AN: This is not edited because I wanted to go ahead and post it. Will likely get it beta-ed later. I've been working on this for AGES. Hope someone likes it. :)
Disclaimer: Its all Whedon, all the time.
************************ Collecting Xander **************************
River liked to collect oddities. Her small never used room on Serenity was teeming with half finished collections from all the planets her crew visited in their mad dash across the cosmos. The left ballet slippers filled the shelves above her rumpled bunk, the baby rattles overflowed from the box beneath her bunk, and the cigar boxes were hung haphazardly from the walls with strategically chewed pieces of gum that she had scraped off from under tables in the shady bars they had done deals with on the Outer Planets.
She was especially fond of the mobile she had made that hung like a well worn chandelier from the fluorescent ceiling light. It was composed of pieces of glass, bullet casings, and the occasional brightly colored feather. On nights when the voices in her mind were trying especially hard to crowd out her own she perched on the stairs to her room, set the light low, and watched the shadows it cast fill the stale space. It made her feel larger than herself, more in control of the chaos, if she let herself count the feathers in half forgotten languages under her breath as she conquered the space she had built to represent the world she rarely managed to actually touch.
The red thimble was Mal. The piece of blue reflector glass, Jayne. The small socket wrench, Kaylee. The spun ball of wire, Simon. The piece of mirror, Inara. The yellow feather, Zoe.
Her years on Serenity had been kind to her shattered mind. Much of it still hung in unsteady pieces, like the mobile she had painstakingly built, and the shadows still kept her up, but they comforted her too, when she conquered them down to whispers. Because the voices she kept around her now were full of love and quiet acceptance of a woman who, if no longer unbalanced, could never quite dance in straight lines again.
Inara was the soul of the ship. Their benediction. But no one on the ship was all that concerned about the state of their souls, or in receiving benediction from any higher authority. Not when they had Wash and Book to speak for them directly. So Inara, full of her love for them, and their love for her, was living richly in the training home Mal had rescued her from so long ago. She joined them for birthdays and looked just as out of place as ever in her silks and velvets. But her eyes, no matter how darkly lined, were lighter than ever, and River was glad she had found a way to straddle both pieces of her heart.
Simon had grown in ways even her future addled mind hadn’t been able to forsee, and his face was lined with kindness now when before her fingers always itched to smooth the stress away. Kaylee had a lot to do with that. Doctor or not, he’d finally fallen for her infectious earnestness with a love that, if awkward in words, always seemed to make up for itself with a rousing ten or fifteen minutes in the supply closet between shifts.
Jayne had turned into a man. The Girl had finally been infected by the irresistible draw of the crew until Jayne became a Boys name too. He cursed and drunk and whored just as much as before, but he laughed as he did it, and spent his money on shiny things that made his insides warm. On good days he left her trinkets outside her door to add to her collections.
Then there was Mal who hadn’t changed at all except for accepting that River wasn’t a girl name anymore, but a woman name. His woman’s name. She squirmed in the shadow of her room with the thought, of the thousands of ways he managed to touch her that just made sense. That gave her a place to call home in the storm the Alliance had left her trying desperately to float in, nearly ten years later.
The broken parts had all become whole in their own way. It was only the whole parts that stayed broken.
River rested her chin on ever bony knees, tilted her head to one side, watched the ragged feather she had named Zoe bob aimlessly, and sighed.
He still sat in the pilot’s chair. Oh, Mal piloted Serenity, or she did, but it was still Wash who kept the dinosaurs free of dust, and the seat warm and welcoming, a safe haven in the storm of their lives. The pilot’s chair shouldn’t be safest place on the ship, not with pieces falling off of Serenity as they took off and landed, and with things hitting them as they tried to escape yet another close call. But Wash made sure that nothing ever happened when you sat in the chair.
Because she and he both knew Zoe couldn’t handle loosing the scant comfort that that safety provided.
River scrunched down closer in the air duct, absently ignoring the protestation in her neck and back that she wasn’t as young as she used to be. Maybe she was, and that was her body’s problem. The ship was on autopilot for a routine route so Mal was off doing things that involved tight pants that River would peel off of him later, and Zoe stood next to the pilot’s seat, her fingers absently trailing up and around the control panel, pausing only to brush the head of the stegosaurus with a tenderness that made the ball in the back of River’s throat tighten.
