1. Take Me Out To The Black
Sometimes, when the ship gets too noisy and her head too crowded, River retreats into the empty shuttle and closes the door behind her. It doesn’t help much, but she can stare out at the black and the stars, and if she concentrates hard enough, she can fill herself with all that dark empty silence for a little while.
Sometimes, when bits are flying in all directions because she doesn’t have enough gravity to keep them all in girl-shape, Wash will tell the Captain he’s going out for a run around the block, and he’ll fire up the shuttle, and River will slip in behind him and shut the door. He never asks her along, but he always gives her a smile and a nod as she buckles in beside him. And he never goes without her.
It’s almost like floating alone among the stars. Wash doesn’t talk to her unless she speaks first, and his thoughts are partly ship and partly slow and still and streaked with starlight.
2. Some People Juggle Geese!
Bird on the wing, leaf on the breeze, ripple in the stream. . .aaand. . .
“Got it!” Zoe’s voice crackles over the radio and Wash’s heart unclenches. “Tying in now, hold ‘er steady. . .”
He’s steady as a rock, he’s a mountain of steady, a whole asterioid of hanging still. Gravity? he thinks. Never heard of it.
“Everyone accounted for?” he asks into his own radio.
“Safe and sound,” she replies, calm like she’s having tea in her own kitchen. He hears gunfire faint in the background.
“And we’d like to stay that way,” Mal’s voice cuts in. “So reel us up, and then we’ll be needing to burn some serious atmosphere.”
“You got it.”
Time’s running at normal-speed again now, and now there’s just the good part left, where Wash becomes hands and eyes and Serenity’s metal body, cleaving the clouds, dodging the weapons fire that burns behind in his wake, leaping for the stars. Nothing can touch him.
The crew pours up the steps and onto the bridge, boots on metal and loud voices and laughter jumbling together so that he only catches snatches of sense:
“. . .Just once, a job that actually goes as planned, would that be too much to ask?”
“. . .The look on his face when Zoe pulled that gun out of her. . .”
“. . .Not there to sample the goods, I told you. . .”
“. . .Supposed to know she was his sister, ain’t like it was tattood on her forehead. . .”
“. . .Finally found a use for those gorram bobble-headed dolls, that’s something. . .”
Zoe’s strong hands settle on his shoulders, kneading gently, the heat of her warming the ship-cool air around his chair.
“Go well?” he murmurs, fingers drifting lightly over the controls.
“Went, anyway,” she replies, for his ears alone. “Got what we came for, nobody got shot in the end.”
He swivels his head around for a kiss and nearly chokes. He hadn’t forgotten about the dresses, exactly, but Zoe in ruffles and ribbons is—beautiful, always beautiful—but a wrongness that makes his eyes cross.
“Well, that’s what I call a good day,” he says. He reaches up to squeeze her muscular arm through the frilled sleeve. “How ‘bout we go down to our cabin and I help you get those ridiculous clothes off?” The dress is anything but enticing; on the other hand, he doesn’t need any encouragement to get excited by his wife’s bare body. Still, always.
“Hm.” Her rich voice paints that one drawn-out syllable rich with amusement and promise. “Serenity all right to cruise alone for a while?”
“Yep. I’ve got the course locked in, shouldn’t be anything interesting coming up for hours and hours.” He gets up, stretches his shoulders and takes her hand.
The others are still bunched up by the door: Kaylee and River in frills and sunbonnets, Jayne incongruously dandified, Mal with—Wash does another double-take—his shirt ripped to shreds, a couple of red lash-marks across his chest, and red marks of a much pleasanter sort all down his face and shoulders. Story in there, Wash figures, but it’ll be more fun to hear it when Mal’s cooled down enough to be able to laugh about whatever fiasco went down dirtside.
“Hey, River, you want to take helm for a spell?” he offers on a whim. River’s face lights up and she smiles up at him. It’s one of her good days, for sure, when she can laugh like a regular girl and string together sentences that more or less make sense. She slides carefully into the pilot’s seat, looking about twelve in her calico and hair-ribbons, with that look of intense concentration that Wash can never decide if it’s a put-on. But her hands on the controls are calm and sure, and hands don’t lie.
