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Back Stories III, Chapter 19
Friday, October 8, 2010

The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2462    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Back Stories Book 3 Chapter 19.

Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I'm just playing.

Links: The Fish Job, Easy Tickets, BS Book I, BS Book II, BS Book III, Chapter 1. Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

Many thanks to desertgirl for the beta read.

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The first taste was golden, fresh and pungent at the same time. I remember how the nectar burst on my tongue, dark and rich. Like the fire filling my veins, it reminded me that I was alive. I had not given up.

My feast laid still and let me take what I wanted. I devoured the sweet offering, let it coat my hands and lips and bare skin. I was alive. I was hungry and I ate. I was thirsty and I drank. My body burned and was sated. I was not like them, these creatures that I had known. They laid still before me, and the memory of what they had once been to me faded as I took what I wanted from them.

They quenched and satisfied me and I saw that they were not real, not as I was, because they did not rise up. They did not feel the things I did to them. They did not know their own hurts, not like I did mine. I found cuts and bruises on my body. The throbbing of my burned and broken skin enraged me, but was also precious. The pain taught a dear lesson: I was not dead. I was alive and I was hungry. I must be fed.

Back then, at the beginning, my prey let me do as I pleased, but now it is not so easy. Now the hunger burns for days, months, time I don’t know how to measure. Now I must wait and hold my place with those who thirst as I do. Now when I see what I crave I cannot immediately have it, because it runs from me. Sometimes it tries to fight. I cling to the agony of the hurts it does me because the pain carries the message I hunger to hear: I am not dead. I did not lie down.

Now, when they fight, I follow and strike when I can, wait when I can’t. I know that they will end like the others, their resistance worn down to nothing. They will be made to lie down. They will lie still and wait for me, heady nectar pouring forth to be tasted before the spark goes out and the sweet flavor rots.

I am alive as they are not. I relish the pain that tells me so, and wait for the nourishment I crave. I feel my own strength, the power they cannot stop, and wait for my satisfaction. I am thirsty. I need. I must be quenched or I will no longer be alive.

* * *

Tangled voices worked their way into River’s mind; her brother’s words were the first she could follow.

“It’s only been a few hours.” Simon paused before admitting with some exasperation, “ All right, so it’s been several. But Ells said it wasn’t an easy passage out. It must take time.”

The reply was sullen. “She waved the Feds. She’s just sittin’ out there waitin’ for her gorramn Fed pals to show.”

“We don’t have much call to be selective as to how we get saved, Jayne,” came the Shepherd’s grim reply. “The rules have changed.”

“Ain’t changed so much. You think the Alliance is gonna let the doc and his sis—and the rest of us innocent souls tied up in their problems—go free on account of Reavers attackin’ some little bitty town? You’re dreamin’.”

We’re all dreaming, River thought. We must be. We can’t know about that sweet taste, the fire…

She didn’t move. Despite the heated fever of her mind, her innards seemed to be encased in ice. She couldn’t break free, but she could hear, and she could feel. Her brother’s conflict flooded her senses even before he spoke. He had his own cravings, and they pulled him in opposing directions. He didn’t know what to hope for.

“These people need help,” Simon said in a thick voice. “No matter what form it comes in. I can’t put myself, or even River, before them.”

Jayne’s scorn flooded River in burning red waves. “You willing to give up your little sister just so these idgets can get a real doctor?”

Despite the resentment that rose in reply to Jayne’s insult, Simon didn’t speak.

River managed to pry her eyes open. Her brother, Jayne, and Book were hovering next to her, barely visible. With great effort, she softened her inner glacier enough to free her neck, to turn her head away from them and take in the rest of the blackness around her. A fire a few paces away had burned down to embers, and she could barely make out dark forms huddled beside the crimson glow a dozen meters to her left. She didn’t intend to speak, but found herself whispering:

“They’re lying down. They’re not alive as I am.”

Simon was immediately by her side. “River, it’s okay. Don’t worry. I’ll find a way—”

Again the strange voice spoke with her mouth, louder this time. “Bad things happen to the ones who lie down.”

She found herself lifted to sitting, her brother’s gentle arms around her, his delicate hands patting her back. Her forehead was pressed to his cheek but his words fell on her ears as if from a long distance. “It’s okay. It’ll all be okay. I promise. I’ll find a way. Nothing bad will happen…”

His comforting hug finally broke the freeze; the dream that had captured her senses fell to splinters. River found herself weeping and clinging to her brother. “The things I crave,” she said between gasps. “The things I can do…. Simon, they’re not right!”

“What do you need? Just tell me. I’ll take care of you.”

