Disclaimer: I own none of these characters. And this time, I'm playin' with 'em in another room entirely.
Author's Note: This is a completely AU Mal/River story written for the Mal/River ficathon on LiveJournal and is NOT part of my continuing Mal/River storyline. Just a little trip into a different 'verse for the sake of fun. Hope you'll enjoy it!
Summary: A series of firsts in the lives of AU Mal and River.
The first time Malcolm Reynolds saw the young woman she was seated at the feet of his least favorite employer, Jason Lang. Lang was an obscenely large man with even larger unseemly appetites, an Alliance sympathizer, and a major player in Persephone's booming slave trade. And while Mal had categorically refused to help the hundan transport slaves from world to world, he was hard-pressed to refuse the impressive sums of cashy-money Lang offered to transport other items. Theirs was a lucrative business arrangement that was satisfactory to both parties monetarily, but Mal disliked the man immensely, generally feeling the need for a bath after just meeting with the hundan.
As Lang toasted their latest business deal, Mal looked surreptitiously at the girl, compelled somehow to observe everything he could about her. The collar at her neck, so heavy and black against her alabaster skin, looked almost as obscene as Lang's beefy hand laid so possessively on her delicate shoulder. Though a curtain of dark hair hid her face from view, Mal could see the grace of her limbs and the supple beauty of her body.
Lang followed Mal's gaze. "She's a beauty, isn't she?" he asked, sweeping her hair aside so that her face was finally revealed.
"Yeah, a real cherry blossom," Mal said, feigning disinterest even as she stared up at him with impossibly large brown eyes. Tearing his eyes away, he smiled lazily at Lang, blinking past the sudden heat he'd felt under her gaze.
"You've never had one of my pretties, have you, Reynolds?" Lang asked. "Maybe you'd like to have some time with this one while she's still fairly new?"
Mal's jaw tightened slightly, horrified at himself for the treacherous mental image that popped into his mind. "Not interested," he said flatly. "Let's just get down to business. I got no time for your 'pretties'."
"What a pity," Lang said, laughing. "All work and no play is bad for your disposition, Captain." As he spoke, he removed his hand from the girl's shoulder, and Mal felt strangely relieved.
The first time Mal dreamed of her was two nights later. She stood on a river bank, like the one that had run through his Ma's ranch on Shadow, sunlight catching the dewy freshness of her young skin. A gentle breeze blew through the trees and plastered her thin dress tightly to her body, revealing the slight curves that had made such an impression on his waking mind. As he approached her, she turned toward him, and he fell into the depths of her mesmerizing brown eyes.
His pulse quickening, he touched the dream girl and, in the strange, disjointed manner of dreams, they were suddenly in his bunk. He laid her down across his bed, tearing the thin material of her dress, impatient to see all of her. His hands moved restlessly over her exposed skin as he drank in the sight of her, and she trembled beneath his touch.
He felt the heavy ache of desire in his nethers, and reached to part her thighs urgently. Suddenly struggling beneath him, she cried out and faded into nothing.
Mal awoke, achingly hard and drenched with sweat, wondering what spell the girl had cast upon him.
The first time Mal seriously considered buying another human was the next time his work led him back to Lang's establishment. He had dreamed of the girl for months, purposefully staying away from the temptation of seeing her again. But Lang had been insistent that he meet with him again, offering a huge pay-off for a job Mal knew he could do with minimal risk.
When Mal sat down with the obnoxious man, he saw immediately that Lang had a new pet, a little redhead with sad green eyes and a bruise across one cheek. As Lang detailed the work to be done, Mal found himself glancing around the perimeter of the room, searching for the dark-haired girl.
"I'm sorry, Captain Reynolds, am I boring you?" Lang's voice dripped with acid.
Mal cleared his throat, cursing himself for being so transparent. "No, I'm listening. Go on."
Lang, having stayed alive by being a keen student of human nature, observed his guest carefully. "You're looking for the other one," he said, a wolfish smile on his lips.
Before Mal could deny it, Lang snapped his fingers, calling a servant to him. "Bring the mute one to our guest."
Mal couldn't stop himself. "The mute one?" he asked.
