Fear… Rage… Inadequacy… Determination… Annoyance… Frustration… Helplessness… The emotions of Saoirse's crew battered at River, hurled her from her safe precipice into roaring rapids of chaotic thoughts and jumbled emotions. Every one of the five men were invested in their Captain, believed in her ability to steer them through troubled waters and get the back to shore with their lives and morals intact. Simon was battling for her life in the Med Bay, and if it were anyone other than her brother in the other side of the scalpel River would be certain that Captain Bryss would not pull through. Bryss' pain, in those moments in which she had been conscious, screamed at her, hammered at her walls like ten teams of ogres wielding battering rams.
Sirius was at the helm with the captain, she could hear their tight, low voices as they focused on escaping this Alliance outpost without garnering any attention. What was more, she could feel them. Feel their tension, worry, concern for her - of course they'd noticed her flee up the ladder and into this bunk. She bared her teeth in a snarl, feeling her walls crumble a little more. It wasn't fair. She's been better. Been sane and dependable - a real person for weeks. Why was it all falling apart now?
Because I am not focused or in control. Meditation. I must become centered, focus, calm and in control. I know how to do this. But could she do it, with all of the high-intensity emotions on this ship?
During their lessons together, Harry had made her practice maintaining her meditation through distractions - whether it was him trying to break into her mind, strolling around her room breaking things, or sitting just close enough that his scent teased her nose and his body heat warmed the side closest to him. She was almost certain he didn't mean for the last to serve as a distraction, or if he was even aware of it. But if she could meditate through all that, then she could gorram manage through this.
Opening her eyes, River blinked at the ceiling. Her awareness of Serenity's and Saoirse's crews were there, a background murmur, quiet and unobtrusive, just like Harry had taught her. Unlike after the heist, when everyone's emotions and thoughts had swamped her and battered at her control. Harry had found her about an hour later - Simon had drafted him to help with Captain Bryss' surgery - and settled down next to her, looking over her quick patches on her defenses and giving a couple of pointers on where she could shore herself up a bit more. She'd come out of her meditation to find Harry had come in from the surgery. She gasped to see how exhausted he looked.
"That bad?" Harry asked, his voice weary.
"Worse." She'd said in all seriousness. "Why aren't you in the other sickbed?"
"All I need is a good bit of sleep, and I wasn't ready to arm wrestle Maine for the bed. He looks like he could take me, anyway." Harry broke off as a huge yawn shook his wiry frame. "Give me a few hours, and we'll work on measures for frenzied, crowded situations like this one."
River nodded and headed for the hatch, but Harry called her name before she got there. He was already draped on his bunk, but he gave her a stunning, if sleepworn, smile. "You did well with all of this chaos, holding onto yourself like you did. I'm proud of you."
The flush of warmth and pleasure she had at his praise surprised her. She murmured, "thank you, Harry," and fled to her bunk. She'd just had a realization, and she needed the time between now and when the green-eyed man awoke to think over it.
Harry sat cross-legged in the engine room, watching Kaylee as she coaxed Serenity's engine past her latest hiccup. He'd originally offered to help, and she'd accepted graciously before starting in with a sort of concentration that didn't break for anything. The most help she'd needed was him to hand her a couple of tools or parts that hadn't been within reach - and her unwavering attention on Serenity was so focused, she hadn't noticed him levitating the last couple of requests into her hand. She treated Serenity like her child, spoke to her and heard her complaints. He could feel her working on the ship, and knew it was more than parts and tools that kept it running. He didn't know how, but Kaylee was working magic on the ship, innately attuning to it, using magic to stretch the life of parts, to fix something that shouldn't be possible to fix. The feel of it was like when someone did accidental magic around him - he'd felt the magic moving before the result had manifested. Kaylee wasn't the only one actively channeling magic on this ship. River was a given. She was a Seer, a powerful one, and a natural legilimens, and a magic user. He had no doubt River was strong enough to manage spells with a wand, but he wasn't sure if that was how Kaylee's magic worked, or Simon's.
He'd felt Simon's magic working as the Doctor battled to save their rescued target. Harry wasn't a healer, but he'd learned enough field work to cast a diagnostic spell and a few healing charms. Even with his magic, he'd been certain they were going to lose Leandra to the grievous wounds Jeremy had inflicted on her. But Simon had saved her, and when Harry had surreptitiously cast the diagnostic signs again, the results were stunningly different than before. He couldn't explain it, but wondered if, someday, Simon would be able to work as a healer instead of a muggle doctor.
How had it happened? Was there no longer a magical society? The wizards of his day had a disdain for the 'helpless muggles' that went beyond prejudice. Had they stayed on earth, thinking they were immune to the effects that were driving the muggles from the earth? Even if that were the case, muggle-born families would have known, would have left to preserve their lives and that of their families. Magical species of plants and animals would have died with the earth - how did they make wands, or potions, or half of the enchantments for day to day living? So many had required magic imbued ingredients…
River was hiding something from him. Last night when they'd meditated together there had been a rather obvious opaque wall she'd set up in her mind had stood out like a sore thumb. She'd scowled at him when he'd pointed it out, grumbling. "It's the best I can do, and I'm not ready to talk about it yet. Leave it alone." He had his doubts about that, but River was making so much progress - surely it wouldn't hurt to, as she said, leave it alone. Except she'd watched him so strangely… Had he done something, said something to offend her?
He was so deep in thought, Kaylee suddenly shouting his name made him jump. Four years of wartime instinct had him leaping to his feet and only the strictest of training kept him from drawing his wand.
Kaylee's wide eyes regarded him, a little bit of amusement and a little fear playing across her open face. "Harry?" She asked.
He gave her a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry, Kaylee, you startled me."
She shook her head. "I've been calling your name for a couple minutes, now. Where'd ya go that you didn't hear me?"
He scratched the back of his head and shrugged, and offered her a sampling of truth. "Wondering how the human race has changed since leaving Earth that Was."
"Well, probably not much. We still require the same gravitational levels and oxygen mixture as we did when we left - that had you so out of it you came to ready to attack me?"
Wincing, he shrugged again. "Believe it or not, yes."
"Huh." Kaylee held up her hand. "Help this big ole pregnant lady off the floor, will ya?" Chuckling, Harry gripped both of her hands and hauled her up.
"Are you and Simon excited about how close the due date's getting?" Harry asked as they started to gather tools and parts to put away.
Kaylee smiled at him. "Overall, yes. We're ecstatic. A mini-me is about to pop out and we have this great big family to share her with. I can't wait to see the look in Simon's eyes when he holds her, or that confused softness on Mal's face when she sasses back at him for the first time. I'm a little worried about what words she'll pick up from Uncle Jayne, but, even with how coarse he is, he'll love and protect our little girl as much as we do. Zoe... " Kaylee frowned. "I'm not sure how having a baby around is going to affect Zoe. That was the big argument she and Wash were having over the last couple of months he was around. She wanted a child, his child. He thought they lived too dangerously to justify bringing a child into this world. He'd just about givin' in when it happened." She sniffled a bit, and brushed away a tear. "Truth be told, he would have been the best uncle a little girl could wish for. So funny and weird. He never let the tensions get too high around here. A real jokester, kind of like your Sirius." She reached over and patted Harry's hand. "Truth to tell, I'm real happy you and Sirius came aboard. We needed some light thrown back in with us, after Wash was killed." There was a quiet worry in her gaze, so Harry decided to push a little.
"Overall, you can't wait to meet your daughter." He stated it as a fact, then added, "...but?"
