lallis_folly: (alyson_book)
[personal profile] lallis_folly
Note: This was written for [ profile] oldschoolfic's 2008 summer ficathon.

Author's Notes: See end.
Summary: Kaylee and Simon consult with Inara on how to do something nice for River.

River's Surprise

It began with Kaylee, of course, partly because she was feeling guilty about revealing the secret she'd long held about River, and partly because she really did love the strange girl. But then Kaylee loved everyone, even Jayne.

"We should do something nice for River, Cap'n," she said. "After all, we owe her for saving us, like, from that bounty hunter."

The captain frowned. "Don't think it didn't escape my notice that if 'tweren't for River and her brother, we wouldn't've needed saving from Mr. Jubal Early."

"Please, Cap'n," Kaylee begged. She batted her eyes. "It'd be shiny."

Mal sighed. "Go on. Figure out what and where, and we'll see to it."

Kaylee's radiant smile actually did brighten the bridge. "Thanks, Cap'n." She bounced off to speak to River's brother.


Simon Tam, meanwhile, was in Inara's shuttle, deep in conversation with the Companion.

"I want to do something nice for River. I'd like to engage your services." He sat at ease in Inara's lounging area; of all the people aboard Serenity, Inara was the one with whom he was the most comfortable. For one thing, they had both been raised with all the comforts of the Alliance worlds, and they understood one another. Trying to understand any of the others was often an exercise in frustration for him.

"I'm not sure that River is . . . ready for the type of services I normally provide," Inara said diplomatically.

Simon almost laughed. "No, no, no, that's not what I mean. It's been a long time since River was allowed to just be a girl. To have fun. To do . . . girl things."

"She spends quite a lot of time with Kaylee," Inara observed.

"And that sort of interaction is very good for her," Simon agreed. "But I'd like to see her interacting with people more like . . . I mean . . . ."

"More like herself," Inara supplied. "Yes, I can see where that would be valuable, also." As usual, Inara did not judge, and Simon found himself grateful. "But is that what River would like?"

Simon sighed. "Honestly, Inara, I don't know what River would like any more. But I'd like to try this, if you're willing."

Inara smiled. "For River's sake, I would be happy to help."


River's mental state seemed to have been improving these last weeks since the bounty hunter incident. Simon was inclined to think that it was her success at foiling Early's plan to turn her over to the Alliance that was buoying her. Certainly she had shown no sign of any of the strange fancies to which she had been subject since he had removed her from that Alliance facility, and she seemed to have more control over her own mind. It was no secret, however, that Simon was still bolstering her control medically from time to time.

Still, the mood aboard Serenity had improved along with River. While Inara was not in River's league when it came to intuition, her Companion training had made her adept at reading people and situations. Everyone aboard Serenity acted as though a weight had been lifted. Kaylee's normally sunny disposition was even brighter, if that wer possible; Jayne groused about sleeping through the bounty hunter incident, rather than complaining that River had caused it; Zoe had been heard humming as she went about her duties; even Mal had been less obnoxious of late.

Inara wondered briefly what path River would have chosen if the Alliance had not warped and broken her. With her intuitive skills she would have made an excellent Companion.

A knock at her shuttle's entrance interrupted her thoughts. "Come in."

"Inara?" Kaylee stepped into the shuttle, pausing as she always did to admire the shuttle's sumptuous decor. Kaylee loved the soft, beautiful world that she thought Inara inhabited. She had little idea what a hard businesswoman Inara could be when she needed.

"What can I do for you, Kaylee?"

"Well, it's like this, Inara. I want to do something nice for River. Cap'n said it was all right if we planned something for our next stop. I need your help, though -- I don't know how to plan a fancy party with music and dancing and gowns and all."

"Kaylee, are you sure that a fancy party is what River would really like? I've been giving the matter some thought, myself."

"You?" Kaylee's voice rose in surprise. "But why?"

"Let's just say that you're not the only person who would like to do something nice for River."

"Aw, that's sweet," Kaylee said, pleased. "Well, what can we do, then?"

"Let me ask you this question, Kaylee: Can you imagine the captain happy at a fancy party like the one you're thinking of? Or Zoe? Or Jayne?"

