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A Pretty War

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She's a jar with a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid, a sleepy kisser, a pretty war
With feelings hid

- Wilco


Kaylee, grease-stained, hair fuzzing out to halo her head when she stands in front of the light. First time River kissed her Kaylee's breath had caught and hitched, mouth opening soft and practiced. Caught up with herself, though, pushed River away like she was something dangerous and delicate all at once, babbled that River didn't understand what she was doing.

River knows, though. How to climb with bare feet around the engine room almost as well as Kaylee. Careful and focused. How to get the words out right, sometimes, to make things go the way they should. Explain. And when she can't, when it all jumbles, she has her hands and her mouth, her legs. A kind of dancing. Her thumbs on Kaylee's wrists and sometimes everything is sunshine easy, the way Kaylee giggles, kisses her, pushes River back onto the bunk. Other days she looks at River like she's the last diagram in the very back of Simon's most advanced medical textbook, incomprehensible. Frightening.

There are days and days, sometimes, when they don't see each other at all. Things draw River out, away, make her lose herself. Serenity swallows her up, as deep and promising as Kaylee, or more. The times when it's hard to keep track of what's now or real. Falling inside herself.

Kaylee kisses her when she comes back, if she's not doing something so terribly important. Kaylee is like Simon, she doesn't mind the way things drift. Understands. Patient with her. Pleasant idle River hum in the back of her mind when they're together, same rhythm as the way she thinks about the engine, just. Different key; soft skin and wet snail trails across it. This is what Kaylee likes, the naked and the feelgood. River likes her liking it. A focusing thing, something to learn. Quick skitter across her mind. Like Kaylee's fingers on her body.

The straps of Kaylee's coveralls and the rise of her breasts beneath them. Firm and warm in River's palms.


Sometimes River wakes up because there's laughing. Simon and Kaylee, the bright peaks of their happiness. Talking on the couch like they used to once upon a time. Stories and bad jokes and this is a kind of dancing, too, a skirting one, intricate, drawn-out.

If she goes out, they will look guilty, Kaylee will look guilty and Simon will apologize for waking her. River wants to say no, they shouldn't look that way. It's such a pretty song, Simon and Kaylee, tripping melody, careful chords.

But when she tries to tell them it all falls apart, the words crumble before she can make them work right. Instead she wraps her arms around herself and listens to them. Noise and silence, patterns she can count out. Fibonacci, primes. They are both fixers, finding the places where the seams are. Not the seams River can see, but it's good enough sometimes. Wholeness. This business of bodies. And Serenity holding all three of them.


River wakes up screaming and it's a while before she figures out it's not out loud. It's hard hard hard to get out of bed, make herself move, but harder not to. Skitter across to Simon's room. When he sleeps he looks like he's ten years old maybe, loose, shifting. His colors are all soft. He says she's getting better, but it's an equation measured in backward steps against her progress. These nights.

He only wakes up a little when she gets into bed. Burrows against him, hot skin, cool sheets. Every beat of her heart is another jag in the air, shattering the room, all sharp, ugly edges. She whimpers a little against him without meaning to, and he wraps an arm around her. Holds her tight and tight and tight, like he's been doing all this time, every second since he came and got her. They take care of each other here, and not always in one direction only. She lets herself get all tangled in him, arms and legs to shut out the rest of the world. His breathing to match hers with. Sleepy shushes, half-slurred endearments. Palm curving to fit her skull.

Black ship, dark ship, ink on the other side of the hatch when it opens. Kaylee shape against that darkness, whispering a question. Stops when she sees them, just as Simon tries to sit bolt upright. Can't, tethered to River, who twists against him, toward Kaylee. Calls her, hand reaching, white. Says it right or maybe it's just the sound of her, the way her cheeks are tight with salt. Simon is saying an explaining thing to Kaylee above River's head, and Kaylee is slipping in beside her, tentative, body at the edge of the bed, brushing against River.

Everything River says comes out a riddle, if she means it that way or not. (Even when it all makes so much sense inside her head.) Touch is better, truer. Less likely to slip out of her grasp, falling away. Instead, this: her face buried in Simon's chest, Kaylee gradually softening to curl around her. The outlines of both of them, curving the air. The air that's swimming into River's lungs and back out and the things floating in her head are fading away again.

The heat, when she kisses him. Light and closemouthed. Intent. Twisting to Kaylee, soft and wet. The stillness of both of them, frozen, and she takes Simon's hand, puts it on the place where Kaylee's breast starts to be.

River can see it all in her mind, glimmering, unravelling outward. The shapes they'll be able to draw.