Summary: She needs to show him, and this is the only way she knows.
River loves her brother, even if he doesn’t understand.
“Mei-mei. Please, don’t.”
She puts a hand on his hair. Benediction. She increases the pressure of her fingertips on his crown by twenty-three percent and he drops his head down, crown broken, the long line of his neck white and pale and vulnerable. She could snap it with hardly a thought.
“Simon. You love me.”
He clasps his hands together between his knees. White. Pale. “Yes, River, of course I do.”
She doesn’t move her hand. She can feel the blood running through his capillaries and veins, thrumming hard and fast, wondering what she’ll do.
Minds are like engines. They turn, and turn, and require fuel so they don’t stop. Simon’s mind is as familiar to her as anything she’s ever encountered – he’s smarter than many people in some ways, but in most he’s comparatively idiotic. The captain’s mind turns around loss, and the pilot’s turns around loyalty, and the mercenary’s turns around fear, but Simon has always revolved around her. It makes things easier. Little sister. To be protected.
On her worst days, River is aware that she can be much crueler than anyone at the academy had ever dared hope.
“Look at me, Simon.”
It’s her little-girl voice, one of the countless she carries in her throat. Simon looks up at her as ordered, eyes large and wide, scared, blue through an accident of genetics which she has always pitied. Poor Simon. Even since conception, he has been recessed.
“I will always find you,” she says, and Simon closes his eyes even though she hasn’t ordered it yet. She allows it because she can see the rim of salt and wet gathering in his lashes. She drags her fingertips from his crown to his chin and keeps his face tilted toward hers as she listens.
The captain is alone, sitting in the pilot’s chair because the pilot and the soldier are rutting in their bunk as the mercenary rips his muscles to their breaking point so he can be strong enough to ignore when the preacher reads his symbol and thinks about kindness although the whore is lying to herself and everyone else and the mechanic hums pretty stories to herself, thinking pink thoughts about a doctor, a healer, someone who loves unconditionally.
“Unconditionally,” River echoes.
The tear slides down Simon’s face, catches on her skin. It is exactly as wet and warm as it should be. Simon understands, and doesn’t. All is as it should be.
She pushes him down to the mattress, soft girl hands on his shoulders moving him with hardly any effort. He lands on his back, eyes still closed. What she knows of love she has gleaned from four thousand years of human history, uploaded to the space behind her eyes in thick gleaming chunks of information. Art. Science. Music. The first thirteen years of her life are blurry and indistinct, but a bright thread of Simon glitters through it, a singularity of emotion that she still struggles to understand.
“Everything I have is right here,” she whispers, and Simon shakes under her fingers as she unbuttons his shiny waistcoat, as the placket of his clean shirt parts with easy efficiency. She does not push it off his shoulders, but trails a touch down his sternum, tracing the lines of the ribs which appear and disappear with each breath. The pads of her fingers are hypersensitive, a personal Cortex which maps pulmonary activity, links across to her brother’s nervous system and forces action, reaction. Push and pull.
A false midnight peals from the clock on the wall as she digs a fingernail into Simon’s lower abdomen and drags down. He has no hair on his chest, stomach. Smooth as a baby, as something innocent.
Simon loves River. River loves Simon. She knows every single particle of him, knows what he’s lost, the empty spaces inside. The kindest thing would be to merge with him, somehow, to eradicate herself and subsume into his consciousness. Then she could be there, but not; Simon would be alone, but whole. Simon will not allow this, though, and in truth it is something she’s not sure she could really do despite all her talent. This, though – this is well within the scope of her capabilities.
Simon lets out a muffled gasp. Muffled, because his hand is covering his mouth. Speak no evil, River thinks, and smiles. Love is in her hands, in the amalgamation of cells held so tenuously together, in muscle and tendon and bone as she opens Simon’s trousers, finds the secret heart of him. Two wet streaks of salt stripe down his temples, dampen his hair almost to black, but River knows this is what he needs. So lonely, so broken and empty, the fuel pumping through his heart redolent of fear. Anxiety. Hurt.
She can change this. She is a catalyst. A plot device. The world, Simon’s world, turns around her, and she watches as the pain in his face drains away, replaced by something else. She has learned this well.
Elsewhere in the ship, the pilot and the soldier are wrapped around each other, slick moving parts as well-oiled and easy to decipher as any engine. The soldier cracks open, her smooth shell breaking and allowing the pilot to navigate inside, to bleed into her so deep he can never leave. Elsewhere, the mercenary’s muscles ache and twinge as his hands and closed eyes bring fantasies of faceless, worshipful girls, of the mechanic’s prettystrong fingers, of the whore’s wide hips, of Simon’s plush, unsmiling mouth.
