The wave reaches them when they're out in the fourth quadrant, in the middle of a transport run that they ain't sure of the end point of yet, but such are the times they seem to have found themselves in. Mal's left River on the bridge, her staring out into the black and him finding his eyelids drooping, finding himself exhausted, though with this far into the run there ain't much that needs doing aboard to use up a day's worth of energy. The time slips away some when there ain't no horizon for the sun to sink behind, Mal thinks maybe night time comes when he's too tired to stay awake any longer.
Her voice comes through clear and calm over Serenity's comm system, drawing him back out of sleep and he thinks he might have dreamed it until the sound of rapid footsteps along the grill above the crew quarters draws him further into awareness, and he's able to step back and remember the sound of River's voice, saying her brother's name.
And he's awake, now. He don't think on it too much, but somewhere set aside in him is the understanding that Serenity's a part of him. She gets hurt, he feels the pain. If she's awake, he's awake. After a few more minutes of consistent silence from the comms and no sound of returning footsteps, Mal pushes himself up and out of the bed.
He's only a little startled at the sight of Kaylee standing still and somber further back down the corridor, feet bare below her work trousers and shoulders bare amidst the thin blanket she's wrapped her upper body in. Her hair's messy, and she don't smile at him, just meets his eyes for a moment before looking on back toward the bridge. Mal turns himself, and strides up the few steps.
The Tams're as still as Kaylee were, River in her usual seat with her knees pulled up, arms wrapped around them. Simon's standing a few paces behind, and Mal can see the tension in the line of his back even before he gets close enough to see how Simon's arms are crossed and clutched taut, how he's barely moving even as he's breathing. They're both looking at one of the small, scratched screens in the console, and Mal holds off speaking til he's close enough to see it then finds he don't have much to say anyhow.
It's a pre-recorded wave, he can see that much from the digits on the display, but there ain't that much more to show on it, none of the usual communication wave stamps that show which network they've been broadcast through. The quality ain't that high, but the woman on it is still recognisable, even though her face's all twisted up and she keeps ducking it down. Mal can still see she has the same rounded, slightly tilted nose as both Simon and River; the shape of River's eyes, more pronounced; Simon's mouth and solid cheekbones. "…made sure that it couldn't be tracked," she's saying, "…so I don't know how it'll find you, but I just want…" Her voice cracks a little, she dips her head again for a brief moment before looking up, and straight out at them. "Your father and I just want you to be safe."
The display crackles out an instant before Simon leans forward over his sister's shoulder and taps the screen blank. He doesn't look surprised to turn and see Mal standing behind them, but he don't look much of anything, except maybe like he did when he first bought passage for himself and his cargo, all those months back. Closed-off, unreadable. He walks on past Mal, back out of the bridge, and when Mal turns to River he finds she ain't moved much herself. Still staring out. When Mal heads back to his bunk, there ain't no sign of the Doc or Kaylee, and he don't get to sleep for a good long while.
When River gets something into her head it's mighty difficult to get it shaken out again. More'n once Mal's felt the scratch of frustration that they're so open to her and yet she's so closed to them. The Doc used to say that she were open to everything, back before, with nothing to hide behind but Mal ain't so sure about that. She seems to be able to keep everyone else's secrets, at least, and that has to say something. It ain't like they've had a proper job for some time now; things coming to them all silent from all fronts, and Mal's just about had enough of this lack of… anything. Finds himself wishing for fighting just to break through the endless black that ain't peaceful, just empty.
So he don't kick up a fuss when River changes course after the transport job. Besides, it were his idea after all. Kinda. And if there ain't no jobs left for them out on the rim, then why the hell not move closer in? Mal ain't sure if his willingness to put them back on the Alliance radar comes from feeling immune or desperate, but he sure as hell ain't willing to look at that too close.
Business. They'll get business closer in.
