Firefly, it's verse and all it's characters belong to the great Joss Whedon.

Please review, would love to know how you guys think I can improve my writing.

Also there will probably be a sequel. That is all. Good day.

River's heart beat frantically in her chest. Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead as cold, desperate, inescapable fear consumed her. All around, two by two, hands of blue held her down, poked and prodded her, brought so much pain, so much blood. Memory after memory were forced through her head, all were horrifying, all were filled with death and none belonged to the girl. She was forced to see what was not hers. River's shrill screams echoed through the research labs halls as another needle was inserted into her brain. She knew screaming was useless, no one would come for her, as none had come before in any of her other nightmares. River was completely alone.

River jolted awake in her bed. Desperately trying to catch her breath as the last remnants of her nightmare shook her slender frame, she pulled her knees into her chest and allowed her tears to wash away the fear. It had been nearly three months since Miranda and the nightmares had only gotten worse. The rest of the crew had finally begun to heal after all they had lost, but the girl could not. "Broken," she whispered to herself as she tucked her legs closer. River sat motionless in her bed trying to calm her emotions and thoughts. She couldn't heal like the rest of them, there was too much pain, too much to quantify. As the nightmares had worsened over the last few months River couldn't bring herself to approach Simon, he had finally started living his own life and was finding his happiness in Kaylee now, but River knew Simon would easily be dragged away from that if he knew what his mei mei was seeing when she closed her eyes. So for the sake of Simon, River had remained silent. Sometimes the fear and the hurt was enough to fill her to the point where she thought she was going to burst, it was only in those desperate times she would escape into the stronghold of Serenities walls and whisper to her the details of her secret pain. Sometimes it was enough. It had to be enough, because it was all she had.

After her nightmare, River lay sleepless in her bed, scanning through the dreams of her crew. Jayne dreamed of Vera and a perfect world where grenades were always needed. Inara dreamed of pretty things and fawning admirers, she was a painted doll who enjoyed being that way. River smiled as she watched Kaylee skip down a never ending strawberry field eating many as she passed by. River winced at the sight of Simon's dream, he was back on Osiris performing a surgery, doing the job she knew he loved and left, for her. Zoe's dreams always made River sad, they were all Wash, all loving and fun and shiny. Just like he was before the Reaver's took him away. River placed a loving hand gently on Serenity's wall, she missed Wash too. River scanned the last bunk and sat up in surprise when she found it empty, she scanned further down the ship until she found her target.

Mal clutched a tea tightly in his hands, willing it to erase the images of the nightmares he had been having. Ever since Miranda, he had been seeing new horrors each night when he closed his eyes, sometimes a lost comrade, an enemy he could't defeat, a crew member he couldn't save.

"But you did save them Captain," River said startling Mal as she dropped down from the air vent in front of him.

"Gorramit River," Mal wiped the tea from his bare chest where he had spilled some in his fright, "You can't go around sneakin' up on folk like that, it's like to give an old man like me a heart attack."

"Sorry Captain, the girl turned stealth mode on and she had to commit to the mission." River grabbed Mal's now empty tea cup and started to prepare them both a fresh cup.

"And what exactly was the mission little one?"

"To scare the captain," River said with a mischvious grin as Mal tried to fix her his best dagger eyes. He folded quickly.

"Well I guess' i'll be forgivin' you since you're at least fixin' me another tea. So whats got you up this late Albatross?" Mal took note of the way River tensed at his question.

"A storm captain, the girl see's things that hurt and they only get worse when she closes her eyes. She cannot keep the demons at bay when she sleeps on the job." River sat on the seat opposite to Mal as she placed a cup of tea before them both.

"I'm supposin' that means your nightmares are back Tross? I thought you were on the mend since Miranda, thought you were doin' better?"

"The assassin excels at deception Captain, you cannot trust the mask she puts on for the audience. The storm rages on and worsens since her, since Miranda" Mal studied River a little closer, it was like she was talking about him, Mal understood more then anyone the process of putting on a mask for his crew as underneath the nightmares tore at his heart and mind. River's eyes flickered with understanding as she caught a glimpse of Mal's thoughts.

"Thats why you're awake too," River leaned in closer as she placed her hand gently on his forehead. "You had nightmares before, but the demons have fed on what we went through and they grew strong from Miranda." Mal shivered at River's eerie accuracy. She may say things with an oddness to it but it didn't make her words any less true.

Mal tried to feign nonchalance and brushed her comment off with a shrug of his shoulders. "Nothin' I can't handle Albatross, I've had my fair share of nightmares. My mama used to say it's the nightmares that make the good dreams that much sweeter." River smiled at the thought of a young Mal hiding under his covers after a nightmare, calling for his mother to comfort him.

"Can you tell me about it?" River asked as she pulled her legs into her chest and tucked her knees comfortably under her chin.

"About what Tross?" Mal took another sip of his tea.

"About your life back on shadow." Mal smiled at the thought of his old home.

"Well little Albatross, growing up on shadow was a mighty fine thing, I've heard it said that it takes a village to raise a child and that's exactly what life was like for me. Every farm hand, every field worker, every cattle driver, they all looked out for me, taught me things about hard work and life in general," River let out a small sigh of content as she let Mal's voice wash over her, there was a calming presence in his voice and thoughts that helped steady the storm raging in her. Her Captain gave her an anchor point, a soothing presence to keep her in the present and a way not to lose herself in the terrifying images that wanted to bury her under their weight.

Mal and River sat there for most of the night, talking and laughing, teasing and debating. Each finding the other as a welcome distraction from the destructiveness of their own thoughts. Mal told River about the people back on Shadow and the life they had lived, he had even recounted the many pranks he pulled around the farm and River's tinkling laughter filled the room as Mal described the reaction of a very angry Mrs. Reynolds. River told Mal of her own life on Osiris, of the make believe games she used to play with Simon and the dance recitals she had always enjoyed. When they had both finished their fourth cup of tea Mal checked the time.

"Only three hours till risin' time little one mayhaps' we should give sleep another try," Mal stretched his arms wide as he got up from his seat, "I surely don't want my pilot crashing my girl here cos' she's sleep deprived." Mal teased with wink.

River shot Mal dagger eyes as she too stood from her seat, "That was only one occurrence Captain. The blame for that incident lay in Simon's inability to provide me with the right dosage of medication. His drugs knocked me out and you know it." River knew Mal was teasing but she hated to be reminded of the time she fell asleep mid landing to awake to a hysterical Mal and a crashed Serenity.

Mal chuckled at her passionate reaction, "Don't I know it, I gave the doc' an earful for that incident, now off to bed with you Albatross."

"Good night captain," River said as she gracefully glided from sight. Mal watched her disappear around the corner towards the passenger dorms. He silently scolded himself for not seeing River's fragile condition since Miranda. He was her captain and it was his job to look out for her. Mal replayed the night over in his head, River had certainly seemed ok, she had lauged, teased and joked with him for most of the night. Mal couldn't help but smile at the thought, He couldn't remember the last time since Miranda he had actually enjoyed himself like he did tonight, for those few hours his nightmares had been forgotten.

On the other side of the ship River settled herself into her bed with a soft smile on her face as she recounted her conversation with the captain. There hadn't been a single moment since Miranda when she had felt as comfortable and unburdened as she had tonight. Being around Mal reigned in the hurtful thoughts that often ran through her head, gave her space to think clearly again, space to find the girl and not the broken toy.

On opposite sides of the ship Mal and River both slept, not free of nightmares, but for once in a very long time they lived through their nightmares without that cold, inescapable hopelessness.

"Morning all," Mal greeted his crew as he entered the galley and headed for the kettle.

"Captain," Zoe nodded in greeting. Jayne mumbled what Mal thought was a good morning but he couldn't be sure with Jayne's head sleepily laid on the table.

"Mornin' captain," Kaylee greeted cheerily as she placed a kiss on Mal's cheek.

"Captain," Simon greeted sleepily from where he was lying down on the couch.

"You look a mite bit tired Doc," Mal remarked casually as he fixed himself a cup of tea.

"That's my fault Cap'n, I tired him out this morning," Kaylee winked at a blushing Simon as the rest of the crew groaned at the knowledge.

"I can't know that Kaylee, I can't know that," Mal shivered at the image.

"Good morning everyone, Mal," Inara greeted as she gracefully sauntered into the galley.

Mal greeted her with a warm smile at the seperation of his greeting from the rest of crew. Ever since she decided to stay on Serenity things had been different between them, they weren't always fighting, mayhaps they had a chance of actually making something work.

"Nara," He replied in greeting.

"Good morning captain," River greeted over the com.

"And how's our girl this morning Albatross, flying true?" Mal asked.

"This isn't River captain, this is Serenity."

"Not again," Simon groaned from the couch.

"River, what have I told you about becoming the ship?" Mal scolded into the air.

"I told you Captain, this is serenity, and Mal, serenity is very hungry. She needs breakfast!" River's ethereal tone altered to a more River-like demanding voice on that last request.

"River, last time you did this you wanted to be a leaf in the wind and near damn killed us all when you tried to do summersaults with my gorram' ship."

"Serenity needed to fly free captain! Now breakfast!" The crew laughed at the captain and the pilot's exchange, they all new this routine as it was a favorite way of River's to annoy the captain.

"Better give her what she wants cap' you remember the last time Serenity wasn't happy." Zoe suggested with a grin.

"Fine, I'm comin' on up, just no gorram' summersaults." Mal made his way up to the bridge with some protein oatmeal in hand and a laughing crew in his wake.

"Thank you Captain," River said by way of greeting as she gratefully took the oatmeal from Mal.

"Your welcome Tross," Mal sat himself in the co-Pilots chair as he watched River set their course and trajectory in the system. Three months ago the girl had never flown a ship and now he was sure River could outfly Wash with her eyes blindfolded. River could feel the gentle hum of Mals thoughts in her head, he had learned to block most of his thoughts from River but she could always feel that anchoring presence when he was around that helped her be River and not the broken pieces of the girl.

Mal and River had never really talked before the night before, both had known the other on some level, after all they were kindred spirits in their sufferings. Sometimes River thought that's why she never took the shot at Maidenhead, because they understood each other on some level and she knew he wouldn't have left her unconscious on the floor after Simon had put her to sleep. But something about last night broke down any barriers they had from forming a friendship. They had shared so much with each other the night before that they both found it easy to pick up were they left off. Conversation flowed easily between them when once they would have sat in companionable silence, and though neither of them realised it, they began to heal.

That night River hummed to herself as she listened to Serenity's beating heart from Kaylee's hammock. Their conversation the night before had made River curious about the things Mal saw wen he closed his eyes and she wondered if they were anything like what she saw. River gently prodded into his thoughts until a clear picture of Mal's dreams flowed into her mind.

Mal limped bloody and near broken towards the elevator shaft. The message was out. The Alliance wouldn't be able to hide the truth of Miranda from the verse anymore. With the mission complete Mal descended down the floors with thoughts only for his crew. If any of em' were gone, Mals breath caught in his throat at the thought. He had lost so many already, he couldn't lose his crew too. The elevator doors opened, Mal let out a single sob in horror. Scattered on the floor around him were the bodies of his crew members, all bloody and lifeless. Mal felt a sliver of hope when he noticed River wasn't among them, maybe, just maybe, someone had survived this. The shaft doors opened and Mal could just make out River's purple dress now soaked with Red. His relief turned to pain when he realised she lay lifeless in the grasp of two reavers who were both fighting over her corpse. Mal sank to his knees as he began to sob, the pain of his loss bearing down on him.

Mal bolted awake in bed. His sheets drenched in sweat and his pulse racing. He sighed heavily as he looked at the time. Probably wouldn't get anymore gorram' sleep tonight. Mal pulled on a shirt patted down his disheveled hair and made his way for the galley.

In the engine room, River's own heart was beating frantically. River had not just seen the dream, she had felt it, she had felt every bit of despair and hopelessness Mal had felt at that moment before he woke up, and her heart broke for him, "He's broken too, like the girl," River told Serenity after her heart calmed, "It makes you sad to see your Captain more broken then before," River patted Serenity's walls in sympathy, "don't worry I'll try and fix him." River could feel Serenity's happiness at this notion before she left for the galley.

Mal sat in his usual position in the galley, palm on forehead hunched over his tea which he grasped tightly in his other hand. Were the Go se dreams ever going to end? He had barely gotten any sleep for the past few months and by now the crew knew to give him his space, the captain's short temper was not much of a secret. Mal shivered as he felt the gaze of someone on him and looked up towards the air vents to see the big brown eyes of River staring down at him.

"It's rude to stare little one, want some tea?"

River dropped silently to the ground from her perch, "Yes please captain, and I wasn't staring, I was analyzing several different scenarios and the results they might yield."

"And what scenarios might that be?" Mal set a steaming cup into River's grateful hands.

"You Captain, Serenity is worried about you and she want's me to calculate the solution to this equation."

Mal smiled at the thought of Serenity's worry, most people brushed River's remarks like that aside when she started talking about inanimate objects, but Mal knew Serenity was more then just a ship.

"I wasn't any under notion that I needed fixin' darlin'."

"Not fixing captain, healing, calm the storm. She wants you to live in the truth and not the alternative, you didn't lose us on Miranda, you kept us safe."

Mal nearly choked on his tea at River's remark, the truth behind it. "Have you been listenin' in my head again Tross?"

"Your dreams are very loud captain, as are the emotions that come with it."

"Well i'm sorry if they woke you then." Mal surprised himself when he realised he didn't rightly mind River knowing the demons that plagued him. He knew the rest of the crew would either look at him with pity or as weak. Not River though, she understood what it meant to be plagued by a past you couldn't escape Mal smiled warmly at River when he realised she was looking at him just the same as always.

"Was already awake Captain, the shadows have hidden sleep from me, no clues, no map, no 'x' to mark the spot, lost for tonight the girl thinks."

Their conversation soon drifted to lighter topics as it had the night before. Mal taught her the stories and legends behind the constellation of the stars while River explained concepts and technique behind dance and music. Early into the next morning they called it a night and headed for their own beds.

Mal smiled to himself as he got into bed, he didn't know what it was about talking to River, maybe it was that she understood him and what he was going through, or maybe it was the thought that he could open up to a reader without having to share anything out loud that did it, but one think he did know was that he would probably sleep better for it.

River yawned sleepily in her bed. Relief came at the thought that she had found sleep, he was already welcoming her with her yawns and she stretched happily in anticipation. River smiled to herself as she remembered what she had said to the captain, how sleep had been hidden from her. "The captain is my map," River whispered to Serenity before drifting off.

Though nightmares touched both of them that morning, neither woke up breathless or with their heart racing, things were changing.

The crew went about their usual jobs the next day, they were landing in persephone in an hour and the crew buzzed with excitement at the thought of going dirt side for a change.

"We're going on a picnic!" Kaylee exclaimed happily when asked what she and Simon were doing, "then we'll be staying the night in a fancy like hotel!"

"Just please no stagnant bodies of water on our picnic Kaylee, they're a breeding ground for bacteria," Simon pleaded.

"You're so smart and doctory," Kaylee praised before planting a kiss on his cheek.

"I'm gonna' go get myself some good times," Jayne hinted suggestively.

"So booze and girls then Jayne?" Mal asked already knowing the answer.

"All night long," Jayne replied with a wink.

"What about you Nara, where you headed," Mal asked, hoping they would finally be able to spend some time together away from the crew.

"I have a client I have to meet but I'll be back tomorrow."

Mal winced inwardly at the thought of Inara with a client, but even with a reply like that he reigned in all his scathing comments that would end with the word 'whoring'.

"I can stay with the ship Captain if you want to go dirt side," Zoe offered.

"I'll be right with my girl here Zoe, you go over, I know there's a couple shops you've been meaning to stop by."

"Thank you captain, that would be much appreciated. There's a couple on the far side of town i've got the notion to pass by so I'll probably be looking into staying at an inn for the night."

"No problem Zoe, River and I can look after the ship for the night. While i'm here I'll contact some people and see if I can find us a job."

Simon winced at the thought of leaving his mei mei alone on the ship with the captain, the captain he didn't think much of.

"Please just look after River Captain, she's very good at wandering off, and being a trained assassin she'll have no trouble sneaking off somewhere so the trick is not to let her out of your sight at all and -"

Mal pushed Simon out of the galley and towards his and kaylee's bunk interrupting his overprotective rant. "Now don't you worry that head of yours doc. I'll take good care of your mei mei. Now go pack and make sure you bring my mechanic back nice and happy or else I'll have to leave you dirt side when we take off." Mal cut off any other comments Simon may have added by pushing him down into the bunk to let Kaylee fuss over him and their packing plans.

Mal sighed as he headed back for the galley happy to escape another 'look after my sister' rant from Simon. Mal chuckled at the thought of looking after River, that Fong luh girl would have him disarmed and on the ground in a second before Mal could even think about standing in the way of wherever she was sneakin' off to.

Mal waved his crew off as they all made their way through the cargo bay doors and towards their separate destinations.

"Looks like it's just you and me Albatross, nice landing by the way," Mal remarked as he sat himself down in the co-pilots seat next to River.

"As it should be Captain, I wouldn't advise leaving Serenity without her captain or her luck for prolonged periods of time."

"Well that notions fine by me Tross."

Mal and River went about their own days, Mal found them a job delivering some cargo and went around his ship doing captainy things while he suspected River of playing in the walls of Serenity. Mal smiled at the notion of River 'playing' with Serenity, it was like he found a playmate for his ship, someone who loved her as much as he did. Mal had just reached the bridge when he heard a crash and a shatter from the galley. Mal ran in that direction hearing River's shouts as he got closer. Wuo de ma, Simon was going to kill him.

