The Small Hours

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.

Rating: R

Summary: Companion piece to "Midnight Madness". Mal ponders the events of the night.

XXXXXXXXXX

Mal lay carefully motionless on the bed, his side throbbing with the bruising from River's blow to his ribcage. He had followed her to the children's room, wary of her emotional state in the aftermath of her nightmare. She had stood, quiet as death, looking at Adam and Hannah as if she could scarcely believe that they were breathing. And he had held her in the doorway just as quietly, wondering what hell she had envisioned for them all. It was a question he would not ask, and an answer she would more than likely not give regardless of the asking.

This he had come to know in the time he had been married to River. Some of her secrets occasionally came to the surface, bubbling up like putrescence in a raw wound, but more often than not she kept her own counsel, unwilling to burden him with what horrors she could contain without his aid. And though he offered her unconditional support, he could admit on some deeper level that he was grateful not to know everything that came to terrifying life in the mind of his wife. Had he been a lesser man, such secrets would have driven a wedge between them, but Mal was no stranger to the need to keep some truths hidden, even from oneself.

He shuddered slightly, thinking of the secrets she had shared with him over the course of their lives together, things so darkly disturbing that she had been unable to hold them inside without the darkness consuming her. It was a constant amazement to him that a woman with such ghosts could be a source of such light in his own life. For even as she opened her mind to him in their most intimate moments, the dark areas were bathed in the healing glow of the love she had for him and the family they had created.

He turned his head slightly to look at his wife. Her dark hair was fanned out on the pillow and her face was blessedly peaceful now, not haunted by the earlier dreams of the night. Mal thought fleetingly that he would give everything of value to him in the 'verse to see that peaceful face every night, to relieve her of the horrifying images that crept into her subconscious so relentlessly. But even as he wished it, he knew he had no such power. River's mind, brilliant and beautiful, was also fractured beyond the possibility of total recovery, and this fact Mal knew more surely than any living soul other than River herself. Somewhat fractured himself, he was more than willing to live with the effects of his wife's scarred psyche, though the cruelty of how she had been thus traumatized was a constant source of bitter ache for him.

He gingerly touched the bruise along his side, trying to decide whether it would be worth getting back up to go to the infirmary and get something for the pain. He had no wish to wake River and no great desire to move from the warm spot under the covers. He closed his eyes and shifted slightly in the bed.

River stirred and he froze, cursing himself for rousing her. He held his breath, listening for her breathing to deepen again. But it did not, and in a moment, he opened one eye to check on her. He was greeted by her sleepy smile.

"Ai ren," she sighed, nuzzling closer to his side.

Mal wrapped an arm around her, pulling her closer still. "Better?" he asked into her hair.

"Better," she said, reveling in the warmth of his skin against her own.

They lay thus for a time, listening one to the other's heart beat, steady and reassuring. Finally, River sighed, stroking lazy patterns across Mal's chest. "Need pain meds," she said.

"You do?" Mal asked, somewhat surprised and half asleep.

"Not me. You," River replied, running a slender finger around the edges of the deepening bruise.

Mal shrugged slightly. "Can wait 'til morning," he murmured. "Too comfortable to get up just now." As if to punctuate the thought, he ran his fingertips down the silken skin of River's back. Her shiver caused him to smile. Shifting slightly, he ignored the pain in his side. Intent now on a more pleasant sensation, his hands began a slow slide down River's body as he captured her lips with a soft kiss.

River responded in kind, molding her body to his as he deepened the kiss. Too tempted to resist, she reached into his mind as her body moved with his. She was instantly rewarded by the welcoming warmth she found there. Trembling with pleasure borne of both the physical and mental joining, she opened her mind to him as well, sensing his need for a deeper connection after the earlier events of the night.

Mal, caught in the intensity of the moment, moaned softly against her skin as he pulled her to him. River closed her eyes, reveling in the feel of skin sliding against skin, the friction of their bodies a tantalizing counterpoint to the mating of their minds. Losing all sense of place and time, her world narrowed to the feel of his hands on her body and the whisper of his thoughts in her head. Grateful beyond the ability of verbal expression for this affirmation of life after the terror of her earlier nightmare, she melted under his touch, determined to give him pleasure in equal measure to that which he gave her.

Mal smiled, sensing the thought as clearly as if she had spoken it aloud. "Always do, bao bei," he whispered against the shell of her ear. "And more." And he thought with a sense of genuine wonder that River's soft sigh of pleasure was all the answer he would ever need.

XXXXXXXXXX