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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
TITLE: Serenity Now: Onus - Part 10
AUTHOR: The Irish Cowgirl
PAIRING: Mal/River, Kaylee/Simon, Jayne/OC
SPOILERS: Post-BDM, also spoilers for "Serenity Now," "SN: After The Storm," "SN: Nightmares," "SN: The Thin Line," "SN: A New Life," & "SN: The Means To An End"
NOTES: The seventh installment in the "Serenity Now" series. Mal and River have to deal with a wrinkle in their relationship, and the rest of the crew have to deal with saying goodbye to one of their own, until an old enemy comes back to exact his revenge. Feedback is ALWAYS appreciated!
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1213 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Mal stepped quietly across the uppermost catwalk along the cargo bay’s side, holding two mugs of steaming coffee by their handles. Gripped in the last three fingers of his right hand, he also juggled a small blue bottle of rice whiskey, and could already taste the promise of the soothing liquid on his tongue.
“Hey,” he said, spotting Zoe seated on the grates. She gave him a grunt of recognition, and he smiled back, easing himself down onto the walk next to her, letting his legs dangle over the side. He passed her one of the cups, and she nodded her thanks, waving away his offer of a nip from the bottle. He shrugged and poured a finger of it into his own, taking a long, relaxing sip.
Zoe took a sip of her own brew, then turned her eyes back out to the cargo bay. “You wave the Huang boys yet?”
“Yep,” Mal replied, swallowing and pursing his lips. “Cadence is settlin’ in with ‘em now.”
“That’s a good deal,” Zoe commended, though it was hidden behind the same taciturn voice she always used. “Woman of her ‘talents,’ them boys’ll be rollin’ in the payoff from the lumber she can supply.”
Mal nodded. “An’ in return, she gets protection, an’ we get the guarantee of a few more smugglin’ jobs t’look forward to.” He smiled slightly, taking pride in his plan. “Big happy family.”
“Speakin’ of,” Zoe questioned, never looking his way, lest she belay her uncertainty. “Think we’re like to hear from Badger ever ‘gain?”
He sighed wearily, running his palm over his dusty hair. “Can’t say. Reckon we coarsed him back into his hole for now, but them’s like Badger tend to pop back up an’ cause trouble when it’s least favorable.” He looked over at her, but her eyes remained fixed on whatever is was she was watching. “Whaddaya think on it?”
“Yeah,” she mumbled, missing the question entirely. She leaned forward a bit, cupping her mug between her hands as she rested her elbows on the railings of the catwalk.
Mal cocked an eyebrow at her. “Zoe?” he asked brightly, as if speaking to a small child.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?”
She did turn towards him now, tilting her head towards the lower catwalks with a smirk. “Jayne.”
Mal followed her line of sight, and spotted what had made her smile. Jayne was standing stock still, hands buried deep in his pockets, staring across the walk at Cara’s shuttle door as if it was the greatest enemy he had ever known. Mal hadn't even noticed him there, and for a man of Jayne’s stature, that was saying a lot.
The captain smiled to himself, recalling for a moment what had transpired earlier in the med bay. After hovering and questioning and generally being a nuisance, Simon had finally ordered Jayne out of the infirmary, a mandate that Mal had been called in to assist enforcing. Exiled to the common room, Kaylee and Mal had watched Jayne pace back and forth across the space, pausing frequently to peer into the windows and check on Simon’s progress. He looked very much like an expecting father, which in actuality, he was.
Kaylee shook her head, leaning up against the wall as she wiped engine grease from her hands. “He’s gonna wear a hole in the floor.”
“S’pose you’ll have to fix that, then,” Mal quipped, folding his arms and leaning back beside her. “So, lemme jus’ get this straight. He don’t wanna be a Pa?”
Kaylee smiled at the sarcasm. “A day ago, he was plumb terrified by the notion, far as I could see. Seems t’have changed his mind, though, don’t he?”
Mal raised his eyebrows, watching as Jayne once again leaned against the windows, pressing his face to the glass, much to Simon’s dismay. “Looks like a kid, lost his favorite toy on t’other side of the fence.”
She giggled in response, smiling sweetly to herself. “Oh, yeah. Maybe he don’t wanna say it, but he’s got it bad for sure.”
The captain sighed, looking over at her. “All these folks hookin’ up on my ship. Zoe an’ Wash, you an’ the doc, now Jayne an’ Cara.”
“You an’ River, too,” she added softly.
“Yeah, well,” he finished, suddenly looking a bit uncomfortable. “I’m startin’ t’think I woulda been smarter to rent this boat out as a bordello.”
