He don't mean for it to happen. Hell, he don't mean for any of it to happen, not really, and ain't that always the way of it? The things he does mean to happen never go according to the gorram plan, and the things he ain't planned on seem to fall into place without him so much as lifting a finger. It's enough to make a man--well, enough to make him wonder, even if he don't want to believe.
He lies beside Inara at night now, her body curled soft and warm against his, and it feels right, and true, and he knows he's done nothing to deserve her, done nothing but let himself get eat up by jealousy and rancor towards them as paid for her services, and yet somehow he's come out on the other side knowing he loves her, and strangely enough, that she loves him back. Had to get knocked about a fair bit by the 'verse to finally figure it all out--his momma always said he was hardheaded--but he's come to know some peace after all, and he's the only one can screw that up.
"Crazy," he teases her sometimes as they lie tangled in his bed. "A woman'd have to be crazy to be with me." And she don't disagree, just smiles that mysterious smile like the--what'd she call it?--the Mona Lisa and runs her fingers over his lips, his cheeks, his chin.
And it's enough, it should be enough, because Inara's beautiful and she's strong. She seems less brittle now, or maybe it's just he's stopped looking for ways to break her; instead, they slip together, worn smooth like the tongue and groove of a parquet floor. He spent a summer, once, learning to put down floors that wouldn't trip a body up, and raise roofs that'd keep the weather out, everything anyone would ever need to build a home to be proud of. Got so handy his momma lent him out sometimes to the neighbor ladies as couldn't afford a full time hired man anymore.
That's what he's got now--a home he's proud of, with smooth floors and a roof that don't leak, the freedom of the black, and a woman to wrap himself up in of a night, better than the finest silk money can buy.
He'd like to say he don't notice her, or that if he does notice her, it's just 'cause she's young and nubile and, well, he's a man and he's got eyes. But it ain't that. Or it ain't just that. Hell, he's spent more years than he'd like to count standing next to Zoe, and if she ain't a woman to make a man fall to his knees and praise God, such a woman don't exist. So it's not that he can't resist temptation, can't put it out of his mind until the temptation ceases to exist.
It's more that he never expected to be tempted at all, not from that quarter, and now he is, and he knows it's all manner of wrong.
She sits up on the bridge with him at night, bare-legged, barefoot, curled up in the co-pilot's chair, staring out at the stars, and it's like she never belonged anywhere but here, and will never belong anywhere else. Maybe that's what worries him most.
Sometimes, when they sit up here together, he throws spitballs at her, like he used to when he was a boy in school--they used to get stuck in Sally Hui's hair, and she'd fuss at him and get them both in trouble, though he swore then, and he swears now, it weren't him.
River rolls her eyes and shakes her head at him, like he's got a sad, sad case of space dementia, but he can see her eyes light up, and her mouth curves in a secret smile when she turns away. He likes making her smile, making her laugh. She's too gorram serious for someone so young, and it ain't right. Simon did his best for her, and Kaylee after that, but it isn't enough by Mal's lights, so he throws spitballs into her hair.
Not tonight, though. Tonight, they've both been doing too much thinking. Sometimes he wonders about his own sanity, the way he's able to follow her without hardly any trouble at all, how what she says always makes sense to him, in some way, canted at some strange angle he never thought of before, but which feels right side up once she points it out.
"When stars fall," she tells him, "they turn into toes."
"They really don't," he says, but his mouth curves in a half-smile anyway.
She tips her head back, and if she were anyone else he'd say she was flirting, showing off the long fall of her hair, the perfect curve of her neck, but she's River, and River don't flirt. Don't know how, really, and that's another thing that's worrisome. She's all unconscious come-on, natural wiles a trained Companion would envy, and he ain't proof against that. He don't think there's a man or woman in the 'verse who would be. And that worries him, as well.
"They do," she says. "All matter is composed of cooled and recombined stellar material."
Mal is quiet for a long while. They spend most of their time up here in silence, thinking things over. He doesn't know how much she can read, just that she can, and he tries to keep his thoughts to himself. Less freaksome for them both that way. 'Specially the direction his thoughts have been tending toward lately. Still, if ever a girl were meant to be among the stars, it's River. She's taken to it like a duck to water, and he's real proud of that fact for reasons he don't like to look too closely at.
"Suppose that's so," he says finally. "And some of us is closer kin to 'em than others." He looks over at her and smiles, just for a second, before he remembers he shouldn't and looks away. She wraps her arms around her knees and looks down at her toes. In the blue light of the console, she's fair as frost, but he thinks he can see the soft pink of a blush climbing her cheek, underneath the hair she uses as a veil. She's a white star in a black velvet sky, and God help me, he thinks, I ain't a poet, or a prayerful man, and I shouldn't even think such things, but I can't stop. But that ain't the whole truth and he knows it. He don't want to stop.
"Got our course lined up," is what he says, hoping this is one time she can't hear the thoughts jangling round his head, louder than usual, and less easily settled. "Want to look it over, little albatross?"
