Somewhere deep inside her head is a place Riona does not remember building. She's fairly certain it's always been there, because she remembers being very little and sitting still, going there. It was the place she kept the thoughts she didn't want to remember, like the dark and slinky something she saw once in the eyes of the man her father called "Doctor" and let only grudgingly into their house, or feeling her mother die, thin and faint and hungry and far away. At that point, she thinks, the place was there, but her awareness of it and how to come and go with intention was still too young, as she was, to be useful. When she grew older, passed eight, it was the place that lit up like starlight, soft and slow, and stood steady even later when things changed and for a while she couldn't keep her head in order anymore.
By the time the war came, it was the place she found herself filing the things her father told her she must remember - no one else must ever know, and no one else would understand it, anyway, but she must remember. "Why" was never a question, because the memories were so strong and heavy and certain that to question them would have been unnatural. That particular word doesn't have much meaning, anymore, and yet whenever it crosses her mind she feels, for a moment, very sad.
For an hour after Mal and his crew leave she sits quiet and blind to the outside and stared at that place inside her head, wondering, for the first time in a long time, not why, but why now.
She feels, more than sees, Collin come back, stand in the doorway of the big room, casting a shadow across the table in front of her that's more or less, apparently, when she looks up, the colour of his mood.
"Don't," he says, holding up one hand when she takes a breath to speak. He comes and sits down where Mal was sitting, earlier, and stares at her. His eyes are hard and young and he never looks at anybody else that way, but he stopped bothering to hide it, with her, a long time ago, knowing there was no point. It took some effort on his part, she knows.
She lets him settle, lets him breathe, then says: "I know you saw it."
He takes a deep, measured breath. "What did I see?"
"You know what I'm talking about."
He meets her eyes, steady and patient, one eyebrow raised. "You're sure you didn't just want to see?"
She hates this mood. She's always hated this mood. When he wants his own way Collin sighs and calms down and makes her feel irrational, which makes her angry, enough to clout him good across the skull, and she goes to surge to her feet with clenched fists but she gets halfway there and her knee clenches, hard, painful, a small, ice-cold crack of pain that makes her gasp and clutch at it and fall, as the leg gives out, and she has to catch herself on the table, cursing.
Collin's up and steadying her before she can topple, and he says "Careful!" in an admonishing tone but when she glances at his face, still furious, he looks scared and ashamed. "Doctor Tam hasn't done with you, yet, remember?"
"I remember," she hisses, as he puts her back in her chair. "It's my leg."
He goes stiff, and as he straightens she sees she's gone, maybe, too far, but he just stands there, doesn't go away.
She gives him a savage look, because her leg hurts too much for her to feel charitable. "Not fair using your guilt to make me feel bad. Nor sane."
He stares at her a moment longer, surprised, processing, then looks down. Then he takes a careful step back, and kicks the table, hard, sending it skidding across the floor. She jumps, and he stands there, looking down.
"You didn't bring them here. They brought themselves. You are not responsible for--"
"Of course I'm responsible for you," he explodes, taking another step back as if he's not sure what he might do. "Of course I am. It is my job. It is the natural order of things. I am your brother. And I promised Father that I would--"
He stops. He's shaking. She feels a little worse, now, although is still not altogether convinced that she shouldn't hit him. When he sinks back down into his chair, she nudges hers a little closer, and she sighs at him. "I didn't know that," she says. "You never told me that."
He surprises her by chuckling. "Didn't think you'd want to know."
She considers him, his sagging shoulders, and the fact that she still wants to hit him, but the impulse is waning. "Father told me to look after you."
He dissolves. He laughs, low and harsh, for a long time. Then he looks up. "You know... what I mean."
She shakes her head. "No," she says. "You never told me. About those two years... you never told me anything."
He shrugs. "You never asked."
She doesn't shrug, but stares at him, knowing her face has gone smooth and cold and hating it: "Nor did you."
They stand looking at one another for - she's not sure how long, but long enough that she drops her eyes away, and she hears him shuffle.
Another endless period of time later, she hears him sigh, and mutter something about the perimeter, and shuffle on out of the room. She sighs, hard. She hates this. She knows he hates it, too.
It's just that neither of them is sure what to do about it, either.
Kaylee almost doesn't want to leave, after supper, but she doesn't mewl about it like River, who allows herself to be led back to the ship wearing a face that would curdle milk. When she lights up and ducks under Simon's arm to dash back the way they've come, it's Jayne who reaches out an arm and picks her up under the arms. He looks surprised at this himself, but Kaylee can only smother a giggle as the captain leans in and asks River, loudly, if she's going to behave, and Simon steps forward with his hands outstretched, hesitantly reaching for his sister. Simon goes stiff and worried, for a moment, and then Kaylee lays a hand on his arm and he sighs.
River kicks Jayne sharply in the shin and he drops her on her feet. She crosses her arms and follows, but doesn't try to run again.
Inara meets them at the hatch, hands clasped before her, looking rested and happier than she did this morning. She declined the invitation to supper with an odd look, and Kaylee thought that maybe Inara thought she'd be in the way, or out of place. It's an odd thing, because ever since Inara came back, she's been happy, but uncomfortable. Like she's not sure, anymore, where she fits. She covers it up well, but Kaylee notices. She's sure Mal notices too, though they both pretend it's not so.
