Title: The Gift
Disclaimer: All bow to the mighty Joss Whedon.
Summary: It's River's birthday, and she's feeling left out.
Notes: Thank-you to madjm for beat reading
On Earth-that-was there originated a saying: It never rains, but it pours.
The months after Miranda see her sweep into adulthood amidst a new world of running, fighting and deception that's not so much new as the same old, this time recycled with fewer players, harsher dives farther and farther from the core planets--and a whole new load of crime, interrupted by the occasional break in traffic to repair, reload and experience something that, in other circumstances, just might resemble a normal life.
Those times, it must be said, are few and far between. Moments of domesticity are such a rare thing that she wonders sometimes if the little mouse inside just mightn't be a bit scared of them.
If I grow too fast, I'll leave them all behind.
It happens during a spell such as this; just as River is holding the knife over her cake to mark her nineteenth year, Simon clears his throat and, with his hand grasping Kaylee's and his eyes flashing with a strange happiness, says shyly to the group that the pair of them have some news.
It's about an engagement.
Zoe's smile is genuine for the first time in months. "Congratulations you two," she says warmly, leaning across the table to kiss Kaylee. Jayne's mouth hangs open, and it's no longer for want of a slice of chocolate-iced protein. And though it really shouldn't be coming as a shock, it takes Mal whole seconds before he breaks into a grin and is up and out of his chair, simultaneously wrapping a one-armed hug around Kaylee while pumping the doctor's hand.
"So, you're finally gonna make an honest woman of my mechanic, Doc?" he shoots boisterously at Simon. It's not so much a question as a statement, and the young man's reply is lost under a sudden barrage of noisy and somewhat lewd congratulatory remarks courtesy of Jayne, and the clear and happy ripple of Kaylee's laughter through the air.
River, however, makes not a sound. She sets about cutting up the cake but makes no move to dish it out. Afterwards she slips out from the table, kisses her brother, does to same to his now fiancée, and without a word trots out of the galley.
There is happiness in everything--the inevitability should not be mine to forgive, she thinks as she runs down the catwalk, taking the steps down and up again in long dancing leaps, reaching the darkened cockpit as the tears start to fall. But it happens...
Into Mal's chair--Wash's chair--she curls roughly, cupping hands over her eyes, letting the wetness steep into her skin. It moistens dark crumbs of cake that have wedged under her nails and River licks them away, tasting salt with the chocolate and a desperate sadness that is suddenly overwhelming. Her imagining of Kaylee as her brother's wife is quickly replaced with a strange memory of Saffron, of Saffron and the captain, then just of the captain--and that's when things go a bit fuzzy...
She whips around, coming face to face with the man himself, or rather his hand, holding out a slice of River's birthday cake on a napkin. "Saved you some," Mal says, taking River's palm awkwardly and transferring the slice as if it were precious cargo.
"Thanks." She picks a crumb off the end and sticks it on her tongue, then gives in as she catches the look the captain is giving her and begins to eat it properly. She blinks away a tear and swallows. "This is nice. Did Kaylee make it?"
"Think so." He shifts uncomfortably into a crouch. "River..."
Mal tips his head as he suddenly notices her stained cheeks. "You been crying?"
"Tears are just water, elements of something stained, something broken--sodium chloride, antibodies and lysozyme. Protection and lubrication of the eyes. The what is inconsequential. The why is the question."
"Well, it's the why I'm worried about, sweetheart." He frowns and brushes the hair out of her face. He can do that without asking; they have been flying together for so long a time now it no longer warrants a second thought. "We all wondered where you'd run to. Everyone's still down there. Even popped a couple bottles open."
He seems genuinely surprised at her mood. "Who? For you, River. And...now I guess Simon and little Kaylee as well. Nothin' wrong with a double celebration. You only turn nineteen once." He smiles encouragingly at her. "Even I'm not so old I can't remember that."
"And you only get engaged once too, right?"
He stands up. For a moment they look at each other and River can see the determination deep inside, a drive that on any other day would encompass the ship and his crew, but here, right now, is aimed at her alone. He reaches for her hand and gently pulls her upright.
"C'mon," Mal says, smiling into her eyes in such a way that River cannot help but smile in return. "Can't let those two silly lovebirds enjoy all the wine now, can we?"
