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The Green Place

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The day little Jayne turned 10, he was still the smallest boy of the town. Still scrawny and scruffy, still a prime target for all the bullies of the neighborhood (although he was getting a lot better at fighting back these days).

 

And his wrist was still as smooth as the day he’d been born.

 

---

 

He knew Mama was watching, had been all day. It made him itch, just a little, the curiosity and hope in her eyes.

 

He went about his chores as quick as he could, trying to get outside and away. He stolidly ignored his own brief swell of hope , of today, maybe today, after years of waiting… and dwelled instead on his own lack of anticipation.

 

It was easier once he was outside.

 

---

 

Little Maddie insisted on following him around, wanting to see it himself, he said. Jayne had a suspicion it wasn’t entirely his own idea, but there wasn’t much he could refuse his little brother.

 

---

 

By the time they were all sitting around the dinner table, Maddie still watching him like a hawk and Mama glancing up every now and then, Jayne could feel the frustration and confusion building and building. The quiet ting of cheap metal spoons and forks, the scrape of knives on plates, his Pa’s solid presence to his left, but even Pa was looking at him now and again, eyes narrowing curiously, and the feelings were building and building until finally he was throwing his fork down, ignoring the sudden stillness, screaming, shouting ‘bout why wasn’t it there ? Why was she ignoring him? Did he do something? Did he… Was he …?

 

“Don’t you never say that, Jayne Cobb, you hear me?” His Mama’s face was white, pinched.

 

Jayne could just see Maddie’s wide blue eyes out of the corner of his vision and his Daddy’s dark look below him.

 

…Huh. He didn’t remember standing.

 

“Sit down, boy,” came his father’s gruff voice, “No more fuss.”

 

---

 

The moon was getting on midnight and Jayne sat staring at his stubbornly blank wrist, urging on his as-yet nameless soulmate. Maddie snored softly beside him, slumped against the headboard where he’d eventually drifted off since joining Jayne on his silent vigil.

 

Jayne was barely aware that he was mumbling under his breath, a continuous stream of words like c’mon, c’mon and some creative Mandarin his Pa had used the other day and then finally it was just please, please, please, over and over ‘til he looked up at the creaking of the door.

 

“Jayne, you’re still up?” Mama had her hair up and was wearing her house coat. She sat next to him and Jayne had to fight the urge to bury his face in her familiar smell. He was 10! Not a baby anymore. He was ready, more than ready, to go out and find his missing part… He glanced down at his still blank wrist and suddenly had to fight the much more horrifying urge to cry.

 

He bit his lip, hard. “Why, Mama? I just don’t… You said I wasn’t—”

 

“And you ain’t ,” she returned fiercely, putting her arm around his shoulders. “Baby, you ain’t. Soul-marks come at different times of people’s lives, you know that.”

 

“Yeah ‘course, but I always thought…” he trailed off, unsure why he was convinced it would’ve come today. No anticipation. He should’ve known.

 

“What you think and what’s really gonna happen: two entirely different things, Jayne Cobb,” she smiled at him, then leaned real close to whisper. “You wanna know a secret?”

 

When he nodded hesitantly, she said, “Your daddy? He didn’t get his soul-mark ‘til he was 13.”

 

Jayne looked at her in amazement. “ Thirteen? ” That was years away. Would he have to wait that long?

 

When she nodded and continued to smile, he looked away again, thinking. “But you got yours when you were 10, right Mama?”

 

She laughed, just a little. “It’s not something that’s handed down through the family, Jayne. Everyone’s time is different.”

 

“I don’t wanna be different,” Jayne said, pouting before he could quite stop it.

 

His Mama sighed and shifted, gazing across the darkened room. “Day may come when you change your mind ‘bout that.”

 

---

 

Jayne Cobb was a virile 28 years old and had already made quite a name for himself. A name people – high up people – were beginning to bandy about like a household one. A name some feared to speak and others loved to curse. A name the curvy brunette from The Blooming Orchids had been all but screaming earlier on.

 

Now she lay partially entwined with him on the not uncomfortable bed smiling vaguely at the ceiling and idly twirling a piece of her own hair. The last job had been real lucrative and Jayne had decided to spring for a classier brothel, one that would allow him to hire a girl for the night and even get room service later on. Room and board with a meal and a willing woman thrown in… Hell, he should do this more often.

 

Still smiling kinda moony, she dropped her hair and slid her hand down his arm, lingering on his biceps. She paused when she got to his wrist, starting as she realized it was uncovered. Jayne lay still, utterly relaxed and uncaring. Emboldened, she ran a finger allow the inner skin of his wrist and cocked her head.

 

“Huh,” she murmured sleepily, “Now I don't s'pose you'd mind me asking what that's about?”

 

He shrugged sloppily. “Nothing to tell.”

 

She eyed him a moment, obviously wanting more of a story. When none was forthcoming, she turned her own arm over and began unwinding her wrapping.

 

Curious despite himself, Jayne glanced at her bared mark when she'd finished. It wasn't a name or even a word. It was a drawing, crude and amateurish, of a mountain with a sun just peeking out from over its top. It was also so faded it took Jayne a moment to figure out that much.

 

“Why you keep it covered then?” he asked gruffly, looking back at the ceiling.

 

“Eh, sometimes the mystery is enough to get me hired for the night,” she replied. Despite her casual tone, Jayne couldn't help noticing she re-wrapped it with intimate care. When she'd finished, she added, grinning wickedly, “And sometimes they like to imagine they're with someone else's mark. Does something for 'em.”

 

“Huh,” was Jayne's only answer.

 

She peered at him a little closer, raising herself up on an elbow. “Don't seem like I'm here for that reason though,” she observed.

 

“Hell, I don't care what's on your wrist,” Jayne admitted offhandedly. “Reckon you don't mind so much neither.”

 

She grinned, settling down against his shoulder again. “Nah, I reckon not.”

 

---

 

Later on, after another couple rounds and some more cuddling, which Jayne would never admit to liking as much as he did, they were sprawled on the floor eating languidly from several trays scattered around.

 

“Never met her, by the way,” she suddenly muttered. Jayne stopped chewing long enough to give her a confused look. “My mark,” she elaborated.

 

Jayne hummed noncommittally and went back to his meal. He didn't ask how she knew it was a 'she'. He knew he'd known. Once. Seemed so long ago now.

 

“Know you don't care one way or t'other,” she said quietly. “It's just nice to say it to someone who don't, for a change. It's just...” She hesitated, trailing off, then jumped back into speech. “It's just I never met a blank before.”

 

He gave her a skeptical look. If she'd any experience whoring at all, she should've seen tons of 'em. True blanks were rare, sure enough, but patrons of whorehouses tended to be ones who either hadn't gotten their marks yet or didn't want you to know they had one. There were all sorts of skin-paint for covering them up, not to mention the technology, though that was a damn sight more expensive.

 

She laughed. “You can always tell,” she explained. “Whether they're waiting or trying to hide it, it's pretty simple once you know what to see.”

 

“How you know I'm not just extra good at hiding it?” he asked.

 

She scoffed and pushed at his shoulder playfully. “Oh, I know. You ain't once even glanced at it; didn't even flinch when I was holding it down earlier. Ain't no one that good an actor.”

 

She sobered a little as they went back to their food, a thoughtful expression creeping onto her face. After a few moments, she seemed to come to a decision. “You're not waiting though,” she said, looking at him questioningly.

 

He shrugged and half-nodded. It was true enough.

 

“So, you one of those who never wanted one?” she asked gently. She seemed trying to be as considerate as possible. “...Or maybe you gave up?”

 

“Ain't nothing to give up on,” he answered, downing the last of his drink and toppling her onto a fallen pillow, her laughter ringing in his ears.

 

---

 

It was nearly four in the morning planetside according to Jayne's battered old data rod 1 . He groaned sleepily, rubbing his eyes and trying to work out what had woken him. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary he could see or hear. The brunette was still sleeping peacefully next to him, completely oblivious to his disorientation.

 

After a moment, he flopped back down to sleep, deciding it must've been an unremembered dream. A few moments later, his left hand began prickling like a particularly vicious case of pins-and-needles. Irritated, he shook it out, then clenched and unclenched it several times when that didn't work. Scowling when all he achieved was to make it worse, he sat up to examine it...and promptly bit back a grunt of surprised pain.

 

“What the gorram...” His wrist. It was his wrist .

 

Something was happening, lines pushing up through the surface of his skin, red and irritated looking, forming letters and numbers. He stared in fascinated disbelief, barely feeling the pain through a haze of No, no, no , why now, this ain't real, it can't be happening...

 

---

 

A few minutes later, there was a brisk knock on the door and a darkish older woman edged through. She stepped to the bed and roused the girl lying tangled in the sheets.

 

“C'mon, ta xiao 2, you'll want your own room before the early ones come in,” she said, gently helping her sit up.

 

“Oh, did we sleep late?” she asked, glancing confusedly at the still dark sky outside the window.

 

The woman laughed, starting to strip the pillows. “No, no, your fellow just left. Looked like he was late for something or other, actually, way he hightailed it out of here.”

 

“Huh,” said the girl, pulling on the sleep-clothes the woman was holding out to her. “Felt sure he was the sort would say goodbye.”

 

“Can't always judge that, you know,” answered the woman distractedly.

 

The girl looked once more around her, sleepily fixing her hair. She glanced once at her wrapped wrist. “No, s'pose not.”

Chapter Text

Screaming. The children run – upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber – dancing, frolicking through the grass, so green. The snap of long, tangled hair – no more ribbons, the fair can wait – the spaces between toes, grass poking through pain .

 

Oh.

 

White horizon falls up, so soft, so bright – met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers – prickles through the ground – “Protect my spine ” – arch up into the white, nails biting, wrist. Wrist.

 

“Dosage should be upped in concurrent sessions.”

 

“Readings fairly average, not picking up any fluctuations. Are we sure this is the best procedure?”

 

Prickles through the ground, through veins, skin – stairs went crack. Screaming. The children scream, dancing is one step away from running – “...still be allowed to dance?” – cool hands, soothing, gege 3 . Not here, can't be here – They're hurting us, Get me out – Little ducks went 'Quack, quack, quack' – screaming.

 

The girl is screaming.

 

---

 

“There was a time. Time flows for you, forward and onward, always...up. Birds fly up, up and on, broken chirps down. Far down.”

 

Scratching out endless, sightless epiphanies. “River, I'd like to speak with you concerning your previous outburst. Do you know why you reacted the way you did?”

 

“Reaction time is slower, the procedure is too risky, may lose the subject.”

 

Let the silence speak. “River?”

 

“No.”

 

Two can play this game. “Now River, I know this last week has been difficult for you, so I thought we might speak on more pleasant subjects. Can you recall any happy childhood moments, perhaps a playdate, a family trip, or even...a birthday party?”

 

“Speaks in circles, vises upon the flesh.” She has to stop there. Breathe. Words that make sense. “Dancing is one step away from running.”

 

Words upon the page. “Think for a moment, River. Anything at all?”

 

“I know what you're about.”

 

“And what's that?”

 

“Move past the moment, shake off the... Gentle hands, grass, very green. White sky...prickles. Prickles of blades. Shoulder blades...elsewhere. Missing...it's missing. Am I? Knew it once, just a dream. Dreamlike, move from one place to another, sleep, eat, it hurts .”

 

“River? Are you in pain?”

 

Breathe. “It did. I know it did. Knew. What else is gone, slipping through cracks...cracks. In the sky. There was screaming. She screamed.”

 

“Who did?”

 

“Something is missing.”

 

“What makes you think that?”

 

“Too jumbled, Daedalus' lieutenants leading me through, deeper and deeper, promising light and taking all... What else?”

 

Scratching. Breathe.

 

---

 

In the quiet of her cell, the girl finds smooth skin and soothes imaginary hurt. Must be imaginary. Cruel dreams of a cruel world. She burrows against the wall, eyes wide and waiting. Burrow deep down and do not make a sound.

 

The ploy has been made. The board has been set.

 

Hide. And wait.

 

---

 

Jayne gets through the next part of his life. Largely by means of standoffishness, vulgarity, and obfuscation. It's real easy to ignore something you've half convinced yourself doesn't exist in the first place.