She only cried harder. She cried out the cold heartlessness that had tried to take over her body and mind. “It’s not right,” she managed to tell him between sobs. “It’s not me! I don’t want… any of that.”

Simon shushed her like a child. She wanted to push him away, to tell him that he was wrong. She was no child. There was no innocence in the nightmares that haunted her sleep. But her brother, so heroic, so selfless, would never understand.

She swallowed her words of explanation, willed that horrible dream to bury itself in the hard stone beneath her, in the deepest of the caves around her. Shame-filled memories of her own actions over the past weeks were crammed into the same endless black hole, until nothing but the concern she felt from Simon remained.

Eventually, her mind found an uneasy quiet, and she was able to listen again.

“Jayne does have a point,” Book was saying. “We need to think about what will happen when our rescuers get here. We need to find a way to keep her safe.”

A way to keep her safe, River repeated in her mind. Everyone was always so worried about that. Everyone wanted to keep her coddled away in neat tidy corners. Nobody asked if they were safe from her.

“I know how,” she said. She was grateful to find that she had control over her own voice. “I’m all right. I’m awake.” She pulled away from Simon and rubbed her eyes, then tucked the wild strands of her hair back away from her wet face. “I know how to stay safe. Have to be invisible.”

“River—”

“It’s all right, Simon. No one will tell about me if they don’t remember me. No one will be… no one will worry if they don’t know where I am. I’ll just hide.” She looked into the depths of the cavern, to the blackness of a narrower way.

* * *

Deeper in the caves it was cold, and River had nothing to warm herself. She curled up, shivering, and regretted that she’d dropped the blanket she’d briefly carried from her bed on Serenity.

Simon had found this spot, a rough hollow between a waist-high ridge rising from the floor and a pile of limestone that had fallen from above. She was still in the main corridor and not far from the others, but around a bend and sunken down so that little of the light from Simon’s fire reached her. Most importantly, she couldn’t be seen by the people of the town, nor by anyone who might suddenly dig their way in through the collapsed cavern entrance.

Her brother had stayed with her for some time, telling her that hiding like this wasn’t necessary, but her mind was made up. Even the Shepherd’s occasional visits couldn’t persuade her to move nearer to the people of the town. This was what she wanted: darkness, and time alone. She felt safe here. The faint glimmer of light from the fire cut eerie shapes into the stone of the corridor; she imagined leering faces staring down at her, but they didn’t scare her. Nothing her eyes could see was as frightening as the monsters in her mind.

She’d had too many discoveries in too short a time, too much that was new. She didn’t know how to understand these things in herself, and no one could help her. Not the captain, not Kaylee, not even her brother. How could she ask for their empathy while explaining to them the nameless images and thoughts that lived inside her head? She must never tell Serenity’s crew that she’d felt the need to do hurt, that she had the ability to do powerful and horrible things, that she could imagine the flavor of something that should never, ever be tasted. They’d all fear and hate her forever if they knew.

And as for her dreams, the stirrings of love… those had been a lie. The desire to hold a hard body against her own, to be bound by its strength and bent by its grip, had only been a temptation to lead her further astray.

She tightened her arms around herself and swore: she’d never make such a mistake again. The dreams that haunted her these past weeks were not meant for her to have. It was better that she remain alone, forever, rather than hurt people the way she feared she was capable of doing.

The thought was like a knife in her chest. How would she bear it?

“I have no other choice,” she told herself quietly. “I can’t even imagine a way… I can’t. I can’t let myself pretend…”

“So you’re wanted by them in the Core?”

She whirled and pressed her back against the stone. In the dim light she could barely make out a small oval shape rising from the depths of the passage.

“Who are you?” she demanded, whispering so that no one could hear.

“Nobody much.”

From the voice she knew it was a man, a young man, almost a boy. She tried to study his face. Nothing could be made out but darker shadows on the oval where his eyes and mouth must be. As frightened as she should have been, she wasn’t.

“You’re hiding?” he asked.

“Of course. Just like you.”

“I’m hiding from them monsters that attacked the town. You’re hiding from the people who might come rescue us. You done something bad?”

She dropped her eyes. “More than one thing.” She muttered the words almost silently, but he heard.

“Like what?”

She shook her head. “Nothing that I should to be arrested for. I’m not evil.” I don’t think.

He moved closer; she could just make out the grey shadow of a slender body stepping over a boulder. He sat down across the tunnel from her. “So why’re you hiding?”

“I guess… I guess I might do something really bad someday. Don’t want to, but I can see that it might happen. I… I have strange thoughts.” She raised her eyes to his half-seen shadow. “I imagine things.”

