catch your breath
hit the wall
scream out loud
as you start to crawl
back in your cage
the only place
where they will
leave you alone
cause the weak will seek the weaker till they've broken them
could you get it back again
would it be the same
fulfillment to their lack of strength at your expense
left you with no defense
they tore it down
and I have felt the same
as you I've felt the same
as you I've felt the same

Simon, by Lifehouse

Mal has always loved the view from the pilot's seat, the way the lights from the console bathe the room in a rainbow hue of dim light, the cockpit silent except for the hum of Serenity's controls, space laid out before him in all its vast possibilities. Used to be, he'd come up here alone after everyone went to bed and lounge back in the seat, mug of tea in one hand, the other resting on the control board, and gaze out on the quietness of space.

Used to be.

He rubs at his eyes, heaves a sigh, and tries laying the trajectory again. He'd forgotten how much work this was. Wash'd always made it look so easy.

There's movement to his left, a slight, swaying motion. River sits in the co-pilot's seat, silent and at ease, seemingly entranced by the twinkling stars that spread out before them.

"She's happy," River says conversationally, as if the statement had some sort of context. "Dancing lights and clicking buttons and hands that know."

He takes her meaning well enough—he often does, these days—odd and out of the black as her words might be.

"Still don't feel right, sittin' here," he mutters with a shake of his head.

"It makes her happy. She loved Wash, but it was you who gave her life, you she wants to touch her."

He pauses in his calculations, turns his head to look at her. "Told you that, did she?" He raises a sarcastic brow with the question, but he's known River long enough now that he can't simply dismiss her strange notions.

Her eyes stray to the console, fingers caressing controls with slow, lingering love. "Time moved on, but the man in the valley never did, and so she stayed."

"That a fact?" He shifts a bit, eyeing her more carefully now.

There's something odd in her eyes, the set of her face as she gazes at him now. There's a depth there, a weight that he feels sure as he feels his own heartbeat. And then and there, in that meeting of their eyes, something changes.

She rises from her seat, drifting toward him with that odd smile, fingers sliding over the dash as she moves toward him. Close. So close he can smell mystery and girlishness beneath fresh soap.

Her eyes are huge, luminous by the light of the dash, and he feels himself pinned by their piercing gaze. There are times when she looks at him and he feels like she can see right through him, right down to the heart of him. He's never liked it much. He's never liked anybody gettin' in that deep without his say so. But he can't exactly run, now can he? Wouldn't be seemly.

"No one ever cared," she says softly, and now her fingers trail across his hand, up the length of his arm. "Came and went, touched the skin but not the soul."

"They treated her like an object." Her hands leave him, rise and tangle in the wilds of her hair. "Cold hands in her mind, cold minds in her heart. She forgot to be alive." Her hands fall from her hair, and she shakes her head side to side, sadness and madness that breaks his heart.

"Coats of brown and hands of blue."

She shudders as she speaks this last, and his thin voice of reason steps out for a moment, hand reaching to touch her arm. Her skin is smooth and warm, and he is suddenly, shockingly, aware of how soft it is. Ever since Miranda, things've been different between them, and it's weird how quick "different" can start to feelin' like normal. But this don't feel normal. Not even a little bit. This feels... dangerous.

"River. Darlin'. This ain't—"

"Sanctuary!" Her voice is loud with abrupt insistence, startling him into silence. She pauses, frowning, and then she smoothes again, the change rolling over her like a slow wave. "You gave her peace." Soft again, gentle. "Took her in, gave her home and family." She contemplates for a moment, eyes flickering, then holding as she leans in toward him.

"Sometimes she wishes she was flesh, so she could love you like a woman should a man."

"Well now. That sounds a mite dirty, darlin'." His voice is strained and low, nearly a whisper, and her body is entirely too close to his. Breath, warm and sweet over his lips, and oh, she's only a girl, just a lost, broken, beautiful girl and even the Special Hell would be a mercy on his soul if he forgot that for the span of a heartbeat.

"Not lost. She understands more than you think." Her eyes are bright and solemn as she regards him.

And with those words, she pierces through the thin protection of his moral armor completely, his mind finally catching on to what his heart's known all along. Images flash through his mind—River touching the ship, listening to its secrets, dancing to its song. His secrets, his song.

Dark eyes so wide and deep as they look upon him, a breathtaking maelstrom of innocence and terrible wisdom. She is seventeen and seventy-three, and he has never felt so lost and found as he is right now. He stares into those eyes, transfixed by their intensity, fascinated by his own. Reaches out and touches her face.

"More than she ever should've had to," he says.

The ghost of a smile, there and gone in the blink of an eye. And then she leans to kiss him, soft mouth trembling against his, slippery and salty-sweet. Taste of darkness, bitter beneath the swell of innocence, vision of buildings stark white beneath Miranda's sun, jagged edges cutting against the impossibly blue sky.

