Stepping In Circles
Falling slowly, eyes that know me, and I can't go back
Moods that take me and erase me, and I'm painted black
You have suffered enough and warred with yourself
It's time that you won
Take this sinking boat and point it home, we've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice, you've made it now
Falling slowly sing your melody, I'll sing it loud
Falling Slowly - Once
The next morning, Aden seeks out Inara immediately after breakfast to tell her what transpired when River visited her room, without the part where she'd realised that she wants to stay on the ship. She doesn't need to be bothering anyone else with that particular problem.
"Do you want to kiss her?" Inara asks, lifting her eyebrows in that knowing way that makes her think she knows more about what Aden wants than Aden does.
"I don't know," Aden says truthfully, "But I think I like it when she's touching me. And I never thought I'd think that about anyone, especially not so quick since I only just started lettin' people touch me." She shrugs hopelessly. "But...she's gentle, and I like that it feels like she's tryin' to tell me that she cares. Or, I dunno actually, maybe she just thinks I feel funny or smell funny-"
"She likes you," the older woman says, smiling, "River's hard to read, but I learned from the best. In her own way, she seems downright attached to you. And from what you're saying, she does seem to be taking a romantic interest."
It seems too good to be true. "...yeah?"
Inara makes a face. "Well, given River's...uniqueness, I'd wait to be sure, since her actions aren't often following the same logic as the rest of us. But I'll watch the both of you and let you know what I think, if you like."
"What about Simon?" Aden is more worried about that than she'd like. She cares a lot about the opinions of everyone on Serenity, but because he's the most important person in River's life and vice versa, Simon's is particularly vital. "What if we're right? What's he gonna think?"
"Honestly? I don't think he's going to like it. But nothing's happened yet, and if it does, then just be truthful with him and hope he understands. He's intelligent but he isn't omniscient or always right."
"Omni-what?" Aden asks blankly, making the ex-Companion chuckle.
"Omniscient. It means all knowing."
Kaylee spots Aden sitting idly in the cargo bay and the expression on her face looks like that pity thing that Aden's been learning about and definitely doesn't like.
"You okay, sweetie?"
"Yeah, I just wish I could help, you know? I'm no good at anything, but I wanna be."
The mechanic beams at her. "Aw, don't worry about that. Why don't you come and help me out in the engine room?"
"You can hold things, and pass 'em to me," she says cheerily, gesturing to her to get up, "And I like having people to talk to."
"Really?" Aden isn't used to anyone actually wanting her around, except for perhaps River, and doesn't know how to feel about it.
So they trapse to the engine room, where Kaylee gets Aden to stand in the middle while she explains the names of the different things she is going to be asking for. There's so many odd looking parts, and too many of them look similar to other ones. She's not sure that she can remember everything she is being told. When she shares this with Kaylee, not wanting to pretend to be smarter than she is, Kaylee just laughs.
"I don't expect ya to know all the names right now, silly," she says, grinning, "I don't reckon anyone but me, River, and maybe the Captain know all the names. Definitely ain't your job. But you might as well learn something. Never know when it might come in handy."
"Okay," Aden says, feeling considerably better.
"So, how are you liking Serenity?" Kaylee bends to get to work and Aden peers to try and see what she's doing but it doesn't follow any sort of sense she possesses, and so she gives up.
"I love it here," the girl admits, "Can't imagine liking anywhere better."
"That's our Serenity." Even though her face is out of Aden's sight, the cheerful pride is audible. The two of them work for a good hour, and Aden is relieved to realise that Kaylee is the easiest person to talk to that she's ever met. She tells Aden stories of some of the adventures the crew of Serenity have had, and they are so alarming and thrilling that Aden doesn't even know if she entirely believes them.
She likes the one about Mal's fake wife, though.
"Shepherd Book kept giving him the shifty eyes for a few weeks after that, even if she did turn out to be all evil," Kaylee says, giggling, "As if the Captain would ever really take advantage of anyone like that."
"Oh, well, you know, because she wasn't knowing so much about the world, and was willing to give herself to him and such," the mechanic explains. "But the Captain's not like that."
"I know," Aden realises aloud, "I think he thought Jayne was gonna try somethin' like that, told him not to call me sweetheart because I was only eighteen, even though Jayne didn't mean it like that."
"No, prob'ly not, but with Jayne we like to be careful," Kaylee says, shaking her head where it is stuck underneath the main engine, "Mal was just looking out for ya, even if he knows that Jayne's type usually got a lot more curve to 'em."
Aden glances down at her more or less entirely flat chest. "Makes sense." She turns briefly to look for a different tool to fiddle with only to see River standing behind her. The tool drops from her hands but River ducks and swoops it up in one easy movement that Aden watches with a mix of awe and envy. When she tries to greet the dark haired girl, her open mouth ends up being covered by River's palm, just like it had in her room before Simon had interrupted them. "River-"
River sighs, visibly exasperated at her presence being revealed. Kaylee slides out to beam at her.
