River Tam awoke with a start, the echo of her yelp filtering back to her ears. The metallic taste of blood lingered inside of her mouth, slicking her teeth with it's coppery tang. She bucked in the bed and backed up into the corner, her eyes wild and her heart racing.
She pulled her knees to her chest, heaving great breaths of air but was unable to dispel the images that had filled her dream. Simon Tam, her dear-hearted brother, slid the door to her room open quickly and made his way to her side. Pulling her gently into his arms, he murmured quiet platitudes in her hair while holding her protectively. He thought she'd had another nightmare about the Academy. She'd had indeed had a nightmare, but as to the content he didn't know how wrong he was.
"Wash, set her down gently this time please?" Captain Malcolm Reynolds chided his pilot, humor in his voice over the intercom.
"Yeah, yeah. Like a feather!" Came the immediate reply.
"No one flies like my mister." Zoe felt the need to share the sentiment about her husband again and smiled over at her Captain. "You ready for this job?"
Mal turned to his first mate, and smiled back as Serenity thumped into the docking port on Persephone, fairly gently. "As always."
Kaylee and River came up from the passenger quarters into the cargo bay as the preparations were made to the mule to take it to the docks. "Cap'n? Can River and I go to the shops?"
Mal turned to the voice of his mechanic and stopped. "I don't mind, so long as Simon don't mind if River goes with ya." Mal knew it wasn't fair to keep everyone cooped up on the boat as much as they had to. Ever since the bounty hunter had failed to collect River and had disappeared the warrants for the capture of the two fugitives seemed to vanish off the cortex. And while that seemed strange, for right now without an impending threat of arrest he didn't see the harm in letting them do a little shopping.
"Oh, Simon doesn't mind, I asked him already. Shiny!" Kaylee practically bounced at the thought of some time dirt-side doing girly things with River. She knew that the reader hadn't had a proper growin' up, and she wanted to do her part to try and give her a little bit of that back. River only smiled shyly as she approached the lowering hatch of the cargo bay with Kaylee beside her.
As River and Kaylee made their way together through the market they spent time looking for things needed for Serenity, and things desired by any girl. They shared a true moment of friendship. Kaylee hadn't found herself this comfortable with River in a long time, and was glad for the company.
River stopped to look at a particularly charming display in a shop window, knowing that she didn't need or really want such an item, but it was nice to look none the less. Kaylee stood close by admiring something in a different shop window with much more enthusiasm, leaning in too marvel at how the mechanics of such a dancing doll would work.
"Ain't it just shiny?"
At a distance behind them Simon followed with Wash doing some re-supply of their own, and mostly just watching after his sister. He wouldn't say he was exactly comfortable being out in public on a Core planet, but he just couldn't deny his sister a little bit of enjoyment for herself.
Since she had proven she was fairly good at taking care of herself after thwarting Early, Simon thought he would be comfortable with her on her own. However, he really wasn't, and was spending most of his time staring down the corridor of milling people keeping her in his line of sight.
As Wash asked him to help carry something, he turned away from her direction for a moment and took the burden from the pilot's arms. Turning back to put River in his sights once more, he found he couldn't locate her in his field of vision. He tried to quell the moment of panic, realizing that Kaylee had moved along as well and that they couldn't be that far ahead of him.
As Simon rounded the stall he was standing by he spotted Kaylee once more and smiled slightly. She was leaned into a shop window with a delighted look on her face. However, as his eyes scanned the crowd for River he found he still came up lacking.
Unable to quell the rising panic this time he quickened his pace towards Kaylee.
"...shiny?" Simon reached her just as she finished her question. Scanning the crowd with wild eyes again he still couldn't spot his sister and no amount of rationality was helping him at the moment.
"River?" Kaylee stood back and looked around, and jumped back when she turned into Simon unexpectedly.
"Where's River?" He asked, in almost the same breath as hers.
"She's right here, Simon! I'm keeping an eye on her, you don't have to worry. She's probably just gone into this shop here." She gestured behind herself, smiling brightly as usual.
Kaylee strode into the shop with the purpose of finding her friend and ship-mate, with Simon hot on her heels. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the sudden dark after the brightness outside. Scanning the room quickly revealed that River wasn't inside and Kaylee's smile faltered. Simon turned on his heel and went back out into the street to scan the crowd again, panic cresting in a sudden tide inside of him.
