After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?

They understand each other.

"Have to tell him."

"Since when could you tell Mal anything?"

But she walks to the doorway with River. Mal doesn't look at her. He's talking to Ilargia...

"Their, whatdyacallit, autonomy, wouldn't be worth a damn, someone decides they can use River's talents. They'd just march right in. You can't defend this place." The walls are stone, but it is a place of courtyards and wide windows, doors of paper.

"They don't need to defend themselves with conventional weapons. And who exactly would they defend against? The Guild is Alliance. Why take what you can hire out? What were the Academy planning to do with River once they had finished whatever they were doing? I mean, you're looking for an assassin, who are you going to defend against? The big man with a gun? Or the little girl bowing and serving you tea?"

"But the Guild can't force a Companion to take a client..." Simon is still bewildered.

"What did they offer you, Dr Tam?"

The question seems irrelevant. Simon frowns, and then goes pale.

"A position at the hospital..."

"Puts you in easy reach. Guild can't force a Companion, but they might indicate that it would be healthier to obey."

"You seriously believe that the Guild would do such a thing?" Inara's tone holds despairing enquiry rather than anger. Ilargia looks at her, and understands.

"I believe that any organisation that spans the known 'verse so successfully is probably run by complete bastards. Or bitches, if you prefer. If I wanted to maintain, or even extend, power, I'd be absolutely frothing to get my hands on a psychic who could kill you with her toenails, and in a graceful fashion, too. Because I expect minds can be really open and relaxed at a certain juncture. Wouldn't even need the pillow talk."

"You got a nasty mind, Gia."

"Benefits of a Core education." she says, snidely. "We have some new players on the board."

"Oh, good." Mal grumbles. "'Cos we ain't got enough enemies."

Ilargia shakes her head.

"Going to be more busy fighting each other. The Military Council can't publicly acknowledge their project" (River gives a snarky curtsy) "so there's going to be a scramble for possession. One side's force, and the other is...persuasion."

"Told you the thunder knew." River spreads her arms, twirls. "Hawks and doves."

Inara bows her head.

"I never wanted to believe it, but I must." She can't look at Mal. She knows that the horror and loathing in his eyes will break her. "Take her, and run."

0000

She watches them leave. An awkward leave-taking. So nothing new there.

A tall man, brown hair blown in the wind, brown coat a badge of honour. He does not look back.

And beside him, a young woman. An unknown quantity. Matches his angry stride, but he slows for her as she scampers, and they walk up the ramp together.

"You are a fool."

Ruksha stands in the doorway, no longer serene. The girlish face has hardened. Inara draws herself up very straight.

"We do not take the unwilling. Not for any consideration."

"This is no longer a matter of choice. It is a matter of expediency. That girl is a weapon that we cannot allow to be turned against us."

Inara had hoped that her suspicions were wrong. That her faith, and her trust would not be so betrayed. But she is a clever woman, and she has never thought herself to be naive. She had hated being used as bait by the Operative. That had been degrading, that all she meant in the scheme of things was a way to trap Mal. To realise that she had been used so again was bitter.

But. She knows men well. Knows their strengths and weaknesses. She was taught by experts.

"Remember this, in the hour of your accounting. I have given up everything for the Guild."

Ruksha's eyes widen. Inara allows herself a small, cold smile.

"A proud man like Malcolm Reynolds cannot be driven. The man was a soldier, and a leader of men. His ship, his crew, his responsibility. Did you think he would tamely hand her over?"

"You asked him to do so."

"For her sake. But I would have fought to keep her here."

"You would have lost."

"But I would still have fought." She draws herself up. "She had the right of it. She chose not to be what others wished her to be." Cold anger in her. "I will not be used as bait again."

"He is unlikely to return..." The mean retort is bitten off as the realisation sinks in. "You sent him away with a lie."

"No. I sent him away with the truth." She puts her hands on the balcony rail, stares into the uncaring sky. "Broken hearts mend. Slowly, imperfectly, but they mend. My life is richer for having known him, but our paths divide here."

She, too, has found a cause to fight for. Her fight will not be in the dust and heat of border planets, waged with bullets. Hers will be a battle of hearts and minds. A chance to make things...different. Her next words are quiet, addressed to the absent.

"You told me to make a place for myself, Mal. Well, this is it. I refuse to believe that everything about the Alliance is bad. Perhaps here we can find a middle way, without violence or treachery."

