Measure of a Man
Part V—The Awakening
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters.
Summary: Reeling form loss, Mal struggles to bring River back to him.
Mal stood, transfixed by the sight of River's open eyes. Simon quickly cleared the room, telling Zoe he'd call if they were needed. He returned to River's side and looked down into her vacant expression. A small, cold sliver of dread chilled his heart.
"River," he asked, his voice deceptively calm, "can you hear me?" There was no response.
Mal, released from his trance, leaned forward. Urgently, he asked, "Bao bei, are you here?"
River blinked slowly, and for just a moment, Mal saw her beneath the surface of her blank face. Then, there was nothing.
"She' still altered," Simon stated flatly. "Maybe the shock of the blood loss, maybe something else.." His words tapered off vaguely.
Mal took River's frail hand in his own. "River," he said, a fierce need in his voice, "I want you to open your eyes. Open your eyes."
He was rewarded by the gently flutter of her eyelids as she tried to comply. "She's here, doc," Mal said, pinning all his hopes on the small movement.
"We'll have to wait and see, Mal," Simon said. He wished he had Mal's certainty.
"So, she lost the baby," Mrs. Frye said, shaking her head sadly. "That's a real pity, on top of every other thing."
Zoe nodded. "But her eyes were open when we left, so I'm thinkin' that's a good sign."
"Bound to be," Kaylee agreed, pushing away thoughts of the child lost to focus on River's progress.
"Good timin' too," Jayne added. "We'll be needin' her to fly us off this here rock soon's the quarantine's lifted. I heard talk down at the docks today that it won't be more'n a week now."
Zoe was surprised. "Even with the outbreask on Paquin?"
"aaliance docs said they's still tryin' to figure how it's spreading out that far," Jayne acknowledged. "But seein' as how there's been no new outbreaks here, they'll likely be movin' on to see to the Paquin folk soon."
"I ain't so sure she'll be ready to do any flyin' that quick," Zoe said, bringing the conversation back around to their immediate concerns. "River looked awful frail lyin' in that bed."
"Simon'll fix her up right as rain, now she's awke," Kaylee said, her faith in the man shining through.
Newly bathed, River lay on fresh linens staring blankly at the ceiling. Mal, having changed his own blood-soaked clothes, sat by her side studying her face.
"What's going on with her now, Simon?" he asked quietly. "Why ain't she talkin' now she's awake?"
"I'm not positive 'awake' is the right term," Simon began. "You remember what I said to you earlier about levels of consciousness. She may simply be on another level now. But her slight response to you is a good sign, a sign that she's progressing."
"You think she knows about the baby?" Mal asked bleakly.
"I hope not," Simon answered truthfully. "that kind of emotional upset added to the physical trauma could cause a psychotic break of some sort. It could be devastating at this point."
Mal nodded. Devastating sounded about right, he thought, trying to numb the wave of grief threatening to overwhelm him.
"What can we do now?" He hated the hopelessness in his own voice.
Unseen by anyone, River began her slow journey back to Mal, fighting through layers of nightmare and delusion, the presence of their child ripped from her cruelly, and grief building a wall she couldn't quite scale. She needed strength she didn't have yet. She would have to wait.
Zoe sat at the table of the cabin, talking quietly with Mal in the early morning hour. "Landlock's over sir. Quarantine's been lifted. We're free to go. Anywhere but Paquin. Don't know how we'll deliver that cargo waitin' in the hold."
Mal looked up sharply. "Why can't it be dlivered to Paquin?"
"The sickness has spread there somehow. It's been under quarantine for about a month, accordin' to the cortex."
Mal realized that Zoe had no idea they'd even been to Paquin, remembering those horrible days when his crew had been delirious with fever. "How many dead?" he asked hoarsely.
"'Bout twenty at last report. Medics got there sooner this time. Controlled the outbreak by enforcing the quarantine planetwide."
'Twenty', Mal thought. 'Twenty more bodies to add to my count.' He felt ill at the thought.
"You okay sir?" Zoe asked, noting his sudden pallor.
Seeing no need to burden her, he answered, "Just a mite tired, Zoe. Nothin' to trouble yourself about."
"So," Zoe said, getting back to the subject at hand, "What's the plan, sir?"
"Sell the cargo to the highest bidder," Mal replied automatically.
Zoe looked at him peculiarly. "Ain't the folks on Paquin paid us already?"
Chagrined to realize he'd forgotten, Mal said, "Fine, then deliver it to Paquin when the quarantine is lifted."
"Sir," Zoe said, taking time to consider the words carefully, "There some reason you're talkin' like you ain't plannin' to do the delivery yourself?"
Running his hands through his hair, he leaned forward to look at Zoe directly. "I can't so this, Zoe. I can't be the man River needs right now and the Captain of Serenity at the same time. And I can't be askin' the crew to stay and wait on a train that might not come."
