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The Fermented

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She imagines sacrificing her socks for a scavenger,
savage, avenger, thief
Letting the water fall, turning to
Ice-shaped middle fingers

She imagines sacrificing her socks for a scavenger. They would lie on the forest floor, clues for someone coming to rescue her, a Sherlock, a theoretician, a librarian. A better story if it's a knight in armor, a better ending if it's someone who's crafty and sly who will know when to hide and how to mask his footprints. She covers her own tracks with underbrush and hides her past with dirt. She paints her face in it and covers her clothes in it. The original clothes are shredded and torn; the slave-masters took them. She's lost all her clothes except her socks, white socks with pink rosettes. They are impractical. Momma told her so, but she was silly, bought them anyhow. Her own paycheck. She can buy whatever she wants. It's allowed. It's permissible. She sacrifices her socks and they lie on the forest floor, rotting forever, fermenting. They will be wine-socks. Creatures will crawl over them and the heavy feet of monsters will crush them, and they will turn to wine, and someone will walk through the forest, thirsty, and drink from her socks.

That's actually kind of icky. She starts again.

She imagines sacrificing her socks for a scavenger, savage, avenger, thief.

+

It's nighttime on the side of the planet where they set down. Kaylee can never quite get used to that; she thinks it ought to be daytime on planets when it's nighttime everywhere else in the 'verse. She runs a hand through hair that needs washing; she's wide-awake and wants exploring, but the Captain tells them to adjust themselves for planet-time; they'll stay here a spell, 'til they can get enough fuel to get clear back to the center. Medicine for River, jobs for Mal, and machine shops for Kaylee. She'll be able to prop her feet up and stare into the forge, chewin' fat and talkin' shop with Old Milky, who makes the fittest parts on three worlds.

But in the meantime, they're way out on the rim. Kaylee imagines the 'verse as being like a person's life, with the rich, fat part in the middle, but that's where the image ends, because the beginning bits of a baby's life are also fat and happy, and the ending bits are thin and sad, but there's nothing like the starving, mewling, scratchy life out here on the edge of things. She can't sleep; Serenity'll keep her safe but there's nothing that'll keep the outside safe for fat babies or old women. Mal and Zoe and Jayne and all the ammo in the 'verse won't be enough to make this world a good place to raise a family.

She thinks a lot about raising a family, though she hasn't someone to raise a family with, nor any prospects -- 'cepting Simon, who's grown stranger since River became the ship, stranger and distant, spending more time than ever poring over stolen med books or sitting by River's bed, holding her hand and praying under his breath. She's asked the Shepherd about the prayers and he tried to explain to her, told her a story out of the Bible about a brother and two sisters, but in that story, the brother died. It's not like Simon and River.

"There's nothing in my any of my reading quite like those two," Book said thoughtfully, and Kaylee turns the words over and over again but can't make them make sense. Things are stopped making sense a long while ago. She thinks she'll visit Inara's shuttle to ask her about it, but Inara doesn't live here anymore, so she goes back to thinking about families. Zoe and Wash'll be having theirs soon, which has made her think more deeply than she ought about the rights and wrongs of child-rearing. Where did her dad go right; where did River's go wrong?

+

Her foot curves against Serenity and stays there, a rigid arch against the rigid planes that make Serenity's walls, her floors. Her brother is hiding her away in here, an experiment. All she can see is the ship though, the ship everywhere, all that is. She sees the ship as Kaylee sees her. That's my girl. Flying smooth, just like always. As Mal sees her. (there are no words for this, just thud-thud beating-heart. She could make that into a rhyme, but the rhymes all end the same way now.)

Two by two.

She stares at her foot, her foot as the ship sees it, the foot as Simon sees it. Her toes are bare, her feet are bare, she curls her toes backwards, lifts them off the ship's floor and sees them as Simon sees them. She doesn't understand Simon anymore. His thoughts are all confused, even more confused than hers. No. No one else's thoughts could be like that. No one else, no one else, no one -- "Simon, let me out of here!" The words aren't sane. They aren't insane. They're just her words. She's a screamer, she knows where to find a waterfall.

+

Fred is crouched beneath the cliff, waiting. Her fingers tap the rhythm of time, like the second hand on a watch. Tick tick tick tick. The imaginary watch sound fills her head and won't stop ticking; she can't see anything but turning wheels, turning gears, everywhere. The waterfall's roar fills her real ears, and in her imaginary ears, the tick-tick-tick of her father's watch. "Daddy, can I see how it works?"

"I don't know, sweetie. I don't want you breaking it."

"I can always put it back together."

Carefully, she finds the pinprick keyhole on the watch's back and unwinds it. If she unwinds too far, time will go backwards, and she'll be back in her cave again, grinding plants to see if they'll taste like oatmeal. Mostly they don't.

