BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA

JACQUI

Adam's Rib Ch 3: Submerged.
Sunday, August 7, 2005

People leave, River spills secrets, Simon pushes too hard.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2658    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: Who out there thinks these characters belong to me? Raise your hand so I can slap you upside the head...

Comments: The idea keeps growing. And you know it just isn't one of my fics without an abundance of angst.

Feedback: Love me, fear me, do as I say and I will be your slave wily_one24@yahoo.com.au

***

Arms held her, a hand on her right shoulder and one on her left elbow, resting lightly for now, but promising to close hard and keep her still. River could feel the rise and fall of Simon's chest behind her and heard the mantra that ran through his head. He didn't want her to make a scene, didn't want to know what he thought he knew, what he saw Mal realize.

A scene is exactly what she wanted to make as Wash and Zoe said goodbye to each other, all hands smoothing foreheads and words whispered not for anyone else to hear, but see they could. Public privacy, a declaration. She knew, as Inara, Mal and Kaylee joined them, that there would be no grand kisses for her, no secrets shared for all to see.

Now that the time was here, she could feel Kaylee reaching shatter point, being pulled in too many directions, nervous to go, scared not to, wanting to stay, wanting to prove Mal wrong. Simon didn't have to worry, River would not cause any problems that would make Kaylee explode in herself and render her unable to function.

She reached into her pocket and closed her fingers around the metal that was in there. It was beginning, she could feel it, the trembling panic, and she had to stop herself from screaming out loud. They were Simon's hands and he wouldn't hurt her. A brother is not blue. Not Simon.

"Watch yourselves." Was Zoe's curt goodbye as she made herself disappear, gone to hide her own fears in flying the ship, taking over from Book who had already said his farewells.

"You'll be okay?"

Kaylee was there, in front of her, and River wanted to lie to her, to tell her that she'd be fine, wanted to tell her the truth and make her see the terror that the shuttle was taking her to. What she settled for was revealing the object in her hand, unfurling it like a gift.

"For you." River said. "Wear it when you leave the house."

Kaylee looked at the hairpin in River's hand, it was plain with very little decoration save a red stone on the end. As she picked it up, she noticed Inara's eyes glitter in recognition and filed the moment away to ask about later. She didn't understand the significance, but she could tell the pin was important to River and that was all she needed.

"Okay, I promise." Kaylee gave her a smile, which faded as she looked over River's shoulder. "Simon."

What she wanted to say was 'don't hold her so hard, can't you feel her trembling?'

"Kaylee." He answered as if he, too, had too many things to say and didn't trust himself to say them.

"Okay people." Mal clapped his hands once, his voice was a little too loud and cheery. "These aren't final goodbyes. We need to get out of atmo sooner rather than later."

"Hear, hear!" Jayne nodded. "Good luck, see ya later."

Wash and Kaylee disappeared into the shuttle as Inara gave Mal a look. "I'll be back when I can." She stepped over to River and kissed her on the forehead, bringing herself close enough to whisper without being heard. "Don't worry, Mei Mei, I'll watch her for you."

River smiled, she watched Inara and Mal share a brief conversation and wondered who watched Mal for her. The Captain was a bunch of nerves, for everybody, for Wash and Kaylee, for Inara and her clients, for herself and Simon. It buzzed through her as he watched Inara close the shuttle door behind her.

They stood on the railings, four of them, not having anything to say as they listened to the sounds of the shuttle shift and take off.

River tried to step forward and Simon instantly clutched harder. She felt herself drawn tight, all her insides tumbling over themselves as they shrunk into one small mass of energy that exploded. She turned and looked at Simon, laying ten feet away, face shocked and red. River gave him a look that made sure he knew she could have done that exact thing any time had she chosen to.

"I'm calm, Simon, thank you."

"Jayne." Mal watched her warily as he spoke. "Go and tell Zoe that the shuttle has gone."

"But." Jayne whined, his eyes darting between Mal, River and Simon, trying to figure it out. "The bridge has a direct com link to..."

"Just do it." Mal cut in, keeping his eyes on River as Simon scrambled up. "Then find Book and stay occupied."

He left no doubt that it wasn't a suggestion.

"Fine." Jayne pushed past them all, feet stomping his anger. "Never get to stay and watch."

"River?" Mal watched her posture change, took in the slide from defiance to compliance and it comforted him a mite, a very small mite, that she still recognized him as Captain. "I want you to go to your room and wait for me there. We need to talk."

She nodded, gave a little curtsy and walked away mumbling under her breath.

"And stop calling me Latin!" He called after her. Mal turned back to Simon to see his eyes shining with a hint of humor. "Why does she keep doing that?"

"She's angry at you for sending Kaylee to the core." Simon couldn't help but smile a little to himself as Mal silently urged him to explain further. He echoed River's words. "Mal, bad, in the Latin."

"What?" Mal turned to look at the empty air, then back at the doctor. "Is that it? She's sulking because I took away her new toy?"

Simon's breath hitched and his eyes narrowed.

"Look, doctor." Mal turned serious again. "I need to know if this little situation is going to cause problems between my crew. Including you and River. And don't bother playing coy about it, either, because I just had the innocent act from Kaylee and I didn't buy it then."

"No. No problems." His voice was fairly dripping with sarcasm. Simon caught Mal opening his mouth about to speak and rushed to continue. "It's not ideal, no, but I'm not going to cause waves."

"It can't be easy." Mal patted Simon's shoulder stiffly. He couldn't believe how awkward the whole situation was getting. His views on fraternization between crew were well known. And this was the reason why. "Considering the conversation we had..."

