Disclaimer: I do not own Firefly. Don't sue.

Author's Note: This is set during War Stories, a little AU-ish, definitely Mal/River. One-shot. Seriously. I have no intentions of continuing this.

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The entire situation has a dream-like quality to it that makes Mal wonder if he is really awake. The girl in front of him is kneeling in supplication. Blood and tears roll down her face, and drip off the edge of her jaw to mingle on her collar. Mal's own head is ringing from the force of the blows to his head, and his entire body aches with the abuse he has recently suffered.

The man who stand behind her speaks softly, his voice has a distinct accent. "She is quite young, no?" The man pauses, choosing his next words carefully. "And yet, your crew, they give her a gun. And she shoots, and kills my men. Good, faithful men, all. They will never return to their families, because of this girl. But they are not the only ones whose lives, uh, she has destroyed, no?"

Mal tries to catch River's eyes, but she will not look at him. Instead, she inclines her head far enough to press her lips against the knuckles of his hand. He moves his hand away from her mouth to brush against her cheek, careful not to aggravate the numerous, though shallow, cuts on her face. This display is not missed by Niska, whose sadistic smile widens. "Ah, Mr. Reynolds… do you want to kiss her? Now?"

Mal catches his breath. The question surprises him, but he still cannot tear his gaze away from River's fragile face. The answer is yes- God, yes, he wants to kiss her, so, so badly- yes. He wants to capture her lips with his, to taste the salt of her tears and the copper of her blood and the sweetness of her mouth. He says nothing, though, does not have to, Niska already knows. "Curiouser and curiouser," he says, and Mal gets the feeling that he is quoting something. "Kiss her then. Kiss a woman, one last time before you die." The implication is that Mal will not survive, that the rest of his crew will arrive too late to save him.

Mal stares at her face, outlined by the hair falling in curtains around her shoulders. As he stares, he feels like he is falling. It is only after one knee hits the ground, and his body is protesting in pain at the sudden downward movement, that he realizes that he is not falling, but kneeling down, to look at River face-to-face. Finally she looks at him, raises her brown eyes to meet the burning intensity of his blues. No dream has ever felt so alive. No moment has ever been so unreal.

He feels River's breath, soft against hi face, unhurried and unlabored. Mal finds her calm to be disorientating and freakishly attractive. Her eyes briefly focus on his butchered ear, or whatever bloody mess is left of it. River's gaze travels down his body, counts his wounds and measures the toll they take on him, calculates how much he is able to do, and how far they will go, should they try to escape. She looks back up and directly at him when she is finished. "Mal. Bad. In the Latin," she says softly, and that is all the encouragement he needs. Mal kisses her, slow and soft, but with all the passion a tortured prisoner can muster. Niska sneers at his weakness. "You have both faired admirably. And so you get your reward." He spreads his hands, and they waver in the air, mimicking scales. "But you have both also crossed me. And so you must be punished."

Mal is barely following what his torturer is saying. This is his dream, isn't it? He can do what he wants. And so he kisses River again. She tastes like childhood's games, like life's great trials, like a girl's sweet laughter and like a woman's wise mysteries.

Niska mutters something in an unintelligible language, and his guard moves to the pair on the floor. He pushes Mal back against the torture boards, and does not bother to be gentle. Mal closes his eyes and braces himself against the pain that penetrates the hazy fog in his mind. He can hear the bullets whistle through the air, can see Niska and his henchman fall to the ground, blood pouring from their wounds, but none of it registers. Mal's universe centers on the girl crouched before him. He wants to kiss her again (isn't this, isn't this, his dream?), but someone pulls him away, tells him that they need to leave, asks him if he can stand on his own.

Mal does not answer. He just wants to kiss River, to hold her close to him and dry away the blood and the tears… This is his dream, his reward for being strong and for enduring the torture Niska put him through.

Mal sees River smiled at him, secretively, conspiring, but misses Zoe exchange a worried look with her husband.


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Okay, if anyone liked this, please take the time to leave a review, 'coz they're shiny and my muse is hungry!