The smile she gives is unpractised, a little crooked as she fights against tears, a little weary. And she is truly beautiful.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us."

She could have loved him. But she could not love what he does.

0000

Jayne, looking slightly furtive, strides quickly up the ramp with a bag over his shoulder.

"What you got in there?" Zoe isn't going to let him walk off with anything might be a problem. Jayne flips open the bag.

"Them birds was just sitting there in that tower, all pretty and useless."

Zoe smiles.

"So you walked in and took 'em."

"Nothin' to stop me." He grins back. "Pigeon pie."

"They're doves, Jayne."

He shrugs.

"If it ain't a hunting bird, then it's just a flying meal." Starts up the stairs. "Reckon we got more use for 'em."

0000

Simon stands on the ramp, looks back over a world. But he's not seeing the mountains, River knows.

"I just wondered if, one day, we could go...back."

"Why would I want to go back?" River shocks him. The question is sharp, looks for an answer. "Pretty doll. Tired of dancing at dinner parties. Talks of the bad things that we pretend aren't there. Make her sleep." Her head lolls suddenly, eyes glazed. "Poor little doll, let her sit in the sun and dream of stars. Push her chair out of the wind, and mind she doesn't spill tea on her dress." The tone is purely their mother's. Head snaps up again. "No place there. Except, " and her hand lashes out, stops against his neck, feather-light, "this."

The moment stretches, frozen time. Simon's eyes wide with shock.

"Made me a thing, Simon. Left jagged edges that don't fit the hole. Never be safe." Hand drops away, and suddenly, she's a girl again, small shoulders bony in an overlarge gown. "Don't want to dance for others."

"Oh, River..." Suddenly, he is tired. A young man a very long way from everything he knows or believed in.

"Think too much." She tells him, gently. "Just be. Here and now, we are alive."

It's something he has heard Gia say. He looks at the girl, no, the young woman in front of him.

"Was there nothing about our old life that you liked?"

Her hand laid flat over his heart.

"Have it right here, ge-ge." Her smile. "We're home, now."

Home. A battered old craft, crewed by misfits, fugitives and rebels. Living on the edge, a hard-scrapple existence. Digging out bullets, sewing up stab wounds. Reattaching ears. He has been tired, frightened, cold and hungry. Shot at, arrested. He's shot back, at people and those made less than people. Seen friends die.

Would he go back to Osiris, if he could?

Proper baths. Proper food. Proper beds. Dermal menders and cell imagers. Staff, so that he didn't have to sit up half the night trying to figure proper dosage, or worrying that the power might go out and ruin the plasma storage. Sitting at the dinner table, making polite small talk with his parents, as they tried to push him into his 'proper' place in society.

Proper. A word that hangs about his neck. Perhaps there are certain things he can leave behind.

"Don't have to start spitting on the floor and swearing." River's smile becomes a grin. "That's Jayne's job."

"He's a bad influence..."

"No, he's not." A little gesture, takes in the ship. "The place where we lived was never a home, and we couldn't learn about love there."

Jayne, big and crude, reaching down something in the kitchen for Gia, then witholding it until he's kissed. Zoe, cradling a plastic toy and watching the stars. Kaylee, head down in the engine, and muttering endearments when she thought no-one heard. The Captain, a man whose sheer stubborn idiocy keeps them flying when they should have crashed long before. And River, running her hand down the wall as one would pet an animal, barefoot and free.

"Don't forget the man in the white room. You deny the Lady Death, and she blesses you for it. Fight for them all." Kisses his cheek, quick and sure, dances away from him.

"Would you have left us, then?" Kaylee's voice is quiet, sad.

"No. Not you." He fumbles for his words, as ever. "I...wanted to be able to give you a home, Kaylee."

Kaylee stares at him. Then she smiles.

"Simon, we got a home. We got jobs, and them as care for us good as any kin."

Simon looks down into Kaylee's bright, eager little face, and feels suddenly humble. He's trying to make other people's decisions for them again. Of course this woman has a job every bit as important to her as his career was to him. He tries to explain himself.

"I know I'm not as good at this as I would like to be...I wanted somewhere for...us, where we could be...a family, perhaps..."

She stops him, with a gentle hand on his lips.

"You think that was all I bin wantin'? If I'd wanted nothin' more'n a ring an' babies, I'd've stopped with my folks. I wanted to do more than stay in one little town, mending engines that flew off and I never got to see the where." She could so easily be angry with him, if he didn't look so defeated. "I know it ain't the life you were wantin' , and I know I ain't the kinda girl, neither..."