Kaylee's face fell. "I didn't think of that. But isn't that the sort of party that River and Simon are used to?"

Inara smiled gently, sadly at her guest. "It may once have been, Kaylee, but not any longer. Would it make Simon happier to think about all the things his sister has lost, even if River herself doesn't notice?

"Do you remember the story that Simon told us about finding River dancing that time she wandered off, just before the hillfolk grabbed her? He said that she was enjoying the dancing more than anything he'd ever seen. Maybe that's the sort of party we should have for River. A . . . barbecue. We can still have dancing and music, and perhaps we can get a new dress for River. In fact . . . I know just the person to discuss this with."

She drew Kaylee's arm through hers and went off in search of Shepherd Book.


On her good days, River knew that she wasn't right. She didn't know what They had done to her -- some of it, she couldn't even remember -- but she knew that she'd been twisted, broken, warped out of true. But even on her good days, she couldn't articulate any of it. She strongly suspected that while they'd been mucking about in her mind, the Academy techs -- so smug, so proud -- had put a block in that prevented her from speaking about it. What she remembered of it, anyway.

And so she sat at dinner with the rest of the crew, sitting between Simon and Kaylee -- gentle Kaylee, whose happy thoughts were always swimming through the air like little fishes and trilling birds, skipping through the sky and rolling over the hills, and always inclined toward Simon . . . with an effort, she brought her own thoughts back onto the track she'd been following.

"Albatross," she announced, greatly pleased that she'd been able to manage.

The table suddenly quieted. Jayne glowered. Dark Jayne, his thoughts all crawly and spidery, and so much more like Them than he'd ever believe. She shuddered.

"River?" Simon's voice reflected his thoughts; he was worried. He was so desperate to help her and so scared that he'd never be able to glue her back together; she was Humpty Dumpty and he was All The King's Horses And All The King's Men, and there wasn't enough glue in the 'verse to put her back together again.

She turned to him. "There are albatrosses in the future, and the blue ones are coming."

The captain put down his coffee mug. "Blue albatrosses?"

"Some of the worst things in the 'verse are blue," River replied. "Yet these are not."

"Not blue?"

"Two by two," she said in a sing-song voice, before she could stop herself. "Not worst," she amended. "But they're not as bad as what comes after."

"Comes after what?"

"Me," River said.

The captain shook his head. "You don't seem particularly bad to me, little girl."

She shot him a look. "You don't know me very well, Captain."

He saluted her with his coffee mug. "True enough."

River fell silent, and the captain turned to Kaylee. "We'll be in the world tomorrow, so you'd best be ready."

"'Course, Cap'n," Kaylee said. She glanced at Inara and Shepherd Book, and so determinedly did not look in River's direction that she caught River's wandering attention. She was pleased about something, very pleased, and it had to do with River. Interesting.

"Whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles," River said.

"What, honey?"

River tried again. "Brown paper packages."

"It's a song," Simon said, frowning. He was always frowning. "From Earth That Was. Our mother used to sing it sometimes. The singer is listing her favorite things."

River nodded, pleased. She could always count on Simon. "What makes us happy."

"What makes you happy, sweetie?" Kaylee's attention was suddenly even more focused and River found it a bit unnerving.

"I know what makes me happy," Jayne announced suddenly. "It's crazy girls keeping their mouths shut."

"Jayne. She's not causing you any harm." Zoe's voice was level and calm, and somehow she managed to convey withering scorn. The ability fascinated River and she cocked her head, but before she could find a way to follow up on it, Jayne finished his dinner, and, leaving his plate where it was, stumped out of the common area.

River followed the trail of his thoughts until something blue and sparkly inside Serenity's workings diverted her attention.


Serenity touched down at Haven early in the local day, to give Kaylee, Inara and Book plenty of time to arrange things. Book knew the folk here, and Serenity had come here two or three times before, especially when things were a mite hot. They'd all managed to forge friendships here, even Jayne, which so surprised everyone on the crew that they just didn't talk about it.

Simon knocked on River's door as soon as the airlocks popped. While the others went off to see about the party, he went to see about his sister.


She had decided last night after dinner that there were too many secrets floating in the air, so she'd slept under her bunk, where they disturbed her somewhat less. She peered out from beneath the hanging blankets.