“How’d River and Kaylee do?” he asks Zoe as they climb down into their cabin.
“Good,” says Zoe, locking the hatch. “Scary-good, actually. Not sure if that means they’re good at acting, or if they just really really need—“
“Not River,” says Wash, without thinking about it. “Kaylee, sure. I keep expecting her to go up in flames one of these days, pfft! But River’s just a kid.”
“Seems like it, most times. But she’s sixteen, she’s got a woman’s body. Might be she’s got a woman’s needs, whether that big, messed-up brain of hers knows what to do about that or not.”
“Ugh, please, I don’t even want to think about that.” The sweet girl who giggles chasing Kaylee through the ship is hard enough to picture in any kind of sexual context. But River on her lost days—sickening, to think of someone laying carnal hands on her.
“Reckon her brother feels the same,” says Zoe. “And maybe there ain’t nothing to worry about there. Yet. All’s I’m saying is, no stopping ‘em growing up.”
“Well, fortunately, that’s Simon’s problem to worry about, not ours,” says Wash. “Because right now, I’m busy thinking about the sexual needs of a consenting-adult-type woman who’s still wearing way too much clothing that ain’t rightly hers.”
“I bet you are,” says Zoe. She puts one booted foot on the rung of the ladder and poses there with her hands on her hips, skirts spilling over her knee. “Now, how exactly were you thinking of solving this terrible problem?”
3. Enjoy the Moment
They wouldn’t like it if they knew she listened. They know she can hear, but they don’t like to know it, so most of the time they try very hard not to know. They’re not thinking about her now, though. This is the time when their thoughts melt and blur into heat taste wet touch reach yes! salt honey sweet please! humming singing flying wanting shivering there! yes! please! breaking apart and coming together.
She doesn’t like the way it makes her feel—hot and sick and squirmy inside, like there’s an alien bug making its nest in her engine core, pulling the delicate threads of her girl-body-self into a web waiting for something to fall in and be trapped and devoured. (It’s not hunger, but it’s not unlike, the body crying out in code for sustenance.) Her head is noisy enough at the best of times, but when Zoe-Wash are in and out of their bodies, the feelings are so strong and fluid, she becomes part of the whirlpool, or it becomes part of her, and she can’t be lost in it but it’s so very hard to think straight. . .
(She knows what they’re doing, of course she does. She’s not a baby, whatever Simon thinks, and she’s very much not stupid. She’s known about that since she was three. In full technical detail.)
She doesn’t like it, but she does, or anyway she keeps coming back. Crouched mouse-still in the night-dim corridor, she leans her cheek against their cabin hatch, closes her eyes and listens without her ears.
There are words in the middle of it, too. The ones they say and the ones they don’t. Yes, just like that, feels so good. . . . . .running a little rough, have to ask Kaylee to look into. . . . . .know how beautiful you are? . . .would it feel different if we were trying to make. . . ? . . .so lucky to have you, no idea why you chose me, still no idea. . . . . .love, love love. . . . . .elbow! – sorry. . . . . .why won’t you? Why can’t we talk about it? Why is this so hard? Shut up shut up not now. . . . . .almost almost there don’t stop. . . . . .someday, baby, someday. . .ah!. . .
River shivers, alone in her body, closer to each of them than they can ever be to each other and at the same time, black uncrossable oceans away.
“Somebody’s missing,” she whispers, touching her finger-tingle-tips to her lips. “I wonder who it will be.”
4. Shoot ‘Em Politely
“Show me,” says Zoe, holding out a gun, butt-first, to River.
The girl looks at it for a long time, like she ain’t never seen one before and ain’t too happy about seeing one now, neither.
“She doesn’t want to play,” she mutters, finally.
“It ain’t no game,” Zoe tells her, firmly. “If you’re gonna ride along when there’s trouble, I gotta know what I can count on from you. And I gotta know you ain’t liable to get us all killed out of terminal ignorance. Now, I know you’ve had a gun in your hands before, so you show me how you handle one.”
River takes the gun flat in both hands and turns it over like it’s a protein packet and she’s looking for the pull tab.
“I don’t know how to ask,” she says.