River races suddenly up the stairs, completely ignoring the captain's warnings of grisly death, and goes on dancing down the catwalk until she disappears into the passenger dorms. Kaylee turns to look at Simon, and she can't read his face. That's nothing new, she reflects; she could never read Simon, not really. He's too good at keeping to himself. What she gleans from him has always been in what he doesn't say, doesn't do. Simon always says what he means, but he doesn't say much.
All the same, she thinks he's happy. His eyes follow River until she's out of sight, and his shoulders drop, a little, and she smiles.
"Sleepy?" she asks, suddenly very much the opposite.
He's half-listening to the captain outlining tomorrow morning, and he looks at her with some surprise, as if he's forgotten she was there, though she knows he hasn't. He just gets focused, and he misses things. She's always thought it was adorable, with the exception of when he says something stupid.
And right now he's doing something stupid. She changes strategies.
"River's doin' better, ain't she?"
He's wearing the look like he's been hit in the back of the head. He's been wearing it since supper. "Oh. Yes." He glances briefly up at the now-empty catwalk, and back to her. "I think so. It's strange."
"How's it strange?"
He sighs. "I don't know. I don't understand it. But she seems better than this morning. Not... not entirely, but better."
"Ain't that a good thing?"
He blinks at her. "Of course it is."
"Then why're you so sad?"
The others are drifting slowly out of the cargo bay, and Kaylee gives him a gentle tug in the direction of her quarters. He doesn't seem to notice, but his feet move. "I just feel like I should have.. done more. I don't know."
Kaylee shrugs, smiling at him. "You've done her plenty of good," she assures him. "But it's not like you coulda reached in and fiddled by yourself, right?"
He's quiet a moment, staring at nothing. He barely misses walking face-first into a bulkhead, and Kaylee steers him gently clear. "No," he says, eventually.
"Then can I suggest something?"
"Stop worryin' about it. At least for tonight."
She works her fingers under the collar of his shirt, delighting in how warm he is. Simon, for his part, seems to only now be realising that they're just outside the door to her quarters. Understanding is dawning, with great speed and a faint flush to his cheeks.
God, but she loves it when he blushes.
"I guess I can do that," he says, quietly.
"Can you?" She smiles, and opens the door.
The next day, Jayne takes Kaylee and the Tams back to the Cromwell house, acting begrudging but not, River knows, meaning a whiff of it. He lets her carry his spare sidearm, drilling her absently in its maintenance. He's thinking about whiskey and warm sun and buzzing bees and good food that evening. He's also thinking he doesn't know why he's coddling River, but doesn't care enough to prod it too much. River is thoroughly happy and a real girl for twenty-eight entire minutes, because Jayne calls her ni zi without rancor, and because Simon is only a little sad today, distracted by Kaylee, who keeps creeping her fingers up the back of his neck and giggling.
The streets and the trees and the others have a funny glow to them, this morning, and in between speaking, she wonders about that. It's been coming a while, nearly a week, in degrees, and now it's full-on and flowing. She's not sure how much of it is what she's rebuilding and how much is the drugs in her system finally fading away to nothing; Simon's stopped giving her medicines except ones to sleep, sometimes, when she can't. There are other things coming back that she remembers from before, and it's all bright and strange and welcome. Experimentally, she lets down the shimmering thin wall she has been building since yesterday and looks out.
She drags it back up quickly. Too soon. But she only stumbles a little, and nobody notices.
Stupid, she thinks. That was stupid.
River comes up short. What was that?
She pauses, and looks around. No, nothing there. Not a face, not a move, not a sound. Just a sense, that's passing quickly, that there was something of note that shouldn't be there.
Simon and Kaylee stumble into her, then, and Jayne turns around, looking annoyed, but only a little. "What's got you starin', moonbrain?" he asks.
River sticks out her tongue, raises her chin, and walks on past him through the warm yellow morning.
Mal reflects that one of the main improvements over Inara's return is that now, when he walks into her shuttle unannounced, she doesn't threaten to kill him.
She still looks startled every time he does it, but more often than not, she makes him tea, and they sit and talk, and nobody's particularly awkward, and he likes it.
Well; it's still a little awkward, but it's less.
Today, it's a little awkward, but it's not him, he's fairly sure. Inara's tetchy, in a way, keeps looking at him like she's surprised he's still there, and at least once she's actually dropped something. He's never seen her drop anything before. Finally, he can't take it anymore, her forcing her own grace.
He catches her arm halfway between one motion and the next, gently. "Okay, what's the matter?"
She looks frowningly down at his hand. "Hm?"
"You're all..." He waves the other hand as if the gesture can encompass her uneasiness. "What for?"
She lowers her arm into her lap, and he lets go. "I don't know what you mean."
Mal sets down his cup, and leans forward on his knees. "Sure you do."
Her frown deepens, dark eyes focused on the bamboo whisk in her hand. "I think I may have preferred it when you were just obstinate and dense," she says.
It's odd, but he thinks she may have meant that as a compliment.
"You gonna tell me what's wrong, or not?"
She sets down what she's holding, and folds her hands, and Mal starts to heat up, because this is what she does when she's going Companion and shutting him out.
"Don't do that," he says quickly, quietly. "C'mon."
She sighs. "I'm sorry. I'm feeling..."
She looks at him. "I'm feeling unaccustomed to unburdening myself on others," she admits, half-smiling.
