Author: Vehemently (vee_fic)
Summary: "I never saw much rain. Then I seen some, and it don't hold no fascination for me."
Character(s): Simon Tam, River Tam
Disclaimer: Fandom is as fandom does.
Original story: "The Sky is the Roof of the World" by 2ndary_author
Notes: Thanks to cofax7 for a readthrough.
It rained in Lolene, an occurrence rare enough that all of the traders and miners ran outside to stand in it and stare upwards at the clouds. Simon stalked among these steaming statues, carrying a bit of wallplastic over his head and cursing. He made it back to the bar where Mal had been holding court, only to realize that the statue standing right outside the door, mouth open to catch the drops, was his sister. He snatched at her hand.
"It's raining," said River, and snatched her hand back.
"You're not some drylands hardscrabble," he snapped. "You've seen rain before."
Her black hair was a shambles, in her eyes. The rain trickled down from her shoulders, soaked her dress. He could tell she wasn't wearing a bra. "Go away," she said.
He did. Inside the clapboard building, Mal sat alone at a low table, tea in front of him. He raised the cup, twisting the stoneware as if to show off its simple pattern. He pushed back the lid with a deft forefinger, and inhaled steam.
Simon paused in the doorway. "You make it look ceremonial," he said.
"Greetings to you as well," replied Mal, the Confucian way, as a father's brother to his nephew. He chuckled at Simon's expression. "We don't travel much to the middle worlds no more, but time was we did. The middling folk eat that status stuff up. Makes 'em think they're further in than they are."
Simon had nothing to say to this. He approached the table, and sat.
"The girl is outside," said Mal. "Along with the waiter, the barkeep, the owner, and his five children." He drank his tea.
"I noticed," said Simon.
"I never saw much rain," added Mal, offhand. "Not when I was young. Then I seen some, and it don't hold no fascination for me."
Simon sat staring at the rough-hewn table, and thought. "Where I come from it rains on a schedule. Twice a week at night, and once during the day, to remind us all that our skies cannot always be clear. Weather-management satellites, you know."
"I heard of such things," Mal replied. "You want tea, there's some behind the bar."
"River is going to run away," said Simon. "She's been planning it. I think she's going to do it tomorrow."
Mal grunted, looked out the windows. "Mighty clever to tell us in advance. So we don't waste no time with the morning's departure."
"No," said Simon. "You're going to stop her."
Opposite him on the table, the teacup with its lid. The lid was white porcelain, a little too large for the cup. Years of tea had soaked tan into the cracks in its glaze. There could not be enough pieces in the whole town for a full set. Mal kept his heavy hands on the table, thumbs off the edge as if feeling for a secret lever. He did not ask a question. Simon stared at the cup and its mismatched lid.
"She can't take care of herself," he said, and already heard himself pleading. "She's not normal. She may never be normal. She can fix a rifle but she can't fix a sandwich, Mal. You can't let her out there by herself."
The rain drummed outside, dripped off the eaves and in the never-closed windows. It was slackening. The rainy season was more like a rainy weekend, once every very long year. Nobody would live here, except for the ore and the hungry miners.
"If Zoe was to take it into her head to leave, I misdoubt she'd appreciate my objecting." Mal tapped his thumbs on the underside of the table, echoing the rain. "Serenity ain't no prison."
"But she won't listen to me!" Simon cried. It came out too loud, now the rain was down to a light shower. Mal was looking over his shoulder, and Simon turned in time to see the innkeeper's daughters out in the street, unkinking from their stillness, loosening their hair with their hands. The low clouds zoomed past like spy-drones. While he watched, the shower became a drizzle, rainbows sparking everywhere. He turned his back on the new-returned sun.
Mal was still watching the girls outside. "If I have to," said Simon, "I'll tie her up in the infirmary. I can't let her leave."
"Good luck on that," said Mal. His chair groaned on the floor as he pushed it back. Voices pealed outside, laughter. "Though I don't know as how you'll sneak up on her, she being a reader and all."
