For the real R and C, by commission. Your payment promise that you will no longer call each other pet names, lick each other's fingers after eating, or make out when we're all waiting at traffic lights is now considered to be in effect.

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1

The hospital nurse came in.

"Still here, honey?"

"Yeah," said Caspian, and sat up straighter in his chair, smoothing down his tie. "Still here."

"You should go home. Get some sleep. How long have you been in that chair?"

"Few hours."

"Go home, Caspian." The nurse said it gently, but with finality. "You know nothing's going to happen now."

"Mmm." Caspian didn't move.

The nurse sighed. Her name was Marie. It was nearly midnight, the end of her shift was drawing closer, and she was losing patience. "Look, angel, I know it's tough, your mother and everything, but don't you think-"

"No," said Caspian, shortly. "I don't." He looked at the nurse with a sort of mulish defiance.

"Have it your way." The nurse left the room, shutting the door smartly behind her.

"Fine," said Caspian, to himself. "I will."

And he turned back to his mother, who was lying there, so peaceful, in her bed. Listening to the beep, beep of the heart monitor, to the rush of air as it filled her chest. On an endless vigil, guarding against the darkness of the night.

"""""""""""""""

"Mrs Aberthenie, I respect your decision, but surely it would be a more beneficial move to let your nephew go to a school which specialises in his sort of case?"

"Great-nephew, son, I'm not as young as I look- and you mean one of those nut-case places for disabled kids, don't you? Well, River isn't disabled, and I want him to complete his education in an environment which might be a good influence on him. St Sabian's is the best I can think of."

"All the same, his capabilities-"

"He's mute, Counsellor. Don't fudge it."

"Very well. River is mute, and we only have one teacher schooled in sign language. Wouldn't it be better for River to complete his education in a place where he could express himself freely, and not have to rely on pads and papers?"

"I understand your point." Aunt Emily heaved a sigh. "I did consider this. That's why he's been home-schooled for the past five years. But you must understand- for River to gain some understanding of how to operate in a normal world, he has to go to a normal school. It hasn't been good for him psychologically, shut up at home like that, with those parents..." She shook her head. "Confidentially, Counsellor, I'm worried about him."

"Well, if your mind is really made up- but what does River think about this?"

"I don't know. He never had been a very communicative boy. I think he's happy to be escaping his parents for a while. That house has been a cold place ever since the accident." She shook her head. "Still in mourning, five years afterwards. Not a healthy environment for him- no, not at all."

"Let me once again express my sympathy for your loss, Mrs Abernethie."

"It was five years ago, Counsellor. The time for sympathy is over. The time for life- has begun."

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River sighed, very quietly. The door to the school was open, and thousands of students, identically attired in white shirts and blazers with striped ties, were pouring in. A new school year.

He made his way through the crowds to the front office. Occasionally he was jostled by an elbow, but he just ignored them and kept going. The door to the office shut out the noise in the hall outside; inside, it was quiet as a tomb. He handed the secretary a note.

"River Daniels? Oh. I see. The principal is ready for you ."

He could feel the secretary's eyes on him as he followed her hand to an adjoining room. It was plush, and rich, and clean. The principal stood to receive him.

"Good morning, Mr Daniels. This is our counsellor, Miss Williams."

River shook their hands and sat down, feeling uncomfortable in the uniform. It scratched against his torso, and the delicate skin on his neck.

"Now." The principal was a tall man with an intelligent, somewhat aloof expression. "We welcome you to the community of St Sabian's, River. We're sorry that Mrs Gardner couldn't be with us today to translate for you, but we'll manage the best we can, all right?"

River nodded, and pulled his talk-pad from his pocket. It was a little screen, roughly the size of a large calculator, and a keyboard. His Aunt Emily had given it to him to help communication- she knew he got tired of writing very quickly.

"Excellent. Now, to business. We have informed all of your teachers of your condition." There was an infinitesimal pause before the last word, as the principal tactfully searched for the right word, but an untrained ear wouldn't have noticed it. River's was trained, and so would yours be if you could do nothing except listen, but he didn't particularly mind. "As far as oral presentations and drama classes are concerned, we will, of course, be making other arrangements. Are there any extracurricular activities which you wish to participate in this semester? Learning a musical instrument, for instance?"

River thought fleetingly of the piano. Then he shook his head.

The counsellor leaned forward. She was a smart-looking woman with short, curling red hair in a close halo around her head. "Are you sure, River? Extracurricular activities are often much less voice-dependent, you know. Take sport, for instance. Perhaps it would do you some good?"

River reached for the talk pad. I understand, he typed. But I think I should use this semester to get a feel for the school system. Maybe next semester I'll get involved, but until I've got a handle on St Sabians academically, other things would just distract me.

"Ah." The counsellor sounded unsatisfied, but defeated. "Very well."

"We haven't informed any of the student body of you," said the principal, "because we thought you'd prefer to tell them about what happened on your own terms. Also, I have to make the point," he added, gently, "that the piercings cannot really be allowed." He gesticulated towards the ring in the left side of River's lip, and the other on the right side of his nose.