"I'll be okay." Simon insisted as he shuffled out of Mal's reach, he looked at the grating under his feet and didn't meet Mal's eyes. "As long as she's happy."

"I got my own assurances on that score. Kaylee says there ain't nothing happening that don't need to."

"Okay." Simon wasn't sure he knew what that meant or even if he wanted to.

"I trust Kaylee." Mal continued. "And I will make damned sure I trust River, too."

A flash of panic ran across Simon's face.

"Relax, Doctor, your sister and I have an understanding. I ain't gonna cause her to have an episode. You just keep out of our way for a spell."

And Simon's safe, constructed and easily controlled world kept spinning impressively out of his reach.

***

Kaylee had no idea exactly how Inara spent so much time in this shuttle, let alone lived in the thing. It was so small, so tight, there was nowhere to move, especially not if you were pacing back and forth.

"I shouldn't go, I have to go back."

"Relax." Inara stopped her with one hand on her shoulder. "Things are going to be fine."

"She's going to..." Kaylee didn't know exactly what words would finish that sentence to her satisfaction, she just knew that she couldn't be the cause of it. "Inara?"

"I'll be spending my time back and forth between Orpheus and Bellaphron, I'll watch her for you, okay?"

Kaylee fingered the necklace around her throat, worrying it, trying to give into Inara's words.

"Are we wrong?" They weren't the words she'd expected. "Is Mal right?"

"Shh." Inara reached up and pressed Kaylee's head into her neck, caressing her hair. "Only you can answer that."

Keeping his attention firmly on the controls and the upcoming skyline, Wash let the words swim into his brain. Zoe had been right. Of course, Zoe was always right and he shouldn't be surprised. It was her job to notice things. It's just... Zoe had been right.

***

Mal knocked and pushed open the door. He'd been angry, fit to burst, when he'd confronted Kaylee, awkward and stilted with the Doc, but now he was a little more than nervous. He found River sitting upright on the edge of her bed, hands held primly in her lap, back straight, waiting for him. She'd placed a chair opposite her and he knew she expected him to sit himself right down.

"Well, this is..." Mal chose his words carefully as he purposefully crossed the room and sat next to her on the bed. "... interesting."

She didn't reply, but looked pointedly at the chair, to Mal, then back at the chair again. Mal smiled and waited. Eventually, River sighed and shifted so that she faced him.

"Do you know what I'm talking about?"

"Yes." Quick and crisp, the reply came instantly.

"Do you know what you're doing?"

"Yes." Same sureness of answer.

"Does Kaylee?"

"Yes." Quick nod, official and definite.

"Some of us think differently."

"Some of us are wrong."

This wasn't making him any more comfortable. He had been expecting something a little more obscure, a little less sane from River, florid sentences that barely made sense. The last thing Mal had expected were these short, sharp responses to his questions, or that he'd be getting more honesty and less games out of her than he did Simon or Kaylee. If he didn't know better...

Mal tried to hide his smile as he nodded once at her.

"Permission to speak freely."

To him it seemed as if her whole body gave a shudder of relief and he wondered just how hard she had to try to stay so linear. Her eyes sparkled at his acknowledgement of the game.

"You're worried we'll be hurt, but we won't. I'm in pieces, sometimes, not quite whole all the time, but I'm not fragile. I can't break more than I am."

And ain't that a sad, wistful little statement? Mal thought.

"I can say we won't hurt each other." She shrugged, not judging what she said, merely accepting the truth of it. "but you won't believe me. Think I'm too dangerous. So many shadows."

"Well, ya do have secrets." Mal felt like he was stepping through a minefield, only this had a greater possibility for loss of limb. "And you come out with all kinds of skills and knowledge. Nobody knows what you're capable of..."

"Ask me." She challenged.

"Oh, um." Ask her? Mal was stunned and began to mentally kick himself. Had anyone asked her? Sat down plainly and asked her what she could do? Or had they all just whispered to each other about their suspicions? "Can you, you know, see stuff?"

"Yes." She nodded solemnly and reached up to drag the skin above her cheek down, the red shined from her socket. "Eyeballs take in refracted light, sending images to the brain."

"Fine." He admitted as she smiled in triumph. "Can you see things that the rest of us can't?"

"Yes." She nodded again and then pointed to her head. "What is and was on the inside. I feel the feelings and hear the thoughts and always color and buzzing."

"Not..." He wasn't sure how to say it. "... what will be?"

"Is and was." She insisted, before rolling her eyes. "Nobody can see the future."

"Okay, I'm thinking..."

"Four."

"... of a number." He finished slowly.

"Four is two by two." She whispered it to him as if telling him a precious secret, then snapped herself out of it. "Four. The number of scars you have on your back alone. You always think of four. How many men you killed from your own troop as they lay screaming, dying of festering wounds that should have been tended to. How many times you cursed the Independents for leaving you in there. The number of..."

"Moving on!" Mal took a breath. "Can you fight?"

"You know the answer." She pointed out. "You saw me throw Simon. You heard about the guns. I frighten you."

"Can you blame me?" He asked. "Your understanding not comprehending remark wasn't exactly comforting."

"I understand guns are dangerous." She spoke slowly, as if to a child. "I don't comprehend the possibility of my mishandling one or putting Serenity in danger."

He nodded, hedging, then pushed forward anyway. She'd already shown him that he couldn't hide his thoughts from her.

"Can you kill?"

Something flickered in her eyes, her face slackened a little, then her whole body drooped.

"Yes." Back to military River.

"Okay then." It wasn't like he was surprised. He knew about Niska's guards, he and Zoe had talked about the possibility of her being trained for this purpose. The answer from her lips, though, was different. It pained him. "Is there anything..."

