River drives a knife into the man’s skull, then shoots the others. In seconds, they are dead at her feet, shadows veiling their twisted-up faces. She presses her hand against a portside window, her palm print foggy on the glass when she removes it. Stars shine light from billions of miles away, her eyes converting the photons into electricity, chemicals, images. “Copper wires in your brain, telephone-irises, Morse-pupils,” she says, returning her Magnum to its holster, wiping the blood from her dagger onto her dress before sliding it back into one of her boots.
“Well you didn’t have to kill all of them, now did you?” says Kaylee, standing there in trousers held up by braces, blood smattered on her face like little red freckles.
“No, I didn’t,” River agrees. She pushes a strand of dark hair behind her ear, then bends down to roll the bodies toward the airlock. She’ll push each corpse into the void, the iciness of the vacuum preserving their sad-sack bodies. God is not real but Space is, and one day River wants to join the Heaven that is the cosmos.
“Would you mind teaching me how to do that one day?” Kaylee asks.
“No,” says River.
After she’s done with the bodies, she takes Kaylee to the loading dock, skipping all the way. “Hold it like this,” she says, placing the revolver into Kaylee’s palm, moving her fingers about just so. “Don’t put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready for the kill. Start with both hands. Relax, but keep your grip tight. Now close your eyes.”
“Close my eyes?” Kaylee says.
“They are inaccurate anyway. So much spectra of light we can’t see. Waves and waves, infinite and incomprehensible.”
“Something tells me I’ll be a more accurate shot with my eyes open,” says Kaylee. “That’s just something you’re going to have to trust me on, River.” She aims toward the makeshift bull’s-eye, one of Jayne’s old hats River’d cut up, shoots, misses.
“See. Now close your eyes,” says River. “You can feel it all happening around you. You can see the bullet going into the target.”
Inhaling a breath sharply, Kaylee obeys, shutting her eyes tight then squeezing the trigger. Bam, it goes right through the center, cutting a hole in Jayne’s hat.
“Lucky shot,” Mal says, walking in.
River says to Kaylee, “I’d like to touch you. May I?”
Zoe said you always got to ask before putting your hands on somebody, that folks didn’t much like getting touched uninvited. If someone doesn’t ask me first, I shoot them. Sometimes, I shoot them even if they do ask, if they didn’t ask nicely enough. She was cleaning her rifle, caressing the smooth wood and glossy metal. Inara added, and just a hint, she won’t say no.
So River brushes her hair, feeling like that’s something she ought to do, puts on her cleanest dress and least muddy boots and goes to Kaylee, who’s unloading crates, and says the words.
“What did you just say?” Kaylee asks, eyebrows raised and mouth agape.
“I’d like to place my hand against your cheek. Is that all right?” River repeats.
Swallowing, licking her lips, Kaylee stutters a reply. “River, do you even know what you’re saying?” Her hair is did up fancy, clipped up into a bun, and she’s wearing overalls and a flannel shirt, brown shoes. River thinks she looks like the sort of woman that could build a whole empire with her bare hands, then rule it as queen.
“Yes, I know what I’m saying.”
River slides her palm up Kaylee’s face, lets it rest. The two of them are close enough that when Kaylee’s breath starts to come in fits and starts, River can hear it, even feel it. “Don’t shoot me,” says River, then leans in, presses her lips against Kaylee’s. It is hot like a fever, prickly like someone’s nails dragging down your back.
Kaylee moans, and River pushes her hard up against a load of boxed cargo, increasing the pressure of the kiss. Slipping her tongue between Kaylee’s lips, sliding a hand on hair waist, River feels the density of their bodies increase, everything heavy and closing in on itself.
“The astronomical gravity of your lips is incongruous with their miniscule size,” says River.
Kaylee smiles, and says, “Yours, too.”
They put things in River’s head that she can’t get out: pictures, words, memories, dreams. A man with a white coat and blue gloves and pallid skin and dry, flaking lips strapped her to chair with leather belts, and said, “Good night,” a sand man if ever there was one.
Everywhere, all the time, they are there. Ghosts and Reavers and the center of the galaxy drawing her in.
“Your move,” Kaylee says. She’s lying on her belly, hair pulled back in a pony tail, legs dangling back and forth and back and forth. “I aint gonna wait all day.”
They’re playing Scrabble, so River spells out oesophagus, adding it between the us on the board, and the ‘o’ at the end of domino. “Seven letter bonus. Triple word score, double letter on the p—that’s…” and she counts on her fingers.