She shakes her head. "Doesn't matter where we go," she says, "we're still in Serenity."
His heart stops for a second, he'd swear it does, and when it stutters back to life, he can't find the breath to speak just yet. Because she doesn't know, she can't know, but of course, she does, and that's the hell of it, the reason he can't just turn his back on this whole fangzong fengkuang de jie he's twisted himself into.
She looks up at him, eyes wide and dark, face solemn, hopeful, listening, and he can't do this right now. Or maybe ever.
"Guess it's time we pack it in for the night," he says gruffly, trying not to show how much she's shaken him, and failing.
She twists round in her chair as he tries to pass by without touching her, though his fingers itch to, and wraps her hands round his arm where he's pushed his shirtsleeves back. He goes still, swallows once, twice, trying not to react at all, staring down at her fine white hands curled round his knobby wrist.
"Say it again."
Reluctantly, he looks up from her hands where they're digging into his skin, looks into her eyes, lit now with something that sparks a matching something inside him he don't want to deal with. "Little albatross?" he asks warily.
"You said to Kaylee that she wasn't allowed to name a thing. You said we'd wind up keeping it then."
"Well, that was in reference to cows," he reminds her, and he can't help smiling down at her even through the heartbeat of his fear. "You, we've been calling by name for some time now, and I think you know we plan to keep you."
"But you naming me," she says. "That's another thing."
Again, his heart does that stuttering thing. He's been close to death before but never so close to drowning, and this must be what it feels like. "River...." he says, but he doesn't pull away.
"Don't get attached, Kaylee," she says, mimicking him. "These ain't pets, so don't go giving them names."
He slips to his knees in front of her, reaching out with his free hand to touch her hair, spin it round his fingers. He can feel her breath on his skin, the slight tremble that runs through her, not fear, not of him, and he thinks he could kiss her, he could and no one'd know but her and him, but he can't do that to her, to Inara. To himself. Not like this. "Don't say I treat you like no damn pet, River, you hear me?" His voice is low, hoarse--it rasps against his ears like a rusty hinge. "Ain't nobody on this boat a human being if you're not one."
She lets go of his arm and puts her hands to the sides of his face, the faintest touch, warm and soft and giving him ideas about what they'd feel like over the rest of him. His eyes close and he forces them open, holds himself still so he don't lean in and kiss her the way he wants to.
"You staked your life on it," she says. "I proved you right."
His own life, and his crew's. Still keeps him up nights sometimes, unable to shake the cold shiver of knowing in his bones that they were all going to die 'cause of his gorram crazy plan, thinking on how Wash did die, pinned to his chair like a bug. Still grateful Zoe don't hate him for that.
"That you did."
She closes her eyes and leans in, and it's like even gravity is pulling them together. "Name me again," she whispers, putting her cheek against his arm. "I slept, but my heart was awake. Listen! My beloved is knocking. 'Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one.'"
He draws a deep breath, tries to concentrate, but the air is full of her words, her scent. Some folk back home claimed Song of Songs didn't belong in a proper bible, but his momma had said ain't nothing wrong with two people loving each other and that was a fact, and the whole thing was an allegory, besides. He looks up at the ceiling, and where once he would have said, "God give me strength," now he says, "That's just plain mockery, bao bei."
Because he's down on his knees now, ready to worship her with his body, unworthy as he is. He's ready to pull her down into his lap so her thighs cradle his and he can kiss her lips and touch her breasts and do all manner of things he's going to the special hell for even thinking about. Hell might be worth it.
"Call me nearly anything," she whispers, "and I'll run to you."
He has to close his eyes now, steady himself, but that don't do him any good because he can see clear as if they've already done it everything he wants to do with her, creamy thighs and night-black hair and soft wet heat to hold a man and make him cry for heaven. The air between them crackles with it, and it would be so easy, feel so good, to give in.
But he's never been one for doing what's easy, just 'cause it feels good.
"River," he says, and "River," again, her everyday name, the one he didn't give her, though he's surely trapped in her currents now. He strokes her hair and pushes her back, even though it hurts him, and he can see it hurts her. "You're just too damned young, River, you hear me?"
"Eighteen," she says. "I've done things, seen things--"
"Had things done to you nobody ever should, and had to do the same. You--you've got no living in you yet, River. You've been all your life locked up in one place or another. Even Serenity's next door to just another jail cell for you, one metal box to another."
"I'm from Serenity," she says. "I was born here. We all were."
His hand tightens on her shoulder, and he must be hurting her, but she doesn't flinch. "Serenity," he starts, and his voice breaks, so he starts again, "You don't know," he says, but she does, he knows she does, and that's part of what makes it right and wrong all at once. He forces his grip to ease, changes tack. "You got no way of knowing what you want. They ought to bury me underneath that jail cell just for thinking it over."
"Bury me," she begs, and presses his hand to her mouth, sending a jolt of heat and need through him. "Bury me with you."
