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Midnight Cowboy

Chapter Text

Sleep Cycles

Mal couldn’t sleep. He felt like he could sleep for a week straight he was so tired but actual sleep wouldn’t come, so he laid awake in his bed staring up at the heavy cloth hanging from his ceiling instead, trying to remember how it had gotten up there in the first place. He knew Inara was responsible for the bit of frippery; nobody else would have thought to hang bolts of cloth from a gorram ceiling. It wasn't to his taste but it was an easy enough thing to ignore so he usually did. A bit too well apparently because here was, actually trying to remember when and how it had gotten into his bunk, without success.

Irritated that he couldn’t pin down the exact moment his space had become invaded made him shift restlessly again, forgetting that Inara was curled into his side and accidentally jostling her. He froze automatically, unwilling to think too closely on why he was so against waking the woman in his bed. The seconds dragged through the suddenly tense atmosphere in his bunk far too long for his liking before Inara finally stopped squirming and instead of clinging stubbornly to him, as she was fond of, she rolled over onto her belly.

Onto her side of the large bed.

Relief left him boneless for a few precious seconds, so absolute he would have dozed off peacefully if it hadn’t been quickly swallowed by guilt... which brought him right back to restless. Unable to lay still anymore he scrambled to get dressed, choosing to focus on pushing everything away , so he could walk Serenity’s halls without everything eating away at him hanging over his head. He was up the ladder and out of his bunk in record time.

Once the hiss of his door closing behind him ended with a satisfying click, Mal found himself heading toward the kitchen, because why not make his insomnia worse by making himself a cup of coffee? After all, the night had that all too familiar feel of I-won't-be-getting-any-sleep . Resigned but with a steaming cup of watery coffee doctored with some whiskey to ease him into things, Mal made his way to the bridge. The autopilot was running smoothly, genius pilot and all having set it, which left him with the choice of either sitting down and doing nothing but watch the stars float by while the spiked caffeine kicked in, or continuing to wander around his boat… he chose the latter.

If Mal had stopped to think on things he would have noticed that the uneasy feeling that had kept him from sleeping had slipped away as soon as he walked away from his door. No, he very purposefully didn’t follow that train of thought, because that would then lead to him thinking about why and he would much rather enjoy this peace with his girl rather than picking things apart that he had no true desire to look at too closely. Any fool knew not to go poking at things you didn’t want to know the answer to.

He took a deep breath and savored the nutty smell of hot coffee, perfectly content to let Serenity’s night noises whisper to him like the softest of lullabies. He came across River in her room in the passenger dorms, the faint light brightened her open doorway like a beacon.

It wasn’t often that he came to this part of his boat beyond his captain-y duties and he had never actually stepped foot in Rivers room now that he thought on it. Curious as a moth he moseyed over to take a peek inside. He found River laying with her back on the deck and her legs folded over the edge of her bed, fully awake.

Amused despite himself at her unique choice of lounge repose he leaned his shoulder into her doorway, “Something wrong with the mattress, Little Tross?” River turned her head to smirk wryly at him, “Too soft, to hard, too warm, too cold.” was her round-about simple reply.

Mal snorted, “Couldn't sleep either hmm?” River's smirk blossomed into a cheeky grin. Smiling and shaking his head at her antics, Mal took the opportunity to look around her room while he sipped his coffee.

The smile slid right off his face as he took in a whole lot of nothing, the room looked unoccupied, there was nothing to indicate that a young girl called it hers. Except for the slightly rumpled bedding, everything was exactly in its place with not one personal belonging in sight. Not understanding why he was bothered by this he turned back to River, his unasked question clear on his face.

River simply blinked back at him, letting Mal work through his thoughts in his own time. I like to hear you say it . It took him a minute but he finally grasped the root of his problem with the state of River’s room: There was not a single personal belonging in the room; if she were to never come back here, there was nothing for her to miss. Nothing to show her ownership of her space. ‘There’s nothing of her in here.’

Mal walked softly over to where River laid on the ground and crouched down, closer to her level, “don’t you have things to fill your room up, River?”

She had closed her eyes while he had pondered over things but he knew she was still awake, the girl had an energy to her when she was awake no matter how still she was. Her eyes popped open and he realized that, despite their heights, he was a whole lot closer than he had meant to get when she easily reached a pale hand up to smooth the frown from between his eyes with a cold thumb, “I have a drawer for clothes and my boots are in the corner by the door.” She told him softly. This only made Mal frown harder, absently he wrapped his own hand around her small wrist to stop the distracting sensation of her thumb ghosting over his skin.

“You know what I meant, Darlin’, don’t you have things ? Personal things like Zoe has in her bunk or Kaylee has in hers, and the engine room…and the kitchen. Hell, the girl has made her mark all over my boat.” He tried lightening the mood at the end so as not to make River feel awkward even going as far as twisting his lips into a weak smile to reassure her.