The girls were wandering inside, splattering rain and chattering. The barkeep, behind them, looked like he'd been crying in addition to getting wet. Mal walked among them, passed through dry, and stepped out into daylight.
"Good point," Simon told the teacup.
A pile of wet dress lay on the floor of their bedroom, like tissue-paper flowers mashed and wadded. She left nothing at all out of place, but Simon knew where she was not. "River?" he asked the air experimentally, just to taste her absence.
It was four hours until they were scheduled to leave. She had spent days on the land, wandering every arroyo and canyon while he vaccinated the townfolk against drylung. She could read minds, and he could not. He opened every cupboard and tossed all their contents onto the floor, knicknacks and mementoes and cast-off clothing accumulated in the months since he fled the core with nothing but a box full of sister. Nothing was missing.
Simon dashed up the stairs, heartbeat stuttering in his ears, towards the cockpit. As he rounded the landing in the cargo area, a flash of brightness caught his eye and he skidded on the steel floor.
Zoe stood firm in the center of the space, all in mourning white. She held her bare arms up near her face, her rich living skin overwhelming the death-color she wore. It was like a ritual, some stylized pose, and then she flexed her arms and unbent her knees and her fingers flew forward around her face. Beside her, River, in shorts and her gray sweater and with her hair dry already, mimicked Zoe's posture with a ball in her hands.
The ball was large enough River could not manage it one-handed. She balanced it on an open palm and while Simon watched she unbent and up her hands went, like guides, pushing the ball upward and out. It sailed through the steel hoop that still hung from the ceiling, passing without a sigh, and bounced on the floor beyond.
"Just like that," said Zoe, with a little smile. She did not seem to have noticed Simon, except that she was Zoe and would have noticed him long before he noticed her.
Without moving her feet, River mimicked the posture again, a third time, crouching and bursting upward until it looked like dance. Her hair was smooth: Zoe must have brushed it, because River never did herself. Around her face, her spindly pale fingers opened like fireworks and drifted slowly downward. "Easy as pie," River said, without looking around.
"Easy as pie was when we had flour," Zoe chuckled, low. She put her hands on her hips. "Now go fetch the ball and I'll teach you to dribble."
From the catwalk above their heads, Jayne's voice rang out suddenly: "Did somebody say pie?" He was covered with grease, a wrench in his hand.
River craned her neck to look at him, walking after the ball without needing to see where she was going. "No," she said. "Nobody said pie."
"Oh." Jayne put down the wrench with a clank. "Cause, if you had, ain't nice not to share."
Zoe was working at concealing a smirk, and failing. River bounced the ball to her across the wide metal room, and Zoe caught it, easy. Jayne went back to his work, whatever it was. Simon stood silent in the stairwell, waiting for someone to tell him to go away, and nobody did.
"Simon makes messes," River said, at their first dinner after they'd moved on from Lolene. Wu Wei was next, a run of necessaries for a convent that paid pretty well, considering. Nuns didn't do without much, or else an awful lot of colonists had found their way to Wu Wei lately.
"Does he now," said Mal, from the head of the table. He had an indulgent smirk on his face, as if he knew something about girls who tattle. He whipped one chopstick against the other gently, and dug into his dinner. "What kinds of messes."
"Doc lit out from the core planets with a lawman right on his heels," grumbled Jayne, his mouth full. "Reckon that's a mess."
Simon stared at his plate.
"He throws all my clothes on the floor looking for things," said River. "He thinks I'm going to run away."
Across the table, Kaylee made a noise of surprise. "But you're not, right?" Simon looked up just in time to catch her uncertain grin. She turned her head, as if appealing to everyone for reinforcement. Mal sat quietly in his chair, turning noodles around his chopsticks.
"We're in space," said River, pulling up half her face into a cranky smirk. "You can't run anywhere in space. You have to fly."