 

Not that he doesn't understand them who'd like to know a bit more; help to narrow down the field, so to speak. That just ain't in the cards. Not for him, leastways. Hell, even if he wanted to...

 

Kaylee is sweet and lovely and every Rim world thing he misses about home. Everything he half believes he's still running from, really oughta be running from, but ends up clinging to like it's all he cares to know. Jayne never did hold with the notion of having to give up everything you came from, everything that made you, everything you are, just so's you can leave. You're who you're gonna be, right from the very start.

 

Yeah, you might change your feathers along the way, but you'll be a chicken your whole life. Nothing to be ashamed of neither, nor run from. Only lose more feathers that way, end up in someone's stewpot. Mama always did have a way with explanations.

 

Kaylee never even bothers with changing her feathers. Never was a girl for getting straight to the point, 'specially when it mattered.

 

“Why you always flinching when I touch that arm? You know I ain't gonna bother your wrap.”

 

She looks up at him, half amused, half sad that he'd even think that of her. They're sat at the kitchen table, seeing to some clothes patching and weaponry cleaning.

 

Jayne shrugs irritably, jerking away from her fingers still hovering over the table as he whets a clean stripe down Hildegarde. “Don't care none for the poking and prodding, that's all. Like to make anyone twitchy.”

 

She laughs a bit and goes back to her needle. “Just not used to it, I'm guessing. When was the last time you didn't convince someone with the whole grumpy mercenary act anyway?”

 

He grunts, even more irritably. “T'ain't an act. How you like to come along next job and see?”

 

“You propositioning our cheersome young mechanic, Jayne?” Wash comes through the hallway door, followed by Inara, robes billowing out behind her. “Feel as though the captain might have something to say, that the case.”

 

Jayne makes a rude gesture just as Inara turns around to reach her teapot, prompting her typical resigned glare. Wash stumbles into a chair, clutching at his chest. “Oh wo de tian a 4, will I ever recover from such vulgarity, such wanton displays of—”

 

Jayne shoves his chair over.

 

“I rest my case,” says Wash from the floor, as Kaylee giggles and helps him up.

 

“But you know you never need to talk about it, yeah?” Kaylee picks up their earlier thread, despite Jayne's glare. Or maybe because of it. Girl would dodge through a firefight if’n there was someone she thought in need of a ruo 5 word on the other side. She lays her hand tentatively on his arm, then squeezes a bit when he doesn't twitch again. “Not unless you want to.”

 

Jayne does move away from her touch then, though judging by her smile, she still thinks some meaningful point's been made.

 

“Don't want to know. Never did,” he tells her. Almost believes it too. Shadows of ten-year-old boys are much easier to drown out with twenty-odd years of experience.

 

“Oooh, we talking about marks?” Wash asks, cottoning on. He leans forward with an overly enthusiastic grin. Jayne grimaces and out of the corner of his eye, he catches Inara go very still before fluidly moving away and pouring her tea.

 

“We've all seen it, Wash,” Kaylee's laughing, shoving away Wash's attempts to shove his wrist in her face. “Just because you have no shame...”

 

“Well, Zoe was born with all the dignity in the verse so I got the short stick,” he says, relenting before looking curiously at Kaylee's lacey cuff. Jayne has often suspected she made the thing herself. Wash's band, of course, is nowhere to be seen. Though truth be told, Jayne almost prefers the awkward sight of his bare wrist to that neon paisley bandana.

 

Inara smiles as she makes her way over to the far end of the table. “In more ways than one, perhaps.” Jayne wonders if he's imagining the distant sort of look in her eyes, though Inara's real hard to read on even his best days.

 

As Wash feigns outrage, Kaylee lays aside her mending and unceremoniously unlatches her cuff with a tear of velcro.

 

“Never did see the whole appeal about keeping 'em covered all the time,” she says as she nonchalantly presents her wrist to Wash. He takes it just as casually and eyes the loopy, dull red writing with interest. “My Pap always said marks oughta be able to breathe once in a while, even those that ain't beating no more.”

 

Despite himself, Jayne glances over. Maricia is written in bold, overly loopy letters at a slant down her wrist, the curlicues on the M nearly obliterating the rest of the word, complete with fancified hearts hovering over the i's.

 

“A name is sure useful, though,” says Wash, even a touch enviously. He lets go and she pulls the mark back toward herself, tracing the letters with a fond exasperation.

 

“Yeah, well. Would be, if that were her real name.” She smiles, shaking her head. “Such a little mischief.”

 

D'un yi shia 6, you've met her already?” Wash asks incredulously. Yup, definitely jealous now. Jayne snorts derisively.

 

Mei mei 7, that's wonderful,” Inara says, smiling beautifully. “How old is she?”

 

“Fourteen and already knows everything,” Kaylee laughs. She's talking about her a little funny though, Jayne realizes. Like a proud mother or embarrassed older sister. Not like a soulmate. Wash scrunches up his eyebrows, but Inara's face clears.

 

“It's platonic then?” Inara confirms, echoing Jayne's own realization. Wash sits back, his expression clearing. Platonic. Not that rare, and sure not as rare as the soulmate reels would lead you to believe, but still unusual.

 

“Most like,” Kaylee answers cheerfully. She doesn't seem bothered, picking up where she'd left off with her mending and leaving her cuff on the table. “Kinda early to tell, but that's what I been feeling from the beginning. Some things you just know, right?”

 

Jayne slants his eyes back down to his lap, viciously shoving the final piece back into Daneisha. The half-formed memory struggling to surface in the back of his head swallows itself up again as he racks the slide with a clack.8

 

It's not ‘til much later, in that hazy world between awake and not, that he realizes Wash mightn't have been the only jealous one. A name, even a false one. Now that'd be downright handy...


That night, he dreams of white walls and blue light and wakes to phantom fingers crawling across – through – his skin, pounding on his veins ‘til his mark stands out in stark blood-red.

Chapter Text

Jayne has always known, peripherally, that his soulmate has really gone through some things. Is still going through them. In the very farthest reaches of his subconscious, in a place he thinks don't fully belong to him, he tastes a dull, bitter hopelessness that it'll never go away, never be right, not the way it should...

 

He reckons he might be heading toward moon-brained territory, on the rare occasions he allows himself to think on it. Because the truth of it is: it just ain't possible.

 

Soulmate bonds are voluntary. Even the most psi-sensitive person in the verse would need at least skin-to-skin contact in order to share the most basic of impulses before mark connection. Things like hunger or exhaustion or even the need to sneeze or yawn. But emotions? Thoughts? Just ain't possible. (Though if those half-formed upchucked words are true thoughts, Jayne gets the uncomfortable feeling he'd rather be alone forever than share that mindsphere.)

 

Sure, he's always been aware that there's way more out there than he'll ever understand. Than anyone will, maybe. But he's just as aware that ignoring all that is the best way to cope with it. So if he's feeling things in the very deepest parts of himself that don't belong to him, best just to go along with it. He knows what he knows, no more or less.

 

And what he knows amounts to this: a naked girl in a crowded cargo bay, limbs splayed long and trembling on the grates, hair a scraggly mess, her only way to hide. Hiding and waiting, for so long. Habits are hard to break.

 

Jayne's grip loosens enough for the idiot doc to go stumbling forward. He sees Mal glance at him in slight annoyance, probably assuming he's been distracted by the nakedness and waits to feel a surge of interest, lust, anything beyond this jumbled mess of raw completion, longing, and, somehow...loss.

 

He knows he's been living a time of his life he'll never get back. Who he was then, gone. Somehow, he just knows. Best to go along with it.

 

---

 

The doc's story ain't surprising. Every word he says is new, every bit of the tale something Jayne didn't know before. Yet somehow, it's like remembering an old bedtime story. He wouldn't've been able to recite any of it before he heard it, but during the telling he feels as though he could mouth right along with the doc and never miss a step.

 

He knows he's showing too much understanding, too much sympathy on his face, but can't seem to get it under control. He chalks it up to the novelty of the situation and ignores the narrow-eyed glance he gets from Zoe.

 

---

 

During the months that follow, Jayne fluctuates between ignoring and going along with it. Whatever the gorram hell it is.

 

It starts in the way he can pinpoint when she steps into a room. But hell, prickles up his neck and an uncomfortableness in his spine are pretty standard reactions to being around a known crazy person. And God knows Jayne's been around plenty of them in his line of work.

 

It continues in the way he startles a bit just a split-second before a tantrum comes filtering down the hall, more often followed by the crash of medical equipment against the walls. So far he's pretty sure Kaylee's the only one who's twigged about that particular mental glitch, though Inara is as hard to read as ever, stoically ignoring Jayne's growing paranoia that if anyone would know, she would.

 

But what was there to know? Twitching around a loose cannon of a person ain't exactly unheard of , he berates himself, as he shrugs off Kaylee's stare and stomps down to the cargo bay for his third workout of the day.

 

It comes to a head on the day that Simon bursts into the kitchen, panicking and trying to hide it, explaining that River's disappeared and has anyone seen her? Jayne goes on cleaning Geraldine, taking a special pleasure in hocking up some spit with extreme unconcern while looking right at the doc, drinking in his disbelieving face.

 

Kaylee jumps up at once though, jabbering away about Serenity's tubes and pockets and little crannies that are perfect for just spending a day relaxing in, listening to the hum of the ship, so maybe she's holed up in one of those? Mal trails along surreptitiously, oblivious to Inara's fond look from the corner, where she's playing a game of checkers with Book.

 

Jayne's not only unconcerned though, he feels almost...peaceful. Ain't no reason for it he can see, just another day out in the black, but it's there all the same: this feeling of fragile hope and fulfillment, like maybe it won't be all bad after all.

 

He's not surprised when the search comes up empty-handed and he's still not when River emerges in the middle of dinner, smiling for the first time he can remember, and shows her brother something under the table that makes him light up like Christmas. Later on, he doesn't even flinch when a spectacular argument rattles the passenger dorms, distinctly hearing her voice screaming something about wang ba dan 9 pink shackles .

 

He is, however, getting mildly disturbed.

 

---

 

It's grinning at her. River can feel it. She eyeballs it sideways, tilting her head carefully so as to keep it in her sights while never engaging directly. Hateful interlocking fencing looping over the burgundy landscape.

 

“What's that, mei mei ?” Simon asks absently, measuring out another concoction.

 

“Spoken aloud,” she reminds herself. Looks at Simon apologetically. “Blends together sometimes.”

 

“Weeell,” he draws out, prepping the smoothie, “Hopefully this will make things more distinct.”

 

She makes a face as the needle enters. Focuses what she can of herself on her brother, letting his concern, his anxiety, his love well up in her until the smoothie is just that, no needles in her eyes, none in her wrist, just Simon's gentle fingers cradling her hand.

 

“No more needles,” Simon agrees. He pats her hand carefully, eyes moving to the red lines of her mark.

 

She smiles, helpless against it. Appears on her just as the other things do, anger, hope, sorrow. Hers or otherwise, matters little their origin.

 

Simon smiles back, still happy and so relieved for her. She carefully skirts the fear lurking at the bottom of that particular chasm, but can't help hearing the Broken, never be fixed and Lost forever, staring blank as the walls and from the very bottom, making her tremble even from its quietness, Imagined it, the whole time, crazy even then.

 

“Though I do wish you'd wear the cuff, mei mei ,” Simon sighs, looking around hopelessly, as though he expects the offending article of clothing to spring out of hiding. “Wherever it's gone off to.”

 

The pink teeth glint through the darkness. She doesn't look. “It bides its time, stalking in the shadows, hunting him.”

 

Simon looks exasperated, “River.” He sighs, rubs his hand over his face, then asks, facing the ceiling, “Who?”

 

River rolls her eyes. Simon is so slow sometimes. “ Him ,” she enunciates, pushing the mark toward Simon. The little stick figure seems to shake his dagger threateningly. River smiles fondly.

 

Simon glances at the dagger, drops his thought, and starts another. “You really shouldn't go bare, River, it's not proper. We're not among family here.”

 

“Not yet.”

 

Simon looks pained. Always misunderstanding. “ Mei mei , we can't go home,” he says softly, haltingly, trying so hard to comfort where none is needed.

 

“We will.”

