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All the Talk Is Stars

by Mary Kate

     From: "mary" <>
     Subject: (Firefly) All the Talk Is Stars
     Date: Thursday, January 23, 2003 8:24 PM

     Spoilers:  through "Safe"
     Disclaimer: Serenity and her crew belong to Mutant Enemy.
     Notes:  Many thanks to Jayne for the incredibly inspiring
     Elizabeth Smart Challenge.
     ( Jayne
     also, along with inkling, beta'd this strange bit of
     business, made it better, and leant me faith when mine got
     shaky.  Thank you both!
     Summary:  At night, no one is safe from hallucinations.

by Mary Kate
c. 2003

Endless night surrounds Serenity, but they pretend it's not there; Captain is the leader of the game, and chooses watch and waking. He chooses black now, for sleep and night, a night darker than fire. Darker than death it is, where River dreams.

It's not like when she dreamed in the box. There, everything was stiff and silent, frozen safe. Here, the smoke from the torches fills her mouth; the post-holer's post rubs her wrists raw, and ashes, ashes, they all fall down, all but the angel Gabriel. Hark, he says, I bring you tidings of great joy, and the holy light pours from him, unbearably bright and safe, and the voices she knows cascade down, welcoming her home.

But this time, they are too late; the hate is too close, and the flames take her. She burns in a possible future, a lost dimension, where she was lost for so long, where all the children are afraid of their mothers and all the fathers have blue hands, and there are no stars. They all hate her, hate what they made her into; she is thick with knowing and they can all see themselves in her screams, so they silence her with crackling flames.

It isn't safe inside her own head tonight; it's all fire and hurt little girls and hate like oil. She likes it better outside. Simon doesn't like it when she leaves. He puts alarms in her veins to bring her back, but she is strong, they made her stronger, and so she reaches out and catches a current.

Translucent as water, River flows away from her own cacophony, to Serenity's safe harbors. Through the well-worn bed she has carved in their weeks on the ship, she pours herself out, free in the music of the crew's breathing.

Simon hasn't thought of the mother who killed her baby in a fit of post-partum depression for years, not since he met her during his psych rounds. She'd been no more than another curiosity, a learning tool. Compassion, understanding--he didn't factor those into his interview then, but he has learned to count them, to feel them, here on Serenity. It was not horror or fear, or even anger, that urged her to smother her infant in a cloud of soft blue fleece. It was peace. She just wanted peace, only a moment of blessed silence. It wasn't rational, what she did, but reason flees from the tangles of sleeplessness and love. It is entirely possible to lose sight of the thing one loves in its ceaseless, agonized, inconsolable cries....and in anticipation of them.

He knows this as he lies, never completely sleeping, because some part of him is always listening for River's next scream. When it comes, he is out of his bed before the first cry stops.

"Fire, fire! Simon, it burns!"

At her side, as always, as he will always be--it is loyalty, it is love, it is insanity--he soothes, cossets, comforts, and refuses to think of what he could do, of what he could silence, with just one pillow.

"We need phoenix feathers, to put out the fire, the stars are burning, burning, burning, Simon!"

He understands why she's shouting, after the day they've been through, but Mal won't. He's already threatened to throw them off the ship if she doesn't stop disrupting his chosen nights--Simon tries to quench that thought. If he lets himself think it, she will know, will fear, and will be even harder to control.

Too late; he's already let it get to the surface. Maybe that's why she is spinning out of control tonight, gripped in her mad dance, far beyond his cradling arms.

All the lullabies are forgotten, erased by the taste of smoke that's still in his mouth. "Shhh," he croaks, and rocks her into unknowing, undoing, unbeing..."Shh, River, no. The fire is out, it's out, you're safe, they came for us, remember?"

Her face is blank, eyes wide--staring into what, he can't say, but he wants so much to know, to trace the trail of breadcrumbs and find her, take her hand, lead her through the forest, and bring her home.

Shifting into gulping whispers, curled onto his lap as if she were half her size, River warps a rhyme from childhood out of all ken, until there is nothing left of it but bare bones and her fear.

"Pretty maids, pretty maids, all in a row They have taken them all, all away in the harvest of souls Down they go, Ashes of stars--Simon--"

She looks up at him, and her eyes are clear as water.

