Title: Soon Enough
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: All your Firefly and Serenity are belong to Joss Whedon.
Summary: A man can only hate himself for bein' accordin' to his nature for just so long before something has to give. 2600 words.
Ficathon Prompt: For srichard, Mal/River; Mal courting in some unexpected fashion, skittish River, and jealous Jayne.
Notes: SPOILERS for the Serenity movie. Unapologetic use of dialect.
Mal thinks carefully over what it is he means to say, glancin' sideways across the cockpit at the bright dagger of a woman he aims to teach the art of flying. "It ain't all buttons and charts, little albatross," he says, hands busy with the work of takin' the ship up out of atmo. "You know what the first rule of flying is?"
'Course she knows; he can't keep nothing from her. The question is, does she really want to hear it? "Well, I suppose you do," he says, giving her an out. "Since you already know what I'm about to say."
"I do," she replies. "But I like to hear you say it."
There's a hint of a glow in her eyes as she says that that makes him look away, swallow and flip a few more switches. There's more encouragement in that glance than in a year's worth of conversations with Inara; it unsteadies him a little, makes his heart pound in his chest.
"Love," he tells her, his voice a mite hoarse.
He ain't just talking about the ship. Girl and boat, they're part and parcel of the same thing these days; Serenity's always talked to him after her own fashion, but never as clear as since River Tam came on board. Can't hardly run his hands over the boards these days, nor touch the walls of his cabin, without rememberin' that day she'd been the ship. He'd been dazed from the blow he'd took, a mite confused as to what was goin' on, and there she'd been, all talk of meltin' away and askin' him to trust her. He'd wondered, just for a bit, what it would mean for them in the future: if every little thing as went wrong with the engine would pain her, if she'd be able to warn them when folk crept aboard as shouldn't, if every brush against cool, worn metal would be like a caress of lost, velvet-warm flesh.
"You can learn all the math in the 'verse," he continues, glancin' back over to take in the length of pale leg exposed as she curls up in her chair and the sweet smile of a girl relearning the meaning of freedom. "But you take a boat in the air you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds."
She's tore up plenty, Zoë'd told him, but she'll fly true. It was true of Zoë, and it were true of the ship-- but it were even more true of River. Alliance had made of her a weapon, but she'd turned in their hands and cut them; it were Simon-- and Mal, on Niska's skyplex-- that she'd been willin' to act for. Had to love this girl before she could be whole.
"Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens," he adds, willin' her to understand. Ain't been so long since he kicked her off his ship in the interests of protection; he won't push her away again, but he expects it to take time before she'll fully trust him to be there to catch her. He hadn't made the connection then, hadn't believed she could handle the other sort of Serenity as well as the one that carried them. But as he'd had his Valley, so she'd had hers, and come out triumphant. No sense tryin' to shield her from his demons anymore.
"Makes her a home," he admits, then trails off into silence.
He knows what the Shepherd would say about the images runnin' through his mind at that statement, would even have paid heed to it once upon a time. But a man can only hate himself for bein' accordin' to his nature for just so long before something has to give. That moment he'd seen her backlit against the Alliance invasion, Reaver weapons drippin' from her hands, had been a revelation. She'd given him back his purpose-- then she'd given him permission to follow his heart.
"Storm's getting worse," she says by way of reply, looking up through the windows at the pelting rain.
Mal hears the caution in the words-- this won't be easy-- but it ain't the outright rejection he'd been fearing. The sweet burn of hope is like a fire in his blood, leadin' him to do what he almost never does: make a promise he intends to keep.
"We'll pass through it soon enough," he says, and means every word.
It ain't as easy as all that, of course. He ain't no Prince Charming, and there ain't no 'Happily Ever After' waitin' in the wings. She smiles at him at dinner a little more than she used to, takes to her lessons in the cockpit with an excitement he glories to behold, and needs less and less of the drugs her brother administers, but she's still as skittish as a wild creature over this thing between them.
