Two By Two
While the knowledge from Inara is certainly helpful in the extreme, the utterly bizarre nature of it and its apparent normality means that Aden knows it will be a while yet before the idea of it will settle properly in her head.
That means that when she sees Kaylee and Simon returning from the engine room with their clothes disheveled, her mind is unable to stop itself from imagining them doing exactly what Inara had told her men and women do.
To make it worse, they catch her staring, and she flees up to the runways with burning red cheeks to watch them giggle and continue on their way.
"They're very happy together," a voice says from next to her, and Aden knows it is River even before she turns. She doesn't think she could ever mistake River's voice for someone else's, and no one else could sneak up on her. Aden had gotten very good at dodging people and being attuned to her surroundings back when not being found by the Elders had been her constant priority. Of course, River is something else entirely.
"Yeah, it's nice," Aden agrees. She smiles at the brunette who is standing within arms reach.
"They've been copulating," River adds, and Aden feels herself go red again. She's only ever heard the term in reference to animals before, but it isn't hard to understand the human application.
River makes a funny snorting noise. "It's quite ridiculous. Mutual stimulation at the pleasure centres at the nether regions to reach a climax."
Aden's mouth drops open. "Inara didn't explain it quite like that," she mumbles. River just nods.
"It's a conundrum," she says, obviously rather eager to be able to explain, "It should be simple biology, a pleasurable but casual process. Instead we get the endorphins and our brains spiral out of control with love and other problematic emotions." Even amongst the words which intrigue Aden's brain, she can't help but momentarily think about how River's frown just then is adorable.
"You think love is problematic?"
"It makes people irrational," River says matter-of-factly, "It's dangerous."
"But it's still a good thing."
River's lips twitch and the knowing look in her eyes makes Aden's belly do somersaults. "Yes. Very much." The girl immediately turns and heads back towards the bridge, leaving a befuddled Aden in her wake.
At dinner, Aden situates herself next to Inara more out of instinct than anything else, and is pleased when the glamorous woman flashes her a warm smile before turning her attention back to her already fully fledged conversation with Mal. It sounds both playful and affectionate and Aden has to wonder if there's a word for that. It wouldn't be surprising - there are many new words she has to learn.
"This kid needs to give it a rest or I'm going to have bruises," Zoe meanwhile complains while rubbing her swollen belly.
"She's just excited," River chirps as she glides into the seat next to Aden, "She can hear the singing and wants to join in."
"I'm not much of a singer," Zoe says, and River shakes her head, giggling at some joke only she understands until the pregnant woman properly processes the girl's words. "Hold on, you saying you know my baby's a girl?"
River's expression shifts to mischievous and she pointedly starts putting potatoes on her plate, humming under her breath while everyone else stares between her and Zoe silently. That is, until Aden giggles, just once. Then everyone at the same time dissolves into easy laughter about the entire thing.
"I've been annoyed for weeks that I didn't have the technology to let you know, and here my sister could have apparently saved me the trouble!" Simon says, shooting his usual fond but exasperated look at River, who just smirks.
"Not so sure I wanted to know," Zoe says.
"...I'm still teaching her to shoot," Jayne puts in, "Moment she's old enough."
Zoe shoots him a murderous look. "No." But the excitement of an imminent baby girl is too much and soon she is quietly grinning with Mal and Kaylee as they discuss potentially shopping for baby supplies at next port.
"At least I'm not the only one who can't make sense of you," Aden says to River, "That makes me feel better."
She expects the other girl to laugh or look pleased, but instead she gets a tiny frown and tense muttering. "Blind and dumb, born and live and die knowing nothing, paper bags over their eyes, don't understand, never understand, can't hear."
River's sudden distress alarms Aden and makes her feel instantly guilty, especially when Simon notices how River bends over the table and rams her fingers in her ears and hums a song that sounds like 'Three Blind Mice'.
"River? What's wrong?"
