Corner of No and Where

Title: Corner of No and Where

Author: just slummin

Rating: PG

Pairing: Mal/River

Timeline: Twelve months post-BDM, nine months post-"Voices" and "On the Ragged Edge", four months post-"Coming to Their Senses."

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

Summary: Mal and River strive for balance.

Until River Tam, Malcolm Reynolds had never shared his bed for more than a few days with anyone. It hadn't been his choice exactly, just a product of time and circumstance. He had known that bedding crew was not the easiest line for a Captain to walk, but intimate relations with a reader brought another whole boatload of complications.

One such complication was glaring up at him right now. "Why are we still discussin' this, River? The matter's been decided."

"Because you won't listen," River answered, her arms folded tightly across her chest. "You are the most gorram stubborn man in the 'verse."

Mal's patience was at a decidedly low ebb. Sometimes that woman could be such a brat.

"And I'm not a child!" River shouted. "Everytime I don't agree with every little thing you say, you think I'm a brat."

Mal's fists clenched in frustration. "Could you stop reading me for one gorram minute? I can only handle the one argument at the time. I ain't no mind-reading genius, ya' know. Let's argue on what I said before you start on what I'm thinkin'."

River huffed in irritation. "You think things and you say things. Sometimes they're the same and sometimes totally different. Do you have any idea how frustrating that is to me?"

"Well, if you'd grow up and show a little control, maybehaps that wouldn't be such a problem," Mal thundered.

The words hung in the air between them for a moment, oppressive like the heat before a summer storm.

"Well," River said, her voice unnaturally hollow, "I'll see what I can do about that problem, Captain." And saying that, she swept out of his bunk, indignation punctuating every step.

Mal pinched the bridge of his nose, his frustration and anger turning abruptly to regret. Intimate association with River had armed him with the perfect weapons to hurt her most. Though she never acknowledged it, he knew she feared sometimes that she really was too young and inexperienced to hold his interest. Acutely aware that less than two years before he had briefly been something of a father-figure to her, she was sometimes unsure herself as to when precisely her perspective had changed. And because of experience gained with age, Mal could see clearly her discomfiture. He knew, that on those occasions when he briefly did still see her as a girl, her mental abilities made the thoughts impossible to ignore.

And on that issue rested Mal's main concern for their future together. How to maintain honest communication and intimacy with a reader without every stray treacherous thought undermining her trust? Though she was one of the strongest people he knew, her strength existed in equal measure with her emotional fragility. She had been denied the emotional development normal to young women by the horrors of the Academy. Had she not been extraordinarily gifted, Mal knew that she would never have recovered the emotional balance she had managed to achieve. Indeed, it was one of the many reasons he loved her.

And he knew, with a certain horrible understanding, that he had the capacity to break her. If he did that, then he, too, was truly lost. Too acquainted with the nature of loss, he was determined not to let that happen to either of them.

Armed with the will to make things right, he went in search of River. But two hours later, having searched every room and secret compartment of Serenity he knew about, she was still nowhere to be found. Looking out over the expanse of the cargo bay just as he was beginning to imagine all manner of horrific scenarios, he saw River emerge from a crate below.

She eyed him warily, unsure of the tangle of emotions flowing both from his mind and her own. He shifted his feet nervously. "Been lookin' for you for a spell now," he said gently.

"Didn't know if I wanted to be found," River answered truthfully.

"I reckon I can understand that well enough," Mal sighed. "'I said some uncharitable things this mornin' and I'm sorry, bao bei. I ain't exactly an easy man even under the best of circumstances. Ain't rightly sure why you'd ever want to talk to me again."

River regarded him solemnly. "It's not going to work, is it?" Her voice was small and soft.

Mal met her gaze with no small amount of alarm. "What's not gonna work, darlin'?"

"All of it, what we are, where we're going," she said, anguish lacing her voice.

"If'n it depends on me, air en, I got no notion to be without you." Mal closed the distance between them.

River rested her head on his chest, her arms automatically wrapping around his midsection. "I don't want to lose you either," she whispered wistfully. "But that doesn't change the way things are."

Disentangling himself from her embrace, Mal took her hand. Leading her to a crate, he indicated for her to sit down. As she arranged her skirt about her knees, he took a seat beside her.

"I'm thinkin' we need to suss out a couple of things. Much as I love you, there's gonna be times my thoughts ain't exactly of the kindest nature. Worrisome notions might, on the odd occasion, cross my mind. Can you honestly say you've had no such thoughts regardin' my nature?"

River grinned suddenly, her smile like a ray of sunlight to him. "Maybe on the odd occasion," she answered.

"You have the advantage of me, darlin'. When you think those thoughts, you've been kind enough not to share 'em. I, on the other hand, ain't got that luxury. Havin' a hateful thought now and again is like to happen, but that don't in no way mean I ain't mad in love with you. I don't rightly understand what you can and can't do about controllin' your reading, but it's a thing we need to figure."

River carefully tried to phrase her reply. "Sometimes I can control it a little. But when you're angry, it's really loud inside."

"Then we'll have to decide on some ground rules. How 'bout we agree only to fight about what I say, and not what I think? I'll try to control my temper, if you'll give me a little slack in that department. Fair enough?"

"Seems an equitable solution," River conceded. "But I need to know you don't really think I'm a child."

"Darlin', if I thought you were a child, I'd not be beddin' you every night. I may be old enough to be your Daddy, but I ain't. And for that, I'm more than a little grateful." Mal began to grin.

River laughed lightly. "I can think of something to make you even more grateful." She slid lightly onto his lap, straddling his hips.

"Well, now, ain't that a pretty thought?" Mal said, his lips brushing her lightly. "A man could get behind a plan like this."

River's answer was a soft moan of pleasure. "I'm counting on it, bao bei."