A/N: This is my very first completed Mal/River fic. Please review!

/

When Mal realizes he's in love with River, he realizes he's got trouble.

He can pinpoint the moment it happened, not that it helps his predicament any. On Mr. Universe's world, after stepping out of the elevator, he only had one good eye to see out of. It was still enough to make him realize he was one person short of a full crew. He took stock of everyone present. Zoë was broken and bleeding on the floor, but she was breathing, she was talking, and she still called him 'sir' when he spoke to her. This was enough to assure him she had come through this war with him, just like she had come through the last one. Kaylee lay half-dead, her head on Simon's chest and he looked no better than her. But they were both breathing, looking at him expectantly. Jayne was bruised and bloody, but he looked like he would live to annoy the living hell out of everyone another day. Inara- Well, she was Inara. Perfect, just one tiny scratch. In that moment, his body learned to reject her. Who in their right fucking mind brings a bow and arrow to a gunfight with Reavers? Though, Mal supposed it was better than nothing at all. She had tried her best, and he found her lacking as far as someone he could be with, but as a crew member, she was invaluable. They were all alive. They were all hurtin' like hell, with the exception of Inara, but they were alive. It comforted him.

River was missing. He looked to them for answers, and they looked at the door that was shut. Everything in his mind screamed. Not River, it couldn't be River. They came all this way to save her, only to have her killed- Killed, raped, eaten, and Mal could only hope for that order. He could only hope River's last moments hadn't been of those hideous beasts taking her in such an unnatural way. She was lost to him now, and his knees almost buckled with the thought of it.

They almost buckled, except for one persistent thought.

She could still be alive.

He tried to push the thought, the hope of her remaining, away. If River were still alive, she wouldn't be the girl he knew, that Simon and Kaylee and the rest of them all loved. She would be something else entirely, unrecognizable by them. Still, the thought persisted.

She could still be alive. She could be okay.

After all, River had taken down an entire bar full of men by herself. She had killed three men, each with only one shot with her eyes closed. If anyone could survive a room full of Reavers, it would be River. It was a fool's hope, an impossible chance. The kind of hope of he hadn't felt since that valley all those years ago; this was the same kind of impossible chance. He couldn't let himself believe it….

The door opened.

And there she stood.

Brilliant and beautiful and dripping with Reaver blood and her own, clutching two Reaver weapons, staring directly at him. She didn't look for her brother or for Kaylee or anyone. Her eyes locked on his, and she didn't look away.

Neither did Mal. Once he saw her, saw that beautiful goddess of death and dance in front of him, he never could stop seeing her.

Mal denied his feelings, never breathed a word of them, even when he went to her as fast as he could, checking her for wounds, he said nothing. When Mal washed her clean, the water washing off the blood and dirt and revealing bruises and small cuts, and bandaged what few scratches she had and the large gouge in her arm, he tried to ignore the way her ruined dress clung to the curves of her body, the way her hardened nipples stood out against the fabric. Mal went into denial, deep into it. He had risked his entire crew for this woman, staked everything on the belief that she was a real person, actual and whole, and damn near died for her and his belief. Of course he cared for her. Of course he loved her. But not like that.

That had lasted three months. It took that long to get Serenity back in the air. Mal had tried to convince himself he loved her the way he loved Kaylee, but when River sat in the seat next to him as he took Serenity out of the world, he couldn't deny it anymore.

Mal is in big trouble, and he knows it.

Bad enough that Book's voice haunts him each time he looks at River. "If you go after her, Malcolm, the Special Hell will be too good for you," it said to him sternly. "I never told you about the Special Special Hell. It's a doubly Special Hell, reserved only for bad tippers and bad men like you." And Mal grunts in acknowledgement, causing the crew to look at him strangely during mealtimes.

He manages to pass another three months without much incident. After all, he has mouths to feed, River's included, and thoughts of her don't help him focus on finding and completing jobs. River comes with Mal and Jayne and Zoe on jobs now, the ones that don't require a quick getaway, and she's a huge help now that her mind is clear. Each job they complete brings them closer together, and Book's voice haunts Mal more frequently.