“So? We all think what we think. If you don’t want to do something that’s wrong, then don’t.”

“You make it sound so simple.” She sat quietly staring at her hands for a long minute, wondering what to talk about. Finally, she ventured, “Don’t you ever feel like, sometimes, you don’t have any say?”

“In what you do? But that makes no sense. If you aren’t in control of yourself, who is?”

She shook her head. “Wish I knew.”

He had no reply for her, and she didn’t push him to say any more. She had enough to chew on for now, and she needed no further comforting. His presence was enough; it calmed her just to have company, to not be alone.

After some long time, she raised her eyes to study him, to make out more of his face. He was attractive, but not too perfect. A smooth cheek, a sharp nose, shadowed eyes. Unafraid, he was watching her right back.

In the past four years of her life she’d only once been able to spend time—time of her own, not training sessions at the Academy—with someone her age. That had been a boy who’d passed only a few short days on Serenity. She’d enjoyed her time with him, very much. Jase had had shocking green eyes that drew her in. This stranger’s pupils were lighter, she decided. Almost blue. Almost a familiar blue.

She started when she realized that her little alcove was much brighter than it should have been. A warm yellow glow was approaching, but not from the main cavern; it was climbing up from the depths.

Before River could be frightened, she heard a familiar voice call out. Kaylee was back.

* * *

Each of the three spelunking women held a lantern, and they carried several small bags which were piled next to Simon; they'd brought in the medical supplies first and left other, less urgent goods deeper in the cavern where the narrow crevice they'd come through joined the wider corridor. Book and a few of the uninjured took a lamp and went about fetching the rest of the supplies while the women rested.

They needed it. Kaylee had dragged herself in, her head down, as if she was carrying a heavier weight than just the bags slung on her back. She sat down heavily by the remains of the fire and didn’t speak. Ells also seemed weary; an injury on her shoulder was clearly paining her. Simon ordered her to be still and wait. He had to make hurried use of the supplies with his most seriously injured patients before he could see to her.

Ginger was covered in abrasions from the stony way, but she was the only one up to talking. “Wasn’t easy,” the Alliance agent said as she wiped the grit of the caverns off her sweaty face. “Took a lot of going back and forth to get it all down here, and dragging them bags through the tight places was a trick.” She shook her head. “I can’t imagine why some people work their way through mazes like that by choice. Ain’t a bit fun.”

“What did you find out there?” Simon asked as he cleaned a wound. His patient, mercifully to all present, was enjoying the effects of numbing medication.

“Well,” Ginger replied thoughtfully, “it was dark.”

“Astute,” Jayne said with obvious scorn.

She cut her eyes at the mercenary. “My point is that, being dark, we couldn’t see a damned thing. Nothing but the smoke and dead glow of the buildings still finishing their slow burn. So we stayed hid till dawn.”

“And?” a wounded man with a beard asked. “What then?”

“The Reavers are gone, and they left a mess.” Ginger’s voice held some small apology, as if she realized that she was telling the man about his hometown, possibly his own livelihood and kin. “Ain’t many buildings still whole. Your little village is damned near ruined. I didn’t see many doors that hadn’t been knocked in.” She paused to lower her eyes and gather her breath. “Plenty of blood, though. And bodies.”

“Anyone we know?” Jayne asked, his voice forced a bit too loud.

Kaylee shook her head. “No,” she said softly. “I looked. None I saw were ours.”

Jayne wasn’t comforted. More than anything, he looked spooked, and his shoulders did a small shake. “They probably got taken. Anyone still living got taken. You know… for sport. Or whatever them things call it.”

Kaylee dropped her face into her hands.

Ells reached out to lay a hand on the girl’s back, but her face was grim. “We can’t count on help coming anytime soon. Been a whole day now, but I dunno if anyone out there even knows what happened.”

Jayne scowled at Ginger. “I’ll bet her pals know.”

Ginger shook her head. “We weren’t able to send a wave. None of us. The power grid’s down.”

Simon looked up from his work again. “Didn’t you go to the ship?” he asked. “Serenity’s comm doesn’t need outside power.”

Kaylee shook her head without raising her face; her muffled voice was unsteady. “Couldn’t get to her. Couldn’t find her.”

Jayne snorted. “Thought you waited till dawn so as you could see…”

Kaylee dropped her hands; her cheeks shone with tears. “The whole fueling platform’s gone,” she said. “It’s nothing but a gaping hole.” She turned her wet eyes on Ells, who was staring straight down at the ground.

“The tank went up,” Ells said softly. “Them bastards ignited the fuel storage and blew my whole station to bits. Blast like that must have left pieces of your ship all round the valley. Probably some outside it too, all the way on up to Gigan’s Peak.”

