Back Stories I: Chapter 6/14: River
Thursday, May 17, 2007

Mal tries to hold on to his memories, then – River has a mystery to solve, and many strange encounters along the way.


Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I’m just playing.

Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don’t want to give things away. In general, don’t be getting into any of this if you’re not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.

Many thanks: to several members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally – kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ) and Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

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Back Stories, Book 1

by Mal4Prez


Chapter 6/14: River

Mal tries to hold on to his memories, then –
River has a mystery to solve, and many strange encounters along the way.



Mal watches until both hatches are closed, his crew divided evenly between the two shuttles. They’ll last a bit longer there, longer than he will on Serenity with no life support.

It’s the best he can do for them.

As he walks out of the cargo bay, it occurs to him that he might not see this part of his ship ever again. Just outside the hatch, he looks back for barely a second, taking it in with a suddenly vivid awareness. The cargo bay has changed since he first showed it to a skeptical Zoë years ago – and not just physically. Memories have defined it, given it meaning. Memories, and the people in them. He can almost see…

     … the crew laughing as a ball arcs through the air and glances off a suspended metal ring…

     … sparks of bullets hitting the bulkheads when Niska’s crew shows to collect the stolen medicine…

     … River curling up on the catwalk, like she wants to hide, like she hopes to keep her madness private…

     … Mal himself on the landing, dangling his feet over a small herd of cattle as he shares Kaylee’s wine with –

He slides the hatch shut.

The infirmary has its own stories to tell: the Shepherd, so near death that Mal has to go to his greatest foe and ask for help. Simon, taking over the small room with an unspoken cockiness, a confident assumption that he owns it more than Mal ever can. Kaylee, her eyes blank with shock as Mal injects a sedative into her neck.

Shades of Kaylee follow him up the long stairway to the corridor outside the engine room. Memories of the girl fill the space, from the first time he met her (though he’d tried his best not to see, considering what she and Bester’d been up to) to just an hour ago, when she sat staring at the ruined catalyzer in her hands.

He passes through the next hatch and seals it behind him, leaving the blasted engine room to recollect Kaylee’s presence on its own.

The dining room is a mess, chairs scattered and the remains of dinner and birthday cake all over the deck. This place is rife with memories: countless meals at the table, some relaxed and warm like the last, some crackling with animosity and discord. But more on his mind are all the little places – the alcove where he’s spent many a sleepless night, playing at cards or reading any bit of copy he can get his hands on. The cabinet in the pantry where Jayne let some squirreled away snack rot and the smell lingers still. The burner in the galley that once nearly cost Wash his life (or, at least, his eyebrows) when he tried to rebuild it with a little more power.

Mal thinks of all this, but he doesn’t let his steps slow. He passes through and seals off the hatch behind him.

The fore corridor connects to the few places on this boat that remain strangers to him. His own bunk he knows, of course, and Wash and Zoë’s bunk is familiar too, though he’s seen it dressed up different than it is now. It was his once, before the two of them got married and needed the bigger space for themselves. Wash insisted on hauling in some gigantic mattress and stuffing it down the chute. Mal hasn’t laid eyes on the cabin since.

The bridge has two hatches closing it in, like it needs the extra barrier to keep the rest of the ship out. Mal closes them both. His journey done, he sits in the pilot’s seat and wraps himself in a blanket to hold back the creeping cold.

All the sealed hatches don’t quite do their work; his mind finds its way back through them, wandering the body of the ship. The oxygen, he knows, is going the opposite direction, channeling its way to the bridge in an effort to keep his body alive as long as possible. But his mind is out there still, watching the memories grow thinner.

The cargo bay, the passenger dorms, the infirmary, the engine room, the dining room, the crew quarters – all choke on carbon dioxide, the life that had been there fading away.

* * *


A moon wasn’t like a brain, but a brain could be like a moon.

River’s brain was.

Sometimes the inside of her head glowed with light that wasn’t her own. Reflected light. Reflected voices. Reflected thoughts. They illuminated the things around her, changing the scenery. Even while she watched, the world morphed. Simple objects took on new meanings when the silver light shining from her brain found them.

Maybe it wasn’t really a light. (Of course it’s not a light. I’m not crazy.) But it acted like one. The glow of it made her fingertips tingle as she walked into the galley. Many things to illuminate in here – too bad no one else could see. Or maybe they could, but they knew how to ignore it. It wasn’t so easy for her.

Little symbols. Like sharp glints of moonlight shimmering on an undulating water surface, those sparks were everywhere. Pretty little symbols, twisted black on blue or blue on white or sometimes white on blue. But always the same symbols, on walls, on signs. On billboards and bottles and electronics and clothes and tin cans full of green beans.

Those symbols had stories and stories and stories behind them. River didn’t know the stories. They hadn’t been born in her head, and it didn’t feel like they lived there, though they must. Somewhere hidden and dark, those stories must have found homes inside of her - how else would she be able to see these hints?

The stories wouldn’t show themselves, not in full, but they wouldn’t leave either. She didn’t like thinking about that, about things that didn’t belong to her living in her head. She preferred to believe that they existed in full blazing truthful brightness somewhere on the other side of the `verse, and the light of them just glanced off of her, leaving her whole and unchanged underneath.

Like the moon catching the light of the sun. Like water catching the light of the moon.