It isn't just Book's voice that has Mal keeping his distance. It's Simon. More specifically, Simon's fist. Mal hates to admit it, but the doctor's got a fairly decent punch. He doesn't want to be on the receiving end of it again.

But, damn it all, River's lovely. How could any man be expected not to notice that? Since Miranda, she smiles all the time, laughs at Simon more freely, and tells jokes. She always moves like she's dancing. It's the damndest thing, but sometimes, Mal swears it looks like she's waiting for a partner. He never comments on it; he keeps his mouth shut, because he wants to be her partner more than anything in the 'Verse. It's in those moments, his own words come back to haunt him along with Book.

Mal makes sure to keep himself busy, to keep looking for work. When someone looks as hard as Mal does, jobs are almost easy to find. He finds one on Whitefall. Zoë narrows her eyes, he ignores her, and River flies them there. Zoë's showing now, and with thoughts of a little Wash (River has told her it will be a boy) coming soon, she doesn't have as much energy to argue with the captain as she used to.

Surprisingly, the job goes well. Even Jayne comments on how smoothly it ran. Inara doesn't even grumble at the fact that there's no one suitable on this planet for her work. She's just pleased no one was hurt this time. Mal knows she wonders why he never responded to her advances, but she never asks and he never answers. They both let it rest and smile at one another during meals. They're friends, nothing more, and he's happy with the arrangement.

The crew stays on Whitefall that night to celebrate a job done well, and soon, the entire community is celebrating with them. There's whiskey aplenty, and Mal takes one shot, but leaves it there. The last time he celebrated too hard after a successful job, he ended up with a wife and he has no want to repeat that. Zoë, of course, doesn't drink at all, but winds up near the small children who put their small hands on her belly and ask her questions, which she answers patiently. When Mal catches her gaze, she smiles. It's almost as bright as when Wash was here, and Mal takes comfort in that. Kaylee is settled in the doc's lap, and they're both drunk, laughing together and kissing. Jayne's probably behind a house somewhere, screwing. Inara is politely conversing with a few women. Everything is normal again, and he's glad.

He's about to look for River when she appears in front of him.

"Was just about to look for you," he says.

She grins, and he can tell from the look in her eyes that she's been drinking a little, maybe more than she should have.

"I know," she replies, and while she may be buzzed, her voice is as smooth and sweet as ever. She points to her head. "I heard you."

Mal frowns, starts to speak, but she stops him.

"Dance with me?" River asks, holding out her hands.

The music slows, people pair off, and Mal hesitates. Book's voice is back in his head, so is the memory of Simon's fist, and then the memory of River's wet dress. He swallows uncomfortably. How much does River hear?

"Not a lot," she says, then blushes, then laughs. "I only hear what you think the loudest, what you aren't trying to keep secret. And I always try hard not to hear. Please dance with me."

She looks so beautiful in the firelight, her pink dress falling on her curves in just the right way. She smiles, and it's breathtaking and he can't refuse. He wants this just as much as she does, maybe more. Mal tells Book to shut the hell up, that dancing with River is worth chancing the Special Hell, and the doubly Special Hell. He rises to his feet and lets River lead him out onto the patch of earth that functions as the dance floor.

He takes the lead from there, even though he knows River's more than capable of doing it. He likes that she lets him lead. Simon isn't looking their way; he's too busy with Kaylee's neckline. Mal allows himself to hold River close, his hand settled in the small of her back, their fingers intertwined as they make their way through the grass in circles. Her face is glowing, and she looks so happy, he can barely stand not to kiss that smiling mouth of hers. He tries for conversation instead of kisses.

"You been drinking, little one?" he asks, his voice light and teasing.

She grins back. "Yes. People keep refilling my glass. I feel like there are happy bees in my head, all humming and pleasant."

He laughs outright, smiling down at her. "You be careful how much more you drink tonight, alright?"

"Don't be that way, Captain," she says. "It's only one night. I'll be fine in the morning, I promise."

"I'm sure you will be. You're always more than fine, River."

He almost winces, but her eyes twinkle with delight, and he finds himself smiling again. Her body is warm, mere inches away from his, and his hand fits against the curve of her back perfectly, like it was made to sit there. He pushes those thoughts away as the song ends. Mal squeezes her hand, drops a kiss on her forehead.

