1 The Academy
River is on a bed, in a room. The bed is green, and it is not soft. The room has white walls and a concrete floor that is always cold.
She is lying down on the bed. The room is quiet, and the closest thing to peaceful she knows. No people here, no blue, nothing but her and the stars exploding inside her head and her oh-so-powerful brain.
"I'll come for you, mei-mei. I love you," Simon says, floating above her.
She knows that Simon is not really here. He's just a hallucination, brought on by the endless tinkering and revising they do to her here. She is not completely sane anymore.
"No, you don't," River tells Simon. He does not seem to notice how far above the ground he is. "You love the River-that-was. She ran away to grandmother's house and got eaten up. There's just me now."
Simon blinks, and looks at her carefully, like he's seeing her for the first time. His expression is a mixture of surprise and disdain. "You're right. What was I thinking? I can't come for you," he says, and he disappears.
It's lonely, then, suddenly. River closes her eyes and curls onto her side.
After a minute, she hears her mother and father's voices, close by. They say, "I love you," but she doesn't open her eyes. They probably haven't realized that Simon is already gone.
The world looks the same whether her eyes are open or shut, anyway. Outside it's the middle of summer, and she can name every constellation in the sky.
River is tired, but she doesn't want to sleep. Often she doesn't have the choice; she appreciates it when it comes. She has been lying here a few hours, since they brought her back. It'll be a few more before they come again -- the blue men, the white room, another day of tests and more tests.
She is the star pupil.
For the first few years, River wrote endless letters, coded pleas and desperate requests. She had belief, and hope.
River calculates the odd of someone coming to rescue her now as 0.034%. Given a successful attempt, the chances of her surviving a week outside these walls are even smaller. She doesn't write now because there's nowhere to go. There's nowhere else but here.
The room is cold suddenly, a snow-filled cave. There are dangers here, so close, so close. She can hear them right outside, the growls and the taunts. "Go away," River says, as bravely as she can, but it comes out still trembling and small.
She wishes a little that she hadn't sent Simon away so quickly.
2 Tam Estate
It's been a few months since your last letter, though I can't tell if something has happened to deliveries of my letters or yours, or if you just haven't had time -- it sounded like they keep you pretty busy there.
Mother and Father are out tonight, at the Alvins' annual unification party. I was also invited and Mother was pretty annoyed that I didn't come along. Pen Bullock is there, too, of course, and Mother finds him both very charming and very suitable. But I don't like dancing with boys who count all the steps under their breath.
So instead after they left I went out to the pond to study the frogs. There are two new ones since you left -- I named the first Yuan, and the second Jocasta. I had planned to start a new project this season, tracking the breeding patterns of the various populations on the estate, but Father thinks it might annoy the gardeners, so I am going to wait and put it off to convince him next year. I can still take notes when nobody's paying attention, though.
I'm sitting on the window seat in my room with a plate of Madeline's special cookies and some tea (that's the stain at the bottom of the page -- sorry). I can see straight across the courtyard to your old window. It's reminding me of how we used to message each other in the code I made up with the lamps. Or how I used to sneak things over to your room to surprise you when you got home. Sometimes I forget you're gone, and then I start planning again, and then I remember all at once. It's odd.
I'm really sorry I was such a brat before you left, Simon. It was just -- it was so frustrating! There wasn't any reason for it to be you and not me, and I was jealous. I still am a little, maybe, but it's just as well I stayed here, really. I don't see how I could have learned anymore anywhere else, anyway. I have all the books I need, the entire cortex, a universe of thought right here in this house. I can plan my own course.
That does not, however, mean you are excused from writing and tell me more about the academy! Their programs sounded so wonderful and challenging. You have to tell me all about it. I insist.
Love, your little sister,
"Have you met my daughter, River?" Father said, laying his free hand on her arm.
River nodded and smiled politely. She was about to take another sip from her rice wine, but the man Father was talking with -- Mr. Rosebury? -- surprised her by taking a hand and bowing to kiss it.
"Enchante," he said, and turned back to Father. "We've met before, I believe, but I can hardly credit it's the same girl. She was still just a slip of a thing then."
Father looked pleased as punch. It was the perfect opening, River thought. "She's turning seventeen this next month, actually. Of course, she'll be back at the hospital then, so I'm afraid her mother and I won't get to celebrate with her."
"Oh, yes," Father said, and he was practically oozing with pride. "River just graduated from Osiris MedAcad this last term. Apparently she set some records for test scores and speed of the program.
"Congratulations, young lady," Mr. Rosebury said to River. "That's quite an accomplishment."
"Thank you." One of the hired waiters passed by, and River set her glass on the tray. "Will you excuse me for a moment?" she said, backing up quickly, before they could respond again.
Slipping through the ballroom wasn't easy; it was crowded, full of all Mother and Father's friends and business associates and everyone who had to be there. River had always loved the spring fete when she was little -- food and people and decorations, everything exciting and perfect and the center of the household for weeks. It'd never felt this stifling before.
