Disclaimer: No power in the 'Verse can stop Joss Whedon or JK Rowling.
A/N: Multiple reviewers said that they were confused by what was going on in the previous chapter—specifically, why the crew broke up and perhaps what the deal was with Emma. This story comes after the graphic novels Leaves on the Wind and No Power in the 'Verse, so there will be material in those included in this story. (Spoilers if you haven't read them.) I will try harder to fill in the gaps as they come up, and some of it will be explained in this chapter.
"ZOMBIE! ZOMBIEEE!" River screamed, and she ran out of the room.
Simon, Inara, and Harry all stared at each other. "What just happened?" Harry said.
Before they could answer, River ran back into the room and charged Harry. With an axe.
"WHOA!" Harry yelled and jumped back, dodging blow after blow.
"Gotta remove the head," River recited to herself. "Remove the head or destroy the brain. It's the only way to stop them."
"River, stop!" Simon yelled. He rushed forward and grabbed River to try to stop her.
"River, I'm not a zombie!" Harry yelled.
River elbowed Simon in the nose and rushed forward again. Harry slid out of the way. "Talking zombie," she said. "Very bad. They're getting smarter."
Harry could tell he wouldn't be able to hold her off unless he revealed something, so he rolled the dice on one of his lesser secrets.
"Die, zombie!" she yelled.
"Eto kuram na smekh!"
River's eyes widened in surprise before rolling back in her head as she fell unconscious. Harry caught her, gently relieved her of her axe, and sat her down on the sofa. Then, he turned around and saw both Simon and Inara pointing guns in his face.
"You've got three seconds to explain how you knew that," Simon said. Somehow a broken nose didn't make him any less intimidating.
"Footage of a barfight on Beaumonde. You said it," Harry said fast, pretty sure he came in under the three seconds.
Simon stared at him, letting the time expire. "I didn't think that was public," he finally said.
"It wasn't, but some of the people in the pub had holos. I convinced one of them to give me a copy."
Simon looked down at River, then over at Inara. They shared a concerned look; then Simon turned back to Harry. "The Academy. What do you know about it?" he demanded.
"Not much that isn't public," he said with a shrug. "I know it's a place where they turned exceptional people into Operatives, but I mostly pieced things together by following your exploits. I gather they did some pretty nasty things there."
"That's an understatement. So you didn't know about them implanting the safeword?"
"Is that what it's called? No, I just watched the footage a few times. It took me a while to figure out what you were saying. I guessed it was some sort of…what do you call it? Conditioned response? Pavlovian? But I didn't know for sure if the feds did it or you did or even River herself."
They were silent for a minute, and Harry took a chance and looked into Simon's mind. He had a bit of natural resistance, but wasn't trained to identify the intrusion. He was offended by the suggestion that he might have put "triggers" into River's head himself, but the thought did cross his mind that he wouldn't put it past River.
"Makes sense, if he could get the footage," Inara pointed out.
"Could you maybe stop pointing those guns at me?" Harry said. "I mean you no harm."
"No, if River attacks somebody with an axe, there's usually a good reason," Simon said.
"Where did she even get an axe?" asked Inara.
"I've stopped questioning that kind of thing," Simon dismissed it. "Even if you're telling the truth, Mr. Potter, she clearly thinks there's something wrong with you."
Harry sighed and took another glance at his mind. The man was still suspicious he was an Operative, or more likely a bounty hunter. "She thought I was a zombie, not a bounty hunter, Dr. Tam," he said. Simon's gun hand wavered in surprise. He hadn't missed the seeming coincidence, and Harry capitalised on it. "She wasn't expecting me, right? She couldn't sense me coming?"
"That's right," Inara said. "I thought it was odd."
"It's because I'm blocking her from reading my mind," he said. "She couldn't sense any thoughts from me, so she…" He grumbled. "…naturally assumed I was undead."
Simon started to lower his gun. "You're a Reader?" he said.
"After a fashion. I'm not a Seer, like she is."
"And you can block her out?"