He smiles back. "Don't suppose it's come up much, doin' what you do."
She's still a moment, searching his face, and he knows what she's thinking; she's trying to work out whether he was implying anything she doesn't like, just then. But she seems to decide he wasn't, because she relaxes, a trifle, and shakes her head.
"We're given a truly exhaustive amount of training in regards to... to understanding our own mental state," she tells him, looking down at her hands, "but that training only extends to situations within the profession. They don't cover... other uncertainties."
Mal knows she means him, and for some reason that pleases him. Some suicidal impulse, though, inspires him to ask what he's been wondering for weeks anyway.
"You talked to any of your sisters 'bout this?" After the broadcast, and the ensuing craziness, she hung about the ship for three weeks, and then went away for six days without a word. He's been wondering how she's managing her rent, and choosing not to ask - something he's managed only through firmly reminding himself that he'll end up thoroughly miserable again if he says something stupid.
"I have," she admits, to his surprise, but before he can wonder, adds: "I've been thinking about withdrawing my vows."
He has to take a moment to process that, and what it means, but the particulars are still a little beyond him, so he settles for saying: "Huh?"
She smiles, closing her eyes patiently. "If I did that, I would no longer be a Companion."
"Oh." It's funny, because he's thought about this before, about if or when they eventually quit tripping over each other and got down to talking about things. There've been moments where he's had himself almost convinced he'd never ask her to do that. But he's always known he'd never be happy unless she did. Which makes him feel all kinds of selfish, but he can't seem to talk himself out of hoping, even if only in the very back of his waking mind.
She must have spied his thoughts in his face, because she frowns at him, the expression a little bit hurt, but she doesn't say anything. He knows her philosophy, she's drummed it into him enough times, and he even looked it up once, furtively. He knows she believes in it, and that it hurts her that he's said some of the things that he's said, out of anger or jealousy, whether she'll admit it or no. She's quiet a while.
Then: "I'm not sure what else I'd do."
It's a loaded phrase. Mal actually feels the hair stand up on the back of his neck. And then a miracle happens, because some better angel of his nature takes a firm hold on his first impulse, and for his own good makes him blurt: "You could set it aside for a while. It ain't a matter of life and death, is it?" It sounds a little choked by the end, and he marvels that this woman is the first to have done that to him since he was twenty-three. "Come to supper tonight," he says. "We've been missing you, last few days."
Her face is warmer, then, and he summons up a smile he hopes is charming. He's hardly ever had to remember these things; somehow it's never him that does the wooing, which is an item of perpetual wonder for him (and, apparently, to Zoe).
But she still doesn't look sure. "I wouldn't want to intrude," she says. "I know they're old friends."
"Go se," he says, dismissively. "They ain't ever met our fugitives before, and they like 'em fine. And you're a fair sight better at gettin' along with folks than the doc. You'll like 'em. They've got proper manners and all. Usually." He thinks both Collin and Riona are smart enough to play nice and keep from teasing if they know it's needful. He's beginning to think Inara's actually worried what they might think of her, but this is so outside his understanding he tries to focus on getting her out among people for just one night. At least a good meal might cheer her up.
She purses her lips, and this time he can't read her face, not even a little. "If you're certain I'd be welcome..."
"I'm certain," he assures her, relieved. She nods, smiling, and goes to pour herself more tea. But he catches her still fumbling, and then he's lost all over again.
It's hopeless, he thinks. He just doesn't understand this woman. He hopes it counts that he's trying.
Kaylee is surprised when Inara strides into the room, clothes plainer than her usual, and radiating fury. She's less surprised when she impresses Simon with the need to go away, quickly, and then asks Kaylee if they can talk.
Simon's understanding, and goes to investigate the Cromwells' library, and fades conveniently out of earshot as Kaylee smiles knowingly up at the older woman and asks: "What's he done now?"
"That. Man," grates Inara, sitting only slightly less gracefully down in a chair facing Kaylee.
"Cap'n said somethin' stupid again?" Kaylee asks, sympathetic.
"He doesn't even listen to his own voice!" says Inara, "let alone other people! I tried to tell him I'm thinking of leaving the temple, and he changed the subject as though I were suggesting major surgery!"
Inara is fuming, but Kaylee can't hide her excitement. "Do this mean you're staying?"
Gradually, Inara deflates, and leans back in her chair. "I'd like to," she admits. "I meant what I said. But it's difficult to make decisions that affect both of us, when Mal won't even admit they do."
Kaylee reaches out to pat Inara's arm. "Aw, 'Nara, it ain't all his fault. He just ain't good with talkin' about things. And you're so practiced at it... I bet he feels like he's no match for you." She gives a sage, slow nod. "In more ways'n one, I bet."
Inara sighs. "I don't doubt a great deal of this is alarming to him. But it's as frightening for me, and I'm the one considering giving up twenty years of discipline, and to--" She shuts her mouth abruptly, and actually - Kaylee thinks she's imagining it for a moment - actually wipes a tear from the corner of her eye. Kaylee automatically rises to her knees and puts her arms 'round Inara's shoulders.
"Don't cry," she says, then pulls back and tilts her head to one side. "You ain't ever done this before. And the cap'n makes things... hard."
"That's an understatement," mutters Inara, calmer now. "I have spent most of my life reading moods and motives, but of all men, Mal Reynolds leaves me at a loss. He doesn't explain himself, and he doesn't give himself away, and yet somehow I feel..."
