Recline. Gaze into a night
of asterisks – sky of footnote, exception.
And you, the skeptic, hopes
for a constellation of consolation.
"Mal, why did you stop believing?"
Her voice comes from nowhere, her words from nothing but wonder. He looks up to the sound, movement that shifts the blankets and lets cool air run into pockets of warmth, an interruption where skin and skin have been touching, softly, intimately.
"Believing what?" he asks.
But her eyes are closed. He watches her, blinking sleepily, wondering if they were really words or that he had only dreamt them. In the quiet he listens to her breathing, and in the background everything else--murmurs of the night, the long sigh of Serenity's engines as regular as his own heartbeat. Girl and ship, ship and girl; and right now the girl has her fingertips pressed lightly to his sternum, the pale hand moving as he takes in one slow breath after another. There is a rough patch on her thumb, the beginnings of an infant callus where the skin has rubbed repeatedly against muzzle and trigger. He knows it has come from practice, to be like him, the best; as it has come from life, to be beside him, alive. He knows because she has told him a hundred times, in safety, in danger, under public gaze and private confession.
But never with words. Maybe they scare him because he understands they are useless things, because he only has to look at her over the sweep of a cabin that is too small for a girl reader and a foolish, brave soldier, to know the reason why.
He pulls a hand over his eyes, blocking out whatever vestige of light there is left at this hour. Prayers, he thinks suddenly, blinking into the dark. Those are spoken. Mal once told a Shepherd he could speak to his God only if it weren't in his hearing. He never gave his reasons, but back then, he didn't have to.
River wakes. She stares at her captain with eyes like water.
"The book. His book." She moves the hand off his chest, presses it to her own. "I cut it up. Wasn't the right thing to do, he didn't understand. He told me it was a thing that couldn't be fixed, it just...was." She gazes at him, her expression unreadable. "You remember, don't you?"
He does, vaguely. Zoe had told him in a quiet moment some time after the fact, and Mal recalls that he shrugged, and had let his concern over the girl's behaviour create a shadow to hang over everything else. And all to disguise his indecision. That book. That belief. It is--(was, he corrects, was)--Book's, not his.
"I remember," he says, trying to make his voice light. Frivolity it ain't. Not by a stretch, Mal thinks, but that's what you're doing, you're flitterin' it away. He tries to laugh, pulling back so that he is watching her. All of her. He smiles on a whim, reaching forward. "I remember something 'bout a great head of hair, makin' you run like a little mouse." He rolls a lock through the sensitive flat of his palm, teasing, pleading with the spirit in those watery eyes. Don't ask me. Don't ask me why.
River hesitates. There is a feeling that says what is lost is lost forever; that when he looks at the whole of her so too will she look at him--and for Mal, not-remembering and remembering a belief that is lost under footprints and literal, bloody shadow--they are all one and the same. The damned exception of a damned God, and nothing, he had thought, not a memory or fragment of love would persuade him to open it again.
She lowers her gaze, acquiescence and a trust he is almost surprised by, shining, between the dark sweep of her lashes.
"The mouse ran," she murmurs, reaching to untwist the hair he is still holding, "for a very long time. She ran here." And she kisses the scar on his chest, lingering into the touch for a moment before turning away, their hands still clasped together.
Mal, feeling suddenly heavy, almost lethargic, closes his eyes. He wonders how she might rationalise this--his belief as the one page still missing--when it is obvious she believes that she has returned them all.
He will refuse to pray, always, as long as he can still make excuses.
Five years have passed since they brought the secret of Miranda into the open, and they have paid the price over and over since. He doesn't think of Wash, or Book. He doesn't think how his hand--bloody, sore, wretched, living--had been grasped so tightly that through touch alone he had felt the words, the crawl of a thousand tiny ants through the skin. Or that greyed, knowing eyes had looked to his, and with that a voice, speaking as though it was gone and broken already.
Mal doesn't keep track of the years. Inara, before she left, once told him that years are unaccountable things, that they burn into the mind like an imprint. So he doesn't keep track. But he remembers. Every night, he remembers that voice, and tells it he does, he will.
Sometimes he wonders if that means forever, that by holding onto this memory he has bound himself to its keeping. And then he gets angry, as if he actually resents the literality of it--this precious, fallible word of God.
You have to believe.
So he lets go, thinks of other things.