Scanning all the faces in the crowded street over and over did not turn up his sister. He felt as if the ground were falling away beneath him. This was the very thing he worried about every day.
River was gone.
River slowly opened her eyes and tried to make them focus but found that she was having trouble thinking through the haze in her mind. Closing her eyes again she steadied her breathing and tried to put aside her fears so she could regain her equilibrium. It wasn't easy but it had to be done.
Attempting again, she opened her eyes and turned her head gently to see what she could see of her surroundings. A sharp stabbing pain shot through her jaw and neck and she winced trying to stifle her gasp.
"Well well... looks like she's awake." Booted feet stepped into her field of vision and that's when River realized she was on a floor. Trying to move back away from the large offending black combats she discovered quickly that she was bound by the hands and feet, and that the pain in her face extended down into her arms and back. This was not a good situation.
"I knew this was a bad idea. I just knew it! I had no right letting River out of my sight for even a second, let alone off the ship!" Simon was worked up into a frightful frenzy as he paced back and fourth in the cargo bay waiting for the Captain and the others to return.
"Simon... we had no way to know that anything would happen..." Kaylee tried her best to sooth him, but felt equally guilty that this had happened. She was supposed to be looking after her, and she'd turned away. It had all happened so fast. "They'll find her. They have to."
Footfall on the metal platform of the hatch and an engine sound filling the space in the cargo bay made Simon turn to see Wash and the others coming up the ramp. River wasn't with them. Simon's anger seemed to deflate a little, only to be replaced by a look of hopelessness.
"We looked, Simon..." Wash started, his hands out to his side in a futile gesture. "We looked everywhere..."
"We have to find her, Mal. I can't leave here without her." Simon's resolve was shaken, as fear crept into his eyes. "I just can't."
"I understand Simon. All our resources aren't tapped yet. Zoe put a wave out to our contacts and see if there is any movement anywhere. Information about kidnappings and the like." Zoe parked the mule and everyone hopped off. "We don't have long to move on this I'm thinkin' and we have to move quickly."
"On it, sir." Zoe took the stairs to the upper deck in twos with Wash following behind. Jayne moved off the to hide the goods in the storage space.
"Jayne, after your done there, get ready to go." Mal called out, heading up after Zoe, plan whirling in his mind the whole time. He stopped for a moment to turn back and see the look on his mercenary's face. "No arguments. We are getting her back. Period."
"Wasn't gonna make no arguments." Jayne nodded and got to work. Simon took a moment to close his mouth, astonishment clear on his face. Kaylee next to him put a gentle hand on his arm. "Toldja Cap'n would figure something out."
River cried. Tears falling uncontrollably down her cheeks and into her hair. Her hands, bound behind her back now, were useless to her. Her mouth was covered so she couldn't scream and the horror that assaulted her mind was quickly becoming too much to bear.
River didn't want to cry. She felt angry and frustrated and afraid. She didn't want to cry but she couldn't stop. This was nothing like what the Academy was. This was a whole new set of horrors. Her senses were beaten with violence. Blood and insanity filled her mind. And none of it was hers.
She tried to back away into the corner of the bed she'd been thrown upon, but couldn't make her limbs respond anymore. She looked up at the hideous visage of the man above her and realized her objective mind had detached from her body. Finding it odd that she no longer felt the tears on her cheeks or the pains in her body she was able to relax and let go of the horror.
None of what was in her mind and heart was hers, and so when she was divested of her meager dress suddenly, she found she didn't care. The tears stopped falling and she stopped struggling and lay perfectly still as the binding on her ankles was split and she was retied in a very awkward position.
River shut down the last of her mind when the rape began. She did the only thing left to her to do. She ran away and hid.
"Slavers." Zoe turned and looked up at Mal from the cortex screen. "It's the only hot topic of interest I've found."
"Do we know where?" Mal's look of disgust at the possibility was thinly veiled.
"There are a couple of possibilities, but the most likely place is here." Zoe pointed to a section in the worst part of the Eavesdown Docks there was.
"The best I can tell, no ships have left port yet. So if we're extremely lucky she's still in the world." Wash contributed turning away from the other screen.
"Well. Let's pray our so-called-luck holds out." Mal and Zoe left the cockpit and rushed out to the rescue again. At least they hoped for a rescue. They met up with Jayne who was in typical working gear for his job description and they marched with a purpose from Serenity.