"Mal!" She all but screamed his name and he looked at her, noticing that she was clutching the edge of the bed so hard that her knuckles were white. "You didn't ask! You have to! You can't... know part of... it's not."

She was really struggling to stay coherent.

"What?" He tried to break into her stream of desperateness. "What should I ask?"

"Do I like it? No." She answered her own questions, barely breathing between words. "Have I done it before Niska? Not willingly. Will I hurt Serenity's crew? Never."

Not willingly. The words stuck in his throat and Mal was glad that he'd made sure Simon was nowhere near them for this.

"I don't want... not anymore... No. Not hurt." She brought a hand up to feel her flushed face and seemed surprised to find tears. "They would have killed her. Don't make me. Mal. No more."

"No." He agreed softly, wanting to reach up and touch her hair, but nervous to push her further. "I ain't got no troubles with you staying out of harm's way."

"They took me and they changed me and I can't go back." Her words were punctuated with sobs, she had given into huge wracking gasps, her eyes became unfocused and he saw her pupils shrink to tiny pin points. Mal wondered if she was still in the room with him. "Made me bad. I want to be so good. But they spoiled... made me rotten... and sour... and sharp."

He couldn't stand it anymore and tried to put his arms around her. She shuddered from his touch and threw out an arm, it hit him square in the face and his head ached thickly. Mal was nothing if not stubborn, he forced an image into his head: River running through the ship, laughing out loud, hands tightly gripping an apple. This time he managed to pull her against him and she clung to him, arms around his shoulders and face dripping hot tears onto his neck. Her sobs turned to sniffles and then whimpers. He ran his hand over her head, smoothing her hair.

"You are good." He insisted quietly. "It ain't what you can do, but what you really do that counts."

Long after he ran out of words, Mal still rocked her back and forth, listening to her ragged breathing become even and shallow. He could feel his blood crystallize into cold hatred for people he had never met and hoped she couldn't feel it in her dreams.

***

He walked into the kitchen and studiously began trying to assemble the various forms of protein they had left into something vaguely edible. It was hard work pretending he didn't see Book's questioning glance or Jayne grinning into the cards or, even worse, Simon's quiet horror as he stood up and approached him.

"She did that?" Simon had grabbed a cold pack from somewhere and Mal didn't even want to know where, he hadn't realized they kept them in the kitchen.

"Yes."

Mal easily shrugged Simon off, careful not to jolt his face too much. He knew the burning, swollen sensation of a black eye well and could tell that this one would burst into many fascinating colors in the days to come. The ship lurched, so slightly that it barely registered, just enough for Mal to know they'd broken out of atmo.

"Get the better of ya, did she Mal?"

He made a face at Jayne to show how mightily amused he was not. As he looked down, Mal saw his hands were shaking and he cursed, hiding them in his pockets. Too late though, Simon had seen, his eyes dark and piercing with more questions.

"Captain?" Book stood up and stepped towards him. "Is everything alright?"

"No." Mal's eyes swept the bench, his breath burst out of him in a gust of frustration as he stormed out of the room, muttering to himself. "... expect her to... live with... surrounded..."

Jayne peeked at the cards Book had left behind.

"Maybe it's catching."

Book and Simon glared at him.

Nobody had to wait long. Mal returned heaving a large drum Jayne recognized as being their stock of black paint. An item that came in useful more times than any of them could count. They watched him prize open the lid, watched him empty the cupboards and begin slathering the tops of various cans and packets with black.

"From now on every item that enters this ship is covered. Dong Ma?"

Simon stepped up without a word, he had no brush, but just dipped his fingers in the paint. He felt more at ease with every Blue Sun logo that disappeared.

"Course is set." Zoe appeared in the door, eyeing the procedures without reaction. "We'll land on Bellaphron in a matter of hours. We taking on arts and crafts? Sir?"

"We were right." He shared a significant glance with Zoe, which didn't go unnoticed by Book, then addressed the whole room. "She's a reader alright."

"Well then." Jayne pointed to Mal's eye. "What the hell were you thinkin'?"

Book smiled to himself as he began transferring wet cans to the table to dry, earning a disgusted look off Jayne who had to scramble to save the cards.

"New rules. From now on, everyone." Mal looked at Jayne. "And I mean everyone, has to be careful with what they say and think around her."

Simon began to protest.

"Not for our sake, Doc, for hers. She's been through enough, without us foisting our own troubles on to her."

They nodded.

"One more thing." Mal continued. "About this particular job? No matter what happens, you think nothing but good thoughts, you hear? Even if we start getting body parts sent to us in teeny boxes, you feel good about it. Best damned thing ever. Nothing is wrong."

"Is that likely on this job?" Book looked at him, only half in jest. "Are you expecting a lot of body parts?"

"I just wanna be clear." He paused. "Are we clear?"

"Yeah." Jayne tried to clean his blackened hand by running it down the front of his shirt and snarled at the result. "Everything's bright and shiny like. Roses grow out of our ass cracks. We got it."

Mal gave him a warning glare, for safety's sake, but knew there was an understanding.

"Is it?" Simon spoke directly to Mal. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes." Mal answered softly, but loud enough so that they all heard. "We ain't gonna be interferin' in anything for now."

Zoe looked smug about something, Book looked as if he had just put two and two together, Simon looked somewhat tense.

"What?" Jayne just looked blank. "What ain't we interferin' with?"

***

"... and that just about concludes the tour." The gentleman smiled at Inara and she smiled back.

A squeal sounded from the next room and Kaylee poked her head in.

