This girl body does what she asks it to, when she asks it, but sometimes when she doesn't ask nicely enough she finds it does what it pleases. She's been teaching it when to kiss and when to kill, though it wants to do both those things all the time. If they knew, if Mal knew, if Simon knew what she knows they would throw a party for her willpower, a zui wu hui for her flesh instead of her presence, for its change and its control. But today she's allowed to kill, Mal told her to kill, and her body's so grateful it wants to leak and bleed.
They came two by two, hands of blue, liao tien bu!, trying to repopulate the 'verse. Not like giraffes or goats but like dinosaurs or dodos, something wrong, something not at all supposed to be here, something antediluvian and timeless and creepy. She'll nail them to the wall.
This place Mal sent her has big round halls with big round windows with fish on the other side. Inside there's air but outside there's fish and it's like being on Serenity again so she breathes shallow because she knows oxygen's limited. She's evolved beyond the dinos and dodos but she doesn't have gills. This body is the body of a girl. This girl needs to breathe. This hall is round and strange like the barrel of a gun.
She loves her guns. She touches the right one, the one Jayne gave her, with her right thumb. She doesn't need to look to see its deep black blackness, the scrapes of carbon scoring under the hammer. The sweat-smoothed grip. Jayne had loved the gun well, mannishly and often. He'd probably slept with it under his pillow with his big clumsy graceful hands curled around the rubber butt.
When he gave it to her it was with a sort of shruggy grunt, sidelong and grudging like he didn't remember who she was and didn't know she knew how much he loved it, didn't know she knew how much it hurt to give it up. It was the first time Jayne had written her off that way but it was understandable, 'cause it was because of the gun.
The others, they never really knew what she knew when they spoke to her, and they'd talk slow with big gaps between their words figuring River'd fill in the spaces with her own breed of crazy, but Jayne always assumed she knew everything. 'Course he was right, usually, and he was right this time with the gun even though he pretended. So he handed her the gun with a big yellow bow tied around it -- some strip of fabric he'd pinched from Kaylee -- and a sideways smile and a grunty "Happy whatever, yeah."
And she heard the scar on his chest where she'd stabbed him say, "It's okay, River, we love you. Jayne and me, we love you more'n we love this gun." And she'd smiled at his chest, at the scar, and said "Thank you."
"You're welcome," the scar said. Jayne drank water from a canteen and nodded.
Her girl-feet bound from left to right on the arched floor of the round barrel corridor but she's making good time since she stopped talking to the fish. "You are good fish," she'd said, nearly an hour ago probably, "very very good fish but I need to hurt people now."
Back that other time, that last day, the Jubal day, Simon met her at the airlock and gave her a big hard kiss on the hair. She giggled.
"Just when I think I've got you figured out," he said to her head, but she knows he didn't think that. In fact, he's got her figured out better than he admits, but that's because it scares him to know what he knows and sometimes at night it makes him sick, even. Sometimes she goes into the bathroom to vomit and he's already in the bathroom vomiting and then he washes his face and brushes his teeth and goes back to bed and in the morning they don't talk about it.
Sometimes she doesn't make it to the bathroom and he cleans up, quietly. He always makes it to the bathroom when he has to throw up. She doesn't want to be like Simon but she envies that.
"Mal says I can stay," she said to Simon, and she started toward their quarters without taking her space suit off. He grabbed her by the neck and pulled her back, gently, so he could tug at all the velcros and zippers and he undressed her like he did when she was a little girl. "Jubal's getting tired now," she said. Simon helped her out of her left boot. "The air's thinner, big spaces between."
"Yes," Simon agreed. "But we had to do it, you understand we had to do it, River."
"We didn't have to do it," she shrugged, kicking off the other boot. "I could have smashed his brains with a rock."
She watched Simon look for something to say. "You don't have a rock," he said at last, and led her barefoot down the cold metal of the catwalk.
Kaylee was waiting outside their room when Simon and River got there, and when she saw them she leaped to her feet and pounced and gave River a hug like a coat and gave her a kiss on the hair too. She smelled all sweaty and engine grease and peaches. The peaches came in some sort of spray that Inara bought but they smelled like real peaches and Kaylee sprayed River with them once and River bit a tiny hole in the underside of her arm where no one could see. But her arm didn't taste like peaches and her blood only tasted like blood.
