After Miranda, River wakes up as a girl.
She remembers being the avatar of the Alliance's secrets. She remembers her place as an archetype, and how she fit among the Heroes and Villains, the Monsters and the Bastards. For a thousand years she swam in an unconscious sea, collecting dreams and moments from the past and the future.
Now: "I'm all right," she says. "Simon, I'm all right!"
It's hard to let go of the dreams. It's hard to see the people around her without watching the scaffolding of the 'verse that they're held to, like flies in a web. The connections shine like binary, one or zero, off or on. River's been twisted around, from one to the other. She sees new things, in new ways. She feels blind.
She adjusts. Simon runs tests, and River holds his eyes with hers and listens to him, so hard. But between the inconclusive scans and his hopes, his mind fills with static. River knows that the only thing she can do to help him is to live as though time runs all one way, like water flowing downhill. It takes practice. She's lived unstuck in time for so long that she wanders out of now if she doesn't pay attention.
Now: Twilight leaches colour out of the world, from everything but the flame that Zoe carries. The wind is cold, the rocks grit beneath their feet, and Kaylee is crying. River wants to go back to then, when Wash smiled and found soup cans for her to rearrange in the kitchen--when Book traced his fingers over gilded letters in his Bible and told stories that were wrong but soothing when he spoke them. The tiny rocket climbs until it's only one more spark among the stars.
Now: In the engine room, Kaylee and Simon move together like fractals. On the surface, it's chaos. They wrap about each other in patterns so complex that River can't predict what will happen next. Their thoughts don't give her any clues: they've turned hazy and all but disappeared. River doesn't know what's happening, or how she fits. She wishes she couldn't see.
Now: Inara crouches beside her, one hand blood-warm on her shoulder, and says, "Would you like some tea?"
Yes, River thinks. Yes.
This is how it begins:
Inara's nervous, and she moves about her shuttle more than she needs to, finding the tin of dried leaves, the small cups, the tea pot. She watches the door more than the heating water, and she jumps when it whistles, coming to a boil. Her mind is in Kaylee's bunk, wondering, listening, and River winces because Inara's thoughts are so strong they would hurt, if they weren't trapped beneath the surface.
It's the tea ceremony that calms Inara. It's one of the first rituals she learned when she was training to be a Companion. The precise measurement of the water, the exact time that the tea must steep. She practiced this with Nandi, often, each of them taking turns as client and companion. Inara's very aware of being the hostess here, even though River only fits into the jigsawed edges of her thoughts. Still, River accepts her cup in the spirit it's given, turning its most perfect edge away from her unworthy lips, and drinks.
Inara sets her cup down only when there's nothing left in it but a swirl of damp leaves. River reaches for it and turns it around, so that she can see it as Inara did. There are patterns there, as simple as breathing. River falls into them, reading them like a child's picture-book.
Kaylee and Simon kiss softly. Her hand rests on his forearm, brushes against his bare chest. He cups her face and holds her tenderly, and whispers that this is what he wanted, for himself, all this time.
"That's enough," Inara says. "River, please."
River blinks, and she's back in the shuttle. The line between what she speaks and what she knows is still a thin one, even though she's getting better--which she understands by the looks on the faces around her, that aren't scared or anxious anymore. Only River's worried, because staying silent isn't the same as forgetting that there are things in the 'verse worth fearing. She knows she's safe here, though. The light is golden, like sunset, and it suits Inara so perfectly. The tapestries that used to hang here, red for luck, are gone, and the sheets on the bed aren't silk. River can see them even so, here and gone, past and present, but she pulls herself together and says, "I'm sorry."
"It's all right." Inara shakes her head and starts cleaning up. "I'm not surprised, River. Simon's been Kaylee's bao bai for months."
"It hurts," River says. "I don't belong there. I don't want to see it."
Inara's smile has edges to it. "Didn't you see it coming?"
River twists her mouth. She was thinking of other things. The way Simon's dreams tended didn't touch the horrors that scared her or hurt her or made her cry. He was too busy misunderstanding her to talk to her.
"That sounds like Simon." Inara sits on the couch that wraps the shuttle's wall. She's not as serene as she pretends, but she's been pretending for a long time. It's her business, and she does it well. She's trying to accept Kaylee and Simon and move on. She's certain she's never been in love, so it ought to be easy.
"But the math is wrong," River says. She's losing her place in time. One and one are two, but she's caught in ternary logic, balanced somewhere outside the absolute values. "You're not the one that was made from dust..." She stops. Stories crowd her mind, and they aren't the right ones. Inara's about to send her away.
"I want to understand," she says.
Inara lets a breath loose. "You're not the only one."
"No," River says. "I want you to teach me."
Inara can't hear what River's asking over the clamor of her thoughts. She's more like the others on board than she'd like to admit. River is everyone's xiao mei mei, and crazy to boot. She closes her eyes. There's a pocket she's sewn into the seam of her dress, and she reaches into it, and brings out its contents.
