After the Dust Settles
Chapter 15 – After the Dust Settles
“You sure you like that there?” Mal asked as he placed the last of his things under the bed. After they returned, the crew stopped for a time on a rebuilt Haven to try and settle back into the swing of things. Mal had also wanted to give himself and his crew some time to grieve for the girl who had burrowed into a heart he felt didn’t work anymore. But then again, here he was with Inara in their bunk, rearranging things and seeing to it that the woman he had wanted for as long as he had known her was happy with the new sleeping arrangements.
Inara looked to the curtain that she had hung and then back at Mal, “You don’t like it there?”
“No, no it’s fine really. Just lookin’ to make sure you’re all settled.” Mal smiled reassuringly.
Inara nodded and then took a seat on the bed. She patted the spot right next to her and motioned for Mal to sit down. “It’s fine really.” As her lover sat down next to her, she took in the sight of her new living quarters. Mal had swapped with Zoë to get the bigger bunk so that he and Inara could have more space. Zoë seemed more than happy for the move and Inara noted that as Zoë carried the last of her stuff out of the room there was a bittersweet smile to her features that had become more common since Wash’s death.
Now she and Mal occupied the space that seemed to carry the ghost of the love Zoë and Wash had shared and Inara was determined to do her best to honor the memory. She had even conceded to keeping a small set of dinosaurs that Wash had glued down on one of the dressers.
“Come back to me bao bei.” Mal’s soft voice cut through her reverie.
“Sorry. I was just…”
“Thinkin’ ‘bout Wash and this place.” Mal plucked at the bedspread and sighed, “Don’t rightly know if we did the right thing,” he finished.
“Zoë insisted. She practically kicked us out of your bunk and shoved us in here. What were we to do?” She smiled up at the captain and then rested her head on his shoulder.
“That’d be it. Don’t know what I’m gonna do with her yet.”
“Because you can do anything with Zoe? She’s more stubborn than you Mal.”
The captain ran his fingers through his hair and shrugged, “She’s not been right for awhile. Worries me somethin’ fierce. There…seems to be a lot of change. Too much for me right now. Taking out of the equation Wash, Shepherd and the others. The weakening of the Alliance’s hold on the ‘Verse. Nothin’ seems to hurt as much as River. I…no way for me to wrap my head around what the girl went and did.”
Inara leaned back on the bed and pulled Mal down with her so that his head rested on her shoulder. Her voice was quiet and hushed as she thought out loud, “River knew Mal. She knew what she was doing and she was right in making the decision she did. What were we going to do stay there? All of us? Leave who behind?”
She felt Mal shrug again and then heard the smile in his voice, “Coulda left Jayne.”
“And leave our friends with that monkey’s go se? I think not.”
“Suppose your right, but Simon ain’t been right since.”
“None of us have been right. We have lost an integral member of our group. River was important in one way or another to all of us. The only thing that is going to heal a wound like that is time.” Inara’s voice was resigned as she spoke. An air of sadness crept into her speech and infected her body as she slumped further in to the bed.
Mal twirled a strand of Inara’s hair between his fingers, breathed her calming scent and silently agreed. The ache inside spread to places he didn’t think he could hurt anymore, but River proved him wrong…again. Time heals he thought, but sometimes time takes too damn long.
Kaylee ran her fingers through her husband’s soft hair as they lay naked on the engine room floor. Her overalls were bunched beneath them making a crude blanket and cushioning against the hard steel grating that made up the floor. She knew by the sound of his breathing that not only was he awake, but he was thinking of his sister. It had become common practice in the two weeks that they were home to talk about River. It always seemed to take place after they had made love and Kaylee idly wondered what about the sex made him slip into a deep brood.
“Si, where are you?” She whispered not wanting to startle him.
She felt the wry half smile form on her bare skin as he answered, “I was thinking…”
“Surprisingly no. I was thinking about you and well, yes, about River too, but it was a good memory or at least a very embarrassing one. It was about the first time we made love here in the engine room.”
