The Little Life and the Great River

By Chandri MacLeod

Fandom: Firefly/Serenity
Rating: R
Pairing: Simon/Kaylee, Jayne/River, Mal/Inara, Mal/other
Categories: drama, conspiracy
Warnings: uh, violence?
Summary: A month after Miranda, River is trying to put the pieces of her mind back together, and Mal decides to look up some old friends who might help. But what they find is a conspiracy, and that the reasons River was made are deeper than anyone dreamed.
Spoilers: Everything
Disclaimer: All recognisable characters/locales property of Joss Whedon. Original characters and concepts mine.
Author's Note: incomplete!

Chapter One: Puddles of Light | Chapter Two: Tea and China
Chapter Three: Heartflow | Chapter Four: Apple | Chapter Five: Order and Law

Chapter One: Puddles of Light

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-go se 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.

Chapter Two: Tea and China

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 Kaylee, 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."

Kaylee smiles.

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 substantial, 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.

Chapter Three: Heartflow

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 doesn't need to explain what she means; it's implied.

"What sort of stories?" Mal asks, 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."

"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."

She nods.


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."

"Why not?"

"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 Kaylee 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. Under different circumstances, Mal might have been receptive to it - a clever, willing, pretty girl's not something he's in the habit of turning down - but he's got his mind on other things.

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 recommending 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 Alleyne. 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 others, 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 Collin 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 right, 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.

Chapter Four: Apple

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 stares 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 pouts, 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 if 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 Shepherd 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 hit 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 truest 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: "They got 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 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, muffled like 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."

"But she's--"

"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 skyplex. 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."

Chapter Five: Order and Law

That it's River who comes and tells them that the Shepherd wasn't a Shepherd is not what's strange about that evening - although River so calm and level-like comes as a bit of a shock to most of them. The only members of Serenity's crew who don't do a double-take are Kaylee and Jayne. Mal supposes that's telling.

But River walks up to him, and looks him in the eye, and says: "We mustn't stay." And in his head Mal's agreeing before he answers.

"And why's that, li'l albatross?" is what he asks, because he wonders how close her reasons are to his own.

She holds up a glitter of gold that he recognises as the pin they took off the dead man.

"Because there will be more," says River, "and because they have faith."


Because they suspect the house is being watched, and because they want to give the impression that there are definitely not three corpses buried in the yard, supper goes on as planned, but crowded 'round the kitchen table and with a greater tension than the evening before. A light rain starts pattering down on the roof, giving them an excuse for giving up the peaceful shade of the yard, and by the time they sit down to eat has levelled out into a steady, drumming rain, so that River, who has been sent out, again, for vegetables - this time with Kaylee and Inara as company - tucks into her supper with her hair straggling wet into her eyes.

There is talk over the table, but not much, and what there is is a low murmur, and sporadic, and Mal almost feels bad for convincing Inara to come along, but after a glance he sees she's holding her own. He always chides himself for worrying over her comfort, because she's always better off than he is. She knows how. It's as simple as that.

The doctor spends the meal still laid out in the other room. He's getting back some colour, and by the time supper is over he no longer looks like the dead, but he's still out and not quite sleeping. But both Zoe and River say he's not hurt, just... elsewhere. It's a choice of words that Mal finds chilling.

It's another hour, while the sun goes slowly down and Kaylee frets, before the boy finally does wake, all at once and with a gasp like he's drowning.

He doesn't sit up, part because Mal thinks the boy's got his doctoring wired deep enough that he knows better, even now, and part because Kaylee stops him. "Stay put," she orders, in a tone brooking no objections, and Simon, apparently without thinking, sinks back without fighting her. River perches on the arm of the sofa at her brother's feet and studies him, sitting straight, her hands in her lap. Mal thinks she might be watching her brother for something, eyes narrow and darting, but a moment later she leans back and nods, to herself, as Kaylee settles herself next to Simon and tries to get him to eat. The doc still looks puzzled, whitewashed and hazy, and keeps looking around the room as if he's not sure how he got there.

Riona is holding in her hand the little gold pin they found on the stranger's body, and every now and then she glances at it, unhappily, glances at her brother, who looks almost angry when she does. Finally Mal asks, loud enough for the whole room to hear, because by this point there's not much purpose in secrets: "You know who they are, don't you?"

This time she doesn't answer, looks up with surprise, then frowns, shakes her head. "Not exactly," she says, and stares down into her hand again, looking unsettled.

Mal starts to scowl, takes a breath to shout at her again, but he's cut off by Collin's calm, cool voice: "She's telling the truth, Mal," he says. Mal turns to him in surprise. "We don't know who they are. We never have."

"They dealt with the two of you first," Jayne points out, and Mal's impressed the big merc worked out that much, though he knows he shouldn't be. Jayne can be clever when he needs to be, often much cleverer than they give him credit for. "Like you'd be more of a threat."

"Like maybe they didn't know River was here," adds Zoe, shrewdly, but River shakes her head.

"They saw me," she says, and looks proud, as she adds: "They couldn't reach me."

