Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.
Summary: Conclusion. Mal deals with the aftereffects of his time spent with the madman.
Sliding gingerly off Simon's exam table, Mal slowly applied weight to his healing leg. Containing the grimace it caused, he straightened his back and tried to look perfectly at ease.
"It won't work, you know," Simon said, unfolding his arms from his chest and moving within a few inches of his teetering Captain. "I know it has to be very painful." When Mal scowled, he continued, "That series of tight, little fine lines around your eyes and mouth is quite telling."
"Ain't so bad," Mal lied through purposefully unclenched teeth.
Simon raised one elegant eyebrow. "I suppose not," he conceded dryly. "Considering that your pain tolerance can usually be measured on a sliding scale with a mere gun shot wound being the low standard and torture by a psychopath being the high standard."
"It ain't exactly like I set out for these things to happen," Mal protested, hopping a little as he became overbalanced. Simon handed him one crutch, his silence more eloquent than any words he could utter. Mal sighed, fitting the crutch securely under his unbroken arm. "Can I help it if every hundan in the 'verse seems to want a piece of me?"
"Perhaps it's the company you keep," Simon replied blandly.
"You think?" Mal said as he made a couple of uneven steps forward, testing his mobility with a growing sense of impatience. After another minute had elapsed, he turned expectant eyes toward his doctor. "So, I'm good to go?"
Simon nodded a little reluctantly. "I suppose so," he admitted. "If you promise to continue with the physical therapy every day, and you don't push yourself too hard, and…"
Mal held up his still-bandaged hand. "Heard it all before, doc. Don't need the reminder."
Simon nodded and quickly pressed an injection into the side of Mal's neck.
Mal jerked away. "What was that for?" he asked as petulantly as any three-year-old.
Simon smiled. "Pain meds," he replied. His eyes began to twinkle with barely concealed merriment. "Consider it cosmetic surgery to reduce those fine lines I mentioned earlier."
Knowing the meds would make him sleepy in short order, Mal muttered, "Still got an airlock on this boat, you know."
"Which is fairly useless while we're grounded," Simon retorted, grinning openly now.
"Won't be grounded for long." Mal tossed the observation over his shoulder as he made his way laboriously to the bridge.
"Might not have made a difference anyway," River said softly, floating onto the bridge with her dancer's grace.
"What?" Mal asked.
"If the first war had not come," River said patiently as she curled herself into the co-pilot's chair.
"You reading me again, bao bei?"
"Couldn't help it," she said, shrugging with not an ounce of contrition. "You've been thinking it so loudly for several days."
Mal sighed. "Just hard to let go of, somehow," he admitted. "Man was all manner of disturbed in the brainpan. Maybehaps if he'd had a father….I mean, if the war hadn't come and taken the man away…..well, the boy, Bobbie, he seemed sort of….like a good boy."
"Like Adam, you mean," River said softly.
"Guess that's what I do mean," Mal admitted uncomfortably.
River nodded. "You see it all differently now, because you're a father," she said with gentle understanding.
"Conjure that's a pure truth," Mal agreed. He paused for a moment. "Been carrying around more'n my share of grief from that war for a long time. But even so, to see the hostility in that man's eyes…..the pure, burnin' hatred that was eating him alive…directed at me for no other reason than the color of my coat…..it was downright morbid and creepifying. And I got to thinkin', what would it take to make a man like that?" His voice dropped low. "To make a boy….like Adam…like that?"
"Adam will never be like that," River said quickly.
"I'd wager not," Mal replied. "But still….it's blood-chillin' to think about. Just one more horrible thing to come outta that war."
"If the war hadn't come," River said quietly, "where would you be today?"
Mal thought for a few minutes before answering. "On Shadow, most like," he said. "Can't really conjure leaving my mother to run the ranch alone." He rubbed distractedly at his aching leg.
River's heart twisted painfully. "Do you ever….think about…..going back?"
"Nothing to go back to," Mal said, a little too quickly.
River shook her head. "I mean, to a place like that. A ranch. A…home."
"Got a home," Mal replied steadily. "Right here. With you."
River unfolded her long legs and padded over to his chair. "Strong enough to hold me?" she asked.
Mal opened his arms. "Always," he replied with a slow smile.
River slid gently into his embrace, careful of his wounds. "Home," she hummed low against the shell of his ear.
"Home," he confirmed, his voice an octave lower than it had been moments before.
River kissed him, gently at first, a promise of other things to come when he was sufficiently healed. When her lips left his, his slight growl made her grin. "Not well enough yet," she said.
"Try me," he answered, leaning slightly forward to lick the line of her collarbone.
Feeling his hunger for her flaring brightly as a flame in her mind, she shivered. Entwined with the hunger was another need, fragile and whip-thin. She read and understood the need, recognizing it as one she knew well from her own bitter experience. He had survived, yet again, against odds that defied all logic. And in the surviving, there needed to be affirmation, a celebration of life and all that made it worth the living.
She slid from his lap, though he tried to hold her fast. "That's ain't in no way fair," he said, holding up his still-bandaged hands.
"Never said life was fair," she said, walking quickly to the door and locking it.
Hearing the click of the lock engage, Mal's heart skipped a beat. "Are you plannin' to have your wicked way with me, woman?" he asked huskily.
"Only if you promise to let me do all the work," River replied, her eyes shining brightly in the low light. As she spoke, she shimmied gracefully out of her dress.
Mal's breath caught in his throat, struck anew by how beautiful this woman was. Her smooth skin glowed invitingly, backlit by the lights of the nav console.
"Come here," Mal said softly.
She moved slowly toward him, watching the fire in his blue eyes deepen with each step she made. Then, achingly slowly, she slid back into his lap and kissed him, her lips and tongue distracting him from the work of her hands as she bared him to her as well.
He moaned softly as her warm, soft hands caressed him. "River," he breathed out raggedly.
"Shh," she murmured against his ear, smiling as she felt the twitch of his muscles beneath her fingertips. "Let me…."
"Wouldn't dream of stoppin' you, darlin'," he said a little breathlessly. And as she moved carefully atop him, he closed his eyes and felt his life, interrupted by his time with the madman, start anew once again.