Firefly, NC-17, years ahead.
River's face has lost the softness of youth, the round cheeks and the pout. She's grown beautiful in her maturity, beautiful in those moments when her eyes spark with clarity, when the people she talks to are actually in the room.
She sits at the kitchen table with Mal, an empty cup in front of her. There is water for tea, but she doesn't make more. She runs her fingers over the cup, following the grain, tracking her ghosts, her tracers, gaze lighting on Mal when surety hits her. Those moments are disconcerting, but they make him breathe easier. Too many ghosts out there in space, he doesn't need 'em here inside his ship. At the moment, she's tracking the living more frequently than not, so he sits still, drinks whiskey, rolls an apple in his hands.
Sometimes she talks to Kaylee, and Mal has to hold onto the table, find another point of reference so that he doesn't hit her, doesn't lay his fist into her delicate cheek, doesn't break bone and teeth and her weird composure.
Jayne never lets it throw him, the specter of conversations, River's hallucinatory life, especially at meals. He just spoons whatever slop they've managed to put together into his mouth and growls at her, "Kaylee's dead. Don't go on havin' conversations with her spirit. It creeps me the gorram hell out." Mal has finally found something in the other man that he wishes to emulate, but the mimicry proves tricky. Mal doubts he has it inside himself to ignore conversations with the dead.
River doesn't listen to Jayne’s growling dismissal, and Simon gets a tight-lipped glare on his fine features, defensive for his sister, bitter too, lost to his own ghosts, his missed opportunities. Mal doesn’t interfere, just keeps space between the lot of ‘em. Fortunately, communal meals are growing few and far between, space stretched out, the crew lean, a running watch necessary and Mal tries to take supper with Jayne or eats alone at odd hours. Today is an anomaly, time here with River, and it's throwing Mal off balance.
Since Zoe left, Jayne's really been the only sense of order in Mal's galaxy. He's still self-centered, still mercenary and horny, and dumb as two posts on his best days, but Jayne lays out the hours with the same sense of timeliness and self-importance that he always has. He keeps his petty abrasion close at hand, and cares little for the feelings of others. It's a strange sort of comfort, but an honest one.
Mal doesn't worry too much about Jayne's shifting loyalties. If the man gets a better offer somewhere out there in the 'Verse, more power to him. The sad fact is that it's just not likely to happen. The Alliance has come down hard on those at the fringe, have sent insidious men to bring all of the sheep back into the fold. There are so few of them now. Just him and River and Simon, and Jayne.
They've got a rotating crew now, pilots and mechanics. Some stay for a few months, some stay 'til the next planet. It all depends on the sort of bad luck Serenity runs afoot of. The luck is always bad. That's a given. Sometimes, it's so much worse than bad to be downright wretched. But occasionally, the pay is good. Easier to smuggle when you've stopped caring about getting' caught.
Mal finishes his whiskey as River giggles. He doesn't know where Jayne is, doesn't much care as long as he isn't bothering the new pilot, but a distraction from the high childish noise of laughter would be welcome right about now.
The new pilot likes to stay up in the cockpit, likes to hole up there and not talk to anyone and Mal doesn't mind that overly. She's kind of pretty, in a pale farmish sort of way, but she doesn't smile, just steers, navigates, keeps Serenity moving forward. She's got sulky eyes and a pouting mouth. Most importantly, she also has a big gun. Jayne's got a healthy respect for weaponry. Mal thinks he may, possibly, be smart enough to leave her alone.
They're on an avoidance course, which means not only avoiding the Alliance, but pretty much everything. At the edge of the territories, a silent target for Reavers, it's hard to think of much that's joyful. It's hard to have hope, to look for work, to do more than stay this side of drunk and talk to his own ghosts. The possibility of Jayne getting his ass filled with buckshot by the new pilot is something joyful. Mal smiles, rocks back in his chair, feeling for a moment like his old self, amused at the potential for non-lethal comeuppance coming to Jayne.
But only for a moment.
He holds a knife, thumb pressing into the dull side of the blade, ready to be careful about the apple, careful as always, and then it hits him that there just ain't all that much to be careful about any more and he bites down hard, teeth rending the flesh of the fruit, juice sliding over his lips, pooling on his tongue. It feels vicious and welcome. Reckless. He chews noisily and swallows with bitter relish.
"Bombs," River says, out of the air. "Bone and teeth. She remembers the story."
