A/N: Nothing you recognize belongs to me!
Simon dropped to his knees next to Rose, who remained unconscious. Mal stood, eyes wide and fixed on the girl. She looked small and young; all traces of whatever the hell had been speaking was gone. "What in holy hell was that?" he demanded.
"I have no idea," Simon replied. His voice was even, but soft. "Her pulse is steady and her breathing is good. She seems fine, just—unconscious."
"It's my fault," River said, tears standing in her eyes. "I didn't mean to, Simon, I promise I didn't mean to, but there was the singing, and I just wanted to hear but there are monsters in her head, monsters that look like people." She shuddered. Simon looked up at her and sighed.
"I know, mei mei," he murmured. "I know."
Kaylee skidded into the room, Zoe just behind her. Kaylee panted as she stared wildly around the room. Zoe was calmer, but her gun was out and her finger was a hairsbreadth away from the trigger. "Everything alright Sir?" the black woman asked.
"We heard the yellin,' Mal," Kaylee added. "What happened?" She finally saw Rose crumpled against the couch and gasped. "[oh my ships and stars!] Is she hurt, Simon?"
"As near as I can tell, no," the doctor replied. "But we need to get her to the infirmary. There are some tests I can run."
"You do that, Doc," Mal agreed, "but you lock that door behind you. I don't want her going anywhere."
In the end Jayne was pressed into carrying Rose, who remained unconscious. He grumbled, of course, just as he always did, but when Mal shouted Jayne did as he was told. Simon and Book, who confessed to some small knowledge of medicine, examined Rose, but to no avail. All of the tests, even the bloodwork, seemed to indicate that she was in perfect health, although there were some strange proteins Simon found himself unable to identify. Not drugs, he assured Mal, but—strange. Zoe led Kaylee out after she became distraught. Mal had half a mind to order River to go with them, but the girl was intrigued by the spectacle and she seemed determined to stay. Jayne was gone; he'd left after he realized that all of Rose's clothes would remain intact. No offense, he told Mal, but he could look at clothed women any time he wanted to, and there were some lovely ladies waiting for him in his bunk. Mal told him that was more information than he ever needed to hear.
River stood next to the exam table. She was careful to remain out of the way, but she held Rose's hand in her own. The girl would twitch sometimes, like she was having a nightmare, and occasionally she cried out, although she remained dead to the world. 'Doctor!' she would call, distress clear in her voice.
"She's done that several times," Book noted as he stood next to River.
River shrugged. "Your book talks about faith that can move mountains—what about love that can stop bullets, or douse stars, or crack open the universe and stitch it back together? When you're lost," she continued, "you cry out to your god. She has him."
"No offense to the good doctor," Mal commented dryly, "but that's an awful lot of faith to be putting in man she just met three months ago."
River rolled her eyes. "Not a doctor. The Doctor. The article is definite; the man is singular."
"Who is this 'Doctor?'" Simon asked as he cleaned his instruments in the sink. "Maybe I've heard of him."
"The Doctor is a legend," Book said slowly, his face troubled. "An old, old story, all the way from Earth-that-was. Thousands of cultures all around the planet had stories of a man who called himself 'the Doctor,' just 'the Doctor,' and they all had one feature in common: where he went, chaos followed, and often death." He frowned. "It's an obscure legend, and one I haven't heard mention of in a very long time."
River brushed a stray lock of hair back from Rose's face and squeezed her hand. "The story changes with the teller," she remarked, "as stories usually do. He's a hero and a trickster, a demon and a madman, a savior and a judge." Her eyes went distant, and her voice was soft. "He's like fire and ice and rage. He's the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He can feel the turn of the Earth and he burns at the heart of the universe. He's everywhere in her head."
"Well," Mal cut in, breaking the mood. "That's a lovely story. Is she stable, doc?"
Simon nodded. "Yes, she should be." He held a syringe up to the light and tapped it against his finger gently, making sure to remove all air bubbles. "It's a mild sedative," he explained. "It should keep her under for a few hours, two at the most."
"Good," Mal said. "We need to talk"
He gathered the crew in the kitchen, at the dinner table after Simon checked on Rose one last time and locked the doors behind him. Mal had half a mind to tell the man to tie her down to the exam table, but he had a sneaking suspicion that the good doctor would object to such treatment. He had no qualms about traveling with smugglers, but he was surprisingly ethical in how he treated his patients. Even Jayne, who had once sold Simon and River out to the Alliance was assured that he would receive the doctor's utmost attention. Mal approved of ethics, as long as they weren't terribly inconvenient, and Simon's devotion to his calling earned him a bit of respect (just a little though, there was no need for the boy to be getting a swelled head, after all).