Big Damn Heroes on the move.
The gunshot echoed through the small room, ending with the sickening sound of impact. The hot spray of bloody brain matter rained down on the bound and prone form of River unable to avoid any of the gore. This monster was the last one that had stood between the crew and River, and he hadn't even seen the shot coming. Mal had seen no need to warn him.
Mal, Zoe and Jayne stood in shock, unable to move for a moment taking in a scene of evil they had not been prepared for. River's pale, naked form lay in stark contrast to the rest of the filth in the room. Whether it was luck, or some kind of weird blessing, the shack had no other occupants. Their trail of wrath had been short-lived, and now upon seeing River's state, had been very unsatisfying. In a way they wished there were more people to take out, given the sudden and extreme need for revenge all three of them felt overwhelmed with.
Mal quickly snapped back into action and strode across the small space to lean down next to River. He reached out and gently wiped some of the streaks of blood from her cheek. "We've got you. It's ok. I've got you."
Blank, uncomprehending brown eyes stared glassily back into his worried blue ones. River was no longer there, Mal just didn't realize it. He quickly unbound her gently, careful of her vivid bruises so he wouldn't hurt her further. Taking more care then he knew he had in him, he arranged her limbs delicately and took off his long coat.
Mal didn't want to hurt her any, so he gingerly enfolded River in his jacket and arranged it closed to cover her with it. Knowing she was badly injured he carefully collected her into his arms and moved as if she were made of spun glass. Mal pulled her up into his embrace and stood, adjusting her so that she rested gently against his chest.
Stepping over the now lifeless carcass of the hwun dan that had been keeping River captive Mal rejoined with Zoe and Jayne. Slowly they moved out and made their way back to Serenity, with both people at his sides keeping sharp eyes out for anything they might exact revenge upon. They made their way painfully slowly back to the ship, back to safety.
Simon snapped his gloves off and threw them into the trash. He turned and readjusted River on he bed of the medical bay and made sure she was as comfortable as she could be. He then kissed the tips of his fingers and gently put the kiss on her forehead.
Simon collected himself and walked out into the lounge to sink into the couch there, finally allowing the tears that had been threatening to slip down his cheeks. He'd never felt so torn about anything in his life.
On one hand he was her doctor, having to remain objective and asses her injuries. Cleaning her wounds and washing her body clean of the blood and gore of the man who'd abused her had cut him incredibly deep. On the other hand he was her brother and could in no way stand to see what had been done to her. Having to make his precise, practiced stitches to repair her body in places he shouldn't have to look upon just about split him down the middle.
Tears soaked through the crisp white collar of his shirt, and his sobs were painfully silent. He was so afraid now for River. Deeply afraid that she wouldn't pull through this.
When Mal had brought her back to Serenity, the glassy look of incomprehension had scared him worse than anything that had happened up until seeing that. Even more than the bounty hunter had scared him when the gun had gone off and the bullet penetrated his leg. He thought he had known fear. He didn't realize what true fear was until River was blankly staring through him like he wasn't even there.
Simon sunk further into the couch, unwilling to be any further away from her than the room he was in and closed his eyes. Wiping the backs of his hands across his cheeks he tried to control his breathing, and make the tears stop. He only hoped that he would be able to be strong for River, because without her he knew he would be lost.
Mal stood in the infirmary with his arms crossed looking down on the battered, still fairly bruised girl lying there. He shook his head and sighed deeply. It had been three days, and she still hadn't woken up. She gave no response to anything Simon did for her and the doctor was slowly coming undone by the fact.
In fact, he'd come down to check on Simon to find him pale and shaken sitting on the other infirmary bed with heavy rings under his eyes. Mal had forced him to go and take care of himself and he stayed behind to watch over River while her brother was making an attempt to eat and shower.
"Wake up, little one." Mal murmured softly, genuinely hoping that by wishing it she would actually do it. Nothing changed.
He pulled up a stool and sat next to her head and continued to sit and watch. There was just something about her, something he felt he needed to protect and take care of. He honestly didn't know if it was coming from the paternal Captain aspect taking care of his crew, or it was something more.
The only thing that he could think, however, was that she was absolutely going to need everyone on this boat to help her pull through this. Even though he really didn't have any idea as to how to manage that. No one so young should have to survive such an ordeal.
