TITLE: Masquerade

DISCLAIMER: Not mine

A/N: The end of this little story, folks! Your responses have been beyond phenomenal, making me feel so happy and proud, and I'm so grateful that you have all enjoyed this tale :) Just FYI SMUT


He knew she was off ship. The night had become cold enough to bite and she'd been slipping away around the same time each evening. It was past midnight and the finest of mists was scenting the air with water, crisp and biting but beautiful in its frozen stillness.

He was leaning against the side of the ship, willing his feet to move. He wasn't going to admit he was scared, nervous, worried. It had been two months since that night at Langston Estate, two months since she'd given him everything and nothing all at once. Two months since he'd taken the heart he hadn't realised she was offering and crushed it between his fingers.

He hadn't been to a cathouse since, hadn't been able to stomach the thought of touching another's skin, of hearing another's moans. He didn't need to be told twice, the women of Serenity had set him straight, he knew the truth; he was in love with River Tam. She was like air, water, fire, howling through him, drenching him, heating his blood to boiling point. Every time she'd left a room he'd been desperate to follow, every movement she made had him transfixed, and he wanted nothing more than to own her, be owned by her, possess and be possessed.

And yet he was standing still.

He wished he could pinpoint the problem. There were so many. She was too young for an old hun dan like him, too beautiful and cultured for a Rim boy turned mercenary. She was damaged, that much was certain, although Miranda had been a catalyst for change within her, allowing her to purge the Alliance control and become her own person. Then there was the issue of him making her first time a rough quickie with no completion in the rain followed immediately by a fight, harsh words stinging her skin. There were so many reasons that she shouldn't even glance in his direction, shouldn't even acknowledge his existence, and he should be grateful just to walk the same metal hallways as she did.

But right before she sneezed she wrinkled her nose.

It was weird to notice something so small and focus on it, but focus he did. Every time River Tam sneezed her nose would wrinkle the tiniest bit. It was such an unimportant detail but it was scarred on his mind. She sneezed after putting too much pepper on her meals, though it never stopped her liberal doses, and it was worse when she put on so much chilly her eyes watered. When her exercises in the cargo bay kicked up dust that little nose would wrinkle right before the tiny achoo. Immediately afterwards she would flick her eyes around shyly, as if embarrassed by the noise.

He was learning.

Who the hell was he? Where was the hard ass, stone cold killer he'd been for the past 32 years? Why should he notice something so small? This was everything he'd avoided since Marcy Greene, every stupid idea he'd prided himself on ignoring. Whores were easy to understand, violence was the best medicine, the 'verse was no place for mercenary's who fell in love.

Inara was right – after everything that girl had been through she deserved something dazzling, someone perfect. She might be hurt now, but she would heal, and whoever held her next would know he held the 'verse in his arms. He ignored the way his jealousy heated his skin, ignored the nagging thought that no other man in the 'verse would know her, inside and out, good and bad, as he did. That no man could possibly appreciate the deadly, beautiful, brilliant package that was River Tam.

He couldn't do this.

He sighed, turning back towards the ship.

He jumped at the sight of brown eyes.

Book smiled. "Going somewhere?"

Jayne shook his head. "Not anymore preacher, not anymore."

Book nodded thoughtfully. Jayne wanted to ask him about the girl in his past, wanted to know how Book coped with experiencing that kind of love and losing it, but the words never reached his lips. The preacher leant against the bulkhead and turned his eyes towards the dark forest outside the ship.

His voice was quiet, as if he wasn't really speaking to Jayne, rather just talking to himself. "I saw a brown snake earlier today. Did you know snakes go through a process called ecdysis? In layman's terms it means to slough or molt - basically shedding skin. It doesn't mean they change - underneath they're still the same snake they've always been. But it does mean they let go of something, leaving behind the skin they've outgrown. ean they get rid of the stuff that they've outgrown - dead weight that is restricting, they can't grow with it anymore, so it's gotta go. Sometimes the process can take a while, but it's always worth they are stronger for their shedding."

He flicked his eyes over to Jayne. "Ah well, off to bed for me I think. Goodnight Jayne."

Jayne's response was automatic. "Night preacher."

As Book walked back to his room he heard the sound of footsteps leaving the ship, and he smiled to himself.


The mist was thick enough to obscure his vision slightly, but he kept breathing in the night air, searching for her familiar scent. Finally a wisp of creamy vanilla tickled his nostrils, leading him through the thick woods. Dark trees laced with vines, small brooks babbling over stones, wild and unkempt and free.

He came to a small clearing, studying the area carefully for any sign of her. Over by an ancient oak tree she sat, legs drawn up to her chest. The thick green cargo jacket came partway down her thighs, a heavy hood covering her head, but he'd recognize those heavy boots and chocolate curls anywhere. The boots were sitting beside her, bare feet slipping over the wet grass.

