BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA

JACQUI

Adam's Rib Ch 4: Retreat.
Monday, August 8, 2005

Answers create more questions. Is there any other way?


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3441    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: They're still not mine, they're still a lot better than all my toys. I'm still gonna play with 'em when no one's looking. Kudos to Dan Brown for an idea, it's his idiosyncrasy, not mine.

Comments: This installment is more exposition than plot, but the next one will make up for it, I promise.

Feedback: Always craved, always answered: wily_one24@yahoo.com.au

***

Kaylee bit her lip, she hoped she looked nervous for Wash and not plain scared out of her wits as she sat in the doctor's office. The man sitting across from them was big and heavy set and reminded her of Jayne, arms and neck tumbling out of an ill fitting white jacket, his face was round and half covered by a thick, curling beard. He looked absolutely nothing like she had imagined a Core doctor to be like, she had expected someone more Simon. He was smiling at them over the files he was reading. A nice smile, meant to put them at ease, but his eyes were sharp and shrewd.

"It wasn't supposed to be a long trip." She answered. "We were only going to be off planet for a week at most. That was the plan."

She shuffled in her chair so that she was facing both Dr. Williams and Wash next to her, reached out and touched the apex of Wash's ear, thread her fingers through the hair behind it.

"We had it all organized, but..." She looked at the doctor and lowered her voice. "... Reavers."

Wash jerked out of her reach and glared at her.

"Tell them." He accused. "Just tell them everything why don't you?"

"Honey, it's okay." She had to remind herself it was an act. "The doctor's going to help."

"Yes, I am." Dr. Williams set the files on his desk and leaned forward. "All your records are very detailed, Mrs. Hoffman, that's not always the case planet to planet, unfortunately."

"Please." She smiled, sadly. "Call me Katie."

"It's not as simple as restarting medication, however," Kaylee felt her heart seize up. "As I'm sure you know. People tend to build up resistances, doses need to be readjusted periodically, especially after such a lapse in treatment. I'd like to observe Steven for a while, evaluate him in a monitored facility."

"Yes." She nodded, Simon had warned her that this would probably be the case, but she had hoped for an easier way. "We've been through all that before."

"Infernal war. Shook everyone." Dr. Williams muttered under his breath, before looking back up at her. "Don't worry, Mrs. Hoffman, we'll have Steven back to you as good as new."

"Liar." Wash hissed.

"I hope so." Kaylee sighed, not missing the formality the doctor had continued to use. "He's just not himself like this."

"Can you bring him in tomorrow, same time? I'll have all the paperwork complete by then." He waited for her nod. "Good, I'll organize it."

His eyes looked pointedly to the bandage on her wrist.

"Any violent tendencies?"

"What? Oh no." Kaylee blushed, then covered it up. "Not really. He doesn't mean it, I know that. Sometimes it gets too much for him. But he doesn't mean it."

"Mm." Dr. Williams made a note in the file. "Paranoia? Check."

"I'm not paranoid." Wash sat forward, gesturing at the files. "Don't put that in there. I'm not."

"It's okay." Kaylee laid a hand on his arm. "Don't worry about it."

"They think I'm paranoid. They all think I'm paranoid." His eyes twinkled at her and Kaylee gave him a glare of warning. He sat back in the chair. "I'm not."

"Just procedure." Dr. Williams assured them. "Nothing you need to worry about. Look, I think we're done here. I'll see you tomorrow."

***

River opened her eyes slowly, taking in the empty room, the lights blinking silently on the com by her bed, the wall hanging of the woman with her back turned. Smart woman, the words drifted and were gone. She stretched a heavy arm out, trying to break the cloud of drugs that tried to pull her back under.

"River?" She thought she heard a voice, but it was too far away. "Mei Mei?"

"Thick." She tried to speak, but everything stuck together, tongue to her teeth, brain to her skull. "Like mud."

"I know, I'm sorry."

"Sorry." She echoed meaninglessly, wanting to break out of the rut, but she was only able to blink. Her throat examined the word. "Sorry."

"Come on, River, try to sit up, okay?" Simon, blurred and broken at the edge of her vision. "I have water."

There was a hand at her back, pushing her up, holding her. She let him prop her up, let him guide her hands to the glass, opened her mouth and let the water sluice over the thickened lining of her throat.

"Is that better?"

She nodded dumbly and let her hands fall back to her lap when he let them go. He was back in seconds, swam in her sight, he wore a blue shirt. His thumb brushed the corner of her mouth, wiped away a trickle.

