Author's Note: I own none of the characters, and this time, not even the plot bunny. This story was proposed by the lovely buffybot76, whose idea took off in my head like a freight train. I hope it lives up to her expectations! This is a standalone fic that is not part of my usual little Mal/River 'verse. I hope you enjoy!
Summary: Mal watches the R. Tam Sessions.
Mal climbed down into his bunk, protectively holding the bandage over the still-oozing sword wound from the Operative. He thought it a minor victory to be able to navigate the ladder again after the beating he'd received on Mr. Universe's world. And at this juncture, he'd gladly take any victory he could get.
What was left of his crew and his ship were beat all to hell and back, and he had a serious need to sleep for the next ten years or so, he thought tiredly as he pulled off his suspenders and boots. Only one of his crew acting even vaguely normal was River, the supposed crazy girl. Wondering mildly at what point the 'verse had turned so sideways, he put his gun belt on his desk, and noticed a plain, paper-wrapped package sitting there. Instantly wary, considering that the only people with access to his bunk since he'd last been there were his crew, who were too injured to be climbing much, or the Alliance personnel who'd been picked by the Operative to assist with some of the more difficult repairs to Serenity, he didn't much like the notion of a surprise wrapped up like a present. He picked it up carefully, and put it to his ear, almost expecting to hear the relentless beep of a timer counting down to his imminent demise. He heard nothing. Sniffing it elicited the same results, so he worked up his courage to unwrap it carefully. It looked to be a small recording device of some kind.
More than a little curious now, he pushed the button marked "Play" and held his breath, half sure his bunk was about to go up in a blaze of something less than glory. Instead, he heard the voice of the Operative. "Be assured I mean you no further harm, Captain Reynolds. And as I have stated, you will not see me again. However, there is one final obligation I must discharge. You need to know what you are harboring on your ship. River Tam may not pose a threat to the Alliance, but she could very well pose a significant threat to you and your people. I implore you to watch the tape."
Abruptly the Operative's face was replaced by what Mal recognized as a standard interrogation room. One desk, two chairs, and nothing much else. But the thing that caught his attention and held him spellbound was the person facing the camera. It was River, but not a River he had ever seen. This River was smiling and self-possessed, hair combed neatly, hands folded politely in her lap. Her voice was soft and happy, peaceful and calm as she spoke about her educational background and her fear that she was not being challenged enough in the GenEd program.
Mal sat down heavily on his bed, mesmerized by the sight of this untouched River. He suddenly understood, more clearly than ever before, the depth of the sadness in Simon's eyes when he looked at his sister, the bitterness he must feel for what he had lost. He choked back tears himself as River requested a transfer so pitifully, seeing the growing horror in her eyes as she admitted to the pain of the procedures. Unable to tear his eyes away, he watched session after session, the bile rising in his throat as River slid into her private hell of psychosis.
He watched until his body ached with the stiffness of sitting for hours in one position, the 'verse around him fading into a gray background as he was caught in the pit of River's anguish. He came to hate with all his being the calm voice of her interrogator, so benignly evil with his pad and pen. Her screams reverberated down his spine, making him ache to kill the man, to feel the satisfying snap of his neck with his bare hands. The tape went on, inexorably pulling River down into the nightmare in which she'd lived until she'd vomited out Miranda's secret into the 'verse for him to see. The sessions hinted at other secrets, other truths still buried that would have to be exorcised before her soul could rest. The thought caused Mal's blood to chill, the cost incalculable in human terms. And then, he saw the session labeled "416", the last of the recordings. He saw his little albatross, more weapon than girl, more animal than human, lose her blood innocence as she fulfilled her first mission. Mouth dry and heart hammering wildly in his chest, he sat staring at the now blank screen, his mind struggling to assimilate what he'd seen. And in the quiet of his bunk, he wept for what River had lost.
When he was fairly certain the crew was sleeping and he could do so without having to face anyone, he climbed painfully back out of his bunk, hoping to find some whiskey to dull his senses. He made his way to the galley, and reached up to retrieve the bottle he knew Jayne kept hidden in the back of one of the cupboards. Wincing as the reach pulled the stitches in his side, he was startled when a small hand reached past him.
Handing the bottle to him, River looked up at him solemnly. "Shouldn't stretch far enough to hurt," she said softly, as she retrieved his mug as well.
"Standin' still hurts, li'l one," Mal said, images of what he'd seen superimposing themselves over River's face.
River paled, struck with the force of those images. "You saw," she said, her voice small and sad.
Knowing equivocation was useless, Mal answered honestly, "Yes."
River took the bottle from him, pouring his drink and then a generous portion for herself. Mal objected," You're a mite young to be havin' that much whiskey, I'm thinkin'."
River gave him a piercing look. "Am I?" she asked.
Mal saw in her eyes the age forced on her by her experiences, the cost her youth. "Reckon you're not, at that," he said, his voice laced with sadness and another emotion he could not yet name.
"You saw, and you're not afraid," she said, wonder creeping into her voice. "Still think I'm actual, even if I'm not whole."
Mal nodded, acknowledging the truth of it. "Seen 'actual' people go through one helluva lot in the 'verse," he said softly. "Don't make 'em any less valuable to me."
River reached out, putting her hand on top of his where it rested on the table. "Will you show the others?"
Mal looked into her liquid brown eyes, seeing the shame that rested there. "Don't see as that would serve any good purpose," he said, feeling the slight squeeze of gratitude she gave his hand before he pulled it away.
"Thank you," she said, taking a large gulp of the whiskey.
"You're welcome," Mal said. They drank in silence for a time, listening to the hum of Serenity's engine. Feeling it was needful, Mal tried to figure how best to say the words. "Ain't no shame in what you did, li'l River. Person's gotta survive, gotta do what needs doin', and keep standin' up, keep breathin' in and out, no matter the pain of it. You lived through it, and came out the other side still standin'. And that's not nothin'."
River smiled, warmed by the whiskey and the words. "You're a good man, Malcolm Reynolds."
Mal smiled the slow, lazy smile that made River's heart beat strangely in her chest. "Not so much," he answered. "But I got some good people with me. And that's enough."