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Countermoves

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"You may claim that this is a good exercise in reintegrating verbal and computational cognition, Simon," River said, "but we both know that you only suggested this because you were feeling nostalgic and that I only agreed in order to humor you."

"I'm not feeling nostalgic," Simon retorted, automatically falling into the familiar rhythm of a lifetime's worth of petty sibling arguments engaged in more to pass the time than to settle any genuine disputes, "but you're free to believe whatever you want to as long as you hurry up and take your turn."

River continued to very decidedly not take her turn. No one other than Simon was going to complain about it, though, and he was only doing so to get a reaction from River, not because he had yet reached a true feeling of impatience. Nobody moved.

The interior of Serenity was perhaps not serene, but at least it was quiet. Book was back at his abbey for a short spell of time to visit a sick friend, and they would pick him up when they next passed by Persephone in a week or two. Mal and most of the crew, including Inara, were off on a mostly legal job and weren't due back for at least another six hours. Wash was up in the cockpit, at the ready just in case things went sideways. Simon had already prepped the medical bay, just in case things went really sideways. And River was on hand, just in case things went really, really gorram sideways enough to need to fight off any enemies who somehow gained access to the ship. However, until any of them got that call to action, there was nothing they needed to do right now but wait, and for once this looked like a simple job that was going to remain a simple job without spiraling into disaster, conspiracy, betrayal, or all of the above.

This waiting was what led to River and Simon's current activity: Scrabble. It was an old game from Earth That Was, not as ancient or famous as some of the true classics, but Simon had fond memories of playing it, first against his parents in his childhood and later against River once he could convince a then skeptical five year old to put aside her high tech toys and teaching implements long enough to engage with something so antiquated as a physical board game. This set currently sitting spread out between the two Tam siblings on Serenity's main dining table was not an original copy, of course, but it was a faithful enough reproduction as far as Simon could tell and in remarkable condition for having passed through the hands of an unknown number of previous owners. It was not even missing any pieces. Stumbling across it in a market several backwater planets ago had been a happy surprise.

At the moment, River did not seem to agree with Simon's assessment. Initially, she had agreed to the game easily enough, but now they were only a handful of moves into the game, and play had ground to a halt while she glowered balefully at the seven tiles in front of her as if trying to transform them into a better selection of point values through sheer force of will. Or maybe she was trying to use telekinesis on them, though Simon had yet to see any proof of her possessing that, no matter what River liked to claim about being able to kill people with her brain. Either way, she did not seem to be having any luck in her current endeavors, or any luck in general for that matter.

It served her right.

As if she had read Simon's thoughts, which she probably had, River stopped glowering at her tiles and instead glowered at her brother, saying, "This game relies too much on chance and is too arbitrary in its definition of what qualifies as a foreign word even by the usage standards of its time period. Also, the set we used to have was better." She went back to scowling at her tiles without touching them. She did not endlessly shuffle the tiles around the way that many people would have done while contemplating their next move. Her mental visualization skills were too good for that; they always had been.

Simon noticed that River did not say that the set they used to have at home was better. Somewhere along the way, Serenity had become more of a home to him than the place where he had grown up, and he suspected that River felt the same. He also suspected that she currently had a tray of nothing but vowels, because if she had had anything else she probably would have figured out some move she was willing to make long before now. Even as a child, pride had always kept her from playing any word worth less than ten points unless finding any better alternative proved to be a mathematical impossibility, and even then she always dragged her heels about it until somebody gave her the ultimatum to take her turn or forfeit it.

At the thought of making River forfeit her turn, Simon glanced at his watch (again) and decided that, no, he was not going to push her on that front quite yet. They had a lot of time left to kill, and the faces that River kept making at her tiles as she mentally sorted through all possible permutations of what she could do with them were kind of adorable in a dorky kind of way. Also, after being confronted like that, her playing always became even more cutthroat than before.

Instead, Simon said, "You're just bitter because plastic tiles don't have woodgrain patterns like the old one did for you to memorize and let you pick whichever letters you want."

"And,you only chose this game because you're bitter that you can't beat me at xiangqi, shogi, or chess, and you can't beat anyone at cards."

"I would have a better chance if you didn't get to peek at what I was planning."

"I don't cheat," River said, wrinkling her nose. And that was true, at least when the only purpose of a game was entertainment. Cheating under those circumstances was beneath a Tam. Simon had had that drilled into his head well before River had been conceived. As for and circumstances where the stakes actually mattered, well, best not cross a Tam. "It's not my fault you won't bother to learn to think more quietly. Besides," she added, "I always beat you even before...." She made a vague gesture with her hand near her head. She did not need to say, 'the Academy,' or 'Blue Sun,' or 'the needles.' Simon understood.

Simon also did not have any good rebuttal to either of her arguments, so he just stuck his tongue out at her, both because he needed to lighten the suddenly dark mood and because it was his prerogative as older brother who did not have a Scrabble tray full of nothing but vowels. Or at least, he most likely did not have a tray of vowels. He knew he had a letter U. His other six tiles, which he had drawn after his previous turn, were still face down on the table. He was not going to look at them until it was his turn again, thus preventing any chance of River 'reading' him, however accidentally, and thereby being able to plan an extra move ahead.

River stuck out her tongue right back at him and, just to one-up him, threw a handful of the dried squid snacks that had been sitting on the table next to her.

Afterwards, Simon would always swear that he had no idea how things escalated (which was a lie, because he knew exactly how things escalated, having personally done at least fifty percent of the escalation/retaliation, even if River had been the first one to dip into to the nearby galley storage units for more 'ammunition'), but within only a few minutes they were both sprawled on the floor, sore from laughing, surrounded by scattered Scrabble tiles, even more widely scattered squid snacks (which was no great loss, because they were the terrible kind with too much sugar and not enough salt that Jayne got when it was his turn to do supply runs because he couldn't taste the difference), and drifting clouds of thrown synthesized protein powder that were slowly settling into a thin white coating over everything.

Even a very distinctive, "Huh," from the doorway was not enough to ruin Simon's good humor, so he just hoisted himself up to his elbows and grinned at a very bemused looking Captain Malcom Reynolds and crew who were all back at the ship very, very early.

"Any casualties that need attention?" Simon asked with as much professionalism as was possible given the situation.

"None," Mal said, truthfully as far as Simon could see. No one looked any the worse for wear, and the sack, presumably of credit chips, hanging at the captain's hip looked even bigger than expected. It must have been a good day for everyone all around. "I could ask you the same question," Mal continued, "but truth is I don't want to know. In fact, I'm gonna turn around, take everyone with me, and come back in a few hours, and if this place is clean by then, I figure we can pretend none of this ever happened. Not one word, Jayne!" he added preemptively. Then, matching words to action, Mal did not even wait for a reply from either Tam before he pivoted on his heel and stalked off, muttering to himself about crazy running in families.

Still on the floor, Simon and River could only look at each other and start laughing again, and they both kept laughing for a good long while. Then River found a Scrabble tile within reach and flicked it at Simon, and the battle was on again. It was a very long time before they got around to cleaning up.

No, Simon thought to himself and maybe to River too just in case she was currently listening in to his conscious ideas and not just focusing on countering moves he had not yet made, he was not feeling nostalgic and had not felt that way for a very long time. Why should he long for the past when what he had here on Serenity in the present was so perfect?

The End