"Thanks for the dance, darling," he tells her. "I'll see you in the morning, first thing."

He thinks she looks a little disappointed, but she nods, gives a little smile and moves away, looking like she's still dancing.

"The Special Special Hell," Book says in his head. Mal grunts in acknowledgement, but still doesn't tear his eyes away from River as she walks toward a young man and asks him to dance. The two of them flow together, but something looks off, like she's with the wrong person. When he wonders how the two of them looked together, he hears Book clear his throat, and pushes the thought away. He settles down on the ground, takes another shot of whiskey, and stares up at the stars, admiring their brightness, trying to forget the brightest one of all.

The next morning, River's not dancing anymore. She walks flatly, and her hair hides her face. Mal tries to brush it off as a hangover, but something tells him it isn't. River takes them out of the world without a word, avoiding contact with everyone. Simon and Kaylee don't notice. Kaylee's busy with the engine, and Simon's doing inventory. Inara is in her shuttle, looking at potential clients. Jayne cleans his guns, which is the only thing he can do with the headache he has. Mal talks to Zoë for awhile about the job they have on Persephone, and then lets her head off to her bunk to keep working on the little nursery she's creating there. He visits Kaylee in the engine room, and she has a cheery smile for him when she assures him their girl is running just fine. He goes to the cockpit, to check on River, and she tells him she's about to switch to autopilot, that the course is set for Persephone. She doesn't invite further conversation like she usually does, and he leaves, a feeling of unease in his gut.

After dinner, River requests a mild smoother from Simon, tells him she has a headache and wants to sleep it off. He's surprised, but agrees and gives it to her. No one thinks too hard on it, except Mal. It stirs something in him. This isn't normal; this isn't right. River hates smoothers. Even before Miranda, she tried her best not to let Simon give them to her. After, she outright refused them. Her nightmares were few and far between now, and she never woke up screaming anymore. She just got up from her bed and went to the kitchen for tea, often meeting Mal there. It doesn't make sense that she'd ask for one.

Mal finds himself unable to sleep that night. He tosses and turns, until finally he gives up and goes to the cockpit to look at the stars for awhile, hoping that will soothe him. As he looks out into the black, he worries about River, about the smoother, about the way she acted all day. Something doesn't sit right with him, and he can't shake the feeling that he missed something. Eventually, when the stars don't calm him, he walks to the kitchen to find his bottle of whiskey, knowing that if he drinks enough of it, he'll sleep.

He finds River there, seated at the table, with a cup of tea in front of her. She doesn't move, doesn't acknowledge his presence until his sits next to her and takes the cup, which is full of tea that has gotten cold. Mal doesn't speak; he waits, anxious, wondering what could be wrong. When River looks at him her eyes are full of tears.

"You remember what I was like. Before," she says, but it's almost a question.

Mal nods. "I do, Albatross."

"Once, I felt Wash and Zoe's passion," River confides in him, her eyes begging him not to judge or tell. "It was like a wave breaking on the sea, warm and wild and wonderful. It felt amazing. I didn't do it on purpose; I couldn't help it back then," she says earnestly.

"I know you couldn't, River. It's alright." He nods at her, encouraging her to go on.

"I was curious about that feeling. Very curious, but there's no one here. Even if Jayne did look at me like that…It's Jayne. The man-ape thing gone wrong. Simon wouldn't like it."

Mal smiles at her joke, knows she's right, but he's hurt that she's never thought of him that way.

"And there's you," continues River. "But, you're experienced, and I'm your pilot who just got sane. So, there's very little chance of that. Of course, there's Inara, but…Well." She pauses, searching for words. "That just wouldn't work."

"Probably not," says Mal, trying to ignore the way she said 'experienced' as though she were ashamed of her virginity. It hurts him more than the idea that she had never thought of him as anything more than her captain. He wants to explain to her that there's nothing wrong with not having experience, but something tells him she isn't finished yet, so he holds his tongue.

"I drank a lot last night. Too much, maybe. One drink made me smile, another made me warm, and a third one made me brave enough to ask you to dance with me." A tear slips down her cheek. "It was the nicest dance I've ever had. Thank you."

Her tear startles him.

"You're welcome, River," says Mal, gently. He still aches to say more, but he keeps his silence and lets her go on.

