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Heave Ho, Thieves and Beggars

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where we will, we'll roam
yo ho, all together
hoist the colors high
heave ho, thieves and beggars
never shall we die

 

-

 

2519
year of the dragon
year of the Miranda scandal
and the dissolution of the oligarchical Alliance government at the operative level

 

In the end, it's Ashleigh who brings them the post, picking her way up the steep winding path to their house. The grass and trees are damp and glistening with the remnants of the night's rainfall, the clouds hanging heavy and misting around the peaks of the Sanatana Dharma mountains, making the whole world look shot through with vibrant silvers and greens.

He knows it's her from the clucking peal of bells and lowing of her goats, carried up and through the open windows by the mountain air, even before That Gorram Thing whirs to life in its cantankerous way and announces an intruder at the front gate, even before Eduardo appears in the doorway, saying simply, "Ashleigh," and, "mail," with that peaceful, daydreamy look he gets when there are too many animal brains clamoring for his attention, thinking their simple thoughts and drowning out his own.

Setting his rice down on the counter, Mark lays his chopsticks across the lip of the bowl and goes out the side door into the yard, scattering the chickens who peck at the dirt in eternal peabrained hope that it will turn into kernels of corn.

He meets Ashleigh out by the gate. She carries a satchel over her shoulder, the strap frayed with wear, and her cinnamon-colored hair looks windswept from the climb, her legs flecked with dirt to the knees.

Her herd of goats muddle around her shins, chewing contemplatively at the weeds and giving Mark deeply unimpressed, wall-eyed looks. No wonder Eduardo looked so vacant -- Mark can't imagine there's much going on behind those eyes. Each goat has a bell tied around its neck with a ribbon that stands out, starkly red.

"Wei, Tinkerman," Ashleigh greets him with a grin that shows teeth.

"Ni hao," he replies, perfunctory. Ashleigh lives with the other sisters at the school in town, and will intern occasionally when she isn't roaming the hills with her goats.

"I have a delivery for you," she continues, lifting the flap of her satchel and taking out a small bundle. She hands it to him: the top is a news bulletin from the town hall, the headlining text scrolling quickly and the photograph underneath playing footage from a debate; beneath it is a thank-you note from Mandy Bao, who is five and has written his name in painstakingly crooked letters, her "r" hooking in the wrong direction; and on the bottom, on cream-colored stationary used by the planetary relay service, is a --

"Is it from an actual ship?" Ashleigh bursts out, in the manner of someone who's kept the words trapped on the back of her teeth for some time. Her eyes track his, bright with interest. "Who do you know has a spaceship? That's got a captain's seal and everything!"

Mark's heart thrums against his ribs.

"Xiexie, Ashleigh," he says quickly, flipping the envelope over and sliding his thumbnail under the seal, turning on his heel. "Bye, Ashleigh's goats. Happy eating."

He cuts through the yard, sending the chickens scattering again with a flurry of noise that drowns out Ashleigh's curious protests. The list of captains who know that Mark Zuckerberg lives with poultry in the Sanatana Dharma mountains, hidden amongst the volcanic belt that rings Jiangyin's equator like a charm bracelet, is a very short one. And only one would use the automated planetary relay service rather than hailing him on the cortex; the planetary relay service gets more and more obsolete every day, something for which Mark is partly to blame.

G re et in gs f ro m the t ran s p ort ship Sere nity, is how it starts, the typing spaced strangely across the page.

There are a hundred and one horrible things that could be coming, although if it had anything to do with the Alliance or the Academy, Mark doesn't think Captain Reynolds would bother with sending a letter in warning.

U nless M os k o vit z's so me ho w m an age d t o infiltrate I nar a' s s py n e t work to fin d yo u, it continues. Mark lets the kitchen door slide shut behind him, clattering slowly on its roller. No one else w ill ha ve t o l d yo u. It ' s w i t h the g r ea te s t reg ret tha t we i nfo rm yo u --

His eyes race to the bottom of the page, and hover there, disbelieving for one long, suspended second, before they flit back to read again, flicking and holding on to the worst of the words.

Distantly, he feels his knees give. He sinks down into the nearest chair.

-- d ece a sed --

It's strange, how after you've lived on your own for a little bit, you kind of forget that out there in the 'verse, everybody else's lives keep spinning right along, regardless of whether or not you're there to witness them. Things don't stop just because you're not watching, and while Mark was up here putting That Gorram Thing together out of parts so outdated it made him want to cry and making sure Eduardo didn't wander off into the mountains following some bird's flitting thoughts, the crew of Serenity moved on, getting in and out of trouble the way pirates always do.

A hand on his shoulder, questioning; Eduardo, of course, responding to the buzzing disbelief that's obscuring all of Mark's thoughts.

Not thinking, Mark looks up just as the full realization of what he read crashes into him: he sees the way Eduardo flinches, full body, as Mark's grief and rage and the echoing sense of somebody else's overwhelming loss lash out at him all at once, like the crack-tip of a whip striking him right across the face.

"Sorry," Mark mutters, as Eduardo blinks dazedly, stunned. It's been a while since the last time Mark slapped him in the face with a strong show of emotion. He's usually better at keeping himself in check.

Mark Zuckerberg is not oil on the water, he remembers River saying to him once, calling his attention to how loudly and quickly he was thinking -- zip zip zip across the surface of his brain, even though his face, true to form, did nothing -- by taking her brother's stethoscope and tapping him on the forehead with it, grinning with all her teeth. Too much going on beneath the surface. So noisy, needs to learn how to use his indoor voice.

I like it, Eduardo had offered, sleepily peeking out at them from underneath his eyelids as Simon gingerly eased his stitches out of his skin, and River snorted and widened her eyes at Mark like, duh.

"Sorry," he says again, and sets the envelope and the letter down on the table; the letter tries to fold up again along its creases, so he flattens it down.

Eduardo sits down across from him. The chair is an antique (Shin Ross told them so, sort of apologetically,) mismatched from the rest and left over from the days of the first Jiangyin settlers. It certainly groans as loudly long-suffering as any old geezer whenever somebody thinks about using it like a chair; it creaks under Eduardo's weight, protesting.

"Who died?" he asks, lifting his eyes from the Serenity letterhead to Mark.

Unbidden, his mind flies to their faces, the expressions they wore the last time he laid eyes on them, the way they looked when they were open, relaxed, and laughing -- all of it flits in front of his mind's eye, and he can't stop it. Eduardo's whole face begins to crumple with preemptive grief, even before Mark says, unsteady, "Wash."

And, "the shepherd."

And, quietest and most hurt of all, "Sean."

 

 

2517
year of the rooster
and the year-long astrological commemoration of Our Lady of Guanyin
year of the Sihnon uprising

 

It's winter on this side of Whitefall, a chill Zoe can feel creeping in around the neckline of her vest and stiffening the knuckles of her gun hand.

Just as she's thinking of how she'll need to compensate for this, Mal comes sprinting over the lip of the gorge, getting shot at again.

She sighs, and uses her elbow as leverage to roll herself to the right, lining up a perfect headshot. One of the friendly disreputable-looking men giving chase to Mal topples cleanly from his horse.

It gives her a second's reprieve, where everybody juggles to compensate around the loss of a gunman and the now-wild horse, which she uses to speak into her shoulder. "Wash, dear," she choruses sweetly, and hears her husband snorkle guiltily into her earpiece; she'd plainly just disturbed his nap. "We have ourselves a little bit of a situation."

"Uhh," comes crackling back. "Is this a 'we need to manfully swoop in and stage a flashy dramatic rescue' kind of situation?" Wash wants to know. "Or is this a 'we need to scrounge up three chickens and a mandolin as quickly as possible and not ask any questions' kind of situation?"

"A rescue would be nice," Zoe suggests.

"Flashy?"

She aims, squinting against cold grey glare of the sun off the frosty grass, and fires. A horse rears, panicked, as its rider unceremoniously falls sideways and hits the earth. One of the remaining locals on horseback spins his steed around, scanning the rocks for her. A few more shots and they'll have a lock on her location; if they've got any form of air support, Zoe is a sitting duck.

She reloads and says, "Like petticoats under a ballroom gown."

"Got it," says Wash, firm and reliable-like. "We're on our way!"

Five minutes and one sufficiently last-minute rescue by screaming at-atmo spacecraft later, Mal sits down on the steps in Serenity's mostly-empty cargo hold and sticks his fingers through the new bullet holes in the tail of his coat. They're smoking a little around the edges, but he wriggles the ends of his fingers at her like he's doing finger puppets.

"That went better than expected, wouldn't you say?" he goes, grinning at up at her, cheery and still breathing hard.

Zoe arches an eyebrow. "Your idea of a good time needs some looking to, sir," she tells him flatly, and he shrugs one shoulder, like a schoolboy caught confessing a crush, all, aw, shucks, who me? She prompts him, "The job?"

He shrugs again, sharper this time. Around them, the ship rattles at its seams, shivering as they push through the last vestiges of the stratosphere, leaving the planet behind. Zoe feels the nauseating pull at her gut as two kinds of gravity fight for control of her body at once. It'll be another five minutes before they pull away from Whitefall's gravitational pull entirely, and the artificial gravity will be the only kind of gravity fighting to pin her down to something. This is always her least favorite part about going planet-side: the coming back out.

A clatter of boots on the stairs above them makes them look up; the Doc pauses, hesitating on the landing, his eyes sweeping them head-to-toe.

"Are either of you injured?" he wants to know, stiff, his hands making a knot in front of him.

"Some playful gunfire is all," Mal assures him. "Ain't got nothing but scratches, Doc."

He tilts his head higher, and Zoe follows his eyes -- the girl's drifted out after her brother, crouching barefoot on the grating above his head. She peers at them from in between the bars, wide eyes roving from one to the other. She's wearing one of the slips Inara left behind, the fabric a pale blue the color of springtime birds. Last time they touched ground in Persephone, Mal broke down and sent a bright-faced Kaylee off to buy her some proper things -- dresses of her own and the like, so that she would stop floating around the ship looking like Inara's ghost.

Naturally, River only deigns to wear those things on special occasions, and stole a pair of Mal's old boots to go with them. Zoe kind of liked hearing her clomping around, mostly because Jayne said it gave him the creeps, and Zoe approves of anything that makes Jayne uncomfortable, just as a matter of course.

"You should talk to your husband," she tells Zoe, who lifts both her eyebrows at that. She adds, even more cryptically, "It's shark week."

"Only sharks out here are just folk like us, darling," says Mal.

"Like so," River returns, mild.

Mal's mouth skews to the side some, the way it does when he doesn't know what to make of her. The Doc, who's usually her quickest translator, lifts a shoulder at them, so after a beat, Mal pushes himself to his feet and says, "Zoe, let's take a gander at that husband of yours."

Wash cranes his neck back in his seat as soon as they make it up to the bridge, his whole face going sunshine-bright the second he sees Zoe come up two steps behind the captain. His hands are white-knuckled around the throttle, holding the ship steady and pressing her for more speed.

"How was that for flashy?" he says by way of greeting. "Does your man deliver or does he deliver?"

"My man delivers," Zoe assures him, fond, coming over to give his shoulders a squeeze.

He beams. "The job?" he wants to know.

Zoe shoots a pointed look at Mal, who busies himself by unstrapping his holster from his hip and laying it across the back of the empty co-pilot's seat. He rubs at his nose with the back of his hand.

"Ah," says Wash, after a beat. And then, "Well, cap'n, in the light of the abject failure I see in your eyes to provide for us, your lost, lonely, dependent crew --"

"Wash, there's a mighty fine airlock with your name on it, anytime you feel like it."

Wash flips a switch, nonchalant. "I might have something for us."

 

-

 

A second before the comms patch through, Zoe gets a foreboding feeling, the way she imagines some people might when the doorbell rings on a holiday after you told your family they didn't have to come.

"Cuz!" bleats through the speakers so loudly that it fizzles into static, and everyone on bridge cringes simultaneously at the volume. A face takes up the entire screen, leaned in way too close, eyebrows and nostrils most prominently on display. Unfortunately, Zoe recognizes both eyebrows and nostrils, and sighs internally. She should have known better. In-laws don't make for well-paying jobs.

Ever.

"Honey, really?" she directs this as the back of her husband's head, dry as bone.

Wash has the decency to look embarrassed. "Hear him out," is all he says.

"Did your captain get an answer?" Dustin continues, leaning back far enough that Zoe can no longer see straight up his nose. The rest of him is marginally more flattering: Dustin is a small, concave kind of person, sinewy as a lab rat, his skin pale in the familiar way that people get when they spend too much time in space. He's dressed in loud-print shirts in colors that can probably be seen from two planets away. Zoe knows this for a fact, since the same shirts are also in Wash's wardrobe. She thinks it might be a genetic malfunction. "Can he help my man out?"

"He wants to talk to you himself," Wash answers, settling low in his seat and craning his neck around.

"What kind of job do you got for us, Mr. Moskovitz?" Mal asks, leaning over Wash's shoulder.

"Oh, please," Dustin blows a raspberry at that. "Call me Dustin. I ain't nobody's mister. Well, except maybe for my Stephanie here," he fans his hands out along the console in front of him, his smile softening into something private.

Zoe's stomach flutters with surprise. The cousins are far enough apart in age that Wash had gotten his certification (legitimate, even) long before Dustin even started attending piloting school, but even so, it catches her off-guard, the realization that Dustin would have graduated and apparently gotten his own ship by now. It doesn't seem right, that time continues on for other people when she isn't there to watch their backs.

"Do you two want to be alone for a minute?" Wash asks after a pause.

Without changing expression, Dustin points a warning finger at him. "Don't you give me that," he goes. "You're from the Washburne side of the family, don't even get me started on the word 'technophilia.' Wasn't there that thing that happened on Unification Day, with the --"

"Hey now," Wash sits up straighter. "There are ladies present."

At that, Dustin's cheery expression shifts, becoming something shyer. He meets Zoe's eyes over her husband's head, and he abruptly looks much younger. "Hi, Mrs. Washburne," he says.

The first and only time Zoe ever saw Dustin Moskovitz in person was at her wedding: he'd just been a kid, then, with an uncanny fondness for engines and limbs that hung off of him at awkward angles like he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do with them. He came with a thin, hungry-eyed friend he said he went to school with, but Zoe's long since lost the face, and can't even remember the name, since the Washburne side of the family was numerous, exuberant, and frankly overwhelming even in moderation.

Dustin's easier to remember than his plus-one had been. The boy's love for engines, she remembers, could only be paralleled by his love for dinosaurs.

She's pretty sure one of the small, meat-eating variety on Wash's console is named "Moskovitz," but she'll never get Wash to admit it.

"Hello, Dustin," she replies, and lifts her eyebrows. "We've been led to believe you've got a spot of crime for us to be doin'."

"Right!" he knots his fingers in front of him. "Business talk. Here's the thing. It's a personal job, and it ... it would mean a great deal if --" he stops himself, mouth skewing a little to one side as he searches for the words. Then he gathers himself up and says, "I have a very rich friend --"

Mal hitches forward minutely.

"-- who needs help busting a friend of his out of school. You guys are the only folk I could think of with the skill set to accomplish it."

Mal and Zoe exchange a deeply incredulous look. They both look at Wash.

Wash looks unrepentant.

"I don't see what this has to do with us," Mal's voice is so flat, a seafaring ship could probably sail right off the edge. "Truancy ain't exactly our breadwinner. We have better things to do."

"You know exactly what I mean. A school that's more like a prison," Dustin replies calmly. There's no trace of humor in his face anymore.

Mal stills. The staticy buzz of the comms suddenly seems overloud; Zoe can hear, faintly, the Doc's raised voice coming from the galley, undoubtedly angered over something Jayne did or didn't do, and then there's a muffled thud of something heavy being slammed. She shifts her weight.

"What are you saying? Exactly?" Mal's voice comes out of him slow, like it's being dragged out by the roots.

"I think you know," Dustin's eyes, over-saturated and haloed in green on the screen, are luminous, intense. "We're talking about the Alliance's most special, favorite school -- its security has security, and then security for that. And that security has only been successfully breached once. The mastermind behind that breach?" Dustin blinks once. "He's on your ship."

Mal straightens, careful, each individual limb pulled into place, a soldier's pose. He turns to Zoe, looking stunned.

The Academy? she mouths.

He nods.

 

-

 

"Absolutely not," Simon says immediately.

He steps back, shoulders pressed up against a bank of monitors and all his hackles raised, staring at them like they've thrown him in with a pit of vipers.

"We're talking about another student --" Mal starts.

"There will always be other students!" Simon retorts, his hands balled into fists at his sides. Zoe eyes his white knuckles, thinking that someday, somebody should teach him how to use those. "You think I don't know that River couldn't be the only kid they were ... experimenting on? Of course there are others! Kids as young as twelve, thirteen, with their brains cut open and things stripped away -- you think I don't see them every time I try to sleep at night?"

