When I wake up, I'm in th'infirmary, and it hurts like all hell. Like a horse done rolled on me. 'Cept for the not bein' dead part, o'course.

"I hate horses," I groan. Yep, I sound too mis'rable to be dead.

"Well, horses don't hate you, they just hate dry streambeds," River says as she boosts herself up on the ledge next to the bed, lookin' down at me an' straight in the eye, and wearin' one o' those new skirts I bought her. "She's sorry, she said. "Saw too many rocks on the other side and got afraid."

I try to laugh, but it hurts too gorram much. "Well, I hope you told her I didn't take it personal-like."

"I did," she smiles.

"What's the damage, then, bao bay?"

She shrugs. "Don't know. Only fixed, don't know the parts. Ask Simon."

"When'd the fixin' come on then?" I still sounded miserable. Feel miserable too, proof's enough I'm alive. But I'm curious 'bout that right odd conversation we had when I know I was prob'bly too full up with blood to be talkin' out loud.

"Don't know," she says, shrugging. "Felt you fall. Felt you and the loud behind voices before you fell, too, but you were coming back so I didn't need to go to say you were wrong-- except felt you fall. Felt it hurt. So I went, made Simon and Jayne come."

"You never done that before now, though..."

She shrugs. "No. Some things come and go, broken enough but not so much to forget I shouldn't always ask why, just use what tools there are. Maybe it will come again, maybe not. Simon should still have a job." At this last, she gives me a small smile, taps my forehead once with her finger, and kisses me once on the lips. "Told you I was black."

"You sure did," I say.

"Not going to argue?" she asks, genuinely worried.

"Little bird," I say, tired. "You sure you got all those loud behind voices o'mine sorted out? 'Cause there's some o' them you ain't never had yourself, an' you shouldn't have to."

"I know," she says, serious. "But that's what makes you big brother now, being a bad brother then. Changes you. Makes you not just never do it again, makes you make sure no one else does it either. Is why you were big brother at Miranda."

I been trying to wish it were true all this time, knowin' that were it anyone else, I'dve told them the same thing. Hell, I did when I told Simon you don't just castaway a tool because it's been used once badly. And I s'pose Jayne was tryin' to tell me too when he was all on about redemption an' allowin' yourself to let others watch out for awhiles. But mostly, it's like she said first-- he does all the big brother things without a bao bay to say he did right and that 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. But havin' her say it, havin' her say I did right-- well, it does make a difference, and it's as simple as she said it would be. Just each of us broken but still black to the other.

"Alright, then. You're so set on bein' black, bao bay, I ain't see how I can rightly argue wi' you 'nymore." 'Specially since I done wanted this ever since well, sometime before Miranda leastaways, though took her takin' down all those Reavers that done set it in my mind solid. Mal Gorram Reynolds, a reg'lr romantic who done fall in love when a girl massacres Reavers for his crew. Our crew, I s'pose.

She smiles, a bright smile of triumph and expectancy and bein' pleased at herself.

"Told you," she says, tappin' me on the forehead again, and makin' my eyelids heavy all a sudden.

"Found those skirts, din' you River?"

She chuckles, says "Very wan mei, thank you bao bay," then says "Sleep more, Mal," and she's pressin' those soft lips o'hers over mine.

Gorram fairytales with those fairy princesses who put you to sleep with a touch.

"Just get better faster Mal. I'll leave it off then."

Only took two days before I was limpin' around an' complainin' back on my own two feet again. She done fixed the leg bone, which's all good because damned how I know I was goin' to get 'round the boat if'n I didn't have both legs under me, but in th'end she didn't get far wi'the ribs or th'arm, though it were only one arm, not two. Fixed jus' enough to get mostly round on my own, though I'm gorram slow an' ain't gonna be winnin' no boxin' matches for now.

Simon just shakes his head when I ask for the tally of what she done took care off before I got back to the boat. "The femur and the internal organ damage and the skull fracture and subdural hematoma," he says.

"That all?" I ask drily, and he looks at me for a long moment before he starts whoopin' with laughter.

When he calms down, I say "Well, looks like I'll have to keep you on leastaways 'til that sister o'yours learns to finish things up, not leave the lesser stuff all undone. Jus' think, though, all the money we could save on stockin' th'infirmary."

He shakes his head, then says "Well, I'll have some time, then, to get Jayne to teach me how to fire a gun, just so I can make myself useful. Perhaps I can take over the cooking."

Then it was my time to snort. He can sew any flesh back together in the damn 'verse, but kid can't put protein together just readin' the side o' the box. "Stick with the guns. Please."

She ain't tried none to crawl into th'Infirmary bed an' sleep wi' me those two days 'til Simon says was safe for me to go'n back to my bunk. "Just be careful of those ribs and that arm climbing up and down ladders," he says. "I've only got them half knit, that bone stimulator isn't an immediate cure."

S'funny, him checkin' me over as makin' sure it's alright for me to get on with runnin' my ship again wi' River sittin' by lookin' at me an' conductin' some internal healer inventory even as her brother uses them machines o'his. They both agree I can go back to th' helm-- Simon's rightly more'n a bit spooked when River says "machines say it right"-- tho' seems like Zo' an' Jayne been holdin' it down fine, leastaways since we ain't taken off yet. I asked how we done come t' afford another few days at our berth, 'n Kaylee done perked up to say "Oh, I just did a few things for th'engine repair shop at the wharf. Paid plenty o'coin." By the pleased look on Zo's face, plenty's quite a bit. 'Specially since there's spaghetti and real meatballs wi' real tomato sauce our last night at berth.

"Tomatoes don't travel well," River says.

But soon's we take off, complete wi' two agri loads goin' t' the same place, an' each payin' on for full use o' the bay-- that Jayne's right clever, makin' it look t'each of 'em like it was goin' to take that much space, thank the 'verse for them smugglin' compartments,. But I'm back insistin' on at least spellin' River an' 'Nara at the helm just so's they can get some sleep. 'Course, two or three hours in hurts too gorram much to do any more. Never been so tired from just sittin'. So I'm spendin' more time in my bunk lyin' flat an' tryin' not to keep them ribs from grindin' together and comin' undone when that first night out she comes in bold as brass, shuts up the hatch, 'n says "Mal, need some sleep."

"I ain't arguin', River," I say, not even botherin' to roll up an' look at her, seein' as I only got one arm to prop myself on right about now. "But I ain't got no need for your new sleepin' pills, I'm tired enough."

"No, no sleeping pills, just inside holding," she says, then crawls into my bunk on my good side. "I'm tired too, and it's blacker here than my bunk." That said, she pulls my arm into what she considers the appropriate position for wrappin' round that small waist o'hers, reaches up to slap off the lights, and pulls the covers over us both, lyin' light on her side next to me. This time, her kiss on my lips in the dark is more solid, like a little bird landin' to roost, not fly away again. So I do what's natural and comfortable, and pull her a mite tighter and kiss her a bit harder back. It's a bit strange, that and hearin' her mostly usin' her pronouns like others when I'm so used to decipherin' what she's sayin' if'n most o'the rest o'them can't.

"Hard to tell them what to do to round up the horse and you if can't get out words they don't understand. Though metaphor's truer still than direct words sometimes, and articles, pronouns are hard," she says, listenin' in on my thoughts again.

"Well, at least you're still pokin' round in my head," I say, laughin'.

"Comfortable there, each is black to each other" she says, runnin' her finger 'long my jaw.

"Sounds about right, bao bay. Each is comfortable black."