Chapter Text

It's a thought that builds in his head, has been building for some time. They're no use to anyone, more trouble than anything, you ask him. The doc's good in a scrape now and then, sure enough, but Jayne's been patching his own wounds long enough that he don't need some Core-bred idiot bringing the Alliance down on them every other week just so's he gets cleaner bandages.

 

And the girl's trouble. In every sense. Something about her has never sat right with Jayne, something more even than all the obvious things, things which alone are reason enough to want her as far away as possible.

 

Then she tears a hole in his new shirt and halfway to his heart and his hand is still stinging from where he backhanded her across the floor, even hours later, sitting in the dark of his bunk and staring off, focusing on not thinking. Not thinking about the red corner of her mouth, her blood still staining his knuckles. Not thinking about all the ways he's smarting right about now, ruminating on why they're still here, why she's still here, ain't no reason for it, and very small in the back of his mind, why his hand is not so much stinging as singing. Singing out in soft tingles that spread up his fingers into his wrist.

 

It's that thought, almost fully buried by the time he's had it, that does it.

 

She's gotta go.

 

---

 

The girl is alone. Whiteness blares out from every direction, disorientating in its uniformity. She curls in, waits for the tremors to come through. Sound lurches, pulling her backward into its judders and whorls. She opens her mouth. The scream is swallowed by the floor flaring open, sucking in her limbs and her noise.

 

“The tests have never been conclusive, Madam, we don't know what sort of damage—”

 

“I've fallen this far, might as well dive the rest of the way.”

 

Your horse will die, and if he dies we'll tan his skin .”

 

“What were you thinking? This operation is tantamount to our ultimate success or failure as a facility! If the governor got a hold of—”

 

“She knows it was there, she knows —”

 

And if he don't we'll ride him again.

 

The girl wakes up laughing and screaming. Clutching at her throat ‘til the noises are forced down—downstairs and in my lady's chamber—No, she won't become that. “Not again.” Out loud, heed her warnings. Quiet the noise, everything bare and calm save the flickers and jolts. They belong to versions of people who don't exist. Subjects. No longer human.

 

The door is open. “Mei mei ?” Simon's head wavers, twitches between what the girl knows and what she sees.

 

“Distinctions are impossible. The truth is jagged, nothing fits.”

 

Simon's shadow billows out, drapes across the sheets. Gentle hands, a cool touch. Blue eyes, familiar beyond herself. “River.” And with a word, the girl breaks apart and finds herself in the wreckage.

 

River cries. Broken, always.

 

“No, mei mei, that's not true,” Simon says, voice creaking on his own edge. “We can fix this, we'll make it through.”

 

He believes that. Truly. She takes that in, gulping wetly through her body's betrayal.

 

Somehow, as the truth of the belief bleeds through, it calms her where nothing else has. She finds her fingers can finally be prised away from their hold. The mark stands out in bold, blood red: River's truth, the girl's proof of existence.

 

She feels Simon shift beside her but not away, his eyes marking her skin. She breathes and slips into the warm familiarity of his mind. Simon's thoughts niggle around the sorest part of his psyche, refusing to dwell in the fissure. Her fingers find their way to his band, blue and snug under his scaphoid. Simon stills, then melds into the touch, and slowly removes the barrier.

 

River traces the M, echoing the touch of a smaller hand buried in the murk of Before .

 

“Singing is better than screaming,” echoes River. She knows it's an echo, but not of what. “Smooth abrasion versus coarse static.”

 

Simon is confused, but too drained for questions. River folds her fingers carefully, reverently, over the grayed-out lines and leans her head on her brother's shoulder. Her eyes sting and her cheeks are cold, but this is important.

 

We'll drop him down with a long, long roll,” she sings softly into Simon's shirt, his hand rubbing circles on her spine. “Where the sharks will have his body and the Devil take his soul.

 

---

 

Somewhere, Simon is planning, gears whirring, worried about reception, excited beyond himself. River sits. And spirals.

 

She spins out into the ship, picking out Inara stepping on the catwalk, warm and full of spice, Wash humming an Ellarian battle song as plastic teeth clash, Mal running the lukewarm water of the shower, grimacing as his shirt sticks upon coming off, and Jayne. Jayne is sitting, focusing on not thinking and doing precisely the opposite. His thoughts swirl murky and out of control, tinged with a dark red that makes River uneasy.

 

Part of her wants to dwell in the color, but she pulls back with a jolt. She's conscious of the decisions she is making, of seeking out each person in turn, of returning to herself. Focusing, she manages to feel both the vague maroon that is Jayne and the feel of the bed against her back, the solidity of the floor on her fibulae. The level of control is so foreign she feels suspicious.

 

“It can't last,” she says aloud. Chooses to open her mouth and use her vocal chords. Sighs. “I'll lose it again.”

 

Something niggles at her awareness, she can sense it in the corner. It doesn't belong to where she is. Or was. Fear is strong, shuddering through, but somehow a faint hope remains, fortifying and terrifying. Not all bad.

 

Might not be,” she tells the ceiling light.

 

---

 

“Can't you try any harder, boy?” His Pa says, twisting his mouth down at Jayne. He's just gotten finished talking to the teacher what stopped by and he don't look mighty happy. “We don't gotta be sending you off up there if you're not learning nothing.”

 

“Don't wanna go back,” Jayne mumbles, scritching out a design on the handle of his knife. He scuffs his shoes, looking across the room at little Maddie ambling about on the floor with Jayne's old stuffed cat trailing behind him. “Can't I just help out at home?”

 

He flinches soon as he says it, jerking his face back to his lap. His Daddy sighs. “You keep going the way you are, might have no choice 'bout it.”

 

He means it like a threat, but Jayne hides his grin in his shoulder, taking it like a promise.

 

That day's been on Jayne's mind ever since he learned what exactly he'd have to do on this grand plan of Simon's. Now he's leaning on the corner of the med bay, finding some small amusement in Mal's stutter and Zoe's uncharacteristic uncertainty. He'd not even tried to memorize his part, heard the words what came out of the doc's mouth and immediately let 'em go. Hell, he knows what he can do and this sure as sure ain't it.

 

An hour in and Jayne's amusement is long gone, irritation scratching at his scalp as he fools around on a spare bit of paper he'd found in a drawer, doodling like he had in his brief time in school. He knows his turn's coming up again and can't find a single bit of himself to care.

 

Simon looms over his table, reminding him irresistibly of his old schoolmarm as he reaches out, asking, “What's this?” There's a brief moment where Jayne expects the doc to snatch up the paper and toss it away, but his fingers twitch right before reaching the desk. He flinches back, so slightly Jayne wonders if he imagines it, then snatches it up, crumbling it as he asks Jayne his lead-in once again.

 

There's something about the doc after that, something angrier than usual. It rankles Jayne up, builds his frustration ‘til he's not sure which is brighter, his anger at Simon or anger at himself.

 

He didn't ask to have no head for schooling. Doesn't mean he can't learn, out in the field and in the real world, that's easy enough. But memorizing a bunch of fancy words that don't even seem real necessary isn't something he can seem to wrap his head around.

 

He gets through, mainly by remembering what this is all leading up to and how it'll feel when it's done.

 

They'll both be gone, soon enough.

 

---

 

Gege is explaining. He uses small words. River repeats, uses bigger words. He almost smiles, amused despite himself. She tries to ground herself in this, in the warmth of him, but the fear almost overwhelms her, pushing in the cracks. Something is coming.

 

The dim hope is still there though, glowing so faintly she's afraid it'll go out. So afraid.

 

Simon is there, pushing her hair back, pushing her fear, brightening it with his excitement. His hope. Did it come from him?

 

“It's time to go to sleep.”

 

She lays back, afraid now for a different reason. Simon is always so close, his feelings so accessible. Did she read it wrong? She feels a tear run into her hair as blackness closes in.

Chapter Text

She dreams. She's not meant to. The drug buries her, too deep. But it's there.

 

She catches a green place, wind through leaves and grass. Her feet are bare and her mouth is turned up. There's a warm hand on her waist and a skirt swirling around her knees. Another mouth near hers, white teeth gleaming. Everything so warm.

 

“Copper for a kiss?” she asks, sitting up and smiling the green smile still.

 

Jayne starts violently, breaking off a curse to ask, “What'd you say?”

 

They are alone in the room, River knows. Silence stretches through the moment, made longer through an unpleasant realization. She wades through a dark red, staining her feet, her mouth coming open. Before she comes upon it, though, Simon blares in and River lets her stomach empty itself.

 

Unpleasant.

 

---

 

A sickly pile of souls approaches, laid out in a line, a gauntlet River must cross. She pulls her legs against the chair Simon's wheeling and takes comfort from his hand on her shoulder and Jayne walking stolidly next to them. The red still makes her uneasy, but it's something she knows.

 

They approach then pass a place that is etched in significance. River warns them. The girl wants to help.

 

Simon shushes her, pushes her arm down, but she has to do something, the soul is burning out, “He's killing him!” She says it aloud, sees two doctors look at her in surprise before Simon is hurrying away and the only comfort she has is Jayne's arm across her shoulders, locking her in place.

 

The maroon is being pushed away by something cool and wet. Jayne doesn't like it. River tries not to dwell, but his wrist is pushing into her collarbone and she melds, making his anxiety her own.

 

Simon is amazing. She knows this. She smiles at Jayne when she senses him thinking the barest outline of the same thing.

 

He moves his arm.

 

---

 

The chair is an unfortunate color. It cradles her head in reminiscence.

 

She lays back, staring at the ceiling and willing the blue away. Her heart beats fast, her breathing comes in spaces she doesn't want. She closes her eyes.

 

Simon steps out, pulls the holo close with trepidation. With excitement. He tries to hide it, but it won't be beaten away, pulsing up in little bursts of orange. He turns the holo-display.

 

The orange dies, suddenly. A bile seeps in, graying his edges out. He uses words to push it away, to focus. As Jayne learns, the bile oozes to him, sharper.

 

“Why?” He's feeling what he doesn't want. It softens him, makes him weak in a way he fights every chance he gets. For a brief moment, he lets it. Steps forward to touch, make it real.

 

Simon slaps his hand away and Jayne retreats to his red. The color sharpens ‘til it's all River can see, blurring her eyes as she snaps them open.

 

No. He brought them.

 

A sound breaks out, a scream. His hand pushes it back in and she wants away. Far away. She wants to move but the red paralyzes her, her hands clenching on the chair, which rises up to meet her.

 

Simon is there, suddenly, and her hands are freed, come up to touch, to know what is. “They come out of the black, they come when you call,” she tries, looking into Simon and willing him to know .

 

He doesn't, he can't. River looks up and Jayne meets her eyes, red bleeding out blue. “Your toes are in the sand,” the girl says. She wants him to know what's coming, what he's done, her fear, the betrayal. But the red deepens, blocking out everything, hopeless.

 

She lays back, looking, but it's gone.

 

---

 

There had been something in the middle, brighter happenings of snow and fairy lights. She feels herself slipping, knows there's something she must say. Soon. It's far too easy to get sidetracked.

 

Gege is concerned, soft blue surrounding her in a fog that does nothing but obscure. Helpless, hopeless, she wanders, lost in memory.

 

“You shut the hell up, right now,” Jayne says. He shakes, voice unsteady, red all but gone. “Or so help me, I will shut you up.”

 

River makes a face. It helps.

 

---

 

Jayne is planning something. Nothing concrete, nothing like Mal or Simon, but it's something. River stands back as it begins and winces at the wall when it all begins to overwhelm her.

 

Simon doesn't fight. He leans, counts, and stands back up carefully.

 

River focuses on that quiet calm in the middle of chaos until – Pain. There is blood, indenting the webbing between fingers, bright red, so much brighter than before when maroon bled across everything, beginning it all.

 

She closes her eyes and leans against the wall, shuddering.

 

Jayne unlocks her wrists, not looking. His middle finger touches her scaphoid and she brings it to her chest, cradling it carefully, before Simon's hand finds hers and pulls.

 

The hallway is foreboding. It's been coming, she's been trying to say. They don't understand. Even as she backs into the wall and brings the words out with all her effort, they stare, not knowing.

 

The screams begin.

 

The girl's eyes are cold, too wide, her breathing shaking her frame. There is panic, somewhere, outside herself, dragging her in. She runs.

 

It follows.