Her moonbrain cast light on the galley, but no one else noticed. The symbols on the label of the can in Wash’s hands were bright with the secrets of their stories, but he didn’t even look at them. He was only interested with the things inside the can. River strummed her fingers against her leg as she stared. The label needed to come off. Her hands wanted the tear up the symbols and put them in a dark dark place where they wouldn’t catch the reflected light and make her see their stories.

Wash’s voice broke her concentration.

“Hey there, River. You hungry?”

She pulled her eyes up to the windows on his face. Nice windows. Good insides make good windows.

“Stomach’s not hungry,” she replied. “Hands are hungry.” Fingers itched to tear paper from metal, but she’d tried that once. It didn’t help. It scared people. They would just make her stop again.

Have to behave. No tearing. Stay still, fingers.

“I don’t think I can help with that,” Wash said with a glance across the room at the table, at Zoë sitting and watching. For just a second, River heard them thinking

Here she goes again…

“There somethin’ else you need?” Zoë asked.

River frowned and scratched her head, scratched the part of her hair right above her forehead. Her brain was trying to tell her something. It’d been trying for a few days, since she got back from the mall, but she’d been too busy to think about it. Too much was happening. The captain was going away and Zoë was afraid and Simon was worried and Kaylee was hiding and Jayne didn't want her and Book was feeling pleased with himself....

But this morning the symbols kept catching her eye. Maybe it was best that all of the rest wait – just for a few minutes – while she looked and listened.

Symbols need to be torn off, removed.

No, it was different than that. She scratched harder, wrinkling up her face when her nails dug into her scalp. “Need to cut out eyes,” she said, hardly knowing what words were coming out her mouth.

Wash stepped away. Afraid – still afraid of her, after all that had happened, after how hard she’d tried to behave. Zoë was looking at River now too, really looking. Zoë was full of worries and plans and memories and didn’t look close often these days, but something had been enough to make her clear her mind. River listened back to what she’d just said.

Hmm, yes. That might do it.

“Why don’t you have a seat, River?” Zoë said, patting the chair next to her. “I’d like to hear more about this cuttin’ eyes thing.”

River sighed impatiently. She'd said too much. She needed to be free to roam, to search while the moonbrain was shining. So she smiled. An innocent smile. A silly Zoë smile. A why do you worry? smile.

“Not real cutting,” she said. “Just looking. Need to shine the light around. Find the right story.”

She hoped that would be enough, but Zoë didn’t look less worried. River searched for an excuse, for something that would ease Zoë’s suspicions, and her eyes settled on the can. She took it from Wash, then let herself have the satisfaction of ripping the label off.

“Bad, bad paper!” she said. “Has… eyes.” She glanced up at Zoë to see if she bought it, then threw the crinkled paper on the floor and stomped her foot on it. Just for good measure, she stomped again, then looked up and smiled.

“There – all better!”

She went toward the aft hatch, walking with a purpose so they wouldn’t stop her. They didn’t, but she heard Wash’s comment.

“Well. I feel safer now. Don’t you, dear?”

River took the turn toward the stairs, heading down to the infirmary. Tearing up the label had felt good, but that wasn’t the point of this. The labels were a clue; they glinted at her for a reason. Her brain had lit them up today to tell her something.

Pay attention to details, the things only I can see. The truth is in the details. The truth is in the random things which aren’t really random. React without thinking.

That’s how the special parts of her brain talked to her – in reactions without conscious thought. She’d learned that at the Academy.

* * *

Eleven and a half months ago

Words enter her ears from outside, strange words. A diagram pops into her head as if it was called forth.

(Of course it was; they can do that to me now.)

The diagram in her imagination is a human body. Symbols mark weak points; the shape and color of the symbols describe the type of blows which are the most effective.

(I’m a puppet, and they can pull my strings.)

River is awake and standing in a square room, the diagram floating in her head. There is thin padding on the floor and three walls. She can’t approach the fourth wall because a screen spans the room; behind the screen is a giant mirror. Like a dance studio, but not really at all.

She knows that she is being watched by a crowd who wait behind the mirror. They are eager for the show to start. This is a test, an exciting one for them. She’s advanced now, more advanced than anyone has ever been. She’s a star. The Important Ones will be coming to see her soon, if she passes this test.

She doesn’t like that idea. The Important Ones came once before, and they put horrible things into her mind.

There are other people in the room – five men in padded suits. They are large and strong, and River feels fragile and cold in front of them. They look like they want to hurt her. She backs away, frightened and unsure. She hopes she will fail the test because she really doesn’t want the Important Ones to come to see her again. But failing will hurt, too; the men will see to that. They are holding clubs, clubs with soft outer shells, padded so they won’t damage her, but they leave bruises that ache for days. This she knows for certain.

Words sound from a hidden speaker, words that River doesn’t understand but the puppet inside knows well. Her mind empties of fear and confusion, fills with absolute confidence in her abilities and clear comprehension of and belief in her goal.

These men are her targets, and they must be dealt with.

She doesn’t think, just steps forward as if there is a path of light on the floor, prints showing her where to step, lines in the air guiding her movements. They shift just a second before the lead man changes his approach and attacks her. The lines are another diagram, showing where he’s going to move, how he’s going to strike, and how best she can counteract him. Distantly, she realizes that the lights shine out of her mind, that she is making this happen. This is what they’ve been teaching her all these years.