Kaylee stretches a hand in his direction, worrying at her bottom lip. "The cap'n ain't ..." she tries, then stops.

He breathes out harshly through his nostrils. "I can't," his voice strains on the word. "There's no way you're going to get me or my sister anywhere near that school again. I'm sorry, your cousin's just going to have to find another way."

"How much money we talkin' about?" Jayne grunts.

Mal sighs, pinching his nose between his fingers. "More than we've ever been offered for anything before," he admits, and Jayne's eyebrows tick up interestedly. "Dustin's got a friend who's mighty keen on breaking this boy out of the Academy. You're our resident expert on all things shifty and Academy-like, Doc."

"I'm sorry, why is this even a thing we're discussing like it's a possibility?" Simon thins his eyes at them. "Captain, you've never had a problem turning down the idiotically dangerous jobs before, no matter what the promise of payout was. We're talking about a Core planet, heart of top-secret Alliance territory, and I --" he gestures speechlessly for a moment. "I can't even come up with enough words to describe how stupid it would be to go anywhere near this job."

"I am not exactly springing like a fresh goat here," Mal agrees. "But we've been pulling nothing but dead-end jobs recently, and if there's even the slightest possibility that this can be done --"

"No," says Simon.

"Simon," comes from directly behind them, sharp enough to make everybody startle, even Jayne.

It's River, sitting on the top step with her arms folded around her knees, Inara's gown puddling down low on her thighs. She looks up at them all, and her face is startlingly serene.

"They told us to sleep," she tells them. "They always told us to sleep. They're just noises, they said. Every new place has noises, it's nothing to worry about, and if we just go to sleep, everything would be okay in the morning."

"River ..." Simon turns and crouches down beside her. She tilts her head at him, listening to whatever it is he isn't saying; she's always been more comfortable in his head than anybody else's. He glances back over his shoulder, and then points at the overhead screen, where Wash had enlarged the picture that Dustin sent over. "Do you recognize that boy? From ... from the Academy?"

"A tree falls in a forest and no one hears," River replies. "A little boy calls for help and no one answers, did he really make a sound?"

Kaylee's mouth bends, upset.

Simon drags a thumb across his bottom lip. He and his sister regard each other for a long moment.

"Just go to sleep," River murmurs to him. "No one can hear you then."

He stands, unbuttoning his cuffs to roll his sleeves up, and looks directly at Mal. "I'm going to need to meet with our employer. We're going to need all of his assets if we're going to do this."

Mal holds up a hand. "Hey, now, we haven't made any decisions yet. Hell, we barely know anything about the job yet, except that there's apparently at least one person in the 'verse who's even more addlepated than you."

Zoe feels like she's listening to them from the end of a very long tunnel, distant and a little tinny. She tunes in and out, with a feeling like she's trying to catch snatches of a satellite station out in the deep black; there's a clammy sweat gathering at the nape of her neck, and she can't take her eyes off the picture Dustin gave them. It's some shaky, amateurish capture shot. In it, Eduardo's smile is ridiculous, and it makes her stomach hurt.

He'd be twenty now, she thinks. Zoe had been one year older than that when she enlisted.

Suddenly, she's had enough.

"I think we should do it, sir," she hears herself say.

Mal's jaw snaps shut, head twisting her way, and at the look on her face, he swallows his automatic retort, the sound of it audible. He blinks at her, and she folds her arms.

There's a low creak of metal springs as Wash leans back in his chair, slow.

"The womenfolk are ganging up on me," Mal says, incredulous, and when she ticks her eyebrow at him, he hastens on to say, "Don't get me wrong, I expected a mite of lady-feelings from Kaylee and River and even Simon -- no offense, Doc -- but Zoe?" He tilts his palm at her, as if she can tip an explanation into it like silver.

"He was at our wedding, sir," Zoe tells him, level.

Startled, Wash jerks. In her peripheral, she sees him whip around to get another, longer look at the face on their screen. Eduardo's grown up some, of course, but now that she's seen him, she doesn't know how she could have forgotten him.

Something quiet, knowing happens around the corners of Mal's mouth, even when, off to the side, she hears Jayne mumble something like what in ball's name -- ?

She keeps her eyes on him as she continues, "He's a good kid. We didn't have many folk there, sir, as I'm sure you recall." He'd been this beanpole thing that tagged after Dustin, close as an enthusiastic shadow, with an unfortunate spotty complexion and feet that didn't quite know where the rest of his body was in space. The first and only time he spoke to her, he'd blushed and mumbled something about her dress, keeping his eyes averted from her face, like his momma had told him not to stare directly into the sun.

"Whatever the Alliance is doing to him," she continues. "He never deserved it. Not ever."

Mal studies her for another long beat.

"Ah, hell," mutters Jayne, in a resigned kind of way.

 

 

2519
year of the dragon
year of the Miranda scandal
and the dissolution of the oligarchical Alliance government at the operative level

 

Nobody in town knew what to think when, one bright clean spring day, Ashleigh came down from the mountains with the news that the abandoned farmhouse up the crooked trail into the Sanatana Dharmas had smoke coming from its chimney, bent like a broken finger and clear as anything.

Ain't nobody lived there for years, see, not since the last family caught the pox and all the hired hands melted into the mountains, taking all the good furniture and farm equipment with them.

Nobody's come through town recently, either, not when the Vishnu's been rumbling bad like a grandfather with diarrhetic tendencies and making everyone a bit too nervous to try traveling, because lava trails have buried entire caravans before, you know, and the warnings are especially bad this year. It's left all the seismologists from the city on edge: Kazuo Yu brings them the nanopamphlets sometimes so they can watch panels of scientists look serious and wave their tablets around.

So how could anyone have set up in there without the townsfolk noticing?

Now, Shin Ross, he's run the general store since the town was only a couple farming families big. And he's piddling around with his ledger one day, still fresh off one of Ashleigh's girlmates from the Stanford school telling him she's thinking about hailing her brother to come up and check the house out -- he's a priest, you know, real good at exorcisms and all -- when who should walk into his store but the new tenant himself, a flesh and blood man with an officer's military cut and a dark, exhausted smudge of color under his eyes.

His name's Mark. He's sharp, jittery, and a little gunshy, and he immediately strikes Shin as real suspicious, refusing to give his full name and mumbling a lot. Shin watches him circle slowly around the store, expressionlessly picking up everything and putting it back down.

Call it Shin's gut feeling, his innate distrust of Alliance folk, but Mark acts like the kind of man who's never had a need to concern himself with other people, like he expects the whole 'verse to conform to his own sense of humor.

Men like that don't last long out here.

Mark isn't alone up in that old house: he doesn't say as much, of course, but there are two drinking glasses among his purchase of necessities, like it doesn't occur to him that it speaks loud and clear for him, and Shin thinks this will probably be his excuse later, when he rustles up some of the migrant workers and the men from town to go up and pay Mark a visit; it'll be to see who he's got trapped up there. It'll surprise you, the kind of men who think they can hoodwink folk like Shin Ross just 'cuz he lives in the backwaters of Jiangyin; it's appalling, what Alliance men think they can get away with in territory that ain't their own.

When he's done, he doesn't make eye contact, shaving off slivers of a protein bar as payment with all the ignorance of someone used to using Alliance credit.

As they barter on the price, a few more people drift into the store.

Bless them, the curious folk that they are, because they unconsciously form a ring between Mark and the door, so he has no choice but to turn around and talk to them.

Just as Shin's wrapping the glasses in newsprint for safe travel, deft twists of his hands, and thinking about how he's going to get them back when he and the good folk drive this twitchy boy out of town and save whoever he's trafficking, Mark cuts him a glance, eyes meeting his like the crack of dry lightning. They thin, thoughtful, like Mark can see exactly what's going on behind his eyes.

Shin stares him down, feeling a lot like he's encountered an adder in the grass.

"Are you Jiangyin-born, dear?" goes Heather Bao, the carpenter. Her myriad of magnifying glasses hang on cords around her neck, shifting with a sound like windchimes whenever she moves.

Mark shakes his head, a quick jerk of his chin to the left. "I just came on the train from Sihnon," he says, like a confession.

And that shuts everybody up, right quick.

Nobody's supposed to have heard about the Sihnon riots, which of course means that everybody knows.

It reflects poorly on the Alliance, see, so all the official channels are keeping quiet as churchmice about it.

It's one thing to hear about refugees fleeing off-planet in numbers that vary depending on the rumor and the atrocity within that rumor, and another thing entirely to have one standing in front of you, twitching at every sound and not meeting anyone's eye for longer than a second. Shin takes another look at him, and this time, instead of seeing someone guilty and afraid of getting caught, he sees someone who's being hunted.

"Well, now," he says. "That changes some things."

 

-

 

The children in town call Mark the Tinkerman, and they take to him the way children do, whole-heartedly and without suspicion.

It's easy for them to spot him coming down the main street, and they burst off their playground all at once, with enough force to make the holographic monkey bars shiver and flicker off briefly. They chase him all the way to the town hall like dogs pursuing the tailpipes of a mule, their shoes flapping at their heels. They surround him in one big group, chanting, "A toy, Tinkerman! Qing, a toy, qing ni!"

"I don't have anything," Mark tells them flatly, every time, and looks annoyed when they just shriek with laughter. "Go away. Go play."

"You're lying!"

"Tinkerman!"

"Please sir?"

At the last second, just when it looks like this might actually be the time they give up, scuffling at the dirt and starting to disband, his whole demeanor changes, and he says, "Hey, you guys," and crouches down, something cupped between his palms like he just caught them an insect.

He makes them scrap creatures, usually, that you wind up and let jerk around on malformed legs, and sometimes he'll have little programmable "sound bites," which ping out tunes that are currently popular in the Core (which would be very expensive, otherwise.) After he makes enough of these, he upgrades them so that the kids can swap songs with each other and even record simple little sounds for themselves, which abruptly turns the playground into an impromptu musical ensemble. Sort of.

"Are you the reason my Basil now plays twelve different versions of flatulence at suppertime and blames it on his brothers?" the baker wants to know, cornering Mark in the general store.

He doesn't sound angry, but it's hard to tell with the baker; Shin Ross thinks his face got stuck in that permanent squinty position years ago, back when they still had to import the majority of their grain from the upper continent and attacks from highwaymen caused shortages all up and down the Sanatana Dharmas. He watches from behind the counter as Mark edges sideways, putting a display of hoses between himself and the baker, who has mean, red, swollen knuckles and shoulder muscles like a shank of ham.

"I'm not to be held responsible for what children these days consider to be tasteful," says the Tinkerman says mildly. "I'm not one to pass judgement on your son's musical proclivities," and then he escapes with a jerk of his chin at Shin, who laughs.

One service in exchange for another, though: Mark tinkers with junkyard metals and makes toys for their children, so the town repays him by helping him fix up that old farmhouse of his, replacing the moth-bitten blankets, fixing up the shutters and the gutters and the weather vane. The house's foundation is made of stone, and it stands propped up against the steep, rocky incline on wooden stilts, creaking in hard winds like an old man that can't keep his balance, like one good shove would have the whole thing tumbling down the mountainside. Storms have punched out the windows on the upper stories, so they fix those, too.

Tik-Nak Stanford's youngest son comes up to check the plumbing. Stanford himself, who runs the school where Ashleigh and the girls live, has a soft spot for antiques and keeps eyeing that claw-footed tub they have up in their attic.

Mark won't sell it to him, though, says Eduardo likes it too much.

"Who's Eduardo?" goes Stanford, frowning.

"He's the brother," Stanford's son replies, and then, reading the expression on Mark's face, corrects himself to, "or something. You'll meet him."

Eduardo's basically the best thing about Mark. Everybody loves him.

It's impossible not to, although impressions of him tend to vary from person to person:

Mackey, the young lad with the bottle-glass spectacles who runs the comm outpost and spends his free time waiting for the same boy of Stanford's to give him the time of day, says that Eduardo was at school in Sihnon's capital city to play big name sports before the riots happened.

But Kazuo Yu, who comes through town with a cart piled high with bolts of cloth from the city says that Eduardo and his sisters chased storms on one of Osiris's border moons in a Capsillion XL-5000 cruiser, and Mable Ossuerberg will swear up and down on her mama's life, may she honorably rest, that Eduardo told her he was a revolutionary, but everybody knows Mable desperately wants every young man she talks to to be her son, who went off to fight with the browncoats for independence and never came home.

"Folk just like talking story sometimes," is what Shin Ross tells Ashleigh, who's sitting cross-legged behind the counter, going over his books.

He's not that bad at simple arithmetics, couldn't run a store if he was, but the older he gets and the more tired he is of squinting through his bifocals at the tiny numbers in his ledger, the more he leaves his taxes to people who've actually had some schooling. Like Ashleigh, who tells him year after year that his taxes are hard to figure when he does the majority of his business on barter. Shin doesn't see any other way to do it.

"You can't blame him," he continues. "He's got nothing but stories, y'know?"

She drums the end of her pen against the desktop. "Hmm, yeah, okay," she answers, in a way that means she disagrees entirely.

(Ashleigh thinks that Eduardo is kind of useless, since he never seems to do any work, but she'll never say that to his face.)

"Excuse me, Mr. Shin Ross, sir?" comes a voice, and Shin startles; he hadn't even heard anyone come in.

He gets up out of his chair to find Basil the baker's son standing in front of the counter, barely tall enough to see over the top of it. His shoelaces are untied and he's holding a small bag of sugar stars, which have been sitting on display for a long time and are stale enough to start sticking together, as if he thinks a purchase is necessary to justify a conversation. He's got four other kids with him, all of them hanging back a few steps, peering out curiously from behind the shelves.

"Were you talking about Eduardo, sir?" Basil continues when Shin leans across the counter.

"Mayhaps," he allows.

"We -- we were just wondering --" he gestures over his shoulder at the other kids; little Mandy Bao, who isn't a day over five, ducks out of sight, as if trying not to be included in this bracket. Basil blurts out all at once, "Why don't him 'n Mark have any fingerprints?"

"I'm telling you," interjects one of the others, tone resentful; that'd be Samson, who's Basil's age, that middling bit between childhood and youth where you're nothing but anger and a hunger that can't be defined, and he glares out from underneath bangs that're too long. He's from the city, and came up into the mountains to be apprenticed to a glassblower; some of the finest glass artesans in all of Jiangyin can be found up in these parts. "It's because they're pirates."

"They're not pirates!"

"Are too!" Samson shoots back, hunching his shoulders. "They're going to slit our throats while we're sleeping and steal our gold!"

"Oh, yeah?" Basil fires out. "If they're pirates, where's their ship? You can't be a pirate if you don't have a ship!"

"Baituo anjing!" Ashleigh barks at them, and they quiet down, unhappy as junkyard dogs. She stands, folding her arms and frowning at them. "What's this about fingerprints?"

Mandy Bao stretches her hands up. "When you hold their hands, their fingers are all smooth like little pebbles," she offers, shy. "I looked real close, miss Ashleigh, they don't have any fingerprints at all."

"And they're shiny," pipes up one of Basil's little brothers. "Not cool shiny, but shiny like a burn."

Samson wrinkles his nose. "Why would anyone want to burn their fingerprints off?"

"To hide," calls a voice through the door.

Everybody jumps, Shin Ross included, although he coughs and sidles over to the register to hide it. The screen bangs shut against the frame, and he knows without being told that the young man who's now in front of them is Mark's Eduardo: there's a cleanliness, a neatness to the way folk from the Core are structured that's hard to hide, no matter how they're dressed or how border moon their language sounds.

It's a mite eerie, actually, to see him standing there, hands in his pockets and his shoulders rounded. You're talking about a fella and he immediately shows up?

"Did you know that the government can tell who you are by taking your fingerprints?" Eduardo says, and he's got an accent Shin can't place. The younger kids scuffle at the floor, looking a little spooked; he's pretty tall, dressed all in dark colors, and he seems to get this as soon as Shin thinks of it, because he shakes off his slouch and crouches down to their level, smiling and making his eyes big.

All at once, he looks less intimidating. They relax and draw closer.

Samson doesn't. He juts out his bottom jaw and says belligerently, "Yeah, so?"

"So, if you don't want the government to know who you are, don't give them your fingerprints," he spreads out his hands, and now that Shin's really looking, it's obvious. His fingertips look strange, waxy and almost plastic, and the skin around them is warped, a little scarred. Mark's fingers had looked exactly the same. "Of course there are other ways of determining your identity, and the Alliance knows them all," Eduardo continues, like somebody had asked him. "But fingerprinting is the easiest and the cheapest way, so if you fool that first test, you shouldn't have to fool the others."

