Title: A River's Touch
Author: Rose
R, just to be safe
Pairing: eventually Mal/River, amongst others.
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters from Firefly/Serenity. They belong to their creator, Joss Wedon
Distribution: If you want it, just tell me where it's going.
Spoilers: This is completely AU, although there will be some echoes in certain scenes from the series and movie.

Summary: Doctor Simon Tam travels from the big city of Osiris to the small town of Serenity Valley to be its doctor. What happens when his headstrong sister sets her sights on the town's local Sheriff, Malcolm Reynolds?

- Chapter 1 -

The stagecoach rolled into the small town of Serenity Valley on a bright, warm, day in June, 1851. The driver, a weathered old coot of a man, climbed down from the seat to open the carriage door as his guard saw to untying the few luggage bags tethered together up top. A crowd of curious townspeople had gathered along the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of the stage's occupants and were currently murmuring amongst themselves as they waited. When the door opened, a hush fell over the group as a young man stepped out. He was from the city, a greenhorn dressed in a finely tailored, grey suit complete with tie. A pair of round, tinted spectacles were perched smartly across the bridge of his nose, slightly obscuring his handsome features while hiding the expression as his eyes briefly glanced around. Finally, he turned back to the coach and extended one hand.

A small gloved hand emerged to take hold of his and the man assisted a young lady dressed in an expensive looking gingham dress from the carriage. She was a delicate beauty, with long, flowing hair a tad lighter than that of the man's. Wide, brown eyes immediately swept the crowd, taking in the multitude of faces and for the briefest of moments a look of nervousness passed over her features.

"It'll be alright, mei-mei," Simon Tam felt his sister's body tense and leaned into her side to whisper comfortingly in her ear. "I'm sure they're all just here to welcome us."

She squeezed his hand in gratitude. "I know, Simon," River Tam replied to her brother. "I'm just a bit worn out from the ride is all."

"Of course," Simon murmured. "It was a long journey. How about we see to getting a room so that you can lie down?"

Giving his sister's arm another small squeeze before releasing it, Simon proceded to direct her through the crowd with a hand resting lightly at the small of her back. He nodded every so often to a man or woman who offered their words of welcome while River kept her head bowed in an act of shy complacence. Simon smirked at this, knowing full well that his sister was anything but complacent. In fact, she could be an outright brat when she had the notion.

As soon as they cleared the crowd, Simon took a proper look at the layout of town and uttered a disheartened groan. Once he'd taken in the buildings lining both sides of the street, he noted that none of the signs that hung above most of the estabishments indicated that there was a single hotel to be found in Serenity. From beside him, River hid an amused grin at her brother's obvious dismay. Clearing his throat, Simon turned to a burly looking man standing nearby and attempted to get his attention.

"Excuse me," Simon said politely, removing his spectacles and depositing them into a vest pocket before extending his hand when the man turned toward him. "Could you, perhaps, direct us to the nearest hotel or boarding house?" As incentive, he offered up a tight lipped smile.

But, instead of answering, for some reason Simon couldn't fathom, the man simply burst out into guffaws of laughter.

"Umm..." Simon stared at the man in open-mouthed confusion, glanced at his sister who simply shrugged, before turning his gaze back to the man who had somehow found his question entertaining. "I'm sorry, but did I miss something? I don't see what you find so funny."

The man calmed his laughter before using a hand to clap Simon solidly on the back with enough force to almost knock the breath from the slighter built man.

"Nothin' personal," the man said somewhat apologetically. "It's just always a hoot when we git city folk out here. Always assumin' we have us a proper hotel and such. Sorry to disappoint ya, son, but the closest you'll find to accomodations is over yonder in a room above the Heart of Gold."

Simon and River's eyes followed the direction the man was pointing and took in the sight of a large, two-story building. A large wooden sign hung out across the top of the entrance with the words Heart of Gold Saloon written in large gold letters. Simon's look of horror set the man off again and he clapped him on the back a final time before walking away, shaking his head. Simon turned to River.

"I'm sorry, mei mei. I should have thought a town this small would be - "

"It's perfect, Simon." River interrupted her brother before he could continue. It always astounded her that despite how smart her brother was, he always managed to find the down side to everything and completely miss the good. She took her time to look around again and nodded. "Small, like you said. Secluded. Means no chance of being found." Glancing over her shoulder at Simon, she added softly. "Yet, at least."

Simon's jaw tightened, but he nodded and remained silent. Of course, River was right. They had fled Osiris to avoid the arrest warrant that had been put out on him, after all. A small town like this, it would be easy to notice if any Pinkertons came riding in. It would give them time to make their escape yet again.