She gave him a wry smile. "Caught that, didja? Fine. We're fugitive from a galaxy wide central government, crime is our mainstay, and we've practiced seditious acts. We're always going to be on the run, and it's always dangerous. I want my daughter, haven't for a moment thought that I didn't, but I worry what might happen, raising a child, living the way we do…" She closed her eyes then looked at Harry dead on. "Governor Hannah was a big time war hero for the Independents. That he's contacted us, that our first mission for him was a strike at the Alliance and a rescue mission for a woman who's been active since the war in continuing to push Independent thoughts - We decided to share the story of Miranda because it was the right thing to do. If we get the chance, we'll fight against the Alliance, because it's the right thing to do. I want to be in that fight, because we lost Wash to it and if we stop now, we gave him up for nothing. But what does a baby do in a war? What will my child face, growing up on a ship that fights against a better financed, better numbered, ultimately better in everything but morals superior force?"
Harry gave her a crooked smile. "Children in war grow up learning hard lessons early in life. They grow up harder, sharper, with more hurts - but never doubt they grow up stronger. Your family will do everything in their power to keep your child safe, no matter what happens. Your child will grow up knowing that her parents believed in a thing so strongly, they put their lives on the line for it. I lost my parents to the war on our planet - grew up with my mother's sister and her family. They hated me, made the first eleven years of my life a living hell. But my parents insured I would attend a boarding school, the same one they grew up in, met in and fell in love in. I got to know who my parents were by meeting people in that school, hearing the stories of their time there and after. I took pride in their defiance of the opposing side's leader - a man who wanted to commit genocide to weed out the undesirables. I wish I could have had my parents with me, but I never doubted in their bravery or their goodness because when push came to shove, they took a stand."
Kaylee cocked her head at him. "You sound like you had such a rough life - you and River. I hadn't realized the school was that old."
Harry shrugged, frowning. Had he told their story in a way that intimated that he had gone to the Academy? "We attended different schools, Kaylee, but once River started doing what she does, we talked on and off through our minds several times. My school wasn't a tenth as hard as hers was. It taught a usual course load, but singled out those who were… gifted. I was stronger than most, so our headmaster used underhanded methods trying to use me for his purposes. River didn't have a choice - once she was in that school, they would make her do as they wished, one way or another."
"Oh." She was frowning. "Why'd you let us think it was the same school?"
Harry sighed. "I didn't think I did, sorry. The school, and it's occupants, barring Sirius and I, are gone now - dead and destroyed. Even if it does come up, that probably is the reason for the mistake. I don't like to talk about it, much."
"God, Harry, I'm so sorry." Kaylee gasped.
He shook his head. "Don't be. We've got bigger and better things to worry about, nowadays." He saw River leaning against Kaylee's doorway and smiled at her. Relieved to see her smile back, apparently he hadn't offended her terribly, he nodded towards Kaylee. "Feel like pampering the pregnant lady for a bit? She's worked hard today and could use a little TLC."
Over Kaylee's protests that she was just fine, River said, "Sure, Harry. I know a couple of the shoulder and temple rubs Inara used to do that will be just the thing, and I brought a bit of tea, too." Harry left them as they opened up the hatch and went inside. He needed to talk to Sirius.
Jayne sat at the mess table with the crew of Saoirse, looking at his hand of cards in mute distaste. These boys played well enough that a bad hand was a severe disadvantage. Mal had strolled through about an hour ago and told them all money wasn't part of the game, so boredom was the only thing keeping them all here. They all kept looking out the door, waiting for news from the big man, Atticus, about their captain. Darien and Jamison were especially distracted, since they were in Captain Bryss' squad during the war, and had known each other for about as long as Mal and Zoe had.
"Not as long as Maine, though." Darien said, shaking his head. "Those two grew up together. Lived in the slums of one of the bigger planets, the ones where they have so many people, the poor just get shoved into a certain district and ignored. Maine's old man was a bastard, his mom had died early, so he hit the streets young. He and the Captain met up, and he's followed her since then. There's been a couple of times when there's been a touch and go situation, but none so bad as this. He's going to need a lotta drink or a good fight after this."
Jayne's ears perked up at that. He wanted a piece of that fight. Atticus looked like he could fight a whole ship of Reavers and keep on going. Casually, he placed his next card and said, "We've got a sweet set up for sparring on this ship - use it fairly often. Try to be accommodating, if'n your man needs that fight." The four men traded looks, and then burst out laughing.
"Oi, Cobb, sparring with the Lieutenant is kinda a death wish." Jamison cautioned with a grin. "That big ole bastard can go truly berserk during a fight - he's usually pretty good in a match, but if he's all wound up, he doesn't always remember to haul on the reins."
Jayne gave them his game and ready grin. "Sounds like fun to me." They all shook their heads at him, and he found he was a bit insulted. "Wha? I could take 'im."
"Look, Cobb, I'm sure you're a great fighter and all, but there ain't many people that can go up against Maine in a fight without getting flattened. You let us handle him when it's time for Maine to decompress." Rhet said, shooting him a look.
"Jayne just gets antsy." Zoe said from where she was leaning against the Mess' counter. To a man, they jumped, no one having seen her walk in. "Nor does he care much if he loses a fight, so long as he got a piece of it."
"Didn't we hear a story about that little girl knockin' you out?" Marcus scoffed. "Seriously, man, if a girl who weighs ninety pounds soaking wet can take you, just sit this one out."
"Oh, Jayne's a fully competent fighter." Zoe said, crossing to the fridge and grabbing out a drink. "But River's out of his league. Yours, too. She could probably beat the lot of you with a had tied behind her back." She watched impassively as the men traded skeptical looks, and shrugged. "Underestimate her at your own peril. But before you go a'challengin' her to preserve some misguided sense of abused honor, watch a spar or two." She gave a little wave of her hand and left them too it.
Jayne glanced around the table. "Well, we goin' to play or what? I'm betting a week of gloating when River hands you your asses on a platter tomorrow morning." And just like that, the game had meaning again.
River paused in brushing Kaylee's hair, and cocked her head sideways. Kaylee glanced at her in the mirror just in time to see her roll her eyes. "What is it, River?"
"Jayne's laying bets on me beating the snot out of the Saoirse boys tomorrow." River sighed. "And he's panting after the idea of having a fight with Atticus. Ever notice how, the longer we're away from a whorehouse, the more violent he gets?"
"Oh, well," Kaylee shrugged. "Jayne." She said the last as if it explained everything. Sadly, it about did the trick. Closing her eyes, she hummed in pleasure as River resumed brushing her hair. It was one of the most soothing things she could think of. After a few moments, she opened her eyes and studied River's face. A slight frown tugged her lips to the side, and her eyes were narrowed in fierce concentration, an unnecessarily intent gaze for a task as simple as hair brushing. "Sweetie, do you want to talk about it?" Kaylee asked quietly.
River glanced up and met her gaze in the mirror, and after a moment shrugged. "I don't know what good it would do, but, yeah, I guess." She let out a long, heaving sigh. "I'm trying to decide if my attraction to Harry is a simple crush or something that doesn't sound so gorram juvenile."
"Oh?" Kaylee kept her voice very cautiously neutral. "What attraction?"
Another sigh. "He's thoughtful, kind, very smart with a great sense of humor. His eyes are amazing, his face is ridiculously handsome, his body even more so. He's taken very good care of me, believes in me, and pushes me to be better, all the time. He makes me laugh."
Kaylee's whipped around, grinning widely, and squeed. River jumped at the high pitched noise, and then laughed as Kaylee started wiggle dancing on the stool and chanting, "I knew it. I knew it. I knew it!" After a couple of minutes of this, the young woman got ahold of herself and clasped River's hands in her own. "So?"
The teen shrugged. "So, what?"
"What do you mean, 'what?' Are you going to tell him?"