"Oh, darlin'," he sighs, pulling away gently. He knows he should tell her not to say such things, but he can't. He knows not saying no ain't the same as saying yes, but it's so close, and he knows he oughtn't get her hopes up like that, knows how cruel hope can be, but he can't shut her out altogether, can't say no when every bit of him wants to say yes, and yes, and yes again.
He walks away. He don't seek Inara's bed that night, though he could use the release. Wouldn't be fair to her, wouldn't make him any better than one of her clients, and that's the one thing he's sworn he'll never be. He goes back to his bunk and tries to read, but he's got nothing he hasn't read a million times before, and none of it can compare with the fantasies his mind is calling up. He gives in finally, takes himself in hand and comes with the image of pale skin and dark hair flashing across his eyelids, and he can't say for sure who he's thinking of. And maybe that bothers him most of all.
He tells Inara--he can't keep secrets from the woman, and it ain't like she doesn't know already anyway. He's always been surrounded by women who know more than he does, and it's comforting. When it ain't terrifying.
Just now it's a little bit of both, because there ain't no way to tell the woman you love--a woman any man would be lucky to lie next to at the end of the day--that you're having thoughts about another woman. But he promised he wouldn't ever lie to her, not about the important things--only promise they've made to each other, and one he has every intention of keeping.
"It ain't like with you," he says kneeling at her feet and pressing his cheek to her lap where she sits on a crate in the cargo bay, like a queen on a throne, but somehow, she never looks out of place. She wears less makeup nowadays, looks both stronger and more fragile for it, a wild rose instead of a hothouse bloom, ready to bear up under any strain. "You make the whole 'verse go spinning around wrong-way-up on me."
"I know how you hate that," she says indulgently.
"No, I--not anymore I don't. You're a new world, and I tell you truly, I was sick of the old one. I don't have the first idea where I am when I'm with you, but--I'm all right." He can't say why or how, just that it's true, and it's one of the few things he's not going to question.
She runs a soothing hand through his hair. "I know," she says. "It was the same for me."
"But this is something else," he says, fumbling for the words. He rises to his feet, better able to think when he's moving. "This just came out of nowhere. It's not like I ain't seen it before--I ain't bragging, Inara, but young recruits, they sometimes get...infatuated, 'specially if you've saved their lives." She nods. Of course she knows--he wouldn't be surprised if all those girls at the training house weren't half in love with her after the first day of lessons. "And I never--it wasn't right then, and it ain't right now. But in the other case I never felt--but now I--" He shakes his head. "And you--I love you, Inara. Don't hardly ever say it like I should, but you know I do."
She gets up, touches his cheek. "I know," she says, and that eases some of the pressure he's feeling, 'cause the last thing he wants her to think is that she ain't enough or that he don't love her. He just-- "I always knew I'd have to share you," she goes on. "Zoe, Kaylee, Serenity--they were all in your heart before I knew you, and," she raises her hands as if in prayer, in acceptance, "they're part of you, Mal. Part of why I love you."
"Lord, you're a fine thing," he says, gathering her into his arms and breathing her in. "Man who thinks you ain't enough for him, what kind of a man is that?"
"Hearts are complicated," she says.
"Is jealousy a thing they train out of you at that school of yours? I guess it'd about have to be."
"More or less," she admits. He don't know how she does it, but maybe it's something she can't teach him, only show him how to bear with grace. Maybe he's learning.
"Even with you being--you, this is still a mess." He lets her go, starts his pacing again. "I'm like to make a mess whatever I do. She ain't ready. She's years from ready even if this were a thing she'd consider at all, which is no small if. And it can't be out of gratitude; I ain't doing it if I think she's grateful to me, or if I think she's just lonely, or, or curious. Won't do it for comfort, and sure as hell won't do it just for the, for the--fleshy parts. There's a hundred ways to do it wrong, and I don't know that there's any way to do it right. I don't even rightly know what right is, thing like this. Even me telling you--"
Inara cuts through his rambling like a hot knife through butter. "Do you love her?"
He stops his pacing, gives her a look. Time was, he'd have made some damn fool nasty remark and sent her into a tizzy, making both of them miserable. Now, he just says, "Wouldn't be near as much trouble if I didn't."
"If it comes from love, it must be meant to teach you some lesson. You can't just throw it away, Mal. You can't act like it doesn't exist."
Can't act like it doesn't exist, but can't figure out what to do, neither. If there's anything to be done at all. Even thinking on it's like to get him in more trouble than one man should ever ask for, but he can't stop.
"Preacher used to say there was a special hell," he tells her. "One I'm like to see firsthand much sooner than I'd planned on, if and when her brother finds out."
"Perhaps he'll see reason," Inara suggests, and then she smiles, obviously rethinking that. "Perhaps she'll protect you."
He pulls her close and drops a kiss on the crown of her head, laughing.
When Inara tells him her plan, he shakes his head. Giving Inara up for River, giving them both up, having them both--he's gone crazy and nobody's told him. Ain't no way it can work. "Crazy. Whole thing's nothing but crazy. Me, most of all."
