In the Garden

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: I own none of these characters, and am playing with them in another 'verse again.

Author's Note: This AU Mal/River story was written for the Mal/River ficathon on LiveJournal. It is NOT a part of my continuing Mal/River storyline. Just a little side trip for the sake of fun.

Summary: River Tam finds something she'd been missing.

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River Tam loved to dance. And so, despite the insistence of her parents that she attend the very prestigious government-sponsored Academy for Gifted Children, she had defied their wishes and attended the Academy of Performing Arts instead. Now, at the age of twenty-one, she found herself well on her way to becoming the prima ballerina of the 'verse-renowned Capitol City Ballet Company of Osiris.

River enjoyed her professional life. However, she was beginning to feel an emptiness in her personal life which no amount of dancing could fill. Her unusual schedule made a social life difficult to maintain, and though she'd had a dalliance or two with some of the young men in the Company, she found them for the most part much too dull for her keen intellect. Simon, ever the vigilant brother, had attempted to set her up with doctors of his acquaintance, but now that he had been elected to the Medical Elite, he found little time to intervene in River's affairs.

Having completed the last performance of the evening and the season, River had a month to fill and nothing truly compelling with which to fill it. As had become her custom after the evening performances, she walked home alone through the city streets, catching snatches of the intimate lives of perfect strangers by randomly reading the thoughts of casual passersby. Even with her unique abilities, she felt oddly disconnected from the people around her. Why that should be so, she could not quite fathom.

River lived in a small house on a tree-lined street away from the more densely populated areas of the city. Though Gabriel and Regan Tam had offered to find her a more suitable home, River preferred the freedom of living in a house she had purchased with her own money, and so, used by now to their daughter's headstrong ways, the Tams had let the subject drop. River loved her house and the little garden outside it, where she spent hours cultivating the beautiful flowers she had planted with her own hands.

Following the walkway up to her front door, she stopped suddenly, abruptly aware that she was not alone. Looking carefully into the darkness, she discerned the shape of a man huddled in the shelter of her shrubbery, obviously in some sort of distress. Fragmented thoughts bombarded her psyche, and she could tell that the man was delirious with fever. Almost of their own volition, her feet propelled her forward and she leaned down to look at the man more closely.

What she saw made her gasp. The man looked as if he was two short seconds shy of death, his glassy eyes darting apprehensively at the sound of her sharp inhalation. He drew his arms more tightly around his body. River knelt beside him, strangely unafraid despite his appearance. His hair was matted to his head in a greasy clump, and she could discern open wounds and sores through the grime on his skin. At her scrutiny, the man drew up further, practically in a fetal position.

River reached out again with her mind, discovering among his chaotic thoughts an overwhelming fear of being discovered by the authorities. Though reasonably speaking she knew such a fear should cause her to worry for her own safety, she discovered that she was not afraid of the man at all. So, she reached out to touch him. The man flinched away instinctively, his terror palpable even if she had not been a Reader. He mumbled something unintelligible in a dry rasp.

River spoke soothingly. "I mean you no harm. I will not call the authorities. But you can't sleep here in my garden. You're sick, and you need to be cared for. Dong ma?"

Responding to her low, calm voice, the man stilled. Emboldened, she continued. "My name is River Tam, and this is my house. Inside there is food, and a warm bed. You are welcome to come in and rest for a bit. But you must promise not to harm me. Do you understand?"

The man looked into her large brown eyes, obviously trying to concentrate on her words through the fever-induced confusion. River stared back placidly, flooding his mind with images of safety and comfort. "Come inside," she said softly.

Struggling shakily to his feet, the man obeyed.

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The short walk into the house had drained the last of the man's strength, and River helped him slide onto the bed of her spare room just as his legs gave way. He groaned pitifully, and slipped into sleep almost immediately. River stood staring at him for a time, mildly surprised that she should have so easily allowed him into her home. Easily sensing that his sleep was heavy, she pulled his boots off. When he did not stir, she felt satisfied that she could do the rest of what needed to be done without disturbing him. Silently gathering supplies from her medicine cabinet and a large basin of water, she carefully peeled off the rest of his clothes, wincing with sympathy as she worked.

Though the man was tall and broad-shouldered, he was painfully thin. His hollowed cheeks and clearly-defined ribcage told her that he had been very hungry for a long time. As she gently ran the warm, wet cloth over his chest and arms, she uncovered old scars, bullet wounds and long, thin lines that spoke to her of knives and swords. On the inside of his left wrist was a tattoo, a string of numbers she knew from history lessons to indicate that he'd been a prisoner of war.