"Yes. Mind, it was a pain in the arse to learn how. Took me years back home."
"But if you're a Reader," Simon replied. "Then why do you need another one?"
"Like I said. I'm not a Seer. Minds are all I can read," he said. "I'm not as gifted as River is. You know she can do more than mind-reading, Dr. Tam. She can see things…beyond—far away or in the future. I can't. I need someone with those skills if I'm going to find my family."
Simon took another look at Inara. "What do you think?" he said.
Inara had been regarding Harry carefully. He worked to keep his features neutral. "I can tell he's had some kind of training," she said. "I'm not River, but I can normally read faces, except…I'm getting nothing from him. His story's…plausible?"
Simon kept staring, not wanting to believe it.
"If we wake her up, can you make sure she doesn't kill me?" Harry asked, pointing at River.
"I can tell her not to," Simon said, "but if she really wants something…" His expression grew more confident. "…no power in the Verse can stop her."
Harry nodded. "I don't doubt that." But that was a lie. He thought he had a decent chance of stopping her if he had to, although it would blow his cover. "Still, I'd like to try to explain to her without her taking my head off."
"Maybe…" Simon said, and then the idea came to him. "If I do, will you let River read your mind? I don't trust you, but I can trust her judgement."
Harry had thought about that. Should he expose his mind to another Reader? River would pick up on what he was; she might have already. Could he successfully hide anything from her without her noticing? After all his years studying it, he honestly thought he could, but it would be risky. He'd decided he'd try it, but he'd have to come clean immediately if River called him on it. "I'm willing," he said, "but I'm concerned she won't react any better. I've seen a lot myself in my time. I'd wager I've got nearly as much darkness in my head as she does."
Simon frowned and narrowed his eyes. That wasn't going to allay his suspicion.
"I'll cover you Simon," Inara said. "We'll have to do it sooner or later."
He sighed and fully lowered and holstered his gun before thinking better of it and setting it back on the table out of River's (and Harry's) immediate reach. Then, he picked up the axe where Harry had dropped it and handed it to Inara, who looked at it distastefully and set it aside. He then knelt down beside his sister and rested a hand on her head. "It's time to wake up, Mei-Mei," he whispered.
River blinked, then sucked in a breath and sat up with a start, nearly knocking her head against her brother's. She looked around, and her eyes fixed on Harry. She jumped up and lunged, doubtless to look for another weapon, but Simon grabbed her arm.
"River, stop! Listen to me!" he ordered, and luckily, she calmed down. "Now, Mr. Potter tells me he's blocking himself from your mind. He says he's another Reader."
She stared at him. "He's a zombie," she muttered tonelessly.
"No, he only looks like a zombie to you because he's blocking you out…At least, I'm pretty sure about that. That's why you can't see anything in his head. Now, he's going to let you into his mind so you can see, but I need you to be calm first. Apparently, it might not be pretty." This last part was directed at Harry in a suspicious tone.
River turned her head slowly to look Harry in the eyes. She didn't speak, but her glare conveyed her brother's suspicions compounded on her own.
Harry took that as his cue. "No, it won't be pretty," he warned. "You're not the only one with secrets, Miss Tam. But I'll try to go easy on you. Look." He opened his mind to her—slowly, carefully, lest it trigger something for her. He avoided the parts about his magic, although he didn't work to actively keep her away from them. He also tried to avoid reading her own memories, which would only cause confusion besides being invasive. Still, River either wasn't interested or didn't understand. She did notice the sheer volume of other stuff in there. She jerked backwards like she'd been struck when she made contact and blinked in a daze. Simon caught her, and she mumbled in a sing-song voice, "We're off to see the Wizard…"
Harry's heart jumped, but Simon didn't appear to make the connection, or even appear to be that alarmed by his sister falling over. "Not now, River," he said. "What can you tell me about Mr. Potter? Do you think we can trust him?"
Her eyes focused again, and she stared at Harry. After a moment, she said, "He's not a zombie." She sounded disappointed.
"Well, that's a relief," Simon said. "Is he an Operative?"
