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 surrounded 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 tian 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 wen tuo..."
Kaylee nods. "Riona's as gang 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. "Shu 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, pieces of her and River floating about in the air between them.
...Simon scowls at her, a face that makes her smile, because it means he knows she's right: "It's from the book, River..."
...her father's hands are on her shoulders. "If we don't come back in an hour, Ni Zi, you pick up and you run, you hear me...?"
"Do you want some tea?" River asks, and Riona is 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."
...she is tired and sulky and desperate and very small, but he remains firm. "You can so do it. You are my daughter..."
"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."
..."I'm not scared of anything. So there." River makes a face.
Simon is unimpressed. "Only because you can do everything..."
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.
Somewhere way back before the war started, the Rim was still a frontier with more of the "bracing adventure for hardy men" 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. "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.
Kaylee dashes up into the second floor, dragging behind her a Simon who's using only a fraction of his usual stiffness and nerves, a wonder Mal attributes entirely to Kaylee's influence. At the top of the stairs is the room with the big tub, which - aside from bartering for engine parts and frilly dresses, of course - is just about Kaylee's favourite thing in all the 'verse.
And then Mal stops the thought right there, because his memory carries on to helpfully remind him that the first two up those stairs, last visit, were Zoe and Wash, fingers tangled and voices low.
He shakes his head and redirects his attention, then, because River is arguing against going back to Serenity with Zoe and Jayne.
"There's a garden, though," River says, looking sulky.
"And you'll be enjoying it plenty when you come back for supper," Collin says, giving Mal a querying look.
"Hardly ever turn down an offer of real actual food," Mal says, nodding. "Anywise, lil' albatross, port control's expectin' you for the equipment check - assuming you still want to be piloting?"
River brightens like a light. "Flying and carrot cake with carrots," she says, cheerfully. "I am enjoying today." And she follows Jayne and Zoe out the door.
Mal turns around, and Riona's giving him that look again.
"I've no notion of how to explain it to you, Mal," she tells him, toying with a stylus on the low table in front of her and offering him the bottle he was enjoying earlier. That she's plying him with liquor is a pretty good sign that she knows he's not going to like what she has to tell him.
"Explain what?" he asks, already feeling tired, and remembering, with an uncomfortableness, the way eels slither when they're riled.
She narrows her eyes on the inlay of the tabletop; it's a kaleidoscope-shape, flowers and circles. She's staring at it like it's a map to some answer she can't quite work out.
"Why'd you bring them here, Mal?" she asks, "aside from conjuring a reason to make sure we were still walking and talking, I mean."
Mal blinks at her, tries not to fidget. The trouble with the Cromwells is sometimes they know his answers before he has them, and it's always bothered him deep. "Girl needed some learning. You folks're the closest I've got to experts."
She stares at her hands for a long time before saying: "You had a Shepherd on your ship. Man by the name of Derrial Book."
It's not a question, though it's built like one. He grins, challenging. "You think it's outta character?"
Eyes still lowered, he sees her smile, momentarily. "That, too," she agrees, "but I had other concerns. You ever have doubts about the man, Mal?"
Mal stiffens and leans forward, ever so slightly. "Any particular reason you ask?"
She drums her fingers on one knee. She looks up briefly with a question in her face. "How much detail you willing to bear here, Mal?"
Mal stares, then falls back in his chair. He angles a glare at her. "You know full well I don't like flying blind. Don't got much of a choice."
Riona leans back and regards him with the sort of scrutiny Mal's only ever seen used on bugs and children, and he feels bothered, because he's never much liked being treated like either. He knows she doesn't mean it, so he lets it slide, but that doesn't mean he has to like it.
"Long time back," she says, slowly, eyes dropping down again, "Back when Earth was still there, before it was Earth That Was, there were always stories. About people who could... who could do what we can do. What River can do."
She didn't need to explain what she meant; it was implied.
"What sort of stories?" Mal asked, cautiously.
"Stories about our place in the world. Stories we still carry, that back then, men weren't just little things crawling on the crust of a world, but... different. Stories that say we grew from Earth That Was like trees, like birds, like water, part of it instead of just placed on it."
Mal leans forward, listening but puzzled because he's heard this before, but only in tales, and not serious ones.
