Birth dates are irrelevant in the black, but nevertheless something inside her insists on marking each year. By the time River is 22 things have changed. It's not surprising – the 'verse changes at it spins; though, sometimes, the changes aren't borne easily.
Simon is long dead, shot in the stomach far from any hospital or doctor. Over time, his aim had improved, but Simon had never learned the art of staying out of the way.
As his blood flowed, River had listened to his gasps about what she needed to do to stop the bleeding, to remove the bullet. She'd been able to visualize the line of the bullet as it had gone in, as it should come back out. But in the end, River's hands have been trained to kill, not heal.
She remembers Kaylee's tears. Pale streams of misplaced saltwater, far from any ocean. They were Kaylee's tears, hot on River's hands, not River's own. Rivers mean fresh water, cool and clear.
Kaylee had stopped crying; a day came when she started half-smiling; true smiles were slower still to come, and they're always tinged with loss. Those streams of tears still flow in River's memory. Constantly, daily. Everyday, River says, "Simon," and thinks about saltwater carving through canyons, eroding the strength of rock.
Mal is older, bitter, hard; but some days he's still wistful, hopeful. Those are the days when he smiles, when he teases her, pokes fun at Jayne. They're the days Zoe's eyes almost seem alive.
But he's been shot once too many, and sometimes, things don't heal in the right ways. Mal's leg pains him, enough that he can't hide the limp any more. Most jobs, he stays on Serenity, sitting in the cockpit, waiting for the others to come back.
"Ain't a good idea to show a weakness in our line of work," he'd said the first time he'd stayed back. "I'll do the planning; rest of you will have to do the doing."
Most jobs need three sets of eyes, three sets of hands, and it's only natural for River to take up the slack. Simon would have hated it, even as he would have seen the necessity. River doesn't hate it. It gets her out of the ship. Serenity is home, but some days, she needs to get away.
She has memories, so many, of different jobs. The cargo and towns and moons and people blur together, but she'll never forget the first time she was their third; two of Mal's guns were holstered in the belt around her hips. The belt was too big, but she'd made new notches and fastened it tightly. The weight of the guns was cold against her; yet she remembers feeling grounded for the first time in too long to count.
Jayne had taken one look at her, and said, "Shoot at them, girl. Not us."
Zoe had nodded at her, ignoring Jayne, and said, "Let's go."
With Zoe, it's as though she never changes. River hasn't been able to read people for a long while now. She can still read body language, more than the average person. But inside heads are mysteries; that's exactly as it should be.
"Sometimes, the body fixes itself," Simon had said once, when she had started to realize that her thoughts were her own. Simon had guessed, had asked her before she could tell him. Hugging her close, he'd continued, "The brain is complex. New pathways are formed, old ones are shut down. Even now, we don't understand the way everything works."
Mal had been disappointed, but Simon had smiled a wide, genuine smile, the kind he'd saved for just her when she was a child. She'd basked in the warmth. She'd never mentioned the headaches, the anger that would come from nowhere, the ways she sometimes forgets where she is, when she is.
She'd just smiled, pleased at the silence inside her own head; pleased to see him happy.
Some things heal; other things, they break. They break so badly that nothing will fix them.
So, these days, River can't feel Zoe's hopes, her dreams, her wants. River doesn't know if the first thought Zoe has when she wakes up is still about Wash. Zoe is a stone, smooth, hard and unbreakable. Like the 'verse, she seems ageless. Like the 'verse, she's cold.
Jayne doesn't change. River is sure his thoughts are the same as the ones she'd heard, when she could listen to memories; when she could visualize the pictures people form of themselves.
Jayne isn't a complex person. He isn't Zoe or Mal or Kaylee. He isn't River herself. He simply is.
After a job, when she corners him in the kitchen, or when she drops down into his bunk, he's never surprised. The first time, not so long ago, he'd been annoyed, then curious, and later, very, very focused.
But now, when she comes, he just looks at her. His eyes are always wary, his hands stroking across his thigh. She understands – it's the movement of a man whose first instinct is to lash out when he's unsure. He'll never trust her completely. The wariness isn't misplaced – he shouldn't trust her. None of them should. But he's rarely strong enough to tell her no.
He can't say no today, after they get home; after they've cleaned their scrapes and cuts and blood. Zoe handed out swabs, disinfectants, and bandages. And when they're patched up, Zoe retreats, leaving River looking at Jayne. He knows what she wants.
Jayne's body has its own wants.
"Wo cao," he says moments later, as he shoves her up against the wall, then turns, lifts her up onto the edge of the infirmary bed. Her fingers are already working at the buttons on his pants.
He doesn't trust her to do much, always tells her to keep hold of his hips, or his arms. But he never stops.
She wraps one leg around him, gasps as his fingers push inside her. His breath is hot on her ear, rough, fast pants. When he pulls back, while he strips off his pants, she takes a deep breath.
Then, he's back, and she closes her eyes as he slides into her, relentless.
It's never been gentle between them. She doesn't want that; he probably wouldn't know how to give it.
But one of his hands is on her back, helping her stay balanced. The other is braced on the bed, by her side. Together, it gives the illusion of being held. When she arches back, it's enough that his breath puffs against her neck, mimicking her own pulse.
Jayne may not have changed, but River has. Once, she felt everything, she couldn't help it. She couldn't stop.
But things change, and now, some days, she can't feel anything. And this, it might not be the light of Simon's smile when she tells him a story. It isn't Kaylee's laughter, open and warm, or Mal's strength, or Zoe's compassion.
But it's something.
Summary: It's something.
Spoilers: The movie.
Notes: Wo cao = I'm fucked.