The puppet is exhilarated. River is aghast.

She does as the lighted patterns tell her, and then all five men are on the floor, injured and gasping in pain despite the protective padding they wear. River is aware that her audience is pleased; she steps forward; the puppet intends to finish the men, one by one.

More words sound and her mind turns off as if someone flipped a switch.

* * *

She’d passed that test, but the Important Ones never visited her again. Simon took her away before they could. Now she was here, on Serenity, and there was another test.

“Brains don’t all belong,” River whispered to herself. “Not the moon – moonbrain is all right. But other brains shouldn’t be here.”

She crept down the stairs, looking for clues. Looking for brains with eyes and ears and memories. Brains that needed to be cut out. All she found was Book, sitting outside the infirmary reading from his symbol. She came down the stairs quietly, but he knew she was there. He was a good listener. Just like River was a good listener – she heard Zoë above and behind her. Following. Watching. Just to make sure the girl ain’t gonna make trouble hold lunch for a few all right Wash?

River sat down on the stairs, still halfway up into the shadows above the infirmary. She stared at Book. There was a story happening here. Words. The same words, hundreds of times over. He was reading them yet again.

“Does the meaning change?” she asked.

Book looked up at her, and the smile on his face was kind. Different from the kind light in Wash’s eyes. Wash had always been kind. Born that way.

The Shepherd has a long road behind him.

That ain’t a Shepherd.

“What do you mean, River?” Book asked, his tone smooth and soft because of the patience that ran so deep in him. He’d always been patient. Hadn’t always been kind.

Understanding is not necessary, he was thinking. The effort is the point.

“Do new meanings come out?” she asked.

Book looked at her evenly for a few seconds as the cogs turned inside his head. He closed the book, one finger holding his page, then he looked down at it and realized what she was asking.

“Faith is a journey,” he said, and he held up the book. “The words in here refer to truths in ourselves, and we are always changing.”

A long road behind him. He has passed through the shadows and chosen the kindness and the Light.

“You need words to tell you truths you already know?” she asked.

He smiled. “Sometimes it’s hard to see into ourselves.”

River nodded her agreement.

He continued. “Words help. The wisdom of others who have lived before us is a valuable thing, and shouldn’t be ignored.”

River stared at the book. That made sense, except… “Those words are very old,” she said. “Meanings don’t apply anymore.”

“It’s true that some of the details are a little… outdated. The world has changed in two and a half millennia. But the things that are true to the heart, and the soul, will always ring true. You have to look beyond the stories.”


Āi yā – she’d almost forgotten! She stood up and trotted quickly down the stairs, pausing at the bottom just long enough to look at Book’s book one more time and shake her head.

“Isn’t the story I need.”

“I’m trying to tell you, River; it’s not just a story – ” “Doesn’t light up. Need to keep looking.”

She put her hands over her ears so he wouldn’t distract her again, and hurried into the cargo bay. Book’s confusion and frustration followed her anyway, and she felt him sigh inwardly at the way she’d abandoned the conversation. Making an effort is all I can do. Understanding River is not possible.

She ignored him. “Kill the bad brains,” she whispered. “Important.”

But what is their story? And where in her brain does it hide? She had to reach further back…

* * *

Fourteen months ago

She is dreaming again, but it is a good one. Gentle hands adjust her body as a firm voice instructs her.

Engage your turn-out, and don’t forget the standing leg. Heel below knee. Knee above hip. Arm up, shoulder forward, slight elbow curve. Long wrist. Hip forward but still down. Easy hold on the barre, River. Try to balance without it.
Muscles in River’s lower back clench; her hip tries to twist. This leg shouldn’t go that high, her body says, but she holds it there anyway. Despite the teacher’s words, her left hand clutches the barre tightly as she fights to turn out the standing leg and maintain her balance.

River, look in the mirror. Do you see yourself?
Twelve year-old River, en pointe for the first time, looks over her right shoulder. She sees her face, framed by bun and arm. Her back is wide open, shoulder blades pressed outward. A long smooth curve starts with her raised right arm, runs through her side into her right leg which is held high behind her, knee slightly bent in an attitude line. The pale peach satin shoe on her beveled right foot finishes the form with a slight upward stroke. The long, curving shape of her body balances on the straining toes of her left foot.

River smiles. She looks like a dancer. She looks like a ballerina on stage in the City Center Theater, and elation fills her chest.

Until the pain jabs into her forehead… it all changes then.

Using hip means using back. Throw shoulder forward, relaxed and ready to move. Stance is not static but dynamic; the form is to allow the function.

Exercise: Use the foot’s contact with the floor as a base to gather power, recalling as always that balance is the key. The force of the blow must come from speed and precision, not strength. Raise the extended leg as high as possible, slightly across the body, then sweep outward to the side, in a circular movement to strike the opponent’s head or shoulders.

River feels the muscles in her back and leg tensing, the movement so vividly portrayed in her mind that she feels like she’s doing it. The sensation startles her almost awake, and she hears men talking:

“Are you sure the triggers are taking?”

“The mental training will accelerate the physical. We’ll run trials with multiple opponents in a few weeks, before They come to visit.”

“Run several tests. We can’t have her falling apart like she did last time. If They had seen that…”

She sinks back into the lesson.