Three years have passed since that night she kissed him. It was not for the first time--there had been Christmases and New Years aplenty, and being shoved by Kaylee to stand, unwillingly, beneath the mistletoe. But this had been the first that Mal, tossing aside the guilt, his own insecurities, and a place in Hell that was far from ordinary, had actually kissed her back.
Of course, he remembers this, too. He's only human. There's a place for every sort of memory after all; they need not all weigh, or sound, or feel the same. But this...this was different. Alone on the bridge one night, and they had fallen into argument. Some silly, meaningless drivel about River wanting to pull a manoeuvre even Wash would've balked at, and Mal not wanting to crash into every piece of space junk from here to Boros. And then, somehow, the argument had turned into what she wanted. In general.
Which, apparently, was him.
"You're crazy," he'd breathed, struggling to find room in the seat and his lap to accommodate an entirely sane River; room in his mouth to let the heat, the worry, and his own damned need to take in as much of her as she was willing to give. "This is crazy..."
Her lips, when they'd broken apart, were the colour of a bruise, and her black eyes had regarded him with an expression of lucid knowing. She'd replied, coarsely, "Yes." They were not words of acceptance--or even desire--as much as a sudden, beautiful unanimity. "So...very...crazy." And he had taken to the bruised mouth again, kissed her deeper, slower. He was suddenly losing track of her hands, thinking they were too many in number, too aware of his terrible guilt and this terrible, remarkable urge.
So, yes. This, he remembers.
But now he is worrying about time again. And it is beginning to give him a headache he doesn't want. Not when he has a complicated route to program and couple of jobs due with an unpleasant contact, the first of which they are already two days late for. Time, Mal muses wearily, the one thing I ain't got enough of. And here I am, countin' it out like the gorramn years on my fingers.
It is early. 5 am by the marker on his console, and he is probably the only one up. But he hasn't been able to sleep. He looks blankly at the course, plotted out half in consultation with Zoe, and half in his own head last night. That is, until River had woken him with some miscellany about believing, not-believing, a bible and the hair of a Preacher.
Three years? He frowns, turning on the autopilot so he can swap seats and program the route. Has it really been that long?
He knows what he's doing. He wants to think about the River of three years ago rather than the Book of five. But now it looks like she's gotten an eagle eye trained on his lost faith, and he thinks it's just typical of her to do this.
But if Mal has learnt anything since that night, it is how singularly atypical River Tam can be.
"Looks like a long day of flyin'," Mal says later that morning when she finally joins him at the helm. He points to the bright arc of stars, scattered like a fallen blanket across the black, and offers her a wry smile as she glides, sleepily, into the other chair. "And nothin' much besides."
She nods. He knows boredom means little to her; she is willing to work, as he does, to the very real goal of payment. For a time they say nothing, happy to exist in comfortable silence. Mal concentrates on the job, and almost forgets she is there until her voice breaks the quiet. "When we are married," River says nonchalantly, "will it be in a church made of stone, like the one on Haven?"
He snaps around quickly. Her tone is cautious but utterly devoid of any hesitation. With a dozen thoughts hitting him at once, he shifts awkwardly, trying to find her eyes, but she has angled her body away, loose hair shielding the tentative connection. Keeping his tone as light as possible, Mal says, "Shouldn't say things like that, darlin'. It ain't--" He pauses, about to say it ain't right, but realises neither is that; doing right isn't the issue. It isn't a thing to consider, because in this life it doesn't matter. It doesn't consider love.
River, sensing his mood, turns. There is a teasing flint of light in her gaze--a smile. "It ain't...the time," he finishes, half-heartedly, returning it despite not at all wanting to. A vaguely worrisome memory emerges in his head--Saffron, and River clasping Simon's hand with a pillow under her tunic. Not, if he recalls, the best of times, if he's going to start heaping angst on the whole sorry world of to death do us part...
"No," she says at last, with more maturity in her voice than he'd given her credit, "of course. You're right."
"Right," he echoes. "Right...okay, then. Co-ordinates are, uh--" He clears his throat, turning back to the job, to the ship. "Co-ordinates are set. She's all yours."
River straightens, placing her hands on the controls, taking over from where Mal has been holding onto Serenity: this they do without thinking. It is routine, the by-product of five years; learning in two; loving in three; trust--the soul of starlit guidance--in every last one.
"This route is precise," she observes, looking at his calculations. "Even for you."