She gave her brother an annoyed look. "If he were an Operative, you'd be dead already."
He flinched: "I'd be dead?"
"Don't worry, I'd avenge your death. And give you a nice funeral."
"Can we not joke about planning my funeral?" he groaned. "If Mr. Potter isn't a zombie, and he isn't an Operative, what is he?"
River stared at Harry again with a penetrating gaze like Dumbledore used to give him. He started to wonder if she had seen the bits about magic after all. He didn't probe, but he started to get a feeling—a feeling of such certainty that he thought she might be projecting—that she had, although he didn't think she quite understood it. In fact, she soon said, "He has a very active imagination."
Simon narrowed his eyes. "Are you saying he's lying—or delusional?" he asked.
"No. He just has a very active imagination. It's interesting. Most people only imagine the same boring things."
"Well, that's a different way of putting it," Harry said with a chuckle.
Now, he felt her probing again. He was more relaxed this time, although he still focused on mundane memories. "There's a lot in there," River said, frowning. "A lifetime's worth and more, and the pieces don't fit together right."
"But can we trust him, River?" Simon pressed.
She regarded him a moment longer and said, "He won't hurt us."
She said it with certainty—with the confidence of someone who could make it happen. Harry didn't miss the ambiguity in her words, and from the look he was giving him, neither did Simon. Although since he had no intention of hurting them unprovoked, he wasn't too worried.
Inara lowered her gun, and Simon slowly relaxed. He stood up straight and looked Harry in the eye. "I'm still not happy about you barging in like this, Mr. Potter, but if River says it's safe, we can work with you."
"Would you like some dinner?" Inara asked. "I actually did make enough for a guest."
This time, Harry smiled. "I'd like that, Ms. Serra, thank you."
Everyone was reservedly polite as they ate, not talking much, but at least not being confrontational. Even River didn't have much to say aside from a few disjointed comments. When the meal was winding down, Simon finally asked the question that all three of them has been clearly thinking: "We really do need to know how you found us. We've tried to cover our tracks as much as we could, and you aren't even the most likely person we thought might be able to find us."
"You weren't easy to find, that's for sure," Harry said. "I've been looking for you almost since Miranda went public, but you covered your tracks ta ma well. I guess that should be of some comfort to you. I felt like I was following breadcrumbs the whole way. I heard about some folks floating out a ship in honour of your pilot. Then I ran into some crook telling wild stories about River being some kind of seven-foot-tall warrior woman—"
"He was embarrassed that he got beat up by a girl," River cut in as if she knew exactly whom he was talking about (and maybe she did), though Simon couldn't remember any specific incident that fit.
"Right. Anyway, last I heard of you, you made a prison break on some no-name moon—and I mean it literally doesn't have a name on the charts; that's how secret it was. You've more or less lain low since then—maybe a job here, a supply raid there. The main reason I went to Burnet was I caught a rumour about a couple New Resistance fighters named Bea and Iris who'd had contact with you. I thought I might get a lead there."
"There was no New Resistance," Simon said. "It was an Alliance sting operation."
"True enough. Probably the largest sting in history, those bastards. But most of the people were true believers. I figured the intel was good," Harry said. "Except by the time I got there, they were dealing with the Peacemaker bombings, and the Alliance was shipping in troops to set up martial law. I just barely got in and out of there, and I hopped over to New Canaan 'cause I figured if you were on Burnet, this would be the next place you'd stop."
Simon nodded unhappily: "Because we barely got out of there ourselves, and Serenity needed to resupply."
"Exactly. To find you here was mostly luck, I think."
"I don't like relying on luck," he said. "I'd as soon have not gotten involved with you either, no offence. I can empathise that you're in a difficult spot, but we've had more than enough excitement already."
Harry supposed he shouldn't be surprised that Simon was against him. If there was one thing he didn't like about the Frontier, it was that it was like Earth in the final years—wild, untamed, and hard, nobody trusting anybody else, and Simon Tam had more reason to distrust people than most. "Times are hard for everyone, Dr. Tam," he said, "but I'm not trying to get something for nothing. I'm a Reader—not on River's level, but I have experience…I can help River learn to control her gift."