"River! What're you doing in here?"
Kaylee just gives her a questioning look.
"I need someone to dance with," River says seriously and as if it is obvious, "Aden has no job. She's the obvious candidate."
"Sure sweetie, whatever you say," Kaylee replies, grinning. "Think she's helped me for long enough."
River tugs her down the corridor by the hand and they run for no particular reason all the way down to the cargo bay, which Aden supposes has the most space for things like dancing. When they arrive River spreads her arms and tilts her head back, shutting her eyes to bask in something that Aden can't see or feel. In a dark blue skirt and a plain black shirt, River at least looks ready for dancing. Aden feels like anything but a dancer in shorts and combat boots (though at least her grey shirt has long breezy sleeves).
"I don't know how to dance," Aden tells River, half hoping that it might make her change her mind.
It occurs to her that River's feet are bare, and she almost expresses concern that she'll step on River's feet before she is hit with a strange inkling that River couldn't be stepped on even if someone went out of their way to try.
River approaches her slowly, with turned out steps that bring them less than a foot apart. Her hand brings Aden's up until their palms are touching and their fingers are splayed apart. Aden can only stare at where her left hand perfectly fits again River's right. The contact is so minimal, so light and without pressure, that it somehow is more intense than having her hand tugged with any degree of force.
"River, do you-"
River's endless dark eyes, locked with hers, don't even blink. "Yes." Given that she hadn't finished the question, it doesn't answer as much as she would like, but since River is a reader, surely she knew what she was answering?
Aden nods. "...okay. Good." That's when something rather important occurs to her. "River, don't we need music to dance?"
"It's in our heads."
"Not in mine, it's not."
"I'll lead," River says, ignoring her last statement as her left hand gently sits on Aden's waist, "Your hand goes on my shoulder." Aden complies and River starts them stepping in a circular movement. A moment later, she also starts to sing a folk song that is beautiful but like most things not known to Aden. They circle each other for a small while before the strum of a guitar has them turning their heads to find its source.
Jayne has perched on a nearby crate and is giving them that edgy grin of his.
"You two just keep doin' what you're doin'," he tells them. "I needed a practice anyway." Emboldened by the music that picks up speed, Aden finds herself grinning at River. Jayne's guitar playing is cheerful and upbeat and she is fairly sure she likes it.
The next thing she knows, the entire world blurs because River is spinning her, and they're both laughing. Aden manages to not stumble when she stops and the world lurches. She hasn't been this dizzy since she played at spinning around as a child with her peers from the compound.
Of course, River gives her no time to recover, pulling her into quick steps across the cargo bay and guiding her with the gentle but firm hold at her waist. River's grin is radiant and Aden wants to watch it more than anything but has to keep her eyes on their feet so that she can do her best to keep hers in time with River's. Miraculously, they don't fall out of step.
Aden thinks she hears voices in the background but the only thing her mind seems to care about is the sound of the guitar and the steps of the dance that River is guiding her through.
Suddenly they aren't face to face but side by side. River has their hands crossed and linked and shows her the footwork that has them moving side to side in tandem, kicking their feet up and stepping across each other's legs. It's tricky but repetitive, and after a while Aden finally feels comfortable enough to look up and let her feet try on their own.
They've garnered an audience. Simon and Kaylee are watching from only a few metres away, both smiling widely. Aden's not seen it much before now but Simon's smile lights up his entire face, and she realises it's the love for River she can see, the happiness at seeing her dancing and so happy.
Of course he loves to watch River dance. She's beautiful and she's his sister, the most precious thing he has. And when Aden glances across at her, she can't denying that when River dances she shines.
"You're not half bad, Aden," Kaylee says, her smile still going strong, and Aden sends a nervous one back.
"Thanks," she replies, still marvelling at how she hasn't tripped over, "I think River should get the credit, though, I'm just followin' her."
"Yeah, but 'just followin' River ain't easy like you make it sound," the mechanic laughs, "Fact is I don't know that anyone else here would be able to. You got some natural talent."
"Or River's a real good teacher." Aden can't really imagining having natural talent at anything, except keeping quiet and watching. "And I'm a real good listener."
Simon chuckles. "River as a teacher. That's new, but given that she's always been smarter than me, maybe it shouldn't be."
"I'm not her teacher," River interrupts, "I'm her partner."
That's when she turns so that they are face to face again and moving all around the cargo bay with the galloping steps and abrupt spins that leave Aden breathless. She laughs because she can't remember having so much fun in her entire life, or ever feeling light enough to fly. Is it possible that Kaylee's right, that this is something she's good at? Or is River just an ideal partner who can make anyone good?
Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps the only things that matter are River's hair whipping past her face and her laugh filling her ears and her grip keeping her anchored in the whirlwind that is their folk dance.
After what seems like an age, the song ends and their final spin fades away into a dizzy standstill. The entire crew are watching, and Aden has to wonder if they were there when she was talking to Kaylee and she didn't notice, or if they had gathered since.
Zoe is up on the stairs, seeming to only be faintly curious about the goings on of the cargo bay. Mal is smiling faintly and gives the two girls a nod when they get their bearings and look up. Inara catches Aden's eye and lifts an eyebrow just enough to convey a sort of amused approval. Simon and Kaylee are already moving to talk to River and say how much they love watching her dance, so Aden wanders over to where Jayne is sitting with his guitar.
"Thanks," she says, and he grunts.
"Yeah, well, I wanted to play and y'all needed music. Seemed to work out."
"You're really good. How'd you learn?"
"My momma taught me," he says, stroking the guitar almost thoughtfully, "Soon as I was big enough to hold one. Same went for my shootin'." Aden has to giggle at that, because the idea of a tiny Jayne trying to learn guitar tickles her fiercely.
"Your momma made your hat too, didn't she?" The orange woollen thing sits on his head currently, and Aden still hasn't decided what she thinks of it.
"Yeah, she did."
When they look up at their surroundings, the crew has dispersed. River has Simon's arm around her shoulders and the siblings plus Kaylee appear to be headed for the kitchen. All three are talking and smiling quietly between them.
They look happy, Aden thinks, a little wistfully, like a little perfect family.
"So how did you 'n Crazy get to be such best buds?" Jayne asks, pulling her attention back to him. He's up from the crate and beginning to walk away, but given that he's just asked her a question, she figures it's alright to follow.
"You mean River?"
"Yeah. Crazy. Same difference."
Aden frowns at him as she follows him up the stairs by the infirmary. "You don't like River, do you?"
"Since you asked, no."
"Just cause she's a little different?"
Jayne shakes his head, something on his face that's between a smile and a grimace. "Different is Zoe's dead husband liking to play with dinosaurs on the job. With River, I ain't never gonna be sure she ain't gonna go crazy and start killing folk or slashing me open again."
"What?" Aden is sure she must have heard wrong. The idea of River and killing being in the same thought is beyond bizarre.
"They didn't tell ya, huh?" Jayne doesn't sound surprised, and when he shakes his head again it looks like its out of disapproval. "Figures. They like to pretend she's just a hurt little kid from Osiris or whatever but fact is that we've seen her knee deep in reaver blood and Kaylee saw her shoot three guys without so much as lookin'. That sound like safe company to you?"
There aren't words with which to answer. Picturing River killing anyone is too much for Aden's brain and puts a potent unpleasantness in her stomach.
"Course, having someone around who can butcher reavers might be not dumb either," Jayne speculates, more talking to himself than to her, "Long as it's only reavers, and that's the real trick innit?"
"But she's just a girl," Aden manages to say, staring at him and hating that she can tell he's not lying about a single word of it, "How could she kill anyone? Why would she?"
"The government cut into her brain and made her crazy, that means she don't need no why." They reach the entrance to Jayne's bunk and stop. "As for how, well, you were the one dancin' with 'er. I've seen 'er when she's killing and it looks exactly the damn same."
With that he starts descending his ladder and leaves Aden with a chill in her heart and a tremble in her hands.
After hiding in her room for several hours to mull over what she now knows, Aden slips out into the hallway with the intent of finding River and asking her about what Jayne said. It might be the dumbest thing she'll ever do, but it's important, and she knows that as sure as she knows her own name.
River isn't in her room, or on the bridge. Most of the ship's lights are off or dimmed, and Aden has to guess that everyone is asleep, that it is well into the ship's 'night'. By the time she reaches the runaways overlooking the cargo bay she has begun to lose hope of finding her. Until she notices that the door to the second shuttle is not completely shut.
Her heart drums against her ribcage, more forcefully with each step she takes. It's impossible to know what she is walking toward. A friend? A killer? A potential love? An executioner?
Even with everything Jayne's told her, Aden just can't picture River hurting her. River makes her feel safe. More than anyone else on Serenity. Of course, that doesn't mean that River doesn't frighten her the most too, and the knowledge she's gained only serves to double or triple that particular emotion.
She just doesn't know. And she ought to be used to it because she's lived her whole life knowing nothing. But god she wants to. She wants to know about everything, and she wants River to be the one to teach her. And she wants to know about River and the hold the small brunette has over her.
The metal of the shuttle door is cold under Aden's shaking hands when she pushes it aside. She hasn't been in this shuttle before, and having seen the splendor of Inara's, the dark dankness of it takes her by surprise. She doesn't have much time to think about it, though, because that's when she spots River.
