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 tiān 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.