"Do you think you can get up?" Nervous hands ran through her hair. "Jayne rigged up some irrigation and the Captain has hot showers running. Inara said she'd help you before she left. Would you like that?"

Hysteria cut through his voice, shattered it, she nodded again for him. River flowed forward, felt her feet touch the floor. She was heavy, heavier than she could remember, she couldn't sustain her own weight. He held her around the waist.

"Easy. Not too fast. One step at a time."

Walking wasn't usually this hard, she was sure of it. The heels of her feet slid clumsily against the floor. She saw things in broken time, the door far away and then right in front of her, Simon's face and then he was gone. Nothing and then Inara.

"Hey Sweetie." Inara's arms landed so gentle around her shoulders.

"I don't know." Simon's words sounded worried in the distance, on edge. "She should be past the majority of it by now."

"God, you're shivering." Was she? River looked up at the ceiling as her robes melted away, tried to focus on the tiles that shifted and slid and changed position above her, whispering to each other. "Okay, just over here."

Hot water touched her, slid over her skin and she gasped and turned into it.

"Clothes." River brought the words up like bile. "Getting wet."

"What?" Inara floated around her. "Oh, don't worry about me."

But River didn't. She bent her head and let the water create thunder on her skull, felt her hair soak it up and cling to her neck, stretched her hip out to catch heat. She lifted her hand under the stream, brought it up in front of her face palm outwards, wet and sleek, and pressed her fingers together. She watched the water pool in the webbing before overflowing in trickles.

River watched her hand cry tears her eyes couldn't.

***

"Katie Hoffman."

Kaylee thrust her hand out, she looked past the man to the cluttered shop behind him, eyed the various machines and land transports abandoned there.

"You're it, are ya?" George Webber eyed her doubtfully. "Well, you come highly recommended and it's been quiet lately, I don't reckon it'll be much of a loss."

He shook her hand and gestured to the shop as they began walking.

"Job's simple. People come in, you fix what you can and you trade in what you can't, sometimes it's a house call, but we'll take care of most of that. You'll stay here and fiddle with the left overs. All the junk people don't want is kept here, all the machines to be fixed are out front."

"But," Kaylee looked down at a perfectly good land hover as they passed it. "these can all be fixed."

He stopped and looked at her again.

"You're not from around here, are you?" She shook her head. "You'll learn. People on a core like this? They don't want fixed and mended, even if it's seamless, they want bright and shiny and new. They can afford new. We fix vehicles, mostly, and larger land transports, but the smaller stuff? Forget it. Take it, fix it on your own time, we'll fence it on the docks to the passing ships. Tidy profit."

"Oh." Kaylee thought about the million and one patches she'd made to Serenity. "So you're not?"

He raised his brows.

"People on a core like this?" She pointed out. "You're not one of them?"

He laughed, relaxed for the first time.

"Hell no. I look rich to you? Most of us here in the tech sheds, we're necessary evils shipped in. Same as the people you'll most likely meet, rich folk won't lower themselves as to bring broken things down here. You'll run into their hired help more often than not."

That suited her just fine. Kaylee wasn't looking to meet the residents here. Hired help, people being paid to do a job, were less likely to wonder about someone else doing the same thing. Her eyes slid back to the poor, desolate machines lonely on the shop floor. George noticed.

"Well, you might as well get started then." He pointed off to the side. "The tools are in that cupboard there. They're pretty standard, nothing special. You're welcome to bring in your own. Impress me."

Kaylee smiled, that she could do.

***

Zoe stepped out of the cargo bay onto hard earth. She lifted her face to the sun and let it cover her. Her feet lined up with Mal's as they surveyed the small measure of land Serenity sat docked in. She held out her hand and waited for him to lift his before dropping the twisted piece of metal into it.

"What's this?" He turned it over.

"Wish I knew, Sir." She kept looking straight ahead. "I found it on the floor of the engine room."

"What?" Mal looked down at it, then back up at her.

"When I checked the engine this morning."

With all the bustle over River and making new contacts and then River again, Zoe hadn't had time to make a quick cursory check of the engines after their spectacularly bumpy landing. Mal turned to look at the ship.

"Kaylee is going to kill us."

"Most likely." She agreed. "It doesn't seem to affect anything, does it?"

"You'll know when the darkness comes."

"River!" Mal forced a smile on his face. "You're up!"

