Date Posted: 20 July 2007
Author: srichard and van
Rating: This chapter: NC-17
Characters: River, Wash, crew
Word count: 5,701
Warnings: Begins pre-TV series, completely AU, will invovle underage romance.
Summary: Blue Sun's Academy brings two unlikely people together.
Disclaimer: Co-written. We are not affliated with Mutant Enemy, Joss, Firefly/Serenity, Unversal, Fox or anyone. If we were, we'd be making money off this. We mean no harm. Title from the Bob Dylan song. Crossposted to ff_fanfic.
Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.
Wash didn’t like this plan one bit, but River had talked him into it, and everyone else was decided, so his lone voice of reason against all the insanity went unheeded. Raising his hand, he picked up the commlink as Serenity shuddered into the docking port of the other ship. “Locks engaged,” he said. “See you soon, baby,” he added, even though she couldn’t hear him.
Mal and River stood alone in the cargo bay. Simon had effectively blinded her with some temporary drops in her eyes, and deadened her hearing with a sealant over the transmitter. That had only one connector, and Mal controlled it.
Her hands were bound behind her, and Mal held her in place with one hand, while he used the other to punch open the airlock. When it released, he stepped forward and swung the door open.
River stood perfectly still, trying to calm her mind. If it got too hard, if Mal failed, perhaps she could manage, just from air on her skin, and the sound of their thoughts...but that too could drive her mad, make her nothing but death, and then their lives wouldn't be worth a credit. So he had to guide her correctly, and she had to wait... "Mal," she whispered, voice almost inaudible and miserable.
Mal said nothing, keeping his eyes straightforward on the darkened passageway that was opened before them. He could transmit to her now, give her words of reassurance, but he didn’t. Instead, he just squeezed her hands, where he was holding her from behind. Then he walked her forward, into the enemy ship.
They were greeted, immediately, with drawn firearms held by two men. Between them stalked an unassuming man who Mal could sense immediately was the man—River had called him the Operative—who had beaten Zoe. “I got your girl,” Mal said coolly. “You got my mechanic?”
The Operative smiled welcomingly. “Captain Reynolds.” He waved his hand and the guns were lowered, but not put away. “You’re making a wise choice.” He turned, leading them through the ship.
River was trembling, as, with her ears stopped, there was no low-level, comforting hum to help block the menace that rolled from the Operative, only pain and confusion... She tried to block it all out and focus on Mal, Mal who was solid, tense, drawn, even his thoughts spare and few.
They were led to a holding cell. Soft music pumped in through overhead speakers, and on the far wall, a screen displayed an unwatched program. The Operative stopped them there, with the armed guards behind them. He turned and opened the door, revealing another armed guard, and Kaylee.
“Captain,” she wailed in a wavering voice. Her arms were tied behind her, and one of her eyes was blackened, but she seemed all right.
Mal tightened his grip on River’s arm, tensing even more for the battle he knew was about to ensue. He had come unarmed, so if this failed, if she didn’t manage to succeed, he would have almost no defense. The Operative gently pushed Kaylee toward Mal, and he caught her with his free arm. As soon as his arm was around Kaylee, Mal pushed River forward, breaking her false bonds as he did.
Immediately, he began transmitting locations to her.
It worked...River hadn't truly believed it would, but she was able to listen to Mal, hear him, with singleness of purpose, perfection, and there, the crunch of a jawbone under her boot, here a skull cracked like an egg by a hard fist in just the right spot. She only listened to Mal, and he steered her true, guiding her through the maze, wielding her with expert skill.
"Cap'n, what's...what's she doing?" Kaylee quavered. "River ain't..."
His commands fulfilled, she crouched to the floor, waiting and ready. "Where?" she screamed, though she couldn't hear herself do so. "Where are they? Mal..." In the tumult of pain, she thought there had to be more, more to be brought down--had they gotten Mal? But she'd have felt, have known...
There was a pause, at least for the time being, when the Operative and his three men were dead, or dying, and the rest of the ship hadn’t been alerted to their presence. “We go, now!” Mal shouted. He quickly untied Kaylee’s bonds, then grabbed River by the arm, pulling her to her feet, ignoring the blood on her that stained him.
