It's another long day of work getting Serenity back to rights after…Kaylee shudders away from thoughts of the crash during the battle with the Reavers. The loss of so much and the threat to everything else she holds dear are still wounds that have yet to heal. She uses work to distract her from the memories and the empty spaces in conversation that will never be filled, but one can only work so many hours in a day before collapsing. The captain does his best to make sure that Kaylee is never the one to collapse. "Can't have you breaking the ship cause your eyes get a mind of their own," is his frequent refrain nowadays. Still, it's better than how Zoe avoids her when Kaylee does the electronic repair work that Wash once handled.
She does her best to find time for the distractions that she prefers to work. Like sexing Simon senseless on a nightly basis. She lies with her head in the crook of his neck, drinking in his scent while he snores quietly in her ear. He denies snoring very emphatically. River and Kaylee just exchange eye rolls and giggles when he gets particularly huffy about it.
Still, there are times when her mind races even after the simple pleasures with Simon. Sometimes folk need to talk to drown out the voices of those forever absent. (Maybe the captain will agree to a visit home. She misses her folks something fierce).
"You never talk about it," Kaylee tells Simon one night when the rest of the ship is asleep. She should be too, but she spent all afternoon doing repairs in the cockpit without the sound of Wash's jokes. Grief keeps her awake and she's tired of crying.
"About what?" Simon asks sleepily.
A part of Kaylee's mind cautions her against the topic. Just cause her own ghosts won't lie silent ain't a reason to go stirring up Simon's. 'Course, Kaylee's never been known for her discretion. Just ask her Ma. "River. How you saved her."
Simon stiffens and his hand pauses stroking her hair.
"It's just…When you came onboard you made it sound like you weren't involved except to receive that pod thing. But you knew all those words to turn her off and everything. There must be more to it." Guilt tugs at her heart. Talking about it probably will make Simon miss his folks as well. Worry and jealousy push it out: maybe he doesn't talk about it because there's someone he misses even more. The endless silence speaks louder than Simon ever could. "Never mind, it's stupid that I asked."
He stops her from rolling away and hugs her tight to his chest. "It's not stupid, not at all. I've just never had time to think about it since coming on Serenity. Nor much reason to – I succeeded after all." He pauses to kiss her forehead. "It's a long story though and we should both be sleeping."
"I'll tell you when I get sleepy, Mister," Kaylee replies as her hand skims over the tired parts of Simon's body.
He laughs quietly and captures her hand. "Well, I can see I'm not going to sleep one way or the other."
Simon falls silent for a bit so Kaylee prompts him before he can change his mind. "I know you got the code from the letters River sent."
"Yes, but it wasn't quite as simple as that. The code was spread throughout all the letters she sent, not just the ones she sent to me. I spent months pouring over the letters I'd received trying to break the damn thing." Kaylee's eyes widen at Simon's curse. "I even took a week's vacation so I could study them without the interruption of work. Meg wasn't happy about that."
Simon startles a little at her question. "Meg – She was, well, now she's an ex-girlfriend."
Kaylee can't help but try to analyze his tone. Was Meg the reason it was so hard for him to let go of the Core? "How come I'm only hearing about this now?"
"I guess I never talked about her much," Simon admits.
"How about ever?" Kaylee corrects. "Is she pretty?" She does have the sense to not ask what she really wants to know. Was she prettier than me?
Simon stutters a little bit again as he answers, "Pretty, yes, a little."
A noise from the doorway makes them both jump. "Your nose is growing. Meg was as beautiful as a starry night. Skin black as the void with sparkling eyes like the stars. Short hair for practicality so she'd never take longer to prepare for surgery than the boys. Laughter like the songs her mother sang while she cleaned our house. Pride as big as her heart. She was Simon's beautiful moon like you're the sun that lights up the darkness," River says as she sits down on the floor beside the now slightly open door.
Sophisticated and practical. This Meg sounds like a perfect cross between Inara and Zoe. Next to that, Kaylee must look as rough and dirty as the rest of the Rim to Simon."I take it she and River met?" Kaylee asks.
Simon nods. "Other than you, I think Meg was the only girl I ever dated that River actually liked."
"I'm right here."
"I'm aware of that. And what have I said about knocking?" Simon asks as he tugs at the bed sheets to ensure that everything is fully covered. His neck is starting to color to match his cheeks. Kaylee's tempted to look to see if other parts are blushing as well. She giggles when River raps a belated knock on the floor.
"Brat," Simon says in his familiar big brother tone.
River just sticks her tongue out.
A thought occurs to Kaylee. "Did you ever tell River any of this?"