 

Two by two, two by two . Her feet patter down the stairs, joined by more.

 

“Almost there, almost there,” she mutters, lips moving beyond her control. “Almost...”

 

The door. She points. “There.” It's not open. It's meant to be. Perhaps it will...?

 

Simon pulls her back, Jayne's panic and anger fueling his aggression. She wraps her hand around her mark, funneling her anger at him , somehow finding it echoed as it strengthens into the metallic bang on the door handle.

 

The gunshot splits through the air and Mal is there, and he knows. River breathes.

 

---

 

Jayne doesn't need Kaylee's concern, drawing attention to the cut on his head. He definitely doesn't need Simon's gratitude or the hand on his shoulder. But the thing he finds he needs least of all is the crazy girl's eyes boring into him, making him feel even more like he's done something he shouldn't.

 

He might be imagining it. Hell, he can't even tell if she looks less moony than usual or even more than ever.

 

He knows he's not imagining it when he says, playing along, “You're part of my crew,” and her eyes sharpen, seeming to get bigger than they ought.

 

There's no way she knows. She can't.

 

But before he's had more time to think on it, he takes a wrench to the face and wakes up on the cargo ramp with a brand new lump on his face.

 

---

 

The first doll demands to be red. Bright red. Not too bright, not like the blood lingering on her wrist bone, but not too dark. She wants to skitter away from thinking of that color, but forces herself to follow it to its inevitable conclusion.

 

Jayne is a traitor. A betrayer. She lets her own anger, fueled only by her own emotions, fill her up and follows it as it flows straight to its target.

 

He's in trouble. The captain is in his dark place, surrounded by nothing but his own deepest fears. He lets them suffocate him, revels in it. It gives him strength to do what has to be done.

 

River lifts her pencil, considers stepping in. She knows she could. She is herself, present and aware. She sighs. Sets the red back to the page and presses slightly harder.

 

The captain makes his point, falls deeper into his darkness, lets it claim him. Jayne is silent, becomes certain of his fate. On his final word, he lets himself say what he wouldn't. It's what saves him. River probes deeper and senses the sincerity, the truth of what he is, below.

 

She fills in the missing piece with the last of her red and sets it aside.

 

It's time for green.

Chapter Text

Jayne is seeping. It’s wet and cold and entirely unpleasant. It’s been getting stronger, the longer River does nothing but sit and watch. And poke fun.

 

She’s only human and it’s almost too easy. Almost. Simon can be boring – such an easy mark – but Jayne is fun. He bites back. Not eloquently, but the strength of his annoyance, the single-mindedness of it, is surprisingly grounding.

 

She finds herself more amenable these days, neutral to the past. It is done, she has seen the truth behind the red, but Jayne remains oblivious to his own inner workings.

 

She senses an opening, tilting her head and grinning. “Jayne is a girl’s name.”

 

She’s not sure why, but it’s a point of contention with him. She probes a little further, curious and cautious, and gets a vague sense of smaller feet padding behind , of young laughter and mocking. A woman’s face, happy and sad at once. Longing.

 

Abruptly, she’s drenched with the cold feeling, thrust back into now. He taunts Simon with a deck of cards, slamming the door harder than necessary, but River is reeling, aware in a way she hasn’t been before. 

 

Fear. Jayne is—

 

“Afraid.”

 

“We’ll be okay.”

 

Aloud, without meaning to. It’s been some time since she’s slipped through that much. The word hangs in the open, daring her to expound. Simon is already leading himself astray; it would be easy to remain silent.

 

“Not her ,” she says impatiently. Frustrated with herself, took too long. “Jayne.”

 

Simon grins, anticipating a jibe. It breaks upon her slowly, this thing she knows now. That Simon should know.

 

“Since Ariel. Afraid we’ll know.”

 

The change is as gradual in her brother as it was in her. He stills in realization, a slow trickle of rare emotions welling up, seeping in his carefully welded cracks. River swims in the waves, dark purple and deep, murky brown. Simon has always been near, accessible. Too accessible sometimes, confusing herself within him.

 

She pulls herself away, slowly, dark tides dripping free. Examines reactions, allows the separation. The girl is angry, still. 

 

River thinks she might be for some time.

 

---

 

Simon has progressed to sitting against the wall, hands clasped in deep thought as he stares at his encyclopedia. River is sprawled on the bed, staring at the ceiling. 

 

She has been tracking the captain’s progress. The woman is as false as she was before, but something is unsettling her. Something fast approaching. River gets a brief impression of a kind but reserved smile, a military precision haircut, and cold grey eyes.

 

As deep as River is in herself, it comes as a complete shock when her whole body jolts as though touched by a livewire. She gasps, shaking, and casts her mind wildly around in confusion.

 

Simon kneels carefully near her, hovering, murmuring her name. She pushes away, faces the wall, and concentrates.

 

The fingers of her right hand are burning with phantom echoes of energy and her wrist…

 

Her wrist.

 

She sits up, gasping aloud and nearly knocking Simon in the face with her arm as she stretches out her fingers, following the pain as carefully as she can. 

 

Simon, bright blue and vibrating with concern and fear – no, further out. She stretches and – Wash, an unrippled pool of calm, deep concentration. Zoe, standing nearby, previously calm. Suddenly running, alert and ready, answering a call from – Kaylee, arms straining, panicky and guilty, holding on to – Jayne. 

 

The void suddenly makes itself known, echoing and vast. Terrifying in its emptiness. 

 

The girl screams.

 

---

 

Jayne comes back in fits and starts, flickering into being. River’s relief is almost as strong as her dormant – still there – anger.

 

Almost.

 

She sags against the cold, blue wall, listening to Simon putter around and Jayne open one lid and then the other. She wrinkles her nose. “Creaks in the hinges,” she mutters.

 

“You got knocked out,” Simon is saying. His voice is calm. His shoulders crawl with tension.

 

Jayne’s voice is barely more than white noise, scratchy and inconsistent. “Predictable thoughts,” River murmurs, listening more to the encroaching storm, closing in even as Jayne lays oblivious.

 

“How much did they offer you to sell out me and River on Ariel?” A single strike, precise and clean. A surgical instrument is Simon Tam.

 

She can hear Jayne swallow from the hall, sliding down unevenly, dry lips. “Anybody there?”

 

She smirks, rolls her head around the door, letting her hair spiral forward and her eyes widen in the stark light. It has the desired effect.

 

Looks away hurriedly, mutters, “Anybody else?”

 

River lets Simon have his fun, play pretend with surprise ending. Focuses sharply on the sudden splash within Jayne: rare display of colors. And overlaying it all, Jayne’s utter confusion. Over Simon, over himself, over her ...

 

Simon finishes his coda and strolls away, tying up his loose ends and practicing contentment. Jayne lays back, thinks he’s in the clear. Can’t have that.

 

“Also,” she adds, watches his eyes dart back to her, guarded, “I can kill you with my brain.”

 

The eyes widen, disbelief and almost...yes, terror. Good. 

 

River follows Simon, feeling satisfied. Somehow, with the threat embedded, the girl’s anger seeps away, lingering in the cracks but leaving room.

Chapter Text

“Ruttin’ feng le10 piece of fei hua11,” Jayne grumbles from his seat near the end of the table. Zoe tosses a very unimpressed look his direction and Inara’s eyes twitch very slightly.

 

“Not to agree with the... phrasing , perhaps,” Wash puts in, “But there might’ve been a valid point buried under there.”

 

Zoe shifts her eyes, upping the intensity. “Deep under there,” Wash amends.

 

“If I might interject here,” Book interrupts. “It’s not a question of usefulness, but of age and experience. She’s only a child.”

 

“No one’s arguing that, preacher,” Mal concedes.

 

“Age ain’t what matters here,” Zoe says quietly. “Girl’s been through more’n her fair share of personal nightmares and made it out the other end. She wants to come, it’s her choice.”

 

Inara purses her lips slightly, gaze flowing to the other side of the room and staying put. At about the same time, Jayne gets a pricklyness around his scalp, stretching his eyes to the open door leading onto the crew’s quarters. 

 

Simon sighs, jaw clenched. “You know my opinion on this, captain,” he says tightly. “But, at this point, I trust my sister to know her own mind.” He raises his head, makes eye contact. Mal raises an eyebrow. “And I trust you to bring her back in one piece.” Somehow, he makes it sound more like a threat than anything.

 

Mal smirks. “You get all that, little one?” he asks, glancing over his shoulder.

 

River winds her neck around the corner, hair spiraling over her shoulder to shadow her grin. “Promises made, no retractions.”

 

“Just the way I heard it myself,” agrees Mal over Simon’s exasperated groan of “River ” and Jayne’s continued grumbles of mixed Mandarin and English.

 

No good’s coming of this.

 

---

 

Three jobs in and Jayne is starting to admit (if only in his own head) that having the girl around might not be as bad as originally thought.

 

Having a reader on the job – and there’s no way she isn’t, no matter what Wash or the doc says – is downright handy on occasion. Entertaining, even.

 

Badger’s never as put together when she’s around, even if all she does is stand in the back and stare at the walls. They get some decent work that way; intimidation tactics are something Jayne can appreciate, no matter the method.

 

Other times it’s just creepifying. He’ll never forget that job on Dionysus that devolved into a hostage situation. River’d been on edge all day, speaking in nonsensical monosyllables, when she spoke at all. The lawman was more than a mite twitchy, every one of them saw that, but Jayne really thought Mal had him talked down. Right up until she screamed. The same moment the idiot shot the boy he had hold of, then ate his own gun. One look at the girl and Jayne knew there’d be no more sense out of her the rest of that day.

 

Lately, however, the overriding feeling has been annoyance. The last two stops have been in bigger cities, getting employment and gathering intel respectively. River had been present for both. She’d also kept irritatingly close to Jayne for both. Walking in his wake is one thing; he cuts a wide path and it’s not unusual for crewmates to take advantage of that in a crowd. Staying so close that he can feel the wind of her feet on his ankles and her breath on his arm anytime they stop is quite another.

 

At first he assumes it’s a new way she’s come up with to tease him, wouldn’t exactly be uncommon. But after he glares at her a few times and finally snaps at her one day to keep the hell away, he knows that can’t be it. There’s no wide-eyed innocent look, no yu chun 12 faces and, most telling of all, no half-hidden smirks. Mostly she looks surprised or tetchy, if she reacts at all. It’s enough to set Jayne’s teeth on edge. Something’s coming and she doesn’t know what it is.

 

A week later they’re as prepared as they usually are for the job, meaning barely enough to get by, and Simon’s pitching a fit. Jayne’s minding his own business, doing some pull-ups and curls in the cargo bay while half-listening to the ruckus upstairs. He has a pretty good idea what it’s about, which is only confirmed when the moonbrain wanders down the catwalk ‘til she’s positioned herself right over top of where Jayne’s fingers are curled into the grid.

 

He drops to the ground quickly, shaking out his arms and glancing up. She’s wearing knee pants under the skirt. Shame.

 

“What the hell you want?” he grunts at her, reaching toward the hand bells.

 

“Simon is adding twigs, hunting feathers for padding,” she says, making about as much sense as usual. He rolls his eyes before he can stop himself, looking up at where she’s now sitting cross-legged on the walk. “Sweaty,” she adds vaguely, sniffing once.

 

She looks twitchy and something about the way she’s sitting still and yet giving the impression of wanting to move everywhere at once reminds him of Ariel. It’s that more than anything that tips it over and makes him ask.

 

“You think you should go?”

 

She looks surprised, as if a clump of dirt suddenly jumped up and started banging on about philosophy. Her eyes flit around, she swallows. “Doesn’t know.”

 

It’s a confirmation of what he’s already suspected and it don’t sit well. Something’s coming.

 

---

 

“Foggy as goolie soup out there,” Wash comments as he ambles into the kitchen.

 

Inara blinks and asks politely, “What kind of soup?”

 

“Oh, it’s these little green nuts that grow on a low-hanging—”

 

“Be better cover for us though,” Jayne interrupts, slurping his breakfast loudly. 

 

“Composed of water vapor and various pollutants, name changed with prefix, made more real,” River mutters. She slants a look at Simon in annoyance, which might have something to do with the way the doc’s been hovering, if Jayne had to guess. “Solid muck.” She swallows pointedly.