The years had been kind to the older woman. Her face was as full and nearly unlined as ever, starkly beautiful in the way that made River think of deserts that had water flowing under the sand dunes. Her eyes were full of things that no river would wash away though, things that River had learned to banish in Mal over the years with a smile and a quick dance in stockinged feet around the cabin she shared with him. River frowned at the older woman and shared a hopeless look with the sad eyed Wash, whose ghostly memory sat in the pilot’s seat and worried about his still living wife.
River should have noticed him. That, more than the missing eye or the shiny blue trench coat and Hawaiian shirt set him apart. River noticed EVERYTHING. Her brain didn’t know how not to. Even on the days when Kaylee wrote her name on the back of her hands with a thick black marker to help her remember that she was RIVER now, River with a name, and not a running stream that swept away everything in her path, she still couldn’t help but catalogue every face, movement, and stray thought that came her way.
She had noticed the transport with the faulty engine, saw it fail just before it happened in her mind’s eye, and had known in less than a heartbeat that it was going to come crashing down right where Zoe had left Tasha at the edge of the market stall. And even then, even as River’s body kicked into full speed, she also knew she was STILL going to be too late.
Too late to stop the metal from crushing the child’s slight form. Too late to stop the screams she already heard echoing in her head from becoming reality. Too late to keep blood from darkening the blonde curls that framed the girl’s face like a halo.
River was closer than anyone else though, close enough that she could see the exact instant when Tasha realized the danger she was in as she looked up to see the transport vehicle come clanging her way from heaven. River heard Jayne curse as she streamed by him, saw Zoe’s dark eyes widen in a terror that was more real than almost any emotion she had shown since Wash’s death, and still, arms outstretched, was TOO LATE. But the stranger that River had never even noticed, the tall man in a trench coat and eye patch, with shaggy black hair curling at the well-oiled collar, he wasn’t.
He swept the child out of harm’s way just in time, so close to disaster that the transport’s crashing ruffled both of their hair, so close the hem of Tasha’s dress was torn by the transport’s passing.
The man tucked Tasha to him as he rolled, held the child with a care that few could successfully emulate in such conditions, and came to his knees, dust lightening his hair as he so carefully, so gently held the terrified girl in his arms. River paused in her dash, heart in her throat, as the man she would have never noticed except for his sheer bravery tucked blonde curls behind the child’s ears and, with a whispered word, coaxed a shy smile from Zoe’s trembling little girl.
River watched, and knew with calm certainty that she was going to add this man to her collection of oddities. This man who existed when he didn’t, who saved when she couldn’t, who made the most solemn child River had ever met, smile.
His name came quietly to her, borne on a cool wind, and he met her eyes across the chaotic marketplace without an ounce of fear as her brain was filled with the simple knowledge of Alexander Lavelle Harris.
Usually it was Kaylee who brought people to their fold, even if only for a short time. Kaylee was better at River at touching people in a way that made them open and flower, turning to Serenity like a sun. Too much of River was still death and blood. She could make almost anyone flower, but she tended to pluck the flowers she made too easily, and regret forever how fast they faded.
And Kaylee had a way of seeing the best in people, nurturing those opportunities, and making them a reality. Like Simon. River couldn’t help but see people as they were, even when she didn’t want to. Few could stand up to that kind of scrutiny. Fewer still could meet her standards of family.
Mal was hardly perfect. He was brash, and quick to temper. He held his hurt close to his heart, so that it always bled, and he loved like a beggar, doling out his affection in crumbs. River saw it all. But she saw his loyalty, his honor, the way he smiled at her and touched her brow when he thought she was sleeping.
She saw that as much as he grounded her, she gave him purpose. A future. A place to go towards.
Zoe needed that. She’d had it once, with Wash, but the intervening years had been spent lost in a way that River knew too well. Only Zoe wasn’t lost in a mind that had been shattered beyond repair. Zoe was lost in a future that had been taken away from her.
And River saw, in this stranger that made Tasha smile, Zoe’s future. Saw a man who, like Mal, had a past that took up so much of him that Xander shouldn’t have anything left. But, like Mal, Xander was greater than most men. Bigger in so many quiet ways. Able to heal what others had hurt without loosing himself.
