Satin and Flame
You'd think it would be simple. But it's not. Nothing about their relationship comes easily - except maybe the insults. It's an uneasy truce, an agreement, that they have come to. An unspoken agreement.
It's easier to fall back on the insults rather than admit to any feelings they have between them. It's easier to insult one another than open up and be vulnerable.
River has other ideas, though. Other thoughts. Other intentions. She hears their thoughts - and the crew's - and knows how their bickering affects them all. She decides one day that it's time for change. Time to reveal. Time to live.
"Danger," she tells Mal.
He looks at her, eyes widening and jaw slackening. "Huh? Where?"
"Danger," she repeats. "Satin and flame. Hungry flames."
"I don't smell smoke," Mal says. For a moment, he looks confused. Then, he takes the bait. Satin. He bolts in the direction of Inara's shuttle - just in case. Just as River knew he would. River smiles.
Later, she smiles more while Mal bangs on the door of Inara's shuttle. He's in there with her and emotions are high.
"River, open this door now!"
"Mal! Be careful. You might chase her away."
If River were to tell them the truth, she'd say it had been Kaylee's idea to lock them in, messing with the controls to ensure they couldn't open it from inside. But Kaylee hadn't told her with her words and it might scare them. So, she doesn't. She giggles while they tried to convince her to let them out.
And then Mal grows angry. They were supposed to watch her, while the others were away, after all, and she isn't letting them do their job, with them locked up and River on the outside to roam wherever she pleases.
Mal only grows more irritated as time passes. Inara is quiet at first, pleading with him to go easy on River, until Mal reaches a point where he started insulting her, and then she gets caught up in insulting him back. It isn't long before they forget about River. Even River forgets about River and remembers only them.
The argument is rough. Mal insults Inara's profession, and Inara insults Mal's. Then, they start in on each other for things they had said or done to the rest of the crew, and then, finally, they talk about the two of them.
"We would never work, you know," Inara says.
"How... what? What are you even talking about here?"
River smiles. All according to plan.
There is silence from the shuttle. Defeated silence, she knows. But also something more. Mal and Inara have come to an understanding of sorts, which River is sure will at very least keep them from annoying the crew too much. The crew is very unhappy when Mal and Inara do nothing but argue.
The crew wants Mal and Inara to move past their differences and focus on the fire between them, the fire that River referred to in her mind, when she told Mal, "danger."
Not time to let them out, though. That time is tomorrow. Just like Kaylee thought.
When River senses everyone has gone to sleep, she open the shuttle door and slides a plate of protein bars inside. She feels a warmth inside of her when she steps inside, and knows it isn't hers. It's theirs. Them. It feels something like peace.
She carefully locks the door behind her. Zoe will unlock it when she and the rest of the crew return the next morning. Maybe. Or maybe Zoe will leave the two in there as long as possible, until the crew needs to take off and requires Mal's input on something. Zoe is smart. She will let them out when Mal is needed or when the novelty of them being stuck together wears off, and not before.
River skips merrily back to her own room.
"Somethin' wrong with the captain?" River hears Kaylee asking Simon the next day. The last of the day's sunlight spills into the cargo bay, where most of the crew are gathered, storing away produce, lifting weights, or just standing around.
"They do seem awfully chipper," Simon agrees. "It's unsettling seeing them get along."
River turns as Mal and Inara enter the cargo bay. Zoe had discovered they were trapped at sunrise, and left them there til lunch. Now, they walk side by side. She senses a mutual annoyance in both of them - directed at her - but the resentment for one another is dulled to nearly nothing.
River isn't a fool. They will not get along forever. But for now, she enjoys the way they both head in her direction, and the way Mal sends her a glare and tells her, "never again or I'll kick you off my ship, you and your brother both," and the way Inara tells him he's being too harsh, and then gives River a small frown.
River simply smiles, her head tilted to the side, and pretends like she doesn't know what they're talking about.
"Oh," Mal says. "And tell Kaylee she'll be gettin' some talkin' to for giving you that plan."