"How do you get them off?" Basil asks, fascinated. With the hand not holding the sugar stars, he runs his thumb over his own fingerprints like they're grains he can rub away.

"We used a stove," Eduardo informs him solemnly. "Yes," his eyes flick to Mandy. "Yes, it hurt a lot. But it made us feel safer. It's no fun sometimes, because we can't feel anything with our fingertips anymore. Yes, really. Want to try?"

This last is directed at Samson, and apparently it's exactly the right thing to say, because the boy's face lights up with the hellish delight of any kid who's been given permission to make something bleed. Without hesitation, he pulls an awl down from the display where Shin keeps the yarn and grabs Eduardo's hand, holding it still so he can stick his finger with the point.

Eduardo doesn't even flinch. The blood wells up and trickles over, and Samson looks reluctantly impressed.

Shin frowns.

He's heard nothing but good things about this fella, from everyone in town who's met him. The fact Mark's protective of him makes them protective of him, and that's all fine and dandy, honest.

Something about Eduardo just bugs him, though, something that's not quite right, like two overlayed pictures that are skewed just a little off-center.

"What about the Tinkerman?" Ashleigh wants to know, and the kids all perk up. Eduardo might be willing to let them stick him with pointy things for science, but Mark makes toys. "Building and programming those things for the children takes a lot of coordination. How can he do that if he can't feel what he's doing?"

Eduardo just looks amused. "Have you ever tried to tell Mark he shouldn't be able to do something?"

Now, Shin ain't much of one for hiking, so he never does get a chance to go up to the farmhouse himself until about three weeks later. By that point, the seismologists had finally eased off on their predictions for heavy lava flow and the weather was just fine, so he didn't mind the climb that much; the mountain air is one of the reasons he decided to put down roots up here. At that time, the volcanic ring didn't really have a name and neither did its peaks -- the Alliance couldn't really be bothered once they put out the call for settlers to farm the rice and the tea fields, more interested in the breadbasket expanse of the upper continent.

The Sanatana Dharmas form a range of seven peaks -- sometimes also call the Seven Gates -- of which only the Vishnu and the Kali are seismically active. The name comes from a tongue Shin doesn't speak, and there's nobody around he can pick it up from. As far as he's been able to tell, sanatana dharma just means "eternal faith." Dharma is a word with voracious, vast meaning: faith is the closest derivative in English, but it also calls on righteousness, justice, duty, the feeling that you get when you are home with the people you trust and there's a sensation in your soul that is just pure gratitude. That is dharma.

He pauses to catch his breath as soon as he sees the silhouette of the house, resting his hands on his knees and glancing back towards the town. He needs to know if Mark had any extra protein or usefulness to spare for that poor widow of One-Handed Luke's, who'd been lying for ages about how she was doing just fine.

He gets as far as the front gate when a sudden, earsplitting wail goes off. It's so loud the rock face sings with it.

It sends chickens scattering in every direction with startled shrieks. Shin Ross hits the ground like a soldier in a war zone, scraping the heels of his hands on the gravel and cursing, "what in the sphincter of hell --"

He twists his head around, back and forth, taking a moment to orient where it's coming from: the house, and Jesus Christ in tights, Shin ain't heard an alarm like that since that time one of the Stanford girls tried to rob the bank where they kept the government money.

"That's our guard dog," shouts a voice, and Shin lifts his head to see Eduardo picking his way across the yard, stepping smartly out of the way of the frenzied chickens.

"Guard dog?" Shin echoes dumbly.

Eduardo pauses, tilting his head back in the drection he came from. "I don't actually know what it is, but Mark calls it That Gorram Thing, so that's what I call it, too. Oh," and his face clears. He says pleasantly, "It works!"

Shin scoffs. "Yeah, it does," he mutters, his heart still rabbiting in his ribs.

A beat later, Eduardo's standing over him, offering him a hand up with the kind of smile that makes him look all of seventeen. For all Shin knows, he is seventeen: Mark claims they're both legal age, but Mark looks even more like a kid than Eduardo does, too small and dressed in clothes that are just a few sizes too big. In fact, Shin figures, looking at Eduardo now, he's pretty sure they just buy clothes that are Eduardo-sized and Mark wears whatever Eduardo doesn't.

"Come on!" gets bellowed at him, as soon as he's on his feet. "We've got some protein to spare. Would she prefer a slice of the carrot-flavored one, or is she more of a seafood medley person?"

"How did you --" but he doesn't get any explanation, because the alarm cuts off with a faint mechanical gurgle, and Mark's head pops out of one of the ground-floor windows.

"It works!" he shouts across the yard.

"We noticed!" Eduardo calls back.

His head ringing with the phantom sound, Shin brushes the grit off his palms and follows. He's got nothing but respect for Mark, mind, respect that's been duly earned, but if Mark is Eduardo's only friend in the whole gorram 'verse, well ...

God help the kid.

 

 

2517
year of the rooster
and the year-long astrological commemoration of Our Lady of Guanyin
year of the Sihnon uprising

 

The debate rages forever.

It's suicide, it's a backbirth stupid hare-brained scheme, and to even contemplate it like there's any way it can end well for any of them ("of course it can end well," Mal protests. "If we do this and succeed, we'll have done a good deed and we'll be rich enough to pick and choose our own jobs for at least a year." "Mal, things ain't ever gone the way you planned in oh, I don't know, ever," Jayne snaps back, and the captain sets down his fork in order to give him his most incredulous look, "of all the people I weren't expecting to argue with me ... I thought you wanted to be rich," and Jayne grunts back, "well, yeah, who don't, but I ain't stupid,") just goes to show they've been floating in space too long and have completely brined in crazy.

Bad enough going into the heart of Alliance territory, all of 'em being wanted criminals and everything, but to actively plan to piss 'em off?

Isn't there some saying or another about sleeping dragons and eyes?

"I think what bothers me the most," Simon confesses to Zoe quietly, as they're scraping the remains of a delicious bland protein dinner into the compactor. They picked the short draws for dishes. "Is that somebody connected me to you. Somebody knows the Tams are on Serenity, and they're selling that information. Or telling. Or something. I just -- my skin's crawling."

Zoe flips the water on, running her fingers under the trickle of it to test the temperature.

"That list ain't as short as we'd probably like it to be, Doc," she responds, taking a plate from him. "There are a couple people planetside privy to that information. Inara, for one. Shepherd Book."

"I'm aware, but do you really think either one of them would tell?"

" ... no."

Around and around and around the argument goes, until Jayne takes to bellowing like a bull and flipping tables whenever they get to discussing something they've already discussed to death. All of their cups have dents in them, and in punishment, Jayne sets to scrubbing floors with a vengeance.

They'll take every precaution they can, but Mal wants to shake this job like bad fleas, get in, get it done, and wash his hands of it as soon as possible so they can start rolling in cashy money.

"I'm a-thinking we go to Beaumonde before we hail the Moskovitz kid back," he mentions to her out of the blue, slamming the lid shut on the container and spinning the combination lock. "Ain't nothing but a half-day away."

The lock chirps, and Zoe steps out to check pedestrian traffic. It's worship hour, so she sees only a little girl outside the fire station in a gingham dress, teaching the black-spotted station dogs to sit by holding scraps of her lunch right above their noses, forcing them to put their rumps down in the dirt in order to keep their eyes on the treat. It's hot in this part of the world, the ground dusty and baked and the sky shimmering at the end of the road.

Li Chen's always good for patching up their hurts; he's a squat, tubby little man with long black whiskers like a sage's and a big mole on his chin. The mole has three bristly hairs sticking out of it, which Li Chen's forever tugging on to get them to grow like a proper wise man's. He's lived here all his life, he says, and has earned every shirt he ever sweated out in the name of business. He loves Serenity with the fervent respect of a collector, which goes a long way to making Mal fond of him.

He's an interior designer by trade, specializing in decorating the tiny holds of spaceships -- got a glossy-paged rag going up in the city and everything, which Wash won't admit to having a subscription to, but he's got no secrets from his wife -- and he's forever lettin' Mal and Zoe take a gander at some of the old furniture he has in his warehouse; dining chairs and shelves for cabinets and a throw rug that will work well in the lounge, provided River doesn't go woolly and slice Jayne open with a knife again.

Sometimes it's not just engine parts that Serenity needs to be a home.

"Beaumonde, sir?" Zoe asks. Li Chen waves from his porch, and she waves back.

"Yeah. Mayhaps it'd be best if we drop the girl off, tuck her away somewhere shiny and safe while we do this job. There's forests a-plenty on Beaumonde, once you get far enough away from the cities. Find a cabin, fly off, come and get her when we're well and through with the job. Easy."

"Sir," Zoe says as levelly as possible. "You wake up this morning with half your brain missin' or something?"

"I resent that."

"Ain't no way the Doc's gonna let you leave River alone somewhere."

"We could leave them both behind," Mal points out hopefully.

Zoe doesn't dignify that with a response.

They're silent the rest of the ride back to where they've got Serenity parked out in the shipyard, and as soon as the bay doors open, Kaylee comes skipping over, hair flying behind her and her face lit up eager as a kid at Christmas. Simon's sitting on the steps, one leg folded over his knee, cracking walnuts with a pair of forceps and looking far more relaxed than she's used to seeing him.

"Oh, shiny," Kaylee choruses, enthusiastic, helping Mal secure the mule. "New things! What'd'you get us, cap'n?"

Zoe hops down. It's cooler inside the ship, in the shade, and her skin tingles with the phantom imprint of hot prairie sunshine. She loosens her gun holster with a feeling like taking one's nylons off at the end of a long day, and checks over her shoulder, but it looks like Kaylee and Mal are handling the cargo just fine.

She turns around and comes face-to-face with River, and tries not to jump.

"You need us," the girl says simply, peering up at Zoe with her round face and clear-water eyes. She's wearing one of her own dresses; a soft, worn red slip with seashells patterned all down the front, hem skirting around her calves. "Can't leave us. We're important papers, you know what happens when you lose important papers."

"What's she talking about?" Simon sidles up beside them.

She takes a moment to appreciate the irony that for once, she knows what River's trying to say before her brother does. "The captain," she starts, sighing heavily. "Thinks it'd be safest if we found a cabin on Beaumonde to hide you and your sister, Doc, until we get this job done. We're not anymore fond of the idea of you and her getting within spitting distance of the Academy than you are."

He's shaking his head before she's even finished, and River takes advantage of his preoccupation in order to thieve a few of the walnuts out of his cupped palm. "I'm the reason this billionaire even sought you out," he points out, lifting his shoulders with a vaguely apologetic air. "We have to come."

"If something happens to you or River --" Mal says, and of course he was listening.

"You can't be held responsible," the Doc finishes for him, hard-eyed. "I know how it works, captain, you don't have to tell me."

"Boys," Kaylee protests. She's stacking new cabinet shelves on top of each other. "Were having a new things moment here. Don't ruin it!"

"Sorry," Mal and Simon say automatically, and, thinking of Kaylee holding treats to their noses to make them sit, Zoe laughs all the way up to the bridge.

 

-

 

They say that, much like dogs, ships and their captains start to resemble each other after awhile, and the instant Zoe catches sight of the Stephanie -- a Catepillar-class transport with the kind of dual repulsor system that makes Kaylee curdle with envy whenever she sees them at spaceport, newer and of a more reliable make than Serenity, but not better, never better -- and she can't imagine that ship belonging to anybody but Dustin Moskovitz.

They meet in orbit on the sunny side of Persephone, and Dustin fills the comms with excited chatter about how he hasn't seen them in forever, and it ain't even a lie.

While they're waiting to be docked, Mal summons Simon and River and tells them to take cover in Inara's shuttle, just as a precaution. It's not that he doesn't trust Wash's cousin, it's just that ... well, he doesn't trust Wash's cousin or their new employer, and if their goose is cooked, he'd like there to be some plausible possibility that the Tams might be able to take the shuttle and disappear planetside. There are just as many places to hide on Persephone as there are in the forests of Beaumonde.

"That's not going to last for long," Simon lifts an eyebrow. "They're going to want to talk to us sooner or later. We're proof that breaking someone out of the Academy is possible."

"I'm aware, Doc, just ... put my mind to rest, if you please. If asked," he adds, turning to Zoe. "We'll say we only have that second shuttle for regulation's sake and it doesn't actually function. Never been that good at following regulation."

Zoe nods, and catches sight of River over his shoulder. She's frowning, her arms tucked in tight to her sides like she's trying to make herself smaller, and even as Zoe watches, her faces starts to pale.

"River?" she goes. "Honey?"

The Doc snaps to attention, but Mal beats him to it, catching River's arm when she starts to sway.

"Hey, there, little albatross," he murmurs worriedly, steadying her. "Take a deep breath. What's wrong?"

Pushing her fingers into her temples, she says, "He's really loud, it hurts," and her voice is so incredibly young.

Mal's brows bend, perplexed, but Simon glances in the direction of the hold instinctively and Zoe gets it. The crew of the Stephanie must be close enough for River to start being able to hear them.

"Even from this far away?" she asks, surprised. She knows River's been getting a better handle on being a reader, now that everybody knows what she is and can start sculpting their thoughts to help her, but it's still strange to think it'd be like a muscle that gains new range of motion the more it's stretched.

River gives her a look, like that's an addlepated question, and pulls out of Mal's grip.

"The Judas is too busy trying not to scream and shout, and is never ignored," she says with a toss of her hair, and now she just sounds sixteen and sorely put-upon. "They'll try to be human to make you forget what they've done. The betrayal-guilt allegories are always the loudest of the bunch. Come on," she adds to her brother. "Won't be long."

Zoe's at the top of the flight of stairs heading down into the bay when River catches her wrist.

"Don't be scared," she says lowly, fast like she's telling a secret. "It's just camouflage, like the moth that wears tiger stripes to scare off the predators. He's safe, he won't tell," and then she's gone, slipping into Inara's old shuttle as quick as a darting minnow.

Mal looks at her curiously when she falls into formation beside him. "What was that about?"

"Sir, I genuinely do not know," she replies, and checks the rounds in her gun one more time for comfort's sake.

Wash is waiting by the dock door, straightening the lapels of his shirt and bouncing on his heels. Kaylee's handling all the technical stuff up on the bridge, which she wasn't particularly keen on since it means she'll miss all the meet and greet, but she caved readily enough, acknowledging that Wash had priority, it bein' his family and all. The Tams are hidden, and Jayne's got the bird-eye view up on the causeway, where he can cause the most amount of trouble at the exact moment they'll need him not to.

The door beeps, the lights going green to show they've got a hard-seal, and Zoe catches excited movement on the other side of the door.

Before it's even fully open, Wash springs forward, leaping on Dustin with a shout of "Cuz!" and wrestling him into a headlock. For a second, she can't tell who's who: they're a horrible jumble of clashing floral prints and stick-up hair, shouting and trying to throw each other off.

"How come --" Wash grunts out. "You're already a captain and I'm just a pilot who's still wiping interplanetary goo off his ship's buffer panels?"

"'Cause I'm prettier!"

"Liar, take it back!"

This goes on for another minute, before Mal cuts through their tussle with a mild, "It's good to see you, Captain."

Dustin yanks out from underneath Wash's arm and pulls the hem of his shirt down, clearing his throat. He's not much bigger than the last time Zoe saw him: growing up didn't fill him out much. He's still a slight-looking fellow with reddish-brown hair who smiles like it costs him nothing, like he's been shown the whole 'verse and seen nothing but good.

"Captain Reynolds!" he returns easily, and his smile does that shy twitch it does when his eyes land on Zoe next. "Mrs. Washburne. It's so good to see you," he gives Mal's hand and then Zoe's a firm pump. "I always did like you guys best. You don't need to be told that the only way to fly a ship is to love her. Some people just don't get that, it's really sad."

"A ship flies better if you love her?" Mal asks, like he already knows the answer.

Dustin widens his eyes at him. "Of course it does! If you don't love your ship, what's the point of you?"

"Hear hear," pipes up Wash. He's beaming, and Zoe finds it endearing for all of a heartbeat before she hears the familiar whir of a gun safety clicking off.

Her own gun's out of its holster a second later, and the smile drops clean off of Wash's face.

"'Bout ruttin' time," grunts Jayne from above, and a quick glance out of the corner of her eye tells her that he's got his gun cocked, laser sight a faint pinpoint of red. "Was wonderin' when you's all was gonna see the gorram Alliance fed standing right there."

"Last I checked, Mr. Cobb," says a voice. "Being Alliance wasn't the kind of crime you shot a man for."