He bats away the insult. "Yeah, well, that's what happens when you're tryin' to avoid everythin' out there but space itself. Things get a little...convoluted." He looks at her carefully. "And confused."
"You could say."
There is a long silence, and then she smiles, faintly. "This is still the job we're talking about, right?"
He hides his amusement beneath a sigh. "Do I really have to answer that?"
"If you don't think it's necessary."
"I don't think it's necessary."
She gives him a look, one eyebrow raised.
"I don't," Mal repeats, a little irritated now. He wonders who he is trying to convince.
They are mostly quiet for the rest of the morning. When he leaves the bridge to run over the job with Zoe, River leans into the hand he places on her shoulder, saying nothing. He has a feeling like an apology deep inside. It wants to reach over, hold her instead of walking away, so that she might somehow turn this indecision into abandon.
The next few days see them doing almost nothing except work. Proper, actual work, despite the mule breaking down not once but on three separate occasions. A situation that is not improved when Jayne, on these mishaps alone, arrives at the opinion that Kaylee isn't doing her job 'to standard'.
The timing--let alone the tact--is almost spectacular. Kaylee hasn't been in a good mood to start with all that day, and it is fair to say that this doesn't help.
"'To...standard'?" She stares at the mercenary, one hand on the mule, the other on her hip. "Care to elaborate on that, huh, Jayne? What's this standard you're suddenly so rarin' to employ--'cause I'm dyin' to know. I really am."
To Mal, it smells like a whole set of fireworks about to blow. He's tired--in a good way because they've actually gotten paid, and it's more than enough to last them a couple of weeks--but here, it won't last a full hour if these two start fighting.
"Jayne, out," he barks, stepping in between the big man, the diminutive mechanic, and their only working transport. "Kaylee, ignore him, fix the mule."
He walks away. "You heard."
Behind him he can hear Kaylee mutter something in Chinese, and then Zoe's voice, calming, dampening the smouldering fight. He doesn't bother looking to see if Jayne's done what he's asked.
Instead he goes to the bridge, searching for River, but she isn't there. In the quiet he leans against the console, tiredness washing over him like a bath...
He blinks, frowning. A bath? Mal sniffs the collar of his shirt. A bath is what he could actually use, but they need to be away from this planet quicker than the time it'll take him to strip off his filthy clothes. For the moment, at least, he'll have to put domestic matters on hold.
He turns. She is standing at the threshold, one hand plastered over her nose. "Oh, Mal," River says, again, beginning to laugh behind it, "that's..."
"Bad?" he supplies. "Like I've not only trodden in seventeen cow pats, but rolled around in them for a couple of hours as well?"
"Darlin', I know. It's me. I can smell me, and unfortunately, that ain't far from the truth. But it's gonna have to linger for a while...least, 'til you get us out of atmo."
With a nod she slips past him--quickly--and settles into the pilot's seat. Within seconds Serenity is rattling and surging with upward momentum. River guides the ship with imperceptible worry, and he watches her, not bothering to hide his appreciation. She's gotten faster, and better, with each passing year.
After about five minutes, when they can only see the stars and the huge breadth of space beyond, River turns.
Mal sighs. He stares unhappily at his hands, the roughened skin caked in filth and dust. They are close to Haven now. He knows she is aware of this, but so conscious is he of his own doubts that he can only stare at the streaks of dirt and think of how they remind him of blood.
"Someplace where there's water," he says finally. It is really a suggestion to himself, and he leaves her at that.
He doesn't actually mean to fall asleep, but after washing and changing clothes he sits down for a moment, his eyes closed, trying to do anything but think, only to discover on opening them that whole hours have passed. And that he still hasn't moved from his bunk.
Irritated with himself as much as anything else, he wanders through the ship and into the galley. The crew are all there, finishing off dinner. Including River, who is seated in Mal's chair at the head of the table.
He folds his arms, leaning against the hatchway silently, until one by one they notice him and stop talking.
"Ate without me." Mal smiles thinly.
There are a few embarrassed glances. River stands.
"We were hungry." She pulls him over by the hand, then leans up quickly, catching his ear with a murmur. Her soft breath warms his cheek. "I'm sorry," River says in a low voice, "you looked like you needed the rest."
"Well." He lets her lead him over. "Guess there's some truth to that."