 

“Which we are gonna wade right on through and get the job done,” Mal calls down the table. “Now eat your breakfast.”

 

The girl makes a face and slowly picks up her spoon.

 

Simon looks vaguely offended and murmurs something to his sister, but all Jayne catches is “when the captain says it.” River grins.

 

---

 

The fog holds strong as Jayne and the others step off the boat. This is a simple enough job; the girl is really only here to bother Simon, so far as Jayne can tell, though could be Mal is getting more paranoid.

 

At any rate, they get to the market outside the vault quick enough without drawing any undue notice. This rock is fairly middling on security; nothing they can’t slip past easily. Jayne would almost believe this was one of those exceedingly rare jobs that went off without a hitch. That is, if River weren’t breathing down his neck the whole way.

 

“This ain’t working out, she keeps doing this,” Jayne grumbles to Mal the fourth time he has to shove the girl away after she steps on his heels.

 

Zoe briefly looks back from her position in the front of their group, taking in River’s near full-body tension. “Might be time to fall back on Plan B, sir,” she comments, facing front again.

 

“Plan B? What time exactly you planning on telling me what that is?” Jayne asks, not bothering to keep the snarl out of his voice.

 

“Eyes on the inside. Minimizes threat of implosion.” River’s quiet voice issues from near his elbow.

 

Mal, who had been off in contemplation, snaps his head around to Jayne, scowl in place. “Didn’t need to know until we had to use it. Girl’s with us, you stay on patrol outside.”

 

“Won’t help,” River says. She’s got that face on that says she’s not looking at what her eyes are seeing. “Won’t go.”

 

“Need to, little one, ‘less’n you pull it together.”

 

River’s mouth pinches and Jayne can just about hear the petty comment she’s holding back.

 

By the time they wend their careful way to the front of the bank, the girl’s back on his heels and looking furious with herself. Jayne slips away as Mal gestures her toward the front door after him and Zoe. She looks just about ready to wheel around and march after Jayne, but ducks her head down and steps inside. Jayne strolls away, leaning casually against a nearby alley entrance.

 

It happens just as Jayne is really starting to consider how much Mal would skin him if he nipped off for a quick one at the bar just down the way.

 

He gets a burst of radio static, someone breathing heavy into the set, before the girl’s voice wavers on, saying, “It’s—” but she’s cut off almost immediately as a rattle of bullets goes off so close it almost circuits the handheld. Cursing, Jayne tries to duck inside but is almost bowled over by River as she comes shooting out the door, closely followed by Zoe. 

 

Jayne wheels and keeps them both in his sights, panting out, “Mal?”

 

“Coming,” Zoe says shortly. Good enough for Jayne. If Zoe ain’t worried, ain’t nothing to be worried on.

 

‘Course, just at that moment, the bank door bursts open behind them yet again, expelling nigh on ten well-armed back-berths who take one look around at the startled crowd and start shooting where they please.

 

Zoe reacts like the drop of a pistol hammer, snatching River by the wrist and shouting, “Move!” as she pushes through the panicked crowd toward what Jayne hopes is the nearest exit. They make it about thirty feet or so before Jayne registers the sound of a lawman’s siren cutting through the screams and gunshots.

 

“What the gorram hell happened in there?” he shouts, muscling through a mixed group of elderly shopkeepers and shrieking chickens. “And where the hell is Mal?”

 

Zoe’s jaw tightens, but she doesn’t respond.

 

Jayne turns his head, trying to catch a glimpse of the bank and hopefully their sha gwa13 captain, when several things happen at once. A stray bullet erupts in an unfortunate’s arm less than two feet from them, causing a panic-stricken teenager to sprint in the opposite direction, right into River, who screams and falls while Zoe is pushed away, trying desperately to get back to her. Jayne himself is nearly bowled over by the press of bodies and catches out of the corner of his eye the lawman’s transport closing in, painted bright with a xi niao14 Alliance insignia.

 

Cursing wildly in Mandarin, Jayne shoves through to find a clear spot in the crowd, screaming for Zoe, who seems to have disappeared. He’s so distracted, he almost misses it when the girl pops up out of nowhere, hair dirt-streaked and sticking up, eyes wild. She’s muttering something, but all he catches is, “...mei xin, byen shi to15,” before he catches on to what she’s doing. 

 

“Git your skinny ass off—” he starts to snarl, but is cut off in utter shock as she succeeds in getting his wrap off and all but smashes her mark against his.

 

Jayne’s on his knees before he’s even aware of what he’s doing. He’s powerless to stop it. A torrent. Full blown. Names, faces, entire lives, schematics of passing ships, analyses of the light fracturing around him. For one heart-stopping moment, he forgets to breathe. 

 

Then it feels as though a steel trap closes around his senses and a hard voice, steady and maybe the most overwhelming thing he’s ever heard, says Get up. Move. He does. 

 

River is winding her way quickly and successfully through the crowd, a clear destination in mind, avoiding the bullets with a precognizance that borders on terrifying. He gets a quick impression of likely trajectories and calculations in what might as well be an insane alien language before the trap closes around him again and River tugs on his wrist. It’s only then he realizes she’s still got his arm in a vise grip, their marks flush together and he’s gripping her back just as hard.

 

There’s a fleeting glimpse of Zoe keeping point right next to him, a right scary look on her face as she watches the two of them. Jayne keeps walking. He doesn’t think. He can’t.

 

They make it to the edge of the square and must’ve kept going cause the next clear memory Jayne has is Mal smirking at them from the seat of the mule, waving the docs they’d set out to get in the first place. River lets go of his wrist and it’s like he’s been underwater for hours and suddenly he’s in the cold air again, shaking and gasping. Thankfully, Mal’s turned around, prepping the mule for their return journey, but there’s no way Jayne’s getting Zoe’s stare out of his head for a good long while. 

 

He swallows.

 

---

 

Jayne is stewing. River sits uncomfortably on the gridded walkway and presses a hand against the bulkhead, imagines an invisible line passing through. Down the ladder, across the floor – avoid the discarded clothes – up to…

 

A solid wall. River frowns, probes slightly, and gets a distinct feeling of withdrawal. She catches a panicked half-thought curse before she’s mentally shoved away. Hurt before she can scold herself out of the feeling, she pushes forward cautiously, only to come up against another wall, this one slowly being built up. Brick by brick.

 

Broken. Unwanted. The voices whisper and seethe from the chasm behind and she’s scrabbling desperately at the wall, dismantling stones and screaming for—

 

“River!” Simon’s hands are gentle and soothing and exactly what she cannot handle right now. The Shepherd stands near, radiating calm and terrifying precision.

 

“Needs form and function,” the girl murmurs, voice hoarse. “Too easy to fall. Imaginary chasms.”

 

“The captain told me what happened on the job,” Simon says. He slowly helps her to stand. “Book, do you mind…?”

 

“River, why don’t we get you back to your room?” The Shepherd extends his left hand, helping her along the hallways. River trails one finger against the door in farewell then lifts it slowly to press against Book’s simple cloth wrapping.

 

“Unjointed. Un...joined,” she murmurs, puzzling over linguistics. “Unknown reaches of possibilities. Wonders of what might have been.”

 

Book stiffens slightly. “Well, we can’t have everything in this life.” His tone is warm, though his mind stretches to cold, empty places of peace. Serenity. River shivers.

 

“Found,” she informs him, looking into dark, calm eyes as she sits on her bed. “In the dark.” She glances at her mark, traces the edge of the dagger. Makes a face. “Being mighty difficult.”

 

Book’s eyes tighten, searching for answers. River looks back, open. Then she makes a decision and her mouth follows accordingly. “Why I was outside his room,” she says bluntly. “He’s blocking me out. Very rude.”

 

Book’s tight look vanishes into one of open shock, looking from her wrist to her face. He wets his lips. “River…”

 

Mei mei , I know you don’t want to, but I really do think this will help you tonight,” says Simon, stepping around the door with another smoothie. He looks up, brow furrowing at their tableau. “Is everything alright?”

 

The Shepherd collects himself quickly. “River was just telling me an interesting story,” he says smoothly, standing to leave. He looks back when he reaches the door. “But I think you should get some sleep now, River. Try again tomorrow; you never know what might change.”

 

River blinks at the warm acceptance of his tone. Unexpected.

 

She lays back, lets Simon administer his newest attempt. Casts her rapidly dulling mind back through layers of metal and grates. The wall is high. Well-built. River sighs and leans against it. Falls down through darkness.

 

---

 

It’s cresting on the deadest hour of Serenity’s cycle when Jayne finally unfurrows his brow and lays back against his pillow, exhausted in a way he’s real unused to. He feels like his brain matter’s been pulling somersaults and fancy circus moves for hours. 

 

He sighs. It does feel like he might have a handle on it now, though. 

 

And he’s now done denying what it is. He’d have to be a special sort of stupid not to recognize his own soulmate when she gorram well forced a bond on him.

 

In the smallest corner of his brain (which he now knows much too well), there’s a part of him that’s not surprised at all. That’d been expecting this. That knew all along. Hell, if it weren’t for her packed-in craziness, he might even… 

 

Jayne scrubs his hands vigorously across his face, swearing at himself. Do not go down that route.

 

The point is, she is crazy, and he sure as shit ain’t getting involved in that. Hence the wall. ‘Least, that’s what he’s been calling it. In so much as there can be a wall in his own brainpan. Whatever the hell it is, it’s keeping her out and doing a good job so far, so he’s not taking it down or even peeking over it anytime soon.

 

Grunting in satisfaction, he grabs his sheet off the wall and rolls over to sleep.

Chapter Text

The wall stays. River adapts.

 

She has always been good at winding her way through gaps and crevices, understanding more than she ought. For Jayne, it’s simple: tease or surprise.

 

The first comes naturally and is used much more effectively. The second she stumbles upon instead of intends. And she certainly didn’t intend this – the girl was lost in the crowd, eaten by voices, stumbling upon stability… It wasn’t until later she’d realized what she’d done.

 

“More brute than mate,” River mutters from the catwalk as Jayne ignores her pointedly from his bench. She’s counted thirty reps thus far.

 

“River?” Inara is suddenly behind her. River smells crushed leaves and curiosity.

 

She twists into a standing position, handstands on the rail, and folds down to the floor.

 

Inara’s cry of “River!” and Mal’s more colorful “Wei 16! I’d rather not decorate the bay with little girl guts!” come at the same time. River’s feet tingle and cold sweat seeps from behind the wall.

 

“Practicing,” River posits, maintaining her balance and sweeping into her favorite routine. Mal and Inara share exasperation followed by embarrassment and uncertainty. Jayne grunts and retreats once more. The wall is especially strong today. River pushes experimentally, flexing her foot.

 

“Wasn’t gonna get hurt,” she murmurs as she spins past the bench. “Knows what she’s doing.” They’re not her words; she’s pulling from beyond.

 

Jayne drops the weight with a clang just as Simon steps cautiously out from the rear door. “Mind your own gorram business, ruttin’ feng le girl!” He spots Simon, snarls, and pivots onto the staircase out of sight. River watches, slightly vindicated.

 

“River?” Simon ventures, even a touch accusatory.

 

“Practicing,” River repeats, but doesn’t finish her routine. “Dancing is one step away from running.”

 

---

 

“She does seem better, but I can’t make heads or tails of it,” murmurs Kaylee from the walkway. Jayne bangs his plate down with more vigor than necessary, hoping to nip that conversation in the bud. No dice.

 

“I’ve spoken with her, but she doesn’t—” starts Inara, her footsteps nearing the door.

 

Shi ma17?” interrupts Kaylee eagerly. “I can’t get nothing out of her! What’d she say?”

 

Zoe makes her presence known with a quiet cough just as they come into the kitchen. Jayne doesn’t startle, but suddenly feels a strong urge to be elsewhere.

 

“I’d be interested to know that myself,” Zoe murmurs, though Jayne feels her eyes on him. He’s getting right tired of that.

 

Inara hums and Kaylee chirps, “Morning, Jayne! Don’t suppose you know why River’s being so...” she gestures vaguely.

 

“Lucid,” provides Inara. She’s getting her fancified tea things out, but Jayne catches her glance, sharp with interest.

 

Tea leaves and curiosity, a steady murmur from beyond his own head. He flinches, cursing his own lack of control.