There's a boy standing on the dock, and he holds himself with the familiar nonchalance of someone whose ego is twice the size of his physical body. He's got thin, shrewd eyes and hair that's slicked down with grease, and he's shorter even than Dustin; he only probably comes up to Zoe's collar, and in any other situation, Zoe would be laughing right about now. But he's wearing the beige button-up overcoat and slacks that Zoe sees in dreams of target practice, the emblem of the Alliance etched into his breast. His clothes are the same color as his hair, and his hands look soft from a life in the Core.

It's because of people like him that people like Zoe gotta scavenge on the edge of space like vultures.

"Nobody's going to shoot you!" Dustin interjects, indignant. "Nobody's getting shot!"

He steps between the fed and the Serenity crew, his hands raised in a pacifying gesture. "Dong ma? No shooting, please. Cap'n, Hoban, Mrs. Washburne ... this is Mark Zuckerberg. It's him that's gonna hire you."

"Like hell!" Jayne growls down.

"Jayne, shut up," Mal says tersely. The muzzle of his gun doesn't waver, and Mark Zuckerberg eyes him in a calculating way, his head tilted. "Captain Moskovitz, is there any particular reason you forgot to mention that the potential client you had for us works for the Alliance?"

"Oh, please, is that what this is about? Mark hardly counts as Alliance," goes Dustin, relief coloring his voice, seemingly with no idea how close he is to sudden death by way of a bullet. "He works in IT."

"You don't get to be a billionaire by working in IT," Zoe points out.

This earns her an eyeroll. "Ma'am, I think you overestimate the government's ability to manage their money in an intelligent way."

"I fail to see how my employer is relevant," Zuckerberg snaps, talking right over the tail end of Dustin's sentence. "What could I possibly get out of reporting you for ... for what, exactly?" he ticks his eyes back and forth, assessing. "Despicable hospitality? You haven't even let me past the bike room yet. I haven't seen anything illegal. There's nothing to report."

"You know full well why we might be a mite twitchy letting an Alliance man on board."

"Oh, please, Captain Reynolds. I'm a billionaire --" and oh, how it rankles Zoe to be told that by a kid who can't be a day over nineteen. "What use do I have for reward money?"

"Why the uniform?" she asks.

Dustin makes exasperated hand motions at his cousin, like, can you do something about this? Wash gestures back helplessly, his familiar, what can I do? I'm just the pilot. Take it up with the trigger-happy monkeys, okay?

"Why the gun?" Zuckerberg parrots back. "In case you've forgotten, my best friend is currently trapped in a government compound. He needs to be rescued. That's what I'm here to hire you to do. Where we're going, an Alliance uniform demands respect, the same way carrying a gun demands respect wherever it is you go."

Both Jayne and Dustin try to talk at the same time, and several verse tense minutes follow, in which everybody yells a lot and the desire to not blast a hole in the Washburne-Moskovitz genetic pool -- on the offchance that would make any future family dinners Zoe cares to have with her in-laws decently awkward -- is the only thing that saves the two of them from being tossed into Serenity's engines.

She takes the opportunity to truly get a good look at Mark Zuckerberg, and realizes that he's from a border planet, he has to be.

She hadn't noticed it before, distracted by his clothes, but it's in his voice, the syllables bitten off and clipped, like every word that comes out of his mouth is hostile to him. You gotta train yourself to talk like that, if it don't come natural. He doesn't flinch away from the guns being waved in his general direction, like he's completely in control of himself, or at least used to pretending that he's completely in control of himself. He glances back at her, like he's sizing them up just as much as they're sizing up him.

She adjusts her assessment: Mark Zuckerberg is a nasty little border planet kid with a chip in his shoulder, which is bad, but no hero complex, which she's grateful for, because those are even worse.

Zoe's got enough of those to handle, frankly.

Mal's voice cuts above the rest, calling sharply for silence.

"This is what we're going to do," he says in a tone that brooks no argument. "You --" he points at Zuckerberg. "Are going to sit down right where you are and not move until such a time as we decide what we're going to do with you. You --" this is directed at Dustin. "Are coming with us. We've got a few words for you."

As an afterthought, he seals the dock doors and takes the key, cutting off any retreat to the Stephanie.

The kid lifts his hands placatingly, and crosses the bay to sit down on a stack of crates with such sharp, contained movements that every single line of him radiates screw you.

As soon as they reach the top of the steps, Zoe bringing up the rear, Jayne clomps across the grating in his big boots and scoops Dustin up into an enormous hug that's more gun than arms. Dustin's face takes on a particularly alarmed look as his feet leave the ground, but he pats at Jayne's shoulder obligingly, looking like he'd much rather be anywhere else but isn't sure how to say so.

"Hey, little man," Jayne says, giving him a squeeze. He sounds happy and frankly, Zoe thinks that's frightening. "It's been awhile, good seein' you."

"You can't possibly remember him from our wedding," Wash says incredulously. "You were too drunk to stand."

"Yeah, but that don't mean I don't like him," Jayne sounds defensive, plunking Dustin back down like he don't weigh nothing. "I take a liking to any man who names his mechanics after a woman. S'the only way to do it, much better than the real things."

"Jayne," says Zoe, who has a very clear shot at some vulnerable parts of his anatomy from where she's standing. "I am armed. I don't think you'll be wanting to finish that line of thought."

"Captain Moskovitz," says Mal, as soon as the hatch to the cargo bay is closed behind him, Zuckerberg out of earshot. There's an edge to his voice. "Do you routinely make a habit out of showing your belly for whatever job the government wants you to do? Is that something they teach a man, fresh out of flight school?"

"No," Dustin replies, unperturbed. "Mark's my friend. Not much of one," he amends at their disbelieving silence. "But he's still my friend. So's Eduardo. I'm doing this for them, because somebody ought to. Usually, I'm just a simple ferryman for folk lookin' to transport stuff between Persephone and her moons. It ain't much, but it keeps me and the girl flyin'."

His tone turns wistful.

"I wanna have my own crew someday," he confesses. "I wanna show Stephanie the stars. But I need deckhands for that."

"Wait," says Wash, sounding startled. "You manage your whole ship by yourself?"

"Oh, she don't cause me no trouble," Dustin says immediately, like she could hear him. "But honest, I'm not one for the responsibilities of being captain. I'm just a pilot, I just want to point her where to go and let somebody else deal with the politics. When I was younger, when we was out playin', I'd make Mark be that captain. It'd be him and me and Wardo and our friends, but," he shrugs.

"I vote we shoot the little weasel," Jayne pipes up from the back, voice grating out of him. "Or airlock him. Or, hey," he brightens up. "Both!"

"You don't get a vote, Jayne."

"Ah, hell, Mal."

Kaylee looks as startled as a spring doe to see them all traipsing up onto the bridge, her expression going nervous when she catches the looks on their faces, but it's fleeting and clears immediately when her eyes land on Dustin. She unhooks herself out of the pilot seat and flies across the bridge to greet him.

"Finally!" Dustin goes at the sight of her, grinning so wide it has to hurt. "Someone I can pick up!"

He proceeds to do so, lifting her in a spinning hug that makes her squeal in delight as her boots go swinging, a joyously girlish sound. When he puts her down again, her cheeks are apple red, and she beams up at Dustin in such a way that Zoe can actually physically see his knees go weak.

"I remember you from the weddin', but we was never properly introduced," she says, a little breathless. "I'm Kaylee. I'm Serenity's mechanic."

"Dustin Moskovitz. That ship up there's mine."

"Careful, boy, she's only got eyes for nancy men with clean fingernails," Jayne mutters, but not actually loud enough to be heard, which is considerate, for him.

"Oh, I know. The Stephanie. She's gorgeous!" Kaylee bursts out enthusiastically, and is cut off from a spiel about whatever-or-another she was gonna say about his ship by the look Mal gives her behind Dustin's back. "Ummm-m," she stutters instead. "What's everybody doin'?"

"Complications before we've even gotten started," Mal steps around her, to where Wash is already at the helm, flipping switches. "Wash, can you get us the surveillance feed from the bay?"

Wash grunts unhappily, and does so. It takes a moment for the screen to clear, the lines going wavy and the feed buzzing with static before it focuses, showing a good cross-section of the hold and at least two different angles on Mark Zuckerberg. He's still sitting where they left him, drumming out an impatient rhythm on his knees and craning his neck around so far Zoe thinks he's going to wrench it right off.

"He's awful little," Kaylee says after a beat, looking askance at them. "It's him who gone and hired us?"

Jayne, as always, offers the truth with tact and thoughtfulness.

"Him's an Alliance bastard."

"No!" Kaylee widens her eyes, affronted, and she casts a startled look at Dustin, stepping away from him unconsciously.

Dustin has the decency to look a little sheepish. "Well, yes, fine, he is, but he ain't that good at it," he insists, and glances around at all the hostile faces looking back. His face creases sadly. "Please, I don't know how to convince you. He's more like you than he is like them. Eduardo means more to Mark than turning you in ever would, you've got to trust me on that."

It's camouflage, Zoe thinks.

And then blinks. Of course! River had tried to tell them. He's safe, he won't tell, she'd said. This is what she'd been talking about.

"Sir --" she starts, stepping forward, but on the screen, Zuckerberg suddenly moves, jolting to his feet as if he'd been electrocuted. He spins around in a circle, like he's taking notice of the shape of the cargo hold for the first time. He steps to the right, first hesitantly and then again with assurance, feeling along the edges of the crates he'd been sitting on until he reaches the wall.

Mal grumbles. "I told him to stay put."

"You know, for a feller that's supposed to be rolling naked in money, he sure does look cheap," Jayne comments.

"Sometimes," Kaylee replies, mild. "Folks is so poor that all they got is money."

"Huh. Boo hoo for him."

They watch him trace along the grating; the honeycomb pattern that covers the hold ceiling to floor; designed like cartilage to buckle in case of a crash landing, so as not to damage whatever might be in the hold, there at the belly of the ship. Zuckerberg hunches down, keeping one hand on the lining and following it, squeezing close in places so he can keep his finger on it. He comes to a halt in front of the steps, and stands there for a long moment. He puts both hands on the wall, framing the exact piece of grating that comes off -- Firefly-class transport has a dozen or so of these secret compartments built in.

He stands there for a long beat, and then looks left and looks right, like he's expecting one of the crew to pop out of nowhere.

Then, in one deft movement, he hooks his fingers along the edge of the fake grating and yanks it from the wall, exposing the dark smuggler's hold inside. He pokes his head in -- it's empty of anything incriminating, of course, because they've more than bungled their last few attempts at actual crime -- then pulls black and flips the sheet of metal over, running his thumb along the edge. A frown pinches his brows together.

Slowly, Zoe turns her head and lifts her eyebrows at the captain. She doesn't say a word.

He scowls deeper.

Zuckerberg flips the fake piece right side up and fits it back into place, like he's suddenly gotten bored with the whole thing. He turns and says directly to the surveillance camera, "Is this the best you could get me, Dustin?"

"Okay." That's Jayne. "Now can we shoot him?"

 

 

2519
year of the dragon
year of the Miranda scandal
and the dissolution of the oligarchical Alliance government at the operative level

 

Mark misses the trees on his home planet the most.

Nowhere else in the 'verse do they turn quite as red in the autumn, or stay as red for long, and he wishes there was something here on Jiangyin like the willows that used to grow down by the riverside, not far from his house, trailing branches through the water as the rain rippled the surface. Mark used to count raindrops as they hit the surface, squelching along the riverbank on the walk home from school, ignoring the damp dripping down the neck of his sweatshirt.

He thought he would miss his mother, if anything, or the family dog that liked to break into the linen closet and sleep with the dirty laundry, or that school they sent him to, where he was indisputably and uniformly detested but still knew he was the smartest of all of them -- but in reality, he misses things that are much simpler than that; the yaisu dumplings that aren't quite as good anywhere else, the off-blue glow of the cortex loading screen that used to be his constant companion at night, and the burning autumnal colors of the trees.

"Mark?" says Eduardo, startling him. There's something unidentifiable in his voice. "Are you praying?"

Mark blinks and looks down. In his hands, a lit stick of incense smokes at the tip.

"Yes," he answers, and picks the incantation up where he left off. It's an easy, rhythmic verse, and he rocks up onto his knees in order to place the incense up on the altar with the others. That makes eight lit.

The shrine, like everything else that Mark and Eduardo own, is makeshift at best; he cleared out the old firepit, made an altar, and dedicated it sort of haphazardly. He doesn't know how it works -- the ambitious have little time for religion, after all -- and the gods in this part of Jiangyin aren't any that he recognizes, but they have mountains and festivals named after them, little dedicated shrines visible in the backyards of nearly everyone in town, even the ones that go to church on Sunday. Kali and Ganesha, Vishnu and Shiva.

Mark prays to them all, just in case.

He glances back at Eduardo, and picks up the box at his side. At home, they used to burn rosemary and heather at wakes. Those don't grow here, so instead, he traded for sticks of mint at the apothecary's; prayers for a good night's sleep.

"Would you like to light one?" he asks.

Eduardo shifts his weight, glancing from Mark to the altar and back again. There's a chill in the air, and a whistling wind. "I didn't know them very well," he says after a long pause.

Mark didn't have any pictures, so he improvised: a wreath of blood-red poppies for the shepherd; the plastic figurine of a dinosaur for Wash, which the children in town had solemnly produced for him when he asked; and a dead fisheye camera lens for Sean.

"You might not remember Sean," he says, and sees Eduardo tilt his head in his peripheral, skimming dragonfly-fast over the surface of Mark's thoughts; piecemeal memories of school, the spellbinding way Sean used to drag them into his games, and how he looked so different, smaller, somehow, sitting amongst a throne of monitors and calling himself Mr. Universe. "But do you remember Wash? Serenity's pilot?"

He holds out the mint, and Eduardo kneels down on the mat next to him. He holds the incense up to the light, twisting it between his fingertips and contemplating it like it's telling him something Mark can't hear.

He doesn't really miss Serenity. He more misses the idea of it, and he sometimes can't help but wonder if maybe Eduardo would have been better off, out there in the black of space with River, where there weren't so many other minds trying to overpower his own.

"He loves his wife," Eduardo says eventually, and Mark doesn't comment on his use of the present tense. "Thinks she's better than flying, better than the first moment when you leave gravity and everything is weightless. She made him weightless. Serene. Serenity."

Cleanly, he draws the incense over the flame until the end ignites, and then slides it under the feet of the dinosaur.

Mark presses his palms together, touching his forehead and murmuring under his breath. They watch the smoke curl up until Eduardo speaks again.

"He wanted them to die together. Couldn't -- wouldn't -- imagine it happening any other way."

 

-

 

At school, everyone just tolerated Sean, the same way everyone tolerates bullies, assuming that it's someone else's job to make them go away.

Intelligence is easy to quantify, categorize, and identify in children as early as the age of four, before they're even really capable of the written word, so Mark's parents knew what was coming long before he was old enough to attend a private school on his own. They always kind of treated him like he was partially out the door. It was a short hop off-planet on a shuttle that didn't even have any deep-space capabilities -- and it was still a lot farther than any of them had ever been before. Mark vibrated in excitement about a week before he left.

He still remembers the way his ears popped, the first time he left atmo. There's nothing like it.

The school was owned and run by Jesuits, bald men and women in brown robes, because everyone wants to be the first ones to reach smart kids and control what they learn, teach them how to question before they start questioning everything, and Sean was a few years older than Mark. When he was sixteen, he hotwired a mule from the gardener's shed and Mark was the only one awake, so Sean took him for a joyride.

There wasn't much to see, just the same kind of buildings over and over, an interlocking maze of carbon-based cement that's been here since terraforming days.

It was all new to Mark, and Sean snorted.

"Don't be impressed by all this," he said, reaching across and clapping Mark on the shoulder. "It gets so much better."

Mark had treated it like a promise.

Likewise, he and Dustin struck it off immediately. Although they came from border planets on completely opposite sides of the quadrant, Dustin's birthday was Mark's half-birthday, and visa versa, so they collaborated each year in order to maximize on their respective gift hauls, splitting the loot between them.

While this was mostly based on convenience, the actual part where Dustin sat down with him and never left, not for years, didn't come until later. He used to steal their tablets and use the calculator app to write them messages in numerals that, when turned upside down, became messages like "hello :)" and "boobies." He thought it never got old.

Between classes and during free time, he was forever trying to get him to run around with him in the schoolyard, playing pretend, spindly-limbed and full of energy, but Mark always had better things to do. After Eduardo became their friend, Dustin finally found himself someone to indulge him; someone willing to be ravaged by pretend-Reavers and be desperately in need of a daring at-atmo rescue.

Mark knew Eduardo Saverin for a year or two before they ever really talked.

He tested two years above his own level, which put him in most of Eduardo's classes, but he heard it from Dustin who heard it from Christy who had a tendency to hack school records when she was bored that Eduardo's father owned, like, a large chunk of industry land on Rasilia, and even though Rasilia is the kind of border moon nobody really cares about (its only reliable export is, like, gillyflower or something, it's sad,) that's still pretty impressive.