"Two by two hands of blue! Two by two! They poke and prod! Go where they are not welcome! Get out of her head! She's not your plaything anymore!" Mal raced into the galley to see River backed into a corner with her knees tucked under chin, her hands covering her ears and tears flowing freely from her eyes. A trail of blood marked where she had stepped on the broken glass she had shattered during her episode. "Made her broken! Two by two!"

Mal approached her cautiously lowering himself down in front of her.

"River, sweetheart, you're alright, you need to come back to me darlin', they can't hurt you anymore." River opened her eyes at the sound of his voice, her anchor, her map, it helped to settle the voices.

"But they'll always come captain, always looking, they'll sniff her out, catch her scent, leave a trail of bodies, hurt the ones she loves." River's sentenced trailed off into a string of quiet sobs.

"River, if any bodies are bein' left, that ain't your sin, that there belongs to the alliance and whatever other organization is involved. And as far as anyone finding you goes, I haven't let anyone get you yet Albatross, and I ain't planning on giving you up to anyone ever." River calmed at the sincerity behind his words. Finally settling down from her hysterics the two sat there in silence for a while as River allowed the presence of Mal's thoughts to further soothe her own.

"You poking around in my head Albatross?" Mal questioned, suspicious of her silence.

"Not poking captain, or listening, more like just sitting next to, feeling your thoughts, it helps me find my way back, you calm the storm." Mal looked at her in surprise.

"Why is that Tross?"

"Just you captain. I speculate it's just the way your mind works, you block me enough that I don't feel the chaos of another set of thoughts and emotions, but through that block I can still feel you, I think it's comforting because you're broken too, but still solid, grounded, something I can steady myself with."

"Huh," Mal remarked thinking over River's words, "Well in that case you're welcome to sit your mind next to mine any time you like. Now, lets get those tiny little feet of your bandaged."

"Not tiny yours are just ginormous," River teased as she stuck her tongue out at Mal. Mal pulled River into his arms and started to carry her towards the infirmary.

"Better take that ginormous comment back before I drop you little one," Mal said with an amused glint in his eye.

"You wouldn't captain," River stated confidently.

"And why's that Tross?" Mal carefully maneuvered them down the stairs careful not to hit River's head along the way.

"Your Mother raised you right captain," she stated matter of factly.

"Well she'd be mighty pleased to hear you think so."

It took Mal a good twenty minutes to remove all the glass splinters from River's feet. It didn't help that during the process River listed off all the complications that could arise if any splinters were left in with what she said was a 76% chance of growing into an infection with a 14% chance of an infection that could lead to fatality.

"How bout' you let me focus here little one," Mal pleaded with her.

"Just trying to expand your medical knowledge captain," she replied calm as a stream, not even flinching whilst Mal pulled out the worst of the shards from her bloody feet. After Mal had finished, River laughed merrily as she looked at her completely bandaged feet.

"Look captain, you gave me dancing shoes," River emphasized her point by performing a flawless pirouette on pointe and leaping into a graceful jete.

"As prettily as your dancing is River, your brother's gonna' kill me if he finds out I let you dance about the ship on your newly injured feet, new shoes and all."

"I see your logic captain, 5.3% chance he would kill you, 65% chance he would punch you."

"Well ending on that happy note how abouts' we call it a night now that your all bandaged up?"

River pouted sulkily at the mention of bed but nodded her head in compliance anyway, "aye aye captain."

Mal smiled as he saw River sneak another graceful turn into her exit as she disappeared toward the passenger dorms. He wasn't about tell Simon if she wasn't.

Mal locked up the ship before heading to his own bunk hoping to find some rest of his own.

Mal's eyes shot open. He looked at the clock next to his bed, 2am, just his gorram' luck. It could've been worse, Mal thought to himself, the nightmares didn't seem as inescapable as they had been before, they were still the same painful images but Mal was starting to feel like he could live through it, bare it. Mal shoved on a shirt before heading up to the galley as was becoming his nightly routine.

"Evening captain," River greeted as Mal entered the galley. River sat cross legged on the dining table, a sketch book and pencil in her hand and two steaming cups of tea set before her.

"Feels like you knew I was coming Albatross," Mal said in a yawn as he took his cup and a seat in front of River.

"Felt you wake up captain, but was in here already," River hadn't even looked up from her sketchbook but remained focus on her paper.

"You ain't been sleeping much Albatross? I've been doing a lot better myself, I was supposin' you might be too."

"Better, but having your hand in the flames is better than having your entire self in the flames. In the end, your still burning in the fire. Still hurting." River wasn't exactly lying, but she didn't want to tell the captain she only slept better after being around him.

Mal nodded in understanding as he took another sip of his tea.

They spent that night as they had the previous nights before. They talked of things that didn't mean anything and things that were important to them. Mal recounted the tales of his greatest heists and River tried to explain the concept of molecular physics. After their third cup of tea, a migration to the more comfortable couch and a very intense debate over whether the blade or gun was a more effective weapon the pair finally called it a night.

River and Mal eased gently into sleep, both were surprised when they awoke and realised they had experienced their first dreamless sleep in months.

"What did you do?!" Simon yelled angrily at Mal the next morning while examining his sister's bandaged feet.

"Sorry Doc, she just had an accident is all," Mal tried to justify.

"It wasn't his fault Simon, don't be such a boob," River said as she wiggled her bandage covered toes, "the captain performed admirably in your absence as acting physician, all shards removed, then I danced with my new shoes." River smiled happily up at Mal while he shot back dagger eyes.

"You let her dance on them?" Simon asked incredulously.

"Traitor," Mal muttered to River as she stuck his tongue out at him.

"Now calm down sweetie," Kaylee instructed as she took Simon's hand, "Now River said it wasn't the captain's fault and she said herself he patched her up alright, how bout' we just leave it that." Simon muttered angrily under his breath as he let Kaylee lead him away towards their bunk.

"Can't believe you told on me little one," Mal feigned hurt as he turned on River.

"Also defended you Captain," River reasoned.

"Defended the captain from what?" Zoe asked as she entered the bridge.

"From Simon," River replied.

"Now hold on now, I don't need no defending from Simon, it wasn't that kind of defending anyway." Mal complained trying to regain his dignity in this situation.

"No, I had to defend his honor, Simon and I dueled, I'm his hero," Zoe smiled, amused at River's account of the situation.

"Well looks like you were lucky she was there sir," Zoe teased.

"I wear a pretty floral bonnet one time and I lose all respect on my own gorram' ship. So on another topic where i'm not being all emasculated like, did you get all those supplies we needed Zoe?"

"Sure did Sir, any news on some jobs?"

"We got some cargo being delivered today, we'll take it to New Melbourne, make the drop, get paid, easy money."

Zoe and River both rolled their eyes.

"Right, because the job always goes according to plan," Zoe said drily.

"Well, this one might," Mal stated hopefully.

"46% chance you'll be shot again," River said as she plotted a trajectory for New Melbourne.

"I'll go get Jayne and get the cargo bay ready." Zoe left them with an amused glint still in her eyes.

"46%," Mal questioned incredulously.

River just smiled at him, "don't worry captain, I'll protect you and your pretty floral bonnet too."

"Get no respect in my own gorram' ship," he muttered under his breath before going to greet Inara who had just docked her shuttle.

"Mal, you still havn't learned how to knock," Inara complained as he barged into her shuttle.

"Sorry, it's a captain thing, just can't get used to knocking on the door of my own shuttle,"

"Which I rent and is my personal residence," Inara reminded him.

"Sorry Inara," Mal apologised genuinley when he saw he was pushing her away again with his old bad habits.

"Just came to let you know our next stop is New Melbourne, we should be there around tomorrow night dirt side time if you want to give your clients a heads up."

"Thank you Mal, I really do appreciate it. Now I can tell when you're holding back, so why are you really here?"

Mal blushed at being caught out, "well, it was just, I've been thinking," He started nervously, "You decided you wanted to stay on Serenity and its no big secret I want you here more then anybody so I was supposin' it was about time that we could try-"

"Hold on Mal," Inara interrupted, "I think I know where you're going with this so let me say something first. You know I chose to stay on Serenity for a lot of reasons and we both know one of those reasons was you, but Mal, ever since Miranda, you're not the same as you were, you're always distant and broody, and I just don't think we should try anything until you get past this, until you heal."

"Well it's good to know you think I need fixin' Nara, and it's even better to know that if there is any healing to be done you're not willing to be there for it." Mal stood to leave, hurt by her unexpected rejection.

"Mal," Inara called, stopping Mal in his tracks before he left, "I'm just trying to save whatever future we might be able to have together, by not letting us drag our past into it. We just need a bit of time, that's all." Mal's anger faded, Inara's fluttering eye lashes swaying him to her point of view.

Mal sighed heavily before going through the shuttle doors, "Just let me know when you think the time is right Nara."

Mal made his way gloomily back to the bridge replaying Inara's words over again in his head. He wasn't broody, or distant. If he was broody and distant he wouldn't have approached her like he did. Mal stopped in his reverie when he entered the bridge to find it empty. "Where's my gorram' pilot now," he muttered to himself.

"Here," River yelled as she dropped down from her hold on the ceiling. Mal nearly jumped in fright as he drew his gun and turned to face the reason for his scare behind him.

"Ye Soo River, I could've gorram' shot you!" Mal scolded as he holstered his weapon.

"Too slow captain, would've disarmed you in 1.2 seconds," River grinned at the captain before retaking her spot at the controls.

"I'd like to think it'd take mite longer then that little one."

"Captain, Cargo is on board and all crew are accounted for. We're good to go," Zoe's voice over the com interrupted what would have become a rather heated debate.

"Thanks Zoe, we'll head out now," Mal replied over the com. "Alright Albatross," Mal directed at River as he took his own seat at the co-pilots controls, "How bout' you get our girl back in the black?"

"With pleasure captain, setting her on course for new Melbourne now." River fiddled with the control buttons as Serenity gracefully glided from port and headed out to exit the atmoshpere.

Mal made his regular rounds around the ship that night. Knowing the cargo was secure in his hold and his crew were all safe and asleep in their bunks, might just be enough to help him sleep. He was wrong.

Mal woke with a start. Mal waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness before he threw on a shirt and headed for the galley. Just like the night before he found River already in the galley sitting cross legged on the dining table with a sketchbook in her lap and two fresh cups of tea before her.

"Evening River," Mal greeted no longer surprised that his reader had known he was coming.

"Evening captain," River greeted as she continued her sketch.

"Watcha' sketching there Tross," Mal asked as he sat down.

River held up her sketch for Mal's inspection, Mal scowled at her when he saw an incredibly realistic pencil drawing of himself flaunting a pretty floral bonnet.

"Seems to me I need to start tossing crew out into the airlock to get some respect back round here," he muttered.

Mal flipped through River's other sketches admiring her work. His hands froze over a page when he saw the exact likeness of Inara looking up at him from the paper.

River noticed where his attention had strayed when she saw the sketch Mal was looking at.

"Captain, I picked up some thoughts from Inara earlier, are you emotionally and pysclogically sound?"

"I'm supposin' that's your way of asking me if i'm alright little one, and I thank you for your concern, but it ain't rightly needed in this instance." Mal didn't meet River's eyes as he tried to end the topic.

"Captain," River started, determination clear in her tone, "I am Serenity's pilot, and part of that job means looking after her when she's sad, and you hurting is making her sad, so cut it out." River emphasized her seriousness with a lengthy glare.

Mal couldn't help but laugh at River's no nonsense tone and her frank demand.

"Alright Albatross, I'll cut it out. I suppose that reader head of yours knows why we were arguing?"

River gave Mal her best, 'of course I know, you boob,' look. "I don't think you're broody or distant Captain," River said with a smile.

"Why thank you Tross,"

"I do think your... troubled,"

"Well that's much better, thanks River," Mal said sarcastically.

"Haunted? Mentally fragile?" River listed, enjoying herself immensely as she teased Mal.

"How bout' you stop trying to make me feel better Tross," Mal chuckled.

"Well I made you smile anyway Captain," River stated with a smug smile.

"I suppose you did at that little one."

Mal opened his eyes slowly, adjusting to the light of the bunks day settings, "Gaaaaaah!" Mal yelled when he saw a pair of big brown eyes looking straight down at him from the air vent over his bed.

"Good morning captain," River greeted cheerily as she let herself drop onto his bed from her perch.

"River! What the hell are you doing sneaking into my bunk?" Mal modestly pulled the blankets over his bare chest.

"Captain, I've helped Simon extract numerous bullets from you in the past, I have seen you shirtless before."

"Well I wouldn't say 'numerous,' more like a few, anyway, why are you in my bunk River?" Mal gave up on his authorative and began to pull on a shirt.

"Giants in my head striking hammers, the nightmares trying to burst through the cracks they make, needed to steady myself, you were too far." Mal noticed the pleading in River's eyes as she silently begged him not to send her away.

Mal gave a defeated sigh, "Well it sounds like you've got a mighty fearsome headache Tross, it wouldn't be very captainy of me to send you away if I can help."

"Thank you captain," River beamed up at him as he tried to comb out the tangles of his bed hair.

"Just don't rat me out to your brother again, he'll say i'm corrupting you or somethin' along those likes."

"You have corrupted me captain, taught me to walk in a life of crime, made me a crook," River mocked regret as she delicately placed a hand across her forehead.

"Hey," Mal whined, his complaint muffled by the toothbrush in his mouth, "I'm no crook, dashingly handsome renegade or rouge maybe, but not a crook."

When Mal was ready they headed for the galley continuing their argument along the way.

"I told you captain," River started stubbornly, "a rogue is defined as a dishonest or unprincipled man, a renegade man is one who has deserted or betrayed an organisation, country or a set of principles. As you cannot be defined as a traitor or someone as dishonorable as a rogue, the accurate label is a crook, which is someone who has committed or been convicted of a crime. That is you, my logic is sound, you can't win this." River walked into the galley with her head held high in trimph.

"Crook just sounds so petty," Mal said sulkily as he followed her into the galley.

"Morning captain, River" Kaylee greeted cheerily as River and Mal arrived.

Jayne grunted in their direction and Zoe gave a nod of greeting.

"Morning Simon," River greeted placing a kiss on his cheek.

"Morning mei mei."

"What's got you looking so sulky this morning captain?" Zoe asked.

"River called me a petty thief," Mal accused. Zoe raised her eyebrows in the, 'are you serious' Zoe like way.

"False accusation captain, I called you a crook, different." River defended.

"But crook sounds petty," Mal retorted.

"Ok, kids," Zoe interrupted before they started really arguing, "Mal she didn't call you petty, River, no calling the captain names, now grab your breakfast and go play nice on the bridge so we get to the job in one piece tonight."

"Fine," they both agreed in unison.

"It's nice to see those two together," Kaylee remarked as River and Mal left playfully knocking each other on the shoulders to get through the door first.

"What do you mean?" Simon asked, unhappy to have his mei mei spending so much time with the roguish captain.

"I just mean, it's like they both finally have a playmate is all. They're always arguin' and teasin' and playin' around now a days. It's nice to see them both happy."

"Well if moonbrain is the reason Mal hasn't been snapping at me these last few days I say she ain't never leaving us," Jayne said.

"It's nice too see you care Jayne," Zoe said sarcastically before heading out to complete her own tasks for the day.

Later that night Serenity gracefully descended into the shadows of New Melbourne's docking site.

"It's rude to stare," River said feeling Mal's presence behind her as she finished setting Serenity's controls.

Mal chuckled to have his own words thrown back at him. "Sorry Tross, it just always amazes me to watch you land, a few months on the job and you're the best gorram' pilot I've ever seen."

"Why thank you captain," River said with a curtsy after getting up from her chair, "Now, get of this ship captain, 35% chance your contact will shoot you for tardiness, he's bipolar."

"Well thanks for the warning little one," Mal said suddenly eager to get off the ship. "Jayne, Zoe, time to head out, we got some cargo to drop." He said over the com.

"Good luck Captain," River called as she watched him leave.

"That's why I got you Albatross," Mal said with a wink before heading out.

"Bleh," River complained in mock disgust as she walked into the galley to see Kaylee and Simon snuggling on the couch.

"Tell me about it," Inara sympathized from her place at the dining table.

"Ah please, you're all just jealous is all, jealous I got me a smartipants doctor," Kaylee wiggled her eyebrows playfully before giving Simon a wink.

"But he's such a boob Kaylee," River joked before Simon stuck his tongue out in retaliation.

"I think he's shiny," Kaylee retorted, giving Simon a big kiss on the cheek.

"Well, thank you Kaylee," Simon said beaming down at her.

"Well I think," River began before she let out a sudden scream. River's heart raced at the thoughts that were running through her head, treachery, a snake in the grass, a lurking shadow. Death. So much death. The images consumed her to the point that she hadn't realised she lay shaking, collapsed in Simon's arms.

"River?" Simon shouted frantically, checking her pulse and heart rate.

"Simon what's happening?" Inara asked as she tried to console the crying Kaylee.

"I don't know, she doesn't usually collapse like this when she has an episode, she usually just loses her grip on reality, this is-," Simon was interrupted when River's eyes shot open as she leapt up out of Simon's arms.

"The snake is going to strike, must crush it's head, must save them," River raced out of the galley sealing the doors behind her, "Can't be followed," River exclaimed to Simon while he was banging on the door window and screaming for her to open the door.

"Must save them," River repeated as she ran for the cargo bay. River quickly set Serenity's empty shuttle into motion and maneuvered it from her dock. "I'm coming captain," River whispered into the air as she set the shuttle to it's maximum speed and headed for the cargo drop point.

