Disclaimer: None of these are my characters. Joss Whedon is the man (a.k.a. 'Joss is boss.')

Chapter 1

Serenity was quiet, just the way River liked it. They had delivered their shipment of protein bars to Bernadette early, since the ship was in such wonderful condition after their visit to Osiris. After that, they had spent a week traveling to Aberdeen, where they dropped off the machine parts to some factories. Now, ten days out of Persephone, where all hundred barrels of expensive wine had been, miraculously, safely delivered to the vendor, they were headed far out into the Rim territories. The Captain had high hopes of large profits, with the three crates of contraband hidden away behind the walls of the hold.

The young navigator had just set the autopilot, and was powering down for shipboard night, when she heard quiet steps coming through the hatch from the passageway. Mal always tried to sneak up on her, and always failed miserably. Sometimes she'd carry on obliviously with her duties, letting him think he'd finally succeeded, only to speak up or turn around suddenly when he was right behind her. This usually got a more entertaining outburst from him than those times she reacted as soon as she heard him. Tonight was one of those nights.

River was punching buttons and flipping switches, powering the ship down for the night, and Mal was fairly certain she hadn't heard him. He lifted his arm to tap her on the shoulder when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the pilot's chair spun around and he found himself knocked to the deck, an amazingly quick and agile young woman kneeling on his chest. "Gorram it! How do you do that?!" Mal's frustration was too comical not to laugh at, and River did as she helped him to his feet. "Ain't I ever gonna be able to catch you by surprise?"

"Perhaps you should try sneaking into my room while I'm sleeping," River giggled. This game was so much fun she couldn't help poking her Captain in one of his tender moral places. "Of course, you're so noisy you'd be as likely to wake me from the dead."

"Ha, ha," Mal intoned drily. "You may think this is some wonderful, clandestine romance," River loved the way Mal threw a cowboy accent on certain words, "but I still aim to do right by you and your brother. And, come to think of it, now I got your folks to worry about, too. You done up here for the night?" At River's nod, Mal casually tossed an arm over her shoulder and led her toward the galley.

They had developed a nightly ritual of sorts. Mal always took one last walk through the ship, making sure everything was buttoned up or strapped down, then tried fruitlessly to sneak up on River while she was powering down the ship. After she picked him up off the floor, where she inevitably tossed him, they'd head to the kitchen together for a glass of Kaylee's engine wine and some dry biscuits. River loved this late night routine, and the conversations that always came along with it.

"So, Captain," River said once they'd taken seats in the galley lounge, "do you have a destination in mind, or are we just going to float around out here until someone calls asking if we've got any frozen animal embryos for sale?" The mischievous grin she gave Mal calmed his ire before he started to think she was challenging his methods.

Mal smiled back at her and answered, "Actually, I was thinkin' we might try Triumph. They always seem to be in need of more animals for their herds." This time, he vowed silently to himself, he wouldn't take payment in bride/ship thief.

He knew River had 'heard' him when she smiled that evil, I-know-what-you're-thinking smile he was learning so well. "You don't want to go to Triumph. You know they can't pay you if you won't accept another wife. Besides, I don't like competition." Another mirthful smile made Mal chuckle softly.

"You got a point, of course." Mal's face took on a thoughtful cast, and eventually he said, "How 'bout Constance?"

"They know you, and they know the ship," River responded. "We didn't exactly leave under happy circumstances."

"That bank job would have been nice and quiet," Mal said, "and we wouldn't have to avoid yet another world, if not for that gorram Ott." Mal and the others were still bitter about the foiled job. "How about Muir? Badger always seemed to think well of it."

"That's because he grew up there," River answered. "I suppose one half-empty farming moon is as good as another. Except those we've already been kicked off." River decided sitting across the couch from Mal, discussing business, was getting a little old. She slid across the cushions and leaned against the Captain, resting her head on his chest. He draped an arm gently over her, and laid back against the side of the couch to make them more comfortable.

"Ya know," Mal observed, "one of these days your brother is gonna get up for a lil' midnight snack, and he ain't likely to be too happy with me if he sees us like this." This was part of the nightly ritual, of course. Mal always worried about Simon, probably because the doctor had only ever punched one man, and it was because of his sister. Unfortunately, Mal was that one man.

At River's exasperated sigh, Mal decided to change the subject. "So, shut me up if'n I'm outta place or you don't wanna talk about it, but you seem mighty stable the past month or so. Is your brother dopin' you with some new super drug I ain't been told about? And if so, how is he affordin' it, what with the meager pay I give 'im?"

River ran a hand along Mal's stubbled cheek and laughed lightly. "No, he's not. I haven't needed any meds since we visited Osiris. Matter of fact, I've needed them less and less since Miranda. And I don't know if I'd call the pay meager, after this very successful run."

"Well, I appreciate your support, lil' one," said Mal, "but that's beside the point. I'd like to know if this improvement in you is somethin' I can be comfortable gettin' used to, or if it's some kinda lucky break we're gettin'. I'd hate to see you, especially, get used to bein' ... well, normal, I guess, and then slip right back into your bad days again. Maybe you should talk to the doc about it."

"I really don't think I need to check with Simon every time I have a few good days in a row, Mal," River groused. "You worry too much." The pout she gave the Captain was priceless, and he wondered briefly if she'd been taking lessons from Inara.