She trails off. Kaylee grins at her. "I know what you mean," she says. "Simon sure took me by surprise." She leans back, warm all over just at the thought.
When she looks up again, Inara is smiling, in that faint, distant way she has, and Kaylee feels better, like she's helped, some.
"Do you know," says Inara then, with a sly look, "the first night the Shephard was on the ship, he asked me why I found Mal so fascinating."
"Shepherd probably noticed right away," says Kaylee. "He was good at that. Never said anything, though." She tilts her head to one side, and asks: "What'd you say?"
Inara is, then, far-off again, but still smiling. "I think I said: 'Because so few men are.'"
Mal is enjoying the peace and quiet of a long afternoon. It's been a while since he's spent a whole day doing nothing but sitting back and drinking with leisure, with nothing to look forward to but the next watch change, because they might be on vacation but they ain't stupid. They've got the back windows open in the big windowed room, and the floor's covered in pools of coloured light, and Mal can hear bees and birds and River arguing with Riona a few rooms down. It's oddly pleasant, though he knows it won't last long.
Zoe, who is sitting in the other half-collapsed armchair, is bored. She's sitting back with one arm across her middle, and her eyes are half-closed, and to anyone else she'd seem to be lounging, but Mal knows better. She doesn't look bored - Zoe rarely looks anything aside from intimidating - but lately she's been minding anything that didn't provide violent distraction from too much thinking.
Mal gets that.
Presently Mal himself gets tired of the sun in his eyes, and nudges his chair back a little, as Zoe says: "So tomorrow then, sir?"
Mal doesn't look at her, but suspects she's not even turned her head. "I suppose," he says. "I gather our little albatross is makin' good progress. I'll ask Riona when they come out."
"Sounds good, sir."
A scuffling and cursing from the hall makes them look up, and see Jayne staggering in, half-supporting Collin, who seems to be fading in and out.
"The hell happened?" asks Mal, as Zoe rises automatically to her feet. "You two have a scuffle?" Mal's surprised, because he can't think of a time when Collin's said anything dumb enough on purpose to actually get anybody to hit him - except his sister, who also attracted most of the hitting. But Collin's got a bruise rising on his right cheek, clear as day.
"Naw!" says Jayne, actually summoning up something like indignance. "We was checkin' the yard, and all of a sudden he went stiff and stopped talkin'. Then he turned all white and went down 'fore I could catch him." He resettles Collin's arm over his shoulder. "You mind? He ain't exactly a bag of feathers."
Zoe hurries to help Jayne set Collin down in a chair, leaning down to inspect the bruise. "It don't look serious," she says, as Collin stirs, but doesn't open his eyes.
"He just passed out?" asks Mal, dubiously.
"Like somebody smacked him with a board," confirms Jayne, scratching the back of his head and actually looking vaguely worried. "Strangest thing. Looked out into the yard, went stiff, fell over."
Mal looks up at the same moment as Zoe, and finds his first mate wearing what he's feeling. "Watch the hall, Jayne," he says to the mercenary, and turns back to Zoe.
As one, they head for the front of the house.
Mal's standing, uneasy, in the doorway one second and the next, there are two Feds pacing up the walk, and it takes Mal three breaths to wonder whether Collin remembered to re-activate the mines, a question that's answered when the Feds make it halfway into the yard without getting blown to wet pink mist - a look Mal's always thought looked good on Feds.
He sees the older one's hand moving, sees the astonishment in the other one's face, and he's rolling one way while Zoe rolls the other, and they end up side-by-side behind the low stone wall bordering the garden.
"Captain Reynolds," says the older Fed, "you can't hide back there forever."
Mal risks a peek up over the edge of the wall, while Zoe spins her gun and checks the chambers. "Don't know what you mean, fellas," he calls back, "just felt like a spate of gardening." To Zoe, he hisses: "How the hell'd they find us? I thought we lost 'em last week!"
"No idea, sir," she says, calmly clicking the barrel back into place. "They seem to be getting smarter."
"I will not hear talk like that," says Mal, ducking back down.
"Captain Reynolds," says the Fed again, "if you won't come out, I'm going to start shooting."
"You're gonna do that whether I come out or not," shouts Mal, and levers himself up just enough to set his gunbarrel on the top of the wall and sight along it. Zoe is doing the same, and he courteously inclines his head in her direction. "Go ahead," he says. Zoe smiles, and fires.
There's something slightly chilling about the serene face Zoe's wearing as she sights, and fires again. He joins in for a minute or so before they both have to duck down to reload. When they get up again it isn't for long, because the Feds have pulled out repeaters.
Mal doesn't have a lot to do with the fact that he throws himself face-down in the dirt. It's reflex by this point, and he turns his head to see that Zoe, under a shower of mortar flecking off the top of the wall where bullets are looking for them, has done the same, and is now looking faintly - but only faintly - annoyed.
They've had a long enough conversation in a few seconds, by head-jerks and subtle movements of the eyebrows, to conclude that they're going to need to return fire pretty soon, before those repeaters let the Feds get within reaching distance. But just as they're both levered up onto their elbows, there's a new sound.
It's not an altogether unwelcome sound, as it comes from the other end of the yard, on the other side of the Feds. It sounds like help coming - as they sound to be shooting at the Feds, and who else would do that? - but Mal does some quick math in his head and realises that all his crew who are comfortable with weapons are safe and useless in the house behind him. The Feds have turned, and are shooting the other way.
