Like An Open Book
When Aden finally emerges from her room the next morning, she wanders down into the cargo bay to come across none other than Jayne, who's sitting on a crate polishing a very large and intimidating gun. She immediately hesitates and backtracks a few steps.
He notices her and looks up expectantly. "What?" She just stares and stands very still. "What the hell are you staring at?" He demands, making her flinch ever so slightly.
"Nothin'. Sorry," She says quietly, one hand clutching the side of her tattered trousers nervously, and just before she quickly runs up the stairs she blurts out, "I like your hat." As she runs off, he tugs on the woollen hat from his mother thoughtfully before shrugging and going back to his polishing, all the while muttering under his breath about weird girls on his gorram ship.
Zoe catches her when she trips around a corner, and Aden stammers out an apology.
"It's fine," Zoe assures her. "You looking forward to landing tomorrow?"
Aden blinks. "What?"
"No one's told you, huh?" The pregnant woman chuckles. "We're landing on a border planet tomorrow. S'called Persephone. It'll be your first time on a different planet, right?"
"Suppose it will," Aden says slowly, a tiny smile playing on her lips, "Is it safe?"
Zoe's lips twitch as she moves past the girl and makes her way down the hall. "Depends," She replies wryly before walking around a corner and out of sight.
"On what?" Aden murmurs, more to herself.
"Whether you plan on getting into trouble," A familiar voice says from behind her, making her jump yet again. She spins to see River's mischievous smile waiting for her. "But you don't."
"Can you read what's in my head?" Aden asks suddenly, and River ducks her head and smiles.
"Of course, but not in the way you think."
"I don't understand."
River's hands knot in her cardigan at the same time that her dark eyes follow their twisting movements. "People tell things all the time, without speaking. I just know how to listen." Her eyes flick back up to meet Aden's abruptly. "They all think you're so quiet, but you're just as loud as the rest. No one's ever listened to you before so you stopped talking. They made you feel tiny so you spent all your time on your own just breathing in the world...and planning how to run away and get off of it. But now you don't know where to go, what to do..."
"Stop," Aden whispers, and River goes still with her mouth still open and ready for the next word, even though it doesn't come. "Please."
"It's okay. No one here knows where they're going." River searches her face. "Captain doesn't like it either."
"I know we're books to you but some books aren't meant to be read," Aden says quietly, slightly upset but not showing it on her face. Or at least, she thinks she isn't and after the amount of practice she's had she thinks she would know but River can see so much more. As she turns and walks away, River calls after her.
"Every book's meant to be read. That's why they're written. They tried to make your words blurry but I can still make them out."
Aden bumps past Simon as she comes out along the runways and makes straight for the passenger quarters. She's not sure if she's upset, unsettled or something else altogether, but it's nothing she's ever known and she doesn't like it.
Simon watches the new passenger hurry away, an odd look on her face. He looks down from where she came from to see River standing passively in the distance. He sighs.
"River…" He says, approaching her, "River, did you say something to Aden?"
The brunette is still staring blankly ahead. "She doesn't like being read. Not used to it."
"I don't know that any of us are used to what you can do, meimei," Simon says reasonably, and River's mouth twitches as she shakes her head.
"Everyone reads everyone else a little. She's not used to being read at all. They put her in the dark so they didn't have to. She still thinks about it, being in there so long the sun burnt her eyes when it finally got to say hello again."
Simon's hands graze her face. "River, I don't think you should be telling me things like that. It's one thing for you to know them, but you can't share them when they're not yours to share." Her eyes finally move to look at him. "Okay?"
She sighs minutely as she looks away again. "Okay." Her hands clench and unclench several times. "Then you can't share either."
"I won't," He agrees, "She doesn't need to know you said anything. She probably won't be here for long, she's just catching a ride."
River smiles. It's secretive and just a little too knowledgeable for him to be entirely comfortable. Does she know something about Aden? Or about the future? He doesn't find the idea ridiculous so much as unsettling. But he just kisses her on the forehead and moves onto the kitchen to grab a bit of protein for Kaylee who needs it because she's tangled up in wires and unable to fetch it herself.
Everyone's up and ready to move by the time they land on Persephone at the crack of dawn. Aden wanders out of her cabin and almost immediately collides with the Captain.
"Aden. Good. Now, we're on Persephone." He notices her lack of recognition. "You aren't knowing about many other planets, are ya?"
She shakes her head and tries to look apologetic. "No. Captain. Sorry."