Lang nodded. "Pity too," he said. "She's a rare beauty and easily trained to pleasure a man. But I prefer a little noise. I like to hear a woman scream, you understand." He turned to the redhead. "Now Janie here, she makes the most delicious sounds, don't you, my pet?' He traced the outline of her bruised cheek, causing her to whimper. "See what I mean?"
Mal bit back an angry answer. And then he saw her. He'd never actually seen her move before, except in countless dreams, but now he saw that he had imagined correctly. She seemed almost to float, gliding gracefully toward the table, her eyes fixed firmly on his face.
Mal swallowed convulsively, noting how much thinner she looked, how fragile in the dim lighting. She came to a standstill beside Lang, looking at Mal through the veil of her dark hair. Mal released the breath he hadn't even been aware of holding.
Lang, however, had been very aware. "I've been thinking about selling this one to one of my more discerning clients," he said, eyeing Mal shrewdly. "But I'd be willing to negotiate with you instead."
Mal's mind told him to just walk away, to remember all his moral objections to slavery, to wash his hands of the whole business. But his heart wanted something else entirely. He wanted the girl, wanted to possess her in some primitive way, wanted to take her from the horrible man in front of him. And while he waged the inner battle with himself, he heard another voice in his head urging him to take her. He had the strange feeling that it was somehow her voice, impossible though such a thing was.
Lang, seeing clearly Mal's wavering resolve, moved in to close the deal. He named his price, and Mal was somewhat appalled to find himself doing the calculations in his head. If Lang took the cost of the woman out of the sum he was planning to pay Mal for the current job, Ml had enough saved personally to pay the crew for their cut if he didn't take a cut for himself. Before he could marshal defenses enough to say no, he found himself agreeing to Lang's terms and arranging to take the woman to Serenity upon his return.
The first time Mal walked onto Serenity with her beside him, the crew stood staring in shock. Zoe, the only one not struck speechless with surprise, said in a low, deceptively calm voice, "Sir, you expect us to just be okay with the notion that you're trading in flesh now?"
"I don't give a good gorram how you are with the notion," Mal answered, his own voice deadly. "Don't see as how it's the business of anybody on this crew what happens 'tween me and her."
Kaylee tried to ease the bristling tension by stepping between the Captain and Zoe to put her arms around the young woman's shoulders. "You got a name, sweetie?" she asked kindly.
The girl smiled softly, but said nothing. "She don't talk," Mal said gruffly. "A trait I'd like to see a little more of in the rest of this crew. Get back to work." So saying, he stalked away, the young woman following him up the stairs and to his bunk.
Wash put his arm around the still rigid Zoe. "Come on, Zo," he said, pulling her toward the bridge. "Nothing we can do about it right now anyway."
Zoe shook her head as if awakening from a trance, and followed her husband to the bridge.
Mal cleared a space in his closet for the woman's meager belongings. "Well," he said, suddenly uncomfortable in his own skin, "I have to do some…Captainy-type things, but I'll be back in a bit, and I'll show you around the ship. In the meantime, make yourself at home. All right?"
The girl smiled, nodding her head in acknowledgment. As Mal climbed the ladder, he couldn't help the urge to look back at her one more time. "Do you have a name?" he asked. "I mean, what am I to call you?"
She stared up at him, her head tilted as if she was pondering the question. Suddenly Mal had the distinct impression he'd heard her speak, though her lips did not move. "River? Your name is River?" he asked.
She smiled again, and nodded her head, leaving Mal to ponder how he'd heard it if she hadn't said it aloud.
The first time Mal shared a bed with River was later that night. He'd walked her around Serenity, pointing out things of interest as she listened intently. Dinner with the crew had been an awkward affair. Zoe was stonily silent, and even Wash could think of nothing amusing to discuss. Jayne had stared lewdly at River until Mal set him straight in harsh tones. Kaylee and Book had shared small pleasantries, and Inara had managed just a few words before excusing herself for the evening. Through it all, River had calmly finished her food, smiling gratefully at Kaylee's offer of seconds, and Mal was oddly pleased by her appetite. After dinner, he'd made his nightly rounds and taken time to clean the weapons he'd used on Lang's job before heading down into his bunk.