"River what are you doing down there?" Simon's voice was exasperated and worried, two qualities that had defined it since she had woken aboard this ship.

"I was sleeping," she answered, in as normal a tone as she could manage. "I do that, you know."

"Most people sleep on top of their beds," Simon pointed out.

She slid effortlessly from beneath her bed and flowed to her feet. "I'm not most people."

"Very true," Simon said with a smile. "You're my sister. I have something special for you."

His tone caught River's sensitive ear. This was where it would begin. This was where the secrets from which she had been hiding would start to unravel. She looked at him through the screen of her hair. "What is it?"

He held out his hand. "Come with me."

River took his hand, though not without misgivings. She had liked surprises once, and Simon had used to like to surprise her. But since showing up to rescue her -- not a surprise, really, since she'd always had faith that he would -- he had been very careful not to surprise her. He was afraid that she'd turn. That she'd become dangerous like the twisted, broken thing she was.

Simon led her through Serenity to the Companion's shuttle. She liked the Companion. Inara's thoughts were controlled, soft, restful. She, like the others, was not without her secrets, but they were buried and undisturbed. They were almost as deeply hidden as Book's. River hadn't yet ferreted out Book's secrets. She was afraid to; she knew he had more weapons hidden about him than that wild, frightening shock of hair.

"Hello, River," Inara said. "Please come in." Simon handed Inara's hand proudly to Inara, and River almost laughed. This was the surprise? That she would get to spend time with soft, restful Inara?

"Blue," she said. "You're blue. But not like them. They're hard and electric and if you get too close, they'll arc. You're blue like a lake, with greeny bits and reflecting the sky."

Inara smiled as she drew River into the shuttle. "That's kind of you to say, my dear." She led River to the couches. "Simon has asked me to spend some time with you today. There's going to be a party tonight, and he has asked me to help you with your hair and dress. Is that all right with you?"

Ah. A party. She dimly remembered parties being boring, solemn affairs full of grownups in fancy gear, moving in set patterns to set music, while doing their best to step on other people's heads. She picked at her skirt. She liked her skirt. It swirled around her when she moved.

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree," River quoted, rolling her eyes.

Surprisingly, Inara was able to follow her conversation. "No, I don't believe it's going to be like that. Would you like to see the dress we got for you?"

"Who's 'we'?"

Inara smiled -- Inara always smiled at people. She smiled almost as much as Kaylee, but unlike Kaylee's sunny expression, Inara's smile hid things. She got up and retrieved an oblong box from her table and presented it to River.

River took the box uncertainly. It was lightweight and the contents slithered a bit. "Snakes?"

"I don't believe so," Inara replied. "Open it. Or if you prefer, I can open it for you."

"It had better not be snakes," River said warningly. She opened the box. There were no snakes inside, only a bunched bit of fabric. She lifted the dress out and held it up. It was feather-light, flowing, dark blue -- almost black -- shot with silver. It was the most beautiful thing she had seen in a long time.

"Hey," Inara said, getting up and sitting next to River. "Why are you crying?"

"I'm not crying," River replied automatically, but when she raised her hand to her face, she found it wet. And her nose was a bit runny. An interesting effect, really. Why did the nose run when the eyes watered? What sort of physiological reason was there for this and did it make a person easier to . . . . She shied away from the thought, looking instead at the dress in her lap.

"It's a gift from all of us," Inara said. "To thank you."

"Thank me? Why?"

Inara touched her finger to the tip of River's nose. "For being you, my dear. And for getting rid of Jubal Early for us." Inara's eyes darkened as she remembered the bounty hunter. Her hand did not rise to touch her face where he'd hit her, but River could see the memory. For a moment, her hands burned to be about Early's throat. For Inara. For Kaylee. For Simon. He'd hurt them all. Kaylee was only just beginning not to start at small noises behind her.

She shook her hands out and filled them with rich dark fabric instead. She mustn't think like that. Simon wouldn't like it if he knew she was thinking like that. But sometimes, there was just such a rage inside her . . . and then it all flowed away again at Inara's touch on her hand.

"Would you like to put it on?"

River nodded. Inara helped her into the beautiful thing, and as she gazed into the mirror, River remembered how she had been before. She picked up her limp, draggled hair. "Something simply must be done about this," she said.

