"He always loved you more," she says in a clearer moment. She's staring at him, eyes bright liquid in the harsh light of their quarters.
"River. That's not true."
"And I've always been smarter than you." Point-blank, matter-of-fact; she doesn't say it to hurt, but because it's true. He knows it's true. He knows she can see his soul and everyone else's and that yes, she was the best but he was the favorite.
The one they pinned their dreams on. He remembers loving that, loving the adoration and expection, until he learned to love River more. She came first then, as she comes first now. "Yes, well. We've both always been smarter than him, so it shouldn't be much of a shock that he never understood how much you deserved."
"Don't be angry, Simon," and she smiles and closes her eyes. "Loved you more and you love me best-- do you remember Shelton at the fair, dancing on the ice?"
"I remember he fell." He'll go where she wants to go, wherever she needs to go to keep chasing the tendrils of clarity in her head. "And you looked at his hand and told him the exact measurement of thread that would be needed to put seven stitches in his palm."
"Five. They gave him five and made me wrong."
"He needed seven. The scarring was pretty bad."
River bows her head and her hair falls across her shoulders to hang down. He's glad for it; he hates watching her eyes as she slips back into confusion. "I try to be right and they make me wrong, Simon, they say no you're doing it *wrong* and do it again and again and tell us everything because you know, we know you know and they gave him *five* and it was enough. The blood stopped, Simon."
And her voice is shaking so he goes to her and touches her shoulder and feels it frail and trembling in harmony beneath his hand. "What does that mean, River?"
She freezes, looks up and looks... scared. "No finite, no definite. Always room for adjustment, can't be sure of anything. A thousand possible outcomes and each one creates a distinct potential future reality but some things are always the same, no variation where there *could* be. He loved you more and they wanted me. They took... me. The same, every iteration. Never changes."
She's right. As always. Some things never change. So many always in their lives where there maybe needn't be, including him. His feelings for her, his devotion and his inability to imagine life without her. The feel of pulling her close and smoothing her hair back, placing small kisses of comfort on her forehead that always, *always* morph into something different when he becomes fully aware of her skin, her softness, her scent.
And always the futile knowledge that it's wrong. Because she's soft and seeking against him, catching his lips with hers even as he tries to shut it all down. "Simon," she whispers against his mouth. "To listen. Hearkening. You hear me..."
Every word she's ever said, even the countless number that he was never capable of comprehending. But he kisses her silent now and passes his thumbs over her cheeks; they catch the tears that begin falling and smudge them into a thinner coat of tainting evidence that will dry faster and no longer be noticeable. He doesn't want to listen, doesn't want to see. Just feel, and smell.
And taste. He imagines traces of hodgeberries on her tongue, traces that really must be hours gone. Sweetness of the past, faded now but still heavy in his mind. He's bringing it all back, in his mind, and it doesn't seem to matter so much that the River of then is little more than an echo, now.
She is one thing that changed. But he has not. And he imagines other echoes, remembered sighs and smiles at what his hands made her feel, an old eagerness that only took them so far the once. What could have been longer is cut short by desperation and he's on her, in her, and he won't remember, can't let himself remember, that the last and only time she was laughing instead of crying. She said happy things about the future and she made promises and the next day she boarded a train.
She changed. But something didn't. Something just enough to let him remember and forget all at once, and love her the same as always.