An uncomfortable silence prevailed at the long table. This was the moment, in times past, when Shepherd Book would have turned the conversation aside gently, while Wash told a joke. Now the table was plenty long enough for everyone's elbows, and the closest thing they had to a joke was Jayne's clueless blundering. It wasn't as funny, when the person telling the joke wasn't in on it himself.
"Heard a couple of rumors," Zoe said at last. She cleaned her plate studiously, not looking at Mal. "Fighting on some of the middle worlds. New Independents, sounds like."
Simon turned his head just in time for a glimpse of that fussy irritation Mal usually reserved for price-hikes and shoddy welding. And then it was gone, and Mal was leaning back in his chair in that way that said anybody else who wanted leg-room under the table would have to go begging. It was his table, anyway. Nobody complained. "Did you, now. Where'd you hear that from?"
"Cap'n of the Dory Grace," said Zoe. "She come down while you were in town, asked about where we'd come from." Simon watched Kaylee to figure out how he should react. She was pretending not to pay any attention, but couldn't hide her frown. "They skipped out on Sifu under half full, on account of it not being safe for an honest trader to stay docked."
Jayne gave a snort. "Sounds like they need themselves a couple of dishonest ones, then." River smiled at this, as if he'd made a good joke. She glanced around the table, saw Simon watching her and nobody else smiling, and blanked her features at once. She would not catch Simon's eye.
"Engine's good," Kaylee piped up. "New parts we got, we could outrun a blockade no problem." She sat there with her mouth half open, the smile dissolving away. Of course: the best engine in the verse meant nothing without a virtuoso pilot to control it, and they no longer had a virtuoso pilot. Simon wanted to do something to cover over the awkwardness, and didn't know what. He settled for resting his hand on the table close enough she could reach out for it if she wanted. The warm friction of her finger-calluses danced on his wrist.
Not a flicker of grief passed Zoe's face. She turned her loveliness towards her captain, mouth serene. They battled in silence along the length of the table for a moment, irresistible force and immovable object. And then Mal dropped his head and it was over. With prim superiority, Zoe returned her attention to her plate and finished off her meal.
River ate her dinner, seemingly heedless. She ate like a normal girl, picky but not atypically so. The sound of her heels kicking the rungs of the chair filled the room.
"Good money," Jayne surmised, and stood up, dishes in hand. "Fly in supplies, fly out refugees. I'd give up my own bunk, for the right price." Simon hurried to clear the last bites from his plate. It was Jayne's turn to do the washing up; if they didn't clear their own dishes by the time he set to work, he would leave them for the next meal and they'd be eating out of teacups like last time.
"I don't even want to know your price," Kaylee scoffed.
"Girl," he called, banging pots on the other side of the room. "you renting out half your bunk for free don't mean I ain't got no right to get paid for mine."
Simon choked on his last sip of water. Kaylee banged him on the back once or twice while he spluttered. "I reckon I get something out of the deal," she laughed, and stuck her finger in Simon's ear.
The table dissolved in mild chuckles and a clatter of dishes, Mal and Zoe standing in unison with similar smiles on their faces. River sat across from Simon and Kaylee with that creepy expression of clinical curiosity. Simon hated the idea that his own sister might look at him as if he were a specimen.
"I already knew," she asserted, without heat. "He's not very good at sneaking."
Kaylee was brisk, easy, in a way Simon could never be. She kissed him quickly before gathering both their dishes. "Ain't no necessity for sneaking," she said. It wasn't clear whether which Tam she was talking to.
The name Wu Wei came from an old word for effortless, but the planet itself was not, in fact, effortless at all, especially not if you were piloting a Firefly-class ship in for a landing. Mal had warned them all about the crosswind, but Simon was still knocked to the floor of the infirmary on touchdown. He sat up, head ringing a little, just when Mal's voice came tinny over the intercom: "Sorry bout that, folks."
He'd got the emergency first-aid kit down to a package the size of a lunchbox. Simon stood up and dusted imaginary lint off his knees, and set to traveling the length of Serenity to make sure none of her crew had broken any bones.