“Capt’n!” Kaylee hissed with a grin, punching him in the arm. They both stifled a bout of laughter, stopping only when Jayne turned and gave them a stern look.
Eventually, Simon had finished his work, and came out to give them the report: twenty-two stitches on Cara’s leg, four along her temple, two in her upper lip, and seven over her right eye. A cracked shoulder blade that needed casting, a crushed sinus cavity he had to reset, a tear in one of the healing scars on her back, significant blood loss, and severe fatigue.
And one perfectly healthy baby.
Once she had been declared stable, he and Jayne had moved her back into her shuttle, amongst the belongings of hers that the crew had salvaged from Cadence’s home. They had dressed her and settled her onto her bed, and Simon had left without another word, glancing back to see Jayne seat himself across from the sleeping woman, staring at her in contemplation.
River had stopped by, once their course to Liann Jian was set and things on the bridge were settled, and Jayne had turned to see her there as she stood silently behind him, a peace offering of hot coffee in her hands. He took it without thanks, giving her the cold shoulder as he brought his eyes back to his ward, continuing his vigil.
Yet now, there he stood on the catwalks, glaring at the shuttle door, which could only lead Mal to assume that Cara was awake. “How long’s he been there?
Zoe rolled back one shoulder. “I dunno. Half an’ hour, maybe.”
“Pathetic,” he snorted. “Reckon one of us oughtta go down an’ talk to him?” He looked over at her, only to be met with the most incredulous of expressions. “Well hell, Zoe, he can’t jus’ stand there forever. We need him for stuff.”
She snuck a dubious glance at Jayne, then back at Mal. “Care to elaborate, sir?”
He scowled back at her in jest. “Ain’t you womenfolk s’posed to be notorious for stickin’ your noses in other people’s business.”
“Prefer my nose where it is, sir.”
Seeing that he was getting nowhere in the way of convincing her, Mal rose to his feet, reluctantly walking towards the stairs. “One of these days you’re gonna have t’remind me what I’m payin’ you for.”
Zoe nodded sagely, letting the dry sarcasm drip from her voice. “It’s on my To Do list, sir.”
Mal descended the flight of stairs, coming up to stand behind Jayne. He stared at the door with him for a few minutes, then spoke plainly, alerting the mercenary to his presence. “She awake?”
“Uh,” Jayne stammered, turning at the sound. He hadn’t realized that Mal had been there. “Yeah.” He noticeably took a step back, balling his fists defensively, preparing himself. Now that Cara was back on the ship, Jayne had the sense to remember Mal and thier conflict earlier. “Ya gonna punch me ‘gain?”
Mal stared at his blankly. “No, I think I’m past that phase, Jayne.” The other man relaxed, but only by an inch. Mal nodded over to the closed door. “What’d she have to say?”
“Hmm?” Jayne asked, folding his arms. Then he blushed ever-so-slightly, understanding Mal’s question. “Oh. I ain’t talked to her yet.”
The captain looked over at the shuttle door, cocking an eyebrow. “Then how d’ya know she’s awake?”
Jayne scuffed his toe against the grates, mumbling like a scolded child. “I saw her wakin’ up, so I come out here.”
Mal gaped at him, opening his jaw. “Jayne, ya jus’ fought through hell an’ high water to get that woman back on the boat, an’ now you ain’t even gonna talk to her?”
“Sure I will, some time or another.” He looked around, as if what he were about to say were some grand secret, and lowered his voice to a hush. “I jus’ don’t think she wants to talk t’me, is all.”
The captain sighed, lowering his head as he shook it in disbelief. “Man, ya can’t jus’ dance ‘round the edges of her. Go an’ talk to her. Gotta face your fears sometime.”
Jayne bristled at this. “I ain’t a’feared, gorrammit! Ruttin’ hell, that’s all you an’ her an’ Kaylee can talk ‘bout.” He pointed a finger into Mal’s chest, his masculine bravado taking over. “Ain’t scared of nothin’, Mal. I jus’ ain’t gonna do sumthin’ ‘gainst my will!”
Mal brushed his hand away, raising his chin arrogantly. “So, you’re jus’ gonna avoid her? Jayne, you’re havin’ a kid with that gal. Two of ya’re gonna have to have a ruttin’ conversation eventually. Jus’ man up, go in there, an’ get it over with!”
“I’m tellin’ ya straight, Mal, I ain’t gonna!” came the angry reply. Their voices were growing louder and harsher with each passing moment, and Zoe watched in silence from the upper catwalks, taking another sip of her coffee.