But as she bathed the rest of his body, she saw newer wounds, some poorly healed but others still raw, inflamed and angry. He looked like the epitome of abuse delivered with a vicious intent, and she wondered what he had done to put himself in a position to receive such brutal treatment.

After she had cleaned and dressed his wounds as best she could, she rolled him over gently, changing the now-damp sheets beneath him. When the task was completed, she pulled a thin sheet over him, gathered up his filthy clothes for the laundry, and stepped back out of the room.

As she waited for the sheets and clothes to wash and dry, she went to the cortex screen and hacked easily into the government database. She typed in the numbers of his tattoo and discovered the identity of her visitor. A former sergeant in the Independent Army and a recently released inmate of the Osiris Military Prison, his name was apparently Malcolm Reynolds.

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"Dr. Tam, there's a wave for you," Simon's assistant said, popping her head into his office.

"Can you take a message, please?" Simon said, up to his head in patient review charts.

"Of course, Dr. Tam," she replied briskly. "But it's your sister."

Simon's head shot up, startled. "Patch it through," he said, instantly turning his undivided attention to the screen. In a minute, River's face appeared. "Don't be alarmed, Simon," she said right away, sensing his concern. "I'm fine. I just need you to stop by the house after work. And bring your medical bag."

Simon's worry went into overdrive. "Why, mei mei? Are you injured?'

"No, I'm not," she replied. "But my house guest is. I'll explain everything when you get here," she added to forestall further questions. "See you later."

Simon turned off the screen and gathered his charts in a large pile. Wishing his surprised assistant a pleasant evening, he left the office. What was the point of being one of the Medical Elite if a man couldn't leave the hospital once in awhile, he thought, checking his medical bag for the proper supplies.

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River was startled to hear the knock on her door less than an hour later. Before she could completely open it, Simon pushed in. "What's the emergency, River?" he asked urgently.

"There is no emergency, Simon," she replied calmly. "And please keep your voice down. He's still asleep."

"He?" Simon asked. "He who?"

"My guest," River replied, as if she was speaking to a small child. "Come on. He's in the spare room."

Simon followed her, wondering what River had gotten into now. When he saw the battered man in the bed, he let out a surprised hiss. "Who the hell is that, River?" he asked, trying to keep his voice down. "And what is he doing in your house?"

"I believe his name is Malcolm Reynolds," she said calmly. "He was hiding in the bushes in my garden. So, I asked him in. And as you can see…" she paused, looking pointedly at Simon. "He needs a doctor."

"Wo de tien ah, River," Simon sputtered. "You can't just pick up men like strays and bring them into your home. Who knows what he might be? I'm calling the police."

River moved to block his path, anger flashing in her eyes. "I'm not an idiot, Simon," she said. "I read him already. He means no harm, and he needs our help."

"That's what hospitals are for," Simon said, interrupting her.

"I'm not taking him to a hospital. He's staying here, period. But he needs your help." So saying, she pulled back the thin sheet, revealing the infected wounds to Simon.

Simon gasped involuntarily. "My God, what happened to him?"

"The government happened to him," River said bitterly. Her seemingly baseless hatred for the Alliance had been a source of contention between them for some time. "At least, that's what I think." She turned Reynolds' wrist for Simon to see.

Simon looked at her, stupefied by her actions. "You're knowingly harboring a criminal?"

River rolled her eyes. "He was released from prison three weeks ago, according to the Cortex. I'm not breaking any law. And even if I were, look at him, Simon. Would you turn him back over to whoever did this?"

Simon swallowed nervously, recognizing River's most determined tone. "No, I probably wouldn't," he admitted.

"Then, help him," she said. "Give him the medication he needs, and I'll handle the rest."

Simon did as he was told.

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Some time in the third night, Mal's fever broke and he awoke, aching and drenched in a cold sweat. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he examined his surroundings in surprise. He had fully expected to wake up outdoors under what natural shelter he could find, but instead he found himself in a comfortable bed in a warm room. Stretching his aching limbs, he discovered that he'd been stripped, bathed, and apparently doctored on, if the clean, white bandages were any indication. He closed his eyes, allowing himself the luxury of enjoying the sensation of having been cared for, if only for a moment. It had been a gorram long time since he had felt any such thing.