Zoe drew a deep breath. "Are you askin' me to leave you here/"
They looked at each other steadily, each aware that this moment was one they could never have envisioned. Finally, Mal spoke. "I'm askin' ya' to look to my ship and my crew. Not permanent-like, but 'til I can get River back on her feet again. No one else in the 'verse I'd ask."
Zoe nodded, acknowledging the layers of friendship and trust between them. "We'll leave come mornin'. You call us back when you're ready." And standing, she walked out without a backward glance.
As had become their morning routine, Mal settled River into a chair facing the sun. On good days, she would turn her face toward the light, and a small smile might slip through. Other days she would sit passively, staring out at nothing Mal could see.
Sighing, Mal noted that today was one of the latter. After his conversation with Zoe, he wasn't sure how much more he could take, and he still had to somehow persuade Simon to leave with Serenity tomorrow. A ship such as theirs needed a medic, a fact he'd not soon forget after their last trip. And River was improving enough he knew she was in no physical danger. Her mental state, however, was another matter entirely. And yet he felt, in a wild optimism foreign to his normal way, that he, and not Simon, held the key to her recovery. So, he braced himself for the confrontation he knew would come.
True to form, Simon arrived, bringing baked goods from Mrs. Frye designed to tempt a response from River. He was disappointed when none came.
"Just leave them there, Simon," Mal said easily. "She may decide she'd like some later."
"Does she really ever do that?" Simon asked, frustration barely contained.
"On the odd occasion," Mal answered.
"Why does she never respond to me?" The hurt in Simon's eyes made Mal ache in sympathy.
"She will when she's ready," he replied as gently as possible. "Maybehaps she only has the energy to deal with one of us at a time, and I'm louder than you are."
Simon smiled thinly. "Are you suggesting yelling as a therapeutic device?"
"If'n I thought it might work, I'd try it." Mal decided there would be no better time to address the issue at hand. "Simon," he said seriously, "I got somethin' needs sayin' and I'd ask ya' to hear me out."
"All right," Simon said, curious.
"I'm thinkin' that River ain't quite ready to go back to the Black. This place is nice and peaceful-like, and Mr. Frye has agreed to let her stay here awhile. But Serenity can't stay docked forever, and it's time for the crew to start earnin' their keep again. So, Serenity leaves here in the mornin'."
When Mal paused for breath, Simon said, "I understand, Captain. Ship's got to sail and crew's got to work. I'll move my things out here this afternoon. You needn't worry about River. I'll take care of her."
Mal looked at him in surprise. "That ain't at all what I meant, doc. I'm gonna be stayin' here with my wife and I need you back on the ship with my crew."
Simon's mouth fell open. "You honestly think I'd leave my own sister here? Alone with you?"
"I don't much like your tone, doctor," Mal said, all too aware of River sitting within earshot. Trying for calm, he added, "I ain't leavin' her. She's respondin' some to me, and we'll not be doin' anything to make things go pear-shaped now. And, if'n you recall, I made a vow right here on this world that I would love and cherish her always. Ain't aimin' to break my word anytime soon. As for what you do, I can't speak to that. You got a right to do as you please. But I'd ask ya' to consider Zoe and Jayne. They're like to be needin' your services more'n River at this point. And I'd remind ya' to think on Kaylee. 'Spect she'll be needin' ya' too."
"What if River gets worse?"
"Ain't gonna happen, but if it does, Mr. Frye says there's a decent doctor half a day's ride from here. And there's a public cortex down at the docks. I'll be wavin' from time to time, if'n we stay a long while."
"But you know nothing about psychotherapy," Simon protrsted.
"Maybehaps that's so." Mal's blue eyes burned brightly. "But I know River."
The men stood face to face, frozen in the moment of decision. Seeing a faint waver in Simon's gaze, Mal tried one last argument. "I need you on my ship, Simon. I can do what I need to do here, if I know you're there. Dong ma?"
Simon turned and walked the short distance to River. Resting his hands on the arms of her chair, he said, "River, do you want me to stay or go?" Her big brown eyes, once so expressive, gave him no answer.
The next morning Mal took pains to brush River's hair smooth and shiny and get her into a fresh dress. "Gotta try and be presentable today, bao bei. We're sendin' our folk back to the Black. I conjure they'll be coming to day their good-byes."
River din;t move, but Mal could sense that she was listening. "Told 'em we were gonna stay here awhile, maybehaps get that honeymoon we missed." He kissed her forehead softly, and was pleased to note the faintest flush come to her cheeks.
When the crew arrived, the leave-taking was a sad affair. Kaylee, who so wanted everything to be shiny, hugged Mal and kissed River repeatedly until Jayne made a rude remark that broke the cycle. Jayne gruffly shook Mal's hand and told the wall somewhere behind River's head good-bye. Zoe, rolling her eyes at Jayne's utter lack of grace, squeezed River's hand and told her that she'd look after the crew in River's absence. Then, she pulled Mal aside for a private moment, while Simon whispered his sorrowful good-byes to his baby sister.