Aden almost wants to cry, but is adept enough at keeping herself blank. She can't keep the worry out of her entirely, though. "I think it was me, sorry, I just said somethin' to her and I think she took it wrong." When the rest of the crew turn to look at her (and River who is singing loudly by this point) Aden rises from the table. "I'm sorry!"
She flees from the room and vaguely hears Kaylee checking River with Simon before being asked by the latter to follow Aden, which only makes Aden all the more determined to lock herself in her little room. Unfortunately, Kaylee is just as spry and knows the ship better, and Aden finds the lightest touch on her shoulder and flinches.
"Sorry," Kaylee says immediately, eyes apologetic, "Simon told me about how y'are."
"S'okay," Aden murmurs, "I'm getting a little better."
"Simon just wanted me to tell ya that it wasn't your fault, River goin' weird like that," Kaylee tells her sincerely, "We can never be sure what's gonna send her into a - well, whatever it is she does."
"Or maybe someone should just pay more attention," Aden says with a frown, distress still tugging at her heart. "I didn't think about it, but I can see why she might have been upset by what I said."
Kaylee makes a sympathetic face. "Well, if you really wanna, you could always apologise and see if it helps. But come back to dinner, Simon's probably got her calmed down by now."
"Thanks, but I'm not hungry anymore," Aden says quietly before turning and heading to her room regardless of feeling a fraction better about the whole thing.
It isn't until hours later that the need to apologise is overwhelming. Aden pulls her blanket around her thin set of pyjamas and slips out of her room. It's hard to have a middle of the night in space, but Aden is fairly sure they are in it now. The ship is silent and empty but for herself and the wheezing of the engine. Her bare feet pad along the harsh metal floor until she reaches the bridge.
"Little Cat's out of bed," River says without turning from the helm in front of her.
"I...I came to apologise."
Of course you do, thinks Aden, with a mixture of exasperation and something akin to but milder than fondness. "Then you know I mean it."
River makes a clicking noise with her tongue, still not looking at her. "You don't understand anything, least of all the broken girl. She can understand complex astrophysics but can't make sense."
There's something in the way she says 'broken' that yanks on Aden's heartstrings. "Broken?"
"Government cut up her brain, tried to understand, to control," River murmurs, "But once you break the toy it's no good." The brunette girl's voice cracks and Aden comes closer until she can look across and see tears glistening in her eyes.
"River," Aden breathes, her voice cracking because she's not quite sure what to do with someone who's upset but there's a tug to help and comfort that seems like the right reaction. Besides, seeing River upset somehow makes her the same and she knows she isn't going to feel cheerful until she sees River smiling and happy again. "You're not broken." With a moment's deliberation, Aden slowly places her hand on River's bare shoulder. The other girl's head snaps towards where their skin touches - Aden knows that she is immediately aware of Aden being the one to initiate physical contact and the significance of that.
"Aden," is all River says, with a large frown and conflicted expression that suggests she isn't quite sure how to vocalise her thoughts. It becomes clearer with every second to Aden that River speaks nonsense because half the time it's her sense and that trying to organise her thoughts for the sake of being understood has to be exhausting.
"I'm not gonna pretend to know about brain cuttin' or whatever you said happened to you," Aden says to her with surprising firmness, eyes finally being met by River's dark ones, "But you're not a toy, you're a person. And I could be wrong but I reckon you're too strong to be broken like a doll." River gives her a look that is plainly disbelieving and a little patronising, so Aden holds her gaze and crouches so that their faces are roughly level. "River," Aden's voice is so soft that she for a moment fears that River won't be able to make the words out, "I don't think you're broken. I think you're amazing."
River's face is so neutral that it is impossible to read. But her eyes are intense and have Aden frozen and captivated even as River's hand gently takes Aden's from her shoulder to give it a tiny squeeze. Their joined hands linger between them, almost but not quite resting on the arm of the pilot seat that separates them. As they pull away it is slow enough that Aden can feel every part of River's hand and fingers sliding across her palm before falling away into emptiness.