"It isn't something we teach, now, because it's no longer so, to be honest. There's no man can say he feels connected to his world, not really. But back then they thought - they believed it - that how we made that bond was telling of... of why Men were made, of where we were going, of where we'd come from. They'd spend whole lives trying to work it out. But there were some people who were supposed to ken it better than others."
"You mean... like you. Readers."
"I... I think so."
"What do you mean, you *think*?"
She shrugs. "It's stories, Mal. It's well-meant stories, ones passed down in our family, in a lot of families, I know, though I couldn't tell you who they were - it's something we were charged with keeping. That notion... that sense we lost when we left where we came from. So I don't... I don't know it."
"How 'bout you tell me what you do know?" he says, sighing.
She folds her hands together. "Father explained it saying... saying we'd been trusted with something, with keeping a memory."
She gives him an irritated look at the cynical tone, but says: "Simply put, Mal, when you can read folks you can write in them, too."
He blinks, comprehension dawning. "You mean... keeping a memory means... a true memory."
Again, a slow, thoughtful shrug, her eyes distant. "Hard to say. May have been someone, long ago, who knew that sense, that growing out of something, and didn't want it fading when his children had their own, never knowing it. Probably were others, many on many... I know of at least two other families like ours, carrying memories, different ones. Mostly it's a sense, not a real, linear sort of memory, but.." Her eyes unfocus briefly, and then fix on his face. "It's hard to explain, Mal. It's more a feeling than anything. But Father gave it to us when we were little, and kept giving it to us year after year, like making sure it would stick. Likely it's been changed by the keepers. But... I'd have to show you."
She makes no move towards him, but the offer hangs in the air in a moment, and unacknowledged, dissipates like smoke. Instead, Mal sits back again, looking at her with new eyes; like they weren't strange enough, now he learns they're magic, too.
"You said there were other families. Who?"
She shakes her head. "We were never given names. And... that's the other thing, Mal, that I should tell you; the other part of the memory, isn't just Earth That Was, but the other families. Or... family. That we were linked by something, something other than the carrying or we were, ages back. I don't know. It's faint."
Mal thinks a moment, then frowns at her. "So here's where I ask about your quickly-vanishing point."
She sits up straighter, businesslike, and Mal's a little nervous, all over again. "Far as I know," she says, "we've been doing this since... since Earth That Was, even. But lately, last ten years or so, even before the war, I became aware - not 'learned' because Father never told me, and I don't think he told Collin, either - that there were people looking for us. Trying to get us to... prove ourselves. Out ourselves, for what we do.
"There was a man... came to the house a half-dozen times when I was young, ten or so. Some kind of priest, I think, but Mother and Father never told us. That was on Persephone, here. He'd come, all politness and buttoned-down, talk with my parents, stay for supper, once or twice, just... talking. I don't know how father knew him. He may have been someone through business, or just an acquaintance through the society; it's hard to tell, sometimes. But I do know he was working his way through the neighbourhood, that he visited every family we knew, every schoolfriend of mine and Collin's. I know nobody really knew where he lived. I remember Mother saying... he was a 'hanger-on.' I didn't know what that meant, at the time, but you've seen them. Folks who make their living being friends with wealthy folk. They're tolerated, as they're harmless, mostly, and rich folks like to be flattered. But I don't think that's what he was."
"Well..." she looks thoughtful, again. "I remember his manner more than anything... the way he'd talk to me and Collin, careful, like he knew how to talk to kids. He'd ask you how school was and you'd find yourself telling him about your nightmares and the berries you stole from the neighbour's garden. You know those kind of people? And I said, he came a few times, and the last time, Father threw him out of the house, polite as anything, but frightening. You remember Father's moods."
Mal nods, eyebrow arched. He was more than a little afraid of Mortimer Cromwell, and isn't ashamed to admit it, either.
"I think he was after us, Mal. I think he wanted to see what we could do. And I think... I think once he was reading us."
She shivers, and he reaches out a hand without thinking, then drops it when she shakes her head. "I'm not certain, of course. But there was something about him, all the same."
"After, Father told us, if we ever saw him again, to tell them right away, not to speak to him.
And Mal, I saw him not six months ago, in Eavesdown."
