River crouched over the unconscious form of the demon who'd stolen the Captain, staring intently into the too-familiar features. Time slipped, disjointed, like a capture with the time index randomly resliced as she blinked down at his slack, bruised face: an angry snarl dragging his mouth into an ugly line, the mirrored scowl worn by Serenity's merc during their brief battle, the slippery, glutinous thoughts of the one set against the stubborn fire of the other. Watching them square off had unsettled her stomach as badly as Miranda: it had taken her a long, disbelieving moment to comprehend.
But for all that they looked the same, their insides were as different as oil and gunpowder, as the girl who'd dreamed of being a dancer and the kuángzhě de assassin who put on her face. Hamilton was his name: an old name, fit for a man who'd once walked the Earth while she still Was. Decades and centuries layered like archaeological strata beneath his thoughts, populated by beasts with horns and fangs and golden eyes. And worse: lawyers, greedy grasping creatures like the ones who'd told fùqīn and mŭqīn how happy their daughter would be at the Academy. River shuddered and pulled back before they could catch sight of her, anchoring her mind's ears in Jayne's shallower, protective aggression instead.
The difference startled her all over again as she shifted her focus, and she backed away a step, flinching as her toes skimmed through a spreading puddle of murky blood. It tingled like a copper penny on the back of her tongue: the backwash of a reservoir of acrid power, spilling out over the cargo bay floor. By contrast, Serenity's echo burned like a clear, warming flame behind her: a man of small-scale, faithful iniquities set against a vast and vicious malignance.
Lesser, Hamilton's makers might've said. But River knew they would be wrong. Jayne was in no danger, nor any danger to her. Not anymore. She wondered that it had taken her so long to tell the dreams apart.
"He looks better in red," she murmured, relabeling old nightmares in fascination.
"I don't know about that," Jayne growled over her shoulder, nose wrinkled in revulsion as he laid a hand on her shoulder, gently nudging her toward a seat several paces from the body. She sat, staring at him in fascination as he pulled a stained rag from his pocket, lifting her foot to blot the warm wetness away. "But I ain't arguin' with the fact that I'm a damn sight more comfortable with all them holes bein' in him instead of me. What d'you think, did I kill him dead enough this time? Wish we hadn't brought him back; don't know what Zoë was thinkin'."
He lowered her foot to the floor, pocketing the rag, then stepped away again and shoved at the body with one boot-clad foot. River watched it as it flopped ponderously over, wincing at the flare of pained awareness that followed. She could see a tattoo exposed at the small of Hamilton's back, a running wolf in company with a curly-horned ram and a leaping hart: and time lurched again, flipping back a snippet of his encounter with the Captain.
"It's profits that let you keep this plucky little boatload of good above water," she murmured, half in response to Jayne's query, half in sympathetic recognition at the way the demon had wielded words as well as blades in his pursuit of Mal's destruction.
Jayne turned to stare at her, a shudder working its way through his shoulders, then glared down at his double again, dropping a hand to his hip to caress his favorite pistol. "He say that to Mal? Tāmā de: and Mal thinks I said it, don't he?"
"Zoë's had him far longer," she assured him, feeling the approach of a moving gulf at the edge of her awareness: a void that ran deeper than the vein of memory in Hamilton, but quiescent, trapped behind opaque barriers built fast by duty and love. Connected by deep channels to the other damaged body, currently under repair in Simon's careful hands. "She'll put him right again."
Whatever slept wrapped up in Zoë's skin, River had never tried to pry; she had enough nightmares already. But she felt the numinous ripples of its presence now as Zoë came down the stairs from the spare shuttle, carrying a double handspan's length of sharpened wood in one hand and a heavy wrench out of Kaylee's toolkit in the other. Zoë eyed them both, then met Jayne's gaze and jerked her chin in River's direction, her order clear enough that even Jayne didn't need words to understand it; but River shook her head at the gesture.
She wouldn't be dismissed. Not after Miranda, not now that everyone knew what she was. River slid off the crate, padding across the floor to lay a hand on the stake, and met the first mate's gaze with solemn intensity.
Zoë's eyes widened; then she shook her head, clasping River's hand in her free one as she removed it from the stake. "Not this time, mèimei. There's a history here I hope to God you never have to understand."
River understood enough: here be monsters, writ in curlicued script across the shadowed spaces of Zoë's soul. But sometimes, even monsters could evolve. That fact gave her hope.
She dropped her hand, but not her gaze. "I'm not a child," she said.
Zoë stared at her a moment longer-- then jerked her chin at Jayne again, and a firm hand grasped River's shoulder. "Stay back," she told River, then approached the sprawled form as Hamilton made one last effort to move, arms scrabbling against the deckplates to flip himself back over.
She let him finish the movement, glaring up at her; then she knelt over his chest, sliding the stake over his ribs until she found the right gap. He spat something in a language River didn't know, words burning his mouth like flames-- and then--
River trembled, caught off guard by the transition: it was everything and nothing like the crowded, silent streets of Miranda, or the lament rising with the smoke on Haven. The scent of brimstone teased at her nose, followed by a metallic sound like a cell door swinging shut. And then there was only Jayne beside her-- and Zoë standing up again, a terrible hollowness in her eyes.
"That ought to keep them from sending him back awhile, so long as no one takes it out again," the woman said, mouth drawn in a grim line.
The intruder wasn't Hamilton anymore: wasn't anyone. Was only the soulless, empty husk of Jayne, wrong as the ship without her Captain, as River without her brother, as Zoë without Wash--
The world slipped a third time: this time overlaying rot and maggots on Zoë's cheeks, and River looked away, grasping blindly for Jayne's arm. "Curtain stuck halfway down," she gasped, blinking away the imaginary pinch of ballet shoes. "The time has come for her to leave the stage."
"Ō, zhè zhēn shì ge kuàilè de jìnzhǎn," Jayne murmured warily, but pulled her away from the corpse with no further grumbling.
River would reassure Zoë later, when the maggots were gone and her words came back. Another knot was unraveling, deep in her mind where they had set it; she was sorting herself out, one painful mystery at a time. She might not be quite right yet, but she was getting there; she might even be ready when the man named for a weapon finally arrived.
Fitting progress, she thought, for the girl who was sometimes a ship. Lampyridae pupated just like butterflies, after all.
River laid her head on Jayne's shoulder, and let him guide her up the stairs.