The Song of the Stars

Warnings/spoilers: set post "Serenity" the BDM

For the Hurt/Comfort bingo prompt: "loss of hearing"

Summary: River's psychic powers have been a source of pain and grief to her as well as beneficial to her and the crew; now, suddenly bereft of them, she feels their loss in ways she'd never imagined

It was the absence of movement that woke Mal. He was on his feet in an instant, reaching for his clothes. As he shrugged on his shirt he reached for the comm.

"River? Zoë? Anyone up on the bridge"? Silence.

He muttered angrily in Chinese as he pulled on his boots and made his way up the ladder and out into the corridor. "Serenity" was still and silent. They weren't scheduled to stop and things off schedule were always trouble.

"Why does it never go smooth?" Mal complained bitterly. He made his way to Kaylee's cabin and banged on the door. If he wasn't sleeping, no-one was going to. "Kaylee! We've stopped!"

Without waiting for her response he headed for the bridge. If it was engine trouble Kaylee would go and see to it, but if not…hell, even if it was engine trouble River should be awake and dealing with it. River knew everything that was going on, most of it just before it happened. It worried him that she hadn't woken him to warn him.

The bridge was empty – and, Mal found to his surprise, the viewscreen showed a planet. A pretty nice one too with grass and trees and mountains, all under a blue sky - just to throw off his bodyclock which was still insisting it was the middle of the night.

"Sir?" Zoë was behind him. "We've landed?"

"Apparently." Mal grabbed for the radio and ordered everyone to the bridge. It took a while but Kaylee and Simon showed up, closely followed by Jayne and, finally, Inara.

"What's going on?" Simon asked, rubbing at his eyes. "Why are we stopped?"

"I don't rightly know," Mal said. "Where's our pilot? Your sister?"

Simon shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe she went planetside." Concerned brother mode kicked in. "We should look for her."

Jayne gave a moan of displeasure. "She's probably just landed us to go talk to cows or some idiocy," he said.

Mal thought Jayne had a point but didn't acknowledge it. "We all go look. Get dressed, split up, search for her. Back in one hour whether we find her or not. If it's the 'or not' part, we'll make a new plan. We've not been landed long though, I reckon, so she can't have gotten far."

It was Mal who found her, sitting on a rock overlooking a cliff. She glanced over her shoulder at his approach.

"We've been looking for you," he said. "Why'd you land us? Trouble?"

She shrugged. "I couldn't fly anymore."

"What do you mean, couldn't? Is something wrong with my ship? Or did you just need a break?" Mal waited for a response that didn't come. "We were on autopilot. I'm not seeing a problem."

"I couldn't fly anymore. Are you angry?" River's lip trembled. "I can't tell. You seem angry. But usually I know you're also concerned. Now I don't know."

Mal frowned. "What are you talking about?"

River burst into tears. "I can't hear."

"You're hearing me well enough," Mal pointed out. This was not his area of expertise, not women crying in general and certainly not River going crazy again. He looked around hopefully for Simon but he was nowhere to be seen.

"Not that. Not voices, not sounds," she wept. "I hear those."

"What then?"

"Everything else." River gestured, arms flung wide. "I can't hear it anymore. Your thoughts, the soul of "Serenity", the grass growing, the song of the stars. I can't hear it."

"Song of the stars," Mal repeated. It sounded poetical and yet maybe it wasn't just metaphorical, not to her. "You hear the stars?"

"I hear everything," River snapped, getting to her feet. "At least I did. I was always different, special, too clever, and then they made me this, made me too dangerous, made me hear everything, know everything, and now it's gone. I didn't want it, didn't ask for it, made me crazy, but I had control, after Miranda, I had control! Now I can't hear "Serenity" and I can't fly."

She finally paused for breath but Mal's own mind was reeling. To hear the very stars, to hear everything all the time. No wonder she'd been driven insane.

"So it's gone," he said, attempting to be reasonable. "Your crazy powers might be lost but you've still got five other senses just like the rest of us. You ought to be glad -"

"No!" Anger flashed in her dark eyes and she moved, shifting her body into a position that said she was primed for an attack. She was proficient with a wide variety of weapons but the truth was she didn't really need them. She was a weapon. And right now one that was like as not to go off without warning.

Mal held out his hands in a gesture of surrender and sat down on the grass. "River," he said softly. "Little one. I don't understand. Explain it me."

Her stern expression crumbled and she fell to her knees. "I can't hear the soul of All That Is," she said. "I know it's not normal to hear it. Thoughts and feelings and the heartbeat of creation…I don't think I'm explaining it right. The words aren't right. I lack the vocabulary and you lack the understanding. But I heard these things and I'd adapted. It's how I moved through the 'Verse, sensing the flow of it, hearing it, knowing it, part of it. Now I'm lost. Alone."

"Not alone," Mal said fiercely. "You're part of my crew, and Simon's sister, and friend to everyone on board."

"In here," River said sadly, pointing to her chest and then her head. "I thought it would be peaceful if it ever stopped. But it's not. It makes me afraid. Makes me useless to you."

Mal thought about this for a moment. "You can still fly," he said. "You don't need extra sensory whatever for that. You've learned everything that boat can do, and then some."

She shook her head. "And last week? I saved your life. I read that man's mind and I saved you."

"I was getting myself shot at long before you and your brother showed up to warn me and, where necessary, patch me up," Mal scoffed. "Zoë and I managed just fine."

River shrugged. "I don't know if you're lying or not. I can't tell anymore."

"I might consider that a bonus." He grinned when she looked at him, outraged. He held out his arms. "Come here, my little albatross."

River crawled over to him and climbed into his lap. He held her to his chest and stroked her hair.

"You were a whole heap of trouble to me when you were crazy," Mal said, amending, "Well, crazier."

She gave a sniff that sounded a little like a laugh so he went on.

"Having put up with that, you think I'm going to let you go because your telepathy is temporarily out of action?"

"Temporarily," River said, trying the word out as if it were new to her. "You think it might come back?"

"I think we don't know anything about your skills, not really. Maybe Simon can help. Maybe turn it back on. Maybe not." Mal sighed. "I know that you're still part of my crew. I know you're upset. And I know we'll find a way through it. We always find a way. It never goes smooth, mind, but we get there."

River rested her head on his shoulder. "I believe you."

They sat for a while. Mal knew they'd have to get back soon but they had a few more minutes and he didn't want to rush her, not when he'd just gotten her calm and reasonable.

"At least I had it once," River said quietly. "At least I did hear the stars sing."

Mal tightened his grasp. He realised now that this wasn't a loss he could comprehend. All he could do was be there for her.