Always be aware of the path that the opponent's attack has to traverse in order to reach you. Defend that path, but attack through it as well. Shift your body to minimize the surface area exposed to attack. Your position must take optimal advantage of the attacker's weaknesses while simultaneously presenting few openings or weaknesses of your own.

Exercise: …

* * *

The captain was working in the cargo bay, checking over the spacesuits. He must have heard her soft footsteps because he turned and gave her a quick look over. Cursory. Annoyed. A little concerned. Not for her, but for what she might do.

She is an odd one, he was thinking. Not quite right.

River stopped where she was, frozen. She recognized the way he looked at her; she’d sensed that kind of appraisal from the captain before, but not for a long time.

“Something I can help you with?” he asked. He sounded cold, impersonal. Wrong. She couldn’t find exactly what it was about him, but it startled her. She didn’t know what to do.

“You lost?” he asked.

River circled around him, staring. Looking in the windows. What else was missing in there today? Mal shrugged and turned back to the spacesuits. Need to keep them in repair. Can’t be running out of air.

“You dreamed,” River said.

He turned and looked at her, surprised. Of course, he no longer knew that she could read. All she was, in his mind, was crazy.

“Little bits still there,” she said, speaking more to herself than to him. “Little echoes to make you wonder. Not enough to know why. And they fade away…”

He wasn’t listening, not really. It was gibberish to him. “How ‘bout you entertain yourself elsewhere. I got work to do.” He turned back to the suits. Never know when the atmo might go down…

“I told the preacher man,” she said. “Would have frozen first.”

Mal’s look turned suspicious. “What are you talkin’ about?”

She sighed sadly, then grabbed the railing and lowered herself to the stairs. When she didn’t answer his question, Mal shrugged, then picked up the suit he’d been working on and started stuffing it back into the locker. River tilted her head against a metal upright and watched, trying to hear the things she couldn’t make him say.

He was disappearing inside himself, that she knew, but she couldn’t see where he was going. The things he couldn’t remember were either completely gone or buried so deep that she couldn't reach them any more than he could. So much missing, more than she’d expected. She hadn’t been physically close to him in a few days, and hadn’t realized that the hole had grown so large. So many little moments that couldn’t be replaced...

It added up in a way that made her eyes tear up. He didn’t know her anymore, not really. He didn’t trust her like he used to.

Cold, impersonal. Cursory and annoyed. A little concerned about what she might do…

She had to wipe her eyes. It hurt; it really hurt that Mal didn’t recall how she’d distracted Will and Ray and Ginger when they stole the ship on Niflheim, that she’d made sure they wouldn’t kill him. He didn’t know she’d been with him on Oeneus when he was lost in his nightmares. He’d forgotten how she’d saved everyone from Jubal Early. Now he thought she was just pitiful. Unbalanced, unstable; a wreck of a girl.

It tore at her heart, more than she would have thought possible, until suddenly she realized what was happening –

She loved Mal.

She loved Mal!

She gasped – it was perfect! How’d she not see it before? They were both hurt, both driven from happy lives by forces beyond their control. Brought together by random fate, despite all odds. And here they were, a dispossessed princess and a dark, dangerous pirate, each the best chance the other had to be loved.

She slapped a hand to her chest, feeling her heart hammer inside her body. They needed each other! River and Mal. River Reynolds. Malcolm Tam. She would heal him. He would show her sensuous love and the beauty of the `verse, then rediscover joy by seeing it in her eyes.

“Oh, Mal!” she said in a breathless voice, and pulled herself to her feet.

He turned from the locker, confused. “Hunh?”

She fluttered her hands in front of her, trying to swallow the words. Not now – she couldn’t talk to him about this now. He didn’t remember who she really was. She’d have to be patient, wait until he was better.

Méi shén me!” she said. “Nothingnothingnothing!”

His eyes narrowed in suspicion, probably because she was nearly jumping up and down in her excitement. “What the hell are you playin’ at?” he asked, looking like he thought she was truly insane.

She was. Insane in love. Crazy in love!

She took a deep breath and made herself stand still, then crossed her arms over her stomach and smiled at him smugly. This was just as it should be. The hero and the heroine had to start off at odds with each other; it made it sweeter when they finally came together. That was what always happened in the novels she borrowed from her mother’s bookshelves – the ones in the basement, not the serious tomes kept upstairs for company to see. The downstairs books had pink and white covers with women in tight fancy dresses and men with bare chests and pretty hair.

“Someday,” she said, “you’ll remember and you’ll understand.”

A voice sounded from the catwalk, the tone warning: “River.”

River looked up. Zoë was there. Following. Watching.

“Not doing anything bad,” River said defensively.

“She’s just bein’ her odd self,” Mal said, also looking up. “No harm.”

River felt her face warm up and she looked back at him proudly. Of course he was defending her. Somewhere in his heart, he had to know. He had to know that they were destined for each other.

Zoë wasn’t placated. No trust. “I need you upstairs, Captain.”

“Somethin’ important?”


River pursed her lips. There were always forces trying to keep lovers apart, but they wouldn’t succeed. Can’t stop fate. She decided to bide her time, and stayed behind when Mal went to join Zoë and Wash.

But she didn’t stay patient for long. It was unsettling to find love, but not have it. The elation just wouldn’t stay with her. She walked in a few tight circles on the cargo bay floor, then realized that Book could see her from the common area by the infirmary. He was looking at her in that way he had, like he could help her if only she’d let him. If only she’d tell him all.

