Word Count: approx. 3761
Summary/Spoilers: Set between Heart of Gold and Objects in Space. OC Character death.
Author's Notes: Well, it has been a long time! I think this mostly came about as a sort of catharsis piece after my grandfather passed away last month. That brought out a lot of emotions, and this kind of explored some of them a bit and turned into a quiet little fic. It just kinda...starts ;) Thanks go to my three wonderful Hearts of Gold, for reading and encouraging me throughout the writing of this: gilliebeans, terimaru, and charlie_bz, you ladies are da best!
"Ain't you noticed how tired she looks?" Kaylee’d asked him, surprised. He hadn't. Truth was, he tried not to look at her overmuch; it was just too hard otherwise.
But he looked closer now, took note of the lines that creased her forehead, the tension apparent in the way she held her shoulders, the dark circles under her eyes that were - mostly - disguised by her skillful application of make-up. Kaylee was right. There was definitely something amiss.
Question was what he ought to do about it, if anything? Never did like him prying into her affairs. Conjured she'd like it even less if it were something not even Kaylee could get out of her. Still, it didn't sit well with him, just letting it be.
He'd tried to broach the subject at dinner, a careful "Everything all right?" that had gotten him nowhere.
"Other than the fact that we've been out here for almost a week and you still can't give me an eta on our next destination," she'd answered; a diversion he'd realized.
He'd noted the way her eyebrows had drawn together as - for what had been maybe the first time ever - he hadn't taken the bait. Wondered too how many times she might've done that kind of thing in the past and he hadn't noticed.
She'd excused herself and gone back to her shuttle, effectively ending any conversation he might've had with her; left him exchanging looks with Kaylee for a moment until that became uncomfortable too, no closer to knowing what to do.
Things might've gone on like that indefinitely had he not come across her that night, sitting by her lonesome on the walkway above the cargo bay. She had her head on her arm, resting against the railing wires, and was either asleep or so lost in thought that she didn't hear the approach of his boots on the catwalk until he was right there, sliding down to swing his legs out over the edge beside her. He didn't know if it were the late hour or just her weariness in general but for once she didn't hide when she looked at him, a sadness in her face that had his chest tightening with concern for her, filling him with a desire to do anything he might be able to take that look from her eyes - eyes that brimmed with barely unshed tears, looking so full and deep and dark that he might fall into them.
What's wrong? The words were almost on his lips, but he bit them back, sensing in her sad gaze the desire for silence, for an absence of questions, demands or any other words. And because he could see it, he acquiesced, simply returned her gaze, letting her see too, the compassion and willingness to understand, should she want or need that from him.
She gave no answer, but let her head drop against her arm again gently, her eyes closing as her breath hitched on a weary sigh.
He kept still, looking out over the empty bay below them and did his best to quell the curiosity in him; to just be there for her, a comfort, if his presence could ever offer her that. He was rewarded with another broken sigh from her, and then the soft weight of her head coming to rest against his forearm.
He held his breath a moment, then shifted his arm from beneath her head to come around her shoulders and draw her into his side, exhaling softly when she eased into him and pressed her cheek to his chest.
He realized, sometime later as her body relaxed, that she'd drifted off; was content to sit there and play pillow to her as long as she needed. He was well acquainted with how emotions like of which he'd seen in her face could rob a body of rest, and if he could give her peace enough to get some sleep, well, he would.
He didn’t know how long it had been when he jerked awake suddenly, realizing he’d drifted off as well. She stirred against him, sitting up with blinking eyes, looking confused and still half asleep. Her cheek bore the pattern of his shirt pocket from where it’d been pressed between them and he woulda thought she’d never looked so gorram pretty were it not for the sad that still hung about her.
She was starin’ at him, he noted, solemn in the half light; considering what, he couldn’t fathom, and then she was rising to her feet gracefully, still not breathing a word. He followed her with his eyes, looking up at her as she reached out her hand to him, clearly wishing for him to take hold of it. Blinking twice, he climbed to his feet, somewhat less gracefully than she had, and stood a moment before giving her his hand. He felt her fingers curl around his palm and wondered where exactly this was leading as she moved toward her shuttle, urging him to follow.