River sighed. "He hasn't picked up on it yet. I was kinda hoping to just… ignore it a little longer."
Snorting, Kaylee prodded her. "What good has that done you so far?"
"Well, now he's worried I'm mad at him, or that something's wrong. If I let it go long enough, maybe he'll end up apologizing his way into dating me…" River shrugged again, and her friend laughed.
"You should tell him. If he thinks something's wrong, then he's obviously picked up on something. How long do you think you can keep it from him?" Kaylee queried, and River let out an annoyed huff.
"Sirius and Zoe already guessed. They, too, have placed a wager on if it will be clueless Harry or me that says something, how, and how long we'll pretend nothing has changed." She mumbled. "And Harry's smart. He'd figure it out eventually. Simon's not going to like it."
Kaylee rolled her eyes. That was the understatement of the year. Half the time she wondered if her husband even realized River had been out of diapers for years now. "I will do my best to temper his reaction, but, honestly, do us all a favor, just don't tell him for a while. It's hard enough to get privacy on a ship. If people still think all you two are doing in yours or his bunk is meditating, you'll both get a chance to feel out the relationship a bit before we all come horning in."
"So… you think I should tell Harry." River looked a bit uncomfortable, but intrigued nonetheless.
"Sweetie, Harry has been trying his hardest to be your support and mentor this past month. I wouldn't be surprised if he's locked any romantic thoughts away so as not to impede your progress. Tell him. I think you'll be surprised by his answer."
River nodded slowly. "Let me finish with your hair, and then it's my turn on the bridge."
"Oi, Padfoot. Any bets on who finds us out, first?" Harry asked drily after shutting the hatch.
"Who out?" Sirius asked, not having paused in whatever he was waving his wand over. Harry got a little closer, and saw it was one of the shampoo bottles the crew used.
"Who's that for?" He asked warily.
"I'm not sure yet. I'm trying to spell it so that every time they try to wash it out, it changes colors. I'm thinking River."
Harry snorted. "She'll see it in your mind and swap it with yours. Leave her out of it until we've got her sorted out, she doesn't need any distractions. Why not Zoe?"
Sirius shuddered. "I don't have a death wish. I'll figure it out. Who's discovering what?"
Harry sat down on Sirius' bed and raised a brow. "You, me, magic. What else would I be talking about?"
"Haven't a clue." Sirius replied a bit too quickly.
Harry narrowed his eyes at him, frowning. "Uh-huh." He said suspiciously. Sirius grinned and said nothing. Rolling his eyes, Harry continued. Kaylee asked why we let them think River and I attended the same school. I said I hadn't intended to. Told her mine was much more benign to most students, but they pandered to those who had 'gifts.' That I hadn't corrected anyone because our school was dead and gone."
"Sticking to the truth helps." Sirius said lightly, then shrugged. "It's bound to happen sometime, though I'd rather it not while we've got strangers aboard. Kaylee will probably figure us out first, in all honesty. We both let our guard down around her, can't help it, really."
"She's a bit like Luna, all cheerful and friendly. Easy to talk to." Harry sighed. "I got a bit lost in thought and nearly pulled my wand on her when she shouted at me." He stretched his arms over his head, then folded them to prop his head onto, cocking a leg up. "Have you noticed anything odd about her? When she's working in the engine room or tinkering with a broken part at the table?"
Sirius turned the chair around so that he was sitting in it backwards, folding his arms on the backrest and propping his chin on them. "Odd like how she had that broken whatsit and managed to tinker on it long enough for the broken piece to form anew? Or odd how that bit of tinkering wearied her so much that she conked out at the dinner table. If I didn't know better, I'd say she'd just performed a low level, accidental reparo."
"But we don't know better, do we?" Harry mused. "Magic exists in this time - is it the same magic from our world, just degraded after years of… what? No interplanetary magical system? Is there even a Wizarding Society any more?"
Sirius shrugged. "We keep asking those questions, don't we? I'm not sure if we'll ever have an answer to them. But if River has it, do you think Simon does, too?"
"I didn't think so at first - I can feel magic in people here, if they're using it, or have used it recently. Simon only uses it while healing - Leandra Bryss shouldn't have survived her torture. Even with the limited healing I was able to perform on her, no amount of muggle surgery should have pulled her back. He had to have healed her magically while he was working on her."
"Hm…" Sirius frowned pensively for a few moments, then shook himself, a move that put Harry strongly in mind of the man's animagus form. "Interesting, but not much we can do about it one way or the other. I don't get the feel of magic from anyone else on the crew - you're more sensitive than I am when it comes to these things - have you noticed anyone else with … the knack?"
"Nope." Harry stared at the ceiling with a frown, then decided to voice what was really bothering him. "Hey, Sirius, how do you know when you've pissed off a woman?"
"Unless you're unusually dense, it's not all that hard to tell. Best way to figure it is to ask if they're mad. If they say no right away then you know not only is she mad, but you're the reason she's hacked off."
Harry scowled. "River's acting weird around me."
Sirius pressed his lips together. "Harry, we're talking about River - weird pretty much is the first adjective that comes to mind when it comes to her. I made a comment the other day about nothing surprising me, and she popped off something about skinning and eating baby pandas. Not only weird, but it turned my stomach a little."**
His godson chuckled, then let a little laugh. "You offered the challenge. You have no one to blame but yourself."
Sirius laughed with him for a moment, shaking his head. After a few moments, he shook his head. "I wouldn't worry, Harry. River's never struck me as someone who lets things sit overlong. If you've done anything that bothers her, she'll get around to telling you in the next couple of days. Most likely, you haven't done a thing, she's just doing some thinking."
Harry sighed and sat up. "Thank you, Padfoot."
They both looked around when the hatch hissed open and the object of their conversation descended halfway down the ladder.
"Hey Sirius. Harry, Captain wants us to take over the bridge." She narrowed her eyes on the bottle Sirius had been tinkering with. "I like my hair how it is, thanks. Maybe you can put your talent to better use bringing down the tension building up between our untrained-ape Jayne and Saoirse's first mate? They're both so ready to fight one another and haven't stopped sniping yet."
Harry groaned. "Merlin's hairy balls, River, don't give the man ideas. He really doesn't need the help."
River grinned. "But they're annoying. All that tension, and no broom closet to spare." Sirius let out a surprised guffaw and Harry shook his head.
"Come on, River." Harry said, leaping to his feet and rushing the ladder. "Let's go pilot before you give the maniac any more ideas."
Sirius let out a crowing laugh of delight behind them. "No need, Harry! Inspiration has struck again."
"Now you've done it." Harry ushered River out of the room and firmly shut the hatch on his godfather's maniacal laughter. He turned and glared at her. "Whatever he does now, when he gets caught, I'm implicating you as part of the cause."
She giggled and skipped towards the bridge, completely unphased by his threat. Harry grinned ruefully and followed. They would have a day or two before Sirius did anything. The man liked to take his time to plan when inspiration hit. It would give him time to observe his prey - and Harry would be extra paranoid, because Sirius liked to strike right when someone thought they were safe.
Three days after the rescue, Captain Bryss had yet to regain consciousness. Mal, Simon, Zoe and Harry had taken shifts staying with her in the event of her health taking a sudden plunge southward, but Atticus hadn't left her side. He ate little, and slept fitfully, and eyed everyone who entered the Med Bay with such a burning, baleful look of suspicion, Mal was surprised no one had burst into flames yet. If Bryss did pass, Mal wasn't sure this man would survive it. He'd seen it before, devotion that had no base in romance, but the sheer belief that this person helped hold the world together, and without them…
He eyed her healing wounds, still stark in the unforgiving light of the Med Bay. Mal's eyes traced the pale line of surgical adhesive holding together the tatters of the Captain's ear, and felt the echo of his own torture at Niska's hand. A long line of healing tissue, with the pale, pearlescent surgical adhesive standing stridently against the separated flesh ran from the corner of her right eye, followed her cheekbone and truncated at the point of her jaw. A shorter line ran from the corner of her left eye to the base of her uninjured ear. Her face was bruised, but the swelling had come down significantly.
