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14 February 2006 @ 10:16 pm
Title: Good Omens
Author: ninamazing
Rating: PG-13
WC: 3508
Pairing: Mal/River



"Once upon a time," began a mother to her three-year-old daughter, "before TransU spaceships or dedicated source boxes or electronic libraries —"

"Or artificial gauze," the little girl piped up, throwing an admiring glance toward her brother's empty bed. He was at the university.

"Or artificial gauze," their mother confirmed. "There was a young girl on Earth-That-Was, when people still had to grow their own food and nobody had a laptop computer —"

"In the early modern medieval times," the girl added. "Around 1500 A.D."

"Yes," their mother replied again. "River, why don't you just let me tell the story for a while?"

"But it's my favorite," she protested, her dark eyes shining. "I want to get it right."

Her mother's face flashed for a moment with something like annoyance, but she bent down and kissed her daughter anyway.

"The young girl," the woman continued, "seemed uncommonly pretty for the time, especially since there were so few people on her planet."

"About 500 million," River cut in.

"She had two stepsisters," her mother went on firmly, "and a stepmother, none of whom liked her, even though her father loved her very much."

"Jealousy and hormones," River announced. "Both illogical. Love is just a construct based on societal norms." She flashed a grin at her mother. "I read that in one of Simon's textbooks, but Simon likes romance. He said it was go se."

The eyes of the elder Tam flashed, and she pursed her lips. "River!"

"Sorry."

"Do you want me to tell the story, or not?"

"Yes," her girl muttered.

"Will you keep a civil tongue?"

"Yes."

"All right, then. But if there's any more swearing I'm going in with your father and turning off your lights. No reading under the covers."

River stayed silent, and cast her mother a very adorable and obedient glance. The woman smiled, indulging herself and her daughter for a moment, and kept going.

"The girl's father was a merchant, and he had to travel very far sometimes to sell furniture that he made himself."

"Did he trade it for animal skins and tools?"

"Yes."

River nodded, satisfied.

"He always wrote to his daughter, but her stepmother never gave her the letters."

Withholding of information, to River, was the largest sin; she always twined her tiny fingers together at this point in the story.

"Since her father was away so often, the stepmother forced the girl to do most of the work around the house. She felt that her own daughters were destined for greater things."

"Like marrying the Prince," River put in. "That's foreshadowing." Under a withering stare from her mother she added softly, "I think."

"The girl often slept by the fireplace, since she had to clean it every night during the winter. Her sisters, to make fun of her, called her Cinderella."

"Because of the cinders."

"All right, River – now the Prince of their kingdom was coming of age, and his parents had decided to hold a royal ball to which they would invite all of the local courtiers."

"Cinderella's stepmother was a duchess," River informed the room, as if there were other little children listening.

Her mother's lips were tighter than usual, but River was too delighted by the storytelling to notice.

"Cinderella's stepsisters were very excited by the prospect of the ball, which was to last three nights, and their mother spent every credit she could on finery and costumes. The ball was to take place in the giant castle ballroom, which was just as lovely as in Meng Xin City, where we go for the New Year."

Her mother always marveled at the way River could be awed, even during the fiftieth retelling, of the Prince's grand event.

"Did everybody dance?" she asked.

Her mother smiled, and nodded.

"Did they waltz and two-step? Did they lindy hop?" asked River, delighted by the idea of swing dancing at a medieval state function.

River's mother laughed. "Whatever you like." She had given up on trying to maintain a sensible narrative structure. Her daughter always made things run a little more roughly than usual.

"The first night of the ball," her mother revealed, "Cinderella was just about to start cleaning out the fireplace when a strange woman appeared behind her, dressed in a beautiful pink dress."

"It was sparkly," clarified River.

"Yes. The woman told Cinderella that she was her fairy godmother, and that she would give her a beautiful dress and a stagecoach so that she could go to the Prince's ball."

"And clean the fireplace for her," added River, not one for plot holes.

"Of course," her mother replied. "But Cinderella needed to be home by midnight, because that's when the magic dress and stagecoach would disappear."

"Solar midnight," repeated River, nodding sagely. "The apogee of dark and the perigee of light."

"So on the first night of the ball," said her mother, "Cinderella got ready to go after the others had already left."

"She was in love with the prince already," River put in. She knew how the story ended.

*


Inara touched River's hand lightly, forcing her back with presence alone.

"River," she admonished. "Please don't touch that."

The finery she had prevented River from grabbing had been locked in a trunk for the better part of a year, but Inara was not one for charity when it came to clothes. She needed these in a very literal way, for survival. So she watched without remorse as the eighteen-year-old sat back on her boot heels and rubbed her bare arms.

