Title: Nights of endless conversations
Rating: PG for, uh, I don't know. Guns? It's mostly harmless.
Word count: 3,026
Comments: Set sometime between Objects in Space and Serenity; no actual spoilers for the movie, but there are a couple of references and angles that will only click with those that have seen it. That includes one line that I am impossibly proud of but nobody else will get because I am the biggest Shakespeare dork in, uh, ever. All right. The title is simultaneously a groan-worthy pun and a line of lyrics from a song called 'Endless Conversations'. It's allowed to be corny if it's lyrics! All the cool kids do it! *runs*
Hope you enjoy. It's the first thing I've written in a long time that I genuinely like, in a quiet, warm, subtle way.
Nights of endless conversations
“It’s a cake.” He looks embarrassed. “You…you made me one, for my birthday, so I thought…”
“That’s real sweet of you, Simon.” She gives him the faintly surprised look that, he is learning, appears whenever someone in Kaylee Frye’s life does something purely for her sake. “Real sweet.”
“Try it, before you go assigning it adjectives like that.” He laughs. He is remembering what laughter feels like, more and more often, and that is a feeling he cannot put words to.
“This ain’t exactly orthodox, you know.” Mal turns, caught in the middle of a half-sigh, half-smile. “I don’t make it a habit to cater to guests, on my ship.”
As far as I can ascertain, Captain, orthodoxy has never bothered you much.
“Well, there is that.” He nods, allowing the point, leaning back against the control panel. “But I can’t be makin’ too many exceptions, mind.”
His guest doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move a muscle, but nevertheless manages to give a distinct impression of faint amusement. A man of few words. Well, that suits Mal fine. He considers himself quite good at holding silences – useful, as there ain’t a power in the ‘verse that can stop most people from stumbling on and filling them up, even if the information they use to fill them is the kind they’d normally be keeping to themselves.
This, though. A vacuum like space itself. Mal runs his hands fondly over the metal-grey edge of the panel, feeling the nick from when Wash shoved his chair backwards just a little too violently and the scratched area from their latest near-crash just outside Ariel and the smooth dent from his own boots, when he’s sitting on the bridge. He knows his girl, and if she can handle a vacuum then he can too.
I can probably promise you no permanent damage, his guest says abruptly, although with my youngest sister…it is often difficult to tell.
“Anyone who plays with my crew plays with me,” Mal says, polite as you please, but it’s something close to a threat for all it’s just a statement of truth. “You ain’t…messin’ with my head none, are you?” He flickers his fingers at his temple, embarrassed.
Would you wish me to? Still gazing out of the window. Mal has not met his gaze yet. You do not impose upon any great stretches of my realm, Captain.
“Oh, aye. I know. Work like ours don’t leave much energy for dreamin’, and when I do…” This isn’t something he’d be discussing normally, but this and normal are a good few quadrants apart. “It’s the war, mostly. Serenity Valley. Tracey, some, but not as often as I did.” His mouth quirks. “Tracey’d be right pleased to think he’s still hangin’ around in my head, the chŭnrén.”
It would not be him. Imprints and shadows, no more. My realm teems with them.
“I know, I know, no need to be all…literal about it.”
Forgive me. It is my nature.
Morpheus looks up, then, looks the man straight in the face, and Captain Malcolm Reynolds sees black pricked with the perfect, distant, blue-young stars that he has been sailing towards his entire life.
“It’s purple.” She sounds thrilled, amused, and Simon watches her face for as long as he can, drinking in the smile. Kaylee sparks up her tiny pocket of the ‘verse, fills it with joy in brief moments, and he always feels odd and strangely privileged to be witness to it.
“Yes. Shepherd Book has some flowers. They stain…well, almost anything, as I have discovered.” He lifts his fingers, displaying the tips ruefully.
“Why, Dr Tam.” She brushes her fingers across his, links them together, squeezes his hand in a quick heart-tightening gesture. “I believe you’ve allowed something to mar your perfect hands.”
“Don’t be like that.” Simon feels himself stiffen and hates it.
“I’m just kiddin’ with you, Simon. No need to be such a formal shēn shì.”
Shepherd Book sits on his bunk with his Bible pressed between his hands, eyes closed, tapping the edge of the spine against his lips in an absent rhythm.
