On the Ragged Edge

Title: On the Ragged Edge

Author: just slumming

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

Timeline: Three and a half months post-BDM. Two weeks after the events in "Voices."

Summary: A bad day for River leaves Mal to pick up the pieces.

"Everything shiny this mornin', darlin'?" Mal asked, eyeing River surreptitiously. Unease skittered along his spine, a feeling he'd long since learned to pay heed to.

"Why do you ask?" River looked at the wall dully.

"Well, for one thing you were all manner of restless last night. And you're still in my bunk, even though everyone'll be stirring 'fore the hour's up. That's a mite unusual."

River turned to him lethargically. "So, you're asking me to leave?"

"No, bao bei. If 'twere up to me, I'd never want you to leave," Mal answered evenly. "But I thought you wanted to wait awhile before ya' told your brother 'bout our,…um,…activities of the last few nights."

That brought a slight smile to River's face. "You make it sound like we're down here basket-weaving or engaging in group sports," she snorted.

Mal grinned wickedly. "Maybehaps not so much group sports, as one-on-one."

"And who's winning?"

"I conjure we're about neck and neck."

River rolled her eyes. "And they say I'm the crazy one," she said. Abruptly, her teasing manner became pensive.

Mal crossed the room to stand in front of her. "What's the matter, River?"

"Secrets," she whispered.

"Darlin', I've told ya', you don't have to keep us a secret from Simon. I'll talk to him if you don't want to, though he might be likely to let me bleed out right in my own infirmary if'n I do the talking."

River looked up at him with something akin to panic. "You don't understand. Not our secrets," she whispered, beginning to tremble.

Mal gripped her arms tightly, dread pooling in the pit of his stomach. He had seen this look in River's eyes before, but not since Miranda. "Whose secrets, darlin'?" he questioned gently.

Her agitation increased. "Mustn't tell secrets," she whispered in a sing-song voice. "Lets the monsters out. Not safe."

"River…River, look at me." Mal shook her slightly. "Darlin', you gotta…" But his words were drowned out by her sudden scream. She tore away from him, clamoring up the ladder, and into the hallway. Heedless of the fact he wore only his loose sleep pants, he stumbled up the steps after her and ran straight into the path of Simon, emerging from Kaylee's bunk similarly attired.

"What is goin…" Simon began, taking in Mal's general state of undress and River crouched into a tight ball at the far end of the corridor. He stepped between them, glancing with alarm at his sister.

"I got exactly no time to explain this, doc. Move aside."

Simon took another step toward Mal, pushing his hand squarely into Mal's bare chest. "I don't know what you've done to her, but I can assure you that you'll not be touching her again," he said, his tone deceptively calm.

River's moans broke the impasse between the two men. Both were instantly at her side. Glaring at Mal icily, Simon tried to gather River into his arms. "It's okay, mei mei. I'm here now. It's okay. No one's going to hurt you. I've got you."

River twisted in his arms. "Can't protect me. Stick me with gorram needles, make me sleep. Can't sleep, mustn't sleep. Monsters come, blue hands, silver needles, red blood." She began to shake with her sobs. "Can't help River. Need lover, not brother."

Mal's head shot up at her words. "River, bao bei, I'm right here." As he reached for her, River struggled against the sudden tightening of Simon's arms.

"Doc, I got no notion to say this twice. You let her go right now, or I ain't responsible for what happens next. Dong ma?" Mal's voice was a low growl.

"Please, please," River begged, unsure whether she was pleading for Simon to release her, or for Mal not to harm her brother. Both men hesitated briefly at her words. Then Simon, defeated, let her go.

Mal gathered River into his arms. Turning back toward his bunk, he said over his shoulder, "I'll look to her, doctor. When everything's squared away, I'll find you."

"See that you do." Simon spoke to Mal's receding back.

Several minutes after the hatch clanged shut, Simon stood staring, his face a mask of cold fury. Shaking himself slightly, he turned to see Kaylee standing on the ladder to her bunk.

