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River dreams in black and white. She dreams in space and stars, in piano keys and ink running over rice paper, the characters unreadable.

When she wakes up, the noise slams into her like a shot. She takes it standing up, lets it burrow inside, the rainbow static of the crew filling her with stray memories, fragments of thought, half-felt emotions.

Serenity sings outside and inside and in secret between-places. River pants around the verses, hands braced on her knees, and waits.

Thirty-four seconds. A full minute on a bad day.

Then she goes to brush her teeth.

 

***

 

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” River mouths the words along with Simon, behind his back.

Kaylee giggles. Her laughter is the colour of cherry blossoms and it makes Simon smile, real and carefree. He reaches behind him, pokes River in the side, unerringly finding the ticklish spot between her ribs.

The porridge tastes of nothing much, faintly sweet and not unpleasant. River sits beside Jayne because she knows it unnerves him but that he won’t tell her to move.

 

***

 

Zoe and Wash smell of each other. The walls of their bunk are warm under River’s hand as she walks past, fingertips trailing the smooth metal.

Everyone thinks she’s too young, too broken, to understand, but that’s not true. She’s just too young to do anything about it.

Maybe the other thing too.

 

***

 

The cargo bay is for doing cart wheels.

Mal and Book are leaning on the railing, their soft murmurs drifting down and wrapping around her as she whirls, dancing around the glass-sharp edges of their thoughts.

The second thing River learned in the institute was that everything has two layers; that what is said is not always what is meant, that what is seen is rarely what it looks like.

She won’t let herself remember what the first thing she learned was.

 

***

 

Inara is never surprised to see her, even though River doesn’t keep to a schedule. She never plans to go visit her, she just goes.

The shuttle is always shadowy, but there are no monsters in here. Inara offers undemanding company and acceptance that is tainted with neither pity nor excuses. 

She smells like incense, like fire, and River is drawn, inexorably, her lines smudged and indistinct. Nothing Inara does is sketched. Every gesture is complete even before it’s done, every word fully thought-through. She burns, but it’s a slow ember, hidden and protected.

There are questions River wants to ask, but some of them can only be answered in flesh, and her body is not quite her own yet. So she drinks the tea, chasing exotic spices with her tongue. She listens to the chime of Inara’s bracelets and the steady flow of her mind. She stays very still, lying on top of the heavy brocade of the pillows, red and gold and brushing against her skin like a kiss. 

She waits.