The shuttle was quiet as it descended upon Sihnon. Or, at least, it was quiet for Inara who was piloting it down. For River, it was filled with the other woman's thoughts and emotions – the weight forcing down on the companion's heart was also weighing down on the reader's brain. Well, Inara's thoughts and the lingering memories of things she'd inadvertently picked up off of him.
Eventually, River couldn't contain herself anymore.
"He's frail," she remarked softly. "Well, right now he's drunk. But inside, he's…turned about." If River were not staring so intently at the woman, she would have missed her slight flinch.
"River, I don't see how this is your business. I'm sure the Captain wouldn't be too keen on the idea of you in his head, either."
"Better to have loved and lost than to never love at all, they say. Crying over more than spilt milk. The cow's being slaughtered and there is no victor to take the spoils. Instead it all spoils. Spoils rotten – festering. She feels it – your fear is not noble. He's dying faster than you, you know. Your soul and body will be free but his soul will trap in the body – a body rotting around his broken soul. Spoiled. And I can't fix it or make it keep. You can't fix a Bible – can't fix a broken man if you're not the one he loves."
"Do you want him to love you? Is that what this is about?"
River huffed, "Not the point. You need to tell him. He spends so much time protecting everyone else, protecting himself and closing himself off. Protecting him only alienates him more, the walls he's building up – a few more bricks for him to put up before he's barricaded in forevermore."
The shuttle touched down. Inara and River shared a tense moment of silence before the Companion stood up and moved to collect her things. As the older woman moved to step to ground, River sighed and stood up and followed after her, calling out her name.
She caught up with her and wound her arms around her neck, embracing her tightly. Inara let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding in since before the conversation started.
"I'll miss it," Inara stated. "I'll miss you." I'll miss him.
River nodded her head as she still held fast to her friend. "If you need someone else to be strong for you, send out a wave. Nothing in the 'verse would stop us."
"You think so?"
"I know so. He thinks real loud."
The older woman pressed her palm to River's face gently. "You be good, River."
"Things are less foggy in here now, she'll be okay." She gestured to her temple and smiled before bidding her goodbye before turning to pilot the shuttle back herself.
He was sitting in the galley when she returned, his fingers clasping the neck of a bottle. The scent of the amber liquid inside was radiating warmth inside him, the taste still on his lips. He'd let her go before and didn't quite understand why it was so hard the second time around.
"That's a silly question that you know the answer to," her voice cut through the silence, twinkling in the room like a windchime.
"Little girl, what have I told you about fussing about in my head."
"Stop thinking so loud, then," she remarked, glancing over her shoulder at him as she rummaged around and pulled out an apple. She dropped into the chair across from him and met his gaze.
"You want to give me back my pistol, little one?"
She let out a giggle and held her hand out, nodding towards the apple. Heaving a sigh, Mal reached for his knife and handed it to her before she placed his pistol delicately into his hand. He watched her for a moment, cutting into the apple the way he and Zoe often took to. "Nervous about having your head blown off?"
"She feels as though it's exploding half the time anyhow," she whispered before biting a slice of her apple off the tip of his knife. "You're about to get a wave sent down to your bunk, might want to head down," she said softly.
"Well how would ya…" he broke off before completing the question, realizing he should know better than to ask as he stood up and turned towards the door.
"Leave it," River sing-songed, smiling when Mal put down the bottle of liquor on the table and walked out.
Mal grumbled under his breath about the young girl as he slipped down into his living quarters. River's voice came over the comm, "Sending it down your way now." He wondered how she'd moved so fast. He didn't have much time to think, though, before Inara's face appeared on the screen in front of him.
"Ain't it too soon for you to be luring me into another trap, darlin'?"
The look on the woman's face was somber and he frowned, pulling over a chair and slumping down onto it – preparing himself for whatever words she had for him.
River was sitting in her spot on the bridge when he entered; he glanced at her for a moment before dropping down into his own seat and staring out into the black.
"I'm sorry," she said softly, her voice meek and hesitant. "It wasn't ever mine to tell you."
His jaw clenched and he looked over at her, expression softening when he took in her posture. Her legs were drawn to her chest and her chin rested on her knees as she stared at the console.