"Well, Persephone here is quite ideal for someone such as yourself. Got all kinda folk here rich and poor in every extreme and everything in between. Could be that you start from the bottom and work your way up, make something of yourself," the Captain suggests, and she nods.
"Work doing what?"
"Whatever it is you can do. Kaylee says you mentioned being good with locks? Makes stealin' possible if you're so inclined. Or you could learn it as a trade. People always gonna need locks all through the 'verse."
Aden suddenly feels a little brighter, having not considered that her ability to pick locks might be a career. It doesn't, however, erase the glaring truth of the fact that she's about to jump into the real world without knowing almost anything about how it works.
"Captain, you seem to know a lot about the 'verse and people's ways..." She says uncertainly, one hand holding the opposite arm at the elbow shyly.
Mal nods. "Reckon I do."
"Well that's just the thing, sir, I don't," Aden admits sheepishly, "Besides you and your crew, number of people outside of my home I ever talked to would fit on my hands, and inside my home they told us nothings and lies about the verse and people. So...if it's at all possible, sir, maybe before we part ways you could give me a few basic words of advice or somewhat along those lines?" She takes the lack of agreement in his face to mean a negative answer and so backtracks. "But you're very busy so don't trouble over it-"
He frowns and grabs her arm before she can flee from his presence like she was planning in doing. "What kinda man you take me for?" She can't remember the last time someone has touched her at all and she's not ready for it. Luckily, he notices her immediate panic and even manageds to guess its source and so lets go of her quickly. "I ain't the kind that throws a kid into the world when she's got no idea what she's gonna find. Well, maybe I could be, but you've done me something of a service in the money you paid for your short trip here and you've not caused any problems on my boat. That means I got a little time to try and impart some knowledge so you ain't dead in a ditch this time next week. That's common courtesy."
Aden tries and fails to not look terrified at the apparently real possibility that she could be dead in a week. "Thank you Captain. More than I can say."
He just nods again. "Yeah, well, I ain't no murderer of the innocent and letting you off your own without some words of advice would be close enough by the looks of things." She nods as well and goes to turn away, only for him to speak again. "Aden. Now I don't know why you aren't liking being touched and I don't wanna cos it ain't my business. But while in here people may care enough to respect that, fact of it is that in the real world no one else will. Expect to be shoved and pushed and just generally roughly handled. Ain't much you can do about it, but if they ain't so nice then you need to not show that it bothers you, or they'll be like to decide to use it against you somehow. Don't give them any reason to mess with you. Head low but not low enough to look like easy pickings."
Aden absorbs every word and again nods, this time more than once. It's not something she's given much thought to but even as she properly thinks about it she can recall how physical some of the crew are with each other even when they are just being friendly.
She's just...not used to anyone touching her at all. Back home the Elders hadn't touched the children except for punishment, and she'd avoided the few others her age whenever possible. The last time she'd been touched, before the Captain, had been...the last time the Elders had chucked her in solitary for three days for wandering too far out of the compound again. It had been a tight grip on the upper arms as she struggled and then a forceful push into the cell, then nothing.
Not the sort of thing that leaves pleasant memories. She's never really experienced a friendly physical touch, not really, not ever. To her touching means force and therefore pain or punishment, but she's seen now that there is a whole different world of possibilities.
She's not sure if the thought is exciting or terrifying or a mixture of the two. Being so wrong about something so fundamental is strange and she can't help but wonder what else she has wrong ideas about.
If only there weren't such a short amount of time to learn!
"Thanks, Captain. I'll keep it in mind," She eventually says after realising that she hasn't replied.
"Look, you stick around until after we talk to our contact in the city and then you can have a sit down with some of us and we'll try and impart what knowledge we can before we part ways. Hǎo ma?"
"Yessir. Thanks." This time she really does scurry off to grab her little bag of things before coming out into the cargo bay where the crew is gathering in preparation for leaving the ship. Kaylee is wearing sunny apparel and one of the brightest smiles Aden's ever seen, while Inara's clothes are flattering and elegantly simple in design. They are both such prime yet different examples of beauty that Aden has to smile for moment.
Jayne is prepping his guns in their holsters and Zoe has a coat that half hides her pregnancy bump as well as her guns.
Mal is just coming down the stairs as Simon and River emerge from the common room. The siblings are in understated clothing and River even has a hooded cloak over her flowing pale top and practical leggings. The brunette grins as she ducks her head in and out of the hood like a new game. When she catches Aden staring, the grin doubles in size.
"You should get one like this, then we could play and sneak," She suggests. "It's fun, see?"
