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Past, Present, and Future

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Mal stared out at the black, wondering just what in the gorram hell he was doing setting Serenity down on this suo-ya duh doh dhr-dang planet.  Then he glanced at the empty pilot's chair and remembered.  Ship needed a pilot.  Weren't gonna be in the air much longer less he could find someone to fly it.  Sure, he'd been doin just shiny on his own so far, but he had...captaney things to be doin.

 

Plus, his crew was runnin on bones nowa days.  With Inara back at the training house, Wash and Book gone to meet their maker, and Simon having taken River to some fancy hospital, the ship looked more like a ghost town than a home.  Maybehaps it was Inara's departure that had made his boat seem like a foreign place.  After all, his own self had seemed...empty, after she'd left.  But in the time since, his heart had recovered and still Serenity didn't seem quite the same.  So he'd started to wonder if it weren't all the empty bunks that made him in his boat seem like a stranger in a strange land.

 

So now they were fixin to pick up a few passengers and maybe find a pilot along the way.  And anyone else that might be useful now Zoe was out of commission as well.  Not that she'd ever admit it.  But at nine months pregnant and ready to pop, Mal wasn't about to be lettin her out on any missions any time soon.  Once her little one showed his perdy face to the world, she'd be back in action but meantime, he could use a few extra hands.

 

Kaylee came to the bridge humming to herself.  They looked out at the planet together, watching it get closer and closer as he guided Serenity down to its surface.

 

“What would you be doin up here, little Kaylee?  You know I need you in the engine room makin sure nothin falls off my boat.”

 

“Oh Serenity's shiny cap'n.  She'll make the landing just fine.” She smiled at him and patted the wall of the ship lovingly.

 

“Even still, I'm assumin you've got your bit to say, lestwise you wouldn't be in here with me.”  Mal tried to put the appropriate sternness in the words, but they sounded fond-like.

 

“I wanted to make sure you hadn't changed your mind 'bout takin on passengers.  I know its been...” she trailed off, clearly thinking about the friends they'd lost, either to circumstance or death.  “But I think we need some new faces.  New stories.  Ya know?”

 

“I know,” Mal nodded and smiled at her.  “I ain't changed my mind.  Jayne'n I'll head to town, pick up the supplies we need, and you and Zoe'll stay behind and see bout pickin up a few strays.  I even heard tell there might be a pilot down there.”  He put his hands to his ears when Kaylee squealed in delight.  He did love seein her smile, but he could do without the squeaks and chirps.

 

“Perfect!  Maybe we could even find a doc for when Zo-” she stopped, her face falling.  Her forehead furrowed in memory as she recalled Simon.  She never had rightly gotten over him.  Sure, she'd said she understood that he needed to get his sister to a place that could really help her, specially after Miranda.  But it'd broken her heart to see him go.  Barely started a relationship and suddenly he was gone.  Just cuz Mal understood the doc's reasonin didn't mean he wasn't a hwoon dahn tah mah de.

 

By his thinkin, River'd been doin just fine on Serenity.  Sure she was still a bit addled in the brainpan, but that was just part of her charm.  Once she'd gotten the secret of Miranda outta her head, she'd started to recover.  Didn't go round scarin the wits outta the crew all the time, even started to hone her reading abilities.  She'd been an asset to the crew, that was for surely true, and a pretty one at that.

 

But Simon insisted that since she'd recovered enough to control her impulses and sort out her mind, she needed to re enter 'normal' life.  The hospital he'd had in mind to take her to specialized in rehabilitatin people after trauma. He hoped that they could set her mind totally back to rights.

 

Noble intentions, sure.  But Mal didn't have to like the consequences.

 

“If'n we can find a doc, I'd surely like to have one on board.  But we've been getting along just fine without for a while now.  I figure we'll keep doin alright.”  

 

Kaylee nodded and swallowed past the obvious lump in her throat.

 

“Good then,” she said softly.  “I'll just head back to the engine room till we land then.”

 

“You do that, little Kaylee.  Keep her runnin smooth-like for me.”

 

“You got it, Captain.”

