A/N: This leads into the sequel, which I'm also in the process of writing, and the sequel is Mal/River. This story, while not directly Mal/River, definitely leads toward that, while the sequel (Tears of the Fallen) goes into the romance. This also has a bit of Simon/Kaylee.
Also thanks to my mom (who is in the medical profession) for medical advice. Any errors are mine and mine alone.
Most Chinese translations were taken from various posters at fireflyfans website.
Disclaimer: It's not mine. I'm only playing in this world. Firefly and Serenity belong to Joss Whedon, Fox, Mutant Enemy, and Universal.
The month following Inara's death had not been an easy one, especially on Malcolm Reynolds. River missed Inara, too—Inara had always been there supporting her without question. She had comforted River from nightmares in the months following her escape from the Academy, had stood up for her when others had been more leery. Still, River's grief was nothing compared to Mal's. She knew that the captain was used to death. He had seen darkness, been to the edge. He had lost soldiers and friends, and he knew, better than anyone, that death was inevitable.
That did not make it easier.
Mal suffered in silence, or what would have been silence to anyone normal. River could hear his pain in her head during the day when she flew Serenity, or during the night when she tossed and turned in her bed and tried to sleep. Mal didn't want comfort. After delivering Inara's body to her grandfather on Sihnon, he pressed on, losing himself in jobs, trying to talk and act normally, but there was a hollowness to it that River had never seen in Mal, not even after Book and Wash died. Then, he'd had a purpose, something to vindicate their deaths. In Inara's case, there were no monsters for Mal to lash out at, nothing to avenge. She had just been sick. She had hidden her disease well, but eventually it caught up to her, very shortly after the events surrounding Miranda.
River was in a position, more than anyone else, to interpret Mal's moods, because he was in her head, whether either of them wanted it or not. She knew when he just wanted to be left alone, or when he wanted company, even though he would never ask for it. He got used to her popping up during those times, sitting near him with a book or sketchpad in hand, allowing him his silence while letting him know that he wasn't alone. She seriously gave him a scare the time she made her way into his bunk uninvited during the middle of the night, mostly asleep and thus very disoriented, and laid a hand on his shoulder to wake him from his nightmares. She hadn't even remembered starting out for his bunk, and only vaguely remembered clambering down his ladder.
Of course, Mal woke up with a yell and took a swing at her that only missed because of her quick reflexes. He saw who was in front of him and let out a string of expletives. "River! What the hell are you doing down here?"
River sank to her knees, feeling rather dazed. What was she doing down here? "Sleepwalking," she realized. Her dreams had been… "You were calling."
Mal sighed and sank down onto his bed, running his hand through his already-rumpled hair so that it stuck up on only half of his head. "Wasn't doing no such thing."
"Your pain," she said. She stretched her hand out, resting her fingertips on his chest, feeling the tension bunched up in all of his muscles. "I feel it here. And here." She pulled her hand back and touched her forehead. "It wants to be let out." She sighed, very tired. She couldn't help feeling everything. She knew it, understood the science of what had been done to her. Mal might not understand the science completely, but he knew what she experienced every day. He knew it wore on her sometimes. "You were having nightmares. They invaded my sleep." She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling cold.
Mal rubbed his hand across his face. "River…"
"I'm sorry," she whispered, dragging herself to her feet, though her head swam dizzyingly with regrets and anger and loss that weren't hers. "I didn't mean to…" She turned helplessly toward the ladder and stepped onto the bottom rung, the cold metal pressing into her bare feet. She stopped and closed her eyes. "She needed it. She needed to know that she was loved. Not just…not just a desire of men's sexual fantasies, the illusion of love. You gave that to her, even if you don't think anything ever came of it. You gave her the courage to hold on, to face what she knew was coming. Love makes life worthwhile." Tears slipped unbidden down her cheeks and dampened the collar of her nightdress. She opened her eyes and looked at Mal. Almost plaintively, she asked, "Don't you think it's better to have loved her?"
Mal's eyes narrowed. "I ain't particularly keen on discussing this."
"I know. I just…" Mal had wondered whether it was stupid of him to have loved Inara in the first place, whether he just could have avoided a whole lot of pointless heartache if he hadn't been so stupid. River had never loved anyone that way, romantically, and she wasn't sure what would be worse—to love someone and never get to express it, or to express it and then lose it. Was Mal mourning just Inara, or was he mourning unrequited love? "I know what the darkness is like, Captain, the same as you. We both lived there for a long, long time. I know why you're there now."
Mal closed his eyes, and River knew her words had affected him. He knew what she meant. He knew all about the darkness. He knew, the same as she did, that time healed all wounds, but it could leave some nasty scars behind. Zoe understood this, too, but she wouldn't say it to Mal. Jayne, who had known some shadows of his own, would never be caught dead spouting words of consolation at Mal. Simon was too clinical. Kaylee was the most empathetic person River knew, and she could try to comfort Mal, but she couldn't understand the darkness. No matter how many awful things Kaylee witnessed, she had a light that didn't die out. Which was why River had to say it to him.
Silently, he waved her out, and without another word, she scrambled the rest of the way out of his room and closed the hatch. She leaned against the wall, hand pressed to her heart, tears still in her eyes. When some of the emotion had settled inside of her, she made her way back to her own room and fell into bed. She curled on her side, resigned herself to a long haul of raging thoughts, and tried to sleep. Mal didn't go back to sleep. River was startled awake during the night several times by strong thoughts from him, as he wrestled with himself, and she was awake when she felt something in his mind snap. She wasn't sure exactly what it was, but something in him had broken, hopefully allowing him to truly mourn Inara.
The next morning, she found him sitting in the mess, nursing a whiskey, looking as bad as she felt. He didn't say anything to her, but turned up one corner of his mouth in a would-be smile as she settled beside him, sketchpad in hand, and she understood.
Smiling to herself, she watched Simon and Kaylee laughing at the table, their hands connected over the top of it. She focused on their hands and began to sketch the way their fingers were intertwined…just like their lives, shared, in a circle that went on and would continue to live in the legacy of the child growing within Kaylee. Kaylee hadn't told anyone except Simon yet, and River wondered what Mal would think when he found out there was going to be a baby on Serenity soon.
The weeks passed, and the pain of Inara's loss grew less, for all of them, until the day finally came when Mal woke up in the morning without thinking about her first thing—River could hear his thoughts rolling over her, wondering about the contact they would be meeting, the things Mal needed to do to prepare for the meeting. And throughout the day, while Inara crossed his mind once or twice, it wasn't painful or regretful. It was a relief to River, who felt as though she had mourned Inara right along with Mal, just as she had with Zoe when Wash first died.
It wasn't easy, but they got through the worst of it. Love went on, even when things seemed empty and hopeless.