AN: Sorry for the delay in update. I just experienced my final semester of undergrad and to say it was stressful is a major understatement. I promise to be updating more and may throw up a couple Maliver one-shots as well. ;) Stay shiny, Maliver fans.
When Mal woke up, he found his button-up folded neatly and placed on the edge of his bed. His brow furrowed, not at all keen on the idea that someone had been able to get in and out of his bunk without him knowing. However, he was also unsurprised that if anyone could manage it, it was River.
He stretched, letting out a great yawn and reaching to scratch his bare chest. Once he was feeling less groggy, he dressed himself in the shirt she'd left out for him, pulled on his pants and made way towards the galley for breakfast. When he walked in, he found only River there. She was drinking tea and sitting on the counter with her legs crossed beneath her. "Good morning, Captain," she greeted him without looking up from her cup.
"'Tross," he greeted her back evenly before moving to make himself a cup of coffee beside her. "Mind telling me how this shirt was delivered back to me?"
River let out a low chuckle. "Everyone's pass plays a different song." She hummed four distinct notes and nodded, "That one is Jayne's."
Mal's eyes widened. "Little 'tross, don't go letting yourself into his bunk any time soon. He's liable to shoot ya."
"Yours plays the prettiest song," she said simply before sliding off the counter and taking a sip of her tea. "You won't tell the others, will you?"
He shook his head after a moment, "No, I don't reckon I will so long as you promise me you won't go abusin' the knowledge, don't see why it can't be our little secret."
"What kind of secrets do you and my sister need to keep, Captain?" Simon's voice interrupted as he and Kaylee entered the galley for breakfast.
"Don't be a boob, Simon. Everyone has secrets. You and Kaylee have some."
"Not what your brother wanted to hear, 'Tross."
River just shrugged before smiling at her brother and wordlessly walking out of the galley. When Mal turned to look at Simon, he was glowering in the captain's direction and took a step to follow after his sister. Kaylee, however, wrapped an arm around the doctor, pulling him in for a kiss. Once Simon's instinct to follow his sister had disappeared, Mal winced at the public display of affection. "I don't need to see this!" he exclaimed before stepping out of the room.
River was in the co-pilot's station, double-checking that they were on course. She heard footsteps behind her and smiled. Having read Simon's intention to follow her, she had done her best to keep her own mind at bay, giving the others peace in their own thoughts.
"Simon," she started, as she turned around, eager to talk to her brother and divulge her trouble sleeping. Instead she found Mal behind her and her eyes widened. "You're thinking more quietly."
"Well, you kept askin' so nicely," he replied dryly before looking at her. "Expecting your brother? He got held up with Kaylee."
"Not expecting, I just…" she shrugged a shoulder up and turned back around to stare at the dials and controls before her. "He spends much of his time in the engine room now," she finally said as Mal sunk into his own chair. "They are both very content. When they are in a room together, thoughts are peaceful."
She felt the captain's gaze on her, silently willing her to continue – to say what she was holding in. She resisted and he cleared his throat and spoke himself. "And you'd hate to interrupt that contentment with the things plaguing you – the things chasing you to the bridge in the middle of the night 'stead of allowin' ya to sleep soundly in your own bunk."
"I thought there was but one reader here, Captain."
Mal chuckled and looked over at her before turning his gaze back out to the black. "It's okay to need your kin, little albatross. He won't fault you none for that."
She shrugged a shoulder. "I've taken up enough of my brother's time, don't you think?" River didn't give him the time to come up with an answer. "We're going to be getting a wave," she said simply before, a moment later, the message came in.
It was then that Mal had the less than fortunate opportunity to set eyes on Badger once more.
"Badger. I wish I could say that it was good to hear from you again."
"Aw, now c'mon Mal. That ain't tha way to be treatin' ol' friends."
"Friends ain't even hardly what I'd call ya. Now what is it that you're needing?"
"I got a job that could earn ya a heavy amounta coin. If you and yours are up for it, that is."
Mal frowned, unsure if he was willing to get involved with Badger again, knowing fully well how poorly those plans tended to go. Before he could respond, River let out a tiny laugh that carried through the air like wind chimes. She was out of her chair and moving closer until her face peered over his shoulder at Badger.
"Well, if it's not the pretty little lass from Dyton Colony," Badger beamed at her, oblivious to Mal's look of sheer confusion. "Didn't realize she was saddled with your crew in the long term." Mal felt himself start to panic; not being entirely sure of what Badger was talking about and unsure of how intensely the Alliance was still searching for his pilot, he didn't like the idea of Badger being familiar with her face.