Kaylee was fine, and Zoe had split her knuckles on a pallet of boxes, but laughed at him when he asked whether she wanted a bandage. Jayne would have some gorgeous bruising on his knees and hands, but unless the wrist swelled up -- Simon caught himself thinking swole up, and corrected himself -- he would probably need no treatment. They got back to work with the cargo, while Simon traced a path up the stairs and forward towards the cockpit.
There wasn't anybody else to treat, except River and Mal. His feel echoed on the steel floor.
He could see from the hallway that the pilot's chair was empty, and Simon leapt the last set of stairs two at a time, wondering breathlessly whether Mal had given himself a fatal brain injury. But it wasn't so: he crouched on the floor, unharmed, leaning over River. She lay half-sprawled against the wall in a shirt that belonged to Zoe, and bled on it.
"What did you do," Simon groaned, skidding across the floor with a padded bandage already in his hands. Mal's hands were both stained, and he pressed his pocket handkerchief to River's scalp just above her forehead. Facial wounds always bled like crazy, Simon knew that, and yet --
River blinked, unfocussed and mouth open. "He landed Serenity. Not very well," she added, and Mal made a noise.
It was a ragged cut, and the stamp of a knob from one of the panels sat clear and hexagonal at the very top of her forehead. Simon examined the edges with a tailor's eye, calculating how well he could hide any scarring. He couldn't bear the idea of River's pretty, girlish face made heavy and threatening with scar tissue. He blew lightly on the exposed flesh, the surrounding tissue red and hot to the touch. "It's not bad, little sister." River made no sign that it caused her pain.
"Wash could have landed her better," she said. Mal was sitting on the floor next to her, useless now, with his stained handkerchief loose in one hand.
"Yeah," he replied, after a while, and took her hand. "I reckon he could. Come on, now. Doc's ready for me to carry you down to the infirmary."
She swivelled her head, right out from under the padding Simon was trying to apply. "I don't need to be carried," she said, forceful, like an argument. "I have feet." She brushed away Simon's upraised arms, and plucked the bandage out from his fingers to hold it to her own forehead.
Up on one knee already, Mal closed his hand over her shoulder, covering the whole joint with his broad palm. "Took a fine jostle, there. Might be you can walk okay, might be you can't," he explained, and slung his other hand under her knees. "Anyway, Doc's in a tizzy, got to humor him." He came to his feet, massive and square, and Simon looked up at him like a colossus. In his arms, River looked like a child. She had twisted her torso to talk to Mal, serious-faced, interrogative.
"Why don't you carry him, then."
Mal brushed past Simon and started down the stairs. Scurrying, Simon followed after.
River wore a raincoat with iron weights in the pockets any time she left Serenity while they were on Wu Wei; Simon insisted. Although the nuns, tiny and elderly all, managed to place one foot in front of the other in the gales that blew across the cold plain, nobody could say how they did it, or how they managed not to be blown away. The sisters of Convent Wei Wu Wei wore seamless cowls and tucked their robe-like trousers into their boots, and stood at rest at a 30 degree lean, one flank into the wind.
Simon did not own any hats. He wore a borrowed coat -- Wash's, probably -- buttoned to the throat and his hair just whipped around his head any which way. He stumbled over the stark rocks on the path between ship and building, and would have fallen over if not for Jayne grabbing him by the collar. "You ain't no desert gull," he bellowed in Simon's ear, steadying him roughly, and then they were inside. The door banged shut after them, and held in an ingenious leathern catch.
"I'M NOT A WHAT?" Simon shouted, still deafened.
"DESERT GULL," said Jayne. Sister Contemplation chuckled as she helped him undo his coat.
"Ah, we have them on this planet too," she said, her smile like the slightest crease in a tissue-paper face. "Scavengers, carrion eaters. They soar for hours without the need to flap their wings."
"Flying rats," Jayne rejoindered.