Mal sets that statement aside for later study, and looks narrowly at Collin. "I never knew that could be done," he says.

Riona hobbles to a chair and sits in it, and this time the others are looking at Collin, not at her. Kaylee looks pale but unafraid, Jayne suspicious, Inara stately and immovable; she's sipping a cup of tea. Simon is hardly moving, now lying obediently back against Kaylee, who has one hand laid gently on the side of his neck, though there's a hint of suspicion about him. Zoe is... well, Zoe, her gun across her knees. Only River is leaning forward, eyes glinting with curiosity. Mal wonders if that's because she's the only one who has any damned idea what's going on.

"They've been around a long time," Collin carries on, watching his sister as she continues to study the thing in her hands. "Ever heard of the Foundationists, Mal?"

Mal hasn't, but before he can say so, Inara says: "I have," and she looks troubled, as if she's searching her mind for a memory she can't quite catch. She looks briefly at Mal, explains: "They were a cult, of sorts. I remember hearing of them on Sihnon... one of the groups that worshipped Earth That Was, I think. But..." She looks queryingly at Collin, "I thought they'd disappeared, years ago. Their fame was short-lived."

"Hm," agrees Collin. "Near as we can tell, they come and go when times allow, even change their name when needed. But they've been around longer than we can track."

"And it's deeper than worship, or so it would seem," says Riona, nodding to Inara. "They tell stories, mostly. But they talk about Earth That Was as our origin in more than cells - they call it Mother Earth. They think it's where we got our souls. That they grew in us from the place that bore us. That when we left where we came from, we left something behind."

"Ah." Inara seems suddenly clearer, and Mal wishes he knew what any of them were talking about. He's heard the term before, of course, but it doesn't make anything more sensible, so far as he can see.

It's River who catches his eye, mouth quirked into a smile, and tells him: "They think we are separate from our roots."

Mal is sometimes bothered when he finds himself understanding River, but on this one occasion he'll forgive it in favour of getting some inkling of their situation. "So what's that to do with the two of you? Or the two of them?" He nods towards the Cromwells, and this time it's Riona who sighs, and hands him the little gold pin.

"I told you about the man my father threw out of the house, Mal. He used to wear a pin just like this. I haven't seen one like it since..." She trails off, her face freezing as if she's touched on a nerve. But she rearranges herself in her chair, like shaking herself, and goes on.

"I only heard of them a few years back... after the war, in the years drifting, before I found Collin. I was with a crew doing straight-forward passenger transport, and we ended up on a world where the terraforming was failing."

Mal nods. Mortimer Cromwell always insisted on his children being useful, and Riona has been a pilot from real young. "We were evacuating folk - the captain was a sight more charitable than you, Mal - free of charge. And three of them were priests. Looked like any other goodwill-spreaders, like Shepherds, the kind where your eye slides right past, until they speak. And they didn't, much.

"But when they did, they talked about Earth That Was. It's all they spoke on. Until they noticed me.

"They weren't... they weren't frightening, or cruel, or anything... they just... stared. And spoke. And to me, more intense than the others. I thought they were just missionaries. But I came to think that they got on that ship... because they knew who I was. Or what I was, anyway. They started talking about a ship of souls, a parable where the righteous were sent out into space as an offering, to re-seed men on another world. That until they were enlightened, then men would walk the worlds with no souls. It was a story, but something about the way they told it just struck... I don't know. Wrong." She looked green, shook, but Mal kept his face impassive. "When we made ground on Beaumonde I put in my notice and took off like a shot."

"Sounds like they spooked you." He means it to come out mocking, but it sounds worried, instead.

"They did. They knew, Mal, I don't know what, exactly, but something they shouldn't have. I never met anyone who could read me like that. Most who have the talent aren't trained. They cast about wildly, and it's half a miracle they can read anything, let alone keep from going mad like poor River, and those are the ones with proper shields that work on their own. But those men... they were reading me, Mal, all the way. Watching for something, something they wanted badly, I don't know what. Scared the hell out of me that they might find it in my head."

"And now it looks like whatever they were after in us, they've found in your two strays," Collin concluded, arms crossed.

"There's nothing in my--" protests Simon, trying, again to rise, and struggling, but he subsides under the twin assault of Kaylee's gentle arm, pulling him back to the couch, and River's scornful, censorious stare. He lies there looking mutinous and deeply offended, but he stays quiet. Mal re-inforces the message by sending Simon a stern This Is Not The Time look.

Then he surveys the two Cromwells, Simon, who is lying still and with bright, bitter eyes, and River, who is, of all of them, the calmest, and nodding, very slowly. He looks at Collin again. "I'm askin' because you two know these things," he said, "so what're the chances they'll come back here? How badly do they want this thing?"

Collin frowns, and looks uncomfortable - something he rarely does, so Mal says nothing as the other man thinks. Collin glances at his sister, who's wearing an expression of tight-strung control that even Mal can read as a cover for slowly-dawning panic. She wasn't joking; she was scared, and the attack has scared her worse. Mal can sympathise; there's no fear like one rooted in childhood. But he's got his crew to think on, and more worry besides, if there's a holy war coming down on their heads.

