In the Garden—The Final Chapter (Really)
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters.
Author's Note: OK, so at the request of a few stalwart souls who seem to be intrigued by this little Mal/River AU, here is the end of the story. (Italics indicate a dream sequence.)
Having made his difficult decision, Mal went down to the docks to bid his best friend and her husband farewell. Zoe, in her typical fashion, revealed nothing of her opinion about his choice, but promised instead to visit when next their ship came to Osiris. As he watched Renshaw's boat lift gracefully into the atmo, Mal felt a twinge of sadness which he ruthlessly suppressed. And turning back on his heels, he approached his former employer to ask for his old job.
"How do I know you ain't gonna just walk off the job like you did yesterday?" the boss said unpleasantly.
Irritated by the tone, Mal tried to hold his temper. "It won't happen again. You have my word."
The boss snorted. "Fat lot of good the word of an ex-con is like to do me. I'll take you back this time, but any more go se like that and you're out. Dong ma?"
Swallowing his pride and thinking about what he'd like to do to the unpleasant hundan, Mal said, "Dang ran."
"Then, get to work, and be quick about it," the boss said. "I ain't payin' ya' to stand around lookin' purty."
Autumn gave way to winter on Osiris, and Mal pulled the collar of his coat up to block some of the chill. As had become his custom, he made his way to the theater to escort River home after her final performance of the evening, not liking the idea of her walking the distance alone. As he caught sight of her at the back entrance, he was struck again by how very beautiful she was, her face freshly scrubbed of the heavy stage makeup and her hair pulled back loosely in a clip. She smiled when she saw him, lifting her face toward the sky. A light snow was falling, and little flakes caught on her lashes, glinting like tiny jewels in the moonlight. "Isn't it wonderful?" she said enthusiastically. "I always love the snow."
Mal declined to answer, preferring to kiss her instead. Linking arms, they walked back home, talking quietly about the myriad of inconsequential things that make up the tapestry of lives shared, one with another. Though Mal would have preferred to go straight inside upon returning home, River had other ideas and persuaded him to stand in the garden with her as she twirled about, enjoying the first snow fall of the season. So he watched her and wished silently that he could find as much innocent pleasure in it as she did.
Mal stood stripped to the waist and barefooted, shivering in the prison yard. As happened on a fairly regular basis, a new guard had been assigned to his block, a guard who'd most likely lost a father, son, or brother in Serenity Valley. A heavy snow was falling and Mal, already weakened by hunger and the cruel attentions of previous guards, was barely holding on after hours of standing in the same position. Icy water trickled down his back and chest, soaking the thin pants he'd been permitted to wear until they clung tightly to his legs. Finally, tiring of his little diversion, the guard left the warm shelter of the guard tower. As he approached his prisoner, Mal saw that he carried a length of chain, one end wrapped around his beefy hand. The first swing of the heavy chain brought Mal to his knees gasping in pain as it tore through the thinly stretched skin over his emaciated rib cage.
"Get up," the guard ordered roughly.
Struggling to his feet, Mal held his arms protectively over the torn flesh. As the second and third blows fell, Mal saw the pattern of his own blood spattered in the dirty snow. The seventeenth blow sent him into merciful unconsciousness.
Mal bolted awake, the nightmare memory making his blood run cold. River sat up beside him, laying her hand gently over his heart. "You were dreaming, ai ren ," she said soothingly as she heard the harsh sound of his breathing.
"Not just a dream," Mal answered raggedly. "A memory."
"Do you want to talk about it?" River asked, though she had already seen it fully formed in his mind.
"No, darlin'," he answered tiredly. "Can't say as I do. Sorry I woke you."
"It doesn't matter," River said, pushing him back down and arranging herself beside him. She lay awake for a long time after he had fallen back into a restless slumber, and she wished for a time when the first snowfall of the season would not evoke the horror of that particular memory in her lover.
Mal saved each coin that he could for the day when River would choose to leave the Ballet and come with him into the Black. And each day, he talked with Kaylee on their meager breaks about the merits of various ship designs and engines while Kaylee nursed her newborn son. At first, Mal was mildly uncomfortable at the sight, but Kaylee had such a naturalness about everything she did that he was soon over his initial reaction. Kaylee was in agreement with him that the Firefly class ships were ideal for his purposes, though she warned him that it would be very hard to find one in decent working condition. "Course," she said, "if'n you could find one, I could probably help ya' fix 'er up."
"I'd take it as a kindness if you did," Mal said, feeling unaccountably hopeful with her words.
Looking down the alleyway, Kaylee said, "Got someone I'd like you to meet, Mal."