Neither of them had a lot of friends, anyway -- Mark was Mark, and Eduardo didn't really know any of the good hand games that most children pick up by sheer virtue of being around other children; he couldn't Miss Mary Mack and always lost at jacks because he was too slow, could play Unification with a computer but not the proper way, not with cards, always startling and frowning whenever someone smacked his hand and shouted "browncoat!" like he didn't know what to do. Nobody wanted to be friends with someone who couldn't play.

When Mark was twelve, a new seating chart in geography put Mark and Eduardo together in the back corner, and Mark -- who has never in his life seen something he hadn't wanted to fix -- started with Go Fish and Hyuangyan and worked his way up to teaching Eduardo the hard stuff, cards spread out carefully under their desks. Sister Prikash threatened to separate them once or twice, but they could always answer her questions regardless of whether not they'd been paying attention and Eduardo always apologized.

Sister Prikash was brown the same way Eduardo was brown; not Sino brown like Christy or Shuijing, and not Anglo brown, the way Sean sometimes got after spending the holiday break on a luxury island cruiser (or so he said,) but brown in a way that Mark didn't know how to categorize, didn't quite fit.

(It would be years yet before he finally realized that there were more types of people than just Anglo and Sino, which always confused him, because if it was the Anglo-Sino Alliance, then who represented people like Eduardo and Sister Prakash and Zoe Washburne? That's not fair.)

The back wall behind them was covered with maps; star maps and weather maps, maps so broad only the planets and their capitals were labeled, and maps detailed enough that it showed every ravine, every road from here to the next town over to the space port.

Mark and Eduardo made a game out of it, scouring the wall until they found all the towns and byways with dirty names, like Coxsackie and Guy's Niao, snickering nonsensically behind their hands, and if Sister Prikash ever caught them saying those words, they couldn't get in trouble, they were just places.

Mark could never tell you exactly where it began.

Friendships never do come with black-and-white starting points like that.

Sean didn't stop circumventing the security systems to sneak out at night, no matter what the Jesuits did to stop him, and a lot of the time, he'd come pick Mark up, because there was no point in him showing off if someone wasn't there to appreciate it, and Eduardo got better at fitting in with people ("out of the two of us, one of us better learn how to socialize, and it's not going to be you," which he thinks back on now and cringes.) Christy got him into programming for information systems and Erica pulled his hair hard enough to make him want to do anything to impress her, and Dustin set his eyes on pilot school and never looked away, not for any other opportunity.

And Mark's test scores were the highest out of everybody in the school for three years running.

"Well, of course they are," he had muttered when Eduardo told him, drumming his stylus against the edge of his tablet, letting Eduardo settle cross-legged across from him.

He looked up.

"Do they even really need to bother to keep schooling me?" he'd asked, and he remembers the way Eduardo smiled that indulgent smile of older kids everywhere. They'd been working on an algorithm, the two of them; ranking the intelligence of the other students, since it seemed like the thing to do. How do you differentiate yourself in a universe where human civilization is scattered across a hundred planets and moons?

What are you worth if you aren't the best?

"Spoken with the conviction of the truly self-entitled," Eduardo answered, dry. "Don't tell me you're one of those types that think they're important enough they can just drop out of school and somehow wind up running whatever little moon they came from."

His voice had been teasing, but Mark, at that age, was completely incapable of hearing a joke for what it was.

He lifted his chin and replied, "I am not going to run a little moon."

And Eduardo smiled back and said, "No, you're not."

A week later, a representative from the Academy came. His name was Bill, and both Mark and Eduardo attended, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the old auditorium. The Academy was new and it had the best program, the widest selection of learning materials, the greatest number of doors to open in the Core planets. "It'll be the final club you'll ever need," said Bill, showing teeth, and Mark felt his palms itch, like ambition was something he could wipe off on his thighs like sweat. He'd never wanted the attention of anything as much as he wanted the attention of the Academy.

Before the month was through, he was standing in a dorm room in the Eliot block, watching Eduardo turn over a cream-colored envelope with shaking hands, reverence and disbelief in every line of his body.

 

-

 

The hydrangeas around the front gate burst into bloom at odd intervals, the splash of color vivid even through the morning fog; sprays of soft pink, lavender, dawn-colored blue, flecked across the front gate like splatters of paint.

They didn't have hydrangea on any of the planets Mark lived previously -- the first time they bloom, Mark doesn't let Eduardo go near the gate until he can determine they aren't poisonous.

"Aren't you listening to them?" Eduardo asks, exasperated, gently peeling Mark's fingers off his arm. "They would let us know if they were dangerous."

There's dew in his hair, grass on the bare bones of his ankles, and damp, muddy patches on his clothes. A dark green coat is pulled over his shoulders, the collar turned up and the buttons dangling loose at the ends of their threads. He's been sleeping outside again.

It's not an uncommon habit, but lately Eduardo's tried to be back inside before Mark woke up, because he says that Mark's panic at waking up alone is like bad static and it makes his teeth hurt.

"Yes," says Eduardo, and since there are several things going on in Mark's head, he's not really sure which one Eduardo's aiming at.

Careful, he takes all of those thoughts, files them, and imagines tucking them into a password-protected directory, and Eduardo tosses him an amused look over his shoulder, like he can't unknow it now that he knows it. Zoe taught them that trick; interestingly, imagining locking something away inside his head is enough to make people like River and Eduardo assume those thoughts are off-limit. Something about the act of locking tricks their subconscious.

Hey, no one ever said "crazy psychic powers" was a precise science.

Mark stops thinking about Eduardo sleeping somewhere he can't immediately be if something went wrong, and instead tilts his head and wonders at Eduardo's retreating back, what do you want for breakfast?

"Rice and eggs!" is the answering call. He's already half-way across the yard.

Mark casts one last scowling look at the hydrangea, which bob around with the breeze in a distinctly non-threatening manner, then picks up his feet and follows.

"Good," he says. "Because that's all we have," and then, frowning, "do you know how many bars of protein foodstuffs we have left?"

Eduardo pauses at the side door, turning and holding it open for him. It's the only part of the farmhouse that still has any of its original paint on it; where the rest of the house might, at one time, have been the same murky grey-blue color as the misty mountain sky, this door is a burnt yellow-orange, reels of paint half-peeled away. From a distance, the house looks like a sunrise.

"Enough," he says, and That Gorram Thing chirrups in greeting at the sound of his voice.

It's not that much warmer inside, but he sheds his coat anyway. As he hangs it up, Mark watches the pull of the neat knot of scar tissue along the bare wing of his back. "Eight months," Eduardo continues. "Longer if I decide I don't like you very much."

"Ha," Mark deadpans, but he has breakfast he needs to be making, so he heads for the larder and thinks very pointedly about the sink out back and the bar of soap and the dirt crusted underneath Eduardo's nails.

"Yeah, I got it, thanks," says Eduardo, but he sounds amused.

Mark hates the nightmares. Everything else, he can deal with: he can deal with the way Eduardo goes as blank as a slate every time they meet somebody new, how his voice sounds like them for hours afterwards like there's no Eduardo left in him. He can deal with how every time he thinks he sees a flicker of the Eduardo he knew in school, it washes away, easily, like Eduardo was something the Academy could just keystroke-and-delete.

He can deal with him not remembering anything that other people can't remember for him; Eduardo remembers Dustin and Christy and Sister Prakash and the way the fourth year boys would always add subvocal dirty commentary at the end of every line during morning prayers, because Mark remembers it. He remembers that River Tam sat directly behind him in assembly since the S's always sat in front of the T's, because River remembers it.

But ask him what his mother did for a living, or what he got for his seventh birthday, and Eduardo just goes ... quiet. Like the Academy took away any ability to retain his own memories.

Mark is -- well, he's not okay with it, because that's not something you're ever okay with, but he handles it. They can make new memories, and Mark's going to keep every one of them safe, just in case.

On Serenity, River always alerted them before Eduardo's nightmares got bad; Mark would wake up to find her hovering like a spectre, and would jerk, too late, for the knife he kept under the pillow, but she just gave him one of her soulful looks and whispered, "bring him out of the dark," which was Mark's cue to reach over and shake Eduardo awake.

He didn't know what it would be like.

He wasn't prepared when, their second night planet-side on Jiangyin, Eduardo's screaming woke him out of a dead sleep.

Mark's never had any experience with that kind of screaming before; it's not the way his little sisters screamed when he pushed them too high on the tire swing, or the way Dustin shrieked when Christy tipped a long-legged spider down the back of his shirt. It's a real scream, the scream of someone in excruciating pain, mindless and otherworldly and every nerve obliterated, and it hits something primal in Mark, something that wants to twitch away from it, some animalistic hindbrain instinct to abandon the one who screams like he's dying.

They're memories, he assumes, although he never asks. He walked right into the Academy, past the schoolyard and the classrooms and down into the steel-trap vault, sterile and white-lit.

He remembers what he saw, and he was only there for an hour, tops.

Eduardo was at the Academy for years.

And Mark doesn't want to know.

It's not always screaming, though. Eduardo sleeps restlessly, fitfully, curling his hands underneath his head and muttering in sharp, distinguishable little bursts. Before they fix up the upper level into something habitable, they make a nest in the middle of the dusty floor of the room Mark uses to tinker in, using settler's blankets and the grey quilt Kaylee presented them with before they left. After he built That Gorramn Thing and set it up by the door, he could see it from where he lay, angled out to face the front, standby light blinking readily.

The both of them, man and machine, keep watch together.

As Eduardo sleeps, he repeats the conversations, thoughts, hindbrain desires of the people he's met; a low, steady stream of sleep-talk.

Mark doesn't sleep much himself, never has, too wired all the time and too used to thinking that the people who sleep are the people who have no ambition, so he sits with the blanket pulled up over his head to ward off the cold and listens.

Eduardo's voice changes cadence, tone, saying things like, "I hope he doesn't notice me today," in a nervous girl's voice and --

"Ain't no ruttin' way we're getting paid," in a way that's clearly Jayne, and --

-- worst of all, a clipped, "it should have been me, why did the Academy pick you, it should have been me," and that's when Mark jolts, reaching out to shake Eduardo awake.

Sometimes (and this was during the phase where Eduardo liked to kick Mark up out of a deep sleep, obstinately because he liked Mark's thoughts best when they were sleepy and half-formed, sweet and sticky as caramel, and Mark longingly thought of just smothering him with a pillow so he could get some proper sleep, but he was too tired to go through with it,) they stay like that even after dawn. Eduardo rolls over to bury his face away from the sunlight and says, "I don't want to do anything today," and Mark says, "yeah, okay," and throws the blanket over both of them, so they can pull it over their heads and huddle. It's safer, in there, Eduardo dreaming quiet dreams and Mark counting the freckles on his nose.

"You're thinking about how you never got to do this much," Eduardo murmurs.

His eyes tick back and forth; this close, Mark can see all the different colors in them, even in the half-gloom underneath the blanket.

"No," he admits. Time, it turns out, is easy to waste if there's somebody who wants you to.

There's no River acting as sentinel anymore, and sleep is the only time Mark isn't capable of policing the inside of his own head, so there are other times when Eduardo just gets up in the middle of the night and wanders away to escape the sound of Mark's dreams.

The hired hands from the nearby farms usually bring him back around dawn after finding him in the rice patties, curled in with the wet and the mud, thinking slow, uncomplicated thoughts about sunlight and growing.

"I like it," he mumbles, sleepy, and that's the only reason Mark doesn't, like, chain him down, because Mark Zuckerberg did not leave behind a fortune in Alliance credit and a job that grants him grudging respect wherever he goes just so Eduardo could drown in a half-inch of ricewater on an outer rim planet.

But if the simplistic thoughts of plants help, if they keep back whatever makes Eduardo scream, then ...

Well, something.

Every time he thinks they might be making progress, Eduardo twists sideways and slips away, fast as quicksilver, fast as mercury, and the person Mark knew scatters in every direction.

And Mark, Mark who wired That Gorram Thing together as protection with healing fingertips and makes nice with the people who remind him a little too much of his family, fully aware that Mark is miles ahead and always treating him like he's supposed to be somewhere else, Mark who has never seen something he hadn't wanted to fix --

Mark doesn't know what to do.

 

 

2517
year of the rooster
and the year-long astrological commemoration of Our Lady of Guanyin
year of the Sihnon uprising

 

This will be the third time Zoe's set foot on a Core planet.

The second time was when they did that job on Ariel, but the first was right after the battle of Serenity Valley.

She was twenty-four years old.

As part of the Alliance flexing their muscles on a self-congratulatory victory tour, they arrested Zoe for some fine and mighty treason/sedition combo and put her on trial to determine whether or not she was to be held directly responsible for the death of the soldiers in her command. After the slaughter field of Serenity Valley, that was a murder count in the hundreds. She'd taken Mal's rank and gone in his place, and not a single one of the browncoats betrayed her, because out of the two of them, Zoe was the only one who could hold her tongue and not get herself riddled full of holes.

The tribunal got bored before they got to a verdict, and Zoe spent several years scavenging in the farthest-flung reaches of space, so full of hate it turned the corners of her vision scratchy and made her throat feel like she was breathing through fire.

This time, they're in a place called White River, where the river isn't white at all. The riverbanks are a mess of barbed wire, the water oily and iridescent on the surface, moving so sluggishly you'd expect it to give up and go to sleep any second. It's how rivers look in cities. Polluted.

They're in the black-out zone -- and between here, the junkyard on Ariel, and the tribunal, Zoe's proud to say she's taken in the best the Core has to offer.

Black-out zones are named as such because they're places that law enforcement can't reach. The telecommunications are scrambled and the streets are policed by territorial crime lords whose reputations are severely blown out of proportion. Whole communities, despite being illegal by sheer virtue of their existence, thrive in the black-out zones, maintained by an army of old women who refused to move out when the government put a blanket ban on the area and are not crossed, not even by the gangs.

Of all the contacts he used to infiltrate the Academy, Simon says the only one he would trust not to immediately sell him out for promise of a heavy purse (he had looked pointedly at Jayne, who sneered right back but looked uncomfortable) lives here.

"I was lucky that she found me, really," Simon tells them, and it feels weird to have him on point, but he's the only one who knows where they're going.

They don't really fit in, stepping through narrow alleyways where the curbs are cracked into chunks of rock and the walls are graffitied with fake gardens, created out of paint and chalk and spreading all across the brick. The locals are a motley bunch, dressed heavy like they always carry their entire wardrobe on their backs, like if they need to run, they can do so. A lot of them have jailbreak tattoos, characters branded on their cheeks that Zoe can't read from this distance, and faces peer down at them from open summer windows, bored.

You get strange folk going through black-out zones all the time, so they aren't really that remarkable.

"She found you?" Zuckerberg echoes.

He's dressed down, garbed in a sweatshirt of Jayne's that don't fit proper, and his hair doesn't have any grease, curling soft around his ears. He keeps brushing it out of his eyes impatiently. It makes him look frightfully young, and more than once, Zoe's catches herself calling him by his given name in her head instead of his surname, and curses him for making her think of him like a child.

"Yes," Simon's mouth pulls to one side, rueful. "I wasn't particularly adept at being a criminal mastermind, so I wasn't being subtle when I was asking around. I got caught more than once, almost lost my surgeon's license. Finally, she came for me and told me she could help me. Knew some disreputable folk that could help me smuggle River to the Rim in cryo. It was a good plan, up until somebody threw a wrench in it."

"Didn't hear you complaining when I've been sheltering you and your sister for nigh on a year now," Mal replies, unrepentant.

"Yes, you're doing such an admirable job," Simon deadpans back. "Look at us, safe and sheltered, doing safe and sheltered things. Ni hao," he says to a Sino girl standing in a doorway, stopping at the bottom of her stoop.

The house they've arrived at is high and narrow, cramped in a short row with dozens more of its ilk, built up instead of out to fit as many people into the least amount of space possible. The one Simon's brought them to has a red door, its windows barbed with wire. The girl's hair is pulled into pigtails over her shoulders, streaked with same color orange as the glow of a Firefly's engine. She's head-to-toe in the kind of leather that Zoe can appreciate, brown and sleek and functionable.

"You here to see the boss?" her voice twangs out of her with an accent like Badger's. Her eyes flick from Simon to Mal and Zoe to Zuckerberg, impassive.

Simon folds his hands behind his back and nods politely. "She's expecting us, I believe."

She steps back, gesturing that they go on through, and Zoe pretends she doesn't hear Mal's quiet mutter of, "what, no criminal secret handshake?" They traipse up a staircase barely wide enough for one person, the steps creaking loudly under the tromp of their boots, and are met at the top by another girl with a cheap chinaman's hat perched jauntily on top of her head. She's wide and muscular, and grins at them with all teeth.

