River ran off ahead, laughing as her brother leaned down to kiss Kaylee in the middle of the market square. She bumped into Mal coming out of the Buddhist temple, his clothes scented heavily with incense and the cloying aroma of dying flowers. River stopped short, her face falling as she glanced up to see the sadness flicker and shutter closed behind his eyes. “A year is a long time to grieve,” she told him. “But your heart is not so heavy that it can’t be held anymore.”
Mal nodded with small smile, flinging his arm around River’s shoulders and dragging her towards the ice cream shop down the street. “How’d you get so smart?” he asked, his tone light and teasing despite the damp glitter of his eyes.
River shrugged, her gaze tracking something far off to the left. Mal turned to see what had caught her attention, a warm, recognizable laugh faintly hitting his ears before his eyes latched onto a familiar smiling profile dusted with black stubble several yards down the road. A little girl squealed in the man’s arms, her black hair glinting a deep blue in the reflection of the sun as her brown-haired mother reached up to scrape cotton candy off her hands, the joyful family disappearing around the corner in a matter of seconds, leaving behind only the satisfied laughter of the child drifting in the air like the wind chimes.
Mal surged forward, held back only by River’s tight grip on his hand, her feet digging into the dirt as she tried to restrain him. “No!” she stated firmly. “Leave them be!”
,” Mal spat, his eyes growing bright. “They’re supposed to be dead
. I‘m gonna kill ‘em!”
“They did it to protect us,” River told him simply. “To keep us away from what they have to do.” River tugged at his hand, pulling him in the opposite direction. “Let them think it worked.”
River pulled harder, dragging Mal after her. “C’mon. Told Zoe and Cunning-Hat Boy we’d meet them at the mahjong tables in a half an hour after they get back from dealing with the poltergeist. Jayne’s made a bet and promised to buy us all dinner when he wins.”
River smiled up at him disarmingly, and slowly Mal gave in, his body relaxing as he loped after the girl as she waltzed happily down the street. “You never answered me, little albatross,” Mal said. “How’d you get to be so smart?”
River shrugged, skipping ahead as she pulled him along. “Guess I got all the brains in this family.” With a teasing tilt to her grin, she wrapped an arm around his waist and tugged him into the noisy dimness of the betting hall.