 

She turned and left the bridge.  As Mal started to land the ship, he glanced over his shoulder to see Zoey behind him.  She didn't speak, just watched him work.  It gave him a mite of a creepifyin feeling, having her watch over his shoulder like that, but he didn't say anything.  He knew that sometimes she liked to see the ship flown, lettin Serenity show her mental home movies of Wash.  At first, it had nearly brought her to tears, seein anyone else flyin her.  Now, she only put her hands on her stomach and smiled softly.  She'd never truly heal from Wash's loss, but having his son grow in her belly had surely been a balm for the heartache.  When she'd found out about the baby two weeks after Wash's death, she'd gone into her bunk for days.  Mal didn't know if she'd spent the time crying, laughing, cursing the fates, or just staring at the ceiling in shock.  But when she'd come back out, she'd been Zoey again.  Didn't mention her disappearance, and neither did anyone else.  If not for the occasional soft smile she directed at her stomach, you'd never even know she was carryin.

 

“Beautiful landing, sir,” she said once he had Serenity on the ground.

 

“Mighty kind of ya to notice,” he quipped, turning to face her.  “I told Kaylee you'd be stayin at the ship with her lookin for passengers.”  He braced for protests, for a scowl, for anything.  Instead, she only nodded.

 

“Ay, sir.  I'll keep an eye on 'er and make sure we avoid any troublesome cargo.”

 

“I'd take it as a kindness.”

 

“Just don't forget Rodan's a little trigger happy.  He goes for his gun, you have Jayne draw his.  And Casey tends to short the cut, so count whatever he sells you just in case.”

 

“I know, Zoe.  This ain't my first rodeo.”

 

“It's your first one without me in a long time.  Just want to make sure you come back in one piece, sir.  Someone's gotta do it.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Mal grumbled.  He was secretly touched at her concern.  Plus, he'd forgotten Rodan's penchant to shoot first n' ask questions later.  Not that he'd tell Zoe that.

 

He stood and they walked out together.  As they went down to the hold, he watched her out the corner of his eye.  How she managed to walk just as tall and rigid with a pregnant belly was beyond him.  Lookin at her from the back you'd never know she was fixin to pop any day.  She was just as quick as always, too.  And with the exception of pointin her gun in Jayne's face a few times, her emotions had stayed level.  Considerin he wanted to point his gun at Jayne on a semi-daily basis his own self, her self-control amazed him.  He'd always thought women went a bit nutters with one in the oven.  Then again, Zoe wasn't just any woman.

 

“Come on, Jayne,” Mal called as the door opened.  Kaylee had her chair all set up, rollin her paper umbrella thingey tween her fingers.  Parasol, that's what 'Nara woulda called it.  Mal smiled when the memory of Inara didn't bring a pang to his heart.  Just fond thoughts.

 

He waved goodbye to the womenfolk and started off to the market.

 

…………………………………………….

 

By the time they had all their supplies, he was wishin mighty hard that Zoey'd shot Jayne one of the times she'd drawn on him.  He grumbled at every transaction, scared away people, petted his gun as if it were a pet.  Mal was ready to get the ma-shong off this planet and back into the black.  He only hoped Kaylee n' Zoey had done better than he had.

 

Back at the ship, he groaned to see no one standin with them.  Zoey was still scannin the crowd, but Kaylee was sittin back in her chair with her arms folded, murder in her eyes.

 

“Ladies,” Mal greeted, dumping items into Jayne's arms.  “I don't see no new faces yet.  There a problem?”  Zoey started to say something but Kaylee cut her off.

 

“Yes!  She's scarin 'em all away, Cap'n!  A few perfectly lovely folks came by and Zoey-”

 

“None of them were a fit.  No sense in takin on passengers that's gonna cause problems.”

 

“There was this one gentleman, looked all dandy-like, and he was awful sweet-”

 

“He had birds,” Zoey said in exasperation.

 

“Birds?”  Mal raised a brow.

 

“Just a few,” Kaylee said earnestly.

 

“A dozen.  And they talked!”

 

“Ok, I'm with Zoey on that one.  I don't need an army of speakin aviary creatures ridin on my boat with me.”

 

“Well what about the lady in the green hat that stopped by?”  Kaylee pouted.

 

“She had snakes!”  Zoey planted her hands on her hips.

 

“I ain't sharin the sky with no snakes,” Jayne said, a little panicked.

 

“Ok, ok that's 'nuff.  No birds, no snakes.  We don't need no creepy crawlies on the ship.  Obviously this was a dry run for us.  We'll try again next decent sized rock we set down on.”