The rest of the damage was hidden by the sheets. He wondered how this woman would recover. Not physically. No, he wondered if the crazy fucker who tortured her had broken her. That much pain, that much damage would have shattered most. He'd had some bad days after Niska, and that bugnut bastard hadn't done a tenth to him what Jeremy had done to Bryss.
Her lashes fluttered, then her lids cracked open. Hazy storm blue eyes regarded him with a chilling blankness before they shuttered closed again. Her throat worked. "Who?" She croaked, barely audible. Her lieutenant rolled out of the bed behind Mal, looming up beside her.
"A friend, Lea. Helped us pull you out of the fire."
A very small smile crooked the corners of the woman's mouth. "Att-" she cut off, swallowing painfully. Mal moved to the other side of the bed and picked up the glass of water from the tray. Holding it up to where she could see it, he waited for her nod before lowering it to her lips. She sipped at it before turning her head away slightly. "Did you leave me a piece of the bastard?" Her whisper was less hoarse, but barely audible still.
Atticus shook his head. "Nah, Leandra. There's a little slip of a girl on this ship that nailed that psychotic low life where it hurts. His days of giggling like a school boy are over."
"Damn." She hissed. "Would've liked to return the favor, sometime when I wasn't all tied up." Her eyes drifted shut again, the meds doing their work.
The big man chuckled softly, and patted the pillow next to her head. "You'll do, Cap. Rest up, now, plenty more well-armed assholes out there waiting for you to come a'callin." Her lips crooked in that slight smile once more, then she slept. Atticus sighed, and fussed with the blankets a bit.
Mal watched her first mate as the grin slid off his face. Cold fury was in the man's eyes, highlighted in the white flags of temper caused by his clenched jaws. He could almost feel the rage coming off of the man, almost taste his fear.
"She means a lot to you." He said it quietly, not wanting to break the control Atticus was struggling to maintain.
A few breaths passed before Atticus nodded. "Grew up together in the slums. We stole to eat, and had each other's backs against the dangers of that kind of life. Military was the way to get out of it, but serving for the Alliance left a sour taste in my mouth. When she left for the Independents, I went with her. Never seen her this banged up before."
"She's tough as nails."
"Ha. If we'd given her more time, she'd've broken that bastard with sheer will alone." Atticus said with false bravado. "You're right. She's a fighter, and doesn't have any backup in her."
"Son, you need to get out of here for a while. Go sleep in a real bed, or if you can't do that, take advantage of the workout equipment in the cargo bay. Most everyone is asleep, but Harry and River are in the bridge if you'd like conversation. I'll stay with your captain in case she wakes up again." He met the man's light colored eyes as Atticus stared him down, knowing the man was trying to decide how far he could trust him. Finally, he just nodded, and let himself out. Mal settled onto the bench-like ledge next to the observation window, preparing himself for a long night.
They'd switched on autopilot and climbed up to his bunk for a bit meditation practice. It was going rather more poorly than usual. River was nervous. Toe tapping, shifting from edge to edge of her seat, fidgety nervous. Her big, obvious wall was up still, and Harry had the uncomfortable feeling he'd really managed to piss her off. The meditation she was trying to hold kept breaking, so instead of sitting across from one another in the mindscape, she kept flickering in and out, and finally, Harry let his concentration go with a sigh. Enough of this.
Opening his eyes, he regarded the girl sitting cross-legged on his bunk resignedly, taking in the frustrated, and sheepish moue she made of her mouth. "Ok, River, we've ignored this long enough. What did I do?"
She took in a deep breath, and let it out in a gusty sigh, staring down at her hands as if they had just reached out and slapped her for no reason at all. "Fine." She murmured softly, then louder, she said, "fine." Looking up at him, she steeled herself and said:
"I have a stupidly insipid crush on you - the word 'crush' being the stupid and insipid part, the crush being more like an extreme fondness and attachment that looks a lot like love, though I have no experience whatsoever in, so how the hell should I know? All I know is that when I'm near you, my heart speeds up, there's not enough air in the room, I get lost in your eyes, you make me very aware of myself as a woman, I love the sound of your voice and the way you talk, and am very attracted to you." This was all said very fast, and she ended with a helpless shrug.
She'd flummoxed him proper. He couldn't have been more surprised if she'd pulled out a niffler and slapped him across the face with it. Poleaxed might be the proper term. How did women make these leaps? He'd been focused on what had made her angry with him, and this had been the answer? Where was the segue? And now, even though she'd made it pretty clear what had been bothering her, he needed to make sure, for his own sanity, that they were on the same page.
"So, just to be clear, having a cru - lov- liking me isn't the reason you're angry with me?"
River narrowed her eyes at him and let out an exasperated huff. "Harry, I'm not mad at you." There was a strongly implied 'not yet' in her tone, but there was also a smile tugging at the corner of her lips.
"Well, that's a relief, isn't it?" He said, more to himself than anything, and found an answering smile on his lips. Given just a half-second of thought, he could seriously entertain the idea of a relationship with River. She was witty, quick, and funny. She had fire in her, gave as good as she got in any situation. She had a grace that imbued everything she did, even her fighting, effectively brutal as it was, looked like dancing. Her eyes were the depths of the universe between the stars. She was a stunningly beautiful woman, lithesome and ethereal. He respected her strength and perseverance and could honestly say he enjoyed spending time with her more than anyone he'd ever known. To be quite honest with himself, he had a bit of hero worship for her. She'd reached into his life years ago, despite the troubles of her own, and redirected his life in such a way that he'd had meaning and value to it again. She'd saved him on so many levels.
"That's a mutual thing." She told him firmly, her face flushed with pleasure. "You gave me back my sanity. I can walk in crowds again and follow one steady thought. I can converse like an intelligent person, without someone's thoughts throwing me into chaos. I owe you so much, but it's more than that. I like your company, the way you make me laugh, even when I don't feel very much like laughing. How strong and determined you are, how viciously efficient in a fight. How giving and selfless you are despite all the reasons in the 'Verse not to be."
"My stunning eyes and silken midnight locks don't weigh in?" He asked it with a wry smile, and she blushed, recognizing the words as her own thoughts.
"I haven't been half as subtle as I thought I was, have I?" She asked, glancing away from him as embarrassment creeped up her cheeks.
He chuckled, and gently touched her cheek, guiding her eyes back to his own. "River, no. If anything, I'm surprised you haven't picked up on my own… romantic musings."
"Oh?" She asked, though she was distracted by his touch, and warmth of a different sort rushing through her, and the movement of his lips. "What kind of romantic musings?"
"Hm. If your hair was really as soft as it looked. If you really walked around or had some magic that subtly floated you just above the ground." He smiled, and there was something in his gaze that made her stomach flip flop and flip again. "If kissing you would be as good as I imagined." And so saying, he pressed his lips to hers, and a different sort of madness settled in - River yielded to it gladly.
Jayne hadn't liked the look of the Lieutenant when he'd caught a glimpse of him in the cargo bay, whaling on the punching bag like the thing had mortally offended him. Something about the man put Jayne in mind of the first time he'd ever run into Reavers, back before he'd met up with Mal and Zoe and joined the crew. His old crew had come across what was left of a ship after the Reavers had finished with it, moving through the floating bodies just long enough to get a good look at what had been done to them. Most were without their skins, and even with the way space altered bodies, it didn't take much imagination to guess what had been done to all them people. They'd like out of there as if the hounds of hell were snapping at their heels. The fear had driven Jayne to drink. He'd never been so drunk as that, before or since. He really hated Reavers.