"Hold on now," Mal said calmly with his hands raised in the air and his gun out of reach on the ground. "There ain't no reason we can't all walk away from this breathin', if it's the price you got a problem with I'm sure we can negotiate."

The two hulking men who held Jayne and Zoe down on the ground chuckled at Mal's comment.

"Why are we laughin'?" Mal asked a little unsteadily. With Jayne and Zoe both on the ground, his weapon out of reach and five armed thugs surrounding him he couldn't think of a single gorram' plan that would end with all of them alive.

"They laugh, Mr Reynolds because they know the price is not the problem," The obvious leader of the group said as he twirled a dagger absentmindedly in his hand, "The problem is you killed my brother, the late and once great, Nishka."

"Oh, brother huh? Well i'm really sorry for your loss and may I just say that your brother was one of the loveliest sadistic sociopaths I've had the pleasure of meeting, great guy." Mal gave an unsteady grin in his direction.

"No need to beat around the bush Mr Reynolds, I know my brother was a Shiong-muh duh duang-ren, but still, he was family and thus must be avenged, and I am thinking that your three lives is just enough to pay the price for his."

"Are you kidding me?," Mal started, abandoning niceties once it was clear these guys weren't going to let any of them go, "If you paid just my life for his you'd still need at least a Jayne-worth of change."

"Hey, I ain't no piece of change," Jayne complained from his compromising position on the ground.

"Not the time Jayne," Zoe cautioned in her authoritative tone.

"Well, worth always increases once someone is dead so I take all three anyway," Nishka's brother said before raising his gun and pointing directly between Mal's eyes.

"Goodbye Mr. Reynolds," He said before he was distracted from pulling the trigger by an eerie tinkling of a voice behind him.

"You can't kill a captain who take's his luck with him," River whispered before thrusting her blade through the man's back into his heart. Mal grabbed the gun that was previously pointed at him and shot the man restraining Zoe while River dodged an oncoming bullet and threw her already bloody dagger into the heart of another thug. While Zoe took out the man holding Jayne Down River ran for the last man standing. Before his bullet could hit her she slid to the ground and through his legs leaping up behind him as she grabbed his head and ended his life with a sharp twist of his neck.

River stood motionless for a while, her breathing fast and her heart racing, she walked over to her second victim and retrieved her bloody dagger from her corpses heart.

"Where in the hell did you come from?" Jayne questioned finally breaking the silence of the tense moment.

River couldn't help but smile, "the witch comes from the sky Jayne, on wings she flys."

"Great, Crazy's got gorram' wings now!" Jayne retrieved his numerous weapons from the ground handing Mal and Zoe their own.

"The shuttle Jayne, I came in the shuttle," River cleared up.

"And we're lucky you did," Zoe said, thanking River with a quick squeeze of her hand. River looked over to Mal who wouldn't look her in the eye and remained silent.

"Zoe, grab our pay, Jayne and you can take the cargo on the mule back to the ship, River and I will fly." Mal ordered, a tenseness in his tone.

River lead Mal silently towards the shuttle, as she tried to think why he was angry. His thoughts were practically a brewing storm, her access to the details he blocked but she could still feel the intensity behind them.

River closed the doors behind them and turned to see an angry pair of blue eyes baring down on her.

"What in the Wu de tyen ah were you thinking?" Mal demanded, his tone dangerously low.


"You could have got yourself killed tonight River!" Mal shouted angrily, "If those guys heard the shuttle, or heard you coming, or worse, if one of them recognized you and got away to tell the alliance, do you realise what sort of danger you put yourself in tonight? Jayne and Zoe that's what they signed up for, that's their job, you're my pilot. You're meant to stay safe and secure on my boat." Mal finished a little out of breath from his angry rant.

River finally saw it, she saw the waves of fear in Mal's eyes and she understood his anger. All his nightmares of Miranda, it was the flicker of hope that she would be alive behind those blast doors that made the despair and hopelessness so complete when they opened to reveal her broken and lifeless on the floor. Seeing her in a situation so close to death had made those nightmares too real for him.

"Captain, I watched you die. Thats why I came, I had vision after vision of all the possible deaths those men could choose for you and Zoe and Jayne and I had to watch you all die over and over again in the span of a few seconds. I have my own nightmares captain, and tonight I had to come to stop them from coming true."

Mal gave a heavy sigh as he ruffled his hair instinctively.

"I'm sorry River, I was just worried is all. I thought I was going to die. I really thought it would happen this time, and then to see you there in a situation like that."

"I know captain," River answered with a small smile. Before Mal could protest River had closed the distance between them and crushed Mal in a tight hug, "I'm glad you're not dead captain."

"Me too Albatross," Mal smiled at the sudden hug from his little assassin and wrapped his own arms around her, "But you can't kill a captain who's got his luck with him."

"River Tam, I heard the shuttle docking, you get up here and unseal these doors right now you brat and tell me where you've been!" Simon's angry voice echoed through the cargo bay over the com as Mal and River left the shuttle.

"River, why am I hearing angry doc shouts over the com?" Mal asked knowing somehow he would get blamed for this.

"I sealed everyone in the galley so they wouldn't follow me when I staged my daring rescue. And Zoe and Jayne are 5 minutes away." River said nonchalantly.

"I got no notion why I never got a reader before you Tross, it's mighty useful."

"Captain, even if you found a reader, you would never find one like me." River said with a raised eyebrow.

"You do have an oddness to you," Mal joked with a warm smile, happy to be alive and back on his ship, "now how's about we go release you're brother?"

River pouted at the thought but followed Mal towards the Galley anyway.

"I havn't seen the doc that mad since you nearly got River eaten by reavers," Jayne sniggered as River handed Mal a bag full of ice to place on his swollen lip.

"Crazy fun," Mal cringed at the pain talkin' caused and then reminded himself not to cringe because that gorram' hurt too.

"I'm sorry he punched you captain, he was angry at me for running off, he just took it all out on you."

"No kidding," Zoe chuckled as Mal placed the ice on his lip and cringed slightly.

"Im glad you're all enjoying the show," Mal said sarcastically.

"Alrighty then, Simon's all calmed down and wont be punching nobody else tonight," Kaylee said enthusiastically as she entered the galley.

"There's always tomorrow," Jayne chuckled under his breath before standing up to head for his bunk, "Thanks for the save Moonbrain." He called before leaving.

"Where's Nara?" Mal asked Kaylee, hoping to hear tales of her worry and concern for him.

"She fell asleep while River was gone and went to bed sometime after you unsealed the doors."

"Thanks for the concern," Mal muttered under his breath, offended at Inara's indifference.

"Well on that note, I'll be heading off too, night to all of you and thank you River, wouldn't be here without you," Zoe said before leaving for her own bunk.

"I'm off too," Kaylee said shortly after, "Night River, thanks for bringing my captain home," she said sweetly as she placed an innocent kiss on Mal's cheek.

Mal and River enjoyed the silence their crew mates left. Mal looked over to see River closing her eyes with a content smile on her face. Mal couldn't help but smile at the sight.

"I never did say thank you little one. You did a mighty fine thing today saving all of our pee goos and I appreciate it Tross. Truly I do."

River opened her eyes and beamed at Mal's gratitude.

"I told you I would protect you and your pretty floral bonnet captain," River couldn't help but say it with a teasing smile.

"I take it back," Mal joked before getting up to make them both their nightly tea's.

a few hours later, after much talk and laughter as usual, River let out a big yawn, no longer unable to mask her fatigue.

"I'll take that as our cue to get some sleep little one," Mal stated as he stood to get ready to leave.

"Good call captain," agreed she headed for her room in the passenger dorms.

"Hey river," mal called before she was completely out of sight, "I've been thinking, maybe, if you want to that is, you could move down to one of the empty crew bunks. You more then deserve your place in the crew and being closer to my bunk would probably help your nightmares a bit and-" before Mal could finish listing off the benefits of a crew bunk River had crushed him for a second time in a massive hug.

"Thank you captain," River exclaimed gleefully, "I'll move in tomorrow."

"No problem Tross, let me know when you're getting to it and I'll give you a hand."

After saying good night they both made there way for their own beds, River excitedly skipping and Mal chuckling at his little assassin's enthusiasm.

The next morning Mal woke from another dreamless sleep. A lazy smile spread across his face as he fully appreciated the fact that he was finally getting some restful sleep.

"Me too captain, the nightmares are in their cages, still trying to break free but not running rampant in the girls sleep anymore."

"Your in my bunk again Albatross," not that he minded much, if he was honest with himself. He hadn't really realised how attached he had become to his Albatross until he thought he could lose her last night. Truth was, he always felt better when she was around. He didn't feel so damaged around her.

River leapt down from her perch atop Mal's cupboard and sat next to Mal on his bed.

"Just because the nightmares are caged doesn't mean they're not striking their hammers to break free captain. The girl needs her anchor" Mal rolled his eyes at her cryptic explanation, he always understood the oddness to the way she spoke, but it was just too gorram' early.

"Don't make faces," River instructed, "you know what I mean anyway."

"I do at that little one, and like I said, I'm here to help my pilot, headaches and all. Now let's get some breakfast."

Later that day:

"What's going on here?" Inara asked she dropped into one of the empty crew bunks to see Mal covered in paint and a laughing River with a paintbrush in her hand.

"Captain's letting me paint my new room," River explained with a beaming smile.

"I said one wall Tross, not the whole room," Mal corrected as he inspected his paint covered self, "And River here, the trained assassin with skill and grace beyond the likes' that the verse has ever seen just happened to 'slip' and 'accidentally' get paint all over me." Mal glared at River which only made River laugh more as the paint on his face began to crinkle.

"There will be pay back darlin','" Mal said menacingly before leaping for River with his own paintbrush raised.

Inara watched in shock as River ran from the bunk screaming with a determined Mal in her wake.

"Isn't it cute to see em' playin'?" Kaylee asked Inara as she walked past to see the paint war.

"I don't think I've ever seen Mal, 'playing' before," Inara said uncertainly. This wasn't the distant broody captain from a few weeks ago, Mal was different, full of life.

"Don't think he ever really did before River," Kaylee said before leaving for the engine room.

Inara felt a sudden surge of jealousy that it was River who brought on this new Mal. No that was absurd, she thought to herself, River was a fong luh girl who was too broken and damaged to fix anyone, obviously time had healed Mal's wounds. That's the only thing that made sense.

"Looks great mei mei," Simon said as he dropped down the ladder to admire River's new bunk.

"Thank you Simon," River placed her last sketchbook on the shelf above her desk while Mal fastened a hammock just like Kaylee's to one corner of the room.

"It looks great mei mei," Mal repeated incredulously, "I'll have you know I painted that cloud right there in the corner of the wall."

Simon examined the wall to see a beautiful painting of the starry night sky which lightened to a slightly cloudy sunset with the exact likeness of Sernity flying through the scene. The cloud Mal pointed to was defnitely Mal's alright, there was none of River's skill there.

"Oh no captain, I didn't miss your cloud, I couldn't." River laughed at the thoughts running through Simon's head.

"He thinks your cloud looks like cauliflower." River teased as she stepped back to admire her finished bunk.

"Artistic cauliflower," Mal muttered under his breath as he too stepped back to examine their work, he whistled in appreciation, "we did good little one, you probably got the nicest room in the whole ship now."

"No, there's still a place that's nicer," River stated evenly.

"And where's that Tross?" Mal asked.

"Secret captain, you're not ready to know."

Before Mal could protest Simon finally noticed Mal's appearance and looked from River's emmaculate paint free body to Mal's completely covered one.

"Captain, why are you covered in paint if you painted one cloud?" Simone questioned with a raised eyebrow. River laughed and Mal sulked.

"It's not fair when she's a gorram' trained assasin!" Mal exclaimed with his arms in the air before leaving the bunk for the bridge, "I'm gonna' go set our course for Beaumonde on my bridge where no one will throw paint on me," he shouted down before leaving Simon and River alone.

"Mei mei," Simon started unsteadily as soon as the captain was gone. "I've been noticing that you and the captain have been spending a lot of time together, come to think of it, you're pretty much always together and the captain is a good man, don't get me wrong I just don't think he's the best influence for you and," before Simon could continue River pressed her hand to his mouth to silence him.

"The captain is not a good man Simon, he is a great man and he keeps the nightmares away and he numbs the headaches when he's near, so I plan to keep him near you boob. That's all." She ended with a cheery smile before disappearing up the ladder and leaving Simon in silent shock. He was her brother, he was supposed to keep the nightmares away, but he had always done it with drugs and now the captain was doing it by being near her. Simon left the bunk to go whine to Kaylee about the the captain usurping his brotherly rights.

Over the next week Mal and River didn't go a single night with out their nightly meetings for a cup of tea. Mal couldn't pinpoint exactly when life on Serenity started to change but he sure was glad when it did. It had been over a week since he had had a single nightmare, and gorramit' it was about time he could get a good nights sleep. Mal knew that River's own nightmares were extremely rare now a days but exceptin' that, they still found themselves sharing a cup of tea, or several, in the galley each night after the rest of the crew had gone to bed.

River knew she couldn't give the credit of her recent restful nights to timing, the only time she felt in control of her sanity was when she was around Mal and it was the after effects of that presence that helped her sleep dreamlessly.

Though it wasn't obvious at first, the rest of the crew slowly began to notice the changes in Mal and River. For one, Mal wasn't as short tempered anymore which was a gorram' miracle in itself.

Simon had begun to notice the dance in River's step that he hadn't seen since before she was wheeled off to the academy. It always brought a smile to his face when he glimpsed River walking down the hallways, her grace and time (and occassional twirl) giving the impression that she was dancing to a song only she could hear.

Jayne noticed Mal wasn't yelling at him all the time and Mal and River were always debatin' on something or chasing each other around.

Kaylee noticed the way there was always a cup of fresh tea waiting for Mal or River depending on who got to the galley first, she thought it was real shiny that the captain and River had become such good friends.

Inara's own observations were made with a hint of self purpose, she had begun to notice a light in Mal's eyes, a spark in his soul that she hadn't seen in a long time. He was finally becoming the man she knew was under the authoritative broody captain. The man she thought she could be with. She decided that Mal was spending so much time with River because he was lonely after she had rejected his advances, but she knew that would change when she opened herself to his advances again.

River and Mal had barely noticed the changes in their captain/pilot relationship, it had happened so quick. They knew they shared a friendship now, one they had never thought they would find in each other, but at the same time one that felt as natural as breathing, like they were all old friends.

Mal knew that River liked to keep close so she could 'sit next to his mind' as she had once put it, but it was Zoe who noticed the most out of all of them. Zoe had been watching Mal like a hawk since he had passed on an opportunity to yell at Jayne, and she had noticed plenty a thing. She saw the way the captain and Pilot interacted with each other, natural as a leaf in the wind. River had gone and pretty much become Mal's personal shadow, whenever he did the rounds River was there, either dancing and twirling in his wake, just content in his presence or they walked together laughing and chatting. Even when Mal was just sitting around somewhere, River was always nearby with a sketchbook in hand. If for some reason they weren't together she noticed the way Mal always scanned the room he entered for River like he needed to confirm she was there and safe before he could go about his business. It was like they had found a dependency on each other. Zoe didn't know how the unlikely friends had got through to each other, but she sure was glad they had finally begun to move on from the memories of Miranda.

It had been a week since their near disastrous drop on New Melbourne and they had finally made it to Beaumonde to sell their cargo to Fanty and Mingo.

You know, we should kill our contacts more often," Jayne mentioned during dinner that night, "Now we get double pay!" He finished excitedly.

"And one less contact Jayne," Zoe said as she finished her bowl of protein tomato soup.

"Our way of life can get mighty hard if we keep riddling our contacts with holes, eventually no one will buy from you." Mal agreed with Zoe.

"Speaking of the cargo Captain," Zoe started hesitantly, "do you think it's such a good idea to go back to Fanty and Mingo, in the maidenhead no less. Last time we were there, our little River caused an awful amount of trouble."

River looked down embarrassed at the memory, she had killed and injured countless people in that bar, Mal was the only one she had hesitated to hurt.

"That was months ago Zoe, Fanty reassured me himself there ain't no hard feelings about that little incident. Drop will go down fine."

"Because the plan always goes smooth," Simon and Kaylee said in unison as they rolled their eyes at Mal's optimism.

"Captain," River started her voice small, "can I come with you tomorrow?"

"River, no." Simon supplied immediately. Jayne snorted at the idea, Kaylee and Inara widened their eyes in disbelief of her request and Zoe remained stoic as usual.

"Hold on now darlin,' I'm with your brother on this one, I don't think you going where you went all guns at the ready on us is such a shiny idea." Mal's heart just about broke when River looked up and he saw the pleading in her big brown eyes, that girl always knew how to get her way with him.

"Why do you wanna' go anyhow?" Mal questioned.

"Last time I was there, I was the weapon captain, not the girl. The only way to find closure on all of this is to go there as the girl, be in control, know I'm my own, not theirs anymore." River pouted her lips slightly and let her puppy dog eyes plead her case.

"Fine," Mal folded. River's answering smile quickly erased the puppy dogs eyes that had been there moments before.

"What?!" The rest of the crew asked incredulously.

"Mal, your letting her have her way on this?" Inara asked in disbelief, "you're the captain, you,"

Before Inara could finish Mal stood up to end all protests, "Yes, I am the captain, and I believe that this'll help River, she's crew so we're going to help her. Jayne, Zoe, tomorrow River and I will go into the maidenhead with you, we'll stay for a bit, I'll say hello to Fanty and Mingo River can have a feel around the place then she and I will leave before anything can go wrong or she can be recognized, you two will finish the drop, and we'll meet back on the ship safe and sound."

