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Story Notes:
Disclaimer: Lyrics belong to Mountain Goats. Characters belong to Joss Whedon.
Written for: maharetr for the 2008 apocalyptothon.
Prompt: Apocalypse of your choice, based on/inspired by Maybe Sprout Wings by the Mountain Goats. Major bonus points for River-centric, but not necessary.
Spoilers: Show and movie
Warning: Character death. It is the apocalypse.

I thought of old friends,
the ones who'd gone missing.
said all their names three times.
phantoms in the early dark,
canaries in the mines.


River carries the names inside her thoughts, and whispers them like benedictions. They rest on her tongue, heavy and metal bitter, bullets between her teeth. They are gone, everyone she has ever known – her family, the scientists, the crew of Serenity. Every mind she’s ever read.

She still knows every secret, every thought.

She knows why the worlds end.

~~*

Ghosts ride on the ship, curving through the hallways and the chairs, whispering stories River can hear if she stops to listen. The stars spin around them and she paints the tales into their lights.

If she waits, and watches long enough, she can see them die, the spark burn out, and all the secrets whispered to them through millennia are hers.

~~*

She wakes, their voices on her tongue, and Simon bending over her. His face is creased with worry. It always is, when she is around. He used to smile for her all the time, whenever she said something to make him laugh, whenever she got too serious about something small and beautiful.

He smiles still, but only for Kaylee.

“It was just a nightmare,” he says, and he tries to sound so sure of himself, but he does not. She can hear the question riding under it.

“Yes.” It is a nightmare. He doesn’t ask her if it is also the truth.

~~*

“Hey, mčimei.” Kaylee grins at her when River slips into the engine room. She puts down her tools, wipes her hands on a rag, sticks it in her pocket. Once her hands are clean, she gives her a hug, curls her fingers through River’s hair.

River takes the comfort, and then settles herself in the corner. She loves Serenity, and the engine heart beat which surrounds her. Kaylee hums while she works, a little off tune. River could correct her, but does not.

It is a memory she will pull from the ghosts in the future, the warmth and happiness and the off-key song without words.

~~*

The engine is cold. It keeps her going through space, pushes her through time, but without Kaylee it is just a place, a part of a ship. It is no longer a home, and Serenity is not happy.

River spends her time in the pilot’s chair, her legs tucked up under her body. From there she can watch the stars die.

They no longer get born.

~~*

“What is it?”

“A new star.” Wash leans forward, brushes his hands across his dinosaurs. “This is the light from when it was born.”

She leans forward, and her hair falls along her cheeks. She watches it for awhile, intently, until Wash turns them to prepare for their landing.

“It’s dying already.”

He glances at her real fast. She can’t see it, but she knows.

“Maybe. Stars can die young too, I guess.”

“It is.” She can feel its sadness, the silent wishes of its people.

“That’s a shame.”

Everything dies. It isn’t always a shame. It will be.

His dinosaurs scream to her, as they pray to their pilot god.

~~*

River makes Serenity spin and dances in the center. Things fall all around her, pieces of the People-Who-Were. She’s sewn dinosaurs into her dresses and ratchets dangle from her neck.

She broke all the syringes first thing. She hates them still.

The birds sing to her from her memories, from the hiding spaces of smugglers, from the empty future and the overflowing past.

She can feel their wings brush against her cheeks and she closes her eyes.

~~*

Inara’s sleeves fall over her shoulder while she plaits River’s hair.

“I want to tell you a story,” River says, and she can feel her acceptance. “There is a bird which drinks too deep and drowns itself while it flies. It is hollow and empty, but it sings all the things it has ever learned.”

Mčimei.” Inara’s voice is soft and tender. She puts her hands on River’s shoulders, presses a kiss to the top of her head. “A bird in a cage can be happy and safe, but needs a flock for love.”

“We flock together.” River stretches her fingers wide, stares at her palms. There are rivers of blood in the lines of her skin, oceans of death. “We fly away from the rest.”

Water drops down to her chin, and she isn’t sure if she is crying.

~~*

There is no water left, but she isn’t thirsty. No food, but she does not hunger.

Serenity is empty, her fuel long gone, and yet still she flies and twists and moves, and inside her belly, River continues to live.

~~*

Zoe says little, but she was never one for speeches.

That’s what Simon says to Kaylee, who is worried. They sit together in his room, the door shut, their voices low, and yet still River can hear them. She likes it best when they do not speak, when their sounds are of other things, sweeter things than fear and pain.

She can sleep well then, and the nightmares are far away, and she does not remember her dreams.

While they talk, she sneaks away to find Zoe.

They sit together in the kitchen, silence between them. Zoe drinks tea, and stares into nothing. River imagines dying stars bursting to life somewhere else and babies growing in the darkness.

She cradles her stomach, but Zoe doesn’t see.

~~*

Mčimei.

River whispers the words as she dances and spins and floats in space while the stars fall down around her. She does not remember who called her that when, but in dreams everyone does until their voices blend into a song of sweetness.

She collects things, guns which she piles around the hold and pits of worlds long gone. Thoughts. Nightmares. There is no one to dream, and so it all falls on her, fast-forward flashes while she sleeps, hundreds and thousands of things she should not know, things meant to die with their people.

She knows why the worlds will die and all the universe with them.

End


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