Zoë ain't been talking much for some months now, and Jayne's just as vacuous in conversation as ever, seeming to choose more often to fill his mouth with food or liquor instead of talk. The girl only seems to drop in sentences where they just slot right into the air, not even sounding like noise at all. And Kaylee and Simon's silence have been conspicuous alongside their frequent absences. So it makes it all the louder when they start appearing again. Separate-like. The only time Mal catches them together now-a-days is when he follows the noise to them, noise which cuts into a sharp silence when Mal steps on into the room. Or hall, or bridge, or infirmary, or wherever it is that they're bickering in them bitter-sounding tones.
Serenity's been following their course to Osiris for five days when Mal hears the sound of them again from inside the engine room; Serenity's gentle hum rubbing the details out of Kaylee's strident murmurs and what Mal's come to recognise as Simon's bedside manner -- tone mild, voice low and soft but unmoveable. Mal's able to get close enough to pick clearer words out just as the battling rush of them slows, and the noise of the engine is like tar they're struggling through, gummy and difficult.
"I'm sorry," Simon says, but his tone still ain't changed.
There's the sound of something heavy and metal hitting the metal grates of the floor. "Maybe you'd best be leavin' now."
The doc don't look too surprised to see Mal lurking outside the doorway, but then again, it's always hard to tell, with a face like his. "I weren't," Mal says as Simon pauses, looks at him. "I was just…" Simon's eyes narrow a little. "Eavesdropping." Mal says, and stands up straight, rests his hands on his hips, stares right back. The Doc gives a brief nod then moves on down the hall, all quiet-like. Mal steps into the engine room.
"Whoa, now," he says. "You break any of that, I ain't buying you new ones, no matter what pretty little face you decide to pull at me." Kaylee's gives a short huff of obligatory laughter, but only lowers the intensity with which she's throwing her tools around by the slightest degree. "You know it ain't part of my crew code of practice that I encourage talkin' about our problems," He says at length, after some considering, and this time she turns to look at him, mouth curling in reluctant agreement, and so he continues. "But I ain't looking to have a mechanic that breaks parts herself 'fore she fixes them. Nor a medic that's too busy avoiding some members of the crew--" he gives a slight nod toward her. "--That are somewhat crucial to the runnin' of the ship."
"Well don't worry," she says, cutting him off before he can continue the somewhat awkward voicing of necessary meddling. "I don't think you're gonna need to worry about that kind of thing, soon enough."
"Shoulda known," she mutters, turning away from him again to keep hauling about the tools for no particular purpose he can see 'cept for the satisfying sound of hard surface slamming against hard surface. "He were always so selfish. Shoulda known it would end up like this."
They didn't come aboard with much, and it seems they leave with less. Well, the girl didn't come aboard with nothing more than the crate, and they sold that long since; and the Doc's left just carrying his case, and the small med kit that he takes everywhere.
"The neighborhood has a private docking bay," Simon says. "There's no need to go through the usual security channels. Serenity can stay in orbit."
Mal glances from Simon to Zoë and back again. "Seems a mite odd, to have the richest neighborhood with the least security."
"Oh, it has security," Simon answers, still in the same cool, low tone. "Just not Alliance-monitored security. There's no way we could land there if we weren't pre-approved."
"It's for Companions," Mal ain't really surprised to hear Inara's voice, seeing as she's got in a habit now of coming in on conversations where he hasn't expected her, but not all sharp-edged and critical no more. Just like she's a part of the ship, just happening to be there, listening. "Mostly. And for other visitors the heads of some of the Core's most powerful corporations would prefer to keep out of the Alliance's view."
Simon dips his head in acknowledgement. "They're expecting us in the second shuttle in four hours."
"I can fly 'em there," Kaylee's still got her arms crossed, same as she has for a bunch of days now, her voice somber like it’s a duty she's putting herself up for, but volunteering nonetheless. "Bring the shuttle back." Mal feels his eyes narrow, makes a point of keeping his body still as he stands there, all of them watching him. Huh. It ain't that he hadn't been thinking that were the case, he were just… well, now that it's happening ain't no harm in thinking it outright. He were expecting the separating of the Tams from Serenity to involve at least a little more bloodshed than this.