"I'm going to need to check you for weapons," she tells them, and demonstrates the pose she wants them to take.

Simon goes first, then Zoe, then Mal, and her hands touch their holsters, the knives in their boots, the pistols tucked into Zoe's vest, but she doesn't take a single one of them. Doesn't even remove the chambers.

"I don't know what this says about your security," Mal comments, as she passes right over the handgun tucked into the waistband of his trousers.

She moves on to Mark. "We're not worried about your guns," she says, starting at his shoulders, and her smile is foxy. "We're checking you for wires. Communication is the real weapon, Captain Reynolds, didn't you hear?" The kid twitches at that, and she lifts her eyebrows. "Don't tell me you're ticklish," she teases, but Zoe was watching, and she doesn't think that's what it was.

She orders them to stay put, shoving open the only door on this landing and disappearing through it. Around her shoulders, Zoe catches a glimpse of what looks like an office space, little cubicles visible with at least a dozen people perched in position, headsets wired to their chins, before the door slams shut again. She's back before they even have time to do more than contemplate the painting on the opposite wall (two wine glasses left abandoned on top of a white tablecloth) and she says they can go on up.

"Is it just me," murmurs Mal, once again letting Simon take point. "Or is there an overabundance of ladyfolk around the place?"

Simon smiles, like he's enjoying an inside joke, but it's Mark who answers.

"If you want to get anything done in a business, you hire an army of women to do it."

"And you know this with all your vast business experience?" Doubt drips from Mal's voice.

Mark makes a scornful face, but doesn't get a chance to reply, because they round the top of the staircase and find themselves face-to-face with the biggest man Zoe has ever seen in her entire life.

"Ta ma de," Mal breathes, almost stepping back right onto Zoe's foot. He's gone as tense, strung-up tight as a piano wire, and she touches her shoulder to his as she rights him to remind him that she's there. The guy, who's standing in front of the only door on this floor, is twice Mal's size and girth; he's almost unnaturally large, like someone's cartoonish caricature of a bodyguard.

Zoe, who's both taller and broader in the shoulders than everybody here (sparing perhaps the Doc, whom she has seen shirtless only the once, but it ain't really a sight you forget,) starts feeling a little worried. The man is enormous, dark, and looks like he's got all the makings of the Alliance messin' about in his genome, with muscles that ripple, bunching strangely out of his skin.

But Simon just says, "Hello, Bobby," and the door guy's face breaks into a broad, sunny smile. He unfolds his arms, and suddenly looks a lot less like a hulking stone monolith.

"We were hoping it was you," he says, with the faintest trace of a colonial accent, and then he steps aside, pushing the door open. His eyes take careful measure of Mal, Zoe, and Mark Zuckerberg as they go by.

They step into a room so cluttered that Zoe doesn't know what to look at first; there are three windows that face the street, but they're discolored, cracked at the sills and streaked with chalky rain residue; the light filtering through is stained a dingy yellow, and casts long shadows between the shelves and crates of filing folders. She spots a desk with a lunchbox on it, steam curling from the top; she smells spicy sausage and seaweed. There's no way out except back the way they came.

"That was unexpected," mutters Mal in an undertone, clearly on the same page she is, "I'm suddenly not liking our chances of making a quick escape." Then, realizing what he just said, he buffs up his shoulders a little bit and adds, "We can take him, right?"

"Go ahead, sir," Zoe suggests. "I want to see you try. He could beat us up with one pectoral. It'd be funny. Really."

"I've always found," offers a new voice from further inside the room, and in her peripheral, Zoe sees Mark jolt, stepping back into the angular shadow cast by the open door, fishing for the hood of Jayne's sweatshirt and yanking it up over his head. "That just the simple threat of violence goes a lot further, what do you think?"

A woman materializes from in between two large stacks of papers and loose bulletins, and she says, "A person's own imagination does a lot more of the intimdating."

"Violence is pretty effective as intimidation too, darling," Mal recovers enough to retort, and she smiles.

She's younger even than Kaylee, with sweet rounded cheeks, apple-red, and she's dressed in a blue sari that goes down to the tops of her boots, the hem gold and patterned with a sun-and-moon motif. She has a tweed overcoat on over that, the threads pulled out-of-shape from where she compulsively keeps trying to pull it closed, but can't.

She is massively pregnant. That much swollen belly on a girl that little makes it look like she's going to tip over any moment.

Her first tour in Odin's Harbor, there'd been a guy in Zoe's regiment who wrote bits of poetry on scraps of paper that he stuffed into the lining of his boots, and he always told them that if those Unification-supporting bastards got him, he wanted to be buried with his boots on, so that when he turned into fertilizer, he grew things that could remember the written word.

She has no idea what happened to him, but something about this girl reminds her of him. Zoe imagines him tapping the graphite edge of his pencil against his knee, saying, her, she looks like the kind of person who would buy a bouquet of flowers from a sidewalk vendor and take them to a graveyard, just to lay them at the loneliest-looking stone with no name.

She does not, Zoe thinks, look like a criminal overlord.

But then again, the kids she went to war with never looked like soldiers until they were dead.

"Simon," the girl sounds amused. "Are these the folk you fell in with after you left us?"

"They kidnapped me," he complains. "Plucked me right out of a port on Persephone. It's been awful, they're all hairy and unclean and they make me do chores and I only get to eat once a day, if that, and --"

She laughs, stepping forward, and that seems to be the only cue he needs, because Simon drops the stoic face. With a conspiratorial smile, he closes the rest of the distance, wrapping his arms around her, careful-like. Then he ducks his head down, putting his hand on top of her belly.

"This is new," he comments, and looks considering for a moment. "You're really --"

"Two weeks left," she confirms. "Simon, it's only two weeks until I finally get to sleep on my stomach again, you have no idea how much I'm looking forward to it," and she smiles so widely that her cheeks plump up, shiny with the force of it. Then, touching his shoulder, she adds on a quieter note, "But more importantly, how's your sister?"

"Alive," Simon's voice thrums, and something about the way the girl's face goes relieved tells Zoe that, in this instance, alive is more than anyone hoped. "And they're never getting her back."

Mal clears his throat.

"And." Sounding dry again, Simon turns around obligingly. "Never one to be ignored. Captain, this is Erica Albright."

"Captain."

"Ma'am."

They shake on it.

"Erica and her organization have been studying the movements of the Academy since before they were even officially established. There's nobody who knows more about the layout of the place or what goes on behind closed doors."

"That's a lot of effort to be putting into pursuing a thing that's like to get you killed," Mal looks straight at her. "What's your stake in this, if you don't mind my askin'?"

Erica smiles without humor. She turns her head and shouts, "Husband!"

At the summons, Bobby appears in the doorway so quickly that it endears Erica to Zoe right then and there, because that takes training.

Mal catches her eye, and smirks like he knows exactly what she's thinking. She ignores him, watching Bobby maneuver through the cluttered room with ease, coming to stand at Erica's side.

"Before the Academy," Erica starts, tangling their hands together in the space between their bodies. Since Bobby's the kind of person who looks like he could bear-hug Jayne into submission, it's almost startling to see, and when Zoe looks back, she finds that even Zuckerberg is staring, peering out from underneath the hood of his sweatshirt. The look on his face is unreadable.

"Whenever they needed bodies to fill those facilities that never officially existed, the Alliance used to pick kids off the street. Out of orphanages. Bought them off of settlers. Kids that nobody would miss."

"Except we weren't the greatest test subjects," Bobby shrugs. "Too many chances of something being seriously wrong with us even before the experiment, contaminating the results. So that's when the Alliance opened the Academy. They needed a particular kind of kid: exceptionally brilliant, but also basline healthy, up-to-date on immunizations. The rest of us, they just let go." He shrugs again, and Erica leans into his side reassuringly.

Abstractly, Zoe always knew the government she hated so much was capable of doing those things, but it's something else entirely to hear it laid out like that.

"That sounds like the Alliance," Mal says in a growl that she's used to hear when he's badly unsettled and trying not to show it. "Laboring under the delusion that if they can't make people better by legislating them, taxing them, policing them, or blowing them up, then they'll do it inside our genes."

Erica nods, and nudges at Bobby with her hip.

He heads for the door, then pauses and looks back at her. "You need anything?"

"Tea and crumpets, please, husband," she answers promptly, and he smiles wryly before going back out into the hall. His chair creaks audibly when he settles into it.

She gazes after him wistfully. "Someday that will work," she sighs, and then rests her weight against her desk, trying to pull her coat tighter around her and failing to get it around her belly. "What about you, Captain? What's your stake?"

"We're here about another student," Simon steps in.

Erica nods, unsurprised.

"River Tam was the Academy's star pupil," she says, and it takes Zoe a moment to figure out why she sounds so familiar in that moment: she talks about River the way Simon does, proud and worried both. "She was the best they had, the perfect blend of mental and physical conditioning. They never got that close on another project."

Simon shifts his weight onto the balls of his feet, a familiar strained expression on his face that Erica can clearly read as well as Zoe can, because she holds up her hands apologetically. "The specifics, Simon, are only accessible at the Operative level, which is far beyond what we can get to. We just get chatter. I'm very sorry, I don't know how to reverse it."

Mal considers her. Then he asks, "Ms. Albright, do you think you'd be able to do it again? Break another student out?"

"Ideally, we'd get them all out. But institutions like that are backed by government money, and as long as the government still deems it useful to their own interests to keep the Academy open, they'll keep preying on children in the name of a brighter universe. The best me and my girls have been able to do is get students out, one at a time, but that takes money, and we're --" she gestures around her office with a helpless wave of her hand.

"We can pay," Mal says instantly.

"Then you have my attention," she sits up straighter, and reaches across her desk to snag a box, hauling it closer to her. It's full of files, divided into two sections (Zoe catches sight of the label on one, and it says, "deceased," which makes her stomach curdle, because it's an awful large section) and tabbed with names. "Which student?"

Mal never gets a chance to answer.

That's when Mark Zuckerberg finally speaks up.

"Eduardo," he says, and Erica's head jerks around.

He steps in between Mal and Zoe, pulling himself up to his full height and shoving his hood back. The light falls strangely across his face, turning his features sharp with shadows and contrast.

"We're here for Eduardo."

The effect on Erica is instantaneous; her whole face transforms, going from serious to shocked to angry and settling on something shuttered, wary, and Zoe's whole understanding of the situation shifts just like that. That's not the way you look at a stranger.

That's the way you look at somebody you used to know almost as well as you knew yourself, somebody who became a stranger, and that's much more dangerous.

"Erica."

"Hello, Mark," she murmurs.

"You've known," his voice bursts out like a slap, hard and accusing. "You've known for years where Wardo was, what was happening, and you didn't --"

"I don't have a penny to my name!" Erica snaps back, refusing to even let him finish the rest of that sentence, and her eyes go luminous, clear-colored with anger. There's nothing sweet about her now. "I'm up against forces that reform the faces of planets, that crushed whole battalions of Independent forces like it was nothing --"

"Hey now," Mal protests.

"-- and to go up against them, I've got to find somebody willing to part with their money in order to have their loved ones back -- do you know how rare that is? Sorry, Simon, but. Their children are being tortured, and the second I mention paying, they just -- and each time we go in, the Alliance wises up to our ways and we have to outsmart them the next time. We don't even get the fancy toys they do. We operate out of a black-out zone, and."

She stops, catching her breath.

"And," she says, finally. "Well, you were definitely right about one thing. I did get a chance to meet people I wouldn't normally get to meet. I do the best I can do. All I have is thirteen girls and my husband."

Mark's shoulders twitch at the word, and Zoe thinks, oh.

Erica tilts her head, and the way she thins her eyes then is positively Mark-like. "Although there's somebody I can mention, somebody so high up on the Alliance pecking order that didn't I hear rumors of a Parliamentary nomination for the next election round? How come he hasn't --"

The threat of violence speaks so much more clearly to the imagination than violence itself, and for a moment, Zoe thinks Mark's actually going to strike. He goes straight up onto his tiptoes like she'd shot him full of electricity.

Neither of them blink.

"Zoe?" comes from Mark's other side, pleasantly. "A moment?"

She steps back, careful -- Erica and Mark don't look over, still busy eyeing each other, squinty and fierce, and then Mark opens his mouth in that way where Zoe just knows what's going to come out next will be hateful -- and follows Mal out into the hallway. Bobby's got a book open across one knee, and he nods at them when they go by, but something about the way he does it makes Zoe stop at the landing, still within eyesight. She stands close to Mal as he clicks his radio on.

"Wash? You copy?"

"Yeah, Mal," crackles back, staticky and seemingly overloud in the narrow space. "You guys coming back already? Was the mission a wash? Hah! Get it, a wash because that's my --"

"Wash."

"Sorry, Cap'n, been sittin' a while. That's the exciting life I lead."

"Might get a tad more exciting in a moment. Can't say as of yet, but could be we got a situation on our hands."

"What kind of situation?"

"Mal's ex-wife kind of situation," Zoe cuts in cheerily.

"Her again?" Wash squawks, panicked, simultaneous with Mal's furious whisper of, "this is nothing like Saffron!"

She smirks at him. "It ain't Saffron, honey, we left her long ago and she's still gone. It's just, Simon's contact looks to have dated our client in the past --" out of the corner of her eye, she sees Bobby straighten up, and oh, now the thought of Bobby punching Mark Zuckerberg in the face is in her head and it's one of the best thoughts she's ever had. She wants to see it. Really truly.

"Is that even possible?" Wash wants to know. "Like, statistically, is that even a thing that could possibly happen? Of all the disreputable black-out zones in the 'verse --"

"Just stay on your toes, cupcake. Dong ma?" She clicks the radio off, tucking it inside her vest. She lifts her eyebrows at Mal, who makes a face back at her, and together they walk past Bobby, back into Erica's study.

And then stop dead.

Erica's on her feet, one hand tucked under her belly like she needs to balance it, and she's got a gun trained right on Zuckerberg's head. Off to the side, Simon looks severely unsurprised and a little put-upon, like he'd really just been hoping for a nice afternoon, some catch-up, and a cup of tea with an old friend, and Zoe takes back everything she thought about Bobby visiting violence upon Mark Zuckerberg's person. This is so much better.

For a heartbeat, everybody is completely still.

"Woah," goes Mal, slow, lifting his hands.

Erica's eyes dart sideways for a fraction of a moment, seeking them out, but her gun hand doesn't waver, and Zuckerberg probably hasn't had a gun trained on him often enough to know when to take advantage of a distraction. "Captain," she says, sounding genuinely apologetic. "I'm sorry about this."

"No, please," and Mal waves his hand in a go ahead kind of gesture, grandly magnanimous. "By all means, ladies first. We're not particularly fond of him."

The corners of her mouth curve upwards, and Mark rolls his eyes.

She flicks her thumb, and with a soft pulsing whine, the gun powers off.

"All right," she says, holstering it. "Tell me the story, then."

"You already know some of it," Mark points out.

"Yeah, but I sure don't," volunteers Mal. "And to be honest, I'm getting mighty curious as to the nature of what we've got ourselves into."

This earns him an underwhelmed look, and then Mark lifts one shoulder, studying the ceiling and gathering his thoughts.

"When I was ten years old," he starts. "My parents sent me off-planet to a private school. Erica was there, and so was Dustin," he nods to Zoe. "But Eduardo was my best friend, and he was the one I went to for everything: money, oftentimes, or advice, or just someone to stand with me and say, 'I think this was us,' always 'us,' even when it was usually just me getting us into trouble. I was ... I was sixteen and he was seventeen when the representative from the Academy came.

"I was smarter," he continues, unapologetic. Outside somewhere, an alarm begins to wail, setting off a chorus of dogs barking. One of the girls from the floor below yells something rude out the window. "I was smarter than everyone there, but Eduardo was ..."

He trails off, at a loss for words, and he looks to Erica for help.

Her face softens with memory, but Zoe's the one who answers him. She doesn't need to be told; shy, downcast eyes, a mumbling voice, telling her she looked beautiful.

"He was a sweetheart," she says sadly.

Mark's eyes dart away, like she'd cut him a glancing blow. "Any one of us could have gone, we were all intelligent, even you --" he adds for Erica's benefit, and the smile drops right off her face. "But they wanted Eduardo, so Eduardo went." He pinches the hem of his sweatshirt between his forefinger and thumb, rolling it before saying, "A year later, I had finished a project and the Alliance wanted it, so I dropped out of school and I went."

Erica tilts her head.

"You got rich," she finishes for him. "You got famous."

