AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wrote this in 2007 for a fic challenge and am reposting here now that I have an account. Enjoy! :)
Oh, he was a bad man.
A bad, bad man.
A man who was taking the express elevator straight down to the special hell, no time for any sort of penance.
No, there wasn't any way around it, Mal Reynolds decided in resignation as he stared into the night sky, watching the clouds drift past the moon. A cool breeze gave lift to the longer strands of his hair, and he was reminded that he was outside, wrapped in nothing but a blanket.
Nothing but a blanket and River Tam, naked and draped across his chest like a silky ribbon, to be more exact.
Oh, he was going to the special hell.
It had turned out that all his bravado was nothing more than just that. For all he'd prided himself on staying away from her, refusing to touch her, he'd folded faster than a house of cards when push finally came to shove.
He wasn't sure when he'd started feeling more. For a long time, it had simply been an odd friendship based on a love of Serenity. He'd tell her how to fly the ship, she'd school him right proper, because she knew more intuitively about the old girl than he ever would, and often they would just sit together on the bridge, not really saying much of anything.
He supposed that maybe it had been that day that they'd been in town on Clearwater, when he'd noticed that skinny towheaded kid making a pass at her. It wouldn't have riled him, except that she'd seemed intrigued by the lump. Mal hadn't understood it at all, and had subjected Zoe to an earful of reasons why some farm boy with a rickety homemade speeder had no business telling an experienced pilot like River how to steer a boat.
"Well, she's nearly twenty, sir," Zoe had offered. "Seems reasonable she'd have some interest in the opposite sex." Then she'd added, "Or just sex."
His eyes had nearly bugged out of his head. "Well, yeah," he'd blustered, "but not with him."
"Then what would you suggest, sir?" Zoe had asked in far too even-handed way.
Mal couldn't remember what he'd said, but he was pretty sure it had sounded something like "Mffubbah blah bluh bluh bluh!", and very indignant.
Then there'd been the day he saw River's shoulder.
He, Jayne, and Zoe had been in town on business, but River and Kaylee had gone swimming at a nearby pond. The girls arrived back at Serenity at the same time he did. They were still wet, hair dripping and clothes a mess, but in good spirits. River's dress had slipped off one shoulder, and River seemed completely unaware. He'd stared at that thin, white shoulder as though it were an invitation, and he'd fallen asleep that night still thinking about it, irritated that it fascinated him.
The next day, on the bridge, he'd jumped when their hands brushed while reaching for the same control, and he'd only become more aware of her since then, to the point where he sometimes felt he would suffocate if he spent any more time alone with her, not because he felt smothered, but because the tension was making the air so thick he could barely breathe.
One night, he'd just about jumped out of his skin when he walked into his quarters and found River sitting neatly on his bed.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he'd yelped.
"It's the only way I knew to get your attention," she'd answered. "You don't talk to me anymore."
"Darlin', you don't want my attention," he'd said after a painful moment, and the words had sounded more like a plea.
Her hands had traveled to the buttons of her dress, and he'd stood transfixed as she undid the first, then the second, then the third, her pale skin becoming more and more revealed.
It had taken every ounce of his strength to walk out of that room.
He'd known, from the minute he read her note, that it was going to be a mistake to meet her here, alone, away from the safety of Serenity, but the fantasy of being able to resist was too powerful.
In his head he'd rehearsed a dozen different ways to tell her no, to tell her that she was too young, too crazy, too dangerous, too much. And that he was too old, too jaded, too wrecked. In his head, he'd been the sage elder, the cool voice of reason, and she'd been the meek and accepting ingénue. His capacity for self-deceit ran deeper than he'd thought.
"Then just this once," she'd said.
And he'd toppled over, purchasing a one-way ticket straight to the special hell.
River stirred against his chest, and he curled his arm around her, letting himself learn the rise and fall of her breathing as they watched the night sky.
Simon would probably try to punch him. Not that it would do much damage, but he'd at least try. His uptight brand of chivalry would demand it.
Jayne would leer, cheer, and jeer, and Mal would have to threaten him with the airlock.
Zoe would raise an eyebrow.
Kaylee would sigh happily.
If the Shepherd were still around, Mal would seriously consider a confession.
But none of them were there right now, and as Mal contemplated the wisp of a girl in his arms, a new realization, one that had been lurking behind, or perhaps hidden in, his guilt, revealed itself.
He traced the outline of River's face with his fingers.
"You doing fine?" he asked softly.
"Yes," she replied, and her voice sounded to him like a single, ringing note of a beautiful song.
"Good. Because I have to tell you something."
She raised her head, a shadow of doubt flickering over her face.
"You know me as an honest man, and that's what I strive to be. But when we agreed to this once" -- he struggled to continue -- "I fear you've made a liar out of me."
To his surprise, she smiled, and her girlish giggle lilted through the air.
"That's what I hoped for," she murmured.
He found her hand and weaved his fingers between hers. "I was right to call you albatross," he said, and pulled her close for a soft, lingering kiss wrapped in moonlit sweetness.
He was still going to the special hell, no doubt about that. In the morning, a flaming chariot would likely show up and sweep him away, but until then, he would be an honest liar under the stars.