I still don't know exactly where I'm going with this.
Somewhere way back before the war started, the Rim was still a frontier with more of the bracing adventure part and just a little of the rest of it. Mal remembers being a boy on Shadow and thinking that "may you live in interesting times" was a curse he didn't see nearly enough of.
When signs of the war were getting more certain, it was his mother that told him where to find the resistance, although he doubts she much meant to help him join up. He didn't necessarily mean to, either, until he accompanied a shipment of cattle - because it was getting so cargo was no longer safe with government transporters - to Chengdu, and met, first thing in the spaceport, a recruiting drive for the Independent Army. Mortimer Cromwell was speaking from a podium, a huge, red-haired monolith of a man in expensive clothes, who garnered no less rapt attention for his obvious money. Mal listened for half an hour before going off on his own business. His mother had told him to stay out of trouble, and keeping the ranch in food and potable water came first. But it stayed with him, through that day and into the next, until he stood in the port, considering, for fifteen whole minutes before shaking his head and boarding the transport home, still thinking, but other things came first.
Three days on a stinking, badly-run passenger ship later, he stepped out onto Shadow and went home to find it gone, the outbuildings still smouldering. His mother was gone, along with all but a few hands, who'd come back to gather their treasures before setting off for other places, getting off the moon as quick as they could. They told Mal, when they saw him, faces dark and heartbroken - because Mrs. Reynolds had been the kind of woman that attracted followers, not employees - that when the raiders had come, his mother had taken down the first wave without even rising from her chair on the verhanda. They also told him that when the authorities came, as they'd been called, it had been two hours too late. They'd only sent three men, in a patrol skimmer, and they'd done nothing but shake their heads, enter things into a form, and take the bodies away.
Mal went back to Chengdu that same day.
Simon remembers the Cromwells, though he never knew them - but every well-off family in the Core knew about them, along with knowing about every other wealthy citizen who, when the time came, chose to defy Unification, and made themselves traitors. It was told, by his teachers, as a parable, a warning against losing everything for the wrong reasons.
He was pretty sure he believed it, too, right up to the moment he learned what they'd done to River.
The Cromwells may only have been one - extremely - wealthy family amongst dozens, but Simon remembers them. At least, he remembers hearing tell of the man who must have been Collin and Catriona's father. Mortimer Cromwell made his own tragedy, and got famous afterwards, after his wife died in a hospital on Persephone, assigned limited care because, it was said, of a clerical error, but everyone knew the real reason to be her husband's controversial - and very public - politics. After that, after what was left of the family vanished among the border moons, no one was surprised when Mortimer Cromwell reappeared commanding Browncoats.
Simon's not sure, because he was much younger, and less invested in current affairs at the time, but he seems to remember it being rumoured that Cromwell's unit went three battles before losing a single man, and then it was a bloodbath that lasted two days.
He doesn't remember what's supposed to have happened to Cromwell, himself. But he doesn't imagine it was something good.
Kaylee's holding his hand as they walk down a tree-lined street on which the houses are set back from the road, as if they're hiding. Given the neighbourhood, though, that's not out of the question. When Zoe abruptly turns and leads them up a half-hidden path through an overgrown lawn, Kaylee squeezes his hand and they follow. Simon's not sure which one of them is reassuring the other. But she's smiling, and he's not, which gives him a clue.
Zoe raps on the front door, and Simon looks up at the house. Big windows, with field emitters, the expensive, invisble kind. The front door is heavy wood, carved; leaves and branches, mostly. It's a strangely graceful pattern for such a weighty thing.
Simon clutches the handle of his bag and contrives to appear comfortable. He suspects he's failing miserably, but at least he's trying. River's better at this sort of thing than he is, with fitting in with folk she's just met, but that's hardly a surprise. River always did everything more quickly than he did. It's just the way she is. He bets by now she's sitting back, drinking tea and laughing in all the right places.
He's not far off. A tall, red-haired man opens the door, beckons them in, and in the big, high-ceilinged room at the back of the house he finds his sister cross-legged on the floor at a low table, playing chess with a small, red-haired woman who, judging by the cane propped against the arm of her chair, is his patient. River is losing, and apparently delighted.
"Checkmate!" she sings, knocking down her own queen. "Again!" She speedily resets the board, and the other woman looks up, gives him an uncertain smile. River looks up, too, and smiles at him, big and bright.
"Simon!" she says, leaping up. "I lost."
"Yes," he says, as she catches up his hand and pulls him toward the table. "I see that. But, how..."
"I can't see!" she says, smile even bigger, for a moment. "I can't see what she'll play. I have to work again. Simon, fix her leg."
River pushes him down into a sofa next to them, and Simon takes in the woman facing him. "Riona Cromwell," she says, holding out one hand, which Simon takes. "Though you knew that."
"I-- yes," says Simon. "It's nice to meet you." He finds her manner confusing, as he finds the house, because it's not at all what he was expecting. He understands, suddenly, why it's strange, as he bends his head slightly over her hand, and she nods, as if it's natural, though the half-smile on her face is amused. He can't decide, in that moment, whether he's missed it, or not. A year ago, he would have been sure.
Not the captain's regular brand of old army buddy, for one thing.
River gestures impatiently. "Come on, Simon. Tit for tat. Fair's fair."
Without thinking, Simon reaches for his bag. It's certainly easier to work, at the moment. "Do you want to go somewhere else, or...?"
But when he looks up, the look in her eyes is momentarily astonished, though she wipes it away, quickly. She shakes her head. "Here's fine," she says, her gaze flickering to River, then back. "I'm not altogether sure there's anything you can do, Doctor Tam. I have had someone in to look at it."
"Well, you haven't seen me, yet," says Simon, before thinking. But he smiles, and she smiles back. Simon runs a scanner over the leg and hovers over the knee joint. He keeps looking sideways at River, who is sitting still and focused, setting the white king and queen against one another in a fierce marital dispute.
"What exactly..." he asks, still scanning, "...what did you... do?"
"Your sister, you mean?" She shrugs. "Just helped her put back what's supposed to be there." Riona tilts her head to one side, considering him. "Though I guess that's not much of an issue for you, is it, Doctor Tam?"
Simon looks up, puzzled. She shakes her head. "Never mind."
The scanner beeps at him. "There's some nerve damage," he murmurs, prodding gently with his fingers, "and I think the muscle has been torn and hasn't healed properly. It, uh..." he looks up at her, tries to ignore the very faintly triumphant look on her face. "I can do something for the pain, and repair the damage, but it'll still be a while before it's back to normal."
"To be honest, Doctor, that's a lot better than I expected." She looks relieved.
Mid-sentence with the doc, Riona meets his eyes, briefly. The look she sends Mal isn't just surprised, it's sneaky, and thoughtful, which means, or used to mean: "We'll talk later," and that it's important, somehow.
It worries Mal, more than a little, because in the old days, that look tended to end up in somebody getting arrested, or naked, or shot, or all three, or somebody, as in one memorable instance, hip-deep in live eels.
Mal doesn't like to think about it.
She's talking to Simon, who's working, focused, and for Simon, at ease - the way he only gets when he is working, though he seems as puzzled by her manner as Mal feels. Mal wonders about that. Despite appearances to the contrary, the boy's not an idiot - has some startlingly accurate insight at times - but Mal wonders which part of things he's finding odd. To Mal, the Cromwells being enigmatic and queer is matter-of-course. Though they do seem to have taken an interest in River.
He's known both families long enough for that to make him nervous.