And then it occurs to him - who else they know who might shoot Feds to get around them. Mal finds himself slowly filling with cold terror, and it takes him almost three seconds to muster up the strength to look over the wall.
He gets his eyes level with the scene as the older Fed gets it, jerks hard and sudden and then falls, and then the other, raising his gun not quite all the way, spinning a little before planting his face in the garden not three feet from Mal's knee.
Mal looks up. The man gently dislodging the older Fed from his boot looks clean, and calm, and strangely familiar.
That's the last thing Mal manages to think before his head droops and everything goes dark.
Simon's reading, in the lightest quiet he's known in a year, from an honest-to-god book. It's a good book; a treatise about the early hydroponic efforts on Persephone. The author has gone into great florid detail about how the terraformers took stretches of useles swampland and turned it into vibrant farmland. But this book was written about ninety years ago, and Simon can't help but smile when he thinks of how quickly that "vibrant farmland" has been retaken by the swamp, which is pretty in its own right, full of water and colour and shine. He's just getting into the next chapter, which is outlining the original boundaries of the first city on the planet and how this impacted trade, when River comes running in, barefoot and silent but radiating panic in a way Simon can't quite quantify. He looks up, and she crosses the library in a bound, and seizes his arm.
"Folded up," she says, urgently, "folded up and over. Come help."
Simon has gotten enough used to River's rapidly shifting degrees of cogency that he doesn't try to understand what she means - she's irrational, maybe, but there's ummistakable urgency and a hard burn of knowing exactly what she's saying even if he doesn't - anyway, she's scared, not confused, he thinks, and that's enough to get him up out of his chair and moving before he has a chance to think about it much.
"What's wrong?" he asks, probably uselessly, as River tows him briskly down the hallway towards the little room where they've been 'practicing' - Simon's taken to thinking of it as a study. From here he can see the door's half-open, and something about that bothers him.
River shakes her head and doesn't look back at him. "Shook her head, said 'not now,' and then twisted up. Fell over, Simon."
Well, "fell over" is clear enough, but who, and why...?
They burst through the doorway into the little room, and Simon has only a half-second to register the strange, muffled feeling about the space before he sees what has River so scared - Riona Cromwell is slumped over in her chair, eyes closed, and face white as paper.
He's sure she's not sleeping, but unconscious. Simon checks for a pulse, checks for injury, and finds nothing to explain why she might have just "folded up," as River said. He turns to his sister, who is perched on the very edge of the other chair. "River, did she hit her head? Did she eat something?"
River shakes her head, with the expression that has always meant "no, stupid," and says: "Inside. Pinched in and twisted and she fell over."
Simon stares at her, and then-- gunshots.
River lets loose a little scream, quiet and sudden, and claps her hands over her mouth, and before Simon can stop her or even move, she's up and moving, bent low to the ground but so quick that she's there one second and the next, Simon's alone in the little room and hears the corridor outside echoing with distant bullet-strikes.
He thinks passingly that River didn't see this one coming. After that, he doesn't know what else to do, so he gives a last look at Riona and heart pounding, follows.
He reaches the corridor turning the corner to the foyer, and a hand reaches out and snags him back into the shadows. Simon looks up, at the same time trying to pry fingers loose from his collar, and is met with a friendly scowl from Jayne, if such a thing can be said to exist. He looks excited, and indeed he's spinning the chamber on his favourite sidearm, and elbows Simon past him with a wide, bloodthirsty grin. "Better keep back, Doc," he says, and Simon falls back against the wall mostly surprised that Jayne is being, for Jayne, so pleasant. But the moment passes again, and he listens.
Beyond him is Kaylee, who is sitting still with her hands over her ears and her eyes tight shut. He asks: "Are you--"
"'Mokay," she says, only starting a little when the next shot sounds. "Just lemme know when it's over."
Simon sits back against the wall. He's the last to call himself an authority, but it sounds like they're the ones shooting. He can hear voices from outside, nearer the street than the house, it sounds like, but they're none of the Serenity's crew, and they're not the Cromwells. The shooting's not constant, but then he hears Mal's voice, warning, and then a moment, and then another shot, muffledlike it's hit the grass. Simon reflects he's been spending too much time listening to River.
"What's happening?" he asks finally, ducking instinctively as there's another shot, this one louder, he thinks from Zoe's gun, as it's tinnier. God, he's been paying far too much attention to guns, too.
Jayne clicks the barrel back into place and peers around the corner. "Sounds to me like there're some unwelcome guests."
"You don't know?"
Jayne shrugs, not looking at him. "Cap'n jus' told me to guard the door, an' ya don't do that from any closer'n this." Then he looks at Simon. "Where's the ni zi?"
"I-- she was--" Simon rockets to his feet. "She raced right out when the shooting started--" He's cut off as Jayne reaches up easily and pulls him back down.
"No point goin' lookin' now," Jayne points out, gruffly reasonable, "and gettin' yourself shot."
"She's like as anythin' holed up in a corner someplace," Jayne goes on, and then rises to his knees and raises his gun. "Now shut up, okay?"
Simon hears the front door creak open, and knows the sound is coming before it comes, but a second too late, and then the corridor is filled with sound and gunpowder and he can't hear or see.