Women like her and Zoe needed that. They were too strong for most men to handle without breaking or being broke by them. Mal respected that strength, saw it in himself. Xander… Xander’s life had been shaped by others, most of them women, and in that shaping he himself had been made strong and strengthened them in turn.
And so, in the chaos of the marketplace, while Zoe clutched Tasha to her breast as Simon tried to examine the child, and Mal blustered, Kaylee cried, and Jayne threatened to shoot the two men who had been fortunate enough to survive the transport’s crash, River quietly walked to Xander Harris’s side.
“My name is River. I think you’d know me by another name, but I prefer River now.”
Xander nodded sagely, a small quirk to his lips. “I understand. Not much call for other names these days.”
She had a flash, a distant memory so old it made her head ache, of gleaming fangs and dark sewers, and hot red blood. Of the feel of roughly hewn wood in trembling hands.
“No,” she continued softly, “we have different horrors now.” And the memories that haunted her were her own. White walled rooms, syringes, blue hands and blood that was still hot and red, centuries later, once spilled.
Funny how some things never changed.
“Yes,” Xander said, voice gentle in a way that made her teeth hurt, “I’ve seen a few of those over the years.”
River laughed suddenly, joyful in the irony of his statement. She saw Mal’s attention caught by the sound, saw the crew slowly focus in on the man that had intruded so helpfully upon their world, and before they could intrude upon them, took Kaylee’s task upon her own thin shoulders. “You have money. Come fly with us.”
In the minute before her crew descended upon them, Xander turned to her, face serious and full of the knowledge of every one of his years. “And what will I find?”
She closed her eyes, rocked up on the balls of her feet, and smiled.
He studied her silence, the quality of her smile, before shaking his head ruefully. “All right,” he replied softly, “I’ll come.”
Zoe hated him at first. You could read it in the stiff set of her shoulders, the dark looks she gave him, the curt responses to every question. But as much as Zoe hated Xander, Tasha adored him. The blonde haired, dusky skinned girl followed the older man everywhere, despite Zoe’s protests, and while Tasha was still quiet and reserved, so self-contained that even at the advanced age of seven River still barely knew what went on in the child’s head, her eyes were huge with quiet adoration and Xander coaxed shy smiles with so little effort it left River breathless.
Mal hated the stranger too, more because River adored Xander in her own way, and the similarities between the two men in that respect made Mal more than a little uncomfortable. But then, River had never been one to inspire comfort. And Xander was just so HIMSELF in a way that made the voices quieter than normal.
Jayne had tried to hate him, but BoyJayne didn’t have the backbone to hate well, and when Xander’s eyes had lit up at the sight of Vera, Jayne had right near blushed from hair to toes. After the three hours Xander had spent cooped up in Jayne’s bunk examining every piece of deadly force their brute force had stashed away, BoyJayne couldn’t seem to help but adore Xander too.
Simon had surprised her the most by quietly accepting the other man into their midst. The years had given him time to grow into the man he never should have become, and he was better for it. Wise enough to know that if River had opened her home to this Alexander Harris then Xander being on Serenity was as it should be.
It helped that Kaylee would have boxed Simon’s ears for any derisive remark aimed at the other man too.
River sat at the kitchen table, feet tucked up to her chin, head titled on her knees as she closed her left eye, then her right, then her left again, as she listened to Kaylee and Xander argue over the finer points of trying to coax dessert out of boxed protein, and basked in the quietness of her brain. Both Kaylee and Xander had the habit of saying anything and everything that came in their own brains, leaving River’s free to wander in ways she rarely could in company. She’d enjoyed the last five weeks Xander had been with them.
“But if we add the lemon concentrate couldn’t we manage a glaze…”
Kaylee slapped Xander on his arm and impetuously reached for the orange concentrate. “No, well, yes, but not THAT lemon concentrate. It doesn’t bake well. Now the orange concentrate…”
River contemplated sticking out her tongue at them both but refrained.
“Is anyone going to even eat this? I tasted the batter and, attempt at sweetening or no, it STILL tastes like protein.”
“Mayhaps, but sweetened protein and orange glaze is still a lot closer to dessert than most of us have had in a spell.”
River looked up warily as she felt someone else approach, and watched as Zoe, who had started to walk through the galley, paused in the doorway to watch Kaylee and Xander bicker. Watched the older woman’s mouth purse with disapproval, even as her feet lingered, until Xander, in a moment of huffed outrage, started wiping glaze all over Kaylee, who, giggling, dug into their unbaked creation to return the favor with protein batter.