River shocked him, once again, when she spoke and sounded just like a native of Dyton.
"'Course this is where I settled. I only do work with the best. Now don't go wastin' the time o' the Cap'n. Ya can't fool no one that ain't a fool and you can't swindle a swindler. Whatever this job is that ya got, I expect the fairest of offers and the cleanest of routes to get there, savvy?" When Badger only gaped at her. "That two-fifty in platinum you're thinkin' of offering, I'm expectin' ya to raise it up to a right round three hundred – half upon landing at Persephone and half later, and just to be sure that all's fairplay, we'll be taking a little piece o' leverage to make sure ya don't see fit to change any of them rules." She waited for the slight imperceptible nod of Badger's head. "We'll be there in eighteen hours," she muttered before reaching forward and cutting off the wave.
Mal stared at her and she let out another whimsical giggle.
"What the hell was that go se?" Mal asked her, his expression stern.
"Badger came on the ship once," she responded, her face suddenly serious. "When you ventured off to earn the cattle, he came onto Serenity – invaded our home. So I gave him a piece of his."
Mal ticked an eyebrow up and shook his head, but a slight tug on the corner of his lips made her feel a bit more at ease.
"You really have found a bit of home here on Serenity, haven't you?" She nodded wordlessly and he watched as she turned to walk out the entryway of the bridge. "Wait, plot a course for Persephon-"
He quieted down when she pointed without turning around and continued walking. He stared at the console; sure enough the course was already set. Little witch.
He heard her screaming and it jolted him from his haze in an instant. He'd been making rounds before bed and he was nearing the passenger's quarters when he heard her and took off immediately.
Within moments, he was beside her and coaxing her awake. She burst forward with a heavy sob and wrapped her arms around him, holding onto him desperately. "Albatross," he tried to sooth, his posture growing tense as her arms wound around him.
Sensing this, she slid away and moved to the corner of her bed furthest from him. "She is sorry," she whispered as she hugged her knees to her chest. Shaking his head, Mal looked around, silently wondering where Simon was. "Kaylee," she whispered and looked down at her lap for a moment, taking a deep breath. Then, suddenly, she slid off the bed and was out the door before Mal could blink. Sighing, he pushed himself up as well and found himself hot on her heels as her steps echoed towards the cargo hold. No sooner had he arrived there did he hear the sound of metal grating against metal and saw that River was nowhere to be seen.
She wasn't at breakfast the following morning, and he had to admit that worried him. He'd walked into the galley and his eyes had immediately scanned the room for her. Instead he met Zoe's gaze who looked at him and almost knowingly shook her head and shrugged to signal no one had seen River yet that day.
The rest of Mal's morning was spent on edge. He didn't realize how much he missed her presence until he was at a loss for it.
The sense of relief when he walked to the bridge after doing some rounds with the rest of the crew and found her sitting in her chair should have made him cautious, but instead he just embraced it.
"Captain," she greeted him in a whisper without turning around.
"Where did you get off to, 'Tross?" he asked.
"Had to go hide somewhere even too dark for the nightmares to find," she explained as though it were obvious. "Serenity is good for that, kept the girl safe." Mal opened his mouth to question her further on the topic, but she cut him off. "We'll be arriving on Persephone in seven hours."
"About that, I don't know how I feel about taking ya on the job, River. Especially seeing as the last time we had a job, you took out the entire bar at the drop."
She stiffened, her posture rigid. "Thirty-two percent chance that you will be put in grave danger just at the initial meet. Seventy-six percent chance that he will offer you much less pay than deserved if I do not accompany you. Forty-eight percent chance you will get shot on the job. Twenty-seven percent chance you will be shot or arrested at drop after job is done. I am coming."
"Now, what have I told you about giving orders on my ship?"
"Not an order," she insisted, whipping her head around to glower at him. "Many chances of Captain and crew being harmed. She has enough nightmares, Captain. She will not helplessly live out a waking one. This is her job. Her place in the crew."
"Your job is to pilot my gorram ship," he retorted, anger in his voice not due to the fact that she was disagreeing with him but because of what she clearly thought her duties were and how expendable she felt she was.
"Girl's job is to pilot. Reader's job is to reduce probability of calamity. Weapon's job is to handle remaining percentage of danger," she snapped, and when she turned to meet his gaze for a brief second, her eyes were watery. "Always three. Never whole. She accepts it, you must too."