“I got it, I got it,” says Kaylee, tallying up the score on a sheet of paper. Then she puts down wraith.
“Wraith,” River says aloud, “meaning, to straddle the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. Like me.”
“Like all of us,” Kaylee says, then places her hand on River’s wrist, squeezing tightly. When she does that, the images in River’s head fade then disappear, until all that’s left is grey and calm. “Supper time. I can smell it.” Kaylee drags River up and pulls her toward the mess, where Mal, Zoe, Inara, Jayne, and Simon are already sitting with bowls of meat and veggies.
Mal says, “You’re late,” his mouth stuffed with food. He licks the ends of his chopsticks then sets them on the table. “I don’t know what kind of dalliances you two are getting up to, but supper is the same time every night and I expect you here on time.”
“You’re not the boss of me,” River says. She’d heard it back on Tartan, a border planet. A little girl said it to her mum, arms crossed over her chest, and River loved how true it was. No one was the boss of her; no one ever would be. Except for maybe Kaylee. But that’s different.
“You’re not the boss of me neither,” Kaylee says, adding hastily at the end, “Captain.”
“Me neither,” adds Jayne. “So the next time you two—dally—if you need any help or anything—”
“Could you just not?” says Inara.
Zoe clears her throat. “We’ll be docking soon, a re-supply mission. Anything you want while we’re down there?” she asks, looking at Kaylee and River.
Simon straightens his tie, cuts into a piece of beef. “River, I was thinking maybe you’d like to buy some new—”
“Guns?” she interrupts. “Yes, I would.”
“I was going to say shoes,” says Simon. “But okay. Yes. Guns.”
River is careful. She undoes the buttons of Kaylee’s jumpsuit slowly and methodically, until she gets to the ribbed tank top underneath. “Is this all right?” she asks. The room hums and buzzes around her, making it so that she can’t think clearly, and all she wants is to touch Kaylee and have Kaylee touch her.
“Here,” Kaylee says, and lifts River’s dress up off her head. It is cold in the tiny cabin, but River feels hot. Kaylee slides her hand up River’s stomach, up to her chest, then under her bra, lingering at the underside of it. A chill runs through River’s body, making her shiver.
They kiss, their clothes disappearing except for underwear, and it’s magic, even though River doesn’t believe in magic. Without meaning to, she rubs herself against Kaylee’s thigh, hips grinding, her knickers wetting.
Then she pulls the white cotton of Kaylee’s underwear to the side, slips her fingers over hot, wet skin, until she’s touching her clit. Kaylee gasps and spreads her thighs wider, River fingering her desperately as she fucks Kaylee’s thigh.
When they come, it is River’s first time, and for a brief moment, she doesn’t understand why people bother doing anything other than having sex. All she wants to do is touch Kaylee everywhere, and so she does, running her hand up her thigh, then pushing two fingers inside, driving them in and out and in and out until Kaylee’s hips buck and she cries out then collapses.
Insatiable, River takes Kaylee everywhere, pushing her against walls, dropping to her knees, licking her tongue against her clit. That is her favourite, having Kaylee’s ankle rest on her shoulder, her thighs open, cunt wet.
They rarely show up for supper on time anymore ever, and it’s gotten to where Inara will bring them a plate wrapped in foil. They eat in Kaylee’s rack, half naked, hair mussed.
Simon says he’s not sure if it’s healthy.
River says, fuck you. It’s something she learned from Zoe, and it’s her new favourite phrase.
When they sleep in the same bunk, tucked under afghans and quilts, the lights off and Serenity humming, the nightmares River have seem farther away, nipping on her heels less violently.
Kaylee dreams, too, and River knows that it’s bad because of the way she squirms and whimpers in her sleep. She never learned the right things to say in these moments, so instead she kisses the back of Kaylee’s neck and sings a song with no words.
Kaylee awakes, wiping crud from her eyes, and says, “My mother used to sing me that song.”
River says, “I know.”
They embrace, and River reaches down Kaylee’s body slowly, drawing a finger along her thigh. They fuck, rubbing each other through their pants, coming one after the other, faces buried in each other’s necks.
It doesn’t take long til Kaylee’s nailing moving targets, though she seems to prefer wasting away her days in Serenity’s underbelly, reworking gears and circuiting wires. River likes it there, too, in the dark, by Kaylee’s side, the universe for once quiet all around her.