Midnight Madness

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.

Rating: R

Summary: An experiment of sorts in descriptive language. One-shot snippet. For River, some nights are worse than others.

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River moved stealthily, picking her way with exquisite care through the treacherous terrain. Occasionally, she winced as a sharp stone punctured the tender skin of her feet, but she was careful to make no sound. Her heart beat loudly in her chest, and she marveled that the sound carried no farther than her own ears. Drawing a deep, steadying breath, she stopped and looked around carefully.

She could see nothing, but she was not foolish enough to believe that her lack of sight indicated that she was truly alone. She strained to hear, and thought she could detect the barest hint of a sound coming from somewhere in front of her. Straightening her shoulders, she inched forward, the blade in her hand catching the dim light of the night time sky.

Something was wrong, she thought, muffled panic curling in slow tendrils around her spine. They were here, somewhere in this vast emptiness, waiting with malevolent purpose. She could feel them, like the damp earth of a newly turned grave or the cold bite of steel at her throat. She swallowed thickly as she felt her reason beginning to dissolve, an insubstantial mist in the cool air. Mourning the loss of it, she shivered.

She moved forward, fighting her instinctual need to turn back. She knew, with the certainty born of bitter experience, that each step she took was leading inexorably to a truth she would not be able to endure. Somewhere ahead, she would find Mal, husband, lover and friend, broken beyond her ability to repair. The sudden knowledge made her knees give way, and she fell to the cold ground in a boneless heap. Squeezing her eyes shut against the clear vision of his destiny, she hugged her knees to her chest, rocking back and forth in the age-old rhythm of the truly bereft.

Slowly, reasoning ability returned, and with it the horrid realization that it was not only Mal whom she would find in the darkness ahead. Her heart thudded painfully against her ribcage as she heard Adam's voice in her head, crying out for his mother in terror and confusion. And then, she heard Hannah's helpless wail, the sound ripping through her like a bullet blast. She stilled all thought save one and stood once again to move forward into the blackness before her. Grasping the blade loosely in her hand, she concentrated on Hannah's cries, knowing that this, her youngest child, would lead her to the place of her last stand.

As she walked, the sky began to brighten, and she realized with a start that she had somehow lost hours of time. Perhaps she had finally slipped into complete insanity, she thought wildly. One could only fight for so long before defeat became inevitable. Shaking the treacherous thought away, she squinted into the distance and thought she could just make out the shape of a figure there. She knew, without further thought, that it was Mal. She broke into a run, dropping to her knees beside him, careless of the sharp stones biting into her flesh. With a trembling hand, she touched his shoulder, turning him toward her gently.

He fell, dead weight against the side of her leg, and she saw the wounds at his temples. Neat, precise, the mark of a surgeon with malicious intent. Her vision blurred as her eyes filled with unshed tears. She heard the sound of a low, soft keening, and it took her long moments to realize the sound came from her own throat. Lifting his cold hand to her face, she rested her cheek in the hollow of his lifeless palm, drawing the last of the comfort she could take from him in this god-forsaken place.

She looked up at the sky and saw to her surprise that the sun had reached its zenith. Aware once more of the loss of stretches of time, she placed her lover's hand gently across his chest and stood once again. The blade in her hand felt unbearably heavy as she staggered forward, leaving a jagged strip of her soul behind her in the dust.

She walked blindly for an eternity, forcing each foot forward with an iron will. Her children's cries echoed strangely in her head, giving her the impetus to continue. Dread dragged at her legs, and she waded through the swamp of it doggedly.

Suddenly, there was a silence so absolute that it stopped her heart for a millisecond. There were no more cries in her ears or her head, no more ripples along the surface of her consciousness. Only the awful oppression of utter stillness remained.

Rebelling at the reality of what that stillness represented, she screamed, the sound torn from her throat, ragged and raw. Arms of steel enveloped her, and she struggled against her captor, frantic and desperate with the knowledge that she had been too late to save her family from the darkness from which she had tried to shield them.

"River, darlin', you've got to wake up," Mal said firmly, his arms straining with the effort of holding his wife down as she thrashed wildly in their bed. "You're dreamin', bao bei, only dreamin'," he added urgently.

River bucked upward, throwing his weight from her easily. Cursing, Mal scrambled to regain his footing. Catching her as she bolted for the ladder of their bunk, he wrapped his arms firmly around her again, bracing for the impact of the blow he figured was sure to come.

River tensed in his arms, her body drawn tight as a bowstring. Jabbing a blunt elbow into his ribs, she twisted wildly, trying to free herself. Mal grunted sharply, but held on to his wife, hoping to all that was holy that she would wake up before he had any broken bones to show for it. "River," he managed to get out between his clenched teeth. "You gotta wake up 'fore you kill me."

She stilled, the terrible tension in her body giving way to abruptly rubbery limbs. Mal relaxed his grip, setting her down gently on the floor. She looked up at him, lips trembling with residual fear. "A dream," she said weakly, all emotion spent in the aftermath of her horror.

Mal pushed the curtain of her hair away from her face gently, sitting down beside her. "A bad one, from the looks of it," he said softly.

River curled into his arms, feeling him flinch slightly at the weight of her against his newly bruised ribcage. "Sorry," she whispered. "Didn't mean to hurt you."

"'S'alright," he said, resting his cheek on the top of her head. "Nothin' a few days of rest won't cure right enough." He paused for a moment. "You okay?" River nodded against his chest, but he felt the slight shudder go through her. "Wanna talk about it?"

"No," she replied, holding him more tightly. She felt the question in his mind that he was trying not ask. "Not a vision," she said finally. "Just a dream."

She felt the slight tension in his arms lessen. "That's good then," he said softly. Shifting on the cold floor, he added, "Think you're ready to get up now?"

River sighed, unfolding her body and standing gracefully. She headed toward the ladder.

"Where you goin?" he asked, his tone laced with concern.

"Need to check on the children," she answered.

Mal nodded, divining at least part of her dream. "Want some company?"

River smiled tiredly. "Yes," she answered simply, climbing the ladder without a backward glance, knowing that her ai ren would be right behind her and thanking whatever divinity there might be that it should be so.

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