"And I -- I didn't give Eduardo my forwarding address, so by the time I heard from him, I was ... it wasn't him. It sounded nothing like him, but I couldn't --" his hands move in short, agitated gestures, mouth overrunning itself in an attempt to say several things at once. "By that point, Eduardo could legally be considered an adult, so there was no legal way to pull him out and he just -- I couldn't get near, and the levels of security just -- you don't have that kind of security for anything less than something very, very awful."

"I'll give you what we have on their security, I think you'd have fun with it." She hauls herself around, considering her stacks of paper before she glances back at him, frowning. "What is it that you do for the Alliance, exactly?"

"Did."

"Did?"

"What, do you really think I want to keep working for them? I am never going back to that."

"Fine," she holds up her hands. "What did you do for the Alliance?"

He shakes his head, dismissive. "You wouldn't understand."

"And why's that?"

"Because you live in a black-out zone!" Mark snorts out, scornful, and it's clear it's an insult.

For a beat, Erica does nothing, her face gone so still and intense that it looks like if you struck it with a chisel in just the right way, it'd shatter everywhere. The next, she drags her gun out from inside her coat and points it right at him. Zoe sees his flinch, catalogues it, files Mark down as the kind of person who's used to violence in an abstract concept, is contemptuous of it when it comes from strangers, but only comprehends it when it comes from someone he knows.

She wonders how old he would have been while she was bleeding in Serenity Valley. Three? Four?

"You know, it means less each successive time you do that," Mark is saying. "Every time you don't kill me, I believe the threat a little less."

"Yes, but that split second where you look like you're about to piss your pants kind of makes my day," Erica replies without missing a beat, and waves the muzzle at him encouragingly. "Please, continue, I'd love a real excuse."

"At least there wasn't anything about your bra size this time," he mutters.

"I'm sorry, you don't get points for that."

Mark waves a hand at her, like, whatever. He continues on with the story, and this part Zoe already knows: meeting Dustin on the flip side of Persephone, hiring the Serenity crew, through which he met Dr. Tam, which lead to the four of them sitting here, needing Erica's help.

When he's done, Erica makes a thoughtful, almost disbelieving noise in the back of her throat, her mouth pulled down at the corners.

"No, sorry," she goes, when Mark thins his eyes at her, like, what's that supposed to mean? "I didn't mean to -- I'm just having trouble wrapping my head around --" Gun flat on the desk top, she drums her fingers over the curve of her belly, gathering her thoughts. "We always thought you did something. Swapped your scores or something so that Eduardo could go -- out of all of us, you two wanted the Academy so bad. When Eduardo got in, we just -- you really didn't do anything to help him?"

Mark shrugs. He's still watching her with a close, hooded look that makes Zoe think of squint-eyed prospectors and snakes on the border moons.

"But you ... You literally got nothing wrong on your exams," Erica points out. She's watching him back, not blinking, like she's rearranging whole memories inside her head, turning them over and seeing them entirely new. "Every single time. We all hated you. They really picked him over you?"

A derisive snort comes out of Mark like he can't help it. "The Alliance didn't pick Eduardo for the Academy because he's smarter than me," he says, and the emotions on his face are complicated. "He's not. He's gifted, we all were, but that doesn't mean anything. You can go anywhere in the 'verse and find a genius. The ability to brain doesn't impress anyone around here."

"Then what was it?"

"The Academy picked Eduardo because he's obedient, he's eager, and because his family would be too distracted by the --"

"-- the prestige," Erica finishes for him, sitting forward. Her eyes burn. "The shiny, shiny prestige. They were from a border moon, right?"

"Rasilia."

"Right. A couple from Rasilia with more money than they know what to do with and a moon with nowhere to go, and their only son is accepted into one of the most elite schools the Alliance can offer? No, you're right, the Academy wasn't just looking for smarts --"

"They were still looking for kids who wouldn't be missed," Mark finishes for her, and there's something vicious around the edges of his eyes. "They were trusting the Saverins would turn a blind eye if Eduardo started asking to be pulled out of the program."

"They miscalculated," comes Simon's voice from the back. His fists are clenched so tightly it's a wonder they can't all hear his bones creaking.

Mark nods, sharp. "They still should have picked me," he mutters mutinously, and then, less bitter, more something else entirely, he repeats on a note so hollow Zoe thinks she could toss a coin into it and never hear it hit bottom, "It should have been me."

"Be glad it wasn't," Erica says.

Mark cuts a look at her.

"Oh, come on," she goes, like she thinks he's being slow. "Do you really think that if your roles were reversed, Eduardo would be here right now?" She lifts a hand, palm up, as if offering her messy office, the warped windows, and all the combined firearms on their persons as evidence.

"No," she says, gentler. "It's too big a risk. He always wanted to go into the credit business, right? Move people's money around and get paid a hefty sum for doing it? Getting caught in a black-out zone would have been death to his prospects, and he --" she shakes her head. "Eduardo followed you around like a puppy dog willingly enough, but he wouldn't have risked that, not even for you."

"The thing is, you never really know what you're capable of doing until someone asks you to do it," Simon says, purposefully mild.

Erica glances over at him at that, her eyes crinkling fondly. "Exactly," she acknowledges, and fixes her eyes on Mark again. "Eduardo's gambling on you now," she tells him. She rubs at her belly like it's a happy buddha. "I think he's luckier for it."

Mark shifts his weight, pulling uncomfortably at the front of his sweatshirt, like the idea of someone relying on him just doesn't sit right with him.

"Please," he scoffs, a beat too late. "The Alliance's idea of security is lame. If they can't catch the most basic encrypted S.O.S. message before it goes out, then they deserve to have Eduardo snatched out from under their noses."

"And that's exactly we're going to to do. Captain Reynolds!" she lifts her voice, sing-song, and Mal jumps; Zoe'd been so distracted by the exchange going on in front of them that she'd forgotten they were active participants, too. "This is the kind of job that can only be done hard and fast, and we simply don't have the air power for a quick get-away. We need the help of your intrepid crew. Can we count on you?"

"Ah, hell, darling," says Mal, easy, like he hasn't been raising the biggest stink since they first got the hail from Dustin. "God knows I'm all about making life easier for the Alliance."

 

-

 

Mal is panicking.

"Remind me again why we're doing this," his voice comes out fast and accusatory, like there is anybody else in the 'verse that got him into this mess.

It's making Zoe uneasy, the way he's pacing back and forth across the bridge with sharp, militant steps, as antsy as a prepubescent boy about to step out with a girl for the first time. He stops and hovers behind Wash's chair, and Zoe's husband shoots her an exasperated look, like, can't you do something about him?

She leans against the helm, crossing one leg over the other.

Like everybody else, she can't keep her eye off the cortex display. They left Mark planetside with Erica, since the hard parts were all on him and she needed to bring him up to speed on three-odd years of her organization's research into the Academy's atrocities. One of her people is supposed to hail them with a signal when everybody's in place.

"Money, sir," she says, calmly, and Mal tilts a shoulder in her direction, like that was a given, because why do they do anything? "And the kid's jealous."

Mal side-eyes her. "And that's supposed to reassure me? Jealous? The kid's the youngest rich guy in the universe. He's got everything."

"Not everything." His friend, for one.

"He's one of those numb-nuts," offers Jayne, even though nobody asked him. "That forgets to be grateful for wealth soon as he's got it. He's pissed all to gorram hell that the Academy picked favorites."

"He'll be brilliant because he hates the Alliance so much for choosing his friend over him. He hates them for keeping him where he couldn't get to him. He hates himself for taking so long. That kind of anger makes it hard for a man to fail," Zoe says, repeats what they already know -- what River told them, what Dustin told them, what Mark told them -- because she knows what makes Mal itchy like this. "He'll do anything to give 'em hell."

"It might not be that," interjects Simon from behind them, sounding tired. "He could also just be extremely attached to his friend and willing to do anything to get him back."

"Ain't everyone as noble as you, Doc," Mal replies.

Simon casts him a look. "Some are," is all he says in return, low, and he steps out. Zoe listens to his footsteps retreat down the hall past their quarters, and as if summoned, a softer pair fall in step beside him, causing a barely-there shiver of the grating. River. Simon wants Mark to succeed, wants it so badly it bleeds off of him; it's the pent-up weight of guilt for only being able to break out one girl, for not stopping the institution, for selfishly taking the one he loved most in the 'verse and leaving children like Eduardo behind.

It's not the kind of place anyone should be left behind.

Time passes slowly. Jayne gets bored and wanders out, and Kaylee comes up but doesn't stay for long: she needs to keep the engines warm, because they'll need to make the quickest get-away they've asked of Serenity yet, just as soon as they've got Mark and Eduardo on board. Wash looks like he's trying not to make a smart comment about how fun it's not, being the one that's always stuck playing the waiting game while someone else is off doing something dangerous.

"I don't like it," Mal mutters for the hundredth time.

Zoe looks up from the game of Unification she's playing with her husband, and says drolly, "Could be because this time, somebody else came up with the plan, sir, and you've just got to trust that it'll work?"

"Oh, hey," Wash sets a card down, and Zoe tries not to roll her eyes at how hard she is going to wipe the floor with his ass in about two turns. "If Mal didn't come up with the plan, then there's definitely a chance it's going to work."

"You aren't as funny as you think you are," Mal growls at him.

Wash claps a hand to his chest, like he's suffered an impact. "That cuts, Cap'n," he looks mournful, and before he can say anything, the screens start beeping, and in an instant, the cards are swept to the side and the three of them are crowding around the helm, snapped as tense as wire.

"We are a-go, ladies and gentlemen," Wash breathes, his eyes dancing with excitement.

"What's the first thing that's going to happen?"

"The security system, sir," Zoe responds. "After the fiasco with the Tams, the Academy spared no expense on uppin' the ante with its surveillance and security. It's our biggest hurdle, but once we take that out, Mark's going to walk in there and, with any luck, walk back out with his friend."

"And we pick him up?"

"Yessir, we do."

"It might take awhile --" Wash starts, and then freezes, because the screens have gone a brilliant orange, the beeping more incessant. Disbelieving, Wash flips through the message, too fast for Zoe to catch the hanzi over his shoulder.

He looks up, then down, then back up again, eyes ticking back and forth between his screens. Finally, he just sits back, looking gobsmacked.

"I don't believe it," he says, almost too quiet to be heard.

"Sweetheart?" Zoe queries, in her don't leave us in the dark voice.

"He just ... shut down the security," goes Wash wonderingly. "That's a Kirkland network! That thing is state of the art -- I don't think you understand, Kirkland -- the only thing better is the kind they use to protect the Parliamanet! And he just ... crashed it. Like that, like --" he runs his fingers through his hair, and then whistles, low and impressed.

Zoe checks the time. And blinks.

In the beat of silence that follows, Mal says brusquely, "You know, he never did answer Erica when she asked what he did for a living. We never did ask, either. We just took the money he waved at us," he lifts his shoulder at Zoe, who gives him her most droll look in return. "Guess we know now."

"Dustin wasn't lying about him working for IT."

Erica had tried to put Mark Zuckerberg and respectable into the same sentence while she was trying to outline for them exactly how they were going to get the Saverin kid out, which was apparently striking similar to the method Simon Tam had used previously ("we've been keeping tabs on them ever since you escaped," she tells Simon, who looks like he doesn't know whether to be pleased or horrified, "and they're screening everybody who comes in to gorram hell and back, so I'm not sure we can fake the credentials anymore") except they didn't need to fake the credentials, because Mark has the real thing. He has the closest thing to Parliamentary override as you could get without actually being a member of Parliament, and weren't that scary.

He was just going to stroll in, exactly as is, and walk right back out with his friend before they even stopped being starstruck. No, really, that was a plan.

She'd put paperweights on her blueprints, looking up at them to gauge their reactions, and then laughed at the looks on their faces.

Mark is as respectable as a centipede, she'd acknowledged, smiling at them in a rueful way. And twice as slimy, sure. But the Alliance will just let him walk in. Wherever he wants to go.

If that's the case, Zoe'd gone, curious. Then why doesn't he just do that? Why doesn't he walk in there and demand to have Eduardo back? Why go criminal at all?

Because, Mark had piped up from where he was wired into to at least three different mechanical mainframes, because if there's one thing that can be said about a black-out zone, it's that you can get your hands on all sorts of sundry for the right price. They hadn't realized he'd been eavesdropping. If there's anything slower than the courts in this 'verse, it's bureaucracy. Eduardo doesn't have that kind of time. He could be dead -- or worse -- before I could even get negotiations for his release to the hypothetical deposition phase.

Something else beeps on screen, and Zoe pushes herself away from the helm.

"That's my cue," she says, and takes off at a run.

They've got Serenity parked in a kupier belt a quarter AU away from the planet, using the ice and rock in the debris fields as deflection for sensors. The plan is for Zoe to pilot Inara's old shuttle down planetside, using that narrow window of time during which the school's security is completely offline to snatch up Zuckerberg and Saverin and vanish, fast as the closing maw of a flytrap. If everything goes right, they won't even leave wake to track them by.

Zoe knows exactly where she's going and where she needs to be, same as she always does, because her menfolk have a habit of getting caught up in the shooting and forget where they're supposed to be going. Zoe got to be the best gorram sergeant in the war for a reason: she was the only one with a lick of direction sense.

By the looks of things, it's autumn down on this side of the planet; the leaves are brown and mostly stripped from the trees when Zoe makes it into to Academy airspace and puts the shuttle down by the delivery entrance, out behind the school kitchens.

It doesn't look like any school Zoe's ever seen, not from the air and not up close, but then again, Zoe got all her schooling in a converted mess hall of a navy starship that got stuck in the black of space by a series of intense solar flares, cut off from civilization and left stranded for so long that eventually, the military personnel on board got married, had families. Zoe was eleven years old when she stepped foot on solid earth for the first time. No school is likely to be familiar to her.

It's more of a compound from this angle, grey and compact, and flying in low, she saw the great barrier fence that marked the start of the force field, quiescent and dead in the wake of the security blowout. As long as Mark gets here before it gets back online, the skies will be clear.

Maybe we'll keep him, she thinks, crossing one leg over the other and drumming her fingers on her knee. The shuttle's engines tick over, loud in the quiet. If he can always hack that fast. Mighty useful, and what's another fugitive to add to our collection?

She turns that thought over in her head, and snorts.

She hears the commotion before she sees it. They decided on the delivery entrance instead of the helipad because it was less likely to be guarded, and less likely to be stormed by personnel if something went wrong, but those are definitely angry shouts she's hearing.

Gunfire, too, and Zoe gets to her feet, grimly going for her own gun and clicking the safety off.

Nothing ever goes according to plan, whether it's Mal's or not.

The doors to the delivery entrance open in a rush, sending white light spilling across the helipad. She catches a single, silhouetted glimpse of a familiar profile with slicked-back hair, haloed in sterile light, and then she counts two, and then she's yanking the hatch open, feeling calm all the way through to her bones.

Mark's dressed in flannel, with little sports emblems marching up and down his legs; a pair of pajamas he probably picked out of spite, just to see Erica gnash her teeth in frustration. Rich people, Zoe thinks.

It'll make a great story to tell Shepherd Book next time they're on Haven, though.

He's yelling something as the two of them hurry across the terminal, but Zoe's not listening, not really. She's got eyes for the kid draped along Mark's side, a bit too long for him to comfortably hold and run at the same time. He's ungainly, dressed in thin, grey fabric, looking for all the world like a doll unceremoniously yanked from a shelf.

They get closer, and Zoe's calm erodes a little bit.

Mark's hands are covered in blood, and his friend isn't doing too much of his own walking.

The doors open again, and a dozen men swarm out onto the helipad, some of them booted and armed, others part of a medical staff that some part of her is not surprised to see (she's seen those scans that the Doc took of his sister's brain, she's seen what they did to a child, and she's willing to bet there are more "doctors" here than teachers,) and all of them angry-looking.

Zoe settles into a stance.

They're not more than six paces away, and something cracks, rending the air with sound.

Mark shouts out, staggers, and Eduardo slips from his grasp, hitting the concrete hard and rolling. His hands starfish out, trying to find purchase to push himself up again.

"Wardo!" comes out of Mark, choked, and the sound of it makes Zoe's decision for her.

"Zuckerberg!" she barks, and tosses him her spare gun.

He snatches it out of the air and then fumbles it inexpertly, clearly having never held one before. He makes an attempt at crooking it into his shoulder and lining it up, finger skittering on the trigger, but it's too late and there's an orderly almost right on top of him, electric taser sparking in his hand and teeth bared. He adjusts, hooking his hand around the barrel and swinging it like he's got an alley cat by the tail.

The butt of the gun makes an impressive crack! as it catches the orderly clean across the skull, felling him.