"Their cries warm the night winds." Sister Contemplation hung up their coats on pegs, and led them into the complex. Simon tried to roll up his sleeves and handle his first aid kit and watch where he was going all at once, and nearly walked into a door lintel.
The building was half carved into a mountain, and half built out of modern structure-plastic. The rooms were small, with closed doors on every side and little drifts of dust piled up at every threshold. Acolytes whisked sucker-brooms to keep the convent spotless. There were no windows that Simon could see. Sister Contemplation brought them down one hall and into another, into the largest room yet, which was no bigger than half the size of Serenity's cargo bay. It was teeming with people.
"Refugees from Bain," was the explanation. Simon had not heard that there was fighting on Bain; he'd never heard of Bain before. He surveyed the population for a rough count: at least forty, with a few suspiciously wet coughs filling the room. They were all dusty, some in rags and some in fine swishing fabrics only beginning to fray at the seams. The room stank of human sweat.
"I'll need a table," he said. "And a chair. Privacy screens, if you have them, and a very bright light. Fluorescent would be ideal."
"We have prepared an examining room," said Sister Contemplation, gesturing with an open hand like the crest of a moving wave. "Only so many can be seen at once, so we established a lottery."
Jayne blinked. "You mean there's more?"
"Yes," replied Sister Contemplation, with a gravity that spoke of great numbers. "Our poor nursing skills have sufficed for many. Those with severe wounds have died. Doctor Tam will serve as windbrake for the rest, I hope."
Simon did not wait around to discuss what didn't need doing. He set up in the tiny room set aside for him, and began seeing the sick as quickly and efficiently as he could. It was only after an hour or two that he noticed Jayne was carrying the serious cases into the room: compound fractures, the comatose, those too delirious to find their way. Simon recited instructions to a pair of acolytes as he finished with each patient, and they spoke back his words to him exactly as they guided the groaning refugees one by one back into the general population.
Time came to be counted in people, and in the diminishing supply of painkillers. Simon sent Jayne back to Serenity for more supplies. The acolyte-assistants, all cowled into sameness and schooled to precision, spelled one another at intervals that Simon ignored. For a day and a night and most of a day again, he did not think about River at all.
The last patient was a nun, Sister Pause at Sunset. "We shall marshall the rest," she told Simon, while he listened to her heart. "The acolytes have learned a great deal just from working with you."
"It's a murmur," he told her, fingers between her skinny ribs. "But without accompanying pain or faintness, I wouldn't worry. Are people still fleeing Bain, or has it slowed to a trickle?"
"My dear doctor," said the Sister. "Of course we shall allow you to leave." Her voice was low, resonant, conditioned to be heard over a gale and dampened, in the small room, to a whisper. Out of her habit, she was just a person, just a body, the skin usually hidden by clothing soft and loose with age. Her hands and the circle of her face that the cowl would not cover were darkened and rougher, with scaly patches. Her ankles and calves were powerfully muscular from standing in the wind.
"I never doubted that," he told her honestly. He had no medicine to offer her, but she accepted his standoffish smile. She began to layer her clothing over herself again, reassembling the intimidating smooth anonymity of the nun's habit.
"My Sisters have spoken with one of your crew, who displays an affinity for our ways." She smiled at his surprise, tucking her thin white hair under her cowl. "But she believes her calling is elsewhere."
The exhaustion was kicking in, a certain bitter giddiness. It had to be River, of course. Only a gaggle of nuns could mistake her insanity for the divine. "Where is she now?"
Sister Pause at Sunset took Simon by the hand, and led him through many corridors to an outer door. It was the same door he'd come in by, many hours ago; his coat still hung on a peg where he'd left it. The Sister needed no extra clothing beyond her habit, and waited patiently while he buttoned the coat all the way up.
The interior quiet of the convent had ruined him for the plain. The first blast of the gale, as the door came open, bashed against his ears in thundrous assault. He struggled to find his balance, tired muscles straining and unsteady. Dully he trudged behind the nun, whose posture angled easily against the wind. She stopped him halfway between Serenity and the building, and turned him around. She put her mouth right next to his ear to say, "There."