"Miss Tyler," he began, when everyone was present and accounted for, "has been traveling with us for three months now, and I know that some of you have gotten close with her, but I need your honest assessment of her now." He stood behind his chair, hands on the smooth wooden back and leaned forward. "I have reason to believe she may be a threat to Serenity, and to us. Inara," he said and nodded at her. "Your—training—has always been useful in these matters. What do you make of her?"
To an observer Inara Serra appeared as she always did, polite and unruffled. Those who knew her, like the rest of the crew, could tell she was disturbed. "I do not make her to be a threat," she said eventually. "She is guarded and very observant and I believe she has had some sort of training, though not companion level." She paused. "There is something Rose appeared unwilling to discuss, but it was vague, and considering that we are not exactly completely honest in our chosen occupation," she included the whole of Serenity in her remarks, "I find demanding total honesty from her to be just a tad hypocritical." She folded her hands in front of her. "In my experience everyone is running from something."
"Noted," Mal replied shortly.
"Well, I think y'all are puttin' the cart before the horse," Kaylee interjected heatedly. "She ain't done nothin' to harm us, Cap'n, an' I don't think she would, not after she saved my life like she did. She coulda just left me, or called the cops an' let them deal with it, but she didn't. She may have looked a bit off after she was done—but no more'n you look on a bad day, Mal."
"Thank you for that opinion, little Kaylee." Mal's voice was dry. "What about you, doctor? Anything to add?"
Simon leaned in. He looked, Mal thought, like he was acutely aware of the attention everyone was giving him, especially Kaylee. "Despite the scarring evident," he replied, "her injuries appear to have been inflicted by someone with a great deal of medical knowledge. She healed well, and she must have required stitches. The brand on her arm is reminiscent of the Nazi experiments that occurred on Earth-that-was and suggests that her captors wished to dehumanize her." He took a deep breath. "It is possible that she was involved in a program similar to the Academy."
"Shàng yìyuàn hé shèngrén, méiyǒu yīgè ānquán de?(1)" Wash muttered.
"She appears to have combat training, sir," Zoe added. "Military grade, I'd hazard. She's had weapons training, at least, knives and I'd wager guns as well, and probably hand-to-hand. She moves like she's had training, and she notices things like a soldier would. If she isn't a soldier now, she has been."
"I agree," Mal said with a sharp nod.
"She has a great deal of knowledge about Earth-that-was," Book interjected, "but she's never given any sign that she's dangerous or malicious. We shouldn't rush judgment, Captain, when we're unsure of the circumstances."
"The safety of this ship and this crew is my responsibility, Shepherd," Mal told him. "And that takes precedence over one person of doubtful origin." He pinched the bridge of his nose. A headache was brewing just behind his eyes, a sensation that he usually associated with River's antics or Jayne's propensity to dally on a job to make a pretty lady. He didn't exactly trust the siblings Tam, but River had saved the rest of the crew with her plan when Jubal Early and she'd sensed the Reavers when they pulled that payroll job. He didn't think she'd withhold information that was terribly dangerous, seeing as how she lived on Serenity as well (and she seemed to want to stay). He sighed and turned to face the girl. She was playing with her stones again. The gold-flecked one was grouped with two others this time: a plain, brown stone and a deep blue pebble with bands of some purple rock and clear quartz running through it.
"River," he began with some trepidation. "Is she dangerous?"
"Too vague," the girl replied almost before he'd finished speaking. "Too many variables. You must refine the question and define the parameters of 'dangerous.'" She glanced up. "Zoe is dangerous, Jayne is dangerous, Kaylee and Simon and the Shepherd are dangerous. You are dangerous. I am dangerous. What is one more danger on Serenity?"
"I'm not dangerous?" Wash asked almost plaintively.
River rolled her eyes. "You are the guide, of course you are. I thought that was obvious."
Mal frowned at her and shot a quelling glare in Wash's direction. "Is she a threat?" he tried again
River paused. "To us?" she asked. "Doubtful. To the Alliance? Probably." A vicious grin spread across her face. "To anyone who tries to keep her from her mate? Certainly."