After a few seconds of poignant silence, River whispers, "Your opinion has been noted."
It sounds like a scientist's report, but from what she knows of River, Aden understands how it might be an easier response for her to form than whatever is going on in her apparently damaged brain. Aden just gives her the smallest of smiles and gets to her feet.
"Do you want me to go now?" She asks. Bed is probably the wiser option but if for some reason River wants her to stay she knows she will.
"Staying would compromise digestion," River replies, facing back towards the open starry sky in front of her.
"Food for thought."
"Okay," Aden says, pretending to understand. She exits the bridge with the hope that she isn't imagining the ground she thinks they've just gained.
While the main crew are working out just where to land next, Aden is peeking into the engine room in Kaylee's absence when a singular finger taps her on the shoulder and makes her jump.
"Are you brave enough?" River asks her with a grin.
"For tag, silly."
Aden recalls watching some of the youngest children of her old home playing chase amongst themselves before being scolded by the elders. A gut feeling tells her that 'tag' is the name of the game.
"Why would I need to be brave?"
"Touching," River says, her fingertip lightly brushing Aden's shoulder to make her point, "It's necessary for the game." The minuscule contact is still foreign to Aden, but somehow in a pleasant way because it's River.
Aden nods slowly. "That's okay. I don't mind it so much when it's you."
Aden laughs, surprising herself but not River. "Of course you do. Think you know me better than I know me."
"It's quite a definite possibility," River says seriously. She tilts her head to the side and her face splits into a grin. "You're it!" With that, she spins in a half pirouette and bolts in the opposite direction.
So Aden takes a deep breath and begins to chase her. They sprint through the corridors and along the runways, past a laughing Kaylee and a puzzled Simon. Aden leaps down the stairs a flight at a time, the jumps much easier than the rock formations of home.
When she reaches the cargo bay floor, River is leaning against a wall and giggling. "You're good," she says.
"She's River," Kaylee calls from up on the runways, "You never had a chance against her."
"We'll see," Aden replies, and begins to move in on River. Just when she thinks she might be close enough to lunge in and tag her, the other girl launches herself into the air with such expertise that she lands on the other side of Aden and takes off into the common area, past Jayne, who just crumbles and mutters under his breath.
"Told ya," Kaylee laughs, and Aden just grins and runs after her playmate.
Again, River is waiting, lounging around by the med bay door, eyes welcoming. "Come get me," she says.
"I'm trying!" When she approaches this time, River doesn't try to run, even though Aden knows she could. Aden's hand lands on her arm fleetingly before she turns on her heel and runs up the stairs next to them. "You're it!"
They rush past Mal, who yells after them to slow down and mind his boat and crew.
"Yessir Captain Tightpants!" River answers and the words don't seem to be quite be her and Aden makes a note to ask about it later. It doesn't take long for River to corner her against the wall of the spare shuttle, which has unhelpfully remained locked.
Aden presses herself against the cold metal, as if somehow it will get her away from her pursuer. River comes so close that she is on the step below Aden's, and she stands on her tip toes to make up for the height difference. She laughs soundlessly through her wide grin and the breath she exhales in the progress warms Aden's cheeks.
"I will always catch you," she tells Aden triumphantly. Then she taps her on the hand and they are off again, laughing all the while. It takes another twenty minutes for Aden to tag her back, because this time River doesn't go easy.
Finally, with River backed into a corner of the med bay, Aden takes the chance to say, "And I will always catch you." Then, she allows herself to pant because River is fast. "But I can't keep this up. I need a drink."
The game is postponed and the two of them head towards the dining area, only to be distracted by voices coming from Inara's shuttle. River, ever the curious mouse, approaches the open doorway and Aden follows a poor reflex and does the same. They crouch so that they can see in without being very visible themselves.
Mal and Inara are the ones in there talking, in low tones that somehow make Aden feel like they shouldn't be listening in. Despite the feeling, it's so intriguing and she knows so little that she can't pass up a chance to learn something.