River felt his presence from her prison and it warmed her when she was feeling so cold. She screamed and beat her fists against the cage she was locked in and cried in frustration. She was trapped and she didn't know how to get out. She had hidden far too well and now she was lost and afraid and captured inside. "Help me. Save me. Bring me back. Please..."
Mal felt compelled to lean forward when he thought he'd seen a fluttering of her eyelids. The movement was imperceptible but he was convinced he'd seen at least some kind of feather motion.
The one thing he did notice however, was a single tear slipping from her eye and into her hairline. His heart clenched tightly in a whirl of emotions. Reaching out impulsively he brushed his fingers across the damp trail to wipe it away.
The cage door crashed open suddenly. It was unexpected and abrupt. River flung herself from her prison and came roaring to the surface. A scream erupted from her damaged throat as she tumbled off the small infirmary bed and fell to the floor.
River's eyes were wild and angry, she pushed herself backwards across the floor and got into a corner pulling her legs up to her chest to protect herself. Mal was virtually held in place by his shock and surprise. He certainly hadn't expected any kind of reaction from her when he'd reached out to wipe her tears.
"Hold on, little one." He soothed, managing to get back into action after what seemed like a too long pause. He crossed the room and went down on one knee next to her, suddenly afraid to touch her again. "It's okay, I'm here. I've got you."
Mal risked reaching out and gently putting hand on her trembling arm hoping she'd look up at him. Praying for comprehension from her terrified eyes. It was like an electric shock jolting through River from his touch. She at once felt safe, protected and understanding of the nature of the contact.
She pushed herself forward from her huddled position and into the warm shelter of him. Trembling like a leaf, she wrapped her thin bruised arms around his waste and clung onto him for dear life.
Mal didn't move for fear of spooking her more and instead enfolded her in his embrace and held her as tightly as he dared. He hoped in some small way that showing her protectiveness now may help to make the rest of her journey a little less difficult.
Simon walked into the infirmary a few moments later to take in the sight of his sister trembling into the embrace of the Captain on the floor. Mal looked up at hearing the footfall and tried to convey in a look not to make any sudden moves or frighten her. Trying his best to convey that he was just as unsure of what to do in this situation as Simon was.
"Mei mei?" Simon whispered, after getting down on one knee next to them in the corner.
"Don't look at me," came the muffled reply. "I can't be seen."
"Mei mei... I have to look at you. I need to make sure you are okay." Simon swallowed his fears and frustrations.
"No. Can't be seen. Need to be invisible." The answer seemed final.
Simon looked up at Mal with great concern etching his tired features. "What happened?"
"Well," Mal started, unsure of how to describe it exactly. "She was crying in her sleep. And then she came awake all at once and tumbled down to the floor and crawled over here. I came over to help, and she's been hanging on for dear life since."
"Safe now." Came the echoed sentiment, muffled from his chest.
"Yes, little one, you're safe now." Mal murmured in response, rubbing her back in gentle circles.
"Don't let go. Ever."
A brief look of concern passed between Simon and Mal as Mal tried to pull River back a bit to look into her face, but she wouldn't budge.
"Okay, hon, I won't." Mal tried to smile through his worry. This wasn't what he'd been hoping for his first time holding her while conscious, however, he was glad at least he was making her feel safe. "Though we'll have to move sometime, little one, my foot is falling asleep."
There was a tiny ghost of a laugh from the vicinity of the front of his shirt as River pulled back and looked up at him. "Fair."
"Mei mei," Simon tried to get her attention. "Is it okay to look at you now?"
"Fine." River got up and walked across the space at sat on the table and waited. "Stay?"
Mal looked at her and then at Simon. "I can't refuse that if you won't."
Simon nodded and began his examination of River, asking her many questions about how she felt and what she remembered. It became disturbingly clear that she'd blocked what'd happened out, she was missing a section of her memory. Simon couldn't figure out if that was for the best or not. It may be that she'd never remember what had happened to her, and it could be that it would all come flooding back and the after effects would be worse than ever anticipated. Simon gave River something to help her rest.
"Mei mei, were going to put you in your own room now, so you can be comfortable." Simon helped her off the table and started walking her towards the door.
"Don't want to be alone." River stopped walking and resisted assistance from Simon.
"I"ll stay with you, mei mei. Don't worry." Simon began to usher her along again.
"Want him," she looked back at Mal. "Want safe."