Kaylee buried her face in her hands again.

* * *

As River watched Kaylee sob, she lost any need to grieve herself. Her eyes dried, not because she didn’t feel, but because Kaylee was feeling everything for her. The sight of so much grief, so openly displayed, left River numb. She stood quietly in the shadows outside the brightest glow of the lamps and waited while the women—Ginger mostly—explained what they’d foraged, as well as how much more they could bring in on future trips.

Sometime later, after Simon finished with all his patients, River sat listlessly and let her brother take care of her. In time, she found herself tucked back in her hiding place with a blanket, water, and a few scraps of food. Simon spoke to her, but she hardly heard him and had nothing to say in reply. Eventually, he was called away, and she was alone again.

Except for her new friend, who had waited for her.

“We’re going to die here,” she told the young man.

“No, you won’t,” he replied. “You heard that local lady before—small folk can get out. You can get out.”

“I won’t,” she said firmly. “I won’t leave without Simon.”

“You’ll die for him?”

“I won’t live without him. I can’t.”

The stranger moved closer. Lamps were lit in the cavern above, and River had enough light to fully make out his face. He was indeed about her age, with dark, thick hair and light blue eyes. He was tall, she decided.

“Of course you can live without your brother,” he said. “You have to, if you want to really grow up, if you want to be your own person.”

“I don’t want to grow up without Simon.” She dropped her head and pressed her fists against her temples. “I’m too afraid. I don’t know what I’d become.”

“Will you tell me?”

She lifted her eyes to his. “You should know it all already.”

“I know some, but not everything. Not the things you’re hiding from.”

“I have good reasons to hide.”

“Are you sure about that? How can you make sense of anything if you don’t talk it out?”

She sat quietly and considered his question.

* * *

The days were a struggle. Kaylee found herself almost welcoming the time she spent twisting through impossible tunnels and cracks of stone, because at least that was true to how she felt. Her life had become a trap, a small, twisted passage with darkness at one end and the emptiness of death and destruction on the other.

Her ship was gone. Her captain and three other of her friends, gone.

When she was outside, she kept her eyes down and stayed busy. After several trips out, she knew the town nearly as well as the settlement, a world far from this one but not all that different, that she’d grown up in. She knew which houses had cellars full of canned food, how to get into the supply closet in the doctor’s office, which well had the sweetest water. She also knew which houses to avoid because of the smell rising from those who’d met their end inside. For the same reason, she knew which paths through the woods not to follow.

But she and Ginger found their way about and, bit by bit, swarmed the town. They acted on Ells’ advice once the local woman was too sick from infection to join them. Kaylee worked with the Alliance agent, a person she’d once thought she hated, and together they kept a steady supply of necessities coming to those who couldn’t make the passage out.

Inside the caves, everything was different. Kaylee had to at least try to rest, but she found the darkness too stifling to be of much use. Sleep didn’t restore, and food didn’t nourish. She needed hope. She needed Simon.

During a long quiet spell when darkness outside kept her from making another trip, she bit her tongue and waited, same as she had for days. The injured people were first priority for the doctor, and she would not let herself interrupt his work. No matter that she wanted him beside her, to hold her, to tell her that Inara and Malcolm and Zoë and Wash were fine, that they had to be, that they’d somehow met up and gotten to the ship and escaped, and the only reason they hadn’t come back was because…

Kaylee’s imagination always failed her at this point.

A whispered voice pulled Kaylee out of her reverie. "Daddy thought I'd be all right," River murmured forcefully, as if she was explaining something to herself. The girl'd spent most of these days on her own, exploring the distant depths of the caves, but in the past hour she'd wandered close to the fire to collect a snack. "He said I had a good chance I ought not to miss. He wouldn't listen to me worrying about monsters lurking out in the Black. I thought he must be right, and I was wrong, so I tried to pretend that the bad things weren't real."

“The monsters were outside, honey,” Kaylee said distractedly. In truth, she had only half a mind for River’s ramblings. “And they’re gone now.”

River started and straightened, then turned to stare at Kaylee. ”Malcolm Reynolds is out there too.”

Kaylee’s attention was caught by the name. The rest of this crew avoided this topic; it was too horrible to be dwelled on.

“I sure hope he is,” Kaylee said, “and that the gods are with him.”

“He needs more than gods,” River replied softly. “We all do.”