She looks up at him, eyebrow cocked, mischievous glint in her eye that makes her look even younger than she is. "Ain't it the truth?"
It's the first time he's ever heard her say, "ain't," and it makes him laugh.
"You would just--"
"Would it make you happy?"
He sucks in a breath, 'cause there's nothing about this gonna make anybody happy, the way he's going, but--
"I don't mean to hurt you," he hedges.
"And I'm not hurt, Mal. Truly. I understand. I admit, I never expected--" She laughs, a little rueful sound that makes his heart ache. "But you've never been one to do what I expect. It's one of your more exasperating, yet endearing qualities."
He pulls her into a fierce hug then, gives her a kiss because it's the only way he can tell her how he feels when the words get all jammed in his throat.
Maybe this plan of hers will work after all. They're all obviously a little touched, and maybe him more than her and River both for thinking this could ever happen. For wanting it to.
"A year?" Simon says, bewildered. "A Companion training house?"
"You're sending me away," River says, and it's like a knife to Mal's heart.
"No, little one. No." She gives him a sharp look and he says, "Well, okay, yes, but only for a year, so you can learn things and be around people."
"I'm around people here."
"People who aren't us." He looks to Inara, who nods in encouragement. "Girls of good family, girls your age. No crime, no guns," he glances over at Simon, who's not stupid, "no danger."
"No Serenity. No flying." No you. He don't have to be a reader to hear what she's not saying. River doesn't care that everyone's watching; she clutches at him, pleading. "You're sending me away. I don't want to go."
"It's not forever," Inara says softly. "It's only for a year. And I'll be with you."
He shifts, feeling awkward, because he knows it's the right thing for her, even if his reasons are a mix of selfish and selfless, and even if he don't really want her to go. He wants her to know all that, and he's not sure how to tell her, if she doesn't know already.
"It's for the best, bao bei. You'll see." He tucks a lock of hair behind her ear, cups her chin. "You get out in the world, live a little. You still want to come back--" He rubs his thumb over the arch of her cheek. "We'll be here. Always have a place for you."
"This is home," she says.
"For as long as you want it to be."
"Then why are you sending me away? Want me to be different? Something I'm not, can't be? Change me so much you don't--"
"No. No. Not changed." He struggles for the right words, because he knows it ain't change they're looking for so much as-- "Not changed, grown. You need to...become who you are, who you could be, 'stead of always letting others mold you as they see fit, growing to their needs, like a penjing tree in a fancy garden."
"Isn't that exactly what this is?"
"River--" Simon starts, but Mal shakes his head. This is his life, too, and he'll deal with it best he can.
He takes her arms, runs his thumbs over the soft skin of her biceps. "River, you need to be able to choose. Choose this life, not have it chosen for you."
"Take away my choice now to give me a choice later?" She sounds skeptical and she's got every right to be, with what her parents did to her, who should have protected her and didn't.
"Something like that. Though you can choose not to go now, too. Ain't nobody forcing you. Just...suggesting."
"But if I don't go, you won't--"
He shakes his head, mindful of her brother. "I ain't gonna say it's not related, but I can't--We need some distance, bao bei, distance and time. Make sure you know what you want."
"You can't guarantee I won't get hurt, regardless."
"Ain't nobody can guarantee that, River. But it's better if you know what else you can have, 'fore you settle for the only thing in front of you right now."
"Not settling," she insists fiercely, and it warms him all over. She stares up at him, and he feels himself leaning in, and forces himself not to. As if that decides her, she nods once. "One year," she says. "Promise?"
He takes her hand, places it on his chest. "Cross my heart and hope to die."
"No needles, though." She shudders. "Hate needles."
"No needles," he promises, along with a whole host of other things. He hopes she'll hold him to it.
"Gonna miss you," he says softly.
Inara stretches like a contented cat and curls up against him, her hair spilling like a waterfall over his chest as she uses him as a pillow. She smiles. "I know."
"I still don't--"
"It's the right thing."
"No, no, I get that. I just don't understand how you--you make it look easy. It can't be as easy as you make it look." He takes her hand, presses it to his lips. "You're a woman of almost unbearable grace, Inara."
She props herself up on one elbow, and runs her fingers over his face. "Thank you, Mal." He won't swear to it, but he thinks there are tears in her eyes. She drapes a leg over his and slides on top of him, and he loses himself in one last good-bye.
The training house is beautiful, like he remembers, and it still makes him nervous. Can't show it, though, so he just shoves his hands in his pockets and tries to ease the tension that's got all of them wound up tight.
"Well, now, see?" he says, trying to reassure himself as much as River. "This is real fine. And it's got land, plenty of land and fresh air, so it ain't like being boxed up in some ugly city someplace."
Nobody's listening to him. Kaylee's staring wide-eyed at everything, and Jayne's trying to scope out the girls. Zoe stands beside him, an oasis of calm in the sea of crazy that surrounds her.