River was surprised. I was led to understand that provisions would be made for them, he typed, carefully. The principal looked at the counsellor, who nodded, and made a gesture with her hands that River took- accurately- to mean that she couldn't talk his aunt out of it. Sign language was clear to him whether it was in words or merely vague ideas.

"All right." The principal's voice was heavy. "The piercings can stay- but it must be made clear that you are the exception rather than the rule, all right, River? Otherwise I'll have a horde of parents on the line telling me that in their day lip piercings were against the school regulations."

River nodded.

"I suppose," said the principal, as a sort of afterthought to the counsellor, "that the same goes for the hair?"

River's black hair was shoulder-length. He wasn't really insulted by the principal talking to the counsellor about it; he was perfectly used to people treating him as if he couldn't communicate in any way whatsoever, or wasn't even there. He just waited for the counsellor's expressive hand gestures with a perfectly placid expression.

"Well, that's all, then. Do come and see me again if you're having problems. Good luck, Mr Daniels. Daisy, would you show him to his first class? I think he's missed home room." The principal shook River's hand again and dismissed them.

Once they were outside in the empty corridor, the counsellor turned to him thoughtfully. "The uniform doesn't really hide the scars, does it?"

The corner of River's mouth quirked into a sad sort of smile, and he lifted his fingers to his neck, his hair washing over his face. So she'd noticed. Everybody did.

So thin, thought the counsellor, looking at his fingers. God, it's so sad.

"Easily fixed," she said. "Come with me. Minor detour on the way to your English class. We've briefed the teacher, don't worry."

They stopped by Lost Property, and she handed him a scarf. "Girl kept on losing it, then she moved schools. We've been trying to figure out what to do with it for a while- some of the teachers had their eye on it, it's lovely." It was, River had to agree, a very good quality scarf. Black, simple, and very warm. Not too long, either.

He wrapped it clumsily around his neck, feeling a sudden feeling of safety.

"Careful, careful- don't strangle yourself!"

The counsellor laughed. He smiled, but was unsure of what he was supposed to do, so he finished arranging the scarf instead.

"You look great. Now- English. They're doing Othello. Have you read it?"

River nodded.

"Brilliant." She opened a blue door. The murmurs within suddenly stopped. "Paul? Can I interrupt you?"

The teacher at the front of the class took off his glasses. "Yes, Daisy?"

"Your new student," said Daisy (River had now forgotten her last name). "River Daniels."

River felt Mr Delaney's appraising eye on him. "I see," he said, and it was evident, although his tone was light, that he did see. "Come in, River. Glad to have you with us. Please, take a seat- that one, next to Angela. Yes. That's right. Now, as I was saying-"

He made his way to his seat, somewhat clumsily. Angela was a corkscrew-curled girl who was looking at him with a keen interest. She whispered at him several times during the lesson, but River pretended not to hear her, and focussed purely on the teacher.

The same happened all day. He consulted a map frequently and, luckily for his sense of direction, didn't get lost once, thus avoiding the need to ask for directions and the possible awkwardness that could cause. Lunch came, and he gratefully retrieved a sandwich from the depths of his case- negotiating the cafeteria was a challenge he wasn't ready to face.

Eating outside, in the cold, would have been much more unbearable had he not been wearing his new scarf. He held his hands around it protectively, using it to warm his hands. A couple of smokers cast him disparagingly glances, but he simply ignored them, and ate, sheltering against a wall.

In the rush at the end of fifth period, he opened his locker, feeling the push of bodies past him, the yell of friends, a whole building of people who weren't marooned in silence. His head lowered slightly, and he bit his lip.

Maybe, he thought, things will be different tomorrow. But he was always hopeful. Even when there was no hope at all.

Whoever said that no man was an island, never experienced being River.

""""""""""

He waited for three quarters of an hour after school for somebody to pick him up, then walked home.

"Hey, River. How was school?"

His mother was cooking. His dad, he knew, was in the office. They hadn't forgotten, he told himself. They hadn't. They were just busy. That was all.

He nodded at her, smiling. She looked at him and returned the smile, in a slightly wavering fashion. "Good, good. We're having spaghetti. Don't be late for dinner."

This was a dismissal line, and he went. He avoided his dad's office at the end of the hall, and went up the stairs to his room, where he shut the door, lay back on the bed and put his earplugs in. Homework, he thought, could wait. He didn't have that much anyway.

"What is the sign for 'magnificent'?" asked the tape.

His hands moved through the air, silently, like fluttering birds. He shut his eyes.

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Dinner was quiet. It always was. Dad was strained, Mum was on the edge. Conversation was tense and empty.

River picked at the spaghetti.

"Eat up, sweetie," said his mum's voice. "You need your strength."

He looked up at her and smiled. She was trying. They both were. Her and Dad.

They shouldn't have to try, whispered something in him, but he stifled it. They were here. Life went on. That was enough.

Five years.

Had life gone on at all?

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Sorry, this chapter's a tad slow and heavy on the angst. Stay with me; I've got big plans for this story. Future chapters will be much more romantic, less dark and horrible. Well, mostly. Review, and you will be rewarded with the magnificent gift of my eternal love and esteem. I may even (gasp) mention you in my next post. Now wouldn't that be nice?

A.I.