by Tara LJC O'Shea
Author's Note: For improv #8 barren -- cracked -- rough -- smile. Thanks to Pearl-o and maure for moral support, and Dangermom for last minute beta and the title!
by Tara O'Shea
He doesn't think she knows. He suspects, but he can't ask her. She catches him watching her sometimes, over the tattered pages of his symbol. Dark eyes like mirrors.
They all worry, she knows. Think that she can hear their voices when their lips don't move. She can't explain that it's not like that. It's not always voices. Sometimes, it's all she can do to keep the coloured threads on the warp so that they make a pattern. Past and present mingle, and she never knows if the scarlet and the purple are the future until they become the muddy grey of the now.
She tries to warn them, when she can. But the words get twisted up, and she can't push them past her lips in the proper pattern. Before, they just believed she didn't know what she was saying. Now, every apple may be an exodus from Eden, and it sends a prickle of fear down their spines when she lets her wings unfurl.
Book has more to worry about than most, but River keeps his counsel.
She doesn't mind sharing his secret--bearing part of it on her own shoulders makes her feel more solid. More real, when sometimes the slightest breeze could make her disperse like smoke. He's just trying to protect them, in his own way. Be a father when daddy has disappeared, melted away.
His hands are rough, the skin in the crease between his thumb cracked from the dryness of the air and many nights of dishes and laundry and all the jobs that no one else wants. He's never said it, but she knows that menial tasks bring him comfort. They remind him of the Abbey, when he would spent weeks tending the garden, drawing plants and fruits from barren soil to feed his brethren. An act of creation in the face of entropy that calms his soul.
Nothing grows on Serenity except her charges.
Kaylee grows bolder, reaching out to touch her brother's hand and hold it in her own for stolen moments. Her smile is warm as the sunlight in Book's garden of memories, and River knows Simon thrives in its warmth despite himself. Simple means stronger. Simple means fewer pieces to shatter. River could lose herself in Kaylee, if she closes her eyes. Gears and wires and the pulsing heart that moves them through the black all laid out in clean script. Easy to follow. Only goes in two directions--forward and back. No terror of tangents.
Simon grows comfortable, setting aside the trappings of the life he left so slowly that he doesn't even notice. Then when he does, she sees him withdraw into himself. He's afraid of who he is becoming, but excited, too. He tries so hard to be the perfect doctor, the perfect brother. Sometimes he forgets to just be Simon. River wishes she could remind him, but every time he looks at her all he can see is what's lost. The sister he had, the place he occupied, the loving parents who kept them safe. She could have told him it was illusion, but that would bring no comfort.
Inara grows restless, afraid of the love she feels for this misfit family that draws her further and further away from her idea of self. The fear that she cannot leave propels her to try. River understands the paradox. River understands paradoxes and flawed logic and she wishes she could take the companion's hand and smooth her hair from her brow and tell her that it will all be all right. That the family you choose is more important than the one who chose you, but she dreads the flash of anger and terror that would accompany any truths she might utter. So she lets it be. It doesn't matter. The queen and rook and pawn are all in the captain's keeping now anyway, waiting for the checkmate. She can bide her time.
Jayne grows more and more afraid that his secrets will come spilling out. River watches him, staring hard, trying to discover who he really is inside. But when he catches her looking, he goes clammy and chill with terror that whispers of an open sky and cold that she can't place. It's not the blue he fears. It's being alone. He used to pride himself on providing for himself, not needing anyone. Now he's rendered mute and cowardly by his need. He's grown comfortable, too--place to hang his guns and knifes and all the things that kill. Seat at the table. Can't lose that. Hates the hero-worship in Simon's eyes. Hates himself because he wants it. He's growing too, but he fights it every breath, every step.
The captain grows softer and harder at the same time. Like something being forged, heated and folded and pounded out until no flaws remain. He used to think it was the war that did it, but now he knows better. It's all the things he's done since--all the people he's brought into his circle and shared a little bit of himself. They're the fire and the flames as sure as the Alliance that slaughtered his brothers. The failure of his own kind that destroyed his faith. He's at peace when they're gathered around the table, eating the meals the preacher prepares, watching with a smile the shared jokes, simple ease of the family he lost when he put on his brown coat.
Zoe grows wistful, imaging a curly haired girl with Wash's blue eyes, or a towheaded boy she could bounce on her knee. She's not like the captain. The war didn't destroy her. It made her clear as the water of a stream. Certain as the gravity of a star. She lives each moment, because she can. Because she must. That was the gift she was given, and she cherishes it. She loves with all of her heart, because she can't not. She fights with all the passion she can muster, because she's afraid of being dead inside. She doesn't think of someday, and waiting for the right moment, because she knows that if she waits she could lose it all in an instant. See her family devoured, the ship that is her world a burned out hulk. So she lives. And she loves. And she trusts in the now, and not the maybes.
Wash grows thoughtful, putting aside his worries as best he can because he loves his wife. He is still tied to the world, isn't used to thinking of the sky as home the way his wife can and does. To him, the sky was opportunity, and joy, and a boundless adventure. But he'd always imagined a home with sidewalks and parks and a sky that only showed the stars after night fell. River watches him try and try to change, even though Zoe loves him for who he is. Because he's sure that happiness is a temporary thing. So he fills his life with laughter and light that he shares freely, because he knows that way he can give something in return for all he receives. He hides his hurts deep inside, and they only come out to sulk and spoil when he's been pushed too far, and is too weary to shine.
River watches Book set aside the water for the soup, carefully slicing the vegetables he picked up the last time they were in port. Measuring out the spices like a miser gold. It's a far cry from his old life, but a gentle reminder of his new one and he buries his secrets deep hoping that she can't see. So she pretends not to. Every garden has weeds among the flowers, briars and thorns where roses bloom.
She knows she's growing too. Taller, curves where there were none. She still wears Kaylee's cast off dresses, tying them tighter around her. But those are just the parts that can be seen. All the other parts are hidden.
She can tell now, more often, past present from future. The jumble that assaulted her when her box was opened and she was unwrapped like a shiny new toy fades a little each week. She clings tightly to the threads, sorting them by colour, texture, sometimes by taste alone. Sometimes she loses herself in the pattern, but Simon's drugs help her maintain her focus. The howling of the void is just an echo now and she sits, knees pulled up to her chest while Book chops and stirs, trying to see with her eyes and hear with her ears alone.
Sometimes she wonders who the serpent in the garden will turn out to be.
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