“I have always been proud of my name,” he says eventually, slowly. “I have always considered the Holy Book to be the cornerstone of my faith.”
“Your name is assumed.”
“That does not negate my pride.” He pushes his hands back across his head, automatic, smoothing down his hair, and looks up.
“If I am a threat to your faith, then it is shallower than I imagined.”
“You are not. But forgive me,” he says with a smile, “if I feel a little outclassed.”
Destiny stands perfectly still, the darkness of his robe mirroring and melding into the shadows of the partly-lit room. Book would feel better if there was some indication of humanity, if the links of the chains would rub together and chink, if the book’s pages would rustle.
But humanity, he knows, is too much to hope for.
“I accept that in your book all things are written,” he says. “As much as the logical part of me protests the fact that no matter how thin the pages are, the book could not appear as finite as it does.”
“You are speaking of faith,” Destiny says. “Logic is not so much inapplicable as irrelevant.”
“I wish I could explain that to River.” The Shepherd’s smile is wistful, now. His eyes remain on the book. “You know what is in store for me.”
“Yes.” Impassive. Book doesn’t think anything could disrupt the quiet, calm timbre of that voice.
“For all of them.”
Book is silent for a while longer, rubbing his hands together, looking at Destiny’s hands – grey and crinkled, half-folded around the book.
“I thank you, then,” he says. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for keeping that knowledge from our minds.”
“How did you get this?” Kaylee pulls a piece of the cake away with grease-spotted fingers, careless. Simon has been trained to scrub, and scrub again, and to worship at the idol of sterilisation. Watching her still makes part of him cringe, but it is a part that every click he travels in Serenity takes him further from.
“It’s just protein, Kaylee. Not even sugar, like mine had. We can’t –”
“Can’t hardly spare credits for somethin’ like that. I know.” But she puts it in her mouth and flutters her eyes closed as though it’s the freshest strawberry she ever tasted. Simon looks firmly in the other direction and tries not to blush.
“Here, Simon, have some.” She reaches towards his lips with a chunk in her hands and he does blush, this time, but he also forgets to worry about the dirt.
Jayne is polishing one of his knives when the girl appears at the top of his ladder. His mouth is open but not quite producing words by the time her feet touch the floor, light and soundless for the heavy black boots she wears.
She winks. “Hey, Jayne.”
“Uh.” Jayne swallows and shifts his grip on the knife’s handle, remembering the last strange girl that appeared onboard. “You ain’t…gonna try one of those Goodnight Kiss things on me, are you?”
“No.” She leans against the ladder and looks amused. “I just popped in to say hello. You’ve done a bit of work for me in the past.”
“I have?” Jayne says vaguely, eying her appreciatively. A little skinny for his taste, but he’s never been too picky. “So…” He’s still wary, though. “Just to be certain. If I was to kiss you…I wouldn’t die or nothin’?”
“Can’t make any promises there, I’m afraid, honey.” She blows a kiss and leaps back onto the lowest rung and is gone before Jayne has quite pushed the cleaning rags off his legs.
“Hey, that ain’t fair!” he yells after her. “Gettin’ a man all…excited-like…”
“That’s just her way,” a new voice says. The man who steps out of the shadows is tall and not-quite-shaven, and he gives a half-shrug as he peers up the ladder.
“Whoooahey!” Jayne fumbles for his knife again. “Get the gorram hell out of my room.”
“Sorry.” The man holds up a hand. His hair shines dull and auburn under the lights. “I didn’t want my sister to see me. There’s a bit of a family feud going on. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yeah,” Jayne says, nodding as though the guy’s his best buddy in the world, like they’ve known each other for years. Weird feeling. “She’s your sister, huh?”
“Little sisters,” the guy drawls, sitting down on the end of the bed and looking admiringly at Jayne’s guns. “Love ‘em, but they can be a right pain sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Jayne says again. He follows the guy’s gaze and brightens. “So, you want to meet the girls?”
“I’d love to.” Jayne recognises the look, the weapon-hunger, bright and eager, and warms to the man even more.
“This,” he begins, his tone reverent, “is Vera…”
“So River seemed better today,” Kaylee says tentatively.