River never stumbled as he led her, just trusted, moved as fleetly as he did, still trained on him, listening, everything focused on him. He would guide her. He could be trusted. For now.
They ran into one more guard on the way out, a hapless man, unprepared, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mal could have taken him out, the guard was so unprepared, but as soon as he thought it, River reacted. Then they were clear, passing through the airlocks, to get back to Serenity.
"Have to go...they have cannons..." River knew Mal already knew that, but her fear was mastering her now as she slumped down to the floor of the cargo bay, her face ashen, hands and hair doused in blood.
Had Kaylee been on Serenity, Mal would have had her rig explosives to destroy the Operative’s vessel. Instead, they’d have to rely on Wash’s expertise in flying. He released both girls, and Kaylee dropped to the floor beside River, terrified. He pounded the airlock closed, then disengaged the docket. “We’re on, get us out of here, Wash!” he shouted. Then he switched the channel, and said, “Simon, unless Zoe’s serious, you’d better get in here.”
River was deteriorating. "What's happening?" she screamed, and Kaylee tried to pull her close, but was roughly pushed away.
Mal cursed in Chinese, and dropped to his knees. He put one firm hand on her, steadying her. He couldn’t pull her earplugs, or unveil her eyes; Simon had to do it. So instead, he just crouched beside her, and told her they were back, she had saved Kaylee, they were safe, and Simon was coming. It wasn’t all true, but it wasn’t lies, either.
"Are we flying? Where are we?" she sobbed, slumping against him, clinging to the too too solid flesh to brace herself against the onslaught of her psychic senses.
Mal nodded, putting a hand on her back, to steady her. “Flying away,” he said, and thought.
Simon skidded into the room seconds later, his medical kit in hand. His gait slowed as he saw River, collapsed, in Mal’s arms, covered in blood, and immediately assumed the worst. The color drained from his face as he started toward them.
“Ain’t how it looks, Doc,” Mal warned, letting River know Simon was there. He shifted the girl into her brother’s arms, and went to check on Kaylee.
River slumped against Simon. "Fix me, need to see, Simon, please..."
"Shh, mei mei." Simon's hands were frantic on River's body looking for wounds. "Why...she's untouched, how...?"
Mal looked over at Simon. “She’s fine. Get her eyes fixed.” His tone was icy, with the underlying meaning that Simon had better do as he asked: the rest would be explained later.
“She just killed all them people,” Kaylee quietly said, her eyes wide, despite her injury. “Broke through ‘em, like they was nothing.”
Mal put his hand to Kaylee’s head, smooth her hair down, forcing her to look at him. “Shh, s’all right.”
"What is she?" Kaylee whispered, looking into Mal's eyes with a lost expression.
Simon gritted his teeth and peeled back the sealant over River's ears. "Shh, mei mei, I'm here..." He forced her head to tilt back and put some drops in her eyes. "You'll be back soon, better soon..."
“She’s a girl. Your savior,” Mal replied to all of them, then got to his feet and hauled Kaylee to hers. “You all right? Not hurt, are you?”
Serenity suddenly shivered, as she was knocked. Jayne, who was quickly coming down the stairs, almost lost his balance and fell over the railing. “We got incoming,” he announced. His eyes fixed on River, sitting in her pool of blood, then returned to Mal. “Little man says he needs a co-pilot.”
River, though her vision was all hazy, began towards the steps, hands out, sensing her space. If Wash needed her, she had to go, no matter what...
"She's not well enough..."
"Hush," River said sharply, continuing her slow ascent up to the cockpit.
Serenity shuddered again, taking another impact. Mal started after River, giving orders as he did. “Jayne, get Kaylee in the engine room. Doc, you make sure Zoe’s secure.” As the crew went their ways, he caught up with River on the stairwell. “Wash needs a competent co-pilot right now. You sure you’re up for it? ‘Cause I do know how to handle my own ship.”
"T-tell him..." River was trembling hard. "Tell him it's like the Academy. Has to give orders." She blinked at him, her vision clearing a little more.