"A few good days?" Mal scoffed. "Fine then, for my peace'a mind, at least -" Mal was silenced when River stretched up to lock her lips over his. A breathless minute later, Mal managed to gasp, "What was that for?" River had reached up and twined her fingers in the Captain's soft hair, and she continued to play along his scalp for a moment.

She gave him a satisfied smile as she said, "Do I really need a reason?" Mal shook his head a bit, but before he could say anything, River continued. "Had to shut you up. Didn't want to talk about it anymore."

"You coulda just said somethin', but I ain't complainin'," Mal said. "Matter of fact, I still got a bit of an itch in my voice box. Don't quite think I got the point first try."


Mal came to slowly. His neck ached terribly, and there was a weight on his chest and legs. Some sound had caught his attention, pulling him out of the most peaceful sleep he'd had in years. As awareness slowly flooded back into him, he realized the source of his aches: he'd fallen asleep on the couch in the galley lounge, and the weight was River. Her head was still resting on his chest, her fingers tangled in his hair, and her legs twined intimately with his. He knew all this without even opening his eyes.

When the Captain did open his eyes, however, the sense of peace evaporated quicker than rubbing alcohol under a blazing sun. Simon stood above them, at the foot of the couch. The look on his face was extremely unhappy. Mal blinked a few times, hoping the doctor was just a figment of his tired imagination. When Simon didn't disappear, he decided it was time to start explaining.

"Hey, doc," Mal began lamely. "Uhh, what're you doin' up so late?"

"Captain," Simon said in a deceptively calm, yet dangerous voice, "if you know what's good for you, you'll extricate yourself from my sister and explain why I'm seeing what I'm seeing. Quickly."

Mal, always having been a fan of dying on his feet, if at all, nevertheless took extreme care in not waking River as he wriggled out from under her. He set her head down gently on a pillow, then kissed her forehead tenderly. Hell, if the doc was about to do him bodily harm, he may as well make it worth the pain.

"If you really want to push me, Captain, there are easier ways to do it," Simon said. His irritation was starting to show through. His voice was slightly louder than Mal liked, since River was still sleeping peacefully less than five feet away. Mal grabbed Simon by the arm and dragged him into the kitchen.

"Doc, you best be keepin' your voice down," Mal said. "If you're lookin' to fight, I can make that happen. I won't have you wakin' her up, though. Not for some foolishness she don't need upsettin' her." Mal looked Simon in the eye for a long moment, willing him to calm down, before he continued. "Now I know you got issues with this, and believe me, I tried to stay away. That girl must'a picked up on Inara's wiles, though, cuz I'll be damned if I didn't get dragged in, just like her pretty eyes were quicksand. She ain't a bitty girl anymore, Simon. She's a woman, mind and body. She knows what world she's headin' for, and goes full burn. Ain't a thing you or I can do to stop that. 'Sides, I ain't rightly sure I'd try to stop it if I could."

Simon was speechless for a moment, his jaw working up and down rhythmically. Then he said the only thing a big brother in his situation could say. "Are you sleeping with her?" The doctor threw as much venom into those five words as Mal had ever heard spoken, and it stunned him momentarily.

Mal recovered quickly, though, and tried once again to calm the young man staring murder at him. "Doc, much as I hate to say it, I promise you'll know if things start gettin' physical between me'n your sister. I'd have her on birth control quicker'n you could take another swing at me." Mal made a show of relaxing, hoping to put Simon at his ease, and smiled.

Unfortunately for the Captain, his gambit had the opposite effect. Before he knew what was happening, Mal found himself slammed up against a wall. "If you think this is funny, Mal," Simon growled, emphasizing the lack of title in his response, "you'll find that having me on your bad side is a very dangerous proposition. Don't you dare take advantage of her."

Extracting his vest from Simon's clenched fists as calmly as possible, Mal gently pushed the irate doctor back a few steps. "Doctor, you need to be calmin' down right about now. I guarantee, if I hurt your sister in any way, you'll be first in line to string me up. Now unless you got somethin' constructive to say, this conversation is over. Dong ma?" Simon gave the Captain a tight-lipped nod. "Good. Now I'm gonna take River to her room, and then I'm goin' to bed. We still got issues, we can hash 'em out tomorrow. Good night, doctor."

Mal turned around to collect his pilot, but was stopped by a hand on his arm. Turning back to Simon with a scowl, the Captain was greeted by an anxious expression. "Ahh, you do mean to your own bunk, right?" Simon asked. At Mal's angry, confused look, the doctor continued, "You said you're going to bed. Do you mean in your own bunk?"

Mal gave Simon a calm smile and answered, "I don't reckon that's any of your business, doctor. Sweet dreams." He'll have anything but, after that, Mal thought viciously to himself.

The Captain returned to the couch and gently scooped River into his arms. She slept the whole way to her room. When Mal set her down on her bed and turned to go, however, she woke up just enough to take his hand. "Stay," was all she said. Looking down at her peaceful form, Mal couldn't think what it would hurt to spend a night away from his bunk, angry brother or no. Not like it'll be the first time I've slept in this bed, he thought ruefully. Mal laid down next to his little navigator, kissed her tenderly on the head, and they were both soon sleeping peacefully, wrapped around each other like longtime lovers.

Dong ma? - Understand?