“She hears, but she doesn’t listen. It’s not her time. You should be happy about that.”
Zoe remembers Kaylee’s story—All three. Dead in an instant. With her eyes still closed.—and thinks maybe River’s right, Zoe doesn’t really want to meet the girl with the gun who’s apparently lurking inside the Doctor’s waiflike sister. On the other hand, she really, really doesn’t want a half-crazy kid wandering around with guns she doesn’t know how to handle.
“Okay, look,” she says quietly, bending down a little to look River in the face. “Forget about stuff that you maybe know sometimes and not other times. Right now, I’m gonna show you how to not kill anybody with a gun. Later, maybe we’ll work on shooting it. All right?”
River’s eyes meet hers, just briefly, but Zoe catches a glimpse of what looks like relief.
“All right. First rule about guns: never point ‘em at anybody who you’d be sad if they got shot.”
River obediently points the gun at the ground. She sure looks like a high-bred city girl who ain’t never held a gun before.
“This here’s the safety. When it’s in this position, it’s on: gun won’t fire ‘less you release it. Put your thumb on it and pull it back ‘til you feel it catch. Yep, like that. Now safety’s off: you fire the gun, it’ll shoot. Pull it back a little further and let go, it’ll snap back on. There you go. You want to keep it on unless you think there’s about to be shooting, but you also want to be able to cock it in a hurry, without looking.”
River flips the safety back and forth: off, on, off, on.
“Now, here’s the trigger. Safety’s on, right? Good. Now just rest the gun in your hand, finger on the trigger—pointing away, even when safety’s on—and give it a squeeze. Feel how much play you got, how much pressure it takes to press it down. ‘Course that’ll be a little different on every gun you pick up—”
“Everyone’s insides are the same when you let them out,” River interrupts, holding up the gun and taking aim at an invisible target. “Make a hole and look, all you see is the commonality. The uniqueness doesn’t come out that way. It’s just a tool for making everyone the same.”
“Reckon that’s true enough,” replies Zoe, because River does make sense in a creepy kind of way.
“You don’t look,” says River. “You make the holes, but you don’t want to see what’s inside.”
“Nothing there to see,” says Zoe, and all right, the girl’s getting extra-creepy now. “I don’t shoot people out of curiosity, I do it ‘cause they’re trying to kill us.” Other reasons, too, and not all of them pretty, but that ain’t a conversation she’s looking to have with River. Nor with nobody.
“She screamed when she turned herself inside-out,” says River. “But she knew the trick of splitting herself into two. One spilled out, one stayed in. Both unique.”
Zoe frowns, trying to puzzle that one out. She figures River’s back to talking about that thing that ain’t right about her, the thing that the Alliance did to her head, that makes her able to shoot three men dead with her eyes shut. But then River’s hand drifts lightly over her slender belly and River’s penetrating eyes turn up to meet Zoe’s, and Zoe’s realizes she’s talking about something else entirely.
“You know the trick,” she says. “You want to open that door inside you and see who comes out.”
Zoe takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.
“That’s so,” she says. “But that waiting little person’s just going to have to wait a spell longer. Ain’t the right time yet.”
Not so long as Wash says it ain’t, but she swallows the bitterness of that thought, ‘cause it ain’t fair and it surely ain’t useful.
“Listen, River. . .Honey. . .It ain’t kind to say things like that. It’s just another way of putting a hole in someone and looking at their insides. You don’t want to be doing that to folks.”
River looks up at her with a solemn expression that could mean she’s giving Zoe’s words careful consideration, or not. Then turns away and brings the gun up, two-handed, arms extended. Sights down the barrel.
“This isn’t the only tool,” she says, and fires.
5. Past What She Is, And On To What She Can Be
Sometimes, River wishes she really could melt into the ship and become its soul (because Serenity does have a not-living-not-unliving, here-and-nowhere-and-everywhere self, yes, but it’s the kind that remembers and wishes and watches, and it could absorb River and become more, neither of them lost to the other, but fusing into awake-aware ship-girl). She would contain the noise and the souls, no longer invaded but permeated, and her goals would be simple: to carry them, to guard them, to watch and remember.