Up was hardly the word Zoe would have used as she looked at River leaning against the edge of the door, pale and unfocused. Simon was hovering just behind her. She had a sneaking suspicion that if she'd turned a few seconds earlier, she would have seen Simon helping River walk.

An elbow poked her in the side and Zoe put a smile on her face, too.

"Come to join the outside world, huh?"

"Don't worry, Doc." Mal was quick to jump in. "Bellaphron's pretty safe for a neighboring moon. All the local color is on Orpheus."

Zoe watched as Simon nodded, then took River by the wrists and pulled, leading her slowly down the ramp, her face pointed up at the sky as she squinted at the sun. Simon looked tired. Zoe understood the word vigil, the weariness of it. She looked at Simon and thought of Wash. River met her eyes for a moment. The instant her feet touched earth, River broke from her brother and began to walk.

"River, no." Simon began. "You need to stay with us..."

"It's alright." Zoe smiled gently. "I'll watch her."

They walked to a patch of the sun, away from the ship, it wasn't exactly warm, but River spread her limbs into the light and spun in a lazy circle. Her mouth opened as if she were tasting the air. Zoe looked back at Mal and Simon, standing together. Talking.

"About me." River clarified. "They're worried."

"I expect that's true."

River let her head fall to the side, then her whole body crumpled into itself in a concertina effect and she lay out on the ground, rolled onto her back and stared up at the sky. Zoe crouched down next to her.

"No need."

"Maybe you should tell them that."

Zoe began to draw patterns in the dirt with her finger. The fine silt shifted around her skin, created furrows which instantly fell back into place leaving no trace of her being there. So many small nuances of a planet that made up such a big difference.

"Telling you." River reached up and let the light trickle in through her fingers. "He's okay."

Zoe only wished she could be sure that were true.

"It's my job to worry, that's what I get paid for."

"No." River shook her head. "You do it for free. Serenity is family, like blood, even Jayne."

Zoe felt her eyebrows raise, but River smiled, her voice slightly teasing.

"You love us all."

"Well." Zoe looked at the ship again, saw that Book had appeared at the top of the ramp. "You're certainly more cogent away from the boys."

"I'm in retreat." River whispered.

"I thought as much." She smiled and River smiled back.

"If I stay slow," River confided to her new friend. "they won't worry so much."

"They'll always worry, River."

"If I stay slow," River corrected and Zoe looked down in surprise at the cold clarity that suddenly came through. "they won't try and stop me."

***

"What was in that hypo, doctor?"

They looked out at the two women, Zoe crouched on her haunches by the River in the dust.

"Nothing. Just a sedative." Simon answered. "Same one we used on Kaylee when she was shot. And you saw her wake up fine. There's no reason River should be like this."

"In your professional opinion," Mal tried to be careful. "will we need more of it?"

"Are you asking me if she's likely to lose control again, or if I'm likely to push her over the edge?"

"Both." Mal met his eyes. "If that's what I need to be asking."

Simon fingered the scab over his neck, it still stung when he pressed into it, his eyes watched his sister pull herself up from the ground and walk towards the fence.

"It seems the more lucid she gets, the more lucid her memories get. Her dreams are worse." He noticed Mal waiting for more and Book's intense eyes joining them. "I don't know. I hope not, but I've been woefully wrong in the past few days."

Mal considered this.

"Is there anything else we could use? Something that won't make her a living zombie?"

"Nothing we have." Simon answered. "Short of physically knocking her out."

He looked at Mal.

"Don't even think about it."

"Hey!" Mal raised his hands in innocence. "I ain't the one makin' her crazy, lately, if you recall. I just don't wanna keep using this stuff if we can find something else."

"I don't think it's done any damage, mentally or physically." Simon replied. "It's just taking her body longer than usual to process it."

Book watched River balance on the meter high fence, delicately placing one foot in front of the other, an intense look of concentration on her face, a focus that had missing when she was with them minutes ago.

"Maybe," He spoke quietly for the first time. "it's not her body that won't let go of the medicine."

***

There are countless nuances of difference between want and need and Inara has been carefully trained to know those differences. What this man needs is someone to listen to him, to understand, to sympathize with the thousand petty troubles of his day. He needs release from himself and he will get it.

What he wants, he will get that too. He wants her to distract him, to make him forget who he is, to make him feel as if there are people out there who don't need to be fixed, who never get broken. He wants her to arch her back, to moan in just the right places. He wants to be appreciated.

Sometimes, in a rare moment, want and need can be the same thing. And sometimes it takes a little bit of planning and strategy. What Inara wants and what this man needs are one and the same as she lay next to him after the act. She ran a hand down his back, soothed him as he drowsed.