“Seeming is different from being,” Simon says, but he gives her a smile anyway and pats her arm. “Thank you. I know…you’re trying.”
“I’m sorry.” She lets out a sigh and leans against his shoulder. “It ain’t easy, to go back to…things bein’ what they were. I keep seeing her with that gun.”
“Let’s not.” Simon feels ice in his stomach. “Let’s leave this for another day.”
“Mmm.” Kaylee tilts her head up to look at him. “So should I make a wish?”
Death is still shaking her head in amusement when she slips down into the next room. She sits crosslegged on the end of the bed for a few minutes, watching the couple in it sleep, her leg hooked comfortably across his body and his nose half-buried in her hair.
The woman wakes first, one eye opening and her entire body stiffening as she realises that they are not alone. Her hand starts to slip under the pillow, but Death smiles faintly and Zoe sits up instead, disentangling herself from her husband.
“Wash,” she says, shaking him, her voice just a bit too high to be normal, “Wash, honey, I think you need to wake up.”
“Bwuum?” Wash rubs at his eyes, still mostly asleep, and Zoe lifts her chin as she meets Death’s dark amused gaze.
“Who are you here for?”
“Just a visit,” Death says quietly. “No business tonight.”
“Cái búshì!” Wash jerks himself upright, staring at the girl perched on the bed, fumbling for his wife’s hand. “My arm! I can’t feel my arm! Am I having a heart attack? Please, just let me say goodbye!”
“You slept on your arm, honey,” Zoe says patiently. “You’ll be able to feel it soon. Haven’t seen you…well, since the war,” she says to Death.
“I’m never far away.” Death shrugs, bouncing a little. “Not for people in your line of work.”
“True enough.” Wash leans forward, peering at her intently. “Wow.”
“So you should know,” Death says, with a quick grin that’s gone in an instant, “that there’s hardly ever time for goodbyes. That’s what life is for.”
“So is death a garden?” Wash asks, obviously running on a set mental plan. “Are there naked women with grapes?” Zoe snorts and elbows him in the side.
“What do you think?” Death leans back on her elbows and wiggles her toes, watching Zoe relax out of the corner of her eye.
“Peace. Independence and peace,” the woman says. “What about you, husband?”
“I think she’s a ship.” Wash runs a hand through his hair and smiles. “And she’s the smoothest ride through the cleanest skies.”
Simon just looks at her; for longer than is polite, he realises, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
“All right. What do you wish for, Kaylee?”
A kind of laugh. “I dunno. I’d like to see my family again, you know? Haven’t, for a while.”
“You’ve got…a younger brother, is that right?”
“Yeah.” It’s a sigh. “I miss him. And I haven’t sent them money in a while.”
Inara Serra makes tea, three cups, fragrant and steaming up in cotton-wool spirals from the delicate china. She is glad that every physical motion is automatic; her hand does not shake, the tea’s gentle pouring curve is steady, and when she sits back it is with a perfectly composed smile.
“I am honoured.”
“Please, Inara, there’s no need for such formality.” Desire picks up a cup and waves the free hand, languid, meeting her smile with one of its own. “Surely we can consider each other old friends by now. You draw on me every day of your life, after all. Every candle and cushion and every tilt of your head is designed to draw worship at my altar. Your body has always been mine, ài rén.”
“Please stop that.” Her smile does not flicker.
“Just testing your training, my dear –”
“He doesn’t sit like that,” Inara says abruptly.
“I’m sorry?” Desire’s gaze, smooth and knowing, is cut through with sudden coolness.
“Mal. He sits with his feet apart, legs always bent. Remnant from the war, in case he has to spring up suddenly. And he never picks up a cup by the handle only, and we haven't had fresh fruit in months and haven't had peaches for even longer. You may have his features and his voice, but you are not him. And there is no way I could forget that.”
“Oh, you’re good,” Desire breathes. “Best of my children. I am glad I dropped by.”
“Your sister has not touched her tea,” Inara says, sipping her own, the steel back in her spine.
Despair is almost unbearably incongruous in the splendour and grace of Inara’s shuttle, a rough dirty heap where she sits in the corner, inspecting incense holders and tiny mirrors.
“Do not be insulted. I drink for us both. We are never far apart, my twin and I,” Desire says, watching her closely.