“Fine!” Mal shot back. “Jus’ keep on runnin’ ‘round on the edges of each other like lil’ children.”
“Seems t’work for you an’ River!” Jayne yelled back.
Zoe peeked her eyes up over the edge of her cup. “Ouch,” she murmured to no one at all, then continued with her swig.
Jayne saw Mal hesitate, and he continued quickly, utilizing his moment of opportunity. “We all see you two, passin’ glances an’ skirtin’ ‘round the other. I don’t much give two shits if you an’ that kwong ja-duh nutjob patch things up, but buttin’ in on my business when you can’t seem to keep a handle on your own seems a mite hypothetical.” Mal sniggered at his misuse of the word, but listened to the tirade, feeling it hit home. “So hey, why dontcha prove me wrong? Why don’t you jus’ go an’ talk to River, smooth things out, seein’ as it’s so easy-like!”
Mal glared at him, turning red with either rage or embarrassment. “Jayne, you’re gettin’ closer an’ closer to bein’ met with my fist ‘gain, ya don’t keep your business ‘part from mine.”
“Likewise,” Jayne growled. “Look atcha, big man, all talk when he’s tryin’ to order other people ‘round. An’ you’re too chicken to talk to a ninety-pound girl!”
“I could do that any time I like! Could go an’ speak with her right now, if’n I felt like it!”
“Shiny! Prove it!”
“Fine!” Mal said, pointing towards the shuttle door. “Then you go an’ talk to your girl!”
“I will!” Jayne roared back.
“Good!” Mal screamed. They both turned from each other, storming off in their opposite directions. But just as Jayne reached the door of the shuttle, and just as Mal reached the foot of the stairs to the upper deck, they paused. They stood silently a moment, gathering their courage, then proceeded in unison. And as Mal’s footsteps faded into the corridor, the shuttle door closed shut behind Jayne.
“Menfolk,” Zoe mused jovially. Now she was more than glad she hadn’t gotten involved. “Couldn’t find emotional north with a ruttin’ map.”
As soon as the door was shut tightly behind him, Jayne looked around the shuttle, dreading the sight of Cara’s conscious face. But she had fallen asleep again, and was lying peacefully among her sheets and army blankets, her chest rising and falling in a slow rhythm.
Jayne let out a sigh of relief, then toed slowly into the craft. He could just hide out here until Mal had forgotten about their dare, and then he could handle the ominous conversation between Cara and himself in a manner more suited to his liking. Which, of course, was bound to be not at all.
He took a seat on the edge of the cot, moving slowly, so as not to wake the woman who dozed there. Leaning his palms onto his knees, he took a deep breath, the unwelcome weighty thoughts he had previously been mulling over entering his brain again.
Of course he was happy that Cara was okay. Of course he was glad that their child was safe. As much as Jayne liked to play the monster, he wasn’t as evil as he seemed. Cara was his friend, one of the very few that he had, and he knew that she didn’t want her child to come to harm. So as he peered over his shoulder at her serene face, he found himself filled with joy that both Badger and Clancey had failed in their attempts to break her.
His eyes drifted over the stitches to her face, then over the castplate that poked out from under her shirt, until they finally rested on her stomach. Her top had pulled up a bit in her sleep, and he could see it now, that little bulge that signified his future offspring. It moved with Cara as she breathed, pulsating towards him with every inhalation. Her skin was even and solid there, unmarked by the blows of her captors. Jayne stared at it a moment, then stealing himself, reached out his hand.
He smoothed it gently over her stomach, finding it warm under his calluses. She breathed in again, and Jayne let his hand rise with her body, trying desperately to feel what Cara felt. Trying to feel love, or liking, any connection at all to this unborn life. And as his palm followed her stomach back down again, he feared that it would never be clear to him.
The woman shifted under his touch, and Jayne quickly drew his hand away, turning his head in shame. Swimming her way through a fog of sleep and drugs, Cara opened her eyes, and the sight of a silent Jayne on her bed’s edge greeted her. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he replied gruffly, acting as though he had not seen her stir. “How ya feelin’?”
Cara’s hand slid over her stomach, and she winced at the pain it caused her aching body. But even her wince hurt, pulling at the stitches to her face, so she groaned shallowly instead, trying to relax her features. “I gotta answer that?”
Jayne smirked at her, glad to her the familiar facetious tone in her voice. “No, don’t think ya do.”
She lifted her free arm, smoothing her curls from her face and running exploratory fingers over her stitches. “You been there long?”
