Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.
Summary: One-shot set anytime within the scope of the Mal/River storyline.
Mal stopped in his tracks, taken with the sight in front of him. There, in the corner of a small storefront on a tiny terraformed mudball of a planet, sat a packet of paper. Not the common vid paper that was the norm for all worlds spinning, but the old kind, the kind made from real trees. The kind that crinkled up yellow on the edges and required real ink. The kind that a woman might carefully bind together with a blue silk ribbon and keep hidden among her treasures in a secret spot from a young son……
Thirty years earlier…..
Malcolm Reynolds stomped through the ranch house, slinging mud from his boots with wild abandon, reveling in the fact that for once in his young life, there was no one there to reprimand him for the indiscretion. Not that he minded the chidings of his mother, he thought a little guiltily, but still it was sorta' shiny not to have to be so mindful of everything.
Hannah Reynolds was on a rare trip offworld, leaving her teenaged son alone in the rambling ranch house. Though, Mal thought wryly, he was nowhere close to genuinely alone, considering the forty-some ranch hands milling about everywhere. Only Hannah and her foreman were gone, off to meet with potential buyers about the sale of half the herd.
Malcolm had argued that selling half of one's livestock was a foolhardy notion, but Hannah had calmly reminded her son that, even if the buyers agreed to her price, there would still be more than enough stock left to keep the ranch running just fine. Ever pragmatic, she had pointed out that she saw no reason to expand until he decided exactly what it was he wanted to do. And then there were the war rumors that were floating about to consider. Uncertain times called for unusual measures, she'd said, putting an end to the conversation in that no-nonsense way she'd had for as long as Malcolm could remember.
At first, he'd not minded being alone in the evenings. There was something freeing about working hard all day on the ranch and coming home to a house that was utterly quiet but for the crackling of the wood in the old fireplace. But soon enough, the novelty had worn off, and now he was eager for Hannah to come back home. He realized that the timing of her departure was most likely not an accident, and he had to marvel anew at his mother's uncanny ability to solve thorny problems. The time alone had given him space to think about his future, about what he really wanted to do now that he was approaching full-grown manhood. Hannah had made no bones about the fact that she hoped he would choose to stay on Shadow, running the ranch that she had worked so hard to keep going through all the years of his childhood. On the other hand, she understood his desire to go out into the 'verse and find his own way, and Malcolm knew that the coin she would earn from the sale of the cattle would more than likely be put aside to finance whatever he decided to do.
Restless on this night, he sat staring into the fire, his different destinies warring in his mind and heart. The land tugged at him, with its vast stretches of gentle, rolling hills covered with rich green grass that whispered in the wind. But the Black called to him too, seductive with the promise of adventure and fortunes to be won with his wits. Sighing, he rose from his chair, feeling the need to move whilst he thought.
He wandered about the kitchen, picking desultorily at the leftovers of his solitary supper before being seized with the need to clean up the pile of dirty dishes that had accumulated in Hannah's absence. Thinking that there was apparently no way to completely ignore his mother's training, he smiled wryly at his own weakness and mopped up the muddy footprints his boots had made earlier. Once the kitchen sparkled, he reasoned that, since he was nowhere near sleepy, he may as well continue whilst the cleaning bug had bitten him and he moved on to the other rooms of the house.
A satisfying couple of hours later, he came to Hannah's room and realized that, unconsciously, he had left it until last so as not to feel the sting of her absence quite so badly. Shaking his head at his suddenly sentimental bent of mind, he took a deep breath and walked in, instantly smelling the comfortingly feminine smell he always associated with his mother. He'd come into this very room countless times in his life, but rarely without Hannah's express invitation. In recent years, he'd mainly stopped just at the threshold, sticking his head in occasionally to tell her something that couldn't wait until dinner.
Once inside, he glanced around almost furtively, feeling strangely like a trespasser in his own house. Shaking aside the feeling, he noted the fine layer of dust that had settled on everything in her absence. Pulling the rag from his pocket, he thought about how many times he had come in to find her polishing the fine wood furnishings lovingly. He'd once asked where they'd acquired such beautiful pieces, and she had explained with a smile that his father had carved most of them himself, fashioning them with his own hands into the treasures he knew. And now, he ran his own hands along the smooth, finely planed lines, admiring his father's craftsmanship.