"All the talk is stars."

The rain stick's soft rattle is no match for the screaming down the hall. Maybe he can use it to beat her over the head. Jayne grins at the image; mimes it. That would stop the noise.

But the truth is, it's not River's scream that bothers him most. It's her laugh. What's she got to laugh about, anyway? Chi ma gun girl...

Wasn't her fault, though. Alliance had probably picked her apart, like one of the stiffs her brother'd had to dissect to become a fancyass doctor. Doesn't make no sense, that they learned to treat the living by cutting up the dead. He's seen enough dead to know how they smell, too, all sweet, stinkin' rot. Can't imagine how that wuss Simon could stand it.

"Never stop, always plotting, secrets, ruttin' Benedict blood on your hands..."

That was the thanks he'd got for rescuing her and her brother. Swear to God, they'd pulled them up to the hatch, and she'd started in on the same fei hua she's always givin' him. Jayne doesn't know who Benedict Arnold is, but he sounds like some nancy boy who ditched her at her first cotillion. Not that he'd blame the boy, if he knew who he was. Hell, he'd have done the same thing today, but for Mal.

She's changing them. He's not fond of those changes, turning one against the other, leaving them lost at home, a bunch of goody-goodies. Pretty soon they won't even steal stuff unless there's someone poorer than themselves to give it to.

He won't let that happen until he gets his fortune, and he and Vera can retire. And he figures if things get too changed, they're all sitting on a fortune, a fortune named River Tam. Turn her in, and he and Vera can retire someplace tropical.

Tanned, naked girls are rubbing coconut oil into his skin when River screams again.

Sighing, he picks up his rainstick and turns it over. A summer shower puts out the fire on the beach.

The water runs over her skin, clear as starlight, warm in the candleglow. Inara inhales the cleansing ritual, lets it remake her. It's not required tonight. She was only along for the ride on this last stop; didn't do any work. But she needs it.

Herbs and oils soothe the sting of what she's done, cocoon her far from the connections she shouldn't be making. She pushed Mal right into the arms of the Alliance today, and that reaching out, even for Book, is what should be dissolving now, but instead, her mind wanders to what happened afterward, the way Mal ignored her--wouldn't even insult her.

The fact that it bothers her...that's what she should be washing away.

She is losing control; she is losing separation. Her shuttle is tethered too tightly to Serenity, its umbilical cord shrinking with every close call. This should not happen. As a Companion, she should hold herself apart. It is a kindness to them, as well as to herself.

Give the outer shell, but keep the inner self, always. They should be separate, though they move together.

They taught her this at the academy, ingrained it, wrote it on every cell. The cleansing is for sloughing off layers of attachment.

"Everybody dies alone," Mal had told her, and River had echoed it later that day, singsonging an ancient rhyme from Earth-That-Was.

"High-low, here below, The cheese stands alone...Gotcher needle, princess?"

Inara does, and she will use it if it comes to that, to dying alone. She will control the end, exit before Reavers or fire or Alliance prisons can claim her; she will die alone, and by her own hand.

How River knew is a mystery. None of the others do; it is how Inara wishes things to be, and she has made sure that her wishes, when she allows herself to have them, are law. She used that power to make Mal take Book to the only place that could save him.

Mal will hate her for it for a long time to come. She'll hate herself for caring about how he feels, and they'll go back behind their walls until the next crisis calls them forth.

They all die alone, but some days, they all stand alone, too.

She tries, as the cooling rivulets caress her skin, to convince herself that it's better that way.

The ship has gone quiet, and he should sleep and heal, but instead, Book keeps a solitary watch in the blue light of the infirmary. He likes it this way.

When he'd first come to the monastery, unknown and therefore welcome, Book loved Compline best of all the hours. He would volunteer to take watch then, perform the rituals of prayers and candles in the dark quiet hours after midnight. The darkness made it easier to see the stars.

It also made it easier to hide. They hadn't known him for what he was, not at first, not for a very long time.

Here he hides inside his symbols, his rituals and the broken Bible he clutches to his chest like a shield, only occasionally lifting the shepherd's mask. As he did today, but it was not, he's sure, to save himself. It was only to keep the rest of them safe. And now he must lower the mask again.