His mouth was dry as he stepped into her home. There were candles burning about the place and he watched, standing just inside the door, as she moved about silently, snuffing most of them out, still offering no opinion to himself as to why she’d brought him here. Finally, when there weren’t but the faintest glow to see by, she came back, all half shadows and dark, and looked up at him for a moment, her eyes unreadable. Then she was reaching up to his collar, her fingers soft against his throat as they started to work on the button there, and his lips parted with a small gasp, his hand shooting up to halt hers. She met his eyes again, begging silence from him still as, gently, she slipped her hand from his and guided his arm back to his side.
He swallowed a degree of anxiety, but complied, eyelids fluttering as she went back to her task and slowly undid each button, finally drawing his shirt tails from his pants with a long, steady pull. If the air in the shuttle had been cold, he could have blamed that for the shiver that went through him; as it was, he felt damn near to scorched as he waited to see what she would do next.
She met his eyes again briefly and he weren’t sure if it was a relief or a disappointment that he saw no desire there, only that same, weary sadness that’d been hanging on her all night. And then she was moving once more, to the bed this time, and his heart about skipped a beat when she pulled back the covers and turned to look at him expectantly.
He drew in a deep breath and let it out, then walked to where she waited; sitting when she urged him to, silently conceding. He released another long breath and bent to work his boots off, still not sure what it was exactly she was askin’ of him. There were thoughts on that what were trying to coalesce in his brain, takin’ in his current circumstance, but he forced them out; he weren’t gonna make any assumptions.
She’d moved to the other side of the bed while he’d been ruminating, slipped the dress she wore from her shoulders and let it pool on the floor. Mal watched the candlelight play across her skin as he laid back, trying not to linger overlong on the parts that were swathed in her fine underthings. No assumptions, he reminded his brain. Then she was slipping beneath the covers, turning to her side to look at him.
He looked back, seeing the fatigue in her face, and stretched his arm out in invitation, like they’d been on the catwalk. She sighed, her eyes filling with what looked like gratitude, and moved into his embrace, breath whispering across his chest as she settled against him, skin to skin. He closed his eyes, refusing to name the sudden swell of emotion that threatened to steal his breath at the sensation; pulled her in tighter instead, protective. Wondering, in spite of himself, what could have happened that had led to this moment.
He felt the first trembling shudder go through her, heard her breath hitch and felt her fingers grip his skin; knew it was comin', the wave that was cresting the walls she'd built to hold it back, whatever it was. Knew they were about to come crashing down around her. The first sob still hurt though, still lanced through his heart like a searing hot blade to hear her make that sound.
There were words, soothing words and little sounds of comfort like what his mama used to make that were grappling with his tongue to spill out. Words he didn't know might cross the line of what was acceptable between them when he didn't know where exactly that line lay at the moment. She'd begged him with her eyes not to talk earlier - words never did work out well for them - so he held back what his heart was yelling at him to say.
Instead, he put into his hands what he didn’t voice, smoothing one over her back in slow, comforting circles, stroking her hair with the other; soft, gentling touches. He held her like that, through everything that came pouring out, knowing she needed the release, if not the why of it.
Gradually, her breathing changed, became more steady as her sniffles tapered off and her grip on him eased slightly. They stayed in that moment for a time, until he felt her breath change once again and she tilted her head up to look at him, eyes glittering in the dark; he stared back, waiting for her to tell him what she needed.
He was and wasn't surprised by the first questioning press of her lips against his. Knew what she was asking from him; understood the need a body could have to distance oneself from whatever pain it was that had her hurting so. Knew too he would give what she asked, let her have whatever she wanted. And so he answered, returning the kiss, and felt her relief as the tension eased out of her and her mouth opened against his with a sigh.
He let her guide him, gave control of his mouth, his hands, his body to her. Let her take what she needed. He gave everything his heart would let him - probably too much - not that he could help himself. It had been a long time since he’d known he’d do just about anything for her if she asked.
He learned what it was to feel her above him, surrounding him, to feel her body yield to need. Learned her taste, and the sounds she made; what it was to love her.
After, when she collapsed atop him, her breath hot against his neck, he squirrelled away the memory of it, selfish in this one thing. Holding it close to himself against the future where he knew this wouldn’t - couldn’t - make a difference in the way things were between them. Wasn’t naive enough to think otherwise; he knew what she'd been asking of him.
