River is a sadist.

Sadism: the deriving of pleasure, or the tendency to derive pleasure, from cruelty.

She wishes she was not a sadist. Sadism is a sin, she knows. Shepard Book would hate her if she tells him. She is a bad person.

Dim light reflecting off of her blade, cold air chilling her bones, warm blood coating her hands, blood flowing down her arms, screaming Reavers as their souls leave their bodies, screaming… screaming…

She touches her cool wrists, examines her pale skin, and remembers. She is a sadist, yes. Simon would hate her if he knew. Her dear beloved brother would hate her. She is a selfish being and does not want him to find out.

Simon fears her sometimes. She knows from the way he hesitates before embracing her, the look he gets in his eyes. Her dear stupid brother…

She likes to play with him. She knows she is so much better than he is and he makes a good toy. That is a bad thought. She should not think like that. He is a person, as real as she is. They are both sapient beings.

She still cannot help the thoughts that trickle through her mind. Simon is funny when she pokes at him. She pretends to poison him and laughs at his horror. She crushes his throat and feels a rush of glee at her power. She is cruel. She takes pleasure from her cruelty. She is a sadist.

She wonders if she is real or just a dream. Maybe she was alive once but now she is cold and dead and one of the ghosts that haunt this place. She does not feel like she is a girl, only a corpse cold and dead.

She crawls along the wire mesh floor of Serenity's cargo bay. Simple, quiet. Zoë and Jayne know she is there, but they do not care. She is as a ghost to them: silent, invisible, practically nonexistent.

She wants to be good. She wants to be a good sister. It is the shining goal above her head, and she can reach and reach but never with the tips of her fingers even brush it at all.

The drugs help. Sometimes. Sometimes it is as though that shining shimmering light falls about all around her and wrap around her but not penetrate, never, never, never going within and she walks around as though she were in light but never truly becoming a part of that world. That is the best case scenario. Sometimes the drugs are evil and cold, dark and inky, and they wrap around her like ropes binding her and dive inside her flesh into her blood – nasty foreign entities that don't belong there and no matter what she does she can't get them out.

She blinks and she is alone. Utter silence. A ghost whispers in her ear. A name forms on the tip of her tongue but she cannot quite recognize the voice.

She stands, looking around at the deserted moon laid out all around her. She knows she should remember this world, cold and barren, but it might be new or maybe she forgot. She walks up the hill, her eyes on the starry sky directly above her.

The constellations are unfamiliar. She determines she must be in a far region of the universe, but no. She recognizes stars that are out of position, and makes the necessary adjustments in her mind.

Of course. She turns and smiles at the destroyed planet hanging in the sky behind her. It is an old friend, after all.

She reaches down and plucks a small stone from beside her foot. It is dull gray, an anorthosite. She thinks it is pretty.

Straightening, she turns a corner and then she is in Serenity's engine room. She watches the engine, a standard Firefly-class series three radion/accelerator core, spin slowly in place.

Kaylee is there. "Hey there, River," she says in a friendly voice. She fiddles with a piece of circuitry.

She considers whether or not to respond. Kaylee is nice, but even more stupid than her idiot brother. She moves her gaze over Kaylee's body, noting the grease and love. She wants to be a good person. "Hello," she whispers, and squeezes her stone tightly in the palm of her closed hand.

Unable to handle the possibility of a conversation, she turns and leaves Kaylee behind. It is rude, she knows. She is being cruel.

"Sorry," she whispers under her breath, knowing Kaylee could never hear.

Simon looking at her with horror, believing her to be a killer, an Alliance weapon…

She drops to her knees and crawls, the stone still clutched in her hand. She descends a staircase and into the room that is Serenity's heart of terror, where nasty ghosts flit around and taunt her. Just a child. Helpless. Property.

The room is white, as it always is. White: color of mourning, color of heat and intensity, color of flag of surrender. I give up. I give up.

She crawls into the corner framed by cabinets. She holds up her hand and opens it to find the stone has changed shape. Now the stone is a knife.

She holds it up above her head. The blade catches the blue light and shimmers. It is pretty.

She knows she took a knife like it and sliced apart the Blue Sun emblem worn by Jayne, not caring about his pain. No, she did care. She liked it as blood leaked from his chest. He looked prettier in red.

She touches her face where he struck her. It is good to hit her. She is a sadist.

Balling up her fist, she pretends she is Jayne and strikes her cheek. And she feels pain! She is at once alive and whole and the ghosts leave her alone.

"Atonement," she mutters. Shepard Book often speaks of it to her, though she knows he'll disagree with her method when he hears. She knows he is a sinner, anyway.

The ghosts crowd in once more. She again punches herself in the face. The pain courses through her body and she lets out a gasp. The ghosts are held at bay.

"I chastise my body and bring it into subjection," she states without emotion, a quote plucked from deep within her mind like a stone plucked from a far-distant moon.

It is all a sadist deserves.

She looks up at the light glimmering above her head and retracts the knife. She knows she cannot be healed, no, not truly. This pretty blade may be her only salvation.

Closing her eyes to avoid witnessing the emergence of evil, finding her targets, pulling the trigger… screaming… No power in the 'verse can stop her…

She holds her hand out before her, palm facing her. She makes a cut, careful and precise, horizontally across the wrist. There is pain, sharp and glorious, and the ghosts recede. Blood streams down her arm, warm and she knows she is real. She feels alive, like she's a girl.

Hot tears drip off her lip and only then does she realize she is crying. What is happening? This is bad. "Simon!" she calls reflexively, quick and sharp. She waits a few seconds and then calls again.

