Listening In the Dark

by Nicole Clevenger (c) Janurary 2003

Disclaimer: Serenity and her crew come from the brilliant mind of Joss Whedon. But, since no one seems to want to let him tell the stories, we step in to keep Firefly flying. I'm only doing my part in this endeavour - a strictly non-profit part, This is yet another Improv Fic.


She doesn't remember how she got here, crouched in the dark at the foot of the bed. Hunched over white, unbroken skin. A quick image of red, thick dark burgundy, running weeping trails down the path of her arm. Then back again, smooth and pale and untouched.

She can see it as clearly as if the action has already been taken. Can almost feel the trickle of warm wetness running over and off her elbow, dripping heavily onto the hard floor. Blood running faster depending on how she tips her arm, holding a hand up to the sky to watch it leave her. She twists her wrist this way and that, seeing it in her mind. This, at least, will follow the natural laws. This, at least, will behave the way it's supposed to. And she watches, fascinated, as the night closes in around her.

She doesn't remember how she got here. She can't recall the conscious decisions made to reach this point, the steps from A to B to C that led her to be hiding in the dark, razor-sharp glass biting into sensitive flesh. But that's the way these days, fragments of time and space without any linear distinctions. Open your eyes in a place, only to blink and find yourself somewhere else entirely. No safety, no guarantees. No assurances that the things you know will remain as you know them.

And the sadness. The aching sadness and suspicion and fear. They all have it, all hide from it in one way or another. But there's no place for her to hide. She can't keep them out.

They think they kept their secrets. Lock them up and melt the key, iron bars strong enough to hold anything. But there are spaces in the bars, and she slides through the gaps like a thing without substance. Walk by the cage and the creatures inside reach out to grab you. There's no way to get far enough away because the cages are too close together on this little ship. Even in the night she can sometimes hear them rattling their bars, trying to get at her.

A flash of something tasting like recent memory: She'd been in Inara's shuttle, but Inara hadn't been there. Still, her presence lingered, every surface stamped with her. She loved the feel of the satin reflecting the light like water, the silks slipping through her fingers like air. Smells like sunsets and warmth, a space perfumed the way no where else on the ship was. Rich and lovely, sensual. Almost enough to cover the loneliness that wafted through like the barest hint of fragrance on the wind.

There had been a mirror, a beautiful ornate thing gilded like a treasure. She liked making the light glint off of the surface, effortlessly calculating the angle necessary to bend and focus the beam onto a point on the nearby wall. It was easy to picture Inara studying her reflection in that mirror, primping and practicing and wishing that things could be different. That instead of the client she was about to see, a different man would walk through her door. That he would take her in his arms, pulling her close. That their lips would meet...

She'd caught a glimpse of herself then, the pressure on her lips resolving itself into her own fingers. The sounds of glass breaking, the tinkling melody like rain splashing against the wall...

She doesn't remember how she got here. Like coming to in a padded box, naked and surrounded by strangers. She only remembers that in bits and pieces, flashes of confusion and terror. Slivers of animal panic that make her want to scramble into the darkest, tiniest space available. There are plenty of those on Serenity, and she's found most of them. She's good at seeking out hiding places. But never good enough - Inevitably one of them will walk by her temporary haven, invading her thoughts with their whispers and wants. So she lies awake in her narrow bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, listening. At least if she's in her room, Simon doesn't worry so much.

In his dreams he can be free, mixing with beautiful people in their beautiful costumes, drifting through brightly lit rooms with a full stomach and humming mind. Discussing breakthroughs and politics, weaving through their privileged midst, lighter without the dense chain attached between them. Unless it's one of the dark dreams, Simon adding his voice to the nightmare chorus that plays throughout this little ship. They don't cry aloud in the daylight, so sometimes their soul-weeping slips into their midnight imaginations.

She doesn't remember how she got here. Her hand twitches, the piece of glass scratching the first thin layer of skin. No blood yet. But it seems to have already penetrated her, its point disappeared into the indentation from its pressure. She stares, fascinated at the illusion, imagining the invisible tip extending deeper and deeper, a thin glass spike through skin and muscle. For a moment she can feel it running through her, part of her.

Things are not what you think.