Atticus looked like he was fighting his own demons, and as much as Jayne would like to instigate a fight, he didn't think he'd get a fight so much as a pounding if he pushed for one right now. Instead, he'd gone back to his bunk and grabbed the growler of the distilled whiskey his brother had sent as a birthday gift this year. It was potent stuff; perfect for chasing demons away. Stopping in the mess, he grabbed a couple glasses and headed back to the cargo bay.
"You look like you need a drink." He said brusquely, once he'd made it down the stairs and over to the workout area.
The big man glanced over at him, then grabbed the swinging bag to steady it. He picked up his shirt, discarded sometime earlier, and used it to mop the sweat off his face before coming to sit next to Jayne on the large boxes that housed supplies and served as impromptu seating whenever a match was going on. "I never say no to a good brew."
Jayne handed him a glass before knocking back his own. Swallowing, he pulled a face. "Can't claim it's a good brew, Mattie ain't all that good at distillin'. Still, it's strong enough to knock out a horse, so it's got that going for it."
Atticus knocked back two glasses before asking, "Mattie?"
"My brother. Sent me this for my birthday. Mom sent me this hat last year."
"I had hoped that hat had sentimental value." Atticus said drily, and Jayne bristled.
"What's wrong with my hat?"
"Nothing," Atticus said, eyeing the handknit, vibrantly orange thing with flaps as if it were an armed explosive. "It's… shrewd."
In spite of himself, Jayne had to laugh at that. "Our old pilot said the same thing. Told me I was fearless for wearing it." He poured out another couple of fingers in both of their glasses, and they both took a minute to sip at their drinks. The alcohol was strong, and was starting to kick in.
"Did he say it just like that?" When Jayne stared at him blankly, Atticus prompted, "your hat. Did he tell you you were fearless, or did he say it some other way?"
"Said it." Jayne grumbled. "Something like, 'if a man walks down the street wearing that hat, you know he's not afraid of anything.'"
Atticus laughed aloud. "I have to agree with the man. He was the one your first mate was married to?"
"Yeah, Wash." Jayne took a deep drink and sighed. "He was annoyingly chipper all of the time, but an ace pilot, and he kept Zoe in a good mood most of the time."
"She's intense, that's for sure." Atticus replied, and grunted. "Leandra would probably like her though." Jayne glanced up at the man, and offered him another pour with a gesture. Atticus held out his cup, and Jayne filled it instead of putting just a dollop in it.
"Trying to get me drunk, Cobb?" Atticus asked, taking another sip.
Shrugging, Jayne said, "Seemed like you needed it, Maine. Either that or we were going to need a new punching bag."
He grunted. "Needed to pound something."
"Didn't seem like it was working for you." Jayne observed. "Thought drink might, but if you're needing a real fight, I'm up for it."
Atticus eyed him skeptically. "You want a fight?"
Swelling his chest, Jayne said, "I can take you."
A grin lit up the man's eyes and he knocked back the rest of his drink and stood. "You gonna hold it against me if the good doctor has to patch you up?"
Jayne drained his own glass, hawked and spit out the taste. "Keep talking, big guy. I'll make you eat those words." The drink was in him good, now, and he grinned as he stepped onto the mat. Atticus swayed a step or two, but seemed to catch his balance as he also moved to the mat. "Bare knuckled good for you?"
The lieutenant's grin matched his own as he fell into a fighting stance. "Bring on the pain. Ain't no wimps in this corner."
The fight lasted several rounds, each round finished with a swig of a truly vile, but potent beverage. Harry poked his head late that night, wanting to make sure the two men weren't really attempting to kill each other. At that point, Jayne was leading Atticus through the third rendition of the Mudder's Lament, staggering around the bay with glasses raised over their heads as they drunkenly sang.
"Round two!" Jayne shouted when they polished off the next glass.
"T'inks it's round…" Atticus squinted at the wall, trying to wrap his swirling head around the numbers. "Don' know. More than that. Two and Oh, maybe."
"Who gives a gorram about what number it is?" Jayne roared. "Let's fight!" He promptly jigged sideways and teetered into Atticus, and they went down in a pile.
Shaking his head, Harry retreated. He'd almost made it back to the bridge when the opening of a hatch caught his attention. Sirius climbed out of his room, saw Harry and gave him a great big wink before turning and strolling towards the cargo bay. Harry was certain Sirius was carrying out his plot on the two men, and couldn't wait to see the result. Since his godfather would be occupied for awhile, Harry crossed to his bunk and let himself in. Grabbing up the charmed bottle of shampoo Sirius had been working on, Harry switched it with the one in the shower - all of the bottles were identical. Then he muttered a few spells over the enchanted bottle, changing the existing spells just enough that a quick finite incantatem wouldn't be enough. Grinning, Harry ascended to the catwalk and rejoined River in the bridge.
"Merlin's shaggy blue balls." Harry cursed stopping just as he crossed into the bridge.
River looked back at him with amusement. "Finally settling in, huh?"
"This is what Sirius' has been hinting at this whole time, isn't it?" Harry collapsed into his chair and let out a huff. "That bloody bastard."
"He and Zoe have been betting on when we'd get together for a couple weeks now." She replied, and he sighed disgustedly.
"There is nothing in the 'Verse that bitch's whelp won't bet on." He grumbled, and she laughed.
"I think he'll look good with blue violet hair. Might give Zoe a double take - maybe something to take interest in."
Harry straightened and gave her an appraising glance. "There's an idea. You think she's ready to look past the past?"
"Not yet. Not really. But Sirius has made more inroads than he knows." River shrugged. "They'd be good for one another - he deserves a woman that can scare him. Just a little, every once in a while." Harry chuckled low and shook his head.
"He's lucky if she doesn't shoot him first."
"Well, there's that." River shrugged.
They were quiet for a few long moments, enjoying each other's company with a the relish of a new relationship. Harry broke the silence later with a musing, "say, River."
"What are the stakes of Sirius' and Zoe's bet?"
River grinned at him, and he let his slow, patented Marauder's grin answer. They had their own game to play.
Waking up wasn't quite as painful as Jayne thought it would be. He was expecting a painful hangover, seeing as trying to out drink Atticus Maine was one of the stupider things he'd done since betraying Simon and River on Ariel. Instead he kinda floated into wakefullness slow-like, not quite sure what roused him until he heard the hushed murmur of voices. He could have opened his eyes, but he was warm, and comfortable, and that floating feeling hadn't quite left him yet.
"How do they get the cheekbones looking that sharp?" Zoe's voice asked quietly. She sounded like she was trying not to laugh.
"Those eyelashes, though!" Kaylee agreed, her voice filled with envy. "Back home, the girls and I would have killed to be able to manage lush, beautiful lashes like those. How is it even possible?"
"It just ain't fair that a man's legs can look that damned good in hose and high heels." Zoe complained. "Never would have thought he would look this good, either."
Darien's voice crowed softly. "Ooooh, man. I can't wait to see how old Atti reacts when he wakes up - kinda terrified, actually. You getting this, Rhet?"
The other man laughed gleefully, and was shushed by several different voices. "You betcha. Sent a clip to each of you, just in case he forces one of us to destroy the evidence."
Mal sounded flummoxed. "Can someone explain the hair to me? I get how people can color it, and I know he's been wearing that rutting hat around lately, but I coulda sworn it was shorter."