Mal grabbed her by the arm, not hard, but firm, and helped her up the rest of the stairs, into the crew quarters. He’d have hell cleaning the bloody footprints off the deck, later. “Tell him yourself,” he said as he hauled her toward the cockpit.
River slid into the co-pilot's seat. "Tell me what to do," she said, in a low voice as she tried to marshal her focus.
Wash didn’t look at her, as he was concentrating on evasive maneuvers, and it was for the better that he didn’t, for if he had, he might have fallen apart at the sight of all the blood, and in that time, lost the ship. Instead, he kept his eyes focused. “We’ve got just a bit of company,” he said coolly. His head inclined to the rear display monitor, which Mal hovered over, looking at the Operative’s ship chasing them and firing upon them. “Gotta rabbit,” Wash added, “but I can’t dodge fire and put in coordinates. Need you to chart a jump point, Dumpling.”
River nodded, fingers moving to the controls more out of memory than based on current sight, but they were steady, and did not falter. She was breathing a little quickly, yeaning for it all to be over, to stop, to end...she needed a bath, to sleep, to have Wash hold her, to stop feeling things for a thousand years...
Wash’s shoulders relaxed, just the slightest, as River’s coordinates kicked in. He reached up, flipping several switches. Then he turned on the comm. “Kaylee?”
“Here, Wash,” replied her faint voice.
“Good to have you back, kid,” he said with a smile. “We gotta moon these guys.”
“I could dump the energy from the main relay drive to the engine output. Ain’t real safe, you do it too long, but it’d shine real bright.”
“Blind ‘em, yes,” Wash agreed. “Hit them with the ionsphere flare, disorient them and then we’ll jump. Should be enough to get away.”
“I’m on it,” Kaylee answered.
Wash straightened in his seat, pulling the throttle back hard. “Everybody might wanna hang on to something.”
River gripped the arms of the chair, but she was pinned to it anyway by the force of the acceleration. She closed her eyes, lips moving, and if she hadn't known better, she'd have thought she was praying.
Light flared around them as Kaylee flooded the engine output. The ionsphere illuminated the velvet dark for several seconds, making the black of space nearly as bright as daylight. Then Wash reached up and hit the jump, and Serenity shuddered and shot off.
It was over in less than ten seconds. They were surrounded again by cold, black night, and Wash dropped Serenity down to normal speed. He let out a low, shuddering gasp. “Would be best to keep on the move for the next few days, in case we’re traced, but I think we’re out of the woods.” He sagged back in his chair as Mal squeezed the headrest in relief.
Lolling his head to the side, Wash looked over at River with a lazy smile. As soon as he saw her though, he sat bolt upright in alarm at her condition.
"Is it over?" River whispered in a tiny voice.
Wash unbuckled from the pilot’s seat, scrambling over to her. Running his hand along her face, he pushed her bloodied hair back. “It is for now,” he whispered, but his voice was choked, almost swallowed in the back of his throat. “You okay, baby?”
"Shouldn't touch," she said, turning her face, still slightly blind, to look at him. "It comes off..."
Wash didn’t heed her, needing the touch to reassure himself that she was there, and safe, and whole. His eyes flickered to Mal, who had eased into the pilot’s seat as soon as Wash had departed. “Are you done with her yet?” Wash asked, his tone unkind.
Mal inclined his head, not looking at the two.
Wash took that as a yes, and moved to help River out of the chair.
"Need..." River's head turned towards Mal. "Can I...water? More than ration...please, it takes so long to come off." Washing water was always tightly controlled on Serenity, in case they didn't hit a hookup for a while.
Mal nodded. “Do as you need,” he replied, still not looking at them.
Wash hugged her when she was on her feet. “C’mon,” he urged, “I’ll help.”
"Why isn't he looking...?" River's voice was raising to hysteria. "It worked, killed them, wasn't discharged, why won't he look at us...?" River was slumped against Wash, tears beginning to stream down her face.
Wash held her up, and it was easy because she was light, but he knew if he let go, she’d just collapse. His eyes focused on the man in the pilot’s chair.