Simon covered his look of worry and hurt quickly. "Now River, Mal has many things he has to do. He can't be expected to stop doing his job to be down here so I'll stay with you."
"No." River's voice was hard as stone. "Please?"
"Doc, I can't say as how I'll be of any help. But it doesn't hurt me any if it's what she wants." Mal kept his tone soothing, he really did want to help her. Though he was being honest in how he didn't know what he could do to actually help.
"Good." River moved away willingly towards the passenger quarters and the two men followed behind.
Simon settled River into her bed and she started to drift off to sleep as he covered her gently with the blanket. Mal pulled up the chair and kicked back to get comfortable in the corner.
"Stay just until she's actually asleep. I'm sure you can leave afterwards and I'll come check on her later. It's just so good to see that she's up and about. Though really, it worries me that she doesn't remember what happened." Simon kissed the top of his sister's head and turned to leave the room.
"I'll do that. You go and get something actual to eat. I know you didn't before." Mal relaxed back into the chair and smiled a little, relief on his features. "Go rest now. She'll be okay I'm sure."
Simon smiled back. "Thanks. For everything."
"No thanks needed, but you're welcome." Mal waved the doctor out of the room and crossed his arms to settle back and wait for River to fall asleep.
"Sleep well, little one."
Mal jerked awake suddenly, unaware he'd fallen asleep. A small whimper sounded again, and he realized that River was the reason he'd been roused. He looked to the girl and was struck with a gut twisting anger. She was huddled back into the corner of her bed, her face crumpled in fear, trapped in a nightmare.
"Wake up River." Mal spoke into the silence in the room, getting up from the chair and crossing the small space. "Wake up, hon."
River whimpered again, and tried to curl up further into the corner. Mal reached out and touched her arm gently. "Come on, hon. Wake up."
River opened her eyes, damp with tears and looked up into his. "Why?"
Mal sat down on the edge of the bed, keeping gentle contact with her trembling form. "Why what, hon?"
"Well..." Mal was at a loss. "I can't rightly answer that. More than likely just the wrong place at the very wrong time."
River pulled on Mal's arm and pulled him further onto the bed. "Hold me safe."
Mal's resolve to be distant melted a little bit as he wrapped his arm around her now chilled form. He adjusted himself into a more comfortable sitting position and tucked her into the space next to his chest and covered her up with the blanket. River curled easily into place and settled against him warmly, her tremors fading away. Mal sighed softly, holding her snugly against him as she drifted back to sleep.
"I remember now." River said suddenly, almost startling him. "I know. I wish I didn't but I do. Thank you for saving me."
"Anytime, darlin'." Mal stroked a hand along her hair gently. "Anytime." He felt her relax back into him again and her breathing evened out into true sleep and Mal contemplated how now he wasn't going to be able to get to his own bed, but figured it wasn't that bad a thing after all. Settling back, he found he was comfortable enough to drift into a doze again himself.
A few hours later Simon found them like that, sleeping soundly together, River curled up firmly against his chest as if she had always been there and Mal's protective embrace holding her safely against him. Simon put away his sudden surge of jealousy at Mal being the one to protect and hold is sister. It was irrational and he knew it. Nothing bad was happening and if anything it was helping River.
But it still made him quite uncomfortable as he backed out of the doorway and slid it closed. He'd have to make sure River didn't gain an unhealthy attachment to the Captain. Heading for his own bed he smiled a little. Things looked like they'd be okay.
Mal awoke slowly and felt all manner of stiff. He slowly tried to stretch out his limbs and loosen up his tensed muscles. Not wanting to wake River he moved ever so carefully out from underneath her arm and tried to stand from the bed to get a chance to work out the kinks in his back.
River moaned softly in her sleep, but quickly settled back down again with her arm thrown around a pillow. Mal managed to stand without making any noise as he took the time to stretch out carefully. Sleeping sitting up had been quite uncomfortable.
Mal went back over to her and kneeled down beside the bed and brushed her hair off her forehead. "Hey darlin'." He murmured softly, feathering her hair back from her face.
River stirred slowly and opened her eyes to look up at him, a questioning look held within their tired brown depths.
"I have to go check on things, hon. You just go back to sleep okay? You're safe now, and Simon is close by. Is that fair?" Mal asked, a soft smile on his lips as she looked sleepily up at him.
"Fair." She replied, snuggling down into the blankets again as Mal readjusted them around her shoulders.