The door opens. Her brother enters.

"River?" he asks. "What are you doing here?" Then he sees her open wound. "Oh, meimei! What did you do?" He kneels down and cradles her wrist, and then takes her knife away and stands to collect medical supplies.

"Simon! I'm not good," she tries to explain. "And the soul of Earth-That-Was brought me a piece of its satellite… and it turned into a knife…"

He drops down and starts cleaning her wound. She can tell he does not understand, but he lets her talk.

"Simon, I'm bad!" she insists.

"Shhh! No! Meimei…" he soothes her. "Now listen: You are not bad." He moves to inject Blue Sun biofoam into her skin, and she jerks away.

"I don't need that luh-suh in my gorram blood!" she screams at him. She grabs the injector from his hand and hurls it across the room. It bounces off the door with an echoing thud, and she feels the attention drawn from the crew of Serenity. She sobs. It is not her fault she is like this, but she still exists as an evil thing.

"What the devil's goin' on in here?" asks Mal as he opens the door to peer inside.

"River, uh," Simon starts to answer, but she feels something click in his mind and he tries to protect her, "River had an accident." He bandages her wrist.

"It wasn't an accident," she denies. Mal has to know. He can make it better. She gets on her feet and runs up to him. "Captain Reynolds, I… I am a bad person. I don't deserve…" She breaks down into sobs, sniffles, and resumes speaking. "I'm a sadist," she confesses, both to her captain and to her brother, though she keeps her eyes locked on Mal's.

"Oh, River!" Simon says. "No!"

She starts to feel better because she knows he is telling the truth, but it ends up causing fresh waves of pain to stream out her eyes because she knows it is wrong. "I hurt people…" she tells them. "And I like it." She takes a deep breath. "Please punish me, Captain Reynolds. I… I deserve to be punished."

Mal is strong and tough, like any father should be. He lifts the back of his hand to her face, and she winces. He wipes the tears from her face instead of hitting her. "Shhh," he whispers gently. "You're a member of my crew jus' like any other. If there's disciplinin' to be doin', I'll be doing it, an' I'll decide whether it needs to be done, dong ma?"

She nods. "Yes, Captain."

"Now, what's this talk of hurtin' folk?" he asks.

She takes a deep breath. "I hurt people… I… I'm built as a weapon… I like having this… this power over people… I like causing pain." She knows his response, and she feels better. She feels better as he says it.

"Now, River, there ain't nothing wrong with hurtin' folk that deserve it," he assures her with his kind voice. "You hurt folk that threaten you, that threaten your family, and I wouldn't expect any less of ya. You protect your crew, and that's what matters. As for you likin' it, that's somethin' to keep an eye on, but there ain't nothing wrong with you. Long as you don't hurt no folk that don't have it comin'."

She licks her tear-stained lips. "I hurt the people in the bar…"

Mal sighs. "Those were plenty innocent, maybe, but you weren't you. Only when you're you could you be responsible for what you done."

"I hurt Simon," she admits. "I play with him because I'm smarter than he is."

Simon snorts. "Meimei, you've always been a brat," he says with a smile. "That doesn't make you a sadist, and even if it did it wouldn't make you bad. You're a good person, River."

She shakes her head. "I'm a burden. Alliance wants me back. I make your life harder, hurt everyone on board. I hurt you and keep hurting, and I don't care because I like it here."

Mal squeezes her shoulder comfortingly. "River, if that makes you a sadist, I'm the gorram Marquis de Sade. We all have our demons, little albatross, some worse 'an others. Yes, taking you on has made our lives more 'an mite tricky. That don't mean you're a burden – far from it! You're a treasure of this ship, and we're lucky to have you. You say you're a sadist because you'd rather stay with your crew? That's nothing more than human nature, and you can't be human without a little selfishness. That ain't livin'."

She nods slowly. "World without sin," she borrows a phrase from his head.

He raises his eyebrows, and nods in agreement. "Ain't no such thing. We can't live without sin. We are what we are."

"We are," she agrees, a hint of a smile flickering on her face. She knows his game before he speaks, and it amuses her.

"And you're absolutely right," Mal continues. "You do need to be punished."

Simon straightens with alarm. "What? Captain…"

"You heard your sister. She wants to be punished." Without letting Simon speak, Mal turns to her. "As punishment for throwing things… you have to spin around three times, quack like a duck, and then go apologize to your brother."

Simon relaxes.

She smiles. "Yes, Captain." She spins around in place with a fluid grace she feels them admire. "Quack, quack!" Halting her spin, she steps closer to Simon. "Sorry for throwing things."

He smiles as he realizes she is now calm. "It's okay, River. As long as you're alright."

She frowns as she considers it. The angry ghosts are gone. She feels weak and empty, but… light fills her up inside. "I'm good."

"That's great, meimei," he says, giving her a hug.

Kaylee comes in. "What's all the fuss about?" Her eyes focus on the fresh blood on River's arm, what has stained her sleeve. "River, are you okay, honey?"

She smiles at Kaylee. "I'm fine. I'm… I'm glad to be here. You're my friend and I like you. We're full of light and we're girls."

"Oh…" Kaylee is confused, but knows River seems happy and is happy for her.

River hugs her, and pulls her into a group hug with her brother. She knows they are a family and feels such warmth and light, better than pain because it is true salvation. She causes her family pain by staying, but she will stay anyway. She knows that they will sacrifice for her.

River is a sadist.

But sometimes that's okay.