"River! Sh!" Simon scolds.
"Do you have something against shoes, River?" Aden finds herself asking as she eyes River's bare feet.
"Can't feel, get in the way. Can't dance, no point."
"Well, not all of us are too inclined towards dancing, albatross," Mal says cheerfully as he joins them. "We ready to move out? Good. Zoe and Jayne are coming with me to Badger, the rest of you just stick in the market near the docks and we'll be back soon enough. Inara, you've got the money and know what we need?"
"Yes," Inara replies.
"Good. Let's go."
The group file out the open ramp door and split up, the three fighters going one way and the others filing into the crowded marketplace. Mal's point immediately comes back to resonate in Aden's mind - everyone is incredibly close and her chances of touching a stranger by pure accident are incredibly high. She pulls her arms in close and tries to avoid it regardless. Kaylee and Inara go ahead, the former brimming with talk of a mechanic shop where she might be able to finally find the compression coil before Inara just rolls her eyes and hands some of the money over to allow the perky mechanic to run off on her own.
"You coming?" Inara asks the two of the crew that remain and the one passenger. "I probably shouldn't be left to choose the food all by myself."
Simon chuckles slightly and he and River catch her up with Aden close behind. "Maybe not, but I probably still have a surgeon's budget in my head. Besides, I don't really have any requests or preferences."
"River, sweetie, what about you?" Inara asks.
"Strawberries," River replies, "For Kaylee." A cheeky and sheepish grin forms on her face. "And me."
Inara grins back. "Alright then, strawberries for a treat it is. And if we buy practical and cheap for the rest, we might have real food to last quite a while. What do you think, Simon, potatoes? They can be done in so many different ways, and they're cheap."
"Potatoes," He repeats, nodding, "Yeah. Sure."
The spectacular beauty of a woman - and Aden almost blushes at having thought of her as such - then laughs and gives Simon a funny look. "On second thought, maybe I probably could be trusted to do this on my own."
Simon looks relieved. "Yes, I think so. Don't get me wrong, I just - I'll eat whatever turns up on my plate that isn't protein. Besides, you have fantastic taste."
"Thank you," Inara laughs, "I'll catch you two soon. Don't wander too far and try not to lose Aden here, or the Captain might give you an earful." She walks away with the grace that doesn't match the plainness of the clothes she is wearing.
"Simon," Aden says suddenly, "Has she always been like that?"
Simon seems surprised to even hear her speak. "Huh? Inara? Like what?"
"You know...so pretty and graceful and not...ordinary…" Aden flounders with her words and can't verbalise her inherent admiration and awe. Luckily, Simon's eyes widen and he has apparently caught her meaning.
"Oh! Well, yes. She used to be a Companion. It's still weird to see her not dressed like royalty or...a Companion, I suppose."
"What's a Companion?"
At Aden's innocent question, River giggles from under her hood and Simon turns a very light shade of pink as his mouth opens and shuts several times.
"Well, um, like a...whore...I suppose, except not, much more respectable and trained and expensive…"
"What's a whore?"
Simon's face falls even further and he nervously twists his hands. "You know, I think you would be better asking Inara herself about this. She'd be more than happy to explain."
Aden nods. "Okay." Then, as an afterthought, she adds with a duck of her head, "Sorry for being so stupid. Don't know much about anything. Makes me curious, I guess. I don't mean to ask so many questions."
The look on Simon's face changes from awkwardness to confusion. "What? No, it's...it's fine! I'm just...not the best at explaining about...some things, I guess. Aden, don't ever -" His hand lifts to perhaps touch her shoulder but before Aden can even react, River's hand has darted out to grab it before it can get halfway. "- apologise...River, what are you doing?"
The sibling's meet eyes and River's are intent as she forcibly lowers his hand back to his side. "No touching. She doesn't like the touching."
"Aden. You were going to touch her shoulder but you can't. Doesn't like being touched."
Simon's eyes move back to Aden with interest and concern. "Is that true?"
But Aden is too busy staring at his sister. "How…" She sighs. "You know everything about me just by lookin', don't you?"
River shakes her head quickly. "Only the things you say loud. And this one you were screaming."
"Well, thanks, I guess," Aden says, almost reluctantly. She is grateful, incredibly so, but the whole business of River knowing so much is still disturbing and she can't shake the constant feeling of disconcertion.
"Sorry, Aden, I didn't know," Simon adds, smiling apologetically.
"How could you?" Aden replies as she smiles back and shrugs.