 

“Don’t suppose I do,” he grumbles, making a quick decision. It’s getting mighty crowded. “I’ll be in my bunk.”

 

He’s concentrating so hard on getting out of there, he only sees her at the last minute, slid up inside the niche right outside the helm.

 

“You’re running now,” she tells him, tilting her head creepily. “Refusing to dance.”

 

Jayne immediately thinks of several things to say, but refrains when Mal chooses that moment to round the corner. He snarls wordlessly and retreats to his bunk. He’s had just about enough of this.

 

---

 

Simon is circling. River watches and paints his colors. Blue and orange. Something murkier, in the distance.

 

“What’s that, mei mei ?” he asks distractedly. He’s measuring her second dosage.

 

“Too foggy to tell,” she mutters. “Don’t like the color, though.”

 

“Well it does seem to be helping,” he answers, misunderstanding. “You feel more in control?”

 

“My words are my own, mostly,” she reports. “I can see with my own eyes. I know where I am.” She pauses. “Who I am.”

 

Simon is smiling, delighted. “That’s wonderful, mei mei. We’ll keep this dosage then.” He turns away, organizing. “Two weeks is the longest we’ve managed thus far; I’m hopeful we’ve finally found what you need.”

 

“We have,” she returns. Makes a face. “Not entirely happy with it.”

 

“Intravenous methods are working best, though,” Simon murmurs. His colors blend and burst. “I know needles aren’t your favorite—”

 

River sighs explosively. Always misunderstanding. “The wall grows day by day,” she explains impatiently. “Not what I would’ve chosen. But it helps – helps to stay here.” Simon opens his mouth, closes it, still doesn’t understand.

 

She turns away and considers the murk, shivers. “Doesn’t know what’s coming,” she whispers, then even quieter, “Doesn’t know what she’ll do.”

 

---

 

On the third job when they don’t take the girl, Jayne thinks Zoe might be leaning on Mal. There’s no way Mal knows though, else there would’ve already been hell to pay. Much as he’s glad she’s not around, there’s no denying she would’ve been helpful on some of these ventures though. Hell, even the doc’s getting suspicious.

 

“…been much more coherent. If this is some juvenile, passive-aggressive ploy—” Simon’s voice filters through as Jayne considers vacating his spot at the table once again.

 

“Doctor, is there anything about my character you would consider passive-aggressive?” Mal answers. Great, he’s in a good mood.

 

“Always happy,” mumbles the girl from the corner. “Reign whoever may, and laughs the sense of mis’ry far away.”

 

Soon as he hears the words, he gets a brief sense memory of strong booze in his mouth and a pretty young thing singing from her perch on the bar top. Long red hair and legs to kill a man over.

 

“Little red Robin,” River half-sings as Mal and the doc step through the door, still arguing. “Tweeting from the top.”

 

Jayne snarls in her general direction and focuses like hell on his cleaning.

 

“Wasn’t so long ago you were set on her never taking up with us ne’er-do-wells,” Mal continues as he pulls down a protein pack.

 

Simon goes to answer, but River interrupts. “First mate opposes. Captain has to listen.”

 

Mal pauses. “I estimate you know something about that, little one?”

 

Jayne freezes. River hums noncommittally, making a production of stretching then gathering her pencils and such. She looks Jayne in the eye across the room, pulls that gorram smirk. “No.”

 

“Huh,” says Mal, not sounding real convinced.

 

Jayne sighs at the same time as the doc, going back to his guns. Even looking at the particulars on his sidearm, he can still pinpoint her location as she ambles toward her brother and answers his question.

 

“Even ferritic nitrocarburized metals will weaken if exposed to overzealous polishing,” she suddenly whispers, far too close to his ear.

 

Jayne startles badly, tries to cover it up with a gruff, “Huh?”

 

She rolls her eyes, points at his current piece. “Carla's already had her bath.”

 

He snarls again, sitting up to say his piece to her face, but before he’s even opened his mouth, her face goes slack and terrified. Next second, she’s on the floor clutching at his chair-leg and he’s bracing his mental wall as much as he can against the torrent he can feel raging just beyond it.

 

“River?” Simon’s voice seems to be coming from far away, kinda warble-y. “River, I’m okay. It was just a cut, see?” His face swims through Jayne’s vision, on a level with the girl, pale and nervous.

 

“Jayne?” Mal’s voice cuts through and Jayne realizes distantly he’s gripping the table and grinding his teeth so hard it feels like they’re about to crack.

 

He jumps up, dislodging the girl, who looks up at him in something close to betrayal. He turns away, leaving his setup where it is, and all but flees the room.

 

---

 

“Not getting better,” River murmurs to herself later.

 

Simon’s come and gone, leaving her with stability in her veins and anxiety in her head. The murk is getting closer but no clearer.

 

She pulls the blankets above her head, turning her face to the pillow. The murk creeps, stealthily. The girl trembles, resists.

 

“Unwanted,” she whispers to the fibers. Wets them with her eyes. “Not welcome beyond the wall.”

 

The murk touches her feet, swirls around her ankles. She yanks them back, scrambles to the bricks without conscious decision. There is no break, no way, no respite. She sits with her back against the cold mortar, shivering as the murk engulfs her.

 

“Won’t break,” she whispers to the unforgiving stone, to her bedroom ceiling. “Won’t.”

 

---

 

When it finally does happen, it takes her by surprise.

 

Zoe has relented but is still keeping watch, minding their distance. River has accompanied several jobs in quick succession with no issues present.

 

She’s currently keeping point with Jayne while the captain and Zoe organize the finer details with Badger. She’s also keeping the murk at bay by amusing herself at Badger’s expense.

 

“Might be an easier mark than Simon,” she murmurs to Jayne, upping the intensity of her eye contact. Badger fans himself with his hat and talks a little faster. Thinks, guiltily, of Molly.

 

She feels a warm swell – reluctant admiration from beyond the wall. She basks in it, draws it around her to ward off the chill of the murk.

 

It’s been getting clearer and she doesn’t like its shape. Its smell. Acrid and unpleasant. She sees it curling out of the corner of her eye, leans heavier on Jayne’s presence to her right. The wall is becoming familiar.

 

Suddenly, a burst of color to her left. Nausea. Bad smells.

 

Simon.

 

The girl screams.

 

---

 

When River goes down, she nearly takes Jayne with her.

 

She’s around him before he can blink, a chilly, shivering presence that obliterates his wall and overwhelms his senses. There’s no escape.

 

Gai si18,” he hisses, keeps his feet somehow. His knees feel knocked, his legs splayed. It’s possible he’s hanging on to the wall for dear life. His fingers are on his wrap before he remembers himself and he looks up at their shocked audience when he hears a cough. Badger’s hat is on the floor, his hand outstretched and mouth agape. He doesn’t dare look at Mal.

 

“Was hiding him,” the girl’s babbling, on her knees in the dirt. He looks at her helplessly, can’t not. “But his colors were there all along.” She looks in Jayne’s direction, but he can tell she’s not all there. “Orange and blue are the combination.”

 

Badger’s men are starting to shift anxiously, their weapons pulling up slowly. Gotta get her outta here, he thinks distinctly.

 

And that must be what happens because the next thing Jayne knows, he’s got her by the shoulders, they’re standing outside Badger’s hovel, and he knows.

 

Ta ma de18,” he says with feeling. River nods in agreement, breathing just a little too hard, clutching at his arms. “Where’s he at?”

 

He can feel her trying, a terrifying sense of reaching beyond, before her face crumbles and she puts her hands over her head.

 

“She doesn’t know,” she wails. “Doesn’t know!”

 

“Jayne!” Mal, right on time. “What in the gorram hell—”

 

“The doc’s in trouble,” Jayne answers shortly. Leaves the rest of what Mal’s asking ‘til…hopefully never. “Girl says he’s been shot up, but can’t say where.” It’s easier to think now, with his hands on her bare skin. Despite the raging mass they seem to be standing smack in the middle of. Tries not to think why.

 

“They were heading up to the shopping districts,” Zoe puts in. She’s staring at Jayne’s hands, but he’s too dizzy to take in her expression. “There any news on the waves?”

 

“Simon,” River moans quietly. She pulls in a quick breath of air and straightens, dropping her hands. “Saw the colors before,” she says in a different voice, dark, kinda accusing. “Could’ve seen, could’ve been there.”

 

She stares Jayne right in the eyes and he feels completely bare, pierced through, like a butterfly on a corkboard. “Needed stability, clarity. Too busy running!” She shouts the last part and Jayne drops his hands with a hiss, badly needing distance.

 

Immediately, she collapses, wailing in Mandarin. Jayne hovers, uncertain, his knees embarrassingly weak. Almost feels like screaming himself.

 

“Captain, I’ll handle this,” he hears Zoe say quietly. “Go tend to the doc.” He sees her knees bend and her hand touch his shoulder. Huh. Now when did he get to the ground?

 

“Jayne,” she says. “You need to help her. Now.” He hears no emotion in her voice, no judgment, and maybe that’s what allows him to do it.

 

His wrap is off his wrist before he knows it, the numbers and symbols stark red against his skin. He finds her hand, her wrist. Swallows. Touches the marks together.

 

---

 

“Simon is well,” is the first thing he hears on waking. He keeps his eyes closed, trying to tell if he heard that with his ears or…well.

 

“Recuperating,” continues the voice. It’s quiet, kind of tremble-y. He lifts his hand, moves it heavily, searching.

 

There comes a sharp intake of breath and a shuffling off to his right. “Won’t do it again,” River whispers. She sounds scared and something else. He’d almost say guilty, if’n he didn’t know her better. “Forced her way in, broke the mortar and stone. She won’t. Not again.”

 

“Girl, what in the hell…?” he asks, voice raspy and dry coming out of his throat.

 

He stops. Analyzes. Opens his eyes.

 

Sure enough, she’s off in a corner of the couch, huddling with her arms around her knees and sort of rocking side to side.

 

“Where you at?” he asks nonsensically. He knows where she is, but it’s like there’s this weird gap in his own head – no wall, no… nothing.

 

“She didn't know,” she whispers, not answering. Her voice comes stronger, faster, kinda frantic. “Needed to make the pieces fit, nothing fit. Just hurt, jagged edges, knife-edge puzzle pieces, too broken.”

 

She pauses. Takes a deep breath. Makes eye contact through her curtain of hair. “I didn't know.”

 

Jayne blinks. “Don’t reckon I’ve heard you use the word ‘I’ before,” he grumbles.

 

And Jayne gets it. Against his will, he’s starting to really gorram empathize. He closes his eyes again, sighs, and lays back.

 

“Gorramit, girl, if it’s hurting that damn bad…” he trails off, not sure how to finish that.

 

He pauses, then, terrified, reaches out through the nothing in his head, offering. He doesn’t realize he’s extended his hand too until he feels her fingers tentatively touch his, cold and shaky.

 

He doesn’t overthink it. Just takes her hand in his and, slowly, starts to let her back in.

Chapter Text

After the incident with Simon, it’s both easier and much, much harder.

 

Kaylee and Book both seem to wholeheartedly support them, though Kaylee with much more cheerful optimism. Nothing too unexpected there, though Jayne still tends to think of the Shepherd’s advice and encouraging smile when it gets to be too much.

 

Wash and Inara are both in the ‘surprised and waiting-to-see-what-happens’ boat, though Jayne has a hard time believing Inara’s as clueless as she lets on.

 

“Obfuscating stupidity,” mutters the girl from his elbow. She’s ostensibly spotting him, but he knows for a fact she’s just hiding from her brother. And she’s definitely stopped counting for him about five minutes ago.

 

A series of numbers force their way through his head with alarming clarity, making his muscles twinge. He puts the weight back on the rack carefully before he brains himself.

 

“Moonbrain, if you can’t—” he starts, voice not as growly as he’d like after that little stunt.

 

Can do two things at once,” she whines, pivoting slowly on one foot. “Thirty, at last count. Could up the dosage.”

 

“Then what the hell—” he goes to ask, but she cuts him off again.

 

“Calculating muscle to body fat percentage,” she sighs dramatically. Rolls her eyes and slants him a look. “Not hiding either.”

 

“Sure,” he drawls, wiping his towel up over his neck. He sighs, wonders vaguely which path he should take to get to the showers.