 

“But Cap'n, that could be months!”

 

“Be that as it may, little Kaylee-”

 

“Won't find what you're lookin for on any other rock,” came a melodic voice behind him.  Mal recognized that soft voice.  He couldn't help the smile that broke over his face.

 

“Well hello, little Albatross,” he said as he turned.

 

“River!”  Kaylee squealed again and hugged River tight.  Zoey patted her on the back and smiled indulgently.  Even Jayne's face softened a bit.  They'd missed her.  Kaylee started talkin a mile a minute, goin on about all sortsa things, but Mal broke in.

 

“What are you doin out here on your own, little one?  Thought you'n the doc were out on Arcania.”

 

“Can't be two places at once.  Not there since we're here.  And not alone.”  She turned and they noticed Simon making his way towards them.  His face practically shone as soon as he laid eyes on Kaylee, but then it slowly evened out and he adopted that uptight expression he was known for.

 

“River, was this what you wanted to come to the docks for?”  When she nodded happily, he sighed and greeted the crew.  “Captain, Jayne, Zoey,” then turned to Kaylee.  “Kaylee.”  He took a step towards her, then stopped.  He lifted his hand, then dropped it.  Kaylee looked at him with heartbreak and uncertainty painted on her face clear as day.  Before they could complete their awkward greeting, River cut in.

 

“Thinks about you every day.  Loves you.  Wishes he hadn't had to leave.  Wonders if you could ever forgive him.  Almost forgot how beautiful your eyes are, and your-” she stopped and made a face.  “Well I'm not sayin' that.  Gross.  But he's thinkin' it.”  

 

Kaylee looked from River to Simon, eyes wide.

 

“River!”  Simon looked as if someone'd just dropped his drawers.

 

“That true, Simon?”  Kaylee whispered the words, as if barely darin to hope.

 

“I....” he stopped, lookin all deep-like into her eyes and loosin whatever conviction he'd had to deny it.  He nodded.  Kaylee's smile was brilliant as any sun. Then she hauled back and decked him in the jaw.

 

“Whoa,” Jayne crowed.  “Remind me not to piss her off,” he commented.  As Simon stumbled back and cupped his jaw, Kaylee launched herself at him, this time kissin him stead of hittin him.  Simon wrapped his arms round her and held her close.

 

“Now ain't that a pretty sight,” Mal said softly.  Next to him, River nodded.  For the first time, Mal noticed what she was wearing.  Stead of her usual floaty skirt with shorts neath it and combat boots, she wore a proper dress and...heels.  Weren't that it didn't look nice, but it just didn't look like River.

 

“Painted faces, masks to wear for the normal folks,” River said quietly.  “Fool them to thinkin I'm like them.  Pleases Simon to think I can blend in.  Costume to slip among them without them knowin the me underneath.  Camouflage.”

 

“Hidin who you are?  That's not your style, little Albatross.”  He didn't comment on her obvious reading of his thoughts.  It were just part of her charm.  Part of who she was.

 

“You might be shocked to know just how well I can blend in with the rest of society, should I choose.”  Her voice was all stiff and proper like Simon's.  Mal cringed.  “Some might even call me refined.”

 

“Never did much care for painted faces,” Mal commented lightly.  A grin broke over River's face.  She reached out to him, then stopped and let her hand drop.  She looked a mite puzzled, then smiled again.

 

“I know,” she said softly.  “Missed that.  Missed you.  Missed Serenity.”

 

“Well we missed you too, little one.  She hasn't been the same without you runnin bout her.”

 

“Good thing I'm back then.”

 

“Back?”  Mal could feel hope risin up in his chest.  It'd go a long way to makin his boat home again if part of the fold came back.  River n' her stick in the mud brother were part of that fold.  Part of the family.

 

River smiled almost shyly at him, blushed a bit, then nodded.  “For permanent.”

 

“Not gonna ask if I'll take ya back aboard?”

 

“Already know the answer,” she said with a grin.

 

“I suppose you do.”

 

“Wait, mei mei , what?”  Simon pulled himself away from Kaylee long enough to hear what they were sayin.  “We can't go with them, we have more work to do for you at the hospital here.”  He glanced at Kaylee and rubbed his jaw, as if 'spectin her to sock him again.  Mal wouldn'ta blamed her.

