Part I: Relation
I. Having Chosen, So Defined
If she was asked, River knows, she would not be able to define the life she leads now. Certain things have labels in her mind, markers to remind her of relation. Serenity is home. Simon is, of course, brother, and Kaylee sister. Zoë and Jayne are like aunt and uncle. And there is Mal; Mal who has become so much he is everything. River herself is nebulous; she has changed like the sea, flowing in and out all at once, replacing herself a bit at a time, until she is just the same but utterly new, both in the same skin.
There are less substantial presences on board as well, still echoing through her brain at times. Metal makes an excellent conductor, and Serenity's memory runs deep, speaking to River of those lost. If heroes are those who get others killed, their boat is the home of legends, holding their victims still in her shell.
River accepts their voices as a form of penance, remembering them in atonement, for surely she is the biggest hero of all, deaths achieved in pursuit of her unbidden goal weighing on her mind. And now that Mal, who made the decisions based on her knowledge, shares her bunk as often as not, the memories have grown all the louder.
Tonight it is only Wash, and so River does not mind; she misses him most. And often enough, his memory causes as much amusement as grief.
Beds are kinda small, aren't they?
She looks up from where her head is pillowed on a sleeping Mal's chest, her body half on top of him to fit into the restrictive space. She knows perfectly well there is nothing to see, but if she ignores one voice, she fears forgetting, ignoring those who actually exist, and spreading worry through Serenity. So River looks up out of habit, to maintain her fabric of carefully woven trust.
“They are inconveniently sized,” she says absently, wondering if the firefly's designers had possessed the same attitude towards shipboard romance that Mal once had, made the crew beds tiny for a purpose.
“What's that, darlin'?” Mal mumbles, stirring beneath her.
“Nothing,” she says, snuggling back against him once more. “Was just telling Serenity of certain flaws in her design.”
“Mmm. Don't you go bein' mean to my ship now,” Mal says, still clinging to sleep.
She smiles as he shifts and wraps an arm around her, seeking more comfort than the narrow bed has to give. She still wonders, from time to time, if her brain has wrapped her once more in illusions; if she could possibly be living with enough luck to be free, safe, and beloved all at once. If she could have been chosen, in turn, by this ship and these people to become an essential part of their whole.
River could not define her life here, if asked, because she knows too much; knows that to admit perfection does nothing but tempt fate to alter the balance.
He's got a hard time, some days, knowing the right word to define her. He's fair certain he's long past the days of having a girlfriend, the word partner never brings to mind anybody but Zoë, and lover's a term so full of sap it makes his teeth ache. Mostly, though he's not like to admit it, he thinks of her as his lodestar, a guide and a touchstone. It's taken him these last six months to arrive at this definition, but he finds, looking down at her standing in the cargo bay with Kaylee, it's got a nice sound to it.
Course, sometimes she's more of a mischievous distraction, never so much as when she's been chatting with Kaylee. Not that he minds the pleasing new ways River brings to bed with her after she's had one of her talks with that girl – far from it – but still, some things a man likes to keep private.
They've got the doors open, and here on Persephone, that means a fair amount of noise coming in off the crowded docks, but he still manages to get himself close enough to listen to what his girls are on about.
“-so then you just gotta take it and shove it on in there,” Kaylee's saying, using her hands for emphasis.
“Really?” River responds, her brow wrinkling. “It fits there?” She tilts her head, measuring out a space in the air with her hands and gazing into it.
“Oh, yeah,” Kaylee says. “It's just a matter of how much you wanna-” She cuts herself off, as Mal's found a sudden need to put himself between them. “Hey there, Captain,” she manages, her eyes going all wide as she holds back what he's pretty sure was a giggle in the making.
“Hey yourself,” he says. “What are you girls chattering 'bout now?” He turns to River, lowering his voice. “You know what I told you about how some things are just between us, right?”
She narrows her eyes. “You have a dirty mind, Malcolm Reynolds,” she announces, looking between him and her hands, still held apart in the air. “And a poor grasp of measurements.”
“We were talkin' 'bout doing some rewiring on the grav thrust, Cap'n. Gets to be a pretty big tangle of wires for the space,” Kaylee comments from over his shoulder, grinning. “Why, what did you think we were talkin' about?”
“Wiring?” he says, backing away with a speed that just might impair his dignity a tad. “Right. Of course. I'll just...leave you to that, then.”
Walking across the space in search of people who ain't currently giggling at him, Mal sees Simon coming in from the infirmary, intercepts him. “Morning, doc. You got any supplies you need to pick up here in town, take your time, I figure on us being grounded here few days at least.” Expecting a response, he's a bit put off when Simon just stares at him, open-mouthed. “I know it's unusual for us to stay planetside that long, but I don't conjure there's anything jaw-dropping 'bout it,” he ventures.
