A Gradual Brightening
by Scy

There was much River knows about the 'verse but she still woke at night wondering if someone would try and take her home away. When she sat up in bed she didn't look over at Simon's empty bunk. He had taken to joining Kaylee in her quarters and if River knew he was gone, then the dream's lingering cold would wash over her again.

If she asked, Simon would comfort her; all she need to was stand outside and whisper his name, he'd step out of Kaylee's arms and try to fix her. He was too good to her sometimes, she knew that, and tonight the dream wasn't worth waking anyone else. Sliding out of bed, she caught up her coverlet and draped it around her shoulders. It smelled like smoke and rich spices; Inara had lent it to her after she saw trying to rub heat into her arms one evening. River liked the way the fabric flapped as she moved, and it felt like the good parts of Before, when wealth had meant security. Inara didn't expect to get it back, so River wasn't worried about whipping it carelessly around her in the rush of air as the door closed behind her.

The grating would have clanged if she hadn't learned to move with its vibrations and avoid putting her fear into quick, nervous steps. But Serenity had been one of her first friends, and the ship didn't move any way that River couldn't anticipate, and on the move, nobody could hear her if she didn't want them to. At the moment, she was alone and feeling it, so as she moved through the dining room and then worked her way past the engine room to the bridge, letting her feet catch on one of the steps and the metal rang out a warning.

Zoe wasn't the one sitting in the chair and guiding Serenity; only the Captain had the feeling to bring the ship off the ground, and Zoe wouldn't let anyone see how much she disliked being under a pilot who wasn't Wash. It didn't show in her walk or expression, but the Captain could tell and he treated her a touch more gently than he used to. It didn't get mentioned, but any coddling would get dealt with sooner or later.

While Mal didn't flinch at her entrance, she saw the roll of his shoulders that told her tension there had reached its apex, he must have been at the comm for awhile.

"You're tired," she observed, more as a pleasantry than an actual conversation-starter.

"It doesn't take a reader to know that," Mal retorted.

"No, and you are." River came up the last steps and moved to the second chair.

Mal adjusted their flight path while she tucked herself under her blanket. Simon might have watched or adjusted the seat for her before she asked him to; Mal made minor adjustments, flicked switches and never looked her way. It was nice to not be under someone's watchful eye when she didn't need to be.

She didn't wonder why he didn't want to put the ship on autopilot; there had been someone in that chair for so long, ready to catch sight of danger before it reached them, that he couldn't fathom leaving the sky unwatched.

"You should sleep," she told him. As she spoke, she kept staring at the buttons flashing from the console without looking sideways at him the way he was at her.

"Problem with that plan is that if I bed down, there's going to be a lack of piloting that might be noticed."

"I could fly her. Give you a rest." Sometimes she tried to act as though she belonged in a world where people would trust her to do things like that, but she considered it to be a diversion rather than a project.

"You would at that." He sounded amused, and River leaned forward , fingers dancing just above the buttons that shone the brightest.

"What are you up to?" Mal sounded indulgent; when she wasn't having one of her fits or attacking Jayne he was willing to let himself listen to her without trying to trip her up or get ahead.

"Talking to you." She let her tone imply that it was obvious and she didn't see the point of the question.

Now Mal looked at her directly. "I can see that. I meant, what are you doing up here, it has to be late."

"It is, I woke up."

It was interesting to prod the Captain to see where his boundaries extended and just how he was working them around River. On the bridge, a place where she didn't spend much of her time, he treated her differently than with the rest of the crew. Questions rose to the surface of his mind and then dispersed without even a ripple that she could follow. Sometimes he didn't say a word to her and went a bout his duties. It was like watching Simon do his work back when the infirmary didn't feel too bright with its sterile instruments and sharp edges. There were differences though in the way she watched Mal; she catalogued his reactions and tried to make sense of the puzzle he presented. Now Mal gave her a look that was quick but assessing.

"Don't your feet get cold without shoes?"

