The words echoed through the room, causing a deafening silence. River listened closely for the proverbial pin to drop. Higgins smiled widely. Having slightly voyeuristic tendencies, he was thoroughly enjoying this. It was rare that anything this amusing ever happened, and even more rare that it involved Badger. He watched with grim satisfaction as the scene unfolded before him.

Badger stared at Mal, his mouth hanging open like a flytrap. Zoe, who usually a picture of cool calm, had difficulty schooling her face into its usual stoicism and as for the large, intimidating mercenary, he nearly dropped his gun at Mal's admission. Meanwhile, River simply stared at her Captain, her feet rooted to the floor and her eyes unblinking.

Mal shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, holding his gun loosely at his side. He hadn't meant to say the words, but seeing the look on River's face and knowing she was considering taking Higgins up on his offer was too much for him to handle. He knew that he was an idiot. He knew he had been blind, too. He hadn't seen what had been staring him in the face, literally and figuratively, for the past few months now. It was only when he was faced with losing her that the gravity of the situation sunk in. He didn't want her to see Badger because he couldn't stand the thought of her with another man. He didn't want her to take the job with Higgins because he didn't want to fly Serenity without her. He rubbed his eyes with the hand not holding his gun, then looked up at River with a beseeching look in his eyes.

"Damn it, River," he said as he moved toward her. "I love you."

"You do?" she replied, as her feet suddenly decided to move of their own volition toward him. Badger looked over at them sharply.

"Ya do?" he echoed, looking back and froth from River to Mal. He watched as Mal and River moved closer together, his question largely ignored. River stared up at her Captain, doe eyed and innocent. Mal nodded silently and took her hands.

"Cap'n," Zoe leaned forward and interrupted. Mal shot her an annoyed glare.

"Have you forgotten that this man snatched River," she continued, ignoring his glare. "Not to mention the fact that hanging on his walls are an arsenal that could rival one on any military installation."

"Gotta agree with Zoe, here, Cap'n," Jayne stated, shifting the weight of his gun in his hands. "Havin' all the guns starin' down at me's makin' me a mite nervous." Mal huffed and turned to his second in command and his merc.

"Can't ya'll see I'm havin' a moment here?" he replied tersely, looking back at them. The man Higgins laughed loudly and stood up from behind his desk. He walked steadily toward the group of honest and dishonest thieves, stopping beside Mal and River.

"As sweet as this scene is, it's gettin on my nerves," Higgins said. River turned and glared up at the tall Irishman.

"What?" he asked with a smirk. "You didn't actually think I'd just let you kiss and walk outta here, did you? Not much fun that way, is it, love? Besides, Badger here still owes me a debt."

Higgins motioned for his guards to train their weapons on the group. Five more armed men emerged from the shadows and quickly relieved Mal, Jayne, and Zoe of their cumbersome and somewhat deadly firearms.

"So here's the deal, Badger," Higgins turned and walked over to the little man who standing sullenly off to the side. "You are going to repay your debt. Either my man, Tulloch, puts a bullet between your eyes or he puts one between River's. Your choice."

Badger looked frantically between the heavily armed and imposing guard known as Tulloch, and the little slip of the girl known as River, whom he had come to care about in the past few months. River stared at him, knowing that he had no idea the true extent of what she was capable of. He didn't know she could fight them off, that she could dodge a bullet. All he knew was that it was his life or her life.

Badger hesitated a moment too long.

Higgins gave a slight nod and Tulloch aimed his gun at River and pulled the trigger. She barely heard the sound of the shot when she hit the floor.

Grunting, River pushed the heavy weight of Mal from off her body rolled him onto his back. She knelt down beside him, trying to find where the bullet had entered. Zoe rushed over and knelt beside her, ripping open his shirt to reveal that the bullet had pierced his left shoulder, inches from his heart. Quickly, she ripped off a section of his shirt and pressed it against the bleeding wound. She placed River's hands on top of the dressing.

"Press down firmly, River," she said calmly then turned to Jayne. "Jayne, radio in to Simon. Then I need your help getting Mal into the mule."

Zoe stood and looked in disgust from Higgins to Badger, who had sunk to the floor.

"I expect Badger's debt is paid?" she questioned. Higgins nodded.

"I expect is is," he replied.

Zoe and Jayne knelt down and hoisted Mal up between them, placing him carefully in the back of the mule. River climbed in after them, cradling Mal's head on her lap as she wiped away the tears streaming down her face.

Meanwhile, Higgins crouched down beside Badger, who had his face buried in his hands.

"Ah don't worry, cousin," Higgins said. "He'll live. Her on the other hand, well, I'm afraid you've lost her for good." Higgins stood up and regarded the man still kneeling on the cement floor.

"Probably for the best, anyways," he continued. "She was way too good for the likes of you."

The ride back to the ship was a blur for River. All she knew was that Zoe drove as though Reavers were chasing them until they reached the ship. Simon met them in the cargo bay and she watched as Mal was lifted off her lap and rushed into the infirmary for Simon to begin working. Through her tears, she was vaguely aware of Kaylee leading her off the mule and into the common room. She sat down on the couch in a daze and rested her head on a cushion as she waited for any news from Simon. The remainder of the crew gathered with her to wait.

Hours passed before Simon emerged. When he finally did, he looked tired. Zoe noticed him first.

"Any news, doc?" she asked. River sat up straight and waited for Simon's prognosis.

"I've stopped the bleeding," he replied. "And he's stable. He should be alright. Thankfully, the bullet missed any major arteries. A few more inches and it wouldn't have been good."

"Is he awake?" River asked as she stood. "Can I go see him?"

Simon nodded. Without waiting for him to speak, River rushed into the infirmary and stopped in the doorway. Mal was lying on the stretcher, propped up slightly. He looked a little groggy from the pain medication Simon had him on, but he was alive.

"You just gonna stand there, bao bei?" Mal said with a cheeky grin. River smiled in return and walked over to his beside, sitting down on a metal stool. They sat in silence for a few moments, both glad that the other one was alive. River took one of Mal's hands in her own and stroked it softly with a serious look in her eyes.

"Did you mean it?" she asked suddenly. Mal lifted his hand and gently stroked the side of her face.

"Don't say things I don't mean," he replied, then he paused and thought carefully about what he was going to say next.

"You know," he continued. "This may not be the best timing ever. But, I gotta ask ya something."

"What's that?" River replied, her eyes slightly closed at the feeling of Mal's touch. Mal tilted her chin so that she looked at him.
"River, will you let me court you proper?" he asked with a serious look on his face. River couldn't help the smile that spread across her face. She giggled and leaned over to give him her answer.

Years later, Mal would tell his children how that was the best kiss he ever had.

The End.