"I love Serenity," Death said to the still highly confuddled crew, "but your dining room is a little cramped for you to meet my family. My brother offered to host the gathering because his realm is the one all of you are most familiar with, so hopefully it won't be too uncomfortable."
Inara had recovered her poise by this point, trained to be gracious in all manner of situations. "It would distress us to leave the ship, Madame."
"Our bodies aren't leaving," River said, smiling. "The Sandman comes to carry us away."
Without any sort of transition or preamble, they found themselves sitting at larger, oval table, made of marble. On land. Outdoors. With rich forest in one direction and an immense stone castle like from the history books and fairy tales in the other.
"What the hell?" Jayne asked, craning his neck around.
"Sit down and watch your mouth, Jayne, we needn't fuss our hosts," Mal warned, mindful of the five additional figures on the other side of this rather grand piece of furniture.
"Are we safe, River?" Simon asked, knowing implicitly that here, River was the authority rather than he.
"We're guests of the king," River replied, in a not-entirely comforting way.
"I know this place," Kaylee was squeezing Simon's hand with one of hers but making grasping motions with the other, as if trying to reach something at the edge of her memory.
Death took a seat across from Mal. To Death's right was a tall young-seeming man, pale as she, with hair as white as his clothes. An emerald hung from a silver chain around his neck. He appeared a little stiff, not exactly the sort of person to hug and crack jokes with, but his smile was kind, and Mal felt him to be the most familiar of them all.
There was a bit of a gap between him and the next one. She was a short, fat, supremely ugly and totally naked woman with a sharply hooked ring around her finger. Despite this, her cold gray eyes were calm and without hate.
The one sibling sitting directly next to her (and eyeing Inara with a look far more predatory and entitled than that pigu Wing, making Mal wish he was in a position to give another punch, damn the consequences) was smoking a cigarette that had the unlikely scent of peaches rather than tar. At first Mal thought they were a man, but a shift in the light cast a feminine curve over their face – but where were the breasts? Were those breasts? The rich clothes did not answer the question. The uncomfortable thing was that it didn't seem to matter. Not that he had anything against double-sliders; Inara serviced ladies as well as gentlemen, if not as often. What troubled him was that nothing in this one's oddness or arrogance made them anything less than utterly, undyingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.
On one pointy end of this mighty elliptical structure, was a very tall monk-type fella with a hood over the top half of his face, making Mal wonder how he could see. He was carrying a big, heavy, leather-bound book that upon a second glance was chained to his wrist. It was open and he was reading it. Mal got the sense that this was pretty much his full-time job.
On their side was Inara across from that platter of piaoliang who Mal now saw had sharp golden eyes, Zoe across from that wretched naked woman, Jayne across from an empty chair, Mal across from Death, Kaylee and Simon – on account of their closeness – both facing the man in white, and River sitting diagonally from the last.
The youngest of them looked to be about River's age, perhaps a year or two less, and she was grinning at River like they shared secrets between them. She had ridiculously rainbowed hair in dozens of colors that kept shifting like they were alive. One of her eyes was green and the other blue. Her lips were bright red, like in a child's drawing. Her clothes were a mess of rags and netting that barely kept her modest, with gloves that didn't cover her fingers and were studded haphazardly besides.
"Nice to see you, stream. I mean pond. I mean ocean. I mean cry-me-a…"
"River," the Albatross said soothingly, patting the girl's hand. "Thank you for being my friend when I needed you."
"When?" Simon asked.
"At the Academy. My only friend. She's like me. She was Delight. Now she is Delirium. She got trapped inside her hurting world but her big brother and their friends saved her and she's still Delirium but she's better now."
Even Jayne's heart must have melted a little at that frank summary.
Delirium blushed and made sparkling bubbles appear in midair. "That was, was, my job, y'know? You're mine, but sometimes you're my brother's-who-isn't-here and sometimes you belong to my biggest-brother-who's-going-to-get-mad-if-I-don't-stop-talking so I'm being quiet now."
"You have not done wrong in breaking the silence," said the Monkish One. "We will make further introductions."
"You don't need to bother with your names, though," said the beauty with a cutting edge to the velvety voice. "We've known them as long as you have."
"Don't be like that, Desire. Dream-" Death indicated the man in white, "created this space because Destiny (he's the one with the book) said that what happened to me accidentally is important to the future of the multiverse, and we needed to talk it out, and that Destiny's garden is a bit much for first-timers. Also Dream is going to be very important in the process."
"I am Despair," the naked woman said quietly.
"You poor thing!" Kaylee cried involuntarily. Then she put her hand over her mouth. "Made us sound simple, no doubt. Begging your pardon."
"That is the kindest thing any mortal has said to me in five thousand years," Despair replied with softness, though it was against her nature to actually smile.
Inara shook her head to clear her thoughts. "They spoke of you in House Madrasa, Desire. They said you were neither and both man and woman and emotion and god."
"I've watched your career with interest, pretty one," Desire replied, taking another drag on its cigarette. "You have provided me with some amusement."
"Don't talk to her like that," Mal growled.
Zoe kicked him under the table. "Mal."
Destiny overrode any potential fracas by saying, "This quality exhibited in Mal has been mingled with essences in Death to fill a void in reality. There has always been loyalty, faith, the foolhardy but noble concept of honor before reason. The Endless have sired mortal children, but never have they carried and birthed an immortal. It will be a daughter. And her name will be Devotion."
The silence that followed was momentous and dark. Mal never realized he could tumble into something even bigger than bringing down the Alliance, never knew he'd find a 'verse outside the 'Verse that apparently had sackloads of many different 'verses inside the bigger one. He had never felt tinier than when these giants spoke to him as an equal.
Dream whistled and a white raven came to sit on his shoulder. He spoke with hesitant warmth that proved his former aloofness to be actual shyness. "Miss Kaylee often dreams of strawberries. Is there other refreshment I may offer you?"
"Apples, please," River said.
"Would you go fetch Taramis please, Nandi?"
Both Mal and Inara stared at the thoroughly preened and healthy bird.
"Yes, sir," came the crackled but very obviously femalevoice. The bird caught Mal's eye and winked. "Still looking pretty good, Malcolm Reynolds. Ni hao, meimei."
Note: I had to invent a slang term for Mal POV to use. Hooray for double-sliders! (Not that there's anything wrong with strictly sly or strictly…"usual"? - or all the other possible 'Verse-terms for all the different orientations).
Also, it literally did not occur to me how strong the parallel between River and Delirium's tales are, particularly in Delirium: Going Inside from Endless Nights. Mal's relationship with Death is never going to be more than accidental babydaddy turning into friendship, but I see some possibilities with those two.
For those of you who haven't read what I think is the finest one-shot in the Sandman verse, Delirium has pretty much totally shattered and she's so lost inside her own realm that no one can go rescue her and emerge with their minds intact. Dream (who had to give up his ordinary life as Daniel to come be her brother – see how that's a little like Simon?), Barnabas, and Matthew send out a message to the crazy people of an unnamed city because Delirium cannot hurt them further. Four of the rescuers are adult psychotics of some variety, but the one teenage girl has been catatonic for months. While they founder through Delirium's realm she reaches out and says, "It's okay. I hurt too. Hold my hand."
Delirium becomes somewhat healed, if still not Delight, the four adults return to their ways of life, and the catatonic girl wakes up. The art, by the way, is trippy, glorious, and heartrendingly beautiful.