“Few minutes,” Jayne replied, choosing not to mention that fact that he had watched over her every moment from the time they had boarded the shuttle to the time she had started to rouse. “Thought I’d check on ya.”
Cara looked at him carefully, trying to sort out his inscrutable expression. “That was kind of ya. Considerin’.”
Jayne took a deep breath, but could not think of what words he could possibly use it for. Defeated, he let the air out, then rose to his feet, stepping away from her bed. “Well, I’ll leave ya be, then,” he mumbled, starting towards the door.
“Jayne,” Cara called softly, stopping him. He looked back at her, but she was staring at the ceiling of the shuttle, unwilling to meet his eyes. “Thanks.”
He nodded, then after a moment’s pause, turned around and slowly walked back to her bedside, drawing her eyes to his. He folded his arms, and looked down at her with scrutiny. “Can I ask ya sumthin’?”
She closed her eyes, unsure of what to say in response. What could Jayne possibly want to know that wouldn’t hurt her to admit? At last, her curiosity won out, and she rasped out a “Sure.”
Jayne’s eyes drifted to the ground, and his body began to sway slightly as he formed the words. “Why didn’t you say nothin’?” At her puzzled look, he clarified. “When Badger sent us that wave, made you t’look in the camera. Most folks woulda called out for help. Maybe told us to piss off, save ourselves. But you didn’t say a word. How come?”
Cara rolled her eyes, shrugging the question off as best she could. “I dunno, Jayne. I was half-outta my mind, I could barely tell there was a ruttin’ camera in the room.”
“Now, that ain’t the truth,” Jayne said, shaking his head. “You was beat up pretty bad, but you was there. I seen it in your eye.”
She stared at him coldly, scrambling to fortify her defenses around herself. “Then maybe I jus’ couldn’t think of nothin’ to say.”
But again, Jayne shook his head, gripping his knees as he sat back down on her bed. “No, that don’t figure neither.”
Cara sighed in exasperation. “Fine, Jayne, seein’ as you got all the answers here, why don’t you jus’ tell me?”
“I don’t got the answer, that’s what I’m tryin’ t’say!” he argued, turning on her with fire. At the sight of her psychically wounded yet temperamentally irritated face, he stared a moment, then turned away. “Aw, never mind,” he grumbled, though it was far softer this time.
After a moment’s silence, Cara opened her mouth to speak. “Tell you what, Jayne. I’ll make you a deal.”
Jayne snorted and let his head fall back. “Think I seen ‘nough ‘deals’ made today.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” she repeated firmly, and this drew his eyes back to hers. “I’ll tell you why I didn’t say nothin’, on the condition that you gotta tell me why you’re so ruttin’ scared of this kid.”
“I ain’t scared,” Jayne replied impatiently, saying the words for what felt like the thousandth time. But his voice was starting to choke on them, and he was having a harder time believing them to be true. Cara noted this, and reached forward with her still-mobile arm, grabbing his forearm roughly. He met her eyes, and saw that she was not fooled by his pride. At last, Jayne sighed. “Fine. Deal.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding slightly, then laying her head back against her pillow. “You first.”
Jayne furrowed his brow at her. “Hey! No, that weren’t part of the deal! You go first.”
But Cara only smiled wryly at him. “Cobb, I ain’t thick. If’n I go first, you won’t go at all.”
He looked at her with mistrust, but her ironic face broke through the mask and forced him to concede. “Well, that’s true,” he admitted, letting a soft chortle escape his lips. She smirked in response, then released her grip on his arm, giving him the space the she knew he’d need. And need it he did, as he brought his face away from hers, lowering his voice to a murmur. “You ‘member the first time you saw someone killed?”
Cara tilted her head curiously, then nodded. Jayne pursed his lips and continued. “Me too. Man alive, it did sumthin’ t’me. Made me realize that a man ain’t got nothin’ but himself to depend on, an’ that’s the way he’s gotta live. If he don’t, well...” He pointed a finger to his head, miming a gun going off. “I ain’t ‘shamed of livin’ that way. Got me as far as I got. But men like me ain’t meant t’be Pas. Killers an’ thieves, fine, but not dads.”
“Sound as that may seem,” she interrupted softly. “It happens. An’ whether you like it or not, it’s happenin’ t’you.”
He looked back at her, shaking his head. “No, don’tcha see? It can’t. I ain’t ‘bout to lay down ev’rythin’ I am t’play daddy.”
Cara rolled her eyes. “Who’s sayin’ you gotta?”