"Inara? You comin' to dinner anytime tonight?"

Mal's head poked in, and he drew it back in a millisecond when he saw the woman inside. River was obviously not quite dressed.

"I, uh —" he gulped, looking into the cargo bay, and decided there was nothing much he could say to ease the situation.

Didn't stop him from trying, though. "River," he began, "I didn't — well, sorry I —"

"What I find amusing," Inara remarked, approaching him and blocking River from view, "is that you never have a single apology about barging into my shuttle and seeing me naked —"

"I was startled, is all," Mal protested. He refused to let this conversation move in the direction of nudity.

"Still don't have a shirt," pointed out the third party from the floor. And just to be difficult: "But I don't care if Mal sees."

"I do," he said firmly, "so mayhap I'll go find you something from your bunk."

River shook her head, though he couldn't see her. "Won't do," she insisted. "Need something to dance with the Prince."

"She really can't use any of my things," Inara added quickly, in response to Mal's raised eyebrow. "They're all very delicate, and — well, she —"

"And a girl who bloodies reavers ain't the kind of lady they was made for," Mal finished, smirking.

"I didn't mean —"

"River, xin gan, you must have come in wearing something," Mal called. "How's about you put that back on and dance with the Prince later?"

"If you promise," she grumbled, and retrieved her Zoe castoff from Inara's floor.

Mal threw an arm around River's shoulders when she reached him. "Ready, little albatross?"

She grinned up at him, and they turned to go, heading to the galley without a backward glance. They were halfway down the catwalk when Inara sighed. She hadn't planned on attending dinner tonight anyway — and from the looks of things, she wouldn't be for quite some time.

"So," Mal remarked, crinkling amused eyes at the long-haired genius beside him. "What's all this fei hua about a prince? Don't you think you'd rather have someone a little less — soft?"

"Pasty and weak," River offered; the captain laughed and ruffled her hair.

"It's just an allegory," she continued, reassuring him. "Better for a cowboy." She kissed him on the cheek, and Mal, not bothering to puzzle out this last comment, just took her hand and led her to the table.


The first dance was a literal one. Mal saw River in the cargo bay twirling on her booted toes and grinning like an elf, so he stood by to watch for a spell. He wasn't quite sure when that watching turned to joining in.

She spun him about, first drawing his body close and then floating away. As the guitars on her digital recorder picked up speed, she stepped lightly and quickly between his feet, around his sides, pulling him into a wild celebration that Mal wasn't sure he'd know how to do if River wasn't guiding his every move.

After awhile they touched hands and simply never let go; the implications of long weeks of flirty flying lessons suddenly hit home for Mal, and River twirled three times as fast to keep up with his emotions.

She looked like she was even testing herself: her feet moved in a pattern that Mal could barely see, and her breath came in gasps as she slid her fingertips along the edge of his arms and used him for leverage. At her hips' insistence, Mal couldn't help but pick her up and carry her over his head; he spun her around and raised her high. The way she was dancing, he couldn't not. He needed someone to watch, and River needed someone to lift her.

Again she began her game of arching forward, and then twisting back and away, but for all that she was smiling, Mal could sense it wasn't play for her. He didn't exactly know, but he had an inkling this was the type of dance that generally made two people desperate to touch each other. It was having the proper effect.

Before he could choke out a few awkward words about leaving, however, River yanked her arms away and looked at him wide-eyed for a moment.

"I'll be late," she proclaimed softly, and ran out.


The next night found them both on Serenity's bridge, looking out at the stars, both too restless to sleep. Mal didn't want to ask her what had made her run away from her dance — or their dance — and so he'd let her go about her business during the day without mentioning it. He'd tried not to think about it too loudly, either, but he had no way of knowing if he'd succeeded.

Certainly she didn't seem crazy; in her long black dress, with her hair down and the humming blue light of the console screens on her face, she looked saner than she'd ever been; older, calmer, more collected, more assured. Even healthy, Mal thought, that was good, and stopped himself from thinking anything further.

"Redshift," River said suddenly, flashing him a smile.

"How's that?" Neither of them had talked for twenty minutes.

"Redshift," she said again, more seriously, looking back out at the stars. "When an object moves away from an observer the light waves it sends out become less and less frequent. Longer wavelengths. Redshift."

Mal just stared at her, hoping she'd elaborate.

"The universe is moving away from us, Mal," she told him, meeting his eyes. "Everything is moving away from us. Dark matter. Dark energy. Forcing us apart."