Simon is clutching River's hand, and River's trying to shake loose.
"Ow," she says.
"Sorry," Simon replies, but he doesn't let go. "River, you know you don't have to stay here if you don't want to, don't you?"
River stands on her toes and kisses his cheek. "I'll be safe, Simon. I'll be fine."
"Your home is always wherever I am, mei mei. You do understand that?"
She smiles at him and bumps his shoulder. "I know that, silly. I'm not stupid. But it's not just the two of us now; you'll have a wife to take care of soon."
Kaylee squeaks, and Simon's face freezes in shock. "River!" he hisses. "I--I haven't asked--"
"Oh," she says. "Well. Slowpoke."
Kaylee hugs River and pets her hair, chattering a mile a minute about dresses and dancing and all manner of girly things, and Mal looks at Simon with a raised eyebrow. Simon keeps his cool for a second, and Mal's reminded of how he looked when he first came on board Serenity, all pretentious Core disdain, but then he grins, and Mal thinks he'll do.
While Kaylee and Jayne say their goodbyes, Mal turns to Inara, who's in all her Companion finery, hair piled on top of her head and face painted like a mask, and now that he knows what's beneath, he don't mind it so much anymore. Kind of likes the idea of it being a secret, something she shares only with them as love her, instead of everyone in the 'verse.
"It don't have to be a full year," he says. "I could come back for you sooner."
"One year is fine. Anyway, less than a year's lease on that shuttle and you won't find anyone but drifters and ruffians to take you up on it. Do try to find someone with some decency in their soul."
"This boat's got precious little to offer any soul with decency in it," he replies, his smile coming and going quickly. "I ain't gonna give your shuttle away, anyhow. Got some room to take on new passengers, and hopefully they'll be a less interesting bunch than the last batch."
"You may as well make some profit on it."
He shakes his head. "No." He can't imagine letting someone else in her shuttle now; the idea makes him a touch queasy, makes it feel like she ain't coming back at all, and he don't like to think on that. "A year, Inara. One year, to the very day, and I'll be back for you."
"I'll mark the date," she answers, and he pulls her close for a kiss, but it feels awkward, because she's not his Inara now, with her fancy hair and her jeweled eyelids and her mouth that tastes of lipstick. They said their goodbyes last night, anyway. Numerous times.
She steps back and River is there, River in her blue dress that looks like the perfect summer sky, and her white hands like doves that smooth down his shirt, his best shirt--they all dressed up fine for this visit--and his heart hammering in his chest like it's going to bust out, thump thump thump like heavy fire.
He smiles, but now it feels sad, false. "Maybe not as fine as flying, but...."
"I already know how to dance," she says.
"That ain't all they teach here. You'll learn about people. Even meet some people--folk like yourself, girls your age, from good families. Then, next year, you still feel you want to hump around the 'verse with a bunch of crooks and no-accounts like us, well...then you just...come on home. We'll keep everything right where it is for you. Your spot at the helm, I mean. You decide you miss Serenity, she'll be there in one year, same as you left her."
She goes up on her toes again and runs her fingers across his eyebrows, cheekbones, down his nose, and he hopes no one else can see the tremor runs through him at the touch. She takes his face in her fragile-looking hands that aren't fragile at all. "Will Serenity miss me?"
His eyes flicker closed for a moment and he has to swallow before he can speak. "I think you know the answer to that."
"Yes," River says, and smiles up at him. "But I like to hear you say it."
"Every day and every mile," he says. "But...time'll go quicker than you think." He imagines he'll be saying that quite a lot as the year passes, to himself most of all. "One year, little one, and then she'll be back, same as you left her."
He smiles again, and it feels real this time, sad at the edges, but true. He brushes the backs of his fingers over her cheek and steps away, afflicted with a sudden tightness in his chest.
Inara puts her arms around River's shoulders and steers her toward the door of the training house, and Mal watches them, two ladies of unbearable grace, walking away from him.
Then he turns, back straight, shoulders square, and walks back to the one lady in his life who ain't never gonna leave him, Zoe's presence a comfort on his right side, and Kaylee's teary face on his left a distraction to keep him from brooding overmuch on his own sadness.
One year, he tells himself. And then we'll see what happens.
Life goes on, because that's what life is, and so do them as are engaged in the living of it. Time does pass, though not as quickly as Mal'd hoped. Serenity echoes oddly now, more empty than full, even with new batches of passengers once a week for the first couple of months.
Sometimes he forgets, turns to say something to someone that ain't there, and has to catch himself. He tries to remember everything, store it up so he'll be able to tell Inara about the outlandish musicians they ferried from Osiris to the Rim, tell River about the meteor shower on Dyton Colony, like the Perseids of Earth-that-was. He feels their absence like a fierce ache, and only the knowledge that they're coming back, that he'll see them again, makes it bearable.
He don't know how Zoe manages, knowing she'll never see Wash again. They don't talk about it, but he looks at her now on occasion with something akin to awe, and she cocks her head and studies him like she knows what he's thinking. She probably does. Always has before, and it's made his life go smoother more often than not.
