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La Mal Idée

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Mal leaned back in his seat at the kitchen table, waiting for his coffee to get cool enough to drink and keeping an eye on Kaylee and Jayne. They still hadn't worked out that they couldn't both hustle the other, and any minute now they'd start up with the accusations of cheating. As far as Mal could tell, they'd both been palming cards and bottom dealing since the second hand.

He felt the vibration of running feet before he really heard it, but in the instant it took him to glance toward the door, Mal recognized River's stride. She was coming this way--he heard the slap of bare feet on the decking now, distant but coming closer, and relaxed. Not an all-out panicked dash, just a little girl running for the sake of running. Playing some game with her brother, like as not, or coming to recruit Kaylee for a round of tag. Might be best if she succeeded.

Mal blew on his coffee and looked away from the door, back toward Kaylee and Jayne. They were locked in a staring match as Kaylee reached out to draw a card. When she started to turn it up, Jayne's hand shot out to her wrist, and Mal pushed his seat back from the table with an audible scrape. That drew both of his card sharks' attention toward Mal, but before he could ask them to keep the violence to a minimum, Kaylee's eyes went wide, looking past him, toward the sound of running feet.

Mal turned just in time to see River, bare-assed naked and tossing some fluttery bit of clothes aside as she dashed through the doorway. She was grinning straight at Mal, and he found himself frozen, still clutching his coffee. She took another long lithe stride into the room--Mal tried not to register her body, not at all a little girl's body when it wasn't covered up with a sundress and shawl--and then took a leap, twisting in the air as her limbs flashed in all directions, and landed squarely on his lap. Her weight came down on his thighs and shoulders, pinning him firmly in place, and then she collapsed onto him, full length, pressing soft and hard against him, moving like a pro, her arms and legs swarming over him as if she couldn't touch enough.

Mal kept his hands out to his sides. He didn't think he could catch one of her arms, and there was no way in the 'verse he was reaching for center of body mass. Over her gasping, giggling breath, he could hear Kaylee and Jayne getting up, and hoped like hell that if one of them took it into their head to try to rescue him, it was Kaylee. He had a feeling Jayne would just piss him off in the process, to say nothing of how River might react.

Then, like deja vu, the sound running feet in the corridor, this time accompanied by Simon's voice, shouting his sister's name. River tossed her head at the sound, hair streaming everywhere, and lowered her forehead to Mal's so the dark strands fell around them like one of Inara's veils. She was grinning with her eyes, sparkling, as she tried to kiss him, and Mal closed his eyes, bit his lips, and hoped for the best.

It was only a few seconds more until she was hauled off him, her half-voiced giggles turning to half-hearted curses, and he opened his eyes to see Simon struggling to pull River toward the door, even as she kept reaching back toward him. Mal took his chance to stand up, and only then noticed that he'd spilled his coffee--there was a spreading stain on his trousers, and, now he had a second to feel it, the burn beneath throbbed.

Mal still didn't look toward Jayne--if he was watching, if he said anything to set the doc off, it wouldn't lead to anything good--but moved around the Tams, toward the scrap of clothes River had dropped. River followed his motion, pulling Simon around as well, so that he was between her and the other two, blocking their view. Mal picked up the--silky filmy thing, he still wasn't sure what the hell it was--and held it out, keeping his eyes away from Simon's pale strong arms wrapped around River. She took it from his hand with another giggle and a nod, and stopped fighting quite so much, allowing Simon to try to wrap the little skirty thing around her. Mal and Simon saw the splash of red across her arm at about the same time, and Mal's mutter of "tzao gao," hit the air at the same time as Simon's "gao se." Mal glanced up from the decking to see Simon half smiling at him, then looked away again as Simon turned River in his arms to check the scald.

"Mei mei," he murmured, sounding more tired than angry, though by no means not angry, "ni jiujing zai gan shenme?"

River grinned. "I got an idea, Simon. It was such a good idea, I had to try it."

Mal heard something in the way she said that, or maybe in the way Simon didn't say anything back. He looked up again just in time to see Simon, facing away from the others, go suddenly pale. That was enough to make him really look at the Doc, and then he saw; his hair was wild and he was wearing some undershirt he hadn't had on at dinner, a tight thing with a damp spot near the collar, not pulled down all the way, like he'd put it on in a hurry. It showed a line of pale flat belly above his pants--zipped but not buttoned--and his feet were as bare as River's. Their feet looked alike, he noticed, resisting looking up, except that River's toes were different, odd looking.