The taste of the apple turns charred and smoky. "She's dead River, it doesn't much matter if she remembers anything."
The girl stands, and sways, makes her way over to his side of the table and looks down on him gravely. "It isn't true," she says, with a hint of reprimand. "Not true at all. It matters."
He looks up at her, taking in the serious set to her mouth, the thin shirt she wears that stretches over the swell of her small breasts. Her nipples are hard, and he's embarrassed to be looking, embarrassed to notice such a thing in someone who's barely more than girl.
Mal would have paid dearly to have someone take these two from him, cycles ago, Simon and River and the powers that wanted them, but now it's too late. River and Mal's ship are lovers, entwined. Human girl and metal casing, warm struts and curved flesh. It's perverse, but no more so than his own lusts.
Zoe left when she got pregnant, the decision part compromise, part choice. "Some time ago, this mighta been different, but now. Sir,…" He didn't want to make her say it, and so he just hugged her, fierce and furious and lost. After Kaylee, though, it'd been hard to really see the point in doing anything more than running. That wasn't a life for a child. Mal never even asked them to stay.
If Zoe had been here, he thinks, looking up at River's slim young frame, he would never have been thinking lustful thoughts about a girl half his age, never looked at the line of flesh visible above the band of her pants and thought of how that skin would taste on his tongue. He's ashamed and embarrassed, and hardening under the table. He’s had too much time alone in the interim, not just celibate of flesh, but of spirit too. No companion, figurative or literal, no friends.
River smiles then, face alight with something awful and he feels the tug of violation, the voices she hears in her head. She puts her hand on his, puts her knee on his thigh, wedging the limb under the table. Her boot hits him in the shin and he grunts, welcomes the pain. Her knee is inches away from his sex, could push down, crushing him, could tease him instead, the hint of flesh on her thin pants, mere layers separating their skin. This is a dangerous game, and he has never been this sort of man. 'Course, he's never been left to drift aimlessly in his universe either. “Everything changes,” he thinks as she curves fingers into his hair.
She smells clean, like soap, Kaylee's soap and he feels his stomach turn. She's wearing Kaylee's clothes, using her soap, sleeping in her room. She's living someone else's life, living lots of someone else's lives. Her fingers tangle at his nape and he breathes in sharply as she presses his face to her breasts, holding his skull in the palm of her small hand. He won't touch her actively, but he can't move himself away. His mouth is against the skin of her chest and if he parts his lips even a fraction he'll taste salt and young, sweet flesh. It's more than temptation, it's edging into low grade torture.
She's clumsy and loving in this seduction, following some sort of instinct and clearly doesn't have a back up plan. She's stroking his skin, exploring, fingers catching on the fine short hairs, on flaws and freckles and tags of skin. He needs to stop this. Needs to get away. She sinks down on his thigh, her sex pressing close and her heat bleeds through, damp and humid, warming him faster than an electrical charge. Agony, ecstasy, fucked up dealings in any case. Her hand is pressed over his heart, over his nipple and she's breathing in shallow accompaniment to his jumpy heartbeat.
He puts his hands on her hips to move her, knows instantly it's a mistake. She's so warm, and he can feel the smooth young skin of her back against his thumbs. He could sink into this, take rough advantage. He closes his eyes hard. He is not, will not become, that sort of man. He drops his hand, shoves away from the table, scooting the chair back, ignoring the harsh grating of wood on metal. He stands, stumbling back, displacing her. She lands on her feet like a cat, graceful and startled, unrepentent.
“She said that if she’d been older, if you hadn’t been her captain, she’d have liked a little taste.”
River’s smile is rich with innocence, nothing of the girl bleeding sexual heat into his skin, and he snarls at her.
“Get out of here.”
She blinks like he’s slapped her, but she leaves, stumbling backwards, and then fleeing out the door.
The whiskey gets him drunk, swift like a lover, body brought to the brink, ready to spill over and when he finally leaves the kitchen, he’s at that bright beautiful edge of delusion and numbness.
He could walk Serenity’s hallways blind and stumbling, and a drunk is no barrier to him. She’s home and hearth, family to him. Mal loves her with a purity that surprises him, catches at his throat with the organic weight of feeling. She’s his freedom, and if he dies in her, that will be as good an ending as any he can imagine. He grieves still that Kaylee died, cold and alone in a shuttle, and not in the arms of the ship she loved.
