Title: Voices

Author: just slummin

Disclaimer: I own none of these characters, but I can think of some interesting uses for a

couple of them.

Rating: T

Pairing: Mal/River

Summary: One voice River hears she intends to do something about.

Malcolm Reynolds was tired. Not the kind of tired that gets fixed by a little more bunktime, but a bone-deep exhaustion that made even breathing an effort. It was three months since the fight with the Operative and the Miranda broadcast and yet his body and mind seemed still to be conspiring against him to sap the last drop of his formidable will.

But for all his own troubles, he concentrated more on the welfare of his remaining crew. Though everyone else was concerned for Zoe, he didn't really worry about her. He grieved with her, as he had done during and after Serenity Valley. Bur he knew that Zoe would always land on her feet. He trusted implicitly the fire that burned so brightly in her. Even now, he could see that she had pulled her grief into the inferno in her heart. It would either be scattered to ashes there, or more likely, he suspected, forged into her backbone like pure steel. It was a quality he both admired and envied. And it was why he never worried overmuch about his first mate.

Kaylee and Simon, too, had come out of the crucible stronger. Kaylee, as always, carried her grief for Wash and Book out in the open where the light of her personality would eventually turn it into something bearable. Mal had to credit Simon for some of that light now though. A more unlikely couple he had never seen, but he couldn't argue with the results of their newfound passion. And for some unconscious reason, he did not feel a strong need to rant about crew relationships anymore.

And then there was Inara. Two weeks after returning to the Black, he had found himself in the crew lounge with a lapful of Inara. She was lost, she'd said, as he held her close. He listened as she poured out all her fears and disillusionment. He supposed Miranda had been her Serenity Valley, and she was casting about for any firm footing. He had once imagined that if she ever came to him, open and vulnerable, he would be the happiest man in the 'verse. Instead, he only felt pity and a sort of quiet desperation for them both. He would have been shocked by the feeling had he been able to work up enough energy for that emotion.

They had lain together each night for two weeks, drowning their private horrors in the feel of flesh on flesh. But soon, they found that neither could really touch the core of the other. Their previous fire had been based on conflict, and they were both just too gorram tired to fight.

As Mal sat in the cockpit, looking out at the Black, he admitted to himself that the time for any lasting passion between himself and Inara was long since past, maybe even before she had left Serenity for the training house the first time.

Inara, however, was nothing if not graceful. So, when she had left the second time, it was with an elegant dignity even Kaylee couldn't fight. Unlike the first time, Mal could now at least wish her well without the swell of pain at her departure.

The realization of his feelings, or the lack thereof, left him slightly disoriented, adrift. He had once told Inara that she spun him about. But, in her absence, he was strangely dizzied.

"You control the spin." River's voice floated to him from the hallway.

"You readin' me again, lil' one?" he answered as easily as he could muster.

"Don't mean to. Sometimes you're very loud."

"Didn't mean to shout, darlin'. I'll try to think quieter. In fact, I'll try not to think at all. I conjure that's the safest plan where you're concerned.," he smiled wryly as he gave her the pilot's chair. "Just don't steer us into a moon, and I'll be off to bed."

"Sleep well, sweet Prince," she called out behind her as she turned her attention to the console.

"That's not like to happen," he muttered, opening the hatch to his bunk. Shortly, however, he fell into a fitful sleep. And unknown to him, River leaned carefully against his door. Concentrating completely on him, she sent him peace, at least for one night.

In the morning, Mal awoke feeling somewhat better rested. Stretching stiff muscles, he headed to the galley for a cup of coffee. River smiled slightly over the rim of the cup she held out to him.

"Thanks, lil' one. How's our girl this morning?"

"All's well with Serenity, sir," she answered smartly, adopting a soldier's stance.

"That's good then. Looks to be a good day for crime, wouldn't you say?"

River cocked her head to the side with a faraway look. After a moment, she smiled. "There's an 82 chance that none of the crew will get shot this time," she said.

"Well, that can only be good news, then. Keep her warm just in case though," Mal winked as he left the galley. Calling over his shoulder, he said, "Call everyone together to go over the plan one more time before we get to the drop point."

"Aye, aye, Captain," she grinned.