"Yes sir," Zoe affirmed before they all returned to their meals. River beamed up at Mal which he returned with a wink. Inara rolled her eyes at their exchange, deciding it was time get Mal's attention back on her.

The next day Mal woke up refreshed after a restful sleep. He smiled as he remembered his dream, for the first time it was not a dreamless sleep or one filled with nightmares, he had actually had a good dream. In his dream River and he were painting her bunk just like they were only this time it was River covered in paint and not him.

"Not how it happened captain," River stated from her place on Mal's desk a sketchbook on her lap.

"River, when I fixed you up in a bunk across from mine I thought these little morning visits would stop." Mal pulled on his shirt and began to get ready for the day.

"Still better when closer, besides, I made you a picture, had a dream last night, a good dream, similar to yours, was funny, sketched it for you." River held up her sketchbook for Mal's inspection. Mal's booming laughter echoed through his bunk as he took in the image before him. River had drawn a very guilty looking Mal and a very angry looking Inara who was completely drenched in paint with a laughing River at their side.

"You got her angry face down pat Tross, now hows' about you go get ready for the maidenhead."

"Aye aye captain," River said as she disappeared through the air vent in the ceiling. Mal rolled his eyes amused at her chosen means of exit, it was probably quicker to climb the ladder and walk across the hallway but River had to do everything with an oddness to it.

The crew all bustled around the ship as they prepared the cargo and went over the plan one more time.

"We'll meet back in 1 hour, 2 tops. If we're more then that, somethings probably gone wrong." Mal stated.

"Like Moonbrain going crazy on us again," Jayne sniggered. River stuck her tongue out at him in reply.

"Play nice kids, it's time to go," Zoe instructed as Mal, River, Jayne and her all hopped into the mule with the cargo in tow.

"Be safe mei mei," Simon yelled after them as they drove out of sight towards the busy city scape that lay before them.

"Don't worry Simon, the cap'n wont let nothin' happen to River," Kaylee reassured him after sealing the cargo bay doors closed, "now those four are gone, Inara's with a client, you and me got the whole ship all to ourselves, I got some shiny ideas on what we can do for next 1 to 2 hours." Kaylee wiggled her eyebrows suggestively as Simon quickly took her hand and headed towards their bunk all anxieties over River forgotten.

"You ready River?" Zoe asked as they stood before the doors of the Maidenhead.

River gave a slight nod before pushing open the doors and stepping through one combat boot at a time.

The sounds and smells that assaulted her senses almost put her into sensory overload. River's eyes darted around taking in the waiters, gamblers, drunkards and unconscious ruffians sprawled through out the bar. She could hear the clink of glasses the exchange of threats, she could smell alcohol, vomit and unshowered men. Mal watched her cautiously waiting for a reaction and let out a relieved sigh when he saw her smiling. River looked up at him a silent declaration in her gaze, she was in control.

Mal, Jayne and Zoe went over the Fanty and Mingo and discussed the business details while River walked around the crowded bar. Her blue flowing dress swishing at her knees as she walked from drunkard to drunkard listening to their thoughts. She was soon interrupted by a young man standing before her.

"Well hi there," he said with a predatory smile, "haven't seen you around before, I would definitely remember a face like yours."

River tilted her head slightly as she wondered where the young man was going with this, she blushed when she scanned his thoughts for clarity.

"How bout' you let me buy you a drink?" He asked, unfazed by her silence.

"No, thank you," River said as she began to turn away.

"Now hold on sweet thing," he said as he placed a firm grasp on her wrist, deterring her escape, "were not quite finished here." River cringed at the feel of his warm breath on her neck.

"Actually, I think you are," Mal's voice said from behind them before he pulled the boy around and punched him clean across the jaw.

"I think it's time we should be going," Mal said as he grabbed River's hand and headed for the exit away from the now unconscious man.

When they got outside Mal let go of River's hand and began to silently check her over, he ended his examination with his hands on her cheek as he looked into her brown eyes his own blue ones full of concern.

"You alright little one, that Hwoon dahn didn't hurt you did he?" River surprised at the level of concern when the captain knew perfectly well she could take care of herself gave him a shake of her head.

"I'm fine, but you didn't have to punch him," she added.

Mal snorted in disgust as he released River, "he deserved it the way he grabbed you and got up all close like that. So how was the whole maidenhead experience before I interrupted anyway?"

River's answering smile lightened both their moods, "It was great captain, no incident report, all systems checked, no leaks, faults, cracks, she's whole and flying true!"

"Good to hear, now how bout' we head to the markets to celebrate, pick up some supplies on the way."

River and Mal roamed from stall to stall in the market square while Zoe and Jayne finished off the exchange back at the Maidenhead. Mal haggled over ammunition prices while River danced around, her eyes big as saucers as she looked at all the bits and pieces laid across the stall tables. Mal felt a twinge of sadness at River's wonder over everyday market items, he hadn't realised how little River had until he had helped her move to her new room. Besides her sketchbooks, 1 very worn pencil and some hand me down dresses from Inara she didn't have much to her name at all.

"You know what Tross," Mal began as he rummaged through his pockets, "I just realised you haven't received your cut from the last job we pulled." River looked up at him in confusion. Reading her expression Mal explained, "well your my pilot aren't you? Your part of the crew now, you get a cut." Mal handed her a small bag of money which she jingled happily before giving him a grateful hug.

"Thank you captain!" River beamed as she placed the bag in her dress pocket.

"What are you going to get little one?" Mal asked, curious at what she would spend her money on.

"Secret captain!" she squeeled excitedly as she ran off towards a stall they had already passed.

"Don't go too far!" He yelled in caution as he continued his own shopping. He stopped sort when he saw a silver pendant on a braided chord sparkling in calling. He held it up for inspection and smiled at the Chinese character for Serenity that hung from the chord. Mal quickly paid and stuffed the necklace into his pocket eager to give River his gift.

Mal started to get worried when River was still no where in sight after ten minutes. Gorramit' he thought himself, this girl was going to get him another punch from Simon for sure if they were late. Mal laughed when he saw River approaching practically invisible under the mountain of packages she held.

"Spend all your money already Albatross?" Mal questioned, surprised her cut had spread that far.

"Still got plenty," River said smugly as she jingled what sounded like a still close to full bag of money.

Mal gaped in disbelief as he took River's packages to carry back to the ship, "how did you buy all that and still have all that money left? Are my thievin' ways corrupting you? Have you been shoplifting?" Mal joked... partly.

River rolled her eyes as they began to walk back towards Serenity, "I'm just really good at haggling. I'm the girl and the weapon captain, so I intimidate," River said as she lifted her skirt slightly to reveal a dagger strapped to her thigh, "or I flirt," she said batting her eyes attractively while coyly bitting her lip. Mal gulped at the image not sure when his little Albatross had learned to do that.

"How about we pick up the pace, it's getting dark," Mal suggested before that unsettling attractiveness of River could be forged into his head.

Mal and River arrived back on ship after Jayne and Zoe where the entire crew celebrated there first smooth exchange in a very long time. Except for River the rest of the crew were way past tipsy. Kaylee and Simon had long since abandoned the festivities for their bunk. Jayne and Zoe were challenging each other to a knife throwing contest which Zoe won, and Inara's sultry glances were going unnoticed by Mal as he tried to get River to reveal what were in all those packages she had brought.

"Secret," was all she would say to Mal's frustration, "But i'll show you at tea time tonight," she declared before skipping off towards her bunk leaving an excited Mal behind.

Inara stood to go to Mal when River had finally left but missed her opportunity when Mal too, got up and headed for his own bunk. He wanted to be sober for their nightly tea so he could give her his present.

Later that night, after Inara had retired too her shuttle in frustration, Zoe had dragged Jayne's snoring self and dropped him into his bunk and retired herself and Kaylee and Simon lay asleep in each other's arms River waited impatiently in the galley for Mal to arrive.

"Hey there Tross," He said in greeting, "where's the tea?" he asked confused at the lack of tea before them.

"Not here captain, not yet." River grabbed Mal's hand and began to lead him towards the cargo bay.

"Hold on now Tross, where we headed?" Mal asked, his head slightly tender from his celebration.

"The secret place, the room I told you was the best in the ship, the secret, I want to show you."

River said impatiently, eager to share her secret with him.

"Why do you I feel like you're leading me to my death?" Mal joked as River lead them to a hidden opening in Sernity's wall in a darkened corner of the cargo bay.

"Do you trust me?" River asked staring straight into Mal's eyes.

"Ofcourse," Mal answered immediately, and before he could give it a thought he was thrust into darkness.

River lead Mal through the darkness by the hand. The cool metal hummed under her bare feet. Mal listened to every instruction from the 'jump' to the 'ducks' and soon found himself out of breath and completely surrounded in darkness.

"River," Mal called out a little nervously when River's hand had slid from his leaving him alone.

"Right here captain," River said before flipping a switch and lighting up the room with hundreds of twinkling fairy lights. Mal looked around him to see a a rug some pillows, a hammock, even a thermos with what he guessed was there tea in it.

"Albatross where are we?" Mal asked in disbelief, this was his gorram' ship and he had no idea any of this was here.

"We're in Serenity's walls captain, but this is the best part," River said as she pulled down a cotton curtain. Mal gasped in awe when he saw the black through the giant window. It had to be at least 5 times his height, he had never felt so close to the black before.

"Why can't you see this window from the outside?" Mal asked as he placed a hand on the glass as if to feel the black flow through his fingertips.

"1 way glass, standard feature in smuggling ships, fugitives can hide in here while looking out for authorities who can't see them as they walk by."

"Thank you River," Mal said turning his gaze from the black and to her, "thank you for sharing this secret."

"You're welcome captain, and now we drink!" River said dramatically as she went to pour them some tea from her new thermos.

Mal sat down on the carpet with her admiring the view of the black.

"Oh," he said, suddenly remembering his own secret, "I got you something from the market today, a proper thank you for saving us all on that New Melbourne job." Mal pulled out the necklace for River's inspection. River looked up in glee as she tenderly took the necklace from his hand.

"Serenity," she whispered, gently caressing the silver pendant before placing the necklace around her neck, "Thank you captain, I love it."

"You're welcome little one, I knew it was meant for you when I saw it. Don't rightly know anyone who loves our girl here as much as me other then you."

"I have something for you too," River said excitedly as she pulled out a small pouch and handed it to Mal. Mal took the packaged tenderly, touched that she had gotten him something from her own cut. Mal carefully emptied the contents of the pouch into his hand and smiled at the necklace before him. Hanging from a leather chord was a antique looking bronze Albatross pendant with it's wings outstretched.

"So the captain will always have his luck, and maybe get shot at less" River explained.

"Thank you Tross," He said warmly as he placed his own gift around his neck, "I'll wear it always."

River dragged Mal through the walls of Serenity that night, she showed him her favorite hiding places and air vent entry points when she wanted to scare someone. Mal taught her some old army songs which they sang and laughed too as they echoed through the walls of Serenity. When they both went to sleep that night, they dreamt good dreams.

"Where we headed?" Zoe asked Mal the next day after distributing the share of their last pay.

"Well, we got money to spare right now, got plenty of fuel and supplies, I'm thinking we sail in the black for a little while, take breather before heading to persephone for more work." Mal answered while watching River sketch in the pilots chair. He smiled when he saw her absentmindedly fiddling with her new necklace.

"sounds like a plan sir," Zoe said before leaving with a smile on her face as she wondered what Wash would say if he could see River and Mal now.

"Should I set a trajectory for persephone captain?" River asked without looking up from her drawing.

"Just find us something nice and slow, might take a couple stops on some border planets, give the crew a break, it's not every job we get double the pay." Mal smiled to himself hoping every job could go so well.

"I'd like to remind you captain, the pay went well the first part of the job nearly got you killed," River reminded him as she set Serenity on course.

"Oh yeah," Mal remembered, "crazy fun," he teased with his classic crooked grin.

Mal and River roamed the ship that day, Mal doing his captainy things and River doing her shadow thing.

"How's our girl looking?" Mal asked Kaylee as he stopped by the engine room.

"She's looking good Cap'n," Kaylee said from her back under the engine, a wrench in her hand and grease on her face.

"Thats what I like to hear Kaylee," Mal said before turning to leave.

"Oh and captain," Kaylee called before he could leave, "Inara's been lookin' for you. Say's it's important."

"Nara doesn't like me," River stated nonchalantly as her head popped out from the air vent above them.

"Of course she does sweety, everyone loves you," Kaylee reassured sweetly.

"Can't hide emotions from a reader," River said quietly before dropping down and to follow Mal from the engine room.

"Why don't you think Nara likes you little one? I'm sure it ain't true," Mal said as they walked towards the infirmary.

"Can't block her thoughts, or hide her feelings, the girl knows."

Mal knew River was a reader, but he didn't understand how Inara couldn't like River, sure Jayne had his problems with her but even he had warmed up to the girl the last few months.

"How's my man looking?" Mal asked Simon as they reached the infirmary to see Simon wrapping Jayne's right arm.

"He has minor burns on his arms and hands, wont be pulling any triggers for a while, ut he should heal up fine." Simon told them.

"Thats the last time I help Kaylee in the engine room, I can tell you that much," Jayne promised gruffly.

"She told you the red wire you boob, not the blue one, you're own fault." River said as she peeked into the infirmary.

"And on that note, get well soon Jayne," Mal said cheerily before dragging River away. He new she loved to rile Jayne up and injured the man was no match for her.

That night Mal sat at the dining table humming a tune while cleaning his guns like the trained soldier he was. River was perched above him, outstretched lazily within the air vents out of sight but a constant shadow. River wordlessly sketched a drawing of the scene before her right down to the expression of determined focus set in Mal's lips.

As she was about to sketch another line, River tilted her head to the side, listening to something that only she could hear.

"Have to go captain, her words are not for me to hear," and before Mal could even look up to ask her what she meant River was gone from sight.

"Gorram' assassins," Mal said into the air.

"What about the Gorram' assassins Mal?" Inara asked as she gracefully sauntered into the galley.

"They're just damn sneaky is all Nara, can make a fella a mite jumpy," finally realising Inara had not come in solely to comment on his remark and make small talk he set his guns to side, "what brings you down here Nara, if you're looking for Kaylee I'm supposing she has the good doctor cornered helplessly somewhere."

Even Inara's laugh was graceful, Mal noted, everything about her was grace and beauty.

"Well," I would never dream of getting in Kaylee's way, she can be fierce when she decides to be, but I actually came down here looking for you."

"Oh," Mal swallowed nervously as he saw the meaning in Inara's sultry eyes, "You did did you?"

"I did," Inara confirmed as she stepped closer to Mal, her flirtaciious smile and smoldering gaze evidence of her intent. Mal stepped backed nervously, it wasn't like he hadn't been dreaming of being on the recieving end of Inara's come hither looks for a good long while, but he had been supposin' she had gone and given up on him over the last few weeks.

"Well can I ask, why now, Nara? I mean it seems a mite bit out of the blue."

" You've changed since our talk Mal, it's like you found a reason to go around each day more then for the sake of it, like your living again, I hadn't seen that man since before Miranda. The man I loved." And with that Inara leant in connected their lips with a long and passionate kiss. Mal, recovered from his shock and pulled Inara closer, rejoicing in the fact that she was finally in his arms. Neither of them noticed time passing, it was like the verses had slowed to help them catch up on the lost time they could have reveled in eachother's touch. After parting to catch their breath, Inara led Mal to her shuttle, a trail of discarded clothing lay in their wake across the floor and a pair of suspenders hung from the shuttle door.

River sat cross legged on the dining table, a thermos of tea before her ready to take to their new spot. She sketched absentmindedly as she wondered where the captain was, they usually met at the same time every night. River scanned the ship looking for Mal, she knew he was awake, she could feel it. River blushed a deep crimson as she realised that Mal was definitely awake and so was Inara.

"Didn't predict that outcome," River told serenity, "she moves fast." River sighed into the empty air, she was happy for the captain and Inara now that they had finally found each other, but how was she going to get to sleep now?

"Morning everybody," Mal greeted cheerily as he entered the galley and habitually scanned the room for River, "how we all doing this morning?"

"What's got you so chirpy Mal?" Jayne asked looking at Mal suspiciously.

"It's just a good morning is all, can't a captain be happy to see his crew in the morning?" Mal whistled a jolly tune as he prepared his breakfast and set a tea aside for River.

"I'm with Jayne on this one captain, If the cheery greeting wasn't suspicious the whistling sure was." Zoe eyed Mal assessinig him for any visible changes.

"I can check him for infection, or perhaps it's psychological?" Simon suggested helpfully before taking another bite of his cereal.

"Now hold on everybody, the captain don't need a reason to bein' happy," Kaylee stated from her place next to simon.

"Your hypothesis is inaccurate, evidence suggests there is a reason," River dropped from the air vent startling most everyone except for Mal and skipped lightly over to her tea.

"Mei mei," Simon scolded as he tried to wipe his spilled breakfast from his sweater.

"ruttin' moonbrain," Jayne grumbled, "It's too early for that stealth mode go se."

River stuck her tongue out at Jayne before taking another sip of tea.

"So since the crazy girl is always right, what's the reason behind this new smiling Mal, are you gonna' give us all hugs next?." Jayne said with grin.

The answer to Jayne's question sauntered into the galley straight for Mal and placed a quick kiss on his lips. "You left your shirt in my shuttle Mal," Inara handed the shirt to a goofy grinned Mal in front of a flabbergasted crew.