The wine, it turns out, is not only of a quality for once above that of an industrial paint stripper, but potent in more ways than one. Simon and Kaylee have long since retired, and Jayne, who in normal circumstances would have happily stayed to drink anyone who was up for the challenge under the table, finds himself instead falling asleep on the said piece of furniture, and is pulled by a sober Zoe out of the galley, leaving Mal and River to finish the last quarter of the third bottle, and the one remaining slice of birthday cake.
"What do you--" River makes to speak around a mouthful of icing, but finding it too cumbersome dilutes the offending mouthful with the last dregs of wine from her glass. "What do you think Simon and...and..." She frowns, trying to extract the words from her more than slightly addled brain.
"And...?" Mal adds helpfully, pulling the bottle over and topping off both their glasses.
He gives her a watery stare, swallowing hard. "What do I think...what?"
"They're doing." She stares back, grasping the stem of her glass. "Right now."
He grins suddenly. "Need me to draw you a picture?"
"My imagination," River says languidly, biting her lip and finding it as blurry as her tongue, "will do perfectly well without your help, Captain Reynolds."
He's drunk, or getting dangerously near it. So is she, truth be told, but River knows she can snap into sobriety if and when she wants to. It's her brain, after all. Nothing more than flesh and blood.
But it's the when that's the problem. And right now, she quite happy keeping that right where it is.
Mal puts his glass aside. "So here's the thing. I'm workin' hard tryin' to understand you little River, and I think we can both agree I'm getting closer. An' don't get me wrong, it's not without its rewards." He stands up, tottering slightly, before grasping the back of his chair. "You're a damn fine pilot, and--though I can't say I think it's good for you to be doin' it--that little talent of yours which we were all witness to in the Maidenhead, it's...well, it's gotten me out of a scrape on more'n one occasion since, which, if I haven't thanked you for, I'm, well--" He pauses, knitting his brows together. "I'm...where was I?"
"You were thanking me."
"Yes. Yes indeed. Thank you."
She gets up, walks slowly around the table so they are standing face to face. She can smell the wine, and the chocolate, on Mal's breath, and thinks it not all that unpleasant. "Was that for reminding you, or was that actually thanking me?"
"Uh...both?" His eyes are dark, pupils ghosting shadows across the blue iris; it is the alcohol, River reminds herself. Just chemicals attacking the brain, loosening the body and fading its defences. His breath slows and he lets go of the chair, the moment of insecurity long gone.
Pheromones, she corrects, the gathering of. Not just the wine. "Appreciation is too forward, Captain. You should be more subtle." She shifts forward so he is pinned between her small frame and the table. "Speaking is easy. Showing is not."
"Subtle?" Mal's voice is a low vibration at her temple, but otherwise he moves not a muscle. "Believe you me, darlin', when I'm being subtle you'll know about it."
River leans into him bodily. "Silly man." She sighs and rubs her nose against his chest. He grunts in reply, wraps his arms around her and taps her gently on the back.
"So are you."
"It's my birthday. My big brother's gotten himself engaged." She peers up at him and smiles. "Did you get me a gift?"
"River." Mal peels himself away from her body, grasping her upper arms. "This ain't a good idea."
She meets him half way. "Good ideas don't come from wanting them."
Something beneath his gaze shifts. "Try me," River whispers, the smile leaving her face, replaced with something palpably sober. "Show a little faith."
It's as if she has seen the Sphinx and solved the riddle without thinking. A low noise escapes from the back of Mal's throat and before he can move again she presses up onto her toes and catches the sound with the tip of her tongue. His lips are dry, as warm as the wine deep in her belly, and with one arm wrapped over his shoulder she curls her mouth over his bottom lip and blows air across his jaw.
"That's..." He turns his head as she presses small kisses on his cheekbone, and she can hear the shallow rattle of his breath between each softly spoken word, "not quite what I was...expecting."
"What'cha gonna do about it?" She pulls away abruptly, letting the cold air hit his skin; watches behind the dark shadow of her fringe as it saps the moisture where her tongue and mouth have left their warm trail, and smiles at his shocked expression.
He cocks his head, thoughts working their way around the alcohol. "Um...go to bed?"
River laughs, and wrinkles her nose at him. Turning a neat pirouette, her hair whipping around in a long wide arc, she skips out on light and happy legs. "Goodnight, Mal."
She leaves him to the empty bottles and the crumbs of icing and the one remaining candle, burnt to a messy blob on the tabletop. What she doesn't see is the brief touch he presses with a thumb to his still damp lips, and the deep, slow smile that is left burning at the corners of his eyes.