a/n: Well, here we are, the last chapter! Hope you've enjoyed the story thus far. For those of you who have it on alert: I'll be marking it as complete for the time being, but I do plan on adding to it in the future, so please, leave it on alert! I have no idea when I'll get part two written, but I do have it plotted out in my head, so...
Thanks to those who've reviewed/favorited/read. All are very appreciated.
IX. You Who Are My Home
There's silence between them – silence with such depths, such sharp sudden drops hiding in it that she chooses to listen to memory, to pull from the conversation between Mal and her father, to surround herself in the words of his protectiveness.
"Ain't right to eavesdrop, you know," he says, looking at her sideways, pushing the door of her bunk open with his foot.
"You do it all the time," she points out, lowering herself down, trying to fill the silence, to keep away from the drops, waiting all around her.
"Yeah, but it's my boat," he says, following her, closing the door behind him, a dull thud cutting them off, sealing them away together.
"Mal," she says, taking a deep breath, pushing herself forwards against all instinct, because his thoughts tell her he won't have it any other way, because she knows now hiding has failed her, "it's not alright, is it?"
"No," he admits, and she stares, looking in vain for any trace of humor, the wry wall of defense he keeps between himself and anything he wants to deny is serious. But there's nothing, only his eyes, steady and sober on her, and she feels a sick twist, a sharp plunge of panic. "We can't be having secrets between us like this. I won't have it, not on my boat, and surely not in my bed."
Her mind doesn't want to focus, everything old and negative rising, fear and the cold dark of abandonment barely held back by the barriers of logic and memory and the sudden grasp of his hand on hers. "River, darlin', you gotta trust me. You don't trust me, I can't trust you; we ain't got trust between us, there's no us to be had."
She breathes, and waits, keeping herself locked quiet and still, until she's certain he has no more to say. "But you still love me?"
The creases in his forehead deepen, and the corners of his mouth pull, playing tug-of-war trying to suppress a smile. "Course I do, albatross. Can be mad at a person and still love 'em at the same time, you know."
"I do frequently want to hug Simon and lock him in the infirmary simultaneously," she agrees, thoughts wandering tangential before she reins them in, knowing that securing love is not enough, that he is waiting still, respect and trust held in the balance.
"I was scared," she says, wanting to twist her hands together in her lap, held back by Mal's fingers, twining through hers, binding her firmly to him. "Didn't want you to think I was broken again. Didn't want to need saving, for you to see me as pieces. Can't love a girl who isn't whole."
This time, his silence doesn't frighten her, doesn't hold anything secret, just feelings and thoughts tangled and twisted up as her own, and his voice, when he finally speaks, is quiet and low, heavy with it. "You gotta trust that there are people in this world other than Simon who'll love you no matter what. Lots of people tried to change my mind on how I should see you since you came onto this boat," he says, voice growing firmer, chasing away the last of her fear. "And the only one who ever managed it was you."
In that moment, she's aware of everything; Serenity's wall, cradling her back, the hum of her engine in flight setting vibrations through River's blood; Mal's hand in hers, smooth and rough where their callouses meet and catch, the marks of their lives and loves coming together in miniature.
And a voice, once more repeating a lesson she never quite managed to learn.
It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life.
"I believed you could love me," she says, slowly, feeling the balance within her shift, fulcrum-point. "So much that you believed it too, and it happened."
"Somethin' like that, albatross. And I know full well you're whole and safe and perfect just as you are cause it's what I believe, dong ma? Don't you let anybody tell you otherwise."
"All right," she says, everything in her relaxing, receding, leaving her nearly giddy with relief, with the reassurance of solid ground underneath her. "No more secrets."
"Good," he says, settling back against the wall, holding her against him, not seeming to mind a bit when she twists around to face him.
"You realize this likely means you'll never be rid of me?" she asks, mocking and serious, all wound up together.
"Lucky me," he says, tightening his hold, and everything in him, voice and expression and thoughts all as one, telling her clear and firm how serious he is.
When they set down on the other side of Persephone next morning (well, some twelve hours later, at least – flying circles around a planet tends to throw off any linear concept of time, and far as Mal knows or cares, it could be yesterday morning), he's barely slept a wink, what with one thing and another, but damned if he don't feel full of energy anyhow.
Walking through the passenger lounge, he catches a glimpse in the dorms of Kaylee, looking like she's polished herself clean and all gussied up in one of her pretty dresses, chatting away with Mr Tam, Simon standing protectively at her back. Just might be possible all his energy today's due to the knowledge he'll be rid of that particular bit of dead weight within the hour.
"Doc, a word?" he asks, leaning in through the door.