 

“No more,” River insisted firmly.

 

“River, you know we can't just-”

 

“Goin', Simon.  Want you to come too.  But I'm goin either way.”  She looked a little sad at the possibility, then flashed him a mischievous smile.  “Ain't no power in the 'verse can stop me.”  Simon sighed, knowing she was right.  She was a adult.  Much as he wanted to care for her, protect her, she was of sound mind once more and able to make her own decisions.  Even if he wasn't apt to agree with them.

 

“Well then, guess its a good thing no one's fixin to stop you then.  You comin' with us, doc, or stayin behind?”

 

“River was the only reason I left the first time,” he said, looking at Kaylee.  “Where else in the universe would I want to be?”  Kaylee let out another of those sounds only meant to be heard by dogs and dolphins, then started kissin him again.

 

“Righty then, round 'em up, crew.  We're off this rock.”

 

………………………………………...

 

It didn't take Simon 'n River long to round up their belongings.  Then they packed into Serenity and everyone got settled.  Mal went to the bridge for take off only to find River already there.  She sat in Wash's old seat, barefoot now and with her sensible skirt hiked up and one knee to her chest.  It looked plenty comfy-like, even if it did expose more of her skin than Mal was comfortable seein.

 

As if she could hear his thoughts- who was he kiddin, of course she heard 'em- she turned and grinned at him.

 

“I know something you don't know,” she said happily.

 

“That so?  Then why don't you share the wealth and impart whatever knowledge you got rollin round in that genius head o'yours?”

 

“Take too long to share all my knowledge, captain.”

 

“How just bout on this one secret then?”

 

She shook her head and grinned at him again.  “Flowers can't grow 'fore the seeds are planted, even if we know they're coming from winter.  Gotta be patient.”

 

“I ain't known for my vast stores of patience, little Albatross,” he said, taking his chair.  Even though he had no idea what tyen shuh duh she was talkin bout.  “Patience is a dangerous thing, ya know.”

 

“Patience shot you.  Twice.”  River nodded solemnly.

 

“Ain't that a tidy bit of truth.”  He double checked all the coordinates River'd input, then shook his head.  “Wait, that's off the subject.  We were talkin bout what you know that I don't.”

 

“Lots of things.  What specifically do you mean?”  She blinked innocently at him.  Mal shook his head in frustration.  If she didn't want to tell him, weren't nothin he could do to make her.  “That's right,” she said with a little smile.

 

“Ya'know, there's some as would consider it an unfair advantage that you can listen to thoughts.”

 

“Are any of those people here?”  She looked at him seriously.  Mal gave it some thought for a moment.  Her 'unfair advantage' had saved his life more'n once.  And it'd eased his way somethin fierce in the past.  Yeah it was a bit unnervin to have someone who could hear his every thought fore he could voice it- even hear the things he might not ought to voice- but he didn't begrudge her that.  Weren't her fault she was born a reader.

 

“No, I don't 'spose they are.”

 

“Good.  'Sides, I've been practicing not reading thoughts people consider private.  There's a certain way people think them, sly like, and I try not to hear those.”

 

“Well that's mighty kind of you.  Seems like you're gettin better at usin that brain of yours.”

 

Gun-hoe-tze-bee-dio-se ,” she shrugged.  Mal nearly choked with laughter.

 

“That so?”

 

Shr ah .  Not like before, seeing everything, past present future all rolled into one, secrets beating round inside my head desperate to get out, time and space blurred by overuse.  Now I get to choose.  Mostly.  Get to read.  Not a million thoughts and possibilities shooting through my brain at the speed of light, too quick to see them all.  Get to focus on what I want, hear the thoughts, see the possibilities and all the ways they can play out.  But most's pointless.  See things I can't change or don't want to.  What's the point?”

 

“Guess on some calmsome planet wouldn't be much use.  Out here in the black, though, use aplenty for you n' your talents.  Just's there's use for your brother's doctorin and Kaylee's mechanics.”

 

“And Jayne's guns?”

 

“And Jayne's guns,” Mal said with a smile.  “Though ideally puttin your talents to use prevents us from usin' his.  And your brother's.”