Earlier (vastly preferred to the more troublesome 'later,' as that temporal confusion tended to bring more problems than its vague predecessor) she'd been in the engine room, watching Kaylee work. Ordinarily being with her was like standing in the sun, bare toes wiggling in warm sand. A safe place to bask in the light for a little while, to push the shadows away for a moment or two. But somewhere the fear had sneaked in, trailing its smoky haze between them to dim that light.

Weight of cold metal in her hand, fitting like it knew the lines of her palm. Toy soldiers falling with each echoing bang.

And the dark man, rising out of Serenity's gloom to threaten and control. He was looking for her but got to Kaylee first, ripping away her security and leaving a jagged wound. His voice haunted her thoughts now, slithering out of corners to taunt and torment. It was his voice she was fighting when her hand slipped and sliced a thumb on a rough edge.

She can remember the bright red rush of pain and shock as if it were happening again. As if it had happened to her. Eyes darting over both thumbs show them to be unbroken, untouched. She'd watched from her place on the catwalk as Kaylee'd cursed and brought her hand up to her lips to suck at the cut. She'd imagined her own tongue flicking over the opening, the coppery tang of someone else's blood in her mouth. She'd started to follow the girl, but the picture fades out and she's left only to wonder if she had.

She doesn't remember how she got here. Her hand is beginning to cramp in its tight grip. She can hear them even now, wisps of needs and regrets coming in and out of focus. An interminable tuner searching for a wave frequency. Never silence, because between every clear channel, there's always static. She's becoming very tired of all the noise.

Still, this wasn't a choice. There was no rational thought process to get here. Exhausted as she might be, she continues to be dragged along by the tide, simply trying to keep her head above water long enough to get some air before being pulled under again and again. Their emotions churn around her until there's nothing left of her own. Even the breaths she manages to get are recycled from their lungs. She's teased by an unfocused yearning to find something she can lay claim to.

Wash has Zoe; Zoe has Mal. An imperfect arrangement, three people alone in their tangled triangle. Daggers of jealous and insecure thoughts that the pilot directs at the captain, at his wife. A wife's struggle to stand on her own without leaving him behind. A soldier's loyalty to her commander; a commander with the burden of leadership weighing heavy on his fatigued shoulders. Despite her past choices, the husband wonders who she thinks about when they make love. Wonders if she fantasizes about making different choices. Wonders if other choices might have made her happier. Despite his past choices, the commander refuses to allow himself the luxury of wondering; still, a man's control sometimes drifts. Despite all past choices, the woman feels herself pulled taut between them.

If the skin is broken, maybe some of this noise will flow out of her with the blood. If she gives it an avenue to escape, maybe she'll be free of it. All of the roaring and hissing will find its way down and through and out, and there will be silence. Cool smooth silence like Serenity's bulkhead against her forehead. Nothing but the soothing vibrations of the ship's beating heart purring through the wall between her and the vast calm of space.

Mal punched Jubal Early, and the bounty hunter drifted off into that black calm. He hadn't meant to do it, and his stunned shock had rolled over her where she perched at the shuttle's hatch. His eyes on the floating figure, momentarily forgetting her as he was struck with the horror of the death to which he'd condemned the man. Last hours spent spiraling out of control in a claustrophobic suit - contemplating impending and inevitable death alone in the empty black - right up to the final moments spent gasping uselessly for air that wasn't ever going to come. If he had to end a man, he preferred to do it quick and clean.

Quick and clean. Quick and clean.

The sharp point bites through another layer of tender skin, and a single drop of blood wells.

She doesn't remember how she got here. Like picking up a gleaming steel blade and slicing through cloth and skin. She believes that glimpse of light on silver is a true memory, made more solid by the recollection of the dull thud of a big hand against her jaw. Jayne striking out instinctively, a reaction ingrained in him by his daddy. Years of harsh punishments teaching him to hide his fear through violence. The knee-jerk response to hurt being to hurt right back. She doesn't recall now why he'd been cut; only flashes of his noise getting louder and louder until all she could hear was his ringing din. That and the bruised ache of half her face when she tried to chew.

Simon doesn't know that he tried to sell their freedom. Simon works very hard not to think about many things, these days. This particular suppressed suspicion is but one of the many. And if any of them try to push themselves out of the shallow graves he's dug in his mind, his long, graceful surgeon's fingers are there to tamp the dirt back down again.