"Bao bei, do you mind...?" Simon might as well not have bothered asking, way Kaylee's hand waves him off, flow of her words running right along like nobody else'd spoken.
"Now, they ain't gonna have as many transports this side of the planet, but that don't mean you gotta get on some junker. Hold out for somethin' as looks like she can go the distance, and don't let 'em go overcharging you..."
"So," Mal says, glancing back over his shoulder as he leads Simon off towards the cargo bay, "Kaylee's meetin' with her new daddy-in-law's going pretty well, huh?"
"Well, he's stopped trying to get a word in edgewise, which is quite an accomplish- wait." Simon stops in the middle of the empty space, all kinds of suspicions running across his face. "How did you know that I – that we mean to be married?"
"Really think you can keep a secret in this place, sister like yours hanging about?" Mal asks. "But as it happens, was Kaylee herself who told me, while you were out trying to get yourself killed yesterday. Been meanin' to say congratulations." Simon's still got a look on his face best described as wary, but he manages a respectable handshake anyhow, and Mal remembers that while the doc's hands may be pale and smooth, surgical practice has also made them damn strong. "Though honestly," he continues, keeping his grip on Simon's hand, making it into a game of who'll-wince-first, "think if you were gonna go all fussy and start askin' for blessings and the like, you might've come to your Captain first off."
Simon's eyebrows rise a fraction of an inch; amazing how much haughtiness that little bit of movement can put on someone's face. "Kaylee doesn't belong to you, and neither do I," he says, and Mal would swear he don't see or feel any kind of movement, but suddenly his hand is aching something fierce and holding nothing but empty air.
"Wouldn't say you do," he says, trying to keep his voice smooth and easy while surreptitiously trying to shake some life back into his fingers. "Though you do both work for me. And live on my ship. But that ain't the point."
"What is?" Simon asks, ice cold, arms folded.
Mal can't help but let a bit of a grin escape; all this time on board and the doc's still so stiff he's like to tip over if given a nudge. "Point is, I like to think we're all friends here, doc. Would've been nice to have a bit more notice, so's we could get the two of you moved into a bigger bunk. If y'all are gonna insist on getting properly wed, least we can do is treat you like it."
Doc's astonishment is evident, mostly from the way he can't seem to spit out a proper sentence. "Oh, I – that's...really, it's very kind-"
"After all," Mal says, taking pity on Simon in his own special way, "don't know how Kaylee 'n you deal with it, but River complains something fierce 'bout the tiny beds in those bunks of ours. Ain't hardly a night that passes without my hands endin' up someplace I didn't mean 'em to be. Though that's not always such a bad thing, course."
Simon's mouth snaps shut, his fumbling for words mercifully over with. "I suppose I deserve that," he says after a moment and a deep breath.
Mal shrugs. "Possible I just like needlin' you. Gotta admit though, I find it strange you think it's okay takin' up with Kaylee – who you know's like a sister to the lot of us – yet you can't seem to get over the idea of your sister being with me."
The look Simon shoots him ain't exactly friendly, but it does seem to border on amused, which is something. "The two situations aren't quite the same, and I think you know that perfectly well, Captain. But you're right."
"Now, look – wait, I am?"
Yup, doc's definitely amused now. "Yes. Hard as that may be to believe for both of us." He sighs, sitting on a nearby crate, waiting till Mal takes up a leaning position opposite him that may not be exactly relaxed, but don't fit the bill for hostile either. "I know I haven't been supportive of your relationship, to say the least. And part of that was due to exactly the reasons you'd expect. She's young, and fragile, and you're..." he waves a hand around helplessly, settles on, "not. But I think it was also because – it felt like she was being taken from me again."
Mal shifts against the crates at his back, wondering exactly what he's supposed to make of that statement. "Doc, you gotta know-"
"Please." Simon holds his hand up, cutting off further speech, staring off into space. "Let me finish. For so long on this ship, I felt like she was my responsibility, like I was the only one who could help her – not that the rest of you didn't do what you could, but ultimately I was the one who had to care for her, the one who couldn't possibly walk away. That kept me from building any life of my own here for so long. And then," he says, looking straight up at Mal, "she'd no sooner stabilized, approaching something normal again, before she was off making her own life. With you."
Funny, how he knows perfectly well Serenity's on firm ground, yet Mal still feels like it's shifting under his feet. "Ain't that what you wanted?" he ventures. "To have her more independent and all?"
"It is. At least, I thought it was." Simon shakes his head. "I guess I'm just not used to sharing her. To being in a place where she doesn't need me."