"Why did you really stop?" Mal asks with his back to them, and Inara's eyes flash with something before it disappears.
"I told you, I wanted a change."
"You loved your job, you could have easily picked it back up, continued like before."
"What do you want me to say, Mal?" Inara demands, her voice passionate and pleading.
"I don't know," he says simply, and her face contorts with a mixture of anger and sadness that Aden can't quite understand, and the glamorous woman throws her hands up.
"Well, thank you for being as helpful as ever!"
Aden turns to ask River if they should leave, but before she can, and probably because she sensed it before it happened, River reaches an arm around the back of her head to cover Aden's mouth with her hand. They stay as still as children encountering a bee, wide eyes fixed on the scene in front of them.
"I think I deserve to know, I'm giving you this shuttle for free, meaning I'm your captain now," Mal points out, "So I want to know why."
"You're not my captain," Inara breathes, and there's more meaning behind the words than there should be.
Mal takes a step closer, so that the two are only inches apart, and says, in a low and smooth tone, "Aren't I?" For a few moments the two of them just stare at each other, drinking each other in with their eyes. Then they're kissing. Or, at least, by description alone Aden thinks they are.
The only kisses Aden has seen have been between Simon and Kaylee, but they hardly seem to be the same thing at all. With Simon and Kaylee, the kissing is easy and light and the affection practically shines out of them. It's simple.
Mal and Inara aren't shining - they're smoldering. This kissing isn't sweet and simple and nice to watch. It's hungry and rough, like they will die if they stop, and Aden feels her cheeks getting warm. It doesn't seem like a thing that is meant to be seen by the eyes of outsiders. Inara moans into Mal's mouth and his hands are seeking out every part of her body that he can reach.
"Time to go," River whispers in her ear at the same time that her hand slips into hers, and Aden can only nod with relief as they slowly retreat and then run to the dining area which is conveniently deserted. "They finally got rid of the wool."
"The wool in their brains. They gave in to what was in their hearts," she says, as if it is something so definable.
Aden frowns, her cheeks still burning. It doesn't help that she can still remember with perfect clarity the strange proximity of crouching with River outside the shuttle, and somehow she thinks the memory might keep her awake at night. Someone touching her, and that someone being River, while watching Mal and Inara kiss like that...it's an odd sensation that isn't going to leave her thoughts any time soon, especially with River's hand still being loosely linked with hers even though they've stopped running. This whole idea of physical intimacy is so encompassing, it makes her dizzy just trying to keep track of it all.
But of course, that's when Simon comes in and asks them, "What have you two been up to, then?" His voice is cheery enough, but his curiosity underneath is strong, even Aden can tell. She's not bothered by it, it comes from his concern for River, and that is a trait she could never condemn in the slightest. All the same, she makes the smallest movement which results in River's hand falling from hers, even if she's not sure why she doesn't want Simon to see them touching.
River grins impishly at her brother. "Played tag. Aden's fast."
"Not fast enough," Aden mutters, and Simon chuckles, his crooked smile emerging.
"I'd almost be concerned if you were," he says. "Zoe says that you should get back to the bridge, since Mal doesn't seem to be around."
River and Aden exchange the tiniest of glances and River bites her lip to keep from grinning. "Time to be the Albatross." She follows Simon to the doorway.
Aden almost calls out a farewell, or a 'see you later', but decides against it and shuts her mouth as they leave. Simon gives her a tiny, friendly smile, but she can't help but wonder if he'd still smile at her if he knew about the odd feelings in her that all converge on his precious sister.
That, she decides, is a problem for tomorrow. Or the day after.
I really hope I did the Mal/Inara scene justice, I watched a few fanvids beforehand to shift my head from River/Aden. Also, let me know what you think of River/Aden and Aden as a character, feedback is always appreciated!
Thanks a bunch, love you guys!
p.s. who is excited for Firefly Online? ME!