"You're perfect." He stops her this time. "You know me, takes me forever to get a clue."

Kaylee laughs up at him.

"Way I reckon it, I was here first, so I'm carryin' you off."

"Kidnapped by a space-vixen." Simon shakes his head ruefully, and allows her to lead him up the ramp. Home.

0000

Jayne, bounding up the stairs to the kitchen, nearly runs down a weeping River.

"Gorram, girlie, you wanna get yourself flattened?"

River makes a sad, wailing noise, flings herself at him.

"Ruttin' hell." But the big hands are gentle as he gathers her up. "You gonna tell me what's wrong or are you gonna snivel on me?"

The sniffling into his shoulder indicates the last option. Jayne sighs; he figures this is a girl thing, so he carries his small soggy burden into the kitchen, and deposits River with his wife. What he can hear still don't make no sense, but Larji seems to be dealing with it.

"She can't leave herself behind, no matter how far she runs."

"You crying for her? Or him?" Ilargia puts an arm round her. "Welcome to the big bad world of grown-ups screwing up. Love makes no sense. Look at me and Jayne."

"Does make sense." River wipes her eyes. "You don't share. No triangles."

"Oh, sweetie." Ilargia doesn't laugh. "You've got it bad, haven't you?"

"Yes." River blows her nose. "Don't have a choice in this."

"I understand that. Now, wash your face and then go and fly his ship for him. Man's all in bits at the moment, and the Black seems to calm him some."

Jayne frowns after the girl, turns his scowl on his wife.

"So, what's really goin' on, darlin'?"

"It's a girl thing..."

"Don't treat me like dumb ol' Jayne. Everyone else does, an' I don't want you to go startin'." There's real worry there.

"Well...River's in love with the Captain..."

"Gorram. He's old enough to be her father."

"He's also a charming, funny and not exactly ugly war hero."

"We gonna tell 'Nara she's got a rival...gorram." Face changes. "Don't reckon she conjured on that when she lent River them pretties."

"That would be a fair bet." She catches his whoop of laughter, hand on his lips. "It's not funny, Jayne. Don't you dare go teasing that girl."

"I ain't in a hurry to die." He's quite sincere. "Doc ain't gonna like it, neither."

"Which is why you're not going to tell him." Jayne pouts slightly, but Ilargia puts her hand up, thumb stroking the scar, side of his mouth. "Jayne, love, I'm asking you not to. Please. We all have to live on a small ship, and it could get very uncomfortable. It's River's secret."

"Poor kid's had her enough of those." But Larji don't ever ask him for much. "I ain't gonna rat her out. Hell, I got sisters. I remember tormentin' 'em." He grins. "Does Mal know? I reckon not - man's got about as much sense as an egg, it comes to women."

It won't have occurred to Inara that she might have a rival - and it probably hasn't occurred to Mal, either. Yet.

She understands why River would have a crush on the Captain. It's understandable. She could have a crush on him, too, if it weren't for the undeniable hunk of husband pouting at her.

Jayne has stopped grumping, and wants to snuggle.

"River paints up real pretty."

"You'll have to start watching out for her dirtside."

"Li'l crazyboots can take care of herself."

"Physically, yes. But she's young. Remember what your sisters were like at that age?"

"Hmm." He opens both eyes fast. "Gorram. I'm tellin' Mal to lock her in her room until she's thirty."

0000

Mal feels...hollow. The anger has drained away, replaced by numbness.

"Could have had a phoenix to fly. I know Tiy asked."

River, back in her faded summer dress and scuffed boots. His little albatross. She smiles up at him.

"Kept the underwear." And hooks a finger at her throat, gives him a peek of satin and lace (and ivory skin.) Mal makes a small strangled noise and spins around. He can't be seeing that sort of thing. (River, in her box, a delicate orchid in snow.) She laughs at him, sits in her chair.

"Nobody else is ever going to decide what happens to this body." She promises softly. "Do we have a course, Captain?"

"Forward. Same way as always." He sets his jaw. "Can't go back."

"No." She agrees with him. "Can't go back."

Credits: Robert Pirsig, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oscar Wilde, U2, Pink Floyd, Henrik Ibsen, T S Eliot

Nods to Frank Herbert and all the Wu xiu I've watched recently

Soundtrack: U2 'All That You Can't Leave Behind', Snow Patrol 'Eyes Open'