Mal followed her gaze and saw a large man walking purposefully toward them, something intimidating in his stride. "This here's my Jayne," Kaylee said, reaching up to hug the man. "Honey, this here's Mal."
Eyeing Mal warily, Jayne asked bluntly, "You ain't been sexing' Kaylee, have you?"
Mal sputtered for a moment until Kaylee came to his defense. "Mal don't want no part of me. Got hisself a fine lady dancer. 'Sides, Jayne Cobb, you know there ain't no man better'n you." She batted her eyes at her husband, dissipating his suspicion easily.
Jayne grinned, turning back to Mal. "Then I reckon it's good to meet ya'," he said, holding out his huge hand. "Man never knows what's what when he's been gone long enough."
Mal nodded. "Kaylee tells me you plan to stay awhile."
Jayne sighed uncomfortably. "Reckon I need to stay with her and the rugrat now he's born and all. Boy needs a father 'round to teach him things."
Mal nodded. "What will you do for work?" he asked.
Jayne grinned a wicked grin. "Might be best you didn't know."
Mal thought he was most likely right.
"I'm just going to go ahead and check it out," Simon said. He was eating a late supper with River and Mal and discussing the new job offer he'd received.
"It doesn't make sense, Simon," River insisted. "Why would a trauma surgeon be needed on a research team at BlueSun?"
Simon sighed, exasperated. "I don't know, River. All I know is that they are most insistent that I could be of real use to them. And they are offering an obscene amount of money for me to join their team. Besides, as I understand it, I'll still be working under the auspices of the hospital. It's apparently some sort of joint project, government-sponsored and all that. I'll still retain my hospital position, but for the duration of the research, I'll be working in the BlueSun labs."
Mal said nothing, though the idea of it somehow made his hackles rise. He had no say in Simon's life, and it appeared that the man was unwilling to listen to his sister as well. Mal decided not to mention anything about his experience with BlueSun and the experiments they'd been allowed to perform on some in the prison camps. It was a memory that he'd just as soon forget, and surely Simon would not be a party to anything as inhumane as what he'd seen them do. BlueSun must have several research projects that had nothing to do with any such thing, he reasoned.
"Could we just change the subject, please?" Simon asked, knowing that River could be incredibly stubborn when she thought she was right.
River sighed, not ready to concede defeat, but also not wanting to alienate her brother. "Just be careful," she said. "I don't trust this whole thing. And you know I'm rarely wrong."
Simon smiled. "I will be careful, mei mei. Don't worry." Pushing the conversation in another direction, he said, "Did I tell you about Inara?"
"What about her?" River asked.
"She's agreed to be my personal Companion," Simon said proudly.
Mal's mouth dropped open. "Your what?"
Simon rolled his eyes. "I know you don't approve of her profession, Mal, but things are different in the Core. I haven't the time to go out and find some woman who wants to set up housekeeping and make babies. Inara is a delightful Companion, and I'm quite taken with her. I believe she feels the same way. So, she has agreed to be exclusive to me."
"If you pay her enough, right?" Mal asked, not quite able to wrap his mind around the concept.
River kicked him under the table. "That's wonderful, Simon," she said, giving Mal a
warning look. "What does she think of this new job offer with BlueSun?"
Simon sighed. "You really are relentless, aren't you? You're such a brat."
Simon took the new job, and River worried as he failed to stay in touch with her after the first few weeks. And as the winter progressed, there were new reasons for anxiety. A wave had been broadcast over the Cortex on the Core worlds, claiming a government conspiracy to cover up some sort of Alliance experiment gone wrong on a planet called Miranda. While the government vehemently denied the allegations as completely false and denounced the recorded wave as a forgery, there was a feeling of general unrest among the population. More and more people began to doubt the validity of the government's stand, and within a very short time, martial law was declared on Osiris as well as most other Core planets.
Curfews were efficiently enforced, and places of public meeting, including the theater where River performed, were closed until such time as the government deemed necessary to ensure the well-being of the population. Mal, never comfortable with the authorities, became increasingly concerned as he and River began to hear rumors of a concentrated effort on the part of the Alliance to round up enemies of the state. Figuring he would surely be grouped into that category, Mal felt like a caged animal once again, and his nightmares became more and more frequent and vivid.
A particularly brutal memory surfaced in his dreams one night, and River was shaken to the core by the image it burned into her own brain. She cried out, trembling even as Mal jolted awake himself. Looking at her with haunted eyes, he said as calmly as he could manage, "You saw it, didn't you?"
Unable to hide her reaction, she nodded mutely.
"You always see them, don't you?" he pressed.
She nodded again, trying to find her voice.