River purposefully misunderstood, tilting her head slowly in that way of hers before answering so softly it was almost a whisper. It made Mal lean in toward her in order to better hear, “I have undergarments in the same drawer as the rest of my clothes. Bras will, sadly, never be required. Dancers are seldom graced with bountiful breasts.”

The Captain’s eyes widened comically and Mal jerked back so fast he toppled onto his ass beside her on the floor, his cup of coffee spilled and rolled under her bed unnoticed. He was too busy blinking owlishly to remember the cup or to notice that he still held River's wrist in his large hand, so it was another shock when he calmed down enough to focus on his surroundings and found River halfway in his lap.

He must have pulled her with him when he had fallen, he realized dumbly. The patented River eye-roll made the corners of his mouth twitch while he was trying to give her his best stern-captain-look. She only laughed at his antics. Despite his best intentions to stay mad at the girl for her mean trick, Mal found himself relaxing instead.

He gave up on his mock anger, letting the smile stretch across his lips as he straightened his legs out in front of him and settled his back against the edge of her bed. River adjusted her head on his leg and stretched out her own lean frame. Both of them easily slid fluidly into they’re strangely comfortable positions. It wasn’t long before they fell into an easy banter, sleep not far behind.

Later Mal would ponder on the lack of personal things in River’s room more deeply but that was for a different restless night.

Chapter Text

The phantom wound in his back throbbed promting him to gently rub the scar left behind by the Operative as he started shuffling aimlessly through Serenity. He didn’t see the familiar worn metal of his ship, instead he found himself back in that thrice damned nightmare.

His people were all down, scattered on the floor bleeding and looking so much like that distant battle that he fell into his old role without thinking with Zoe’s “Sir?”

“It's done. Report.” Even though he could feel the hot trickle of his blood seeping out of the wound in his side he was past feeling the actual pain that came with it. He was more focused on how there was one body unaccounted for. Where was she? He swayed as fear drove his blood pressure wild .

“River?”

Did anyone notice how his breath caught? How he almost choked trying to get her name out? Did they see the panic and dread in his eyes? Before he could pass out, the blast doors opened and there she was, as if he had conjured her by speaking her name.

It took him a bit longer than usual for his brain to make out what his damaged eyes were seeing. The blood swirling in his left eye from a broken vein was clouding half his vision and  the steady bloodloss made everything swim unsteadily. A f ew slow blinks later he was able to make the connection between the feral warrior standing bloodied but strong, surrounded by a gory sea of slaughtered Reavers... and River Tam.

Once you see a thing it can never be unseen.

The old saying rang inside his head as he took in little River, filled with a raw power he had not thought her delicate frame capable of. Gone was the fragile little girl who trailed after her older brother, lost and confused as she walked around in a daze. Her dark eyes held a power in them that pinned him in place and filled his spine with the strength he had been sorely lacking before they locked eyes.

Mal could not look past the grown woman standing in the child's place, still small and delicate but filled with a deadly calm. Knowing that she was the only thing that stood between them and actual monsters tearing into them. Willing to be that sacrifice if it meant that they got to live.

Mal mourned for her lost innocence.

She should not have had to tear her way out of her own private nightmare to face a new evil. It should not have been River that had to put herself in front of them. They were supposed to protect her, he was supposed to protect her, not the other way around.

Despite the guilt eating away at him for failing to keep her safe Mal could not stop taking her in. Eyes wide, he stood in awe of the unbowed woman breathing raggedly in front of him, holding wicked looking blades she had to have stolen from the monsters. Blades that looked at home in her small fists more than a gun ever had. She was soaked in sweat to the point that her dress clung to her and her hair hung in heavy snarls around her.

He knew that breathless, sweaty, look from a time long buried in Hera’s trenches. He knew from instinct that, even if he could not see it, her muscles trembled and burned from exhaustion. By sheer will was she alive, standing strong in front of him now, lending him her strength. The power she had was undeniable. He could not ignore it anymore.

It damned him as surely as it gave him strength.

If he had been given time he was sure shame would have flooded him for thinking of little River as anything other than the child that had first crawled out of that cryo-box in his cargo bay less than a year ago. Of course she also hadn’t been surrounded by a bloody sea of decapitated Reaver corpses back then with blades longer than her arms in her hands…and she had been naked.

Hard to forget the naked part.

Before that train of thought could condemn and further derail him the wall behind her was blown away.  H e had the span of only a few painfully sharp heartbeats to take in the Alliance soldiers flooding the room like a swarm of black locusts.

All this, from the blast doors opening, his staring, to the room filling with black clad, heavily armed guǐzi happened in the span of seconds. Everything flashed around him but he remained hyperfocused on River as she stared straight into him, eyes darkened with rage, pale hands tightening subtly on her pilfered weapons.