None of them, even River, could hide their surprise at that bombshell. Simon recovered fastest. "We've heard that before," he said, "including from me. It always turned out mediocre at best." And sometimes it had been a trap went unsaid. "Time's healed her more than I've been able to do," he admitted.
"Have you ever heard it from someone who had experience doing it?" Harry said. "You saw how easily I was able to shut her out. I can teach her to do that—to shut other people out, I mean."
Simon didn't look convinced. He gave his sister a questioning look. She rolled her eyes and nodded slightly, though both of their movements were subtle enough that Harry nearly missed them.
"River's had some…unique challenges to learning control," he said. "It might not be as easy as you think."
Harry frowned. "Maybe, but it can't hurt to try. When I first trained in controlling my gift, I sucked at it. I thought I had mental discipline. I'd had success with similar mental exercises, but when it came down to it, I was hopeless. It got a good man killed—my lack of control—my godfather. Nearly got me killed a few times, too. I only learnt afterwards that I actually do have a natural gift for the art. I just had a bloody awful teacher." And it was true; anyone who could halfway fight off the Imperius Curse on the first try ought to be a natural at Occlumency, but Snape had been worse than useless there.
"So you see, the right teacher can make all the difference," he said. "And I've been told I'm a pretty good teacher."
"Show me again," River said suddenly.
"What—? The blocking?" he stammered.
"Yes, the blocking."
Harry looked her in the eye and then cut off her access to her mind. River shuddered. "He still looks like a zombie," she muttered. "He probably knows a few useful things."
"Useful enough to get involved?" Simon asked resignedly.
"Can we address the elephant in the room?" Inara spoke up.
"If Mr. Potter here can find us so quickly, that means Kalista probably can, too."
"Kalista?" Harry said. "I've heard that name before. She's the Matron of the Academy, isn't she?"
Simon glared into space. "She's a monster," he said. "She's the leader of the Operatives, we think. She wants to bring River back into her 'family,' and she followed us halfway across the Verse to find her."
"She's the reason we had to leave Burnet—and Serenity," Inara added.
"She was on Burnet?" Harry said.
"Last we saw her," she said. "We were hoping she'd follow Serenity, or better yet, skip over New Canaan entirely. Since she hadn't found us yet, we thought we were in the clear."
"And you might still be," he replied. "It sounds like she was ahead of me and already gone off somewhere else."
"I suppose it's also possible she went after Iris instead," Simon suggested. "Either way, I don't like the look of it. I think we're on borrowed time here."
Suddenly, River spoke up: "Time is an illusion. Our trajectories either intersect or they don't."
"Well, I vote for 'don't,'" said Simon. "So what do we do?"
"I have some money," Harry cut in. "Not a lot, but enough to get us to the far end of the Verse if we need to. Probably easier access to transport than you can get on your own. And I already said I can help River with her abilities."
All three of them stopped and stared at him.
"I can get you out of here," he said. "Quickly and quietly. I know a thing or two about covering my tracks."
"And what do you want in exchange for that?" Simon asked.
"Exactly what I said, Dr. Tam: help finding my family. If you decline, I'm willing to pay your way to the next stop regardless and just ask River for a reading, or whatever it is she does; but even I don't know where they are, so it's not like Kalista can get in front of us if you stay with me."
They considered this for a moment. "Searching for your lost family—will it be dangerous?" asked Simon.
"Probably," Harry said, "but more danger than you're in now? Dunno. Probably not. At least the Alliance isn't looking for me."
"Of course…" Simon sighed. "River, what do you think?"
She turned and looked Harry in the eye, and he felt her probing again—or perhaps a different sort of probing. "You can't go back," she said. "You can only go forward."
Harry lowered his gaze and took a deep breath. "I knew I didn't have a 'back' anymore a long time ago," he said. "I'd be happy if I just had a 'forward' to go to."
