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The afternoon is warm, bright and a little hazy, the sort of golden summers-end day where the light seems almost tangible. River's sitting under one of Milliways's shaggy overhanging willows. The long trailing strings of leaves cut a jagged dark lace against the sky. Her knees are tucked up under her skirt, and her bare toes curl against warm damp earth; tree bark is rough against her shoulderblades.

She's not alone.

Margrethe Juarez is sprawled lazily on the grass in front of her, a faint smile on her face. She's wearing white, a rough loose weave that looks like linen, slacks and tank top and jacket like nothing the Academy ever gave its students, and the afternoon light dapples it with leaf-shadows and warms the highlights to gold. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a messy, careless ponytail.

(She stopped looking like this months before River met her.)

"It's warm," says Maggie to River's ankles, and spreads a hand slowly against the blades of grass.

"No," River says softly. "Just here. It's a harvest."

Maggie laughs, soft and almost silent, and River's own smile spreads involuntarily. "Here counts."

Somewhere, a bird is singing. A skylark. River couldn't tell you what a skylark sounds like, but in this dream she knows exactly what it is -- because Maggie knows, Maggie the country girl from Aberdeen, or just because it's a dream.

River breathes in, and out, and her smile slips away. "You're dead," she says, very quietly.

Maggie rolls over a little further, enough to reach out and brush her fingertips very lightly against River's dirty toes. She's still smiling, just a little; in the warmth of her blue eyes, in the sunlit peace of her face. "Yep."

"I couldn't," River says to Maggie's pale slim fingers. Her nails are painted a glittery translucent silver; at the Academy, they never had nail polish. "I tried, but, but I couldn't, and she was too late."

"Mèimei." Maggie's voice is inexpressibly gentle. "You were always going to be."

"I know it," River whispers, and her eyes close on tears.

A rustling of grass and linen, and then a slim warm arm is around her shoulders and straight hair tickling her cheek, and River leans into the hug in huddled silence, and their heads touch. It's like the old days, exactly like, except that the light through River's eyelids is pure and golden, and the skylark is still singing. There are no needles here, only memories.

"She killed me for you," Maggie says, and kisses the top of River's head like a sister. "It's okay."

River shakes her head a little, never lifting it from Maggie's. In a low choked voice, she says, "Anthy. Killed you for her."

Maggie laughs, low and warm, and it's like the sunlight. "That too."

It's minutes more before River speaks again. They don't need to talk; Academy children heard each other without words, whether they wanted to or not, and Academy children learned silence, and the gift of huddling together to make the unbearable bearable. Maggie taught River that.

"Jiĕjie. I miss you."

"I know."

River swallows. "Wanted you to meet them. Everybody. You could see the sky."

Maggie's hand strokes over her hair. If River opens her eyes a crack, she can see blond strands and a white-jacketed shoulder, and the blur of landscape beyond. Everything is warm. "I can see it," she says. "I can see it right now."

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River Tam

August 2010

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