Kaylee's chatter and cheer return--all those new faces to smile at, all those new stories to learn. She's still the brightest ray of sunshine in the 'verse, and Mal's more grateful than he could ever say for that. He tries to tell her and she just kisses his cheek or swats his arm and laughs.
Between them, they keep him going, keep him flying, and he can't quite grasp how he got to be so lucky, and how he lived long enough to finally appreciate it.
They stop more often at the postal station now, swing by every couple of weeks, 'til Amnon is sick of seeing his face, no doubt, but there's always a bundle of letters, sweet-smelling and smooth to the touch, reminding him of his absent ladies.
Inara's letters are warm and wry, elegant black ink on cream vellum, and smelling of roses. River's settling in well, she writes. The girls were skittish at first, as girls are, but she's won them over. She's a real favorite now. They love her.
How could you not? he thinks, proud of her.
And there are River's letters, full of odd poetry she wrote herself and stories of dancing and calligraphy and gymnastics, written on paper blue and clear as a summer sky, scented with lilies that remind him of the Easter Sundays of his childhood. River truly is born and born again, he thinks. He closes his eyes and breathes and imagines she's there, fingers tracing the smooth, cool surface of the paper as if it were her skin.
I have friends here, she tells him. I helped them break the encryption on the cortex, so we can have popular music too. Rehane and Lisaline like to dance to it, different from the dances they teach here, different from what I know, but no less joyful. More, maybe, because it's not allowed, it's our secret. And now yours. I'm still your girl, she writes, bringing crime to the upper classes. He laughs at that. I have friends, she repeats, but not like Inara. She's glorious, you know. Of course you do. She lets me sleep in her room, and it's almost like being home, close as I can get to you while I'm here. I miss you. She says that in every letter. I'm still your girl. I miss Serenity. Please don't forget me, Mal. Please. Such open need undoes him, more than any wiles ever could.
But still, he has doubts.
He spends hours reading and rereading, looking for signs of her unhappiness at first, sure Inara would tell him, but only if she knew it her own self, and with River, there's no guarantee anyone knows anything at all if she don't want them to.
As the weeks pass, though, he relaxes a little, though he still shows the letters to Simon, who has letters of his own. "She's not saying anything in code, is she, Doc?" he asks every time.
Simon shakes his head. Mal knows he's spent hours of his own studying River's letters, worrying over her the way he does. "She sounds happy. A little homesick, sometimes, but...happy."
Mal smiles, even as his gut twists. That's what you wanted, he tells himself. She don't seem the fickle sort, but it's easy to want the only thing you ever see in front of you. Now she's got choices, and she can fly any way--anywhere--she likes. He of all people can't deny her that.
"She would tell us the truth, you know," Simon says. "She wouldn't see the need to hide it from," he stops, looks away for a moment, then, "from you."
This is a conversation he doesn't mean to be having, but he supposes it was inevitable, one way or another, and he'd think less of Simon as a man, as a brother, if he let it be put off too long.
"River's a special girl," Simon says.
You don't know the half of it, Mal wants to say, but he can imagine what his response would be if someone said that about his mei mei (or near enough), who, come to think of it, Simon is planning on marrying.
What he says instead is, "I know."
"I know you know. I'm just--I'm trying to be...okay about this, but I--I mean, Inara is--You and Inara are--And now River...?"
"She's your sister, she's young, and she's had a rough life. Ain't nothing there that don't give me pause, neither," Mal assures him. "Inara and I are taking that into account. You think she'd do anything to hurt River? You think I would?"
"We're all feeling our way, Doc, seeing what happens." He knows it ain't really enough--it wouldn't satisfy him, so he can't really expect it to please Simon, but he doesn't have anything else to offer. "This could all just be nothing more than infatuation," he says, trying to sound easy, casual, voicing the fear he's been living with since she left. Since he sent her away. "Could be after the year is up, she don't feel the same. Could be she wants to stay at the training house, or be a dancer, or I don't know what. I don't aim to make her do anything she don't want."
"As if you could. I know how headstrong River is--she has a way of getting what she wants. I just don't want to see this whole thing blow up in her face."
"Believe me, I don't want anything blowing up anywhere. Got enough trouble with folk in the 'verse--don't need it aboard Serenity, too."
"Well, I don't really care what happens to you, but if you hurt River, there will be trouble between us." He looks Mal in the eye as he says it, man to man.
And Mal has enough respect for him not to laugh in his face.
Course, he knows if he does do wrong by River, he'll have to contend with Inara and Kaylee and possibly even Zoe, and alone they're each scarier than Simon will ever be, but together they're enough to put the fear of God, or of woman, anyway, into any man ain't smart enough to have it in his bones already.
"We understand each other, Doctor," he says, holding out a hand.
"I'm glad, Captain," Simon says, and they shake on it. After all, one way or another, they may end up being brothers, and ain't that a laugh.