"It's troubling," says River, "quiet." She is lying, flat on her belly, along the sun-warmed cobbles of the courtyard, with the fingers of her right hand buried in the soil around a tomato plant. The warm-dark-soil-smell is filling the air, and wending through it is the smell of baking dumplings and stirfry and onions and pepper. Vaguely River can sense that Riona is beginning to wonder where are the tomatoes she sent River to gather.
They are lined up in a row on the stones near River's shoulder, and she still has a clear memory of their cool, smooth skins lingering on her fingertips. The roots between her fingers are still, but they aren't. They are drawing, drinking, breathing, and if she concentrates...
River hears it and feels it, and when she feels it, directed at her with care and intention, she jumps, and she blinks, and the fingers of the hand in the dirt jerk, slightly, tighter, so that the tomato plant shivers. River draws away her fingers, shakes off the dirt, and smiles, and whispers: "Coming."
River enters the kitchen on a cloud, walks into a wall of cooking smells and content people being still, and sets the basket of tomatoes down on the table.
Riona catches her eye - the only one but Simon and Kayle who will still do that, unhesitating, and nods, smiling. "Ooh, those look good," says Kaylee, emphatically, and does unthinkingly slaps Simon's hand away from the pile of carrot-slices she's slowly building, rapping his fingers with the flat side of the blade. Simon sucks his knuckles and smiles, ruefully, and River is briefly, profoundly happy that Simon has smiled at someone other than her. She reaches for the other little knife and sits down with a tomato in one hand.
Mal makes a motion like he wants to lean across the table. "Uh," he says, but not moving, quite, "that such a good idea, little one?" he asks, but Riona, not even turning, says chidingly, "leave her be, Mal. She's helping," as River begins cutting the tomatoes into thin little pieces and heaping them next to the carrots, so the colours seem to bleed into each other.
Chastised, Mal sits back and watches, as River looks up and makes a face. "I'm helping," she says, and feels herself slot back out of the moment like wheel-teeth, but sees that she was slotted in for a time, and is proud of herself. She puts a piece of tomato in her mouth and concentrates on the metallic tang of the flavour while she cuts, avoiding fingers and trying to find the lines of separation in the tomato skin like fracture lines in a diamond. She's never cooked like this before, with her own hands and her own nose and her own tongue, not before the ship or after, because before there were other people cooking, bringing the meal to the table like magic, and scolding River away from the door when she got curious and wanted to know how it was made. After, it was ship food, protein powder and hot water, and not the same as this, opening the tomato with a narrow edge to see what it looked like on the inside.
She likes this, this patient working, this gentle sliding-apart of pieces, and she likes that Riona has her bring the pieces to the counter and lay them, careful, mosaic, over the long, flat noodles in the dish. She likes the smell, all these things together, and how familiar it seems without being familiar. She likes Riona letting her taste what she's stirring on the stove, like her opinion can be trusted, and she likes watching the carrots disappear into the pot.
Her belly is growling, she likes it so much.
River knows that the captain worries, about her, about the crew, about Kaylee, and right now, about these two strange, clever red-haired people River has found herself liking right away, in the way she used to learn people, quickly and altogether. It's an extra thing to think on, for the captain, and she can see him worrying, the smell of it like the bitter of copper. It worries at him, and River can see that, too. But she cares more, at this moment, for the vegetables, and holding a knife with care and purpose, and suppers, and the smell, the real smell, of the room.
She can feel the ground under her feet, for the first time in a long time, and it's moving, always moving.
Mal spends months in the back-and-forth, bits-and-pieces work on the Cromwell estate, training with the militia, following Mortimer when he goes off-world needing an escort who's firm but not too threatening, staying behind in town or at the house under the unspoken command to keep an eye on the kids, although Collin's his age at least and Riona's nearing twenty. It's not quite a year before Mal's staying over for supper and being invited to drink very good scotch afterwards, and alone among the others he sees doing the same jobs Cromwell asks of him, he gets the feeling that he's being groomed for something. It's not the something he can tell that Catriona Cromwell wishes it were, though she's not as awkward about it as she could be, and is at least open and honest about it - and under different circumstances, Mal might have been receptive to it, but he's got his mind on other things, and in any case he's a little worried about the possibility of revenge being visited on his face if he happened to falter in his judgement of the situation, if not by Riona then by her brother and then her father, in that order, who like to be protective but don't like her to know it.
