This is my first Firefly fic. It takes place after Serenity, and deals with Mal and his ghosts-- his "loud behind voices" as River calls them, at least in this story.

Feng Kuang, fong leg-- crazy, insane
Wan Mei-- beautiful, perfect
Bao Bay-- sweetheart
Mei-mei-- little sister

"Black is quiet, soothing," she says, movin' quiet as always not long before my pilotin' shift's due to end. It's been long since it bothered me, that way she creeps up on you. Ain't had no reason to worry none 'bout her creepin' up on me since that first time with that gun in the cargo bay. My old gramps useta say if you treat kindly them's that aren't sure who they are, and they're not ever going to go bad on you. Works every time, much as she's had trouble with others on this here boat, even that brother o' hers. Figures, I suppose. I ain't always sure who I am all the time either, and she treats me right kindly in return.

"Sure is," I say laconically.

"Little lights can be mapped and identified, seen from a long way away."

"No surprises," I say, agreeing.

"Space debris, though," she says, curling herself into the co-pilot's seat, tucking those long limbs of hers up under her skirt, the long fall of her hair obscuring those pale delicate features o'hers.

"Proximity alarms," I reply. "And repeller shields."

"Always something ahead to think about," she says dreamily, then turns to look at me full on. "Looking ahead makes the loud voices behind a little less loud."

I shrug. Ain't no reason to respond sometimes, she already worms that head of hers into mine anyway. I suppose it's all kinds of strange I find that comfortable, but there it is. Ain't no accounting for preferences. Sometimes it's good, not havin' to explain yourself.

"There are lots of loud voices," she says solemnly, her eyes still meetin' mine.

"Sure are, mei-mei," I reply, knowin' now she ain't talkin' 'bout me. I keep talkin', not that she don't know what I'm thinkin', but it'd be bad manners to get outta practice communicatin' out loud my thoughts on them to other people. My own self's different, since not everyone on this boat's all wormed into my head. "But you're right. Black's good for that. A right physical prescription, no pills or shots, thank you very much." I don't always hold with the way that brother o'hers tries to fix her up with things after the fact, try to undo ever'thing that's been done wrong to her. Sometimes things are broken an' just makes it worse to try fixin' 'em or root 'em all out to try an' rebuild things all over again.

"Some don't know different. Broken is not broken if broken knits back like bone. Hurts. Aches in bad weather. Not always as strong. But knitted broken still works. Broken isn't the same as not working. She still works. He still works. Broken's different."

She stands up, twirlin' in the small space between our two chairs as she looks up out into the black, then lies down on the floor so she can look up better.

"Broken's different," she repeats, a smile on her face.

"I know it, little bird," I say, then look back at the Black. "She still works. He still works. You're right." It's been a while, too, since I thought it strange the way River talks like she's talkin' bout someone's not here-- sayin' he and she instead o' you and me.

I don't reckon how long we sit there, quiet-like, watching the stars pass by, enjoyin' the Black, the lookin' ahead. Zo', she almost gets it, knows when a man ain't up to talkin' most o'the time. Sometimes, though, she's just keepin' quiet outta respect when she's thinkin' I'm bein' broody.

"Not broody," River's thready voice comes up from the floor.

"Well, I'm sure glad you think so, mei-mei," I say, lookin' down at her. "Leastaways someone round here knows I ain't just a surly so and so all the time."

"Black in the waking times makes the bad sleeping times slip further off, at least for a while. Black is quiet and soothing." she says, risin' up from the floor and standin' next to me, then pushes at the leg I've got crossed. She ain't shovin' her mind at me to make me do what she wants', don't think she would-- she just wants me to make room for her o'my own accord, so I do, wonderin' what she'll do next. Sometimes I can tell, sometimes there just ain't no tellin'.

She crawls into my lap and sits sidewise, wrappin' her arms 'round my neck and layin' her forehead alongside to my temple.

"Not your mei-mei," she says softly, that breath of hers on my neck makin' all sorts of improper thoughts come bubblin' up. Right where she can see 'em too, I suppose. It's too comfortable an' strange all't once, her sittin' right there.

"Not your mei-mei," she says again. "Don't want to be, neither do you."

"I know, and you know, and prob'ly more'n the rest of the crew on this boat knows more'n I'd like 'em to," I reply, trying the words aloud so that at least I've said 'em out where any pryin' ears might be listenin'. "An' maybe you shouldn't be listenin' and knowin' as much as you do neither there, River."

"'Nara's not broken," she says softly. "Kaylee either. Zoe's only a little broken from Wash-pilot. Even Jayne's not broken and Simon thinks he is but he's not. He's just ... sprained after Miranda."

A laugh comes from me outta nowhere. "Sprained. Like that, little bird," I reply, one arm bracing her 'round the back of her waist unwilled. Unneeded, too. Way she fights Reavers, this girl, well, she don't need me to hold on to her.

"Do, though," she says, readin' me again. "He knows her loud behind voices are talking even if he can't hear what they say and he makes them stop, tells her they're not right here." Pulling back, she tugs at me to look at her, her serious look and that pale skin o' hers makin' her look like those old drawin's of moon goddesses and suchlike.

"There's killing outside bad things. That's easy, he knows and she knows and it's not hard when it's bad men who want to make their friends hurt. Inside bad things are harder. That's a different holding on. She doesn't need outside holding on most of the time, he doesn't either. But he doesn't let any inside holding either. No inside holding is bad. His knowing her loud behind voices are talking is an inside kind of holding, she's less broken that way."

"That might be the longest speech I ever heard you make," I say. She's right, o' course. I ain't gonna inflict myself on someone can't understand what it means to ... well, as she says, have loud behind voices. Ain't fair. Those memories be always competin' with the voices right there at your side, always demandin' answers right then when sometimes a man needs more time to concentrate.