In an instant, he moved from his spot to kneel in front of her. "Little Albatross," he coaxed until she turned to look at him again. However, once she does, he found himself at a loss for words.
"Love keeps Serenity in the air, Captain. What keeps the rest of us flying? I don't understand. Don't know how other than to fulfill my places. Girl, reader, weapon."
"You'll come on the job," he relented with a sigh. "But you've gotta learn, 'Tross, it's not your job to just keep everyone else safe. It's your job to take care of yourself, too. The rest of us can only help so much if you don't want it or believe you deserve it."
She nodded at him and then offered him a weak smile. "Yes, Captain."
Entering Badger's office on Persephone left a bad taste in Mal's mouth. Jayne was to his left, River to his right. There were four armed men surrounding the room as Badger sat behind his large mahogany desk. Jayne and Mal had been stripped of their weapons upon entering and River had surprisingly surrendered a pistol strapped to her leg that neither Mal nor Jayne had known she'd brought.
"Malcolm, pleasure to see you ol' boy."
"Wish I could say the same, Badger. What's the job?"
"What?" Badger asked, lifting his eyebrows in mock offense. "No small talk? No catchin' up? It's a bran' new day in the 'Verse. Or didn't ya hear? Tha good people are scared senseless of what's out in tha black an' tha lies they were told an' tha Alliance is scared o' tha truth comin' on out."
In the corner of Mal's eye, he saw River twitch slightly before she took a deep breath and made a small tsk noise and shook her head. She took a few steps forward until she was in front of Mal and staring at Badger.
"Come now, poppet, we 'aven't come ta sit for afternoon tea. You've gots a job that needs doin' and you're lookin' at tha only crew in tha 'Verse that can get it done." She walked closer to the desk, causing Badger's goons to tighten their holds on their weapons, but Badger gestured for them to stand down. When she reached the desk, she paced back and forth in front of it, dragging her fingertip along the edge of the wood. "Tha way I see it, we know ya need us. But ya gotta be askin' – why do we need you?"
"Well, lass. That'd be 'cause I'm tha only one that can offer ya access to –"
"Tha cargo ship that's haulin' a shipment of art replicas with tha originals bein' smuggled amongst 'em? Tha only one that can tell us it's exact coordinates, tha exact contact on tha ship lookin' to sell 'em onto the black market an' the way to distinguish tha originals from tha fakes?" she smirked at Badger's slack jawed expression. "Offer me more."
"Well, the three hundred platin-"
"Changed me mind. No less than four hundred."
"Now, see here, lass," Badger growled but immediately stopped when River reached for a letter opener on his desk and stabbed it into the wood, just perfectly between the fingers on his hand that had been resting on the surface of the desk. Suddenly, guns were at the ready.
River chuckled low. "They shoot me, ya get nothin'. I'm not wrong in assumin' ya need us more than we be needin' ya. And you can take your hand off that ruttin' gun in yer lap. More than liable to shoot yerself than me."
Mal's eyebrow ticked up when Badger hesitantly pulled his hand out from beneath the desk and dropped the pistol onto it. River lifted it up and emptied the barrel, making another tsk sound. "Do we have a deal?"
"Four hundred is mighty steep."
"Four fifty," River amended. "Price goes up ery time ya waste a minute of my day."
Badger let out a long string of curses in Mandarin that might've made Jayne even blush. "Deal," he grumbled before reaching into a drawer of his desk and pulling out the first half of the payment. He threw it down onto the desk. "Now get outta my sight."
River offered her hand out to Badger who begrudgingly took it, sealing their deal in agreement. She lifted the bag of money and spun on her heel and started to walk towards the exit. "Our weapons?" she said smoothly and immediately the goons fumbled to return them, impressed with River's negotiation skills and attitude. "Ta, boys," she mused before turning to Jayne and Mal. "Shall we?"
"That was ruttin' impressive, Moonbrain," Jayne had been gushing since they'd left the meeting.
"It was dangerous, is what it was," Mal finally spoke for the first time since leaving Badger's company.
River eyed the Captain for a moment before turning her gaze straight ahead. They made the rest of the trip in silence.
That night, as Mal made his rounds on the ship to make sure that everything was just so before turning in for the night cycle. He was only partially surprised to find her in the galley, sitting on top of the table, bare legs folded neatly under her as she sketched something. There was a cup of tea beside her.
"You're up awful late."
"Cannot sleep. Find more peace here. Even when empty, feels less hollow. Sights and smells remind her of it bustling during the day cycle. Easier to breathe."