"So tell me," She asked casually. "save anyone today, doctor?"

***

Wash pressed a few buttons and watched the words scroll up the screen, the same words he'd been looking at for an hour until he could barely concentrate, the details of his disease that Simon had given him. His eyes were all but glazed over and he had to blink to keep them open. In about ten minutes they'd be able to talk to Serenity and he longed to talk to Zoe, let her tell him everything was fine, that he was being foolish for worrying so much and he would have no choice but to believe her, because she was always right.

That's what she kept telling him, anyway.

"Hey Honey." Arms came around his neck and Kaylee's face appeared next to his. "How was your day?"

He grinned.

"Careful. It's nearly time to wave home and Zoe has guns."

She smiled and puffed up her chest.

"Katie Hoffman is not afraid of random women with guns." Slowly, one after the other, she delicately lifted her hands. "Kaylee Frye, however, she's a coward."

He turned to face her.

"How come you got a name that sounds like yours? What kind of name is Steven?"

"What name did you want?" She grabbed a nearby chair and sat next to him. "What sounds like Wash?"

He considered his options for a moment.

"Steven is nice."

"Guess it don't matter much if the nutter don't answer when he's called."

"Careful," He warned again. "I have violent tendencies."

"So everyone keeps saying behind your back, you paranoid freak."

The cortex beeped at them.

"Oh goodie." Wash pressed the accept button. "Incoming."

"Hey husband." Zoe's face swam into focus. "Hey other woman."

"Zo." Wash felt more homesick than ever.

"Zoe!" Kaylee grinned, already back on the ship. "How's everybody?"

"We're good, Kaylee." Mal's face appeared. "More importantly, how are you?"

She made a face at him to let him know she was still mad.

"Going as planned." Wash answered. "They're admitting me tomorrow."

"And the job?"

"I got a promotion, Captain." Kaylee couldn't help but brag. "Moved me from junk out the back to front fixin's after one hour."

"Really?" Mal couldn't help but smile at her pride. "Just don't get any ideas about staying there."

"Then let me come back." She pushed stubbornly.

"Get us a contact." He rolled his eyes when she poked her tongue at him. "Until then, I got someone wishes to say hi."

Kaylee felt her heart freeze as she watched Mal shuffle River in front of the bridge. There was something stilted and altogether wrong about the way she moved. It hit her, then, that she was seeing the River that had first stepped onto Serenity from the cryo box.

"Hey Sweetie." Careful and questioning, she wanted to reach out and touch River and had to settle for running a hand down the edge of the screen. "How're ya doing?"

"Kaylee?" River's lip trembled. "They came back. I couldn't stop it."

"No one's there, River." She swallowed her own frustration and smiled. "Simon'll make sure you're okay."

"Leaves, Kaylee." River insisted as Kaylee nodded. "Oceans and leaves."

The moment Simon led River away, Kaylee stopped smiling.

"Captain?"

"I know it looks bad, Kaylee, but..."

"But what?" She broke in. "Did you see...?"

"We had to knock her out." Mal explained. "With a heavy sedative. It's knocked her around some, more than expected, but she's going to be fine."

"I don't like it."

"None of us like it, Kaylee." Mal sounded tired. "You got a better idea? Let us know. She threw a knife at Simon's neck. Damned lucky she was near hysterical at the time, coulda caused a lot more damage than it did. Way she was, she was gonna hurt someone, most likely herself."

"But why?" She demanded. "She was doing so well."

"Simon asked about the blue hands."

Kaylee swore.

"Kaylee, listen." Zoe broke in, ignoring the quizzical glance Mal shot her. "I wouldn't worry too much about River right now. She's going to be fine, trust me, okay?"

"It's getting late." Mal said. "And I think it's time we left these married love birds alone."

"Fine." Kaylee agreed without agreeing as Wash perked up next to her. "Talk to you tomorrow, then."

"Hey Zo." Wash smiled when they were finally alone. "I miss you already."

***

As they got to the passenger dorms, River twisted out of Simon's hands. He didn't understand, couldn't understand. His whole body screamed in guilt and fear as he held her and it didn't feel like him anymore. She missed her brother.

It had taken a lot of energy to open to Zoe, to say the words in a line just right. She needed all the friends she could cling to and Zoe didn't relate to stillness, the need for River to step back and let it all happen around her. She understood it, felt for River, but didn't relate. What Zoe knew was action, reaction, eye for eye, pain for a husband's lost innocence. River didn't have a plan, but she planned to have a plan and this Zoe understood, this made Zoe smile.