"I agree," Inara replied. "Let's get you back out of that dress for now. Here's a robe you can borrow, and we'll get you ready for the party."

And so River spent the day in Inara's shuttle while Inara fussed over her. Hair, nails, makeup -- River couldn't remember the last time she'd worn makeup. And when Inara was finished and River stood in front of the mirror again, she saw someone completely different looking out at her. This must be the sort of person that Inara saw when she looked into her mirror. She reached forward to touch the mirror and the OtherRiver reached up as well. She thought that just for a moment, if they could be one, then perhaps she could be whole, right, unbroken. But the glass prevented them from touched and the moment was lost as the Captain's voice sounded on the shuttle's comm.

"We're ready, Inara, if you're finished."


The people of Haven had gathered as if for a festival, as if having Serenity there were cause for celebration. Perhaps it was. Bonfires were already burning, music played and people were dancing about the fires. There was such freedom in the music, such joy in the air, that River itched to join them.

But first things first.

The crew were all -- even Jayne -- lined up at the base of Serenity's ramp.

"Surprise," Kaylee called as soon as River, with Inara slightly behind her, appeared. "Oh, gosh, River! You look gorgeous! Don't she look gorgeous?" Kaylee asked, turning to Simon.

"Indeed. She's lovely," River's brother replied. He moved forward to offer her his arm, but Mal was a step ahead of him.

"Miss Tam," he said, "if you would allow me to escort you?"

River, her eyes shining, tucked her hand through Mal's arm and allowed him to lead her to the party. She glanced back once at Simon and stuck her tongue out at him, so like her old self that she startled a laugh out of him.

"Mal," she said to the captain, "is Latin for 'bad'."

He inclined his head. "So you once told me."

"But Malcolm means 'Servant of St. Columba' -- the dove. It's a royal name, you know."

"Is it, now?"

"You know it is, Captain. Your mother told you so often enough: 'a kingly name for a princely man.'"

"Ah, little one, have you decided not to hide tonight?"

She looked up at him. "Not tonight, Captain. But . . ." Tonight would be good, but River could sense the clouds on the horizon. "Trouble's coming, Captain. Bad trouble. Best be ready."

The captain stilled. "More bounty hunters?"

River shrugged. "I don't know, Captain. I can't . . . the future's not an open book, you know. It's not even a stupid, broken book like the Shepherd's. Why do you suppose his name is Book, anyway?"

"I'm sure he'll tell us eventually," the captain answered, but River shook her head. "No, I don't think he will."

They had reached the fires. "Will you dance with me, Miss Tam?"

"I'd be honored to, sir," River answered, and allowed Mal to whirl her away around the fire. Eventually, as Simon, Kaylee and Inara watched, she broke away from the captain and danced on her own, twirling in joy, her eyes shining, a smile on her face, her hands gracefully outstretched.

"Thank you both," Simon said to the women with him. "This is . . . I haven't seen her so happy in a long, long time."

"Happy to do it," Kaylee replied brightly.


River danced, and thought nothing. She took joy in the music, in her strong, young body bending to the rhythms, in the stamp of her feet on the ground, or the whisper of their passing when the music was less energetic. For a while, she forgot. Forgot her brokenness. Forgot her brother's unending worry. Forgot the secrets swirling through the air around her. Forgot herself.

It couldn't last forever. Even if the others didn't realize it yet, she could feel herself sliding, knew that she was losing herself again. And she knew that they were out there. The blue-handed ones, and worse. All waiting. All looking for her. And when they found her, it would be bad. Bad for her. Bad for Simon. Bad for all of Serenity's crew.

But tonight there was music, and fire, and forgetting, It would be enough.

Author's Notes and Disclaimer

  • Firstly, the crew of Serenity, Serenity herself, and the entire 'verse belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. I'm merely playing in their sandbox. No infringement is intended and no profit will be had hereby.

  • Secondly, as usual, I strayed a bit from the prompt. I hope there's enough River and Inara interaction.

  • This is obviously set after "Objects in Space" but before Inara and Book left Serenity. It's also set prior to the events related in the graphic novel, Serenity: Those Left Behind.

  • I find River's voice surprisingly difficult, so I hope I came close.
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