He pointed at her stomach fiercely, growling with frustration. “That is! That’s sayin’ I gotta be sumthin’ I ain’t ‘cause I got responsiblities or somesuch. ‘Cause ain’t no kid ever been born in this ‘verse ain’t changed someone’s life!”
His eyes turned down to the floor, and without realizing it, gripped his hands together, rolling his palm over his knuckles. “Changed my own Pa’s life. Was a useless drunk, he was. Knocked my Ma up, an’ reckoned he had’ta settle down with her. Shouldn’ta bothered, ya ask me. Weren’t no kid in the ‘verse deserved him as a father, jus’ like there ain’t no kid in the ‘verse deserves me as one, neither. I’m thinkin’ you mighta had the right idea a’fore when ya ran off. Might be that kid’s life’ll be better if’n I ain’t in it.”
Cara watched him carefully for a moment. “Really?”
“Yeah,” he replied. The statement seemed so right, but for some reason, it pained him to say. “Hell, Cara. Man lives the way I live, after awhile, he goes dead. I look atcha, an’ you’re doin’ all ya can to watch over your baby, includin’ takin’ it the hell away from me. I jus’ don’t figure I got it in me to do that same. I ain’t... I ain’t loyal the way you are. Ain’t a good man. I’m a real bastard, ya know.”
To his surprise, Cara grinned softly, trying not to pull at her sutures. “Oh, I know it.” She took a deep breath, then used weakly pushed herself up, flinching as her muscles screamed out at the movement. Jayne reached out to help her, and she smiled back, looking as though she saw something in him that he didn’t. Finally settling into a sitting position that didn’t cause her agony, she took a deep breath and continued.
“Jayne, I known a lot of men in my time. Back on my home planet, back in my hometown, there was good men. They was standup citizens an’ righteous folk, livin’ like the good Lord intended ‘em to, at first glance. Hell, my father was one of ‘em. He was a standup citizen an’ a righteous Catholic, respected an’ admired. He was also the jackass who locked up his only daughter in a basement for seven years ‘cause he thought she was a minion of the ruttin’ Beast.”
She reached out, taking hold of his jaw and turning his face to hers. “Men like him, men like my Pa, they’s hypocrites. They act like they got a good bead on things, but they’re clueless when it comes down to the nitty-gritty.” She smiled, and the stitches over her features curled with her muscles. “Is it any wonder I ain’t ‘bout good men? Is it any wonder that when I found the meanest, muddiest bastard I’d ever known, I made him my friend?”
Despite himself, Jayne smiled, enjoying the touch of her rough fingertips against his stubble. “Yeah?”
“Damn right.” She took a deep breath, boring into his eyes with her brilliant green ones. This was a mountain of a weakness she was about to admit, but she had to do it, or she’d break apart. “Cobb, I didn’t leave ‘cause I figured my baby’d be better off without ya. Mighta told myself that, but it weren’t the truth. I left ‘cause ya went an’ ‘ccused me of bein’ untrue, broke my ruttin’ heart, an’ the thought of havin’ t’see ya ev’ry day thereafter...” She swallowed, looking down. “That’s why didn’t say nothin’ in the wave. ‘Cause I wasn’t sure if I wanted ya t’come for me or not.”
Jayne stayed still a moment, then reached out, pushing her soft curls from her face. She turned her good eye up to his, and Jayne felt himself taken over by an emotion that he couldn’t quite place. Something foreign and alien to him. Genuine affection. “Cara,” he muttered huskily.
She closed her eyes, suddenly very aware and ashamed of her battered appearance. “Much as it may pain ya t’know, I got sumthin’ for ya here, Cobb.” She tapped over her heart, and it rang out dully against her castplate. “Ain’t much, but it’s there.”
“Aw, dammit,” Jayne whispered darkly. “You love me?”
“No,” she laughed, shaking her head. He exhaled, relieved with the response. “But I like ya a whole lot. An’ I’d really like t’go back to bein’ your friend.” She smirked, catching his eye lustily, and Jayne managed to see past her broken face to the heartiness in her expression. “Maybe a bit more.”
He nodded. “I ain’t opposed t’that. I jus’ ain’t lookin’ to be no one’s... ya know...”
“Yeah, I know,” she replied solidly. “Kinda on the same wavelength. Thought of bein’ someone’s Ma, it’s... well, it’s a real kick in the ass, ain’t it?”