Not that hard a task; on Serenity, they all see what they want to, whether or not it's what they're seeking. River's the only one who seems to see through him. After Mal went back for her and Simon, they'd come to see him--River braving the infirmary, shivering and silent in her red sweater until he touched her hand.

"Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them," she whispered in perfect King James, and swayed. "How many were there, and who was the oldest star, the god of Earth-That-Was, We-Who-Were, Devil-Will-Be?" Simon led her away, stuttering apologies for River, for not being on board when he was needed, for being foolish enough to be caught.

Book wishes they would have stayed. Anyone else, even River, would be a comfort in this sterile, steel room, where everything is clean and nothing's broken. He's cold and numb, and too amazed at the day's narrow escapes to sleep.

A witch. It shouldn't surprise him. In another time and place, River would have been honored as a mystic, a prophet. But prophets are born, not made, and River, Simon tells them, was made by the Alliance.

What will she be, then, if Simon can achieve his heart's desire and unmake her?

Another mystery for the mystic to contemplate.

Book shifts under the scratchy blanket, turns his mind away from her screams, and goes back to Compline.

"Give our bodies rest, to restore them; keep us safe, Lord, while we are awake, and guard us as we sleep, so that we can keep watch and rest in peace..."

Kaylee dreams in waltz time, dreams of things that are ruffled and fine. The piano is out of tune; hammers strike wires that need tightening and vibrate at the wrong pitch. But in the lovely, fine waltz, Kaylee is graceful. The wide skirt hides her awkward steps and she soars, spinning up to touch the floating chandelier, decked in false fire and dancing with her in endless suspended rotation.

"Don't worry; you'll always dance. You'll dance forever in the stars," River had told her when she saw the dress. "Dance through their flames when you freeze."

Kaylee had chuckled through her goosebumps; nodded and gone off to fix the ventilation system, off to the endless pas-de-deux of wear and salvage.

But nothing wears out in her dreams. There is laughter amid kiwis and mangoes and strawberries that burst in her mouth like fireworks. There is a moment of discord when she hears the screaming, but it ain't the ship. Serenity is fine, calipers and coils all in a row, her beautiful, notluh-suh ship, and Kaylee sinks back into the soft murmur of ruffles and the dance.

Zoe dances, too, but her partner is steel and her beat is staccato, deeper than drumfire. She listens and follows and waits and commands, all in silence, all in the dark rocks and exploding dirt.

Drops of fire rain down, and she darts between them, and reality bends to her will; Captain's God answers her prayers.

She twists and turns and withholds her granite grace until the battle turns her way, and this time it does. This time help comes, and there is no loss. The unit comes to her party on Serenity; they have oranges and she dances with Wash until the gunfire starts again.

"Don't stop," River had babbled when Zoe helped Simon untie her hands. "Never stop, we gotta run, run to Serenity. Tell Wash we gotta run."

As if Zoe didn't know that; as if she hadn't known it for years. She can't stop. Ain't no reason to stop, anyway. Running's what she does. It's who she is. Where would she be if she stopped?

Nowhere, and alone.

Can't stop flying. Can't stop dancing.

His arm tucked under her waist, his free hand trailing through her hair, Wash spoons against Zoe and watches the restless sleep of his big damn hero.

"Fierce one," River had said once, picking up the dinosaurs. Sometimes Wash lets her on the bridge when Mal is away or asleep. That time, a couple days ago, she'd dipped and swayed, making the stegosaurus and the T-rex fly. "You caged a dragon and named her yours, but what happens when the bars turn to water and she flies from the cage?"

He'd known she was talking about Zoe, because fierce is Zoe. Fierce concentration, fierce calm, fierce protection...even sex with Zoe is fierce, if only because they know how rare it is to have this thing that pulls them together, whatever it may be.

But Zoe is more than fierce, more than a dragon, and he knows more about her than anyone on the ship.

He does.

He knows she likes oranges and hot chicken stew, and deep, steamy, bubbled water.

He knows she fought in the war, and watched people die--hell, she made people die.

He knows that she is good at what she does--better organized than Mal, a better shot than Jayne, more cautious even than Simon.

He knows that, for Zoe, loyalty comes before survival, and that she learned this from Mal.