Inara stays, and that's a blessing in ways he didn't expect; she don't push at him no more, and they've settled into a surprisingly comfortable routine. She's mother and confessor for their motley crew again, sparring gently with him over dinner, runnin' a brush through Kaylee's hair, and hemming pretty dresses for River. Zoë spends more time with her, even as Mal spends less, aware of dark eyes on him; he'd never thought his first mate one to appreciate fine tea and female conversation, but she unbends a little more after every visit and he ain't one to argue with results.
Their first job after Miranda comes to them by way of Beaumonde, and after it's all through he spends some time wanderin' the stalls near the docks. Fanty and Mingo had survived the slaughter without connectin' the dots between Serenity and the chaos, and though he'd had to eat that forty-percent they'd hiked their rates to, enough had been left over for him to buy a few bits and bobs out of his cut. Operative had seen to it their ship were fixed and fueled enough they aren't scraping for food to keep her aloft, and he thinks the ladies deserve a little festivity after all they've been through.
For Kaylee, he picks up a length of pink silk ribbon and an odd-size wrench; she's been makin' do for awhile now, bitchin' about it off and on, and he knows she'll appreciate it. For Inara, he finds a sachet of her favorite blend of tea, sort of a gesture toward tellin' her he ain't going to fight about her job no more. Zoë, he buys new boots and a silver baby's rattle; he's seen the signs, though she ain't admitted to nothing yet, and though his feelings are mixed he wants her to know she has his support. River's gift takes him longer to find, but in the end, he's sure he's made the right choice.
She has dresses aplenty, though most are borrowed, and seems to put no stock in the usual feminine frippery. She still wanders barefoot aboard the ship most days, hidin' herself away in nooks and crannies when not flying, and runs her hands reverently over the dinosaurs still at watch where Wash left them. She collects no shinies of her own. One thing she lacks, though, that she ought to have, is her own gun. He wants her to know he's leavin' control of things in her hands, and can think of no better way to show her.
He purposely fills his mind with distractin' things when he returns to the ship, dwellin' on the rattle and what it'll mean for the rest of the crew, picturin' a baby with dusky skin and Wash's eyes. For once, it works; when he pulls the gifts out after dinner, she turns to Zoë first, watchin' with knowing eyes, no trace of anticipation for her own sake.
Kaylee, whose whole world has been Simon these last few weeks, gasps in surprise when she sees the telling gift, then squeals with joy when she receives her own treasures. Inara seems momentarily surprised by the sachet of tea, then gives him a tremulous, luminous smile; he feels a tiny pang of loss at the look, knowin' she got his meaning, before he turns at last to River.
Her eyes are narrowed still, darting between him and 'Nara. He shakes his head at her, smilin' gently, then proffers the last package.
River's eyes widen as she takes in the shape of the carefully wrapped gift. She snatches the paper away, exposin' the chrome-finished barrel of the weapon, then grabs it up and holds it close to her chest. There's a hint of wildness in her expression as she looks back up at him, but she's wearin' a smile. "No touching guns, you said," she reminds him.
"I think you proved you know your way around the business end of one," he reassures her. "Thought you ought to have one of your own now, not have to rely on borrowin' ours. That is, if you want to come along on jobs again. Even if you don't use it, it'd be safer if you went in armed."
"Safer for who, us or them?" Jayne interrupts irritably.
"I thought she was the pilot now," Simon puts in, all brotherly and protective. "After what happened on the last job--"
"--We surely know she can defend herself," Mal replies, calmly. "All I'm sayin' is, it's up to her. It's her gun, and she's a member of this crew." Don't matter what Simon thinks; her opinion's all that matters on the subject.
"Thank you," River says quietly, and when he looks back to her there's a light in her eyes that makes his heart swell and his pants fit tighter than usual.
"You're welcome," he replies, a bemused smile tugging at his lips. He knows he must look like a fool, but he don't much care.
Inara chokes on her wine, but when Mal glances over she's got a bright smile in place, a bit more plastic than before but no less warm. Zoë raises an eyebrow at him, as good as any lecture; he raises both of his back, makin' his stance clear, and she nods slowly in acceptance.
It takes Jayne a few more days to pick up on the subtext. Mal, a crack shot his own self, is down to the cargo bay when he figures it out, helpin' River with her new pistol; she's zhen de shi tiancai with guns already, but wants to practice actin' from intention rather than off of Alliance programming. Only makes sense to Mal. When she starts shootin', he wants her to be certain sure she'll be able to stop the second she wants to.