He isn’t smiling now. Behind his hand, his teeth are digging deep into that plush bottom lip, the one the mechanic and the mercenary think about when they don’t know River’s looking. Simon could so easily have either of them, if he gave it a modicum of thought. He could have so many people – but he won’t. He saves himself, keeps himself locked down tight. For River. So she won’t be hurt.
He really is an idiot sometimes. River closes her eyes, navigating by touch and sound and thought. Simon is tensing under her, breath low and harsh and aching in his chest. He is pushing aside guilt and hate and fear in a way she cannot, burying himself in the sensation of her. She sometimes wants to tell him that the guilt is unnecessary. There’s nothing he could have done. Nothing he can do. More than that, though, his guilt is irrelevant. He feels it because he feels he has failed his sister – but his sister isn’t here. River-that-was is gone, was hollowed out and replaced with River-that-is.
Simon is struggling to hold back. He thinks there is a choice. She opens her eyes to find him biting into the side of his hand, chest heaving, face wet with frustration. She cocks her head and concentrates. He is no match for her.
Paroxysm. Quick muscular contractions pulse through the lower pelvis, the abdomen, the anus. Neurohormones release and force mental relaxation. Simon sinks into the thin mattress. His teeth release his hand. This time, there is no blood. River watches as the activity in the cerebral cortex decelerates, as his breathing shudders, deep and slow.
The refractory period is short, as always, and too soon Simon’s eyes are opening. He stares up at the ceiling before he finds her face.
“I –“ he starts, and his voice cracks.
“It’s a function of the limbic system,” River says, putting damp fingers over his lips. “Autonomic.”
“Physiological,” he says, and she smiles at him. He shudders and closes his eyes again.
It is so easy to hear his thoughts. Not right and I’m so sorry and I shouldn’t have let her, I should have found a way. She leans over and kisses his temple, right where the tears have leaked down. He controls a flinch. The guilt is roaring back, as pointless and misplaced as ever. She wants to reach into his mind, to strip out the emotion, but it won’t be as easy as what they did to her.
“I love you,” she says, instead, and slips her hand into his.
His grip is loose. “I love you, too, River,” he says.
“You don’t.” He opens his eyes and his mouth to protest, but then her lips are on his. She hasn’t done this before and he freezes. When she pulls away he looks almost sick, certainly shocked, eyes huge and blue and unknowing.
“A river flows through the ground,” she says, “flows to the ocean. It should be bigger than a stream. It tries to be. The water isn’t the river’s own – it’s a collection, a growing collection of data and particles from run-off, from what falls out of the sky.”
Her eyes are full of tears. Pointless, but Simon pushes up on his elbows, reaches for her. She puts a hand on his chest, keeping him away. He needs to understand.
“River isn’t – she isn’t here, but she loves you,” she says, and Simon puts a hand on her cheek. “I have to show you. However. Have to.”
Simon closes his eyes and she puts her hand over his, feeling the life thrumming through him, the nerves crackling at her touch. He resolves to try harder, to make her better. He doesn’t understand yet.
She tries to give him what she knows of love. She learns by example. Upstairs, the pilot has wrapped steady arms around the soldier, who watches him sleep with thoughts River doesn’t understand. The captain watches the approaching stars and sees a valley. The mercenary, almost asleep, remembers a dusty, bleak ranch, strong arms and so many mouths to feed. Simon, watching her, has a vision of a tiny dark-haired girl reading by firelight, of a skinny teenager gasping away the chill of cryogenics. This is love.
She licks her lips, tasting salt, and Simon’s eyes drop to her mouth and the vision is replaced by her hands in places they should never have been, her fragility holding him down, her mind sneaking in and replacing his will with her own. It sickens him, makes him feel hollow.
“I am not your sister,” she says, trying, as always, to make him understand, because River loves him.
“Mei-mei,” he says, and she can feel his heart breaking, like it does so many times a day.
She lets him gather her into a hug, listens as the guilt twines around sorrow. She wraps her fingers into the silk-shot placket of his shirt, rubbing her thumb over one smooth button. Even in the most secret deepest part of him, he doesn’t blame her. She puts one hand on his bare chest, over his heart, and thinks of the way love swells up inside of her, unstoppable and incomprehensible. She needs to show him, and this is the only way she knows.
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