Wash knows that she gives her love to him, and her loyalty to Mal. She will love him, who knows why, no matter what happens, but Mal she would follow into a burning nebula. He knows this, but he does not know what this means.

He knows that though she will never truly need him, he will always be there for her, waiting for the moment when she does.

These are the things he knows about Zoe. It bothers him that the list is so short. He counts through it again before sleep overtakes him.

Wash has put Serenity on auto-pilot; but still, Mal's on the bridge, keeping watch through the night. The night he created, he thinks, and wonders why he's thinking like the crazy witch down in the quarters.

Their witch. One of his crew.

He's had worse, he thinks as the stars rush past. Traitors and cowards, back in the war...they'd all flashed through his mind when Book pulled out that ident card. Jayne had cussed him out for going back for the doc, but gorram it, this was the last time he'd ever go to the Alliance for help. Screaming or no screaming, having a doctor around was pretty damn handy.

Still, he wishes the doc's sister would take it down a couple dozen decibels.

Truth be told, though, the screaming he can handle. It's the uncanny way she looks at him, and says things that actually make sense--or would, if she knew the first thing about him, which she absolutely does not--that's worse.

And it's not just the cows.

"You lost something," she'd told him one day when he'd been trying to chase her out of the hold. "They took it away, and you're looking out among the stars." Then she'd laughed and spun out of his reach. "Just click your heels and make it day, like you always do. Persephone and Apollo went to sleep, and when will they wake?"

Sometimes he wonders if they'll be her sanity, or if she'll twirl them all into madness.

But he'd rather have her, if it means having a doctor, than have to go scraping and crawling to the Alliance and tap dance around their suspicions.

Hell, he'd fought them to stop exactly what had happened to her; told them no; was still telling them--with a little less gunfire and a lot more subtrefuge--to keep their damn blue hands out of his business.

Hands off. My crew. My ship. My sky. My stars. Mine.

This thing he'd built, he would keep at all costs.

Even if it made him as crazy as River.

Simon is still there when she flows back into herself; he pulls her out with his kind, worried eyes. She sways, trying to stay dizzy, but he just holds her tighter.

"They changed me, Simon."

"Oh, River..."

"They changed me into something new and terrible, all is changed, changed utterly. They changed me into something they could burn."

His hand strokes her hair, like warm spring wind. "They tried. They did, but River, they didn't include you in their calculations. They didn't figure on your spirit. They didn't change you. I know you. I know you, mei-mei, come back."

He is still the big brother who watched her from birth, almost as if he knew what would come to pass--that she would pass away from him and into the dark woods.

He promised to protect her, and he failed. He fails her still, with his needles. He cannot unmake her now. But she can.

She can unmake herself, if only someone will talk to her, will come and find her here, out among the stars.

"All the talk is stars; they know your name, and they've counted you, every one. Six-point-oh-two-two-one-four-one-nine-nine times ten to the twenty-third power, all the bright disheveled wandering stars, they've counted you, Simon..."

"Avocado's number," he teases, and releases her, lets her sink down onto the bed. "For making guacamole."

She shakes her head against the pillow. "It's how many steps back to me. And you. And us, all of us. Tomorrow is our permanent address, and there they'll scarcely find us..."

He sighs, and she giggles. "A star danced when I was born."

There is silence, and Simon pulls the coverlet up around her, tucks her into embroidered peacocks and silver swirls. "You were four, remember?"

Now Simon is talking strange, and she can't see his thought. She frowns up at him.

"The first time you danced. You were four, and you told me you weren't afraid. You said, 'I do it in my dreams all the time,' and you got up and danced just like the ballerinas on the holovid."

River smiles, and relaxes into his sheltering touch, his hand making soft rain over her hair, and lets all the voices, all the startalk, blend together into a dreamsong.

Someday she will teach him to hear their talk. Someday she will teach them all to hear the stars.

     Day deceives, but at night no one is safe from
     hallucinations. The legends here are all of bloodfeuds and
     suicide, uncanny foresight and supernatural knowledge. 
     ~ Elizabeth Smart

Other bits in River's rambles come from Sandburg, Yeats, cummings, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible--not necessarily in that order. The title's from Sandburg's "Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window".

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Mary Kate

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