But Jayne did not reply at first, staring at her heart-shaped face and feeling as though he was seeing it for the first time. He didn’t see the black sutures over her skin, or the swollen lids that pressed her eye shut. Instead, he saw the funny, smart-assed woman he had shared many a cigar and evening of passion with. He spoke then, not believing the words were leaving his mouth. “No. But it’s scary as all hell.”
She smiled sadly. “S’pose so.”
He gaped at her, leaving himself exposed. “So, you’re feared of...” He drifted off, uncomfortably gesturing towards her belly. “Of that thing?”
Cara considered her answer for a moment. “Used to be.”
“You ain’t no more?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Nope,” she said, shaking her head with resolution. “’Cause when you did come for me? When you beat that sonbitch outta his skull, I realized sumthin’, then. This kid,” she breathed, sliding her hands over her stomach, “This kid’s gonna have two parents who’d do anythin’ to protect it. Who’d go to hell an’ see the sights there to keep it safe.” She smirked knowingly. “That’s the benefit of havin’ two bastards for parents, I s’pose.”
But Jayne didn’t seem comforted by her anecdote. “Ain’t sure I’ll ever know that, my own self.”
Cara nodded slowly, then stopped, squinting. “Naw. Naw, I believe ya will. Can’t say when, but I’d say it’s a fair bet there’ll come a moment you know you’re meant to be this kid’s Pa.” She smiled warmly, and Jayne saw it again, the care she felt for him. “Then all them reservations, well, they jus’ kinda fade away. One day, you’ll know what I mean.”
He glanced at her doubtfully, but hopefully as well. “Ya think so?”
“I do,” she said with certainty, nodding once and grinning.
Jayne tried to process this, letting his eyes wander back down to her belly. Tentatively, he reached out his hand and rested his fingertips against the bump there. Cara let him, sitting quietly as he lay his hand flat over her stomach and wondering. “For what it’s worth,” he muttered at last. “I’m glad ya ain’t dead.”
She laughed, and Jayne felt the rumblings of it over the skin of her middle. Then Cara lay a hand over the side of his cheek, scratching playfully at his goatee. “Yeah, that woulda put a damper on my day.”
Jayne smiled back, bringing her head close to kiss her temple. Then he shifted along her bed, sliding up to wrap his arm around her as they leaned back against the wall and Cara leaned her cheek against his shoulder.
All the while, Jayne kept his hand on her stomach, resting over the new life that was brewing inside. Maybe he didn’t feel like a father right now, but he did trust Cara. So maybe she was right. Maybe his moment would come, too. In that event, he didn’t want to have to make up for lost time.
Cara closed her eyes and sighed, the corners of her mouth turning up with humor. “Kinda weird, right?”
“Hell yeah,” he replied.
The first few steps towards the bridge had been easy, when he was still filled with hurt pride, and spite towards Jayne. But as the end of his journey drew nearer and nearer, Mal began to feel a weight dragging him down. He began to feel his mind giving him all the reasons, or excuses, that this was a bad idea.
What was he doing? Was this the way he planned to resolve his differences with River? Over a juvenile dare he had made with Jayne? As he came closer to the bridge, the idea seemed more and more absurd. After all, hadn’t that been his argument? That he wanted to wait until the right time to confront River about his feelings, in the appropriate setting?
But even Mal had to admit that he was only stalling. The appropriate setting had come and gone many times already, and now he was just prolonging things. Pushing back what was ultimately inevitable, out of some sort of misplaced hope to spare her feelings and mind, or worse yet, out of his own cowardice.
Well, Mal was no coward. Maybe, in a very naive and Jayne-like way, Jayne was right. The only correct course of action was to actually take action. Feeling the mixture of his questioned pride and a touch of rice whiskey still coursing through his system, Mal took a deep breath, and quickened his pace towards the bridge.
He clomped his way up the stairs, not bothering to be discreet. He spotted River, seated cross-legged in the pilot’s seat, leaning over the console. She was still tweaking with it, trying to sort out the mess that Badger’s landlock had wrought. Mal bit his lip, watching her a moment, knowing that she knew of his presence. He turned and closed the blast door behind him, and that finally brought River’s head up from her work. “You’re full of it,” she said sharply.
Mal lowered his eyebrows, tucking his thumbs into his gunbelt. “I’m full of lots of things, River. Ya might need to specify which one you’re talkin’ ‘bout.”
She rotated the chair, turning to face him, and gave Mal a rather blank expression. Folding her palms in her lap, she leaned back against the seat and continued. “Full of important thoughts. Not sure which should come first. Stewing, a little bit of everything inside.” She shook her head. “Too messy.”
