Disclaimer: Words are mine, world ain't.
a/n: Title taken from Eric's Song, by Vienna Teng.
How Certain the Journey
He calls her an albatross, there on the bridge. A symbol meaning so many things. Luck, and guidance; a burden, and death. Both sides of the coin of fortune.
She knows one thing more, from a lifetime spent in books, recalling every detail of a thousand worlds. They are the most legendary of birds, the souls of sailors lost.
What she doesn't know, here in the black, is what more there may be to an albatross, how much he intends her to be.
But she means to find out.
An albatross is dark at the top, shadowy plumage above delineated sharply from the pale underneath.
"Could cut it, you know," he says, watching her wrap a fist in the length of her hair, staring at the weave of brown waves and pale fingers. "Would stop it from bein' used against you in fights, way it was today."
"A mistake. I wasn't fast enough." She looks at him then, pinning him with her eyes. "Wouldn't be me without it."
"Reckon you would be, even so. It is mighty pretty though."
She shifts, feeling something akin to a change in the air around them. "You think it is?"
"Well. You know, as women's hair goes...it's nice, yeah," he says, keeping his eyes off her, both the dark bits and the light.
She smiles, watching the strands slip though her fingers.
She watches him slicing a pear at the table; watches the movement of his hands and assesses them, wishing she knew the feel of them.
When he offers her a piece, mistaking her hunger, it's from the edge of the knife and not his fingers; she accepts it anyhow, leaning across the table, kneeling up on her chair.
She notices, as she stills there, the fruit cool and sweet in her mouth, that he's watching her lick the juice from her fingertips, and then that his eyes have slid, linger on the play of shadow and skin revealed at her neckline.
She sits back abruptly, the taste in her mouth gone tart with the knowledge that she's not the only one thinking of his hands on her body.
An albatross uses elaborate rituals to form a bond with a partner, eventually perfecting a dance, its language unique to the pair.
In passing, he brushes up against her back, in a space in the galley that is tight but not that tight, and her breath catches as the current of his thoughts sets her nerves to tingling.
His hand grazes her hip – an almost accidental intention – and she straightens, braces her hands against the counter and leans into him, meeting the surprise in his eyes without coyness, but acknowledging, accepting, returning.
The others come in then, and she moves away, their contact of seconds broken. He spends more time, that night, looking at her than his food.
She knows he wants to have her. And now, he knows she's aware.
Her whole body is aware of him, every time they're near. And when she finds him alone at rest, the reasons for restraint desert her, letting her settle in his lap as though she belongs.
He's frozen beneath her, his hands on her hips making no move to push her off, or pull her closer. "Say it," she says. "What I see behind your eyes."
The bitter stream of Mandarin he comes up with is not what she meant, but still, it means the same thing. His eyes close, as if to prevent her seeing, and she kisses the fans of fine lines at their corners until he shifts her in his lap, kisses her back.
The first time they are hesitant, driven by fear and desire both, smothering the one under the force of the other.
It's she who urges him on, gasping at the contrast of cool metal at her back and his hands, hot against her skin as she's freed from her clothing. Sliding his hand between her legs he finds her burning for him, the fire in her built to such heights she believes it will consume her, leave her smoldering forever.
When he enters her it's with a soft curse groaned against her neck, whether in damnation of himself or in praise of her, she doesn't know, doesn't care. So long as they're moving here together, hard and urgent and undeniable, it doesn't matter.
There are no words between them at first. They speak instead with their hands, with their skin; a language more intimate, with a vocabulary she craves to learn in full. It is their form of ritual; the way he touches her a revelation, an explanation of all she has felt but not understood.
He's got scars like constellations; she can chart the course of his life by them, the raises and hollows, silver streaks across his body in the starlight of the bridge. He never speaks, as she traces them, and of those made before her time, she does not ask. They are silent, always; the ability to speak is lost to her, replaced by his presence inside her. His silence is deeper, born of hard learned control, and more, she thinks; of his absorption in her.
Her mind has always held on to whatever she chose to keep, but she doubts, now, that she can ever completely know him. Still, as his hands arc across the marks on her own skin, one thing is certain: she will never tire of learning.
An albatross is well suited to flying through gliding and soaring, their heart rates in motion little higher than when at rest. But they depend on the support of wind and waves, lacking the strength to long sustain their own flight.
They have become tactile, in constant, careless contact. Their fingertips touch, feeling little more than a draft, as they pass in hallways; his hands rub over her shoulders as she guides the ship; their knees brush under the table, her bare foot sliding along his calf.
The crew doesn't notice, not for months.
Once they do, she no longer cares for their reaction. She and Mal have adapted themselves to each other, carved now to fit together.
That night, in his bed, she speaks with her voice, his name falling from her lips like a litany as she peaks. He says hers only once in return, a whisper against her ear; a prayer in the darkness, the sound of many words in one.
She had thought, once, that it would be difficult, had prepared herself to deal with judgment and trials and the perpetual lack of understanding that surrounds her.
But Mal has made it strangely easy, in that he's known her all along. Always, he was the one who saw past what she was; unlike her brother, who saw only what she had been, Mal knew what she could be. And so she has become.
They have defied reason, listening solely to a language they have both been fluent in from the first. Existing as an essential part of him, she knows both the dark and the bright, everything he hopes and fears. All that is surface in them is stripped away, leaving them bare, each unfolded in the sight of one another. Everything in her expected this to be difficult.
She never knew it could be effortless.
She's fought men that day, she hates doing it but they were heavy with ill thoughts, trained on Kaylee and she couldn't let that happen, wouldn't let that happen –
But now her knuckles are bloodied, bruised, and the parts of her that are River have shrunk down, hiding in the deep and she can't be again.
What am I, she asks Mal, his body warm and solid against hers in the darkness, his hand stroking her hair.
A pilot, he answers. A dancer, a woman. Mine, he says, and his hand stills in her hair. My crew, he amends, motion resuming, but she knows, and loves, and stays afloat.
An albatross mates for life.
He asks her once, hesitantly, if she'd ever like to be married. She laughs at the idea, not because it is absurd but because it's so normal, and she has never been normal, not once in all her life. There's no law in the 'verse that could marry them anyhow, no formalities for a fugitive.
Still, her heart flips, tripping in its beat at knowing he'd ever thought to ask.
They are bonded, she tells him, in Serenity. As they wrap around each other, their ship envelops them both, the hum of her engine blending with the beat of his heart beneath her ear.
His back set against the wall, he smiles, held tight between his two girls.
In a field under sunlight, she rises, gloriously naked, and tips her face to the endless blue above her.
"You let me know if you're gonna go back to the ship like that, so's I can think up reasons to explain why it ain't my fault you're not wearing anything," he says, looking up at her from their blanket, teasing her with his voice.
She spreads her arms wide, laughing. "I'll wear the sky."
But she turns, and stays, and it's dusk before they think of moving again, the air around them flickering with the glow of insects called fireflies.