Long after she’d curled against him, pressed her back to his chest and wrapped his arms around her, after sleep had finally claimed her, he laid awake. Watched her as the candles burned low, deep into the night, her hair a silky black ocean of waves on the pillow beside him.
In the quiet of the dark, he let himself wonder what it was had happened to her. That she was grieving was plain - he was intimately familiar with grief. They had been unhappy bedfellows long before tonight. He knew all of grief's wills and wiles, all of its strength-sapping, heart-aching ways. Knew, too, what it cost to live with it. Knowing it was something she was going through, again, so soon after the loss of - Nandi - her friend, was its own kind of grief, too.
So was being here with her. Acknowledging the reality that this moment was possibly - probably - the only night he would ever spend with her. He closed his eyes against that grief, arms tightening around her as he buried his face in her hair, indulging. If the coming morning, the life outside of her bed, was forever, then maybe he could pretend, here, for just a little while, that she could be his and he could be hers.
She woke to his breath on the back of her neck, feathering through her hair with each soft exhalation. His arms were still around her, heavy and warm and she let herself sink into the feeling for a moment.
She’d slept, she realized. Finally - blissfully - slept, for the first time in days.
She turned, carefully, so that she could see him. Took the time to fully appreciate the softness of his features as he slept, his face for once free from worry and care. It pained her to realize that before this she’d only ever seen him like this when he’d been injured or unconscious.
Ill-advisedly, she let herself imagine, just for this moment, what life could be if this were the man he always was and she could be the woman he wanted. Wished she could press their lips together, join their bodies again, really take what was offered… But the reality was she was leaving. She didn’t want to; equally knew she had to. Now, for certain, or she never would. It would be utterly unfair of her to take more than he’d already given.
The thought reminded her of why she’d needed his comfort in the first place and she felt the weight of it settle over her again, flooding her with memories of the last week and how it had been...
She heard it in her mind again, against her will, the gurgling, wheezing sounds her mother had made as she struggled to breathe, trying to fill lungs that were turning to liquid in her very chest, despite anything - everything - the doctors tried to do...
It had been horrible.
She’d told none of them when she'd received the wave; used her appointments as an excuse for her delay and caught the first direct ship back to Sihnon.
Her mother hadn’t wanted her there; hadn’t wanted her to have to see the terrifying future that lay ahead, the death that claimed them all…
She remembered the day her mother had first told her about the illness, had explained how it would one day take her from this life; how there was always hope - she could still feel her mother's hands around hers, squeezing earnestly as she'd said it - hope that it might skip a generation… And the apology in her mother’s eyes when they’d learned the truth; her bitterness at her unhappy inheritance...
She closed her eyes against the memories.
After, when it was done, when it was finally, mercifully, over, she’d found herself outside, standing in the middle of the hospital courtyard, heedless of the rain falling all around her. Numb. Broken. Lost.
She’d wished for them then, her surrogate family. Wished for the comfort they would give her - even Jayne, with his devotion to his own mother, would have offered understanding. And Mal- But there’d been so much to do then, so much she’d needed to handle, so much that required she not break. And she knew she couldn’t not break if they were there.
So she hadn't waved. She'd swallowed every feeling down, deep inside, locking it all away until she could get it done. Had gone through all the paperwork, all the meetings with the doctors, the lawyers, the representatives from the Guild, all the inquiries from the press and the condolences...
All of it. Alone.
Coming back to Serenity had been such a relief, to be so far removed from everything of the few days before; she hadn’t had the strength to tell them then. And now...
Now she had to leave. There was no more putting it off.
Sighing, she opened her eyes and found Mal awake and staring back at her.
This had been a dangerous thing, she realized, far more dangerous than she had expected as the urge to sink into his comfort again washed over her, fueled by the offer in his eyes. The temptation to surrender battered against the already weakened fortifications her head had erected around her heart, the decision balancing on the apex where they met, and for the space of a breath that stretched on forever she almost could have chosen either way...
But then the breath was released and reality reasserted itself.