Mal glanced over to them at last. “This ain’t my place,” he replied. “We did the job, and it’s over. He takes care of you when it’s done.” He lifted his eyes from her to Wash, inclining his head to the door. “Get her cleaned up.”
"I don't understand," River whispered, her head lolling against Wash's chest. "Don't understand anything..."
“Shh,” Wash cooed, bending to scoop her up in his arms. He nodded to Mal in thanks, before carefully exiting the cabin and navigating down the stairs. “It’s all right, now.”
"Don't know what I did wrong...not like Kaylee, not like Zoe...I'm not crew, I'm not," she sobbed against him.
Wash wasn’t sure how to reply, other than in words of comfort. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “You saved us, all of us.” He carried her down the stairs to the head and pushed inside. It was cold there, and he started the water hot, never minding that it soaked them both in their clothes.
River gasped at the hot water against her skin, going limp. The exercise, after so long controlling, restraining the mad killer inside her, had drained her utterly. "Killed them, Wash, I killed them all."
“Kind of figured that,” he replied, holding her close, just letting the water run over them for a while. He’d undress her and wash her in a bit. “But … they were bad people. They would have killed you, and me, and all of us.”
"It's all I can do. Should have let them take me like I said. Shot me and dropped my corpse on the ship..."
“What?” Wash’s voice was weaker than he intended. “No, River. No.” Wash pushed her hair back out of her face, so the water and blood that ran off it went to the drain and not back into her. “You’re worth so much more than just that. Don’t even think that.”
"What am I? She wanted to know. He lied to her...God, what am I Wash, what am I?" Her voice was rising frantically again.
Wash dropped to his knees in the shower, so he could cradle her better. He stroked her hair, trying to understand, hoping to find the right words that would bring her back to him. “My beautiful River,” he said. “My love, my life.” He kissed her brow. “You’re River, not what they tried to make you into.”
"You didn't see," she wept. "Didn't see...he could have told me to kill anyone..."
Wash shielded her from the shower, wiping at her tears with his thumb. “Mal’s a good man, River. And we trust him.” He hadn’t seen, wouldn’t have wanted to, but understood it, or thought he did.
"Doesn't matter. Wasn't mine. Was his, his weapon...is that why he wouldn't look?"
Wash let out his breath. “Could be. Doubt he much liked having to make you do that.”
"It's worse than before, then..." River slid down to the floor of the shower, after wiping weakly at her face. "Want out."
“We can leave,” Wash said, trying to reassure her. “We can do anything you want.”
"I meant the shower." She closed her eyes, not wanting to think of leaving Serenity, of being lost again, with only them with her, and death surely following.
“Oh.” Wash smiled, would have laughed in another situation. “All right.” He stretched up, shutting off the water. He got to his feet and found a towel, bringing it back to her.
River was completely passive, waiting for him to dry her, unfamiliar with the stranger-body that was hers, unwilling to move more than necessary, her whole being shutting down.
Wash undressed her, leaving her bloodstained clothes in a wet heap on the floor, for now. He wrapped her in the towel and rubbed her arms, trying to bring her back. Kissing her brow, he gave her a smile. “C’mon,” he said softly as he scooped her back up. “Get you some dry clothes, and tuck you into your warm bed.”
"Yes, Wash." River was quiet, still passive, unwilling to think beyond the night and the bed.
Wash got her upstairs and into their bunk. There he finished drying her off, and put her in a warm gown before tucking her into bed. He changed himself, and sat beside her, lovingly stroking her hair and face. “You’re going to be all right.”
"Won't," she whispered. "Have to lie down. They all have to lie down." She turned over on her side, away from him, closing her eyes once more.
Wash felt cold as he let his hand drop off her as she turned away from him. “Do you want me to stay?” he asked quietly.
She didn't answer him, already in a haze of restless, unhappy sleep.