She hugged Kaylee back with arms like a girl and she didn't bite Kaylee's neck which smelled like peaches. She gave it a little lick, though. Just the tip of her tongue, and Kaylee giggled and wiggled her fingers under River's arms and it tickled and River giggled too.
Kaylee wanted to hug Simon, probably wanted to kiss him too but River didn't want to let go, even when she heard Kaylee looking at Simon over her shoulder. Even when she heard the little nerve endings in Kaylee's body bristle and when she felt Kaylee's thighs get hot and palms get cold. She didn't let go till she heard Kaylee say "Simon" out loud, even though she'd said it over and over in her head. River wanted to be treated like a girl, and girls have ears, and words go in them and change the world.
She let go of Kaylee and watched her, shy and shuffling now, give Simon a sideways hug.
"I didn't do anything," Simon said.
"Ain't it enough I just like having you around or I gotta have zhu yao yuan yin?" Kaylee smiled. "Ain't it enough I didn't get --"
She trailed off, and River heard everyone and Jubal and the word "rape."
"Now his brain is breaking," River said. "It's popping, piece by piece."
"River --" Simon shushed her.
"It's okay," River said. "He doesn't feel it. He's asleep, and he doesn't know he's alone."
That might have been the first time River used that kind of lie, the kind that makes things easier to swallow. Simon had explained that kind of lie to her but it never made sense until she'd overheard the crew trying to figure out if she was dangerous. They didn't say it out loud, not to her face, not even Jayne who knew she knew. And it was because they thought they were nice, and nice people don't say mean things, not out loud, not even to River. It made sense now.
In space, Jubal was in sucking agony and his eyes bled fluid all over the inside of his helmet and he screamed and he was all alone for miles and miles and miles, dying in the dark.
Kaylee smiled and squeezed Simon's shoulder and they all went inside.
Kaylee sat on the couch with her fingers up through her hair like a comb and River sat on the floor and Simon went to put the teapot on and River knew Simon wanted to have sex. He didn't know he wanted to have sex, but his body felt wet and stretched taut, a lingering loneliness from when he thought River was gone, a hole that wanted filling. He felt cold and wet and lonely because he was alone in space like Jubal and he didn't want to be alone.
Kaylee wanted to have sex too, but Kaylee always wanted sex, maybe even with Jubal, a little. Kaylee loved sex the way Jayne loved his guns, the way Mal loved his ship, the way Simon loved River.
From Jubal's ship River had tasted Serenity and it tasted like Mal and Kaylee, sweat and engine grease and peaches and Mal's brown hair and the stretchy part of Mal's suspenders and his wide spatulate thumbs. She listened a little and heard Mal in the galley with Book, listing things. Book loved to list things and Mal loved to see the things he'd listed, things he had control over, like what kind of food they had to buy or how many people he'd killed since February or the names of Inara's clients. Whatever they were listing now had mechanical parts in -- probably a tally of the systems Jubal had destroyed, or River had. She heard Mal take a bite out of an apple slice and it tasted a little like Kaylee's neck.
When Simon came back with the tea River stood on one foot. "You want to have sex now," she said to her brother. He put the tray down but the hot water spilled over the back of his hand and he popped it in his mouth.
"Um," Simon said, and she could taste he was embarrassed and Kaylee was too.
"No, it's okay," River said. "It's so loud in here and we both know what Kaylee tastes like and she's pretty."
"Kaylee...is pretty," Simon agreed.
"Kaylee's a girl," River said. "She has legs and hands and girl parts and she likes us."
Simon sat down on the couch next to Kaylee but he didn't look at her. He looked at River instead. "You're sure -- you'll be okay?" he asked and there was a flash of understanding like a symphony and all of a sudden Simon didn't love her anymore, he loved Kaylee, he wanted Kaylee more than River and River was wrong.
"Gotta go," River said. "Need an apple."
And she buzzed out of the room like a thing that buzzes and she found Mal in the kitchen listing things and she talked loud at him about apples and circuits so she didn't hear Simon's hands on Kaylee's breasts.
Six months after Inara left they saw her again somewhere else. Mal had left her on a border world near a transport depot full of dignitaries and horses that were all one color. But when they found her again, she was in the Core.