Kaylee sighed. Sadness tore at her heart, but also a wave of unbidden hope that she could barely contain. An idea had been growing in her mind that she was afraid to believe, and she certainly didn’t want to speak of it to the others. She didn’t want to raise hope that might prove false. So she held her silence until River meandered back into the shadows, then, in her exhaustion, Kaylee put voice to her thoughts. Speaking only to herself, she murmured quietly:

“I looked all over, and saw bits of lots of ships that tried to get away, but no pieces I was sure came from Serenity. How could my girl get blown up and not leave pieces I’d know?” She didn’t wait for an answer, since it wouldn’t be coming from anyone but herself. “Captain got to her, is what I think. Zoë and Wash found him and Inara, and they all got away. And for whatever reason they can’t come back yet. I dunno why. But they will.”

She straightened at the sound of approaching footfalls; Simon was taking a rare break. He sat heavily by the fire and reached for the stewpot that she’d been half-heartedly minding. The utilities for food prep were limited, and it was a non-stop effort to keep a steady supply of nourishment going.

Suddenly she was fed up with her chores. She reached out and stopped Simon from filling his bowl.

“I got a better idea,” she said. “You done for now?”

He looked toward his patients; his exhaustion was plain in his face, and his reply was scattered. “I guess. They’re stable. The supplies you brought helped. So much. But I can’t do anything else now, except to stay nearby. I should be here, just in case…”

Kaylee sighed; it was time for him to let go, at least for a bit. He had a neatly organized little med clinic going now, with bedding and small pots of boiled water and an array of instruments, bandages, and medications.

“You done what you can, Simon,” Kaylee said firmly. “Till we get these people out to a hospital with all its machinery, there’s nothing else you can do for them.”

He dropped his head and didn’t attempt an argument.

“You need rest, time for yourself,” Kaylee went on, then she added softly, “Need time for me, too.” She was tired. Her body was a mess of bruises and scrapes from the passage through the narrow escape from the caves. She was a foul smelling, achy mess. She needed a little caring of her own.

Book appeared at Simon’s side. The Shepherd flashed an understanding smile at Kaylee, then laid a hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “I’ve got it. If I need anything, I’ll come find you.”

“I don’t need sleep,” Simon said dimly. “I’ve had naps.”

Kaylee shook her head. “Curling up next to your patients, your last thought on laying down and first on waking all about infection and medication and bandages: that don’t recharge no batteries.”

“I don’t have batteries.”

“You won’t no more if you keep on like this.”

“Go,” Book said. “That’s an order. It’s been days, and your patients are stable. You’re due a few long hours off.”

Simon couldn’t argue with both of them, and he gave in with a helpless nod. Kaylee took a lantern, a blanket, and her ration of food and led Simon down a long, winding tunnel, then off on a narrow fork to the right. Twenty meters along, the crevice opened to a wide but shallow cavern. She’d found this place on one of her first jaunts out to the town, when she’d taken a wrong turn, and she’d promised herself to come back when she had time to explore it properly.

Several long columns rose from the floor, and stalactites hung down from above. Some pairs stretched far enough to meet, and the resulting tan-white pillars cut the light of the lamp, making eerie lines of shadow dance on the uneven walls as Kaylee wound through. A narrow paved walkway lined with the darkened hulls of electric lights led down along the center of the broad cavern. Ells had told her that, in ordinary times, tourists would have ridden along in trams while a variety of colored lights spilled over the beautiful, other-worldly rocks. Kaylee liked it better like this, all natural browns and grays and tans between the yellow-white beams from the lamp.

At the back of the cavern she approached a still pool; behind the silent water rose a wall like the side of a gigantic wedding cake, all white lace and arabesques and curlicues of frosting. She took Simon’s hand and guided him under the handrail and off the pavement, and they carefully made their way down a few last, jagged steps to the now glowing pool. A flat rock made a perfect picnic spot, and the lantern, set on the edge of the shelf, lit the water a stunning icy blue-green.

Without saying a word, Kaylee slipped out of her dirty clothes and into the clear water.

* * *

River looked around a high, sharp corner of stone. The shoulders and heads of two people showed above the surface of a cyan pool below her. She watched them float to the center of the little pond, then stand and splash the crystalline water over their faces and massage it through their hair. The bath had an obvious effect: Kaylee’s face slowly relaxed into something like a smile, and Simon’s shoulders gradually lost their tension. When the pair finished cleaning and folded into each other’s arms, River turned away.

“Are they—” her new friend started to ask, but River held a finger to her lips.

She led him up the long, dark walkway to the larger tunnel, but turned away from the main entrance. By now, she knew the narrow way out. She’d never tried to fit through, partly because she couldn’t abandon her brother, but also because she was afraid. The thought of being wedged into a tight, twisted crack of rock, surrounded on all sides by stone that wouldn’t give, made her skin crawl.