Noticing the stare's he was getting Mal blushed a deep red and quickly (stalked) off muttering something about captainy things to do.

"The crazy girl IS always right," Jayne said breaking the silence of their surprise.

"And also, I can kill you with my brain." River stated before leaving the galley.

River listened in on the crews thoughts as she headed for the bridge. Jayne was wondering why Inara would sex up Mal and he was mighty impressed with him for making it happen. Zoe was more confused, thinking that that phase had long been over and Kaylee was all squeels and excitement. Simon, didn't care, but it was Inara's own reaction that had River glaring into the empty hallway. 'It was so easy to get him,' Inara thought, 'I just waited till he got all that broody captain out of his system and now he's exactly how I wanted him to be, now he's mine.' For the first time River considered testing her theory about killing people with her brain on Inara for the way she was talking about her captain.

"What's got you doing the angry face?" Mal asked River as she sat herself down next to Mal in the Pilots seat. Her tension left immidietly as she let Mals thoughs settle her own.

"No angry face captain," she lied smoothly.

"River, you've got that crease on your forehead that I always see when your ready to just about kill me when we're arguin' about something, but if you don't want to share albatross thats fine."

For the first time in a long time their time on the bridge wasn't spent in conversation, River was to angry with Inara and tired from a sleepless night while Mal was too caught up on thoughts of Inara and the night they had shared.

That night River was all smiles when she saw the captain enter the galley.

"Sorry I wasn't here last night Tross, I got a mite distracted," Mal apologised as he grabbed their thermos of tea.

"Understandable captain, where's Inara now?" River asked as they made their way for the cargo bay.

"She's asleep in my bunk," Mal said as he took River's hand and allowed her to lead him through the darkness of Serenity's walls. They spent that night naming the constellations they could see through the clear window, and retelling making up their own stories for the shapes they saw in the stars.

River led Mal back to his room and said good night as he dropped into his bed from the air vent. Before she left she caught a glimpse of her captain placing a tender kiss on Inara's sleeping head and she wondered why that sight made her sad.

Mal felt Inara in his arms before he opened his eyes to the morning. He kissed the back of her head as she began to stir.

"Morning captain," River greeted from her usual place atop his desk.

"River," Mal greeted, now used to her morning visits.

Inara sat up at hearing their exchange and looked from River to Mal increduosly.

"What is she doing here Mal?" She demanded as she pulled the covers a little closer around her.

"River gets pretty bad headaches Inara, it helps when i'm around," Mal explained evenly before pulling a shirt on. River nodded in agreement.

"Mal, this is not ok, you cant have another women just hanging around your bunk like this, her brother is a doctor, she should go to him not her captain." Inara said tensely.

"Hold on now Nara, it's just River" Mal reasoned while brushing his teeth, "and drugs have never gone well for her, I don't want the doc pumping them through her system when I can help just fine."

"Mal, If you want you and I to work, this cannot be a thing," Inara demanded.

"Ok, ok, I hear you Nara, no more morning visits little one," Mal told River before giving Inara a quick kiss on the head, "Now we got some captainy things to do." Mal said as he disappeared up his ladder with River close behind.

"We," Inara muttered to herself in disbelief when they had gone, "he actually said we."

"I think that's why she doesn't like me," River said as she and Mal headed for the galley.

"I still don't think she doesn't like you Tross, I get the whole no morning visits thing though, a couple needs some privacy, I'm right across the hall anyway so i'll still be close by."

"Reasonable compromise captain," River agreed.

That day, Inara watched River and Mal closer then ever, she hadn't realised how close they had gotten. Everywhere Mal went River followed, and if she didn't she could see the way Mal scanned his surroundings to find her. If they weren't talking and laughing they were doing their own separate work in comfortable silence. Inara hadn't realised how bad it was until she felt Mal leave bed that night. When didn't come back for a while her curiosity got the better of her. She had taken a few steps from her shuttle when she heard Mal and River laughing in the cargo bay before disappearing into Serenity's walls. What in the (something in chinese) was going on. She was a companion for Buddha sake, she was trained to be irresistible to be something men desired at all hours of the day and force that consumed their thoughts and lifes, and yet Mal was spending half his time with River. Well tomorrow that would end, Inara Serra was about to put her companion training to work.

The next morning River waited outside Mal's door. She was wondering why Mal was taking so late when she caught a glimpse of Inara's thoughts and realised Mal probably wasn't going to be done for a while.

Mal's tea sat cold and untouched in the galley by the time Inara was done with him, a goofy grin on his face and a triumphant smug look of her own.

Inara made it a point to distract Mal that day, if he wasn't doing any crucial job she told him to delegate with the promise of tempting rewards if he did. Mal was to consumed in Inara's fire to notice River's absence, when ever by habit he went to scan the room for River Inara placed a quick passionate kiss to his lips consuming his thoughts with only her. River watched from a distance as Inara kept the Captain in her grasp, she knew what she was doing, Inara couldn't block that from her, and River wasn't angry at her for it, she could understand how her and the captain's relationship could be frustrating for her but at the same time, her head felt like it was about to crack open after the day she had spent with so little contact with Mal, she had come to depend on it. She just hoped Mal would at least be there tonight.

That night when Inara felt Mal stirring to get up and meet River, she quickly worked a very tempting sort of distraction. As Mal and Inara lay panting and tangled in each others arm's River lay curled up in Serenity's walls, her tea untouched and her head throbbing.

River sulked from her place within Serenity's walls. Mal and Inara had started spending pretty much every moment together over the last week and River couldn't hold her mind steady without the contact from Mal she had come to depend on. River tucked her knees under chin as she tried to ignore the images flashing through her mind. Needles and blood, blue gloves and people never sleeping. Tears escaped her as she squinted her eyes in pain.

That night River almost wept in relief when Mal walked through the galley doors.

"Hey there Albatross, just gettin' some snacks for Nara and me," River almost broke down right there, her nightmares baring down on her at the loss of her anchor. Her fragile state went unnoticed and Mal soon left, heading for his place in Inara's arms.

She sat there crying to herself for a while when she was surprised to hear Jayne clearing his throat.

"Um," Jayne started, embaressed to be caught in this situation, "you alright there crazy?" Jayne averted his gaze not sure how to handle a crying female let alone a crying crazy assassin girl.

"Brain hurts, too many nightmares, I'll be fine," River quickly escaped up the air vents crawling into the comforting embrace of Serenity.

The next day Serenity landed on persephone where they were going to stay docked for a couple days so Kaylee could make some repairs.

After landing, River was surprised to see Jayne enter the bridge with something held behind his back.

"Jayne, have you finally come to try and kill me after that butcher's knife incident?" River asked teasingly.

"No, hell I know I couldn't take you moon brain, I came to give you this," Jayne sheepishly pulled a curved dagger from behind his back and offered it to River. "I Just figured if your nightmares were hurting you as much as they seemed to last night you'd need this more then me."

River took the dagger, expertly turning her over examining her slender design.

"I used to sleep with her under my pillow, and knowing I always had her there to keep me safe made the nightmares seem not so scary like when I had them."

River beamed up at him, touched at such a token of friendship.

"Jayne Cobb, you're are not such a bad man as you pretend to be."

"Yeah, just don't go telling nobody, they'll probably expect me to start throwing hugs around on christmas and the like" He called as he left the bridge as quickly as he had come.

"Watcha' got there albatross," Mal asked as he sat in his seat and noticed the dagger held tenderly in River's hands.

"Jayne gave me a dagger," River said beaming up at Mal with pride in her new prize, "I must go put it somewhere safe." River jumped from her seat and skipped merrily towards her bunk. Mal stared dumbstruck after her, he had never, ever known Jayne Cobb to be the gift giving type and he was sure he definitely wasn't happy with him giving any presents or the like to his pilot.

"Whats wrong?" Inara asked Mal at dinner that night when she noticed him glaring at Jayne.

"Nothing," Mal replied automatically as he continued to watch Jayne and River who were sitting across from each other laughing together at a story Jayne was recounting. River looked up when she heard Inara's thoughts about a 'broody captain all over again," only to lock eyes with Mal. Mal quickly turned away, embaressed to be caught in his overprotectiveness of her.

That night Mal cursed when he woke, breathless and heart racing from his first nightmare in weeks. Mal looked over to Inara who slept soundly beside him. He longed to wake her up, to have someone to talk to, someone to distract him and console him with tales of their own hardship. Mal sighed and laid back down, the last time Mal had accidentally woken Inara up he was in trouble the entire next day, he wasn't about to do it on purpose.

The next few days Mal watched Jayne and River a lot closer, he didn't know when they had become gorram' friends but apparantly they had. If that wasn't enough to sour his mood, his increasing nightmares were. But Mal never thought of them long when River and Jayne were in sight, If they weren't in the cargo bay sparring, they were in the galley seeing who could (disassemble and reassemble) a gun the fastest. Mal had even seen Jayne reading a gorram' book River had picked up dirt side for him about the types of guns on earth that was.

Badger noticed Mal's grim mood when he came to see him about a job.

"What's got you down Cap'n Reynolds?" Badger asked feigning concern.

"Having to deal with the likes of you Badger, no how bout you tell me what the job is."

Zoe cleared her throat in warning, Mal usually knew not to get on Badger's bad side and with Jayne's injured arm, she wanted this meet to go nice and smooth.

"I'll over look that one Malcolm," Badger said with an angry glare, "The job. There's a party tomorrow night on the nice side of town. The owner of the house, a dashing young bachelor has a vault containing one of the largest diamonds this verse has ever seen and I want it. The problem is no one knows where the vault or how to open it, also if you threaten him for the information he'll hit a portable alarm device that will have the alliance on you in seconds."

"So how exactly do you propose we pull of this impossible job Badger?" Mal asked.

"Well you have to have a lovely lady seduce him of course, this fellow is quite the show off so get some pretty thing to ask nicely and he just might give her a peek. Of course he would change the vault location and codes the next day, only this time, they wont be there no more."

"Looks like you're getting all dressed up Zoe, you've got a man to seduce." Mal said with an amused grin.

"Sorry captain, as ravishing as the lovely Zoe is, this fellow's only a wee boy himself and he prefers the younger more innocent type. Zoe's got that 'too much woman to handle' vibe if you know what'i mean," badger said with a wink in Zoe's direction.

"I got no one else Badger," Mal complained already frustrated he would have to pull a job on such familiar ground.

"What about' that lovely brown eyed beauty I met some time ago," badger chuckled at the memory of meeting River, "now she'll do nicely Malcolm, what was her name? Little Rive'.'"

"We'll keep in contact," was all Mal said before leaving badger's office.

"Captain?" Zoe questioned when Mal was still silent as they got on the mule to head back to the ship.

"I ain't sending River to go seduce some upperclass rich boy Zoe, I'm not."

"Sir, nothing's going to come of it, and she's the only one who can do it, and you and I both know that little River is more than capable of taking care of herself.

Mal sighed heavily knowing Zoe was right "Fine Zoe, but if she's in any danger we clear out fast," was Mal's curt reply.

"Understood captain."

River was excited to hear she was going to get to go on a job, but the idea of going in the current state she was in made her slightly nervous. Her headaches were worse then ever and she wasn't getting much sleep, River brushed the thought aside, she was a weapon, she could pull this off.

Mal glared as Jayne teasingly told River she was stealing all his fun getting to go on the job, Zoe rolled her eyes at the scene before her and headed for the bridge.

That night Inara noticed a change in Mal, his attention wasn't all on her as it had been the last few days and she didn't like it at all, "Did you hear what i said Mal?" Inara asked impatiently from her shuttle. Mal was leaning on her shuttle door watching Jayne and River spar down on the cargo bay floor. He rolled his eyes when Jayne fell flat on his back sending River's tinkling laughter echoing through the cargo bay.

"Mal!" Inara called a second time.

"Sorry what Nara?" Mal turned to see Inara standing angrily with her arms cross and her lips tight, "What I do?" He asked confused. While one of of their many recent fight ensued River kicked Jayne hard across the chest.

"Owe," Jayne complained rubbing his chest, "How'd you kick like that with out any shoes moonbrain?"

"It's a gift," River laughed merrily as Jayne went for a punch and missed. She still hadn't been sleeping well since Mal had started spending all his time with Inara but her new friendship with Jayne was a welcome distraction from her own mind.

"Too slow," she teased as she ducked under his right hook and punched him clear in the gut with an uppercut.

"Gorramit!" Jayne landed on his butt as he fell back.

"I think I win again," River stated triumphantly. They both looked up to hear shouts from Inara's shuttle as Mal stormed out and Inara slammed the door behind him. Seeing Jayne and River still down there together, he glared at them both,

"I don't pay you to stand around sparring River, get to the bridge and start plotting a course for our next run! Get us ready to head for Haven as soon as this job is done" He shouted coldly before stomping away.

"Don't worry about him River, Captain just gets like this is all," Jayne said seeing that Mal's outburst had upset River.

"I better go," River grabbed her towel and headed for the bridge.

Mal nodded icily at River when she sat down at the pilots controls. When he didn't bring it up River sighed heavily.

"Is everything alight captain? Jayne and I heard you and Inara... disagreeing, loudly."

"The way I see it, thats not none of your business." Mal practically growled at River.

River, hurt by his response sat in silence while she set Serenity's next course for Haven.

"I don't think you should be spending so much time with Jayne." Mal stated tightly with out even looking up from his own pilot controls.

"Jayne is my friend captain, why should't I spend time with him?" River challenged with an icy glare.

"A man like that don't go no friends who are girl's river, I just think your sending him the wrong message." Matching her glare with his own.

"And what kind of message is that?"

"Well it's obvious he's just trying to get you in his bed River! And it's not like you discourage it the way you laugh and talk with him all the time sparring with him in those tiny little gym shorts and tackling him to the ground," Mal's voice had risen to a shout mid rant and River was up to the challenge.

"You have no say in what kind of 'messages' i send or how I interact with Jayne! His friendship is the only thing that's keeping me sane right now Captain and I won't have you ruin that just because of your overprotective delusions that i'm still a child!"

"And whats that supposed to mean? 'Keeping you sain?' I was under the notion you were your semi normal only half crazy self!" River shrunk back at his half crazy comment, he had always joked about her being a (feng luh) girl but he had never said it with such meaning.

"Captain," River started, her tone dangerously low, "The girl has barely been able to keep a grasp of her own mind. She has hardly been sleeping, and she can't block the demons out anymore! But you wouldn't know anything about that because you've been spending the majority of your time with Inara!"

"So I'm not supposed spend time with my girlfriend River?"

"No, you're just not allowed to get angry with me for finding someone else who can help to distract from the storm since you're not ever around to help me calm it!" ending on that, River finished setting her controls before storming off towards her room and away from the captain.

"Gorramit!" Mal shouted out into the empty bridge as a surge of guilt flooded through him. Mal had been so selfish reveling in his romance with Inara he had completely neglected River's well being and had forgotten it was his presence that helped anchor her steady.

"Captain everything all right in here?" Zoe asked she entered the bridge, "I was hearin' an awful lot of shouting and thought I should check on you. Thought River had finally went for the kill"

"Everything's fine Zoe," Mal slumped into his seat dejectedly, "I just said some hurtful things and made River mad, and all because she decided to make that hulking brute of an Ape her friend. It's not my fault if I'm a mite protective over her, she's my crew and I know what kind of person Jayne is."

"Sir, permission to speak freely?" Zoe asked seriously sitting down opposite Mal.

"Speak your (peace) Zoe," Mal allowed.

"Well, sir sounds to me like your mixing up protectiveness with jealousy."

Mal nearly fell of his seat when he had processed Zoe's comment.

"Jealous?" Mal (Something incredulously). River's my crew and thats all, I just don't trust that (something chinese) man."

"Sir, you and I both know you got no grounds to be protective over River, if Jayne ever started something she wasn't likin' he would find himself in a full body cast for a entire week."

"Come to think of it, I take it back Zoe, no permission to speak freely."

"Well i'm thinking you two got feelings for each other but are both too stubborn to realise it. But if you're going with denial on this one sir, at least apologise to the girl and make this right. we've got job to do tomorrow night and the idea of bringing River along is so she doesn't let people kill you. That might not work if she's harboring a grudge sir." Zoe stood up to go but not before examining Mal whilst shaking her head in disappointment while muttering something about being, 'gorram stubborn.

Mal ignored Zoe's advice and instead went to apologise to Inara. She let him off with a, "as long as you know you were wrong," and soon they found themselves naked and tangled under her sheets, their recent fight forgotten.

All around him, he was surrounded. The alliance soldiers had flanked him and blocked his escape seperating him for his squad. Mal looked desperately towards his comrade's, trapped and surrounded a hundred metres away. In the huddle he wasn't surprised to see his crew members aboard serenity among the masses of his old squad. Mal threw himself at the wall made of his captors as the enemy began to open fire on his people, they now littered the floor, their bloody, lifeless bodies sprawled across the ground.

Mal woke up panting and sweaty, his racing heart beat evidence of his fear.

"Gorramit'," Mal cursed as he rubbed his palm up his forehead. Inara sushed him from beside him, (affronted) to have her precious beauty sleep interrupted. Mal threw on a shirt and headed for the galley, it had been a while, but if River accepted his apology late night tea and a chat just like they used to would probably help em' both.

(River sat alone in the galley, absentmindedly stirring her now cold tea. She hated being shouted at by the captain, she couldn't even remember a single time he had raised his voice at her in anger, if he did scold her for something it was usually out of concern when she diverted from the plan on a job and put herself in the line of fire.)

"Hey crazy, you alright? I thought i'd check on you after the whole Mal thing," Jayne asked concerned as he walked into the galley.

