He kissed her hard, savoring the way her lips felt against his and the way they tasted. Like sugar and herbal tea. Ai ya, he could see why she was a Companion. She was the best kisser in the 'verse, he was convinced.

They finally broke apart, gasping for oxygen. She looked at him with her sultry almond eyes lined with dark mascara and eyeliner. A smile crossed her beautiful face while her fingers got tangled in his hair.

"Mal, you know that we can't. Not tonight. I have to wake up early and head out to meet with Mr. Zu."

"I know…just sayin' goodnight is all…" he replied with a grin.

"Goodnight."

"Goodnight."

He kissed her again. This kiss wasn't as forcefully or fiery, but it was sweeter and more romantic. He flashed another quick grin in her direction before giving her a ridiculous bow. She laughed.

"Get out of my shuttle," she chided teasingly.

"Yes, Ms. Serra."

She rolled her eyes and shoved him towards the door. He looked back with a quiet passion simmering under his cool blue eyes before walking out and shutting the door behind him.

Ever since Miranda they had been closer. He worked up the nerve to ask her to stay this time and she agreed. Just a week later they were together. It had been a month or so since they first got together and about five months since Mr. Universe's moon. She stayed onboard, making up excuses to hang around until he finally flat out asked her to take up permanent residence on his ship…for the time being.

He was glad to be with her. He was. But there was something wrong with their young relationship. Mal prided himself in being an okay guy, but he had his pressure points like everyone does. One of them, sadly, was jealousy. He knew that Inara loved her job. Hell, he'd love to have sex for a living. Still, they were together and he hated the idea of saying to her, "Have a good day at work!" knowing that she was off to sex up another man.

Not only that, but whenever she had her…"meetings" with her clients they couldn't be together. Not that it was about the sex. It just hurt him that they could rarely be together because she had to screw some rich loser the next day. It was meaningless he knew. He couldn't ask her to give up her job for him. He wouldn't. He'd just…deal with it.

He went to his bunk to get some sleep. After a few hours of tossing and turning and a failed attempt at sleep, he decided to get something to drink or eat…or both. He pulled a shirt on without bothering to button it and he didn't bother with pants since he already had his pajama bottoms on.

He scaled his ladder and shut the hatch. Shortly after that he wandered into the kitchen to see what he could whip up for a late night snack.

"Wrong. Galileo."

Mal jumped when he heard the unmistakable voice of River Tam. She was sitting at the table with a cup of coffee and Simon's encyclopedia. Her hair was falling down into her face. How she could see was beyond him. She looked up and brushed her hair back tucking it behind her ears.

"Captain," she said flatly.

"Uh hi…" he scrambled to button his shirt. He was expecting to run into anyone, let alone River. It was the middle of the night. Everyone should have been asleep.

She went back to the encyclopedia while he went over to the counter to get something to drink. He decided to go with coffee since she had made some. He finished buttoning his shirt and walked over to the table.

"Mind if I sit?" he asked. She shook her head no, so he sat across from her.

He was so used to being up alone. It was odd to be in the company of anyone else.

"What are you up to?" he attempted to start a conversation. She was so busy with whatever she was doing. He doubted she'd bother with an idiot like him.

"This is wrong. Theories are all off. Galileo."

"Who?"

"Galileo. Earth-that-was astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, and physicist. Based on his principal of relativity, the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion relative to one another. F equals ma. Vector sum, all 'real' forces. Electromagnetic, gravitational, nuclear. Rotating frame of reference, vector cross product, centrifugal force, nucleosynthesis. It doesn't add up."

She looked up at him with an exasperated sigh and set the pad down. He had no idea what she had just said. She smiled and put the encyclopedia away. He was relieved that he could escape all of the math…science…whatever the hell she was talking about. She was always good to try to simplify things lately. She had regained most of her sanity and her bad days had basically disappeared.

"So what's got you up and about at this hour?" he asked.

"I couldn't sleep."

"Me neither. What's keepin' you up?"

"Lonely. I don't like sleeping alone in the passenger dorms."

"I thought Simon was down there."