When he did remember to raise his eyes again, Simon was looking at him, his pale turn replaced by a bright blush. He hadn't been red-faced from running all the way from his room to the kitchen, nor from seeing his sister naked and grinding on the ship's captain. Now he blushed, because River had had an idea. No, that wasn't what she'd said, was it? She said she got an idea. River reached up and touched Simon's red cheek, smiling like she knew a secret, which Mal figured she probably did. "All warm and good together. Good idea."

Simon shut his eyes, steeling himself, and when he opened them again, he looked as stern as Mal had ever seen him with his sister. "No, River, not a good idea, a very bad idea. Come on, we have to see to your arm, you burned it. This is what happens, when you--"

"Play with fire," River finished, her voice gone solemn. "Might get burned."

Simon sighed. "Yes, River. And you did get burned. Come on, now." He guided her through the door, and Mal finally, finally looked up to see Kaylee and Jayne both standing at the end of the table. Kaylee had one hand over her mouth and looked like she might just burst into tears, though it'd be a toss-up whether she was more horrified or just found the whole thing hysterically funny. Jayne, on the other hand, was opening his mouth.

"Aw, come on, Cap. I got stabbed."

Mal couldn't think of a single thing to say that he couldn't say better by glaring. After a second, Jayne tossed down the cards he was still holding and headed out of the kitchen, brushing past Mal with his jaw clenched. Mal turned and followed him out before Kaylee could say a word.


He fidgeted around the bridge and his bunk, looking for something to do that would distract him from Simon's feet, which kept coming to mind when he tried to focus. Bare feet, probably cold on the decking, toes a little curled against the chill. His arms had been bare, too, which Mal was pretty sure he'd never seen before. He touched the cuffs of his own long sleeves, and wondered why.

Finally, when he figured Simon must have had the chance to get River bandaged up and, more importantly, dressed, he gave up the fight for a lost cause, and headed down to the infirmary. The doc was standing at one counter, staring at his supplies like he did when he didn't want to talk to anyone, and Mal noticed that he'd pulled on a sweater and some shoes before he spotted River lying still in the far bed. "She okay? I didn't think she was burned that bad."

Simon looked up, a little guiltily, Mal thought, and looked quickly at River and then away. "She needed to sleep."

Mal nodded. "And you needed her to sleep, so everybody wins."

Simon put down the surgical glue he'd been holding with a very controlled thump against the counter. "Did you want something, Captain? I'm busy here. I have things to do."

Might as well just spit it out, no point pretending anything here. "Just to tell you I know where River's liable to be picking up her good ideas, and maybe you should be--"

Simon whirled around, looking suddenly furious, his voice not much above a whisper. "Why, thank you, Captain, it really hadn't occurred to me until just now that I have to be careful of what I think and who I think it about in the privacy of my bunk when my unpredictably psychic and impulse control deficient sister is next door. Coloring."

Mal blinked, unable to attach that last word to anything until Simon picked up the glue again and walked over to the table, where a green coloring pencil lay, broken into three pieces. "I think that patient's a lost cause," he said after a moment, while Simon was examining the broken ends.

"It's really not," Simon said, tightly. "I've done it before. She became very agitated when she realized she'd broken it in her rush. Apparently in the absence of green, the universe will become unbalanced and collapse into chaos." Odd how he'd known River long enough that that didn't even sound especially crazy.

And it wasn't like they could pop out and buy her another package of pretties to keep the universe on an even keel, not out here in deep space, carrying farming implements out to some planet on the ass-end of nowhere that was suspiciously eager to have them delivered in a timely fashion. "Guess you'd better fix it, then."

Simon looked up at him again, like he didn't know why Mal was still there, and for a second Mal thought he was going to ask, and realized he didn't know how he'd answer. But the doc just said, "I guess I'd better. If you'll excuse me."

Mal nodded, though Simon had already bent over his task and wouldn't see, and turned back through the door of the infirmary, headed for his bunk.

Mal sat down on the edge of the bed, and waited for the heat in his face to fade. After a minute, he realized it wasn't going to happen, and with a mutter of "fucking idiot," that sounded loud and nakedly English in his own ears, he leaned down to take off his boots.