"Glad on hearin' I'm useful, though," I say, feelin' pleased that at leastaways someone 'round here thinks I'm good for somethin' besides a meal and a ride. I know it ain't all true, but don't change how a man feels when he is just feelin' broody.

"His voice is black," she says, and I know she's referrin' to what she was sayin' earlier when I agreed with her. Black is quiet and soothing, she says.

"Don't change the rest o' it, bao bay," I say. Stupid to be callin' her mei-mei anyways. She ain't my little sister-- she ain't no one's little sister after Miranda, though Simon sure might like to keep thinkin' so. More like she's everyone's big sister, takin' care o'everyone.

"She is a big sister, yes, but he's wrong. He is a big brother, even if he thinks the loud behind voices make him not be."

I been lookin' at her as she tries to convince me there ain't nothin' wrong with a man leastaways four times her age thinkin' of, much less actin' on, improper thoughts of a girl he's only got rights to think on as a mei-mei if that, even. Even if she can kill anything the 'verse throws at her if she's so inclined that way. And it's nice to hear she thinks I'm better'n I am, even if she got it all wrong.

"Not four," she says smiling. "three point two times. She is older than she looks, all that broken-making makes her look small. Is of age, anywhere in the 'verse" It'd be funny, her doin' the math on somethin' I ain't even said aloud, if it weren't so deadly serious.

"You're really set on this, aren't you bao bay?"

She nods, running her fingers through my hair with those hands o'hers, them as shoot faster'n me an' Jayne put together. "She may be feng kuang but he's feng kuang too." Her words and her actions send a shudder through me, not one o' fear, neither.

"That ain't much of a reason, River," I say, tryin' to reason with her. It's about as ridiculous as tryin' to herd cats when she's got her mind set on somethin'. "Lots o' reasons why not." Problem is, in her way o'hers, she's usually right in th' end.

She pouts suddenly, her hands stillin' in my hair as she grips slightly tighter, speaks rougher. "He's stupid. Miranda would happen again but he saw, was big brother, made them help, made them want to help, the whole 'verse knows about Miranda now because he said so. Miranda won't happen again, she knows it. Can see it won't. He does all the big brother things without a bao bay to say he did right. Stupid to think years matter. The question is broken and still working, not a question of ... numbers. Just ... she's broken and he's broken and each other is black. Isn't she black?"

"Sure she is," I admit. Always do sleep better after one of these strange talks of ours. Girl knows when to leave you alone, or ask the right questions leastaways if she ain't so inclined to be quiet. Though I doubt anyone listenin' would have any clue what the hell we're talkin' 'bout. Hell, I don't know how I know what she's talkin' bout half the time, just that I do.

"Aren't the left behind voices less loud for a bit after the inside holding? Hers do. He's black."

"Knowin' someone's a comfort's not the same as bein' somebody's bao bay," I say, warnin' her.

She pulls herself off my lap and stands right in front o'me, puts her other finger under my chin, her other hand still in my hair.

"Sometimes it is. To her, too. She knows what it means, being bao bay-- she hears others when they are together. She can see, she can know-- she knows he thinks of her as not mei-mei." The look on her face is as deadly serious as any look on her I've ever seen, and she thinks a long moment. "He's not a big brother, not to her, either."

"Little bird," I say, givin' up the ghost of denyin' at least part of it. "Don' change the fact I'd be right strung up by that brother o'you'rn and likely everyone on this boat here, even if'n I weren't too broken anyways."

She cocks her head and says "Not too broken. Just differently broken than her. Like she said. The question is if he still works. And he still works, he does. Her too."

Hearin' it from someone as had far worse then I've ever been through's is more of an assurance than even as them like Zo' who'se been through it might be. It's all about keepin' goin', keepin' flyin'. I don't care what my boat looks like, so long it's as tidy as can be and gets us from one place to the next. She might be a little beat up on the outside, sure, but it's the inside that matters.

She leans in, that one small finger o' hers still under my chin, and lays a kiss so soft and light on me that it's like a flower petal or somethin', before leanin' back just enough to look me straight in the eye. "Still works, still keeps flying, yes. She told Simon it was none of his business. He agreed. His getting ... sprained ... makes him see better, a bit. Simon knows Mal is black, she is better with Mal. And the rest of them ... they know he's big brother, and in their way they know she's big sister, too. They know he doesn't have any inside holding. Even Inara. Everyone wants him to have some kind of black, even if they don't know the difference between not working and broken."

I'd say somethin' at this point but for once my mind's a real blank, 'specially when she leans in again and lays another one of those kisses on me-- again lighter than a little bird's wings. This time I just kiss her back, just a little, jus' enough that it's there, even as I sure as hell ain't sure what to do next, even as I ain't sure what made me kiss her just that mite bit.

She smiles and backs off, trails that hand in my hair over my cheek so soft-like I'm turning my head into her hand in spite o'myself. I might as well be in knee pants again. It ain't fair, first woman comes along as gets it is like on three point two times younger'n me, and still ain't no one I'd inflict myself on. She's got enough loud voices of her'n. But she just smiles again, then taps me light with one finger on my forehead.

"See? No loud behind voices. Her either."

And then she's gone in a swirl of flowery skirts and flowing dark hair and white skin an' just all that's wan mei as I look out into the Black, she's right. There ain't no loud behind voices right then. They'll be back, sure enough, but for now? She is black-- and that little part of me that wants to not be so broken says she's usually right and I should just do what she says. If'n she's readin' and now she's seein' if she's sayin' there ain't gonna be another Miranda, it'd be dumb for me to argue-- but I've always been ornery, and I can't right see my way past the things she don't think matter none.