"Little albatross," he started, stopping short when she shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut.
"I can't help the volume of my thoughts none, River."
He sighed before standing up and walking towards her, turning her chair to force her to look him in the eye.
"I don't mean to be rustling in your head," she insisted. "Never mean to. Wish I could turn it off better. She kept hoping it would go away after Mir…" she broke off and shook her head violently. "But I hear it all. And I feel it. The good and the bad, but the bad outweighs so heavy, tilts the scale 'til it's all spilt. I thought we were doing something good," she whispered sadly, "Why do I feel so much bad?"
He had no answers for her but he reached for her hand, taking it in his for a moment while he tried to collect his words. As he fumbled for them, he caught a quick twitch of her lips, curving into an almost smile before fading away.
"I feel them all the time," she whispered softly. "Especially in here." She glanced over Mal's shoulder at the spot he had vacated, her eyes settling on the plastic dinosaur toys there. "I wonder if Zoe will ever forgive me."
"Now, what makes you think Zoe's blaming you?"
"She's not, but she will be and rightfully so. Maybe not forever, but in a week's time once the morning sickness creeps in and she realizes that…"
"Morning sickness?" Mal asked her, eyes wide and blew out a breath. "Ta ma de."
She nodded, "Do you know that Jayne was very fond of the Shepherd? He wishes greatly to have killed the men that ravaged Haven. More than he would ever admit out loud. Sometimes his thoughts are few and far between, but I hear those – loud. Especially when he sleeps. When everyone sleeps I just…" she broke off and looked away from him. "I just feel."
"Your nightmares were coming less and less while we were planetside fixing up the ship. You've been speaking less in riddles and third-person. Maybe in time, the rest'll go away too. At least for long enough for ya to find some peace."
Her lips twitched again and she nodded at him. "Perhaps," she pursed her lips for a moment before nodding again, this time more resolutely. "Xie-xie, Captain."
After he straightened and returned to Wash's old seat, he felt her eyes on him and turned to meet her gaze. But by the time his head whipped around curiously, she was already looking back out into the black. "She won't suffer any," she informed him softly. "And you'll see her before she worsens."
Mal swallowed thickly and nodded at her before turning back to make sure their coordinates were set into the nav properly. Before he could say another word to her, she had already stepped off the bridge.
"River," the voice cut through the silence and startled the young reader. Startling her was very hard, and so the woman's face instantly crumpled with concern. She'd been sitting in the common area, reading a book, when she'd felt eyes on her. Zoe was also very hard to startle and knew but one person on the entire ship who's steps were light enough to get the drop on her.
"I am sorry for staring," the younger girl said softly before turning to leave.
"You've been doing that quite a bit lately – staring at me. Do I have something in my teeth?" the older woman asked dryly before offering the girl a soft smile.
"Your smiles are so sad now," River lamented. "I wish they weren't that way. I wish…"
Zoe placed down her book and gestured for the girl to sit down, hesitantly River obliged. "What's all this about then?" She'd never been one for comforting, but didn't like the idea of the young girl in distress – for everyone's wellbeing.
"You're a very strong woman," River said softly. "I've known that from the start. I don't go fishing in heads, but the Captain has such loud thoughts sometimes and I've seen how highly he regards you, seen some of his memories from the wartime when he dreams. I've seen the way Jayne respects you, though he'd die before admitting it. The way the others regard your authority." She bit her lip and looked away, "Felt bits and pieces of what Wash did when he'd look at you…" her voice trembled lightly. "I am sorry."
"Don't," Zoe ordered, however her voice was lacking any anger.
"It shouldn't have been anyone but me. Part of me wishes…" she shook her head. "I wouldn't fault you any if you wanted to space me. It was my doing and now that I'm pilot…"
"I think he'd be quite pleased that the ship was in such capable hands. He loved this ship and loved its crew, River. I don't want you to go thinking such awful thoughts without realizing that he wouldn't want that. Now I miss him fierce, but he died doing the noble thing – the right thing. I know if he could he'd do it again." Zoe's voice was commanding, nearly militant. But then, after a moment, her expression softened. "I do wish I could look into his eyes one more time…or see him one more time."
"You will," River said emphatically.