He saw the shape of her body under the thin blanket as she lay curled on her side on his narrow bed. Pulse racing in his ears, he thought he should have given her one of the passenger dorms, if he had not been such a bad man. But the thought of her warm body lying on his cool sheets propelled him forward. Silently shucking off his clothes, he pulled the blanket away as he slipped into the narrow space beside her. River shifted, awakened by the sudden chill. She opened her eyes and looked up at Mal. Seeing the raw hunger on his face, River tensed, knowing all too well the pain that a man could inflict on her body.
"It's all right," Mal whispered, disturbed by her reaction. "I ain't aimin' to hurt ya'. Just 'cause money was exchanged don't mean I think I own ya'. You ain't gotta do nothin' you don't wanna do, dong ma?"
The woman nodded, but her body relaxed only slightly. Mal breathed deeply, trying not to be any more aroused than he already was. He laid back against the pillow, closing his eyes to block out the sight of her, all smooth, soft skin so close he could almost taste the sweetness of it. But the image was burned into his retinas, and he let out an unconscious groan of frustration. Immediately, he felt a strong, slender hand ghost timidly down his belly and around his aching length. Hips bucking into the touch, he opened his eyes in surprise. The woman knelt between his thighs, her soft hair tickling his abdomen as she bent to her task. "No, you don't have to…" he managed to get out before his words were halted by the mind-numbing sensation of her tongue and lips along his sensitive shaft. Fighting for a little control of his treacherous body, he stammered, "S-s-stop. Please."
She stopped immediately, looking up at him anxiously. When Mal thought he could string words together again, he said, "You ain't got to….I mean, I don't want you to…feel beholden to me. You're not here just to….service me."
River looked at him, obviously puzzled by his words. Then, looking pointedly at his weeping erection, she frowned. He tried again. "What I mean is that this doesn't have to be all about me. I want us both to be pleasured by it. Dong ma?"
He could tell by her expression that she doubted such a thing was possible, and he mentally cursed the hundan Lang for hurting her. "Let me show you," he whispered, touching her cheek tenderly. "Will you trust me?"
Her huge brown eyes shone brightly in the dim light as she nodded her head. And pulling her gently to him, Mal began to undo the damage Lang had done.
The first time River tended to Mal's wounds was after Patience shot him on Whitefall. The bullet missed everything major but didn't quite make it all the way out of his shoulder before stopping. Zoe, badly bruised by the multiple shots that had hit her body armor, was in no shape to fish out the errant bullet, and Mal knew no one else on board was any kind of decent medic. Book might have been able to help, he thought wryly, but the Shepherd was on a side trip to some abbey or another a couple of worlds back. And Inara was on Persephone, having taken some fellow named Wing up on his offer to keep her in grand style in exchange for her exclusive attentions.
So, left with no other obvious choice, Mal was rummaging around the infirmary one-handed in search of the tools he'd need to do the job himself. Knowing a painkiller would make him too drowsy to do what needed doing, he gritted his teeth and peeled back the shreds of his shirt, wincing as the wound started bleeding again in earnest. And then a smooth, cool hand gently touched his shoulder, and he looked up to see River carefully examining the wound. Pushing him gently back onto the table, she cleaned the wound with great care, her touch as light as a feather on his injured flesh. She wiped the sweat from his brow and found something for the pain, smiling softly when his eyelids began to droop.
When he awoke, the wound was stitched closed with tiny, even stitches and River sat perched on a stool, her head resting on the table beside his hand. He raised the hand to touch her, the movement causing only a little pain. "Thank you," he said hoarsely. The woman just smiled.
The first time Mal heard River's voice she was begging him not to hurt her. The crew had gone to Osiris for a drop, and while Mal, Zoe, and Jayne were on the job, River had left the ship and disappeared into Capitol City. For three days Mal searched, until finally he found her in a pounding rain, looking bedraggled and frightened.
He grabbed her arms roughly, giving her an angry shake. "Where in the sphincter of hell have you been?" he bellowed above the sound of the storm, nostrils flaring and blue eyes flashing with the fire of his fury.
"Please," River said. "Please don't hurt me. I had to try. I couldn't come here and not at least try." She began to sob loudly, her whole body shaking in the stiff wind.