Inara gasps. "Where did you find all that?"
River holds out bills like hell money, ready to burn. Maybe it's enough to pacify all her ghosts. "Jayne remembered the payload," she says. "Simon made me sleep, but I remembered, too. I don't think Fanty and Mingo did."
It doesn't take long for Inara to understand. Her eyes widen, but her voice is steady when she says, "You want me to--?"
"Teach me," River says. "I want to know."
Inara is shaking her head, but it isn't a refusal. "It's not a simple thing," she says.
"Like fractals," River says. "Like string theory." She learned both before she ever left for the Academy, before she lost herself. She can learn this.
Inara's wrong, though. It's the simplest thing in the world.
In the mornings, River lives in two places at once. Bilocation isn't easy. Her body finds its own stealthy way to Kaylee's side, while her mind curls like a kitten in a nest made from Inara's sheets.
River lays on her stomach (sits crosslegged in the engine room), her chin resting on a bunched pillow (her arms wrapped around one bent knee), and her face hidden by her crossed arms (calibrating Kaylee's tools). Inara is washing (Kaylee's tinkering with the port pin lock), as she always does, afterwards (the g-line is tacked and gummy, again). Water slides down Inara's skin, hesitating, then bunching: in the hollow where her collarbones meet; her navel; the crease of her thighs (Kaylee's legs sprawl out from beneath the engine block, a strip of skin showing where her shirt doesn't quite meet her dungarees). River allows her gaze to trace the droplet vectors (this time Kaylee's certain she'll have the flow regulated). She remembers the taste of Inara's skin (the way the g-line bypasses the grav boot): powdered and perfumed at first, rising gradually to salt and sweat.
"River, could ya--"
River places the wrench in her palm. Kaylee's satisfaction warms her. It's like her smile, happiness for the whole world to see, focused and loving at the same time. Doesn't matter that smile is under the engine block. River feels it, and answers with one of her own.
Miranda is receding. When those cities of empty minds gabble their nothing at her, River listens to Kaylee instead, or Mal, or even Zoe--her grief presses against her heart as hard and hot as a tumour, but it's real, it's human, and Zoe won't lie down under its hurt. When River dreams, and Simon isn't there to comfort her, and Jayne stomps through the night-dark with knives in his mind, River creeps into Inara's shuttle and touches her. A palm on her calf, a fingertip on the ball of her foot. Inara wakes smiling. It's a smile full of habit, because she never knows whose face she expects above her in the dreamtime. River doesn't mind. She reaches for the shreds of Inara's hopes, and Inara cradles her, tightly, closely.
"This isn't love," River whispers. "This is learning."
"What's that, sweetie?"
River blinks at Kaylee, surfacing from her crawlspace, mussed and sweaty. When River climbed out of frozen sleep, Simon laid her next to Kaylee as she dreamed. River remembers the swirl of dark hair and sweet silks in her mind, the way Inara's face appeared when Kaylee's pain was worst.
"You love my brother," River says. Like so many things, it's the truth but not everything; it's what she is allowed to say, but not all she knows.
Kaylee smiles, shrugs her hair out of her face, and stretches out her back by grabbing her ankles and leaning forward. "He's mighty sweet," she says. Her cheeks are pink. "I always thought I would, if I ever had the chance."
River nods. It doesn't matter, even so. Kaylee would live brighter if she weren't grabbing for the chain-gang rhythm of Simon's expectations. His beliefs are algorithms and hierarchies, all cause-and-effect. Kaylee tastes wisdom and swallows knowledge whole.
"You split yourself in pieces to fit him," River says. "He faults the places where the slivers haven't worn smooth."
"Now, that ain't so--"
Kaylee's mind turns dissonant and River winces, hugs her knee tighter. They're two girls, sitting here on the engine room's floor, whispering secrets. River tries to remember that. She tries. But the places where Kaylee's unhappiness bleeds through are hurtful, so River says, "Inara's back now."
Kaylee frowns at the far wall. "'Course she is, since the Captain rescued her."
River lets out a disgusted breath, moves her shoulders, her arms. Kaylee's eyes look wounded, and fearful of more hurt coming. "How long?" River asks--how long has Kaylee loved Inara? And because River's a girl now, instead of the Alliance's chimera, Kaylee answers.
"I don't know when I started," she says. She doesn't try to parcel it into pieces. It's all part of the whole, figured in duration and depth. It's as uncertain as measuring direction and velocity both at once. Kaylee loves. That's all.
Inara loves the same way. "Stupidly," she calls it, "flighty as a bird."
Like a goose, River thinks. Long necks twined, heads tucked beneath feathers, listening to the wisdom in their mate's heart. Winging through the skies of the world, together. Alone, when one dies. Like Zoe without Wash, migrating because the lines of force call her, not because she expects to find anything when the flying's done.
