River screams, high and long, sounding more like a siren than a girl. Preparing for the job on Mykan, most of the crew ignore it, though the sound carries easily from where she sits on her bed.
So much blood. Screaming, and white light, and he goes...goes...blackbird rising and rings of fire, River thinks, shaking hard as Simon arrives. Her brother will always come when she calls, whether she likes it or not. The broken pieces of her, when she can tug them back together, want more for him than that. But he comes, because she screamed, and that must mean she shouldn’t be alone.
She wishes she could explain that she’s never alone. She’ll never be alone again. That’s a comfort and a problem. His problem comes soon. She isn’t going to tell him. This time, her silence is a choice, held tight by tremblng lips and the stubborn chin that she got from their father.
He’s not alone either. Not anymore. Handholding at the dinner table and mouths that greet and part in shadows. Simon’s happy.
He’ll be happier.
She keeps her silence.
She lets it happen.
She’ll hear his screams next.
“River?” Simon is framing her face in his hands, searching her eyes with his own, attempting to find his little sister inside the chaos they made of her mind.
She shakes her head, tries to pull away, tries to pull into herself. Turtle into shell. “No. No, no...Simon. I love you, Simon.”
Bewildered, he draws her close until the shaking stops. Until she stops.
Too late now. It’s coming.
“River, mei-mei, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she tells him, taking in shallow, shuddering breaths. She means it, now. Nothing wrong, nothing broken, she can breathe. Here he comes.
“Hey, Doc, little sis okay?” Mal stands in the doorway, looking rough and ready as always.
“I don’t know.” Simon’s helpless expression makes Mal want to fix whatever’s wrong, though he tries not to show it. He can’t fix what’s been done to the poor kid’s head. He’s pretty sure nobody can.
He’ll never say that to Simon, deepening that wounded look in his eyes. But she knows.
She agrees with him.
Simon passes the question to River, letting her go. “Are you okay?”
Her eyes don’t meet the captain’s when she nods. “Fine. Staying right here. Won’t make trouble.”
Mal frowns, confused, but doesn’t bother arguing. There’s work to be done. While he’s grown a mite fond of the prodigy, he doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to have sensical conversation with her.
“Alright then. You stay put.” He turns away from her, toward Simon, and the two of them form a closed circle. A loop.
It’s like she’s not even there. Is she?
“I’ll be back soon as I can,” the captain tells Simon. His hands roam over her brother’s shoulders, back, arms, aiming to reassure. “Just a simple swap, cargo for pay. Shouldn’t be more’n a few hours.”
Simon reads between the lines, the way she doesn’t have to, because for her the lines dissolve. Salt into water. Carrying out cargo, even to a remote part of the planet, should take an hour at most. “Why so long?”
“Our employer this time around is very...particular,” Mal decides on the word carefully. “Gotta go through screening, and follow a map that he won’t give us ‘til we land.”
“Oh.” Simon nods. Things are usually more straightforward on the border planets, but in his life that was, such requirements were commonplace. Hoops make insecure, powerful men feel safer. Insecure men are dangerous. “You’ll be careful?”
Mal shoots him that overconfident, reckless grin. “Always am.” It isn’t reassuring.
After double-checking his weapons and the rest of his pockets, Mal pulls Simon in for a long, slow kiss. They do that more now.
River isn’t sure if it’s only in front of her--she can’t get the relevant data. Not accessible. But it makes the metal of the ship heat. It makes her blush sometimes, and Simon doesn’t notice.
He should notice. But he won’t.
It’s wrong, not telling--little girl keeping secrets next to a wishing well. She loves the captain; he’s family, and Serenity is home. But Simon is...Simon. He’s all she has. Deep down, he is all that she has, and now he has someone else, spinning them off-balance. Tilted.
When the gravitational force of a planet tilts, you fall.
And then death.
The two men pull back, hands entwined, and her brother brushes his lips against Mal’s cheek. “See you soon, then,” Simon says, smoothing down the front of the brown coat that brands him an outlaw.
Her brother and the outlaw.
They exit together, leaving her curled up in the cacophonous silence of her room.
Her brother the outlaw.
She hears their feet clatter down the metal stairs, and knows that Simon will see the group off, even as he stays behind in case she needs him.
River squeezes her eyes shut and waits for it to be over. “I love you, Simon,” she whispers again. He can’t hear her; he’s already gone.
Mal is almost gone, too.