"Wuh de tyen ah," he whispers as she draws away. He reaches for her—give me my sin again—and in that moment, he'd give anything just to be able to have this. This moment with this girl; this sweetness, this comfort, this understanding. He forces himself to stop, fingers halting just scant centimeters from her skin. Pulls back, hands shaking, and breathes deep.

"Any more than that and I'll be breaking the law on thirty-seven worlds."

She smiles, that devilish little-girl grin that beams dangerous light into his heart. "Wordless," she says.

"Ain't feelin' too wordy myself, after that," he admits, and River laughs.

And then he hears her voice again inside his mind. Not wordless. Worldless.

He bows his head, lowers his eyes. "Much as I wish—"

She lays a finger over his lips, stilling the words.

"She knows."

Two words. Two words that could have a thousand different meanings, and yet, he understands intrinsically.

And suddenly she smiles, like the sun bursting from behind gray clouds, eyes traveling the contours of the room with slowly blooming reverence.

"She's happy," River concludes with a nod, and then turns away.

Long after she's gone, Mal can see her in his mind's eye, drifting through the corridors of Serenity.

Worldless. It's an appealing truth, an invitation wrapped in his own unique brand of rebellion. Out here, beyond the rules of the Alliance and the trappings of what they called "civilization", law didn't have any kind of real meaning. Hell, he uses that lack of law to their advantage on a daily basis. But fine a line as he might walk, there was still the question of morality and whether or not a fella could look at himself in the mirror in the morning without hearing the voice of a Shepherd ringing special hellfire in his ears.

Shepherd's dead.

Don't matter, he thinks back. Don't make it right.

He wonders if anything can make right the heat she left inside him in her wake.


He starts, turning as Zoe enters the cockpit.

"Everything alright?" she asks, arching a narrow brow.

"Fine. Fine," he says patting the console. "Just, uh. You know."

"Falling asleep?" she asks, her brow arching a bit higher, a sly smile creeping onto her lovely face.

"Yes!" he says, jumping to his feet. "That's exactly it," he goes on, pointing a finger at her as if she's just hit on the most remarkable idea he's heard in an age, and Zoe recoils from him just slightly, that faint smile growing wider.

"I need sleep." He glances around, smoothes his clothes and straightens, nodding. "You can watch the controls, right?"

"Sure can, sir," Zoe nods, contemplating him with bemusement.

"Good," he says brightly, walking toward the door. He pauses in the doorway, turns to look back at her. "I'll be in my bun—"

He stops. Blinks once. "Showering," he says in that same bright, empty tone.

"Showering in your bunk. Got it, sir."

He shakes his head, turns his back on Zoe's Cheshire Cat smile, and gets the hell out of there.

The engine room is empty and dark save the yellow-orange glow of the heart of the ship itself, turning over and over in a low, steady hum that never fails to make him smile.

He stands there for a long time, letting the sound wash over him. He knows he shouldn't linger here, should get to his room. He's already walked by the infirmary, the kitchen, the cargo bay and the lounge. Everyone else is in bed, all is well. But he doesn't move, just stands there, fingers resting on the doorway to the engine room. He can feel the vibration of machinery trembling within the metal, thrumming against his hand.

River floats down the hall, tasting the texture of smooth metal pipes with trailing fingertips, head tilted slightly to the side, mouth curved in a gentle, absent smile. She hardly seems to notice Mal at all—glancing eyes meeting for an instant as they pass—and then she sweeps along, humming softly under her breath. He stills and turns to watch her, her body drifting in time with the ship's rhythms, head tilted as she listens to its voice, touching its secrets and finding each of them beautiful and sacred.

Mal doesn't float through the halls--captains don't float, as a rule--but he hears Serenity's melody in his mind, feels her song burn in his blood, and her rhythms and secrets are his own.

Funny how none of that ever occurred to him 'til tonight.

River halts her step, white cotton dress swirling around her knees as she slowly turns toward him. She looks at him, frowning, then nods once, as if finding agreement with herself. "The cycles of rotation are too far apart."

He nods back with something like real regret. "Don't I know it." It doesn't even occur to him to question how completely he takes her meaning. Too many years between them… he knows, knows far too well. Just like he knows they'd stopped talking about Serenity a long time before River'd kissed him.

River nods again, pirouettes and spins away, light and lithe upon her feet.

His hand strays to the engine room doorway again, fingers lighting upon that steady pulse.

Home is the hum of Serenity beneath his fingertips, her life force thrumming through the halls and corridors, faint electricity always dancing on the air. On Earth That Was, they used to say "home is where the heart is", and that's a sentiment he reckons to be true. But like the Shepherd told him once, Serenity is more than the place that keeps his heart, she IS his heart. Alive and beating and free, gliding through the black, daring planets and places that even the Alliance fears to go.

He watches River drift away, the lines between ship and girl and man blurring in his mind.

She's happy.

And maybe, out here in the black, that's the most any of them could hope for.