 

“Zoe will not bite,” River tells him. “Simon may yet.”

 

Great. “And where’s the captain?”

 

“Adding beef and vegetables,” she answers, smirking. “The broth is ready to take.”

 

Jayne glares. He’s in no mood. “Girl…” he growls.

 

River sighs, plopping down on her back so her hair hangs to his right foot. “Stewing. The captain is stewing. Great strings of brown and purple.” She makes a face. “Unpleasant.”

 

Jayne looks up at the ceiling. Sighs and wonders if he should. He feels like she’s been playing it up on purpose, lately.

 

Ah, hell. He touches her arm.

 

The bond lights up between them, River closing her eyes and Jayne taking a deep breath on reflex. He gets a brief, dizzying impression of Mal, sitting in his bunk and surrounded by a kaleidoscope of murky colors, before he pulls away, trying to breathe normal.

 

He opens his mouth to snap at her, but she’s already sitting up, rubbing her eyes and muttering, “Wasn’t sure he would do it. Got to go careful. Too much.”

 

Shaking his head, he stomps off to the showers, taking the route by the infirmary just to be contrary. If he can’t glare the doc into submission, he might as well retire and establish a knitting circle right now.

 

---

 

“You knew for a while,” River tells Simon as he steps into her room with the last smoothie of the day.

 

Simon pauses, glances at where her wrist lays bare in her lap, and sighs. “Do we really need to talk about this right now?”

 

River ignores him. “Saw him on the paper,” she continues, even as Simon seems determined to ignore her right back. “Scribbles from the schoolyard. Ignoring his teacher.”

 

Simon eyes her from where he’s crouched, plastic cap sticking out from the corner of his mouth comically.

 

She sighs, sticks her arm out as unhelpfully as possible, and says in her best imitation, “We applied the cortical electrodes but were unable to get a neural reaction from either patient.”

 

Simon’s face twitches but his hands are as steady as ever. “Well, as eerie as that is...”

 

She needs him to know. She needs him to believe. She looks at him, waits for reciprocation. “Simon. It is helping. Just as much as this,” she taps the plastic container. “I am better.”

 

He searches her eyes for a moment then sighs and drops his gaze. “I know, mei mei,” he says, quiet. “I really do.” Looks up with a sad smile and taps her nose. “Why else do you think I’m not putting up more of a fuss?”

 

“The match is not ideal,” she says matter-of-factly. “Mother and Father would not approve.”

 

He heaves a huge sigh and caps the container. “Why do I get the feeling you’re happy about that?”

 

“Not happy,” she denies stubbornly. She tries to set her face but it breaks and she feels her mouth pull at the corner. “Maybe a little.”

 

“Well, the captain certainly isn’t,” Simon mutters, sitting next to her. “I never thought I’d try to defend Jayne from him.” He makes a face. “Zao gao.20

 

“Zoe will straighten his path,” she says, patting Simon’s band gently. “She sings a song of reason.”

 

Simon hums thoughtfully and smooths her hand. “That I do not understand. I would’ve thought—”

 

“Saw it happen,” River mutters. Casts her thoughts back and shudders, remembering. “The girl was lost. But she found her rock. Clung and forced her way through.”

 

There is a touch under her chin, a flash of warmth amidst her cold. She blinks, surprised to find her cheeks wet, her lips trembling. Simon runs his thumb under her eye, cradling her head. “Will hurt him again. Don’t want to.”

 

“You’ll find your way,” Simon says. His belief bleeds blue and sure. River clings. “Whether it’s with him or not. You will.”

 

River smiles, bittersweet. “On your own path, always. On the same path, always. As touching so touched.”

 

Simon’s eyes gleam bright, surprised with a deep sorrow, forgotten in a deep chasm. River smooths the blue band around his wrist carefully. Sighs and leans her head on his shoulder comfortingly.

 

Sings once more, with a sense of finality, “Where the sharks will have his body and the Devil take his soul.

 

---

 

If Jayne’s perfectly honest with himself, it ain’t all bad. Mystifying, annoying, sometimes downright terrifying, but definitely not all bad.

 

There’s the night she helps him cheat at cards and he gets to hand off three latrine duties to Wash. Though it does take him a minute to figure out “the heartless monarch is flying above the garden” and “lucky numbers are a hoax and should all be reduced by two” are actually hints and not the typical gou shi21 that flies out of her mouth. The hints also get a lot clearer when he lets her sit by his chair and touch her toe to his leg.

 

There’s also the fact that she knows not only where everyone is on the ship but also what they’re doing at any given time. Mighty handy to avoid certain folks (and conversations) he’d rather deal with never. He’s avoided speaking to Mal and Simon so far – he’d like to keep up his streak. Though given how much her moods swing day to day, she’s just as like to tell him the opposite of what she knows.

 

He’s getting better at picking up on it through the bond though, whether she admits to that or not. And he’s getting more and more used to sharing brainspace with a reader, whether he admits to that or not.

 

At the moment, they’re about ready to do a drop on Zephyr and Zoe and Mal are having one of their weird conversations without words up in the front of the mule. The girl’s mouthing something to herself, tilting her head and staring into the distance. No help there.

 

As soon as Mal cuts the engine, he turns to look at both of them, looking mighty unhappy but resigned all the same. Zoe must have won that one then. “Jayne, you’re to take little River up to scout the area. Teach her some of the ropes, but no weapons within range of her grabby little fingers. Dong ma22?”

 

“Snipers are a dime a dozen,” River answers in a Rim accent. “Don’t matter if’n he makes it back or not.”

 

Mal blinks. “Right. Glad that’s cleared up.”

 

Wei,” Jayne shakes her shoulder. “Don’t be going off-world now. You gotta be here if you wanna learn.” She blinks and shakes her head as if coming out of dream, looking at him with clear eyes.

 

Wu dong.23 Will learn.”

 

“Good,” says Zoe briskly, prepping her piece. “Get going, we’ll meet you back here once the job’s done.”

 

---

 

The girl is a natural – could’ve predicted that. By the time they get up to where there’s like to be a few snipers, she spots ‘em faster and is muttering about pressure points and non-lethal blows as Jayne takes them both out and sizes up their guns for any upgrades.

 

“Trophies of the fallen,” she says solemnly, standing over one of the bodies.

 

“Git over here,” Jayne grumbles. “And quit being morbid. It ain’t like I’m taking their ears or nothing.”

 

“Doesn’t keep the ears,” she says as she crawls over. “Only wants the screams. The pain.” She gets alongside him and looks at him with slightly too-wide eyes. “Happily married and mated. Two monsters waiting in a decorated lair. Paisley.”

 

Jaynes curses and pulls her closer so she can use the scope. Keeps his hand on her arm. Just as a precaution. “If you really want to be creepifying, focus on them two. What’s in their heads?”

 

He feels the by now familiar swoop in his stomach as she looks at Beatrice and her man waiting below. The nausea doesn’t really get a chance to set in before she shuts him out and he suddenly feels alone in his own head, despite the warmth of her arm beneath his hand, her body beside his.

 

“No untoward notions,” she reports, pulling back. Jayne feels her slowly seeping back into his head, the wall dissipating. “Snipers as precaution only.”

 

“A’ight,” he says. “Let me know if that changes.” He goes to pull back and roll over, but her hand lands on his and pushes down.

 

“Jayne,” she whispers. Her voice breaks a little in the middle of the word – she suddenly seems scared.

 

“Yeah?” his voice comes out just about as steady as hers.

 

“Is it…? Would it be…?” she stops and huffs, sounding frustrated. “She wants to see.”

 

“Huh? See what?” When she does nothing but mutter incomprehensibly to herself, he shoves her arm a little. “What’re you on about?”

 

“Have time, still quarter hour ‘til contact,” she mumbles, face tilted to the ground, breath shoving the dirt in front of her. “Won’t hurt him again. Just wants to see.”

 

Before he can ask again – or better yet, yank his hand away and ignore her – she’s tapping at his wrap, shoving her pinky finger underneath, searching for the tie.

 

“Hey!” he half-shouts, shoving her away. “You can’t just—”

 

“Has wondered before,” she tells him, looking at him direct now. “Numbers and symbols. Crazy foreign language.”

 

When he doesn’t immediately respond, she turns up the intensity in her eyes, her voice. “Jayne. Wants to see. Please.”

 

He sighs up at the sky. “Ah, hell. Fine,” he grumbles, slowly removing the wrap and feeling strangely naked. “You can look. Not touch.”

 

She looks alright. Brings her eyes close enough he can feel her breath on his skin. He twitches with the urge to pull away, but forces himself to stay put.

 

“Well?” he asks when he can’t take it anymore. “What the hell is it?”

 

“A lemniscate,” she breathes, smile forming slow and sure until it lights up her whole face. “It’s a lemniscate.”

 

He pulls his wrist away, hurriedly reties the wrap. “Huh?”

 

She crawls away through the dirt, searching for something, and returns with a stick. Jayne has time to wonder if they really should have brought her on this venture before she draws a figure in the dirt between them and points. “A lemniscate.”

 

Jayne looks. Blinks. “Looks like an eight.”

 

“Two shapes intersecting,” corrects River happily. “Sharing a common point on a graph. Do you see?” She pokes the point where the two circles bump into each other, making a dot.

 

“Uh huh,” Jayne says. He doesn’t see.

 

River huffs then grabs his hand and places it in one of the circles with his longest finger touching the dot. Puts her hand in the other one. “Own path. Same path,” she says, illustrating with her stick. “Touching. Touched. You see.”

 

And Jayne does. “Huh,” he says, impressed against his will. “And that’s what all those fancy numbers and letters mean?”

 

“Yes,” River affirms, tracing her hand in the dirt. “It represents a graph. Only crude representation currently possible.”

 

She moves on to his hand. Before she finishes outlining it, he grabs her by a couple fingers. “Uh,” he says, suddenly unsure. “Can I?”

 

River giggles and flips her hand without any further prompting.

 

“Huh,” he says again. “Used to draw those all the time.”

 

“Ms. Carver did not respect your artistic endeavors,” River says slyly. She traces the little stick figure and makes a face.

 

Jayne laughs before he thinks to suppress it. River looks delighted.

 

Jayne schools his face into a scowl. “Should get back to monitoring. Job’s happening soon.”

 

“Understood,” River mock salutes then rolls back to look through the scope.

 

“And hands where I can see ‘em,” Jayne tells her. “No fingers on firearms today.”

 

River sighs exasperatedly. “Wu dong.”

 

Jayne makes sure she’s occupied before he looks back to the outlines of their hands in the dirt. He glances furtively at her then, before he can overthink it, finishes the last part of his hand, completing the design.

 

---

 

The girl is close to sleep. River is feeling particularly cogent today. Serenity welcomes her into her grates and red-flecked crannies.

 

Simon is reading, spiraling hopeful blue all over the table as Kaylee pours her soft pinks and yellows into the mix. Inara stirs nearby, dwells under a pool of still waters.

 

The Shepherd is dreaming, a rock within a raging sea. River steps clear and comes across a nest of red, pulsing with life, Wash and Zoe. Mal is a stark contrast in his washed out gray and brown, echoing the cold stars flowing through Serenity’s bow.

 

Jayne is not sleeping, but he may yet, once he finishes his ruminating. River settles comfortably on the perimeter of the bond, leaning ever-so-slightly over the boundary. Time to sleep.

 

She feels a nudge, like a rough hand is shaking her shoulder just a bit. She leans into it, humming in sleepy contentment. The nudge pushes back, almost painful.

 

She’s not alone.

 

River sits up, expectantly.

 

“Wants to talk,” she says when Jayne slides the door open a few minutes later. He grunts in reply, looks around cautiously, and settles himself awkwardly on the floor.

 

“Yeah, well,” he grumbles. Swipes a hand through his hair, almost nervously. “Got my piece to say, leastways.”

 

“She will hear,” River assures him. He grunts and slants her a look. She rolls her eyes. “ I will hear.”

 

He nods, waits for his words to come. River tries to project calm through the bond. Isn’t sure she succeeds when he flinches, just slightly.