Eyes wide with sympathy, she beckoned him back to bed. "River'll be just shiny, Simon, You'll see. Cap'n'll fix her right as rain," she said, trying to dispel the horrible tension swirling around Simon.

'Is that supposed to make me feel better, Kaylee? Because truthfully, the Captain "fixing" River is not a scenario likely to help me sleep at night. How dare that hundan even think of touching my sister? She's a child, for God's sake. And he's, well, he's…"

Simon couldn't even begin to articulate his horror.

"He's what, Simon?" Kaylee asked, her tone suddenly harder. "I'll tell you what he is. He's the man that took you and River in and sheltered you when you'd'a died otherwise. He's the man that goes on jobs that get him near kilt so's we got food on the table, and can keep Serenity in the air. He's the man that brought you back home even after seein' what River done in the Maidenhead, and got us to Miranda because she needed him to. That's who he is, and I ain't havin' no truck with ya' if'n ya' can't see that."

"Be that as it may, Kaylee," Simon objected angrily, "he's twice her age. She's a child! He's taking advantage of her. I suppose he finds her 'of use'."

"First, River ain't a child anymore, honey," Kaylee tried for a softer tone. "She's only just a mite younger than me, and I'm guessin' ya' think I'm grown enough, I mean, considerin' the sexin' and all."

Simon sighed in frustration. "It's not the same at all, Kaylee. You've been, well, you've had…experience. She's been denied that."

"Then maybe it's time she got somethin' she wants. She didn't look to me like she was objectin' too much. Flat out said she wanted him. And Cap'n wouldn't ever force hisself on her. He ain't that kinds' man. Dontcha' know that by now?" Kaylee wrapped her arms around Simon, willing him to think instead of feel. "If'n River can be happy with the Cap'n, don't she deserve that after all she's been through? Don't he?"

Simon breathed in the intoxicating scent that was all Kaylee. "But, if it's really what she wants, why didn't she tell me herself?"

"Maybe she didn't want to upset ya'. Maybe she just didn't get a chance 'fore today. I don't know why, honey, but now's ya' know, you can either do right by her or make her and you both miserable. I reckon it's your call."

Simon clung to her for just a moment. "I'm not promising things won't get ugly with the Captain, ai ren. But I'll give what you said some thought."

"That's all I'm askin', baby. You're a good man, and you love your sister. I know you'll do what's fittin'."

'As soon as I figure out what exactly that is,' Simon thought bitterly.

Navigating the ladder was a mite tricky, Mal thought, as he gingerly carried River to their bed. She was still trembling and crying. He couldn't make out most of what she said. So, he decided the best course of action was to simply wait out the storm with her as best he could. Settling back against the bulkhead, he allowed River to wrap herself around him more securely.

"Shhh, little one. I've got you," he soothed, tucking her head under his chin. "Ain't goin' nowhere."

He felt the slightest relaxation in her grip, and figured he was on the right track. Maybe it would be a bit like gentling a nervous filly, he thought. Stroking her head with one hand and her back with the other, he began to whisper to her. Her crying subsided, as he murmured low against her ear. Keeping the motion of his hands steady and sure, he eventually felt her trembling turn into occasional shudders, as her muscles began to relax. Finally, after some hours, her breathing evened out, and she lay curled quietly in his arms.

"That's much better that needles," she yawned.

"I'd like to think so, darlin'," he replied gently.

"I've made a mess of things, haven't I?" she whispered.

"What, you mean with Simon?" Mal forced himself not to tense at the thought. "I conjure we'd'a been crossing that bridge right soon anyhow."

"But he was so angry and hurt." Sorrow rippled through her tone.

"Ho only wants ya' to be safe and happy, River. And right now, he ain't firmly convinced I'm the man for the job."

"What are we going to do?" River looked up at him for all the 'verse like he would have an answer.