But now she's waiting for the hunters to make the kill, so she can slip up the cliff and past them while they're drunk and steal a carving knife. A knife will be a useful thing to have. She'll hold it against the throat of her master if he comes back and then he won't hurt her. Couldn't hurt her. She turns her body into a spring, coiled tightly in case anyone uncovers her hiding place before she's had her chance at thievery. She could be a knife, herself; her body could slice through solid bodies if she had enough velocity. She imagines whirling herself around till she became a twister. If she whirled fast enough, she could be a Dorothy and go home.

+

Kaylee falls back to walk with River, who's being bothersome and tugging Simon off the track. "Girl doesn't know how to whisper," Mal said, grumbling, and Kaylee patted his arm and said she could take care of it.

"You want to walk away from the others for awhile?" she asks, smiling at River. River smiles back slowly, a creeping, creepy smile, but Kaylee pretends it doesn't matter to her. "Shiny... I'll walk with her, Simon. You can keep up with the others."

"Uh, thanks."

River wants to look at everything, flowers and leaves and little green bugs that flick past like darts, like bullets. Bullets and River together make Kaylee's stomach twist a little, but she doesn't let that show on her face and tries to keep it out of her mind. Everyone knows River knows everyone.

River frowns like she's trying to remember something, then suddenly runs away, so fast Kaylee has trouble keeping pace with her. She's breathing heavy when River stops, throws herself to the ground, puts her ear on the dirt. "Wine," she says, and the grin on her face makes Kaylee forget River ever was crazy. She's happy, digging rotten leaves and grass away from something buried, something -- "A sock," she says. "It was made for three of us. Three by three, three by three -- leaves of three, leave it be." She points and sure enough, there's a patch of poison ivy twenty feet away from them.

Walking carefully around the poison plants, they take the rotten sock to a dirty pool of water to rinse away the grime. It's half falling apart and the other half is none too clean, even after being washed, but it was once a pretty sock, a lady's sock -- or a girl's. The faded roses are frilly and pretty; Kaylee wishes the sock were whole and had a mate.

"Things are meant to be in pairs, yes." River cocks her head. "But this sock's mate has already been scavenged. You'll have to find its owner by yourself, and be all three in one."

"Three what?"

"Savage, avenger, thief," whispers River. "You'll have to steal the girl away, and get revenge for her. I'm afraid I can't help you with being savage. I never was, you know."

"Of course not," Kaylee says. "You're civilized, not like the unbred boors out -- oh!"

They stumble into the shadow of a waterfall, and beneath it a savage girl, covered in mud and screaming words Kaylee can't make out, is fighting with green beasts that make Kaylee's heart stop cold. She wants to turn and run, find Mal, but there's no telling where he's got to by now, and he wants them to be quiet, so he can sneak his way into town to see if there's fuel to be got. She's alone; even River has vanished.

She's back in Niska's fortress, wanting to shoot and her fingers frozen on the gun. River's words become a tattoo that blends with the roar of the waterfall to make her deaf to everything. Savage avenger thief. Savage avenger thief. She takes another step, another, and the movement catches the beast's attention. It drops the ragged girl, runs for her instead. She's already winded from racing River, and she can't move fast enough to escape, nor shout loud enough to tell the girl to run. Green hands around her neck, holding her tight, almost choking. She looks around wildly, thinks she sees a flash of black hair that might be River, and then there's a sudden shaking of everything, and she's free.

The beast-creature is dead, and a ragged girl holding a long knife is standing over the corpse, her hands shaking.

"I could hold the knife," River says. "It might be a good thing to hold, to keep you safe."

"That's what I thought, exactly that. What are the chances of that?" She tries to brush the dirt off her. "You look like you've run a long way -- did you come here through a portal?"

"We came here in my ship," Kaylee tells her. "She's a beauty. You'll love her."

"We found your sock."

The ragged girl stares at River, then bursts out laughing, collapsing against Kaylee when she laughs too hard to hold herself up anymore. "I knew you'd find my sock, I knew it, knew it!"

"So who's the savage after all?" River asks thoughtfully.

Kaylee doesn't know what she's talking about, but asks the girl her name.

"I'm Fred -- call me Fred -- did you say you'd take me to your ship? It's like a bad movie, the truth really is out there, isn't it -- Mulder would be happy. You think we could pay him a visit?"

"Of course," Kaylee lies to her. "Anything at all."

"Could we be princesses?"

"Of course," Kaylee says again, and nods at River, who suddenly seems like the sane one. "We'll get you home."

But Fred shakes her head very fast, and stumbles against Kaylee again. "No, not home. I can't go home. Not there. Let me come with you awhile. I'm useful; I could fix things. I could make things. I could tell you what food's safe to eat and which are poisonous." Kaylee wouldn't say no, and she'll make Mal say yes, too.

"Besides, we found her sock," River tells her as they head back through the woods.