Fandom: Firefly

Pairing: River/Mal, Inara/Mal

Rating: PG-13

Warnings: older man with a younger woman

Archive: Ask

Author: Lily Zen

Notes: This is the sequel to a drabble called Healing. It expands on an instance introduced there, and adds to it.

Disclaimer: Not mine.

River isn't real.

She's a vessel, a container for unwanted knowledge. She knows, she sees, she feels.

It hurts, because the feelings aren't hers. They are borrowed, stolen, gifted to her by the scars on her brain, and the things the Academy had done to her to try to make her better, more.

Somewhere under the numerous gossamer layers her mind is wrapped in, River remembers what it was like to feel, to be alone in her own body and mind. Part of her wonders how she'd ever borne it, how she'd survived the years of solitude. She's never lonely now. Everyone's thoughts are hers, and their emotions echo within her.

She is a conch shell on a beach, and they fill her up.

But then other times she wishes for nothing more than the voices to stop. They become angry, hateful, scared, and blare their messages to the only one who can listen, to her, and she cries and begs for them to fade away, thinks longingly of when she was a girl, when she was real, and was alone inside her own mind. The static, the silence is a prize that she will never achieve.

Looking enviously at the dress in the window, River dreams of being a real woman, of a day when the love she feels is her own, when the desire arcing through her is not something gleaned from someone else. She wants to be more than just a shell on a beach.

Mal makes River real.

He speaks and listens; his touches have weight. When his gaze is trained on her, he sees her. She is not an empty shell, and for awhile the constant chatter in her mind slides away from her, the volume so low she can barely hear it.

Mal teaches her about Serenity, about flying, and soon she is better than he is at it. Wash's chair becomes hers. This makes her sad, and it makes Zoe sad too. The feeling is almost overwhelming when she walks onto the bridge and sees River in her husband's seat.

River makes a point of not being on the bridge if she feels Zoe coming, not unless it's crucial.

The dreams begin. Hot and sticky, images spearing her brain like knife slashes. Only it is not wounds or pain these cause; it's something she can't say out loud because…because her doctor is her brother, and she can't tell him these things; her closest friend, Kaylee, is his lover, and River knows that anything Kaylee knows eventually makes its way to Simon's ears. Inara…Inara… The deluge of shame cleanses her for a time.

River haunts the ship at night, prowling like a cat, greedily sipping at the dreams and thoughts of others in lieu of sleep for her own tired sack of skin and bones. Zoe keens in her sleep; Kaylee's mind is hazy and lust-filled; Simon is forever plagued with worry about his little sister (River thinks of telling him that the girl he remembers is gone, but sees how that conversation will go and discards the concept); Jayne dreams of women, guns, and money… She hovers outside of his bunk for a long time, basking in his simple desires, but when his thoughts begin to affect her physiologically and turn her thoughts to her own disturbing dreams, River moves on.

She never tries to see what Mal is thinking. That is far too much temptation.

Instead, River finds Inara's mind, and falls into the Companion's dreams. They are surprisingly stark, and linear. Inara dreams in black and white and shades of gray, though sometimes important items are colored. She dreams of clients, of their rutting bodies, and the faces they make when they climax; of the deposits to her credit accounts. There is no emotion here. It is cool and empty. Inara is a shell on a beach as well.

For a moment the man's face morphs, and it becomes Mal's, though River knows they have never had sex. This is pure fantasy, not memory, and the face he makes…well, that is just a guess Inara's subconscious is making. The room begins to bleed back into color.

The second that Inara climaxes—and it is the only time she has done so in this gray world of loving, despite having been with seven other men in the space of a breath—the scene changes. It shatters into a long gray hallway. Inara presses her back, now fully clothed in one of her elaborate gowns, against the wall. Her dress, which River knows in reality is brightly colored, gold, orange, and red-violet, is as gray as the hallway.

Mal is the only thing in color in this drab world, and because of that even his understated clothes look brilliant. He looks brilliant, his eyes lit with a dark passion, jaw set; his determined expression.

River begins to back out of the dream.

"Inara, you played a game, and you lost. I'm sorry, but there…I've said it."

"What do you mean, Mal? I…don't understand." Inara's voice comes out soft and confused, and River shudders as the walls swell with her hurt feelings.

"You could've had me any time. You chose not to. I reckon you thought we'd do this little dance forever. I'm done dancing, Inara. I walked off the floor some time ago." Mal is matter-of-face and pitiless.

River turns back at the exact moment that Inara's heart breaks. It sends a sympathetic pang through her as well, and she knows that if Mal ever looked at her like that, so cool and disinterested, that she would die.

Perhaps she is not quite as empty as she thought.

"Mal, I—" Inara's throat works, trying to find words, but all that comes out is a small choking noise. She clears her throat with a delicate cough, and tries again. "I—"

"Don't," Mal says, and his tone is now sad. "I waited for a long time, Inara; knew if it was gonna happen, it was going to be at your pace, your decision, your convenience. Somewhere in all the waiting, I moved on. That's all there is to it."

"But I haven't," Inara manages to say.

Mal shrugs. "You will."