Simon's eyes widen. "No. At first I was just worried about keeping her calm and figuring out what happened to her. Then…" He shakes his head. "I guess everyone gets a bedtime story tonight."
"So Meg was upset you took time off work to study River's letters," Kaylee prompts to get Simon back on track.
Simon nods. "I was oblivious to it. Whenever I brought it up, she kept reminding me of every prank and game that River ever played, but-"
"Simon says, Simon's always right," River sing-songs from her seat against the wall.
"Not quite," Simon replies with brotherly annoyance. "I was just so convinced that I refused to listen to anyone's logic."
"But you were right," Kaylee says.
"Well, yes, that helps." He squeezes Kaylee a little in response. "Still, if I'd listened to Meg a bit more, things might have been easier in the long run."
The array of letters from River sits on the top of Simon's desk mocking him. Once again, he's not smart enough to keep up with his little sister's leaps of logic. Not for the first time in his life, anger blossoms at his sister's incredible intelligence. It was one thing for her to surpass him in academics when she was a toddler and he was entering prep school. But now he knows River is desperately trying to tell him something and he's too stupid to find it.
It burns his pride as he continues to stare at the letters willing the magic word or sentence to pop out at him and break the code. There has to be a code; that's the only thing that could possibly explain the odd tone, the spelling errors, the fictional events and people.
Briefly, he considers waving Omar and asking him to look at the letters. River was always so excited when Omar accompanied him home on his visits. The two of them would sit together for hours talking theoretical physics and advanced mathematics while Simon updated Mother and Father on his studies. Of all of his friends, Omar is probably the only one almost as smart as River. But the fact that Omar works for the federal security service scares him. Something to do with improving the software firewalls for the climate control satellites on terraformed worlds (hacked so many times during the War that millions of credits had been lost when frosts killed the budding plants or much needed rain failed).
Omar is a great friend, but the truth is, Simon doesn't know who to trust. Even Meg thinks he's obsessing over nothing. Meg might get along with River better than any of his previous girlfriends, but that isn't saying much.
Eyes floating over lines he's already memorized, Simon wonders why his parents have never expressed surprise at River's letters. The only reason he knows they've received letters at all is because he asks every time he calls home. When he asks what River wrote about this time, Father summarizes it down to "school and friends. Lots of River-babble."
River babble. That description would aptly fit the nonsense flowing from every letter that's been delivered to Simon's flat since River went away to school. It would be comforting except that River's never babbled in her entire life. Every conversation always had a purpose, even if it was just for her own entertainment as she watched you try to keep up with every twist of logic that she threw at you.
It hits him suddenly and he knows that somewhere, River is laughing at his denseness. Maybe the letters River wrote to their parents contain the missing pieces he needs to figure out the cipher.
Simon quickly puts the letters away in his desk and locks it before checking to make sure he's presentable enough to show his face at the family estate. His vest and shirt are wrinkled from sitting all afternoon, but a coat hides the distasteful creases.
The front door of his apartment opens just before Simon reaches the foyer and Meg enters. Bags hang heavily under her coal black eyes - the badge of every first year resident at the hospital. Even on vacation from work, Simon bears similar marks, but his are earned from worry instead of lack of sleep. Meg sniffs the air and frowns as she looks at him. "I thought you were going to have dinner ready," she says.
Mentally, Simon winces as he remembers her morning call. "I've ordered something from the Thai place for you. It should be here in twenty minutes. My parents called earlier so I have to go out to the estate. I should be back before midnight," he replies.
A brief spark of hope lights in her eyes before exasperation overtakes it as she listens. "Simon, I've hardly seen you all week. Surely they can get along without you for a night."
He runs his hand through her short curly hair. "We'll have all day tomorrow after you've rested and before I go back to work. Trust me, I'd much rather stay here with you," he says earnestly, and then kisses her on the lips.
Meg pushes him towards the door. "I'm not saving you any leftovers."
Simon waits until he hears the door close before he pulls out his mobile to wave in an order for Meg's favorite dish as he runs to catch the tube.
The ride from Capitol City to his parents' home is always a long one, but today his desperation makes the forty-five minute transit seem like forty-five days. For most of the ride, he castigates himself for taking so long to realize what was missing. In any other circumstances, River would be laughing and teasing him about being so oblivious. And now I don't know what she's doing or what's happening to her.
The tube stops at his destination before he gets around to imagining what River might be suffering right now. He sprints the rest of the distance to the estate and lets himself into the main house.
His entrance takes the butler by surprise. "Dr. Tam! Are you expected for dinner?"
