Title: A Winter's Hymn

Rating: I am officially a perverted sex-starved fanfiction druggie.

Disclaimer: Firefly was cancelled. There's your answer.

Summary: Some would say it's been long in coming, but it's still a miracle to him.

Author's Note: I'm not putting smut in my multi-chapter Firefly story, as it just doesn't fit and I'm not one to force things, but my imagination won't let me go so I ended up writing this. Consider it my Christmas present to all of you lovely, supportive Browncoats out there.

"Five gold rings!"

It's the only part of the song that Jayne remembers, but he's singing it with gusto. Mal realizes that the guy is quickly going from tipsy to fully plastered but he's still considering punching the behemoth in the face if he sings that verse one more time.

River is standing like she's balancing on a tightrope, her arms out to the sides, wobbling slightly as she takes step after step, slowly crossing the room. She's singing a tune to herself, her voice surprisingly lovely but broken.

I was following the pack,

All swallowed in their coats

With scarves of red tied 'round their throats

To keep their little heads

From falling in the snow

And I turned 'round and there you go.

And Michael you would fall,

And turn the white snow

Red as strawberries in the summertime.

He doesn't know the song, and by the looks on the faces of the others, they don't know either. There's something haunting and morbid about the song, especially when he looks at River's face. It's like she's singing a eulogy at a funeral. But she seems happy, in a strange way, and all of them being downright cheerful at the same time is a rare enough thing that he's content to let it slide for now.

Kaylee is standing under the mistletoe that she insisted they hang. She darts away from it every so often in case Jayne gets any ideas, but from the way she hovers near it and how her eyes follow Simon around the room, it's pretty damn obvious what she's up to. Simon is, as usual, ten kinds of oblivious and doesn't notice until Zoe 'accidentally' pushes him right into Kaylee.

They both look up at the shriveled little plant like it's some kind of hypnotizing beam, then slowly look at each other.

Simon kisses her, sweet and new, just a soft press of the lips. But little Kaylee, she's got a minx in there somewhere, and she chases him as he pulls away, resealing their lips together and next thing anyone knows they're kissing like the only other option is dying. Mal isn't too pleased with that – it's like watching someone kiss his little sister – but he lets it go on until he realizes that if Simon moves his hand half an inch downwards it'll be on Kaylee's ass.

Kaylee gives him a look darker than the black when he forcefully separates them, but neither of them dare protest.

Zoe laughs from her perch on Wash's lap. She's sitting across it, her legs draped sideways and her body curled into her husband's side, her head on his shoulder. Zoe's tall enough that it looks kind of comical, like a humongous tiger, but it's also sickeningly domestic.

Mal watches, watches it all and wonders how he got this lucky. There's skepticism in his gaze and dark thoughts blurring the edges but this is nice. It's real nice. And he casts about in his mind for alternatives but with the cards life has dealt him, he can't think of any scenario that is more appealing, or feels more right to him.

It's almost enough to make a man happy.

Eventually all of the presents are unwrapped, the carols sung, and the food consumed. It's late into the night by the clock they've set, and everyone's more exhausted then after a job. It's a good kind of tired, one laced with warmth and a slow, soft sweetness, like thick melted chocolate.

Shepherd Book departed for bed with a solemn yet happy "Merry Christmas" for everyone. Zoe and Wash acquired the last of the eggnog and vanished into their bunk about half an hour ago, and who knows where Jayne is. Simon and Kaylee are curled up together, asleep, and he's not heartless enough to wake them. River is… well, River's somewhere in the pile of wrapping paper on the floor. At least, that's where she was burrowing last he checked.

Inara seems to know where the girl is. He's been avoiding looking at her all day but now he's drawn to her, can't tear himself away. Inara sorts through the wrapping until she finds River, curled up like a baby in the womb. They speak to each other, their words too low and soft for him to hear. Inara drapes a blanket over the girl and River goes back to staring at the Christmas tree lights.

"She says the lights are soothing." Inara explains, draping a blanket over Simon and Kaylee. The mechanic snuggles closer to Simon in sleep, and he responds by tightening the arm around her shoulder. It's so cute that Mal gets a bitter taste in his mouth, one that he refuses to identify.

He can't think of anything to say. She's so close – a little too close for safety. He wants, gorram it. He's a stupid, reckless, doomed son of a bitch and when she stands about two inches from him that want comes mighty close to a need and his thoughts get too scrambled for him to breathe. He wonders how it's possible for someone to make things all muddled and gray and shine a clear light on everything at the same time.

He moves his gaze from her to the window. If you squint and had a mind to it, the stars almost look like snow.

"Mal."