River stared at her toes and wiggled them. "I like to feel her, if I wear shoes, I can't hear what's she's saying."

"Most of us do a systems check, or ask Kaylee."

"Kaylee listens well, but there are levels below the wires."

Mal let out what Simon would have termed 'a snort,' and River knew that his belief had to be earned. At least one of the Tams was working in that direction.

In some ways Simon was making himself the more indispensable member of the crew; his skill and connections gave him a way onto Mal's roster of people to keep around. At the same time, they rubbed like sandpaper on burnished metal and neither of them readily stepped back when their words sparked against one another. As tinder to their conflagrations, River tried to put their reasoning in context and then apply it to possibilities. She didn't call it studying subjects, but anticipating outcomes.

There was heat underneath Mal's Captain's mask and what he didn't show willingly pressed outwards to shape him. River saw others try to figure out who to work themselves around his angles and history; Inara still flicked and flowed like lit gas around Mal, but he refused to be her wax man and would not melt to fit what she could deal with. They had a continuous cycle of confusion and tilting that made River dizzy to watch. Their expectations were too ambitious and so they learned to deal with each other to some degree. At least they chose to quarrel and then put those disagreements aside when a larger danger threatened the group. This was a crew that might fight with each other, but most of them had a deeper loyalty to the whole. She saw the importance that Mal put on fidelity and the way he expected it of his crew. She was a less known quantity and in order to unshakably entrench herself in his perception of family, she had to let him have whatever insight he was able to handle.

"You let yourself be cold," River told him. "Whenever it seems you might be hurt, you stand back and go icy."

"There's times when you can't let yourself be too deeply affected and have to have priorities." His voice was sharp with defensive admonishment.

River clicked her tongue at him, scolding without saying that she could see the way his clothes pulled taut over the curves and lines that war had left more deeply than his skin showed. She wanted to trace those scars and have each mark share its story with her. As she didn't expect to be given that liberty, she did what she thought she could get away with.

Slipping off the chair was an easily explained accident, but with a pivot on her toes, River landed next to Mal's chair and gave him something to smile at. Her reaching out to grab his leg was deliberate and a consequence of being off balance. He wouldn't see what she was saying with the movement; that every member of the crew was still not completely steady, and that whatever else he wanted, that had to be dealt with somehow. Even though the words didn't sound clear, she tried to make her intentions comprehensible, in whatever way she could, she hoped he would pick up on enough to assist when she needed help.

"You're a sneaky little thing."

"I win all the games," River agreed.

"And are we playing now?"

"Would that bother you?"

"If I didn't know the rules."

"The rules depend on the players and what each of them want."

"Riddles again."

"No, these are parameters for potential interaction."

"Sounds very intellectual."

"It's sensible to set boundaries."

"I agree." He eyed her closely. "You're planning something, I suspect."

"Could be." She didn't need his permission, but it wasn't unwise to know whether he tacitly approved or not.

"Well, so long as there isn't going to be any great disruption or the like, I don't need to know more than that."

"You want to know, it's part of being the captain." Using her grip on his leg to lever herself up, River tipped in to watch him consciously maintain position and refuse to retreat.

"Some things a captain chooses to overlook on purpose." And by doing so, he thought that he was letting Zoe have her space, do what she needed to, in order to get the job done.

"Denying that a thing exists doesn't make it disappear."

Mal held her gaze and didn't let any expression give away his feelings. Whatever he chose to do with what she had told him would be his business, they both knew what his role was, and she had to let him know that she could go deeper than what everyone saw. When he needed her to and even when he didn't want her to, she would do what was necessary, he understood it a little better every time they talked.

She could see the stars reflected in his eyes and River let the lights wink at her for several heartbeats and then she climbed back into her chair and nudged the seat back a bit so that she could nestle down in it and close her eyes for a while. Even if her brain couldn't switch off right away, she would know that Mal was just a few feet away, and he was awake, keeping watch and steering them on on course.


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