Sometimes, River wishes she could curl up in Serenity’s steel womb and not come out until she’s ready to be born. But then (when the pieces of her head start drifting back) she remembers that she’s been birthed here already, tumbling out of the black cold into Simon’s hands (doctor-hands, brother-hands, loving-hands), into this new waiting world.
She’s twice-born already (at least), and maybe she won’t stop there, and this is one of the secrets she knows: you can’t stop it from happening to you, when it’s time.
6. Not Funny
Used to be, it was a conversation she and Wash would have from time to time. Now it’s turned into a sore that bleeds when they touch it, but they can’t stop picking at the scab. Only a matter of time before one of them crosses the line and says something unforgivable.
Turns out that’s Zoe. Wash throws her loyalty to Mal in her face one too many times, hiding behind his ridiculous jealousy, and if Zoe were Mal, her fists would be doing the talking, but that’s not her, her temper runs cold, not hot. But she can be deadly with words when she’s a mind to, and she’s so gorram tired of this go shi, and something just snaps inside her.
“You saying I gotta choose between Mal and our baby? Fine. Far’s I’m concerned we can get off this boat at the next dirtball, cash out, buy us a shack somewhere. Now, you tell me: you going to give up the sky to make a child with me?”
She knows the answer; it’s why she’s never asked the question. And it’s why he’s pushed her into this corner, where it has to be one or the other. Gambling she’d choose the same way he would.
Wash doesn’t bother trying to argue, just stands there looking like she’s punched him, but he doesn’t take his eyes off her face. Big sorry eyes; but not sorry enough.
Maybe she should’ve tried talking with her fists after all.
“Didn’t think so,” she says. She grabs her spare army blanket from her footlocker and hauls herself up the ladder. Lets their cabin hatch bang shut behind her.
He doesn’t come after her.
7. Just a Kid.
River isn’t stupid.
This is an immense understatement, actually: even on her worst days, even when the ‘verse around her and the molecules in her brain are at their most fractured, River is more intelligent than everyone else around her, including her big brother. It’s just a fact of life, like quarks or gravitational force or the particular tart-sweet-wet taste of fresh apples. It’s a fact she has to cling to, sometimes, when she’s broken and drowning and nothing stays put and words become slimy worms sliding tangling breaking and knotting and dripping from her ears and mouth. . .
That’s not the important thing.
The thing that people often don’t realize, even Simon, who knows exactly how very smart River is—the thing is that just because River is small and young and has beautiful big eyes and a pretty smile doesn’t mean she doesn’t know that. Simon thinks it’s not nice to know things like that about yourself. Simon works so very hard to be nice that it makes him stupid.
River, though, she knows what she knows. People respect smart, but most people don’t like smart. Smart scares them, which makes them angry.
“Father, that doesn’t even make any sense. If you think about it logically, it’s obvious that the optimum decision would be –“
“River Tam, I was under the impression that I had raised a respectful daughter. Now, if you can’t muster the self-control to address your father politely, and confine your expression of your opinions to an appropriate time and place. . .”
But people aren’t scared of little, soft, pretty things, even ones with needle-sharp teeth or poison stingers, or highly dangerous brains.
Sometimes River curls up inside herself and lets the skin of her body speak for her.
It isn’t lying, exactly. Truth is a multidimensional thing: the most you can tell is a slice at a time, and you have to pick which slice.
River wanders into the kitchen, where Wash is hunched over a bowl of something that’s too early to be lunch and too late to be breakfast. It barely takes any imagination to see the rain falling on his head, and River’s got imagination, way too much imagination, and Wash’s rain makes her soggy, weights her clothing down, pulls at her, sucking her down into the black river. . .
Today is a good day, so she doesn’t have to let the undertow drown her, but she lets it make her heavy, lets that heaviness show in her body as she slumps into a chair and lays her head on the table. She waits for him to notice her, but all he can see is the rain in his eyes, rain rain rain sloshing into her brain. . .
Voices over her head, now.
Captain: “. . .ain’t no business of mine, and I ain’t looking to interfere. But if your marital squabble gets in the way of us doing our job—“
Wash (lightning in the rain, now): “Oh, don’t worry, sir, I would never let anything personal interfere with your important business.”