But the thought of staying here in the dark, of not ever seeing open sky again, was worse. She'd fought it, tried every trick of soothing and calming her own mind that she could imagine, but the pressure was building past what she could bear. The darkness had been pressing on her for days. It was too much; she had to get out. It'd just be for a little while, she told herself. Perhaps no one would even notice.

The opening was a thin crack in the main cavern’s left. River stood before it, trying to make her flashlight’s beam pierce the deep blackness, though it wasn’t necessary that she see the way. Kaylee had told her about the route, and River knew what to do. She would have to work her way in, set her hands and feet against the two vertical surfaces of stone, then push herself up until she found the tunnel leading up and to her right.

“Will I fit?” her friend asked.

She lowered her eyes and the flashlight’s beam so she could study her friend, who she knew quite well by now. She had a very good idea of his build. Though his shoulders were broad, they were bony. He was young enough to be slim and lithe.

“Can you contort?” she replied.

She left him to decide for himself. Turning away, she started to climb.

* * *

“Near five days it’s been,” Jayne said.

“We’ve made much progress in that time,” Book replied. The people hiding in the caves now had food, blankets, light, and basic medical care, though they were still lacking in sunshine and options.

“Progress?” Jayne threw a hateful look at the pile of boulders at the highest end of the large cavern. He’d tried to organize an effort to clear the rubble from the shattered entryway, but it’d been slow and dangerous work. And, apparently, fruitless. “I skinned my hands down to the bone, and all’s I got to show is two boulders rolled out of the way and three times the whole damned pile near fell on us all.” Book’s eyes creased in concern. “Let me see.” He reached for one of Jayne’s hands, but the mercenary pulled them back defensively. Book understood; the mercenary had been exaggerating. About the injury anyway, not about the lack of progress.

“But look, Jayne.” Book tilted his chin into the cavern. “We have light, warmth, food. Besides the poor woman we lost that first night, Simon has kept all the injured alive. If necessary, we can exist like this for some time.”

“You got the right word, there,” Jayne said bitterly. “Exist. That’s all we’re doin’. Blundering about in the dark.”

Book guessed the true reason for Jayne’s foul mood: the man hadn’t provided any of the aid that was keeping these people alive. The mercenary was battling something that had to be new to him: helplessness. He’d thrown his efforts into the one task that physical bulk and a strong, stubborn will could accomplish, and all he’d gotten out of it was a near avalanche of stone. He’d had to give up eventually, and now he could only sit and wait with the rest of them.

It couldn’t help that the survival of all these people, Jayne included, had largely been due to a woman the mercenary could not stand. Even now Ginger was crouched by a fuel stove that she and Kaylee had wrestled down to the caves, frying something that filled the cavern with a mouth-watering smell. When she finished her cooking, she offered the meal to one of the injured.

“This ain’t the way I pictured it, Shepherd,” Jayne said.

“What?”

Jayne dropped his head, and his shoulders slumped.

“Death?” Book guessed. “You think we’re going to die down here?”

“You think we won’t? This community-care thing we got goin’ is real nice and all, but it won’t last. Sooner or later them that can fit out that rat hole will go, and the rest of us…”

“Jayne, the village above is not as isolated as you seem to think. There had to have been supply lines, communication, friends and family on the other side of the world. Those people will figure out what’s happened, and they’ll come. They could be here, even now.”

Jayne looked over his shoulder at the pile of rubble just a handful of meters from where he sat. He seemed to be trying to imagine a work crew setting up equipment on the far side of the ruined entrance.

“Perhaps,” Book went on, “instead of worrying so much about what’s happening here, you ought to be thinking about what you’ll do once you’re free again.”

Jayne gave Book one of those tense looks of his, jaw thrown forward as if he meant to take a bite out of something that annoyed him. But he only pushed up and walked off into the shadows.

* * *

No sunlight greeted River's escape from the underworld, but the fresh air was all she needed as an elixir. She turned her face up to the stars as she walked, and it seemed as if the soft air rustling the leaves of pine and aspen were the voices of her internal joy. Never had she prized freedom and light—even the dimness of starlight—so highly.

A sharp, unpleasant smell cut through her reverie, a reminder of something she didn't want to recall. Decay. Death. She lowered her eyes and found the source of it, a horror lying in a clearing at her feet. She turned and ran. The town in the small valley held nightmares that she could not let herself see.

To her relief, her new friend was beside her. He took her hand and together they climbed partway up a low hill over the valley. After a time they found a nearly level slope of stone and settled onto it. River sat and looked down at the ruins of what once had been homes and businesses rising from between the trees. She realized how quiet it was, and dark. Either everyone had died, or the survivors had scattered far into the hills to hide. Even after five days, no rescue had arrived to tempt them back toward the ashes of their homes.

