Tim was born when River was four, and she hated him at first. "He can't talk," she muttered, following the nurse holding the bundle of blankets and flesh. "Can't walk, can't read, can't even do times tables. Why does everyone love him so much?"
"He's only a baby, River," Fourteen-year-old Simon had said crossly. He was busy on the 'Net, playing with a virtual dissection kit. He was looking at the cross-section of a frog. "You were once like that. Mother and Father told me to take care of you." He flashed a brief smile at her before making an incision in the brain. "You need to take care of Tim now."
She stood still for a moment, turning the concept over in her mind. She found Tim boring and useless; he couldn't speak or walk yet, much less read. But she trusted Simon. Questioning his word was only just becoming a concept in her mind. She nodded to herself and wandered off to the nursery to sit near her baby brother. She would protect him now, she decided, and teach him as soon as he would learn.
Tim was six, River was ten; she was teaching him the finer arts of chess.
"Are you sure you want to move your rook there?" There was a teasing grin on her face. "Think moves ahead. Six, to be specific."
He squinted down at the board, grubby fingers wrapped around the carved white syntho-wood. His face soured into an expression more appropriate for an adult than a child playing a game. "It's practically 'mate, River," he said quietly, and began picking up the pieces. Her hand, pale and long fingered, quickly stopped his smaller, chubby hand. Tim looked up; River's face was unusually serious.
"Think around the usual strategies, Tim." She pointed to a pawn on the edge of the board. "What can you do with him?"
The game was won not long after. Tim was smiling the rest of the afternoon.
River was fourteen; Tim was ten and sitting on her bed, biting his lip to keep from crying. She was folding a long-sleeved red shirt.
"Why… why do you have to go?" Tim's voice was quiet. "Why is it so far away? You're leaving Simon… You're leaving *me*." His face crumpled, a few tears streaking down his cheeks.
She stopped and leaned over, looking him straight in the eye. "I need to leave, Tim. It's..." She exhaled sharply and turned back to her closet. "We can't learn anything here. We have privileges, money, prestige… But do you know how to change a compression coil? Or where to find one?" She grabbed a pair of thick black boots from the corner of the closet and sat on the bed next to him. She continued while she tugged them on. "We're smothered here. I need to get out, Tim. Mother and Father are smothering us – I need to get away to learn." She rubbed his hair the wrong way and her face twisted up in an impish grin. "Besides, I'm coming back. It's not like they're sending me to the bughouse for forever and a day."
He scooted closer and hugged her tightly. At the spaceport, he was smiling, and if his smile looked tight, faked, forced, nobody but River noticed.
Tim was twelve, sitting silently on the stairs, a shadow in the dark. Yelling emanated from the kitchen, two male voices occasionally punctuated by a shrill female voice. Simon had been dragged home from the Blackout Zones tonight.
"Listen to me! Look at these letters!" Simon was yelling. There was the sound of papers being slapped against the counter. " 'Influenza – the fever – it burns. We are 3 and 2 and 1-' this isn't her! We never had influenza; we were immunized immediately after birth. You keep saying it's a coincidence, jien tah duh guay! These are things that you *know*-"
"And I don't understand why you are raising such a ruckus about them, Simon!" Tim closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. In his mind's eye, he could see his father, blustering, growing red in the face, brushing River's letters aside. (The only things I have that she touched, a little voice cried in his head.) "It's one of River's little jokes. Don't tell me it doesn't sound like one of her little codes, something between she and Timothy dreamed up to sneak past their nanny."
Codes. His eyes flew open and he bit his tongue to keep from crying out. River was speaking in codes, of *course*, *why* hadn't he seen it? Pictures of her letters flashed through his thoughts, her looped handwriting curling and words separating, flashes of patterns and rearranged words, synonyms, antonyms, it made so much sense now-
"TIMOTHY TAM!" His mother's voice cut through this revelation. He shook himself out of his reverie to see his mother glowering at him disapprovingly from the doorway. "Get back up to your room right now, young man. You should be asleep-" His father's voice, a hoarse growl from yelling, cut her off, though his eyes never left Simon's face.
"Let him go, Regan. I'm sure he couldn't sleep with all the noise." He finally turned to Tim. "We'll deal with him tomorrow. We've had enough excitement for one night."
Tim had to swallow a manic grin, automatically bowing to his parents and muttering a quick apology. He fled to his room, mind tearing apart River's letters, searching for a clue.
Tim is now fifteen, cutting school – something he swore he'd never do. He is instead in a private booth at the local data access center, using a stolen ident card to access private Alliance communication records. He is searching for the fugitives Simon and River Tam.
He is very lonely.
A red alert screen catches his eye – they'd last been reported by one Jayne Cobb, mercenary, on the planet Ariel. There was a plan to ambush them outside of Ariel Medical Institution, but-
Tim frowns. The entry is cut off, merely saying that the fugitives had escaped. He tries to look into the cause of the mission's termination, but it requires more classification than he currently has. More favors, more thievery, more of a risk of being caught. How far does he have to go to get his sister (his spirit, his friend, his soul, his River) back? He restarts the search, looking for Jayne Cobb's profile; what he finds is interesting. His last reported occupation was mercenary, yet his last reported place of occupation is a Firefly-class transport ship – not exactly a hot seat for violence. Unless – Tim narrows his eyes and runs a search on outstanding warrants for Firefly-class ships.
There are only a few results, and only one catches his eye – Serenity, a merchant ship flagged for smuggling. The main reported runs are to outer rim plants (Colonies, where anyone can buy a new start, thinks Tim), but they also carry a highly renowned Companion, Inarra Serra. So, most likely a transport ship dabbling in small time petty crime – but there was something not adding up. He checks their public itinerary. They are due to land on Osiris in two weeks; one short shuttle ride and he'll be there.
But what if he is wrong? What if this Mr. Cobb had been acting on his own, looking for the reward money? Tim can't make the flight on his own, or through legal paths at all; at the same time, he remembers how his parents coldly disowned Simon because of his attempts to find their sister. Can he give away this world? Can he really break away from the only way of life he's ever known?
Then he thinks of her blue eyes, her smile, her brilliance. She taught him everything, she opened his eyes- he doesn't have a choice. He can't smile as he begins the search for flights to Osiris.