River wasn’t sleepy, but Simon put her to bed anyway. She stuck her tongue out at him, but closed her eyes. She could
pretend if it would make him happy.
She didn’t have to sleep. She reached out with her mind, stretched it out of her body, went walking through the ship.
As always, the noisiest thoughts came through first.
Jayne’s mind was restless, kinetic, a tiger pacing in a cage. It made River smile faintly- she had tamed the tiger,
made it back down from her hand and pin its ears in fear. She could see inside his stripes, see his bones and muscles and
churning pumping heart, see the old ideas of fight and flight grapple with this foreign concept of loyalty. Old paradigm
clashed with new. The tiger hissed and growled and threw itself into physical foolishness to drown out the dissonance. River
smiled wider and snuggled down into her sheets. She could hear the clang of weights in the cargo bay. A flood of adrenaline
to overcome the firing of inconvenient neurons. The tiger chased its tail.
Wash’s mind was a spiral, and at its center was Zoe, every thought moving outward from her and sometimes darting inward
from its course to touch on her again. There were fragile places, mended cracks- the points the others, in their hopeless
mundanity, called “being crazy.” Old, deep sorrows, painted over with jokes. River could peel the paint back
with her fingernails if she wanted, but as of yet she’d seen no purpose in it. Mostly she left his mind alone, unless
she couldn’t sleep. Then a drift through it could be very soothing, its fields of stars and strong safe core of love.
The Shepherd’s mind was disciplined, regimented and kept in rows, conforming to a structure learned over years. Things
bubbled and whispered just under that ordered surface- River could feel them, just out of reach. She could probably push
through if she tried her hardest, see what slept under the smooth gray skin, but that was an experiment without a control
It might be easier, she thought resentfully, spinning off through the ship again, if she didn’t have to push through
all that hair.
Inara, tears and music. Inara, sadness and light.
Jangling bronze chimes when she thought of the Captain. A rush of golden bells for Kaylee. A careful, schooled metronome-
her heartbeat- when clients crossed her mind. So many masks, such a catalogue of ordered sounds. Where was the heart of
Inara, what was her true song?
River reached out to touch deeper, slide proverbial fingertips under metaphorical skin. Inara dreamed of a home that wasn’t,
anymore. River had a corollary, in her heart. She knew another who did as well.
The Captain was brown, brown, like he’d drawn the color of his coat into his very essence. His thoughts were twisty,
full of sidetracks and careful circles to avoid the aching places. Every moment, he tiptoed through a minefield.
He huddled inside his little brown shell, trying to keep the universe at bay. Trying to keep the Feds out, to keep the crew
out. Oh, but River could see- thin little tendrils of light, crawling under Mal’s shell, flowing from each of them,
anchoring him here in Serenity. Without them he’d shrivel up and drift away. He pretended otherwise, lonely man in
his shell, but River knew.
Kaylee’s mind was a jumble, chaos and laughter and noise, thoughts cross-firing and making connections by instinct.
No structure, no order. No protection from the extremes of emotion, no channels for fear or ecstasy. A hand’s breadth
from madness. Chaos was undesirable.
And yet she loved- was loved- had purpose. Purpose in chaos would seem contradictory. Love in instability was illogical.
Kaylee’s existence, in cool analysis, was without merit.
But River had no wish to see her gone.
Zoe’s mind was divided, organized, bent to her will. Not order imposed, like the Shepherd’s. Organic order,
like quartz crystals, order grown from within. Simply a part of her.
River approved of this, envied Zoe her internal control. She’d had something like that once, but it had been taken
from her. Unfortunate. Regrettable.
Wash was not the center of Zoe, because Zoe didn’t grow outward from a center. She was evenly distributed, balanced.
Her strength came from her structure, not her core. River studied it, filed observations for analysis, noted the places one
would apply hammer-taps of force to bring it all down in broken shards.
Last mind, closest mind, arm’s-length away, always turned toward her. Simon.
Her dearest, half-self, the steady light on her left side since the day she was born. Oldest steadiest unyielding love- and
yet she knew his mind least of all.
Flurries of emotion moved flash-fast to the surface. Instantaneous expression, no capacity for misdirection. A weakness,
a flaw. But he could turn a switch in his mind and drain all that away, empty himself to the center and perform surgery with
steady hands. A dichotomy. A curious duality to Simon.
And he loved her. She was a liability, a risk, a parasite on his strength and energy. Illogical to love her, to protect
her. Worthy of contempt, really.
She could never stop loving Simon.
The logic and order of her thoughts was pressing against the inside of her head, sharp-edged and rigid. She whimpered and
twisted in her bed. In a heartbeat- faster than logic would allow for- Simon was there, soothing hands on her face, soft
voice urging her to sleep.
She gave in to his voice, let the crystalline thoughts dissolve into liquid, swirls of feeling and color and noise. Tiger
stripes on brittle brown shells, spirals at their hearts, growing out of crystal fields ringing with the sounds of bells and
laughter, waves of emotion breaking over carefully tended walls, the lifesong of Serenity lulling her to sleep.