River was technically correct. No one got shot, but Jayne did manage to get stabbed. Mal could hear him bellowing complaints throughout the length of the cargo bay. It made his head throb in time with the new bruises he sported over his own ribcage and back.

River stood quietly behind a stack of crates. "Didn't see the fight coming in time. I'm sorry," she whispered, her large brown eyes pooling with worry.

"Not your fault, darlin'. I conjure there's no predictin' some of the crazy hundans we're dealing with now. Jayne ain't bad hurt, Zoe came back with nary a scratch, and we got paid. I'd say that's some better than we do most of the time." He smiled gently, wincing slightly before the smile could reach his eyes.

"Are you badly hurt?" River's voice was laced with concern.

"Nothin' time can't heal, lil' one. I'll be fine. Takes more than a scuffle to take me down." Mal put all the confidence in his voice he could manage.

"You're a liar," she said softly. "So much hurt, so much pain. Can't be quantified. Can't be endured. Water over the dam, filled to bursting."

"Nothin' that major, lil' one. My dam was busted down long ago." He chuckled drily. "River's been running free for awhile now."

"Not running free yet, but will be soon." And with that she was gone, heading for the bridge.

Mal stared after her for a moment, pondering her words. That woman was a gorram mystery he couldn't wrap his head around.

Mal groaned low in his throat, lost to the sensation of soft, strong hands roaming gently across his bruised back. Feather-light strokes alternated with gentle kneading of knotted muscles. The thought occurred to him in the last moment before full consciousness that a man could get used to the feel of those hands. With that resonating in his head, he jerked fully awake, sending fresh waves of pain through his abused body.

"What in the gorram hell do you think..?" he sputtered, as he saw River kneeling beside him on the bed.

"Shhh." She placed one long, slender finger to his lips.

"Don't shush me, little girl." Mal was suddenly alarmed by how his body was reacting to her nearness.

"Not a little girl, not for awhile now. You've been too tired to notice." She looked at him accusingly.

"Maybehaps that's true darlin', but that don't explain what you think you're doin' here." Mal was acutely aware of the floaty little nightdress she was wearing.

"You called me, so I came."

"I'm fair certain I did not." Mal sat up straighter, gathering the blanket over his suddenly treacherous lap. Then, before he could stop the words, he added softly, "What did you hear?"

River fixed him with a piercing gaze. "Do you really want to know?"

Mal thought, 'I'm fairly sure I don't.' But aloud he said, "That's why I asked the question."

River shifted her long, shapely legs gracefully from under her. Settling herself more comfortably on Mal's bed, she began. "At first, I just heard my name. Nothing attached to it, just repeating over and over in your head. Then after Miranda, there was a difference, a tangle of emotions attached to it. Too jumbled to make out. Then there was just bone-crushing exhaustion, confusion, panic. When everything was quiet again, finally a slow, soft longing." She paused for a moment, as if listening again.

Mal sat speechless. A slow coil of tension rolled deep in his belly, as he stared at River. 'Slow, soft longing' echoed dangerously in his mind.

She continued. "Three weeks into the Black, you woke me up. But when I opened the door to your bunk, Inara was there, her voice sad and pleading in my head. And I knew you would not turn her voice away, so I went back to my quarters. After Inara left, you didn't call for me again…until tonight. I've been listening, waiting."

"What do you think is gonna happen here, bao bei?" Mal's throat was tight.

"What you need to happen. What I need to happen." Luminous brown eyes gazed steadily into cooler blue ones, as River leaned closer to Mal.

Mal met her movement with his own. He was having difficulty breathing normally. "And what is it you need to happen?"

"I need to touch you, taste you, know you with my body like my mind knows your mind. Need to be inside you, and you inside me, joined, two broken vessels becoming one whole, perfect thing of beauty. Need to be the river running to your sea. Need…."

Mal closed the gap between them quickly, claiming her mouth before she could continue. Without volition, her arms came up to wrap around his neck, as he deepened the kiss. His hands began a slow slide down her sides, coming to rest on her hips.

Drawing back slightly, River looked at him intently. "Is this what you need?"

"You heard right, bao bei." And pulling her onto his lap, he let his body tell her what his heart had been saying for longer than even he had known.