Simon blinks, raising his eyebrows. “No, of course not,” he says with a thin smile. “I'll just go see what we could use more of.”
Confused, Mal's still standing there when Zoë comes down the stairs.
“Sir, I-” she stops short as he turns to her, and he's finding there's no end to the ways his crew's finding to exasperate him today.
“What? Why in hell's everyone looking at me like I've grown two heads today?” he grumbles, heading back towards the doors.
“Might be cause you've got a great big hickey on your neck there, Capt'n,” Jayne offers, heading past on his way off the ship.
“Does kinda have a way of attracting the eye, sir,” Zoë admits, before making herself scarce.
Mal closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. “River?”
She leaves off her no doubt enthralling wiring conversation, comes to stand next to him. “Yes, Mal?”
“Could you maybe see fit to not be putting marks on me? Least not where other people can see 'em?”
She reaches up, brushing her fingers across a spot on his neck. “A symbol,” she says. “Marks you as mine.”
He groans, rubbing the bridge of his nose with a sigh.
Simon smirks, catching the end of this exchange as he leaves the ship. “You wanted her, Captain,” he says, a shade too much smugness in his voice for Mal's taste.
He did, at that. “Woman,” he says, looking over at her, at that smile she's somehow got a way of making both innocent and sly, all at once. He's never got a chance in hell when he's up against that one. “You coming along with me or not?”
“Of course,” she says, taking hold of his hand. “Someone's got to keep you out of trouble.”
From the vantage point of a bar stool, River surveys the room, leaning back to rest her elbows on the bar and swinging her feet. Mal's down at the end of the bar, deep in conference with the owner, searching for work that'll keep them off of Badger's sad little hill, where they've been burned once too often.
Though at nineteen she's well able to drink as she likes – even in the Core, alcohol isn't denied to those over eighteen, and the further out from the Core, the bar clientele simply seems to get younger – River makes a point of never drinking on a job, no matter how often the others do it. Her mind isn't at its sharpest off Serenity anyhow, the pageantry of colors and noise and so very many voices surrounding her, threatening to pull her under.
Still, as she's learned in the past, a pretty girl in a bar without a drink is something of a beacon. She sighs inwardly at the two boys headed her way, but it's not so bad as it might be; there's no darkness coming off them, nothing but the razor-balanced confidence of boys her own age.
They take up posts on either side of her, grinning. “Hey there,” the one she dubs braver in her head offers. “I'm Kiran, this here's Niesha.” The one who is shyer nods at her, raising his glass a bit. “You from around here? Think we'd remember seeing you before.”
She can't help but smile back; they remind her of nothing so much as eager puppies. “Been here before,” she says. “You wouldn't have seen me, though. Usually stay on the ship.”
“You ship out then?” Kiran the braver asks, leaning on the bar. “Must be an interesting life, always off to new places.”
“It is,” she allows. “I'm very happy there.”
“So, um,” Niesha the shyer breaks in, “Can we buy you a drink, keep you company a while?”
She smiles at them again as she shakes her head, doing her best to be gentle. “Sorry. Wouldn't want you to waste your money. Already have a man,” she says, tilting her head back as Mal approaches her from behind the bar.
“Hey there, darlin',” he says, setting his hands on her shoulders and smiling down on her, ignoring the two boys as utterly beneath his notice. “You alright here for a spell? I got a deal to be made in the back, shouldn't be too long.”
“Does it require my presence?” she asks. While Mal still does his best to keep her out of the action of jobs, keeping her as backup and getaway, she often serves as his compass, testing the currents of reliability for him.
“Nah, done jobs for these folks before, don't figure on any troubles coming up now. I'll be back soon, take you out and buy you somethin' pretty.” He pauses at her expression, rethinking. “Or somethin' lethal, whichever you'd prefer.”
“We'll see,” she says, watching him fondly as he ruffles her hair and walks off.
“Something lethal, huh?” Kiran says, watching her with a slight wariness now. “Well, can't say he's what I would have expected, but I know well enough when I've got no shot. Come on, Niesha.”
“Better luck elsewhere,” she offers as the boys walk away.
She's about to turn to the bar, get herself a glass of water, if only to give her fingers something to do besides twist in the ends of her hair, when her mind picks it up, throbbing through the air of the bar.
Her name. She doesn't often use it off-ship, knowing the danger of connecting the name with the girl. Generally she is introduced merely as Mal's pilot, though she knows some of their contacts have the distinct idea that her name is Albatross. Some days she begins to think it is herself.
But here, where they ought not, someone knows her reality, knows her true name.
It doesn't take long to spot him, and she slides off her stool and through the crowd like she's walking through a dream.
She comes awake again at the edge of his table, staring her past in the face. Trying her best to analyze her feelings, she sits down, hits up against the truth that – for now at least – she feels nothing, a state so unusual she can only stare at him for a moment before finding her voice.