"She can speak for herself, you know." Rose's voice drifted from the hallway into the kitchen. Mal spun around, his hand automatically going for his gun (which was unfortunately not on him). Zoe had hers out and aimed and Jayne was a hairsbreadth behind her. Rose held up her hands, palm out, to demonstrate that she was unarmed.
"I told you to lock that door, boy," Mal growled.
"I did!" Simon protested. "I checked it twice!"
"Relax," Rose told them. "If I may?" Zoe nodded and Rose tossed a small metal cylinder to Mal, who caught it easily. "Your locks aren't that good, Captain."
"How on Shàngdì de lǜsè dìqiú(2) do you pick a pressure lock?" he demanded.
Something in her face went hard. "I've broken out of a top-secret, heavily fortified government research building. Serenity's medbay isn't nearly as secure."
"So you are a fugitive," Simon commented.
Rose shook her head. "Not exactly. It's—complicated."
Mal folded his arms over his chest. "I don't care how Tā mā de(3) complicated you think your situation is—give me one good reason why I shouldn't let Zoe shoot you and be done with it."
She studied him for a moment, head cocked to the side, and goosebumps crawled up his spine. She looked like River did on a bad day, like she was looking through him at something only she could see. "You could," Rose said finally, "but you won't. It goes against everything you are. You're hard, Captain, but you're fair, and you're ex-military which doesn't have to mean anything, but it means something to you. You may not follow the Alliance's laws, and I don't blame you, but you've got your own rules. I've done nothing to endanger you or your crew."
Mal's glare did not lessen. "You'd better explain right quick, Miss Tyler, or so help me I will have you gagged and bound and locked in one of Serenity's smuggling compartments to be turned over to the Alliance when we next make planetfall."
She went still in a way that Mal had never seen before. For the span of several seconds she was like stone. She didn't even seem to breathe—but then she spoke, very quietly. "That," she said and her voice was flat and deadly, "that would be a very bad idea. That, Captain Reynolds, would be the biggest mistake you ever made."
He remained impassive. She was giving him the willies but he'd be damned if he let her know it.
River stepped in front of Rose. "Stop it!" she ordered. "Both of you, all of you, stop it!" She looked imploringly at Mal. "It was me, it was my fault. I just wanted to hear the singing, but I couldn't stop. She wouldn't let me stop. The wolf is pacing her cage, looking for cracks. She wants to be free. I'm sorry," she said to Rose, who laid a comforting hand on her arm.
"I know, mei mei." Then she dropped her hand and without missing a beat pulled her shirt over her head and dropped it on the floor. Malcolm Reynolds might be a smuggler and occasionally a murderer (though he would always claim self-defense) he still remembered the manners Ma Reynolds had drilled into him (occasionally with a wooden spoon). He averted his eyes from the suddenly shirtless girl in front of him. Jayne felt no such compunction and he looked Rose up and down casually. Simon, for all of his cool professionalism when treating her wounds still blushed and looked away. "You can look," Rose said, her voice hard. "Go ahead, if you want to know what I'm running from."
Kaylee's eyes widened as she took in the tracery of scars that covered Rose's torso. Inara covered her mouth with one hand, her careful composure cracked and fell by the wayside.
Wash blanched and Zoe remained impassive. She had seen torture before, had helped her husband through the nightmares that followed his experience with Niska. Shepherd Book did not look surprised. Resignation and sorrow was writ in the lines around his mouth and eyes. "Some things," he said softly, "never change, despite how much we wish they would."
"You were at the academy," Simon said, "weren't you? In a different program than River?"
She shook her head. "No. This wasn't the Alliance." Her mouth twisted into a sardonic smile. "You can't pin this on them, despite their other sins." Rose traced the blocky number burned into her arm just above her elbow. "My captors gave me this the day they decided I wasn't human enough to be a person, the day they tried to take my name from me." For a long moment she remained silent, her eyes fixed on the wall, and Mal knew she was seeing ghosts.
"You're like her, though," Simon tried again.
For some reason that brought a small smile to Rose's lips. "Oh Simon, no one is like River—not even her classmates. What happened to me was a—a side effect. I had the chance to save the life of someone I love, but in doing so I was exposed to something that—altered me." She picked her shirt up from the floor and slipped it back on. Jayne opened his mouth to protest but closed it again after Mal shot him a quelling glare.