Linear causation is one of the first myths. On Earth that was, Book storied her once, God made first one, and then another woman, to ease the first man's loneliness. Book says that was the beginning. God is the prime mover, He is the first cause. River said to him only, "That was a prior eventuality," and told him of the loci of moments, of the curve of time and space.
There's no such thing as beginnings. Kaylee didn't start loving Inara. She only does.
So when River leaves the engine room, with Simon's timetable calling her to the infirmary, she goes to Inara instead. Serenity's not so large that Simon won't look there, before he gives up searching. River lets her sweater fall, and then her dress, and Inara smiles the way she would if this was love.
Inara's kisses hold all her secrets, and River finds happiness drowning in them. God's first woman was of the earth, and ripe with desire. The second was of flesh and ate fruit for the love of its taste. The first man sent them both away from him, for a time. What Book's stories don't say is who comforted them then. Who else did they have, but each other?
"You know what the first rule of flying is?" Mal asks. He's certain she does. The world's falling away beneath them. River adjusts for the rain, for the storm, and almost smiles. Mal treats her like a person now, like he's her captain too.
"Love is what keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down," he says. "Tells you she hurts before she keens. Makes her home."
Mal loves Serenity like that, full and fierce. He holds to her controls and guides her into the black. His lips turn up at the corners and he's watching the 'verse come at them through the clouds. He swallows and his eyes are bright. River slips away, before the buffer panel falls and he's the Captain again, yelling. While he's still Mal, still free.
Freedom's as new to River as standing is to a fresh-born calf. She's wobbly but she has the instincts for it. When Simon finds her, she says, "I don't want to go."
"It's for the best, River," he says. "It's been over a year since I've been home...more than three, for you--Mother and Father don't even know you're--that you're well."
She moves to look at him, full in the face. There aren't many, on Serenity or off it, that River doesn't look at sidelong. Faces lie more often than not, and she likes to hear the clean truth of minds.
"Mother and Father don't care," she says.
"They just don't understand."
Seeing her won't change that. River turns to the wall and stops being a girl. She flies with Serenity and hears the echo of lives inside her shell. Simon sighs and carries her to her bunk, but she is not her body and it is not her, so she doesn't hear the words he whispers to her, of home and family and love.
River floats in a tide of stars. Time curls around her in loops. There will be a moment when Serenity's spaces aren't hers. A moment when Mother's eyes will open wide and Father will clasp her hard to his chest and a time after that when they will look at her with whispers in their minds, and fear, and she does not want to go.
She will. Simon loves her. He has lived for her. Of course she'll help him. It's what he needs. He swam, holding her above dark waters to breathe, and now he is exhausted. If Mother and Father are his port, then she can do no more than take him home.
Kaylee won't join them. She wouldn't leave Serenity if Simon offered her every moon in the Core. He doesn't know to offer grease and backache, alloys and motors and parts to puzzle into wholes. He still believes that mechanics and engines are Kaylee's job, and that she would gladly escape them for dresses and cultured words.
"It's not a simple thing," Inara said, once, even as she stroked shivers into River's breasts, as she kissed her and smiled as if she knew.
River nods to Inara-in-her-memory. "I thought you could teach me."
"Mei mei," Inara says, "nothing changes, and everything does. What else is there to learn?"
"The 'verse does strange things," Kaylee says. "You can't ever guess what's coming, but there's always things as stay simple, stay the same."
River blinks, and she's a girl again. Serenity slides through Persephone's atmo, sweet as Kaylee could want. There will be other ships, on the way to the place she came from, the one she can't call home anymore.
There isn't time to remember Inara's hands, strong and graceful; the way her fingers moved inside River's body and transformed her into electricity. There isn't time for divination of Kaylee's future, of how she will go walking with Inara, their hips brushing, their gazes sliding towards each other, giggling and quick-breathed.
There simply isn't time enough, when it all flows in a single direction.
River will be on another ship, in another tiny bunk, when Kaylee and Inara make their way home. They'll kiss for the first time in the doorway of Inara's shuttle, where anyone could see if they were watching--Zoe, coming up from checking the new cargo, blinks when she notices them. She won't say a word, or make a sound. Maybe she laughs quietly to herself, heading to her own empty bed, or maybe she covers her face and finally lets herself cry.
The kiss isn't perfect, because no first kiss should be. Inara will try to pretend, and her act will fail. Kaylee will try to hold herself back, and she won't be able to. They'll fall into each other, lips and skin and pleasure. Far away in a narrow bed, alone, River's eyes will open when their minds meet in the little death, and she will smile.
She'll be in a transfer station orbiting Boros when Mal finds out. She'll be strapped in to a descending rocket above her parents' estate when he finally accepts it. The trees are fading into autumn, leaves like fire across every acre that the Tams own. When River dances in the drifts of last spring's life, escaping her parents' attention, she will stop and look up at the rushing beat of wings.
The geese are flying south, cyclical and eternal.
They're finding home.end