The other girl is lying on her back across some crates, and even though Aden can only half see due to the shuttle's lack of light, River's lack of surprise at her presence is just visible.
"Now you know," River says, and Aden finds herself wincing because of course she knows one way or another what she has learned. "Know you should run and never look back."
Aden takes a few steps towards her, almost lifting a hand to reach in her direction before changing her mind. "Is that what you want?"
"Is it what you want?"
"I...I don't know," Aden says truthfully. River sits up and frowns at her in the half-light. The shadows somehow only serve to make her more beautiful in the way they drape around the angles of her face. Like they're colouring her in. It's distracting but Aden somehow manages to add, "Maybe you could tell me."
"You're afraid." River stands so that they are about a metre apart and finally on the same level. "Afraid of the weapon. But still drawn to the girl. Don't know which River is. No one knows."
The way she says it, as if it is so definite, breaks Aden's heart. "You're the girl, River. Always have been. I don't think you'd ever hurt me."
"Can't know that," River whispers, her face contorting with distress, "Loving a blade won't stop it from slitting your throat."
Aden flinches and resists the cowardly urge to run from the room. She's scared, which means this is her very first chance to be brave. Brave in the face of the storm that will one way or another throw her about and leave her changed for life. The storm that is River Tam and her unfaltering gaze and her nonsense words that aren't nonsense and her laugh and her skilled feet that never miss a dance step.
"River, I mean it. Unless you got something to tell me that'll make me think somethin' else, I feel safe with you, no matter what you can do."
"Curiosity killed the little cat. The little mouse just wanted to learn but got put in a lab instead until its brains were broken."
"Maybe," Aden says slowly, "Or maybe you got this whole thing wrong. Way I see it, you're the cat and I'm the mouse." River gives her a curious look, like she hasn't considered that at all and is highly sceptical. "...your mouse."
The other girl takes a step forward to touch her hand gently to Aden's cheek, her thumb brushing over her lips with quiet deliberation. "My mouse," she whispers, thoughtfully and with something that sounds close to awe. "Are you caught in my trap?"
The sandy haired runaway just swallows, hard, and nods. "Yeah, I think I am." River's hand ghosts down from her face to her idle arms, until she can lock their fingers together and look back up at her after following the journey with her eyes. Aden summons all the bravery she has and continues to speak. "I just - I'm not used to feelin' this sorta thing and I'm gonna be honest, River, I'm scared as hell. Was even before today. I don't know what I'm supposed to do or feel and say-"
"Shh." River's dark eyes remind Aden of space. Of neverending dark and beauty and possibility. There's a fear that comes with the idea of getting lost in either, but this fear makes her heart quicken and her palms sweat.
It occurs to Aden that they are chest to chest and less than an inch apart, their near even height meaning that their noses are a hair's breadth from touching.
Just when her brain needs oxygen the most, Aden forgets about breathing. River's so close - too close and not close enough all at once. Even though they're only actually touching in one place, it's an overload for Aden's mind and body, and she fleetingly thinks that she's glad River is a reader because it seems like something that River should know but Aden doesn't know how she could ever explain it in words.
The kiss, when it comes, is so minute that a less aware person might have imagined it. But it brings Aden's entire world to a brief standstill because it's everything it needs to be (even though she hadn't known what she needed before now). It's an earnest gripping of each other's hands at their side and the softest possible pressure from River's lips to hers. It's Aden's eyes drifting shut by some automatic reflex.
It's a whisper of a kiss that lingers when it should be over.
That's when Aden becomes fairly sure that River has never kissed anyone before either. They are both new at this and have no idea what they are doing, but somehow just standing there, so close and still that anyone watching them would have been confused or alarmed, and just feeling each other's every breath...it's right for them.
"Rúguǒ nǐ tiàowǔ wǒ huì gēnsuí," Aden murmurs against River's mouth, which is still half against hers. If you dance, I will follow. "If I can."
She can feel River's smile and matches it with one of her own before they finally lean away and open their eyes to stare at each other. The nerves and fear in Aden's chest have transformed into something quite different. Something warm that bubbles, though still in a way that leaves her unsettled. But not it's not unpleasant this time. Just strange, and she can deal with that.
"I waited a long time for you," River says after a lengthy pause that somehow isn't uncomfortable. "Always knew you were coming. The cat who was really the mouse."
Aden laughs a little, because she isn't quite sure how else to react. "Got here as fast as I could, promise."
River smiles faintly, her eyes shining. "Now you just need to stay."
That immediately makes Aden's heart pang. She wants nothing more, especially now that River is asking it of her, but that doesn't make it easy. "It's not that simple, River," she says, tightening her grip on River's hand a fraction, "I want to. But this ain't my ship. The others gotta want me here too."
This doesn't phase River at all. Her smile this time is satisfied and a tad mischievous. "Then we have a mission."
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