"Inara! Check it out, there's a garden, with real plants! And four bedrooms! And the biggest kitchen you ever seen. Of course the wiring behind the oven needs sorting out, but that's not..."

Wash's voice called out from the distance.

"Hey! You could fit three people in this bath!"

Kaylee's eyes widened and she disappeared.

Inara smiled gently.

"They've been off planet for a long time."

***

breathe.

Her eyes ache and she has trouble focusing as clearly as she'd like. It's a side effect of the surgery that she's well used to by now. They usually give her a few days to recover and she wants to plead for it. She has known for a long time that it's easier to just do what they want, give them what they ask for, because they're going to get it eventually, no matter what she does and the end result is the same. The only difference is how difficult she wants to make it on herself, how many bruises she wants to come away with, how much blood she wants on her hands.

obey.

It's why, when they hold her down and take her clothes, River does not fight. The only struggling she is doing is the effort to control her panic, to keep breathing and not burst out in screams. Tears gel up her eyes and make them sticky. The water is warm when they lower her into it. She cannot bring herself to move, not when she knows they are still there, not even to reach out and test the limits of her new prison, to feel the boundaries they've just given her.

drowning.

With the heavy thud of a lid everything goes dark and River's world is gone.

floating.

Her hands fly out, feet too, instantly pressing against the walls that are too close for comfort. Her gasps, when she finally allows them, sound like sobs to her. Her pulse invades her senses, the flood of her blood, pumping fast and hard, thundering in her ears with the lack of stimuli.

black.

Sight is a process in which light triggers nerve impulses in the brain. The cornea focuses light rays through the pupil to the lens, passing through a jelly - vitreous humor - to the retina. In total darkness there is no light, there is no sight. River's corneas strain to find something, anything. Eventually, the cone cells in her retinas, opsins, will take eight minutes to fully regenerate, allowing her to distinguish shades of gray. The rod cells, rhodopsins, will take significantly longer and give her the blessing of being able to distinguish nuances of color and texture. But not yet.

floating. still. terrified. blind.

The ear is an organ of balance and sound, it receives sound waves traveling through the air and changes them into mechanical vibrations and then into electrical impulses which are sent to the brain, it senses the body's position in relation to gravity, allowing the body to maintain equilibrium. When there is no gravity and there are no vibrations save the pounding of her own heart, River cannot hear. Her auditory canals have nothing to do. Limp and useless, her malleus goes to sleep, snuggling up to the incus and stapes, ignoring the perilymph crying for action. Silence is deafening.

floating. deaf. scared.

Miessner corpuscles. Corpuscles of touch that dot the dermal papillae of her skin, they are numbed by the complete stillness, the absence of movement, of pressure, nothing but the water that eventually fails to register. She cannot feel.

floating. absence.

She has nothing but her mind. She has colors in her head. Memories in her head. She has Simon. And parents. Remembers laughter. It is not cold. Or warm. It is nothing.

stillness.

There is nothing and no one, alone in the tightness, but for the sound of herself. A heart is unceasing, it is her own. A pulse is fast, until it slows. Air scrapes loud through her cells, pushes out again. Blood slows. Organs conserve energy.

floating. quiet. peace.

Light explodes around her, shocking her, crashing into her skin, making her shrivel. River cannot open her eyes, they clamp shut against the intrusion. The sounds that threaten to deafen her are loud and harsh and she tries to cover her ears. Nothing, however, nothing is as violent as the hands that grab hold of her, drag her screaming from the water.

violation.

It creeps into her skin, no matter how she scrambles to get away from it. Everything jumbles at her, wanting access all at once. Even the floor tiles snake over her bare skin, wanting to take hold. She's gasping for air.

cold.

"Jesus!" A voice shatters her skull. "She's still alive!"

Stop it. Blood pumping. Light searing. A touch sends her skittering, makes her skin scream louder than her throat. No. Colors vibrate her eyes even as she keeps them shut. Too many. Too much. Stop it. But it doesn't stop. Not the air that slides over her, not the voices, the movement, nothing. Nothing stops itself and she can't stop anything.

fear.

River begins to shake her head back and forth, because she's hearing more than they're saying. There are five of them. One by the door who keeps looking out and back in at them. He doesn't want to be here, doesn't want to see what he's getting paid for. Cannot bear the rasping sounds of her pain.

relief.

A man crouches down next to her, trying to calm her down, to stop her terror. He's excited by the chance, by other peoples mistakes, he can't wait to see what this will bring out of her, what fresh new miracles she'll bring them.

anger.

"The electricity was shorted. Nobody knew where she was."

River looks up, pulling her hair out of her face as she stares into the eyes of a woman.

"You knew." She's calmer now. "You wanted to see what would happen."

In the far corner of the room, River can feel the fourth figure smile. The fifth figure rubs his blue hands together. They're both very pleased with her words. It sends an ice cold shiver down her naked spine.

abyss.

***

Inara could barely believe how well things were going, considering their usual luck when it came to plans. She smiled to herself, hands dancing their practiced movements over the controls as she landed the shuttle into Serenity, fully aware of the sentence structure she just used in her own head.

Their luck. Their plans.

Connections are a weakness, a threat, they make it impossible to leave. She told Mal this, it was the only explanation he was ever going to get, but Inara knew it was already too late. Roots had grown, from herself into Serenity, into her shuttle, into the weave of people that dotted her life. And their roots had well and truly wound themselves around her, invisible ivy, snaking into her heart and squeezing tight.

Despite what she had told the others, she had not spent the afternoon with a client. There was sufficient time in the next few weeks to cover her appointments. Instead, she had begun looking for a new arrangement. The companion house on Orpheus was delightful. And delighted at the prospect of her joining them. The promises and gifts they'd offered had made her blush.