 

“Thing is,” he starts, addressing the floor. “Been sharing a lot more lately. Touching and…” he trails off and she whispers so touched through the bond as quietly as she can. “Yeah,” Jayne agrees, though she’s not sure he realizes. “Not much of a wall anymore,” he mutters this last almost inaudibly and River flinches in her turn but stubbornly keeps her sense of calm radiating outwards.

 

He sighs almost angrily and seems to draw upon another reserve of blunt honesty. “But I reckon I do like you well enough.” He raises his eyes meaningfully. “Least ways when you’re not being crazy or weird or just plain creepifying.”

 

River scowls and pulls back her sense of calm. Let him flounder.

 

“And that’s just it,” he continues, grimacing a bit. “I’m not exactly willing to go starting nothing with all this,” he gestures vaguely between the two of them. “On account of all that.”

 

“The previously mentioned adjectives,” River concludes, still glaring. He just nods, jaw set and staring at the floor again.

 

River sighs, a touch impatiently. “Not exactly thrilled either,” she says. She feels brittle, disconnected. Her coherency from earlier is shriveling as she speaks, dried up flower buds crumbling to dust. “Is a means to an end. Far worse prospects in the verse to be had.”

 

She lowers her head, draws her knees up to hide her mouth. “Lived through several of them,” she whispers. Flinches further into herself, away from the white blaring out from the edges. The blue light closing in. “Won’t become that again. Didn’t imagine it.”

 

She doesn’t realize she’s gripping her wrist so hard it hurts until he lays a hand on hers, prising it off. It cuts off the static creeping in, grounds her as nothing has. “Will you cut that out?” he grumbles. “I know, alright? I get it.”

 

River shifts, gets his hand on her wrist instead. Breathes. And realizes.

 

He does get it. Somehow – his fingers tighten briefly around her mark – he’s coming to understand. Within the whirling of the future, she finds a spark. Cups it and carefully, so carefully, breathes it to life. Jayne’s busy staring at his hand as if he doesn’t quite know how it came to be there. But when she breathes out, so does he, and the spark flares.

 

She waits, as patiently as she can when all she wants to do is dance, warm sun and bare feet all. The green place.

 

“Ah, hell,” he whispers, closing his eyes. “Fine.”

 

He must feel the warm surge of relief she’s helpless to control because he withdraws his hand and gets his finger in her face, expression suddenly very mercenary. “But only when you really need to,” he says, voice low. “No forcing your way in. And no touching, except in extreme circumstances.”

 

River sits up, pulls her best impression of a councilman. “Must construe to what I view as an extreme circumstance as well,” she says, voice dry and hands folded diligently in her lap. “Not just from your point of view.”

 

“Alright, fair’s fair,” Jayne agrees, sitting back. “But you start taking advantage of this system…”

 

“There must be a penalty,” River concedes stoically.

 

Jayne covers the basics and between business arguments and fair to middling common ground, they cobble together an arrangement of sorts. By the time Jayne shakes her hand to seal the agreement and steps back out of the room, River feels not even an echo of his previous nervous energy. She smiles with the satisfaction of a game well played.

 

The feeling slips, slides out of her control, and she knows Jayne grasps it. Is surprised by the tiny tendril of warmth she feels in return, quick enough that there’s no possibility of filtering, purposeful obfuscation.

 

Is even more surprised when she feels herself unconsciously echoing it. Far worse prospects indeed.

 

Chapter Text

 Rules of the World:

  • Soul-marks are found on almost everybody's left hand wrists though the time of appearance varies wildly from person to person. There are also a few documented cases of right hand wrists and even ankles being the location, though this is usually in the case of paraplegics. The basic rule is that when the youngest person of the pair (or more) turns 10 years old, both soul-marks will appear at the same time. People that have no soulmates, or blanks in colloquial speech, are fairly rare and are mostly thought to have had a soulmate that died too young to leave a mark or an older soulmate that died before they reached 10 years of age.
  • The appearance of the soul-mark is drastically different for every person, but there is a persistent legend that the manner of appearance will predict the future relationship. For example, if the mark appears with a soft tingling of the skin, the relationship will be happy and smooth, but if there is any pain with the appearance, the opposite holds true.
  • Soul-marks can be anything. Some people believe it is the first thing the other person wrote, others that it's simply a very important thing to that person. It can be a name, a word, numbers, a picture, anything at all, but it will always appear in that person's handwriting, whether actual or imagined (in the case of the blind or incapable of writing). When one soulmate dies, the other's mark fades almost entirely away, whether the two met or not. People with faded marks are called grays, after the grayish tinge the skin around the mark can sometimes develop.
  • Soulmates can be romantic, platonic, or something else entirely. Most soulmates are within a decade in age difference. The largest age gap ever recorded was 82 years between an 92 year old dying woman and a 10 year old boy. They found one another and spent 2 days exclusively in each others' company before the woman passed away. There have also been several recorded cases of three (or even rarer, more) people sharing one bond. All soul-marks were found in the same location as other marks, either wrapping around the wrist or travelling up the arm.
  • The soulbond is a voluntary process and has several unique stages. Soulmates recognize one another by the first skin on skin contact they share. Most describe it as a small jolt, a sudden glimpse of truth, what have you. The point is, when it happens, you know and from that point forward there exists a subtle awareness of each other, whether you are physically close or not. Easy enough to ignore should you choose to and difficult to heighten that awareness without taking the next step. When soul-marks touch for the first time, a tentative mental bond is formed. The initial awareness is heightened drastically and the soulmates become aware of each others' emotions and very basic thoughts or impulses. The more psi-sensitive one or both soulmates are, the stronger the initial bond; touch can also heighten this awareness and allow the most sensitive soulmates some basic Reading abilities. The final stage involves an ancient ceremony preserved from Earth That Was in a tongue that is no longer spoken. Cantors perform this ceremony on willing participants not unlike a marriage ceremony, but without any spectators. A bonding ceremony is usually precipitated by a long party that can last several days, featuring drinking, dancing, and embarrassing story-telling. The soulmates then undergo the ceremony alone save for the cantor and gain full mental awareness of each other and the capacity to preserve the mental link without touch or psi-sensitivity.
  • There exist many schools of thought concerning soulmates and marks, ranging from romantic sappy idealism to cynical future abusive relationships. Several groups of people exist that swear off their soulmates entirely, known or otherwise: mainly professionals whose lives would not be best lived with a soulmate (prostitutes, hitmen, some criminals) or several cults dedicated to individualism. Interestingly enough, the Companion Guild does not outright forbid soulmates from bonding, though there are enough addendums to fill several large manuals.
  • There are several ways the display of soul-marks is addressed. Most cultures believe it rude, bordering on obscene, to show one's soul-mark and most everybody in the verse wears some form of covering, from simple cotton ties to the ornate hand-carved leather cuffs favored by the Core elite. Even those who are fully bonded wear coverings in public, as showing one's soul-mark is in this case considered a breach of privacy rather than a disgusting display. The exceptions to this rule are blanks and grays. There exist many different kinds of mark covering make-up in addition to much more expensive technology used for a variety of reasons. The cheapest tech projects an easily disrupted hologram onto the wrist while the most recent breakthrough involves rebuilding synthetic skin cells onto the mark which in general must be replaced every 2 weeks to a month.
  • And finally, the subject of general marriages. The ideas of arranged marriages and marriages of convenience are still very prevalent throughout the verse for a variety of reasons though are most common among the Core elite who see no reason to run the risk that their progeny's soulmates could end up being Outer Rim backwaters. Marriages between blanks and grays (any combination therein) is also fairly common.

Main Characters and Their Bonds:

  • Mal and Inara
    • Soulmates who share a recognition which they never acknowledge to each other save for one look during initial contact.
    • Mal was once extremely idealistic about his mark and looked forward to meeting her and starting a life. By the time they actually met, he had just survived Serenity Valley and was going through a serious case of uprooted faith and was supremely and unpleasantly surprised to find his mark in the drop-dead gorgeous Core-bred Unification-supporting Companion.
    • Inara always had a premonition that she would meet her soulmate one day, though his exact nature has always confounded her, the main reason why she remains on Serenity despite all odds. In order to share anything more with Mal, a concept of which she is equally terrified and enamored, she would need to retire or switch professions according to her own moral scruples and not those of the Guild. She also allows that Mal would never be able to handle being bonded to her in any capacity while she maintains her work, especially seeing how he acts currently.
    • Initial contact was a handshake preceding a business discussion about renting the shuttle. Mal’s mark is a symbol of inner peace and simplicity in Inara's calligraphy and Inara's is the word 'tross, here standing for Albatross, a symbol of luck and freedom in Mal's mind. Inara wears a very lovely bronze cuff that can be unhinged with a key and Mal a brown piece of cotton intricately tied.
  • Zoe and Wash
    • Soulmates who share a full bond. The most stable and loving relationship on this list. Rocky start mainly caused by Wash's ability to make Zoe laugh when she no longer believed she could. After several months of unorthodox courtship, they agreed to form an initial bond and a year after that underwent their bonding ceremony. Are arguably the happiest people on Serenity at any given time.
    • Initial contact was Wash playfully poking Zoe's finger during dinner one night. Zoe's mark is a scribble that Wash tells her is meant to be a leaf in flight and Wash's is wennuan, the Chinese word for 'warm'. Zoe wears a leather cuff which slides off and Wash generally goes without a cover on the ship (to mixed reactions) but wears a paisley bandana when in public.
  • Simon and Kaylee
    • Surprisingly, these two aren't soulmates, though they are dancing around a relationship. Simon is a gray; his mark (a spiky, stylized M) faded very soon after River went to the Academy. It's hinted at several times that M (stands for Marina) was a student there who River never met but knows peripherally had died in the operating room. (Marina is the source of the song River sings several times throughout the story about the dead horse.) Even though it would be acceptable to go without a cover, publically or otherwise, Simon continues to wear the simple blue band he chose when the mark showed itself at 14. Kaylee has a currently platonic soulmate named Bethan who she met once and then decided she'd rather wait for her to grow up out of her bratty phase to see if she was worthwhile. Her mark is a very curly Maricia with hearts in place of the i-dots (the name that Bethan wishes she had). Kaylee wears a lace velcro cuff which she removes when working. She has no compunctions about showing her mark to anyone who asks.
  • Book
    • Book is a blank who never really longed for anything else. Has a vague sense of wonder over who his soulmate was, if he ever had one, but accepts his place and has no need for a relationship. Occasionally wears a simple cloth wrap to put people at ease who might be put off by a blank.
  • River and Jayne
    • Whoo boy. Soulmates, obviously. Exceedingly painful mark inscription for both. Jayne's described in-story and River's occurs during her 10th birthday party. During a game mostly concerned with frolicking around on the lawn, she collapsed, clutching her wrist and muttering incomprehensible nonsense. Pre-Academy River loved to constantly misplace the intricately carved pink cuff her parents gifted to her and shock family, friends, and strangers alike with her bared wrist. She greatly looked forward to meeting her mark and would often be seen murmuring to her wrist as though he could hear her. Simon brings this cuff with him to Serenity, which River loathes and ends up throwing many tantrums about, though he never understands the connection. Jayne wears a piece of cloth, usually torn off one of his old t-shirts, tied to one side.
    • Initial contact was Jayne backhanding River after she went after him with the kitchen knife. So healthy. Jayne's mark is an equation which on a graph shows two intersecting ellipses which share exactly one coordinate (AKA a lemniscate): √(x-3)² + (y-4)² x √(x+5)² + (y+2)²=25, River's very nerdy representation of the concept of soulmates. River's mark is a stick figure brandishing a knife, one of many that Jayne habitually doodled all over his schoolwork and notes instead of actually paying attention.

Side Characters:

  • Badger
    • Has a lovely soulmate who he very much does not deserve named Molly. Upon initial contact, she went on several dates with him, then informed him very kindly that until he became a decent human being, she wanted nothing more to do with him. They parted ways amicably enough and will most likely never meet again.
  • Niska
    • Is fully bonded to his soulmate and very happy. She fully understands who and what he is and is completely fine with that. It also stands to mention that the two of them are most likely undiagnosed psychopaths.
  • YoSaffBridge (or whatever her real name is)
    • Knows, is married, and is initially bonded to her soulmate, though she will never initiate an actual bonding ceremony. Yes, her soulmate is Durran. Whether her real name is actually Yolanda is entirely up to you. No, you don't get any more information than that.