 

“Needed here.  Like to be of useful sort.”  She stared out at the black, almost lookin wistful.  Mal guessed it was basic human nature to want to be where you were needed.  Where you were wanted.  “Am I?” she asked suddenly.  Mal started, wonderin what specifically she'd read in his thoughts she wanted to know about.  “Wanted?”  He swallowed harder'n he should've needed to and glanced away.  Why'n the 'verse was he so tight in the chest at answerin that question?  

 

“Course you are, darlin.  Wouldn't be here if you weren't.”

 

“Not true.  Used to be Jayne was only needed, not wanted.”

 

“Most times it's still that way,” Mal laughed to break the tension.

 

“So which is it?”  She studied him, eyes movin back and forth quick, like she was literally reading him, words in a book.

 

“'Spect you already know the answer to that, Albatross.”

 

“Don't mean I don't want to hear you say it.”

 

“You're wanted,” he finally admitted.  He could feel gorram heat creepin up his neck.  River blinked at him slowly, a pleased look spreadin out on her face though she'd known the answer all along.  “Right,” Mal cleared his throat.  “I'll be headin off to-” he stopped, unable to think of a single thing he ought to be doing right then.  “I'll just be off.”  He turned on his heel and headed towards the kitchen, the sound of River's laughter echoing back to him as he went.

 

In the kitchen, Jayne was sittin with Zoey, playin a game of poker.  They were playing for chores, and Jayne was grumblin as his pile kept getting bigger and bigger.

 

Mal chuckled at the pair then moved to make himself a quick meal.

 

On his way down to the engine room, he glanced into the bridge again.  River wasn't even looking at him, and he was moving quietly, but still she spoke.

 

“Jayne's losing on purpose,” she said matter of factly.  Mal stopped, disbelief written all over his face.  “It's true,” River continued.  “Takin all the chores he doesn't consider a pregnant woman ought to do.”

 

Fong luh , I ain't given her no chores she can't handle.”

 

“Didn't say takin all the chores she can't handle.  Said takin all the chores he doesn't consider a pregnant woman ought to do.”  She shrugged.

 

“You're tellin me that Jayne, our Jayne, is treatin Zoey all fragile-like?”

 

“All's relative,” she shrugged again.  “Mother always told him bringin life into the world was the hardest job in the world.  Who's to say?”  Mal considered her words for a moment.

 

“Am I giving her too much?  Anything she can't handle?  Or shouldn't?”

 

“Relative,” she repeated.  Mal fought the urge to flick her forehead.  River made a look of mock horror and put her palm to her forehead.

 

“For Zoey, I mean.  Her specifically.  Any of it too much?”

 

“Course not.  If she knew he was doin it on purpose, Zoey'd draw her gun on him again.  Cuz she'd shoot you before she did anything might hurt the baby. Only in the leg, but still. Maybe the arm.  Can't let anything hurt little Wash.”

 

“She'd shoot me?” Mal cried indignantly.  “Turncoat- wait, little Wash?  She's havin a boy?”

 

River nodded.  “He's adorable.  And he didn't mean to break your pocket watch, it was an accident.”

 

“Pocket watch?  I ain't got a pocket watch.  And the kid ain't even born yet.  How can he be breakin things I don't own?”

 

“You'll have one.  It's a present.”  She smiled that I-know-something-you-don't-know smile at him again.

 

“A present?”  Mal perked up, wonderin who gave him a present and what the occasion was.  “Do I get it fixed?  Will it still run?  Wait-  I refuse to worry about a kid who ain't even born breakin a watch I ain't been given yet.  I don't care if it still runs.”  He shook his head and turned back towards the engine room.   Jien ta-duh gway would he care if the watch still ran.  Runs.  Would run.  Sheesh.

 

“Everything that can be broken can be fixed,” River called after him.

 

He'd surely like that to be the god's honest truth, but wasn't so sure.

 

……………………………………….

 

A week passed, then two.  Simon practically moved into Kaylee's bunk.  The two of'em could be found in all manner of places on the ship with their lips locked.  Unsettlin, that's what it was.  Man ought to be able to get a cup of coffee in the mornin without seein his doc and engineer tanglin tongues.  Course, he didn't have the heart to tell 'em to stop.

