Title: An Imperfect Vision

A/N: Sequel to The Perfect Job (i.e. well - post BDM)

Disclaimer: The story and characters do not belong to me...

Summary: River has a vision that changes everything... M/R

Chapter One: The Vision

River woke and inhaled a sharp painful breath. She listened to the ship's pulse and waited for the space around her to settle; For dream to separate from reality and foresight to sharpen into clarity.

The angry voices from her dream still lingered in the air and as River rose from her bed she walked through them like trails of smoke. She stood undressed in the very center of her bunk, completely still. Listening to the thoughts that floated through Serenity's recycled air. With her own characteristic sudden grace, she moved. She had only barely pulled the slip over her head as she emerged into the hall.

No one surprised her, she could not be surprised. At least not in that sense. The dream she'd just swam her way out of had shaken her in a different way. A memento mori given so suddenly could hardly be sweetly taken.

There was nothing left to do, of course. The future, the truth, was as it would be. Any attempt to escape or evade it only served to make the last tastes bitter where it could have been lush, ragged where it had meant to be smooth. What was there now to do but pick her way through the coming moments like choosing stones when crossing a stream?

River walked the ship's hallways, a loving hand on her hull as ghost memories faded in and out of her path. So much joy, so much pain; it was no wonder the girl River had been when she'd first come onboard Serenity hadn't been able to make herself leave.

But she was no girl now.

"Little early for a stroll, isn't it darlin'?"

His voice did not startle her. Some small heat from his breath or beating heart had already touched her arm before his voice could travel the distance to her ears. The lazy warmth of it melted into her and made her put a hand to her stomach. She wanted to remember this feeling, wanted to capture it as it was now before the rush of it became swamped in regrets.

River looked up over her shoulder where the Captain stood leaning on the railing with his first cup of coffee cradled in his hands. Serenity was his home and he looked so wonderful when he was at home in her. River inhaled carefully, breathing in this moment... One she recognized from her vision; one of the last. She nearly pointed her toe as she imagined that she would be making the first step into that stream now... One step closer now to her fate.

River did not speak quickly when she could help it... nor did she respond without weighing carefully her own intentions. It was disconcerting to most people, she knew. Most people never expected anyone to truly listen to them; took for granted that they did not need to take care with their words so that the intentions were still intact. It was why one could be so lonely even when surrounded by crowds of people.

"Early here." River smiled gently, "But it is near lunch on Eden."

The Captain was not disconcerted when she took her time. He had a gift for patience; particularly when it was truly necessary. 'We're in it - past deep' he'd explained to Jayne during one such instance as their cover was being ripped to shreds by flying bullets and the merc had been naggin' him, 'I figure if two extra seconds makes the difference in her figuring how to get us back to having a future - I'll rather give her the two extra gorram seconds, dong ma?'

The Captain smiled and she felt comfort and peace in him as he stood back from the railing. He expected her to speak as she did, it made him happy when things followed his expectations, "Eden ain't even near our time, and you know it."

River obediently took her cue, "Will be soon."

Captain's thoughts sped up, but there was yet no anxiety, "Is that right?" River turned so that she faced the side of the ship as Mal started down the stairs, "You know if'n its a job that takes us there?"

River nodded, "You'll find the job... and look for a pilot."

River felt his thoughts give a sudden jump again but, still, he refused to be baited, "Already have a pilot, River. Looks a lot like you- tends to talk in riddles and dance on tables."

River cocked her head to the side, considering this, "No more tables, only stars and memories."

Mal frowned, "All right, I'm about done with the riddles, River. Speak plain."

"I'll be gone soon."

"All right. Uh- maybe if you could add a few more words to that-"

River turned her face away from him, "It's gone wrong now. I've lost the choice."

Captain stared at her - no closer to learning her meaning, "You always have a choice. River -"

"Choice is an illusion of control we don't have," she said petulantly and almost smiled again at the annoyance her comment caused in the air around Mal. River continued before he could growl out her name aloud like he was doing in his mind, "I had a dream tonight- saw the truth and I can't turn away from it, you know I can't."

Mal set his coffee cup down on a crate and approached the girl cautiously, "And what is the truth, Reader?"

River avoided the question and muttered, "I don't want to leave," more to herself than to him.

"Then don't," there was a distinct edge to Mal's tone now. River saw that he could tell something was very wrong and he could tell that she was being elusive on purpose but his mind was tired - he'd been having nightmares too. River caught a glimpse of one - Reavers tearing into flesh before his voice distracted her, "Of all the feng la - I think that genius mind of yours just complicates things that don't need complicating."

