It felt as if the life itself had drained out of the ship with Wash's death. The jokes were fewer, the smiles more rare, the looks long and silent. Too little was spoken, too much was thought instead.
River's head hurt.
Simon at least had Kaylee for comfort. She could see the sidelong glances between them, the hot looks and the touches when no one was looking. They took care to be quiet at night, or to disappear into noisy places. Simon began haunting the engine room as much as the infirmary, and he was trying to pick up some repair skills. River was glad that he was happy, that he was allowing himself to live a little. He had always been so tight and wrapped up within himself, the butterfly within the cocoon.
Zoe had Mal to drink with late at night. Mal would then stumble off to his bunk, or pound on Inara's door wanting to talk about something else, anything else, anything to forget. Zoe would stumble off to her solitary bunk and drop down into dreamless sleep. She never cried, and the heat of unshed tears burned her eyes.
River could feel them press against her skin, the need for release, the need to tell.
Jayne kept to himself, his thoughts on his guns and his knives and living through the day. He had somehow sealed himself away. No pain, no memory, no dreaming in the deep of the black.
River wished she could learn the trick of it. Maybe then her head would stop hurting.
"We need change," River announced over dinner. The protein mash had seemed especially bland that evening; it had been Zoe's turn to cook. "Something for good."
Mal eyed River, wondering what exactly she had in mind. "Oh? What's your mind up to?"
"I want to grow."
Simon choked on his mash, and Kaylee gave him a hard thump on the back. Mal and Zoe eyed her with some suspicion. "What was that?"
"There's not enough life here. And this isn't tasty. Seeds grow up to be food." River said it simply, struggling to keep her racing thoughts in line. It looked as though understanding had settled, and she almost gave a sigh of relief.
"Like hydroponics? But you need specialized vitamin water for that," Simon said.
"If we use dirt and screens, we have what we need," Kaylee mused. "I could spare a few empty tubs from the engine room for it."
"Water and fertilizer are plenty here, and light," River said, a wide grin on her face. "Just a small divergence for such a large gain. We can buy seeds at our next stop."
"We could grow strawberries " Kaylee cried, looking at Simon. "I love 'em so."
"Got one problem with that idea," Jayne muttered, looking up from his mash. "Ain't got no bugs on the ship." At their questioning glances, he looked down again. "My Ma had a garden. Need bugs to lookit the flowers, make 'em grow right. Otherwise, no fruits."
Inara smiled at him. "But we can do that. It would be like the orchids in the arboretum at the Training House. We can use tweezers and act like the honeybees in the garden."
River grinned and clapped her hands. "I can grow, then "
Everyone seemed to enjoy the idea, and River threw herself into it. Suddenly the thoughts were on life, not death. Hope seemed to fill the area again, at least in the daytime. There were some sad thoughts at night, but she could hide beneath the stairs in the cargo bay and pretend they weren't there. She installed her lamps and placed the tubs beneath them. She helped shape the plastic screens that would eventually keep the dirt in place if the ship rocked and rolled. At the next stop planetside, they carefully picked their seeds. Apples, oranges, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and corn seeds were snatched up. Kaylee found someone willing to part with a strawberry runner, and River secretly bought some flowers with her share of the last job.
Late that night, she presented Zoe with a small porcelain pot filled with small blue flowers. "For you," River said softly. "Forget-me-nots. To help you remember so you won't be sad." She cocked her head to the side, almost imitating the tilt to Wash's head when he was about to say something thoughtful. "Easter means it's time for Resurrection and remembrance. You've already given away your hope for Lent. It's the time to make things new again. They look like him. You can hear his spirit when the wind blows, see his eyes in the flower petals."
Zoe covered her mouth with her hand, surprised and touched just the same. She reached out for the delicate pot. "Thank you, River. It's... lovely."
River smiled brightly, then danced away on the tips of her bare feet. Zoe brought the small pot inside her bunk and set it down on her bedside table.
River danced around the cargo bay, ignoring Jayne's grunts as he lifted weights. There was light and moist and decaying matter to feed her baby seeds with. Her plan, her beautiful thoughtful plan, would come to fruition soon enough. The skirt of her blue dress flared out around her, exposing the length of her legs to the lights in the cargo bay. She felt floral herself, forget-me-not, riverbed rushes, lotus blossoms floating along the surface.
She stopped in a plié, and looked over at Jayne with a grin. He had been watching her, looking almost dumbfounded. "It's wonderful again," she said, slowly lowering her leg back down to the floor. "They will be beautiful."
"They're gorram seeds," Jayne muttered, shaking his head. "Ain't nothing beautiful 'bout them, you moonbrain."
River shook her head, and sprinted to his side to grab his hand like a child. "Let me show you."
Jayne let himself be led to her alcove. He stopped short when he saw the roses. They had been his Ma's favorite flower, and he had always watched in awe as she arranged them in the house. It had been the one luxury she allowed herself on that dustball of a planet he had been from. Jayne looked at River accusingly. "You can't take care o' these on a ship. Ain't no bugs."
"You understand," River said gently. "You can be the honeybee." She looked up at him intently, searching his expression for something he didn't understand. "You can come inside my petals, you can find the honey. You can make the River-flower grow."
Jayne swallowed nervously. He could feel her soft fingers press against his bare arms, could see the thin silky material of her dress. "Your brother might be objectin' to that. Not to mention the cap'n and them all."
"This girl is not a girl. This is a flower, and a flower needs a bee." She stood up on the tips of her toes, pressing herself against his chest. "Could this River-flower have a Jayne-bee?"
"It ain't right. You don' know what yer askin'. I ain't a good man," Jayne warned.
"And this girl is a weapon," River crooned. "She drowns in thoughts not her own, she yearns to be more, to live outside their intentions. When they made her, they wanted her to forget to be soft like petals. They didn't want her to flower." She eyed him steadily, laying herself bare for him, the one she thought would most understand. "She is girl and flower and weapon. Others may not know it, but you comprehend all three."
Jayne moved within her grasp, touching her face. "Little girl, if you're playin' with me..."
"Not play. Not to play and to give away. But to keep, to grow, to be the flower with the gun inside. To be real again, to live again." She moved as if to kiss him, but stopped just short of his lips, almost afraid. "Can you help me grow? Can you be my Jayne-bee?"
Jayne caught her in a kiss, pulling her flush against him. Her eyes were still closed and her lips were slightly parted when he broke the kiss to breathe. Jayne was surprised to find that he rather liked that expression on her face. He wondered what she would look like lying beneath him in his bunk. "I always did like roses," he murmured. "Don't tell nobody."
River opened her eyes slowly and smiled. Her arms were still around him, snaking like vines around his back. "I won't. My roses are my own."
But River had to admit as Jayne kissed her again, she was perfectly willing to share.