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Broken Memories

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"Mom," the girl was laughing, "of course it's appropriate. When are you going to enjoy hot dogs more?"

A middle-aged blond woman, elegant and pretty, laughed with her daughter. It was just the two of them against the backdrop of mountains and snow, all of that wilderness just in their backyard.

"At least don't forget the mustard," she told her daughter.

"I think it's in our improvised fridge – underneath the garden, I mean."

"So you're saying it's frozen." The mother laughed again. "Well, I've never tasted frozen mustard, so let's have it."

Her daughter's eyes sparkled. She'd gotten her father's dark brown hair, and in her bright red track suit she looked like a model. It was only at times like this that her mother regretted her bringing her out to Nowhere, Idaho; Angela would be this fun all the time if she could find one other person in this town who understood her.

"Mom," said her daughter, eyes darkening. The sun was behind her now, making her face unreadable, her whole body a dark shadow. Her mother whirled. There was a man behind them in a dark suit, with blue gloves.

 

River was dreaming again. She snapped awake, breathing too hard, and she tried to stop herself, grabbing the wall with one hand. For some reason her door was still open, and she looked out and wondered exactly how bad she would feel if she woke Simon up at this xiong meng de kuang ren hour, and whether that would be worse than the panic she felt now.

Standing now, she pressed a small hand to his door, imagining the sleeping form inside. She decided against it.

On slim and knowing dancer's feet she made her way through the aft passage and toward the cockpit, trailing a hand along the walls as she went.

"River?"

It was Mal. She stopped dead in the hall before she reached the kitchen, but he appeared at the doorway anyway. Seeing her, he smiled; better her than a fretting Zoe or an uninvited bounty hunter.

"Whoa now. What's got you out of bed this early, little one?"

She frowned, looking past him. "Too many memories." Her eyes roved to the mug in his hand. "You're not eating."

Mal's smile lost its energy as he followed her gaze. "Yeah, I – uh, was just enjoyin' a good product of Kaylee's inter-engine fermentation system."

"Alcohol on an empty stomach renders your judgment very blurry," she reminded him, grinning at him to drive home her needling.

"Simon's taught you well, mei li de," Mal informed her as he sat back down at the table; he turned to look back at her with a rare devilish wink.

"So," he continued, "what was this nightmare roused you so early? Can't be so bad once you're awake."

He didn't say what he was thinking, which was: After Miranda, what could possibly still scare you? Now he was very quickly realizing that he didn't want to know.

River sat across from him, staring into his eyes. It was unsettling, but Mal was used to such stares.

"Not a nightmare," River told him. "A dream. Every night it's a different family. Makes me think of mine. But even dreams have invaders, like a spark in an engine that blows a whole ship. Nobody even knew it was there, but it got us. The memories are gone. But I can still feel them."

Mal took another hearty sip of his morning spirits. He had the feeling he'd need it.

She tilted her head to look at him properly. "Why were you there?" she asked.

Mal wasn't sure how to answer that, so he figured he'd just keep drinking and wait for her to say something else that made a vague kind of sense. Unfortunately, River just watched him curiously, as if he'd be able to tell her anything she didn't already know.

Finally he answered.

"You want to give me a little more to go on, girl? 'Cause I don't rightly remember taking a walk through your head."

 

River smiled. All at once, a barrage of images struck Mal: a red jacket, snow and tall mountains like he'd never seen, a mother's worried eyes, laughter and food, then River's demons, though he'd never seen them before, and suddenly he understood how "hands of blue" could keep her up at night. Those images fell back and then it was just himself, standing and watching it all, gathering the women in his arms, and they were all flying, all on Serenity, faces of people he'd never met, stories only River knew, and God knows how. This was River's dream.

He was lost in it long enough for her to sit beside him. When his vision cleared, there she was.

"Why was I there?" he asked her softly. She just smiled again and kissed his cheek.

"I love my captain," she replied sweetly, and as if she couldn't help herself she kissed his cheek again. "So does Serenity."

She got up to leave, but Mal grabbed her arm, and she let him.

"You have any more dreams," he said roughly, unsure of his own voice, "you tell me." His hand slid, without justification, around her waist. River leaned into him, unafraid.

"Don't be scared," she whispered. Mal let his face relax into a smile, a real one; River didn't know it, but such an expression hadn't graced his face in eight years.

The faces of all of Serenity's ghosts surrounded them as Mal pulled River into his lap, wanting to live the dream and stop her nightmares.

"Qing wo," River ordered, grinning back at him as if to reassure Mal this was all a part of her final plan, so he let her tell him what to do, and kissed her on the mouth, giving the younger woman her first sweet taste of alcohol.

Just as swiftly she was on her feet again, sashaying away. Mal touched his mouth, and took another drink.