Spoilers: Set post-BDM, so everything.

Pairings: River/Mal, slight Simon/Kaylee and Mal/Inara

Disclaimer: Words are mine, world ain't.

a/n: First I fell in love with River, then Mal, then the idea of them together. This is my attempt to do the pairing some kind of believable justice.

She doesn't know when it properly began, this feeling. For so long her mind had been splintered, a wash of memories and tides of feelings that didn't belong. And Serenity is a ship that has flowed with love and longing; the steady burning heat of Zoe and Wash, the sunny hope of Kaylee for Simon, and the sparks that flew static between Inara and the Captain. She has felt them all, and spent nights pondering, twisting the emotions in her head in an effort to understand.

Now she is better, not healed, never healed, she thinks, but better. Her mind is open to her now, she can separate the thoughts of the girl from the thoughts that are merely read. And now, she thinks, she has begun to understand, because this tide rising in her comes from the girl, not a borrowed echo but a true and honest feeling.

The understanding has come by degrees; an analysis of the fluttering drop in her stomach every time he looks her way, a good deal of thought on why his gait approaching the bridge makes her lips curve, questioning her body's worrying habit of growing warm and flushed when he speaks to her. She remembers the reading of these feelings in the past (she can read certain of them now, from Kaylee's bunk, but that involves Simon and she will block it out, she will, because some things even a psychic mustn't know), but these are different, these are hers, whole and actual, and so now she is left with a problem she has not pondered before.

Once you feel a feeling, really and truly, what do you do with it? Having no choice but to feel, River cherishes all the more deeply the ability to act. If only she knew what action to take.

She tries to talk to Inara about it, once.

They are four months out from Miranda, and Serenity has settled into new patterns, begun to mend herself around wounds that, if still open and raw, are not as gaping as they once were.

Desire has just begun whispering to River, or just grown loud enough to be heard. Normally this would be a topic for Kaylee, who is honest and open and never takes an inquiry the wrong way. But she is so buried in Simon it makes River shy of her, as though to ask Kaylee to ponder on her problems would be an intrusion in a long-delayed sweetness.

So she goes to Inara instead, who is an expert on wants and feelings and the myriad of thorns that River is finding around them.

River has always thought of Inara's shuttle as a place of release. It helps now, as she struggles to make the thoughts come out in appropriate words, to say just what she means and give away no more.

She begins safely enough, she thinks.

"I don't understand love. Of the romantic variety."

Inara smiles, just slightly, into her teacup. "I don't think many do, mei mei. It's a very complicated emotion, and it can manage to muddle even those who are experienced in it. What specifically confuses you about it?"

This is easy enough. Still on safe ground, not venturing into things best left unsaid. "What makes people fall in love? Tried to analyze it, to pinpoint specific characteristics that trigger corresponding emotion. Couldn't locate any logical parameters."

Inara's smile is wider now, and River knows this means she has said something logical but lacking sense. "That's because love isn't often logical. Sometimes people who seem to have the least in common are the most drawn together." She looks at River, considering, as she gathers up the tea things. "Are you thinking of your brother and Kaylee? It's true they don't seem the most obvious pair at first, but they each respond to something in the other that they need. They enjoy being with each other."

"And they enjoy physical intimacy with each other." River wrinkles her nose. "A good deal."

Inara laughs. "Yes, they certainly do. That's part of love too, of course, and equally inexplicable. The smallest things can trigger desire, and they aren't always what we might predict. It might be as simple as the sound of a voice, or the curve of a body. Any number of things, really. It's one reason why Companions spend so long in training – we have to know how to employ them all."

River's brow furrows. This is not entirely what she was hoping to hear, though it is sending her mind running down paths she hasn't before considered. Forcing her unruly thoughts back on course, she asks, "Can't it be controlled? Isn't fair of our thoughts to run away with us so, make us feel things we can't order."

Inara glances sharply over her shoulder at River from the trunk where she is settling the tea set, and pauses before speaking. "Well yes, at times it is possible to control it, or a Companion's job would be a good deal more difficult. But sometimes..." She trails off and shakes her head, but River does not need to read the continuing thought, knows it involves Mal and Inara and the twisted branch of feeling between them. Inara sets it aside with long practice and turns to River with a warm smile. "Mei mei, are we discussing a...personal feeling here?"

This is more dangerous territory, and River is unsure of her step. "The feeling is mine," she allows. "Don't know what to do with it. Can't not feel it, but action would be unwelcome."

Inara sits beside her, and River can feel she is pleased, that she thinks this is healthy and a good sign. "Are you certain it would be unwelcome, River? At times love can surprise people. Perhaps you would find more welcome than you expect." But even as she says this, River can feel Inara's mind cycling through possibilities – she is too polite to ask, but thoughts are not a question. We haven't been in one place longer than a week since Miranda; it can hardly be anyone off-ship. I've never thought River tended towards females in terms of desire, though I suppose it's possible – she's never shown much sign of desire at all. Surely not Jayne, though that only leaves Mal

Inara glances up suddenly, but River is already rising. "Would be unwelcome," she says firmly, "by too many to thrive here."

The danger is too great. She will not speak to Inara again of feelings.

Still, the tide of her feeling is overwhelming, and if it cannot be pushed back, then maybe, just maybe, it can be allowed to surge ahead. A small part of her remembers Inara's words – the smallest things can trigger desire, and they aren't always what we might predict – and grows into the glowing core of what she thinks could be called hope.

She is abruptly washed out of thought on the catwalk outside Inara's shuttle, as the Captain is heading her way.

"Hey there, little one." He pauses briefly to smile down on her. "Inara decent for visitors?"

Her core of hope is twisted into sudden envy, and she looks away, across the cargo bay at nothing. "Yes." Put only facts into words, don't let feelings show, she thinks.

His gaze is already fixed on Inara's door, his mind only barely touching on the girl in front of him. "Good. Need you up on the bridge for a spell. Don't go crashing my boat into any rocks while I'm busy, alright?"

River gives an audible snort; she is a better pilot than Mal and they both know it. "Believe I can handle that, Captain."

She has no fear that Inara will mention any part of their discussion to Mal. Discretion is ingrained in her, as in every Companion. Still, his visit to Inara creates a hollow of desperation in River that she cannot fill.

She walks away quickly and does not turn, refusing to watch him walk through the door.

River is in love with Malcolm Reynolds, and no power in the 'verse can tell her what to do about it.