"Ye su, River, why didn't you tell me before?" he asked, horrified at the images to which he had exposed her unwittingly. "Nobody should have to see such as that, least of all you."
"I was afraid."
"Afraid of what? Me?" he asked, his voice catching in his throat.
"Afraid you wouldn't stay if you knew that I'm a Reader," River answered.
Mal drew her close, still feeling her shiver as the images of the dream replayed in her head. "I love you, River. Can't be thinking on leaving the woman I love just because she knows a few things she shouldn't have to. Though I am sorry for what you've seen."
River clung to him tightly. "Not as bad as living through them," she whispered. "So much pain, so much cruelty, it can hardly be believed."
Mal's jaw set in a hard line. "There's plenty of cruelty just as bad or worse in this 'verse. Least I found a safe place to call home, here with you."
"I don't know how long it will be safe," River said seriously. "It's just a matter of time before they close the ports. And once they do, there will be nowhere for us to run if they try to arrest you again. We need to leave now, while we still can."
Mal pulled away from her to look at her directly. "You sayin' you're ready to go, to leave your home and come with me to the Black?"
"You're my home, ai ren," she answered. "I'm ready."
Mal smiled, his heart suddenly much lighter than it had been of late. "Then we'd best set about to find a ship, I'm thinkin'."
Mal and River found out fairly quickly that there were no flight-ready ships available for the meager price that they could afford. River offered to sell her home, but Mal refused, not altogether sure that she would take to a life in the Black, and not wanting her to be homeless if she needed to come back to Osiris. So, after a lengthy argument about it, they agreed to look for a ship within their price range that could perhaps be repaired in a reasonable amount of time.
As they walked through the assorted vessels in the salvage yard, Mal saw it. The Firefly sat alone on a hill calling to him with the barest of whispers in his soul. Walking unerringly to it, he knew immediately that this was the one. River followed, sensing his excitement in the bounce of his step. Mal climbed up into the ship, pulling River up beside him. "I like this one," he said eagerly.
River laughed. "You haven't even walked around in it yet."
"Don't have to," Mal said, running his hands along the bulkhead of the vessel. "She talking to me." His eyes twinkled merrily. "You mean you can't hear that?"
River could not help returning his smile. "Maybe after I walk around a bit," she said dryly. And so they walked, River trailing her hands along the walls of the ship as Mal examined everything about it. When they had made the full circuit, he looked at her expectantly.
River nodded her head. "I heard her," she said. "Wants to fly again, wants you to be her master."
"Funny, that's what I heard too," Mal said, grinning like a child at Christmas. "Should be able to get her cheap enough, condition she's in. And Kaylee'll help me get her ready, I conjure."
So it was that Mal spent his days working on the docks, and his evening hours before curfew working on the Firefly he chose to call Serenity. Kaylee, true to her word, worked with him, even enlisting Jayne's help for the heavier jobs that were required. River, unemployed due to the curfew, worked alongside them, learning as she went.
Mal was endlessly proud of her, as she seemed to catch on to everything about the ship far more quickly than he could have hoped. By the time spring had turned to summer, they were very close to being ready to sail. Rumors swirled around the docks that the ports were very close to closing, and Mal was more than a mite eager to be underway. To that end, he began to think about putting together a small crew.
Kaylee lay under the engine, doing some tedious rewiring that Mal couldn't begin to follow, while Jayne sat with their little one over in the corner. "Think she'll be ready in the next couple of weeks?" Mal asked.
Kaylee popped her head out to answer him. "Don't see why not. You get her stocked up with supplies, and I'll have her hummin' like a satisfied woman in no time."
"That bein' the case, I got a little proposition for you," Mal said, including Jayne in his look. "It's fair obvious that she's got a lot of wear on her. I'm thinkin' I need to hire on a mechanic to look to her and keep her in the air. I conjure with the kind of work I'll be doin', I could find some use for a gun hand as well. I'd pay a decent wage, as I can, and you'd have a berth of your own, big enough for you and the little one."
Jayne looked at him warily. "How much of a wage?'
Mal gave his notice to his employer, and was completing the last week of his agreed upon contract. Having given River the task of moving the things she wished to take with her to the ship, he hoped that she'd be able to find a couple of passengers to fill up the dorms while she was there. They would have need of the extra coin to begin their journey. She'd already found one man, a preacher of all things, and while Mal had no use for religiosity after all he'd experienced, he let it go, being as how the man had paid for a month in advance. Book seemed a decent enough sort of fellow, despite his being a Shepherd.
Standing up from his task to wipe his brow, Mal saw in the distance a ship he recognized. Within a scant few minutes, he saw Zoe and Wash disembark, heading in his direction. Thinking that this was the happiest of coincidences, he stuck his head into the office and asked for a break. Getting a short nod from his disinterested boss, he started out to meet the couple. As he approached, he noticed that they each carried a duffel bag.