Hair whipping into his eyes, Simon strained to see. And then, as the wind changed -- the sun just set, the sky burgundy and cooling -- it was impossible not to see: a figure high on the walls, wings spread wide, a human-sized bird. It pointed its body into the wind, hair and clothing streaming behind, the portrait of lovely incaution.
It was River, of course. Simon strove to keep his silence. She held the weights he'd put into her coat pockets in each hand, and shifted her arms as the wind demanded. Her coat was undone completely, flapping, the lining torn. The loose ends of the bandage around her forehead mixed into her hair, white on black. Her skinny little legs sustained her, and she did not stumble for balance, feet in her rubbery boots still on the uneven stone. Simon could see that she was smiling, eyes slitted and chin high.
The gnarled hand on his shoulder was warm. "As delicate and powerful as a reed," said the nun, directly into his ear.
Simon could say nothing, only watch in terrified silence. He stood there, watching, ears and nose losing sensation as they chilled toward frostbite, until the stars came out to twinkle behind her silhouette.
They took off the next day, Mal powering the engines to maximum so their bellies all lurched horribly but Serenity didn't crash into anything. Simon settled himself on the common area couch, and sighed. Kaylee, recovering her balance, came to join him with a plate of snacks, but he suddenly wasn't hungry any more. The look on his face made Kaylee chuckle.
"Could be worse," she said, sitting and tucking her feet under Simon's thigh. She set the plate down on his knees and picked a morsel from it. "Could be Jayne flying it. Hell, could be me."
They sat in the common area, idle. It was nice, to have someone who would walk up and sit next to you and tuck her toes into your warm body. He smiled at Kaylee and she smiled back, and that was nice too. "The best pilot on board is Ham-Hands Reynolds?" he joked.
"I heard that." Mal was halfway down the stairs, big blocky shadow making the room seem smaller. He was chuckling, though, and passed them by on his way to the kitchen. While he walked, Serenity juddered an abrupt left, so he danced on his toes for a moment to avoid knocking into the table.
Kaylee sat up straight, blinking, one hand on the back of the couch. Simon observed her behavior and realized, "Wait, if you're down here, who's in the cockpit?" He was gathering himself to stand already, as if unconsciously knowing the answer.
A half-smirk on his face, Mal answered him: "Your sister is. She's the pilot now."
"She WHAT?" The plate balanced on his knees clattered to the floor.
Mal cocked his head, ironic. "She's a fair sight better at it than I am." He was done with the conversation, and headed on into the kitchen. Simon chased after him, adrenaline sparking in every pore.
"You can't put her at the controls! She's not herself, Mal. You can't just let her do what she likes." He got a hold of Mal's elbow just at the moment that Mal was no longer walking away, so that his grab was awkward, unnecessary. They stood there like that for a moment, Simon feeling the blush above his collar and Mal unmoved, immovable. Kaylee stood in between them, anxious, neutral, the overturned plate in her hands.
"I can sure as hell set her to work, and pay her a share for the work she does, just like you." Mal yanked his elbow out of Simon's grip with a scowl. He pulled out a kitchen drawer and groped around in it for something. "Aint nobody works for free on this boat, excepting it's me."
"She can't enter into a contract. She's not sane. I can't --"
"Let go, Simon." There was a certain tone Mal Reynolds could have, something flat and low and iron, that frightened much more effectively than any ordinary yelling. He seemed like somebody else then: a killer, a pitiless general, not somebody who would chuck Kaylee on the chin. His body seemed massive, although he did not change his posture. Simon looked down and saw that he had grabbed Mal again without thinking, a handful of his shirt behind the shoulder. Like a parent rescuing a child from falling off a cliff. Simon let go.