As she'd walked the halls, she had felt it slipping over her like a silk gown, the lushness of it, the properness of it, the familiarity of ritual and beauty, more comfort and riches than she had seen in a year with Serenity, less than she had before. And yet, as much as her heart had yearned for it, she could not stop herself from looking at the warm, practiced smiles and warmer eyes that had greeted her and wondering if they had ever laughed so hard they lost control and snorted, if they ever danced to music no one else heard, or knew what a plastic dinosaur was for.

Her own smile had felt sticky over her teeth.

Feeling the ship latch onto her shuttle and pull her in, Inara made a few adjustments to the switches and gave up control. It scared her, sometimes, how much easier it was to breathe when she was back on Serenity. Even knowing Kaylee and Wash were in a wholly different atmosphere wasn't as tense as she'd thought it would be. She could still feel the excitement of Kaylee examining everything she could, even Wash had given over to curiosity. Now that there were no other jobs lined up, with the remaining crew staying on ship while it docked, she anticipated a rare stretch of time with little or no complications.

How utterly wrong a person can be.

Faces, red and anxious, met her as she opened the door. Mal and Simon, eyes pushing past her as they peered into the shuttle.

"Jayne!"

Inara blinked as Mal roared into her face.

"No." She answered, amusement hinting at the surface, but not quite reaching. "But very close."

He didn't even bother responding.

"Jayne?" He called again and all three of them turned to the sound of an answering grunt, the man in question emerging from the second shuttle. "Is she in there?"

"Not that I can see."

"Tamade!" Mal hissed.

"Calm and reasonable." Simon reminded him. "Best thing ever."

"Right, right." He muttered and Inara watched him try to pull himself under control. She allowed her brain to label him adorable when he was this flustered. "Everything is dandy."

"River disappeared when we landed." Simon explained. "It was a bit bumpy."

"My landing was fine." Zoe announced from the top of the stairs. "Shuttle is docked. Hello Inara."

"Zoe."

Book called out from cargo bay below them.

"She's not down here, Captain. Of course, I don't know all the hidey holes..."

"Ruttin' preacher's not gonna know..."

Jayne automatically began his descent down to the bay. After a quick look at each other, Mal and Zoe followed, fast enough to stop him revealing anything. Inara and Simon were left with no choice but to follow.

"Are you sure she's nowhere upstairs?" Inara had to steel herself from flinching at the sudden glares she was getting from five people. Even Simon looked royally peeved. She raised her hands in supplication. "I was just asking."

They began talking all at once and Mel felt his frustration and panic begin to boil. He'd thought everything was going too comfortable. River had pretty much slept since their earlier conversation. It wasn't until the turbulence and near crash landing that Simon had gone to check on her, only to find her gone. What had followed were hours of searching, discovering nooks and crannies Mal had forgotten existed and even a few he wasn't sure he knew about to forget in the first place.

Nobody, not even a mind reading, lethally trained, genius assassin with psychotic tendencies could disappear into thin air aboard a ship during flight. Not twice, anyway. They had checked the outer hull and Simon had even called out to her as Serenity. A tense moment had followed, the surreal expectation that her voice would float over them through the com system.

Everyone was talking loudly, too loudly for him to concentrate and he suddenly hoped she wasn't too close, privy to the frantic energies that even he could pick up on. Great, he thought, his grand plan had lasted all of a few hours. He ran his hand through his hair and let it drag his head backwards.

"Simon." Mal's voice was calm and soft, it caused a hush in the group as he reached out and took hold of the doctor's arm. "Stay calm."

His eyes gestured upwards and, one by one, they all looked. Mal kept his hold as he felt Simon try to jerk away, he heard Inara gasp beside him and, he wasn't exactly sure, but he thought he even heard Book uttering something prayer like under his breath.

"How did she...?"

One raised hand stopped Jayne's question.

A flash of green peeked out at them from the center most light fixture. Over three stories separated River, curled up against the metal, from the very hard steel floor and countless hard and sharp objects that might break her fall. A curtain of hair swayed slightly in a breeze no one felt on the ground.

"Everybody stay calm." They all looked at him like he had just declared space big and black. "No sudden movements or noises."

"River?" Simon called up to her and earned a glare from Mal. "Mei Mei?"

"Jayne? Preacher?" Mal signaled to them. "I want you to round up any and all mattresses, bedding, pillows and the like. Whatever the hell to cushion that floor. Zoe? Find the tallest ladder we got."

"We don't own anything that tall, Sir."

"Find it anyway."

"You two," He turned to Simon and Inara. "Get as close to her as you can from the railings. Do. Not. Scare. Her."

"Her?" Inara muttered, avoiding Mal's look as she followed Simon up the stairs. "What about us?"

Simon walked along the gangway, looking for a point of access, some spot that he could climb up and follow River. There was no doubt in his mind she had gotten there herself and quite easily at that. As effortlessly as she had always done the impossible. A grudging awe crept over him as his shaking hand grabbed the most likely spot and hoisted himself up over the railing, the same grudging awe that had plagued his childhood.

Even when he was very young, Simon knew the praise he'd gotten from his father was conflicted, both ecstatic and slightly bitter that what he'd had to work so hard for came so easily to his son. He'd known it, but had not fully understood it until River had been born and the word genius had been redefined in his family. Whatever Gabriel Tam could not do, his son found a way. Whatever Simon Tam could not do, River already knew.

