Hostages to Fortune

Part VI—The Aftermath

Summary: Mal and River comes to terms with the results of the experiment.

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Simon stood absently rubbing his wrist, as he looked at the sleeping Captain. He wondered, not for the first time, how the man survived all the things that seemed to happen to him on a regular basis. Simon himself had lost count of how many times Mal had lain on this very table, with assorted wounds major and minor.

This time, as least physically, Mal had come home relatively unscathed. Some bruising around his temples, wrists, and ankles indicated the placement of the restraints. And there were small, circular patches of irritated skin across the expanse of his chest, where Simon could only assume leads had been attached. Using small antiseptic swabs, he had carefully cleaned the multitude of tiny puncture wounds dotting Mal's scalp from the probes cruelly inserted there. Other than those small wounds and a case of dehydration, Mal looked the picture of health, Simon thought wryly.

It had been the dehydration that earned Simon his sore wrist. When Jayne had lain Mal in the infirmary, he seemed to be asleep. But when Simon tried to begin the IV fluids, Mal's hand had shot out, grabbing his wrist in a crushing grip. Trying to extricate himself had been useless, so he waited out the automatic defensive reaction until Mal's hand relaxed. Even in sleep, the man could do violence. The thought was oddly disturbing.

Though he knew the Captain was generally a rapid healer, Simon was much more concerned about the emotional fallout of Mal's recent ordeal. He'd seen firsthand what an encounter with BlueSun had done to his sister, and could only imagine the horrors Mal must have experienced.

River floated into the infirmary. "Tried to steal his soul, bottle him up like a drug."

"What do you mean, mei mei?" Simon felt a strange chill at her cryptic words.

"Doesn't matter now. I'm going to steal it back," she whispered. When she leaned down to kiss Mal's cheek, Simon turned away. It was one thing to accept River's relationship with the Captain, and quite another thing to have to witness her public displays of affection. Thus turned, he didn't see Mal grab River roughly by the nape of her neck. Realizing her mistake, River froze, waiting for Mal to really see her.

"Sorry, bao bei. Didn't recognize ya' there for a minute," Mal said, as he released her.

River smiled brightly, though she was shaken to the core. "It's all right, I should have given you some warning. I just wanted to welcome you home."

Mal sat up, instantly regretting the decision. He rubbed his temples gingerly, wincing at the bruising there.

"Headache, Captain?" Simon was instantly at his side.

"Yeah, sorta like someone shoved needles into my skull," Mal grimaced.

"Well, I can see they didn't alter your razor wit," Simon said, handing him a blue pill. "This should ease the headache fairly quickly."

"Thanks, doc," Mal said, getting to his feet. "I'd take it as a kindness if you'd get this needle outta me too. Had enough of that to last a good long spell."

"But you're dehydrated, Captain. You need your fluids."

Mal laid an arm across River's shoulders. "Don't worry. If this lovely lady'll help me get some clothes on, I intend on drinkin' large quantities of fluid first chance I get."

Simon sighed, removing the IV. "You do know you're my worst patient, don't you?"

"Huh. Thought I'da' got better with all the practice."

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Mal and River climbed down into his bunk. Sighing tiredly, Mal decided one more nap before facing the crew at dinner might indeed be a good idea.

"Lie down with me," he said, shucking out of his clothes, and settling under the covers.

River wriggled quickly out of her dress and joined him, anxious to be near her ai ren . But as her hands began to drift across his chest, he stopped their progress firmly. "Sorry, bao bei. Only want to rest." Flipping her onto her other side, he pulled her back against his chest. He nuzzled his nose gently into her hair and fell asleep.

River lay still, staring at the wall. She could feel the tension in his arms and his rapid heartbeat against her back. And she knew, without using her unique abilities, that Malcolm Reynolds was badly shaken by what had been done to him. Ignoring the slight twinge of guilt, she slipped into his mind.

She found there confusion, anger, and fear. But the true cancer eating away at him was the shame of being laid so completely bare. River understood all too well the feeling of utter defenselessness. But for Mal, so accustomed to control and autonomy, the violation had been a brutal blow. Uneasy with even letting her, his future wife, into his most private thoughts, he could barely endure the invasion of an enemy.

River ached with his anguish. She resolved, lying there in his arms, that she would do whatever it would take to be his anchor, just as he had been hers since she first crawled out of the cryo-box in Serenity's cargo bay. She had faith and love enough for both of them.

