stop hurting. No more empathy." The green leaves of the tree - bright and warm in the snow but it was winter and they didn't belong anymore why were they here? - rustled and whispered in the swirling confusion of wet whiteness.
"I don't like white," River told the blizzard angrily. "Color is much better. Go away." The blizzard didn't listen to her, only snowed harder - all her beautiful roses, all dead and broken and cutting up her feet.
"I'm cold," River whimpered, hugging herself. Her tears froze on her cheeks.
River wandered through the endless woods - everything was frozen and dead or dying, dead or dying - and the trees screamed at her until she lost her way and spun in confused circles - alone, all alone, where was Simon didn't he get her letters the mail shouldn't take so long....
She held her head between her hands, sank to her knees. "I can't help you," she told the trees.
"He doesn't love me," they said.
"She wouldn't want me anyway," they said.
"What's for dinner?" they said.
"You'll never have all of my secrets," they said.
"I don't want them," said River.
The archway was made of barky brown vines. She pushed their leaves gently apart and slipped past them. The silence on this side was glorious - not oppressive like in the cave don't make her go back she doesn't like it please - and sunlight soaked into her skin. The hard packed earth beneath her feet healed her cuts and banished all the cold from her.
"It's warm in here," River acknowledged happily. There was a large oak tree on a mossy hill. It was strong and tall and its branches were alive and inviting. She stepped into the shade it cast and breathed in the musky scent - earth and water and sunlight carbon dioxide oxygen chlorophyll life. All the other trees quieted; they knew to leave this one alone. The darkness couldn't reach her here; the moss was too slippery.
"I don't understand you." The oak tree's voice was forceful, convicted. She laid on the moss at its roots anyway and let the sunflowers grow up around her, yellow petals surrounding her with floral tanginess, leaves fuzzy and cool. River pressed two gentle fingers against a stem and bent it forward to bring the bloom near to her face, the brown-green center brushing her lips. The sunflower shivered and it and its fellows leaned toward the oak tree, looking up at it reverently with their bright faces.
"The flowers love you," River explained to the tree. "You're as hot as the sun."
"You're a strange 'un," the tree replied, and River hummed contented agreement. She brushed a hand down the trunk, the rough bark strong and hard beneath her touch, jagged in a more pleasant way than any cave wall. She dipped her fingers into a small notch, nails scraping softly against the creeping moss inside. A warm breeze brushed through her hair.
River slid gracefully out of her dress; the moss was enough insulation for her and she felt safe here. Nudity wasn't a vulnerability here, just a way for the sunlight to reach more of her. Hummingbirds flitted around, their thin beaks lightly pricking her bared skin, beautiful bright emerald wings and rose pink bellies, happy shining eyes. Bees and butterflies landed on the sunflowers, drank their fill of pollen, flew in cheerful circles.
"I was sleepin' you know," the tree told River quietly, its voice low and rough.
"I would like to sleep here too," River said. "With you."
"Don't imagine the Doc'd like that idea much," the oak tree pointed out, wry.
River blinked, and poked her nose under Jayne's jaw, smiled sweetly into the hollow of his throat.
"Well," River breathed against him - skin, not bark, but still rough, "you don't like him much. So."
"Mm," Jayne mumbled, his eyes closing, head drooping down the dented pillow to rest against her hair. "Don't suppose there's anyone as can make you do what you ain't gonna." He hugged her closer; his body hair felt like little ants in the moss, tickled her, made her giggle. "Jus' sleepin' then."
"You should grow a garden," said River.
"Sleep," said Jayne.