Sirius answered him. "That's what you're focusing on?" The man sounded like he was being strangled. "Honestly, Mal, I can't get past the dress - do you think he had that hidden on the ship somewhere?" Snorted laughs and choked chuckles went off like gunshots around him. Jayne was starting to feel very uncomfortable.
Harry's too-cheerful voice chuckled quietly. "If they had walked in off the street, I never would have recognized them. Now the image is never going away."
"Right?!" Kaylee exclaimed. "They're smoking hot - Zoe's right. It just ain't fair that men can look so sharp when they put the effort into it."
"How much make-up did they have to use to cover the bruises?" Mal asked wonderingly.
Zoe sounded surprised. "Sir? You're not thinking they did this to themselves, are you? Did you see how drunk they were last night?"
"Huh… you're right. I can't see either of them owning enough cosmetics to pull this off - but who has this kind of talent with make-up? And where did the dresses come from? And how is Jayne's hair so long?"
Wait, what? Jayne opened his eyes and sat bolt upright. The crew, both crews, leapt back. "What in the rutting hell is going on here?" Everyone except for Simon and Captain Bryss stood around him and - belatedly he realized someone's arm was wrapped around him. Looking down he saw Atticus groan and roll into a sitting position. Had the man been… cuddling him? "Mal?" It came out as a squeak.
"Kinda was hoping you could sort this out for me, Jayne."
Another detail had caught his attention. Then another, and another. With dawning horror, Jayne stared down at his hands, at the carefully manicured and painted nails, at the black ruffles of a thigh length party dress, the fishnet hose and bright green high heels stretched out in front of him. He could feel his eyes getting wider and wider. Atticus made a choked noise, and he whipped his head around to stare at the… woman?
Atticus wore a similar style green party dress - seemingly complete with an impressively sized rack, black high heels and thigh high white stockings. A wig was slightly askew on the man's head, blonde, curling and luscious. The biggest transformation was the man's face - he looked like a woman, full make-over. Lush red lips, mile-long eyelashes with dramatic eyeliner and enough eyeshadow to cover the hull of Serenity and what could only be several layers of makeup and contouring bringing out a feminine sharpness in his facial features. Atticus stared back at him in astonishment before a grin began to spread over his face and he looked at his crewmates.
"Someone please tell me I look as pretty as Jayne." The crews burst into delighted laughter.
"Real shiny, Lieutenant." Jamison said immediately. "You could pass for one of them Companions, or a movie star stepping onto the red carpet. Didn't know you had it in you."
The big man levered himself up, teetering on the stilettos until Marcus gave him a steadying arm to grab. "Rutting hell, how do women wear these things?" He asked cautiously standing up to his full height.
"Careful," Zoe said, managing to hold onto her neutral face through some herculean feat. "Once you find out, you might just have to keep doing it."
Wincing as he took a few unsteady steps, Atticus shook his head. "Never understood why women tortured themselves this way - these things aren't comfortable in the least."
"Aw, keep em on, Lieutenant," Darien wheedled. "Just long enough to toddle in to see the Captain? She'll be mad as hell if she misses this."
Snorting, Atticus shrugged. "Someone went through an awful lot of trouble to get me all done up pretty. Fine, let's go show Leandra." His blue green eyes, astounding outlined in khol, speared each person as he roved over them, and the amusement wasn't evident in his voice when he spoke again. "I will find out who did this. I don't expect you'll regret it, but you will pay." Everyone was doing their best to radiate innocence as he wobbled out of the cargo bay with his crew.
Jayne scowled as everyone left turned to stare at him. "If I find out who did it first, there won't be enough left of you for Maine to take collection." Most of the crew, while looking highly amused, seemed to be trying to contain their hilarity. Though mortified, Jayne thought this might not be too terrible, right up until he saw the devilish grin on River's face.
"I told you before," She crooned. "Jayne is a girl's name." Amid the crew's gales of laughter, Jayne hurled expletives at her as he kicked off the heels and stormed out of the cargo bay. He didn't think it could get any worse until he nearly bowled Simon over, coming around the corner of the common area. Simon's eyes went wide as he stumbled back from Jayne, his mouth falling open in his astonishment. Leaving the man to gape like a fish, Jayne slammed into his bunk.
Someone was going to pay for this.
The urge to laugh was still with Mal some hours later when he checked in on their patient. Leandra Bryss was sitting up, the bruises on her face a few shades lighter than they had been when he'd seen her last. He swore the Doc had a better grasp on medicine than any other doctor in the verse. Her eyes were alert as she watched him come in. Simon also turned to regard him.
"Afternoon, Doctor, Captain Bryss. You look like you're feeling better."
She grinned impishly at him. "It's not everyday you get to see your lieutenant in full drag. Whoever managed that has a raw talent that can't be denied."
"Any idea who got the resident tough men in drag, Captain?" Simon asked, noting Mal's irrepressible smirk.
"If I had to guess, I'd say it was Black. But it could just as well have been a combined effort of our esteemed pilots."
Leandra laughed huskily, her voice still raw and raspy. "As far as I'm concerned, Atticus earned it, getting that drunk and making all that racket last night. What in the 'Verse were they singing, anyway?"
Mal snorted, and told her of the very special experience in Jaynestown. Simon shook his head. "I still can't believe it happened. I mean, Jayne, of all people. It was the one experience in my life when I would have agreed with being committed, because, obviously, I had gone insane."
"No," Leandra said with a smirk. "Jayne didn't strike me as 'the giving sort.'"
"It was the idea of him, and, though comical from our side of things, those people derived hope out of believing someone cared enough to drop a case of money in the middle of town, defy their overlord, and get away. In a truly twisted sense, their belief in Jayne improved their standards of living. Not by much." Mal shrugged.
"'Better' is good enough when you're that far down the pit." Leandra murmured. "Without perspective, if 'good enough' is all you see, there's no reason to look for more. Perspective…" She murmured the word again, musingly, and winced. "I didn't realize perspective could hurt so damn much. I knew Alliance drones with mind-reading powers were bad, but I'm pretty damned sure, now, more cracked sons of bitches like Jeffrey is the absolute worst thing the Alliance has going right now."
"My first mate told me he was a piece of work." Mal replied, frowning.
"Had everything, information wise, he needed in the first hour of my time with him." She replied flatly. "He didn't need to hurt me, just be in the same room and ask the right questions as he skated through my mind. No mind exercises I knew worked to keep him out or mislead him. When he was finished gathering, that's when the knives came out." She gave a snort of disgust. "Undisciplined as hell. He was so eager to get to the cutting, he didn't bother to stop and relate the information he gathered. When I shouted for his superiors, he laughed. 'No recordings in here, Captain. The Alliance isn't ready to talk about me yet, not even to its own. I'll get my fun, then I'll take your secrets to my masters."
Mal propped his hip against the counter and crossed his arms, regarding her. Her color was much improved, her eyes alert, her scars less lurid than the day before. When he'd first laid eyes on the woman Zoey and Atticus were toting in, he thought she was a goner. Now she looked ready to grab a piece and charge back into the fray. He admired and understood her courage and strength of will - torture didn't leave many people sound of mind afterwards - especially to the lengths she'd been …
He noticed her eyes were steady on him in return and offered her a crooked smile. She motioned to her ear. "You get that hacked off in battle?" Leandra asked, meaning his own reattached ear.
"Nah, had a run in with Adelai Niska some years back. We did a heist for him, found out the stuff we took was medicine for a whole village of miners with lung rot and returned it, returned Niska's money, and killed his bogeyman. Hacked him off enough that when he ran into my pilot and I, he took us in for a little chat."
Leandra whistled. "That man was a piece of work - wait, you were what happened to him? His whole base was laid open like a nut - who did you get to help you and how did you convince them to keep quiet?"