Kaylee has planned to ride this gunfight out with her eyes closed, and not open them 'til it's over, but when it goes quiet, she has an uneasiness, so she looks, and sees Simon moving.
It's so odd that she can't react for a moment, and by then Simon's standing, taking two steps, then three, and she jerks sideways to see even Jayne's looking up at him in astonishment as he easily sidesteps the mercenary's reaching hand and steps out into the hallway in full view of the door. Kaylee feels her stomach drop away into nothing, because suddenly she's very sure, and the look on Jayne's face makes her even surer, that the person standing in the door is not one of them.
Simon's straining - she can see it in the muscles of his throat, and the colour of his face - he's straining against moving, like he's being pulled. Kaylee draws a breath to scream, imagining the next second full of her own voice and the awful tearing-air noise of gunshots, and sees Jayne getting up on one knee - either to shoot first or to knock Simon out of the way, she's not sure - but then, nothing happens.
Nothing at all, no sound, not even from outside, just the distant shuffle of bootsoles from around the corner, where she can't see, and the hiss of a drawn breath - she thinks from Simon - and then Simon goes chalk-white and folds up like a damp kite.
Kaylee looks from Simon and up into the darkness beyond, and sees River, peering 'round the corner with a dark look like she's ready to kill someone, barehanded.
There's another soft noise, like a body hitting the floor, but not quite, and River smiles.
Simon is still unconscious, River says not sleeping, but unconscious, when they finally get the yard cleaned up and the crew back inside the house. He's heavier than he looks, too, according to Jayne, who reluctantly hefts the boy over one shoulder and carries him in. He's laid out in the big back room, pale and breathing shallow and slow, and Kaylee can't stop crying, on and off, silently but with the occasional hiccupping sound. Mal is boiling mad and pacing the room, and he can't decide who to be mad at, and that only makes him madder.
There are three men dead, two Feds and the other a man in plain dark clothes that worry Mal more for how nondescript they are, the sort to bend away the eye. That man's not bloody, but soft, like every hinge in him has come loose. It's unsettling, to say the least.
"Nobody home." River is standing with her chin on her arms along the back of the sofa, looking down at Simon almost warily. Every so often she narrows her eyes and reaches out one long hand to touch her brother on the cheek, on the forehead, gently and probingly. Mal finds this disturbing, but no more than usual.
He really wants to hit something.
Unfortunately, there's nothing convenient. Kaylee, Simon and River are all disqualified, Zoe'd hit him back and Jayne's guarding the front door. That'd just be counterproductive.
Zoe and Collin come in, then, both looking stony and worried. Collin looks annoyed, on top of that: Mal thinks he's mostly mad he slept through the whole thing, though both him and Riona seem all right, now. Zoe hands him something shiny. "You might want to take a look at this, sir," she says. We found it on the body of the one who shot the Feds."
Mal looks. It's metal, a flat round disc of what looks like gold. It's got a pin on the back, and Mal thinks it looks like it's meant to be worn on the collar. It bears a striking resemblance to the ranking pips that Alliance Feds wear, except those are silver. This one's gold, and a little bigger, and has something stamped into it that looks like nothing else so much as the inside of an apple, sliced down the middle.
He's just about to ask what the hell it is, when it's snatched out of his hands. He looks up, and River is standing not two feet away, squinting down at it with dark intensity.
"Hey, what're you--" Mal starts reaching out to snatch it back, but River bats his hand aside without looking.
"Quiet," she says, absently, "thinking."
"Now just hang on one gorram--" is all he gets out, before she turns and strides quickly from the room.
A few beats pass, and then he looks around at the puzzled faces of his crew. "What the hell was that?"
There is a venerable old tree behind the Cromwell house, which seems to take precedence over the house itself. It is half-again taller than the second storey, and at some point in the past it has sent half its bulk right up through the foot-thick stone wall that surrounds the property. It is bent and twisted and has a vaguely sinister look. It is crowned with bright green leaves and has branches hanging down to just a little above River's head. There is a jewel-red apple suspended right in front of her face. River stands looking up through the branches with her eyes wide, and tries to remember.
It's hard. Ever since Miranda, her thoughts are tamer but still confused, and some things that lived at the very forefront before are now tucked away deep where she must struggle to bring them up. Things she saw, unwilling, before, when bits of her were in a constant whirl of avoiding the knowledge of Miranda, when she couldn't help but see, sounds and faces and smells, are buried behind the everyday parts, the things the small solid part of her have decided, for whatever reason, are more important. So now, looking up, the hard bit of metal safe in her right hand, she feels like she is digging her fingers into sand for something that keeps getting lost as she reaches, slipping deeper or left or right.
She looks down at the little glimmer of gold in her hands. Apple, she thinks, apple, apple, apple. Apple dumpling. Apple drop. Apple cider. Apple of my eye. Apple pie in the sky. She is trying to rifle through everything to do with the image, hoping something will trip and she'll be able to find it that way. She knows it's in there, she can feel it, but it's being stubborn.
"Pay attention," she says aloud, looking up once more. In the space between the branches, she sees the streak of a wake, a big ship's fiery tail as it noses down through the atmo.
"Apple seeds," she murmurs, and sticks her thumb in her mouth, because that did it, and it's there. She's sad all over again. She closes her eyes.