River watched as Zoe’s mouth opened, closed, and opened again, before she shook her head and smiled. She left without the two combatants even noticing her presence, but River saw.
It was a start.
Three months after Xander joined them, there was a Reaver attack. Just because the world knew the secret behind their creation, didn’t mean there still weren’t beserker men, smeared in their fellow’s entrails, sailing from star to star and foaming at the mouth. River had been having nightmares and Mal, too damn knightly for his own good sometimes, had left the deck to check on her. The Reaver ship had been hiding in an asteroid field and slipped alongside Serenity like a shadow that drew blood.
She had been screaming from her own memories until the Reavers ripped open the cargo door enough to pour in like plague ridden rats, screaming and lusting and hard in body and soul. Then, as Mal held her, she started to scream from the jumble of their thoughts. So angry. So hot and heavy with the taste of metallic blood, fresh and hot from the bodies it had been spilled from.
Even before the sirens started, and Zoe came clambering down from her bunk, Xander was in the doorway of Mal and River’s shared room. River was still screaming herself awake as she automatically caught to gun Xander tossed her way. Was still screaming as she tore herself from Mal and threw herself up the stairs after Xander.
They passed Zoe standing in the hatch to her bunk on the way to the cargo hold. The older woman was disjointed from being woken and Tasha clung to her legs, golden curls askew, eyes wide with solemn knowledge that in no way could match the reality of a Reaver attack not stopped.
“Reavers!” Xander barked as he tossed the other woman the one spare gun she had left. There was an instant’s shock, and a flash of fear, before Zoe straightened with purpose, tucked Tasha back into their hatch, and ran after Xander and River.
The three of them met the madmen together, unconsciously a unit with Xander front and center. The Reavers countered as an unruly mass, screaming and clawing and faster than any human should be. Xander was ready for them though. Challenged them without a second of hesitation or fear as he waded into their midst, feet flying, fists punching, guns blazing.
It was stupid. Suicidal. And he’d live through it. Because he trusted River and Zoe to guard his back. To beat what should have been a guaranteed death. But then, that was what defined Xander. Doing the unexpected. Being more than he should have been and making others greater for it along the way. River had a moment of overwhelming terror as the rational walls of her brain rebelled from the reality she now faced until she saw a Reaver reach across the melee and rip lines of streaming red across Xander’s face. Until Xander stumbled against the rage he fought against.
And that was enough.
Enough to push her past River who thought and into River the body of fast moving water. River who swept everything else away but the fight. River who didn’t know her own name anymore. Simply her purpose. The birthright that had been pushed into existence in a cold government lab, under the prying and uncomprehending hands of blue gloved scientists that made her part of a Sisterhood that had been dead for centuries. Part of a family that Xander had nurtured into existence centuries ago, when he had been sharp and lost and leading a herd of sheep that carried stakes.
This Xander was different. Wiser. Softer around the edges. And still the only person any Slayer would gladly kill for and even more gladly die for.
Zoe emptied another round into the Reavers who tried to center around the fallen man, giving River the pause she needed. Until she was nothing but purpose. Nothing but the machine that was oiled with blood. Nuts and bolts and polished metal with edges all their own.
Distantly she heard Jayne and Mal enter behind them, the shots registering vaguely in her ears and blending with Zoe’s shouts to Mal. But she was beyond that now. Her gun clattered unused to the ground as she flew into the fray. She had all she needed. Every Slayer did. Then there were only feet and hands, lethal in combination as they cracked and broke and shattered all they touched.
She danced. She twirled and pirouetted and left bodies of men who had less than she in her wake. One by one they fell, these monsters of her time. There was pain. There was always pain. Torn muscles, broken bones, blood and tears streaking her face, but pain meant life on the most primal of levels. In that sense pain was relative to nothing but life. Nothing but continuing life.
And then, abruptly, there was nothing. No thoughts crowding hers. No memories of flesh ripping and the pleasure that followed. Just a crystalline moment of sheer, unadulterated silence as River was left with only herself. But River still was only river, and not the woman she had learned to be. And River without herself was no longer enough. Not when she had so much to loose.