River stared at a piece of scrap that had gotten stuck between the grate and the hull, trying to pull her senses together. It was so hard with the Captain so near, everything that she loved about him hovering so temptingly in the air. For once nothing from the dead or the living layered and masked what she read from him. For once it was just the two of them in her mind, as if she were a whole person.

Well maybe not quite whole yet.

Disappointment sang through her as she realized that she was as whole now as she would ever be. Never more than a stray on a - River felt Mal reach the wrong conclusion a moment too late to stop him. She reprimanded herself for letting her thoughts wander and waited patiently so that she could hear him say what she already knew he was going to.

Mal crossed his arms over his chest, "You ready to break free, gain back what they took from you- I understand that. You don't have to have an excuse to leave this boat. Just say the word." Mal continued more gently, "You have a right to make a life, girl - you don't owe anybody anything."

"I owe no one," River agreed sadly, "I am no one's. I feel nothing but ache, Captain. I carry memories of a hundred thousand lives and all of them are more real than my own. I don't belong on Serenity. I don't belong anywhere but Serenity."

Mal stared at her for a long moment then ran his hands through his hair, "You're not making sense, darlin'."

River met his eyes. She felt the tears veil her vision but she did not look away. Mal narrowed his, and for the first time in her life she felt someone read her mind, "You listen here, sweetheart- you thinkin' of jumpin into the black, you'll have to go through me."

"I won't go gently," River promised, her bottom lip shaking.

Mal's mind finally clicked, and he struggled with patience again, "Your dream wasn't about leaving Serenity, your dream was about dying, is that what you're telling me?"

"Wasn't just a dream."

River felt Mal hold onto his temper with his last vestiges of control, "Look, River, sweetheart. I imagine this happens plenty often, right? You see danger coming for one of us. And you warn us. And we change what will be- we change the truth."

"No."

Mal spread open his arms in exasperation, "You're telling me it ain't never happened that you dreamed one of us was going to be hurt and you stopped it? Well geez, what the hell do we keep you around for -"

River raised her voice to interrupt him, "When there is hope, the picture is multiplied - like a deck of cards on a table. I sift through to find a way to bring the family home safe. When there is no choice, there is only one image- and it is knowledge."

The burst of passion that brushed past her mind like an angry wind surprised her - it had been part of the dream as well - but she hadn't quite understood it. She turned to face the Captain fully and searched his eyes for more. But he'd already harnessed whatever it was and gave her only a challenge, "How."

River shook her head, "I am cradled in the lap of a great tree. I feel the blood dripping, the last sliver of a sun sinks into a sea and then my heart starves and Simon sends me to sleep with the stars."

"So thats it is it? There ain't nothing you're gonna try to do and stop it? Like stay on the gorram ship until this... vision... passes maybe?"

The anger in his voice doesn't hurt her. She fights the urge sniff into the air to seek any lingering scent of the emotion before... the emotion that was not anger or frustration. Resignedly, River concentrates on answering her Captain, "If I stay on the ship then staying on the ship will lead to the end. If I leave, then leaving the ship will lead to the end. I am not trying to be difficult. Serenity saved my life and I would spend that life repaying you if I could."

Mal made an angry gesture with his hand, "I told you - you don't - " owe me a gorram thing. She heard the finished sentence though he'd stopped himself as he replayed what she'd said moments earlier. He wasn't bothering to hide his temper now and River loved the way his voice vibrated with it, "Fine. You owe me, River. Thats right and certain. And you ain't even close to done working off that debt."

She sensed his rebellion, so she wanted to be clear, needed to be clear, "Captain, it will not change." She took a beat as she heard his plan take shape in his mind, "You don't need to deny the job. It is not what leads to my death."

He glared at her for a moment then suddenly where there had been intense heat, there was only coolness and control, "Then what does exactly?"

River hated when he pulled his emotion back like that, "I don't know."

They stared at each other for so long that River wondered if she wasn't still locked in her dream. Suddenly he lifted his finger to point to her chest and gave her a hard look, "You're confined to your bunk whenever you're not piloting. If you sense trouble, you hide. Thats an order, an order that stands until there's a different card on the table, dong ma?"

River didn't bother to repeat to him that that didn't happen, wouldn't happen. She nodded because it is what he needed for her to do.

"And start stockpiling some blood." He snapped at her and he turned away. She stared after him, less concerned for the moment in her fate than with the complexities of her Captain's emotion; and if she had just glimpsed what she'd been longing for since she'd regained full possession of her mind.

The irony of the possibility nearly stopped her breath. She stood absolutely still in the belly of her only home and sought comfort that simply would not come. She stood there until the wave came offering the job in Eden and it was time for her to change their course.

to be continued...