The pilot he hires for the year is a stodgy sort, keeps to himself mostly, which works out well. He don't have the wild flair for flying that Wash did, nor River's intuitive grasp of Serenity's needs and capacity, but that's okay with Mal. Means this guy ain't ever going to steal Zoe's heart with loud Hawaiian shirts and plastic dinosaurs, woo her with spectacular flying in the face of near death.
Mal sits with him up on the bridge sometimes, but they don't talk much. When the temporary pilot goes to his bunk, Mal sits and watches the stars, lost in thoughts that are half-memory and half-daydream.
He thinks about playing with Wash's dinosaurs--he wouldn't let the new guy move 'em, but everybody knows pilots and spacers are a superstitious lot, so the guy didn't complain too much--or throwing spitballs at people as they come down the corridor, but it ain't near as much fun without River rolling her eyes and trying not to laugh at his antics.
He misses that, when she's away, misses everything--the reflection of the stars in her eyes, the sway of her body as she walks through the ship. She and Inara both move like they're dancing to music only they can hear, and it's a pretty thing to see.
He finds himself watching Zoe, watching Kaylee, can't imagine not having either of them aboard for even a day or two, and thinks he's got more than enough to be thankful for. He don't want to be greedy. He's still suspicious of the God he claims he don't believe in, and he knows how easily it can all be taken away from him. Knows that most of all.
As the year draws to a close and they make arrangements to return to the training house, he starts to worry how this is all going to play out. He can't give his whole self to anyone--too many people own a piece of him now, and he can't be sorry about that, 'cause without Zoe, Kaylee, Serenity herself, he wouldn't be who he is now; but he's willing to give whatever he can, and take whatever they're willing to give him of themselves. He knows it's too much to ask of Inara to stay if he and River--but he can't stop himself from hoping, though he knows hope is the cruelest thing of all.
Inara greets them in the garden, and she glows in the midmorning sunlight, all dark hair and red lips and gold silk. She kisses them all in turn, even Zoe, whose eyes go wide and startled, and Jayne, who jokes about how she must be starving for any piece of manflesh she can get her hands on after a year in a nunnery, but the blush is rising in his cheeks as he says it.
She kisses Mal for a long time, even though she knows such goings-on in public make him nervous, but he don't mind, because she's warm and soft in his arms and it's been a long, lonely year without her.
"Well," Mal says when she finally lets him go. "Well. You're looking--well, you seem mighty--seems like this place has been treating you all right."
"We don't have to turn right around and go, do we?" Jayne says plaintively, eyeing the doors that lead into the training house.
Mal shoots him a look. "Jayne, if you tell me you can afford to stay, I'm paying you too much." Then he looks back at Inara, trying not to seem too eager, and says, "Where's, uh.... Thought we were taking on a second passenger."
"I think she wanted to make an entrance," Inara says, and they all turn their attention obediently to the door.
River appears in the doorway, dark hair pinned up like a lady, and he can see silver flashes in it like hidden treasures. She's wearing a pretty purple shirt with a wide jeweled collar that sets off her swanlike neck and shows the fair skin of her shoulders as well, and a pair of silky trousers all blue and embroidered fancifully with butterflies around the cuffs, showing off her calves. Mal's mouth goes dry at the sight of her collarbone, her ankles, her feet, pale and smooth in the sunlight.
Her eyes are lined dark, and he don't know if he likes that, but she has a little white jewel pasted to the corner of her eye, and she looks like a thing out of myths, like the spirit of whatever river she got her name from, come alive, and there ain't nothing bad about that at all.
She seems to glide along the marble path like Inara would, but halfway there she breaks into a run, and her hair is already coming loose from its pins when she flings herself at her brother, herself again, and ain't that remarkable enough?
Simon clutches her with all his strength and mumbles broken words into her bare shoulder. He finally sets her down and River turns herself around and around deliriously, kissing him and Kaylee both, over and over.
She's a joy to see, and every doubt Mal ever had about this scheme is laid to rest. Don't matter what happens now, 'cause River is beautiful and happy and likely as whole as anyone ever gets, caught up in her brother's arms and the arms of her soon-to-be sister.
"I meant to keep a diary so you could read it," she tells Simon, while Kaylee strokes her hair, runs hands over her arms and back, "but I forgot. I wrote you a symphony though--for your wedding. Oh! You did...?"
"Yes, mei mei," he says, laughing. "This time I did. And she said yes."
"Of course she did," River sniffs. She turns her head around to peck Kaylee with another kiss and says, "I brought so many presents for you, they'll need their own bunk."
Kaylee laughs out loud, tears in her eyes, and says, "Of course you did! What else are rich sisters for?"
River turns to Jayne, then, who eyes her suspiciously, as if he senses a trick but can't quite put his finger on it. "You turned out pretty," he says politely. She gives him a look of amusement and a quick kiss on the cheek that he jerks away from.