 

Jayne did it for him.  Often and loudly.  Said they were burnin his eyes right from their sockets.  Even asked once if sex was uncomfortable with that stick still up Simon's ass.  Kaylee just laughed and told him he was jealous.  Then went back to kissin on her doc.

 

Zoey kept playin poker with Jayne, which meant that she still didn't know he was losin on purpose.  It boggled Mal's mind that Jayne was doin something nice for someone else without getting payment for it.  Moreso because it meant he had some chivalrous ideas 'bout women somewhere in that thick skull of his.  Course he still managed to make a pain of himself every chance he got, but it endeared him a mite to Mal that he was concerned bout Zoey and her son.

 

Everyone in the crew seemed to be settlin in just fine.  In so little time, the ship had gone from an empty shell to the home Mal'd grown to know and love.  And weren't the doc that made it so.  Much to his confusion, it was River that did it.  He'd know having her back would bring a smidge of peace back to his heart- but just 'cause she was crew.  Family.  Like havin your crazy cousin home for the holidays.  Right?  But if that were the case, River'd be that cousin you always liked then one summer you had funny feelins for.  'Cause each time Mal saw her, his stomach did a funny little flip flop.

 

It was that look she kept giving him.  That just-wait-till-you-figure-it-out smile.  Those riddlesome comments she kept makin.  And it scared the wits outta him that he liked them.  His little Albatross, the reader who had whole conversations with Zoey's belly, the assassin who dropped Jayne in seconds when he wanted to train, the girl who played tag with Kaylee, the pilot who flew his ship with more precision than a professional- they were all home to him.  Somehow, impossibly, River meant home to him.  And it scared the shee-niou outta him.

 

“Don't be scared,” River said quietly behind him.  Mal whirled around, nearly jumpin out of his skin.  He'd thought he was alone.  It was the middle of the night, and he was on his watch.  They divided the watches up between the crew, but he seemed to end up with most of the late night shifts.  “'Cause you take them.  More than your share.”

 

“I'm up anyways,” he grumbled.  “What are you doin up, darlin?”  

 

“Same as you.  Awake, thinking.  Exploring the future.”

 

“See anything I oughta know bout in there?”

 

She flashed him that secret smile again.  Mal wondered if she knew just how maddening that smile was.  And if she did, was she doin it just to drive him crazy?

 

“Maybe,” she admitted.

 

“Take pity on me, then, and tell me what is that's got you flashin me your Mona Lisa night and day.  Man can only take so much, ya know.”  He stuffed his hands in his pockets, rocked back on his heels, wonderin if he was ready to hear what she had to say.

 

River studied him, her eyes flicking back and forth over his face in that way of hers.  Reading him.  Seeing all the possibilities and outcomes of her words.  Not a single outcome was exactly what she wanted.  But the truth would ease her path later on, she could see.  She'd given him as much time as she could to acclimate to it.  Would still knock him on his ass though.

 

“Listen, little Albatross, I ain't no reader, but I can see a few things for my own self.  And I can see you sizing me up.  Tryin to decide if I can take whatever this secret is that you've been holdin in.  I ain't the strongest man in the 'verse, and I certainly ain't the smartest.  But I got plenty of wits and strength about me to handle whatever this is.  So spill it, little darlin.”

 

“Don't say I didn't warn you,” she murmured, looking up at him through her lashes.  He only nodded, impatient.  Finally, she locked her eyes on his.  “It's you and me.”

 

“You'n me what, River?  You'n me win a geese juggling contest, you'n me fall down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, you'n me what?”

 

“You and me everything!” she exclaimed.  “You and me cohabitating, you and me with kids, you and me growing old.  You and me together. ”  She put her hand on his chest, but Mal stumbled back, shocked.

 

“I think we really did fall down that rabbit hole, Albatross.  D-did you just say kids?”  His mind kicked into overdrive, flashing a thousand images at him all at once.  River with a little girl on her hip, both of them laughing as Mal and a little boy wrestled.  River, her belly as big as Zoey's.  River in a black wedding dress -black?- River naked in his arms, writhing in pleasure.  “ Lao-tyen boo stop!”  He put his hands over his eyes as if it might stop the erotic images now dancing in his vision.

 

“Stop what?” River looked at him, concerned.

 

“However you're doin that, projectin those pictures into my brain, stop!”