"After we danced, I started thinking about that wave again. I asked a boy to dance, and I had a few more drinks. And then another. After the next one, I let him kiss me, and I thought maybe I could feel that wave. He kissed me again, and when I didn't stop him, he led me away from the crowd. We walked past Jayne and…someone." River grimaces, and so does Mal. "And then, we were completely alone, behind a barn. He pulled me down next to him, and he kissed me again." River takes a deep breath, the tears flowing freely now, and she looks down, avoiding Mal's eyes. "It felt nice, for awhile, what we were doing, but the more we did it, the less it felt like that wave. It felt like an angry tide, pulling me under, and I couldn't stop, I could barely breathe. It was like drowning. I wanted to stop, and I tried to say it, but he kissed me again, and I couldn't speak." She was crying harder now, and Mal could see her fighting to control her voice, her hair hiding her face from him. He struggled to control himself. Mal knew already what had happened and he thought it might kill him to hear the rest, but he couldn't stop her now. "It hurt, and I seemed to be so far away from him, like I wasn't even there. I didn't even exist. I'm not crazy anymore," she tells him desperately, looking at him again with big eyes. "So, I don't understand it."

Her eyes are filled with fear, embarrassment, and worst of all, hurt. Mal ignores the anger inside of him and concentrates on River.

"You felt like you didn't exist?" he asks gently.

"Yes," she replies.

Mal pauses, tries to prepare himself to ask the next question. He doesn't want to know the answer. He doesn't want to know that River lost her virginity in a drunken incident where she was scared and wanted to stop. He doesn't want to know that she was, in a way, raped. He can't handle the idea that she was taken advantage of, that she was hurt and he wasn't there to stop it. But, he has to handle it, he does know, and he has to ask his next question.

"Did he talk to you?" Mal asks, and River looks at him, confused. This answers his question more than words could. "Did he look at you? Did he…Did he go slow for you?" River shakes her head and lets out a small sob.

"I don't understand," she says again, and Mal's heart twists when he hears the agony in her words. "It was the same thing that made Zoe's little Wash, the same thing that made that wave for her. Why did it make me feel this way?"

Mal sighs. He doesn't know how to answer this. He wants to kill the little hundan back on Whitefall who did this, but he can't. So, he tries to answer her question the best he can.

"Physically, the act was the same," he says, and he feels like he's lying, at least a little. But, in the most technical sense, he knows he isn't, and he pushes on. "But, the difference is Wash loved Zoe, and she loved him. Dong ma?"

River shakes her head. Mal tries again.

"When you…When you feel the way those two felt about each other, or the way Simon and Kaylee feel now, it makes that…different. It isn't just about…" He sighs. "I'm going to be very crude now. Don't tell your brother." She nods. "It isn't just about getting your own nuts off. It's about that person, about being with that person. It's the closest you can get to someone else, and when you love someone…" Mal chokes on the word, has to look away when he says it. "When you love someone, it's good. It doesn't feel like a riptide. It feels like that wave you felt before. Now do you understand?"

River gives a small nod. "In one way, yes. I understand, but, I don't…"

"I know," he answers. "And you won't. Not until you're with someone who loves you and you love just as much."

River bites her lip, stifling another small sob. Mal's composure threatens to break. He wants nothing more than to pull her into his lap and kiss her, to carry her back to his bunk and show her what lovemaking really is, to make her forget what the stupid kid did to her.

"Mal," she says, softly. "What about Nandi?"

Shit, he thinks.

"That was…companionship. It was good too, but in another way."

"I don't…."

"I know you don't," Mal says, putting his large hand on her small one. "That's alright, though. There's no need to understand everything all at once."

That, more than anything, seems to make sense to her, and she nods again. She's still crying, though, and it's killing him to sit so far away from her when she's hurting. Book's voice isn't in his head, and that makes it easier to do what he wants.

Mal squeezes River's hand, and when she looks at him, he gives a small pull.

"Come here, darlin'," he says, and she doesn't have to be told twice.

He wraps his arms around her, and she settles on his lap, hiding her face in his neck. Her tears are warm against his skin. Mal runs his fingers through her long hair and whispers softly against her cheek.