"Is Simon with Kaylee tonight?"
She nodded. She didn't look up, but as he moved to find a cup to pour himself some tea of his own, she slid on the table, giving him room to settle into his normal chair. He joined her and peered over at her sketchbook. "Whatchya drawin' Tross?"
She bit her lip for a moment before turning the book to show him. Mal let out a loud laugh. On the page, sketched with a stunning likeness, was a triumphant depiction of him standing over Badger, the latter of whom was sporting a black eye and dazed expression.
"I reckon that's a very pretty picture," he admitted before taking a sip of his tea. He regarded his pilot thoughtfully for a moment before sighing. "You know, Albatross, I do reckon that it's not very fittin' for my pilot to be so far away from the bridge night after night. Nor for a member of the crew to be travellin' like a fare-paying passenger. Dong ma?"
River looked up at him for a moment with wide eyes before launching herself from her spot on the table into his lap, arms wound around his neck. "Xie-xie, Captain!" she exclaimed, embracing him tightly for a moment.
At first, he'd stiffened, but eventually he relaxed and patted her back comfortingly. "Think it'll help ya find that peace you're lookin' for?"
"Will help some," she admitted, pulling back but still on his lap. Her smile dissipated after a moment though. "Have set the course to meet with the ship transporting the cargo, have arranged with Badger to have him transfer his client's credits to the contact aboard the ship. All as you asked."
"Where are we going to meet them, little one?"
"They have made plans to stop for fuel, supplies, and drop off a passenger all on the same planet. We've made arrangements to dock there, shall arrive within twenty-seven hours."
"That's not what I asked."
River stiffened. "Will arrive there two hours earlier than them. Give time to prepare and calculate probability of further incident involving job and take care of other things. She was able to calculate route avoiding potential delays and checkpoints to ensure such a thing."
She slipped off of his lap and regarded him with sad eyes.
Mal took in the implications of her words before he looked away.
"She is sorry, Captain. Can try to set up a different meeting point if that is what you wish."
When he turned to look at her, he noticed she'd doubled their distance and was stepping towards the door. He shook his head before standing up and walking to her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and bent to look her square in the eye. "Don't you go lettin' my thoughts make you feel this way, River," he ordered. "You may be a reader, but you ain't no divinity that can change the way things are – probability or not. Sometimes it just is the way it is."
She looked at him sorrowfully but nodded. Unsatisfied, he didn't let go."
River let out a soft sigh. "Your thoughts are loud and your feelings," she hesitantly lifted a small hand to his chest. "She feels them almost as if they are her own."
Her shoulders slumped wearily. Mal felt a pang of guilt before letting her go. She turned to walk out of the galley and he followed her, not in pursuit – but as more of an amiable stroll despite the sadness radiating off of them both. She didn't turn towards the passenger bunks but instead towards the bridge.
"Don't mean for it to be happenin' that way."
"I know," she acknowledged as she dropped into her seat, curling up once more.
"You need some rest."
"Won't find none. As restless as the rest of the gorram 'Verse. Ever since the Miranda Wave, folks've been gearin' up for a fight. A fight they didn't know they had left in 'em. They don't know the dance yet, just that they've got the drive – the will and not the know-how. Every time we drop dirt-side, I hear it." She sighed and dragged her fingertips along the edge of the console.
"You're talkin' a mite like me now."
"I reckon there are worse things."
He couldn't help but smile. "Is that the same way you can mimic Badger's dialect?"
She shook her head and stared out into the Black. "Yes and no. With Badger, it's an offensive maneuver. Disarm him a bit, gain the upper hand and use it in the attack."
"That's not how it is with me?" he mused. "Not trying to disarm me and take over the ship?"
He expected her to laugh but instead she turned to look up at him. "It is like…" For the first time, he watched her struggle to find words – not because of her mental state, but because she wanted to capture it perfectly. "Not like a defensive maneuver. Does not need defending from the Captain. More like…like a warm blanket and hot tea on a cold day where the weather has fogged up the glass. Like a mother brushing her little girl's hair and humming a tuneless song." She pursed her lips for a moment. "It is like home. Like being safe."
Mal was admittedly taken aback by that. "And why is that, River?" He couldn't understand why a bright young girl from a Core Planet would take comfort in talking like someone from Shadow.
She bit her lip, "Not mocking you, Captain. Sincere. Nothing is warm or comforting about Osiris. Never was. Serenity is home. Captain keeps it safe. Has kept her safe, even when she was not whole. Kept her tethered to a home, even when she was not actual."
