Persephone is as mad a place as has ever been made, and every time Mal comes here, he hates it a little more.
Crowded, dirty, and loud - at least the areas where common folk like himself are tolerated; the up-scale areas frequented by gentlefolk bother him more - spotless, sharp and shining, cold and separated from the grubby majority by guards, gates, and dirty looks.
He's glowering as they leave the ship, and the others remain quiet for the first several minutes, sensing his mood. It's for a middle-ground between the two extremes of Persephone that they're bound; fifteen minutes' walk from the space port sees them aboard the pedestrian train, the others chattering comfortably amongst the other commuters, River primly reciting dirty limericks in Chinese while she grips the handrail with both hands, swaying with the meter and smiling.
Mal stands with his feet braced against the train's momentum, and watches River as the train leaves the bustling port and skims out over a raised track into the wetlands that border it. They're so suddenly surrounding by verdant green and gleaming water that his crew goes silent, staring at the unaccustomed wilderness, except River, who continues, in a sing-song voice, to describe the many and varied sexual exploits of Little Kim Sing of Kong City, her head tilted to one side and her eyes half-closed.
The house, which has at some point been something approaching auspicious, has, to outside appearances, fallen into disrepair. The yard is wildly overgrown, and the house itself looks like it would be torn down for the land, if it were in a more desirable neighbourhood.
Mal walks up the path with accustomed ease - he hasn't been here in some hears, but the way is still apparent.
Mostly. He pauses, holding up one hand to stop the others. "Don't move," he says, crouching down to inspect the gleam of dulled metal he's only just noticed. He brushes some dirt off the rim and gives a low whistle. "Mines," he says.
"That's new," says Zoe, eyes suddenly scanning the garden.
"You say mines?" says Jayne, shifting his feet nervously as one hand drifts unerringly to his holster. "There ain't never been mines before."
"Mines?" squeaks Kaylee, "The kind that blows you up?"
"Ain't the kind that makes rainbows," Mal tells her, standing up and dusting off his hands. His next comment is interrupted by a metallic click, and he raises his eyes to the barrel of a gun. The man holding it nods, calmly.
Mal hears someone move behind him, and sighs. "Jayne," he says, warningly, then gives the man with the gun a critical look. "Mining the front walk ain't generally considered hospitable," he points out. The man grins.
"Says the man who never calls ahead," he replies, then holsters his gun, pressing a key on a wrist controller - bringing a faint beep from the mine at Mal's feet, and several others throughout the yard. He offers Mal a hand up, which Mal takes.
"Collin Cromwell," Mal says, grinning back. "Been too long."
"Not long enough, on some counts," Collin replies, a strange quality to his smile. He turns back to the house. "Come on," he says, "She's expecting you."
Mal stands stiffly for a moment, then follows, motions for his crew to do the same.
"'Course she is."
Collin leads them into the big room at the back of the house, where the windows, half-covered with shimmery-green and made of stained-glass pictures 'til halfway down, turn the light colours that land in strange shapes on the furniture and the floors. One door, the door they come through, leads in from the front of the house. The big doors that lead into the yard are boarded up from the inside, and the lock is fancy, expensive-looking. That wasn't there the last time Mal was here - must have been put there for the same reason as the mines out front. And the fact that the door in the right-side wall, the one he knows is there but can't see, has been re-fitted with a new face, now a carving in the wooden facade instead of a painted mural. Whatever happened must have been pretty serious, to take Collin to that extreme. Something that scared him, hurt her. She wouldn't have let him spend the money, otherwise.
For a moment or two, Mal feels guilty.
Around him, River is drinking in the room. The house is old, at least it's been built like an old house, back when Persephone was a new world, shiny and untouched. It's exactly like the house on Chengdu, where he met them, years back. He can never remember which was where, first, though he remembers their family built them both. River is dancing from one puddle of light to another, red, blue, green, chanting out the names. He watches her out of the corner of his eye, and every so often, as she leaves the ground, he sees in her what her brother tells them is there. Grace, without thinking. Then she lands, turns, looks down at her feet, wiggles her toes. She's left her boots at the door.
She's saner, solid, but not quite sane, by a long shot - hence the visit. Not that he counts himself sane, quite. But it makes him feel better, these days, that when he looks in her eyes, he sees a light that doesn't flicker.
Kaylee is sitting down, picking at the upholstery with Collin next to her, charming her pink. He manages to look heartbroken when she tells him about Simon. After that he grins and shifts gears, and he and Zoe chat companionably about practically nothing as Zoe doesn't quite sit on the arm of a big worn-looking chair, his face friendly but careful. Mal doesn't ask how he knows. He's always suspected that Collin got more than a hint of what his sister admits to having; their father had it in plenty. It was how he knew Mal wanted to fight, when he was younger, and that he could. The Cromwells never did anything halfway. It was why they got hurt so much in the doing.