"It's gonna be alright, little one. It won't always be like that, I promise."

He barely registers what he just said, only knows he means it with everything in him. He wants to make this better, make it right, but he can't. He can't undo what's been done.

"But you would," River whispers back. "It's enough."

Mal holds her until she falls asleep and then carries her to the passenger dorms. Technically, she has her own bunk, but he'd never get her down the ladder like this, and he can't bear to wake her now that she's peaceful. He lays her gently on the bed, and she stirs.

"Stay," she says softly.

Book's voice is still silent.

Mal slides into bed next to her.

River curls up next to him, pillows her head on his chest, and falls back to sleep almost instantly. Mal lays in the dark in wonder. So many nights, he's dreamed of this, of having River in his arms. He's up for another hour, stroking her cheek with his knuckles.

"I love you," he whispers, just before he falls asleep, and a tear leaks out of his own eye and lands on River's forehead.

The next day, River still isn't dancing, but she walks more lightly than she did the day before. When Mal woke up, he was alone in the passenger dorm. River smiled at him over breakfast, and Book's voice never did appear to chastise him for the night before. Mal takes both of these as good signs.

In the afternoon, he finds River in the cockpit, one leg drawn up to her chest. At first, he tries to ignore the smooth expanse of pale thigh he sees, but then he notices a dark purple bruise. He curses under his breath and kneels before her, touching it lightly.

The look in her eyes is all the explanation he needs.

"River," he says.

"I didn't know it wasn't supposed to be that way," she says, embarrassed. "His knees were hard and heavy and they hurt, but so did…." River stops. "I didn't know," she finishes.

Mal wants to cry in frustration, but he doesn't. He runs his finger over the bruise again.

"Now, you do," he says to her, placing his palm over the bruise, hiding it from view. "Anybody puts their knees on those thighs again, you hurt them bad, then come find me and I'll finish the job. Dong ma?"

River smiles and he knows that she does. But, the smile fades quickly.

"He's a part of me now," she says, and puts her hand over his. Her voice is sad.

"Not for long," Mal tells her. "The bruises will fade."

"The memory won't."

"Not completely," he says. "But it won't bother you much once you find someone to show you what it's supposed to be like."

They share a look. It's intimate; Mal looks possessive and River looks at him with want. Mal wonders why he hasn't heard the Shepard's voice yet and leans forward the smallest bit. River moves too, and then they both hear footsteps. Mal moves away from her quickly, standing and trying to regain his composure. Zoe peeks her head in.

"Simon's lookin' for you, River," she says, and Mal thanks his lucky stars that it's Zoe standing there and not Simon himself.

River stands and leaves, pausing momentarily to touch Zoe's stomach and look inquiringly at Mal. When she's gone, Zoe raises her eyebrow.

"Yes?" he asks.

"You might want to do something about that, Sir," she says, motioning to his pants, and then leaves.

Mal looks down and sighs. He leaves the cockpit and heads straight to his bunk.

Four days pass, and the job on Persephone is complete. It goes off almost without a hitch. The "almost" part being when Mal got shot. His left arm hurts somethin' fierce, but Simon stitches it up easily and Mal is out of the sick bay within an hour. That night, he can't sleep for the pain, so he goes to the kitchen for lack of something better to do. He finds River there.

"Hey, little one," he says.

She smiles at him, and stands. "I'll make you some tea."

"No, that's alright. Sit down. I think I was looking for company, not something to drink." He smiles warmly at her, and she sits back down. He sits next to her, and winces as he readjusts.

"Do you hurt badly?" she asks him.

"Not too badly. It was just a graze. He wasn't a very good shot."

River giggles. "That's a good thing."

"Yes, it is. For me, at least." He looks at her seriously. "And you?"

She nods at him. "I'm better. I'm not hurting too badly now either," she says, but there's something in her eyes that makes him doubt her.

"What are you doing up and about so late?" he asks.

River drops her head. "I had a nightmare," she admits. "About…him. And I didn't want to be alone in my bunk anymore. I heard you waking up and decided to wait here for you."

Mal wonders how to respond to this. "Lucky for me," he says at last. "But I'm sorry you're hurtin'."

"It's not forever," she says, and he wonders if she's reassuring him or herself. "It'll fade."