He sees Simon shift, his mouth start to open, and pre-empts him. "You stay on right here in case you need to prep us for a fast getaway," Mal says to Kaylee, and Simon's mouth closes again, lips pressing tight into a frown. "I'll take 'em down, make sure the shuttle gets back here safe and sound."
"I've set her on course to orbit," River says to Zoë, dropping in some figures that Mal don't understand anyhow, maybe Kaylee’s the only other one there who could, though she seems a mite distracted at this very moment; but Zoë nods briefly, steps forward. River smiles at her, then spins out of the seat and steps on past them to the doorway that leads from the bridge onto the crew quarters. She turns, resting her hand on the frame as she looks over her shoulder, first to Simon, then settling on Mal. "I'll ready the shuttle," she says, almost like a challenge, then turns heel and runs as if she's intending to race him there. Mal twitches despite himself.
"I'll haul the cargo aboard," Jayne says, stepping forward from where he was leaning against a panel toward the back of the bridge, not saying much at all for a change.
"There's just the one case," Simon starts, almost hesitant, and Jayne grunts.
"Don't matter," he says, and slouches out after River.
If Mal were fooling himself, he'd be thinking that this were one of the last comfortable silences Simon'd enjoy on the ship, but the Doc looks anything but comfortable and Mal's feeling more'n a little uncomfortable himself, what with Kaylee staring hard at him like she's willing him to read her mind. Zoë's taken River's seat, disappeared behind the high back of it, not moving enough for him to even be able to see her presence beyond the boots planted firm in front of the chair's stem.
"I, uh," Mal says, attempting if not to lighten the mood then to at least regain control of the situation that seems to have spiraled downward and out of his grasp. "Didn't expect things to turn out like this," And that's enough for Kaylee, who makes a show of stomping on out herself with nary a word.
"Sorry," Simon says again, but it ain't like he even means it. Mal makes it easy for him -- first time for everything -- and leaves.
The light's real clear on Osiris, even round the docking bay River sets the shuttle down in, and the surfaces of the place itself are all clean too, not showing no signs of oil or grit from the traffic that comes through it. It's early evening so Mal can't see no sun in the sky, though the light from it just below the horizon is still making the sky glow a soft blue, reflected on the shiny surfaces all around them. Even the air smells real clean when they step on out of the shuttle, though there don't feel to be much of a temperature difference. Mal straightens his coat, unconsciously, until he realizes Simon's looking at him again with that blank expression. His own suit's barely wrinkled from the ride, like he ain't never sat down, just one of the strange things about him that Mal blames mostly on the fact that he ain't worn a vest nor tie for many months now, but River don't seem to fit in any less than her brother, bare feet and loose hair and dress aside.
In fact, Mal finds himself left with an odd feeling of vertigo having his feet planted firmly on solid ground, like the space around them's grown out from the pair of them, all smooth, bare, silent shapes, pale-coloured with dark shadows, faint blue. They're looking at him, then, and Mal's rarely felt so unsettled, the pair of them twin-like, white and blue beneath the dark hair. The leather of his coat creaks a little as he moves.
Then they change, their boundaries blurring back into place as Simon's face shifts again, becoming somehow even more set even as River's seems to abruptly open up and she cries, "Daddy!" and is past Mal even before he can turn around and see where she's run to, in the arms of a taller, dark-haired man, and a woman about the height of Simon and River is sliding her arm 'round the back of River's shoulders, and saying her name and putting her face in closer to River's.
When Mal turns back to the Doc, Simon's face is stiller than ever, closed in a way Mal ain't ever seen it. "Come on," Simon says to him, and Mal blinks, stops staring. "I'll introduce you."
By the time they arrive at the Tam estate it's dark enough that there's only so much of the house Mal can see from the outside, but when they get inside it sure is lit up enough for Mal to see that she's a sight bigger'n Serenity, all open, empty space coloured pale and smooth. River's laughter bounces up, and she increases the volume just to hear it echo.
"Reynolds," Simon interjects, saving Mal from re-stating his name to Simon's father for the third time.