"The captain is such a boob sometimes," River muttered, "I know he had no grounds for what he said and their is no logical reason why I feel so bad for disappointing him, but I do. The math doesn't add up."

"Well you know what I always say moonbrain?" Jayne asked before setting a bottle of rum on the table, "When the math don't add up, drink." He ended with a goofy grin.

"Or in your case, when you can't do math at all," River teased while eying the bottle (somethingly).

"Hey, I'm about to introduce to you the numbing properties of a good drink, no need to be mean on me," Jayne poured them both a glass and set one in front of River.

"Jayne, you do know Simon will kill you if he finds out you gave me alcohol right?"

"Meh, way I see it your a big girl and can make your own mind up on what you can and can't do." River folded and took her glass.

"To Serenity," River toasted.

"To rum," Jayne said clinking their glasses together before they both downed their glasses.

While Jayne and River downed another two classes Mal paced back and forth on the bridge. Apologizing to River was going to be harder then he thought. Looking back on the past couple weeks he sort of had shut River out, just left their friendship cold to go chase Inara. No wonder she had turned to Jayne, Mal remembered River before the nightmares had faded, she was all sadness and hurtin' and he just left her to go back to that place knowing full well it was being around his head that helped her keep her grasp on reality.

If all that wasn't enough he had overreacted with the whole Jayne thing. River wasn't a kid anymore and she wouldn't do anything stupid. Remembering the hurt in her eyes when he had shouted at her dang near broke his heart. With a heavy sigh Mal stopped his pacing and made his way to the galley, hopefully River was still up.

"You know crazy, you're not really that crazy," Jayne slurred as he drained the last drop of rum from the bottle. "I mean, the whole butchers knife to the chest thing, that was crazy, but you're not 'that' crazy, you know?"

"And you girls name," River giggled at her comment as she swayed uncertainly for a moment in her chair, "are not really the big bad mercenary that you seem to be." River giggled as her vision blurred momentarily, "there are two of you Jayne."

"And you know what crazy?" Jayne continued slightly swaying in his seat, "even if you are a ruttin' witch I'm glad we're friends now."

"Best friends!" River exclaimed joyfully as another set of giggles escaped from her lips.

"You're the best friend I've ever had, and the smartest, and the best shot and the best fighter, and the prettiest, and the,"

"You think I'm pretty?" River asked suddenly interrupting Jayne's listing.

Jayne looked River up and down hungrily, "definitely."

River beamed up at him while he smiled warmly back. They sat there, smiling at each other and swaying in their chairs before Jayne leaned in and pressed a hungry kiss to River's lips. River felt like she was on fire, the warmth of the rum in her belly and the passion she could feel radiating from Jayne's thoughts overwhelmed her senses. River melted into his Kiss as Jayne grabbed her around the waist and pulled her onto his lap so she was now locked in his arms. River's hands combed through Jayne's hair while Jayne's own hands began to wander lower down River's back.

"You ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng!" Mal shouted when he walked in the galley and saw Jayne and River in each other's arms connected passionately at the lips. Jayne and River broke away from each other at his entrance, Jayne looked annoyed while River looked mortified to be caught in Jayne's arms by Mal.

"Captain just hold on," River stepped towards Mal with her palms held out defensively trying to calm him down.

Seeing the empty rum bottle on the table Mal's eye's burned with pure anger.

"You wang bao dahn, " Mal directed at Jayne his voice dangerously quiet, "you got my Albatross drunk and took gorram' advantage of her, give me one good reason Jayne why I shouldn't shoot you down right now for having your hands all over my pilot." Mal's knuckled burned white where he grasped his gun tightly.

"Well you saw the show Mal, I think it was pretty clear to the both of us your pilot was enjoying having my hands all over her." River blushed a deep crimson before Mal marched up to jayne and planted a right hook across his jaw. Jayne crashed to the floor unconscious, a bruise quickly coloring across his cheek.

"Mal!" River rushed over to Jayne to check his vitals, when she was sure his breathing and heart rate were normal she turned on Mal with a furious glint in her eyes. River squeeled in surprise when before she could pick a fight Mal picked her up and threw her across his shoulder.

"Captain! Put me down you boob!" River yelled as she beat her fists on his back.

"No, I'm taking you to your bunk and you ain't coming out till your sober and thinking straight again. What in hell were you thinking River letting that ape kiss you?"

"Just did, now put me down!" After it was clear the captain wasn't letting her down the two of them made there way to River's bunk in cold silence. Mal was barely keeping his temper down. Every fibre in his being felt like it was filled with rage and every time the image of River on Jayne's lap with his hands on her popped into his head he nearly turned around to shoot the bastard. When they finally made it to River's room Mal let her down roughly before sitting down on her couch.

"Thanks for the escort," River said icily, "but i'd like you to leave now."

"Well I'm fine right here Tross," Mal smiled impertinently as he laid comfortably across the couch, "I told you, you ain't coming out of this room till you'r'e right and sober, and i'm gonna make sure you do."

River cursed in Chinese under her breathe while she settled in her bed facing towards the wall and away from Mal.

They both laid there in silence, angry at the other. Mal looked over River, her legs curled defensively into her chest even in her own bed, her dark hair sprawled messily across her pillow, it was only when he noticed her smooth alabaster skin shaking did he realise she was crying.

"Hey now little one, there's no need for that," Mal tried to sooth as he stood up and sat next to River on her bed. "I didn't mean to make you cry Tross, really I didn't" Mal's heart just about broke when River turned to face him, her big brown eyes full of hurt and her cheeks stained with tears.

"Oh Tross, I'm sorry, I was actually looking for you in the galley to apologize but then I saw Jayne, and..." Mal trailed off as he tried to block out the images of Jayne and River.

River let Mal stroke her hair as she tried to stop her tears.

"I know you're just trying to look after me captain, but lately Jayne's friendship is all I have to help keep the nightmares at bay, he doesn't hold me steady he just distracts. The kiss was simply the outcome of alcohol inebriation, no romantic feelings were attached." River wiped the last of her tears from her eyes.

Mal couldn't hold back his smile when River told him she had no feelings for Jayne, 'sounds you're mixing up protectiveness with jealousy to me sir,' Zoe's voice echoed in his head. Mal shook those thoughts away. He was just a mite protective of his Albatross and knew Jayne was no good for her. That was it.

"About needing a new distraction little one, I'm sorry I up and shut you out when me and Nara started, you know. I told you you could steady yourself on me whenever you needed to and I meant that, I'll try to be around more from now on." River yawned sleepily as she laid her head on Mal's chest.

"Thank you captain," River smiled sleepily up at Mal before tucking herself in tighter and falling asleep soundly on his chest. Finally, she thought to herself before drifting off completely.

She's a gorram' tiny thing, Mal thought to himself as she lay there asleep on his chest his hand stroking her hair still. No wonder he felt like he had to protect her, she looked so small and all fragile like all curled up like that, it was easy to forget she was the verse's deadliest weapon.

And on that last thought he fell asleep.

Mal blinked uncertainly as he took in his surroundings. This definitely wasn't his bunk. Mal realised where he was when he heard a painful groan from River. He couldn't help but chuckle at the sight of River with her first hang over.

"I'll go make you a cup of tea," Mal offered as he gently lifted her from his chest.

"Captain," River groaned before he left, "I really am sorry about last night.

"Me too Tross."

"Do you know why Jayne is unconscious with a bruise across his jaw?" Inara asked when Mal entered the Galley.

"That's an easy one," he said as he prepared the tea, "I punched him."

"What? Why?" Inara demanded as she looked at him angrily.

"He got River drunk and was kissing all over her," he explained with another shiver at the image.

"Mal, she is not your problem, did you ever think that maybe you should just leave River alone?"

"Nara, she's crew," Mal stated evenly as he grabbed two cups of tea, "you look out for crew."

Inara stared angrily at Mal's back as she watched him head for River's bunk.

"Thank you," River half groaned from her fetal position on the bed.

"Now you know what a hang over feels like." Mal chuckled, it was amusing to see the assassin in this position.

"I swear I will never drink that much again," River sat up and gratefully took her tea from Mal.

"Captain," River started, "Is Jayne still unconscious?"

"Yep," Mal replied nonchalantly as he looked at River's latest sketch.

"And is he still on the floor?"

"Yep," Mal replied innocently without meeting River's eyes.

"Captain, you could have at least thrown him on the couch or something." River complained.

"Jayne will probably wake up with no memory and think that pretty little bruise of his is the effect of collapsing on the floor after drinking one too many. " River glared at the grinning Mal.

"Anyways," Mal continued, "you got more important things to be thinking on today, you've got a job to pull tonight, I asked Inara to help with the prettyin' up and the likes, she can give you a few pointers on the flirting business."

River scoffed at his assumption of her ignorance. "Captain, i'm a trained assassin, flirting was ingrained in my basic training."

Mal blushed slightly as the image of River from the other day flashed through his head, her batting eyelashes and the way she bit her lip alluringly was enough to remind Mal she needed no instruciton. Mal cleared his throat, embarrassed at the thoughts running through his head.

"Well then, I'll see you tonight before we head off, Zoe can fill you in on the details of the plan," Mal called out at as he quickly left her bunk and headed for his own.

"Nara," he said, surprised to see Inara waiting on his bed, her outfit leaving nothing to the imagination. Inara smiled smugly at Mal's wide eyed expression, there was nothing like an alluring display to get an unwanted distraction from a man's mind.

Inara gave Mal a sultry smile before silently making her way over to him. She began to unbutton his shirt and stopped when she examined the necklace he wore like she had done countless times before. "Why don't you ever take this off?" she asked as she traced the albatross pattern with her fingertip.

"It's an albatross, a captain and ships luck, a captain can't be without his luck," he explained with a smile as he remembered the night River had given it to him.

Inara stepped away from Mal as a sudden realisation hit her, "Mal, don't you call River Albatross?"

"Sure do, that's why she gave it to me i'm supposin'."

Inara rolled her eyes at the knowledge that one of Mal's favorite belongings was given to him by River. "Well how about you take it off, just for tonight," Inara pleaded attractively.

"No," Mal replied automatically.

"Mal don't you get it," Inara exclaimed exasperated. "River obviously has a crush on you, and you wearing a necklace she gave you will only lead her on!" She finished passionately.

"Nara, River and I have always thought of each other as friends, there ain't no intention behind this necklace, she just bought it as a good luck charm. So I like to keep it close."

"Fine Mal, but keeping her close to your heart only pushes me out!" Inara said as she pulled on her robe and tied it tightly around her.

"Inara, I keep all my crew close to my heart, you know how I am with them, they're crew, can't you be ok with that?"

"How abou we just drop it Mal, I don't feel like fighting with you today." Inara said angrily as she turned away and went to do her hair.

Mal sighed, that was just like Nara. She never wanted to talk about anything important. Whether it was problems in their relationship or things Mal just needed to get off his chest, Nara didn't want to hear it unless it had to do with grand balls, her rich clients or extravagant dresses.

"Fine Nara, but I need you to help River get ready for the party tonight."

"No Mal," Inara refused curtly.

"Gaaaah, gorram' woman," Mal exclaimed in frustration finally losing his temper. Mal stormed from his bunk and towards River's.

"Hey darlin'," he shouted down the ladder, "Inara's not feeling so well tonight do you think you could get ready for tonight on your own?"

"Told you she didn't like me," River called up smugly, "but yes, that should be fine."

"What happened to you?" Zoe asked Jayne when she walked into the galley that night ready for the job.

"I think I got drunk and fell," Jayne explained as he held an icepack to his darkened jaw. Mal couldn't help but chuckle.

Zoe looked beautiful in a white fitted gown while Kaylee commented on Mal's dashing appearance in his suit.

"Why thank you pretty miss," he said cordially with a slight bow.

"I bet Inara thought you were mighty handsome in that suit," Kaylee said with a wink.

"I don't think she cares right now little kaylee," he said as he looked out into the hallway for River. She had been in bed all day with her headache and since Inara was ignoring him Mal felt no qualms with spending the day bringing River cups of tea, the occasional snacks and some pain killers he had snuck by the oblivious Simon.

"You two fightin' again?" Kaylee asked unsurprised. Now a days' fightin' was all anyone could hear from Mal and Inara.

"Don't really want to talk about it," he replied ending the discussion.

"Wuo de ma," Mal heard Jayne whisper from behind him. Mal turned to see why the rest of his crew had gone silent all their eyes wide in awe.

"Lao-tyen boo," Mal said under his breath as he took in River's appearance. Her long raven hair was piled elegantly atop her head with loose curls caressing her face. Her brown eyes sparkled and her lips were practically an invitation the way they were colored a deep alluring red. The emerald strapless dress she wore was the perfect contrast to her alabaster skin and it emphasized her curves in all the right places, curves Mal didn't even know she had. The necklace Mal had given her hung from her neck and was tucked under her dress. a long slit ran down the length of her dress revealing the her pale skin and a gartered thigh. Mal cleared his throat while trying to remember how to talk while Kaylee squealed excitedly about how pretty she looked. She doesn't look pretty, Mal thought in response, she looks down right beautiful.

Zoe slapped Jayne across the head when he hadn't moved from his slack jawed expression.

"Well captain," River asked as she nervously tucked a curl behind her ear, "will it do the job?"

"Definitely," was all Mal could say as he held out his arm all gentlemanly like to escort River to the mule. As they passed, Zoe shot Mal a look that reminded him of her words from the other week, 'you both got feelings for eachother, you're just both too gorram' stubborn to admit it.'

Mal mentally shook himself to stop where that train of thought was going. There were no feelings between River and him. He was Inara's man, but even with that thought set in his mind he had to work very, very hard to stop himself from sneaking peeks of River or downright staring on their way to the party.

Mal scanned the room quickly as he entered. The crowded ballroom and loud music ensured that any plotting they did wouldn't be overheard. An extravagant crystal chandelier hung from the painted ceiling with equally beautiful couples dancing beneath it. There was a glass of champaign in every hand and tables full of foreign delicacies. Mal was shocked at the over all extravagance of the party which made him even more shocked to see the lack of wonder in River's eyes at a fancy shindig like this.

"Party don't impress you little one?" Mal asked as he watched Zoe pass by from the corner of his eye.

"Fancy parties, painted dolls, that was my past before the academy, it never impressed me much. Plus I hate wearing shoes," River explained as she threw a look of disgust towards her black heels. Mal couldn't help but laugh at his Albatross. When it came right down to it, it was like River was born for the life of Serenity, he had never known anyone who loved his ship as much as he did until her. She loved flying the ship and seeing all the worlds. There was nothing fancy or made up about River. She was happy to just be her and live with out all the bells and whistles.

"Mark's been spotted," Zoe whispered into Mal's ear as she passed by again, "at the top of the stairs talking to that elderly gentlemen."

"You ready Tross?" Mal asked suddenly sick at the stomach for making River go along with such a plan.

River gave a slight nod before going to release Mal's arm. She turned back when Mal held his hand over hers to stop her leaving. "I'll be close by the whole time Tross, I wont let anything happen to you tonight." River smiled warmly at him before making her way to the top of the stairs towards Marius.

"Just being protective sir," Zoe questioned with a cocked eyebrow.

"At ease soldier," Mal growled as he subtly followed River through the crowd.

River gracefully floated up the staircase, her hips swaying seductively from side to side. Mal glared when he realised every pair of male eyes were trained on River, including the eyes of their target, Marius Defrue.

River gave Marius a shy smile from under her fluttering eyelashes when she noticed his eyes were on her. He was young she noticed as she walked past. Ignoring his hungry gaze in feigned modesty she headed for the bar. He couldn't be much older then her, he was handsome too. No woman would deny that, but he lacked a certain set in his soldiers, a determined stubborn glint in his eyes, a stance that showed the world he had something to fight for. River blushed a deep red as she realised Mal fit that description perfectly. However she didn't have time to analyse the origin of that train of thought as she felt Marius presence behind her.

"Can I get you a drink, Miss...?" The handsome young man asked charmingly placing his hand softy on her back.

River bit her lip shyly before giving a quick nod, "River, and I don't usually drink, so I don't know what's good."

Marius ordered River a fruity little cocktail with an umbrella in it, "Thank you Mr. Defreu." River thanked sweetly.

"Please call me Marius," Marius said taking a seat.

"This is a beautiful ballroom Marius," River complimented as she worked to summon a blush when Marius leaned in closer. "It's nothing in the presence of a true beauty such as yourself."

River caught a glimpse of Mal rolling his eyes from his spot on the other end of the bar out of Marius' view.

"Thank you," River said as she tucked a curl behind her ear and crossed her legs on her seat so her slit ran down displaying her gartered thigh.

Mal's knuckles went white as he grasped his glass tighter. He watched from the corner of his eye as that privileged pretty boy subtly laid his hand on River's exposed thigh and whispered something in her ear that summoned her tinkling laughter.

"Someone who posses such natural beauty shouldn't wear something so simple around her neck," Marius stated as he examined River's serenity necklace.

River involuntarily shivered as Marius' fingertips gently brushed against her chest.

"Someone who is assumed to be in possession of the verses largest diamond would be epected to be used to extravagant adornments," River replied in response.

"Assumed?" Marius asked with a cock of his eyebrow, "perhaps we should turn legend to fact tonight."

River's eyes went big in feigned excitement at seeing the legendary diamond, "you would let me see it?" She asked adding an edge of excitement and disbelief to her tone.

"Perhaps I could be, persuaded," he purred into her ear suggestively as he took her hand to lead her away from the party.

Mal remained unnoticed as he followed the two as they left the main ballroom and arrived at a gargantuan hallway.