Jayne does what he always does, when they come here; sits at the side table, cleans his gun, samples the liquor, and every little while volunteers something in the not-exactly-conversation between Collin and Zoe. Mal sits on the sofa, the last unoccupied seat save hers, across a low round table, not sure what it is about this house that makes him feel relaxed. Relaxed as he ever gets, anyway.
The feeling stutters when she comes into the room, and he sees she's leaning a little on a cane made of something black and metallic, the handle grip moulded, for comfort, so far as that goes when you need a cane in the first place. She looks healthy, more or less, except for the limp: tired, though, a kind of tired he recognises, like sleep hasn't been overly restful.
She comes into the room slow, but like she's trying not to favour the injured leg, and Mal feels guilty again. He doesn't ask what happened, not yet. She comes around the chairs, the sofa, smiles at Kaylee, raises an amused eyebrow at the suggestive grin Jayne sends her, nods to Zoe. When she sits down in her chair, facing Mal, River goes still, no longer dancing, going quiet and coming to sit down next to Mal. She's sitting, patient and good like she does before she says something crazy, but Mal senses, somehow, that she's gone still, inside, as well.
"Hey, Mal," she says, looking at River. Her eyes are the same intense dark shade as Collin's, as their father's. A bit like the Tams, as well, it occurs to him now, sitting and looking between them.
"I surmise you know why I've come," he observes, wryly.
She smiles at him, looking him in the eye for the first time. She's sitting backlit by the stained glass, and her hair is glowing orange around her head, a curly halo not much tamed by the ribbon winding through it. She's still pretty, a different kind of pretty than when he met her, sort of hardened and polished and sharper, but still pretty. The freckles make her look absurdly young, dashed across nose, cheeks, and what he can see of her shoulders and arms. She's wearing something approximating high-society, but simpler, like Collin - smooth, tidy, but plain. Mal wonders why they bother. As if they couldn't charm their way in, anyplace they chose.
River is sitting up straight, hands folded in her lap, and if Mal had to choose a word it would be "polite." But smiling, eager, eyes bright. She looks younger than she usually does, which is saying something. She smiles like this is familiar.
"Your name is Catriona," she says, and even her voice sounds a little different. Confident she won't be corrected. The timbre an awful lot like her brother when he's being himself, being a doctor, being proud.
Mal understands, all at once, why this is familiar to River. He can't believe he didn't think of it.
"And you're River Tam," Riona answers, the same kind of polite, like they've fallen into a pattern they both know. "You're famous, you know."
Half the time he forgets the kind of money the Cromwells had, back then. The kind of things Collin and Riona learned as children, for out in public, despite their father's political leanings. He forgets this house and remembers the other one, remembers her, at nineteen, riding up to the gates of the Chengdu estate in a cloud of dust, rifle leveled on his nose. He remembers that horse never did let him ride her.
He remembers Mortimer Cromwell calling him a patriot.
"Collin tells me you nearly blew yourself to tiān táng early on our front walk," she says, shaking her head in mock-censure. "That's messy, Mal. Draws attention. Upsets the neighbours."
"That why all the new pretties?" he asks. "You upset the neighbours?"
"Something like that," she says, frowning, carefully avoiding his eyes.
They are both quiet for a moment, and River sighs and leans back into the cushions. "We're sorry," she says, voice little. Mal thinks he's grateful, but also annoyed, she said it before he had the chance.
"It wasn't your fault, River," Riona tells her. She looks at Mal. "Wasn't your fault, either."
"I think there are some who would beg to differ," he says, as she looks at him again. He knows he doesn't have to say anything, that she'd know, anyway, but needs to make the gesture.
She stops him. "I take it as a compliment. In a way," she tells him. "Way I figure it, if we didn't know you, way we do, we couldn't have seen it coming."
"Can't see for yourself," says River. "Too close. Things are blurry."
Riona looks at her, this time managing to register surprise, if faint. "Yes," she agrees. "It's just like that." She looks at him again. "It's not your fault," she repeats. "We would've been involved one way or the other, eventually. The difference in knowing you was just the when and where."
Mal knows she's not just talking about the house, or the cane. His eyes drift to it, where it's propped up against the arm of her chair. She catches him at it.
"Zhòu mà, Mal, don't you have enough to feel guilty about?" Her voice is briefly irritated, before her face goes smooth again, and she sighs. "It'll heal. Well enough."
"Simon can fix it," River says, this time smiling. She turns to Mal. "Simon should come."
"Yeah," he agrees, in an undertone. He turns to Riona. "Can you--"
She nods, looks at River. "Come with me?" she asks, but the question sounds like she's not really asking.