Captain: “Now, hold on just a second, ain’t no call to get all fussed with me, I’m only saying—“
Wash: “Yeah, well, no one asked you to say anything, did they?”
Thunder cracks over River’s head from two sides as Zoe (brimstone in her sky) comes down the steps behind her and Wash (lightning spitting) rises.
“Well, this is just what I like to see,” says Zoe, voice cool as the barrel of an unfired gun. “Boys having a pissing contest before they’ve even finished eating.”
“Just having a friendly chat,” says Mal, but his voice is drowned in the storm of whirling words and the wind wails in River’s throat as she presses her hands uselessly against her ears to keep them from crawling under the table. . .words batter her but their meanings are Doppler-shifted beyond the range of comprehension and everything’s moving much too fast molecules screaming past her ears or maybe the scream is her. . .
There’s something smooth and hard in her hands. Someone’s arm around her shoulders—Simon? no, not Simon—but his name is in her ear, Wash’s voice, gentle words, “Hang on now, it’s okay, Zoe’s gone for Simon, he’ll help you feel better, c’mon now, River, there’s nothing to be scared of, well, nothing except this fearsome dinosaur, but he’s putty in your hands.”
Plastic dinosaur. Her fingers clutch at it.
“Our platoon was attacked by dinosaurs,” she whispers. “We were cut off from our reinforcements, and it looked like we were going to have to start eating the enlisted men. . .but then Simon came up with a cunning plan.”
“Oh yeah? What was that?”
She’s six years old giggling over the back of the sofa at her brother, and she’s sixteen, sitting at a metal table and holding a plastic dinosaur and she’s many many things in between that she doesn’t want to remember right now.
She rests her head on Wash’s shoulder and begins the tale. “Well, Simon noticed that these were purple dinosaurs, and it’s a little-known fact that purple dinosaurs are allergic to broccoli. . .”
Wash nods and makes encouraging noises at all the dramatic moments. The Captain’s standing by the stairs with his arms crossed, looking at her with an expression that can’t decide whether it wants to be a frown or a smile. Simon rushes through the door, but his worried expression relaxes into a fond smile when he hears River’s story. Behind him, Zoe stops at the top of the steps and looks down at River and Wash with an expression almost identical to Simon’s.
River shares her own smile with the dinosaur.
They don’t listen to her, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hear.
8. What This Marriage Needs
Ship’s-night; most of the lights are out. Here on the bridge, Wash has left on just the minimum so’s he can see the controls (not that he couldn’t work them blindfold, but Mal reamed him out last time he caught Wash doing that, and Wash can’t deal with even thinking about another argument right now, thank you very much). He should set the autopilot and an emergency screamer, let Serenity hold a dull course through the sleep-cycle. But he doesn’t much feel like sleeping, and the Black is soothing to his sore eyes. Restful.
He rolls his head around on his neck, trying to work the headache loose, but it doesn’t work. Scrubs his hands over his face and sighs.
He thinks about just getting in the shuttle and flying away. Not really, of course. There’s nowhere he could get to on the shuttle’s fuel, and he doesn’t have a death-wish. Doesn’t even want to leave, really. It’s ain’t about the ship herself, whatever Zoe might think. Serenity’s his wings of steel, the machine that completes him, sets him free – but he could find another ship to fly and love it just as much, as far as the hull and innards go. It ain’t even only just Zoe that keeps him here. Serenity’s home, family, everything he’s got. Same as it is for Zoe.
It’s just, sometimes he thinks he knows how River feels, when she gets that trapped, panicked look in her eyes or hunkers down with her hands pressed over her ears. Sometimes it all just gets to be too hard, and you just want to be out there in the dark and cold and quiet, alone.
Sometimes you’re alone whether that’s what you want or not.
It would be easier to mope properly if he were a hard-drinking man. He’s thought about taking up the habit, but he doesn’t really need one more thing to make him look like a useless fool in front of the crew. Best to stick to the melancholy moodiness of the solitary—
Behind him, the door opens.
He doesn’t have to turn around; he’d know her breathing in a crowded room.
