”When I first saw you, I thought you were a slave. One of those poor girls captured from the Outer Rim and sold to some Borderworld Baron. The first impression of a naked little girl in a steaming box will do that to a man. Especially to one as moral as myself. I was powerfully angry with the ‘Verse right then. Weren’t but fifteen minutes since that feng le sha zi of a doctor had all but killed little Kaylee, and there you were.
Then you started screaming. And, I never felt like that before. That feeling that you’d do anything to keep this little one safe from all the scariness of the ‘Verse. The thought of what mighta happened to have you end up on my ship... It’s somethin’ I don’t wanna be thinking about.
You came so far the last few months. From that scared little girl in an icy box, to the whirlwind of pain and danger I saw in the Maidenhead. Your brother told us that you weren’t just gifted, you were a gift. I believe him. There ain’t no way a girl could be as powerful and delicate as you and not be a gift from some higher power. The Shepherd, he told me to believe in something. Well, I don’t believe in God, but I believe in you.”
Mal looked up from the paper, and glanced around the common room. Still alone. He looked back at the letter, thinking he had to make this right. Pouring out your deepest, darkest feelings to a girl was difficult for a man, even one as ling min as himself. He hadn’t done it since little Becky Denver, back when he was six, and she was eight. Even then, he’d only got as far as telling her he thought she was pretty, ‘fore she’d laughed and sent him running home.
He’d never got that far with ‘Nara. Never. But, she ain’t the kinda girl you can tell those sorts of things to. She’s a Companion. Trained to read body language like other folk read books. She’d see through him in a minute.
River was different. She was... te shu. Extraordinary. She was his little Albatross. His pilot.
And... she was damaged. A broken weapon. Those Alliance Academy hun dans had ripped her head open and torn her apart. Such an innocent little one, and they’d pushed her to the raggedy edge and tipped her over. Filled her head with secrets and lies and all manner of darkness, thinking they were making her ‘better’.
She had been broken by the Alliance, just like him. Only... she managed to fix herself a little. Make it so the cracks got covered and the jagged edges were smoothed down. He was still just a mean old man. Had no right to be thinkin’ like that ‘bout a girl young enough to be his daughter.
A small noise made him look up again. River was making coffee in the kitchen. How long had she been there? She poured a mug of the thick black liquid and set it in front of him. Mal stared down at it before taking a sip. Just as he liked it. He smiled up at her.
“Xie xie, xiao mei mei.”
She smiled and danced away from him, heading back to her own room.
Mal crumpled the piece of paper and threw it into the trash. She didn’t need his darkness.