"No, Raoul. I just need to pick up some papers from Father's study. I won't be long, I promise," Simon replies.
"If you wait, your parents should be home in half an hour or so."
"I'm in a rush," Simon says as he shuts the door of the study in Raoul's face.
Alone, he surveys the room trying to figure out where Father would store River's letters. The piles of papers in the categorized inboxes prove to be bills and invoices from work and payroll for the servants. The desk drawers contain information about business meetings.
Finally, Simon's exhausted every surface in plain sight. He remembers River laughing at how bad he was at finding Easter eggs or hidden presents. Well, I never have to worry about you going criminal on me, I suppose. Or hiding my diary well, River said when she teased him. She was right. And he's failing her right now.
About to give up, he notices the locked secretary desk at the back of the room. In for a penny, in for a pound as the old saying goes. Unfortunately, Simon never learned to pick locks. The summer that River acquired that talent no one, family or servants, had any privacy. Simon banishes the memory and breaks the lock with brute force. He's too slow to stop several papers from sliding to the floor. After glancing to see they're not in River's handwriting, he ignores them and searches through the rest of the papers inside the desk.
A gasp at the study door causes Simon to look over to see Raoul's expression of scandal. Simon winces: he'd be scandalized too if he walked in to see someone rifling through the desk of his employer. Raoul leaves immediately. It won't be long until he notifies Gabriel and Regan. Simon redoubles his efforts and is rewarded with a stack of letters bound together with several paperclips.
Why would Father put River's letters under lock and key?
Immediately, Simon reads the letters one by one. His world shrinks to a white background, River's black flowing script, and her voice in his head. The spelling errors are immediately committed to memory and compared to the ones he's seen previously in the past year. He'll have to wonder at the odd tone later. He furrows his brow at the description of people he's never heard of and events that his sister couldn't possibly have attended since she's never left the grounds of the academy after going away the previous fall.
When voices echo in from the foyer, he scans the letters once again to commit them to memory before tucking the bulk of them into the inner pocket of his suit jacket. In his hand, he holds the two earliest ones and a third that is undated. He can already recite them down to each punctuation error. But he still hasn't broken the code.
There is a code, though. He knows it. Feels it.
He looks over to see his mother and father standing at the entrance to the study. "What is it, son? Money? You know all you need to do is ask," Mother says while wringing her hands.
The tone is firm and gentle as always. Like horses, Simon. When we're in trouble, they talk to us like horses that will spook. It drives me mad.
"You're sister is fine, Simon," Mother says. It sounds like she's reading from a script. Her gaze briefly shifts to Father and Simon knows now who's written it. The only question is why.
"She's not fine. Didn't you look at the letters? Look at the letters."
"Uh, I'm looking at the letters," Father says. Simon recognizes the look of worry that passes between his parents. He should, it's the same one he gets from Meg any time the topic of River comes up.
"These phrases - they don't sound anything like her. Some of these words -- they're misspelled! She started correcting my spelling when she was three. I think there's a code."
"A code?" Mother asks, not bothering to hide her fear. If only Simon could believe any of it was for their daughter.
Father laughs. "I always thought it was River who was lost without her big brother. Now I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't the other way around."
Simon wants to scream. Instead he skims the undated letter for what caught his eye earlier. "Did you have a good time at the D'arbanville ball this year?"
"What are you -"
"River thought it was duller than last year. But since we don't know anybody named D'arbanville, I'm having trouble judging." Anger clouds his normal caution and causes him to shout. "Did you even read these?"
"Of course I did," Father answers.
"It's one of her silly games. You two are always playing games," Mother adds.
Be careful about crying wolf, River. How many times did they tell his sister that?
"She's trying to tell us something that somebody doesn't want her to say."
"Simon, this is paranoia. It's the stress. If they heard you talking like this at the hospital, it could affect your entire future," Mother says as she rubs his arm.
Simon shakes her off. "Who cares about my future?"
"You should," Father warns as he joins Mother at Simon's side.
"You're a surgeon in one of the best hospitals in Capitol City. On your way to a major position, maybe even the Medical Elect. You're going to throw all that away? Everything you've worked for your whole life?" Mother asks.
Father grabs his shoulder and looks him in the eye. "Being a doctor means more to you than just a position. I know that."
Simon feels dizzy from their tag team approach. His mother's voice takes on a sing-song quality. "A few months time, you'll turn around and there she'll be. Now, nothing is going to keep you apart for long."
Except the school does. "They won't let us visit. She hasn't come home once. Not even for the holidays!"
"Simon, really. Get a grip and open up your eyes before you lose your position and Meg," Father commands.