Then came Kaylee and River couldn't hold it anymore. It crashed into her from all sides and even some that didn't exist, too many sides, all attacked. Yearning was a weakness, a futility that will never come to pass, she knew it, had learned it a long time ago. Didn't stop it. The floors had fallen away and she had tripped.

And she didn't think she could stop her insides from crying, from screaming.

Simon watched her walk out to the infirmary and stand, stubbornly, by the door. He tried to guess the next step in this new dance. He had specifically avoided the infirmary, bringing her meds to her room instead.

"River?" He came to stand near her and noticed she was trembling. "We don't need to go in there today."

Without taking her eyes off him, she reached out and opened the door. A rush of cold air hit him.

"What is it? Tell me." The day's silence unnerved him, stretched his senses. "Okay. Fine."

She watched him step inside, closed her eyes and breathed in slowly before following him with hesitant steps. Simon turned to look at her face, pulled tight and pale, as she sat obediently on the bed. Her eyes looked straight at him as she offered up the crook of her arm.

"River." He felt his veins run cold. "Mei Mei, no."

She did not look away, only set her jaw.

"Don't." He pleaded. "Don't do this, okay?"

A single tear slid down her cheek.

"Blunt me."

It was a rock that fell heavy to the bottom of his heart.

"No." He reached out and took her arm, let his fingers brush the bruise that Mal had left before taking her cheek in his other hand. "I won't do that to you."

"I can't not." She begged. "They'll come like this. Simon, you know, you saw. Barriers gone. Screams in the night."

"Just one night." Simon couldn't believe he was even suggesting it, hated himself for trying to convince her to go through more pain. "It'll get worse if we keep dosing you up. You'll be better tomorrow when it's all out of your system. Just for tonight?"

River did the only thing left to her.

"I'll tell." She offered and felt his hand twitch on her cheek. "I'll remember for you."

She shivered as she felt the snap of his excitement, the control he used to stop himself asking all the questions at once, pushing too hard. It frightened and pleased him all at once and so it did her.

Simon held his breath.

"Blunt me." She insisted again, already opening her brain to the memories, knowing he'd agree. "Promise you'll block them. I'll be sharp and remember. Then I'll sleep. Alone. In peace. Gone."

***

Mal could feel himself drain with every step he took, even his body heat was falling with exhaustion, gooseflesh dimpled his arms. He was looking forward to putting his head on his pillow, closing his eyes and not opening them until the next day. He could not let things rest as they stood and was on his way to check on River and Simon before he went to bed. She had seemed so shaken by her brief talk with Kaylee.

He passed the infirmary on his way to the passenger quarters and saw them through the glass. She sat on the cot, her hands grasping the edges, her legs pulled up sharply under the bed, not hanging loosely at all. Simon stood before her, holding her shoulders in his hands. Their foreheads touched. Mal didn't want to break into that. He knew that they had had little time recently. He hoped that this meant River was okay for now, at least.

That's when he saw Simon drop his hands and reach for the needle.

"I hope I'm interrupting." He said calmly as he strode in. "Doc? What's up?"

"Simon?" River's voice shook. "Do it."

But Simon had already taken a step back.

"Simon?" Mal repeated. "Do what?"

"Nothing. It's just..."

Simon let his voice fall. He looked from River to Mal. There were so many things he could say. Just her usual meds. A standard vitamin booster to help her system get rid of the last traces of sedative. Mal would never know the difference. He felt River's hand grasp his, his eyes looked down to see her pulling the needle to her skin.

Instinct made him do it. That's what he told himself. The reaction was an ingrained, unstoppable reflex of one who is surprised. Small particles of glass spun across the floor as the hypo fell and shattered. His fingers opened and closed on thin air. River's hand let his fall.

"All gone." She whispered, eyes wide and staring at the remains. "Hope sliced. Their cries will ring in your ears. Not mine."

She slid off the bed and pushed past Mal as she ran out.

"Are you out of your gorram mind?" Mal turned on Simon, blocked him from running after her. "Did you not hear me before? No more of that junk unless she needs it."

Simon couldn't stop the angry flash of annoyance in his eyes as he pushed away.

"I'm her doctor, not you." He knelt down, a small brush already in his hand to scrape up the mess. "It doesn't matter now. That was the last of it."