It’s the tie that binds them all, himself, Kaylee, Simon and River – love for a ship that spills out between the living and the dead. The other ties are purely need based – protection, action, continuation.
Mal’s on his way to see a man about a dog. He runs his hands over the walls of his ship and takes his guidance from her purr. She sounds hollow, emptied of her crew. Her heartbeat echoes. Mal pauses, puts his hand to his breastbone, feels his own heart pump under the skin.
Simon is putting away equipment when Mal enters the med bay. His kit lies spread over the table and instruments are returned to their places with economic precision.
Simon doesn’t stop what he’s doing at the sound of Mal’s boots, doesn’t turn his head, merely says, “Captain Reynolds?” with bright venomous insolence.
Simon’s maturity has brought with it a sardonic brand of irony. It would be attractive in someone who had a gorram chance in hell of protecting himself. Mal ignores the shiny viciousness of Simon’s tone. The boy may have some right to be bitter.
“Your sister’s channeling ghosts again,” Mal says, proud that he sounds sarcastic and not soused.
Simon flattens his mouth.
“I can’t fix that,” he says, wooden, continuing his clean up. “You know I can’t.”
Mal moves in close, the distance minute enough so that he can smell Simon’s sharp clean young animal scent. Simon is still somewhere between a man and a boy, living in a constant state of grief and fear that even the masking weariness of his attitude can’t hide.
“She’s not just talking to ghosts, not just reading minds and scaring the ever living holy hell out me, she’s talkin’ to Kaylee. Again. It’s gotta stop.”
Simon gives him a withering glare, hands stilling, clenching into impotent fists. “How, exactly, would you like me to stop it? Have you got some sort of new drug hiding in the bowels of this ship, have you got some electric shock treatments at the ready? Are you willing to strap her down, leave us on a planet, give us to the Alliance, what Mal? What makes you think there’s even a cure for what’s wrong with her?”
“It should have been her,” Mal says, rough, voice choking on whisky fumes. “In the shuttle. Should have been her.”
Simon’s face loses the hard edge of hate, softens to little boy miserable and he looks down at his hands. “How would that have made anything better?” he asks, and Mals steps in closer, body flush to the younger man’s.
This close he can smell Simon’s soap and skin scent, the shirt fresh from the laundry, the chemical odor of the sterilizing solution he uses on his equipment. This close Mal can smell all of the hands and bodies that have brushed against Simon during his time on Serenity. If he shuts his eyes, he can see the hand prints, the stray hairs, smell dark musky perfume, gun oil, engine grease and the crush of summer flowers. This close to Simon, Mal is surrounded by his crew, is no longer alone in the heart of his ship.
He puts his hand on Simon’s waist and feels the cool sweep of Kaylee’s fingers as she touches her lover. Simon sucks in his breath and Mal pushes forward, using his greater mass to press Simon’s hips to the counter. He puts his other hand on Simon’s shoulder, feels Zoe’s steady comfort there, her strong fingers and her practicality.
Simon says his name low, a plea, and Mal slides his arms around his chest, binding him, and it's Inara’s smooth skin, her hold on the young man as she says goodbye.
“Mal,” Simon’s voice is hoarse, uncertain. Mal is drunk enough to touch this boy, but not drunk enough to ignore the extremely fucked up nature of his actions, see the terrifying fact of his own ghosts writ across this other person’s skin.
"They tried to make her something new," Simon whispers, "and now she doesn't know what to be, how to be."
“I’d leave you two somewhere if I could,” Mal whispers back, more to himself than to Simon. “But…” His voice trails off, and instead of explaining why, fumbling out a garbled explanation full of loss and compensation, he tugs the tail of Simon’s shirt out of his pants and splays his hand across the firm belly, surprised at the fine flesh he encounters.
Heat radiates up Mal’s arm at the contact, at the flutter under the skin. His sex twitches, and Mal gasps in surprise. He’s seeking touch here, seeking the people he’s loved and lost, not seeking a rutting with a boy who at best arouses mixed feelings of resentment and awe. But his body, apparently, has other ideas.