She gave him a priceless River look. "He's not. He's with Kaylee. Right now."

"Let's not talk 'bout that."

She laughed. "I agree."

"I'm sorry 'bout you bein' left alone down there…"

"It's not a problem. I prefer sleeping on Kaylee's hammock in the engine room anyway."

"How is that comfortable?"

"It is. It's near the heart. Heartbeat's like a lullaby."

He nodded. River loved Serenity just as much as he did. Gorram, she was the quickest leaner he'd ever met. She learned how to fly the ship within two days and she was just as good as Wash was. He still missed Wash and Book, but he didn't talk about it much. He wasn't the type to grieve outwardly. It wasn't who he was.

"Why couldn't you sleep?" she asked.

"Well…" he paused and looked at her with a faint smile. "You already know what I'm gonna say."

"Just because I know doesn't mean that you don't have to vocalize it. If that were the case, I'd rarely have conversations with anyone."

"True. I was just a bit restless I s'ppose."

"Lonely too."

"Hm?"

"Nothing."

"You said somethin' 'bout bein' lonely."

"I did. I said…you're lonely too."

He thought for a moment. "Maybehaps I was."

She skimmed the surface of his mind. She didn't like to snoop, but sometimes, especially with him, she had to figure him out.

"You aren't with her."

"What?" Mal asked. She was always ten steps ahead.

"Inara. You can't sleep because she isn't there when she should be."

"Well…it isn't that she…should be or anything…she ain't mine to own…I mean…" he stopped. Why was he talking to her? They were closer, but not close enough to be pouring his heart out to her about his relationship problems. She probably never had even had a relationship. She was so young…

"I didn't mean to pry..." she said quietly.

"No, no. It's okay. It ain't like my relationship with her's a secret or anything."

River nodded and took a sip of her coffee.

"It's just…I know she ain't property, but I don't much like the fact that she's off all the time with other men…" there he went again. He was dumping all of his problems onto her. She had enough of her own. She was just so easy to talk to.

"It's understandable. Not a matter of property, ownership. It's loyalty."

"So you don't think that I'm bein' a jealous hundan?"

"No."

"Really?"

"Yes."

Somehow he felt better.

"Thanks, little albatross."

She smiled. "No problem."

"You're pretty smart."

"That's what they keep telling me."

It was his turn to laugh. They talked well into the morning about things in general. Their outlooks on the 'verse, Serenity, life and death, the war, what goes best with coffee, what exactly a "Vector" was, Simon and Kaylee, Badger, and so much more.

It was strangely comforting to have someone to talk to. He wasn't on her level mentally and she sometimes slipped into metaphors, but somehow through it all they actually understood each other. They enjoyed one another's company.

"I can't believe we were up all night," Mal yawned.

"At least the pilot and the captain will be sleep deprived together."

"Zoe might have to take over."

"But then Simon will have no one to sew up after the jobs start working out!"

"Ha-ha."

She smiled at him and then collected her mug and Simon's encyclopedia. She put the mug in the sink and moved towards the passenger dorms.

"I'll see you later, Captain."

"Okay. Bye, darlin'."

She smiled again and then disappeared down the corridor. He sighed and put his mug up next to hers before going to take a shower and hopefully get a little bit of sleep.

****

Every night without fail, River would be at the table doing something. One night she was reading, another she was drawing, and the one after that she was tinkering with a gizmo of some kind. When he asked her was it was for, she explained it quickly and with big words. He didn't ask again.

He wasn't always up at night with her. He was sometimes with Inara in his bunk or in her shuttle. If he was in her shuttle, they'd sleep in together. However if she was in his bunk, she'd leave before everyone woke up. She always ran into River though.

"She's always up," Inara had said one night while draped across Mal's bare chest.

"I know. She had trouble sleepin' since she's all alone down in the passenger dorms."

She lifted her head up and stared at him. "How do you know?"

"We talk."

"You talk?"

"Yeah. Why is that so hard to believe?"

"I don't know. Since when did you two become friends?"

"Well…we just did. Why does it bother you that she's up?"

"For one thing, she needs her sleep. Another, I don't like her knowing our business."