The world got big then, filled her mind with the silence of fifty plus billion screamingly silent minds, thinking mindlessly silent thoughts about things that would never matter when oblivion came to claim them. And it was too much. Too little. Less than she had to be to protect them all. An unequal equation of flesh and bone where souls never weighed enough to counter the rotting meat and maggots that wore blue gloves.
The scream that filled the cargo bay was River’s own until her vocal chords gave out. Until her body gave out. As oblivion came to claim her she felt Mal and Simon, frantically worried like salt rubbing her open wounds and then, a moment of respite as calm knowledge of her pain came from outside of herself.
Xander’s shaking fingers brushed hair away from her face, cupped one cheek, and led her back to the sanity she clung to before she could go. “Sleep nyen ching-duh. I’ll Watch over you.”
And with a sigh she let herself be drawn away by the rushing waters into sleep.
It was Zoe’s thinking that woke her up. The older woman might have well as been shouting. And all her thoughts were about Xander. Xander and how he was just as tender in taking care of River as he was watching out for Tasha. The anger that clouded the woman’s thoughts concerning Xander was more complicated now, tinged purple with respect, blue for fear, and yellow in a way that made River smile despite her pain.
A yellow feather bobbing in a haphazard mobile hanging in the dark of the universe.
“Mei-mei…” Simon’s thoughts drew closer and masked some of Zoe’s inner turmoil as her brother noticed her stirring with the eerie accuracy of someone who had spent too much time patching her back up. “How are you feeling?”
“Mei-mei…” Simon went to brush sweat dried hair away from her brow and she flinched at the touch, her mind still raw with the rapids running through her. Even if it was Simon. Especially because it was Simon.
She rolled away from her brother, her whole body aching with the movement, and stared resolutely at the white of the infirmary wall, counting the letters in her name over and over again in a silent litany. She was RIVER now. R-I-V-E-R. River the person. River the girl. River the Slayer.
“I don’t want to be them.” Solitary warriors, doomed to shine too bright to burn. Women who never got to know what it was to loose their edges. To leave behind the metal and gears and be flesh themselves. “I don’t want their darkness.” And she wasn’t referring to their power, or their souls, but rather, the darkness that clung to them in crypts and caves and other places where they hunted and died messy mechanical lives. There was none of the comfort in those dark places that River found in hers. None of the warmth that the stars held, or the space she had built around the mobile in her bunk.
Xander’s answering smile was wistful and faraway and River shuddered as the ages pressed down on her from the older man’s mind. “Don’t worry nyen ching-duh. Those nights are done.”
“You keep them in you. Bottled up like messages that need ears.”
“Yes,” he replied in achingly simple terms, “I do. But some things don’t need to be said anymore, even if they’re known. I’m strong enough for that.” “My name is River. I think you’d know me by another name, but I prefer River now.”
“I understand. Not much call for other names these days.”
He touched her brow and she sighed as the cool promise of quiet thoughts touched her. Gave her a rock to stream around. To slow and eddy. To become a still body of water that had a name that was free of her destiny. Because she had made her own in the stars with people who let her be more and less than she was supposed to be.
“Zoe doesn’t understand you.”
She felt more than saw his smile. “I know.”
“Tasha loves you.”
“One day, Zoe will too.” She reached out and slowly took his hand.
“I hope so.”
And she saw, in her mind, the promise she had made him with her smile when he asked why he should come fly with them come to pass.
A yellow marble, about the size of a human eye, hung from the mobile now. Her version of sanity. Her version of family. The marble almost didn’t fit- it hung too close to the feather and tangled up the others at times but as long as River ignored the itching in her fingers the lines always worked themselves out. Just like Xander and Zoe. It was vastly reassuring to her on nights that seemed too full.
She rose and climbed up the ladder out of her bunk, pausing in the doorway as she opened the hatch. When she flicked the light off in her room the dim hallway light bathed the room in shadows. River cocked her head and studied the space she had created. The darkness that had none of the terror that had haunted strong women like her for so long, and so many possibilities.
Tasha slipped like a promise beside her and slowly took her hand. “Mama and Daddy are enjoying some alone time.” The ten year old sounded wise beyond her years, but there was a smile in her voice now, a reserved kind of joy.
River’s life was characterized by a different quality of darkness now. She smiled too and squeezed Tasha’s hand. A new kind of hope.