Disclaimers: Render unto Joss what is Joss'.
Spoilers: For The Train Robbery.
Summary: The naming of names.
Ratings Note/Warnings: NC-17. Content some readers may find disturbing.
Author's Note: Happy birthday, Nia! And I blame you for this. And Deb. And Cassandra, too.
Acknowledgments: Much love to the Spike for late night handholding.
Feedback is a booful, booful thing. firstname.lastname@example.org
When she was three, River's mother took her and Simon to Lotus for An Extended Holiday Among The Savages. That's what she called it, several times, all in capitals, and that's the way River remembers it.
When she remembers.
It helps that it's one of the Good Memories, and even though Simon has never said it, or said it that way, he doesn't have to. It's just... there.
Some things are, now.
Simon whispers the Good Memories to her before she sleeps, and whenever she wakes to the echoes of her own cries.
"I'm a crow," she'll say, and bat at the shapes she sees, all cruelly shining eyes and dusty wings. The worst part isn't that Simon doesn't understand. It's that she knows it isn't his fault.
On Lotus, all of their servants spoke an obscure dialect of Mandarin that Mother sometimes pretended not to understand. On Lotus, her nana took her to the banks of the Zhu and showed her what her name really meant.
She remembers yellow-brown mud squishing between her toes and the rush-rush-rush of dirty water that coiled like a snake around her entire world.
She remembers her nana pointing to the water and then to River's chest and smiling broadly.
"I am vast, I contain multitudes," is what she manages to spit out, and Simon looks up from sorting bandages to smile at her with that gentle distance she's come to loathe.
"Been talking to Book, have you?"
She bites her lip, straining for the words, for the... "It was a snake."
And now he looks troubled, which isn't what she wanted at all, but at least he's with her again. Hand on her hair, pushing strands back behind her ear. "What was?"
But she can only plead with her eyes.
"... really don't expect this to work, do you, Doctor?"
"Science is not about instant gratification, Matthews. Science is about --"
"Trial and error. Right. I heard you the first fifty-seven times, I swear. I'm just saying the kid looks a little... peaked."
"Well, that's only to be expected. Still, the balance of nutrient boosters, amphetamines, tranquilizers, and anti-psychotics we have her on should hold out for a few more trials. Lower the helmet."
"Whatever you say, Doc. On three -- oh, hell, she's awake. Looks like your tranqs aren't holding up too well after all, hunh?"
She doesn't always wake screaming.
Or at least... not aloud.
In the dark, the cabin she shares with her brother is a mass of vague, ill-defined shapes. All the effort she puts in to messing it up during the day, the work she puts in to combat Simon's terminal neatness looks grander at three in the morning.
There is nothing sterile here.
She licks her palm and slides it down a wall, just to be sure.
She thinks the ship understands.
On the surface, where it's thin as the scum of ice on the Zhu in spring, she knows that's the kind of thought she doesn't need to hold on to anymore. That she shouldn't hold on to, now that she and Simon are safe.
In the rush, where it counts, she makes a mental note to ask the ship about itself.
Simon sighs in his sleep when she crawls into bed with him, shifting unconsciously to make a little more room on the double-bed, to give her some of the warmth he's left behind. River curls against him, tucking her head under his chin and breathing his sleep-scent until she has to move to get more air.
"River...?" He's muzzy, voice mussed as everything else. "Bad dreams?"
There's no real answer to that.
"You'll forgive me for asking stupid questions at..." She feels him shift to look at his watch. "Three-oh-eight in the morning."
River plucks at his pajamas and does her best to fight back the sudden wash of impotent rage. Fabric, silence, words, words words. The beat of wings and pins in her HEAD.
Broad, competent hand on her head. "I wish I could make it better, zhu-chan."
Simon never complains when she cries herself to sleep in his arms.
It's a bad day.
Sometimes she has bad days and doesn't know it, only knows it when she wakes up, or wakes and finds herself staring at a harried-looking Simon, a smirking-bitter Jayne. Today it's a bad day and she knows it, but that doesn't mean she knows what to do about it.
The infirmary is just so rutting white and Simon's... the tools were out, all silver bright and gleaming and the tendons stood out in his hand when he tried to drag her inside, away from everyone else, away from where the people were, where all the nice browns were, and she was a crow again and she couldn't help it.