"I don't know if I believe in any sort of afterlife, River."
River shook her head and looked down at Zoe's stomach. "One day, very soon. It may be in the way it smiles, or laughs, or slices a sandwich in half. It may be the way they're keen on toy dinosaurs or looks at you with an unconditional love – but you'll see it and it will be him and you will be happy and sad all at once."
Zoe's eyes widened as she followed River's gaze and finally absorbed her meaning. "Do you mean I'm…"
"I didn't mean to tell you in such a way!" the young girl exclaimed. "Apologies. It had been jumping at me for so long, the glimpses of it. But I should have let you figure it out on your own and now I've-" River was cut off when Zoe pulled her into an embrace and River wondered if she was dreaming somehow. But after a moment she hugged the other woman back and smiled at her softly, feeling slightly more relieved.
She had hoped it would end and knew that was a foolish dream to have held onto. But after the wave went out about Miranda – after the secret was no longer only hers to bear – she had hoped that the fogging of her head would leave her for good. But in her heart of hearts, she knew better.
The nightmares plagued her more.
Every time they went dirtside and she found herself close to a crowd, one voice would weed in – one panicking voice that was a mix of angry and terrified after learning the truth about what sort of perils lied out in the black and just what had caused them. Then one voice became two and they all started trickling in and the dam would break under the weight of their fears.
Normally, Simon would be near to shake her shoulders and wake her but as she jolted awake in her bunk she realized that that was not the case. Frowning, she swung her legs from her cot, bare feet hitting the floor as she elected to wander the ship.
As she walked down along the cargo bay, she glanced at Jayne's weight bench and grimaced, remembering the Preacher Man and his workouts there, spotting or being spotted. Her chest felt heavy once more.
In the engine room, there were Simon and Kaylee. Their thoughts filled her mind, contentment and warmth occasionally plagued by little doubts that were then kissed away until they fluttered off like butterflies in spring.
Jayne dreamt of dancing with a woman named Vera – wait, no – visual confirmation proved otherwise. Book was in his thoughts too and River's expression softened as she realized their hard mercenary had grown fond of the Shepherd and he silently mourned the loss of his companions.
Zoe's thoughts had been all full up of Wash lately, but since that evening during their talk they were full of thoughts of the little one that would soon enough be joining the crew. She sighed contently, glad that some of them could find happier places in slumber that night; on most nights some of their dreams nearly rivaled hers.
She did not stop near the Captain's living quarters. Her steps were quick and light as she passed through and made her way to the bridge. She stared for a moment at the toy dinosaurs once more before gingerly picking one up and placing it at her console. She hugged her knees to her chest after sitting down in her chair and curling up.
Malcolm stirred and knew that she was awake. He may not be a reader, but he knew the ship well – it was a part of him and he knew when something wasn't right where it had been left. Every bolt and screw. Sure, her steps were light, but it didn't matter. When she was out of place, he typically knew. He'd taken to observing her ever since she first came aboard and the truth was that at first it had only been out of cautiousness. He couldn't understand then and certainly didn't trust – now, if possible, he understood less but trusted more. Either way, he knew her bad days from her good – sometimes before even seeing her. He just didn't know how he seemed to know.
He had a theory that the reason he could tell when she was out of place though. It was because of the day she'd become Serenity.
Now, he knew well enough that that was only part of her clever scheme. But he watched her move – lithe and barefoot along the catwalk. He'd heard her shimmery laugh echoing through the cargo hold. He'd eyed her as she whispered to her console on the bridge, coaxing the ship to move with her will. He'd seen the way the ship had lifted her spirits, the sweat she'd poured into getting her running again after the Miranda broadcast.
Serenity had helped River and River had helped Serenity. They were one, and perhaps that was why he was so acutely tuned to River Tam's movements about the ship.
Groggily, he pulled on a button up shirt, not bothering to do it up over his undershirt as he pulled on a pair of pants and quietly left his quarters and made his way towards the bridge. He heard her voice, shimmery and cutting through the silence.