"She would anyhow! She's a reader, remember?"

"Still…knowing and seeing are two different things. For example, you might know that Simon and Kaylee are having sex but if you see it-"

"Okay, okay. I get your point. I don't need the visual…"

Inara laughed and went back to lying across him.

He spent his nights either with Inara or sitting at the table with River. He got some sleep, but he found that he didn't need as much. He felt energized and refreshed when he expected the opposite to be true. This routine worked out for a few weeks off and on. Until one night…

****

Inara was away for her yearly physical. They were parked on some planet for a day or two to take some vacation. Mal was up, as usual, when he should have been sleeping. Some nights he actually forced himself to stay awake so he could go talk to River.

Their conversations were addicting. He had never talked to someone so deeply before. She made him think. He liked that. She challenged him a lot more than most people did. They were different challenges than Inara. Her challenges were always more of fights than anything else. River was different. He had always known that, but he never knew how true that was.

She made him consider things he had never considered before. Like the deeper meaning behind the classic astronomy myths, she knew them all by heart, or the real reason for unification. Her intelligence never ended. She knew something about everything. Honestly, she was a joy to talk to.

He exited his bunk after at least attempting sleep. He walked happily into the kitchen expecting to see her sitting there with some project in her flannel night clothes with a cup of coffee. However, the room was empty. She wasn't there. He thought that maybe he had arrived too early, so he made some coffee and took a seat. But she didn't show up.

Night after night, she wasn't there. He would have looked for her, but he didn't want to look like an idiot. He never asked her where she was in the morning either. He was too afraid to. The fear made no sense to him. He wanted to flat out ask. He didn't.

"Have you seen River up lately?" Mal asked Inara one night while snuggling in his bunk.

"No. I'm glad that she's finally getting sleep."

"Yeah…"

For two weeks he didn't see her at night. A million different reasons why ran through his head. She needed to sleep. Simon put her on some new medicine that made her sleep. The one he decided was the most likely was that she just didn't like talking to him or he had made her mad. The real reason was shocking…

****

Mal was in the kitchen at the table with some paperwork. It was late. He had his coffee in one hand and a pen in the other. The sound of a hatch opening made him look out at the corridor. He figured that it would be Zoe. Jayne always slept the night all the way through and Kaylee was probably with Simon…

He saw someone emerging from Jayne's bunk. As the person came into view he saw that it was River.

She was wearing one of Jayne's shirts. It went down to below her knees but still clung to her. Mal moved out so he could see her but she couldn't see him. She started to gracefully move towards the kitchen, but Jayne emerged after her. He was shirtless and only in his boxers. He caught her hand and pulled her around with a twisted grin on his face.

"I should go…" she whispered. Mal strained to hear the conversation.

"Na…" Jayne said with a lustful edge.

He wrapped his arms around her waist and let them wander to various places around her back and bottom. Mal wanted to go slug him, but he wasn't sure why.

River pushed him up against the bulkhead roughly with a thud.

"Shhh…" he murmured.

"You started it."

She kissed him on the mouth very hard. Mal knew because Jayne's head hit the metal with another thud. He kissed back, pulling her closer to his body. She ran her hands down his chest before following the same path her hands took only with her tongue.

"Gorramit, you can't go now."

"Why?" she muttered in the darkness of the hall.

"Girl, you know why."

He kissed her neck and lifted her up into his arms. She put her hands on his shoulders and wrapped her legs around his waist. They stumbled over to the hatch and clambered down the ladder. The hatch shut with a loud clang after Mal heard a moan from one or both of them.

He wasn't sure which bothered him more. The fact that he was bothered by them being together or the fact that he was bothered that she was kissing him like that. He wanted to bang on Jayne's hatch and interrupt what they were doing. He also wanted to shoot, maim, or punch Jayne (maybe all three) for being with River.

I'm just protective is all, he assured himself as he went down into his bunk. She's too young to be doin' that, 'specially with the likes of Jayne.

He climbed into bed and shut his eyes. Every time he got close to sleeping, the image of Jayne and River popped into his mind and he was wide awake all over again.