Pepper hasn't slept in a while.
Shepherd Book is smiling, gently, as he motions for her to bring her cup over. He pours carefully, not spilling a drop; it smells heavenly, especially for something made of rations. She doesn't think she's smelled anything like this on a ship before.
She's been on ships a lot lately. A good number of them, too. Sometimes she leaves when they finish a round and start going back to the places they've already been before. Sometimes they ask her to leave after a while, mostly nicely. Sometimes she leaves herself, when things start going wrong.
She hasn't been on this one long. She likes it, mostly, and it doesn't backtrack much, from what she hears; she'll have to be careful. Some of the folk here are clearly all too willing to go wrong.
"You're interested in the old stories?" Book says. Pepper laughs, can't help it. It really has been a long time since she last slept.
"I'm looking for someone," she says. "I... it has to do with stories, in a way."
He doesn't ask what she means, just sips thoughtfully.
"The end of the world is always popular, of course," he says, and Pepper grins, less of the edge of hysteria this time. The tea tastes much like it smells, strong and rich, a blend of more flavors than she can count. "The old names aren't used much anymore, though."
"The names are less important," Pepper says. This, at least, she's sure of. Then she pauses with her cup halfway to her mouth, thinking it over.
The names are less important; she barely knew the names, back in that half-remembered end of the world. But if another name means another story -- there'd be no reason to keep all the strange, nonsensical details. The son of Satan, Death on his pale horse, the scales, the sword. It's all so specific.
Book is watching her, patient. Pepper bites her lip and tries to be careful. It's never come naturally.
"People used to believe," she says. "Or, at least -- there was a story. With four Horsemen, and --" she breaks off when he smiles. "You do know it?"
"Not a lot, I'm afraid," he says. "I've heard of it, though. It's the kind of thing that's largely forgotten these days."
"I suppose it can't be too threatening anymore," she says, grateful for this opening, "when you can only cover one planet on a horse."
"Hm," he says. "The four space travelers of the Apocalypse?"
Pepper grins and sips her tea. There's nothing to learn here, but that's not much of a surprise; there's rarely been much before, on any of the ships she's been on. She hadn't hoped for much, anyway -- the point is the destination, not the journey.
Adam wouldn't like that. But then, it's not Adam doing this.
She lets the Shepherd go when he apologizes and stands, doesn't laugh when he cites old age. It's nearly midnight, standard ship cycle. She tells him she'll be going to bed soon too, thanks him for the company and the tea, and means it; it hasn't been informative, maybe, but still pleasant.
The little girl is in Pepper's bunk when she gets there, on her knees by the bed, looking under.
"Don't touch that," Pepper says. She hates when her voice gets like this.
River looks up.
"It isn't yours," she says, reproachful.
Pepper stares at her. She hasn't slept in a long, long time; the sword under her bed, the sword she's been carrying with her for longer than she can remember, makes it... difficult. She almost imagines there's something about this girl, just now, something important, but that might just be the lack of sleep, so long that it's come to live deep inside her bones.
She's heard some murmured comments since she came on the ship, though. Never the full story, but the offhand references, and the looks -- Jayne's wide eyes full of badly-hidden fear, the captain's wary affection.
She says, carefully, "I'm giving it back."
The girl sits back on her heels, studying her.
"Have you had it long?" she asks, like they're having a bit of a chat at some kind of dinner party.
Pepper raises her eyebrows at her, refusing to be spooked. "You could say that."
"Why now, then?"
"I could believe," Pepper says, slowly, "you're a lot saner than I thought."
She gets an unreadable look for her troubles, a bit of amusement peeking around the edges. "You'd be wrong."
Pepper thinks about it.
"Things are off," she says, finally. What could it hurt, really? Either this girl already knows much more than she possibly could, or this won't tell her anything she could possibly make sense of.
"There are some things worse than war," she says.
The girl nods. "Are you sure?"
"No," Pepper says. She's seen war, not too long back; she wouldn't have believed there was anything worse, if you'd asked her just then. "But things are wrong, and I think maybe it's our fault."
Had been thinking it for a decade, going over and over it in her mind. She can't see how it possibly could be, with her hazy memories of the end of the world, the kind of inevitable only Adam could have possibly turned back. But maybe, maybe.
It's not like war disappeared, just like hunger didn't. But something's wrong now, the balance is somehow off, and Pepper can't shake the feeling that it's got something to do with her, with her too-long life, with this damned sword War left behind. She doesn't know how to try and fix it any other way.
The girl is looking at her, steady. Then she takes another look under the bed, and moves to stand up. She's shorter than Pepper by at least a head, but Pepper knew that -- of course she knew that. She just forgot for a minute.
"I know where we need to go," the girl says.
Pepper blinks. "You know where to find her?" This is impossible -- completely impossible.
River shakes her head. "No," she says. "But I know where we need to go. And I think I know how to use a sword."