"Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun."
~John Donne, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"
He remembers the first time he saw her, the day their parents brought her home from the hospital. Father knelt down to Simon’s
level, holding out the little bundle wrapped in a pale yellow blanket. He saw her huge dark-blue baby’s eyes in her
solemn little face (already so knowing, as if she had years and not days behind her), and his world found its center. She
River’s first word was “octopus,” because he taught it to her. He spent hours in her nursery when he was
supposed to be playing outside or studying or some other proper thing that young gentlemen ought to do. Instead he was grinning
with delight, until his face hurt, at her stubborn efforts to make her chubby lips produce the complicated word. She got
it, of course (faster than the books said she should have), and then he taught her a silly little song, about an octopus’s
garden under the sea. It made her laugh, and to this day, if anyone asks him about the happiest memories of his childhood,
the first thing he thinks of is that sunlit nursery and River laughing.
Even then, he knew that it wasn’t- quite- right, to love one person so intensely, so exclusively. But they were strange
children (admitting that isn’t admitting much), both to their parents and their peers. Mother and Father loved
them, but didn’t understand them; they loved their parents, but in truth, they didn’t need them. For comfort,
for understanding, to banish boredom or fear, they were first, last, and best for each other.
He still looks for that now, catching himself going to sit with her in moments of inner turmoil. He opens his mouth to speak,
and she looks at him, bright-eyed and curious, brushing her hair off her face…and his voice dies in his throat as he
studies her. Of course she still wants to help him with his troubles, and probably she still can, but his are nothing compared
to hers (and if the words she says are blurred and jumbled, if they’re nonsense, if they don’t help after all,
that might break the last he has left, the memories he holds on to of River-that-was). So he smiles, and he pushes those
thoughts away, and he kisses her forehead and tells her a story.
It irritates her (he can tell), being treated like a child; but he doesn’t know what else to do, because he cannot admit
this is the strong proud brilliant River who boarded the transport and went away to school. He needs to pretend that that
River is still out there, somewhere, waiting for him, and one day he’ll come around a corner and find her. The broken
River who sleeps on the other side of his bedroom wall is disconnected from the shining girl, linked instead back to the baby
in the nursery. It’s the only way he can let himself look at it. She understands that, he thinks (he sees the weary
resignation in her eyes), and so she bites back her irritation and lets him baby her.
Of course, it’s all easiest when she’s too doped up to think anyway.
She hates it, and he hates doing it to her, but his training is in medicine and medicine is all he knows to give her. So
he mixes and blends and invents exotic drug cocktails; he hushes her protests and pumps them into her veins and waits for
changes. Sometimes they make her sleepy and sluggish and not River at all; those are terrifying hours, and he crosses the
formula off the list he keeps in the infirmary with the heaviest black strike he can manage. Sometimes they make her normal
(at first, at least), and he circles those, allows himself to hope that they’re about to turn that corner, that this
River will shimmer and fade and he’ll have his little sister back again. It never lasts, but he keeps the circled formulas
to learn from and remember.
Sometimes they make her manic, turn her into a wild thing, like today. She went up to the bridge and sealed the door, screaming
at them to get away from her, to get out of her head, to stop lying and scheming and plotting against her. Being able to
seal the bridge off from the rest of the ship is a security feature, of course, one that somehow hasn’t rusted
and lapsed despite the ship’s overall questionable condition. Blame Mal’s devoted mind, blame Kaylee’s
loving care. He stood there in the hallway like an idiot, unable to talk her out of the frenzy he’d put her in, while
Jayne and Kaylee and the captain dragged out some kind of giant metal saw to cut the paneling off the wall so they could take
the locking mechanism apart. It was going to take hours, and time and credits they didn’t have to put it back together
again, and Simon imagined he could see the anger rising off Jayne and Mal’s skin. Even Kaylee (who would never let
a cruel word cross her mind when it came to Simon and his sister) was tight-lipped with worry and irritation as she got ready
to cut her baby apart.
Of course, just before they turned the machine on, the door opened, and River stumbled out into the hall, crying and shaking
and begging for Simon to make the spiders in her head go away. He held her and soothed her and took her off to the infirmary
for sedatives and medicines from the circled list, while the others put all that equipment away again. He’d thanked
them, when he went up to get a tray of dinner, and they’d shrugged it off; problem solved without harm or foul, though
in the future could he please stop her before she got to the bridge, if it wasn’t too much trouble? Sympathy
in their eyes, though, and even Jayne didn’t say anything nasty; they’re coming to love her too, it seems. How
couldn’t they? She’s River. She’s everything.
Probably, if he allowed it, they would be willing to help him take care of her, sometimes. Kaylee would sit with her in these
post-drug vigils, Zoe would teach her exercises or meditations to focus her wild mind. Something. But this is his place,
his duty, and it has been since the beginning. He is her brother, her guardian, her safe harbor. She is his center, steadying
the orbit of his life.
And if it comes to it, he will kill for her; and if it comes to it, he will die for her. He doesn’t question either
of those things, the cold truths that underlie their lives out here. He knows it, and she knows it, the way she knows everything
that he thinks and feels and knows, and always has. The knowing is what makes her River, and always has.
He smoothes her hair as she whimpers in the fog of chemical sleep, and she clumsily reaches up to grab his hand. “Simon?”
she mumbles, and he moves over to where she can see him. “I’m here,” he assures her, squeezing her hand.
“I won’t leave.”
“I know that,” she says, and she sound so pouty and irritable that he smiles. Bratty little sister. His River.
“Go back to sleep,” he says, and she shakes her head. He can see the tension in her body and confusion in her
eyes, fighting up through the drugs. He doesn’t know what else to do, so he squeezes her hand again and starts to sing
that silly little octopus song from their nursery days. She rolls her eyes, but she smiles, and for a moment he lets himself
pretend that he can feel the sun.