It was one year and three days after Jubal's face exploded, three and one-half days after River's unbirthday, after Mal and Jayne gave her her guns. Wash did a song about superheroes and Book made a cake and Zoe said "I'm glad you stayed" in a dark and serious tone. Kaylee put something sparkly on River's nails and it was still there, chipped where she'd chewed it but pink and sparkly like little flecks of Kaylee. Simon had said, "It's not your birthday, you know."
And three and one-half days after that they set Serenity down in a rocky place on a Core world and Mal and Book and Kaylee went to the city to find things and they found things and came back with Inara.
Mal brought her back in his head, sure as Book brought back two heavy water reclamators and Kaylee brought back food on sticks. Mal wanted to hold her for himself but they made him share at dinner, so he talked about her apartments and her clients and her clothes, talked about her computers and her promotion in the guild. They all took little pieces while they ate their food on sticks, Kaylee watching Mal with big Kaylee eyes and asking "Was her house real pretty? Was there lots of shiny? Did you meet her clients, any of 'em?" but she meant to say "Did she ask about me? Did you tell her?"
Mal answered as best he could, eating his meat on a stick and chasing it with hard brown water. But River felt every question peel another layer from Mal's Inara, leaving her paler and more translucent where he clung to her, and River knew he'd never tell anyone that he'd told Inara he loved her, that he'd begged her to come back, that she'd cried and she loved him too and she said no, over and over and over, and that she'd stopped him when he tried to make love to her.
"She's doin' right well for herself, seems," Mal said in a voice that brooked no argument. "Does a man's heart good to see her that way. So happy, so well-off and all."
"Well lao tien!" Book agreed. "I wish her all the best of luck.”
"I don't know what was wrong with where we left her, is all I wanna know," Zoe said. "Why a girl would up and move from a nice busy border colony into the Core where she's gotta be up to her ass in taxes just to keep her job."
"I'm just glad to be getting the tien ta di gui out of here," Jayne said. "Gorram Core gives me the creepin' willies."
Mal stood up and made a big show of clearing his plate. "Yeah, well, I ain't sure we're leavin' here quite so soon as we thought," he said. "Shepherd and I were downtown today came across a mechanic shop looks worthy of investigation." Only River saw Book's eyebrows arch.
"You gotta be shittin' me!" Jayne slammed a fist into his own forehead. "Parked out here just waiting for the feds to come use us for target practice?"
"We'll do all right for another day, two at the outside," Mal said to his plate. "Just wanna make sure Serenity's got all she needs 'fore we take off for the rim again."
"Serenity's in real good shape, Cap'n," Kaylee said brightly, and Mal nodded.
"Can't be too careful, little Kaylee," Mal said, and left the kitchen and that was the end of that.
"Wonder what's got him all xiang huo shan yi yang tu ran bao fa?" Kaylee asked Simon, and River didn't say "Inara" but she liked the taste of it in the back of her throat.
"No idea," Simon said, and as always, that was enough for him.
River hooked her two feet around two legs of her chair and listened to Mal shuffle down the corridor, down the ladder into his room, heard him fall heavy on his bed. She heard the dull ache behind his eyes, heard him thrash his head from side to side to try and shake it, heard him press two fists against his forehead. Heard him hear Inara saying no, and no, and no, Mal, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, over and over again. He said, I love you, Inara, gorram it, I guess I always did and she said I know, I knew, and I love you too but it's not my life there so I had to leave. He said, we can make a life for you. She said, I'll always come second to Serenity, and he tugged his thumb and didn't argue. She said, I can't be some crook's go zhe ji nu, Malcolm, and he said, I'm not some crook.
She said, slowly, I. Know. And she cried and her hair hung down over her forehead and her lips were painted crimson like a bleeding heart.
River heard Mal breathe, heard him grit his teeth. Heard him lie down, arching his back away from the bed to take his trousers off, heard an elbow get caught in his suspenders, heard him curse. Heard his cock harden and sing and it sang to River in Simon's voice.
She looked at Simon, who was clearing his plate, and Kaylee's, looked at Kaylee leaning back in her chair with one knee pushed up on the edge of the table, her head back watching Simon at the sink upside down. And River heard Kaylee's girl parts sing, and they sang to River in Simon's voice.