The mechanic giggled and covered her mouth trying to suppress the embarrassment. River had ended up walking in on them and even though the mechanic was usually unflappable in regards to sex, that day she turned an obscene shade of red as River looked at them like you would animals in a zoo. Seemed to Kaylee all her best memories seemed to find her flat on her back in this room. “She’s fine you know.”
“I know, but it doesn’t matter if I know. She’s not here.”
Kaylee frowned at the tone of her husband’s voice and moved so that she could look him in the eye. “Simon. We miss her. Hell we all seem to have lost a piece of us, just like we did when Wash died, just like we did when Shepherd Book died, but River ain’t dead. She’s safe at least. She seemed to be happy there.”
Simon took the hand that cradled his cheek and brought it up to his mouth placing a light kiss on the upturned palm. “I know that. I just…she should have said goodbye differently. She…”
“She shoula’ve what?”
“She shouldn’t have left. We could have found another way back.”
Unsure of how to answer, Kaylee’s head softly hit the floor and she sighed out, “Maybe you’re right, but I don’t think it could’ve gone any other way.. You’ve been different since she left and you got the right to, but Simon for me, don’t let a ghost destroy you. It ain’t fair to you or to me. Be happy that at least she’s out of the way of the Alliance.”
Simon thought about what his wife had said. Was he letting River haunt him? It was becoming an obsession, the way of her departure. He stopped his mind and took in the sullen features of his wife. She was right. River haunted him. He needed to stop and focus on the things that were in his control. He had succeeded in what he set out to do. River was safe. He knew she was happy. He knew that the Alliance would never get their hands on his sister again. Acquiescing to his wife’s wishes, he leaned up and placed a soft kiss on her lips then moved to the tip of her nose.
“As you wish. She is safe and we are too.”
“I love you Si.”
“Love you too Kaylee Tam.” He smiled the best smile he could muster and began moving his way lazily down her body.
“What you think we’re gonna get fer some of this fei wu?” Jayne asked Zoë as the two of them were finishing off inventorying the purchases from the trip to Earth That Was and stowing them away.
Zoë smiled over to Jayne, “’Nough that we might not have to worry about nothin’ for a while. Inara seems to have a few contacts left that are willing to pay top coin for some of what we got. We’ll all get our share.”
“Good. Maybe then I can retire and get my pretty pi gu off this heap.” Jayne’s mouth clamped down on the cigar he held between his lips as he hoisted a crate and took it behind a set of steps.
“You gonna leave us Jayne Cobb?” Zoë turned to the man a look of disbelief on her face.
He shrugged in her direction, “Thought about it if the coin’s good enough. ‘Course I might die of boredom before I reach a ripe old age.”
“Or someone may come lookin’ to settle a score and you might die anyhow.”
Jayne grinned wide at the First Mate, “That’d also be a good bet.” He stopped his movements and turned his attention fully to Zoë. “I think about it ya know. Leavin’, but can’t seem to do it. Had a few opportunities that didn’t feel right. I suspect I belong here. Bunch a misfits runnin’ around in the Black, stickin’ it to the Alliance. Got a good fit to it.”
Zoë nodded, “It does doesn’t it?” Her smile was genuine as she turned from the gunman and thought about the future. Giving it an honest thought this time. Not worrying about trying to make it from one day to the next. She thought maybe, just maybe, her motley crew of a family had a shot. Time would tell that much she was certain of. “Thinkin’ maybe you should stick around Jayne. Interesting may have only just begun.”
Xander balanced the pencil on his right index finger as he sat with his feet propped up on the control panel of the Comm Center. His first Friday night shift started an hour ago and he was bored out of his mind. The patrols had all returned at 1 am and nothing had been brewing in their neck of the woods. He kicked himself for agreeing to take over Kimmie’s Friday shift for the month.