“Hey,” says Zoe, real soft. Staying by the door. (Time was, all the way back two-three days ago, when she would hang over the back of his chair, cradling his head against her steel-strong ribcage.)
“Hey,” he answers back.
“Stars sure look mighty pretty tonight,” she says after a spell.
“Don’t,” he whispers. “Don’t do that. If you don’t mean it.”
“You know I mean it.” Now she does move up behind his chair. But she doesn’t touch him, and he doesn’t turn to look at her.
“It’s just, it ain’t that simple,” she sighs.
“Well, you know. . .You wanted simple, you could have married a less fascinatingly complex man.” Humor: it’s what he does.
“Hm, yes. . .that’s where I went wrong. I should’ve snapped up Jayne when I had the chance.”
“You—“ He can’t help it; he swivels around to look at her. “You’re just joking, right? Jayne never--?”
She rolls her eyes at him.
“Good, ‘cause I’d hate to have to fight him for your honor, that would just be embarrassing. I hate having my head torn off and stuffed up my nether regions.”
“What are we going to do?” she asks, serious. “We can’t keep on like this.”
“No,” he agrees. “I don’t know.”
“You know I ain’t asking you to choose. I was reckoning on having ship-life and family-life both. But it seems like you don’t want—
“I do,” he says. “I do want. It’s just—I’m scared, Zo.”
“It’s scary,” she says. “You’re not wrong about that. But scared ain’t never stopped you before.” Her hands come down on his shoulders, holding him down, holding him up, like always. “Can you tell me why?”
He shrugs, and she squeezes his shoulders in reply.
“It’s different,” he says. “It’s like. . .it’d be like being in a firefight, flying for our lives, all the time. You don’t get to take a breather from having a kid. Look at Simon, he’s not even River’s dad, and she’s, you know, self-cleaning and mostly don’t put sharp objects in her mouth, but she runs him ragged.”
“Well, now, I don’t know if it’s fair to figure River for a good example of anything,” says Zoe. “But Simon don’t have to look after River day and night. Not no more. The rest of us help out. And it ain’t no great burden, now we know her. You like it, don’t you? Looking out for her?”
“Except when she’s stabbing people with knives, yes.”
“See, there’s the part where I don’t think we got to worry so much, with a baby.”
“You say that now,” he says, joking/not joking.
“I say trust me,” she says, not joking at all. “Trust yourself. Trust us.”
I can’t, he wants to say, but if he says it, that will make it true, and he very very much doesn’t want it to be true.
Leaf in the wind, bird on the wing, don’t look down, just spread your wings and you’ll fly.
He reaches out for her hand.
“I’ll do my best,” he says. “But I’m going to need your help.”
She lays her free hand on his cheek.
“You’ve got it,” she says. “Always.”
He pulls her down into his lap. “Lots and lots of help,” he whispers into her ear, and finally, she laughs.
Barefoot-soft, River whispers through the dim corridors, up and down the steel stairs, listening to Serenity’s breathing. Engine-hum, air-hiss, clinks and whirs. Simon soft and simple, sunshine-surgery-skirt-swishing dreams. . .Preacher-man a deep dark pool of sinking stones, slow surface ripples. . .
Girl-feet warm Serenity’s walkways as she passes on patrol. Captain wrestles in his sleep, orbiting a core so solid he’ll never fly apart. . .Jayne’s fierce bright running rolling dog-dreams. . .Empty cabin like an irksome lost-tooth gap. She leans her palms against the hatch, rocking on gentle ocean-swells of sadness.
But the number of bodies on board is a constant, and places for those bodies, strictly limited. Grounded on Serenity’s bones, she lets her mind wander, through duct-arteries and wire-veins and hot engine-core-guts (Kaylee sweet and shiny and soap-bubbles and machine oil, breathing in time to its spinning), and there, yes, up behind the eyes, two souls hearts minds (the word doesn’t matter, things aren’t their names), separate but entwined like strands of DNA.
One and one makes two. And sometimes also three. The secret branch of mathematics that everyone knows and forgets.
River yawns and stretches, suddenly sleepy. She curls up under the hatch to their cabin and waits for them to come tuck her in.