'Til Death Parts Us

Part I

Authors: just_slummin and Midnight Obsidian

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox…again.

Rating: PG

Note: Takes place shortly after the events of "Fractured" and "Aftermath" in a continuing Mal/River storyline that began a million years ago with "Voices".

Summary: Life goes on for the crews of Serenity and the Hit or Miss, as everyone prepares for the long-awaited wedding.

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Mal rose slowly from the chair, leaning his weight carefully on the crutches Jayne had carved for him. Marveling at the way Jayne had rigged the crutches to accommodate not only his healing leg but also to favor his damaged arm, he had the fleeting thought that Jayne had proven much more useful as a crew member than he would have guessed at their first meeting so many years ago. Back then, Jayne had been only a hired gun, just as apt to turn Serenity's crew in to the Alliance for a reward as to be of any help to them in a gun fight. And now, these many years later, Mal knew him to be a man he could count on, not only in a fight or when muscle was needed, but also as a real member of Serenity's crew. He chose not to examine too closely exactly when that change had come about, nor to question it too thoroughly. Better to accept that it was so and leave it be, he thought wryly.

Swinging his weight on the sturdy crutches, he made his way to the common area, where Adam and Daniel were playing a game, the rules of which eluded him as he watched in bemusement. As best he could tell, the object of the game seemed to be to hurl oneself with wild abandon toward another player, roll around for several minutes grappling for a dominant position, and then burst into a fit of silly giggles and dissolve into an untidy heap in the middle of the floor. However, what it lacked in elegance it made up for with sheer exuberance.

Obviously too little to engage in this particular recreation, Hannah sat cross-legged on the couch, chewing her finger thoughtfully as she looked on. "So, baby girl," Mal said, smiling at his youngest. "Who's winning?"

Hannah removed her soggy finger from her mouth to answer. "Can't tell," she said, grinning widely. She held up her arms. "Go for a ride?"

As badly as it pained him to do so, he shook his head. "Daddy's not strong enough yet to hold you up, baby. Maybehaps in a few more days."

Hannah's face scrunched up in the universal expression of young disapproval. "Unca Simon's s'posed to make you all better," she said darkly, her bottom lip threatening to hit the floor at any moment.

Seeing an easy way out, Mal took it. "Could be you'd best take that up with Uncle Simon," he said smoothly.

Hannah slid off the couch, a girl on a mission. "I will, Daddy," she declared, looking for all the 'verse like her mother in her most determined mode.

Mal nodded. Watching her go, he grinned at the thought of what fury he had just unleashed on his unsuspecting brother-in-law.

"That was mean," Adam said, righting himself as he managed to climb out from under Daniel.

"Think so?" Mal asked, grinning at his son.

"I know so," Adam replied, returning the grin as he straightened up his suspenders. His attention thus momentarily diverted, he did not see Daniel's leap until the boy had knocked him back down to the floor with a satisfied squeal.

Thinking that if someone were to sail into him like that in his current condition, he would more than likely be crippled for life, Mal settled down on the recently vacated couch to watch the boys play.

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Anya stared at the Cortex screen wistfully, her blue eyes sparkling. "I don't know, Jared. I'd love to go to the dance with you and all, but…well, we're still stuck on Greenleaf and Osiris is such a long way away."

A slight frown creased the boy's normally handsome face. "But Anya, if you can't go with me…well, I'll either have to stay home or take some other girl." He paused for a moment. "And it's the biggest dance of the year. Everybody'll be there." He let that thought hang in the air between them momentarily. "And you could wear a fancy dress. I lie awake nights thinking about you in a fancy dress." He ducked his head a little shyly.

Anya's heart fluttered in her chest with the idea that Jared thought of her in the night watches. Just barely a teen now and, as always, mature for her age, she was feeling the heat of her first crush on a boy of an appropriate age. Her feelings for Jared were much different than the notions she had harbored for Pierre, the much older pilot of the Hit or Miss. Jared was young, just a couple of years older than she and hence, to her way of thinking, quite possibly the most entrancing boy on any world spinning. And the thought that he might think of her in a similar way made her knees go strangely weak.

"Come on, Anya. Talk to your Captain. I'm sure he'd let you come, if you ask him just right," Jared pleaded. "After all, nobody can resist those blue eyes of yours." His own green eyes twinkled invitingly.

Anya bit her lip anxiously. "Captain Mal is still hurt terrible bad," she said softly. "Dr. Simon says he'll be a long time in healing, what with the broken bones and all. And then, there's Mama to consider." She paused dramatically. "Mama's not so sure that you and me should be seeing all that much of each other. You know she won't even let us wave one another but twice a month."

"She'd like me if she got to know me," Jared said with a certainty borne of youthful optimism. "And I'm bound to like her, if she's anything like her daughter."

Anya blushed with the compliment, wondering how it was that Jared could always make her feel so special with just a few words. But in a moment, reality reared its ugly head. "I don't think she would agree to it, Jared," she said reluctantly. "And I'm pretty sure that Captain Mal won't make a trip all the way to Osiris for me to go to a dance."

Jared leaned forward, practically pressing his face to the Cortex screen. "Please, Anya," he said earnestly. "Please find a way to come…for me?"

Anya sighed. "I'll try, Jared. But I can't promise anything…okay?"

Jared nodded. "I know you can do it somehow," he said. "You've just got to."

Zoe's voice wafted up to the bridge. "Time to be saying your good-byes, Anya," she called firmly. "Been talkin' to that boy long enough."

Drawing in a deep breath, Anya made a face. "I guess you heard her," she said to Jared. "I gotta go."

"Just think about what I said," Jared begged. "Please?"

