a/n: Well, here it is. Thanks very much to anyone who's left a comment along the way, and a huge special thanks to those of you who've been regular reviewers - your support has been awesome. Here's hoping this is a satisfactory ending for everyone!
Their halcyon moment is broken by Simon's voice up in the passage. "River?" he calls, knocking perfunctorily before opening the door, as is his way. "Are you down here? I've been looking-"
He stops short on the ladder, gaping in such a way that River has a nasty urge to inform him he resembles a sturgeon.
"Hello, Simon," she says instead, waving a foot at him in greeting. "You should leave now."
Simon is, of course, deaf to this advice. "I don't- Ta ma de, River, what the hell is going on here?"
Simon's voice has risen in volume, and Mal raises his hands peaceably before saying, "Now, doc, I understand this don't please you any, but might I remind you 'fore you come any closer about the talks we've had on you hittin' me-"
River cuts him off. "Simon, if you hurt him for this, I will hurt you." She smiles pleasantly at her brother as his disbelieving eyes turn to her, making it clear that she loves him, but there are limits.
There are sounds up in the passage now; nothing rouses the crew like the promise of a commotion.
"Simon, what's goin' on?" Kaylee asks, sticking her head in the doorway. "Oh my..." she says, spotting Mal, who's decided to brave it out, is now sitting up with his arms crossed, his best not-really-amused expression on his face. "Well...ain't that sweet. Nice to see people enjoying each other, right Simon?"
Her prompting does not reach Simon; he remains still and silent as Jayne's voice rumbles down to them.
"What's the ruckus for? Crazy doin' something new?"
This seems to shake Simon from his daze, as he answers caustically, "Yes, she is. The Captain, as a matter of fact."
"That so?" Jayne's head appears briefly beside Kaylee's. "Huh. Knew you was lyin' 'bout her, Capt'n."
Mal rolls his eyes. "Anybody else like to come down, offer their opinion? Somebody wanna go get Zoë, make this moment complete?" Behind the safety of his back, River allows herself to collapse into quiet giggles.
"Already here," Zoë says, from somewhere behind Kaylee. "Permission to haul Simon out of there and go have a good laugh at your expense, sir?"
"Got a feeling y'all are gonna do that last part whether I say yes or no. But I'd be mighty pleased if you all got the hell out of here, yes."
As the others make their retreat, River sits up behind Mal, sliding her arms around him and staring at Simon over his shoulder. "Have to leave me now, Simon," she says. "I'll be fine." She reads so many feelings pouring out of Simon, unfamiliar waves of emotion that have rooted him to the spot. Anger, and disbelief, but also a bit of relief, and with it guilt. And under all that, as he looks at her smiling face, just a spark of happiness. "I want this. He'll keep me safe."
After a long moment, Simon nods and exhales, shifting his eyes to Mal. "Captain. Do you recall what you told me when Kaylee and I finally...made things official?"
Mal nods, putting a hand over River's. Officially hers. "Believe I told you something 'bout the sorry state you'd find yourself in if you hurt her."
Simon looks back to River, his eyes telling her of the one final thing he has left to give her – trust. "Yes. The same applies to you now." With that, he finally leaves, the door shutting solidly behind him.
They are silent for a moment, before River speaks. "That didn't go too badly, all things considered. I had expected fighting. Possibly blood. Estimated a twenty-three point five percent chance of serious injury occurring."
"Didn't go too bad?" Mal says, not sounding half so calm as her. "Did you see the look on his face? Next time I get shot, he's like to leave me bleedin'!"
She laughs against his shoulder, tightening her arms around him. "Kaylee wouldn't let him. I wouldn't let him. Besides," she says, sliding around to straddle his lap, "you just have to keep me happy, and then he won't be too much bother."
He smiles a bit, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. "I'll do my best for you, River." As he trails his fingers over her cheek, down her neck, his expression changes, turns serious. "Not always gonna be good times, you understand. I can't promise you a smooth ride in this. We got a lot of things stacked up against us, and that's a fact."
She smiles softly, understanding that this is how it will be. He will see the pieces of things, the rise and fall of turbulence in their lives. She will see the whole, the good and bad joining in necessity to make them complete. "I know," she says. "Things aren't always right. But you can't know floating without gravity." She sees he doesn't comprehend, pulls other words into place. "Can't have just the one. Can't have good without knowing bad. Parts of a single whole. Some bad things you learn to live around. And some you can change."
He looks at her steadily, and his thoughts darken with the knowledge of just how well they have both learned to live with bad. She can feel him pulling back from believing, struggling still against fear, for her as much as himself. "Some things you can't change, darlin', no matter how much you might want to."
"Like what?" she asks, settling herself more comfortably in his lap, offering reassurance with her body. Resting her head against his chest, she takes strength from the hope-made-reality humming away within her, knowing there is enough there to counter whatever he will say.
Mal sighs, resting his chin on her head as he puts his arms 'round her, smiling a bit at the way she's wrapped herself around him, like she needs to anchor him there. There's a mess of uncertainty in him to be sure, but he hasn't come this far with her only to turn away now. "We can't change who we are, albatross. Can't change what our lives have made us. We ain't the kind of people who get to go on happily ever after. Hell, it's all we can do to keep flying day to day."
She lets out her breath in a sort of humming sigh against him, and he knows she's pondering on his words, making her own sense out of them. "No," she says finally. "Not all things can be changed. Can't fix the past for us. But we can shape a future. Can make something to rely on."
It's hard, damn hard, to have any kind of plans for the future. But she's looking at him unflinchingly, and he's taken again by the strength of her belief, so overwhelmed by her faith in him it's hard to resist believing for himself, just a little. "Well now, that may be so," he says, trying his best to speak lightly, to draw back from the muddling fog of emotion, "but we got other issues. I got a whole mess of years on you, for one. Like to die well before you, come right down to it."
He can feel the curve of her lips, feather light against his chest, her fingers crossing territory that bears witness of too many brushes with death already. Her voice, when she speaks, holds more than a hint of amusement, and he knows she ain't been fooled for a second by his clever change of subject. "Lives we live aren't safe. No promises from one day to the next. There's hardly a job that goes by without someone sustaining an injury in need of expert repair."
He feels the laughing undertone of her words catching, can't help grinning back a bit as he reminds her, "And that's with us being fairly good at what we do."
"Might go a bit easier without all the thrilling heroics," she says, reproach and admiration both in her voice. "Point stands, though. Statistically, none of us are likely to live a natural span of years. We all have to die sometime." He can feel her hand, warm against his skin, pressed low over the scar he'd gotten in her service. "But I promise you one thing, Mal."
He looks down at her there in his arms, and it hits him with an almost physical force, what she could become to him. Freedom, family, home – everything in the 'verse worth fighting for, staring up at him through her eyes. "What's that, darlin'?"
She smiles, and he knows clear as if she'd said so that she's read that particular thought perfectly well. "As long as you're with me, you'll die with your hands unbound. You'll die free, even if it means we die together."
After that, he's got to show her what those hands can do unbound, cause all the words in the 'verse wouldn't tell her enough of his love.