River narrows her eyes at her, studying, then nods. "All right." They stand, leave the room. He can hear River's voice, strange and constant, all the way down the hall, until a door closes and the sound is gone.
He looks at Collin, who's gone quiet, looking after his sister.
"How bad was it?" Mal asks, in a no-gou shi tone. Collin goes serious, an expression not often seen on his face.
"It wasn't fun," he tells him.
Mal sends Jayne for the doc, sits down with Collin, and keeps feeling guilty.
Mal is surprised to hear it wasn't Riona who sounded the alarm.
"Strongest I've had it in my life, Mal," Collin tells him, looking haunted. He's laid aside his sidearm, picking up the scotch Jayne's poured into three glasses, in generous portions, without asking. Zoe's gone back to the ship for Simon, taking Kaylee with her, who volunteered at the first sign of serious talk. She's gotten nervous a lot easier since Wash died.
"Thought you didn't have it so strong as Riona," observes Jayne, who seems, as always, uninvolved, though this time Mal knows he's playing. That Jayne, of all of them, has gotten more careful, is telling. That, and Mal knows Jayne likes the Cromwells, likes Riona in particular, in a way he doesn't often assign anyone who doesn't exactly work for a living. He respects them, and he understands the friendship of people like the Cromwells well enough to be seriously bothered by any threat to them. Bothered enough to feel a little bit vengeful.
They've all changed, some.
Collin shoots him a look like someone's tickled needles down his back. "Usually don't," he says, shaking his head, some Chengdu sneaking into his accent. It makes Mal want to smile, but he doesn't. "Usually it's her. But that night..." He doesn't exactly shiver, but a strange look crosses his face before he takes a long swig of his drink. Collin's as ginger as his sister, and scared is a strange, hard look to see on his face, no matter that Mal's seen it before.
"She woke me up from it. Shaking me. Told me she'd felt me scared before I told her..." He shakes his head again. "They were quiet. Came through the back door, middle of the day... we're used to discouraging Feds, but usually they come through the front, knock on the door, make a show of being civil. These ones were smooth, polite, knocked, came in without an answer... started shooting."
"You weren't hit?" Jayne's sitting forward, a hot, dark look in his eyes, and Mal envies him the honesty of the emotion. Collin shakes his head.
"I got one on the first try, Riona got the other. The third one got around us - they cut the monitors. Came around front, through the study, as we were getting rid of the bodies. Ten minutes later, I look up and she's gone."
Jayne's sitting up a little straighter, Collin's looking wrung-out. "I heard a silencer, then an unmuffled shot. Made the front yard as they went down. She got him in the throat." He drags one hand over his face.
"All the jokes she makes about the neighbours, and none of them lifted a finger."
"Nice," murmurs Jayne, scowling. Jayne's not much for the warm fuzzies, but he knows the neighbourhood as well as Mal. Half a dozen under-the-radar types, some of them ex-Browncoats, within ten minutes' walk, sitting quiet while a little girl's getting manhandled can't mean he's pleased.
"Explains why we couldn't reach you," Mal says.
Collin nods. "Took us three weeks to get things up and running again." He chuckles, the sound harsh. "She was worried about you."
Sometimes Mal wishes Riona could be meaner than she is, like her brother. Some things don't rub off, unfortunately.
"I'm still not sure about this," Simon tells her, as he moves around the infirmary, collecting things and placing them in his bag with quick and careful hands. Kaylee likes his hands. "You say she's a... psychic?"
Kaylee chuckles, leaning in the door, ankles crossed. "You say 'psychic' like you'd never seen one," she says.
Simon pauses, looks at her, sheepish, "I... know," he says, moving again. "It's just... until River..." he doesn't elaborate, but moves on, past it, "...I always had this image of psychics as people who lurk behind beaded curtains, charming the gold out of your pockets."
"It ain't her job, Simon," Kaylee tells him, gently chiding.
He shrugs. In his head, if she's said something, it's either true, or true enough. "If you tell me this is wěn tuo..."
Kaylee nods. "Riona's as gāng zhèng as they come. The cap'n an' Zoe've known her since the war. Or, before, I think. Even Jayne likes her."
Simon pauses again, giving her a dubious look. "The way he likes you?"
Kaylee gives him a sunny smile.
He sighs, zipping up his red bag. "Poor woman."
Kaylee laughs again, crossing the room, and catching up his hands. "Shū chàng," she says. "It'll be shiny."
"If you say so," Simon agrees, reluctantly.
"I say so," she confirms, standing tiptoe to kiss him, softly, at the temple. Simon's eyes fall closed of their own accord.
"Besides," she continues, "the Cromwells are real hospitable folk. They've got a big tub, with real water, and Collin always lets me use it, if I want."
Simon makes a rumbling noise, deep in his chest. "That sounds nice."