"This way," Marius gestured with an extended arm as he held open a door for River. River gasped in feigned wonder as she took in her lavish surrounding that was obviously Marius' bedroom. The walls were covered with elegant oil paintings that River recognized as those from famous artists of earth that was. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling and expensive looking furniture stood on the classy creme carpet that covered the rooms floor. River rolled her eyes when she noticed the king size, four poster canopy bed that stood in the centre of the room. Deep red sheets and numerous throw pillows covered it's space, an inviting image to 'most' women, River was sure, but River was not most women.

"And now I have you all to myself," Marius said as he traced her neck with his lips from behind her. River mentally cringed while giving a very convincing womanly sigh at his touch. Marius placed a hand on her back and turned River so she faced him.

"You are so beautiful," Marius purred in her ear as he kissed her neck while unzipping her dress slowly.

River giggled before pulling away from his hold playfully. "Now Mr. Defrue, I thought you were going to show me a diamond." River put her hands on her hips and pouted prettily for him.

"And I seem to recall saying I might be persuaded to do so," Marius said with a devilish grin.

Mal nearly burst into the room right then from his place outside the door. He tightened his fist angrily as he continued to eavesdrop on River and that piece of Go se.

Mal heard Marius' footsteps as he walked towards River. River backed up as Marius stalked forward a seductive glint in her eyes calling him to her. River stopped when she backed into the ridiculously extravagant bed.

"Looks like your trapped," Marius said before grasping the emerald silk of Rivers dress and slipping it off her slim frame. River looked modestly at her feet as Marius looked her over hungrily. Her black lace stockings framed her long legs perfectly and matched perfectly with her lace patterned underwear. The black lace bra she had stolen from Inara's shuttle cupped her breasts perfectly, making them seem at least 2 sizes larger. River noticed that this feature did not go unnoticed by Marius.

Marius, impatient to wait any longer connected there lips hungrily. Grabbing her thighs Marius lifted River from her feet and onto the bed laying her down across it's length. River gave an involuntary shiver as his hand slid along her thigh as he continued to kiss her passionately. River spun herself around suddenly so that she was now sitting atop Marius' torso.

"Now, now, I was promised a peek at a diamond," River whispered into his ear before nibbling his earlobes playfully. "And we can't leave it for later," she continued as she switched to his other ear, "because I would have tired you out by then." Marius almost growled in anticipation of what she promised.

"Well, I suppose if I show you now, it'll leave no distractions for later," Marius concluded as he sat up and placed a few brief kisses on her collarbone. River giggled in girlish excitement when he stood to lead her to wherever he secured the diamond.

Mal growled in frustration when he heard River and Marius moving further into the room, he could barely hear them now. He had heard River being lifted onto the bed, and her womanly moans that had better be pretend he thought angrily. 'sounds like jealousy to me Sir,' Zoe's stoic voice echoed in his head once again. Mal stubbornly ignored it as he pressed his ear closer to the door hoping to hear them better.

Marius led River to the back of the room where an 8 foot marble statue stood of a veiled woman.

"There's a keypad on the base of the statue," Marius pointed out. "It'll only be visible after tapping the base in three quick successions, then enter the code 349820993." Marius instructed.

River bent over and followed his instructions exactly. She gave a playful swat when midway through the code Marius cupped her bottom while placing a kiss on the back of her neck.

"You're distracting me," River said before entering in the rest of the code. A mechanical wurring sounded from the statue as a hidden shelf slid from it's base. River gently picked up the golf ball sized diamond in her hand, admiring the sparkling of the light from it's surface.

"It's beautiful," River whispered in an actresses' wonder.

"The real beauty, is the one who is about to be in my bed," Marius said placing an impatient kiss on River's unsuspecting lips. Marius pushed her passionately against the wall pressing himself against her hungrily as he deepened their kiss. He quickly removed his shirt before he was interrupted by River's pull from the kiss. "I have wanted to do this to you all night," River said suggestively while pushing him off her sexily. Marius smiled in anticipation, hunger clear in his eyes.

River swung her fist clean across Marius' jaw knocking him out in one punch.

River quickly ran to open the door and was surprised when Mal fell through the opening.

"Captain?" River questioned.

"I was trying to hear you," he muttered gruffly as he allowed River to help him off the floor.

"What took you so gorram'" Mal's sentence hung in the air as he looked up and saw what River was wearing, or rather not wearing. River looked over her lace underwear and stockings and blushed when she realised she was so scantily dressed.

"You weren't supposed let him get that gorram' far!" Mal whispered angrily as he entered the room closing the door behind him.

"He was eager, it was hard to distract from his course of action," River defended herself as she placed the diamond in Mal's jacket pocket.

"But did you have to," Mal was shocked into silence when River placed a hand over his mouth. Her head was tilted to the side as she listened to something Mal could not hear. Mal gulped nervously as he realised just how close River was standing in her lacey underwear. Before Mal's thoughts could wander River turned and ran for Marius' unconcious body.

"Help me move his body under the bed, security rounds, coming in to check," River instructed. Mal and River stuffed the unconscious form under the bed, which Mal rolled his eyes at when he noticed the extravagant silk curtains hanging from the ridiculous bed.

River looked around her as she calulcated all possible scenarios that got them out of this alive and undetected.

"River," Mal said nervously as he heard the approaching foot steps.

Mal turned towards her, about to suggest that they hide under the bed when River hurriedly lept into his arms while initiating a passionate kiss. Mal's thoughts melted away as his world was consumed by River. It felt so right to have her in his arms, her slim frame smooth against his hands. Mal lifted River into his arms as she wrapped her legs around his torso. Sitting back on the bed Mal traced kisses along her collarbone while River moaned into his hear.

"Hey, what are you doing in here?" The security guard demanded at the open doorway. Mal had completely forgotten their current situation and just gave a goofy grin in response, still stunned from River's kiss.

"Oh, this is so embarrassing," River giggled feigning a drunk demeanor as she clumsily gathered her dress and covered her body modestly.

"Look, this is the host's bedroom so how about you take all this back to your own place or a hotel room somewhere before we all get into trouble?" The guard reasoned convinced by River's act.

"Right away, officers, we'll continue this elsewhere," River said as she led Mal out by the hand giving the guard a wink on her way out.

Mal had finally begun to regain use of his head after the guard had left them in the hallway and River had slipped her dress back on. Mal scolded himself for enjoying that kiss so much. That was River's plan, she had kissed him out of necessity, just like Marius, he was a fool to think that a young and beautiful woman like River would kiss him for any other reason. Gorramit' Mal, he scolded, this is River, little River, he had no right enjoying that kiss or thinking of her in any other way other than friendly. Thoughts and feelings like that were sure to send him straight to that special hell Sheperd had always preached about.

"Captain?" River said gently, breaking Mal from his thoughts, "could you zip me up?"

Mal silently zipped River's dress up as he purposely averted his gaze from her alabaster skin and the attractive contrast of her lace black underwear. Mal lead River by the hand in silence. Zoe followed them towards the exit when he saw them descend the stair case. Mal gave her a brief nod before heading for the door. River let Mal lead her towards the mule where Jayne waited for them. Something was troubling her, kissing Mal had been the plan, but she hadn't expected to enjoy it so much. When his lips were on hers it was like she was on fire, a fire she hadn't felt when she kissed Jayne or Marius. It was a fire that was all her own, not one she felt from his thoughts. River blushed a deep red when her equation led to one possible solution, River had feelings for her captain. Her captain who was in a relationship with Inara and who thought of her as little more than a child. She had noticed his expression when he saw her without her dress on, thats not how men looked at girls, but women, maybe, River thought hopefully. River shook herself mentally as she let Jayne help her into the mule. A man like Malcolm Reynolds could never have feelings for a broken crazy girl like her.

"Did we get it?" Jayne asked as he drove them towards Serenity. Zoe whistled in amazement as Mal pulled out the largest diamond in the verse from his pocket.

"That is one big rock, so everything go according to plan with you guys?" Jayne asked Mal and River.

"Yes," they both replied automatically. Zoe squinted her eyes in suspicion as she noticed they were actively avoiding eye contact. Zoe didn't pursue the subject, hoping it would all right itself in the end.

"So whats the plan now captain?" Zoe asked.

"We go to Haven for a bit, lay low among our friends over there because our friend back at the party will be sure to be looking for us when he wakes up. When this rock isn't so hot we get it back to Badger and he gives us the other half of our money."

"Sounds like this job has actually gone to plan, that's one for the books." Jayne said in surprise.

Mal and River blushed at the image of what happened when they had to deviate from the plan

"Get us in the air River," Mal ordered emotionlessly as the mule pulled into the cargo bay.

"River Tam!" Inara cried out angrily as she stormed from her shuttle.

"Nara," Mal held his arms up defensively paranoid that somehow Inara knew about their kiss and how he got lost in it.

"River! I know you stole my bra! Give it back!" Inara demanded angrily as she strode down the steps.

"Ooh, I hope they start wrestling," Jayne whispered to Zoe.

"I can still hurt you," Zoe reminded him.

Mal, remained quiet on the side, a little confused, but quiet.

River glared at Inara angrily. She had never experienced the emotion of jealousy before but she assumed she was feeling it now as a direct repercussion of her new found feelings for Mal.

River nonchalantly reached into her dress and pulled the strapless bra from her chest as she continued to walk up the stairs.

She tossed the bra emotionlessly at Inara before leaving for the bridge.

"Damn," Jayne said in admiration, "when did Moonbrain get so sexy?"

"Airlock Jayne," Mal threatened before heading over to appease the still angry Inara.

"So, how did the job really go?" Zoe asked as she sat down in the co-pilots chair next to River.

River blushed and peeked up through her hair which she had let fall into a long curly mess.

"Was it that obvious?"

"River, I havn't felt two people trying to avoid each other that intensely, ever. So what happened? Did, Mal kill the guy to defend your honor or something of the like?"

River gave a weak smile at the comment. "No, cargo was secure, Marius was hidden, but the security was doing the rounds ahead of schedule and there was no place to hide so, I deviated from the plan." River finished quietly as she turned Serenity to autopilot and tucked her legs under her chin.

"What sort of deviation?" Zoe urged her on.

"Well, I was still undressed from my, persuasions towards Marius. So I kissed him, I leapt into Mal's arms and I kissed him so that when security came back they would think we were drunk and fooling around in the first room we found, only," River trailed off, not sure how to continue.

"Only, you felt something when you kissed him little one?" Zoe asked smiling at her accurate instincts towards River Mal.

"That is my hypothesis, yes, I have no previous data to analyse but based on the evidence and the," River started rambling.

"River, sweetie," Zoe said stopping her, "your feelings for the Captain aren't something you can figure out in an equation, you just feel them. How does the captain make you feel?"

River tried to think past the equations but was distracted by the throbbing headache she was getting. She focused on Mal, the nights they had stayed up talking, how she felt when she was around him. River tenderly grasped the serenity necklace that hung from her neck and smiled at the memory. River opened her eyes to realise her headache had gone and Zoe was smiling at her.

"Whole," River stated in complete surety, "He makes me feel whole."

Zoe smiled as she got up to leave, "thats what I thought."

"Zoe," River called before she could leave, "please don't mention anything to the captain, he's got Inara after all."

Zoe nodded in understanding before heading out, leaving River to analyze her new found feelings.

"She stole my bra Mal!" Inara yelled angrily at Mal who sat on Inara's bed with his forehead held tiredly on his palm.

"She needed it for the job Nara, its not like she was going to keep it," he argued tiredly.

"That's not the point Mal, the point is that at every corner of our lives River is there crowding our relationship. There is no River free zone on this whole gorram' ship! And the way she dressed tonight, she's obviously never done her own hair before or her makeup because-"

"Nara, thats enough," Mal stopped her short with his authoritative captain voice, "I can understand you being angry about the whole taking your stuff thing, but I'm captain of this ship and I wont sit around and listen to you saying spiteful things about my pilot just for the fun of it, because you and I both know she looked just about beautiful tonight. I'll be sleepin' in my own bunk tonight and I'm thinking that mayhaps' you should do the same." Inara watched Mal leave with her mouth gaping open in disbelief.

Mal made his way for the bridge where he knew the sight of the black could soothe his chaotic emotions. Mal sat himself down in the pilots chair relieved to find it empty, he didn't think he could face River right now, not after how he reacted to her kiss.

"Oh, sorry Captain, I can go," River said uncomfortably as she entered the bridge with an apple in her hand, "thought you were with Inara." River turned to leave.

"River," Mal called stopping her escape. Mal scruffed his hair uncomfortably as he realised he didn't rightly know what he wanted to say, "good job today." He finished lamely.

"Thanks captain," River said with a weak smile before heading for her bunk.

"We're here!" Kaylee squealed excitedly as the cargo doors opened to the landscape of Haven. The planet had flourished in the few short months since Miranda. With Monty now living there permanently, It had once again become a place where Serenity and her crew could find safety from the law, a place to rest and rejuvenate among friends.

"Monty!" Mal exclaimed enthusiastically as the welcome party came to greet them.

"Mal," Monty returned the enthusiasm with a bone crushing hug that lifted Mal clear of the ground.

"Good to see you too pal," Mal said with a clap on his back. "Monty you remember Zoe of course, you've met Jayne, Kaylee, Inara, this here is a new recruit, the good Dr. Simon Tam, resident medic onboard, and I have a pilot somewhere round here," Mal trailed off as he looked around the landscape keeping an eye out for River."

Mounty's booming laughter echoed through the valley when he spotted River.

"I think I found your pilot," Monty said with a grin as he pointed into the tree hanging above them.

"How did crazy even get up there?" Jayne wondered mostly to himself.

"And that's River, now don't go putting your charm on her Monty, she can take you down in a second.

"This little beauty? I don't believe it," Monty exclaimed as River dropped to the ground directly in front of him.

"Your beard is ginormous," River stated nonchalantly before walking towards the village.

"I like her!" Monty exclaimed excitedly before they all followed River and made their way towards the village.

Monty and the other residents of Haven held a great big bonfire in honor of their arrival. In the the outskirts of the town the village people sang and danced and drank around the bonfire, all happy to join in the fun.

Mal took another sip of his rum happily, all around him his crew were safe and happy. Kaylee and Simon were dancing or trying to at least, Kaylees boisterous style and Simon's awkward steps were more an amusing thing to watch than anything else. Jayne was sitting amongst the ladies, a drink in each hand and woman on each arm. Zoe sat amongst the elders of the village talking of matters around town. Inara had retired early, tired of the drunkards and off key singing. Mal looked about the place in search of River and soon spotted her mid twirl in her dance with a young man who looked at her with wonder in his eyes. Mal habitually glared as he watched another young man eagerly cut in to dance with River.

"That one there's got something special about her," Monty gestured towards River as he sat himself down next to Mal.

"She sure does," Mal commented automatically.

"Pretty thing too," Monty said eyeing Mal as he noticed the way his eyes were still fixed on River.

"Pretty, you should have seen her on our last job Monty, gorram' beautiful she was," Mal stated, his words starting to slur a little from the rum.

A mischievous grin crept upon Monty's face as he helped Mal to his feet.

"Then you should go dance with the lovely lady in question," he said as he pushed Mal roughly among the coupled dancers. Mal nearly lost his footing but thankfully regained his balance before running straight into River.

"Captain," River greeted as she separated from her latest partner, an amused grin on her face from his entrance.

"Monty said I have to dance with you," Mal said as he pointed a finger accusingly at the chuckling Monty.

"I like Monty, he's nice," River said her own words slightly slurred like his.

"You been drinking little one?" Mal asked standing up a little straighter trying to look like the sober responsible captain.

"Tim here got me a drink," River said appreciatively as she smiled at the young man standing silently by her side, "and John did too, and so did Aaron and-"

"Alright, I think I get the picture Tross, you're just lucky Kaylee's got Simon trapped somewhere all private like."

"Get on with it!" Monty shouted from the other side of the bonfire.

Mal shushed him with a wave of his hand, "don't rush me!"

"Excuse us Tim," River said politely before performing a graceful curtsy, "I have to dance with my captain now." Mal smiled at her goofily as he matched her curtsy with a gentlemanly bow.

River's heart warmed as the captain took her in his arms, his hand on the small of her back and her hand held gently in his other.

Mal's reason had long ago been washed away by the rum and now he allowed himself to revel in having River in his arms. All thoughts of Inara had left with his reason and for now he was content to smile down at her pretty brown eyes as they twirled around the bonfire.

Mal and River laughed and sang together as they danced in circles, the awkwardness of their kiss forgotten.

Monty watched them carefully as the laughing pair danced merrily around the bonfire.

Zoe walked over noticing where his gaze was focused.

"You see it too?" Monty asked when he felt Zoe approach.

"Since the beginning, that little one there put the captain back together somehow. When no one else could reach him, she did. And he did the same for her, says he makes her feel whole."

"So Mal is just too gorram' stubborn to see it," Monty chuckled, "doesn't sound like him at all."

"He'll see it, I just hope he doesn't wait till he's already lost her," Zoe said as she looked over the numerous young man who gazed longingly at River and shot dagger eyes at Mal.

"You're not that bad a dancer," River complimented as they sat tiredly on the ground.

"Thank you Albatross, but i'm under the notion that your just saying that to be nice." River laughed guiltily at his accuracy.

"Well I have seen worse captain."

Caught up in their laughter neither had noticed how close their faces had gotten. There lips were only inches apart, and Mal was suddenly filled with a deep urging to see what those lips felt like.

"Excuse me, but may I have this dance?" A handsome brunette interrupted tearing the two from their moment. Mal cleared his throat before hurriedly excusing himself. River watched him go sadly before giving the boy a weak smile and a nod to his request.