She huffed at him once, then jogged up the stairs.

The catwalk was a good place to sit. The best, when she was feeling unsettled. The grating wasn’t the most comfortable, but being up here made her feel like she was hovering, suspended above everything. And it was good to be able to see, to know what was happening beside and below and above her, all at once.

She chose her place and sat, then slumped onto her side to curl up on the cold, hard steel. Before she’d met Jase on Niflheim, she hadn’t minded passing time on her own. But now she knew how much better it was to be with someone else. She’d had so little time to enjoy it; Jase had been on board for only a few days.

She closed her eyes and remembered soft lips against hers, the heat of hands sliding over her body, and the shivers of kisses on her neck. He’d been just barely more than a boy – what would it be like with a man? With Mal?

“What’cha doin’?” a rough voice asked.

She pushed herself up to sitting, shaking her head to clear it. Jayne was coming down from the upper deck, and the sight of him made her blush. Just yesterday she’d thrown herself at him. That would have been so wrong! What in the `verse had she been thinking? Mal was the only one for her.

“Nothing,” she said sadly. “Doing nothing. All I’ll ever do. Nothing and more nothing.”

She expected some pity, but Jayne actually chuckled. “I might be able to change that,” he said, and he sat down next to her. River’s stomach sank. She need to explain, to let Jayne down easy…

“Don’t want you,” she said firmly.

Jayne frowned like he was insulted. “Hey, I said no first, don’t be forgettin’ that.”

“Shouldn’t have asked. I was confused. Didn’t know what I was doing.”

“Couldn’t help yourself,” Jayne said with a grin. “No shame in that. I’m an awful temptin’ hunk a’ manhood for a thing like yourself to be seein’ everyday.”

River forgot her lovelorn despair just long enough to roll her eyes, but Jayne didn’t notice.

“Well – here,” he said. “I got ya somethin’, before we left Persephone yesterday. May help ya get by, since you can’t have me.”

He held out a plain black cardboard box. River looked at it for a second, torn between wanting a present and needing to preserve her dramatic state of heart-break. Curiosity won, and she took the box.

Her eyes widened when she opened the flap and looked inside. It was… Really? She looked at Jayne, speechless. Everything but the contents of the box was forgotten.

Jayne glanced around the bay, then leaned toward her and spoke softly. “You tell anybody where you got that, and I’ll… I’ll… do somethin’ real bad. You got it?”

River just stared at him; the implications of this gift were still sorting themselves out in her head.

“Mal’s like to shoot me. And Simon’d… I dunno, but I’m thinkin’ his mind gets just as twisted as yours, and there ain’t no telling what he’d do. So I’d be pleased if you just keep this to yourself.”

“Won’t… won’t tell,” she stammered. “Have to… I have to go….” She started to get up, but Jayne put a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Stop by and see Kaylee,” he said. “They didn’t have no batteries in the place I got that.”

“Batteries?” River asked.

Jayne grinned. “Makes it vibrate.”

River needed a second to process that. Then she jumped to her feet and hurried out of the cargo bay.

* * *
Kaylee was in the back corner of the engine room. She had a wide board laying on the grating of the deck in front of it, covered in tools and a scattering of electronic components.

“Batteries – need batteries,” River demanded as soon as she came in the room.

“Careful!” Kaylee replied, holding out a hand to guard the board. “Don’t be knocking stuff over. There’s some small parts in these.”

River pulled up short before she could make a mess of Kaylee’s workspace, and she looked down at the thing in the mechanic’s hand. There were symbols on it. Little symbols that glowed so bright that she couldn’t look away.

Suddenly, River’s purpose got lost. No – it got found. Nine brains to cut out. Eyes and ears where they didn’t belong. Long, deep memories. Nosy memories.

Sex herself later, get rid of brains now.

She plopped down and dropped the box containing her new toy on the deck next to her, temporarily forgotten.

“River, what’re you – ” Kaylee’s question was cut off when River reached out and snatched a uTex out of a box.

“Wait – I just fixed that one!” Kaylee protested.

“Not enough,” River said distractedly. Kaylee reached out to take the thing back, but River spun herself away to keep out of reach. She didn’t lift her eyes off the uTex. She was focused now – she knew the story.

* * *

Eighteen months ago

The Academy had made sense once, but now it’s become a blur of trials and pain and confusion. She can’t separate one day from the next or the dreams from wakefulness; she just does as they tell her and holds on to her own secret hope – that Simon will get her letters and know…

But this particular day is different. On this day they wash her hair and put her in crisp new clothes. They want her to look healthy and clean for her first real test – she’s going to have an audience.

Important People.

Her blurred mind focuses as they explain; it’s a very simple test, but she cannot fail. Must not fail. Everything (funding, she sees the truth behind their words) depends on impressing the Important People.

They seat her at a table and explain the test, although she knows it well. It’s one of the easier tasks she’s had here. More of a game, really. A man across the table holds up a card, blank on the side facing her but not on the side he sees. The shape on the hidden side of the card fills the man’s mind. It fills hers, too, and she identifies it with words. The man is happy. That’s good; it means they won’t hurt her. (Not today, anyway.)

New card. New shape.

A door opens and the People come in. River’s used to being watched; she continues the game and doesn’t look away.