Shocked to have actually heard her voice with his ears and not simply in his head, Mal released her and she crumpled to the ground in a miserable heap. "What did you have to try?" he asked, struggling to regain some calm.
"Simon's here," she said pitifully. Mal tried to make out her words above the sound of the pouring rain.
"Simon who?" he asked.
"Simon Tam," she answered, still sniffling. "My brother. I know he's here somewhere. I can feel him."
Mal pulled her to her feet, and steered her toward a shelter of sorts. "Tell me," he demanded, his voice loud in the sudden silence of the shelter.
Wrapping his coat around her shivering shoulders, he sat down to listen as River explained how she had been sent to a school for gifted children, an Alliance school where she'd been subjected to all manner of horrifying experiments. Writing encoded letters to her family, begging them to rescue her, she had waited for help to arrive. But finally, unable to endure the abuses visited on her mind and body, she had found a way to escape. Intending to find her brother, she had made her way to Capitol City, where she found the large trauma center where he had been employed. But no one there could tell her where he had gone, and River could not stay to look for fear she would be recognized and returned to the Academy.
Wandering the streets looking for Simon, she had been abducted by Lang and transported to Persephone, where Mal had first seen her, mistreated and abused to the point of near death.
"Why didn't you tell me before?" Mal asked quietly, no longer having to shout, as the rain had almost stopped.
"Wasn't sure you'd help me, or even let me go," she replied honestly. "Thought you might try to stop me. Still not sure."
Mal looked at her intently. "Why do you want to see your brother? He didn't come to help you out of the Academy."
"He would have if he could. I know it," River said firmly.
Mal nodded. "And what were you gonna do if you found him?"
"Take him to Serenity. Ask you to take him on as crew."
Mal snorted. "And why would I do that?"
"Because you need him," River replied earnestly. "He's an excellent doctor."
Mal stared at her, something in her voice persuasive beyond his ability to refuse. "We don't find him by the end of the day, we leave without him. Dong ma?"
"I understand," River said solemnly. "Thank you."
The first time Mal heard River laugh was two months after they found Simon in an alley on Osiris, strung out on drops. The boy had exhausted all his resources trying to free his sister, only to discover she'd escaped on her own. With nowhere to look and nothing to live for, Simon had fallen into bad company, scouring the seedy underbelly of the city in search of his mei mei and falling victim to the allure of drops to dull the ache in his heart at his bitter failure.
After weeks of painful withdrawal, Simon's eyes were finally clear, and the siblings were laughing and talking in the passenger dorms. Thinking that the sound of her laughter was the sweetest kind of music, Mal puzzled over the pain he felt in his heart. He trudged up the steps and down into his bunk. Readying himself for bed, he slipped under the covers.
In scant moments, River descended the ladder, and shedding her clothes, crawled up beside him. "Heard you and Simon talkin'," Mal said, as she rested her head on his chest. "Thought you might be awhile."
River shook her head. "Knew you were ready for me, so I came."
Mal did not know why the answer should tug at his heart so, but it did.
The first time Mal realized he loved River Tam was when he decided to set her free. Leaning against the bulkhead in his bunk, he looked at her soberly. She sat on the edge of the bed, her spine ramrod straight as she listened to his words.
"River, like I've told you before, you're not beholden to me for anything. And now you got your brother back, I conjure you want to start fresh somewhere, leave this whole gorram experience behind you. And I don't blame you even a mite. So, I'm tellin' you again, you're free to go." He thought desolately that merely saying the words would snap his spine in two.
"You want me to go?" River asked in a small, hollow voice.
"I want you to be happy," Mal replied, though his heart wanted to scream with the agony of it.
River sat very still for several minutes, listening to things that only she could hear. Finally, she said, "So, I'm free to go wherever I choose?"
"Yes," Mal said past the lump in his throat. "I'll take you wherever you want to go."
River laid her hand across Mal's heart, feeling the steady pulse against her palm. "Then I choose here," she said softly. And for the first time since Serenity Valley, Malcolm Reynolds felt the power of absolute belief in the future once again.
I hope you enjoyed this little foray into another version of the 'verse.! Feedback would be shiny!