"That so?" he managed.

"It is." River looked back out at the stars again. "Someday it might get away from us. Might move too fast. We'll all explode and rip apart, like going into a black hole, where every particle of you is stretched."

"Might not be too wise to be thinkin' on such things at this hour," Mal advised, getting up to come stand behind her. He'd wanted to anchor her, but giving her the hug he'd intended suddenly didn't seem like a very good idea.

"Or it could be very slow," she whispered, either not noticing him or being very good at pretending. "We could all cycle back. Crunch together in the opposite of the big bang."

She turned now, leaning a little against him, holding onto his shoulders for support.

"But it won't matter," she told him. "We'll already be dead, Mal. Already be nothing."

"Xin gan, I think you've just put your pointer on the reason I never studied physics," he quipped, grinning down at her. "Too complicated. That bright mind o' yours could get you into trouble."

"Already has," she mumbled against his shirt, pulling him closer.

"Mmm," Mal admitted. It had been the stupidest of things he could say, but he wasn't overly alert or clever at the moment. Mostly, he'd have to go with frightened and confused.

"I have to go soon," River told his chest. "How will I find you again?"

Mal ran his fingers through her hair, giving her a gentle head massage. Poor girl wouldn't sleep well, state she was in; he hoped she'd get a few hours of good rest anyway. He kissed the top of River's head and pulled her back a bit, to get a good look at her face.

"I'll be here tomorrow," he told her, still smiling.

She looked a little happier, at least.

"I suppose you will," she mused.

River twirled him around, once, twice; she floated out on bare feet and he watched her go; and lo! the albatross proveth a bird of good omen.


River came to him in the dress she'd worn on Miranda, curls of swirling blue and slim shoulders and nimble, naked feet. Mal remembered the day; he'd thought it would be a dark one for her, thought, if it were him, he'd have burned the dress, but he could see why she hadn't. It meant they had succeeded in something, both found a little purpose. He had to thank her for that — the deed she'd given him to do, the memorial she was givin' him now.

"I'm here," she said, sparkling, but almost shy. She announced herself even though he was already gazing her way.

"Mei li de," said Mal softly, honoring her. "You better'n yesterday?"

"Better," she told him, nodding, and then twirled in her dress. "This is what I found, for the Prince."

Mal stood up and took River's hand.

"Looks mighty fine, darlin'," he reassured her. "Want to dance with me first, just for practice?"

"Silly," she laughed, shaking her head at him — he didn't know who he was — but she let him spin her around slowly, bringing her ever closer, cradling her, in the gentle way that only Mal could.

"Dancing is love," River murmured. "If you do it enough your body remembers all the steps, but you have to find the passion every time. Once you get all used up there's no more dancing. 'Cause you can't."

Mal kissed her head again, one hand pressing her back, the other hand holding her head to him. She felt right, nestled there, asking for comfort. Somehow giving it made him feel just as calm as he needed to be, like the only reason she asked him her questions was so that he'd find the answers himself. Mal couldn't read people as well as the keen little psychic could, but he could see that much.

"River, I doubt you need to be worryin' on losing your passion," he told her. "Ain't gonna happen."

She drew back to look at him, pulling away.

"Have you ever had it?" she asked. She was probably more serious and demanding than she intended, but Mal understood what she needed, and he had a quick answer to her question.

The captain grinned and leaned back a little, so that he was balanced against the wall of his ship. He looked out at the cockpit and smiled, and then looked back at his albatross.

She smiled. "Of course," she said. After a moment: "Serenity gave me some too. I hope you don't mind."

Mal shook his head, no, and kept gazing at her fondly, as if she were the ship itself.

River was his anchor: he knew that. River'd made him a man again, and in the doing of it had become a woman her own self, a woman the likes of which he'd never thought he'd see. That hadn't escaped his notice either. Mal tried not to let himself hope, but he knew she was thinkin' on him too; he just didn't know how.

"I have to leave," River said, almost inaudibly. "Have you chosen yet?"

Mal reached out to her, but she was already gone, shimmering away on weightless feet without a backward glance. He let his hand drop to his pistol, thinking of the many times he'd wanted to use it for River's protection. For the past three nights, it seemed like she'd been morphing with his every touch, turning into a woman completely different from the girl he had known, and yet always, always the same; River was now just a collection of hints of what was to come, the way she told stories with that all-knowin' brain of hers.

He wondered what he would find of her in the morning.


Mal stuck his head into the galley to find the lights on and Inara, Jayne, Kaylee, and — she was cuter than ever with her hair not-quite-brushed — his midnight companion of late, the dancer, the princess.