"That supposed to be a comfort is it?" Mal crossed his arms. "Every time you've been alone with her since this whole thing started, something has happened. I'm beginning to see a pattern and I don't like it."

"Not every time..." Simon began and then realized how petty it sounded. He stopped and breathed in. "She asked for the shot. She was about to tell me what happened. She was going to open up about the Academy."

"Oh." Mal felt some of the wind leave his sails. "But why the drugs?"

"It stops her dreams." Simon looked out to the empty doorway. "Now she has no defenses."

***

River ran, she let her feet slam into the floor and wished for the morning already gone, when she could barely feel the steel under her skin, when she couldn't distinguish thoughts, when movement was the most difficult thing. Not thinking, not fighting.

She couldn't stop her brain once it started.

Memories can be sharp when they slice into you. Merciless and cruel. They reach in and twist your insides until they leak out. Until you can't breathe. It made her eye twitch and her mouth stretch in silent cries. She passed the common area. Stopped as she ran into Book.

Her hands grabbed his arms and she stared into his eyes, wanting to grab his thoughts, steal his memories, but he refused to think about anything but her. She saw herself in a million splinters. He was worried. She let him go and kept running.

Voices carried past her, plummeted into her, called her name, but she was past listening to them. There were other noises that demanded her attention, screams that she couldn't identify as hers or anybody else's, blood that ran into drains.

Shivers.

"They're gone!" She cried to the bridge as she burst in.

***

Zoe watched River climb over the console and press herself up against the window. She heard the pounding of heavy footsteps and knew that the doorway was crowded.

"Zoe?" Wash's voice echoed from the Cortex.

"Get Kaylee back." She answered.

"Bursts of gas." River whispered frantically as she pawed at the glass. "All gone."

Zoe saw the fog of River's breath spread out in a cloud over the window, felt the chills on the edges of her own skin and began to frown.

"Stars." Mal said under his breath. "She wants the stars."

"No." Simon answered. "She wants space."

"River?" Came Kaylee's voice. "What's wrong?"

"I know." River whimpered, stopping to listen to the tinny transmission. "The memories, they're back."

"River?" Zoe held out a hand. "Calm down, okay?"

"Calm is calm." She insisted as she shook her head back and forth. "Spread on the floor. Not in me."

"I know, I'm sorry." Mal stepped forward next to Zoe, he was quite sure he could see Kaylee glare at him a world away. "That's my fault. But you don't have to do this, you can stop..."

"Can't stop." River told him, suddenly dull. "The memories will win. Can't stop them."

"Then why don't you tell us?" Book spoke up from the doorway, moving a few steps into the room. "It might help. We might be able to help you if we know."

River breathed in, looked at each of them one by one, and felt something burst within her. Light and fragile as a bubble, but a barrier that she had been afraid to lose.

"Missing a tile." She stood still. "Won't be long."

"Serenity." Came a voice on the com and all eyes flew to River. "This is shuttle one."

"Inara." Mal grabbed the com before Zoe could. "All's clear to dock. Why don't you meet us all on the bridge? Apparently you're invited."

"Twelve out of nineteen." River said as she sat behind the console, back against the glass. "Nineteen out of one thousand nine hundred and forty two."

She watched Simon's eyes tick over the numbers.

"They scanned us, skimmed the cream. Top one point six one eight. Took us out and away."

"Wait a sec." Mal was highly amused as he looked at Simon, his voice suggested the term neener neener. "You're top three percent and she's top one and a half?"

"Not exactly." Simon looked stunned. "I was top three of my class at the Osiris MedAcad. I think she means overall."

"Why so specific?" Came Wash's voice.

Simon and River looked at each other and smiled.

"Phi." They spoke in union, a rehearsed litany of childhood. "One point six one eight."

"Fye what?" Jayne asked as he sat in the spare chair.

"The Divine Proportion." Simon rushed to explain, his brain skimming over afternoons stretched over the nursery floor with his sister, measuring themselves or anything from the garden they could get their hands on, he using electronic aides and River just multiplying and dividing in her head. "The basis of all natural structures. It informs the diametrical ratios of everything: beehives, leaves, shells, the human body."

Inara made her way into the bridge.

"But what does it mean?" Mal insisted. "Why did they choose it?"

Simon shrugged his ignorance.

"Means nothing." River gave a shudder. "Nothing when they cut you."

Everybody fell silent.

"Faces with wires and lights and they hold you down, don't scream, can't scream. Drugs stop you feeling, but you know, you can see."

Simon felt his knees failing, he leant against the door and trembled.