So, he came up with one. "Well, darlin', you're gonna get some sleep, seein' as how I saw clear to your tonsils with that last yawn, and I'm gonna go have a talk with your brother."

"Sure you want to do that alone?" River sounded doubtful.

"You implyin' I can't handle a civilized conversation between two grown men?" he asked with mock indignation.

River smiled sleepily. "Would never think such a thing," she said, her sentence drifting off as sleep took her.

Covering her carefully with his softest blanket, Mal sighed and pondered how to make things go smooth.

Simon stood staring into the same infirmary cabinet he'd been looking at for the past ten minutes. He heard Mal's footsteps seconds before his head popped into the doorway.

Turning as if to face a firing squad, Simon said, "I trust my sister's okay now?"

"Don't know about okay, but she's sleeping calm. I haven't seen her like this since Miranda." Mal gazed steadily at Simon. "Way I see it, doc, we got us a situation needs tendin' to."

"You have a rare gift for understatement, Captain," Simon said, putting all the disdain he could muster into the title.

"I'm gonna lay it out plain as I can, Simon. I love your sister. That's a pure truth. I know I'm old enough to be her father, but I'm willin' to bet that's a complication best left to me and River to figure out needs be. I know she's like to have days where she ain't quite right, but I'm willin' to learn how to help her with them. And I know I ain't exactly the Core-bred dandy your Daddy mighta' chose for her, but I'd be damned before I hurt her intentional. I believe I've already shown you what I'm willin' to do to protect her, and that ain't like to change long's I'm drawing breath. I know ya' think she's a child, but she ain't no more. She's a woman grown. She has the right to choose and if'n I still believed in God, I'd be down on my knees every day thankin' him for lettin' her choose me. I aim to do right by her, dong ma?" Mal took a deep breath, waiting for Simon's reply.

"What exactly am I supposed to say to all that, Captain?"

"Well, I'd take it as a kindness if you'd realize how much your blessin' means to your sister." He paused cautiously, then added, "And to me."

Simon regarded him coolly for several agonizing minutes. Mal stared back, willing himself to look calm.

"Well, it seems I have limited choices in the matter," Simon said finally. "I can (1) be thrown out the airlock by you, (2) be killed in my sleep by my little sister, or (3) acquiesce with as much grace as I can manage."

Mal allowed himself a slow smile. "Now I ain't top three percent, but I'd choose the third option if I were you."

Simon smiled tightly. "Yes, that does seem the logical choice."

Mal's smile widened.

"But remember, if you do even the slightest thing to hurt my mei mei, I can think of hundreds of ways to kill you, most of them distinctly unpleasant," Simon said, the steel in his voice barely sheathed with humor.

"Point taken, Doctor." Mal extended his hand. "I think we've got us an understandin'."

Since four of the six people on board Serenity were well aware of the situation, Mal and River agreed to go public with the news. Looking over the dinner table to Zoe and Jayne, Mal began, "This mornin' it may have come to your attention that there is a situation.."

"Aw, hell, Mal," Jayne interrupted. "If'n you're talkin' about you sexin' River, me and Zoe been onto ya' since last week on the New Melbourne job."

Mal's jaw dropped open. "Wha…?" he started.

"It's okay, sir." Turning to Jayne, Zoe added, "I win. Pay up, merc man."

"What do you mean, you win?" Mal sputtered.

Zoe and Jayne ignored the question. Jayne leered across the table at Zoe. "Everybody on this gorram boat's gettin' play but you and me. How 'bout it, Zoe? We could make Serenity a regular pleasure cruiser." His eyes twinkled suggestively.

Zoe regarded him with her usual stoic expression. "I can still hurt you."

So saying, Zoe calmly sipped her tea, as the crew around her erupted with laughter. She glanced up at Mal, the barest hint of a smile on her lips. 'That's my gift to you,' she thought.

Mal inclined his head in thanks.