River can make herself invisible, sometimes without even trying. Eyes slide past her, unseeing. They don't register her presence. Sometimes she finds it a comfort. She doesn't have to flinch from the accusations behind their gaze. Before, it was easier. She didn't have to pretend. They ignored her babble. Now, it frightens them. Because now they know. Before, it was just light and sounds. Now they know it's lightning and thunder heralding storms, and they are too afraid not to listen.
She takes comfort where she can, since Jubel. There's little enough comfort to go around, with Simon still limping, a constant reminder that their haven's walls were breached. That the black is not empty. No one sleeps at first, except for Jayne. Brave faces like masks are put on, but slide off during the night and she knows it will take time to forget. To let the forgetting lull them back into routine when simple joys will come faster and easier.
River has become adept at sliding between all of the walls, unseen, unheard, un-remarked upon. Sometimes she walks on her feet and hears with her ears. She tries so hard, but sometimes she's everywhere without meaning to be. Sometimes she can't help being invisible. It's like she's forgotten how to cast a shadow.
She's a magpie, drawn to anything that shines. Anything that casts a light bright enough to trace her outline.
River is being invisible when Kaylee comes to Simon. Watching over him, the way he so often did for her.
He's lying on his bed, attention so closely on the medical journal loaded onto the reader in his hands that he doesn't see Kaylee until she's two steps into the room.
Curled in the corner of the room, bare ghost feet black from walking every inch of the ship, River watches with her ghost chin resting on her ghost knees, arms locked to hold herself in so none of her bits fly away as the mechanic kneels next to his bed.
Steam rises from the rice she's brought him from the mess for his lunch, making the air between their faces dance and shimmer like a mirage.
"Kaylee," Simon says, propping himself up against the pillows, eyes wide and earnest, "you know that you don't have to do this."
River clucks her tongue silently against her teeth at her brother's occasional stupidity. He's so busy blaming himself that he can't open his eyes and see Kaylee's shadow which she can't hide, even with every light put out, even the stars.
"I know," she lies. "I want to. You don't really want to be limping around to the mess on that sore leg, do you?"
"Kaylee, you do realise that you have nothing to apologise for?" Simon said gently.
"But it's my fault." Kaylee's voice is barely above a whisper.
"What's your fault? That my sister is wanted by the Alliance?"
"Or that a madman managed to board the ship?" His voice is softer now, tenderness stretching between them. "Was that your fault?"
Kaylee perches on the edge of his bed, as if poised to flee. "I shoulda been stronger. I shoulda helped..."
"You did help." Simon takes the tray from her, and sets it on the floor, where the rice continues to steam.
Her hair falls in her face, hiding her shiny eyes as she shakes her head in a swift denial. "I shoulda been stronger."
"You did exactly right."
Simon lays his hand on hers, fingers curling around hers lightly.
"If he had hurt you, I would never have been able to forgive myself."
Sometimes, River decides Simon can be like water in a canal, with the broad wide sea on the other side of the locks. Everything safe and measured, with long careful processes that won't allow him to escape and taste freedom and the unknown, so much as shift so slowly that he never notices when he gained ten foot swells.
She can see the locks opening to the sea now--feel them as he changes so slowly he doesn't realise he's changing as he leans forward, his weight on his elbows, and kisses Kaylee.
"Really," he says as they part, his forehead resting against hers. Kaylee is wound so tight, like part of Serenity's engine, humming with life and purpose barely restrained by the laws of physics.
River's invisible hands dig into her invisible palms, leaving phantom pain as Kaylee breathes his name before kissing him again. What began as a spark ignites as he pulls her closer, hunger flaring between them. River runs her fingers lightly over her face, tracing the path of Simon's hand across Kaylee's cheek. Her thumb rests on her parted lips, tasting him as Kaylee's mouth opens against his. Her breath comes faster as Kaylee's hand brushes his chest, feeling the heat of his skin through the black cotton jersey. Nails graze her collar bone as his fingers slip down Kaylee's neck, cupping curves through the coveralls and thin pink shirt.
Kaylee gasps and moves away, colour high and River can feel the confusion coming off them both like summer heat. Simon stammers out an apology, the ghost of Jubel Early rising in his eyes.
"It's much too soon. I shouldn't..."
"Chûnrén," Kaylee says with a smile, and River can see light pressing at her edges like sunlight limning a curtain. Her shadow's washed out now--its edges grey and almost gone. "It's been much too long, already. But I..." She breaks his gaze, eyes downcast. "I don't want to hurt you."
Simon thinks she means his leg.
"You won't," her brother whispers, because he needs her so much that the idea of her turning and leaving his quarters hurts more than the bullet had.
River leans forward, one hand on cool deckplates, hair falling in front of her eyes. She rocks back and forth slowly, silently—even though they can't see or hear her because she's hidden from them both.
Need laps at her, tearing parts of her with cat-like claws. Need, and more.
River feels his laugh well up in her own chest, head light as if she's had too much plum wine. River clapped a hand over her own mouth to keep from echoing it.
"Kaylee, who's the doctor here? You're not going to hurt me. Come here. Sit in my lap."
Desire gives him courage he has lacked for so long. Kaylee's nearness gives him the light he's lost out here in the black.
"I bet you say that to all the girls," she teases him, masking her nervousness so well River can only feel it as the lightest of touches at the back of her mind. Everything was changing so fast, and Kaylee had wanted it--wanted him for so long. She was sure she was dreaming as Simon teased her right back, so relaxed, so comfortable in his own skin, all of his standoffishness melted away.