Wash wasn’t the sort of guy who drank much, but after tucking River in to bed in their bunk, he climbed out and sat in the lounge in the galley, nursing a glass of something rancid. It tasted like sweat, but it was doing the job in loosening the knots in his shoulders, and deadening the pain coiled in the back of his neck. Around River, he was strong and loving and accepting, but alone, after it was all said and done, he was afraid. She could have died tonight. She had killed tonight. She had come back to him covered in the blood of the men she had slaughtered
Now that he could reflect on it, he wasn’t sure how to take it. He was in love with a killer—some sort of sleeper warrior woman. He drained his glass and looked up as someone entered the room.
Mal circled around the table slowly before getting himself a cup and sitting down across from Wash. "She okay?" he said gruffly, pulling the homemade wine to himself.
Wash shrugged, a little helpless. “As okay as she can be, I guess.” He hunched over his cup, peering down into it. “Do I even want to know what happened in there?”
"She's a good soldier," Mal said shortly. "Did what needed doing. You got a problem with your little Lolita havin' a body count?" he said, his tone rather withering.
Wash gave Mal a dark glare, but didn’t let it manifest into anything. “Of course I do,” he replied in a dark tone. “I wanted to rescue her so she wouldn’t have to become what they were training her to be.” He put a hand to his mouth, rubbing at his face. “But I guess all you understand is violence.”
Mal's gaze wasn't any gentler than Wash's. "Right, cause I planned that. She made the plan and it was a good one. She's as free as any on this boat, Wash, and if that ain't free enough for you, then you can get the hell off."
Wash thought about getting up and leaving. Mal would expect it, and he wasn’t in the mood to be badgered. Only, unless he wanted to visit Simon, he really had no place to go. Not even the cockpit was a refuge these days. Taking a deep breath, he let himself sink back into the couch cushions. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m a little stressed. She’s down there sleeping, wanting some alone time, and that leaves nowhere for me to brood. But, hey, if you’re so keen on getting rid of us, I can always wake her and let her know the Captain wants to kick us off.”
"Never said that, though looks like I got a few more reasons than I ever knew about." Mal leaned forward. "You know anything about what's going on? Cause this ain't just tryin' to get back some stolen property."
Wash rubbed his face some more before letting his hand drop to his lap. He was clearly contemplating what he knew, and how much he could tell. “I never thought they’d go after Kaylee,” he started, softly. “And I’ve only a vague idea of . . . of what this is about.” He lifted his gaze to focus on Mal. “But River knows something; something important that the Alliance doesn’t want her to know. She tried to make me go on this mission once, before Simon rescued her. I’m not sure, but I think that’s what it’s all about.” He bowed his head and rubbed his eyes. “You’d have to ask her.”
"And I surely do intend to. What kind of mission?" Mal said, his face hard and intent.
Wash shook his head, not looking up. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “She was a bit fuzzy on the details. Just that I was to go to this quadrant and follow the beacon I picked up. She said I’d know what to do.”
Wash lifted his eyes, his gaze cautious. “Burnham,” he replied, studying Mal.
"Ai ya...that's just a whole heap of trouble right there," Mal said, rubbing his forehead. "This just keeps gettin' shinier and shinier. Times when I wish I'd told the doc to take his big bag of platinum elsewhere."
Wash swallowed hard. “We don’t expect to drag you into this. I’ve been saving money, and I think I’ve got almost enough for a down payment on a small ship. When we have enough, we’ll leave and do it on our own.” His tone turned a bit dark. “So don’t worry about soiling your hands with us anymore.”
Mal gave a short, hard laugh, then stood up. "Go talk to your travelin' companions about that and see what they say. Boy, you still have a heap to learn about how things work outside the Alliance, don't you?" There was something nearly affectionate in his tone at the end.
Wash watched Mal stand. His expression was confused. “I don’t understand you. One minute you act like you can’t wait to be rid of us, and the next you’re acting like we’re best buddies. Be consistent, gorammit.”
Mal gave a sort of grin. "Like I said, a heap to learn." He turned to leave Wash, then glanced over his shoulder. "You might just wanna get back to her, though. Don't reckon she's restin' easy. Not after that."
Wash got to his feet, willing to go back, but a little afraid that River wasn’t missing him at all.