"I'm trying so hard," her words reached his ears. "I feel awful for unloading on him the way I did before. I don't want to burden anyone else with the…mess," she whispered. Mal wondered if she was on the wave with someone at this hour. He crept closer. "I know, I know. The good Captain Reynolds doesn't really do well with emotional womenfolk. You must admit his advice was wiser than what I was expecting and yet…totally unsurprising. I hope he'll recover, I know that Inara….yes, yes, I understand. Or I try; it's still all very foreign."
She paused and Mal peered in, she was sitting back in her chair and as far as he could see, there was no one there to talk to and nothing on to be talking over. He heard her crumpling paper in her hands.
"Oh, right," she remarked softly, smoothing out the paper and setting it down on her console. "Sorry, no disrespect." She giggled, the sound carrying through the air. Normally when she laughed on her own, it sounded much more manic but this was conversational. Mal's brow furrowed, wondering if his albatross had lost it.
"Oh!" she exclaimed with excitement. "I spoke to Zoe and told her. It slipped. She seemed so relieved and didn't seem angry with me none, you were right. You're always right. I knew once you and the Captain told me that it wouldn't be so awful but you surely understand why I…yes, of course, I won't spoil the gender or the like." She sighed softly, "I'll teach the little one to dance and sing."
As Malcolm squinted to peer closer he recognized the pages on the console as the ones she'd once torn from Shepherd Book's Bible. They were sitting beside a plastic dinosaur. He suddenly realized what he was intruding on and thought about backing away but couldn't bear to look elsewhere.
"I'll do my best to pilot this ship best anyone can this side of the 'Verse and I'd give everything to keep her and the little one safe, you know that, don't you? After all they gave for me…" He heard her voice crack a bit as she reached for the dinosaur, clutching it close to her heart before running her fingers along the pages. "And I still don't have much use for sermons and tales that defy physics, but I will do my damnedest to save the Captain from himself so long as he needs it." She giggled again and Mal near jumped when she turned over her shoulder to stare straight at him. "I am sure he wants to say hello, not trying to be rude. But I don't reckon he knows how to react in this situation."
A thick moment of silence passed between them before Mal entered slowly. "You talk to 'em often?" he asked and she nodded. "Do they…answer back?" he asked skeptically. Though the reader could inform her of her newest power of being able to fly with a cape 'round her neck and he wouldn't be surprised completely.
"No," she admitted. "They don't really. But Book once told me it was a matter of faith. It's easier when I try to pretend what they'd say but...I also do it to remember their voices best I can."
He had to admit for a girl who'd just be talking to dead people, she was sounding more lucid than she had earlier.
"Would you like to try to say goodbye to them?"
Mal looked at her hesitantly and walked closer to her chair, his eyes settling on the plastic dinosaur and the torn out pages of the Bible. "Er…" he glanced at River who just giggled and gazed at the torn out pages. "Give him a second, haven't lost the bet yet, Preacher Man." She giggled when Mal shot her a bewildered glance before clearing his throat.
"The girl tells me Zoe's expecting," he finally drawled softly. "And I want you to know that that little one'll hear nothing but stories about how heroic his or her daddy was from me. I know we sometimes had our differences, but you were my crew and part of my extended kin. Your kid will always be proud of you. I'll make sure of that." His jaw clenched for a minute, not quite sure why he was humoring River.
"You know why," River's voice sing-songed at him. "Stop being silly. Book wants to talk to you."
Mal took a deep breath and sighed, his fingers reaching to dance over the pages of the late man's Bible. "I'm still figurin' out exactly what it is I believe in now. But I hope you know I'm working on it."
River was quiet for a moment. "It will be found. Fifty paces north, twenty thousand leagues into the sea of black. X will mark the spot."
"What're you doing up and about, Little Albatross?"
She shrugged a shoulder up. "Can't find peace in that bunk. It's easier here," she said softly before looking at Mal with a slight shrug. "You?"
"I knew you were up and about," his response seemed to shock her and he chuckled. It wasn't often that things surprised her. Without another word, he walked and sat in the pilot's chair and gazed out into the black. "It is rather peaceful, ain't it?" He took a deep breath and when she didn't respond for a moment, he glanced over and found her curled in her chair – sound asleep. He smiled to himself and stood up and shrugged out of his button up, crossing back over to drape it over her for some warmth and made way for his own bunk again.