The dress, as pretty and long and grown-up as it was, was probably part of what was making her feel so off-balance, and the same with the high heel sandals and the heat of that great mob of people. More of it was probably the rice wine. Mother and Father had never let her have more than a few sips with dinner before, and River wasn't keeping good track of what she'd had.
She closed the door to the gardens behind her. It was cooler outside, in the night air, and quiet, only the noise of the breeze through the cherry trees and the gurgling of the fountain.
The fountain was sparkling a little, too, under the light of the lamp pole near. River sat on the thick marble edge. She could see her hair in the reflection, piled on top of her head, her makeup done lightly and elegantly like she was a real grown-up lady. She dipped her fingers in the water and splashed gently against her face; it helped with the feelings of heat and confinement, and she breathed a breath of relief.
"What's the matter? Did all the endless praise and admiration take its toll?"
River's head shot up at the sound of the dry voice. "Simon?"
"Who else?" He moved out from the shadows behind her and sat down beside her on the fountain.
River hadn't had a chance to see her brother for more than a few minutes since they'd both arrived home; it'd been months since they really talked. "What are you doing out here?"
"I could ask you the same thing," Simon drawled. He took a long drink from the tall glass of punch he still held. River had the impression it was nowhere near the first he'd had.
River watched her hands flick across the surface of the water. "I was getting tired of the party. I don't know..." She trailed off.
"Oh, I understand. I don't imagine it's much fun without the measuring stick there, is it?"
Simon's voice was sharper than she was used to, and she couldn't help gaping at him in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
"River--" Simon stopped, and sighed. "We all know you can do everything. Math, physics, languages, everything. You even dance like a perfect angel." He paused for a moment, biting his lip in thought. "The part I don't understand is why you had to show me up in the one thing that was mine."
"Simon, what--" River frowned. "Don't be an idiot--"
Simon smiled mirthlessly for a second, and said, "Ah, but no one really has a choice in the matter while you're around, do they, River?"
He took another drink, swallowing for a long moment before standing up. "And now, if you don't mind, I'm afraid I've run out of my beverage here. You'll have to excuse me." Simon bowed slightly and stood up, shaking the wrinkles out of his suit and heading back to the garden door. River watched him till he disappeared into the house.
She slipped off her sandals and curled up her feet behind her, looking back into the water. When she touched the surface again, the images disappeared till all she could see were the gentle concentric circles.
4 Companion training
They were wrong, River thought. They warned about nerves, second-guessing, stupid mistakes. It was natural, they said; the first time is always awkward, it isn't anything to worry about, everyone goes through it.
But River wasn't nervous at all.
It was like a dance, after all. Grace, and movement, and then the two bodies moving together, following each other's cues, their lead.
One of the more experienced Companions, Isolde, was assigned as her "Big Sister", and she had helped River sort through the choices of clients. They were very careful on the first choice, she had said; it was especially important that the first client be the right one, had he or she click and meld with River. It set the tone for all the rest of one's work and experience.
They'd made a good choice, River thought. The client moved in her, now fierce, now sweet, calm as the tea ceremony they'd conducted, strong like the night rains that were pouring steadily against the guild house walls.
It was overwhelming, almost. She could feel tears welling in her eyes at the beauty and the meaning, all at once.
She had started training late, five or ten years after most of the girls, and she'd never felt the same sense of ritual and worship that seemed to overtake a lot of the others. She'd chosen it because it was a school, and a particularly demanding one. It was a training ground, and she'd picked up all the skills they would teach her: languages, movement, dance, music, the reading of people, the classics of a half-dozen civilizations. The rest of it -- the actual work -- she hadn't paid much attention to.
Maybe she'd made a mistake there, River thought, as she gave herself up to the client she served.
River knows Serenity. She knows it better than anyone, even the captain, and the captain loves the ship and the ship loves him. River is not Serenity, but she understands Serenity.
Most Fireflys are smuggling ships and Serenity has more hiding places, caches and alcoves than anyone could ever count. But River's counted, and she's named them all.
Kaylee loves Serenity, too. She talks to her and takes care of her when she's sick. Serenity loves Kaylee and River does, too, because Kaylee is good and kind, even if she doesn't understand.
Wash doesn't understand either, but Serenity likes him; he treats her right, respect and attachment, even when he doesn't know that's what he's doing.
Serenity cares about the other, too -- they're her crew, her passengers, she takes care of them, they need each other. But it's not the same.
River wishes she could teach Simon, but he can't think that way. It's not his fault. And the infirmary is the one place in the ship she doesn't like.
Sometimes she sits in the engine room or the cockpit, sits and watches and learns. She is quiet and she stays still and doesn't disturb, so Kaylee and Wash don't seem to mind.
This is Serenity's heart, her innermost self, River thinks, when she watches Kaylee there with her tools. And this is Serenity's outermost self, her purpose, she thinks, when she watches Wash at her controls.
She doesn't watch the captain as much, because he notices often, and yells. But after she's learned it all, if Serenity wants, maybe she'll share it with him.
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