The problem now was that Simon had never been good with heights or large, open spaces. He liked, needed really, to feel ground under his feet, to feel the limits of his surroundings, to know his safety was assured. Climbing over railings and trying to make his way up onto ceiling rafters without any kind of harness or safety net only made his body cling to the railings, despite the best efforts of his brain to order otherwise.

"Simon?" Inara laid a hand on his back and he felt his shirt cling to the sweat beginning to build there. "Do you want me to...?"

"No." He managed through clenched teeth. "I can do one thing at least..."

But he hadn't made any more progress.

By this time Zoe had managed to wrestle with a large ladder that reached, maybe, half the distance they needed it to. Mal eyes it critically as Jayne began distributing mattresses around their feet.

"Sir?" Zoe asked, watching Simon fail miserably in his attempt to get closer to the green splotch. "What if she falls?"

Book appeared at the top of the stairs and let a cloud of blankets fall down around them. Mal recognized a flowered quilt from Kaylee's bunk. He picked a blanket detailing Chinese horoscopes from his face and guessed that Jayne's guns would have to face the cold alone for the moment.

"I don't think she will. It's Simon I'm worried about. River's okay." He ignored her questioning glance. "As long as she doesn't wake up."

"She's asleep?" Zoe looked upwards again. "Up there?"

That's when River began to scream.

Inara didn't pause, she breathed in, grabbed the back of Simon's shirt and pulled him back against the railing, before climbing over. She looked up at the nearest rafter, down at herself, then ripped the skirts completely off her bodice. She jumped up and her hands found the rafter, she began to swing, creating enough momentum to hook her legs up and then drew her whole body up until she was lying on the rafter, arms clinging to the metal. It was a long way down.

River was right ahead of her, blindly scrambling against the small steel pole that anchored the light to the ceiling, her face stretched out in terror and pain as her eyes swung wildly around the room, seeing nothing.

"River?" She spoke calmly, hoping that her heart couldn't be heard echoing all the way around the cargo bay. "Sweetie? It's Inara."

She was vaguely aware of Simon just underneath her, hands grasping the rails, all his attention on the screaming figure of his sister. Of Mal, Zoe and Jayne staring up at her, of Book slowly making his way across to Simon.

"It's okay, River, I'm here." Inara had no idea if the girl could even hear her. She pulled herself forward a little, trying not to look all the way down to the scared faces. "It's just Inara."

The cries turned to whimpers and Mal felt his heart slowly return to a pace that wasn't about to make his chest explode.

"Inara?" He called, as quietly as he could manage. "You know what you're doing up there, do ya?"

"Not a bit." She answered through clenched teeth. "Now shut up."

There was ten feet between them, so far up. Jayne didn't look down, but began to kick the bundles on the floor to a more central location as his neck stretched up. These bitches were crazy.

"Mal?" He urged in a whisper. "What if they both fall?"

"That isn't a happy thought, Jayne."

Jayne rolled his eyes. Mal was crazier'n both of 'em.

"I've nearly got you." Inara saw the fear in River's eyes, the shaking of her head, the trembling of her muscles. She sympathized. This high up and she couldn't even stand to look down. Her hands inched forward, took hold, and pulled her closer. "Just relax, Mei Mei."

For one brief second, just a second, their eyes met and Inara gasped. River had looked lucid, but there was hatred in her eyes, an anger so deep that it hit her physically. Inara's leg slipped and she found herself desperately scrambling to grab hold of the rafter, her palms burned as they clenched automatically against metal, fear stopped her heart, breath caught like a trapped animal in her lungs.

"Inara!" Voices and cries sounded from every direction. Her arms burned as she dangled from them.

Movement flashed from everywhere, behind her the feel of Book jumping up, below her the sight of Mal, Zoe and Jayne scrambling. Above her a flash of green.

Small hands anchored her own, pressing them to the metal, a face appeared before her, smiling and nodding encouragement. Inara was shaking, breathing hard, she looked into the now clear and lucid eyes, every breath she took seemed to expel an amount of panic, like a black cloud being drawn out of her. You can do it. The words seeped into her head. She hooked her elbows over, pressed her torso into metal, managed to get her legs back up.

A collective sigh sounded and Inara smiled at River, even as she wanted to break down.

"You knew." River reached out and gently touched a tear on Inara's cheek. That wasn't what she wanted to say, because it didn't sound like 'trust me, I wouldn't let you fall', but it came out anyway. "You wanted to see what would happen."

Slowly and surely, Inara began to inch herself backwards, grateful beyond words that River kept up with her, smiling and completely at ease the whole way. She became aware of the rest of the room, the sounds of feet running from the bottom of the hold to the stairs, Book and Simon murmuring encouragement.

She made sure she was well over the platform before lowering herself into Book's arms. The moment her feet touched the grating, Inara felt her legs turn to jelly and she crumbled. A blanket came around her and she let herself be handed to Mal.

They watched as River easily swung herself down to join them.

"Cats on feet." She had the slow, jittery, unfocused daze that Simon recognized as following all of her outbursts. "Nightmares float. I couldn't reach. But space, oh the space. I needed to stretch."

"No climbing." Mal answered her, quietly amazed at his ability to stop himself from throttling her. "Dong Ma?"

She shrugged.

"No guns. No heights. Orders given in fear. Yes sir." Her eyes drifted to the debris below and she nearly doubled herself leaning over the railings to look. "Are we camping?"

***

Kaylee walked through the house, already buzzing with her temporary claim to it. It had been years since she had left what she once considered home. She had her bunk and the engine room and had left her mark on Serenity wherever she could, it was home and nothing was going to change that, she knew it, but this was different.

She ran into Wash, scanning the entertainment hub, pressing buttons at random.