New card, new shape.

Clouds of glinting bright light form beneath the simple squiggly lines and circles and triangles that the doctor is showing her. She misses a shape and the doctor tenses. She concentrates, and doesn’t miss any more.

New card, new shape.

She continues the game, perfect, but there’s hardly enough air in her lungs to say the words she has to say,

New card, new shape.

because the lights that came in with the people have stories. Some of the stories scream and rend and tear and violate it’s not their fault they’re doing it they weren’t able to lie down

New card, new shape.

but some of the stories are dull and come with diagrams provides access to dangerous information… must track communication between suspected parties… device inserted here…

New card, new shape.

and other stories are just confusing can create the need… will provide just cause… presence will be required… contract to give complete control over local…

and some of the stories slip by so fast she can’t make out a thing about them...

As soon as the Important People leave the room she falls out of her chair onto the floor, curling up and trying to tear the glinting lights and the horrible images out of her head people falling down the simple shapes are gone but not everyone died she tries to pull them back to cover up the bright lights that the visitors brought the live ones are worse they’ll burn up her mind if they don’t fade they’re hungry the pictures have to go into the back they need down deep they’ve done things where she’ll never have to see or know these stories again…

* * *

Moonbrain lit the way, and she knew what needed to be done. She pried open the casing on the small electronic device, then lifted out the tiny circuit board inside. Kaylee had needle-nosed pliers setting out, her smallest pair that had a nice sharp, clean edge on the tip. River picked them up, inhaled deeply, then held her breath to steady her hands. Carefully, she plucked a tiny component off the corner of the board.

Exactly where she’d seen it on the diagram in the mind of the Important Person.

She glanced up. Kaylee was watching with hurt all over on her face – she didn’t know the story. She didn’t know what was needed. No moonbrain there.

River adeptly reassembled the little gadget, then set it down on the board. She held out her hand.


Kaylee closed her fingers over the uTex in her hand, and pulled it close to her chest protectively. “Why’d you go and break it?” she asked. “It took a long time to fix.”

River sighed impatiently, then she picked up the device she’d just operated on. She flipped the tiny capture camera up and aimed it at herself, rotating the projector so it would shine on the curved outer surface of the engine next to them. She watched her distorted image as she spoke.

“Works fine. I fixed it.”

“So what’d you do?” Kaylee asked.

“Don’t want to be tracked. Can’t have anyone know where I am. Fugitive. Fugitive and future pirate lover.”

River sighed longingly, wanting Kaylee to ask, but the mechanic dismissed the words without really hearing them. She picked up the tiny component that River had removed from the device, and her mouth opened in fascination as she stared at it.

“You mean this is – ”

“Also,” River interrupted. “Don’t want anyone keeping track of where I go on the cortex.” She snapped the camera lens down, shutting off the capture, then leaned toward Kaylee, speaking in a whisper. “Going to use mine to look at sex.”

“I'm sure you won't be the only one,” Kaylee said, less impressed than River had hoped she'd be. The mechanic was more interested in studying the chip.

“Stores data,” River explained. “Shows location and tracks communications. Security measures. Legal according to provisions in the Federal Security Act. Sneaky sneaky.” Absolutely necessary to know who is searching for certain keywords… legislation allows it… public doesn’t need to know the details… matter of Alliance security, perfectly legal…

“How’d you know all that?”

“Voices reflect.” But don’t live in me. I hope they don’t live in me.

Kaylee set down the chip and frowned at the uTex. “It’s safe now?”

River nodded. “That one is. I’ll fix them all, if you give me batteries.”

“Batteries for what?”

River picked up her black cardboard box and held it against her stomach. She wanted to show and tell – Kaylee would know about this. Would think it was fun. But Jayne had asked her to keep it secret.

“Present,” she said. “Early birthday present.”

Kaylee’s eyes fell on the box like she hadn’t noticed it before. “From who? Simon?”

River chewed her lower lip. If she told Kaylee what it was, she’d have to say who gave it to her. Then Kaylee would ask what was going on between her and Jayne, and River would have to explain how it was nothing, and why…

Even more than she wanted to tell about her toy, River wanted to tell about Mal. She wanted to talk about the man she loved, and wanted her friend to be happy for her. But, somehow, River knew it wouldn’t go that way. Kaylee wouldn’t understand. Kaylee might even tell her that it couldn't ever work...

No, it was best not to talk about any of it. “Secret,” River said softly.

There was a time when she wouldn’t have gotten away with keeping a secret from Kaylee, but not anymore. Things weren’t so simple as they used to be. The wave of Kaylee’s curiousity swelled, questions about the box and a birthday party (birthday party River noted for later consideration) flying through her mind and leading right to why hasn’t Simon come to talk to me? ain’t I part of it? maybe he don’t want to see me…

Suddenly, Kaylee’s curiousity fell into shreds. She shrugged and leaned over to reach for a box sitting near the bulkhead, and she pushed it toward River.

“Help yourself,” she said. “And don’t worry – I’ll fix the rest of these things. I seen how you done it.”

River picked through the box of batteries, then looked at Kaylee. The mechanic was hunched over, completely focused on the uTex that she taking apart in her hands. She didn’t want to talk. River watched long enough to make sure Kaylee took out the right bit, then she gathered her toy and her batteries and left.

