by Nicole Clevenger
by Nicole Clevenger (c) March 2003
Notes and Disclaimer: In case you didn't suss it out already, I can't lay claim to these characters. Joss Whedon is the original myth-maker, and Mutant Enemy was there to back it up. I will, however, keep this thing going as long as I can, for absolutely no monetary compensation. Because no one will ever pay me to do something I enjoy this much. This is another post-ep for "War Stories." Feedback is always deeply appreciated.
She has bad days and she has better days.
Not that she can tell the difference, most of the time. Often there aren't even days at all, just endless seamless reams of time that flow and suddenly fragment without pattern. A moment of clarity here, a brief wisp of communication there. But mostly she's just trapped inside her head, unable to make any of them see.
She creeps through the darkened corridors of their metal home. The rest of them are sleeping, the ship sleeping. She's not supposed to be out like this, alone. Too many rules on the edge of lawlessness. Nobody minds the sister as long as she keeps the crazy on the inside. Symptoms and signs break the posted laws - sheriff'll come to get you and lock you away in your room. Then all you can do is listen.
The metal is cool but not cold, smooth beneath her bare feet. The porous pattern of the catwalk presses itself into her skin to mark her, trying to claim her as its own. If only she could give herself over it, become a part of this ship she loves so much. Melt down into a puddle of liquid nothingness, absorbing into the deck plating, the walls. Giving up everything to soar through the stars, her engine heartbeat the only thing in her head to break the silence.
Objects have purpose, weight. Change their form and change their purpose, you change the object. A girl no longer a girl.
If she closes her eyes and stands very still, she can feel Serenity's breath on her face. The faintest whisper of air against her flushed cheeks, her stinging eyelids. Simon's latest attempt at a drug cocktail runs through her system, make-better poison guesses disguised in doses and distribution schedules. Give a thing structure to make it real, put it on a timetable and it becomes official. He tries to put her on a timetable, waking and eating and sleeping and tests. He doesn't realize that someone tipped the paper, and all the numbers slid off and jumbled together. They don't fit back into their little boxes. They won't stay pasted down long enough to keep track of things.
There's no point to a timetable if there isn't any time, Simon.
Serenity's enforced night wraps around her, shadows in corners altering the shape of the space. Creatures made of illusion and fantasy rise up around her but she ignores them, moving on. The things she sees in others are often far scarier and more real than these nighttime monsters. She can see through these, see their outlines and their chipped paint. Shadows don't trouble her. There are so many shadows anyway.
She hears him before she sees him, his breath coming shallow and irregular. He lays on the lumpy couch in the common room, one arm slung over his eyes and a cup of steaming liquid on the floor beside him. She inhales. Coffee. Strong and bitter.
She moves closer; one step into the room, then two. She knows how to be quiet, how to steal into a place without being noticed. Long ago she used to practice this, honing the skill at the edges of dinner parties and meetings between her father and other men. Now she knows that this art of being invisible is something that can save a person's life. She uses it all the time now.
He can't hear her over his pain and exhaustion. The effort of avoiding what has happened is blocking out all else, and still the memories play again and again behind his eyes. He has been tortured. He has been laid vulnerable. Things he is not entirely a stranger to, perhaps, but a man can only suffer so much. Fresh cuts on top of scar tissue still sting. And they can still scar again.
His other arm hangs limply off the side of the couch, his hand dangling near the cup. When she brushes her fingers against his, she sees his death.
Soldier reflexes and snapped nerves send him into motion even as she's reeling from the vision. His fingers close around her wrist, pulling her abruptly down to land on her knees in spilled coffee. He looms over her, frozen in position half off the couch. A fist raised, halted in mid-strike. The splattered drink absorbs into both her nightdress and the carpet, scalding her skin as it spreads.
He blinks, jerks away. She scrambles back from him, a safe distance of a few feet between them now. He presses the heel of his palm against his chest - as if that could possibly relieve the pain he holds there - and struggles to sit up. She can see his shame as sure as his fatigue, but she will not blame him for his reaction. People do as their nature dictates, animal responses surfacing from under the veneer of civilized behavior. He can not help what he is. What has been ingrained into him.
His words come out in a growl, a rough cover to hide his regret and fear. "You ain't supposed to be here, girl." He fights for a breath, wincing as it comes. "Know I made some kind of rule 'bout you wanderin' 'round alone."