Her eyes told him, she could see, even before she took his hand in hers and slowly brought his fingers to her lips in a soft kiss, trying to convey both her gratitude and apology with the action. Wished she could alter her choice, even as she saw the acceptance in his eyes. Tried not to hold on when he drew his hand back and rolled away from her, sat and pulled on his trousers silently.
She slid to her side of the bed, mirroring him as she slipped her her arms into her robe and he pulled on his shirt.
After a moment he cleared his throat and finally broke the silence, turning toward her. “‘spect you’ll want to get back to your--”
"My mother died,” she said softly, the words slipping out, surprising her. She hadn’t meant to tell him.
His breath caught in his throat and for a minute he couldn't breathe. Then he sighed, his eyes closing as the weight of it settled over him like an old worn blanket, heavy and familiar. This he knew; this he understood, all too well.
"You’ll be wantin' to go home. I'll have Wash change course-" he started, voice rough, half rising from the bed to do so right then.
He saw her shake her head. "I… I've already been. The funeral was Monday."
He sat back down again in surprise. She'd gone back to Sihnon, and he hadn't even known. She'd waved to tell them she'd been delayed - he'd made some asinine comment about her client gettin' his money's worth, he remembered - and then he hadn't given it another thought. Wouldn't even've known ‘Kaylee hadn't pointed out how tired she looked...
"We'd have come," he offered finally.
"I know," she said softly, nodding with quiet assurance as he turned to meet her eyes. "That's why I didn't ask." He gave her a questioning look and she went on, attempting to explain. “There was so much that needed to be done, so much to deal with, after... once she…”
He turned back to his hands. “Shouldn't have had to do it alone.”
”Alone was the only way I could have done it,” she countered, waiting for him to look at her again. “If you had come… Well. You saw, last night,” she said with a soft, self-deprecating smile. “I had to maintain control long enough to see to everything and I couldn’t have done that with you - with all of you there.”
“But I needed this; to cry, and to sleep, and... When I came back to the ship… When I was on Sihnon, it had been so important that I not let it all out; it was easier to just... continue in that state than it was to go through telling everyone. It’s exhausting, going over it again and again, having to absorb everyone’s sympathy. I just wanted everything to go back to normal. But-”
“It never does," he said, filling in the words she left unsaid, well aware of the sad reality of it.
"No," she agreed with a weary sigh. "I thought I would be able to... It's been more difficult than I expected. My mother and I- It's been easier, not being in the same House together. I wouldn't say we were estranged, exactly, but the relationship was... strained."
"But she was still your ma."
For a moment it was there, the desire to tell him everything, the horror of her mother’s passing, of the illness and that someday she too would succumb to that drowning, gasping death; to let him share some of the weight of that burden, let him soothe her fears and make promises he couldn’t keep.
But to tell him would only invite more tragedy into his life, another cause that he would give everything to fight for and lose. Just as her mother had wanted to spare her, so too would she spare him from that.
No, she wouldn’t tell him. She would never tell him.
"Yes," she said instead, because it was true.
They sat in silence, neither of them moving for a long moment, until, unlike the night before, their lack of words made the space between them awkward and he finally stood up to leave. She stood as well.
"'m sorry," he said softly.
"Thank you," she answered. For everything.
He swallowed and nodded and then headed for the door.
“Mal,” she called after him to wait and he paused, turning back. Watched her as she moved across the room to stand in front of him, marvelling as always at the way she almost seemed to glide when she walked. Stared down into her dark eyes as she reached out with one hand, touched his arm. Felt his breath leave him in a rush as she slid her arms around him and pressed her face into his chest. He brought his arms around her, his eyes closing as she squeezed him tighter, almost desperately, his chest tightening at the emotion that was welling up inside him, this embrace somehow more intimate than anything from the night before. The longer she held on, the greater the feeling until, suddenly, he recognized the goodbye in her grasp, felt his stomach drop and had to fight to draw breath past the lump in his throat and the need in his heart.
Finally, she moved away, her fingers trailing over his sides as though she didn’t want to let go. There was one more long, wordless look between them, and then he was turning and walking out the door, his feet heavy on the catwalk - where only last night she had slept under his arm - forcing himself to go on though his heart was breaking a little more with every step.
He heard the shuttle door close behind him but he didn’t look back.