"Yes," Gabriel Tam smiles briefly at his son before turning back to Mal. "I can't thank you enough for bringing them this far, I'll call someone to escort you to the kitchen, you must help yourself to any refreshments you require."
Mal feels himself twitch again, allows his body to translate it into a leisurely stroll away from where they're all standing in what must be the lobby of the expansive building. "Oh no," Mal says, tailing the relaxed tone with a just-as-relaxed gesture, pushing his coat back a little to hook his thumbs in his suspenders, above the waistband of his trousers. They're all looking at him, River the only one smiling, swinging her mother's hand a little. "I'm good here, actually. Just soaking up the ambience of such a comfortable family home." He tilts his head a little, and the movement's automatic, really, leaving it as a challenge as he curls his mouth up in a smile.
Mal finds the expression on Gabriel Tam's face suddenly recognizable, and feels a fierce surge of triumph at finding the mark. He rocks back on his heels, shifting his gaze to where Regan's mouth's open in a blank kind of smile, obviously looking for words. "But I appreciate your generous hospitality, ma'am."
"I--" She battles with it for a moment more before settling into the appropriate, if somewhat tainted response. "It's my pleasure, Captain." Her gaze shifts to her son. "Simon, let me call--"
"It's fine," Simon says at once, "I'm quite capable of carrying it myself." And he lifts the case by his feet easily.
"Sure I can't get that for you?" Mal steps a little closer, and is that a smirk he sees flickering at the edge of Simon's lips?
"No, I got it," Simon says, mirroring Mal's overtly polite tone. "Though if you're a little warm, I could take your coat…?"
Regan Tam sure ain't smiling now. Mal brushes the shoulder of his coat a little, as if only just realizing he was still wearing it. Tiny, dark flecks dust off it and onto the white floor. "No. It's shiny," Mal says. "Let me get the door for you…" He holds out a hand as if indicating Simon lead the way and Simon does, tilting his head a little and heading in the opposite direction, towards a slightly darker shaded panel on a white wall, which opens of its own accord when Simon approaches. Mal follows, stopping almost immediately as the door closes behind him to take stock of the new surroundings. A wide staircase skirts up in front of him, Simon standing at its foot, suddenly incongruous against the warm wooden shine of it.
"Can I, uh…" Mal steps forward, searching for easy words to fill the silence, keep up the tone. "Help you with that?" He reaches forward a little, toward the case swinging a little in Simon's hand.
The Doc gets an odd expression, like he ain't sure whether to be puzzled or amused. "I got it," he says, slow and clear-like, as if he's explaining something for the third-time running, the tone like he uses with Jayne most of the time, and sometimes Kaylee, and gorramit but Mal didn't mean it like that. He drops his arm. Simon looks for a moment longer, then starts on up the stairs. Mal ain't so sure when he stopped feeling at ease, and that makes it a mite harder to get it back again.
Partway along the wide hall at the top of the staircase, Simon stops, opens a door to let Mal in before him. "This is my room," he says, though it ain't really necessary -- Mal's caught sight already of the entire wall covered in books. "River's right next door." Mal ain't sure he's ever seen so many books, let alone in all the one place, before; in fact, paper books were a rare sight out in the black before Simon started making the space 'round the infirmary all homely and started bringing out some of them to leave in the rec area. He don't want to stare, so shifts his gaze as he moves further into the room, though he's still moving slow enough to take it all in; the floor's mainly bare but not like it were in the lobby, this one's covered in a few thick-looking rugs, furniture filling it more toward the opposite side of the room, and Mal raises an eyebrow at the sight of a human skeleton slouching on a stand near an alcove containing an angled desk, the face of it dull and blank, not lit up with cortex data though not covered in dust. In fact, the whole room, large as it is, looks mighty clean for not being occupied for so long.
