Characters: gen ensemble
Spoilers/Timeline: Sometime after "The Message." No Serenity spoilers
Disclaimer: Joss owns my soul.
Summary: They walk together through autumn into winter.
The desert planet's wind is cold, but they walk into it regardless. Jayne is blowing every which way; he hasn't learned how to walk with the wind so he fights it. The wind fights back.
Zoe and Mal will not fight the wind. They will not bow before the wind. They know the wind, and the wind blows through them. Sometimes Mal feels like he's been made-over into a carcass. He reckons he can hear his bones rattling in the flesh-sack of his body nights when the wind's fierce. Days like today, when there's nothing but wind and swirled sand all 'round, the only thing keeping Mal from blowing away's his fierce pride, and the thing holding Zoe here's her man, his hand tucked into hers, pressed close. Wash is wearing absurd gloves, polka-dotted with tassels hanging from his wrists, and chattering about flying through storms. Zoe's hands have never felt warmer.
They'll sleep in a circle 'round the fire Book lit. Ain't right that they should have a fire marking the place they've settled down, but there's no human folk for as far as they've been walking today, so that's all right. Mal 'n' Zoe settle right down to sleep, since they'll take turns at watch, and Jayne paces round the place where the fire stops casting its light, hugging himself close and wearing that same stupid hat he's had on since his ma sent it to him.
The fire's not strong enough to keep them warm, just takes the edge off the frigidity of their extremities. Inara's made tea over it, and it's one of the miracles of Inara, the way she can bring a full tea service with her in that red-and-gold bag she had slung over her shoulder the whole time they were walking, can make tea for them that tastes like pumpkins and like spices you don't find but once in your whole life, murky and hot and even tasting expensive. Wash sits away from them, by Zoe's side, sipping his tea and looking thoughtful-like at the stars.
River's huddled close to Simon, quiet. Simon gave her something potent and numbing this morning before they set off from Serenity, and it's still burning in her veins, so hot it's hard for her to move. She sits and stares through the fire, tasting everyone's tea, the whiskey Inara slipped into her own cup, the hint of strawberries that flavors everything Kaylee drinks. Kaylee and Book hold their hands over the fire and tell stories to each other, to themselves.
When Kaylee was a girl, she raked leaves for pocket-coin she spent on candy-corn and engine-parts, but she could never resist a big pile of fluffy leaves, would throw herself into them and get red-and-orange-and-yellow leaves all over her, covering her hair and her overalls, and she'd have to rake the pile all back together again 'fore her pa saw. Then they'd light the leaves, burn 'em to nothingness, charred pile of once-pretty. Book's fire's like that.
They go to sleep one-by-one, Wash first, tucked into Zoe's side. He can lie down by her and she won't waken, though anyone else tries it, she'll be at his throat in a moment. It's Zoe's way. Next Kaylee, who yawns once and then drops down, suddenly all-at-once asleep, comfortable and happy, dreaming of life-piles and gorgeous autumn days, crisp skies that go on forever. And then Book sleeps, but no one knows his dreams.
Inara slides next to River, hands her another cup of tea, and this one's made like Inara's own, tastes hot-bright with liquor, makes her want to say things she doesn't think, makes her want to lie by someone's side and cleave unto him. Inara nods gently at her; whiskey makes her feel things that are hot and tearful and true, but she keeps them wrapped in her grey cloak. When she falls into sleep, she can almost forget that she had to drink to get herself here.
Simon tries to keep his eyes open, watching Jayne, still pacing, blowing on his hands and growling at the sky, watching River, who says nothing but shivers into Simon's arms, but there's nothing can be done to make a body stay awake when he's itching for sleep, and he slides lower down River's body, head lolling 'gainst her shoulder and finally into her lap. River absently pats his head, but he could be anyone to her. She loses time, and the midnight sky gapes overhead. The fire licks across the sleeping forms of the crew, touching everyone but her. Then Jayne taps Mal awake, and Mal nods once at River before taking up the watch.
River tastes dreams and pumpkin tea and watches the last of the stars burn out. The desert is too dark at night. If she'd wake Simon, he'd light a candle for her, glaze the whole landscape with its brightness, but that wouldn't be enough to keep the night-demons at bay. There are things in the night that don't bear thinking of, and River knows the names all of them are called.
"Hey," Mal whispers from outside the fire's circle. "You still up?"
"Can't sleep when ghosts are close by."
"Guess not," Mal tells her, watching all his crew freezing under their bundles of blankets. "Keep me company?"
"Wouldn't say no," she says, refusing to upset Simon when she slips him from her lap. "Where'll we be tomorrow?"
"Somewhere warm, I hope."
"Quoth Jack Frost."
"I don't take your meaning."
There's no more words, just sharp wind that turns to breeze when it touches Kaylee and bluster when it fights with Jayne. Being on a world like this will change folk, make them better or worse or more themselves. You can't sleep by someone's side, even just for one midnight, without taking something of himself into you. Can't consort with night-haunts and day-winds, can't wander in oblivion for a spell, without turning yourself into a demon, too. Somewhere, some calendar marks today as All-Hallows Eve, and the ghosts of all their old battles float to the ground into a leaf-pile of memories. The world turns them slowly towards dawn.
This is the wintering of their lives.