Mal's body cried out like River's body, and she thought of him in here and thought they should have given him a gun too. She stood up on noodly legs and went sideways down the catwalk and nobody saw. She stopped outside Mal's door and squatted there quiet and waited for Simon.
Simon went to Kaylee's room, quiet because he thought people were sleeping--
"Hurry UP," River whispered, listening hard through Mal's door and hearing Mal tug his cock and growl. "Hurry UP," River whispered to Simon, and on the other side of Serenity Simon tumbled onto Kaylee's bed.
Kaylee's hands on Simon's chest, Simon's shirt up over his head, the neck-part caught in his teeth, covering his eyes, Kaylee kissed his unseeing mouth. "Wait," Simon said. "Wait-"
"Can't wait," River said, mumbling against Mal's door. "Mal can't wait-"
She stood up and talked to Serenity and pushed some buttons and the door flipped open and River went down the ladder quiet and Mal didn't know she was there until she kneeled beside his bed. He scrambled for his blankets and slapped on the light and she slapped it off again and he slapped it on again and wrapped himself in the blanket, penis ringing and singing and crying Inara's name.
"Whoa, ho, hey now, little girl,” he said. “How'd you get in here?”
"She won't come back," River said, one hand dancing in the air, tracing the circles of Simon's fingers on Kaylee's round pink nipple. "Inara. She won't come back here."
"No, she made that right clear to us when she left," Mal agreed. "There's more for her out there, business-wise."
River tipped her head to one side, flicked out her tongue just a little, tasting Kaylee tasting Simon's mouth. She frowned. "I don't understand! I don't understand how a person loves a person and can't – I don't know what I'm supposed to do!"
"Well, first thing, mayhap not so much with the breakin' and enterin'," Mal said, chuckling that clever captainy chuckle. "But it's, now, Inara's what's got you bothered?"
"She loves you," River said. "She said – I heard, she said she loved you and I don't – there's something broken in my brain and I can't make it better! I can't make it work in my head, I can't get her here for you."
Mal sat down, patted a spot on the sheet beside him for River to sit down too, and she did. He put a hand on her shoulder, a warm man-hand, warm like Simon's smart surgeon fingers wiggling into the top of Kaylee's purple underpants.
The underpants had little butterflies on them. “This body I have," River said, looking at it, wishing Mal could see. "It wants things. It wants to do things, touch, and kiss, and fuck, and kill. And it can't sometimes. It gets mad when it can't."
"You're learnin'," Mal said, and River wondered why they didn't get him a gun too. "Sometimes it can't."
Outside, Kaylee's girl parts blazed, all wet heat and she wiggled to rub up against Simon's hip. River felt the heat between her own thighs, and she reached over, picked up Mal's hand, the one he'd tried to squeeze Inara from his own cock with, and looked at his wide, calloused palm.
He watched her, half-caught between confused and frightened, watched her the way everyone watched River, all the time. She spoke to his hand. "Hands help," she said."I heard, before. Your hand, helping, trying to get Inara, to make you feel like--"
Mal wrenched his hand back and goggled, then coughed. "Whoa, girl. Some things a man likes to keep private, dong ma? And this, what, what, whatever you heard, da sou qiang's probably the most private thing a man's got. Between a man and his own hand, you know? Private."
"I want you to make it work for me," she said, reaching for his hand again, but he pulled it away. "You can't hear it, but my brain – Simon loves me. He loves me the most, most of all, more than anything, me and Simon."
Mal nodded. "I don't doubt that."
"But his parts, his mouth and his penis and his hands all over Kaylee, and we like Kaylee, so it's okay, but my body – it wants."
"Well, sweet holy sha gua ju tou zhong de sha gua if that doesn't just take all," Mal said, swiping that hand across his forehead to knock some sweaty hair away. "Lemme get this straight. Tsao, no, I really don't want to get this straight one bit. I think it's best you go back to your own bed, little River. Do what, do what you do with your...body-touching, private, mind you, and in the morning I'll bet you'll find your body's back to doin' what it's told."
"You're afraid you'll be taking advantage of me," River said. "You're thinking, this girl, she's crazy, she doesn't know what she's asking, doesn't know what she wants."
"I'm thinking – yeah, that pretty much sums it up."
