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

A/N: Caution, bit of a graphic surprise near the end. If you're shy or underage, go away.

Chapter 4

"Simon wants me to go back where?" River exploded. "No, absolutely not. You know what happened last time we went there! I don't want to go back!" River was almost crying, the strongest emotional reaction Mal had seen out of her in quite a while.

"Hey, River," Mal soothed, "last time was different. You'n your brother were runnin' from the Feds, we snuck in to pull a heist, and it went south. Simon thinks we can do it legit-like this time, with help from your folks. Won't be no runnin' or hidin' this time. Won't be no Feds or Blue Hands this time. We won't even be goin' to the same hospital." Mal was holding her, inscribing circles on her lower back with his hands, trying to calm the nearly-hysterial girl. "I promise, if I don't think it's safe, I won't let it happen. I'll never let anything like that happen you you, ever again. Dong ma?"

River calmed somewhat, but the Captain could still hear her whimpering softly into his shoulder. "You promise?" she said softly.

"My hand to god," Mal answered softly.

"Empty promise to a broken belief," River murmured. She almost sounded like she used to, back before she started acting sane. Mal started to worry. The Captain whispered calming nothings for a while, and River finally stopped crying and looked up at him. "No Jayne," she almost whispered.

"He won't even know where we're goin'," Mal promised. River nodded, a defeated look etched in the lines of her face. "This'll just be you, me'n your brother. Doc seems to think your folks can set up somethin' safe. You okay with that?" River nodded again, then curled up in Mal's lap and lay still for a while.


Mr. Tam seemed confident that he could arrange what they needed, and two days later they had a Wave from him confirming it. The plan he outlined seemed solid and, more importantly, safe. Mal okayed it, albeit reluctantly. The memory of his sweet little navigator breaking down in his arms tugged at his heart strings somethin' fierce.


A week and a half later, they were landing on Osiris again. The Captain had told the rest of the crew, except Zoë, that they were only here for more jobs, and that he and the Tam siblings were going out to meet their parents for dinner. In Zoë he confided everything, quietly and out of everyone else's hearing. She would be on standby as their backup, in case this safe little outing turned out not-so-safe, after all.

The trio met with Mr. and Mrs. Tam at a cafe in an upscale part of town, not too far from the hospital. After hugs and other greetings were exchanged, Gabriel looked at his daughter and said, in a voice full of empathy, "River, are you sure you want to do this?"

The young woman smiled sadly and shook her head, but said, "Yes, father, I'm ready. If Simon says this is best, and Mal says it's safe, I trust them. I may not like it, but they'll protect me." River looked up into Mal's eyes with a trusting smile, and slid her arm around his waist.

Mr. Tam glared suspiciously at the Captain, then shot his son a questioning look. Simon shook his head unhappily in agreement and turned away. Mrs. Tam smiled pleasantly at the unlikely couple, though, and held out a hand for River, who reluctantly extricated herself from her beau to walk with her mother. As the group made their leisurely way toward the hospital, the two women spoke in low tones, an occasional giggle sounding from one throat or the other. Father and son likewise huddled together, whispering conspiratorially and casting occasional glares at the Captain, who hung back a bit, trying to look innocent. Mal's senses were everywhere, trying to divine any potential trouble before it struck them.

At the hospital, an elderly doctor met them in a plushly furnished lobby. Mal glared at him suspiciously until Gabriel turned to him and said in low tones, "He can be trusted. I've known him most of my life." To the older man, Mr. Tam said jovially, "Doctor Warrick, greetings. You may remember my children, River and Simon, and this is ... a friend," he finished with a vague gesture at Mal, who glared again as he shook the man's hand.

"Captain Malcolm Reynolds, doctor," Mal said. "How do you do?"

"Delighted, I'm sure," the doctor responded in a gravelly voice. "Simon, I believe your father said you had need of our imaging suite?" Gesturing toward the elevators, he led them into the hospital. "Can I be of any assistance to you, young man?"

"No, sir," Simon answered. "You've been more than helpful already. I'd like to thank you for giving us this opportunity. I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to have proper medical facilities at my disposal, after all this time. The ship's infirmary is sparsely provisioned, at best." Simon smiled back at Mal apologetically, though, at this last remark, as if to say, 'No insult intended.' Mal nodded his understanding.

They made their way to the imaging suite, where River lay calmly on the examination table while Simon worked the holo-controls. The rest of the motley group stood off to the side watching, Doctor Warrick in awe of the younger physician's skill. "I never could get used to this newer technology," the older man mumbled over and over. "Still prefer the old-style MRI's, myself."

Simon heard one of his utterances, responding distractedly, "Yes, doctor, but with this I can ..." Simon trailed off. "Tian xiaode!" Simon exclaimed. The others began to crowd in, but were pushed back my Doctor Warrick, who then rushed forward to see.

"What's wrong, Simon?" asked the older man in concern. He moved forward to see the holoimage better. "Why, I may not be an expert, but her brain looks perfectly normal. Well, except for a slight thinning of the surface membranes around her amygdala."