Jayne and Kaylee are sitting within two feet of one another, so they must have gotten over their quarrel. Besides, he would've been surprised if it'd lasted longer than the time it had taken him to walk from the hold to the bridge. Mal puts a fork to the meal River places before him and eyes his crew. He has the feeling there's been some talk while he was away, and puts this to them as he eats.
Zoe rests her chin on her hands, thoughtfulness in her brown eyes. "So, it's true? We're stoppin' on Haven, sir?"
River's face remains unchanged, but Mal knows her well enough to recognise the sheepish set to her mouth, and he matches it with a single glance. Took me to my word then. He swallows and nods.
"That's right," he says slowly. But he notices Kaylee smiling across the table, and his annoyance wanes slightly. "Thought we could all do with a break. Been a long spell since we've had this much coin on hand."
At this the mechanic pipes up. "I'll say! Serenity's a happy girl, now I can get those parts she's been needin'." She looks hopefully at Mal. "Really, Cap'n? Haven?"
"I know it ain't exactly been on our port of call for a good while--"
"Almost a year," River says.
"Almost a..." Mal stops. He frowns. "A year?"
She nods. Then Kaylee, Zoe and Simon follow suit. All eyes turn to Jayne, who is eating methodically.
"What they said," he mumbles, in between chews. "Long year."
Mal sets his fork down. He rubs the bridge of his nose; there is a well of pressure at his forehead, building slowly. Whatever sleep his body gave him, it hasn't settled well. "That it has."
The others begin making their way variously from the table. River, however, remains seated at his elbow. She runs her index finger over a worn patch in the wood, and their eyes meet.
"Is it okay?" She leans forward, so that only Mal can make out her soft voice. "Haven, I mean."
She looks so intent, the light catching at a neat angle on her forehead. There is aspiration in the sweet hollow of her lips; and there is love. Mal nods. "Yes." He can't lie to her, and she knows this.
Still, they both understand that there is an exception here. The yes that he says, and the but it won't help that he doesn't. River sits back and nods carefully, allowing this to pass. The triangle of light moves off her face, leaving a shadow beneath her cheek. It is like the underbelly of a waning moon.
"They are rebuilding," she says, out of the moment of quiet. "There is a school now. And a church. There is a cleft in the rock, a stream where the fireflies return after dark. Families, Mal. They want to be there. Five years is enough."
He doesn't ask how she knows this. If Mal was to question every motive or conscious thought to come from this girl, they would not have come as far together as they have already. With a muffled sigh he steps away from the table. They are alone now, and his chair scrapes harshly, loudly, on the floor. The headache is still there, lingering incessantly behind his eyes. Five years. He was not supposed to keep track of them.
"You staying with her tonight?" He means Serenity, and knows what the answer will be anyway. But he likes to hear it from her.
"Yes. For a few hours." River stands as well. She takes the empty plate away to the sink, trailing a light hand over his arm. "Go back to bed. I promise I won't wake you."
He thinks he is alone.
His feet tread silently through the corridors. He thinks he is alone on the ship, by choice or by accident, but which it is, he doesn't know. And he doesn't care.
He is also in his battle clothes, relics from a time long before this. Dusty, caked in his blood. Alliance blood and Alliance lies--the blood of Browncoats and the fallen lot of independence.
But...the ship. He is on the ship. Where are the others? Where is the war now?
He knows that voice, though not from the valley, not of his comrades or his crew. It is the voice of something he cannot forget.
"You've been on your own for too long, son. Sit with me a while." Grey hair. Wrinkled eyes that are telling, and frightening, and not quite there.
He turns towards the voice. A feeling hits him, bullet-hard and swift, and suddenly it is all he can do to not fall on his knees. "I gotta..." But the words won't come. Terrible, unforgiving God--he has damned him and left him to pilgrimage, to fight alone.
"I gotta confess," Mal chokes out. I ain't one, he thinks. Pilgrims, they left this valley a long time ago. But I ain't one.
"Son. You are."
The bible is open, the Shepherd's brown hands cradling it at the long, broken spine. Mal points.
"Got some pages missin' there. Some heathens take a dislike to the Truth?"
The old man raises a brow knowingly. "No. But some avoid it." He looks at Mal, and in a different voice, says, "I can help you."
On his knees, on an open wound, and now he can feel the hot lights of the Alliance birds, high above his head. They shatter in an instant the world that he thought was real, that owed him some repentance for this turnabout of lies. He blinks; the birds disappear, and he sees that it is not a light but simply his own reflection, the slow burn of faith in the crucifix around his neck.