"Meg? You don't like Meg. The one time I brought her home for festival, Mother waved and said surely I could do better than the daughter of a maid!" Mother blushes and looks away.
"Your mother was hasty. It's obvious to me that Meg has your best interests at heart even when you are being unspeakably daft and rude. Just the other day she came to discuss how worried she is about you," Father says.
Simon staggers. "Meg came here?" He puts a hand on the broken secretary behind him. This can't be happening. Meg wouldn't.
"She's at her wit's end, Simon. If you don't open your eyes, you're going to lose the best thing that has happened to you. Worse, you'll probably end up blaming River for it."
"You're father's right, Simon. Trust us; everything is going to be fine. We'd never let anything bad happen to you or River. You're our children."
Simon stops clenching his fists when he hears paper tearing. He looks down at the ripped paper almost expecting to see his sister's blood dripping off of it. Why won't they listen?
Carefully, he folds the papers and nods. "Of course, you're right." While they both flash victorious looks at each other, he puts the letters in his breast pocket with the others. "If you'll excuse me, I'm running late. Meg and I were to have dinner in the city together."
He can't get away from the house and to the tube station fast enough.
The return ride to Capitol City is a blur. They didn't listen. They won't hear. Then again, how could he have been such a fool as to think that they would? It's not that they're necessarily bad parents - at least not when everything is fine – but they don't listen. How can they be more concerned with how their son appears than with the safety of their daughter?
When his foot hits pavement, his line of thought switches tracks. Meg, how could she go behind his back like that?
He remembers telling River before she left for school that he might propose to Meg.
"Wait, Simon. Don't rush into anything."
"We've been dating for a year, silly. We're definitely not rushing. Besides, it's better to do it soon before you get all your degrees and are too busy at work to come be a bridesmaid."
River's eyes roll. "I'm NOT wearing a hideous dress."
"Pastel pink, with pretty blue and yellow ribbons I think."
She punches his shoulder. "Go slow. Move in together. Give Mother a bit more time to adjust to it."
"Do you think she ever will?"
"Miracles have happened before, or so the major religions say." She looks at him in that way she has – as if she's aged twenty years before his eyes and it's his big sister giving him advice. "I just want you to take the time to make sure she's the one. That she'll be there for you when you need her. That you both love each other enough to not choose your careers instead down the line."
"I do, River. Trust me, I do."
"But are you as certain about her?"
Simon's suddenly glad that he took River's advice.
When he opens the door to his apartment, he finds Meg dozing on the sofa with several screens worth of medical texts lying around her and boxes of cold Thai food on the coffee table in front of her. Any other time, he'd find the scene cute and cover her with a throw while cleaning up the mess. Now, he just slams the door and tries not to pay attention to any happiness he feels when she wakes with a jump.
"Simon," Meg says sleepily. "Are your parents okay? Did you get everything taken care of?"
Simon starts picking up the leftovers and taking them to the kitchen so he has something to do with his hands. Never before has he felt such an urge to punch a wall, not a good thing to do when your livelihood depends on your hands. "They're fine. They send their love. My father, especially. He found enlightenment from the chat the two of you had the other day."
"Oh." Her tone says it all.
All he can do is ask the three words that have been echoing around his head since he stepped off the tube in Capitol City. "How could you?"
Disbelief flows over her face. "How could I? Simon, take a step back and look at how you've been acting for the past few months! You spend all night pouring over those letters before going into surgery exhausted. When you do sleep, you wake from nightmares screaming River's name. Tell me, what was I supposed to do? Sit by until you managed to kill a patient because you got distracted by River's latest spelling mistake? Watch you become one of those crazy homeless people trying to find the code in the morning news that will prove the government is drugging the water supply? Wait until your mother told one and all that if her son hadn't been dating the daughter of a maid, someone would have been able to get you the help you need?"
"You're just like them. It's all about how I reflect on you. It doesn't matter what River might be going through."
"Stop it; just stop it, Simon," Meg yells. "She's your sister. She's living her own life. It's about damn time you started doing the same instead of mooning over her. Frankly, it's beginning to freak me out. Her life or mine, Simon. Choose."
"Meg, just look at the letters. She needs help."
"You mean she needs you. Fine, go then. Just don't come back here."
He stares dumbly at her, but Meg just crosses her arms and glares back. Briefly, he tries to think of a way to convince her, but then he remembers the letters and the months of worry and Meg's continual insistence that it's just another of River's little games.
"If it had been you, River would have helped me find you," he says. Then he's out the door and running down the fire stairs and wondering what he's supposed to do now.