"That's what's so amazing, doctor," Simon exclaimed. "Her amygdala were completely stripped last time we were able to take images! The membranes have grown back almost completely in less than a year." Mal wasn't sure what all the fuss was about, but it sounded like his littles crew member was healing, which he would have assumed to be a good thing.

"They were what?" Doctor Warrick asked incredulously. "That's not possible, is it?"

"River was subjected to gross and illegal experiments up until about a year and a half ago," Simon explained. "The people who were holding her stripped her amygdala, in addition to many other terrible things. We still don't know the full extent of the damage, but this was by far the most telling on her mental state. You're right, of course. This shouldn't be possible. Captain," Simon asked, "how long can we stay here?"

"Long as the doc says it's okay, and I think it's safe," Mal answered. "So, are you sayin' she's right in the head again?" Hope and disbelief warred in Mal's mind and voice. River turned her head to smile at the Captain, and reached out a hand for him. While Simon admonished her to remain still, Mal walked over and took her hand, smiling down at her lovingly.

"I told you it was time to wake up," River said quietly. Mal smiled at the reference, though he knew even she hadn't realized the full implications of the statement at the time her dream-self made it.


Three hours later, the Tams and Mal left the hospital, still none the wiser as to how River's brain had healed itself. Mal didn't care, so long as it meant his beautiful little pilot was on the mend. Possibilities whirled through Simon's head, though none seemed to make sense in such an unprecedented case. River's parents smiled as they walked down the street hand in hand, as clear an indication as any that they were truly happy for their daughter. River was content merely to walk, arms linked, by Mal's side. The couple kept smiling at each other and whispering things Simon was sure he didn't want to hear.

The elder Tams accompanied the other three all the way back to Serenity. Once there, Gabriel asked Mal to step aside with him for a chat. The other three walked up the cargo ramp together, slight confusion coloring River's face. She had been trying hard lately not to Read people, and it was taking a toll in not knowing what her father wanted with Mal.

"Captain Reynolds," Gabriel began. "Or should I drop the formalities, now that you're so obviously involved with my daughter?" When Mal's jaw dropped, Mr. Tam laughed. "Don't worry, Malcolm, I don't intend to call you out or demand you stop seeing her. I'm just a concerned father, and I want to make sure my little girl is well taken care of. She is?" Gabriel ended with a question, prompting Mal to pick his jaw up off the ground.

"Uh, sir," Mal said, stumbling over his words.

"Please, call me Gabriel," the older man said pleasantly.

"All right, Gabriel. Yes, I'd like to believe I'm takin' good care'a your little girl. I ain't no fancy Core businessman, but we been workin' steady, bringin' in decent money, and she's as safe as I can keep her. 'Course, that's a difficult thing, stubborn as she is about comin' with me on jobs."

Gabriel laughed again. "Yes, that sounds like my little River. I understand that your line of work isn't always as safe as a father would prefer for his daughter, but from what I've heard of her ... abilities, I don't suppose I should worry overmuch. I'd like to continue to connect you to people who can provide mostly legitimate work, however, if you'll allow me." Mal nodded, so Gabriel continued. "My associates were extremely pleased that you were able to deliver their goods ahead of schedule. It seems shipping through non-traditional channels is not just more profitable, but more expedient."

"Well, Gabriel," Mal said. "Wish I could say we don't need the money, but I'd be lyin'. You tell them associates'a yours to give me a call in the next couple days, and I'll see how much'a their cargo I can squeeze in. I ain't sayin' I'm gonna give up the work I been doin', but I'll see about visitin' Osiris a mite more often. I know the kids'd love to see you and their ma more often."

"And I'd like to get to know my little girl's suitor a bit better," Gabriel smiled at Mal's discomfiture. "Really, Malcolm, calm down. I'm glad River has found someone to make her happy. At least you're employed, if not altogether honestly. After learning what the Alliance did to her, I don't fault your wish to be out from under their heel."

"Well, I thank you then, sir," Mal said. "And please, if you wanna call me by name, I go by Mal to my friends. Ain't nobody called me Malcolm since growin' up on Shadow, and that was only when Ma was riled." Gabriel smiled and clapped the Captain on the shoulder amiably, then collected his wife and bid his children good night.


In River's room in the passenger dorms late that night, Mal lay on his back, shirtless, with long hair trailing across his stomach while silky lips trailed kisses slowly across his chest. "Shouldn't'a never took my shirt off," Mal sighed unconvincingly. "You're like to start somethin' I ain't rightly sure I'm strong enough to stop, little girl."

"Good," River answered between soft kisses. "I intend to prove," kiss, "once and for all," kiss, "that I'm not a little girl." River laughed lightly, her breath on Mal's skin doing something inside his chest he wasn't sure he recognized, while something farther south reacted to her words in a way he recognized all too well.

"You sure you're ready for this?" Mal asked breathlessly.

"I've been ready longer than you could imagine, my love," River answered him sensually. Her hands trailed down Mal's naked torso, tracing scars and muscles. "Are you?" Mal licked his lips and nodded wordlessly, bringing another smile to River's lips. Those lips followed the path her hands had taken, working their way down to his navel.