"I am crazy, you say I'm crazy, Simon says, and I am, but you can't take advantage if I remember how to say yes --"
She heard Kaylee giggle, a short sharp burst swallowed by a kiss, and then Simon's hands were down along Kaylee's waist, down between her legs, finding things to play with, things that made Kaylee shudder and gulp.
River leaned forward and kissed Mal squarely on the mouth. He pushed her away. She pushed back, had the advantage 'cause his back was near the wall and used it, fit two knees on either side of his hips and kissed him again. "Please," she said. "Captain."
She tore the blanket away, slapped the light on so she could examine his body in beauty. All hard, brown, compact muscles, sweat down his sternum and his penis still hard, or hard again, probably – she tested it with a hand, quick, then pulled away – and getting harder. "Captain," she said again, in Saffron's voice.
"River you know if I do this your brother'll have my hide," Mal said, and it sounded weak, and it sounded convinced and unconvincing.
"You're stronger than Simon," River said, because she could play too. "Different. Rounder, maybe. Brown and round and solid. Simon's skin is translucent; I can see his workings underneath. Not yours."
She had always thought Simon was beautiful; her body knew he was, but Mal was beautiful too, and hot, and screaming, and this time maybe not just screaming for Inara, maybe screaming for River a little bit too.
"That tickles!" Kaylee said, and Simon moved a toe someplace. "It's an okay tickle," she said. "A good tickle."
"Sorry," Simon said, and moved his toe back. River squatted over Mal and raked her fingers through her hair and shouted to her body and her guns and parts and brothers.
"Make it STOP," River pleaded. "Just for a minute, just a minute where I'm all me, here, and not them --"
Simon was hovering above Kaylee now, her ankles hooked behind his head, her legs spread and hot and inviting – Simon reached a hand around to steer himself, poking for the right spot, the round slippery head of his penis missing slick a couple times, sliding up, then over, then in and he PUSHED-
River took Mal's cock in two hands and held it like a talisman, looking up at him bigeyed.
"Ah, River," he said, and she knew she had him.
"Just this," she said. "Just for tonight, just for us, and for them, and Inara – you know – if I listen just right I can feel her, she's everywhere, you brought her with you and I can feel her in you, did you know? Did you know you have a piece of Inara in your brain?"
"Um," Mal said, eyes closed like if he didn't see what River was doing to his penis then it'd be okay. "No, can't say I did."
"She has a man tonight," River said. "She's falling into him, again and again, she's got hair in her eyes, he's biting her nipple--"
"De le!" Mal said. "That's enough! No more Inara, dong ma?"
River didn't dong de. Inara was here, whether Mal knew it or not, but Simon always said she had to know when to stop talking, and this was when, because even Simon wasn't talking anymore.
River eased Mal down onto the bed, reached around and stroked him slick and hard and skin and slippery, held him and then steered him inside her, easy as pie, and her body breathed out with the punch of the punchline. And then Mal was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, and she wanted to eat him whole, so she kissed him hard, and he kissed back, and his hands were on her back, and her waist, and everywhere and her body sizzled with every touch --
Simon arched his back, one hand on Kaylee's breast, the other in the air, thrashing like a rodeo clown and River giggled and Simon groaned, and thrashed, and looked at Kaylee --
"Nah, but it's okay, get me after."
"Good 'cause I can't--"
And Simon bucked, and groaned, and collapsed next to Kaylee, and Kaylee hugged him like a bear and kissed him on the forehead.
Mal's calloused palms dragged across River's tiny nipples and every nerve ending called out with every scratch of his fingerprints, making themselves known and River clenched her inside muscles around Mal and slid up and down, slick, hard enough to feel the round pound of impact every time he hit, the dull mysterious echo of sensation, she grabbed for his hair, his ears, she kissed him, bit his chin, his shoulder, his neck, his chest, chewed at his flat solid muscles and let the round pound answer all her body's questions and then Mal's fingers walked their way up her thigh and into her curly hairs, and one thumb parted her lips and flicked and she yelped-
And Simon's eyes were closed and he'd slung one knee over Kaylee's thigh, was letting his own fingers wander between her thighs, and she said "oh!" and "there" and "that's good, yeah, that's good" and then she couldn't talk anymore and he went round and around-
And Mal went up and down, instead, with a thumb, got the beat like a musician and River closed her eyes tight and pressed her face into his chest, sweaty face, sweaty chest and he bucked his hips into hers and bone met bone and he pulled out a little, like a tease, maybe, and then back in all the way, and the deep warm thud again and again and his thumb flicked against her in point, then counterpoint, then counterpoint against the melody of Simon's circles on Kaylee, then harmony against Kaylee's keening "ohhhhhh" and River tried it "ohhhhh" but she wanted "guhhhhhhhh" and she moaned and Mal moaned-
And Kaylee's toes pointed and her knees buckled and she said "yes!" and "yes!" and "that's good, that's good, okay. Okay. Yah. Okay." And she sank heavy in the mattress with both hands over her eyes and Simon kissed her ear.