“I know.” Inara clasps her cup between her hands and looks down at her painted nails and tries to pull her control together where it is cracking inside her. “I know. That’s why I am leaving.”
And it’s true, of course it is, the twin emotions are swirling and tangling around her heart in a messy ball of grey threaded agony. No ice or fire or anything so mercifully sharp. Just the slow strangulation of her joy, of her life, of the brittle calm that Malcolm Reynolds has been dissolving bit by bit.
“Running ain’t the answer, ài rén. You’ll work that out.”
Desire, who is also Mal, leans down and kisses Inara fiercely as it leaves, and the cobweb of grey despair tightens once-twice in unbearable pain around her heart.
“That’s understandable.” He rubs her arm. “We haven’t exactly been rich, of late.”
“Mmm.” She yawns, and he is abruptly aware of her shoulder pressing into his side. They’re all thinner than they were, and hungrier, and a little worse at sleeping. But it doesn’t seem so bad, now. Doesn’t seem so bad if you’re distracted, and Kaylee out of all of them still sleeps deeply given half the chance. “Thanks, Simon. Wassa great birthday.”
“Oh. That’s…” He shakes his head. “I mean, you’re welcome.”
“Grnhhf,” Kaylee says into his armpit, and then she’s asleep.
“I know you,” the girl says immediately. “Do I?”
“I kNoW yOu.”
No reply. The girl’s eyes dart and she draws her knees up to her chest.
“I kNoW lOtS oF pEoPlE oUt HeRe. SwImMiNg In ThE gAlAxIEs LiKe TiNy BiRdS.”
“You’re like me,” the girl says suddenly. “Like Earth. Once was normal, gone to burns and fractal fragments and…tainted.” Her head jerks, all of a sudden, wide eyes and sharp features hiding behind a waterfall of hair. “Like…something else. Somewhere else. O, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer. I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to hear it! NO!”
Delirium watches without blinking, chewing on a strand of gently floating wiry hair, as River Tam cries out, shrieking into her pillow, curling and cowering like a mad animal. After a moment she puts out a finger and pokes the girl gently on the leg.
“CaN’t HeLp DrOpPiNg EaVeS, SoMeTiMeS. ThEy HiT tHe GrOuNd AnD eXpLoDe InTo RoCk CaNdY.” She starts to hum.
“Unconventional melody.” River’s red-rimmed eyes appear over the curve of one arm. “Shifting keys. The major and the minor don’t match. You’ll be punished.”
Delirium sits down on the edge of the bed and taps her foot in gentle circles, in time with her humming.
“HeArD iT iN tHe StArS. TaP tAp TaPpInG lIke A dIcTiOnArY’s HeArT.”
“Ronde de jambe à terre,” River mumbles, watching Delirium’s feet intently. “Can’t do that, now. No earth to stabilise the motion, no terra, gone to rubble like the cities of the old speech, too pompous for Pompeii.” A pause. “À l’air.” She stands up and demonstrates, one thin leg with a perfect pointed toe making slow circles. “Simon likes -”
“OdD bOy.” Delirium beams. “I kNeW a PoGo StIcK lIkE hIm OnCe.”
River presses herself against the wall and looks up, looks down, looks sullen. “Simon hates you,” she says, dull. “Don’t ever meet him. One of you will die.”
Delirium laughs, high and shivering and cut off abruptly. She stands up and makes her way to the door, but at the last she turns, pivots on one foot and tilts her head. One eye looks serious, and the other sad. “I dId WhAt I cOuLd,” she says. “MaYbE. FoR hIm. SoMeThInG I uSeD tO bE. It’S aLl YeLlOw AnD bLuRrY.”
“Thank you,” River says, and curtseys like any lady of Earth-That-Was.
Simon moves his cheek, feeling the dichotomy of Kaylee’s hair against his cheekbone, rough-smooth and warm. She is heavy against him, comforting and ridiculously serene in her sleep. It’s easier, he thinks – easier when she sleeps, to let her close. Their words have a knack of getting in between them and keeping the distance, filling the gaps. In silence there is nothing but the brush of cotton on silk and skin on grease on skin and soft warm puffs of breath.
When Simon Tam sleeps, it is with contentment and loose-limbed abandon and, on his face, a smile of quiet