Next is Zoe, and Mal crosses his arms over his chest to see how this is going to work, because River and Zoe, well, it's not like Zoe ever blamed River for what happened, but he thinks River maybe felt like she did. But he knows he's not the only one who's found a measure of peace in the passage of time.
"That's a nice little frippery--there," Zoe says with a small smile, and motions to the jewel by River's eye. "Looks real shiny on you."
"Everything they do here, all day long," River says seriously, "is just them hoping to look as beautiful as you do all on your own." Zoe's eyes widen; she looks flattered and embarrassed and bewildered all at once, and Mal wonders how long it's been since someone told Zoe she's beautiful--must be since Wash died, and ain't that a shame on them all?--and he wonders if he could ever bring himself to tell her, if she'd take it without putting a bullet in him.
And then River takes a step to stand in front of him, and it feels completely natural to reach out a hand and cup her face. She sighs at the touch.
"There's my little albatross," he murmurs.
She curls her fingers around his wrist and gazes up at him, her old, familiar look of assessment. At least that hasn't changed.
"You are handsome," she finally says, and he grins and bows his head in thanks.
He stands there staring at her, could stand there all day doing nothing else, but Inara puts her hands on River's shoulders and says, "I can think of one more lady who's missed you," and then River is off like a cannon shot, practically skimming over the grass towards Serenity.
He takes Inara's arm and they follow at a more sedate pace, the others straggling behind. He asks the most important question first. "Was she happy?"
"I think she was," Inara says. He exhales, some of the tension in his shoulders easing. "And, no," she continues before he can ask, "she didn't change her mind about anything that matters."
Okay, he thinks. Okay. We can do this. He takes a deep breath, enjoying the smell of sun-warmed grass and Inara's rose perfume. "So what happens now?"
Inara stops with her hand on Serenity's hull and looks up at him through her lashes. "That depends," she says, grinning impishly. "Have you made a mess of my shuttle?"
He holds his hand up and says, "God is my witness, I didn't touch it. Didn't even dust the place." She rolls her eyes, and he puts his hand on her waist to lead her up the ramp. God, he's missed her. "You've been much on my mind," he says softly. It ain't what he really wants to say, but he can't quite put that into words--for all the speechifying he's done in his life, and he's done a fair bit, he's never been much good at telling people the important things. He thinks maybe, with her help, he can start learning how to fix that.
"Give me twenty-four hours to scrub the place clean," she tells him, "and I'll let you pay me a visit. We can catch up; we'll talk about fashion and theater and thievery."
"Hey now, I make it a policy never to talk politics while I'm courting a woman." He breathes deep again, a different sort of tension working in him now. "I'm sure Kaylee'll be willing to give you any help you need," he's saying, when River's voice rings out, clear and high and excited.
"Mal! Mal! Is this an upgrade? Because it's uglier than a patch-job. You didn't pay money for this, did you?"
"Go on," Inara says, pushing him gently up the gangplank. "Go on. There's no sin in this, and she's waited long enough for you. God knows, I wouldn't willingly saddle any woman with the burden of waiting on you to make up your mind about a thing." He wonders again how he came to be so blessed, to have this magnificent woman in his life, in his bed. He kisses her once, smoothes his hand over her cheek gently, like he's touching her for the first time. She smiles mysteriously and says, "Come to me tomorrow. We have a great deal to talk about. You'll find River has some very interesting notions." He blinks at that, but then she pushes him again, playfully, towards River, and he goes.
He walks River through the ship, and with input from Kaylee and Simon and even Jayne, they bring her up to speed on the changes, major and minor, in Serenity; she nods, regal as a queen, trailing her fingers along the walls, swaying to that secret music. When they finally reach the bridge, the others leave and he's alone with her, and it makes his heart race. He truly knows she's come home.
After they take off, River can't stay in her seat. She stands in front of the console and leans forward, raising her hands high and pressing them to the glass, to the black. She has to stand on the tips of her toes to reach.
Mal lays his hands on her bare shoulders and moves them up her neck, his fingers and his thumbs stirring her hair. Her skin is smooth under his touch, pale and fine, and he wants nothing more than to press his lips to the spot where her shoulder becomes her neck, press his face into the hollow of her throat, lick the perfect line of her collarbone. He can feel her tremble under his touch and he tries not to think about what she might have learned at the training house--Inara said she'd chosen not to study any of the bedroom arts and he's secretly glad of it.
His mouth goes dry, as if he's just as untutored as she is, and he whispers, "Is this it, River? You made your choice?" She doesn't answer, just leans back into his touch, and he says, "Somewhere along the line, I lost my taste for flying by myself. Be mighty glad to fly with you again."
In answer, she turns and fits herself against him perfectly, wrapping her arms around his chest and tipping her face up to his kiss. He can feel her fingers clutching at his shirt as she sighs into his mouth.
"Mal," she murmurs as he touches her--hungrily, desperately, hands running up and down over her back, her arms, her breasts, like he'll never get enough--and again she says, "Mal."
"Oh, God," he says, and for the first time in a very long time, he means it as praise.