And River squeezed her knees tighter around Mal's hips, and thought "Simon" and thought "Inara" and there's sex everywhere and the 'verse is enormous but if it's got a fiery center it's around about Mal's thumb, tracing ovals now, losing the rhythm as he lost his mind and he lost control and he clawed for the blankets and took them in fistfuls and said "oh sweet lord in heaven!"
And River said "oh!" and "oh!" and "oh" again and Mal said, "that's good, that's real good, more," and River thought, "I can do more" and so she thundered into him, harder, and faster, and "oh!" and that was four but there were more and Mal said, "lao tien!" and River tried it too and Mal said "you good?" and she said "NOW" and then she seized up, shuddered full-bodied, murmured "guhhhhhh" and melted wet and hot and sticky across Mal's chest.
Quiet now. Somewhere, quietly, Inara's "oh," was muffled with tears her client never saw, and two by two they fell asleep.
The next day, the men with the blue hands come.
Two by two they come and Mal is gone and Jayne is gone, Mal and Jayne and Zoe are gone and so with her guns, with her new guns River has to kill them all by herself.
She sees Shepherd Book in the cargo bay all covered with blood, after. Her face remembers smiling and that's what makes her sickest of all.
It's Kaylee's blood. At first River thinks she killed her. Then she feels Kaylee hiccup and she smells her iron heart bleeding and she thinks, only almost. And she thinks, next time, knife first, then guns, and she thinks maybe she likes her guns a little too much but Simon doesn't know that.
"You didn't shoot her," Simon says with big eyes and everybody's in the infirmary and Mal's back and he's so, so sorry and he doesn't say anything about Inara and how she cried. "You got four of them," Simon says. "But you didn't shoot Kaylee. It was one of them that did it."
Simon's smooth, incredulous, adorable, magic. He's covered with Kaylee's blood and it's just the most beautiful shade of crimson rosy and River smiles, because she didn't shoot her, and she shot them, and she can kill them all any time she wants.
"Gotta go," River says, but Simon's up to his wrists in Kaylee again and River knows, sure as she can kill them all, he can fix her.
He shakes his head without looking at her and she knows it's 'cause his heart and his penis are all pulsing full of blood for Kaylee. "Mei mei," he says, more to Kaylee than to River, and when he looks up he's angry, more to Mal than to River even if he doesn't know why. "Don't kill anyone else," he says with Kaylee's blood.
River slips her knife into her boot. "You take away all my fun," she sizzles and smiles.
"This isn't fun, River," Simon says with his penis, and River leans in to kiss him and he tastes like Kaylee's peachy blood. His tongue is pointy. He shakes his head. Mal is still and small in the corner with Zoe and Book and he'll never tell them that they stayed because of Inara, and that the men came because of Inara, that Kaylee got shot because of Inara, that River would kill because of Inara. That River can do what Mal can't.
It's worth it, River thinks. Any excuse to find these men and kill these men and love is better than any excuse at all.
"Simon," River says, calm and cool like the knife in her boot. "You wish you could carry their heads back to me on sticks. You understand. You'd come, if she didn't need you."
Simon swipes a bloody glove across his forehead and Zoe makes a little gaspy gasp. "I need you," Simon says, all small because he thinks Kaylee's gonna die and if she does River's all that's left.
"No," River says, because Kaylee's not gonna die. "Not need. Something else." That last part to Simon's penis, which will tremble when his surgeon's hands won't.
