Mal had a habit of walking through the corridors of his ship at night, when all the others were asleep, letting his hand occasionally trail down a wall; letting his feet just feel her beneath them. He loved his ship, and in the silence of deep space, where night and day were superficial distinctions breathed ex nihilo by men left to play God in their own private universes, he courted her like a young man might coax a shy, pretty girl. Only Serenity wasn’t shy, and she whispered back to him in the whir of her engines and the echo of his boots in her grating.
He knew her speech, was familiar with every sound she made. So when there was a hitch in her voice, he knew something wasn’t right and set out to find what it was. His search led him onto the bridge, where the controls were locked on autopilot and it seemed like every star in the ‘verse was visible through Serenity’s eyes, and the source of the rogue sound was standing behind the pilot’s chair, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, staring out at the starscape.
“They still remember how to dance,” she whispered sadly, without turning around. Mal paused for a moment in the doorway, but her posture seemed to invite him in, and he stepped quietly over the threshold.
“It’s a mite unsettlin’ how you do that,” he told her candidly. “Knowin’ where people are without seein’ ‘em.”
“You do it,” she said with a shrug of one shoulder. “You knew where I was. You found me before you saw me.”
The thought made him oddly uncomfortable and he cleared his throat before asking, “What was it you were sayin’ ‘bout dancin’?”
He was beside her now, could see her profile as she gazed outward at the galaxies rushing by at a standstill, and he saw when her expression froze.
“Well, maybe if you think on it awhile, it’ll come back to --”
“No,” she interrupted harshly. “I forgot how to dance.” Her voice cracked and he saw her lower lip tremble as moisture welled up in her eyes. “Serenity woke me up and asked me to dance with her, but my feet don’t remember the steps. I can’t hear the music, but I know they’re singing.” She nodded toward the windows. “They’re dancing.”
It was obvious she was talking about the stars, and he tore his eyes away from her face to look out, and for the first time in years, he saw more than the black. He saw each brilliant, stinging point of light and wondered how space could ever be that dark with so many suns.
“Space is a vacuum. Even light gets trapped in a vacuum,” River whispered, and he cast her a sideways glance. “You know what that feels like... no matter how much light, it’s always dark inside. Lots of fire, lots of suns... but it never gets warmer. It’s always cold.” She cut her eyes over to him and he caught his breath when they met his. “Sometimes, dancng helps keep warm for a little while. But... I forgot how.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks and her shoulders began to shake, and there was only one possible course of action for him to take. He reached out and gathered her into his chest, trapping her arms between them and wrapping her tightly in his own. She sobbed and he felt the heat of her tears soak through his shirt, cooling even as they reached his skin. Somewhere in the midst of her crying, he heard her choke out, “They promised me I could still dance. They lied.”
He tightened his hold on her and swayed a little, his hand petting awkwardly at first over her hair, then with greater ease as she relaxed into him and her sobs quieted and ceased. She tucked her head under his chin and he turned his face so that his cheek pressed against the top of his head.
“Will you dance with me?” she asked quietly, tears still in her voice, and the shock of the idea ran through his body like an electric current.
“Breaks my heart to say so, but I don’t know how to dance,” he told her, choking on the words as they came out. It wasn’t what he wanted to tell her; he wanted, suddenly, to sweep her into a complicated dip-and-swirl of joyful steps that would spin her around and make her laugh, but he only knew one dance, and it was too stilted and formal for her. She needed the kind of dance that was raw and honest, not polished choreography.
“It’s all right,” she smiled, lifting her head from his chest to give him a smile that was made no less brilliant by the tear-streaks on her face. “You can stand on my feet.”
He looked down at their feet, his lips quirking in amusement at her pale skin so close to the dusty brown leather of his boots.
“I think if I did that, you might never be able to dance again,” he chuckled.
Her smile faltered and slid into a frown and he felt the bottom drop out of his stomach as he realized what he’d said. She slid her arms around his waist and snuggled back into him, her body swaying gently with the comforting motion of his own, and she sighed. Without a word -- because he couldn’t think of any that would suffice -- he slid one hand to the small of her back and the other to grasp her fingers that were resting on his hip, just above his tattoo.
She looked up in startled surprise as he began to shift his feet slowly in time with their swaying, then a broad grin flashed across her mouth and she brought her free hand up to his shoulder, stepping easily with him, one half-shuffle at a time.
“Are we dancing now?” she whispered, sounding for all the world like a little girl on Christmas morning, and he couldn’t help the way his eyes smiled back at her.
“You might say that,” he hedged, “Though most folks wouldn’t consider this fancy enough to be a dance.”
She shook her head, her lips pursing in delight, and said, “Dancing can be simple. Slow. Easy. I forgot that for a little while -- forgot that not all dances make you dizzy and not all music is loud and screams in your blood. Forgot how to listen, how to sway. Forgot that some dancing is not just with your feet.” Her eyes caught his, wide and trusting and knowing, and Mal didn’t know what to say to that, so he just pressed his lips to her forehead and kept swaying.