Simon could push him away, could dump him on his ass as gracelessly as Mal dropped River earlier. Instead, Simon puts his hand over Mal’s and hangs down his head. It’s a dictionary full of mixed messages, and Mal follows drunken instincts, fingers catching in Simon's trousers, unbuttoning, unzipping, hand sliding over silky skin to slip down and around until he holds the man’s penis in his hand. It’s a heady feeling, surreal. Until now, the only cock Mal’s ever had hold of has been his own. The only sounds in his ears coming relation to his own gasps of pleasure. Simon’s body quivers and Mal squeezes, both of them noisesome at the contact.
He understands the reactions of women, the tastes and textures. This is something new, and it’s layered through with sense memory, with reactions and moments from other times. He’s making River’s ghosts tangible in the Simon’s flesh.
He closes his grip, tugs, groans as hips back into his, bucking.
It’s sex, and it’s something different. Simon slides his hand on top of Mal’s, guiding his strokes and Mal sees all of the people who have left Serenity behind, who have left him behind. When everything else is gone, sex is its own explanation, it's own brand of justification. Mal breathes in skin, breathes in sweat and soap and bites down on Simon’s neck, his own hips setting up a counter point and when the boy’s frame tenses, shudders, when their combined grip grows sticky with the release, Mal still doesn’t have a strong sense of where his actions have taken him.
It isn’t, in fact, until a lithe young frame cradles him from behind that he has any sense of the barriers he’s crossed, the boundaries he’s eradicated.
“It’s okay,” River whispers in his ear, tugging his pants down to his knees, pressing herself to his bare skin. “It’s all part of the plan, part of the ‘verse, give and take, skin and bone and blood.”
He feels her arm slide against his hip to reach beyond his body, to stroke the bared flesh of her brother’s waist.
“Simon,”: she says softly. Her skin is a conduit, and Mal’s cock hardens fully, butting up against the fleshy globes of Simon’s ass.
He’s caught between these two, caught in their circuitry, their illusions and their loss and suddenly, he wants to give into to it, give into pure feeling, ignoring his past interests, ignoring everything but the sensation of mute flesh against his sex, of Simon resigned and spent, of River, hallucinatory and seductive. She tugs down his pants, as he and Simon simultaneously slide down the doctor’s trousers, and then Mal shouts as River’s fingers stroke his own cock.
“It’s okay,” she whispers in his ear. “Simon won’t mind, he needs….” Her voice trails off, lost a little, then resurfaces as her fingertips find his testicles. “Touch.” She’s confident. “He needs touch.”
Her hand is slick with something, saliva or lubricant, could be cooking oil or lotion for all Mal knows, but his cock is glistening, and he clutches at Simon’s hips as River rucks up his own shirt. The suspenders keep things strangely discreet in front, and as he lets instinct take over, as he thrusts forward, finding an opening that’s tighter, dryer than anything he’s encountered previously, he shakes with the overload of sensation.
One, two, a false start, a false entry and then he’s in, sheathed inside another man, buffeted by the touch of a girl barely old enough to be thinking about sex and not dolls, carnality instead of gossip. Mal’s body takes over, yearning for sexual contact and his hips thrust in time with Simon’s grunts and moans, reacts to the growing ease of entry, to the man’s response.
He digs his fingers into Simon’s fine hipbones as River slides hands up inside Mal’s shirt, grazing his nipples, mouth along his spine.
It takes nothing for Mal to climax, and in any other circumstance, he’d be both amazed and embarrassed, but here, whiskey drunk, and ghostly lost, he can think of nothing but sensation, can think of nothing other than the people he’s lost covering Simon’s body with their final words. He whispers their names as he climaxes, and holds to them tightly as he pulls out, disgusted and thrilled and confused, his sex limp and damp, Simon panting in front of him.
He stumbles back, throwing River off balance and when he pushes away from the scene, horrified and ashamed, she smiles at him sadly. She nudges Simon to hitch up his pants, and the doctor does so without turning around to face either of them.
Mal wipes his head, reattaches his suspenders, fights down the bile rising in his throat.
“It should have been me,” River says, but her eyes are clear. “Not Kaylee.” She crosses her arms over her chest looking young, and lost and aware. Mal fights back the nausea as River leans into her brother, her small body dwarfed by his frame. “But it wasn’t,” she whispers, hands twining in the bottom of her shirt.. “It wasn’t.”
Mal turns, stumbling out into the hallway and vomits at the doorway. He wipes his mouth, and heads back to the kitchen. He needs water, and he needs to regroup, to find a center. He needs to talk to Jayne and his new pilot and find a place to leave everyone behind.