At first Simon’s back is muscled tense and knotted under Inara’s careful fingertips, under the bright shiny biting silver points, and River stands beside the bed shaking and trying not to spit.
“Hush, mei mei,” he whispers, trying to look at her without moving his back. “It’s Inara, remember. She wouldn’t hurt me.”
Anyone can hurt you, she trusted the teachers and look where they got her, but she stays quiet and stares because Inara feels gentle, all bound up in concern and the desperate need to heal. To heal anyone. They all feel like that right now, maybe even her too, but as stupid as Inara is sometimes (stupid like Mal) she’s smart enough that she won't hurt a thing to fix it.
Inara slides the needles into Simon, and River gasps, but he just smiles, and this is her brother – he means it, and she knows. She can see the stress seep out of him with every tiny prick of metal, his eyes sliding closed like they do with Kaylee leaning on his shoulder. Inara shifts a tiny bright needle, her hands and fingers gentle and her mind like Kaylee fixing her girl, like Mal with his hands on the console, and Simon’s sigh echoes around the room, tangling in the drapes and swirling happily through the scented candles.
“The winds are changing,” River whispers, an old old saying from Earth-that-was, and leans closer so that she see the movement of the needles better.
This time, at least, anyone else would be swearing at the wall.
“What’s all this gorram noise about?” Mal demands, clomping through the door. River spins approximately a hundred and ninety degrees, bunching her dress behind herself. She glares.
“Skirt got caught,” she grunts sullenly when he shows no sign of leaving. “Didn’t notice. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
“You ripped your dress? That’s what all this fuss is about?”
“Simon is going to be angry.” It’s true. She rips it all the time. Stupid, stupid.
“Well, that one’s easy enough to fix, isn’t it?”
“But Zoe’s sad just now, and Inara and Kaylee are the same kinds of busy.” Inara was with a client, Kaylee with Simon.
“Well, they aren’t the only ones on this boat who can sew. Go put on something else, give it to me, and I’ll have it all set before your brother can notice.”
“Your kindness is appreciated but not necessary,” she sulks.
“I can hardly have my pilot running around naked, here.” She doesn’t move, and he sighs. “If you want, I’ll show you how to sew it and you can fix it on your own next time. Now go get dressed in something proper, we’ve got a lot to do.”
She shuffles past him, skirt still bunched up, and doesn’t smile until she’s out of his sight. Mostly to make a point.
III: Dart Tips
“I know what you’re doing,” she says, crooking her head around the door to see Jayne stuff his darts back in his pockets.
“Get the hell outta my head,” he grumbles, no vehemence, no vigor. She shakes her head, spreading her toes carefully against the floor as she steps properly into the cargo hold.
“Telepathic abilities not necessary. Basic deductive skills would suggest a game based on propelling spikes to improve precision.”
“Can’t just say I’m playing darts,” he growls, fishing another one out and taking aim.
“You understood,” she points out, and lifts the darts from his pockets. He doesn’t notice until she tugs his fistful out of his hands, and she pays no attention to his irritated squawk, instead rolling them in her hands. The tip of one pokes the pad of her finger. It doesn’t hurt much.
“Be quiet,” she suggests, and takes aim herself. Five minutes of focused throwing later, the darts are arranged to make the characters for peace, selected at random.
“What, you gonna draw a picture on there?” Jayne wants to know, twisting out a dart – one of the stray ones. River shrugs.
“Insufficient ammunition,” she says, and pads back out.
When she comes back through on the way to dinner, all of her darts are still there.
“You want this?” Kaylee asks, holding out a watercolor. It’s too bright for proper art, perfect Kaylee colors, all unmistakable flowers and clear bright sky, covered in stars that even on paper know exactly what they are. “Too pretty to leave behind,” Kaylee explains blithely, smiling at it, “but I don’t really got anywhere to put it.”
River frowns at it. “Same difficulty,” she says, but she can’t stop herself from pinching the corners between two fingers, lifting it like a screen between the two of them so she can inspect the pigments properly, millimeters from the tip of her nose.
“We can stick it above your bed,” Kaylee says cheerfully, gesturing. “There’s still that spackley plaster stuff in the headboard from when we fixed it, right?” (The breakage hadn’t actually been River’s fault.) River nods.
“This paper has no adhesive properties,” she points out.
“Well, I got some push-pins in the pantry.” Kaylee gestures, shrugging, and River glances from her to the painting and decides that it’s a workable plan.
That night, she flops onto her stomach and props her chin in her hands, inspecting the painting inch by inch. (There will be plenty of time to look at the whole thing later.) Idly, searching through the faint wooly swirls of a watercolor cloud, she taps one of the little bright pins that Kaylee stuck crookedly in the corner.
They’re a bit of pretty, she thinks, tilting her head like Kaylee does and smiling all her own.
“The disease is indigenous to the planet,” Simon explains, leaning against the edge of the medical table. “Terraforming didn’t quite eliminate it for some reason. The natives mostly build up immunity to it over the course of their childhoods, but we will be laid up for a month.” He lifts a syringe from the table and waves it at the crew, rather threateningly as he eyes Jayne. “So. Vaccinations.”
“Worth it,” Kaylee says. The planet is a strange sort of place, rarely visited and cantankerously governed, but supposed to be beautiful for all of that. Pottery and mountains, the one brought out from the other and echoing it in shape. River has seen pictures.
“I want to go too,” she argues, sounding like a child and not minding overmuch. Everyone looks at her. Simon blinks.
“Are you sure, mei mei?” he asks. “You’d need to be vaccinated too.”
She eyes the needle dubiously, thinks about the feel of glazes – sand-rough, glass-shiney, pored like eggshell – thinks about Kaylee’s face looking at cliffs and rivers.
“Kaylee is very astute in her assessment of the relative merits and disadvantages of making the trip, including the disadvantages of the necessary safety procedures,” she says, and shoves past Jayne to proffer her arm. If her fingers shake and she grips the edge of the table that knows Simon so well it’s almost like his hand, well, nobody needs to notice.
Later, as she and Kaylee giggle and sip something strangely beerlike out of the bottles that they’ve bought and stare fearlessly out over the sky as it drops down between the cliffs around them, River rubs the sore patch on her arm and thinks that there are worse things than needles. Behind her, all the rest of the crew is making noise, and even Zoe is laughing, a tinge of surprise mingling with the lightness rolling off of her. Nobody's fixed, but everyone's a little better.
River doesn’t really hate that much anymore. Not even needles.