Rose looked around, a sort of sad amusement playing across her face. "How old," she said slowly, "do you think I am?"
"Twenty-five?" Wash offered.
Zoe studied her for a moment. "Twenty-seven."
"Twenty-three, maybe twenty-four," Kaylee suggested.
Mal snorted. "I know better than to guess at a lady's age. It never ends well."
That brought a proper smile to Rose's face, a flash of mischief, but it slid from her face like water through a sieve. "I'm one hundred and ninety-two years old." Incredulous silence greeted her declaration. "I don't age," she continued. "And I metabolize drugs differently from a generic human, so if there is a next time, Simon, I'd appreciate it if you didn't give me anything without my knowledge. Certain drugs that are harmless to you will hurt me." Her eyes flickered back to Mal for a moment. "Aspirin, for example, while not fatal is painful and debilitating, as my captors discovered." A humorless laugh bubbled up through her lips. "They were looking for the secret to eternal life, and isn't that a terrifying thought? But what did this to me is—difficult to obtain. I should have died, I would have died, if he hadn't—" She closed her mouth hard enough for her teeth to click together, like she'd said more than she should. "If the Alliance finds out what I can do," she continued after a moment, "they'll try to make me into a weapon." Her eyes blazed and her chin lifted as if she was daring Mal to find fault with her. "I will not allow that."
"What about your 'captors,' whoever they are?" Mal demanded. "When can we expect them to call? Surely they're wanting you back."
"They're dead," Rose told him flatly. "I killed them. That's why you have to stay out of my head, mei mei," she directed to River. "There are things in there that no one needs to see, least of all you, who sees too much. And the last person who found the memory that you did—she died. Screaming."
"And on that cheery note," Mal broke in.
"I know that your first responsibility is to your crew," Rose cut him off. "To the crew and to Serenity, but no one in the Alliance knows what I am and I'd like to keep it that way. I don't like killing, and I've no desire to be a weapon. Just—let me collect my things and I can be gone when we make planetfall tomorrow. Let me leave in peace."
Mal frowned. "It's a weighty matter, and one I'll need to think on. I'll let you know in the morning."
As he had in the trenches, Mal found that sleep was hard to come by when a decision loomed before him. Rose was undoubtedly dangerous and his life would be simpler if she were to be gone, but Kaylee was right—she hadn't given any cause to throw her out. And the coin she'd given them went a long way toward keeping Serenity in flight and his crew fed. Planetdwellers would never understand, but Serenity was more than a ship. She was home, and he owed it to his crew (his family) to keep her flying as long as possible. He rolled over and punched his pillow, but he knew that it was futile. Until his mind stopped racing sleep would be a lost cause.
As was his custom on nightcycles when sleep eluded him, Mal found himself wandering the halls of his ship. It was quiet at night, without the echoing ring of boots on steel grating and the chatter of his crew. The only sounds that broke the silence of the black were the soft hum of the engines and other mechanical noises. Kaylee, he knew, could tell a problem by sound alone.
His first stop was the cockpit, but he found it empty. It was late, then, if Wash was in bed. The pilot often spent much of the early nightcycle monitoring the comms and plotting their course. Mal lingered for a moment, his eyes on the brightly colored plastic dinosaurs that Wash insisted on having atop the console.
The kitchen was next on his route. It was the hub of Serenity when they weren't on a job. Quarters were small out of necessity, and the kitchen, with its sturdy wooden table and chairs, afforded the occupants a chance to socialize. A light indicated that someone else shared his insomnia, and he thought he knew who it was. When he saw the soft yellow light reflecting off blonde hair he knew he was right. Rose sat at the table, a battered leather wallet in her hands.
"Captain," she said without looking up. "Come to tell me to pack my bags?"
"I haven't decided," he replied shortly, and slid into one of the chairs across from her. For a long moment they were silent: he was absorbed in his thoughts and she seemed to be focused on the little wallet. "Whatcha got there?" he asked eventually.
"Pictures," she replied, and tilted it so he could see. The first was a man and a woman. The man was dressed in a suit that would have been fancy, even for the Core. He had reddish hair that was thinning in the front and a nervous smile that was aimed at the woman. She was shorter and blonde and the resemblance to Rose was clear. "My mum an' stepdad," she told him. "This was taken at their wedding." A soft smile stole across her face. "He made her so, so happy."
