Straw Compass
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mal and River and a moment of quiet. -- Somewhat unfluffy drabble written for a prompt by youngcurmudgeon. Set between series and movie.


Mal. River. Post-series, pre-movie. Certain spoilers. Free for all ages.


Straw Compass


It's 4 a.m. and only the second time he has come here for this particular purpose, with this particular mix of emotions and these particular bare feet of hers are a definite surprise.

Not a welcome one, neither.

He's trapped, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, or his foot in the shuttle entrance and his mind on the ornate secret that's conceiled behind a stack of crates he put there himself in broad ship-daylight, for all to see how much use he was putting this new free space to.

The brave front doesn't have much point with her, but there's the passive knowledge and then there's the active sensation.

He's strangely angry. My shuttle. As if it's any more true than when he said it to...

Somehow, his point escapes him as the seconds go by.

Dust hangs in the air. It's new and scratches his throat, so he coughs once, both out of necessity and to grace this encounter with a semblance of normality. Pretense is nothing unfamiliar to this space.

Even quiet and naked like this.

River sits up and rubs her eyes, makes room on the tiny cot that does a sad job of filling the space once occupied by large expanses of red and canopied luxury.

The entire shuttle is doing a bad job. Every heist and every petty argument picked for distraction. There is very little that is going right at the moment. And here he is, in the door to a place that no longer exists.

"Shouldn't you be in bed asleep?"

The girl somehow manages to project the essence of rolling eyes without moving a muscle, and with the same lack of outward change she looks close to tears.

"It's alone."

The hollow grey metal around them agrees. "Yeah. Guess it is."

He shuffles closer and sits next to her. It doesn't seem so wrong that she's here. Her voice matches the room. Desolate.

"Had a glimpse at glamor. Now it's storage. Decoys and memories."

And she sounds so very sad, eyes fixed to her lap like a pouting child. He catches himself copying her posture and tries to rearrange his arms before giving up. There is just no other kind of sitting on this cot.

"Always was. These pretties, they never belonged, little one. Just window trappings for a while."

Just curtains over the surface, now gone. Already he has trouble placing all the furniture behind his closed eyes. Shelf in the corner. Table over there. The memories have a hard time clinging when there is so little to hold them afloat. They have to use their claws and dig in deep.

"But it was real. Left prints all over."

There's a hairbrush in her hands. It's from the trunk and he frowns again, feeling violated in having her touch something he went to such trouble to hide.

He found it first.

"She didn't just leave you."

Accusing. Plaintive. She puts the brush in his hand.

He does roll his eyes but complies after several long moments of just feelings its weight.

Start at the bottom, work out the tangles, work you way up. His Mama taught him that, useful as it is for his life. Soft things. How to brush a little girl's hair. Not so very little, certainly, but little enough. Long hair that serves no purpose except to be pretty. Please the eye and soothe the mind between one and one hundred.

It could be anyone, brushing any girl's hair before the night turns to morning. It belongs on his boat like it does anywhere else in the 'verse but for the grace of If Only.

The many thousand maybes floating about make his arm heavy and River leans back against his shoulder. Cuddles up, normal and warm.

"My mother did that for me, too."

He half-smiles and hugs her. Rocks a little, to and fro.

"It's still a good thing, even if it's past. Part of us. It's good to hold on."

She sounds about as certain as he is, about whether or not that's the truth. But there isn't always much choice with these things. If there was, he wouldn't be here. She wouldn't be here. They wouldn't be sitting in an abandoned home, alone together, missing things that never were quite what they seemed.

"It is. It was."

She nods against his shoulder, as if arguing.

"Can't let go of everything or we just float. Have to be steady so holes can fix themselves up again. Have to know."

His lips twist and she flinches away before he even speaks.

"Ain't a thing we can know in this 'verse except one day we die. Shouldn't you have learned that better'n anyone?"

It's a cruel thing to say, he's aware of that. Half a child still, and he's trying to cut away on her like he means to on his own mind.

She's glaring. Always fighting back.

"There's more to it than that."

Maybe. Maybe not. He stares at the floor and she rises, soundless and sluggish like only River can. His hand comes to rest where she sat, a warm spot on the dingy mattress and encounters an object. Flat.

"Forgot something?"

She stops halfway to the hatch and turns back, all big unreadable eyes.

"It's for you to have."

Can't be good, whatever it is. He resists the urge to look until River has slid from the room like so much candlelight snuffed out.

A capture. One of Kaylee's, if he has to guess.

The dark curls and gentle smile bear his looking for a few moments before he has to look away. Just what he needed.

It's possible he deserves the unkindness for his words. The thought is more attractive, at the moment, than the tingle of gratitude.

Another secret to hide away, little spots in the back of his mind that start glowing at the oddest moments. Pins or nails or tape.

His thumb hovers over the play-button and eventually tires out enough to press down.

It's a small shock, the first two seconds. A lurch. Her voice is too bright for this late hour. It feels even further away than she already is. Long gone.

The past fills the shuttle air even as his eyes take in the grey-dusty present. He tries not to think about what bleakness might lie ahead. Nothing assured safe the end of all things.

But his hands do as River says. They grip tightly.

Grip until his knuckles turn white.

- - - END.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006 5:51 AM


I loved it that River said it was not just him Inara had left because the crew are very much family and to have one leave is to put the first deep crack in something beautiful. Very well written. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, May 11, 2006 8:56 PM


Wonderful stuff, AgentRouka! This makes all kinds of sense concerning how Mal got ahold of the capture we see Mal watching during the film:)


Friday, April 13, 2007 7:35 PM


I don't know why I never commented on this before, but it's excellent. I really love the way River says so many things that Mal cannot express and also how she forces him to realize that while he feels very alone, the shuttle is not sacred necessarily to him and what he had with Inara - but that it lives and breathes with all of their memories.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007 7:36 PM


WOW! What great stuff! I'm new to this site and I'm AMAZED at the talent that is floating around here! Hope you've written other stories. I'll be looking for your name on the list as soon as I'm out of here! Loved "It belongs on his boat like it does anywhere else in the 'verse but for the grace of If Only" ... What a beautiful line! also the part about being caught with his foot in the shuttle ... just great stuff!


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