The words hung in the air between them for a minute. He started to worry that they really would refuse. He could do a lot, but he couldn't make River help him.
"I'm in," she said.
"What?" her brother said.
Simon was right, Harry decided. When River Tam made a decision, no power in the Verse could stop her. He made attempt at talking her out of it, but he was packing like it was a foregone conclusion. With that decision made, they further determined that sooner was better than later, and they were ready to ship out the next morning.
River hadn't been very articulate about why she decided she wanted to go with Harry. From what he could gather, it was as much instinct as anything else. She might empathise with his situation, but that wasn't necessarily enough. She would help if she decided she Should, whatever that meant. But Harry seemed to be in luck.
There was the immediate question of where Harry should go for the night. More Frontier attitude—there was still an outside chance he would cause trouble, but since they were going to be travelling together, they would need to set that aside. They ultimately decided Harry could sleep on the sofa, which he did right after he discreetly placed some monitoring charms around the premises in case an Operative arrived—and around the sofa itself. He was pretty sure River wasn't going to suddenly stop trusting him and kill him in his sleep, but years of experience had made him nearly as paranoid as Mad-Eye Moody, only he was subtler about it.
If River sensed his actions, she didn't react to them, which probably made things a lot easier, and the next morning, they finished packing and made the drive back to the spaceport. The tension between them from last night was still there, which wasn't surprising. Harry was a fourth wheel in this group. Plus, there seemed to be some existing tension among them regarding Serenity. He didn't understand what had happened there.
About halfway to the spaceport, River spoke up: "You should just ask the question. It'll be easier."
Simon glanced at her long enough to determine she was staring at Harry before turning his eyes back to the road. Inara soon turned to face him, too.
"How did you know?" Harry asked. He'd been mostly blocking her again, relaxing his grip just enough for her to notice he was there.
River pointedly looked him up and down. "It's obvious," she said.
"Ah." Body language. Facial expressions. Occlumency was great at blocking out specific thoughts—so-so at concealing general mood and attitude. He'd all but forgotten because he so rarely met someone who could read that.
Inara narrowed her eyes, scrutinising him. "Now that she mentions it…" she said. "What question?"
He sighed. "I was just curious because I expected to find you still with Serenity. You don't have to say anything, but do you want to talk about what happened? Only, it looked like you were pretty solid, from the reports."
This clearly wasn't the best start to their day. His fellow travellers looked at each other uncomfortably. "We…had a difference of opinion," Simon said, not taking his eyes off the road. Harry didn't speak and waited for him to continue. "The Captain wanted to get more involved in the fight against the Alliance. Not the Peacemakers, but still further than we were willing to go—morally or practically."
"Hm…I know the type," Harry mused. "Been knocked down so many times that they get fed up and start crossing lines…Hell, I've been that type before."
The others tensed. Simon spoke first. "How's that?"
"I had a rough childhood," he said. "I handled it badly a few times—when I was just a kid and didn't know what the goushi I was doing. Wasn't even trained properly. Luckily, I made it through and wised up after that, but you wouldn't believe how many times I nearly got myself killed back then."
"I would," Inara said bitterly. "The number of gou cao yuben de things I've seen Mal do that nearly got him killed…"
"Well, at least the Captain and Mrs. Washburne are trained soldiers," he replied diplomatically. "It may be dangerous, but—"
"They're being foolish," she griped. "I sympathise with the Browncoats, but we've seen how badly this sort of thing goes. Miranda was an enormous win, but it was luck as much as anything, and since then…"
"Since then, the Alliance has come back, running roughshod over the little guy as soon as they thought they could get away with it," Harry concluded. "I came out to the Rim after Miranda, Ms. Serra. I've seen my share of it."
Inara nodded sadly. "I wish I could find another way to fight back, but this isn't right. Not them. Not now…None of the others wanted to leave. Kayleigh loves Serenity too much, and Jayne just loves a good fight. I thought maybe Zoe…but she just took off back into a war with a two-year-old baby in her arms."