River was sitting up in bed, bare to the waist, her long, damp hair hanging down about her shoulders. She looked up when Wash came in. "You left," she said softly.
Wash was more than a little surprised to see her awake, let alone sitting up. He dropped to the floor, letting the hatch close over him, and stood there, looking a little guilty. “Didn’t think you wanted me to stay,” he admitted.
She didn't answer that, only reached out a hand for him, rather urgently, looking first to see if the blood was gone.
Wash managed the ghost of a smile, melting inside at her need. He went to her, taking her hand in his as he slid onto the bed beside her. “I’m sorry you had to do that,” he whispered, pressing her knuckles to his lips. “I never wanted you to have to become what they were making you into.”
She thought about that for a while, shivering and snuggling against his chest. "I'm not...not always." She looked up at him hopefully. "Still River. Still your River."
Wash sighed, shifting so he could pull the blankets up around them, and wrap his arm around her. “I know,” he replied, using his other hand to stroke her back and hair. “But I wish there weren’t any need for doubt.”
"Can't...can't not be what I am. The sword cannot unmake itself, not even for you. I...I'm sorry," she whispered, kissing his chin softly.
Despite himself, Wash smiled. “I know,” he replied, kissing her brow. “But I dream that, someday, there won’t be a need for . . . for the violence.”
"You dream lies," River said, but her tone was kindly. "Just love me. Please." Her fingers tightened on his shirt.
Wash got that tickle in his throat; the rare one that meant he was close to tears. He gently eased River onto her back and kissed her. “I love you.”
River spread her legs slowly. "Do you want...? Want to make you happy. Want to be yours."
It took Wash several seconds to understand what she meant. He closed his eyes and laughed softly, letting his tears gather on his lashes. He kept his eyes closed as he pressed his face into the crook of her neck, and thought about the inappropriateness of making love to River, after the horrors in death she had committed. His arm snaked around her waist. “I am happy.” He kissed her neck, softly. “You know I don’t need that to please me, or to prove you’re mine.”
Her hand stole up to rub at the nape of his neck. "Worries you, though. Worries you that we don't."
Wash scooted closer to her, so their bodies were wedged together on the tiny, narrow bed, and it nudged her legs closed. He sighed, softly. “I think about it a lot, I know. I am a man after all.” He smiled against her skin. “But I worry more about you.”
"I'll be better," River promised in a whisper, turning so she lay more against him. "Better soon, I swear."
Wash nodded. “I’ll love you anyway.”
She closed her eyes. "Push the nightmares away?" she said, rather plaintively.
Wash snuggled to her, holding her protectively with his arm around her middle. “I’ll be here, to make sure they don’t get to you.”
"I know." She sounded more childlike as she grew sleepier. "Always safe, with you, safe..." Her breathing slowly evened out, and then she was asleep, beyond the reach of conscious fears for just a little while.
Some twelve hours later--what would have been noon in standard time--Mal found River sitting on her old bed in the passenger quarters. Simon had just released Zoe from the infirmary, and Mal had seen her off. Kaylee had guided Zoe up the stairs, to their bunk, and Mal’s eyes had alighted on the door that, usually, was kept closed. He approached and discovered River there.
Crossing his arms, he watched her for a few seconds in silence.
River curled up tightly, almost defensively, on the bed, her knees tucked under her chin. "Knew you'd be coming," she said, unnecessarily.
Mal nodded. “Thought we ought t’have a word, little assassin.” He didn’t enter the room, at least not yet. “Figure you got some things to explain to me.”
River winced at the word, eyes shivering away from his hard, uncompromising figure. "I'll tell you. Promised. Promised everything."
Mal pushed off the doorframe, entering the room. He walked to her and sat down on the bed, beside her. He placed his palms flat on his knees and stared at the opposite wall. “Had a word with your Humbert last night. Man sure had some interestin’ things to say.”
River lifted her chin. "Rude is never funny," she said coldly.
Mal nodded, conceding. “Neither is my mechanic getting taken hostage by some folk I ain’t never pissed off. Care to explain that?”