He heard the click of the turning doorknob, and warily opened his eyes, his body automatically tensing in anticipatory dread. He was momentarily stunned when he saw the graceful woman slip into the room. Her hair was long and shiny, pulled back from her face with a haphazardly placed clip. She wore some sort of filmy nightgown and her gentle curves were displayed to stunning perfection. She was altogether the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, he thought, as she moved silently to the side of the bed.

Smiling shyly, she looked at him with impossibly bright, brown eyes. "I'm happy to see you're awake," she said softly. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," Mal said hoarsely. 'And it would seem I've got you to thank, Mrs…?"

"Miss," River corrected. "River Tam."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Tam," he said politely. "And I'm obliged to you for your kindness. Name's Malcolm Reynolds, but most call me Mal."

"Pleased to meet you, Mal," River said, mimicking his manner. "I'm called River, by those few who call at all. You must be terribly thirsty. Let me get you something to drink."

She slipped out of the room as quietly as she'd entered, and Mal felt oddly bereft in her absence.

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To Simon's surprise and River's delight, Mal began to recover rapidly under her gentle care. Within a week, he had gained enough strength to walk about in River's garden unaided, though she always hovered close by in case he should suddenly be struck by weakness. As they walked, River talked, the sound of her voice warming a place deep inside Mal that he had thought long-since frozen. He said little, having lost the art of casual conversation somewhere in the length of his ten-year imprisonment. He took it as a kindness that she did not seem to mind, never quite realizing that she read his story in the lines of his face and the scars on his back.

Simon came by on most days to check on his patient as well as his rebellious sibling. Though he lacked River's ability to read Mal, he could see the strength of his character in little things, and his worry for his mei mei's safety diminished slightly.

River, for her part, saw to Mal's physical comforts in a way that left him overwhelmed by the generosity of it. She went to the market every day, finding delectable treats such as he had not tasted since well before the war, until finally his cheeks filled out and his skin took on a healthier glow. She carefully tended to his injuries, until he was able to see to them himself. And through it all, she sent him peace, subtly draining the worst of his horrors away from him in the long watches of the night while he slept unaware of her psychic ministrations.

By the fourth week, Mal was able to repay her kindnesses, at least in small ways. She awoke one morning to find him mending the screen door she'd been neglecting for months. He took to weeding her garden, his work-calloused hands gentle with the tender shoots of new growth. And as River watched those hands, what had been compassion was replaced by a deeper, stronger emotion. Exposed to the hardness in him by her nightly sojourns into his mind, now she saw in his hands the tenderness inside him, the beauty that his bitter experiences had failed to leech from his deepest self. And here, in this most carefully guarded part of him, she found a home for her own spirit.

Feeling the sudden weight of her gaze, Mal looked up from his work. Backlit by the early morning sun, River looked to him like some goddess sprung from the earth into wild, riotous life. His slow smile, an expression she was just beginning to see with regularity, warmed her to the very core. "Everything okay, River?" he asked.

Suddenly tongue-tied, River stammered. "Y-yes. I'm fine."

Mal stood up, dusting his hands across his thighs. "Just thought I'd finish up the weeding before the heat of the day."

River nodded. "It looks lovely," she replied. "The garden has really flourished under your touch."

"Just needed a little care, I conjure," he said softly, drowning in the liquid depths of her brown eyes.

Without conscious thought, River reached out to wipe a smear of dirt from his cheek. Mal's hand went up to cover hers, and he turned his lips into the hollow of her palm. Placing a soft kiss there, he said, "S'pose that's what every living thing has need of."

River leaned forward, melting bonelessly under the gaze of his blue eyes. "Suppose so," she whispered against his chest.

Unnerved by the sensations she created in him, Mal pulled away, leaving her chilled in the morning breeze.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn'ta' done that." He stuck his hands into his pockets to prevent himself from touching her again. "I'm a sorry hundan for takin' advantage, when you've shown me nothin' but kindness. Best I should be going."

River's heart beat wildly against her ribcage, and she felt as if she could not draw breath. "No," she cried, much more forcefully than she'd intended. "You can't go. Not now. Not when…" She stopped, searching for the words to make him see.

Mal looked at her uncertainly. "Not when what?' he asked, some small part of him daring to hope just a little.

"Not when I need a little care," she finished quietly, the flush on her cheeks accenting the pleading in her eyes.

Mal's heart fluttered dizzyingly as he stared at her. "You have no idea what you're asking for, no idea of who I really am."

River stood before him, her soul bared to his gaze. "Then tell me," she whispered. "Only take a very, very long time in the telling." And holding out her hand, she led him home.

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