"Plannin' on vacationing in lovely Osiris for awhile?" he asked, walking up to them with a smile.
Zoe looked at him impassively. "Looks like we might be, at that," she said. "Renshaw got a mite nervous about having an ex-con Independent on as a gun hand. Says it's bad for business in the Core worlds, what with the curfews and the ident checks everywhere you go. Decided it was time to part company."
Mal could not hide his delight. Zoe stared at him. "I'd be obliged to you if you'd explain why what I said makes you grin like that, sir. It ain't exactly the best of news."
"Depends on how you look at it," Mal said. "I've got a powerful need for a pilot and first mate myownself, and I've been fair concerned about where I might could look to find 'em."
Wash looked at him questioningly. "You've got a ship?"
"Little Firefly over there in berth 47, name of Serenity," Mal said proudly, noting Zoe's reaction to the name. "Planning on leaving end of the week for parts unknown. Wanna come?"
The rest of the week passed quickly, and the crew got settled into their new home, while Mal and River spent the last few nights of their time in River's house. Lying in the stillness of their bedroom, Mal admitted softly, "Can't say I won't miss this place a little, darlin'. Don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't found me in your garden that night."
River smiled, tracing lazy patterns across his chest. "Found myself in that garden too," she said. "Found my home, in you."
Mal moved to kiss her, but a knock on the door startled them both. It was well past curfew, and they were both uneasy. River went to open the door, just in case whoever was on the other side had come for Mal. As soon as the door opened, Inara moved quickly inside, pulling Simon behind her. "I…I didn't know where else to go," she said shakily. "Simon needs…help. You have to help us."
River was shocked by her brother's appearance. She'd never seen him so disheveled, so obviously in distress. His eyes darted wildly around the room, and when she tried to read him, she was overwhelmed by his confusion and fear. "Simon," she said, approaching him slowly. "It's all right. You're going to be all right."
Mal looked at the scene, alarm bells ringing in his head. "What happened?" he asked Inara.
Inara shuddered. "I'm …I'm not sure. He's been behaving erratically for a few days. Distracted, a little disoriented. And then tonight, when he got home from the laboratory, he started babbling about some sort of experiment. He said they were hurting him. I didn't understand, and I tried to calm him down, but he's been like this all evening. He said they were…doing things to him, horrible things. He begged me not to take him to the hospital. He says people are following him, watching him. I didn't know what to do."
"You did the right thing bringing him here," Mal said reassuringly. "Did you see anyone following you?"
Inara shook her head. "No, I don't think so. We slipped out the back entrance of the apartment complex, and we stayed in the shadows as much as we could."
While she talked, River rocked Simon in her arms, soothing him as well as she was able. As he calmed, she turned horrified eyes to Mal. "He's telling the truth. I can see it, see some of what's been done to him. We have to take him with us. It's not safe for him here."
Mal nodded. "There's room aplenty for him. Does he need medical care?"
Inara spoke up. "There's not a scratch on him, anywhere that I can see. Whatever's been done was not physical." She paused. "How will you get him to safety? He's terrified of being seen. You won't be able to book passage on a ship of any kind."
"Don't need to," Mal said. "Got our own ship, stocked and ready to take off in a couple of days. Though I think we might have to push the departure time up a mite, by the looks of it."
Inara stood staring at Simon, her face pale in the dim light. "Can you take me with you?" she asked quietly. "He's…well, he's very precious to me."
"Of course," River answered simply, looking at Inara intently. "He'll need you."
Mal nodded. "I'll walk you back home. You'll need to get some things together for both of you."
Inara shook her head. "I'll go by myself. No need for you to risk arrest for curfew violation, especially since you're a…." She paused delicately.
Mal nodded, saving her the trouble of finishing the sentence. "Meet us at Berth 47 of the dock at 6:00 tomorrow night. There's less curious eyes about at that hour."
Having settled the still disoriented Simon and Inara into one of the shuttles on Serenity, Mal and River made their way to the bridge. Wash sat at the console, waiting for the word to take off.
"Take us out of the world, Wash," Mal said, putting his arm around River's shoulders.
As Serenity hummed to life under them and lifted into the Black, Mal felt the weight of his past easing from his shoulders. River smiled up at him, feeling the emotion vicariously. "You readin' me, darlin'?" Mal whispered against her ear.
"Can't help it," she answered softly. "You're inside me now. Unbreakable bond. No power in the 'verse can stop it."
"Good to know," Mal said, as he led her to their bunk and into their future.