"It will," he says.

They go quiet, and Mal thinks he should go back to his room. River's in a short dress and the way she's sitting, he can see that those dark bruises are stubbornly clinging to River's skin. That hurts him, but what hurts him more is knowing there's nothing he can do to speed up that process. If he can't make the bruises fade, he wants to make that memory fade, or at least overwrite it with a better one. He hates that River's only memory of lovemaking is a bad one.

River says nothing; she just looks at him with her big brown eyes. His blue eyes soften at the sight, and he reaches out to her, touching her cheek. She leans into his hand, never taking her eyes off his, and kisses his palm.

Book's voice is back in his head. "Looks like you found something to believe in," he says to Mal, and there's no condemnation in his voice.

Mal swallows and run his thumb over River's lips. He rises to his feet, takes her hands in his and stares at her, wondering what he should do. She looks back at him, stands and slides his arm around her waist, putting his hand at the small of her back, interlaces the fingers of the other with hers. Mal breathes heavily, pulls her closer to him, tilts his head and breathes in the smell of her hair. When he feels her arm wrap around his shoulders and pull him closer, he makes his decision.

He pulls away and stares into her beautiful, trusting face. Shyly, she smiles a small, hopeful smile at him.

"Come with me," he says quietly, and she nods her consent.

In the privacy of his bunk, he locks his room, and then takes her hand. He's trying to control himself, but his body keeps trying to shake. She waits patiently, sensing he has something to say. He does, but he doesn't know if he wants to say it, if he should say it. River runs her thumb over one of his knuckles. Mal takes a deep breath.

"I love you, River," he says, his voice so steady it surprises him. "I've loved you for half a year, and I want to go on loving you. I want to love you in every way I can." Mal pauses, looks in her eyes, and she looks happy, a slight smile at her lips and that gives him the strength to continue. "You tell me to stop, and I'll stop. It ain't gonna be nothing like…what that hundan did to you," growls Mal. "It may not be that wave you were lookin' for, 'cause it's me and not someone you love the way Zoe loved Wash. But, it'll be the closest thing, the best I can give you, I promise."

River's eyes look sad, and Mal tries to disguise his hurt.

She's disappointed she's not getting' her wave, he thinks to himself, and his pain is so sharp, River takes a breath.

"No!" she exclaims. "No, it's not that. It's just that…I'm sad that you don't know I'm getting the entire sea."

He doesn't breathe for a moment as he takes in what she's just said. Then, he leans down and kisses her.

Mal leads her to the bed, lays down and she follows him. He turns her on her side so that she can face him, and she looks at him, curious. He touches her cheek again, then tucks a piece of hair behind her ear.

He whispers, "This is going to take a long time. I want to make this good for you. I want you to only remember me."

He doesn't wait for her to reply. He leans forward, puts a hand on her hip, and touches his mouth to hers.

River responds eagerly, but Mal slows her pace. Her hand tangles in her hair, the other flat against his chest. Mal moves his lips against hers slowly, lingering as he ends each kiss and begins another. Nibbling on her bottom lip, he enjoys the sound and feel of her gasp. He lets go to kiss the swollen flesh, and then claims her entire mouth as his. He presses his tongue against her lips, and she pushes her tongue forward to meet with his. She retreats quickly, as though shy, but he's insistent and she presses her tongue against his once more, and when his curls around hers, she lets out a moan.

He pulls her flush against him and kisses her cheek.

"Do you feel that?" he asks her, moving his hips into hers so she's sure to feel his erection. "It's all for you, bao bei. You're the one makin' me hard as a rock."

She pulls away to look at him, searching his eyes for any hint of a trick and doesn't find it. Mal touches her face again and smiles gently at her. He can feel she wants to ask a question, so he waits.

"How?" she asks. "I don't know how to…I mean…"

He keeps smiling, his thumb stroking her cheek. "I love you," he tells her. "I want you. Only you," he clarifies.

"Oh," she says, as though suddenly she understands the most important thing in the 'Verse.

Mal's smile widens. "Yes," he says, and steals her next breath.

River moves against him as their mouths move together, but Mal puts a hand on her hip, forces her stop.