Pilgrims of war, pilgrims of constellation. None of which he can claim to be. A man must cross whole valleys for this, and for Mal there is only one. He never left.
"No," he bites out at last, tasting the wound, a kiss of acidity on his tongue. "No. You can't. Sure, I'll confess, plain as day, my sins and all. An' you'll sit there all moral and true. But you can't help the pages back to their covers, an' Preacher, I'm sorry. But you can't help me."
They continue to stare at each other. He suddenly wants some anger, some spark to fire and flight, but nothing comes. He refuses help because he knows, with every tired shake of the grey head, that this God--unforgiving, forgiving, neither really matter--won't help man who don't want it.
"Maybe not. But someone will, son. Someone will."
But the Shepherd only smiles, a mixture of abject tiredness and compassion, reminding Mal that whatever he calls this dream, it is still all inseparable to prayer. He steps forward, taking the book off the table. "You aren't alone," is all he says.
And with that, Mal wakes.
Despite the early hour he steps onto the bridge to find River up and guiding Serenity already, one hand on the helm and one stretched lazily behind her. He leans down and presses a kiss to her forehead.
"You're up early," he murmurs, giving the hand a squeeze.
She leans against the touch, relaxed and warm. "Wanted to see the world wake up."
Outside the sun is brightening rapidly, its vivid rays pulling against dark, mottled cloud. As Mal watches, they creep steadily across the vast planet, taking up almost the entire width of the view screen. All around them there is a striking vein of light, drawing his eyes to the stars in the periphery of space.
"Can run far away, seek the path furthest from home." River's voice floats up from beneath his hand. "But we cannot leave forever. All skeptics must fall from which they came. Look again, beautiful world, look again."
He tries. He knows there will be no destruction here, that the things he saw and heard that day are deep and buried, beneath the feet of new life. Hope is a tentative thing, and this is a Haven far removed from his memory. He should be relieved.
"Quite a sight," Mal says, finally. "I'd forgotten..."
He breaks off. He can feel her turn against his hand, and senses the questions of that night returning. He steps away reluctantly, walking out with a vague excuse of getting some breakfast before Jayne steals it all. It might be a new Haven, but whether he can look again, properly...he has no idea.
Damn it. Why are you so afraid? He touches the cool bulkhead, listens to the thud of his boots on the metal grating. One step forward. Two, three, four steps back.
And all it is, is a task of faith.
"We chased the storm away."
There are clouds in the sky, wisps of white in a pale, washed out blue. River, watching them intently, stands sheltered from the harsh light beneath Serenity's nose. She catches Mal's eye, smiling slightly. She looks almost apologetic. He touches her on the shoulder.
"Must've known we were comin'," he says. He doesn't really believe the idea, though. It's a little too neat for either of them.
She doesn't reply, moving instead over to where Kaylee and Zoe are already walking towards the nearby houses. The landing circle beneath the rock is closed up now, and has been for some time, so Serenity is above ground, out in the wide open. There are new settlers here, cautious and believing; they know what happened five years ago, but are happy to have land beneath their feet. Haven is a prosperous world to those who are willing to work for it. To this simple act Mal holds no grudge; after all, as he says to those who still ask it--war's long done, they're all folk now.
He follows alone, slowly, behind the women, Simon and Jayne. Man who raises cattle breathes the same air as man who transports them, law abiding or not, and so enemies and persecution cannot touch these people; they look to God at sundown and dawn, again and again, their belief whole and true as the land itself. He remembers sharing a flask with Book, talking over an open fire, and wondering how this mysterious, knowing man thought he had a chance in hell of turning Mal's egotistic distrust back into faith.
A gust of wind blows dust into his throat. Mal stops, coughing it out. He shouldn't have come back. He wants--badly wants--to turn around, retreat from the sun and press his hands against Serenity, feel the solid metal under his bloodied skin and ask her, not God, for forgiveness.
River has fallen back from the others and is staring at him with a hand over her eyes, shading them from the light. He makes his way over.
"I'm sorry." He takes the hand in his own, looks at it and smiles.