Mal shrugged. "We had a mighty sketchy preacher with amazing marksmanship skills, took a lot of men out by the kneecaps. Other than that, I have a mighty fine crew."
She stared at him for a full minute before letting out a ringing laugh. "Just like that." She snapped her fingers and shook her head. "I guess I'll give some credit to Old Hannah's wartime stories about you and Zoey. Always thought they had a mite of exaggeration to them - 'cept everyone we know who'd served with you backed those stories up. We've still been fighting, you know? Georgie has a mind for details; he's been stretching the Alliance out for years, setting them back, taking out supply posts. After Miranda, and with the Alliance blowing a whole gorram moon from the sky, we're stepping it up a little. Another rebellion is building up, and we could use a crew like the one who took on Niska's stronghold and left nothing but an empty shell behind."
Mal met her gaze steadily. "I've been thinking about it. But the whole Miranda episode cost my crew it's heart, so I'm going to think about it a bit longer before I point my rudder back to war."
"For all accounts, you've been an outstanding leader." She said quietly. "Who has lost a lot of men under your command. You weren't the man who decided to take a platoon out onto Serenity. You weren't the man who called air support back and let the Alliance rain fire on the bulk of our troops. You did the best you could in a shitty situation, and you made it out of there alive. I can't tell you this time will be different, war means lives get ruined, wasted and thrown away. But that's already happening - the Alliance was bad back then, well, they're worse now, tell me I'm wrong." Her eyes challenged him, lightning flashed in the stormcloud blue. "If you're anything like Georgie, or I, you the old ring leaders of the Browncoat Rebellion were a moronic crowd of dreamers and simpletons. Georgie's got the reins, and he's been leading the Alliance on a merry chase for almost a decade now, with none the wiser. This is our chance to do it over again, to do it right. Your crew saved my life - is that good enough? Will you let it stop there?"
He held her gaze for a long while, thinking her question over with the weight it deserved. "I don't know, yet."
He could feel her eyes burning into his back as he walked away.
Mal sat in a brown study in the bridge, regarding Wash's dinosaur collection and weighing his options. Too many options, and too few. Leandra's questions turned round in his head like a river stone, smooth, odd shaped. "Is that good enough? Will you let it stop there?"
He'd joined the Browncoats as a young, idealistic man, fresh off his home planet, smarter than most, more educated than several, and so new the paint had hardly dried. He had believed implacably that the Alliance was wrong, wrong enough to be worth losing his life over. Wrong enough to risk other's lives. They'd lost, and the paint had been scratched off and dented, but despite all of these years of running from that boy's idealisms, he found he still believed in them. Possibly even believed them more. The tides were turning again, and he felt the call to battle in his bones, a thrum he couldn't displace, couldn't ignore. Miranda and all of her secrets had started the turn, and the Alliance panic-stricken efforts to contain the information and control had fueled the fire. Another revolution movement was rising, another surge for Independence would begin soon, Mal knew that on a gut level, without talking to any of his old war buddies. Would his crew join him? He'd need to talk to them soon. Give them the option to abandon ship. And he thought he knew what his first move would be, another strike against the Alliance, another big secret, one that would enrage the upper echelon of society as well as the more common peoples. But he needed more information first, needed to plan and gather and accomplish. They could do it on their own, but if there were like minded individuals out there, ones he could reasonably trust to do a mission without taking the terrorist's road, it would be a good start for a Browncoat revival…
A slight scuff announced River's presence. She settled into her chair, adjusting a few dials minorly before turning to regard him with her clear-sighted brown eyes. They were sharper nowadays, keen and all too knowing. The little girl, the innocent madling she'd hidden behind while what the Academy had done to her scrambled her mind had been displaced, and the eighteen year old woman who'd endured too much already retained her mind and composure so much more often. He liked that woman. Trusted her to look after his crew, considered her family. But, despite being happy she was on the mend, he sometimes missed the child.
"Well, what do you think of my plans, meimei?" He asked. "I think it's about time to put them into action."
River gazed at him consideringly. "It doesn't bother you that I can Read you. It never really has, has it?"
"Aside from being a little on the freaky, 'these-things-don't-happen' side of things, no. I'm good at being a Captain, but not so good at being a friend. You knowing what I'm thinking means you know all of it, not just the orders. That sometimes makes me uncomfortable, but not often."
She nodded slowly. "You think of me as a daughter, under your protection. As much as you believe striking the Academy is a good move for the new war, and I agree with you, this is retribution, too. You want to make them pay for the harm they caused me, for the harm they caused others like me. And you think it will help me to bring them low." River took a deep breath. "I can make sense of my nightmares, now. I remember what they did, and what I did, clearly. You are right. There are a thousand places that would be just as good, but this is a great first strike for a Revolution."
Mal smiled slightly. Being right had seldom been a cause for joy, but he was glad she thought so.
"Also," River let a cold, predatory smile turn up her lips. "I want that opportunity to put an end to the Academy. I will help you. You should know - it was General Hannah that gave the OK for the crew that helped Simon rescue me."
Mal sat frozen over the implications, mentally wracking through the implications caused by that bit of news. Slowly, he began laying some of those points out. "The crew that rescued you was part of the Resistance." When River nodded he continued. "Georgie ordered it?"
"They were laying groundwork for a Brown coat nest there, and Simon was making too much noise, stirring up too much attention. He and I were just the distraction they needed to continue their work." River shrugged. "The Independents are alive and kicking, Captain. With Georgie at the helm, I think there's a chance of winning the war."
Georgie never did anything for free. If he let River know this out right…
"Did you Read this on him, or did he tell you?" Mal asked.
"Told me. Just after he assigned us the rescue and sabotage mission."
"What was his price?"
"That I talk you into fighting for him. I agreed, because you were already thinking of going back - I didn't tell him that." She smirked at him. "He'll be so impressed with my sneaky ways, won't he?"
Mal snorted despite himself.
"He says he needs you. He believes it, too. If you ask for aid in this maneuver as a requirement for joining, he'll put his resources behind us in a second." River's dark eyes met his. "The train is leaving the station, Captain. Are we going to board it?"
Mal stood, mouth in a pensive frown. He agreed it was time to join the fight if he wanted a piece of it, but he needed to talk to Zoe first, and then the rest of the crew. He'd made it to the door before River's soft voice stopped him again.
He paused, looking over his shoulder. There was a trace of uncertainty on her face, an unusual hesitation. "Osiris was our home. Simon learned a lot of things he didn't like about our parents, those years I was in the Academy. It will be hard for him to go back."
"And you?" Mal was stung by the almost ancient sadness that passed over River's features.
"They came to the facility, once. They had something on my father, blackmail of some sort. He funded the Academy, and attached his name to it afterwards. Reassured other parents it was the place to send their gifted. They signed papers giving the Academy complete custody of me. They signed papers declaring me insane, and unable to function in society without a custodian. I could feel them on the other side of the glass, even if I couldn't see them. My mother was relieved. I was too difficult, even as a child, and at 14, when she was just starting to glimpse the woman I was going to become, she knew I wouldn't follow society as she thought I ought. That I would be difficult, object to the way things had to be. She thought, even though it hurt her to see her little girl raving mad and experimented on, it was a neat solution to the difficulties I might have caused. They didn't know about the Academy when I decided to go there, but they went along with it, after they knew. Simon is my brother, but I don't have parents. Not any more."
Sometime during her explanation, he'd turned to face her completely. Fury thrummed in his veins at the betrayal she'd faced at the hands of her parents. To passively ignore your child's well being was bad enough, but this? "You have a family, River. We're not much, but we won't ever leave you behind, and we will do our best to protect you, just as you will do your best for us."