Anya nodded quickly, hearing her mother's footsteps heading to the bridge. "I will. I promise. 'Bye now."

She reached quickly to cut the transmission before Zoe entered the bridge, her heart heavy with the effort of saying good-bye to her young love.

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"And that," Elizabeth murmured, bent over Pierre's face and surveying her last tiny suture carefully. "..is that."

Simon nodded, examining the fine work carefully. "It would seem so," he agreed.

"Would have been better if he had allowed you to handle these last surgeries while I was…" Elizabeth paused, swallowing thickly as she thought about the reason for her recent absence. She was still regaining her emotional balance after the ordeal with the madman she and Mal had encountered a scant month earlier. "When I was gone," she finished a little unsteadily.

"Well, he wouldn't hear of it," Simon replied blandly. "Flatly refused to let anyone else touch your work."

Elizabeth blushed slightly. "I'm ashamed to admit that a small part of me is flattered by his stubbornness," she said. "I just hope that it hasn't cost him more than he could afford to lose."

Simon shook his head. "I don't think it did. At least, I would be surprised if it did, considering how everything looks at this point. With a little luck, the residual scarring should be minimal."

Elizabeth nodded, her gloved fingers gently moving over the newly applied skin of Pierre's face. "He wouldn't ever show me a vid of himself, prior to his run-in with Niska," she said.

"You asked?"

"I did," she answered. "But he was not forthcoming about it. I had hoped to reconstruct as much of his original look as I could, but he seems content with the way things are shaping up so far."

Simon smiled. Trying to smooth the tiny wrinkle of worry on her brow, he said, "Perhaps he was not so handsome before. It could be that what you've done here is a vast improvement to what nature provided him originally."

Elizabeth smiled, grateful for the lighter moment. "Perhaps," she agreed, though inwardly she had the suspicion that Pierre had once been a very handsome man indeed. "Regardless," she continued. "All things considered, I think we've done well here." And turning to the monitors attached to the pilot of the Hit or Miss, she began the work of bringing him out of sedation.

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"Makes me want a little girl, is all," Kaylee said a little wistfully. "Seeing her all happy and mooning about over that Jared."

Inara smiled. "I'm not certain Zoe would agree that it is all that easy to rear a daughter, especially now that Anya is maturing."

Kaylee sighed happily. "I think it's sweet," she insisted. "A young girl, with her first boyfriend. Makes me go all melty just thinking about it." She paused for a moment, remembering her own first serious crush.

Drawing the brush smoothly through Kaylee's unruly tresses, Inara laughed. "One would think that after a marriage and a child, you would be finished with all these romantic delusions."

"Nope," Kaylee replied. "Ain't never gonna be, if'n I can help it."

"I'm sure that makes Simon very happy."

Kaylee giggled, sounding very much like a schoolgirl. For a fleeting moment, Inara felt a twinge of something akin to jealousy. At the time other girls might have been experiencing their first romantic feelings, Inara had been already in training as a Companion, her own desires strictly held in check in pursuit of attaining flawless control. And though that control had eventually led her to become a much sought after Companion, she now saw more clearly the cost of that pursuit. And watching Anya, coming into her own as a young woman, Inara felt a strange sense of loss.

Pushing the thought from her mind, she continued, "Still, I'm a little concerned about Anya. Zoe is not….exactly…." She paused delicately.

Kaylee nodded. "She ain't happy with that boy," she observed. "Seems like a nice enough boy to me, but she's just so…strict about it. And 'less I miss my guess, that just makes 'im look all the more invitin' to Anya."

"I don't think she has an objection to Jared, per se," Inara said. "Just to the thought of Anya being old enough to begin to have such feelings. And it doesn't help that Mal is so opposed to the whole thing."

Kaylee snorted. "If t'were up to the Capt'n, I prob'ly wouldn't be married to Simon yet. Would be walkin' around in pigtails, pure as the driven snow."

"If I recall the story correctly, Mal knew when he first met you that you were not 'pure as the driven snow'," Inara laughed.

Kaylee grinned, her green eyes twinkling at the memory. "Bester was very swai," she said, reminiscing. "But nowhere near as swai as Simon," she added hastily.

"I would have to agree," Inara replied, setting the brush aside and settling down on the couch beside her friend.

"So, have you thought about talking with Zoe about the thing with Anya?" Kaylee asked.

Inara shook her head. "Truthfully, I've been a little…reluctant to broach the subject," she admitted ruefully. "Zoe is not exactly open to discussing private issues."

"I tried," Kaylee said. "You know, just by way of easin' things a mite."

"And?"

"And she shut me down," Kaylee admitted. "Just gave me one of those looks….you know the one?"

"The one that makes you glad she doesn't usually wear the Mare's leg on the ship?" Inara suggested.

"That's the one," Kaylee confirmed.

"What about Jim?" Inara asked.

"Pretty much the same," Kaylee answered.

"Ah," Inara replied, for the moment very pleased not to have a teenaged daughter with which to contend. Buddha only knew how Jayne would react to a young suitor for a daughter of his. Inara could only assume that bloodshed would be involved.

"Anyways, guess I'd best get back to work," Kaylee said, standing reluctantly to leave. "Still got a ways to go on the overhaul."

"Give Murdocke my best," Inara said dryly, not bothering to hide her mild dislike of the acerbic engineer.

"Will do," Kaylee replied, blithely ignoring Inara's slightly negative tone. To her way of thinking, the talented man was shiny enough for anyone's company…once a person got past his prickly exterior.

Inara watched the cheerful mechanic bouncing happily out of the shuttle and wondered momentarily how it would be to live life with so much optimism. Thoughtfully, she picked up the brush and ran it through her own carefully coiffed tresses.

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To be continued