The bed's even made, up a few steps on a broad platform on the back wall of the room, feeling mighty soft as Mal sits on the edge of it, still glancing around. In fact, it's real soft. Mal bounces a little, gauging, thinking of the bunks in the passenger quarters on his ship. When he looks up, he finds Simon's looking at him again, not much moved himself from where he'd just come in the door and dropped his case. "Comfortable?" Simon asks, and Mal feels a challenge rising up just out of the amusement in the Doc's expression.
"That depends," Mal responds, thoughtful-like. "If you're referring to the comfort level of this here bed, then sure, it's nice enough that I could cush down right about now for a nap. If you're referring to the degree of comfort I'm finding in my welcome here, well… Lets just say I ain't about to be sleeping with more than one eye closed at a time." One edge Simon's mouth curls up a little more, in acknowledgment or encouragement, Mal can't tell, but he knows he's still got room to get a few more shots in before the Doc's rebuttal. A familiar game by now, this. "Though I can see how comfortable you'd be, here," Mal pauses for effect, looks thoughtfully around the room again. "Loving parents on hand to call the help to carry your books around, lots of space to lounge after a long day making large amounts of money." He bounces a little on the bed again. "Nice big bed to bed down in, dream about the larger amounts of money Daddy'll be leaving you when he shuffles off."
Simon's considerably closer than he was when Mal started the spiel, close enough for Mal to see the little folds of skin bracketing Simon's mouth when it bends up in a closed-mouth smile, close enough to see a few strands of shiny hair drop down out of place over Simon's ear when he dips his head briefly. Close enough to hear the soft rustling sound of his jacket when he lifts a hand to tuck it back into place. "You're right," he says, voice soft, and Mal smiles a little himself just for the pleasure of receiving a response. "All of this," Simon gives a token glance up and around before lowering his gaze to settle on Mal's. "It would be mine right now, if it weren't for him." And there's that smile again, something more behind it that Mal can't claim is mere irritation, or plotting of a retort to Mal's challenge. It makes him a mite uncomfortable, and he sits up a little from where he's leaning back on the bed, bringing his arms up to brace beside his hips instead of behind his back.
Sounds like a job waiting to happen, Mal opens his mouth to say, but stops himself, because suddenly there ain't gonna be any more jobs where Simon's involved, even if it's just there to stitch them up when they get back from Mal's slight mis-judgement of character, and Simon's breath is hot but cool on Mal's lips where he's already moistened them, ready to talk. "Big house like this," Mal says, voice a little rough, and low, but he's unwilling to clear it at this point. "Must have a lot of privacy, even when Daddy's around," The jibe's still in the tone of his voice, somewhere reverberating at the back of it, and Mal finds that his hands are resting on Simon's hips below the fine fabric of the dark blue jacket, and Simon's weird smile is all up close now, and Mal can't think of much else outside the room, let alone outside the idea of the bed stretching out behind him, and what Simon might get up to in it with privacy enough.
"You have," Simon says, timbre of his voice rich though it's not much louder than a whisper. Don't need to be, that close. His gaze flickers upwards, briefly. "No idea." And Mal tightens his grip a little as Simon shifts a bit closer between Mal's sprawled knees, the bed a perfect height for Simon to stand a step below and not lean down to bring their mouths together. It's slow, and easy, and not soft but not fierce either, and Simon's mouth is cool and dark inside, as ambiguous as the façade that's shuttered down over his features since the wave from Osiris first came, but it sparks low and warm in Mal's belly, the cool fingers splaying out behind his ears making the hair on the back of his neck stir to attention. Simon breathes in-out slow through his nose, then tilts his head a little, and the pressure of his tongue pressing against Mal's lower teeth lasts a little even after he's drawn away, following the sound of River's laughter to a panel in the wall that slides aside to reveal her face, opened-mouth smile.
She laughs again. "I can see you," she says, then pulls a face. "Yuck!"
Simon snorts, grins at Mal over his shoulder, rolls his eyes, the gesture likewise exaggerated. Mal ain’t sure if he should smile or not. He's not entirely sure he can even stand up at this point.
"Mother's coming," River says, suddenly sobering, and she and Simon exchange a look before she slides the panel back across.