Mal watched his crew head out into the woods. After a time, he sw Serenity, sunlight glinting off her dies, leaving him and the world behind. The sight filled him with a terrible longing, which he ruthlessly suppressed. He walked quickly back to the cabin, where River sat, eyes turned to the sky.
Mal lay down beside River, exhausted beyond reason. He couldn't seem to make his body sleep without the horrible nightmares returning full force. Flashes of his men in Serenity Valley, skeletal hands grasping his ankles as they moaned in pain and fear; the dispassionate voice of BlueSun relentlessly questioning through blinding pain; River laying white against a sea of red; Wash speared through while Zoe's voice pleaded; body bags stacked on Paquin at his feet; and through it all the sound of a baby;s wailing cry.
And if he did sleep, he thought bitterly, he would only awaken to find River still absent, still locked in whatever hell she had stumbled into. So, he lay, eyes closed and mind aching, through the long nights.
River, however, did dream. She saw a young boy with Mal's eyes and her impish grin, killed a thousand times over by her own blade. She saw Mal, lost and alone, wandering through some thick fog she couldn't penetrate. She opened her mouth to call to him, but now sound would come. Blue hands dragged her back to freezing rooms filled with surgical trays; she stood surrounded by screaming Reavers; she saw Mal die time and time again; saw the little boy reach arms out to her for safety, to die in a myriad different ways. Begging for oblivion, she got a burning Haven swing instead, and Mal's horrible eyes upon seeing it burned. She felt the stickiness of blood between her legs, and heard the anguish in Mal's cry at the sight. And she tried desperately to wake up.
As River's physical strength returned, Mal led her on long walks in the woods and through the countryside of Harvest. It was much like Shadow had been, and Mal talked to her about growing up in such a place. But, he found that venturing too far into his own childhood brought him perilously close to dwelling on the child he and River had lost, and he would fall silent, swallowed up in the cruel jaws of grief.
On occasion they would go to the docks when Mal could no longer resist the need to check on Serenity and her crew. The wave was always bittersweet, reminding Mal of the life waiting for them if River could only make it back to him somehow.
And River, fighting so desperately to break through the walls imprisoning her, remained silent. Time dragged on.
Mal awoke, startled out of sleep by River's hands roaming along his body, creating an aching need that he barely remembered. In all the time they had been there, she had not once reached to touch him, and his heart quickened at her newfound initiative.
But making out her face in the moonlight, he saw that her eyes were closed as he climbed atop him. Grasping with demanding hands and jerking movements, she began to ride him frantically, as if in this way she could expel the demons that haunted them both. Eyes squeezed shut, her tear spilled onto Mal's chest. He lay still beneath her, letting her take as she needed, until finally, her motions stilled and she turned away, leaving him bruised and raw beside her. Pulling her gently to his chest, he held her as shuddering sobs ripped through her body. Exhausted, they eventually slept.
Mal was standing at the docks on Paquin, bodies surrounding him, fever-glazed eyes staring up at him in reproach. And looking down, he saw a baby, limp and covered in blood, resting in River's arms. He woke up.
River moved restlessly beside him. "S'okay, bao bie," he whispered. "Go back to sleep."
But instead, she turned to him, eyes focused finally on his face, and rasped, "Not your fault, ai ren . Couldn't have known what would happen." And she wrapped her arms around him, clinging to his warmth.
"River," Mal whispered low against her ear, "are you here/"
"Yes, ai ren. I'm here." She lifted her eyes to meet his again.
"I've missed you, bao bei," Mal said, his voice cracking with the intensity of emotion.
"Have to sleep now. So tired," she said, her words drifting off as slumber came again.
Just before dawn, River awakened again to see Mal staring down at her. "You still here, darlin'?" he asked, hope etched in his eyes.
"Where have you been?" Mal asked, afraid to hear the answer.
"Was with Sam," River replied.
Mal looked at her in concern. "Sam?"
River began to cry softly. "Our son, Mal. We had a son."
Tears filled Mal's eyes as well. "You knew about the baby?"
"Could hear him. Could see what he would have been. Your eyes, my smile. Beautiful and quick like lightning. Strong, but not enough."
She curled herself into Mal's arms. "Couldn't hold him safe. Couldn't fight the enemy. Sacrificed in the battle. I'm sorry, ai ren."
Mal could barely speak in the raw flood of grief that poured from his heart. "Not your fault, bao bei. One more terrible thing that just happened. No one's fault."
River reached up to wipe the tears that spiked Mal's lashes. "I want to go home, Mal. Please take me home."
Mal nodded, unable to speak. And they lay entwined, their fractured hearts beating in time, one with the other, gathering strength for the long road ahead.
Author's Note: It has been said that the measure of a man is the compassion of his conscience and the depth of his devotion. Hence the title of this series. Obviously, Mal and River face major issues here, but that is a story for another day. Thanks for sticking with the story to its conclusion. I sincerely hope you enjoyed it, and I'd like to request that you leave feedback, positive, negative, or indifferent, so that I may have some idea about your opinion. Thanks again