His attention snapped to the door as it swung open and the pencil he had been carefully balancing on his finger clattered to the floor along with his feet. He looked up with his good eye to see Kimmie in the doorway holding a basket that looked suspiciously like a picnic basket and a pizza box. Xander licked his lips as he smelled the doughy goodness that the wide flat box emitted.
Kimmie smiled brightly as she sauntered over to Xander. “Couldn’t just leave you all alone here, it gets way too boring. That and Guilt. Been eatin’ me up since we made the bet so, I figured I could make amends with an impromptu indoor faux picnic.”
Kimmie’s grin was infectious and Xander returned the smile ten fold. “All is forgiven if I can have a slice of that pizza you have in your hands.”
Taking the hint, the slayer moved a few chairs out of the way and began to set up the area. Once she had situated the blanket, pizza, and basket she motioned for Xander to take a seat on the floor. As they settled in, she reached into the basket and produced two chilled beers. Xander’s eye lit up and he gently took one of the offered bottles.
“So,” the blonde started, “River’s gonna be staying with us then?” Kimmie handed the man a plate with two slices of pizza on it.
Xander took what was offered and brought the pizza up to his nose. Licking his lips, he raised a slice in a toasting fashion and nodded. Thinking a minute before he answered the slayer’s question, he said around a mouthful of pizza, “Yep. She’s pretty handy. We were talking and she wants to train like a slayer. Faith wanted to take point and train her.”
Kimmie nodded. “With Faith ‘teaching’ her, she should be up to speed in no time.” The innuendo was obvious and Xander just shook his head in mock ignorance. “Oh, come on. With Buffy and Willow, which by the way all of the girls are happy about maybe Slayer Prime and The Witch can both loosen up a bit, and now River and Faith we’re startin’ to think you lot are putting Insta-Gay in our drinking water.”
“Nope, none of that, At least I don’t think. I’ll have to check with Wills tho’. What about you?”
“Me?” Kimmie swallowed, “Me, I’m uh…I work too much.” She gave the man a half smile and winked hoping he would take the hint.
The light danced in the girl’s eyes and Xander took the opportunity. He leaned over and pressed their lips together. It was soft and warm and everything that he had been missing for quite some time. He pulled back and smiled wiping away some errant pizza grease that transferred onto her chin. He rubbed it away with the pad of his thumb and then leaned back as he finished.
“Ya know,.” he drawled out, “used to be a girl had to show up naked in my room for me to get that she liked me.”
“Now?” Kimmie grinned back leaning into the touch of his hand against her cheek and lips.
“Seems like all it takes is pizza, a good beer and the talk of insta-gay in the drinking water.” His mouth quirked in a smile and he shied away from the playful smack Kimmie gave.
The room was shadowed with soft light from the lamp in the corner of Willow’s room. As the light strained to reach her girlfriend’s bed, Buffy listened to the ceiling fan softly whirring above and Willow’s gentle breathing. The blonde lay curled in to her witch’s side letting her wandering right hand roam gently over Willow’s exposed hip.
“Willow?” asked Buffy lightly, hoping that if her girl was asleep the question wouldn’t wake her.
“Hmm,” Willow’s sleepy voice drifted down to the blonde’s ears.
Willow’s voice picked up as she queried, “For?”
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard what you said to Dawnie.”
“No. The opposite in fact. It was really sweet.”
“I meant it. I don’t.” Willow stopped and tried to gather her thoughts before continuing. “Losing you seems impossible to me.”
“Same here, Will. Same here.”
“So what then?”
Buffy seemed to be caught off guard by the question, “What then what?”
“We had this talk in New Mexico. About the future, about what we were gonna do with ourselves.”
“Ah that.” Buffy shrugged then answered, “Long as you’re there. I could join the circus.”
“Hmm, Buffy in clown make up and a funny little car? It has potential,” teased the redhead.
“I was thinkin’ more of a tight rope walker, you can be the ringleader…”
“Ringmaster. Even if said ringmaster is a girl. It’s ringmaster.” Willow interrupted.