"The blood is yours when they wake your brain." River felt strangely distant, as if a festering wound had been lanced and she was drifting in the space left behind. "Slice away. Change the coding. Unused potential. Awake. Retreat. Awake. Retreat. Forgotten in a box."

Zoe looked at the screen at Wash staring with an open mouth, she saw Kaylee behind him and wished she didn't. There were tears in the girl's eyes. She couldn't help but think of the times when River had been smiling and laughing and she felt her jaw clench. Hard.

"Silence makes it loud. They did it again and again." River bought her arms in close to her body, curled her legs in up under them and clutched them tightly. She rocked back and forth. "Again. And again."

"You were awake?" Simon's horrified whisper ran through them all. "During the operations?"

"All the better to see you with."

"I can't hear this." Book laid a hand on Simon's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Son, but it's too much."

They watched him leave.

"My world makes his a lie. Truth caves in like snow. You can all go to feel better." River looked at Simon. "You stay. Kaylee too."

"I'm here, Bao Bei." The voice shook over the cortex and River gave a sad, wistful smile.

"I'm not going anywhere, either." Mal said softly, arms crossed. "I'm here for you."

"Me too." Zoe echoed.

"I follow Zoe in all things." Said Wash.

"Count me in." Was Jayne's contribution and he pretended not to notice the look that he got from Mal.

"Try and make me leave, Mei Mei." Inara was the last to speak.

River nodded and let her head fall to her knees.

"Not alone."

"Never." Simon assured her.

"Alone in a box. Until they make you hear them. They make you scream until others hear you. Until you hear the cries. It hurts. Even if it's not you. Pain is shared. Or they'll do it again."

Inara covered her mouth with a shaking hand to stop the exclamation. She couldn't let herself picture the images that River was bringing up, didn't really want to. Inara was far from an innocent, she had never claimed to be naïve when it came to people and their deeds. Some clients liked a little pain with their pleasure, needed it. Sometimes the tastes ran deeper and Inara knew there were companions who dealt with that.

Then there were stories and Inara had more than one friend back on Sihnon who had returned to the Companion House torn and broken. Somehow, seeing these men struck from the registry, bound by law, and worse if the right words were spoken to the right people, had never been enough for Inara's seething sense of injustice. The thought of a group of people so abusing these children, helpless and fragile, was a completely different level of pain that she did not welcome.

"Boxes?" Simon asked.

"Sensory deprivation tanks." Mal guessed and if the flinch that passed over River's face was any indication, he hadn't been far off the mark. "What do you mean 'hurt'?"

Kaylee couldn't take her eyes off the screen, her view into all the faces but the one she wanted to see the most. She could still feel River trembling in her arms and wanted to be there now, wanted to take it all away. As she waited for River's answer, she heard a muffled crack and saw the instant concern on their faces.

"River?" Kaylee called, wanting to see through the cameras to the console.

"It's okay." Zoe answered, holding up a hand, but Kaylee heard the crash again.

She could see Simon rush up to the screen and over it, could hear whispers but not clear words and felt the frustration build up. Next to her, Wash held her arm.

"It's okay, River." Was the only contribution she could give. "You don't have to keep going."

Simon had jumped up to his sister and gotten her in his arms, cradling her. He ran his hand down the side of her face, the skin red and stretched taut, and he could feel the heat that would soon become a bruise where she had slammed it against the wall. She struggled to get her hands free of him.

"Need to." River choked out. "It's shocking. What they did."

Zoe closed her eyes. She didn't need too much more explanation. There were many things she wished she could forget about the war and the torture methods used, by both sides, made up a great portion of them. Electricity was a favorite of many sadists, because it gave violent outcomes with the added advantage of very few physical scars if the hostage was to be returned.

Another crash sounded and even Kaylee and Wash could see the source this time as Jayne took his bloodied fist from the desk near his chair.

"Let me at 'em, Mal."

"Down, Jayne." Mal ordered as Inara took Jayne's hand and began to fuss over the split skin. "Not now."

Inara looked up sharply, trying to read Mal's eyes, she saw Zoe looking as well. They'd both caught the 'now' part and knew Mal enough to recognize an open ended sentence.

"But why?" Insisted Kaylee. "What could they possibly want?"

"Answers to questions, what if, maybe. At first." River became very quiet. "They didn't like the answers we gave."

She let the glass create shivers down her spine, freezing the blood that pumped through her back. Simon's grasp on her had loosened and she rested her head on his arm.