The sound of scuffling, wood breaking and angry shouts hit their ears as they approached the entrance to the Heart of Gold. River pulled up short, grasping her brother's arm and using her slight form to shift him aside a second before a man came hurtling out of the batwing doors with such force that he landed crumpled in a heap in the middle of the dusty street. Simon reacted, pushing River behind him in a protective manner, but she still managed to peek out from around him to watch as another figure dressed in a rust colored shirt and tan pants emerged from within the saloon, gun drawn and trained on the still sprawled figure.

A breeze whipped up the dust and it danced about the man as he stepped out into the street and looked down. The sun's rays glinted off of the shiny tin badge that was pinned to the left breast pocket of his shirt. His face was rugged, and yet the sheriff of Serenity Valley still held an air of handsomeness about him. River felt her heart race at the sight. The man on the ground's hand went for his hip, but the sound of a pistol being cocked made it freeze halfway there.

"Now, now, Rance," Malcolm Reynolds' voice held a hint of lazy southern drawl as he grinned down at Rance Burgess. "I'd think mighty hard 'bout drawin' that piece o' yours, if'n I were you."

Rance drew his hand slowly away from his gun and instead raised both into the air in a reluctant form of surrender. "Oh, hell, you know me, Mal. Didn't mean no harm. Was just havin' a bit of fun with the lady." Rance's attempt to sound innocent was refuted by the appearance of a dark haired woman just inside the entrance to the saloon, a slender hand held to her swollen cheek and eye.

The doctor in Simon took over when he saw this and immediately approached the woman. "It's alright, I'm a doctor." he said gently when she flinched away from his hands.

As her brother proceded to do what he did best, River watched the confrontation that was playing out in the street not ten feet in front of her, somehow knowing that this Rance Burgess was still dangerous, despite having raised his hands in surrender. She could sense the man still wanted to draw his pistol and was just biding his time till he had the chance.

Mal stepped aside as Rance slowly rose to his feet, all the while keeping his gun trained on the trouble maker. It seemed every time Rance Burgess paid a visit to Serenity, things never went smooth at the Heart of Gold, resulting in Mal having to see the rancher out of town. This time, however, he'd went too far. He'd assaulted none other than Inara, Nandi Serra's little sister and co-owner of the saloon. Mal was thankful that his deputy, Zoe, had been visiting with her husband, Wash, who happened to play the piano as entertainment for the Heart of Gold's patrons. She'd been present when Rance had shown up and had immediately gone to fetch him, just as he'd ordered her to.

The grin slipped from Mal's lips as he pinned Rance with a stern look. "Be that as it may, I reckon you've had enough 'fun' to last you a good long while, dong ma? So, why don't you just saddle up now, 'fore I feel the need to fill one of those empty cells back at the jail."

River had been keenly watching the stand-off, but suddenly a cold chill swept down her spine, grabbing her attention entirely. Quickly, she began to scan the rooftops of buildings positioned across the street. Something glinted for an instant above the mercantile, catching River's eye and she looked back just in time to see Rance take a lazy step to the right, in a seemingly casual manner.

The instant that River processed what was about to happen, she sprang into action.

"Get down!" she shouted, before bolting forward, hoping to build enough momentum and threw herself at the sheriff, knocking the startled man and herself into the dirt just as a shot rang out and a bullet tore itself into the wooden side of the saloon's outer wall.

Mal was spooked by the sudden shout on his left, and was in the process of turning that direction when a slight form suddenly tackled him. As he hit the ground, the sound of a shot being fired, followed soon after by the crack of a bullet impacting wood, echoed through the street.

'Someone took a shot at me!' he thought angrily. And, just as quickly, the though was wiped from his mind as he registered that the person who had side-swiped him was still lying atop him.

He could feel distinctly feminine curves pressed against him and he was just about to utter a curse as he felt his ire rise. Whoever this woman was, she must be out of her gorram mind. What had she been thinking, pushing him down like that? Could have gotten her fool self killed! He was just about to utter just those words when said fool woman raised her head from his chest to look down at him, her long, dark hair falling to create a curtain about them. Suddenly Malcolm Reynolds found himself staring into the most beautiful pair of deep brown eyes he had ever seen and felt himself go utterly speechless.

"Are you alright?" Her voice matched her eyes: soft, and innocent and filled with worry over him of all things. For some reason, this fact caused his heart to skip a beat. It also served to jolt him out of his stupor.

Quickly, Mal took hold of the woman's arms and pushing her back a bit, climbed to his feet before pulling her up with him. She was so tiny it took no effort at all on his part and, he noted, that when she stood upright the top of her head barely cleared his breast-bone. A deep groan emerged from his throat as his brain worked out what had just happened. Someone had attempted to take him out and he'd been rescued by a 90 lb, five-foot-nothing, slip of a girl!

Mal stared in disbelief at his apparent saviour and uttered the only word that came to mind.