Jayne steps out into the bay with a towel over his shoulder, headin' for his weight-liftin' bench, then stops dead in his tracks, an ugly leer on his face. He don't say anything, but River stiffens in Mal's arms anyway, then takes a step away from him, wrappin' her arms around her own body as if she's taken a chill. "I don't belong to anyone," she says in a strained voice, conveyin' worlds of meaning in her own elliptical fashion. "Not anymore."
"Of course you don't," Mal reassures her. "You're not property, and I'll kill anyone says different." He sends her off to the cockpit, offerin' to help her again later, then turns to the still-waitin' mercenary.
"You want to tell me what your problem is, Jayne?" he asks the man, bristlin' more than a little. He still don't rightly know why he took the merc on in the first place, but he's been mostly trustworthy in the years since; still, there've been a few incidents, and Mal has to wonder if this'll be another.
"It just ain't right," Jayne says, starin' off after River with a frown on his face.
"What ain't right about it?" Mal asks with a snort. "The fact she's got her own gun now? Ain't like she couldn't take you down a peg or two without it."
Jayne shakes his head again, and when he turns to back to Mal his jaw is set and his eyes flashin'. "You got 'Nara and Zoë already," he says. "Neither one of 'em is ever gonna give me the time of day. Why you gotta take her too? Now she's sane, I thought I might have a chance of gettin' me some at last-- she's a right tasty woman, and even deadlier than my Vera."
"I ain't took nothing," Mal growls, "and 'less you want to find yourself out the airlock again, you won't neither, dong ma?"
Jayne grumbles, but he still ain't the alpha male on this ship, and he knows it. "Ain't right, is all I'm sayin'," he mumbles, then takes his towel and strides back into the ship proper.
Mal shakes his head and makes his way after River, wonderin' how sore his jaw will be when it's Simon's turn to figure it all out. If there's anything still to figure out, that is. He knows, more'n he wants to, about the many harsh hands that have touched River since she left Osiris a lifetime ago; no small wonder she's been skittish of trustin' herself fully to anyone not her brother. Havin' Jayne's fantasies thrust rudely in her head can't have done her any good.
"It's all right," she says as he passes through the dinin' area, catchin' him off guard.
He jumps a little, startled, then turns to the loungin' chairs where she's curled up with a mug of coffee. "What's all right, little one?" he asks, taking a seat of his own not too near her.
"What Jayne thinks doesn't matter," she says, setting her mug down on the table. Then-- before he can do more than sit back a little in alarm-- she's swarmed into his lap, straddlin' his legs, crinkled blue skirt rucked up on pale thighs. "You've done me enough good to make up for it."
"I have?" he blinks, startled at the turn-about in their little chase.
"You have," she assures him warmly, then leans forward and ever so gently touches feather-soft lips to his.
He's still sittin' there, eyes closed in satisfaction, when he hears Zoë's boots clunkin' across the floor some minutes later. "You all right, sir?" she asks, and he can hear the puzzlement in her voice.
"I'm doin' just fine," he replies, openin' his eyes with a heartfelt sigh. He feels like a damnfool boy again, daydreamin' after a kiss-and-run from a shy girl he'd danced with at a hoe-down on a neighboring ranch, but he don't mind: he feels more alive now than he has in a great many years, and it's a liberatin' feeling. Hardly a wonder Zoë'd latched on to Wash the way she did, nor grieves so hard now, with this sort of emotion at the root of it.
Zoë gives him a skeptical look, standin' there with one hand curved absently over her still-flat stomach. "If you say so, sir," she says, shakes her head, and then moves on.
"I'm doin' just fine," Mal repeats to himself, and starts plottin' his next meeting with River. He has a hardbound copy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his bunk, tucked away under Book's recovered Bible; she knows the text of the albatross poem by heart, of course, but he thinks she'll treasure the physical reminder.
More'll come when it comes. 'Til then, he has Serenity-- and they'll pass through it soon enough.
zhen de shi tiancai -- an absolute genius
dong ma? -- understand?