 

“Mal, I haven't projected anything into your head.”  She concentrated on his face, reading him.  Then she gasped.  “ Wu de tyen ah , Mal I didn't put those there.  They're your visions.  Your pictures.”

 

“I ain't no reader, River.”

 

“Bit of reader in all of us,” she murmured, looking into his head again, admiring the pictures carefully.  She smiled at the one with the children, flushed at the one with her naked.  As the picture came to life in their minds, playing out like a movie, she gasped and blushed.

 

“No, stop!”  Mal stopped the thoughts and backed up another step.  “River this ain't right.  You know it and I know it.  That's not what's comin' for us.”

 

“I've looked ahead for both of us a thousand different ways, Mal.  Less one of us dies, this is how it ends up.  It's the way its meant to be.”  She stepped closer to him and he stepped back once more.  When he was brought up short by the wall, she laid her hand on his chest and leaned in.

 

“You tellin me it's fated or some such fei hua?  That its inescapable destiny?  I don't believe in that, River.  Didn't conjure you did, neither.”

 

“Not fate or destiny.  Fate doesn't quantify.  Destiny isn't physiologically plausible.  This just is.  No other path.  I leave, you leave, war, tragedy, same through it all.  You and me.  Compatible.  It'll be good, Mal.  I know it.”  

 

The image of them naked together flashed once more in his mind.  He closed his eyes and grabbed her shoulders, pushin her away.

 

“You're wrong, River.  Deadsome wrong.  If that's what you're seein, then that brain of yours is lyin to you.”

 

“Lying?”  River narrowed her eyes at him, fury snapping in them.  “Think my brain's wrong?  Don't like the answers I give you?  Ask the question, deny the truth, call me a liar?”

 

“I'm not-”

 

“Cut into my brain next?  Poke and prod until you get the answer you want?  Break with fear and burn with ignorance?  Like witches on a pyre.  Destroy what you can't accept.  Twist it to suit your views on what's right.   Tian xiz shou you de ren dou gai si .”  

 

“River!   Nah mei guan-shee !  That's not what I meant.  You wanna read somethin?  Read me right now and if you see any of that in my head you kill me right here.  Right now.  I ain't the alliance.  I don't aim to kill what I can't make conform.  Hell, this crew otta be proof of that.  And I ain't never gonna try and make you change, little Albatross.  Nothin wrong with you the way you are.  I didn't mean to call you a liar, but you gotta admit that this ain't exactly normal, what we're talkin bout here.”  He rubbed her shoulders lightly, soothingly.  The idea of her thinking he could be like those go se alliance animals that hurt her made him sick to his stomach.

 

“Normal doesn't figure in, Mal.  Never gonna be normal.  Just tellin you the way it is.  The way it will be.” She sighed and let her forehead drop against his chest, resting there.  “Warned you.  Told you you wouldn't like it.  You didn't listen.”

 

“That you did, darlin, that you did.  Can't say I ever figured that'd be what you were holdin in though.  Knocked me on my ass.”

 

“Knew it would,” she smirked against his shirt.

 

“Now listen to me.  I ain't sain your lyin.  But this, tween us,” he gestured between them, “can't happen.  'Verse's just gonna haveta get over it.  There'd be all sortsa sticky complications from you and me doin...that.  One of which involves a special hell for me.  And I ain't fixin to go to the special hell.  So we're just gonna have to forget any of this ever happened and go back to the way things were.   Dong ma?

 

“No goin back, Mal.  Can't be done.  'Sides, Book was talkin bout Saffron when he told you bout the special hell.  And I looked, there wasn't any special hell mentioned in his fairy tale book.”

 

“Now I don't think the preacher would be too keen on you referin to his bible as a fairy tale book, rest his soul.  But that don't change the facts.  You're younger than Saffron was!  What would you wanna be with an old man like me for anyhow?”

 

“Not old.  Tempered.  Tested.  Tried.  Like me up here,” she tapped the side of her head.  “And physically, you're never more than seven.”

 

“Seven?”  Mal arched a brow.  “Darlin, I can guarantee I'm more'n seven.  Hell I got bits of me that are more'n quadruple that.”  River just shook her head.

 

“Never more than seven.  Body reproduces each cell every seven years.”

 

“Be that as it may, I ain't felt seven years old since...hell since 'fore you were even born.”