Then Simon says, sounding surprised: "Wait - did you say Cromwell?"
Riona Cromwell has seen a great number of things, in her time, that would qualify as strange, and a few others that make "strange" seem about as exciting as protein rations without salt.
But none of that compares to what she sees - or can't quite see - in River Tam's head.
It's a few minutes - though probably longer, in real time - before she sits back and stares. River is nestled comfortably in a worn-out armchair that at some point in its life, has been expensive. She's blinking sleepily, bare feet tucked up underneath her. She puts Riona in mind of a kitten.
"Huh," says Riona, and River nods, sagely.
"Yes," she says. "That's what it looks like from inside, too."
"I would imagine it to look less ordered from your perspective." Riona is trying to sort out a thousand images in her own mind, as the translation from River has left them jumbled. But somehow it's all jarringly, fleetingly, familiar.
"Do you want some tea?" River asks, and Rion ais momentarily puzzled. But she remembers, as she looks, the tea service she brought up from the kitchen, which is basking in the glow of the hotter next to the teapot. When she nods, River deactivates it and pours two cups, still steaming, then adds just the right amount of sugar and milk to Riona's cup without instruction, which, Riona realises, makes sense. The girl is wide open as anything, and in Riona, who has made herself almost as open to read her, it sets going a low sort of twinge, from exposure. It doesn't quite hurt, but then, the mind never quite does anything the way the rest of the body does it.
"It's not as bad as it used to be," River tells her as she hands her the tea. "It used to be - crazy, I was crazy. Mal thought he was joking, but he wasn't. I was everywhere. I couldn't stay."
"And now?" inquires Riona, who remembers some of that, both from River's memories and from when it started in herself, a long time back.
River ponders, sipping the tea, her eyes wandering. "Now... I can. Now there's nothing pulling things, but they still move fast, so it's hard. I have to... it's unpredictable."
"Yes," says Riona, softly, and River looks at her, interested, probably because she's already picked up what she's going to say. "Your mind must always have moved quickly."
"Intelligence and intuition are both based upon the speed of neuroelectrical connections." She smiles, a little-girl smile. "My neurons are impatient."
"But before, you must have had walls. Now, though, instead of bouncing back inside, like they should, your thoughts go wheeling off, unsupervised." She gives River a calculating look, which the girl returns. "Must be unsettling."
"Unsettling," River agrees. "But that part's normal, isn't it? Happened to you."
"Well," Riona says, qualifying, "as normal as these things get. Just usually, your body adjusts. But in your case... I guess there wasn't enough time."
"There wasn't any time," River says, very seriously. "But you know how, don't you?" she asks. "You can make me... adjust?" She's playing with the hem of her skirt, twisting it between busy, absentminded fingers.
"I can't make you, River," Riona tells her, gently. "I can show you. But it won't be easy."
"Sweating and crying and falling down," intones River, "but challenges are good for the soul."
Riona starts, a little, because she hadn't felt River looking, but the words bring the memory hard and fresh to the surface.
She is eleven years old, and covered in dust, and weeping, and her father is patiently explaining that the horse will never respect her if it knows it has made her surrender; she replies that it's easy for him, when he's as big as the horse; the horse, for her part, is peering, her eleven-year-old self thinks, mockingly through the slats of the fence. Less than a year later, her father will use the same tact, when her powers come on strong and fast.
River is smiling at her, as if they are sharing the same joke.
"Sweating and crying and falling down," Riona repeats, trying to sound stern but apparently, judging by River's expression, mostly failing. "It's hard, and it hurts, however clever you are."
River sobers, and sets down her cup. She leans forward. "I'm not scared," she says, then seems to reconsider, as Riona raises one skeptical eyebrow. "Yes, I am," she amends. "But I'm brave. Really."
Riona laughs. "I believe you."
As she closes her eyes again to look inside River, the troubling sense of familiarity that has been niggling for an hour grows more clear, but not clear, yet.
By the time River is sweating from the effort of trying to make her mind do what she wants, and muttering to herself in concentration, Riona has worked through enough of River's memories that she's almost sure she should know. She just can't quite work out the how.
And when River, with a deep sigh of satisfaction, finally brings up her first wall, flimsy but substatial, it clicks into place, and Riona is so surprised that she drops her cup, and it shatters.
River opens her eyes, and laughs."I did it," she says, triumphant. "It's so quiet."
Riona is staring at the broken remnants of her cup, green enamel and red flowers in a pool of brown tea, which is soaking into the rug. How could she miss this?
River sags back into her chair, still laughing.
EDIT: I am thinking perhaps "The Little Life and the Great River," though it will probably only make sense to those of you who've read the bit in the middle with the... um... thing several of us decided absolutely needed to be true at the end of Serenity, and those of you who already know where I'm going with the "jarring familiarity" bit. ;)