He walked towards her, unsurprised when she didn't move to look up at him, face fixed back into the dark forest. He reached down, wrapping his hands around her forearms, finding no resistance as he pulled her upright. She kept her head down, staring directly at his chest, refusing to look up. He put one hand under her chin, moving it upwards until her eyes met his.

Dark, whisky eyes filled with unshed tears. She knew he saw the tears, he could tell by her angry embarrassment, pink mouth set in a thin line. He held her in place, trying to think of where to start.

"We were honest, no more, no less."

He exhaled. "I hate cabbage."

She stared at him as he ran one hand over her back, pulling her close enough that she was pressed to his chest.

"An' I like whisky better'n bourbon."

He brought up one hand to lightly touch the side of her face.

"An' I ain't real smart, but I can learn when I need ta."

Thumb skimming over her cheek, brushing back towards her hair.

"An' I like it when ya cook wit' Kaylee, cuz the foods always better, an' ya laugh a lot. I like it when ya laugh."

Bending down slowly, skimming his lips over her cheek as her eyes closed, eyelashes fluttering against his rough stubble.

"An' I like it how ya dance when ya think nobody can see ya."

Hands either side of her face now as he kissed her forehead.

"An' sometimes when ya sit there readin' I think 'bout a ring on yer finger, an' my name after yours."

He flexed his fingers in her soft curls, her eyes still locked on his.

"An' when I don't get ta see you smile, I ain't happy. Can't be without it, I reckon."

Nervously running his nose down her own until his lips were lined up with hers. Brown eyes staring out at him from underneath that dark hood as he took a breath.

"An' I ain't great with words, I ain't no genius, an' my Ma says my manners ain't so good either…but I know how ta make me happy. An' since me bein' happy seems ta be kinda tied ta you bein' happy, I reckon I could make ya happy too."

Waited, frozen, bent low so they were face to face, wondering what her judgment would be. Her face was very still in his hands, her eyes wide and unblinking.

He waited.

And waited.

And just when he didn't think he could wait anymore, just when he was ready to throw in the towel and leave her in peace, just when he was ready to call it quits he saw it.

Her perfect pink lips quirked up at one side.

He could feel her breath on his face as she spoke.

"He wants her?"

He nodded. "More'n I ever wanted anythin' in my whole damn life."

The smile she gave him was radiant, like the sun bursting through dark clouds, the dark hood still hiding some of her face in shadow. He tipped it so it fell to her shoulders and took a single step back, releasing her entirely.

Unmasked.

Her face was clear of the thick makeup of the masquerade, her hair falling around her shoulders in loose, unbrushed curls slightly dampened by water. The heavy jacket hid her small frame, thin legs sticking out, feet bare and glistening from the dew left by the mist. No makeup, no heels, no fancy get up and stylish hair. She hadn't been eating right, looked scrawnier than usual, and her skin was pale with its previous grief.

Ma de

He got it. He finally got it.

His voice was hoarse and unsteady. "Yer perfect."

A single tear slipped down her cheek and she gave him a shy, watery smile. He moved back towards her, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist, one hand tangling in chocolate curls as he kissed her. This kiss wasn't bruising, punishing, filled with anger and ugly words. This was tasting the softest lips he'd ever felt, wet tears slipping down her face and into his stubble as she kissed him back delicately.

He didn't want to push her, didn't want to taint his previous words with anything too forward, didn't want to make her think he was trying to play her. But when he kissed her she made that tiny, breathy moan that went straight to his john thomas, leaving him hard as a rock. He tried to think of something, anything that would calm him down, but she was reaching up her hands to clasp the back of his neck, standing on tiptoes to kiss him back at his full height, breasts pressing through their clothing against his chest.

She pulled back, locking him in place with her eyes. "He cares?"

He nodded, swallowing thickly. "Loves, baby-girl."

She gave him that same, fragile smile, and her voice cracked when she spoke. "Show her."

He was surprised. "Uh…here?"

She nodded and he couldn't deny those eyes, those lips, couldn't stop his arms tightening around her as he picked her up, kneeling carefully and laying her on the wet ground, grateful for her thick jacket. He stared at her, tucking a curl behind her ear before reaching down once more to taste those lips. He supported himself with one arm while he slowly, carefully unbuttoned her jacket with the other.

At the first feeling of silken skin against his hand he looked down, realizing she had only her underwear on, and wanted to admonish her for not dressing right given the cold weather. His mouth couldn't seem to make any words come out. She quirked an eyebrow and he decided this wasn't the time, preferring to stare instead at the creamy skin of her abdomen, at the way the moonlight made her glow.

His words came out as he exhaled. "Perfect…"

She smiled shyly as he returned to her mouth, letting his free hand skim over her stomach and up towards her black clad breasts, grazing over the cold hardened nipple it found. Her light moan of pleasure made him smile into her mouth as he circled and plucked at her breast, her hips moving of their own volition.

His hand moved down, fingers dipping briefly into her belly button before skimming the top of the cotton panties. He slipped his hand underneath, loving the way she mewled and writhed against him, biting her lip as he rubbed his thumb over her clit.