She knows him, knows what he isn't saying. He is glad of it; there is nothing intrusive in what they share. It is part of what finally made him love her, but Mal, wary and very nearly ashamed of how close he is to falling again, breaks eye contact and turns away, hoping for a distraction. He catches sight of Kaylee pulling Simon into an open shopfront. There are dresses in the window, and he forces the smile into a chuckle. "That Kaylee's on a mission today. Hope the doc put some of his cut aside for frippery an' such--boy's gonna be needin' it."
River is still looking at him, but in a different way now. "Come." She grasps his hand, and he tries very hard not to think again of sweat and bullet wounds, grey hair and a haggard voice. "I want to show you something."
In the middle of the open road she leans against him briefly, cheek pressed to the warm coat and love thick in her voice. "Just come."
The air is almost shimmering. The river moves quickly, light bouncing off it in an earthy kaleidoscope of refracted colour. In a calm spot near the far side he spots a dragonfly, hovering lithely over the water. It hums deeply, darting to the surface and then back again. He watches for a moment; it is almost hypnotic--almost familiar, in fact, but he's not entirely sure how.
"What are you thinking?"
River has knelt beside the water's edge. Her bare feet tease the shining pebbles, one toe digging into the coarse sand. It stirs up like an eddy, creating a whir of water and stone; River's toes and River's curiosity mixed with this still picture of nature.
Mal kneels, cups water into his palms and splashes it over his face. The sun is warm on his neck. He stands up and shakes his head.
"I'm thinkin' last I saw, this weren't more'n a trickle down a dried up creek. Now look at it. Movin' like there's a rider chasing it with gorramn spurs on."
River leans back, smiling at him over her shoulder. "You seem surprised."
"No." He shrugs. "It ain't surprise. Only...you see somethin' gone for so long, it kinda catches you unawares when an' if it comes runnin' back so fast."
"You believed it would not return?"
He looks at her steadily. "Now, I never said that."
She gazes back, her expression unreadable. Mal, sensing where all this is going, pulls uncomfortably at the collar of his shirt. "Guess man gets used to things at his own pace."
"Maybe," River says, mulling it over, "but maybe there's danger in that."
"It's what you said. Being unaware, unprepared. If you become so tuned to the moment, and are too afraid to look back, you won't be able to see what's around the corner any more. It will be all shadow. No time to react."
He frowns, taking off his coat and laying it out on the sandy ground. He pulls it over and nudges River to move so they are sitting side by side. With a half-smile he bends down, prodding her bare toes in the cool water. "Who said anything about fear?"
Across the river the dragonfly drops quickly, hesitant as a whisper over the surface, then with a low buzz flies off, fast, out of sight. There are reeds on the far side; they brush against each other in the wind, and he closes his eyes, feeling in the quiet sunlight a drone that is not an insect, is not reeds or the water, but the scrape of pages--torn from a book that is drowning with words.
She bends towards him. "Mal. Maybe he didn't say it out loud, but he watched you, hoping...he wanted you to believe."
He can't stop the laugh. It bursts out in a way that makes him almost hate the sound. "Oh, an' I acted true to the word. We all did. Cost some of us our gorramn life."
"I don't mean Miranda."
He turns. She is so close that he could kiss her. Instead Mal speaks, again, in a voice that he is certain comes from the fight he was so eager for in his dream. "I did," he repeats. "I believed long before I met you, and long before I met our Shepherd. You asked me once, but ask me again...sweetheart, I don't know what I'll say. That's the reason, sure as I see you here, but it's hidden so deep now I'm afraid to go lookin'. Can't you see? I've no place to ask when him that listens is long gone. It ain't worth the fall."
Maybe it is the heat, or lack of sleep, but he can't help the feeling that it is getting harder and harder to keep up this circle of recurring excuses. He looks at her with great care, aware--though not unhappily--that she will always know a lie from the slimmest pickings of truth.
"Mal..." She begins to reply but stops, leaning forward and pressing her mouth to his. Her lips are warm from the sun, and sweet; when he touches her face he finds there is sweat on her brow, running from her temples to the ends of her hair. She breathes slowly against him, tucks a hand in the holster that is sitting low around his hips, and speaks again.
"You can't fall." It comes from the back of her throat, a low sound that seems much too heavy in his ears. Her fingertips graze the bare skin between the buttons of his shirt, like the dragonfly, trembling weightlessly in the heat. "You can't. It will only turn into flight."
They soon return to the others. River is immediately seconded by her brother and Kaylee, but Mal, declining Jayne's offer of a drink and Zoe's of company, walks out of the commune to where a trail leads him past new fences and fields, towards an outpost of level ground, and to an old, familiar building.