* * *
She managed to avoid everyone on her way down to the dorms. The common room was empty, but Simon was in the infirmary now, bent over his cortex. The way his head lay heavily on his hand told River that he wasn’t getting much reading done – none of the words were sticking in his brain.

She paused to look in the little window. Her brother wasn’t happy; she knew that, and it made her sad. But she’d been leaving him alone in his bad mood. There were blocks up inside him. Nothing she couldn't get around if she really tried, but she wasn't going to do that, she wasn't going to pry into his secrets.

Even so, little bits and pieces of his troubles were always floating about, impossible to ignore. Kaylee was involved, but it went much deeper. It went into things that a brother and sister had to handle on their own. Sex wasn’t something family did together.

River blushed, remembering how she’d once played at carrying Simon’s baby, saying proudly that she and her brother were going to get married. It had made sense then – she loved Simon, and Simon loved her, and marriage was about love. But she knew now that there were different kinds of love. For Simon, one kind was getting in the way of the other.

River wondered if it might be the same for her. Maybe she needed to move away from the childish love before she could have the one for grown-ups.

So you’re an independent eighteen year old fugitive. I’m sure you have lofty plans.

Simon hadn’t really meant it when he’d said that – not in the mean way it had sounded. She knew that. But his sarcasm had been right; she could have no lofty plans, not as long as she depended on him for everything. He couldn’t either. He’d be stuck with her, worried about her, turning his back on Kaylee and all the things he wanted for himself.

River put her hand up to the window so that it seemed to lay against his back. Her big brother needed to be free. That would only happen when she found her own life – her life with Mal.

She snuck past the infirmary hatch on silent feet, closing her mind to Simon’s thoughts so he could ponder them alone.

* * *


méi shén me:   it's nothing
* * *

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Thursday, May 17, 2007 4:26 AM


Yes, I am venturing into Mal/River, but in my own way!! Anyone involved in all the River romance threads that were going a ways back - I was sitting on this chapter, and wanted to display it as my opinion of the pairing, but couldn't spoil it... Oh, but don't even think that I'm done with it yet! ;)

leiasky and hewhokicks - I'm glad you enjoyed the Book/Wash card game! I was amazed that such a long scene between these two difficult characters just came flowing out...

nbz - whoa, interesting ideas you bring up oin your PM! I'm still chewing on them... but it's yet another discussion that must be kept in the PM realm...

Katesfriend - we'll deal with Kaylee on Monday! ;)

BEB - I totally see your point about Book - I kind of enjoy that he still has this competitive going-for-the-kill attitude, but he vents it harmlessly in a card game.

Platonist - "scaffolding" works for me! It's a crooked, topsy turvy, scary scaffold that's been hell to build! But it's holding together so far, carrying the main plot along to where it needs to go... Good luck with the progress report!

Thursday, May 17, 2007 5:08 AM


River is just creapyily (is that a word? I don't think its a word!) in character here and her conversation with Wash and Zoe at the beginning was just eerie.

I can't wait until someone finds out what Jayne gave River! And her distraction with everything was so disjointed and perfectly described.

And Kaylee not interested in sex talk? With River? Damn, that girl really IS distracted!

So River is going to leave Simon alone. Why do I think he's going to resist that and feel the need to 'help' her at every turn? Or - he'll be so distracted with what's going on with Kaylee that he'll neglect her and then feel guilty later?

Ohh, tangled webs. I love it! And the art for this chapter was just lovely as well.

Thursday, May 17, 2007 5:57 AM


This was a lovely series, more Mal angst that I generally like to read, but I did read this series and enjoyed, but going to have to leave it now if you are doing any Mal/River. Waaay too incestous for me. Shudders.

It was a good series though, and you are a very talented writer.

Thursday, May 17, 2007 6:07 AM


I found this amazing. So very much part of River at this point in time, although as a Mal fan I find his deterioration very saddening.

Personally I'm not worried about the Mal/River potential, as although I can't write that, I can appreciate it in others! Besides, I don't think this is real love - River has something of a very strong infatuation, maybe, but love ... not too sure about that.

Thursday, May 17, 2007 6:55 AM


Thanks Jane - My comment above may be misleading. I'm going into Mal/River territory, but I'm hoping that my opinion of these two as an actual pair comes through in how I presented it. *cough*unrealistic*cough-cough* I guess I assume that folks have read the BSR threads where I've stated my opinion flat out - I'm right with SWD.

Doesn't mean I can't have fun with the notion of M/I. ;)

Thursday, May 17, 2007 6:57 AM


Shot - I meant M/R. See I can't even type it right LOL!

Thursday, May 17, 2007 7:05 AM


This is a fascinating story. I love the spot-on characterizations. The plot and the people ring true. Now,I going to be selfish. I hope Mal becomes whole again soon. I miss him!!