There were fancy rolls to be had for once, and that made him cheery. In the day, even when it was still dark outside, everything seemed clearer.

"Simon still sleepin', little Kaylee?" he asked her, smirking, as he took a roll and bit in hard.

"No call to be nosy, Cap'n," she scolded, but she was grinning from ear to ear and glowed in a five-mile radius to boot.

Jayne just scowled.

"Sleep well, Inara?"

"Yes, quite, but I'd rather no snide comments were made about my possible bedfellows," the woman reminded him with a hint of a wink. To Mal, it just seemed like grumpiness, and he turned away, not noticing Inara's frown.

At this River wafted away, off to the bridge, Mal reckoned, to stare out at the stars and right Serenity, if'n she needed righting. She left nothing behind her at her chair, Mal realized — she hadn't eaten.

"So," said Kaylee brightly, "we doin' anything fun today?"

Mal smiled at his mechanic and took another hefty bite of roll before he answered. "Might be, by your estimation. You take a look at the left atmo engine yet?"

"Not yet, but I can."

"We might need that when we set down on Salisbury later today," he said gently.

"Got it, Cap'n. Shouldn't take more'n an hour to get the combustion chamber air tight again."

"Good to hear. I got a few things to do myself 'fore we touch down, but I'll be checkin' our course if anyone needs me."

"Aye-aye," Kaylee told him, eating her roll as if it were the cheesecake of kings; Jayne may have growled, but probably just grunted, in Mal's direction; Inara left the room loudly, and time was Mal would have followed her, but he found himself wanting to return to the peacefulness in the cockpit: just him, his girl, and his sky.

It was too early for a dance, but Mal was just beginning to understand the steps.

"Mornin', baobei," he said to his pilot, perched like an eagle in the chair, ready to fly. "We all set?"

"All set, Captain," she answered, staring out at the black. The lights were off, and Mal kept them that way; they were better in the dark.

He knelt beside her, taking her hands. This was his dance.

"I didn't ask you," he said quietly. "How did you sleep?"

She looked down at him and smiled, bright in so much darkness. He thought of her words — this is what I found, for the Prince — and he saw, just an inkling, what was in her head.

"I didn't," she told him, shadows growing on her face. "Sleep."

"Sorry, little albatross," he whispered back.

Maybe he could help her with that.

"I always wonder," he went on, "how come your feet never get cold with you wanderin' all around the cold metal on this ship."

Her grin expressed everything: how silly she found him, how grateful she was, how much spirit she still had, after it all. Mal was finally sure of himself as he only could be around River, and glad he had come, so glad he had shared her dances.

"I think maybe you need shoes," he continued, and River's smile was powerful enough to blow the universe apart, to lift him off the floor, to propel Serenity across a thousand skies. She held her foot up demurely, poised above his hands.

He slid them easily over her toes and held her foot gently, rubbing the hard patches, blowing gently to relax her further, just like the soft hum of Serenity's engine and the whisper-curl of air from the floor vents.

"Found the Prince," she told him. "You fit."

"That's good," he answered, as he raised himself so their heads were level. "That's real good."

The kiss that followed brought Mal home.
 
 
 
jedibuttercup on February 15th, 2006 06:09 am (UTC)
Beautiful
Not for me, but I have to comment anyway. Absolutely beautiful. Well done.
obsidianagirl on February 15th, 2006 08:54 am (UTC)
Very nice...NOW get back to work on, 'Learning to Fly', that is an order! LOL

Wonderful, I was worried for a moment that she might be going to die or something the whole fic seemed so ominous.

THANKS FOR SHARING!

Sid
elgaladangel on February 15th, 2006 11:56 am (UTC)
The cuteness KEELS. XD
themoononastick on February 15th, 2006 12:41 pm (UTC)
Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. Thank you.
jasonlizfan on February 15th, 2006 02:06 pm (UTC)
That was beautiful. Nice job!
faith_less_one on February 15th, 2006 05:58 pm (UTC)
Oh sweetie!!! I love it!!!

Mal is most definitely her prince.
whatever_we_are on February 16th, 2006 12:23 am (UTC)
*dies and is dead*

*revives to give you chocolate*

*dies again*

So gorram adorable.
jazzfic on February 16th, 2006 06:46 am (UTC)
Hey cool it's up!

And you know I liked this, but I'll say it again. What a perfect prince *sigh*
biases on August 30th, 2006 07:49 am (UTC)
Aw, very lovely. Wonderful writing!