River falls out of Inara's thoughts with a gasp, and opens her eyes. She's in her chair on the bridge, her legs stretched out, heels kicked up on the control panel. Guiltily, she looks around the room though she knows she is alone. She tries to forget what she saw, tries to deny the hope that takes root in her chest, tries, and tries, and tries to be anything but what she is.

River is real now. There's no turning back.

It takes awhile, but eventually people start to catch on. Somehow, some way River has broken free of the Academy's cocoon. Is she the same River? No. The child is gone. She has emerged from her shell as something else entirely. She is a woman now made of blood and flesh and bone, the seams housing an indomitable will, an unbreakable spirit.

She speaks more, looks at people instead of through them, though sometimes her gaze does wander down its old paths. Her laugh is loud. She is present.

They land on Ariel, and Inara moves her things off the ship.

Kaylee and River go shopping because watching her was making Kaylee cry, and when Kaylee cries, River cries too.

The red dress is still in the shop window. Like before, River stops, and stares, and refuses to budge. A quick mental calculation and River is dragging Kaylee into the store. They emerge forty minutes later with a bag each. River tries not to think about the lacy underthings, and she particularly tunes out Kaylee's mind, full of its plans about the elaborate seduction of her brother.

Inara is gone by the time they return. She's left a message for Kaylee and one for River too.

It takes River two months to watch the video, and when she finally does, its contents leave her agape.

"River," it begins, "I expect you already know why I'm leaving." Inara shoots the camera a miniscule grin. "You know almost everything. You know that I harbored feelings for Mal for a long time, but I did not act on them. A Companion's life is not to pursue her own pleasure, but the pleasure of others." Inara shakes her head, and the twist of her lips leaves little doubt to River's mind that the Companion is making fun of herself silently. "It seems I missed a great opportunity," she continues, and her expression becomes downcast, disheartened.

When she looks up again, her eyes shimmer with tears. "I know you were in my dreams that night, River. Don't worry, I'm not mad. To be frank, it has been of some comfort to me to know that even if no one else never knows exactly why I left, you do. I know you must be startled that I 'heard' you. It may have something to do with my training; I am not quite certain. None the less, I know you were there." Inara clears her throat, and her shoulders move as she adjusts her seat. "That conversation occurred a few weeks before the night of your dreamwalking, and from that evening I watched Mal carefully to discern what exactly had changed between us to cool his ardor so abruptly. For years his desire had burned hot. What, then, had banked its fire? The answer was strange and unexpected: you."

With a little chuckle, Inara smiled self-deprecatingly and stated, "Let me explain. Mal has a certain way about him when he desires a woman. His instinct, for some reason, is to shy away but still keep the object of his affection near enough. The result leads to a wary, circular approach. This is how Mal was with me. It is now his behavior with you. If you find this hard to believe, then you should test my hypothesis. Walk through Mal's dreams. They will tell you what you need to know."

Just as River was about to turn off the console, Inara tipped her head slightly. River took her finger away from the off key, knowing there was more yet to be said. "You must be wondering why I'm telling you all this. As I said, I've been watching: Mal with you, you with Mal. The two concepts are intertwined. You orbit him, River. When he is near, I see you wake up. I know you think that you are damaged, but I swear to you that I have seen the woman in you. She peeks out from behind heavy draperies with a flirtatious and curious gaze. Let her step forward, let her break free and be known. I say this as your friend, and also as his. Do not mistake my wish for the two of you to have a chance at happiness as indication that I am not heartbroken, not angry; I am all those things and more. It is for this reason that I have removed myself from Serenity. So long as I am there, I will be a source of anguish for you both. I want you to be happy; I want you to heal. I want to do the same. Goodbye, River, and good luck. I hope you will take what I've said to heart. I wish you every joy in the 'verse. If ever you need a friend, know that you can always come to me."

The recording stops, and leaves nothing but static.

River thinks for a long time about Inara's words, about empty shells, and shells with creatures living inside of them. She thinks about static and loneliness, and gets up off of her bunk, sliding it back into the wall like a giant drawer.

She puts on the red dress, and the lacy underthings, and stands on the opposite side of the small cabin so that she can look at herself in the mirror.

Her hair is long and dark, and the ends are tangled. She brushes it until it crackles, then smoothes the staticky hair with a little water on her palms. She shaves her legs so they are pale and hairless, and her armpits, and she thinks about shaving other places like the girls in Jayne's imagination but decides against it. River sprays on some deodorant, and looks once more in the reflective glass.

She looks scared, she thinks, and feels an unusual rush of pleasure at that.

She looks like a nervous woman, and bites her lips to plump and redden them.

The dress she wears isn't quite a true red, but somewhere between red and red-violet, like the amaryllis that her mother used to grow. The knit fabric sleeves come down to her elbows, and the dress ties around her waist. Kaylee called it a wrap dress, River remembers. All she knows is that it looks pretty on her, and brings a blush to her cheeks.

In the hall, she hovers outside of Mal's room, sinks into his dreams, and is assaulted by images that mirror the liquid longings in her own mind. She flings herself out of his head and creeps down the ladder, her pulse a staccato beat thrumming out her urgency.