Mal tried to make a list of all the reasons why he shouldn't be harboring no thoughts like that about River. First he was with Nara, second, River was just a girl, his little Albatross. Still, Mal noted, she wasn't so little no more. Seeing her in her underwear the other night had only solidified that point, and River had gone through more than most any grown woman, what was the third point? Mal gave up distracted when he heard River giggle at something the young man had said. Mal rolled his eyes, thinking all of these youths were too much boy for River, she was an old soul, she had been through so much, she needed someone with the years to understand that. Mal nearly stormed towards them when he saw the young man leading an obviously drunk River away from the party.

"Stand down," Zoe instructed with a gentle hand on his shoulder to stop him from punching the poor boy down.

"She's drunk Zoe, he's taken' advantage," Mal explained still eager to follow them.

"Mal, this is River we're talking about, she can handle it herself." Zoe's point was proven when River skipped merrily from the shadows she was lead and the young man held his bleeding nose protectively as he shouted profanities at her.

"Didn't say you could touch," River said as she turned on him with an angry glare, "besides it's only a broken nose you boob, I could've done worse."

Mal couldn't help but chuckle as he watched the exchange.

"Told you sir," was all Zoe said before leaving him to watch River skip to the dance floor and continue her dancing as if nothing had happened.

That night Mal woke from a particularly vicious nightmare with his heart beating frantically.

"Nara," he whispered, needing to talk to someone and have them tell him it was all ok.

"Mal, go to sleep," Inara whispered sleepily from her place at his side.

"Nara, please, I know it sounds childish but I really need someone to talk to right now." Mal pleaded, his voice almost broke as the images from his nightmare flashed before him. His crew were all screaming, crying bleeding, all full of pain as the reavers from Miranda fought for their still living bodies.

"Not now Mal, go to sleep," Inara said coldly before turning over so she faced away from Mal.

Mal held his head in his hands tenderly as he tried to steady his emotions, but the images just kept on flashing through his head. Mal got up and left his bunk, he needed to get out of that room, feel Serenitie's gentle humming on his bare feet. Mal walked through her halls aimlessly, eventually he found himself heading for the galley. He wasn't sure if it was from old habits or a desperate hope to find the one person he knew who would understand.

"River," Mal said in a relieved sigh. River looked up from her place on the dining table, her legs tucked protecively under her chin and tears stained down her cheek.

"What's wrong little one?" Mal asked worriedly as he sat himself down and placed an arm over her shoulders.

"Nightmares captain," She replied sniffily.

"Same here little one," Mal said as he rubbed her shoulder soothingly.

River leaned her head on his chest as she scanned through his own nightmares which he didn't try to block from her.

"That one hurts a lot," River said as she cringed from the images of the dreams.

"It sure does Tross," Mal agreed.

"Captain, it was just a nightmare, just pretend, you have to remember, you kept your crew safe that day."

Mal held her a little tighter at her soothing words, it was exactly what he needed to hear. River didn't say it out of pity or to pacify him either, everything with her was sincere. Mal stared into those big brown eyes for the second time that night and finally saw it. It was always River. River was the one who had been there every night to bring him out from his nightmares, she had found his broken pieces and put him back together just by being near, by being his friend. River was the one he wasn't afraid to be himself around because River saw all of him and thought none the less of him. River was the one he loved to dance, sing and laugh with. River was the one that he...loved. A small smile crept upon his face as he realised he was in love with his little pilot.

"Captain?" River asked uncertainly at Mal's silence.

"You should get some sleep little one, I promise it'll all be better in the morning, there's something I've got to do."

River watched in confusion as Mal hurried from the galley turning to look at her one more time with a smile before disappearing into the corridor.

The next morning Inara woke to find Mal sitting on the couch awake and dressed tapping his leg impatiently.

"You know I didn't appreceate being woken up last night," Inara called by way of a morning greeting.

Mal smiled to see her awake, eager to do what needed to be done.

"Well you'll be happy to hear that I don't plan to do it ever again," Mal said happily.

"Well good," Inara said oblivious to the the intent behind Mal's eyes.

"Inara," Mal started, "this is isn't working. I think we should break up." He ended with an excited smile. He knew a jolly expression was not the most appropriate response for a breakup but all he could think of was River and everything she was to him.

"Excuse me?" Inara said slowly, her tone dangerously low.

"Inara, you know we're no good for each other, we're always fighting, we never talk about anything important, we're not happy. I don't even think we were ever in love."

"Mal, do you know how many men would kill to be in your position. Women like me, don't get dumped, we do the dumping." Inara said as she stood from the bed angrily.

"Well if you like you can tell the world that you dumped me, but either way I'm finished here, and don't think this means you have to leave neither, you're still crew and welcome on my boat. That much hasn't changed."

Inara stared openmouthed as she watched Mal disappear up the bunk's ladder.

Inara threw a pillow angrily across the room. This had to be River's fault, she had been getting between them this whole time sabotaging their relationship. That was going to change.

"Have you seen River?" Mal asked Zoe eagerly when he looked into the galley.

"I think she said something about going to talk to the birds, expecting she'll be dirt side."

"Thanks Zo," Mal shouted as he ran for the cargo bay. Mal searched all over the village and asked every passerby if they had seen her. He had almost given up hope of finding her when he heard a tinkling laughter coming from the tree branches above him. Mal beamed up at the sight of his Albatross who sat lazily on one of the highest branches of the tree.

"What are you doing all way up there little one?" Mal asked eager to get her down and in his arms again.

"Playing hide and seek captain, you wouldn't have found me if I had not forgotten to turn stealth mode on," She replied as she swung her legs lazily over the branch.

"I'll always find you Tross. But hows about you come down here because I got something mightily important to tell you," Mal encouraged eagerly.

"The girl can hear from her perch Captain, speak your words." River stayed stubbornly up on her perch waiting for Mal to begin, curious as to what he had to say.

"Gorram' woman," Mal muttered under his breath before taking a deep breath.

"Ok, so ever since Miranda, the nightmares, and then our tea, you were there, and I thought Inara but I was wrong and seeing you with Marius and Zoe kept saying..." Mal trailed off when he noticed the confusion written very clearly on River's face. "I'm not making any sense am I?" Mal asked a little frustrated that he couldn't find a way all romantic like to tell River he loved her. Ma suddenly had an idea, he closed his eyes and focused his mind as he lifted the block he had developed against River's reading. He conjured every moment and every good memory or image he had of her and every detail he had of his new found love for her. A surprised gasp from above told him it was working but he didn't let it break his focus as he thought of moment after moment they had shared, he even included his breakup with Inara. Mal lost his concentration when he was knocked to the ground by his little assassin.

"Ow," Mal gasped as he hit the ground. He quickly forgot the pain when he felt River arms around him crushing him a tight hug. River's brown eyes lifted to his own as he stroked her messy raven hair from her face.

"I love you River," Mal said with as much meaning and sincerity he could put into his words.

"I love you too Mal," River replied before connecting their lips passionately. River's heart felt like it was about to burst as Mal's arms encircled her waist lovingly as her own hands combed through his hair. They stayed like for what felt like hours, consumed by each other's presence as the verse seemed to disappear leaving only them. They tore apart what they felt was too soon when they heard shouts erupting from Serenity. They wordlessly got up and ran for their ship hand in hand.

Mal took his gun out and shot three mercs who had surrounded Zoe in the cargo bay. Jayne yelled in warning before another five appeared and tackled him to the ground. Kaylee and Simon were held at gunpoint while Jayne and Zoe were soon disarmed and restrained on the ground soon after. Mal struggled under the weight of the mercs as he watched River knock down man after man. A shrill scream from Inara within her shuttle had River running to her rescue.

"What's going on here Zoe?" Mal asked breathless from the weight of the men ontop of him.

"Don't rightly know sir, they ain't using lethal force, looks like their orders aren't to kill, but there are a lot of them. I don't think even River can take them all."

"The girl cant," River said sadly as she was pulled from Inara's shuttle with an arm around her throat and a gun pointed at her head by none other than Marius Defrue.

"You wang bao dahn!" Mal shouted angrily as he struggled to break free and reach River.

"Now now Captain," I have been told that this thief was only taking passage on your ship and that you and your crew had nothing to do with the taking of my diamond. I am a generous man and I will not kill you for it, I am just glad you had such an honest law abiding citizen upon your ship as Miss Serra who found it within her duty to report to me the theft when she saw it was in this pretty girls possession. Besides, she left so soon, we didn't have time to finish what we started." Marius said as he turned River to place a rough kiss on her lips. River tore her lips away and spat in his face which only made him grin viciously.

"Oh yes, you were quite the feisty thing under that sweet girl act, this'll help that fight of yours," he said as he injected her in the neck and let her drop to the ground. River sank to her knees as she placed a hand to her neck, she swayed unsteadily as her limbs began to feel heavy and weak.

"River!" Mal shouted desperately as he watched her sink to the ground, "Inara, you get out here and you face the crew you betrayed! How could you do this to us!"

Inara stepped out of her shuttle to stand next to Marius and River, her expression cold.

"I didn't do this to any of you, I did this to River. Don't you get it, the alliance are still after her, she's always going to be a danger to us, she's poison on this ship, didn't you see what she was doing to us Mal?" Inara reasoned.

"There is no us Inara, and there definitely never will be after this." Mal growled at her while the others refused to meet her eyes, shocked at her betrayal.

"Well I have my Diamond and I have my pretty little thief over here so I'll be heading off now," Marius farewelled as he lifted the helpless River into his arms and off Serenity.

"River!" Mal yelled as he watched her disappear with Marius.

"So if you ain't going to kill us, why are you all still here," Jayne growled angrily at the mercs who restrained them.

"Our orders are to keep you here until Mr. Defreu is off planet." One of them answered emotionlessly.

ten minutes later Marius carried River onto his ship and placed her in his quarters. "I know its not as lavish as my own back home, but it'll do," he said as he gestured to the plain bed he placed her on.

"What, what..." River tried to ask, her voice week.

"What am I going to do with you sweet-thing? Well, i'm going to finish what we started the other night, and then," he paused as he crept onto the bed on top of her, "I'm going to kill you," he whispered into her ear before he kissed her roughly on the mouth.

Mal willed himself to come up with a plan, every second he lay there was another second River was in danger. He was about to try biting the nearest Merc when he heard a battle cry from outside. Mal smiled mishiveousy when he saw Monty and a mob of armed men running onto the ship, this was about to get interesting.

two minutes later the Mercs were all either dead, unconscious or restrained by rope with a smiling Jayne as their warden.

"Thought you could use a hand when you lot didn't come over for some hair of the dog," Monty said with a wink, "so who are these guys anyway?"

"I'll tell you later," Mal called behind him as he hopped in the mule and revved off in search of River.

Back on Marius ship he ordered his pilot to prep for takeoff.

"You know," he chatted casually, "you are by far, the prettiest thief I've ever seen." River tried to push him off her as he trailed rough hungry kisses along her collar bone. Marius laughed at her weak attempt to fight him, her limbs still heavy from the drug in her system.

"Not so tough now are you sweetling?" Marius mocked as he began to unbutton the top of River's dress.

On the outside of Marius ship Mal furiously fought singlehandedly to cut through the masses off the ship's security, his desperate need to keep River safe driving him forward and fueling his strength.

Marius lifted his lips from River's torso when he heard shouts erupt down the hall.

"It looks like someone wants you as bad as I do," Marius grinned hungrily as he ran a hand under her dress feeling the length of her thigh. Marius turned away again distracted when he realised the shouts were getting closer. He was about to call his head of security for a status report when a loud thud rang through his room as his door crashed to the ground. Marius placed River in front of him as a shield while pointing his gun to her head. The dust cleared from the crash of the door to reveal Mal with a gun in each hand and a furious glint in his eyes.

River tried to struggle from Marius' hold, her strength returning to her slowly.

"How's about you give me that pretty little lady and we all leave happy, you'll still have your diamond, and your life."

Marius was about to protest when River summoned all of her strength and elbowed him in the gut. Marius hunched over in pain while accidentally firing a shot. With River cleared from the way Mal shot a single shot between the eyes killing him instantly as he slumped to the ground with a thud. Mal hurried to River's side who was now crumpled on the ground, her strength spent.

"Mal," she said with a smile as she went to caress his cheek.

"River," Mal said uncertainly as he looked at the blood covering her hand. Mal looked her over, his heart starting to race at the amount of blood he saw on her dress. He found the gunshot wound, the bullet still imbedded in her gut.

"We gotta' get you out of here Tross," Mal said trying not sound frantic in front of River. Mal carried her hurriedly to the mule which he quickly started and raced towards Serenity.

"Doc!" Mal yelled urgently as he drove into the cargo bay.

"Get her to the infirmary," Simon instructed snapping into doctor mode.

Mal paced back and forth outside the infirmary as Simon and Zoe worked on River to remove the bullet fragments and repair the damage.

"She's gonna be ok Captain," Kaylee said sweetly as she hugged Mal tightly, "Simon will fix her up good as new."

"I'm sure he will," Mal agreed with worry and fear still clear in his eyes.

Simon and Zoe approached the still waiting Mal several hours later after they finished the surgery.

"Where are we at Doc?" Mal asked frantically, "she gonna be ok?"

Simon and Zoe exchanged a tired smile before giving Mal a reassuring nod.

"We were able to remove all the fragments of the bullet and stop the bleeding, but there was a lot of damage, and the drug thats still in her system is making it harder for her to heal right now, it'll take her longer than usual, but she'll heal.

Mal dropped onto the couch as he allowed his body to un tense.

Mal gave a heavy sigh of relief as he let the Docs words wash over him, she was going to be ok. "Can I see her?"

"Sure, but she's asleep," Simon said before turning a questioning look on Zoe, a silent question of why Mal was so concerned for her.

"Captain is in love with your sister," Zoe said nonchalantly before leaving a shocked Simon in her wake.

"Kaylee!" Simon called, desperate to hear her take on the captain's possible feelings for his mei mei."

Mal quietly crept into the room careful not to wake her up. Her pale face was tilted to the side in sleep while her long raven hair messily covered her sleeping features. Mal gently took her hand in his as he remembered hearing those three little words escaping her lips just that afternoon. This loving, beautiful, deadly, gorram' stubborn, perfect woman sleeping before him loved him. Mal's expression turned dark when he remembered there was someone on his ship who almost took that away. Mal placed a brief kiss on River's forehead before heading straight for Inara's shuttle.

Monty sat outside the shuttle doors as acting sentry. "I never liked her," Monty commented as he gestured behind him and opened the doors for Mal to enter.

Inara was sitting regally on her couch with a tea before her as If nothing had happened.

"So you've come back for me Mal," Inara asked with a sultry smile. Mal tried to keep his temper down as he approached.

"Inara, today you turned your back on me and the family you had on this ship. Your were down right evil and selfish and you put everyone on this ship in danger. River is in the infirmary with a gunshot wound to the gut, and when I found her, that hwoon dahn was ontop of her with her top unbuttoned and his hands all over her."

Inara raised her head stubbornly, " I stand by my actions, River has no place on this ship, she only puts the rest of us in danger, and you nor the others were going to be harmed today."

"I wasn't finished," Mal growled, his dangerous tone immediately quieting Inara, "that girl that you nearly got killed, I love her, I love her something fierce in a way I ain't never felt before and you almost took that away today. From this day till my last day you ain't got no place on my crew, or my ship. You will be confined to your quarters until we reach Persephone where we will leave you to be some other ships poison. That's all."

Mal turned to leave, ignoring Inara's desperate calls of his name as he left.

"It's rude to stare," River commented weakly with her eyes still closed as she awakened to feel Mal's anchoring presence close by.

"It's hard when you're just that pretty little one," Mal said as he placed a gentle kiss on her lips. River opened her eyes to see Mal's own blue one's full of relief to see her awake.

"How long was I out," River cringed in pain as she tried to sit up.

"Woah there darlin', you ain't healing so fast right now so hows' about you take it slow for now, and it's been two days since you were shot." Mal tenderly stroked her hair as she placed her own hand lovingly on his cheek.

"Inara?" River asked her expression dark as she remembered the danger Inara had put her crew in.

"We're staying the week on haven as planned where she will be confined to quarters, then she gets off on persephone. Now how about you try and think of better things than traitors on our ship and get back to sleep darlin'."

"I don't want to sleep, I want to be with you," River said with a pretty pout.

"Well I ain't goin' nowhere darlin'," Mal promised as he placed a quick kiss on her still pouty lips, "I'll be right here when you wake up."

River smiled as her eyes begin to droop sleepily, content with her captain's promise. Mal watched River slowly drift off to sleep, a contented smile set at the corner of her lips.

"Told you so," Zoe said smugly as she popped her head into the infirmary, you were just being gorram' stubborn."

Mal gave a quiet chuckle, "If only I had listened to you sooner Zo."

"So you love her captain?" She asked frankly.

Mal smiled warmly at River's sleeping form as he gently caressed her cheek, "In a way I didn't think was possible for a broken soul like me Zo."

"It wasn't possible with the broken soul you were sir, but ever since she found a way in, you ain't been so broken." Zoe said before she left the couple alone.

"You're all I ever needed Albatross, and you're all i'll ever want," Mal whispered into River's ear before he slumped back in his chair and quickly fell asleep.

His dreams were all shiny that night, they were all River and his excitement to spend everyday until his last day with her and today was just the beginning.

-The End-

Please review :)

Thinking of doing a sequel to show life on serenity with Mal and River as an actual couple and all the mischief they would get up to.

Thanks for reading!