She wishes she had those fingers. But all the plots in her graveyard are fresh and open, and no matter how much dirt she finds to shovel into the holes they never fill. And if they're never filled, the grass can never grow over them. She'll never be able to walk around there without falling in.

Her skin itches, begging to be separated. Promising relief if she only presses a little harder. She doesn't want to hear them anymore. Even the supposed preacher - who guards his secrets far better than the rest of them - invades her mind. She's learned to avoid him, mostly, putting as much distance between her and his web of lies as she can. There is a darkness underneath his religious cloak, hints of a life other than this one that he has adopted. Like his hair, she senses its voluminous, squirming mass just waiting, struggling to be freed. The band that binds it also serves to keep him apart, alone.

So much loneliness. So many secrets.

It's almost a surprise to her when her forehead connects again with the wall. Almost. Not resting this time, but a serious, concrete connection that sends a ripple through her entire body. Again, and her upper teeth jar against lower. Again, and she sees stars sure as if the bulkhead was a window. The rhythmic hurt has its own comforts, a steady focus of pain to block out all the other sounds. Both her palms rest flat against the wall now, a distant, secondary pain in her knee under which the shard of glass has fallen.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.

And now there are pale fingers circling her wrists, strong arms pulling her away from the unyielding wall and into a soft embrace of warmth. From the flavor of the sadness and anger and worry, from the smell of the shoulder where she's buried her face, she knows that Simon has come for her again.

His keen eyes have found the sliver of the mirror; she can tell this from his shocked intake of breath followed by a frantic reaching for her arms. She keeps her eyes tightly closed against his shirt, but lets him pull her limbs away from her chest for examination. He sighs, chest deflating against her when he sees that no real damage has been done. 'Oh, mei mei...' he murmurs, his lips in her hair.

She's hurt him again, given him something else to fear. He thinks she wanted to end her life; she must make him see that no choice was ever made. She must explain, apologize, reassure. She doesn't remember how she got here.

'Too much noise.' Her words are faint and muffled further by his clothing. She can barely hear herself. 'Trying to let it out.'

He rocks her gently, wrapping his arms tightly around her. He'd thought the medications he was trying were working, that the lab rat was responding to testing. Now he feels like a failure, like none of his efforts were making a bit of difference. She is tired, drained, but she searches for the words to make him see that this isn't true.

'Not you. Too many secrets. Too much hurt. But not you...'

He continues to rock them, saying nothing. She hasn't gotten through to him. She's infinitely weary of this long moment, wants to sleep before the next one comes. But he's still here, She has no choice but to try again.

'Their masks only hide sadness. Porcelain masquerade faces. There's no joy...'

His breathing had become ragged, as if he were fighting tears. But now it catches and holds. 'Is that why...?' He releases the breath in a slow stream of air. He bends awkwardly to put a little space between them, to look at her. Simon takes her face in his hands, waiting until her eyes meet his. Their faces are only inches apart, and she finds she can look nowhere else.

'Admittedly, this might not be the most fun we've ever had.' A smile quirks the corners of his mouth. She feels her own lips respond in a faint echo. He continues. 'But there is a kind of joy here, River. These people have their happinesses. Just like us.'

He pulls her back into the hug. A silent moment passes, and then another, and for right now everything is calm. Simon has rescued her again.

'Simon?' Her mouth brushes a button with its question.


'Tell me about the good things.'

So he talks. About little moments observed: a laughing game of cards between Mal and Zoe and Wash and Book, with Zoe on her husband's lap and Mal threatening to take up the same position with the preacher; about spending more time with Inara, sharing stories about dull society functions to see who could claim to have suffered through the worst; about noticing Jayne's oddly protective and only mildly subtle shadowing of Kaylee the last two planetfalls. And then he talks about her, about their concern for her progress, their expressed relief that she didn't leave with Early, their admiration for the way she'd handled the situation.

She knows there's more levels to it than that. That she'll still hear them when she wakes. But the pictures he's painting dance prettily across the inside of her eyelids, and she smiles as she watches. She doesn't remember how she got here. But at this moment, here is the only place to be.