"Anything interesting?"

He looked up at her.

"Where'd you go?"

"Oh. I just been walking on grass in bare feet." Kaylee grinned as Wash's eyes lit up. "You gotta do that. But shouldn't we wave Serenity first?"

***

Simon's fingers touched each of the remaining bottles of antibiotics as his head counted them, not that he particularly needed the physical contact to keep the figure 'two' straight in his head. It was habit from Osiris, touch and remember, keep the supplies stocked. Mal had promised him that they'd restock the following day and he wanted his list ready. Today, with few hours remaining of daylight left after the day's fun, only necessities were needed. Mal and Zoe had gone to begin making connections with the locals, Jayne was busy hooking up irrigation and earthed power to the ship and Book had gone to get supplies. He supposed they would be back soon.

A knock sounded and, given that there were only three people left on the ship, including himself, he really shouldn't have been surprised to see River standing there, hesitating at the door, arms behind her back and her bare ankles, thin and strong, exposed at odd angles below her dress. She just didn't come voluntarily to his infirmary that often. He smiled sadly.

"Come in. You don't have to knock, you know that."

"Not a patient." She didn't move until he nodded, accepting her conditions before she would even step onto the infirmary tiles. "Just visiting."

He watched the jagged way her eyes darted over the walls, cataloguing everything in moments and couldn't help but compare it to the fluidness of her hands as they slipped over the door, lingered on it as if she was reluctant to let go.

"How are you feeling now?"

She sighed.

"Not a patient, Simon."

"I know." He snapped shut the door to the medicine cabinet and turned his whole body to face her, palms out. "I'm asking as a brother, worried about his sister."

She lowered her head and brought her arms in close to her body.

"All worried. Thought you saw River on the floor." She looked up and spoke to the ceiling as her hands cradled her elbows, holding herself. "I bounce, you know."

"Really?" She looked at him, at the smile in his voice. "It was pretty high, Mei Mei, I don't think even you would bounce from that."

River spread her arms out and gave herself into the movement, a graceful spin, her skirt twirling up.

"I am invincible." Her voice was nearly a laugh, but it stopped suddenly, just like her body. Eyes darkened as they looked at Simon. "Now."

"I'm sorry." It all came rushing down on him, his inability to help her, to understand her, to climb up the damned rafter to save her himself. "I don't know... I couldn't..."

River reached out and cupped his cheeks.

"You don't have to knock, either, Simon." She smiled. "You know that."

"I just wish..."

"Bad dreams." She insisted, trying so hard to ignore the whiteness of the room, the clinical smell of it, because she knew he needed it, needed her to get it out in a way he could understand. She wanted to give this little thing to him. "They close in and they drown me and I wake up screaming. But I wake up free. You gave me free."

She knew the second the words sank in, saw his eyes close and felt the edges within him smooth over a little. His hands came up and rested on her shoulders and he leaned forward so their foreheads touched. Simon felt it, the circle of energy that flowed between them, and he wondered how he had ever lived without this symbiosis before she was born and then after she'd left.

"I would give anything, Mei Mei," He whispered, knowing the words were almost too painful to speak. Not for the first time, he wished he had the ability of osmosis, the knowledge of how to draw the pain and sickness from her, out through her skin and into him, take it from her and leave her nothing but the light he knew was in there. "anything at all."

"You give. And you give. They take. They're the ones." She ducked under his arms, slipping from his fingers, broke the contact. Simon opened his eyes, knowing that he'd already lost her. "They push it. They give too much. Then take it away. Give it. Take it. Can't stop it. Had to get in. Don't scream. They take the world away."

He couldn't help it, the brief glimpse of sanity he'd seen had hurt when it left. He couldn't stop the question, his voice soft, but painfully sharp.

"With blue hands?"

"No!" Her mouth stretched open wide, her face a mask of horror as she pushed away from him, her head shook from side to side as she scrambled behind the bed. "Simon, please! I can't... I can't..."

"It's okay, it's okay." Simon could have kicked himself. "I'm sorry, okay?"

But he could already tell that it wasn't okay, very far from it, in fact. He had pushed way too far and couldn't remember her look so terrified or out of control for a long time. Her hand blindly swept over the bench behind her and took hold of whatever was there. Her aim was good and Simon had to duck to avoid the bandage that flew at his head.

"Get away!" She was reaching a scream by this point and Simon could see how unfocused her eyes were. As he tried to stop closer she pushed against the bed and he had to catch it before it fell over. "I won't do it! No black!"

"Doc?" Mal appeared in the doorway. "Is everything okay?"

River and Simon both turned at the sound of his voice.

"Two!" River's strangled cry was full of pain as she swung her eyes from Mal to Simon. "Two by two!"

"River, no, we're not..."

Simon's plea ended in a sharp gasp of pain and Mal looked at him in time to see his hand reach up and touch the scalpel embedded in his neck. Simon's eyes were wide in shock.

"Tamade! Jayne!" He didn't waste time. "Jayne, get in here now!"

Mal rushed forward, dragging the stunned Simon to the floor and pulling him back towards the door. He turned to see Jayne run up to them and knew no explanation was necessary as Jayne took in Simon's injury and the screaming River throwing things at the other end of the room.

"River?" Mal's voice was calm as he stepped towards her, at least as calm as he could make it. "River? It's okay, it's Mal here and Simon."

She screamed at him, a continuous animal sound, past the point of coherence. It scared him, scared him a lot, but she was paying attention to him. Which is exactly what he wanted as Jayne silently made his way behind her.