He gave a small smile at this. “If’n you’re talkin’ ‘bout my brain, I reckon you’re right, lil’ albatross.”
River’s lip tugged to the side, curling up into a smirk. “Not your brain. Your heart.”
Mal inhaled deeply through his nose, and nodded once in understanding. “Gotcha.” Their faces fell from their smiles and they broke their gazes, searching for anything in the room that may provide distraction from the other person. Mal’s eyes settled over the navsat, and decided that a little small talk may help to ease the tension. “What’s our ETA for Liann Jian lookin’ like?”
“Two days,” she said simply, not bothering to look for herself. By now, she knew Serenity by heart.
“Good,” Mal answered lightly, keeping the conversation as casual as he possibly could for as long as he possibly could. “We’ll be gettin’ a good cut of pay from that lumber. Whaddaya figure you’ll do with your share?”
“We had sex,” River blurted in response.
Mal’s surprised eyes found his way back to her again. So much for small talk. “Yeah, I remember. I was there.”
River fumbled with her hands, looking more than a little nervous. “I’m sorry. It was... it was wrong. My fault. Shouldn’t have kissed you, forgot myself. Excitement, bubbles. The butterflies made me do it.”
Mal lowered his head. “Well, I ain’t gonna say that’s for sure. I conjure we was both a lil’ caught up in the moment. Can’t blame two people for bein’ jolly at bein’ alive.”
“No,” she admitted, lolling her head to the side. “Still, my fault. You’re still trying to work things out, Messy Heart. Tangles of love and hate.” Her eyes hit the ground again, and her voice wavered against the tears that were threatening to spill. “As much of one as the other.”
“Now, River,” he said, taking a step towards her. “That ain’t true. Couldn’t be a thing you’d do cause me t’hate you, never truly.” He sighed, shutting his eyes to gather his thoughts, but it was a lost cause. “I’m jus’... well, I don’t know what the hell I am anymore.”
“Perplexed,” she supplied, reading the emotion as easily as one of her books. “Wanted me then, but after?” She shook her head sadly. “I don’t know. Happened so fast. Lips, then hands, then...” She trailed off, turning red at the memory. “Good hurt, like the burning bush in the Bible. Heats and licks, doesn’t consume.”
Lips. Heat. Lick. The words rolled off her tongue innocently, but all the same, Mal had to shift his weight from one side to the other to hide the fact that his body was responding to them. He knew as well as River did that their encounter on the Mule was one of the better lovemaking sessions they’d ever had, and considering their previous ones, that was saying a great deal. Finally, he gave an awkward grin and scratched at the hair on the back of his neck. “Yeah, it was, uh... It was purdy wild huh?”
River scoffed, indicating that his phrasing was quite the understatement. They shared a smile, then she lowered her eyes, stretching her legs out from beneath her and pointing her toes. In silence, she ran them lightly over the grates of the bridge floor, her timidity growing as she tried to speak. “No more, though. No relationship without trust.”
“River, what I said...” Mal edged forward, trying to recapture her eyes from under the veil of her dark hair. But she stubbornly looked away, not ready to face the crystal blue that awaited her. Sighing, he took the bull by the horns and crossed the bridge to her, bending his knees to squat before her bare legs. “River, I weren’t lyin’ a’fore. When I said what I said.” He knew that she would understand his meaning.
She did, and wrapped her arms around herself, closing her eyes so that he could not see the hurt in her. “Trust me with the ship. With the crew. Not with your heart. Not sure if you ever will.”
River’s tendency to leave out pronouns was especially poignant at this time. The way she had formed her sentence, Mal wasn’t sure if she was saying that she wasn’t sure, or if it was his own confusion that worried her. “Really?” he asked, hoping she would provide a more intelligible answer.
She nodded in reply. His words were still burning in her mind. No relationship without trust, he had said. With her newfound understanding of the human heart, she knew that this was the truth. All the same, it felt like hellfire in her body. “No lies. Only doubt, deserving doubt. We are broken, can’t be fixed. Just have to... just have to give up. Let it be.”
Watching as she held herself in her arms, looking so small and defenseless that it pained him to see, Mal made a decision. This had gone on long enough. And no matter what River had meant by her cryptic statement, he knew the answer that would satisfy both possibilities.
He reached out his hand, taking the arch of her smooth foot between his fingers. River started at the touch, and looked at him. His eyes were more blue than they had ever been before, shining like clever sapphires in their orbits. Mal smiled softly at her. “What if I ain’t ready to give up?”