He took a step away, for his own safety and because the helplessness in him was like exhaustion. Kaylee crept around them both, and set the plate down on the countertop. She looked like she'd looked the first time someone had handed her a gun and told her to kill with it. He slumped against the table and she drifted towards him, as if admitting his defeat made him safe to approach. Even he was surprised at the bitterness in his voice: "The last time I let her go, she didn't come back."
"So you went off and rescued her." Mal curled his lip, nasally sarcastic: "My hero."
Kaylee slotted herself beside Simon on the edge of the table. "Cap'n. Don't."
"I didn't get back the same girl," he protested.
Mal pulled out a spoon from the drawer he'd opened, and turned his attention to the leftovers. He sniffed at a congealed bowl of broth, dumplings captured a-float like boats iced in to a harbor. With a nod to himself, he set the bowl on the heater and immediately the smell of warming comfort food filled the room. "Reckon I wouldn't know," he said, without turning back to Simon. "I never knew that other girl."
"I did," said Simon, and it felt like a howl. "I knew her very well."
Serenity flew on through space, untouched by the argument in her belly.
River stood next to the pilot's chair, still in front of the wide windows of stars. Simon came up the stairs behind her and she did not show any sign that she had noticed him. She was wearing Jayne's ridiculous hat on her head, its strings tied together and resting at the base of her throat.
"So, Pilot." He tasted the flavor of that word. Little lights blinked on the console to his right, but she ignored them. "Where are we headed?"
"Bain," she answered, counting the stars. "Captain contracted to transport a whole load of refugees."
Bain, where people fought in the streets. Bain, where the Alliance might do anything, and call it warfare. Bain, a middle-world, where a pilot would have to weave her way through hundreds of skyscrapers.
"There's no profit in it," said River. She turned away from the windows, her expression uncertain. She crinkled up her eyes and added, "But we're doing it anyway."
He heaved a dull laugh. "Sounds like something Mal Reynolds would do."
"Sounds like something Simon Tam would do," she corrected him. There was no overhead light fixture in here, only the tiny glowing knobs and indicators everywhere. River still had the bruise on her forehead, a purple hexagon, from where she'd fallen a couple of days ago. Over her shoulder, the starfield was bright and thick, like some viscous sparkling fluid. Like an elegant mantle she might reach out and wrap around herself, much nicer than any clothing she owned any more.
River set about the room, yanking on the edges of things, as if testing their weight. Simon watched her do it, mystified as always, and stuck his hands in his pockets so as not to look quite so useless. Gymnastic, she curled her knees up to her body and hung off a handle bolted to the wall. "You should move in with Kaylee," she said, without looking at him.
"Yes." She threw herself down from the handle and landed with her knees bent. Her hands unfolded from her body, palms up, like a performer waiting for applause. The hat fell backwards off her head, and the strings came tight against her throat. She took off the hat, flicking her hair out of her eyes. "We'll need the guest quarters for the refugees. And it's not like you can sleep in the infirmary. They'll be in there, too."
Simon tried to sound reasonable. "But where will you sleep, little sister?"
"In here." Her smile was radiant, awed. "This handle, and that one. I can sling a hammock between them and let the stars sing me to sleep."
It seemed like the last thing, like a severing of ties. She spoke of it as if it were already done. "I just want you to be safe," Simon told her, and his voice broke on the last word.
She grew serious. "Mal won't let you off the ship, when we land at Bain. He's already decided."
Simon did not tell her this was a non-sequitur. He eased his way around the console and came to stand next to her.
"A doctor's a valuable commodity in a combat zone. You might get kidnapped." She rolled her head on her neck and gave him a hangdog face. "Somebody's got to protect you."
"And that's your job?" he wheezed. He made it sound like a chuckle, and it was almost convincing. She took up his hand, and squeezed it, and drew it around her waist like old times.
"That's my job, little brother." She put on that cranky half-smile for him, the one that told him he'd said something too obvious to deserve a voice, and he tried to smile back.
He wasn't very good at it. River turned back to the empty depths of space, the fine pale glow on her features. Her skinny arm around his shoulders, they stood side by side facing the stars.