Buffy stuck her tongue out at the witch and continued, “And Xander can be the lion tamer.”
“Now, you’re just being silly, Xander would totally be the iron man person. Ya know, the one in the leopard skin outfit,” giggled Willow.
“You can’t even say that with a straight face. I’m right. Lion Tamer. He does so well with the other slayers, lions should be a breeze.”
“They are way less vicious than newbies. ‘Kay, so Xander’s the lion tamer, Giles could be the clown and Dawnie…”
“Could be the performing monkey?” asked Buffy hopefully.
Willow sent a sour look to Buffy which she made sure the blonde saw. “No, she could be human pretzel girl. Don’t know if she’s that bendy though.”
“Hmm.” Buffy let the conversation die. It was Willow’s supple voice that brought Buffy back from her thoughts.
“Buff, question for you.”
“Anywhere, but here?”
Buffy’s silence to such a simple question worried the redhead. She was about to tell her to forget it when Buffy started speaking again.
“For the first time in as long as I can remember, I don’t want to be anywhere else.” She looked up into her best friends eyes with a smile that stretched from ear to ear.
Once again, Faith found herself looking up at the moon. The first time she gazed up at the pale white rock, she was cursing it’s inefficiency in providing light on her way to capture 6 demons that had brought her the woman she was now with. Tonight was different. Tonight there was no sadness, no anger at being denied someone she could speak openly with. Her heart was light with the knowledge that River Tam was staying.
She had her back firmly pressed against a medium sized boulder with her arms wrapped securely around the girl who had taken more of her heart than she had thought possible. River’s easy breathing calmed her and Faith continued to star gaze with her new roommate. She still wasn’t quite sure where they stood, but tonight seemed like the best opportunity to find out.
“Riv, you decide…” Faith, her voice uncertain, stopped. “We had a talk a while back; I just wanted to know if you thought about it at all?”
An unseen lazy smile spread over River’s features and she nodded. “It seems that I want a lot of things right now, Faith and we did talk about a lot.”
“We did, but I was…”
“You were asking about us,” finished River.
“That’d be it.” Her body tensed as River didn’t answer right away. When River did finally speak, Faith felt like taking the question back.
“Us. It has a nice ring to it. It’s what I want. It’s part of the reason staying seemed so easy. I’m safer here than anywhere else. Everyone is nice and if I get a little crazy, they give me space. Here is good.”
“So, that means you’ve figured out where we’re headed then, ‘cuz for the life of me I can’t seem to get a hold on it.”
River pulled Faith up so that their eyes met. She reached out and smoothed her friend’s wrinkled, worried brow and her eye’s shone with promise, “I told you, with you, here, is the only place I know where I’m needed.”
She removed her hand and placed it over Faith’s heart. “We can teach each other a lot Faith. I want to learn with you. New is weird and scary and I can’t think of anyone else I’m willing to take those first steps with.” River moved so that they were side by side. She rested her head on the slayer’s shoulder and pointed up to a cluster of stars.
“I know it’s not the same or even close, but that group there that look like a bright circle.” River’s finger pointed to a cluster of stars far overhead and continued, “It looks like some of the ones my brother and I used to look at from home. I was too young to appreciate it then. And now, well, or before, I was sailing in them.” Her voice dropped to a soft whisper as she leaned into Faith, “It was an adventure. I can look at the stars any time and remember the then. This is a new adventure. Not the same, but not entirely different.”
She turned her head to gaze into the deep brown eyes of her friend and concluded, “We’ve got a long way to go. The stars will shine, the demons will come, and time will move forward.”
The smaller girl leaned up and placed a tender kiss on Faith’s full lips. She pulled back and couldn’t help the smirk from seeing the surprised expression Faith wore. River snuggled back into the shoulder pillow. Her gaze drifted heavenward. She thought about the future she could build with the woman next to her, and she smiled as the stars twinkled brightly against The Black.
A/N: A heartfelt thank you to those that read and those of you that reviewed. Mucho appreciated.
Take Care All,