Of all the fool things Mal's heard on his boat these past few days, that has got to be one of the dumbest. "Don't think that's nearly so. Was you she went to 'bout this tangle with your father, not me. She's always gonna need you – and don't go thinking I like that idea any more than you like her needin' me – but the way I see it, that means you and I gotta work out a way to get along better than we have been."
When he offers Simon a hand up, the doc just stares at the floor a bit, waiting long enough that it's almost a surprise when he finally takes it. "I'm sure we can manage something, Mal."
"Course we can," Mal says, slapping Simon on the back, making him stumble. "Think of it this way, doc – you're not losin' your sister, you're just gainin' yourself a brother."
And after all, Mal thinks, shoulders shaking with silent laughter as he walks away from a mighty pale Simon, what's family for, if not to get under each other's skin whenever possible?
The sunlight, on this point of Persephone, shines down warm and clear, a light on the edge of a season, and River leans into it, listening to the distant babble of the marketplace, holding fast to the cables and struts along Serenity's ramp, her toes poised over the dividing line of ship and sand.
"Going somewhere, River?" Zoë asks from behind her, from the space between shadows and light.
"No," she says, feeling the light make itself heat on her skin, the breeze playing through her hair, hundreds of tiny fingers through the strands. "Staying above. Awaiting his return."
"Ah. Captain's gone out, then?"
River nods, and then catches herself, freezing in the act, struck and spun about not by the simple words of Zoë's question, but by the lack of hesitation in it, the evenness of her tone, as near to statement as question. For Zoë, there is no need to ask who, no need to know why River waits, no interest in the what or how of it; she simply chooses to absorb, and understands.
"You accept," she says, turning, drawing her toes over the metal edge to pivot, shoulder blades to the sun. "You don't question what I say, how I say it. You understand that I am a person, and don't think me odd for it."
"Well," Zoë says, leaning against the ship's edge, hair turned to shine and gloss, strung out by the wind into the light, "wouldn't exactly say you're normal. But I expect we've all gotten used to you."
From Zoë, of course, these words mean all the more – Zoë, who's watched River take her husband's place, even if River never sits in his chair, never aspires to be all the pieces that Wash was.
Her own pieces and parts still swim in disarray around her, like stars blurring in the black at full burn, her hands never fast enough to grasp them all, never able to hold every part together at once.
"How do you do it?" she asks Zoë, standing there strong and solid and whole. "How are you able to fill multiple roles at the same time? You were wife and friend, partner and foundation and first mate, all carried inside you."
For a moment, confusion swirls around Zoë, a screen of dust over her features before it clears, before she shines out clear once again. "Ain't so difficult, little one. All those roles are there, all the time – which one comes out just depends on the situation, and on who's doin' the looking."
"I don't understand," River says. "Parts of a whole must always be present for the whole to exist, and a whole is only the sum of its parts. Can't pick and choose which pieces to see when they're all there, always."
"Right. But see – let's say you're with the Captain on the bridge. There he's gonna see you as who he's got flying his ship, and that ain't quite the same as the woman he sees down in his bunk at night. And they're both different from the sister that Simon sees. But they're all still River. It's other people who make you into different parts. You make yourself into a whole."
This nearly makes sense to River, a world of mirrors held up to each other, endless reflections caught in a net comprising self. "What about parts you don't want? Parts that are dangerous?"
The look Zoë gives her is sharp, so much knowing in it River wonders if reading could possibly be contagious. "It's no bad thing to be able to defend yourself, defend the people you love," she says. "Just means it's a piece that's gotta be respected, held under control."
"Do you believe I can control it?"
"River," Zoë says, "you think for one second I'd let you near my people if I didn't have faith in you?"
Considering what she knows of Zoë – the hard edges, the practicality, the firm compassion that never bleeds into sentimentality – leads instantly to the answer. "No."
"Damn right," Zoë says, turning into sounds from the cargo bay, muffled steps and voices expanding nearer, revealing themselves as Simon and Kaylee. "Fact that you know to be worried about it makes me believe you'll be fine."
River wonders, watching Simon's careful stillness, face set in familiar patterns, and Kaylee's muted brilliance, her bounce subdued, if they will be fine; if Kaylee's heart has been too misgiving for her to overcome, or for Simon to forgive.
"River," Simon says, taking her by the hand, ready as ever to guide her, direct her course, "it's almost time." In the blue shadows beyond them, she can see, dimly through her sun-dazzled eyes, a figure that must be her father, waiting frozen and silent.
"We should change the lighting sources," she says to Kaylee, an absent bit of thought-made-speech. "Gives the appearance of winter, cold and harsh. Should be spring again."
Focus pulls on her, pulls her back from the mundane, and on impulse, she reaches out, fingers brushing Kaylee's shoulder, light over the bright pattern of her dress. "You gave him new dreams, when he lost the old ones. He would never believe you weren't enough."