"See you when you wake up." Mal felt compelled to lean forward and brush a soft kiss on the top of her head before he stood. Departing the room quietly so River would fall back to sleep he smiled again, hoping that she would truly be okay after all.
River lay for a long while awake and wondering. A tingle fluttered through her body that was unexpected and strange to her, and it was mostly centered where the Captain had kissed her head. She didn't know what to think. She remembered now the brutal things that had been done to her, before she ran away to hide in her mind. But there was a big blank spot in her memory after that, and she was frustrated as a result.
Somehow the not knowing was worse possibly than knowing what she had survived. The way that she was being gentled and the aches and pains she felt in her physical body did not suggest that she'd gotten away with a simple beating. She resolved to work on remembering what had happened to her, one way or another. However first, she was drifting back into sleep, and she let herself go there so she could heal. And to let go of the guilt surrounding being caught off guard, because she really should have known, and she felt bitterly guilty that she was stolen in such a manner.
Mal strolled around the ship stretching his arms and legs and working feeling back into the muscles in his numb body. He'd been sleeping less time than he'd figured because the ship was still on auto-pilot everyone still seemed to be in bed themselves. Taking a seat in the pilot's chair he looked out into the black and contemplated just about everything, and really nothing all at once.
He brushed his fingertips against his lips and wondered if his action earlier had been for her, or if it really had been for him. Knowing what had happened to her made him feel extremely cautious, but also knowing what happened to her made him realize that she would need a lot of gentle care and love. It was damn near impossible to not want to do everything in his power to make her feel loved.
It wasn't too long until the lights started coming up and activity on the ship started swinging into gear, and footsteps sounded at the cockpit door.
"Morning sir." Zoe murmured, entering the room in her usual businesslike manner. "Sleep well?"
"Morning Zoe." Mal smiled at her, stretching his neck and arms again. "Not particularly, but I suppose I can suffer for one night."
"Simon told us River woke up and wouldn't let you out of her sight." Zoe held a smile behind her eyes, but never betrayed the amusement on her lips.
"That she did. As to why, I couldn't tell you. Hopefully she'll be better about it now. I managed to remain intact." Mal chuckled, shaking his head. "If you don't mind, I need to go stretch out for awhile and actually get some good sleep. I'll be in my bunk."
"Yes sir. Want me to wake you at any particular time?" Zoe traded seats with Mal and watched him as he made it way to the doorway still seeming particularly stiff.
"Should be okay, I'll just sleep this ache off. Won't be anywhere important today, we're still two days out from the drop off. So, unless we're about to blow a gasket, I'll stay in my bunk."
"No problem, sir." Zoe called after his retreating form, unable to keep the amusement from her tone, even when she still managed to keep it from her features.
Mal shook his head as he walked down the corridor and stood in front of his bunk door. Kicking in the ladder he descended and made sure the latch was locked behind him. Stripping to nothing he rolled into his bunk quickly and stretched out blissfully relaxing into the sheets and pillows. It didn't take all that long and he was pulled down into the embrace of slumber.
Mal awoke all at once to a banging on his bunk door. Reaching for the nearest article of clothing he rolled out of bed and shucked the pants on quickly.
"What?!" he shouted up the latter at the closed hatch.
"Come quick!" came the panicked reply in Kaylee's voice. "It's River!"
Mal scrambled around and gathered a shirt while shoving his feet into his boots. Throwing the shirt on over his shoulders he started buttoning it even while he was already climbing the ladder out of his bunk. Kaylee was waiting for him at the top with a fear stricken look on her face.
"What's wrong Kaylee? What happened?" The tone of concern was clear in his voice as he followed her through the ship towards the cargo bay.
"When Simon went to check on River she wasn't in her room. We looked all over the ship and we finally found her in one of the crawl spaces where we don't store cargo as often. She wouldn't come out. She's scarin' everyone awful bad and she's still in there. Simon thought maybe you could get her to come out since she seems to trust you right now." The hurried explanation was given as they rushed towards the crew now standing around the entrance to River's particular hiding spot.
Mal stepped through his crew and kneeled down on one knee by the open entrance to the recess in the wall. Peering down into the cubby he couldn't really see River but he could hear her anguished sobs. His stomach twisted painfully again, as he was finding it often doing in regards to her.