She can't help it.
Simon's drugs aren't strong enough for her, not really, and she saw the look in his eyes when he spotted the restraints and that was just --
And now here they are.
The curtains are all drawn, and Simon's at the door, talking quietly to the captain and holding a bandage to his face where River scratched him deep enough to draw blood. Here, curled in on herself in the far corner, she can almost hear them. If she strains.
If she strains another way...
Mal is his usual tangle, but he's willing to let himself be soothed by her brother. And that's what Simon is doing, low-voiced and calm. So tired on the inside.
Despair like a texture to him, something she wants to stroke smooth again.
When she squeezes her eyes shut, the colors just hurt.
She only pretends to sleep that night, listening to Simon toss and turn and hiss when he hits a sore spot.
River had thrown a lot of things. A lot of rutting shiny things that it wasn't Simon's fault he used.
She listens, and she waits, and when he begins to snore in that dry, restless way that means he's only asleep because he's exhausted, she crawls into bed with him again.
Waits for her eyes to adjust.
So smart, so long away in all the best schools on all the best worlds.
Her brother who loves her so much...
Like a bundle of ache right in the center of him, something she could reach out and touch if she understood herself better.
If she wasn't afraid of hurt.
Instead, she eases closer and nudges him gently until he's flat on his back, waiting, waiting. She remembers the last summer he came home from school instead of staying home, and the image of him as being all arms and legs.
"Waterjumper," she whispers, and his brow furrows slightly.
She remembers how serious he'd been, all of a sudden, scolding her away from his personal lab, his books. Lecturing... She tries again.
"Waterjumper," and she digs her nails into her palms, useless little fists at her sides. Words don't work for her anymore.
He'd only wanted her to understand him, the new him. She knows that now, maybe in the way she knows so many little things, maybe just in the way sisters know brothers.
She knows her brother.
But he doesn't know her anymore.
The first kiss is strange, dry and soft and passive and scratchy. River moves from his cheek to his forehead, and that's a little better, the worry lines giving her lips something more... natural to catch on.
There's a hurt in her palms she doesn't understand until she rests one on her brother's side, just under his pajama shirt.
The warmth is at once soothing and electrifying and... yes.
She kisses his forehead again, too afraid of the strange looseness in her throat to do anything about it for the moment.
It's enough to stroke up to her brother's ribcage, pressing harder than she wants to because she knows he's ticklish. It's enough to breathe in his scent and feel herself pulse with everything she's vaguely, distantly aware she's not thinking about. With the indescribable closeness of it all.
The at last of it, and River can't wait. Presses close and hides her gasp in a kiss to Simon's slack mouth, another. Another, and her impatience with Simon's passivity makes her forget her reasoning and she bites down, just once, clutching hard when Simon jumps.
"River...?" So muzzily beautiful, and this close she can feel that he'd been hardening against her belly, and oh, oh, she could be soft for him --
"Soft. Hard... Brother."
"What...? I -- River, what --"
Kisses him again, or tries to, but he pushes her away and stares, blinking in the gloom. She hears herself make a noise like an animal and grabs his forearms because this is... they're so close --
"River, we can't do this, I'm your brother --"
"Brother, yes, brother, please..." Slides her fingers along his arms, fingertips catching at the fine hairs and she's not sure which one of them is shivering, only that they could be so warm...
Simon clutches her hard for a moment and then lets go completely, scrabbling back on the bed and against the wall. "All right. All right. Obviously, I've been remiss about your care. There's more going on --"
It stops him, paused like an Alliance servo with no charge left, and for a moment River doesn't understand why.
"You said my name." There's something between horror and joy on his face, and River can only nod.
Reach for him.
"You said my name -- oh, God, River it's been so long!" He grabs her hand, and there it is again. The connection, the love he feels burning past the confusion and fear, or trying to.
And it's one of those moments of knowing. She can have this, change the way this will go, if she only... speaks. "Simon," she says, squeezing his hand and crawling across the landscape of rumpled bedding .
"Simon," she says, and brings their joined hands up to his face. Down to her belly, and below.
"Simon," she says, and kisses him. Drinks his moan with a shudder.
"River, please don't do this..." But his hand, his good, clever hand is moving. Learning her.
And River smiles.
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