"Well, as a matter of fact..."
"Bastard." Laughter wells up, spilling over her like water.
"Ow," he pretends her playful smack on his arm hurts. "What happened to not wanting to hurt me?"
"I changed my mind," she answers, hitting the other arm, but softer this time. "Perhaps I'll just go, and you can call one of your other girlfriends..."
River wants to smooth the girl's hair back from her face with his hands. Wants to feel the pulse beating in the hollow of her neck leap beneath his tongue. She can almost taste Kaylee's sweat and sweetness on her tongue as the girl edges closer to the bed.
"Kaylee." He takes her by the arms, shifting his weight and pulling her down to the rumpled bedclothes. "I don't have any other girlfriends."
"In the room, you mean."
"Yes." He brings her closer, lips so close Kaylee can feel his breath on her cheek. "That's what I mean."
What surprises River is not the stab of jealousy as Kaylee unzips her grease-stained coveralls and lets them slide down tanned skin, kicking them to the floor. Pink flowered shirt joins them, fluttering on its way down.
"You're so beautiful," he says, and she blushes.
"Am not," Kaylee repeats, cheeks burning. She thinks beautiful means Inara's silks and dark eyes. Zoe's wild curls, and even River's grace when she dances.
Pretty, maybe, Kaylee can believe. But not beautiful.
She can't see how beautiful she is. How beautiful he makes her, with his reverent touch, eyes tracing each curve and swell like a caress. So beautiful it makes River's heart ache to look at her.
"Are too," he repeats, eyes dancing, and Kaylee rolls her eyes.
"Am not," she says with an attempt at finality, but she lets him pull her back onto the bed.
River knows that she should go--melt away. Fade back to real. She's stealing from them both. Stealing something they would not give her. Simon talks of boundaries she should not cross, and he can't understand that the lands she walks in have no borders.
She should go. She knows she's taking something that hasn't been freely offered. Spying. Being more than a brat. Intruding. She's pinned like a butterfly by their desire--and her own. A burning need that fills her, that she has no way to slake. Because she's broken. Because she's changed.
Because Kaylee would never look at her the way she's looking down at Simon.
Because Simon would never touch his sister the way his hands ache to touch Kaylee.
She stays. Watches, as Kaylee undresses him like a child on Christmas morning attacking a shiny present. Slacks and jersey hit the floor like tissue paper and ribbons and bows. The scar on his leg is still angry and red beneath the white bandages, the flesh puckered despite Zoe's careful stitches. Kaylee's eyes barely linger on the gauze and tape, but enough that he notices.
"I said that you weren't going to hurt me."
For that, he earns a pinch. He gasps, and she replaces her fingers with her mouth.
"You're so warm," River hears her whisper.
"You're so cool." Simon runs his hands along her sides, pulling her closer to him. Kaylee sighs as his fingers trace the curve of her spine, then moans as sure hands move up her thighs, finding her warm and wet where she rocks gently against him.
River sighs as Simon slips a finger inside her. River bites her cheek against moans as Kaylee's hands grip the bedclothes, breath coming in panting gasps as Simon moves his hand rhymically.
River is entranced by Kaylee's parted lips, her eyes squeezed tightly shut as she makes small desperate sounds as Simon quickens the pace. With a cry, Kaylee climaxes, then slowly, like a toy that has wound down, collapses against him. Her movements are slow and sensual, like a cat's, as she lays her head on Simon's shoulder. Her hazel eyes are heavy-lidded, pupils swallowing irises.
"Are you all right?" Simon asks, tracing her cat-smile with a fingertip.
"Shiny," she murmurs, and it's Simon's turn to gasp as she takes his fingers and gently sucks them. Tastes herself mingling with his taste. "Just shiny, doc."
Simon groans as she guides him inside her. Gasps, his dark head thrown back against the pillow as she begins to move. Slowly at first, until his hands grip her hips, and they are moving against each other faster and faster, sweat a sheen on their bodies, until Simon moans her name, his hips jerking and then going still.
Kaylee stretches out beside him, tracing the edges of the bandage as he reaches up to tangle his fingers in the hair spilling across her shoulder.
"You shouldn'ta tried to attack him," she says softly as he stills her hand with his own.
"That's what River said."
The sound of her name from Simon's lips rouses River as if from a dream.
River looks down to see half-moons in her imagined palms.
"S'pose you'll have a scar."
"I suppose I will."
"Mine's real neat." Kaylee rolled over onto her side, tracing the faint white line across her belly lightly with a fingertip. "Nearly invisible."
"You must have had a good surgeon."
She giggles as his fingers follow the path of hers.
"S'pose I must have."
"Kaylee," Simon whispers. She loves the way that he says her name, soft like a prayer. "Are you...I mean, was this..."
"Yes." Kaylee shines so bright, it almost blinds. "Shiny."
They curl together atop the mussed blankets, limbs entwined carefully, mindful of bandages, and Simon's lips against her temple. They've both forgotten the bowl of rice, which has ceased to steam and is going cold, lying on its tray next to the bed.
After a time, they drift off to sleep, and River comes back to her body lying in her own bed, with her hand pressed between her legs, dark hair plastered against her cheeks.
What surprises River is that she hates and loves them both so fiercely for taking at last what she cannot have.
She turns on her side, burying her face in the pillow. The cotton pillowcase absorbs her tears.
The bedside lamp casts her shadow.