"Told you we were gonna take this slow," he tells her, sliding his lips to her ear, and then the spot just below. "And I meant it."

River whimpers as his breath skates across her skin. He kisses and licks his way down to curve of her neck, biting the tender spot gently, and River lets out a moan. His hand slides from her hip to her breast, and as he squeezes gently, River moans again.

"Mal," she says, breathlessly. "Please…"

He pushes her gently, lays her on her back and slips above her, resting between her legs, her dress hiked up above her hips. His mouth continues its torment of her skin, running slowly over her throat, lingering over her breast bone. He kisses her breasts, and even through the fabric of her dress, she feels the heat rush to her center. River moans, her fingers tangled in his hair. Mal sits up on his knees, and she seats herself as well as Mal rids her of her short dress. She reaches for the buttons on his shirt. Her hands shake with nervousness, but he merely rubs her arms patiently, smiling at her. At last, all the buttons are undone, and she slides his suspenders off his shoulders with his shirt. Next, she struggles with his pants, and he helps her this time, puts his steady hands on her shaking ones, and guides her. Seconds later, he's before her, naked, and she stares at his dick.

He lays back down on his side, pulls her back against him, his hardness rubbing against the cotton of her panties. River whimpers, and he moves so he can look at her.

"You alright, darlin'?"

"I've never…I've never seen…I mean, in textbooks, but…"

"Do you want to look?" he asks, gently.

"Yes," she admits, and the word is nervous, shy, and embarrassed.

Mal kisses her gently and shifts back. "Go ahead," he says.

And she does. Just looks at first, her head tucked under his chin, one arm wrapped around her. She reaches out to touch, but jerks her hand back after a moment, suddenly frightened, and Mal takes her hand in his and touches it to his hardness. He lets go, but River doesn't; she runs her fingers over it, and then wraps her hand around the girth, and squeezes. Mal groans in pleasure, and River learns quickly, adjusting her fingers and working his dick like she's been doing this for years and not minutes. Finally, Mal stops her.

"Enough," he tells her, gently.

He kisses her hand, and then carefully pulls her panties off her. River looks at him expectantly. Mal squeezes her breast fondly and then trails his hand across her belly and over her soft curls. When he slides a finger into her wetness, River gasps. He works slowly, enjoying the sound of her moans as he explores her pussy with his hand, rubbing two fingers in easy circles over her clit for a long time, before sliding one inside of her. She moans louder now, her hips moving of their own accord, and Mal is staring at her face, that beautiful face he loves so much, and he can't bear to tease her any longer. Another minute, and River's coming on his hand, her lips parted as she lets out a gasping "oh, oh, ooooh", her pussy clenching the finger he has inside her. Her forehead is covered with sweat when he leans forward to drop a kiss to it, and when he removes his fingers from her, River scoots as close to him as she can get. Mal raises his fingers to his lips, and River reclines her to watch as Mal sucks her wetness from them.

She looks at him anxiously, curiously.

"You taste good, bao bei," he says.

He drops his mouth to hers again, enjoying the kiss, but he breaks it soon enough and trails his mouth down to her breast. He catches a nipple between his teeth and sucks on it, making River cry out in pleasure, her hips buck against his. His dick slips between her folds, and both moan.

"Mal, please," she whispers. "Please."

She doesn't know what words to say, how to tell him exactly what she's pleading for, but Mal knows anyway. He rolls her onto her back, supports his weight on arm and looks down at her.

"You tell me if you want me to stop."

"I will," she readily agrees.

"I'm going to try my best not to hurt you," he tells her. "I'm going to go nice and slow."

She lifts her hand to touch his face, traces the curve of his eyebrow. "I love you, Mal," she says to him, and Mal presses his cheek against hers. It takes him a moment to steady himself.

"I love you," he says, looking into those eyes he loves so much. "Ain't nothin' ever gonna change that."

She raises her hips, causing their sexes to brush together. "Please Mal," she whimpers.

"Alright, bao bei."

Mal takes himself in his hand and slips inside her. He repositions, just the head of his dick in, supporting himself with both arms now, looking down at her. She nods, and he moves his hips forward, just a little. River bites her lip, and he stills until she lets it go. At last, he's full inside her, and he takes a moment to let her adjust to his size and to enjoy the feel of her tight, wet heat clutching him.