Zoe says Simon's not hurt, just out, so Kaylee ignores them all and arranges herself behind him, stroking his hair. Watching her for a few minutes, still sad and scared but not crying anymore, makes Mal angry enough that he rounds on Riona, who's leaning against the far wall, the fingers of one hand fisted in the sleeve of the other arm. He speaks as low as he can, but it comes out a grating whisper.
"You said she was safe. And now there's three bodies need burying." That it comes out accusing is odd, but feels about right, if only out of habit.
She looks at him, with some surprise. "It wasn't River, Mal," she tells him.
He starts to ask why, but follows her line of sight, and lights on the other Tam, lying half in Kaylee's lap. With rising temper, he abandons all pretence to decorum and grabs her by the arm, all but dragging her into the next room.
She's surprised, and clutches at his shoulder, because he's knocked her off balance, but Collin, against the other wall with his arms crossed, doesn't even move. Mal puts her down solidly in her chair before the little round table and shuts the door, and the voices of his crew, outside.
"You'd better explain just how the gorram hell you figured on keepin' something like this from me."
"I wasn't sure, until--"
"Go se. I saw the look you gave that boy the second he walked into this house. You think you're so damned clever, don't you? Just not clever enough to keep from meddlin' in people's lives."
"I didn't mean-- Mal, it's complicated."
"Uncomplicate it." His tone is cold, and she's gone white, which makes him think maybe even she didn't know just how much Simon was hiding.
She makes a show of smoothing her tunic, hands shaking a little. Then she clasps them in her lap.
"Power like that doesn't come from nowhere," she tells him.
He shakes his head. "What's that mean?"
"It means they couldn't've made her psychic unless it was already in her." Her voice is a little rough, and he can see he's scared her. He's sorry for that, but more angry than sorry.
When Mal only stares, she adds: "And that sort of talent tends to run in families."
At that, despite everything, Mal gives her a skeptical look. "I'll grant you the two of them've both got an uncommon amount of brains, but do you mean to tell me that..." As he trails off, she nods, slowly.
"Boy won't even laugh at a dirty joke without three bottles of sake in him. You're telling me that with that stick up his pigu he's readin' our ruttin'--"
"No," she says, cutting him off. "I don't think he can - and that repression he totes about is probably the reason why. But I've no doubt that it's in him. You never noticed how his whole manner changes when he's doctoring?"
Mal pauses, mildly surprised. "I've noticed. Even his tone of voice. Even his posture."
Riona nods. "It's the only time I saw his shields slip, even a little."
"I doubt he even knows he does it. But if I'm any judge, he's been doing it a mighty long time."
Mal is silent a moment, considering. "Explains a lot." He leans forward, slowly. "But it don't explain why you kept it to yourself."
She picks at an invisible thread on her clothing and looks uncomfortable, but earnest. Finally, she says: "I told you most people born with the talent... they don't tend to handle it well."
"You did," he nods.
"Well, that's mostly due to no one knowing how to train it. A lot of the really powerful ones come sudden, and most folks don't know enough to even recognise it, even if it is passed down. The bulk of them are just crazy, from very young. Most people can't tell the difference. Maybe one family in a hundred knows how to tell between madness and the sight, and most of those have a talent that's middling and gentle. Nothing like what River's got. Nothing at all like her brother."
"Or you," says Mal.
"There's almost none like us," she agrees, without boasting. "Point is, the little talents can be ignored, or mostly. They don't take you over, they don't have a mind of their own. They don't reach out and work without you when you're pressed."
"And the other kind?"
She casts an uneasy glance over his head, at the closed door. "Neither of them has got a small talent."
"What kind have they got?"
Again, Riona looks uncomfortable, though not so much in the sense of needing to say something awkward. Her expression is more like that of someone trying to explain the colour of the sky to a man born blind. All of a sudden Mal feels as if a great distance has grown up between them, the same distance that he's always felt was there, but mostly could ignore, as it's not something she ever mentions. But it's a notable quality in why the Cromwells have always been... different. Mal has no other way of describing it, no other words. Different. Set apart, maybe.
Mal feels tired, again. He's sure he didn't look this careful into people before the war, maybe as he never needed to. Before the Cromwells, maybe, and sometimes that makes him angry.
"Sure wish you'd just say what you're twisting 'round in your head, but I expect you're going to do whatever your own way, regardless, so I'm gonna take a nap, here," he finally says, settling further down into the chair and resting his chin on one hand. His eyes are almost closed when he feels her shift, and the whole room changes.
The first time Mal ever met Mortimer Cromwell, he was twenty-something, and skinny, and the first thought that entered his mind - the last thought for some time after - was that Mortimer Cromwell was twelve feet tall, blocking out the sun. The impression his daughter gives isn't exactly imposing, but it's equally powerful, like she's exerting more gravity than her mass should allow. The queer thing is that she doesn't really move, much, except raise her chin, a little. But when he looks her in the eye, he can only think one thing.
He's sorry he asked.
One would think he'd have learned his lesson, by now.
"Most people," she says, "have something that takes over when it needs to. Keeps you from being scared. Makes you protect yourself. Usually it comes for a moment and goes away when it's over. It's the same with a talent."
"Anybody ever been on a line knows that," he says, nodding. "Can't think about dyin' when you're tryin' to keep yourself alive. You can end up doin' things you wouldn't've done in your right mind." The ominous tone creeps in without his meaning it to, and he suddenly looks at her.
"Are we talkin' berzerkers, here?"