River bit her lip, and composed herself to speak. "You understand by now that I am vast; I contain multitudes. Being the first, the best toy, the record-setter, I was shown to all. That's why." She looked at him as though that would explain everything.
“Parading around their finest,” he said, understanding. “And then what, they let you in on a little too much information? Figured they controlled you completely?”
She shrugged. "For all the care taken, they are stupid. It never occurred...I never showed I knew. They never thought. Until now." She looked up at him again, cautiously now.
Mal met her gaze and for some reason smiled. “You meaning to take this boat into Reaver territory, girl?”
She looked upset then, rising and beginning to pace. "They don't lie down," she said sharply. "The hunter, the hunted, none of them lie down, but predator mimicry, and prey mimicry, against nature, so that the prey becomes dangerous, hunting as well...everyone hunts us, and it's not..." She rubbed at her arm, agitated.
Watching her was unsettling, so Mal got to his feet. “You best explain better than that, lest I consider droppin’ you off, so you can get a little boat of your own, like Wash seems to think he can.”
River's head snapped around to focus on him then. "He dreams lies. You know that. We would die. Quickly."
Mal’s smile returned to his lips. “You ever think ‘bout tellin’ him that?”
"I do. But it makes him sad to listen, so he doesn't. He's still a goldfinch, but he's mine," she said fiercely.
“He know ‘bout this plan you overheard, ‘bout them hunter folk that ain’t laying down? Seems like he was ready to fly off to his death, to face them Reavers without even knowin’ why. That what happens to folk who belong to you?”
River looked a little anxious. "Didn't have a choice then. I was trapped, the bars too tight, and it had to be done, has to, but I couldn't. I will, though. I will."
Mal crossed his arms, watching her. “And where do me and mine come in on this little plan? I ain’t yet clear as to why we ought to help you. I tell Jayne we’re visiting the Reavers and I’m liable to have a mutiny on my hands.”
River dropped her eyes. "How shall I speak? To captain or man?"
“Whichever you think will get the point across more clearly.”
There wasn't much of the man about him that day. "The truth makes free. If we leave, the hunters will not ignore you. They'll fear this, the speech, that I spoke, told you, and you need me, to wield--if you can't, you can't win, and they'll all die."
Mal nodded. “So we’re in this, whether we want to be or not.” He took a deep breath. “Always am finding myself trouble.” His tone didn’t sound too upset about this; it was a matter-of-fact statement.
River crossed her arms over her chest to mimic his stance. "Why do you want us to leave? For the danger? Or is it..." She trailed off, looking away.
“Only one reason, and that’s when your presence starts endangering the lives of my crew. Now, I considered you and yours to be part of this crew. Treat you like I treat the rest. But now I find you been keeping secrets from me, ones as have put other members of my crew in danger. And that don’t sit so well with me. So you tell me, little darling, where we going from here?”
"Burnham quadrant," she whispered, ashamed. "I didn't mean it to be a secret. Waited. Thought the universe would forget, and then you'd trust me, so we could..."
Mal stepped close to her, letting his arms drop to his side. “You’re on my boat. Wouldn’t be, if I didn’t trust you.” He appraised her. “Gonna have to get your boyfriend to do some creative flying to keep them Reavers off us, we head out there.”
"Space is large," River said, looking up at him again. "Why wouldn't you look last night? Do you hate the sword?"
Mal focused his gaze on her. “Didn’t care for what I had to make you do.”
She shook her head. "Not just that. Too close. No one's allowed to get too close." She stepped back slightly, turning away from him rather formally. "I won't, Captain."
For a moment, Mal felt like perhaps he’d just lost something he hadn’t even known he’d had. He stepped aside. “You’d better go find that pilot beau of yours. Reckon he ain’t going to be fond of this new rainbow when he learns what’s in his pot of gold.” He shook his head. “I’ve got to figure out something to tell Jayne, to keep him from slitting my throat when he learns where we’re headed.”
River nodded. "All right. I'll make it right." She looked over her shoulder at him. "I will." She set off to find Wash, so the coordinates could be set, so the hunted could escape, baffle the hunter. Every step felt purposeful, bearing her ceaselessly into the future.