In Simon's mind, River was forever frozen at fourteen.
It had shocked him, when he'd guided her carefully from the cargo bay to the infirmary, Inara's coat draped wrapped loosely around her, that her head was almost level with his. In his mind, up until that moment, she had still been his xio mèimei, all knees and elbows and the eventual promise of height. Dance classes had given her grace, but nothing could disguise a coltish body only half-done growing. Three years had made her a stranger, for all that he knew the planes of her face, the curve of her eyes, the timbre of her voice as she cried his name.
Her hair was longer now, a tangle of waves that flowed down her back.
Their mother had braided her hair every morning since she was ten years old. He hadn't seen it loose since they'd been children. And even then, it had been smoothed into curls, pulled back from her face and held with ribbons or small metal clasps. Whatever had been the prevailing fashion of the day. River had been a creature of fashion then--setting the trends among her small group of playmates. Always ahead of everyone else. Always in love with ruffles and lace. She was every inch the girl, his baby sister.
Now, suddenly, halfway to womanhood, with a child's terrified eyes.
The gold brocade robe brushed the tops of her bare feet as they'd walked through Serenity, the sleeves coming down to the knuckles of her hands. When she curled her fingers closed, they disappeared completely into the voluminous folds.
When they had travelled to the Academy for her orientation, she'd been wearing a navy and grey uniform. It had been just like all her other school uniforms, even down to the colour--grey pleated skirt, dark blue blazer. But she'd twirled in front of the mirror as if it was the most beautiful ball gown in the world. He'd been in the midst of his final year at Medacad, and his roommate Ren had been riding him for days, trying to get him to take off for Ariel with him and his girlfriend. Have some fun. He didn't understand why Simon would bother seeing his kid sister off to school.
The trip to the Academy was short, and if he had known those were the last hours he would spend with his sister for the next three years, he would have done things differently. He'd spent most of the trip catching his parents up on his advancements at school, shooing River away when she wanted to play mah-jongg or skells. She'd sulked, writing in her journal until they reached the station. Then she'd joined gaggle of other students her own age--boys and girls all with faces shining in anticipation.
Simon was haunted by those faces now. All the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who hadn't been freed.
She stuck her tongue out at the needle as he took a blood sample. So like the fourteen year old he'd lost forever. So like a child, even in this new and strange body. She was so thin, so pale...
His sister had always been nut-brown, kissed by the sun in the garden where she'd played. She would spend her afternoons kneeling in a corner of the gardens on their estate, building houses out of the gardener's paving stones, bits of wood and ceramic tile she'd salvage from God only knew where. She had even made an aqueduct of reeds and bamboo, which carried water from the stream which fed the koi pond to the cistern of the tiny house under the lilac trees. He remembered watching, amazed, as she'd fashioned delicate shoji screens and fixed them on sliding tracks to separate the rooms fit only for the fairies of her imagination--or perhaps the moulded plastic dolls that sat, untouched, on the shelves of her bedroom. When winter came, and the little houses were buried under snow, he swore he would wake to see smoke curling up from tiny chimneys beneath the bare branches.
Now she was white as a magnolia blossom, as if she hadn't seen the sun in all that time.
There were dark circles beneath her eyes, and her nails had been clipped short so that they could not mar the smooth skin of her palms when her hands clenched into fists. He could see veins, traceries of blue, pink, and purple that traced trajectories he did not recognise. She seemed to have bird bones. All the grace remained, but none of it conscious any longer.
The last time he had seen her, giving her one last hug before she'd disappeared inside the bone-white building that blazed in the afternoon sun, the top of her head had barely reached his collarbone. They had promised to write to one another faithfully, and even as he'd been holding her close, smelling the sun on her hair, he'd been imagining what he would do when he got the shuttle back to Medacad that afternoon. He had only been there with her in part--the rest of him had already moved on, was restlessly waiting for the next day, the next year, the next great challenge.
As she rested her cheek on his chest, tears spilling from her eyes as she just let him hold her, he realised that the girl frozen inside his mind was a stranger. That his mental picture of her was out of date. Useless. The three years they were parted seemed like an untraversable chasm, growing wider by the second.
Her hand, fingers longer and thinner than he remembered, curled in his. Same smile as the smoother stole her away from him, in a new and different face. He would have to paint a new portrait of his sister, done in shades of blue beneath the cold white lights of the infirmary.
In Simon's mind, River was frozen at fourteen.
He feared the same was true for her.