The girl's got other reccommending qualities than her interest, anyway, and she's the sharpest shot Mal's ever met (if a bit quick on the trigger), and she tells the militia what to do (although she's not really meant to), and both her and her brother have clearly been training for a war since they could walk, or near enough. He learns that their mother's dead, and that their father blames the Alliance for taking issue with his politics, but that he really blames himself for not hot-footing it off Persephone sooner than he did.
But Mal knows he's just one part of a picture, and that things are getting worse all over the place, and that Mortimer Cromwell's not the only one spoiling for a fight.
He knows that there are more expropriations happening, and that the Alliance is getting greedier if not more ruthless, and that there have been food riots all along the Rim, these things first-hand because he spends a week on Valhelm, a moon the size of Shadow whose business is mining, and whose taxes have been getting higher and higher by the month, and whose people are ready and waiting for the word from the Independent Army, as it's coming, very quietly, to be called. They've got a fair militia, and Mal's there with a few others to assess their training, and their readiness, and how close they are to breaking, and also to carry drinks to those that want them, because, let's face it, the ones in charge are the ones paying for the guns. But he's the one the sensible men trust when they're wary of the wealthy ones, and he's the common face of the command on this part of the Rim, and he's useful that way.
He mostly spends the week convincing them to wait, to dig in and wait, and not tip their hand too soon, because nobody wants to have this bloodier than it needs to be, and the Independents aren't willing to get folks killed without direct cause. Mal goes home - it's coming to be "home" in his head, if only for practical purposes - dusty and tired and is told that Collin's back, and that he's not alone, and that he'd better eat and get a good night's rest because he's off again in the morning.
Mal does not expect, early the next day, to be handed an ident card with a travel visa logged into it. But that's what he's handed, along with a careful speech on keeping his head down and not striking up unneccessary and inflammatory conversation. Collin seems, as always, unimpressed, and today, he seems tired. Mal tries to take it in stride, especially when he's led through to the back of the house, where the horses are stamping enough dust to dim the sun, and Catriona, curly hair tied on top of her head, is perched on the outside of the fence.
Inside the ring, a woman Mal doesn't know is wrestling a horse.
At least, that's what it looks like. The horse seems a bit more alarmed by the situation than the woman does, as it's backed away and is standing, head lowered, eyes half-closed, as far away from the woman as possible. The woman stands hands-on-hips in the middle of the corral, with every symptom of a displeased parent.
"Told you," she says, to the horse, but Catriona laughs.
"Told you," she says, "took me three weeks just to get near him without getting bit, and that was knowing his moods."
"It ain't his moods that're bothering me," comes the answer. The stranger is tall and straight, with skin the colour of dark honey and curves like... Mal grins, despite himself, hiding it only because, as she stalks across the corral, slowly, she gives off signals that translate pretty clearly as "I can hurt you," and Mal is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She moves like a cat. This is something with which the horse takes issue, because he's looking nervous as she approaches him again, he's looking cautious, though less riled.
Mal sidles up to the fence and stands next to Riona, who tilts her head into the corral. "She's been at this for an hour," she says, "since breakfast. You're late," she adds, looking at him for the first time. She smiles the smile that Mal knows is meant to be come-hither, but comes off more little-girl, and every time she uses it comes out a little more disappointed. Now it's approaching resigned, and the next smile is just cheerful. "Father's been waiting. Got a job for you."
"So long as I don't have to fight her," Mal says, indicating the woman now stroking the surprised-looking horse along its long nose.
"Hah! You haven't got it in you," Riona tells him, "Zoe'd eat you alive."
"Don't doubt it," Mal agrees, with respect. "Zoe" is slipping the bridle slowly over the horse's ears, and finally turns to look at Riona in what must be triumph, but doesn't quite register on her whole face.
"All right, you win," calls Riona, and the horse gives a little back-kick that makes the fence shudder. Zoe cuts him loose and crosses the corral towards them. Mal takes a half-step away out of instinct as she jumps the fence and looks him up and down, inspecting. She nods a little before Riona speaks.