Perhaps it's the something extra in her voice or the strange light in her eyes but when he looks back to her his breath hitches and his heart pounds something fierce. Then she's closing the gap and he smells cinnamon and jasmine and her lips are softer than he imagined. She pulls back just enough to allow a puff of air to slip between them, and he opens his mouth to ask what the hell was that when she darts in again, her tongue sliding into his open mouth.

His train of thought kind of derails and explodes into a wreck of smoke and roaring flame after that. Her hands are gripping his shoulders and he holds her tight as he can, hard enough to bruise, but he doesn't care. They've been through too much for her to expect him to be gentle. He can't even get up enough of a cohesive thought to protest that this is wrong, he's not worthy, this'll only mess things up more… everything is swallowed in the feel, the taste, the smell of her. Only her, shining bright like a sun, giving light and warmth but drowning out everything else, washing it all away.

Air is one of those things that a man kind of needs to survive, so after a few moments that leave him more intoxicated then all the eggnog in the world, he breaks free.

She doesn't say what he expects her to. He expects retractions, apologies, maybe irritation (at herself, but hurled at him). She surprises him.

"Mistletoe."

He looks up and sure, there's the mistletoe that Kaylee hung up and pined under for a good couple hours that evening.

She kissed him because of the mistletoe?

A thread is pulled, tugs at him, and he looks over at River. That child is lying there far too innocently for his liking. She's not even peeking.

Well, he's not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if it leads to a heap of trouble later on.

"It's a mighty fine tradition." He agrees, nodding.

And now they're kissing again, and hell, forget the train, his entire locomotive system of thought has just reached a vibrant but permanent end.

They end up in his bunk. He's grateful for that. Her shuttle is where she does business. It's where she has clients. And while she's always been very clear about the line between work and her personal life, he's not man enough to be able to let it go. A greater man than he… well, he can't dwell on that right now. Not while he's trying to enjoy what little good is thrown his way.

He knows that this means something to her when she doesn't try any tricks, doesn't treat him like a client. She's a little messy, a little desperate, clinging and forceful. A sound wells up, drawn from the bottom of her throat, sliding into his veins and coating his bones. He won't lie – it's been a while. But the feeling he gets when he enters her… that ain't quite like anything else. It's so familiar but it's different, better, and while he's read a few poems in his lifetime he can't find anything to describe it. He just revels in it, tries to make her feel as good as he does, because he knows sure as hell those bastards she services don't care if she likes it or not. He wants to be different from those men. He wants to be better.

She digs her nails into his back and he never, ever thought he'd see Inara Serra let her mask slip, never mind lose complete control like this. There are white spots leaping about behind his eyes like sparks of flame and he can't… God help him he…

Inara bites gently on his earlobe and her body shakes so badly that he starts trembling a little too. He is very aware of each bead of sweat on his body, how each muscle aches, the warm air they've generated. He looks down at her and while Inara is the most beautiful creature he's ever seen – sometimes he has to convince himself she's human – he's never seen her more lovely. He loves her. He loves her, he loves her, he loves her…

"About time you said something." Inara replies, and he realizes (go-se, go-se, and more go-se) that he must have said that last thought out loud.

She's smiling, though, so he figures it must have been the right thought to voice aloud.

::::::::::::::::::::::::

Nobody suspects a thing the next morning. Jayne can't even leave his bunk except to race to the latrine, and Zoe and Wash still have a post-sex buzz going on that makes them rather oblivious to anyone except each other. Shepherd Book might have his suspicions, but Simon and Kaylee, who are tentatively trying out this whole couple thing and are getting an earful about proper behavior, distract him.

River doesn't suspect. She knows.

"Just what did that girl say to you?" He asks Inara as she brews tea.

"Something about the history of mistletoe." She replies with a shrug that's a little too nonchalant.

Mal glances over at River, who gives him a pair of large, guileless eyes framed by delicate lashes. He doesn't buy it. She's a meddlesome little thing, despite (or perhaps because of) her mental troubles.

But then he looks back at Inara, watches her hum as she makes tea for everyone, her eyes twinkling like the lights on the tree, and he thinks that maybe he ought to give River a cut of their next job or something.

"It's a gift."

He turns around and she's right there, face solemn and hair limp and wild all at once.

"What'd you say?" He asks.

"Merry Christmas, Mal." River replies, and she smiles.

Well, if that don't beat all…

Merry Christmas! I hope it was a good present. The song that River sings is "White Winter Hymnal" by Birdy. It always struck me as something that River would sing or mumble under her breath in a mysterious fashion.

Reviews are about as precious to me as Serenity is to Mal!