He'd done it all wrong before, he wasn't making the same mistake.

He felt her breathing change as he kept up his movements; her mewls and sighs building to sweet cries of ecstasy as he pushed her up and over the edge. As she came back down to herself he moved over her, kissing her as he settled between her legs, unbuttoning his pants and tearing away her underwear.

Her eyes had a sated look that flared back into lust as he rubbed himself against her, purring into his ear as he entered her slowly.

Bliss.

He wrapped one arm underneath her small form, her jacket warm against his skin, holding himself up on his elbow and pulling her closer to his body. She clutched at him, her legs wrapping tightly around his back as he began to move in slow, languid strokes, her nails biting through his t-shirt as she clung to him, snapping her hips in time with his thrusts.

Just as he felt those inner muscles begin to flutter again he rolled onto his back, keeping up his movements and bringing her with him. Her eyes flew open in surprise at the new position but when he moved one arm from around her waist and began to rub his thumb against her clit her eyes snapped shut again as she moaned softly as she came.

"So fuckin' beautiful, baby-girl."

This one hit her harder, her muscles clenching around him like a vice as she cried his name into the night, a sound that would haunt him pleasurably for the rest of his life.

When she began moving in time with his thrusts, bringing herself up on her knees and impaling back down, he felt his own climax building as she scratched her nails against his chest. She bit her bottom lip and he couldn't help sitting up, kissing her hard and tasting blood as she hissed her pleasure into his mouth.

As he felt them both begin to tumble over the precipice he wrapped one hand around the back of her neck, her hair brushing his arm as he tasted her soft lips. When she came apart her eyes flew open, locking with his as he pushed up into her, his own climax two months' worth of longing that ripped viciously through his body, sending a roar into the night that mingled with her liquid cry of release.

Her head fell to his shoulder and he laid back, breathing heavily, the wet ground soaking his shirt as she breathed into his neck. Her hood had fallen back over her head but he could see the sleepy, luminous smile breaking across her face. He was grinning himself, exhausted but sated in a way he'd never before experienced.

A thought occurred to him. "Why ya always take yer shoes off?"

She quirked a brow at his post-coital topic of conversation, and smiled in that shy way that made his heart pound. "Like feeling the grass, feeling connected to the earth."

He stroked one hand down her hair, brushing it back off her face and turning her head up to meet his eyes.

He couldn't help his next words any more than he could help breathing, and they felt more natural and organic then anything ever had. "Marry me."

If he'd thought her smile was radiant before it was nothing compared to now.


A week later he bought her a ring and Book married them in the cargo bay. She'd looked beautiful in her simple white sheath, a garland of fresh picked wildflowers courtesy of Kaylee ringing her head like a crown.

He'd fucked her over the dining room table after the crew had gone to bed.

When Zoe had gone into labor they'd watched from the infirmary lounge, staring at the baby boy created. River had made chicken soup for the whole crew, and he'd made sure an anxious Mal was knocked out, much to Zoe's relief.

She liked curling up on the couch to read, he always made sure she had a lap in which to sit.

She played peek a boo with baby boy Washburne while he polished his guns, her eyes filling with happy tears when Simon and Kaylee announced their wonderful news. She listened to Kaylee's tummy while Book bounced the littlest Washburne on his knee, smiling at Jayne with her face lit up.

He fucked her against the wall of the bridge when Mal had placed him on nightwatch, smirking at the Captain's tired face the next day.

They attended Alliance parties for information, though now he wasn't a bodyguard so much as a husband, and she didn't dance with any other man. When he got shot she brought him dinner, carefully changing the dressing on the bullet wound and admonishing him when he ate his soup too quickly.

She laid him back and sucked him off, saying it would facilitate healing with a gleam in her eye.

Simon fainted on the day he became a father, and Kaylee had screamed blue murder until Jayne slapped the doctor awake. River'd told him her secret that day, his whoop of joy echoing through the ship as he spun her round and round the cargo bay. They'd stayed up very late that night, dancing in slow circles alone in their bunk.

She let him name his daughter, and had smiled approvingly when he held Aurora in his arms for the first time.

They fought and made up, laughed and screamed. Every day he made sure to learn more, and knew she did the same. She didn't demand fancy words, he smiled when she danced in the rain. He held his daughter on his shoulders as River tickled her feet, the tinkling laughter of their little girl making the world seem twice as bright.

When they were alone in their bunk she writhed and moaned, crying his name into the night as he showed her how much he loved her.

She slept curled against his chest, and when their baby had nightmares she snuggled into bed between them.

And pinned to the wall of their bunk, overlooking the tiny bed filled with love, the big man clutching his girls to his chest even in his sleep, were a pair of black masks, one plain, one feathered.

And they were never worn again.

THE END


A/N: Another corny ending, but I just can't resist. I've had so so much fun writing this, I'm sad to see it go! I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have :)

Til next time Browncoats!

The Frisky Firelily