This answer took him aback further, but it also satisfied him. He opened his mouth to reply, but when he looked at her, she'd fallen asleep in her chair again. Rather than moving to wake her or retreating to his own bunk, he settled into his own chair and let his heavy eyelids close.
The next morning, when Simon Tam awoke in Kaylee's bunk, he made his way towards the passenger dorms to check on River and wake her. He had wanted to examine her, despite her recent decreases in medication, he preferred to be safe rather than sorry. Additionally, he wanted to do so early so that he could ensure that she ate her breakfast afterwards.
However, when he arrived at her dorm, he was disturbed to find her few belongings gone and her bed neatly made. Fearing the worst, Simon went to search the cargo bay, where she was known to enjoy wandering and dancing. He did not find her there.
In a panic, he began searching the rest of the ship. It was only when he reached the crew dorms on his way towards the galley and bridge, that he heard the soft tinkling of her laughter.
His brow furrowed as he walked closer to the source of the noise. He found a hatch open to a dorm that he knew was vacant. Worried that his sister had somehow found herself somewhere she shouldn't be, he quickly began to descend the ladder, wanting to get her out before the rest of the crew discovered her wandering.
"River," he began as he climbed down. "You can't just be wandering into rooms that you're not allowed it."
"Well, I do reckon she's allowed to be in her own bunk, Doc."
Simon spun around at the sound of the Captain's voice. He found Mal standing with his back to him, his arms outstretched above him as he held a battered old star chart against the wall. River sat on the floor in the middle of the room, her back to the Captain, "A little to the left," she sing-songed.
"Gorramit, girl, you're not even looking."
She tapped her temple and then smiled at Simon before she lifted her bowl of protein "oatmeal" and spooned some of it into her mouth. "The Captain is giving her old copies of star charts for decoration."
"Ain't much to look at, but she seems to like them just dandy. And when the job's through, she'll get her cut of the pay and can spruce this place up a bit more."
"Don't reckon I'll be needin' much," River followed up before Simon could even contemplate a response. Simon was perturbed by how much she sounded like the Captain as she spoke.
"Soldier's bunks should be sparse, little one. Girls bunks should be all dolled up and the like," Mal supplied as he finished tacking up the star chart and turned to look at her.
River sprang to her feet fluidly, performing a flawless pirouette and then taking on a fighting stance. "What if she is both?"
"Well, then we'll have to find a happy medium."
Simon watched as River glanced around. She didn't have very much. Clothes that had been given to her by Inara and Kaylee were already put away. A few sketchbooks and battered old textbooks sat on a shelf, and her bed was neatly made. There pair of large goggles that River loved so dearly and an apple were both placed on a small table at the side of her bed.
"Suppose so. Desk might be nice," she nodded as she walked to pick up the apple. Mal walked to join her, plucking it from her hands and polishing it on his shirtfront. He brandished his knife to cut a slice of it before offering it to her. She took it silently before he cut one for himself.
"May I ask what is going on here?"
"Well, saw it fittin' that your little sister here started dorming with the rest of us here rather than all the way in the passenger bunks. She's not so much a passenger as she is a pilot anymore."
Simon scowled, "With all due respect, I should have been consulted on this. I would prefer that River and I dorm closer to each other so I can keep an eye on her should she have an episode. Our adjacent passenger bunks enable me to –"
"Well, this here is a lot closer to Kaylee's bunk and the engine room. So maybehaps this is the better deal," Mal responded, his demeanor suddenly stony. He didn't break eye contact with Simon as he passed River the apple and the knife and walked towards the ladder to climb up. "I'll see you on the bridge once you're settled, 'Tross."
"Sometimes that man knows just how to find his way to my last nerve," Simon began to rant.
River walked up and flicked him, only semi-playfully. "You're just jealous because I get my own bunk while you share with Kaylee," she teased. "It is easier to rest closer to the others, Simon. Don't be angry."
Simon frowned, realizing that the Captain hadn't been wrong. He began to think about how often he spent nights away from River – leaving her alone in the quiet passenger bunks.
He opened his mouth to apologize, but before he could, River leaned up and kissed her brother's cheek. "Do not worry, Simon. She will be happier here, Captain has seen to it." He opened his mouth again and she gave him a cross look. "He is a very good man, no bad thoughts about him."
And with that, his sister took off up the ladder, only calling down to remind him to close the hatch when he left.