The emptiness and despair was too much to contemplate, so she laid back and looked at the stars.

"Maybe it's better that no one's come," her friend said. He was lying beside her.

She turned her head to glance at him. "Why's that?"

He smiled and squeezed her hand. "They'd take you away."

She liked hearing sweet words like that, especially after she'd so recently decided that she'd be alone forever. But as much as she'd like to cling to this friendship, she couldn't let herself. It was incredibly selfish.

She looked back at the cold, distant stars. "Someone will have to come, or everyone in the caves will die."

His voice was light. "Maybe they'll live in the dark forever, like vampires. Your brother could be a vampire."

Despite herself, she laughed. "Yes. He'd be a very good undead."

"And he wouldn't get lonely, since Kaylee's with him."

Her laughter died. "No. Kaylee couldn't stay there. She can't live in the dark. It's not in her."

"You still think it's in you?"

Her new friend was insightful; she curled onto to her side so she could study his profile, pleased to see the sharp nose and deep eye sockets she'd sculpted in the darkness of the caves lit by the silver light of stars. She'd done well with him.

"You've known me for many days now," she whispered. "We've talked about everything I can think of. So what do you think?"

He glanced at her, his blue eyes keen in the dim light. She hoped that, somehow, he would be able to see deeper into her soul than her own eyes could pierce.

"You have shadows," he said, "but you're a person, like anybody else. You need comfort just like they do."

She sighed. "Everyone else gets comfort. Simon and Kaylee. The captain and Inara. Zoë and Wash. Even Jayne has Book to talk nice to him, when he's blue."

"And you?"

"Don't have anyone." She stopped herself. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to feel sorry for myself. They care, but they can't understand. I thought that maybe they could, some of them. One of them, at least."

Of course, he immediately knew what she meant. "The captain?" he asked.

She nodded. "The captain. I imagined it perfect with him, but it wasn't. Playing pretend is dangerous, and it doesn't work. I have to try to stay in the real world. Even if it hurts."

"But how can you tell if you are in the real world? If much of what you sense is impossible, how do you know you're not still in a dream?"

She pondered his words. "Is this impossible?"

"Don't have to ask me. You know." He rolled onto his side so he could hold her gaze. "You're not like anyone else, River. You know what people are thinking. You know how they feel."

"I also know how to kill."

"You never meant to."

"That man at the Academy," she whispered. "I killed him."

His reply was just as quiet. "He was hurting you. He wouldn't let you go."

"And I made him pay."

"You're a fighter, River. Like or not, that's what you are. It doesn't make you evil. You have to forgive yourself. I forgive you."

"You do?"

"Of course."

She closed her eyes and could almost feel the warmth of his hand on her cheek. "Don't leave. I don't want to be alone."

"You don't have to be alone. You have friends."

"My friends don't know what I am. As much as they may want to, they can't give me the things I need."

She squeezed her eyes tightly closed and imagined him moving closer, the security of his arms around her, the comfort of his body against hers. She turned away from him and imagined snuggling back into the warmth of his embrace.

"I wish you were real," she said.

"You don't have to be afraid to be alone," was the reply. "You're not evil. If you don't believe yourself about that, believe me."

"Same thing," she said. "But that's not what I mean. I wish you were real because…"

"Tell me."

"You know."

She imagined a smile against the back of her neck. "Yes, I know. Before, you die, you'd kind of like to have sex."

His soft, nonexistent fingers patted her arm sympathetically.

***

She woke just before dawn, alone. The sky was beautiful, except now in the pale blue light she could see the full ruin of the town. The wrecked trees and hollowed, blackened buildings sickened her, and the law crater in the far side of the valley made her want to sob, just as Kaylee had after her first trip out.

River couldn't look at the valley for long, but nor could she be still. As the empty minutes passed she began to pace, and she soon found that her impatient feet were slowly carrying her back down into the valley. She was hungry, thirsty, and lonely, and her courage was failing her. But she couldn't possibly go into the town and face the death she'd find there. If only she had someone to bring her what she needed…

She imagined her friend walking out from the trees. He could hold everything she craved: food, water, a blanket, a change of clothes.

"None of that is real," she said. "You have nothing to give me."

"I'm sorry," he replied.

She tried to meet his gaze, but his face was blurry, the color of his eyes now unclear. She couldn't decide what features he should have: black hair, brown, blond. Long silky locks or a short, ticklish stubble. Black eyes, blue, or something in between.

It didn't matter.