She's in the round corridor at the end of the round corridor all alone. She touches the gun on her left hip, the revolver Mal gave her. It's a six-shooter with a spinning chamber and a pearl handle and it takes .45 caliber bullets which Mal makes himself, in the dining room, at night. Sometimes River watches him pour the hot careful molds and she wants to stick a finger in the melted lead and she doesn't and she thinks he'd be proud of her for that. She has six bullets in this gun and eleven in Jayne's, one chambered like he taught her, and it'll be more than enough. She pushes open the round door.
She has been here before.
Not here, she knows, not this planet, not this undersea place with the good fish and the extinct men, but she knows this taste, bactine and gunpowder and burned flesh and spinal fluid and the furry slip of paper shoes on tile. There's a pair of pairs and they look at her like she can't hurt them, and they take little paper steps toward her like she can't hurt them, around the metal gurneys where they can't hurt her again.
One of the pairs beeps, flickers a glance at the computer, pokes something and there's her picture. She smiles for the camera.
"River Tam," one of the pairs says, and the pair of pairs move toward her, and there's another pair coming in the door following a keening siren. "We've been waiting for you."
"I've been waiting for me too," she says, tipping her head to the side and watching them wiggle toward her like spiders. "It was my birthday," she says, and she slides the knife from her boot. "It was my birthday and I'm better now."
A pair shakes its head. "We can help you," it says.
"I know," she says, turning the knife over in her hand. It's warm, like her leg, like her blood, like Kaylee's blood. She looks at the tip, so small it disappears into nothing, deadly sharp nothing. She licks the tip so she can taste the blood on her tongue. Then she throws the knife.
It makes a casual arc and buries itself in the eye socket of half a pair, and the other half falls to his knees and grabs for the handle with blue hands. River shoots him with Jayne's gun.
Now the remaining pair of pairs is scared and they swipe for her with long blue arms, but bang bang bang bang with Jayne's gun and it's twelve blue hands on the floor and the klaxon shuts off.
And now she's sad, because the room's empty and she's still got six bullets in Jayne's gun and six in Mal's and through the round windows the fish are scared. River holsters the knife and vomits on the frictionless floor.
She wakes up on Serenity, in her own room in her own bed. Simon is there, but before she can say "Simon?" he says "Kaylee? She's awake," and Kaylee scurries in and crouches next to Simon and puts her hand on River's.
"We was worried you were gonna sleep all day," Kaylee says. "We didn't know what happened or nothin', till Mal got back said you killed a dozen of those guys. Didja really, River? Kill a dozen of 'em?"
"I don't remember," River says, and she doesn't. "The fish – there were fish, and men. I killed the men. I didn't kill the fish. And then I – don't remember."
"You come back here middle of the night half-dazed, or sleepin', maybe," Kaylee says. "Anyways, we put you to bed 'cause you were right set to drop right there in the cargo hold. Didn't know what you'd been up to till Mal got back. Said you killed six in the hospital, 'least six more who'd tried to get on Serenity when Mal left to get you. Said you ran like you was flyin'."
River blinks a couple more times. "You were – hurt," she says to Kaylee.
Kaylee smiles at Simon. "Was," she agrees. "Hurt bad. But Simon fixed me. Says I'm a fast healer."
"I didn't shoot you," River says.
"No," Simon says. "You didn't shoot Kaylee. You saved her, maybe. Maybe saved all our lives, taking down those guys. You did good, River, really. I'm proud of you."
She smiles. "I don't remember. I don't – where's Mal?"
"Packin' up, getting us the gorram hell outta here," Kaylee says. "Reckons we've had enough of the core to last us a good couple lifetimes."
"He's leaving Inara," River says. "I don't – remember. Why it is. Why it works like that. Like how it does."
Kaylee looks at Simon for translation, and River thinks it's the first time that's happened in a while. The words in her head, the things she sees and hears are her own, thick and undiluted sensation, everything closing in. But when she speaks, she speaks like a girl, and usually they understand. This time Simon looks back at Kaylee as if to say he doesn't know either.
"You'll understand," River says, to both of them. "Later. Soon. About why we want what we want. Inara's down there, but we're here, us. All of us."
"You saw to that," Simon says, but he's not scared of her anymore, not today, anyway. "You took care of those men so we'd be safe, here. Together."
"Me and my guns," River says. "Me and my girl parts and my guns."