Sunlight was cracking the cold impassiveness behind her eyes, and a small smile graced her lips. "Thanks, Captain."
Mal turned and strode out of the bring. It was time to have a purpose again.
Mal looked around the gallery, all the faces of his crew present and accounted for. He felt Zoe's presence behind him, knew she was studying these faces as hard as he. She'd heard him out about taking this next step, not saying a word or giving away a single thought while he talked himself hoarse. In the end, she'd informed him bluntly that not too long ago she would have considered living peaceful, trying to set up a family and live life rightly. The Alliance hadn't let that happened, so she'd just have to settle for living rightly, and dying rightly, if it came to that. She was with him, so he'd gathered the crew, distracted Leandra's boys, and here they all were.
Harry had set the bird on autopilot with some sort of tricky proximity alert he seemed supremely confident in and so all the pilots sat at attention, too. They had their serious faces on, knowing that whatever they were discussing would be job-related, possibly more. River and Simon sat expressionless, knowing what this conversation was about. They would join him, not just for this mission but for the duration of the war. Kaylee, too, though it was not a wonderful situation for a woman with a babe about to be born. Jayne… he was almost certain Jayne would join, if only to get his fill of fighting. The newest members of his crew were his largest concern, and that not a big one. He was certain of their characters. But would they fight a war with him?
"You all know Zoe and I fought in the Unification War. You know what side we were on, and what we believed in. I think you believe in similar things, and I think that because you thought Miranda, and the doings on it, were vile and needed to be shared, you would fight on the side of independence, should the war begin anew." He paused, teeth clenched and slowly meeting every one's gaze. "Miranda has set things in motion again, and another war is coming. I can feel it in my boots. I think the outcome will be different this time. I know it will be. What the Alliance accomplished in Unification only strengthened the resolve of those hurt by them."
Zoe stepped forward. "The Independents will rise again. And when they do, we want to be part of that rising. We want to start here." She flicked on the hologram, presenting a map of the Central Planets. She toggled the screen, blowing up one planet in particular.
Jayne squinted at the large grey and green planet. "Which planet is that?"
"Osiris." Simon spoke from his seat, his face closed off and his voice factual and smooth. Only the death grip he had on Kaylee's hand gave away the depth of his emotions for his home planet. "Heart of the Alliance's Judicial system, with the finest schools of law in the 'Verse. It boasts of many other prestigious academies, as well, including one known simply as 'the Academy.'" Kaylee and Jayne looked at River, who gave them a lopsided smile. Simon cleared his throat. "It was where River and I grew up, and where River was… hurt."
"The Academy is fronting a new wave of enforcers for the Alliance. Highly intelligent and capable operatives trained in combat, set with triggers superior officers can set off with a phrase or a bit of something hidden in advertisements. They've taken children naturally gifted, more aware of their surroundings, and turned them into Readers. If we let them get away with this project, they will have spies and soldiers who could detect Independent supporters by searching for 'bad thoughts' and who would have the authority of any operative on behalf of the government." Mal directed the map to a closer view. "I intend to make sure they cannot complete that program."
"Are you bugnut?" Jayne asked. "Striking in the Core, of all places? How the hell are we going to make it out alive? How the hell could we possibly succeed in stopping it?"
Simon answered him. "Despite having the largest judicial force of any of the core planets, and despite the affluent and high ranking that number in the hundreds of thousands, Osiris is also home to the largest criminal presence of all of the Core planets. There are criminal societies so rooted there that the planet has Blackout Zones. Anyone caught in these zones is immediately imprisoned and given a record that will follow them the rest of their days. I was caught, once, trying to discover what happened to River. My father," and oh, wasn't that word loaded with a heavy dose of heated scorn, "bought my freedom and eliminated the record. I put a black mark on his reputation, and he threatened to disown me should I ever be caught outside the bounds again." A humorless smile played over his lips. "I imagine he and my mother live under a larger stain, now, though they're resourceful people. They will have retained their spot in society, even after the disappointment my sister and I caused them."
"So what?" Jayne asked, shrugging. "What does that have to do with the whores in the Celestial Vatican?"
The ship's physician snorted. "There is a lot of resentment breeding in those Blackout Zones. Enough that, three years ago when I began to try to find a way to find out what had happened to River, inexperienced and treading on treason to our government, I was able to find a resistance group who aided me in getting her out. They did it for money, but they also did it to spit on the Alliance. If I could find one such group, there will be more, and someone with Mal and Zoe's experience, their time in the war, and the allies we doubtless have because of sympathies caused by Miranda, we should have plenty of help."
River shifted, drawing all eyes to her. "Consider this, also. Many of the 'students' of the Academy belonged to the upper echelon of the planet. Because it was a government run school, prestigious and highly advanced, most bought the lie that the things done there were secret, but not harmful to their children. When I left, no one was doing well enough to make visits home, and several were no longer functional, unless they were triggered into a mindless, fighting rage. Like I could, they would be able to eliminate a large force single handedly and unharmed, but they wouldn't be able to distinguish between friend or foe. And if they weren't fighting, the horror of what they'd undergone reduced them into sobbing, raving messes. Some parents were alerted of the 'breakdown some students encountered,' and it was always implied that the child hadn't been mentally sound enough, or strong enough for the training. That somehow it was the parents' fault in their rearing, or a weakness of the ones who'd made her manifesting. Most who knew about their child's issues were blackmailed into supporting the Academy monetarily and socially, lending their names to the cause. Most needed nothing more to do so than the Academy's insurance that their social stigma would be taken care of quietly."
Kaylee covered her mouth in horror. "Oh, River, did your-" she cut herself off, not sure how to ask the question. Not sure if she wanted to know.
"Yes." River said flatly. "My parents were of the latter category. It's okay, Kaylee." She said, turning to her sister in law with a consoling smile. "I ended up in a better place because of it."
"It is not okay." Kaylee insisted, reaching out to River and pulling her into a tight hug. "They are bastards. Monkey fucking pig anuses with manure for brains and tiny raisins for hearts. How dare they not do for you what they should as the ones charged with your protection and your best interests." She held onto River for a long moment before releasing her. Her eyes were spitting fire when she turned to Mal, and she bounced with fury. "I want a piece of 'em." She leaned into Simon when he wrapped an arm around her, and took his other hand.
Mal nodded. "Me too, little Kaylee." He turned to the remaining three members of his crew. "Harry, Sirius, Jayne? What do you say."
Sirius' grin was wolfish, predatory and keen. "I think it's about time these bastards got what was coming to them." Harry nodded solemnly, but his eyes could have been made of emerald, cold and implacable as they were.
The big man was frowning at the planet, but he nodded slowly. "T'ain't right, what they's doin to children. We should stop 'em."
"And after?" Zoe asked. "If we succeed and deliver another big hit to the Alliance, if the Independents rise again, will you join us in fighting? Will you fight for freedom beside us?"
"Yes." Harry said simply, followed swiftly by Kaylee's "you know I will."
Jayne grinned his most savage smile and drawled, "Oh, I'm always up for a good fight."
River and Simon exchanged a long look. "I have already sworn." River told him. He let out a tiny laugh. "I did, too, the day I broke you out of the Academy. If I could go against the Alliance for my sister, I can do it for other people's sisters. I will join your fight."
They all turned to look at Sirius, who leveled his most boyish smile at Zoe. "Of all the silly questions to ask, Lieutenant. Don't I always fight with you?"
Zoe surprised them all by grinning as widely as he did. She turned to Mal. "We're yours, Captain. What are your orders?"
**Yes, I did give a nod to Browncoat, Green Eyes with that one. Nonjon is a fantastic writer, and BGE is quite a trip. Please check it out if you have not already.