Except it is not old, not anymore. He recalls River's words, and peers up at the church with eyes he is sure he'd rather keep closed. Everything seems too bright, and too clean. Someone has been repairing the slate tiles on the roof and steeple; there is a hole where a number have fallen off. But no one is about, and so Mal opens the gate, walks up and places a hand on the heavy door.
He remembers his mother taking him to a place like this. Every week without fail they'd attend service. The church near their ranch on Shadow catered for perhaps a half-dozen families like the Reynolds, and he thinks now that if memories have weight, then these, from that tiny place of reverence, are as heavy as this circle of brass under his fingers. They come before distrust, and as the war snapped clean what roots Mal had in the God of his mother and his childhood, there is no pain in remembering. Shadow is a similar place; but it is not Haven. And it is not Serenity.
Inside the church is it cool and dark. Light from the hole in the roof filters down to the hard white pews, and Mal looks at it, smiling a little. In this world there will always be something wanting for repair, or replacement, or a lick of paint or rub of grease. Churches and ships suffer the same neglect--the only difference being that back home, Mal has a crafty mechanic to keep Serenity flying; in this place he has no one. He feels that there's been a service here but that it's all happened long ago, and now time has passed and he's stuck reaching for the pilgrim in his dreams.
There is a noise from above, making him jump. A bird has flown through the hole and is trapped in the honeycomb maze of rafters and beams. It flutters noisily in the narrow space, but is blind to the shaft of light, and confused, and cannot see its way out. Dust and debris floats down. Mal plucks out a feather that has landed on his head. The bird, exhausted, stops finally in a dark corner, watching him beadily.
"Sorry, little one," he says to it, with a shrug. He sits on a pew. "Gonna have to find your own way out."
Of course, she had to follow. It was pointless of him to have thought differently. He turns around with a sigh. River is leaning against the open door, one hand clasped around the brass handle. Her eyes follow his, to the high arched ceiling.
"I'd be afraid," she says, qualifying this reason with a nod, "if I lost sight of the sky, if I couldn't get out again."
"You ain't much of a shopping companion, River," Mal replies, rubbing a tired hand over his eyes. "Reckon that were a whole fifteen minutes that Kaylee and the doc had you all to themselves."
She sits on the pew in front of him. "Do you want me to leave?"
He pauses. River has become so tuned to her captain that he sometimes forgets that her own wishes are there too, like the stars are always there just beyond their reach. Mal's no skeptic. He might have been shy of his own feelings for a long time but he isn't blind to understanding. If he has lost something, it isn't this. And it isn't her.
"You want to know how I can be so sure he ain't listening...that's what you wanted to ask me, right?"
He stares at her, his voice so drained that it almost hurts to speak. River gazes back, taking this in, and then she looks away, absorbed and fascinated, but somehow at once terribly sad. She cups a hand under her chin, presses her lips against her thumb and nods.
"Because I've not stopped asking. Belief ain't the gorramn mirror of hope."
With this he stands, raising his voice to the rafters. "Go on! Get!" Mal yells, waving his arms--and the bird, startled, flies in a perfect, straight line to the shaft of light, through the broken hole and out into the sky.
"Just needed a push," he says, repeating it to himself. "That's all. A push. It weren't fear..."
He turns back to River and takes her hand, firmly, with immediate resolve, and pulls her to her feet. "C'mon. Time we stopped wallowin' in the mire. Got a crew waitin', not to mention a drink I'm pretty sure Jayne's been inchin' to buy his old captain."
She smiles at this, and nods. "I'm sure he has."
Outside, River watches while Mal pushes the heavy doors together. He grasps the handle, feeling the warmth where the sun has been coating it since dawn. When he joins her at the gate he leans down and smoothes the hair off her forehead. He speaks softly. "And yes, if you still want it, on that day it will be in a church like this."
Quietly, without reaction, she thinks this over.
"Do you know, I don't believe you've actually asked me."
There is a glint in her eyes. River is right, five years is enough. The silence hangs around them, but it doesn't linger. If he listens now he can hear the birds crying; they swoop low over the steeple and down across the fields, a flurry of wings appearing like a constellation in the grass. Mal watches them, hiding his smile, confident that if it does nothing else, love will always follow in place of belief.
"Well...ain't that a strangeness."