"River, little one, you gotta come out of there." Mal called into her. The response he got was a keening wail that turned the twisting in his guts to complicated knots. "River, it's okay. We're all here to help you. You're safe here. You can trust us to help you."
The response remained the same, and the keening wail was mighty painful to the ears.
"How long has she been in there?" Mal asked, turning to Simon.
"I really can't say exactly. I've been looking for her since I woke up several hours ago, but as to when she got in there, I couldn't say." Simon murmured, concern etching his features. "Mei mei? Please come out."
Soft sobbing moans echoed out back to them. Mal turned to the gathered crew and stood. "I think it's all time you moved along to your business for the day. I think maybe she'll stay in there until she's ready to come out. And it probably won't be with you all standing around crowding."
Everyone's concern was evident, and they all nodded in understanding and moved away from the cargo bay to leave River plenty of room. Mal turned to look at Simon and indicated he should try again.
"Mei mei? Everyone's gone now. Please come out?"
River's sobs were growing hysterical and the look of alarm on Simon's face was increasing. "I think maybe she's remembering what she blocked out."
Mal leaned down into the entrance to the space and called out to her. "River. I've got you. You can come out. It's safe."
Like a flung stone, she came hurtling out of the dark crevice and shot past the both of them. "NO! It's NOT safe! It won't ever be safe again!"
Mal stood and faced her panicked, tear streaked and disheveled form. He stood back and remained in an non-threatening posture. "Hon, I won't lie to you. What happened was terrible. But here on Serenity you are absolutely safe within my means to make it safe. I'm really sorry that I couldn't stop what happened to you, but at this moment you are totally safe."
River was heaving great breaths of air, close to hyperventilating, tears streaming down her face. "I'm so stupid! I should have known!"
"Mei mei. River. You're not stupid." Simon tried to move forward to comfort her, but she took a step back away from him instead.
"I should have known! I should have seen it coming! I failed! I'll never be safe again!" It took all her will not to drop to her knees and wail in agony, guilt overwhelming her.
"River, darlin', do you believe that I will do whatever is in my power to keep you safe?" Mal questioned, and her wild eyes locked with his and she gripped onto the lifeline he was throwing her.
"I want to."
"Then do. Please."
River stepped forward slowly, afraid to make any sudden moves, and then allowed herself to be close to Mal and Simon. "I will try. I just..."
Mal held out an arm to her to try and get her to understand that there was no threat here, she stepped willingly under it and pushed herself into his protective stance. Simon stepped onto the other side of her and leaned against her trying to project his love and protection into her as well.
"What really happened?" River said, unexpectedly. "I mean what did they really do?"
"I'm not quite sure I follow, darlin'."
"What was the point of it?"
"Oh. Control? Power? That hwun dan obviously couldn't do anything on his own, so he had to take it from others." Mal looked across River's head to Simon who was having a hard time containing his emotions.
"Raping me is owning me?" River asked, in that oddly detached manner that she often asked uncomfortable questions in.
"In some cases... yes." Mal cleared his throat, wishing for all the world that he'd said no to Kaylee that day.
"I'm not owned." River stated. "I wasn't touched inside. I remember now because I have to. I need to know these things. But I wasn't really touched. I hid."
Simon looked up at Mal. "I think she's trying to say she protected her mind by locking it away from what was happening."
"Yes. I hid." River nodded, still not moving from the embrace between them.
"But you remember now?" Simon inquired.
"Yes. I remember being tied up. I remember the pain. I remember everything he did up until you shot him." River trembled a little. "Because I have to know."
Simon and Mal just stood and held her while she cried again, releasing all the anger and pain she could.
There was no real way to know if she truly would be okay, but Mal honestly hoped for the impossible. He knew there was no way that he would ever let anything happen to her again. It just wasn't a possibility. He felt something new flutter in the back of his mind that wasn't there before. It was a growing attachment and love for this young girl that he couldn't explain, and frankly didn't much care to.
If Shepherd Book had still been on board, he'd say something about the Special Hell, but that really didn't matter at the moment. As if hearing his thoughts, River looked up at him and smiled a little, wiping the back of her hand across her face. It only then occurred to him, that she probably did hear his particular thoughts. He only smiled back instead.
"We gonna be okay to let go? I'd like to get some breakfast, if ya don't mind any. You can both join me if you like." Mal smiled again, and both Simon and River nodded as they departed the cargo bay for the dining area.
