Title: Truth or Dare
Author: Ana Sedai
Rating: PG
Character(s): Mal, River
Prompt: 074 - Truth
Word Count: 637

Author's Note: Okay, this is an attempt to jump start a project that I semi-abandoned several years ago. The challenge was to take a table with 100 one-word prompts and write a 1000-word story about each one. I'm trying it with a Mal/River pairing, and they'll all be connected and in fairly chronological order. I'm making no promises that I can't keep about finishing, but I have a quarter of the stories finished already and a good idea of where I'm going with this, so I think I have a shot. Feedback will be very much appreciated.

The story starts several months after the events of Serenity. Enjoy.

"Truth or dare?"

"Wha-?!" Mal jumped a bit in the pilot's seat where he'd been dozing. He spun around to face River, leaning against the back of the co-pilot's chair that had become her domain these past few months. She was looking at him, her face intent. "Almost gave me a heart attack there, Albatross. Shouldn't be sneaking up on a man like that." He shook his head a bit to clear it. "What were you askin'?"

"Truth or dare? Actions speak louder than words, but words harder to speak. Hearts speak truth. Heads too confusing, too many variables for one paradigm. Why doesn't everyone speak from their heart?" She sounded a little lost when she asked that last question.

Mal sighed and leaned back. He wondered when everything she said had begun to make sense to him. "Well, darlin', that there is a mighty big question. Most people are probably afraid they'll look foolish or be disappointed, so they say something different than what they really think."

River shook her head. "Don't mean other people. People don't speak to themselves. Run around and around but they don't listen. Refuse to speak the truth, refuse to hear it, even when they know it."

Mal thought the conversation was getting just a mite too close to home for his liking. His thoughts hadn't exactly been tranquil of late, and even less so when she was around. That knowledge, of course, brought its own set of problems, ones he wasn't prepared to deal with right now, if ever. He wondered if a distraction might help her focus shift. "You want to fly for awhile, little one? Let a tired old man get some sleep?"

"Not old. Untruth. Want me to be quiet. Don't like knowing your confusion." She looked smug and sad all at the same time.

He flushed. Damn, guess not. "Aw, honey, I'm sorry. You're right. People don't like hearing the truth, 'specially about themselves. They…" He squinted at River a bit suspiciously. He really didn't like the idea of her wandering in his brain, picking out thoughts like cherries off a tree. "Now, girl, don't be crawling in my head so much. It's not polite. Dong ma?"

River nodded, then leaned over and brushed his hair off his face. Her hand felt cool against his skin. He jerked his head and blinked, startled. "What're you doing, girl?"

She gave him that intent look of hers again, like she was looking for something. She kept her hand on his head. "Wanted to see if touching could help the head hear truth."

He didn't know what to say to that. He felt off-kilter, like the floor had tilted and left him trying to find his balance. He thought he should be annoyed (I just told her to stay outta my head!), but he wasn't. Her fingers rested on his forehead for a few more seconds, then she lifted her hand and backed away. She gave him a sad smile. "Touching didn't help, just made more variables." She bit her lip. "Didn't mean to crawl around. Just trying to help."

Mal swallowed. His throat felt tight. "Darlin', I know you want to help, but believe me when I say there ain't nothing you can do to help folks sort things out. Especially me." Especially about her. He decided it was time for one of them to leave. Standing up, he tried to sound casual. "I'm gonna go grab some shut-eye. You can fly if you want, or I can just turn on the autopilot."

"I'll stay," she said, looking away from him and out the window. He nodded and headed for the door. He pretended not to hear her when she said, very softly, "Head lies, but heart speaks truth."

He could still feel her fingers in his hair.