There's a soft knock on the door, and Simon straightens, steps back away from the wall, standing halfway to the bed before calling out, "Come in."
Regan Tam steps in, closing the door behind her and pausing to look first at Mal, still on the bed with arms folded over his chest, now, and then to her son. "Simon," she says, and steps forward rapidly, but Simon doesn't move. He's still staring her right in the face when she gets close enough to grip her hands on his upper arms, and she ducks her head first. "Your father--" Regan starts, and Mal sees the muscle of Simon's jaw clench. Regan looks up again, facing her son eye to eye. "It was easier for him to believe that neither of you were alive."
Simon huffs the air out sharply through his nose. "I suppose that would have made it easier to plan his financials for the year ahead than thinking of us coming back for an inheritance." He glances 'round at Mal, mouth twisted, and Mal feels something twist in his gut, something that ain't entirely comfortable but not really sickening neither.
He thinks of the folk he risked the repercussions of Niska's reputation for, folk in need he didn't even know. It ain't always about money.
"It isn't always about money," Regan says, her grip tightening on Simon's arms and Simon's gaze swings back round to face her. "Your father believes what he has to believe. If it wasn't for him, none of this would be here. Your sister wouldn't be here, you wouldn't be here."
Simon ducks his head for a moment, looks up again. "I would be here," he says.
Mal turns away, peering with mock-absorption at the wall of books and pretending not to hear Regan Tam's muted sniffing behind him. The sound in the room is soft, close, almost warm; and when it quiets some, Mal turns back round to see the her pulling out of an embrace. She nods a little in his direction and his likewise response is automatic in his surprise. She closes the door behind her without another word, and even as the latch is clicking Simon's moving again, lifting his case and bringing it toward the bed. Mal pushes himself to his feet, feeling inexplicably out of place all of a sudden, slightly less so after Simon spares him a wry grin before swinging the case up onto the bed. Mal feels a little more confident about breaking the silence. "So, back to normal, then?"
Simon smiles. "Yes." He flicks the latches on the case, lifts the lid. Huh. It's empty. Simon crouches by the bed, reaching beneath to fiddle with something out of sight. There's a quite hiss of something with more advanced hydraulics than a simple latch being released, and then Simon draws out a few small, plain boxes, smooth plastic with tiny windowed labels. He peers at a few of the labels before starting to stack them into the case.
"But," Mal says, before he can help himself. The sharp twist in his belly relaxes a little, spreads warmth and something swifter-moving out, his heart pounding a little before it settles and he clears his throat, making himself keep talking. "I thought--"
Simon rescues him from stuttering awkwardness. "These are for River," he says, doing Mal the favour of not looking at him. "At least she'll be able to enjoy some of her inheritance." He stacks the last box in, then lifts the lid off, takes something from within it and holds it out to Mal. It's a capture, slimmer than any one Mal's even seen, but a little grubby around the frame like it's been handled many times. Two miniature Tams stare out at it at him, one slightly smaller with messier hair, both looking somewhat uncomfortable in their miniature fancy clothes, one with a gap in their teeth when they both abruptly giggle, watching something beyond the frame. The capture jerks a little as it loops, and they figures move from polite, slightly awkward smiles to laughter and gappy grins again. Simon takes it back, replaces it in the box. The lid from the case latches closed, and Simon heaves it off the bed, pauses for a moment, then sets it onto the floor again.
"Could you get that?" he says from the doorway, not really even asking, and Mal finds himself scowling before he can help it. Simon steps on out the door without looking back, and River sticks her head 'round the frame just as Mal's about to step out of it, of course.
"Tell me one thing, little albatross," he says to her, enjoying in some place set aside in him he don't really acknowledge that he gets to speak the name he thought he might never feel shaped 'round his mouth again. "Why come back at all?"
She smiles a little, and he's getting a strange sense of vertigo just from seeing that expression on so many faces that day. They ain't right, the Tams, none of them. "Should know by now that there ain't nothing he ever does for himself anyway," she says, then runs on ahead of him and down the stairs.