"The machine is parts made a whole. Made a hive to speak without sound. Need a way to control it." River repeated the words she had started with. "Nineteen to twelve."

"They killed those kids?" Mal bristled at River's slow nod. "To even out their gorram fractions?"

"We split the one. Broke the symbiosis. Those left will pay. My freedom bought their terror." River confessed as a tear slid down. "Twelve to seven."

Simon shrank a little further into himself. He hadn't let himself spend much time dwelling on the others that had to be left behind. There had been no time, no choice for him but to prioritize his sister. The very thought that her rescue had directly caused these deaths made him cold.

"River?"

Mal spoke quietly, reeling from all the information she was throwing at them. He didn't let anything show on the surface, couldn't afford to. He knew Jayne was boiling beside him, the man wore his anger like a second skin. Simon by his sister was slowly falling apart, Inara was unable to hide the empathy, the pain of hearing another's pain. He could see Wash's horror, the truth he always tried so hard to cover with humor. And Kaylee, her frustration at the distance, the blocking of her natural instinct to soothe and mother and make things right, he saw her harden even as her brain tried to deny the truth of it. He even envied, slightly, the preacher's ability to admit he was too weak to deal with the truth. Beside him, Zoe was too still to be impassive, he knew she was holding it all in tight and that, later, when she was alone and had the luxury, she would let it loose.

Somebody needed to keep the crew upright, needed to remain focused. Who better than the Captain? Somebody needed to remain strong enough to steer River, to guide her away from the worst of it and lead her back. It had not escaped his notice that River was speaking in the third person and this reference to causing other deaths had been the first time she referred to herself as such.

"River?" He spoke again. "What about the training?"

She shuddered, a physical break between themes. A breath screamed into her lungs and River let it gather all the blackness before releasing it out into the air.

"They couldn't get any more answers. So they used what they had. Weapons training. War strategies. Psychology. Martial Arts. Resistance. Bond and break. Not only to kill, but to infiltrate and destroy. You do it, because there is no you, there is only the team and if one fails then all pay the price."

"Nearly there." Mal wondered if that would ever be true. "What's Adam's Rib?"

River looked down, unable to look up at anyone anymore. A sadness washed over her and she reached out, fingers curling into empty air as she tried to touch what her brain remembered.

She shrugged and clamped her mouth tight.

"River?" Pushed Simon. "It's okay."

River felt a bitter explosion inside her, felt it try and bubble to the surface so that it would spill over and drown everyone in the room. Colors oscillated behind her eyes and she had to strain to keep her breathing steady. She wanted to ask Simon exactly what part of it was okay, but was afraid of the words that would really come out. They didn't know. No matter how many words she said, they wouldn't understand. They could never understand.

"I'm tired." She pushed herself from the console, from Simon, and landed on the bridge next to Zoe. Kaylee tried to smile at her and she tried to smile back. "I'm going to bed. Rug up warm, you'll need it."

River walked calmly out of the room without looking back.

Silence hung over the group for several minutes, each one trying to digest what had been said. Inara moved to the bridge and spoke.

"Kaylee? Did you make those adjustments I suggested before you and Wash left the house this morning?" She waited for Kaylee's confused nod. "Then listen closely..."

***

He sat in his quarters, unable to concentrate on anything productive. There was a great deal of self pity and disappointment floating through him and he knew the indulgence of it, but could not help it.

"I know."

Book looked up to see River standing in the doorway. He wanted to apologize, wanted to say something to make his failure acceptable. He said nothing, was not capable of forming the right words.

"I know." She said again.

And was gone.

End, part four.

COMMENTS

Monday, August 8, 2005 7:51 AM

NUTLUCK


I would imagine he would be flattered his work drives peoples imaginations to the point they have to write more about the subject. But that is just a personal guess. I like this story a lot.

Tuesday, August 9, 2005 12:02 AM

AMDOBELL


Your River is so painfully good but you know what? I am really getting worried about Wash putting himself in harm's way in that gorram doctor's hands. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, August 9, 2005 12:51 PM

MOSHPOGFAHFENG


Really appreciate the time you spent writing this stuff. I can imagine all the facial expressions and physical mannersisms of each character in my mind as I read through. I found the turn of Jayne's attitude particularly intersting. Looking forward to your next installment!

Monday, March 6, 2006 12:30 AM

BURNANDBOIL


Wow, this is really powerful! I'm so impressed! :D

Monday, October 20, 2008 3:23 AM

RIVERRED


another great chapter.


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