He came to the bureau, a sturdy but elegant piece of work. Slowly moving the rag over its surfaces, he examined the intricate carvings in the wood appreciatively. In his peripheral vision, he saw a small sliver of something blue hanging from one of the bottom drawers. He slid the drawer open, intending only to tuck the blue strip of fabric back into its proper place. But something stayed his hand. Gazing down into the drawer, he saw that the blue strip was actually a thin ribbon made of silk that even his unpracticed eye could see was of fine quality. He fingered it for a moment, thinking that he had never seen anything approximating silk in any of his mother's things, as Hannah seemed to prefer sturdier fabrics for the life she led. He pulled lightly at the ribbon and a small packet of papers rose from their resting place at the bottom of the drawer. Curious now more than ever, he looked quickly over his shoulder, as if his mother were about to enter the room and catch him at his snooping.
Consumed with curiosity, he walked quickly to the bed and sat down on the quilt Hannah had finished the winter before. He paused for a moment, his conscience warring with his hunger to know. Then, he slowly pulled the end of the ribbon, freeing the papers. With infinite care, he picked up the first brittle page, unfolded it, and began to read.
I've been thinking about you constantly since the dance in the Willards' barn last Friday night. You were such a vision, standing there talking to Liza Martin in that pretty blue dress with the silk bows. I ain't never seen such finery as that. Almost made me ashamed to be asking for your hand for the dance. Only I'm glad I did, on account of you were sure enough the prettiest girl at the party. The prettiest girl in the whole wide 'verse, truth be told. I hope you don't find my words to be too forward. It ain't like I'm the most eloquent of men, but I am a truthsome man. And being truthsome, I've got to tell you that I think you're the finest girl I've ever known.
And I was hoping, if you wouldn't mind too much, that I could come calling on you come next Sunday. I've got a buckboard now, and like I told you Friday night, I have a fine horse as can pull it for us, should you be willing to take a ride in the countryside. With your Pa's permission, of course.
So, if you think that might be shiny with you, could you maybe send me a little note saying as much?
Walter A. Reynolds
Malcolm reached for another letter, eager now to read something more of the life his mother had lived with his father before the accident that had taken Walter's life when his son was just five years old. He read late into the night, coming to know more of his family's history with Walter's words recorded so long ago.
My dearest Hannah,
I can't seem to stop smiling since you said you'd be my bride. Been taking a lot of ribbing from Pa's hands about the whole thing with your father, but I don't even care. Long's he said it was all right that we marry, I'm thinking I'm the luckiest man alive. Hope I didn't hurt you twirling you around in my arms like that when you said yes. I know you're nothing but a little slip of a thing, but I was so happy I just forgot there for a minute. Guess you were all right though, since your eyes just kept on shining with that light that I can't seem to get enough of.
Well, I got to go now, as Pa is hollering for me to get to the chores. I'm aiming to finish up early and be by your house for supper like your Ma wanted. I reckon she's got things she wants to suss out about the wedding and such. You know it's all right with me, no matter what you want to do. I aim to spend the rest of my life making you the happiest woman in the 'verse, and if that means planning a big wedding with your Ma, I'm ready to do it. I'm sending this letter by Tom, as he says he's got to go on into town to pick up some supplies anyway.
Love you, my darling girl, and I'll see you this evening.
In a letter dated several months later, Malcolm read:
My dearest Hannah,
I'm sitting here watching you sleep by the light of the moon coming through our window. Thought I'd let you know before I leave on the trip that you are, and always will be, the woman that I've dreamed of all my life. I wish to all that's holy that I didn't have to leave you, even for a moment. But, I think that this is a good thing I'm doing for us. A man needs a place of his own, and if we have the passel of children I'm longing to have with you, we'll be needing more space than we've got in this little house. I'm thinking it's best to find our place right away and get on with the business of living our lives out together on our own land. I know you were upset at supper, and I can't tell you how it twisted my heart to tell you that I would be gone for more than a week. But don't worry, my love, I'll be back soon's I can. And when I get back, I'll be taking you with me to see the place I find, wherever it is. And then, if it suits you, we'll not be parted again for a long time to come. Don't be angry with me for not waking you before I go, because I want to remember you just like this, lying there all peaceful-like with your hair spread out across my pillow, looking like the answer to every prayer I ever prayed.