"I played pretend before," she told the shadow that was Him. "I thought it was perfect. I was wrong. I have to stick with what's real now." She scratched her head. "I have to ignore all these things. My dreams. They're not real. I have to shut them out. I have to shut you out too. I'm sorry."

The man-shaped blur nodded, then smiled and raised his hand. And then he was gone.

She walked toward the hole in the rock that she'd climbed out of the night before. Muddy footsteps from Kaylee's many sorties led out, as if it was a well-traveled and common way, but River could only stand and stare. It was a black, ugly space, a small, rotten crevice cutting into a low cliff face. In daylight she could see mushrooms and cobwebs and little beetles scurrying away from the almost risen sun, and her stomach twisted when she imagined herself emerging from this crevice in the blackness of midnight, like some monster birthed from the filth of the underworld. How had Kaylee ever managed to go back in to such a place, once she'd escaped?

River knew: Kaylee had gone back for Simon.

Simon might know that River was gone now; he might be worried. She had to go back. But the thought of climbing into the horrible dark hole, of leaving the clean, clear air, fresh sunlight, and tall green trees behind was unbearable. She stepped back from the cavern's entrance and turned in a circle. She wanted her friend back. Real or not, she couldn't face this choice alone.

"Rock and a hard place," she said to herself. If she didn't return to the darkness below, what could she do? She couldn't go into that graveyard of a town, but she wouldn't know how to survive in the mountains. She needed help, or she couldn't survive.

Again she stepped up the narrow passage in the rock. She switched on her flashlight and shone it through the crevice, and even reached out a hand. But she could go no further. It smelled in there. It was a nightmare of decay, darkness, and despair.

She switched off the light, stepped back, and stared up into the brightening sky. She'd just wait. Kaylee and Ginger would come out again, sometime. She'd wait for them to find her. Simon would worry, but she couldn't do anything about that. He'd find out that she was all right eventually, and he'd be fine.

She folded her legs and sat heavily in the thin grass. It was a relief, to know she wouldn't have to go in that place again. She'd stay here, in the hills, starving if she had to, and wait for some kind of rescue. But at least she'd have light, and air, and perhaps even hope. The rush of her fear slowed, but the roaring of blood in her ears didn't go away. It only got louder.

Again she looked to the sky. Her eyes found sunlight glinting sharply off a parade in the early morning blue, a neat structure, clean and well-ordered. The roaring in her ears was not blood, she realized, and this was no ordinary sunrise. An array of ships cleared the mountains with a grand show of flame, an exhibit put on for one small girl and a collection of corpses. Hers might be the only living eyes that could read the markings on the proud lead ship as it descended toward the valley: Alliance.

River yelped as she jumped to her feet. Pausing barely long enough to switch on her flashlight, she dove into the grimy tunnel.

* * *

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COMMENTS

Friday, October 8, 2010 4:52 PM

MAL4PREZ


I give up on trying to work out a posting schedule. To be fair: my beta had some apt criticisms of this chapter that needed to be addressed, and it wasn't easy. I'm not sure if I've satisfied her, but it surely is a better chapter because of her comments.

Never fear, the return to Mal and Inara is nigh. Um... when next I post. Which may be some time. I'll do my best.

Friday, October 8, 2010 5:16 PM

BYTEMITE


Hmm, my first thought when I read that Serenity was gone and the fuel tanks were exploded was the same thought Kaylee had. Only with an extra: the Reavers didn't blow the fuel. Zoe, and Wash probably did.

But we'll see if I can be right again. I've had my sneaking suspicions that something might be wrong with this Reaver raid, something Alliance going on here. Interesting they're burning the town... Destroying the evidence.

I almost expect we'll see Zoe and Wash on Serenity, and Mal and Inara in Alliance custody. Back under the drugs.

Saturday, October 9, 2010 3:35 AM

KATESFRIEND


Loved the insight into River's thoughts and her friend. Your vision of the cave was conjuring many images for me of never wanting to go to a cave again. Loved Jayne dealing with his crisis - he's a man of action - even if it's frequently the wrong action. Of course I can't believe you blew up Serenity. You didn't blow up Serenity, right? But what happened to the rest of the crew is quite a guess when dealing with your imagination and plot twists. Glad to see more of this so soon, and will semi patiently wait for the next chapter.

Saturday, October 9, 2010 5:31 AM

BYTEMITE


Hmm, unless I misinterpreted that. Hasty reading makes sketchy comprehension.

Ratcheting up the tension though. :)

Monday, October 11, 2010 9:01 PM

NUTLUCK


Interesting, kinda thought the boy was all in her mind.


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Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.


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Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

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Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

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The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

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Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.