As the young pilot unbuckled his belt, Mal could only wonder how he had managed to hold out as long as he had. The girl was amazing at what she was doing. Mal sat up suddenly, pushing River back on her knees, and pulled her shirt over her head in one swift motion. He reveled in the sight of glowing alabaster skin and a slight blush, which ran from the top of her bra all the way to her hairline.

River crawled forward on the bed, seating herself in front of Mal with her legs wrapped lithely around his hips. She guided his hands around her sides, to the clasp of her bra, which he fumbled with until she deigned to help him with a small laugh. Mal gasped at the sight of her pert breasts, leaning forward to kiss the skin of her chest. She tasted like summer and smelled like heaven. "Tian xiaode," he said reverently, echoing unconsciously her brother's words of earlier that day.

Divesting themselves clumsily of their remaining clothes, the pair laid down together on the bed. They spent the next hour exploring each other's bodies with gentle touches and soft kisses. The first time River grasped his throbbing length in one delicate hand, Mal groaned. His patience nearly at its end, he rolled her onto her back and locked his lips over hers.

Pushing slowly into her, Mal felt her gasp against his mouth and stopped. "Don't," River said breathlessly. "I've waited so long for this, don't make me wait any longer." Acquiescing gladly, Mal buried himself in her warmth. The two moved together for what seemed like an eternity, but crashed to a climax together all too soon.

Laying in the afterglow, sweaty and satisfied, River once again rested her head on Mal's chest, trailing her fingers along his scars. The naked length of her body was pressed up against him, and all he could think about was how she felt beneath him. The Captain looked down at his navigator, laying next to him with a sated smile on her lips, and knew he couldn't let go of the good he'd finally found in his life.

After the war, Mal and Zoë had recovered together, but very differently. He had found a ship, guaranteeing his freedom from Alliance control as much as possible. She had found a husband. Mal had compartmentalized his feelings. Zoë had sunk her whole heart into Wash. Now, with Wash gone, Zoë was the one burying everything behind a veneer of work and Mal was the one quickly discovering that he had no control over his heart's wanderings. It was all very confusing for the normally rock-steady man.

"How did she do it?" Mal said out loud, thinking River would know what he was talking about without an explanation. Apparently, he was wrong, because she looked up at him with a question in her sex-tired eyes. "You not Readin' me, lil' one?" Mal asked in surprise.

"Getting better at it. No idea what you're thinking right now, just what you're feeling. Why are you confused?" River sat up, and Mal immediately missed the heat of her body against his. Sighing, he sat up as well, leaning back against the wall next to her and taking her hand in his.

"Oh, I'm just wonderin' how Zoë let go'a the war enough to fall in love with Wash." Mal wasn't used to sharing his thoughts or feelings, but somehow it came naturally with River. "Seems to me she changed a bit faster than I reckon is possible for most folk. Zoë was this hardass, steady soldier. Then, all'a sudden, she was a loving wife. I don't mean to say she stopped bein' great backup in a firefight, but it's like she could change suits once she got back to Serenity."

"And you think you can't do the same?" River asked. "Do you think loving me will make you soft?"

"No," Mal answered quickly, "that ain't it at all. I don't think lovin' you's gonna make me go soft, I'm afraid I ain't gonna be able to love you right, cuz I can't let go'a the hard." Mal stopped talking for a minute, but River knew he wasn't done, so she waited in encouraging silence for him to find the words for what he felt. "Serenity Valley did things to people ... No, that ain't what I mean to say. Serenity Valley did things to me. I don't know how easy it'll be to undo that. I reckon I ain't gonna get lucky and have the part'a my soul was ripped out in that place grow back, like your am... amig... brain pieces." Mal finished with a frustrated look, not for the difficult to pronounce word, but because he was honestly worried about this issue.

"But Mal, I don't intend to let you walk that path alone. You don't need to fight for my love, you already have it. I love you. I'm a patient person, so if it takes you a while to figure out how you feel, I can wait. I've felt for a while that I needed to have you, physically, and I have that now. I want your love more than anything else, but I'll wait for as long as you need, as long as you keep coming to me." River smiled at this last part, and Mal couldn't help but smile as well.

"So," the Captain started, changing the subject uncomfortably, "this gonna change things for us on the job?"

River flashed that radiant smile of hers and answered, "Not for me, lover. You've been my main concern on jobs since you started letting me go with you. And if you're the consummate soldier you seem to think you are, you won't let it change you, either." A mischievous look came into her eyes then. "I would like to start carrying a gun, though. I don't think I could have taken all of those thugs back on Muir before one or two got their guns back up. I'd hate to have to trust you to protect yourself. You're pretty miserable at it."

"Hey!" Mal exclaimed to River's laughs. "What's that supposed to mean? I'm still breathin', ain't I?"

"Purely by luck and a good medic, judging by all those scars I've been playing over." River laughed again when Mal tried to twist his head down to look at his own chest.

"So the deal, then," Mal said after thinking for a few minutes, "is a gun and a whole brain for you, no dyin' and lotsa thinkin' for me, and good sexin' for both of us?" River nodded, and Mal smiled. "I reckon I can live with that arrangement."

Dong ma? - Understand?

Tian xiaode! - Name of all that's sacred!