He's quiet a moment, considering, and then he stands up, straightening his bracers and his shoulders at the same time.

"Right," he says, "we're leaving." He looks at both Cromwells, Collin first, as he's the sensible one, and Mal is hoping that'll make some difference.

It doesn't take long for the argument to start.

"No," says Riona, stubborn and somewhat less than collected, though Mal wonders whether it's because he suggested it before she did. She ain't stupid, she knows he's right, she has to - but he's beginning to regret the way it sounded like an order. It's habit by now, and as soon as he said it he knew it would be trouble.

Riona hasn't crossed her arms and she isn't pouting, but to Mal's mind she may as well be doing both. He's smart enough not to note this aloud, but just barely.

She probably reads his face. It's the only explanation, because he just knows she wouldn't go peeking inside without permission.

"And you can just wipe that smile off your face, too," she tells him. "I won't be chased out of my home."

"They'll come back," he says, lowering his voice because even from across the room he knows the others are staring, though they're trying not to look it. "You heard the girl. Any case, you know they'll come back. You said yourself you think they've been watching this house for months, now. They've tagged you two as interesting - I'd lay coin they know what you are and who you are and they'll come back."

She's trying to rally, but he can see she knows there's no way around it.

A moment later Zoe leans forward on her knees, and fixes the younger woman with a stare Mal can't read. When she speaks, though, her voice is low and reasonable. "This place ain't worth your lives," she says.

Mal's relieved when, a few seconds later, Riona nods, looking pained. He can always count on Zoe.


Indulging in twelve hours' rest on the Chengdu estate, Mal learns a little about Zoe Alleyne that morning, but little of it from the woman herself. Mortimer tells him, and Collin, who watches Zoe with a face that tells clearly the purpose of his attention, and he learns that Zoe's been with the Cromwells much longer than Mal.

He finds that Zoe Alleyne was a survivor off of Mycroft, one of just a few hundred, and Mal didn't think there had been any, because usually when terraforming fails that's how it goes. He remembers hearing about that, years back, that the terraforming broke down after only twenty years, just long enough for the brittle little moon to build a thriving farming commune, be torn to bits by Alliance military expropriations, then left to drift when the weather changed and the crops died and her people began to starve. He remembers, briefly, his mother angrily slamming doors at Alliance claims that something was being done, relief was being sent, any day now.

He remembers the general opinion that Mycroft was cut loose to wither, and that the Alliance had let it happen.

Mortimer doesn't tell him, but Collin, who was there, does, that some of the wealthier Browncoats threw up their hands and got together a rescue mission, but were blocked at every turn, so that by the time they hit the dirt on Mycroft, there wasn't much left; a few hundred teenagers and little ones scrabbling in the frosty soil and right on the edge of nothing. Not many adults had made it.

Mortimer tells him that Zoe reached Chengdu with her younger brother and two cousins, herself the oldest at fourteen and in charge, and set out to care for them with a little help from a foundation carefully arranged by those who later became Independents, but in the case of Chengdu was mostly Mortimer Cromwell refusing to let a handful of kids disappear into the mix of the slums. He'd gotten Zoe and her brother a job, made sure the cousins made it into primary care, and kept an eye on them all until both Zoe and her brother were adults, or nearly, Zoe eighteen and Mark sixteen, and near enough to making it into apprenticeships on the ranches and in the city, respectively.

When the Gurder Plague finally hit Chengdu full-on, the Cromwells were on Persephone, but as it turned out Elisabeth was already infected, weeks earlier, and her husband spent three weeks railing in Parliament against the withholding of relief from the Rim worlds, citing corruption and bribery and getting himself censured, while Mrs. Elisabeth Cromwell was mis-filed in the St. Grace system and left to die on a sub-floor meant for the uninsured. Nobody really believed it an accident, but nobody could prove it, either, no matter how many of them were making money off of selling marked-up vaccine to rich folks in the Core who stood about as much chance of contracting Gurders as a cactus has of root-rot.

Later, it turned out that Zoe Alleyne's little cousins hadn't held out much longer, breathing their last in the city hospital, such as it was, a little before sunup on the same night. Gurders had hit the children harder than anyone else, after all.

Mark Alleyne, not taking it well, took his complaints to the local Federal outpost, loud and ornery and was misinterpreted by Feds nervous from a week of riots, who shot him down as he approached, shouting.

When Mortimer Cromwell returned to Chengdu with medicines and his children in tow and enough money to buy the moon, he did two things. First, he cleared every Fed off Chengdu soil, and formed a militia. Second, he offered Zoe Alleyne an obscene amount of money to bury her brother and her cousins and to come work for him. She refused the money, but joined up and never looked back. She was just nineteen.

When the Independents started calling themselves Browncoats, Mortimer's militia was one of the first groups to start wearing the name on their shoulders. That was when most people knew a war was coming.