Thursday, May 17, 2007 10:49 AM


Well now...I am glad to know that you're using Mal/River as a stage for River's emotional development. While I will read it without qualms and usually enjoy it...this storyverse you've set up makes it totally wrong-footed. That and River would probably pick Mal first for an infatuation until she gets enough time under her belt to know that Mal's a better surrogate father or brother than love interest;)

Gotta say though...I was all kinds of impressed with how you worked with River and her mental state here, first with having her mind mess with her sensory perception to highlight things that are telling her about Blue Sun's evil jiggery-pokery, and then with her flashbacks to her exposure to the Miranda conspiracy and how they managed to warp her ballet training to fit the need for combat abilities. Have to say the imagery for the latter moment was superb and I could imagine Joss & co. using something similar to tell this part of River's story:D

Oh...before I forget: I can't believe it! You actually had Jayne go out and buy River a vibrator?!? Damn...if that doesn't show how crazy (or how caring;D) Jayne is, I don't know what will! I can only imagine the look on the salesperson's face when he purchased it:D


Thursday, May 17, 2007 12:39 PM


I'll probably need to read this again when I had had a little more sleep...

Interesting look at river's mind. Playing in a world where she wants the benefits of being crazy and of being sane has its own drawbacks.

Looking at Mal's memory, his mental state I take it is between Jaynestown and OoG atm?

Back to River though... using novels as a guideline is waiting for disaster. Like watching a kid play with knives. Just gotta cringe at what could happen.

Some of the simplicity of river's thoughts mixed with other complex thoughts do seem about right for that age range.

Not sure where it will go, but I think you'll keep us entertained.

Jayne... He is playing with fire.

Thursday, May 17, 2007 1:37 PM


My first reaction to your description of exploring M/R was like... Oh Shit!is there any quality fic worth reading on this site anymore?

River's crush on Mal is not only appropriate for her age and typical for her unfortunate
thwarted development, but believable in the fragmented context you've portrayed her.
(I am after all the parent of an 11 year old with a shrine to Orlando Bloom in her bedroom and "Mrs. Bloom" scripted all over her school binder, LOL)

My big fear is that Mal, in his infinite wisdom, will fail to recognize
her tender feelings for what they are and hurt her more that any Alliance researcher has. We all know what his track record is on understanding women's feelings.

Jayne's way of solving River's problem is hilarious and very much in character.

I'm curious to what your spin on Inara's back-story will be. We know so little about her and those "clues" never made a lick of sense to me.

Good luck with that one!

Thursday, May 17, 2007 4:23 PM


I adore the way you write River, especially the way she sees and considers things. I did smile at how she rationalises why she and Mal should be together - both broken. I am hoping therein lies the seeds to healing them both. But oh my, what was Jayne thinking giving River a present like THAT? Did he steal it from Kaylee's bunk I wonder? LOL. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, May 17, 2007 5:05 PM


"Like the moon catching the light of the sun. Like water catching the light of the moon." Beautiful imagery here, Mal4prez. Another artfully crafted masterpiece!

I could hardly believe when you inserted your brain into Jayne's character and came up with a totally believable Jayne. Now I can hardly believe you could follow and articulate the thought patterns of an 18 yo paranoid schizophrenic and not only make them completely logical but believable and completely reasonable from her point of view. And your Book is no slouch either. Tell me, do you have multiple personalities that can flit easily from character to character, or are you incredibly evil genius? No wonder BS is going to take you so long - but it sooooo worth it.

The rest will have to be in PM!

Thursday, May 17, 2007 5:07 PM


I've been a horrible fan - due to crazy real life I have probably only read half the chapters so far, but I've enjoyed all.

I simply had to take the time to comment because I think you just handled River more perfectly than any writer to date. I also like that you are writing a :cough cough: realistic portrayal of Mal/River. I cannot see a relationship between them as you well know ;) but I *can* see exactly what you're portraying here.

Friday, May 18, 2007 1:16 AM


Mal4prez, I have to ask - picking up on something Katesfriend said about B5, are you writing some B5 stories as well? I am a HUGE fan so would be interested in any B5 you write as well as anything of course set in our wonderful Firefly 'verse. Okay, so I'm addcited to fanfic, sue me. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, May 18, 2007 3:32 AM


mal4prez, I am LMAO and didn't realise it was BS not 5 but so happy you are catching up. Stick with it and you will be rewarding in ways you have no words for. I can't reply to you via email as I don't have your email address which is why I couldn't respond about the plot bunny from The Forgotten Realm. Next time you wave please use your email address and I can respond in full. Love your shiny writing, may have to invest in sunglasses! Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, May 18, 2007 6:30 AM


Yet awesome installment of Back Stories. I have just finished the last four and they are great. Way too many great parts to name them all, but I love the way River takes it upon herself to fix all the Utex devices. I also think it is totally Jayne to go out and buy her a vibrater. I laughed very hard at that.

My suspicions that Book was once an operative are growing. As are my feelings that Jayne is smarter then he lets on.

I really love how you are weaving in everyone’s past. The clues you are giving are so fun to guess at. It is also brilliant how you are weaving in things that happened in the series but showing them to us from a different perspective. I really cannot wait to find out about Inara. I have suspected her to have evil intentions since the last fic.

I have never really gotten into the Whole Mal/River thing because I just don’t see Mal taking advantage of a young girl. He is too honorable for that. I can however totally see her having a crush on him as you have portrayed. I suspect that even in his weakened mental state, he will reject her. Hopefully it won’t crush her.

Friday, May 18, 2007 9:45 AM


oh, forgot to add to my comment yesterday that this chapter was a bundle of the unexpected.

I like to have a handle on some things. See what is coming up. But every single thing in this chapter threw me. UTex, River with her thoughts, Jayne, even the small discourse with Book were brilliant. and unexpected.


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Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.

Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.