“Targets are acquired! Do we have a kill order?” In that moment between heartbeats, when the masked soldier pointed his rifle straight at River, Malcolm Reynolds felt his foundation shift.

Just like on Hera.

He was drastically changed by a short moment.  Back then it had been that second of soul wrenching horror when he realized that it had all been for nothing. All those lives lost in a meaningless battle. The negotiations had been made and sealed while men and women starved to death, were blown apart by grenades or cut apart by rifle fire. Lives had been forfeited as acceptable losses while soldiers had been forced to commit unspeakable acts to stay alive. By the time the ships came it had been too late.

Story of his life.

His disillusionment in the Almighty had sowed a bitterness in him, a lifetime of fervent Belief was not something one discarded overnight, but under the strain of cruel reality it caused a crack in him. Belief and Faith became two different things and one crumbled into ashes just like the bones of all those lost souls on his homeworld.

A black rock of cold rage had been birthed in it's place. It was a truly terrible pit of coldly burning anger that festered in him every time Divine Help never came.

And it was easily swept aside in a rush of blind fear.

He prayed, not caring if God was even listening. With the shift inside himself this time, Mal chose to discard logic and rage in order to reach out to anyone that would answer his plea.

‘Don’t do it, don’t shoot! Please God don’t take her! Don’t let them shoot!’ Terror had half formed thoughts and feelings cutting through him like the rapid fire of a repeater. ‘Hundan’s are going to shoot!’ The sight of the faceless soldier squeezing down on the trigger brought forth a terrible wrath that washed away the fear in a icy burn that doused everything else.

It left reality painfully sharp and with oversaturated clarity he thought the rest at River as loudly as he could.

‘They’re going to shoot. You kill them River, kill them all! Don’t you worry about us, you just make sure you don’t get yourself killed bao-bei.’ River was already turning slowly to follow the mass of soldiers swarming around her.

Her overused muscles jerked awkwardly, made the thin skin on her neck jump, and Mal forced   his battered body to remain standing. Watching it all with one true blue eye and one blood filled useless one.

“Stand down... it's over.”

Mal never claimed to be a good man but he could confess, to himself at least, the disappointment that filled him at the Operatives order. Disappointment at not getting to see River kill them all fought and lost against the overwhelming relief that she wasn’t going to get shot at.

She was safe.

That was the last thing he knew before his abused body passed out from blood loss as the adrenaline holding him up drained away and took the last of his strength with it.

Mal was pulled out of the nightmare-memory to the soothing feel of cold fingers tickling his face. River's own face was so close to his own that he could see the ghostly shadows of the faint freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose.

A soft frown settled between her brows as she waited a few beats before whispering her confusion. “You’re… not scared of me.” Wonder colored her voice, giving it a sweetness that told him just how affected she was by the discovery.

Gently Mal reached up to stop her fingertips from sweeping back and forth over the deep frown line between his brows as color flushed up the back of his neck for some reason.

Amusement chased away the soft awe, making her big eyes shine knowingly and her full lips lift pleasantly. “Disappointed you didn’t get to see her dance.” And there was the why behind the flush he realized sheepishly as heat flared to spread from his neck to his ears. “Well now - I -...” Mal stammered for a bit to River’s obvious amusement.

'Girl had him blushing like a schoolboy for no reason!'

“Mal, only bad in the latin,” her grin grew as she gently teased her captain. “Latin is a old language from earth-that-was. Not an accurate description of you.”

At her explanation his lips quirked up and he didn’t hold back his amused snort, the things she came up with sometimes. Without thinking Mal gently squeezed her finely boned hand in his in appreciation for her explanation. It could be that the first time she had said the same thing to him had left him a bit bothered.

River suddenly tensed and without any warning pushed him flat onto his back before grabbing a mess of her bed sheets and pillows to throw around them. Somehow she managed to curl him up into a small ball his large frame should not have been able to be squeezed into before she slapped her small hand over his mouth to stop him from making a sound.

Eyes wide in panic at what the hell he had gotten himself into now, Mal finally realized that his earlier wanderings had led him to River’s room. He was in River’s room. In her bed. Tucked in River’s bed with her…under the covers...in the middle of the night cycle.... Tā mā de gǒu shǐ!’

The sound of the shoji door sliding open stilled his struggles to get out of River’s bed. ‘Is that Simon?! River you tell me that is Not. You're. Brother!’ He thought fiercely at his wicked reader. 'Fine! I'll let the boy get one hit in but just one …seeing as how I am in your bed in the middle of the night...’ He glared in the general direction he knew River’s grinning face was, grumpy that she had been the one to push him under her covers in the first place, making the future assault on his face her fault.

River stuck her tongue out at him and, in a rare miscalculation of personal space, she ended up licking his bottom lip. They both dropped their playful spirit on contact as something shifted between them, fluidly charging the atmosphere inside their little bubble of warm blankets and tangled limbs.