 

“And me?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Feel is what counts?  Feelin the age?  Then what about me?  Haven't felt young in a hundred lifetimes.    Lived a thousand more.  Don't feel like a girl.  Half the time feel like a crone.  Am I too old for you then?”

 

Mal rested his forehead in his hand and sighed.  Reasonin with her was like tryin to nail protein jelly to a tree.  Why was he even botherin?

 

“Good question.”  She tipped his face back up to hers and he scowled.  “Have I ever steered you wrong, captain?”

 

“Just 'cause you ain't done it yet don't mean I oughtta jump your bones here and now.”

 

“Don't want to?”  She cocked her head to the side, studying him patiently.

 

“Gorramit River, that's not fair.  'Specially since you already know the answer.”

 

“Nope.  Blocked it out.  Private thoughts.  Even bout me.  Didn't intrude on your personal.  Maybe it's the dress?  The boots?  Prefer the painted face?”  She stepped back and held out the hem of the floaty skirt she wore and pointed the toe of her black combat boots.  The sight of her in 'em brought a smile to Mal's face.  When he realized it, he scowled again.

 

“You know I ain't keen on the 'painted face.'  Don't take to puttin on airs.  You're fine just the way you are.”

 

“Fine?  That's all?”

 

“More'n fine, if you must know.”  He couldn't help the way his heart melted a little at the grin on her face.

 

“Just tell me this, Mal.  Isn't it what you want?”  Her eyes searched his.  Mal wanted to say no, of course it wasn't.  He wanted to deny it.  Wanted to tell her she had it all wrong.  But she didn't.  That was the hell of it.  She was everything he'd never known he'd always wanted.  Home.  “For me too,” she whispered.  “You, Serenity.  Home.”  Mal was afraid he'd get lost in her eyes.  Felt as if his whole heart and soul were open to her an' on display.  It was terrifying and exhilarating and amazing.  River went up to her tip toes and brushed her lips over Mal's.  Soft-like.  Just a breath of a touch.  Then she lowered back down and hugged him.  Nothing sexual.  Wrapped her arms around his ribs and hugged him close.  After a moment, Mal couldn't hold back any longer.  He put his arms around her shoulders and enjoyed the feel of her there against him.

 

They stayed like that long while.  Not talkin, just holdin.  Breathing in and out, considering the whole 'verse and nothin at all.  Thinking 'bout each other and how much they'd both wanted to be in that exact spot, in each other's arms, for so long.  Mal hadn't even realized how bad the longing was until he had her there with him.

 

“Listen, little Albatross, if'n we do this thing, and I ain't sayin we will, we do it on my terms.”  He pulled her away enough to look her in the eye.  “That means no rushin, no talk of writhing or babies or any of that.  You keep an eye out for our future, I ain't denyin that, but you let me take care of the present.  And maybe, maybe I can get through this without getting socked by your brother or endin up burnin in some special corner of hell.”

 

River smiled up at him serenely, content to let him lead.  “ Mei wen ti.  You take care of our now and I’ll watch our tomorrows.”

 

“Right, then.  Good.  Glad we got that sorted.”  Mal realized he still had his arms around her and tried, honest he did, to let her go, but his limbs wouldn’t quite cooperate.  “You… you should be gettin’ to bed now, darlin.  Wouldn’t want any wei shan befallin’ you.”

 

“Perfectly safe on Serenity.  Even safer in your arms.”

 

“Little girl, don’t you know there are bad, bad men on a ship like this?  Men who would like nothing more than to wuh hwai rong nee shung kai roo hua ?”

 

“Any of those men here right now?” River asked him with a cheeky grin.

 

Mal didn’t know whether to chide her or kiss her, so he tried to settle for a disapproving frown.  “Take the second option, given the choice,” she whispered.

 

“That’s it, off to bed with you!”  He finally found the will to release her and pushed her gently away.  River turned back to look at him fond-like, making his heart pound.  In a flash, she slipped back to him, pressed a kiss to his lips, then darted away again.  Her laughter floated back to him through the hall like petals on a soft breeze.  Mal pressed his fingers lightly to his lips as if he could capture the feeling of the kiss there.  If’n she was right about what the future held for them, then that wouldn’t be the last kiss she gave him.  The thought had him grinnin’ like a loon and he didn’t even notice.