"Move," says River, and she doesn't have to say it twice.

Mal takes her with long, slow strokes, making each one count. River quickly begins to meet each thrust, and soon, Mal is struggling to maintain his control. They move faster and faster, Mal trying his hard to control his strength so as not to hurt her. He drops closer to her, sliding his arms under her shoulder blades, palming her shoulders in his hands.

"You feel so fucking good," he tells her. "So good."

"You too," she says, breathless as he pounds into her.

"Are you gonna come for me, darlin'?" he asks sweetly. "Are you gonna come on my dick?"

River whimpers, asks innocently, "Do you want me to?"

"I need you to, sweetheart," he tells her earnestly. "I need you to. Please come for me, darlin'."

And she does. He barely manages to catch a glimpse, because as her pussy spasms tightly around his dick, he comes too, spilling himself into her as he calls her name. It takes Mal several moments to recover himself. He can feel River's legs trembling. He pushes himself back on his arms and wipes the sweat-soaked hair off her forehead.

"Did I hurt you?" he asks.

She shakes her head. "Not enough to matter. So much pleasure…The pain is forgotten."

Mal smiles. "I'm glad."

They stay like this for a minute or two. Mal kisses her lips chastely, once, twice, and then both cheeks and eyes, finally her nose. He rolls off of her, onto his back, and she scoots closer, leans hers head back to look at him. Her face is flushed with happiness and her eyes are bright, just the way he likes them. Mal smiles again.

"What is it, bao bei?"

She smiles mischievously. "Simon may like you better than the man-ape thing, but he's not going to like this at all."

Mal grins and kisses her nose again. "We'll worry about that later, darlin'."

"You may get hit," River warns him.

He pulls her close to him, presses his cheek against her soft hair. "I may," he agrees. "I don't mind. I can't let you go, not now. He can hit me as many times as he likes until I toss him out the airlock," Mal teases. River giggles. "It'll work itself out. You'll see."

River yawns and snuggles closer into his embrace. "I love you," she says, her eyelashes fluttering against his skin as she closes her eyes.

Mal pulls the blanket over both of them. "Thank God," he whispers back, and in his mind, he sees Book smile.

Mal wakes up alone again and frowns, but gets dressed and heads up to breakfast. The entire crew is assembled around the table, and River is up and about getting a plate for Mal. She's dancing again, and Mal notices something different about her usual steps. He sits down at the table, wishes everyone good morning and gets mixed results. Kaylee is sunny as usual, Zoe is cordial, Jayne grunts. Inara wishes him a good morning and takes a sip of tea. Simon nods.

River appears next to him, puts his plate down and then kisses him. Mal is shocked at her boldness, but doesn't mind one bit. He kisses back and pulls away to smile at her. She takes the seat next to him and smiles when Simon stares.

"He doesn't care if you punch him," says River, happily. "He's not gonna let me go."

Mal grins, takes her hand. "Well, that's mostly true. I'd prefer you didn't punch me," he says, turning his head to address Simon. "But she's right. I ain't ever lettin' her go."

Inara doesn't look happy, but she doesn't look hateful either. Zoe doesn't look surprised. Kaylee is grinnin' from ear to ear. Jayne grunts- Mal is pretty sure he isn't awake yet. Simon sighs.

"I can't hit you," says Simon. "You'll throw me out the airlock, and then who will deliver Zoe's baby?"

"I'd take it as a kindness, Sir," says Zoe, "if you didn't throw my doctor out the airlock."

"I had no plans to." Mal looks adoringly at River for a moment and then back to Simon. "That all we got to say on the matter?"

"That's all," Simon responds. "Even if I could change your mind, I could never change hers, and from the look on her face, I wouldn't want to anyway." He pauses thoughtfully, looks at Mal very seriously. "Don't ever hurt her."

"I won't," Mal says. "And I'll kill anyone who does." In his mind, he starts to think of ways to return to Whitefall.

Simon nods. He seems satisfied. River grins at Mal, leans over to kiss his cheek, and then hops up to give her brother a hug.

Mal suddenly realizes what the difference in River's dance is.

She dances like somebody with a partner.

Mal smiles.