She sees him lying still on a table, a spiteful face leaning over him. "Heart stopped. He killed you and brought you back again. Like a toy with a new battery."
His shoulders go rigid, but he ignores her. With visible effort, he sits up all the way, swinging his legs off the couch. His boot comes into contact with the overturned mug, and he scowls when he sees the new stain surrounding it. He reaches down and rights the empty cup again, lifting his head just enough to peer at her in the dim light.
Her wrist aches from the imprint of his fingers on the bone, and her knees sting where the damp fabric of her dress rubs against them. She shakes her head no. The pictures in his mind are so loud that she wants to cover her ears, but she doesn't bother because she knows she would hear them anyway. Almost all of them are shouting this night. But he is the loudest, relegating their cries to faded background murmurs. Did she start out in search of him? She can't recall now.
He nods at her denial, a little of the tension in his body draining away into the pool of his exhaustion. "Good. That's real good." He picks up the cup, holding it loosely by the handle as he uses the arm of the couch to get to his feet. Moving slowly, he leaves her there, on the floor.
She draws her knees up, wrapping her arms around her legs, and waits for his return. The smell wafting faintly from her is echoed and amplified when he returns with another cup of coffee. He lowers his body carefully to sit on the edge of the couch, favoring countless tiny injuries and a few major ones. He takes a sip of the hot liquid, flinching as it goes down.
She watches, still waiting. Trying to sort through all the images, work out where each piece belongs. She remembers linear time, knows that things are supposed to track from one minute to the next. Not like this, where every breeze that blows by catches her in its eddying drift. Cold smiles and threats backed by pain, desperation and revelation running close on each other's heels. Forcing words out through clenched jaws, fighting for life when every instinct screams for surrender. Giving up and giving in, only to be revived. No escape, no relief, no end.
"Your plan being then jus' to sit there and watch me all night?"
A familiar face, a woman of silence and steel. She points her finger and makes her choice and the blood flows freely from the place where his ear used to be. The agony overwhelms him, his last coherent thought that now he can let it all slip away. No one else to be responsible for. No one else to keep safe, to keep strong. Now he's left alone; now he can finally succumb.
"The choice was flawed," she tells him.
"Choice?" The slight tremor that runs through his hands belies his act of incomprehesion. "Shoulda known there'd be crazy-talk as part of the plan."
Like a cornered animal, he strikes out in his panic. She brushes by it. "The page is a better match for the knight, but the king is the head of the suit. He is more important. Her choice was flawed."
"Jien tah-duh guay. I ain't more imp-" He breaks off, grunting softly as he leans down to set the cup on the carpet. "She did what she had to do. End of discussion, far as I can see."
The warning in his tone is clear, but the woman's face flashes again through her mind. She can see her as he does, strong and buried emotions born from years of shared experiences. They bubble up through her likeness, swathing her in rich scents and color. An impression-tinted portrait, layer upon layer to make up a whole person.
"In the dark, you wish the cards had fallen differently. Comforting arms holding you instead of him." His fingers grip the edge of the couch, knuckles turning white where they're not darkened by bruises and raw sores. Her voice is quiet, wondering words slipping out without any actual intent. "He doesn't deserve to be the choice. Doesn't deserve her."
"Enough. Fon go pi. You got no gorram idea what you're talkin' 'bout, girl." His voice is laced with the same deadly calm that sends those who know him running for the nearest cover.
She hugs herself more tightly, but her gaze does not waver. "Know more than people think."
His body and soul are far too run down to sustain his anger for long. He sighs, a long and tired sound. "Yeah, well, that may be... But you're wrong 'bout this." He pushes himself to his feet again, closing the distance between them. Standing over her, he reaches down a hand. "Come on, get up now." She lets him pull her up. "Best you get back to your room, 'fore I get a mind to start locking you in there."
His eyes plead in a way his voice never will. He wants to be left alone to his noise, his suffering. She can not offer him the comfort he yearns for. Her arms are not strong enough to hold him safe. All she has are broken pictures and fractured words, and it is all sadly inadequate to the task at hand. So she will leave him there, in his darkness, to suppress and compartmentalize and pretend to heal.
She looks back at the doorway. He is sitting again, both hands holding tight to the mug as he stares blankly into the middle distance. "A thousand lies to be embraced before we can sleep," she tells the back of his head.
By the time he turns, she's already gone.
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