The next picture was Rose in a tailored leather jacket that had a stylistic letter 'T' emblazoned n the front. A dark-skinned young man with a short beard stood behind her and a blonde young man with spiked hair was next to him. They were also wearing leather jackets with the strange 'T' decoration. The man from the first photo, her stepfather, was there as well, watching from the side. "My friend Mickey," she explained. "And Jake. We were—coworkers." There were other pictures of the three of them, sometimes accompanied by Rose's parents, sometimes alone, and once it was just Rose and Mickey, standing on a rocky looking beach. She skipped over that photo without a word, and he read tension in the way her lips tightened and the shadows in her eyes deepened.
She stopped on a picture of her mum holding a little blonde-haired boy. He had brown eyes and a mischievous smile, and the resemblance between him and the woman in front of Mal was so strong that he was almost afraid to ask. It was a terrible, unnatural thing for a parent to bury a child, and if she really was 192 years old that little boy was long dead. "Yours?" he asked eventually.
To his great relief, Rose shook her head. "My little brother, Tony." There was a catch in her voice as she stared at the photograph. "He died getting me out."
"I'm sorry," Mal told her softly.
She shrugged and sniffed. "It was a long time ago." A muscle in her jaw twitched. "And they paid for it—they paid a hundred times over." She flipped past other pictures with the little boy and the man he grew into. At the end of the wallet there were two pictures. Rose studied one of them for a long, silent moment before she held it up in front of Mal. It was a picture of a man. He was tall and skinny and he wore a suit that was fancy for the rim, but shabby compared to her stepfather's. A red paper hat perched on his shaggy brown hair. He was sitting with his elbows on a table. His chin rested on his folded hands as he smiled widely at the camera.
"This is the Doctor," she said, and something in her voice changed.
He didn't look particularly imposing. He looked, Mal thought, like a young man in love. "River seems to think he's some sort of force of nature."
Rose laughed. "Oh, he is, Captain. He is. He's like—like a storm. It brings the rain that waters the crops and people and animals, but it also brings destruction. There are legends about him, stories that get passed down from generation to generation, but he's so much more than that. He's manic and clever and an impossible, arrogant git sometimes. He loves and hates himself in equal measure and he's rude and not ginger, well, not when I knew him." Her smile faded and a pensive note crept into her voice. "He tries so hard to save everyone that he can, and sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn't, but he gives everyone a chance to make the right choice."
"Shepherd seems to think he's a story," Mal offered when she fell silent.
A soft smile curved her lips. "Aren't we all?" She gestured to the ship around her. "When we're dead and gone, and so are our children's children's children, and Serenity is nothing more than a pile of rust and everything the Alliance worked to build has crumbled into dust, the only thing that will remain are the stories that people tell, about this time and about us. Stories are important, Captain, and sometimes they're more real than we give them credit for."
Her words hung in the air, heavy with a sense of foreboding that made speech seem unnecessary and almost sacrilegious. "What are you doing out here in the black, Miss Tyler?" he asked finally. Bluntness had always served him well in the past. He had no patience for philosophy, not when his crew's safety could be in jeopardy.
"She's looking for her mate," River said from just behind him. It took a great deal of Mal's control, but he managed not to jump three feet in the air.
"Quánnéng de shàngdì(4), girl!" he exclaimed crossly. "Don't do that!"
River was unrepentant. "Wolves," she informed him, "mate for life."
Mal frowned. "There are no wolves on Serenity."
"Alpha," she said, and pointed to Mal. "Packleader, denmaster, protector. Zoe is beta: enforcer. Serenity is our den and the black is our range." She smiled at Rose like it was some sort of inside joke. "We are all wolves here."
Mal raised an eyebrow. "And where does your friend fit then, missy?"
"She has her own den," River replied as she wandered around the table, letting her fingers brush against the smooth wood. "A pack can only have one alpha pair."
"Well," Mal said as he stood. "This has been a delightful evening full of all sorts of crazy, but it's getting late. We're making planetfall at ten in the morning, relative time. You two want to get some sleep."
Rose didn't move, but she fairly radiated tension. "Should I be ready to leave?" she asked, her voice perfectly neutral.
"You paid for eight months in advance," Mal told her. "Leave your things where they are."
"One day," she called after him as he walked toward the hallway. "One day, Captain, I will tell you such a story."
"One day," he called back over his shoulder, "I'll believe you."