By the look of horror that engulfed her when Jayne's arms closed around her, pinning her arms to her sides, Mal knew she hadn't even noticed him in the room. Her cry was angry and frantic as she began to thrash, kicking back. Hard.

"Gorram it, Mal." Jayne was straining to keep hold of her, trying to avoid her head as she bucked.

"Doc?" He turned to Simon, sitting against doorway. "Where is it?"

"Mal, please..."

"Look at her, Simon!"

"Second drawer." Simon slumped, defeated, as Mal grabbed the hypo.

"Hold her steady, Jayne."

Mal tried to find an opening amid the flying legs and whipping hair that was thrashing in front of him.

"I'm tryin'."

When he found the opportunity to slip the needle into her arm, River stopped struggling. The look she gave him, betrayed and wounded and resigned, made him want to spit. She slowly went limp in Jayne's arms and her voice lowered to a keen.

"What the hell happened, Doc?"

"It was my fault." Simon slowly stood up, blood seeping through the fingers clamped to his neck. "I shouldn't have... I asked about the blue hands."

Mal was fit to burst.

"Couldn't leave well enough alone, could you?"

"Are you out of your ruttin' mind?"

Jayne lifted River up and gently laid her out on the gurney. She weighed next to nothing and, like this, felt as fragile as a twig, easy to snap. He'd have a couple of bruises soon, though, that proved otherwise.

"Jayne?" Mal picked up a packet of sterilizing gel from the floor, followed by the same bandage aimed at Simon's head.

"Yeah, I got it." Jayne muttered as he walked to the door. "There's adult talk needs be done."

Simon tried to shake Mal off as he leaned over the sink, but Mal was stronger and angrier as he pulled Simon's hands away and pushed his chin up.

"I asked you this very morning if we were gonna have a problem and you lied to me." His voice was seething steel, but his hands were steady as they cleaned the cut. "Way I see it, you've got Kaylee getting closer to River, Inara climbing up the damned roof and me gettin' some answers that you hadn't."

Simon wanted to nod, but thought better of it.

"You're no longer the belle of your sister's ball. You won't need a weave, didn't go too deep." Mal switched topics without even blinking and then back again. "Which to my mind is your issue, not hers. You need to get over it. She's already had two other bad turns today, what made you think she needed another one?"

"I'm sorry." Simon found himself hating those words and hating himself for creating the need to say them so often.

Mal looked at the unconscious figure on the bed.

"I'm not the one you need to apologize to."

"Captain?" Book stopped in the doorway as he saw Mal patching up Simon and River on the bed. "Wash and Kaylee are on the cortex. I can stay here if you'd like, they want to talk to both of you about tomorrow."

***

"Zo?" Wash frowned at the screen. "What aren't you telling us? Where's the Captain?"

"Nothing." Her eyes were too wide and her voice soft and honeyed. Wash knew she was lying. "Look, here's the Captain now."

Kaylee gasped as Mal's face appeared on the screen.

"Your eye! What happened?" She narrowed her eyes at his suddenly closed off face, the way he didn't quite look at her. "How's River?"

"She's had a bit of a bad day." He answered her and Kaylee noticed he was leaning over the bridge to block her view of the others.

It didn't work.

"Wo duh muh!" She gasped again as she saw a figure behind him. "Simon! You're bleeding!"

Mal closed his eyes.

"A real bad day."

Kaylee leaned forward and grasped the desk, pushing Wash out of the way just slightly.

"Captain, I wanna come back."

"We got it, Kaylee."

"But..."

"Look," He insisted. "the best way you can help her right now is to continue what you're doing, make the meet tomorrow and get us a contact, dong ma?"

"Yes Sir." But her voice didn't exactly sound as if she were agreeing with him and she hoped he felt it. "Exactly as you say, Sir."

"Kaylee?" Mal began, but she'd already left the screen and he knew she wouldn't be back. "Wash? Everything going to plan there?"

"Yeah, Mal." Wash knew something there was something else under the surface, but also knew that Mal wouldn't tell them until he was good and ready. "They're expecting us at ten hundred, sharp."

"Wash?" Simon broke in. "Once you meet the doctors, they're going to be watching you. You'll need to keep it up at all times, even when you think you're alone in the house."

"They're gonna be spying on us?" Wash sat up straighter. "And you knew?"

"Just make it believable." Simon's voice was shaking. "Please?"

***

Simon carried her to her bunk, laid her on the bed and began to take off her shoes. He knew that when she began to wake up, she'd want to be anywhere but the infirmary.

He turned her arm over and ran his thumb over the purple mark already forming over her vein. First rule of medicine: Do No Harm. It wasn't the first, last or only rule he'd broken since he'd deciphered her code and he knew that things were going to get worse before they got better, he knew it in his bones.

End part three.

COMMENTS

Monday, August 8, 2005 2:43 AM

AMDOBELL


Heart breakingly good and poor poor River, even broken she often seems to be more in control than the others - until the tether breaks. Really worried for Inara, found Mal's insight with Simon comforting, Kaylee's panic when she realises something has already happened with River a thread that could unravel the whole gorram plan if she doesn't keep her nerve and hold it together. Shiny, involving and a gorram good myth. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Monday, August 8, 2005 7:49 AM

NUTLUCK


Keep up the good work. Defently looking foward to the next parts.

Monday, August 8, 2005 4:30 PM

REALLYKAYLEE


"whoa. good myth."
--Mal
Our Mrs. Renolds

Sunday, March 5, 2006 3:09 PM

BURNANDBOIL


Such a contrast from part to part, it's fluid and well written.

Monday, October 20, 2008 3:21 AM

RIVERRED


nice chpater the story really flows well with each passing part i read.


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