"Malcolm Reynolds," she says, "meet Zoe Helene. She'll be taking you to the unit."
"As a CO?" Mal can't help asking.
"As a colleague," Zoe says, steady and amused.
They shake hands.
Supper happens in the yard, on fat shabby cushions along a low table in the grass, and Simon sits next to Kaylee and doesn't say much beyond "pass the salt" and "thank you." They spent the afternoon neck-deep in lovely, hot, actual water, and he hasn't felt that content and almost dizzily happy in months - he thinks ever - but the moment they stepped back out among the other, he found himself nervous and uncertain again. Kaylee keeps sending him glances that are half brimming-over-fond and half worried, and squeezing his arm, his hand, his knee. But Kaylee is a social creature, and she's talking as she's touching him, and Simon can't help feeling left-out and an afterthought, even though he knows it's stupid. Kaylee doesn't have afterthoughts. For Kaylee, everything is important, is right now. It's one of the reasons he loves her so much.
And he does, he thinks, finding himself, as every time, deeply, freshly astonished at the idea. He is in love with Kaylee Frye. The magnitude of it escapes him, sometimes, but there it is. It is even more bewildering now, now that they are together, and in the thick of it, than it was when he was just aware of her from a distance and hating his awkwardness. He still hates his awkwardness.
This house makes him feel awkward. Even back when he was alive and a citizen, even when he knew all the steps and all the words and what the looks meant, by rote if not by instinct, he always felt a little like he was always having to keep dancing to keep up. Simon's not sure, by now, that he has any instincts. He wonders, sometimes, if things like that were left out when his genetic code was being written up. It always disconcerted him, at first, to be drawn to Kaylee, who has more than enough instinct for the both of them. Kaylee's never unsure about herself. She's rarely unsure. And it never brings her out in a cold sweat like it does Simon. He likes knowing.
It gives him a little comfort, though, to realise, gradually, that the Cromwells aren't all they seem to be, aristocratically, anyway. They're quite a few more things than they seem to be, in other ways. But Simon gathers that Colin and Catriona were taught manners in the opposite order from the way he and River were taught; last, as a necessity, rather than the very basis of everything, to be honoured above all else. Simon remembers wondering, as a boy, whether his mother ever did anything sincerely, or if she were merely a walking, talking, well-dressed frame for the manners she knew so expertly. "Manners," Simon thinks now, bitterly, were a distinctly euphemistic term for what they really were. Words for controlling people. Words for convincing yourself you felt differently than you did. Words for deciding your children mattered less to you than what your peers thought of you.
Simon fiercely reminds himself not to get angry, not now, because there's no reason, now. In fact, he thinks as he looks along the table to where River is seated, between Riona at the table's head, and Zoe, on her left. River is smiling, no, grinning, in that old intentionally manic way she used to when she was explaining something to Simon that she knew he'd hate. Her hands are moving, emphasising and shaping in the air, and her face is alive with the story. He can't hear what she's saying, but it makes him briefly, intensely happy to see River so animated, before the story ends and she drops her hands demurely to her lap, her face calm and distant again, but not so distant as a few weeks ago, or even this morning. She's getting better. She really is. It's amazing, and Simon can't quite believe, and doesn't want to, that any of it has to do with the red-haired woman smiling faintly at River's side as she picks apart a piece of bread with distracted fingers. It's ridiculous. That it seems to also be true is driving Simon crazy.
The captain hasn't spoken much throughout the meal, and he's sitting to Riona's left, chin in one hand, wearing the disturbingly thoughtful expression he usually wears before he suggests something that nearly gets them all killed. He's looking between Riona and River, and back to Riona, and over at Collin, two spaces to his right, past Jayne, and the expressions following one another across his face are starting to make Simon nervous.
But he pushes it back, because they're having a good meal, and Kaylee has just reached out to touch his arm, palm sliding down his rolled-up sleeve and warmly down his forearm, twining their fingers together without looking. And then she does look, she turns her head a little and smiles a little, and then she leans back from the table and left a little, into his shoulder.
When he realises he's threading the fingers of his left hand through her hair where it spills across his shoulder, he's surprised, because it isn't something he decided to do, or planned. It just came, like it was the right thing to do.