Sometimes he watches River trembling in her sleep and remembers better times. When she was a little girl and would dance in the gardens in her pretty, lacey dresses. When she would hold his hand in town and trust him to take care of her, not because she was afraid but because she wasn't, not with him by her side. These days she trusts him, but nothing can take away the fear.
When she would come home from school and barge into his room and talk endlessly about being bored in class. He never minded then, and he can't mind in memory; her sentences made sense, words put together correctly, no dreams of having her mind stolen by ghosts in lab coats.
When she was still alive. Not a ghost of a different sort.
But now there's that gap, between how he knew her and how he knows her. There's the space in between what he always thought he wanted and what... what violates every rule of proper and appropriate and just plain *good*.
Every once in awhile he'll be talking to Book and he'll want to tell the preacher everything. How River looks at him like he's the only one who can fix her soul, and how that makes him believe in darker things than the Reavers.
He remembers Zoe telling him about Serenity and he thinks it's all more apt than any of them realize. You walk in with hopes and even believe, for a time, that things can be made better. You walk out scarred and more than a little dead inside. The battle, the ship, it's all the same. And he's walked into a war he never expected to have to fight. He's not even sure what the sides are.
Just that both sides are inside him.
River sweats in her sleep, during the bad times, little girl sweat that smells painfully clean and takes him back. And then she rests, face gone slack, the shine of her skin drying to a dull glow that makes him want to reach out and touch and see if he can feel residue. Residue can be cleaned.
Other things can't. He's still trying to understand the patterns of her clearer moments, when she can say his name and almost make sense before slipping back into that fragmented, terrified space she occupies. He's still trying to understand exactly what they did to her, why his baby sister didn't come back to him whole.
Not that he doesn't love the pieces he still has. He does. Which should be a relief, but...
But. Sometimes he watches her trembling in her sleep and the sweat is still fresh and shiny-wet and he catches himself wanting to taste it. Catches himself, usually slips out and finds Book or Kaylee and just forces himself to talk for awhile about anything but the truth. He'd love to tell Kaylee, though, even more than Book; he's sure she'd have some choice words for him about "appropriate" ways to rip him a new one. Exactly what he deserves, exactly what he likely needs to bring his mind *back* to proper and genteel. Instead he learns what a compression coil actually does, and he learns some of the trickier ins and outs of keeping faith when Eden is a dead place on a dead planet.
But he's always learned quickly. It's never long before he winds up right back where he started.
With River, with all their various hurts. There's really nowhere else, not for him.