Both froze.

River wanted to bask in the moment. She wanted to take the time to hoard all the emotions and sensations running through her, to treat the whole experience like the gift that it was, before carefully storing it away inside. This was hers to live through. All hers to feel and react to.

Not something for her to be exposed to by others.

She had felt it before from Zoe and Wash when they were together in the pilot's chair. But she had been at her craziest and it had come through perverted and damaged. Tainted the surge, turned their shiny spark into something taboo and frightening until she had run away, broken and insane.

She had felt it every time Kaylee was with her brother and had even let her curiosity lead her to unashamedly watch them while they tumbled around in the engine room once. But in the end that too had been in a detached way...she had a disturbing sense that if it had been Kaylee with anyone other than her brother she might have learned more.

She had felt it from Jayne when he would come aboard Serenity all pleasant-warm and glowing from the arms of the whores whose time he bought to give him that feeling but it too was wrong... and crude. Her nose almost crinkled at the Jayne-thoughts.

She had felt it from Inara on the few times she entertained clients while docked on Serenity but that had felt twisted and jagged. Strangely clinical. Part A goes into part K. Not logical even with the heavily tainted images superimposed on each other assuring her that the positions were in fact achievable. It made her even more confused at the discordant affair going on in Inara's quarters. Without her being able to understand why at the time River had grown resigned to the fact that she would never know the feelings herself, resigned to have it watered down and stained with the taste others gave it before it ever got to her.

And now here it was, all hers to experience. The hot flush that raced up her skin in a tingling blaze made her skin prickle to life like she had picked up static electricity. The strange but pleasant turning in her belly as anticipation and excitement roiled around inside her. The wonder that this was hers and real and was actually happening to her with nothing to taint it. She was free to enjoy the pull or discard it and that was precious to her.

Mal didn't dare to test the fragile currents running between them. It all happened so fast. The shock of her hot toungue lapping his bottom lip, the rush the contact caused and the resulting heat that spread from it. He had no time to fight the attraction he had been trying so stubbornly to ignore.

Deep down he had known it could be like this between them and he had run from it. It left him shaken now that he was unable to run.

They both missed Simon poking his head in to check in on, what he assumed, was his sister burrowed into the mess of pillows and blankets. Satisfied that she was sleeping soundly, and impatient to return to Kaylee's warm bed, Simon was quick to reassure himself that all was well.

The hush of the door closing penetrated the buzz in Mal's head enough for him to gently ease the the covers off their heads. In the dim lighting Mal caught the way River's eyes had brightened from their usual solemn brown to a shiny bronze. Just like Serenity’s pipes when freshly replaced.

Even in the dim light, or maybehaps because of the way it shined off her face, Mal could see the wonder transform her features. Just like he could see that even if it had been by accident, he ignored the scowl she shot his way, it was still a first for her. This was a first.

He was in no way the type of man who should be a young girl’s first anything let alone her first romance. He pushed through his own reactions because they were neither here nor there...just like his own sick wants weren't her’s.

He jumped when he felt her flick his forehead with her finger, the sharp sting of her fingernail gone almost as soon as it came. Her pale face full of her irritation with him came into sharp focus, “Not sick Captain. Stopped being a child when they cut her open. Sacrificed the child for the weapon so the whole verse could invade & conquer. Sick is taking the treasure and plundering carelessly. Not sick Malcolm. Just confused.”

She went back to trying to smooth the heavy frown line between his brows away. He was always so worried, taking care of them all without thought to himself. Took too much on without providing adequate outlets for burdens that were not his to bear. She worried about her Captain, too much too often would break him if no one took care of him.

Mal sighed heavily at her cool touch, it disarmed him without him knowing it. He would have argued with her but what was the point? If he had been in an ornery mood he would have argued just for the sake of doin’ so. But the warm hush they were in had relaxed him too much and he was in no mood to taint the pleasantness. So he put it off. Again. Swept it aside in favor of enjoying a peace that was impossible to come by these days.

He stretched out comfortably on his side and pulled her further into his chest, for now both content to lay in her bed, relaxed and without the pains a day cycle brought with it. There would be plenty of time to argue later.

There was an innocence in her still, despite everything done to her, that soothed him. It meant that there were parts of her that the Alliance had not stolen from her in their assault.

That was what had always stayed his hand before Miranda, when all he had was the suspicion that she was a reader, that lack of guile that she still had even after Miranda. After she remembered who she was and started to learn to step around the landmines in her head.

It was also what kept him from acting on the pull he felt toward her.

It was too bad that the well meaning justification he was using would be ripped away not only from him but from River as well. That innocence he took solace in would be gone in a terrible way soon that would take him along for the ride before either of them could think to brace themselves for it. Never mind each other.