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Looking around the table at his crew, Mal was grateful for their gift of friendship. Kaylee had baked a cake to celebrate his return and the news of the engagement. Though Simon made a pretense of objecting, it was obvious that he was pleased to see his sister's happiness. And River was radiant, sitting beside Mal quietly, letting the wave of pleasant conversation wash over her.

But it was Zoe who held Mal's attention. She sat at the opposite end of the table, saying next to nothing. But her gaze on him was steady, and as always, he drew strength from the bond they shared. Her opinion was one of the very few he cared about, and he was pleased that she and River seemed to be somehow connected as they had not been before.

He listened to the story of his rescue, embellished by Jayne's singular insights. Knowing what was expected, he smiled in all the right spots. But as the conversation wore on, he felt the need of something stronger than the tea Kaylee had served with dinner. And he kept feeling that need long after the others had drifted off to bed, long after he had drunk an entire bottle of the cheap rotgut Jayne had provided.

Stumbling back to his bunk, he saw River, curled up on her side, clutching his pillow in sleep. Through the alcohol-induced haze, he thought how gorram much he wanted her. He shed his clothes with some difficulty and slid into bed beside her. Feeling his warmth, she instinctively turned into it, still asleep.

He was impatient to feel her beneath him, naked and writhing. Pulling her nightdress roughly off her shoulders, he pushed her thighs apart. River awoke, faintly startled.

"Mal," she said, reaching out to touch him.

"Don't talk," he hissed, pulling her arms roughly above her head. Pinning her firmly beneath his weight, he pushed into her with brutal thrusts, his whiskey-soaked breath coming in harsh pants beside her ear. She tried to free herself without injuring him, but his grip on her arms tightened.

Mal had never touched her with anything other than tenderness. Suddenly frightened, she thought, 'Stop, ai ren. Please stop.'

He jerked abruptly, sobriety returning with gut-wrenching clarity. Pulling himself off of her, he cam back from the darkness. "My god, River," he moaned, drawing shuddering breaths, "what have I done? I'm sorry, so sorry."

River sat up and held out her arms to him. Grabbing her like a drowning man holds a life preserver, Mal felt something within him break. She would not have known he cried had she not felt the hot tears burning their way down her chilled skin.

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Mal awoke, tongue pasted to the roof of his mouth and head throbbing painfully, For one blessed moment, he did not remember the events of last night.

But, when he saw River climbing down the ladder of his bunk precariously balancing a cup of coffee and some sort of crackers, every cruel detail returned in sharp focus.

"Thought you could use these," she said, holding out the coffee in one hand and two blue pills in the other. Mal took them gratefully, unable to meet her gaze.

River climbed onto the bed, gently curling herself into Mal's embrace. "I love you, ai ren, " she whispered softly.

Mal thought his heart might burst from the generosity of the gift. "How can you say that, bao bei," he said, his voice cracking, "after what happened last night?"

"Because it's true," she said simply.

Mal swallowed the lump in his throat. Given the courage to look into her eyes, he said, "River, I never intended to hurt you…to use you…"

She interrupted him. "Didn't hurt me ai ren. Just scared me for a moment. Know you'd never really hurt me." She touched his cheek tenderly. "Know you were hurting."

Turning his kips into her palm, he kissed it softly. She could feel the tension in him begin to uncoil slowly. Wriggling up to rest her head on his shoulder, she continued, "Know what it's like to lie open and bare before cruelty, and I know the difference between malice and need. I want to be what you need, ai ren. I want to hold you safe like you hold me." She turned luminous brown eyes to his red-rimmed ones. "Make love to me, ai ren."

Mal slid her gently down onto the bed. Carefully removing her clothing, he looked down at her glowing skin. He began to kiss his way down her neck and breasts, trailing his hands further down her body. With exquisite care, he pleasured her with first his hands, and then, when she pleaded softly against his ear, with his body. She gave herself completely to him, and he reveled in the glory of her. He felt a healing begin, somewhere deep down inside him. And for the first time since Serenity Valley, he thanked God for the gifts in his life.

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Author's Note: To everyone who has stuck with this story to its completion, I offer my sincere thanks. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I'd really be grateful for any feedback you could leave, as I am trying to determine whether this site is one that I need to continue to use to submit stories. If you'd like to read future fics from me, please take a moment to comment! Thanks!