I love you, my darling one,
Malcolm stopped reading for a moment, carefully folding up the letters he'd already read. He thought for a long time about his mother, so seemingly unsentimental, keeping these curled pages tied carefully in a piece of ribbon for all these years. And he wondered how often she allowed herself to pull them out and read the words of love flowing off their pages, and whether it brought her comfort or sorrow. Sighing, he supposed he would never know, as it was hardly something he could ask. Though Hannah often told him things about his father, she never spoke about her own feelings for her husband beyond the simple fact that she had loved him, preferring instead to share with her son his father's thinking on more practical matters. Unable to stop himself, he continued to read, hungry now to know about his parents' life together.
My dearest Hannah,
I'm writing this letter from the spot I think we're going to grow old on together. I came upon it yesterday about midday, and have been riding the perimeter of it for the best part of the day today. I can't wait for you to see it, darling. Prettiest piece of land I think I ever saw. Gentle sloping hills covered with the greenest grass on Shadow, less I miss my guess. There's a river runs right through the property, too. Just the kind of river we'll need to water the cattle we'll buy come next year, good Lord willing. Most of the land's more than fit for ranching, with just a few sections that aren't. Nothing too troubling even in those spots though. Just a couple of gorges that we'll have to keep the cattle away from, but nothing we can't handle, I conjure. There's a good spot right central to the property, where we can build a house as will fit our family, with plenty of room to add on as the children are born. Met a man named Jackson who owns the adjoining lands, and he said he was headed to the settlement and would post this letter for me.
Don't be angry with me, darling, but I'm going to stay here a couple more days before I head home. I want to get a real feel for the place before I bring you here. It's a far piece from any settlement, but I'm thinking it will be all right. After all, before long, we'll have a passel of little Reynolds babies running around and make our own settlement! Can barely wait for you to see the place, my beautiful bride. Expect me home about the middle of next week, and then we'll head back out here together.
Love you, my darling,
Malcolm closed his eyes, feeling the excitement of the man leaching from the paper into his own soul, the love of the land that Walter had found for his bride, the place that he had so carefully chosen to raise his family. Hands trembling slightly, Malcolm unfolded another piece of paper and read several more letters before coming to the first one that mentioned him.
My dearest Hannah,
Though I think I'm more exhausted than I've ever been, I can't seem to sleep for thinking about the future. When I look at you lying there with our son curled up beside you, suckling at your breasts whilst you sleep, I'm filled with something more than I can name. Something so bright, and so beautiful…well, like I've told you a million or more times, I'm not the most eloquent of men. But whatever it is, it's the most peaceful sort of feeling to have you with me, and to have little Malcolm with us. I read somewhere once that the best gift a man can give his children is to love their mother. If that's a fact, I'm going to be the best father around, as I love you so much that the thought of it takes my breath away. And our little boy, the first of many if I have any say in it, is bound to live a charmed life, being as he was conceived in a love strong as yours and mine. In case it is that I don't tell you enough, my darling, I'm saying now and for all time, that I will love you for as long as I draw breath, and even longer if I can manage it somehow.
With all my heart your husband,
Malcolm squeezed his eyes closed, trying to deny the tears that prickled behind his eyelids. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, he read on through the night, until the dawn rose over Shadow and he came to the last of the letters. With great care, he gently folded them and stacked them as he had found them. His hands trembled a little as he tied the blue ribbon around the stack and gingerly placed the letters back into Hannah's drawer, never to see them again.
Mal shook himself slightly, taken back to that long-ago afternoon when he had come to realize the depth of love a man and a woman could share. Clearing his throat, he pulled open the door of the little store and asked about the price of the paper. Minutes later and much lighter in the coin bag, he slipped the paper into his jacket pocket and headed back to Serenity.
Later that night, after everyone else was asleep and the ship was quiet but for the comforting hum of the engine, Mal spread out the thick, creamy paper onto the galley table. Carefully inking the antique pen he'd purchased in the same shop, he paused for a moment, considering his words. Then, with painstaking penmanship he'd almost forgotten, he began to write.
My dearest River,
Author's Note: This one was just rattling around in my head until I had to write it down to make it stop. Hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!