River knew now that he was telling the truth. Mal would never let anything happen to her if it was in his power to control. She wiped her hands across her face again, and let a little smile out at the thought. She knew she would be okay now, and safe.
Mal was sleeping, trying to rest peacefully. Trying to block out nightmares of little girls and the things that sometimes happen to them. It wasn't working very well at all. Rolling over restlessly, he punched his pillow again and settled down once more. Exhaustion overcoming him despite his unsettling dreams.
It had been a month since the incident, and while that short period of time passed, it had seemed like an eternity. River's outbursts were still much more frequent now, and were more centered on the things that had happened to her on Persephone instead of what the Academy had done. Though that still came up sometimes too.
When the door to his bunk opened, Mal was in actual sleep so he didn't wake to the noise. When the slender form of the ghost of a girl came down the ladder, he was battling dreams again. And as the door was latched and locked closed he didn't stir. She moved with confidence and turned on a small lamp to look down on his sleeping form, contemplating her reason for coming here a long time before moving again.
It was only when River slipped into the bed under the covers next to him that he realized that something wasn't right. Swimming up from the layers of sleep again he struggled to open his eyes. Delicate fingers brushed against his cheek and forehead, and his eyes snapped open in surprise. Suddenly Mal was very, very awake.
"What the-" he started, but River cut his words off by putting her finger across his lips. His heart was beating somewhere in the vicinity of his throat with the suddenness of his awakening.
"Shhhh..." River murmured, moving closer, her cool skin coming into contact with his sleep-warmed body. Mal's eyes spoke a million questions as he became uncomfortably aware of his state of complete undress next to her. Mal reached up and moved her hand gently away from his mouth, his lips tingling with the contact.
"What are you doing, darlin'?" He whispered, his confusion and curiosity evident despite the low volume of his tone.
"I've had a long time to think about this." River whispered back, her eyes reflecting golden brown and mischievous in the dim light. "I have felt your thoughts. I want to be whole again. Loved. Right."
Mal turned on his side, tucking the blanket around him and between them, and rested with his elbow against the mattress and his head in his hand. "I'm not quite sure I follow, darlin'."
River smiled a little, and reached out to brush her fingers against his lips again. "I was thinking about it even before, but now I know for sure."
"What's that hon?"
"I want you to make me a woman. A real woman. Not a woman who's been broken. I want you to heal me." River reached back to brush her hair out of her face as she looked into his cool blue eyes.
"Heal you? I'll help you all I can, you know that." Mal smiled a little at her gesture, realizing she was growing up so fast. Faster than even she wanted likely.
"Make love to me," she whispered, not breaking eye contact with him for a moment. Mal's eyes opened wide, and he blinked a few times in shock at her words.
"I-I-I... can't do that... I-I..." Mal stuttered, completely taken by surprise.
"You want to. I know that you do. I hear it in your heart. I want you to. I want to be a real free woman. Not trapped by the pain." River brushed her fingers against his lips again, and moved her hand along his cheek and into his hair leaving a trail of fire.
"River, hon, you're too young to be thinking these things," he whispered, eyes sliding closed at the warm feeling spreading out from her fingers across his skin.
"Not young. Haven't been for a long time." Her tone was patient, as if explaining the obvious. "You worry you are too old, I can tell. You aren't. I want this. I want to feel joy and love."
River leaned forward slowly, and pressed her lips softly against his. The warm feeling blossomed into a fire at the caress of her mouth, as he reached out and put a hand against her cheek and kissed her back. His body acted of it's own accord and he was suddenly very glad he'd tucked the blanket in the space between them.
Her lips explored his, and under the pressure they fell open and together they started exploring with lips and tongues more in earnest. Mal had a fleeting thought in regards to the Special Hell but honestly with this lovely special being under his hands now, the thought was quickly banished.
Hours later, with much patience and care River was happy with her decision. Knowing for a fact that this is what it could be, in fact what it should be made her spirit sing. As she settled down into sleep next to the man she now fully adored she understood a key piece of being a woman and was on the road to recovery.
Simon would hate her, she thought briefly drifting away in comfort. But he would get over it, he'd have to. However, she thought, cuddling closer to Mal, he didn't have to know for awhile. River drifted into sleep easily for the first time in ages.
Halfway across the 'verse, unknown to Serenity's crew, an Operative was planning his incredibly intricate trap. One designed specifically for her, River Tam.