The single word hung in the air like a dense fog. It stayed there, drenched in a mixture of hope and apprehension. He waited for a reply, any kind of reply, and he got it in the form of silence. The look in Zoe and Inara's eyes said it all.
She didn't make it.
The realization hit him like a ton of bricks. He gaped at them with glossy eyes.
"What happened?" he finally asked with a bit more emotion than he intended to.
Kaylee started crying. Inara tried to comfort her while keeping a hand on Simon's wound. Jayne seemed close to sleep and Simon was in shock. Zoe was the only one capable of responding.
"Simon got shot," she explained. "Didn't bring his bag and the blast doors weren't shuttin'. She ran out there, tossed us the bag, and shut the doors. She saved us, Sir."
Simon finally reacted. "She might be alive."
Mal looked towards the doors expectantly. He saw her fight. If anyone could survive, she could. He thought that the doors would rumble to life and open to reveal her standing there, bloody and not beaten.
But they didn't.
It didn't sink in. River couldn't be dead. It simply wasn't possible.
There was a loud explosion and then they head muffled shouting. The doors opened and instead of River, a whole crew of Alliance men were there with their guns trained on them.
"Put your hands in the air! Drop your weapons! Do it now!" they all shouted in some capacity or another.
Even though they had made it this far, none of them felt like fighting. Some of them put their hands up. Mal merely stood there, unable to wrap his head around what had just happened.
"Do we have a kill order?" the one in charge asked the radio.
After what felt like a lifetime, the Operative responded. "Stand down. It's finished, we're finished."
Mal's eyes went past the men to a certain spot in particular. He staggered towards it, pushing past the men and stepping over several Reaver corpses. In the background, he heard the Operative say something about medical assistance.
He moved faster and faster until he finally dropped to his knees beside her.
There she was, draped across a Reaver body with her hand still clutching the axe in its back.
He reached out with a shaky hand to look for a pulse. After he couldn't find one in her neck, he tried her wrist. She had to be alive. She had to.
But she wasn't.
She wasn't breathing and her heart wasn't beating. She looked as if she had just gone to sleep. Eyes closed, peaceful expression on her delicate features, hair neatly curtaining her face.
There was a large, bloody hole in her chest, but other than that she seemed unscathed. It was as if she had avoided one blow, she'd still be alive.
He put a hand on her head, gently stroking her silky hair. He blamed himself. It was his fault she was dead. The third member of his crew to die. She was his gorram crew.
She didn't deserve this. She shouldn't have died. Not today. Not like that. All alone, fighting for her life.
He stopped stroking her hair and pulled her fragile body into his arms. Something came over him, the same something that told him to pick her up in the Maidenhead. He couldn't place it, not that it mattered anymore.
He shakily stood with her safely tucked flush up against his chest.
He heard Simon's cry denying the truth that she was truly dead. He heard Kaylee's kind words through her tears. He also heard Inara's dignified, quiet sobs. He even heard the silence between his mercenary and his now widowed first mate.
But he didn't listen.
Not to what was left of his crew and not to the Alliance men telling him to stay there and receive medical attention.
He was taking her back home where she belonged. Where she should have belonged sooner.
His legs shakily carried them out of that room, over the bodies, to his ship. The second his feet cleared the ramp, he collapsed in the cargo bay beside her where he painfully shrugged his coat off and covered her in it. The blood was one thing he didn't want to remember about her.
"I'm sorry," was all he could whisper as he blinked back unshed tears.
If he had done something differently…
…waited to go to Mr. Universe just awhile longer…
…made her stay away from the fight…
…or fought for her to stay on his boat sooner…
None of this would have happened.
If he asked her to stay, she never would have left and gone into the Maidenhead. She never would have seen the commercial or been triggered. Wash and Book would be alive and so would she.
But he was pigheaded and stupid.
He crawled over to a crate and picked her back up. He looked down at her with a horrible tugging pulling at his already broken heart.
It hurt too much.
The Maidenhead replayed in his mind. His gun was on her. She had hers on him. Yet no one was shooting. He only knew that everything inside of him was begging him to not pull that trigger. He didn't know why.
He didn't know why he brought her home. He didn't know why he fought so hard to keep her safe. He didn't know why it hurt this much to lose her.
He just knew that he wanted her here. Home. On his ship.
Just when he found something…someone…to believe in, it was taken away. She was taken away.
Before he got to know her. Before he got to see her heal. Before he figured anything out.
If she had lived, maybe they could have worked together. Maybe he could have made up for lost time and really talked to her. Maybe with time he could have understood why he wanted her to stay. Why he believed in her. Why he cared. Why it hurt so badly.
But she didn't.
He held on tighter and shut his eyes. This shouldn't have happened.
He set his forehead against her temple right before he passed out.
He was only awoken when the medics found him there, cradling the woman he'd never get to know, the woman River Tam would never get to become.