Kaylee wraps Simon's free arm in hers, a calm ocean flowing over them, bonded and full of peace. "I know it," she says, giving him a squeeze, everything about them telling River they are past forgiveness, past fine.
She feels the contentment flow through them, spilling over from Simon's hand in her own, washing down over the deck, into the dust, flowing out in a long stream, and she knows without turning that Mal's approaching; knows it because she can feel the circle of faith expanding around her, from Zoë opposite her, Simon and Kaylee at her side, Mal at her back. And from all around her, or maybe just within her own head – parts within a whole, a whole made up of parts – the Shepherd's voice, full of endless belief.
It's about faith. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you.
This, then, is her world, complete and correct, and comprised of her people, her family, both living and dead, by choice, by belief and faith alone. This world, as Mal comes up behind her, his hand at her back, is perfect, and she no longer fears the definition, being willing to change the balance herself.
When she frees herself from their hands with smooth motions and crosses the floor to her father, from light into shadow, she is aware, acutely, of being under her own guidance, of walking a path purely her own.
"I've come to say goodbye," she says, halting in front of him, watching him soothe away by an act of will the minute stiffness in his posture that developed at her approach. "I can't be sorry for who I am now, or for who I always was. It would be too hard for you, but this family accepts that. They are my home now."
This is the end, she knows, turning from him; there's nothing more to expect from him, nothing to desire of him, and so the tentative touch of his hand on her arm, caught by her mind before her nerves, surprises even her.
"Wait, please." The movement of his hands, brushing hair back from her face, reminds her of wings, brings her for a moment back to a world where he had been loving and protective, and a little girl had believed him the best father in the 'verse.
"River, I want you to know – we never had plans in place for your future because we knew, from the moment you began speaking, that you would go your own way in life." He shakes his head, rueful, she thinks, a man faced with children forever beyond him. "You've always been a whirlwind." The words to say more are beyond him too, with even his thoughts running confused, love and sorrow in equal measure, the whirlwind he's named her. Deep inside River, there is only calm, and the memory of the sun's warmth in her skin.
When she takes hold of his wrists to separate them, she is careful – careful to be gentle, careful not to linger, to let go of the heartbeat under her fingers, this one last time. "I forgive you," she says, and turns from him, walking across the cargo bay alone, unbowed.
Only Mal remains waiting for her at the ramp, hands busy with a knife and something pink and red and vibrant, the color whispering to her of life and love as she watches the others take her father up to shuttle, watches until he vanishes from her sight.
"Brought you a present," Mal says, his voice bringing her back aboard Serenity as he sets his treasure in her hand; a pomegranate, laid open and waiting. "Know you ain't been eating much, thought you might be hungry."
"It's a good gift," she says, staining her nimble fingers, savoring the tart seeds, one by one; six, a dozen. From the corner of her eye, she studies him, watches him watching her. "You believed I would leave," she says, nonchalant, easy.
"Did no such thing," he says, relaxation lost, eyes sharp on her. "Not for a minute."
"No," she agrees, "only for a few seconds. But you did."
His eyes drop then, and he shrugs, thumbs tucked careful under his belt. "Well. You got stolen away from your old world, be only natural to want it back." His voice is doing its best to be light, a smooth disguise to keep from catching, but his eyes, when they meet hers, are backed with honesty, his thoughts a trail of hope. "And I didn't rightly know as you'd have reason to stay on with a man who never so much as said he loved you."
The bright color on her fingers stops them short, hovering just over his face. "Mal," she says, trying to use her own face, her eyes and expression to project all the feeling her mind wants to share with his, "you don't say it. But I hear every time you think it." His thoughts light up with understanding, and he thinks it then, clear and certain; a warmth that turns to heat, the corner of his mouth turning up as he takes her by the wrist, bringing her fingers to his lips, one by one, leaving them pale and clean once more, stealing her breath bit by bit until he lets go.
Plucking seeds to stain them anew gains her both time and presence of mind, and when she speaks again, her tone is arch. "I hope you weren't expecting to share."
He grins at her and pulls out another fruit, thoughts full of promise for later. She nearly laughs aloud, happy she understands the logical reality of emotions, or she'd surely believe her heart would burst, expanded beyond its limits, swollen with love.
"Knew I wouldn't be gettin' much of that one once I gave it to you. 'Sides," he says, tossing the fruit in the air as he looks at her, eyes warm and crinkled and beautiful, "there's you and there's me, that makes two, right?"
This, at least, she knows the answer to, knows the ways now of pieces and wholes, of separate and unified. "No. It makes one," she says, resting her head against his shoulder, up against her home.