She likes apples. Red and crisp, fresh sweetness. Not like candy or cola, Alliance-tainted processed commodities. Apples. Cold on her teeth, a bit of joy after weeks and weeks of protein mush.
River knows they were guilt apples. It just made the flavours more complex.
She likes them, Serenity's crew. Rotten apples, the Alliance would say. Not good, not fit for human consumption. But she consumes them, their fears and hopes, their friendship and distrust. She's human. She knows because humans are flawed creatures, and she is so very, very flawed now. They're fit for her.
She likes the ship. Can't tell the captain, but she's drawn to the hidey-places. Small, full of things squirreled away from prying eyes. Safe spaces. She's found one they don't know about, and puts objects in it. Things she steals, things she likes.
One of Jayne's knives. Inara's scarf. A wrench from Kaylee. One of Simon's coats. They're the new compass points of her life. The new elements of her existence, as constant as blue skies once were.
There are other elements too, beyond the classics of fire, air, earth, water. Mal, Zoe, Wash, Book. Conflict, loyalty, happiness, faith. They ground her. The keep her from drowning in nightmares of blue and pain.
She liked blue, once. Cerulean, turquoise, royal, aqua. The pale blue of the sky in the afternoon, the calming hues of open water. The sweetness of a remembered favourite dress, blue with tiny flowers. Childish, her mother had said. But she'd loved it. She remembers staring up at the blue sky, cataloguing the different tones that were created as the sun travelled the sky.
The sky isn't blue now. Outside it's just the black, but she feels more comfortable with black and the tiny pinpoints of light.
Simon doesn't feel safe in the black. He's relaxing, slowly, but the dark weighs on him. He frets that she feels it the same way, even when she tries to tell him otherwise. He hears, but he doesn't listen, even though he tries so hard.
It's not his fault.
He's holding her hand now, and she can hear his voice, even if the words are blurred and confusing. She hasn't used her voice for days, hasn't moved either. She wants to move. She wants to speak, to tell them what they mean to her, even though she knows her words would come out garbled and confused.
Instead, she's locked in herself, voice gone, eyes staring first at the ceiling of her room, and then the ceiling of the infirmary after Jayne came and carried her here. She wishes that she was staring out at the stars, that they would suit her up and let her lie outside.
Dead in space. She's like Serenity was, after the fire. Drifting, waiting for Kaylee to fix the engine, waiting for the captain to make it all right.
Kaylee can't fix River.
Sometimes it makes River wish she had blended with Serenity, that she had done as she'd told Early. If she were part of Serenity, she'd be able to experience the 'verse unhampered by EV suits. She'd be untouched by the worries and fears of the others. Kaylee would be able to trace her malfunctions, her faults. She would be within the realm of Kaylee's skills and could send warning signals that she would understand. Kaylee would know Serenity-River in a way that Simon, for all his love and skill, will never understand girl-River.
Instead, she lies in the infirmary. They all come to see girl-River, some for longer than others. Inara massaged sweet-smelling cream into her hands. Gentle touches, and they made River remember how little people touch her now.
Book reads his fallacies to her and sighs next to her ear. Kaylee comes and brushes her hair. Wash and Zoe visit together, and Zoe washes River's face while she thinks of babies and family. The captain comes and leaves quickly, after talking with Simon.
Jayne came once, not talking, just radiating confusion, fear, annoyance.
In the between times, Simon puts bits of ice in her mouth, exercises her legs and arms. He changes IVs and strokes his fingers across her forehead. He talks to her when they're alone. His voice draws her out, and it makes her think of apples and open skies.
Don't worry, she wants to say. I won't be like this for
It's not your fault. It's just overload. Too much around her, too
much to process, file, filter, sift. Overloads cause
She's rebooting, but it's slow. The pathways must rebuild around
the holes and scars.
Summary: River's in overload.