She tilted her head forward, not sure that she had heard him properly. She flexed her foot, but Mal held tight, rubbing the dancer’s calluses on the ball of it. “No, you are,” she argued, shaking her head in disbelief. “I can see it. Still perplexed, scrambled eggs.”
Mal grinned at her analogy, but continued in a serious tone. “I’m that too, lil’ bao bai.” He finally let go of her foot, raising both of his arms to tenderly still her hands, which River had not even been aware were still in motion. “I know it might be a touch disconcertin’ to ya, bein’ all logical an’ the like, but I’m allowed t’be both. I am the captain, ya know.”
“I know,” River said, but she had picked up no trace of his good humor. “But... it’s still unsure. Can’t see the other side, can’t know that it’ll come out for the best.”
“Too true,” Mal nodded. “But River, if Badger’s duckin’ an’ run’s any indication of it, we’re jus’ too damn good a team to split up. An’ ‘sides, this is one of the better things the ‘verse ever saw fit to throw my way. An’ I think you an’ I know I’m, on occasion, a damned fool. But I ain’t so fool as to toss out sumthin’ good ‘cause it ain’t goin’ the way I’d like.” He narrowed his eyes. “Are you?”
“No. No, I want to, but...” She was still in doubt that the words were coming from his mouth and not her wishful heart. “You... think you can trust me again?”
He inhaled, screwing up his face, trying to find the best way to respond. “I think I won’t know if’n I don’t give it a try. An’ I ain’t one to shy ‘way from a challenge.” River raised an eyebrow sardonically, and Mal smirked, for once knowing what she was thinking. “Okay, maybe I am, but not this one.”
River felt her heart begin to beat all at once, filled with the sweet possibility of revival. She searched through the rolling waters of his psyche, trying to find proof that what he was speaking in earnest. And she could feel it, by God she could feel it, buried deep beneath layers of doubt and love. “You think,” she said, gleaning her affirmation from his own mind. “You believe you will trust me, someday.”
Mal nodded, shrugging one shoulder. “Ain’t sayin’ it’s gonna be easy, River. It’s gonna take a lot of work, more work than before, on both our ends. We’re gonna have to build this one from the ground up.” He rose to stand, taking her with him and grasping her hands tighter still. “But ya know what? I believe it’ll be stronger for it. Best way t’keep sumthin’ standin’ is t’improve the foundation, right?” She nodded, and he cupped a hand under her chin, lifting her big brown eyes to meet his. He smiled, seeing that his use of comparison was like speaking in River’s own language. “I got my tools, kid. I’m ready to go. I jus’ wanna know you’re in for the job.”
River stared at him for a long time, then sobbed out a laughing cry and closed her eyes against a tear. She could feel it now, she could almost see it, Mal taking a sledgehammer to that wall he had built. That horrible, impenetrable wall that he had constructed around his heart, now breaking apart from underneath, torn away by his own hand. She reached forward in her mind, tearing furiously at the stones with her bare hands.
“Yes,” she breathed, quickly pressing her face into Mal’s shirt, sniffling against his broad chest. She loosed her hand from his and pressed her palm against his body, feeling his arms slide around her lovingly. “Yes,” she repeated, louder this time. “Yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m in.”
Mal craned his neck down to kiss the top of her head, running his fingers through the silky waves. “Good,” he breathed against her skull, smiling to himself, though he knew she could feel it to. “Now, ya might have trouble winnin’ back Jayne’s confidence...” he joked.
River laughed wetly, drying her tears on the material of his shirt before she drooped her head back to see him. “Jayne’s confidence is his own. Doesn’t share.”
“Okay, we’ll jus’ work on mine, then,” Mal chuckled, running the side of his thumb across her brow. She pursed her lips together, giving him a tight smile and resting her chin against his body with closed eyes. Mal stroked the back of neck in response. “I love you, River,” he sighed softly, sounding more like an admission of defeat than anything else.
She inhaled deeply, sliding her hands around and up his back. Daunting though the task may be, she was ready to help him fight through the barrier. Because there was a definite hole in the wall now, and for the first time in a long time, she could make out Mal, waiting for her on the other side.
“We can work with that.”
Saturday, December 09, 2006 12:03 AM
Saturday, December 09, 2006 12:55 AM
Saturday, December 09, 2006 4:09 AM
Sunday, December 10, 2006 3:17 AM
Monday, December 11, 2006 6:58 PM
Monday, January 01, 2007 3:24 AM
Tuesday, February 06, 2007 5:21 AM
Tuesday, February 27, 2007 3:11 PM
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