Harry started at that. "She has a baby with her?"
"Mm hm. She found out she was pregnant right after Miranda. Wash had just been killed. We didn't know where we stood with the Alliance. She…wasn't in the best place right then. Then Emma came, and there were complications. We had to take Zoe to the hospital."
"And it turned out the Alliance held a grudge," Simon agreed grimly. "I tried to help her on the ship, but I just didn't have the tools, so we had to find a hospital station. They showed up within hours and dragged her off to prison because she wouldn't tell them where we were."
"Hence the prison break," Harry observed.
"Yes. That was also when we broke Iris out of the Academy. It was a half-cocked plan to get leverage on the Alliance to trade for Zoe. We did find out where she was, but that was about the only thing that went right."
Harry mulled that over. He'd heard rumours about a kid. Hoban Washburne's old pilots' club had been pretty clear about it, but he'd come to think it was a mistake because it didn't fit the rest of their actions, and there wasn't anything official on the Cortex. Besides, he didn't think even Serenity's crew would be crazy enough to do that. "So you three were the ones who wanted to stay out of it?" he asked.
Another uncomfortable look passed between them—or at least whatever amount to an uncomfortable look for River. "I couldn't leave Simon," she said. "And Kalista was too much trouble for them. They didn't have a problem with it."
"I'm sure Kayleigh misses you," Simon assured her. "I think Mal will too in his own way, and not just for your skill set."
"His pride will catch up with him," River said.
He snorted. "You mean it hasn't already?"
"It'll take him a long time to admit it…It took him a long time with Inara."
Harry glanced at Inara, who winced painfully. That was a rumour, too, but less important. He hoped she got the message that he really didn't want to pry there.
Her only response was to say, "I—I wasn't a good fit anymore, Mr. Potter."
"Ah…" he said.
"Nothing. I told you this whole thing isn't what I expected. But your profiles on the Cortex are pretty limited, so I don't have much basis to judge that."
She took that opportunity to turn the questioning back around on him: "What about you, Mr. Potter? You know all about us, and we still don't know anything about you."
Harry settled in. "Alright. What do you want to know?"
She considered. "You're wearing the brown coat. You fought with the separatists?"
Harry raised an eyebrow. "And what makes you say, Ms. Serra?" he asked. "Maybe I'm only on the bandwagon because of Miranda."
"No. You're a soldier. I can see it plain now you've taken the mask off. You have that look about you."
"Ah. Well, I suppose I do. But no, I wasn't in the so-called Unification War. I was…out of commission at the time. But I do very much sympathise with the cause."
"So you were in another war, then?" Simon asked with a confused look. "An earlier one? I don't remember learning about any…"
"I'm older than I look," Harry said, and he left it at that.
Simon looked like he wanted to press him on that, but he reconsidered and asked, "Where are you from?"
"Nowhere in particular. I've travelled around a lot."
He wasn't having it. "Where were you were born, then?"
"Londinium, if you can believe it."
They all jerked and turned to stare at him. Simon hit the brakes.
Harry raised his hand in a friendly gesture and gave his cover story. "Not in the cities. An obscure little place called Godric's Hollow." That would explain his accent, at least. "I mentioned I had a rough childhood, but then I moved to Persephone when I was eleven. It was still a generation away from the frontier in those days, at least the part where I lived was, and I fell in love with the place. If I had to say where I was from it would be there, but I've been all over the Verse since then. Even spent a few years in the Core Worlds again for financial reasons, but I never liked it there." And then, in case that wasn't enough to ease their concerns, "You've probably spent more years in the Core than I have, Dr. Tam."
They couldn't really argue with that, so they had little reason to be more wary of him than before. Simon started driving again, continuing on to the spaceport.
"You know there are probably going to be Alliance patrols here," he pointed out some time later as the port came into view.
"I'm not worried," River said. Her sudden chipper attitude seemed out of place after their earlier conversation. Harry thought she must be picking up on his plans to make sure no one caught on to them being there. "I think today's going to be a good day. Let's find us a ship."