"I'm... I'm not sure, Mal."
"Is this a brand-new timebomb I've gotta worry about? I need to know these things--"
"I don't know, Mal!" she says, frustrated. "I'd be willing to lay money he's been kept from knowing he can do it, somehow. He's never known, and his first reaction to not knowing is to pull away. He's got it so well blocked that if I'd brought it up... I was worried he'd send it even deeper. That happens, sometimes."
"Wouldn't that be safer?"
"That would be anything but safer," she says, and gets to her feet. "If he pushed it deep enough, he'd never be able to control it. It could come out on its own, and have a life of its own."
She falls back into her chair, with a huff. "There are a lot of things that come out under stress. But in him, under stress he pushes it deeper, and looks to the outside, to things he knows how to do himself. When he's sure of himself, he uses it without knowing. It's the reverse of how it generally happens, but it does happen."
Mal is cold all over, suddenly, as he comes to understand. "And you think that if he pushes it too deep, it could come out on the other side."
She bites her lower lip. "Stronger than ever and far out of reach."
"Gorram it, girl!" he says, flinging out his hands, "that's all the more reason to have told me! I've had more'n enough of people on my ship can do harm without thinking!"
"I know. I'm sorry," she says, and looks genuinely contrite. "I thought he could be eased into it. I didn't expect another armed attack and exactly the wrong stimulus to come up." She frowns. "Not so soon, anyway."
"So what do we do?" he asks, after a moment.
She shrugs. "He's your crew, Mal," she says. "I think that's up to you."
River remembers that on Haven, before the battle, the Shepherd comes while the others are eating. She can feel them, faintly, at a distance, along a table, talking, laughing, being sane. Book murmurs quietly outside the door to Zoe, and then the door creaks open, and shut again.
"Shouldn't be here," says River loudly, before he can speak. "Dangerous. Keep her locked up."
Book arranges himself on the floor, awkwardly and with joints River can hear creaking. "You are locked up, River," he says, calmly but carefully. He's unsure, and River wishes he would go away and send Jayne. Jayne's easier. He says what he thinks. There are no layers, only what is. He is comforting, even if he doesn't think so. The Shepherd is worried and feels flushed pink.
"I thought you might like to talk to someone," he goes on, and laces his fingers together in a gesture he thinks is calming. "It's what I do, you know."
She has been staring at the wall next to his knee, and now she sits up, sinuous and efficient, and mimics his posture, leaning forward a little. "Credit for the effort," she says, gravely, "but lies to himself."
"No, River," he says, brow furrowed. "I know there's not much I can do, but I am bound to try."
She shakes her head, frustrated. He doesn't understand. He's not as clear to himself as she sees him. "You heard she'd broken, and you thought you had failed again."
He looks confused for a moment, and then he goes abruptly pale. "You saw that... from me?"
River nods, and starts to cry. "Didn't mean to. Can't help it."
He clears his throat. "It's... it's all right," he says, tentatively patting her arm.
He withdraws the hand, and sits there, looking at her, as she calms a little and the tears stop. "If I may ask," he says, slowly, "when did you know?" He's still shaken, but no longer surprised.
She sniffles, wiping her eyes. "I don't give a hump if you're innocent or not," she grumbles, in what she considers a creditable imitation of him. He looks lost, so she adds: "Ariel. And then, when we stormed the fortress. You remembered learning war when Zoe questioned you."
"You saw all that?" he asks, a little wonderingly. "Behind a few words?"
"Flashes and blips," she says. She chews on a thumbnail. "Probably knew all along, but couldn't say. Meant nothing by it."
She can see he wonders if she means him or herself, and thinking on it, she's not certain, either, but it applies both ways.
"We made a mistake, River," he tells her, sadly, and full of bright shame. "We meant to do good. Can you see that?"
She smiles at him. "Don't fret." She lets the smile fade, in a way he seems to find unsettling.
He is fretful, all the same. He thinks it is brittle and unsteady and that he has blundered. He thinks his father would be ashamed. He remembers being hopeful and angry at once.
"Your father told you," she says, softly, eyes fixed steadily on his face. "Had to keep looking, had to find them, had to watch for when they came. Little lights, little white shoots crawling through the dirt. You saw her and you saw the fruit heavy on the branch."
"River," he says, his voice suddenly tight and nervous, but radiating awe at how close she's come, "do you remember what they gave you?"
"It's very important," she says, seriously. "You thought it was the apple, it's red, but it's not an apple at all."
"Do you understand what they were looking for?" He is suddenly terrified of someone coming in and hearing. But he's surprised when River suddenly reaches out and strokes his cheek, gently, a sad smile on her face.
"You didn't mean it," she says, "it wasn't your fault. You thought it would save us."
He hangs his head, and leans back against the wall, heavily.
"Yes," he says. "We did believe that." He looks at her, staring at her own hand, hovering in mid-air where she was touching him. "I still do. I do believe that men were better, had further to fall, when we had a bond with our makers, whoever they were. But this..." He closes his eyes. "...this was a mistake. This was not meant to happen. You understand that, don't you, River?"
"Poor bedfellows. She understands," she says, again, small and serious, and stares at him again until he opens his eyes. "You were seeking not the apple, but the tree."
The root of all things. He nods. And the next thought, she voices before he can.
"It was not the Tree of Knowledge," she says, as if whispering a secret, "and it never was."