He nods. "Well, what I was going to say before was: don't ever apologise for wanting to know things, and don't anyone ever make you feel bad for wanting to learn."
The statement throws her but she can't be entirely sure why. Maybe because no one has told her in so many words that she has the right to want to know things. For a moment she just stares at him before managing to reply, "Oh. Okay. Thanks."
That's when River catches sight of a jewellery stall and they are forced to follow and browse through the ornamented accessories that they could never buy. A considerable time later, Inara and Kaylee find them, Inara with bags of food and Kaylee sporting a cardboard box that no doubt contains her coveted new ship part.
"You guys been having fun?" Kaylee asks as she leans in to give Simon a peck.
"Just been looking at shiny things we have little use for and could never afford," He replies with an affectionate smile.
"One of my oldest pastimes."
"Jewellery and pointless shiny things," Inara muses, reaching her hand out to touch a beaded necklace, "You know, I think I have vague memories of those."
Kaylee and Simon laugh at her. "Regretting dropping the glamorous life of sex, money and pretty dresses?" The former asks.
Inara's smile is wistful for a fleeting second. "For my friends and my home? Not a chance."
"Plus it was worth it to see the Captain's face the first time you wore pants," Kaylee points out, and they all laugh.
"Yes," Inara agrees, "That was rather priceless. He'd probably never considered that I had legs."
Kaylee's look of disbelief and disagreement is plain, but she doesn't bother arguing. Aden can't help but wonder if this all has something to do with that 'something' she had sensed between Inara and Mal, the something River had described as their hearts singing for each other but being blocked by excuses.
The whole thing seems so confusing and complicated that Aden firmly decides to not even bother trying to understand.
"Shouldn't the others be back by now?" Simon suddenly asks, and flashes of concern cross some of the other faces in the group.
"Well, Badger has a bit of an edgy rep goin' by what the Captain and Zoe say, so he's probably just making trouble and delaying 'em," Kaylee says, a little nervously. "Should be okay, they know how to handle themselves. All the same, couldn't hurt to go back to the ship and wait outside."
So they all do just that, and have barely been there a minute when Jayne bursts from a throng of people in the distance.
"We got trouble!" He yells at them when he spots them. "Getting shot at! Mal and Zoe aren't far behind but we gotta go now!"
Almost all of them turn to River, the pilot, and the girl in the hood nods quickly and is about to turn and run into the ship when two armed men come into sight from the same spot Jayne had emerged from. The moment they spot him they begin firing shots in his general direction, which unfortunately happens to be the same direction as the rest of the crew. They all rush inside but not before several bullets hit home.
At the same time, Mal and Zoe come into view and manage to take down the two thugs before rushing into the ship with the rest of them and closing the door behind them.
"Mal, what the jiàn tā de guǐ was that?" Inara demands as they finally are able to take a breather. But before Mal can even open his mouth to explain, he sees Jayne leaning over a thigh imbedded with bullet, and Kaylee nearby grimacing over a wound in her upper arm with Simon already examining it.
"Gǒushǐ," He swears, but that's when River screams and they look where she is pointing, to Aden, who has been knocked to her knees and is clutching her stomach with a blood soaked hand.
The girl just whimpers and falls properly onto the floor.
"Simon!" River yells, her high-pitched voice hurting everyone's ears, "Simon, quick, you have to fix her!" She's clutching at her hair and Mal approaches her to put his hands firmly on her shoulders.
"River, you gotta fly us away from this place, right now. Your brother's not going to be letting anyone on this here ship be dying, so run along and when we're in the air, I'll come and relieve you. Dong ma?" He says firmly, and gets a very reluctant nod in response. River sprints up the stairs that led up to the bridge while Mal turns to Simon who is kneeling at Aden's side. "Well, Doc, you'd better get her into the infirmary. You want help getting her in there?"
"No," Simon answers very quickly, "It's fine, I can manage." He hoists Aden, who's unconscious already from the blood loss, into his arms and slowly staggers to the infirmary with Kaylee's help. It's stupid of him to refuse Mal's help really, but after what River had told him, knowing about Aden's fear or dislike of being touched, it seems better to try and make it that only he has to touch the injured girl, being the doctor and all.
When she's settled on the bed, he grabs his kit and gets to work while simultaneously trying to forget the shrillness and desperation of River's scream.
Gosh, I really really love writing these characters and this universe, it's such good fun. As you can all see, River is definitely the damaged one out of her and Aden but Aden has a few issues, most of them stemming from lack of human interaction, but hers should be quite easily fixed. :)
Feedback and comments are greatly appreciated!