He's asleep on a bunk not unlike her own—Mal would never be the type to set himself up in comfort and luxury that his crew did not have access to—shirtless and beautiful. It makes her breath catch. Her fingers twitch, fighting off the urge to touch for a moment.

Her footsteps are quiet and light, and she sits on the edge of his mattress, feathering her fingers over his pinched brow, and down his nose. She traces the edge of his lips, and they part as he sighs.

"Mal," she whispers his name, and leans over him, a hand braced on the other side of his head. Her hair rushes forward, sliding around them like a curtain. "Mal," River whispers again, her mouth a millimeter away from his. Then she brushes her lips against him, a tentative thing. Her first attempt at a kiss.

He startles awake, almost knocking their heads together. "River? What…?" He sounds sleepy, unsurprisingly; thoughts only half-formed. His hands grasp her shoulders. "What are you doing?"

"Now?" she responds, "Being held by my shoulders, and about to be chastised by my captain." She can already hear his thoughts, the denial he is wrapping around his subconscious desires. It sounds a lot like an airlock closing, and she needs to stop that if either of them is ever going to get what they want. "No," she mutters, and mashes their mouths together.

She's seen in her head enough times how this is supposed to work. In some ways, she's more of an expert at loving than Inara is. River has the benefit of having everybody's thoughts and experiences on the matter, as opposed to Inara, who only has her own.

Mal begins to kiss her back, but rips his mouth away with a groan. "This ain't right, River. You're—" Damaged.

"If you say 'damaged,' I will hurt you," River tells him sternly. She sits up enough to fix him with a stare that sets him to squirming. "I think, I bleed, I feel. I am more whole than any of you. You walk around trapped in your own bodies, your own minds, and you have no idea. I am free. I know you all better than you know yourselves. I know that Jayne sends his family a portion of his pay from every job, and that his family uses it to put his younger siblings through school. I know that Zoe still dreams of Wash, and it makes her cry in her sleep. Kaylee, Simon…you; I know you, Mal. I know what you want, and if I want the same things then where is the harm in that?"

She's just a girl.

Mal opens his mouth to speak, but River cuts him off, her palm slicing the air. "I am not a child," she says disdainfully. "I have fought and killed, I have had terrible acts perpetrated against me. I have nearly broken under the weight of these things, but did not…because I am strong enough to bear them. I made a choice: to die as a frightened child, or to excise her from my being and survive. I have not been a child in a very long time, Mal, so please do not seek to use such feeble arguments against me."

"But you're still so young," Mal whispers in reply, and his voice cracks.

"Almost nineteen," River responds matter-of-factly. "If it is my age you are concerned with, I am legal. If it is my virginity—"

A slight fracture, a bubble of panic appeared in Mal's thoughts.

"—you need not worry. That was taken care of a long time ago." She smiles reassuringly, and for a second Mal calms. Then he thinks about what she's said and a spike of anger drives through them both. River gasps at the razor hot flash of pain, and chokes out, "Not like that. I was too physically active as a child, careless. It was gone before I ever went to the Academy." As the anger fades, she lets out a little laugh.

He shakes her. "What were you thinking, telling me that kind of thing without any explanation?"

River just grins. "I was not certain you would take it that way, but…at least I know you're listening, really listening and not just locking yourself inside your head, sealing your fate brick by brick. You want me, Mal, and I want you too. I don't understand why there must be a conflict, a denial of this."

"Your brother…"

Tilting her head to one side, River considers this. "Simon may hit you," she says, "But then he will thank you and be grateful that I am apparently normal enough to have romantic relationships. Of course, I may have to talk him in circles first, but I assure you that I am very good at getting people to see things my way."

The look Mal gives her is wry and he drawls, "Oh, really? Working your mojo on me right now, are you?"

She laughs, and the shoulders under his hands lift and fall again.

His palms glide down her sleeves until they meet the skin of her forearms.

Her breath catches.

Mal's thoughts turn hot, his gaze smolders, and she feels herself go liquid in his grasp. The jubilation she might have felt at triumph is swallowed by the warm, salty sea whose ebb and flow now commands her body. "If you're really okay with this," Mal begins, but pauses. His thoughts go on though. –I can be too.

"Stop talking," she whispers, her tone low and threaded with lust. "Kiss me. Touch me. Make your thoughts reality. Make my thoughts reality." River knows the look in her eyes is just as intense as his, and Mal devours it for a moment before he jerks her against his chest, and their lips meet, and Mal uses his considerable skill to make her melt against him.

Make me real, she thinks, but doesn't say.

River is real.

She is a shell on a beach, and the sand, and the waves. She is the sweet air, the sunshine, the salt, the dark of the night. She is the tiny crab that crawls along the beach, and the gulls that cry overhead.

River is everything. She is everyone. She exists as all these things at once, and then with a touch of his hand she crashes back into her own skin, wanting, needing, craving to be a part of him. She wants to sink into him, and have him fill her up, and he does. He does!

Their union is the most extraordinary one that she knows.