Mark steps over the prone body to haul Eduardo up off the floor, gun still dangling in his other hand. Eduardo can't support his own weight; Zoe's eyes flick over him head-to-toe, assessing. His grey tunic is stained through with blood, his face gone grey to match. Someone shot him in the back. Messily.

He needs the Doc. They need to get him to the Doc now.

Fury burns through Zoe's gut, hot as hellfire and the fusion reactor core of a Reaver's ship, leaving her shaking with it.

They are just kids. Ain't even Kaylee's age, just barely twenty, just gorram kids.

She settles her gun into her shoulder, aims at the security personnel bursting through the door, and fires, reloads, cocks, and fires again, bang and bang, skull fragments and flesh-colored matter blossoming bright against the glass.

Mark drags Eduardo the rest of the way onto the shuttle, dropping them both onto the grating, and Zoe slams the hatch shut behind them, holstering her gun and leaping for the pilot's chair.

Her hands fly over the controls, flipping levers and switches and bringing the system online. The rendezvous coordinates with Serenity are the first thing to load onto her screen; she highlights them, settling her hands over the controls and feeling overwhelmingly grateful that she remember to install them into navigation. Zoe can pilot them off-planet and dodge the big Alliance guns, sure, but she couldn't have done it and chart their course through the debris cloud and compensate for interstellar drift at the same time.

Distantly, she's aware that, behind her, Eduardo's talking, the shocky babble of someone gone bibbledy from a gunshot wound.

"Mark?" he's saying. "Mark? We were supposed to -- to -- meet at nine, you said. We were supposed to meet at -- at nine, why didn't. Nine -- I waited. I waited for you on the tarmac for three hours and you didn't -- you promised, you would say good-bye, you said you'd see me before I left, you you -- you --"

"I know, I know," Mark babbles back, their voices overlapping in a way that reminds Zoe of the way River with spout off the things she hears in other people's heads, like she's full up and running over. "I'm a little late, is all. Dong ma? Just a little late," and Eduardo's voice cuts out into a high keen; Mark catches his head, pinning it against his shoulder to keep him from thrashing. He leaves bloody fingerprints on Eduardo's face, smearing them as he leans all his weight into applying pressure to a wound Zoe can't see clearly.

"I thought you were mad -- I waited --"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm just a little late, I came as soon as I got your message, Wardo -- Wardo? Wardo, no, stay with me --"

Zoe's fingers tighten around the steering column, knuckles straining with it. She hates her government with the kind of fury you can feed on, drink on, sustain yourself for days on, start a war on. She hates them -- taking school children and turning them into this, these tiny shapes huddled in the back of her shuttle, bleeding through their own fingers and apologizin' for the mess.

 

-

 

It's easy to get lost in the shuffle of emergency vehicles responding to the security breach, feigning a drifting kind of confusion like they really are nothing more than a pedestrian vessel caught in the same airspace, and once they get free, they hurtle through the atmo as close to hard burn as they can go.

On-screen, she's got the all-clear. The green light blinks twice, friendly -- that'd be the last of Erica's crew, the Singer kid, wishin' them luck and covering their tracks.

They make the rendezvous point with Serenity, and as soon as they've got a hard seal, she hits the comms and says, "Moon 'em, Wash!" and feels something inside her chest ease when Serenity comes to life immediately, engines whirring and the hull vibrating with the force, like she was just waiting for the order.

Without needing to be told, the Doc is waiting on the causeway when she gets unbuckled out of her harness and throws open the shuttle hatch. Between the two of them, they get Eduardo upright and down to the med bay.

He doesn't help them much, too gone by this point to even put his feet flat on the floor, much less walk. He isn't even babbling now, head lolling like the elasticity of his neck has given out, and the Doc is as grim-faced as he ever is, getting Eduardo face down on the operating table and hooked up to anesthetic before he gets to work, cutting the kid's clothes off. He looks at them for a moment, like he just realized what they are, and a muscle in his jaw tightens visibly.

Throwing them to the side, he rummages through the drawers and sets to sterilizing the hole gouged into Eduardo's back as best he can, head bent and eyes fierce, angry.

It's nasty, torn open and serrated by shrapnel -- nothing Zoe hasn't seen a hundred times before.

The Doc gives her a nod, and she leaves them to it, giving her hands a perfunctory scrub to get the blood off of them, though there's some staining the cuffs of her shirt and flecked across her face that she'll deal with later.

She takes a quick tally of where everyone is -- Jayne's up on the landing, peering squint-eyed through the window to the infirmary and watching the Doc work, like he can somehow get the lay of Eduardo while Eduardo is sedated and getting operated on. River could be anywhere. Kaylee'll be in the engine room, she knows, and her husband and Mal will be on the bridge.

Mark's where she left him, crumpled on the causeway outside the shuttle. He looks a fright, bloody even to his hairline, flannel pajamas smeared darkly with it and hands held out in front of him like he's waiting for someone to come and take them off, like he doesn't want to be attached to them anymore. His eyes are wide and completely scattered, his mouth a horrible wobbly shape.

It's too bad, Zoe thinks, that this is the first real display of emotion she's ever seen from him.

The Doc had been much the same, the first time he came aboard. Maybe that's just the way of men who give up everything and then face the prospect that they might lose the only thing they have left.

River sits next to him, oriented towards him like she's obeying gravity. Her hair is loose all about her shoulders.

Zoe lingers on the steps, watching them long enough to determine that Mark's breakdown isn't the dangerous kind, although the way River flinches back once or twice and blinks hard like someone's shining a bright light into her eyes makes Zoe think that maybe the inside of Mark's head isn't the greatest place to be right now.

She goes up to the bridge.

Mal turns from the helm long enough to give her a once-over. "Everybody okay?"

"Yes, sir," says Zoe, going to Wash to squeeze his shoulders in greeting. Keeping his eyes firmly fixed on navigation, he tilts his head back, pressing the crown of his head against her stomach for a brief, wordless moment. "One of them's been shot, and the other one has gone a little bit bibbledy, but," she nods firmly. "I think they'll be okay."

There's no way the Alliance ain't gonna be pissed to all gorram hell for being made to look a fool, though. Twice. It's only a matter of time, now.

They knew that already though, and right now, in this instant, it's a good feeling. Feels right.

She gets a nod of acknowledgement, the slight straightening of Mal's shoulders like he's pulling himself up by a hook; it's the look of a man satisfied by a job well done.

"Wash?" he goes.

"I'm not seeing any signs of pursuit," says Wash, and then he looks up at them, huffing out a small, incredulous laugh. "I think we actually did it."

 

 

 

2519
year of the dragon
year of the Miranda scandal
and the dissolution of the oligarchical Alliance government at the operative level

 

The week leading up to Diwali, it's the only thing worth talking about in town.

"Diwali?" Mark echoes, crouched down so that the kids can get a better look at the tiny mechanical butterfly he brought them, with wings of colored tinsel and antennae that wave back and forth on miniature hinges, and then, to the one that just ran up, "Wei, Basil, do you know if your mother would be willing to buy any eggs?"

"Two dozen for two loaves, Tinkerman, Mum and Dad always need good eggs for the bakery," Basil answers distractedly, watching the butterfly's jerky progress along Zhi Tang's forearm since it's the nearest flat surface they have, and jerks forward to catch it when it tumbles off. He looks up and frowns at Mark, winding the butterfly up again. "You don't know what Diwali is?"

"We don't have it where I'm from."

"You're here now," Zhi Tang informs him matter-of-factly. "So you will."

"It's the festival of lights!" volunteers another kid.

"For New Year's," adds a third, and Mark blinks a little bit, because he's pretty sure Chinese New Year's is six months away. Even for that frankly bizarre faction that still celebrates the Anglo New Year's, the date isn't ... no, it's nowhere close by. "Because Krishna conquered Satan and vanquished him, the demon from the nether world --" she stabs at the air with violent enthusiasm, "-- and light won out over darkness!"

"Dummy, get it right! It wasn't Satan, it was Narakasura! He's much scarier!"

"Nuh-uh!"

"It's really fun," Basil interjects with solemnity. "You get up really early to do the special prayers and take a bath, and then there's lots of food and they set up a bunch of tents on the school field and play music all day, and then at night, we turn on every single lamp and light every candle, and leave them on all night."

"It's so pretty, Tinkerman, because it looks like all the mountains are wearing necklaces, you can see all the lights in the other towns for miles!"

"That does sound shiny," Mark agrees, and to Basil, "Two dozen, did you say?"

Once or twice, he toyed with the idea of doing something with the fields that lay fallow around the farmhouse, but they don't have any farming equipment, and also steady erosion left the land around the house frighteningly steep, so they'd need to call in a crew from the city to cut terraces into the mountainside, and that's more attention than he really can afford to draw to themselves. There's a boggy patch out past the gates that Mark thinks might make good ground for a tiny square of rice, if he wanted to tackle that. He'd have to borrow a till off of somebody, and learn a bit about farming, but Mark Zuckerberg is more intelligent than 99% of the 'verse's population. He can figure it out.

At the very least, Eduardo wouldn't have to wander all the way to the neighbor's fields if he wanted to listen to the joyous thoughts of growing crops.

"But it's like choirs, Mark," he tries to explain, one morning after Mark woke up and didn't know where he was. "They sing," and Mark shoves his head under the spigot with unnecessary force, claiming he still had mud behind his ears.

Until then, it's enough to have the chickens. Between Mark's tinkering -- which has branched out from toys into helping the townsfolk with mechanical nuisances, like realigning the glitching text on their newspapers to fixing up busted hearing aids to helping Mackey out at the comms outpost, which makes him nervous because one hail sent from that tower could have the full might of Alliance brass thundering down on his and Eduardo's heads faster than you could say, oh, spit -- and the surplus of eggs they collect from the henhouse, he can barter in town for most of their necessities without chipping into their dwindling protein stores.

Eggs for every meal gets really boring really fast, so he starts trading more of them for other delicacies, and Eduardo helps out by pointing out all the plants along their route that tell him they're edible.

It's hard to get from the farmhouse down into town carrying dozens of fragile eggs, so Mark wrangles a carton for them out of the kind of box you'd use to carry honeycombs and straps it to his back. The weight of it gouges into him with every step and cuts blisters into his shoulders, which makes Eduardo frown at him because he doesn't like the sound of Mark in pain, but he scabs over and it's all right.

On the day of Diwali, the fog comes in so thick that the world beyond the windows looks pearlescent, hazy and smeared out of existence. Mark cooks rice and accidentally breaks a chopstick, and thinks there's no way he's risking his neck to get down into the valley, not with fog like that.

"Don't be ridiculous," Eduardo materializes in the doorway, familiar dark coat with the high collar already fastened. "I know the way."

Mark shoves a bowl across the table, the egg on top still steaming. "How?" he asks.

This earns him a dismissive wave. "Do you think I don't know which plants grow along the safe path down? It's like --" he gestures with his mouth full for a moment, plainly skimming the surface of Mark's thoughts for the right words. He swallows. "Like a game of Marco, Polo. I can't get lost if I keep certain things on certain sides of me. Does that make sense?"

"Or," Mark says reasonably. "We could just wait for the sky to clear."

"Mark."

"Wardo."

Eduardo sighs. "Fine. I'm going to go check on the creatures and feed the chickens. If the sky isn't clear by then, we're going anyway, since I know you want to see the festival of lights, it's on your brain."

It's impossible to out-stubborn Mark, Eduardo knows this. You just compromise instead.

 

-

 

Across the field, Mackey and Tik-Nak Stanford's youngest son mingle together, one on either side of a tentpole and leaning around it in order to talk, and Mark doesn't mean to be watching, but they're kind of hard to look away from. Mackey touches the tips of his fingers to the ends of Stanford's hair, like he can't help himself, and Mark tilts his head like he's seeing them through a smokescreen. Around them, the school green is completely transformed, dotted with pitched tents and crowded with more people than Mark has seen congregated in one place in the entire town (and that's including the Sundays that the church does free barbecues.)

Somehow, it's like the two of the exist in an entirely different place than where they are physically.

Mark tilts his head in the other direction, but it doesn't help. He still thinks he's watching two boys fall in love.

He always thought that love was something that happened, or something that could be believed in like God, not something that you could see.

Next to him, Eduardo's enthusiastically talking with the schoolteacher about something -- he tunes in long enough to hear, "I don't torture chickens, it's not a thing I do," decides he doesn't want to know, and tunes back out.

Not long later, Heather Bao spots them, waving and breaking off from a pack of her in-laws with a distinctly relieved air.

She's dressed in which looks like new church-going finery, full white skirts that would be a train on anybody shorter and a bodice embroidered with an ivy-green pattern of jasmine, open at the neckline. "It looks like the dress Zoe got married in," Eduardo murmurs into his ear, and Mark startles, tightening his fingers around his own arms, because that's not a memory he has. He wonders if Eduardo even knows he knows it.

In the next beat, Heather's standing right there, saying, "ni hao," before Mark can sort out a reply, and he nods to her instead.

She has fresh nicks on the backs of her hands, her nails cut raggedly short. More than a few of the young couples are looking to get married before the year is out, so they're building new houses out past the edge of town. It means good business for Heather.

"This is your first Diwali with us, isn't it? 'M glad you're here, dear. I saw the fog this morning and thought you mightn't be coming," she's saying.

"He insisted," Mark and Eduardo say simultaneously, pointing at each other.

The schoolteacher says something too fast for Mark to follow, gesturing after a motley crew of townsfolk carrying instruments and chattering excitedly to one another -- the band, he assumes -- and she and Eduardo disappear.

"How's he doing?" Heather asks, gentler, nodding in the direction they went.

Mark never explicitly told anybody anything; everyone's imaginations took the Sihnon refugee story and filled in the rest however they saw fit. He shrugs a shoulder.

"I heard he got a new hobby."

"Ugh," is Mark's opinion on that. And then, "Yes," when she just gives him a funny look. "It's ... well, the house smells interesting. But he likes it, so," he shrugs, because that's probably going to be his excuse for a lot of things for ... for pretty much the rest of his life, who is he even kidding.

Eduardo's taken to collecting creatures. Mark didn't think much of it at first; Eduardo coming back from the river with a snail cupped in his hands and an excuse ready on his lips. He created habitats for them, listening and adjusting them to their needs as he went; long rushes, mud, and salted water for the starfish and lichen in the claw-footed tub up in the attic, terrariums for the snails and the frogs sitting on the shelves in Mark's workshop, and there was a week when Mark wasn't allowed to go into his own room on the upper floor because "there's a spider, she's practicing webspinning, Mark, you can't disturb her."

And then Mark came in from the henhouse one morning to see Eduardo sitting cross-legged in the center of his workshop, an enormous jar in his lap. It was half-filled with water, and inside, a luminescent anemone sat amongst loose riverstones, its body fluorescently blue.

Mark had looked at him, wondering, and then he said, "Do you like them?"

"Yes," Eduardo had breathed back, his face blue-lit with the glow coming from the jar. "Very much."

And that had been that.

(The glow-in-the-dark anemone are pretty cool to have around, though, he's not going to lie.)

(Seriously. Anyone in the Core who says there's nothing on the border planets can just suck it, they've plainly never seen one of these things.)

Mark glances out, eyes unconsciously trailing back to Tik-Nak Stanford's son and Mackey, who are ... well, nothing, but there's a lot of eye-contact involved, and it's just strangely intimate, like it's something he shouldn't be looking at. Mark couldn't tell you what about it was so ... well, just so.

"Is that okay?" he asks Heather, jerking his chin in their direction.

Heather squints confusedly, peering through the crowd, and then her face smoothes out into a startlingly young expression.

"Oh," she says, and ponders the question. "Well, I won't lie to you, the best thing for the town would be for them to marry nice girls and produce a whole bunch of children. The only way to maintain our status as an independent township is so show a steady population increase, but --" her mouth skews, like she's trying to put something into words that she's never had to before. "We aren't going to punish them for it, if that's what you're asking."

Mark looks at her.

"You can't build a home with violence, Tinkerman, and you can't force a home in a shape it doesn't want to go in. We only build good homes in this town. Trust me, I'm a carpenter, I know a lot about building," she adds, and Mark smiles good-humoredly. "And if they're what makes a good home --" she nods in the lovers' direction. "Then that's what we'll keep. You don't have anything to worry about."

Eduardo chooses that moment to rematerialize on Mark's right-hand side, and Mark manfully refrains from jumping in surprise.

In the short time they were apart, he somehow managed to accumulate a painted sun-and-cloud combo on his cheek, bright against the ruddy flush of his skin. His eyes are wide, blown all the way through; a thin rim of brown iris is visible, his pupils swollen and swamped. He looks completely incandescent, lit up and festively drunk on other people's happiness. Mark leans in, gaze flicking back and forth across Eduardo's features, trying to determine if it's too much, if there are too many other minds crowding in.

"Samson thinks we're going to slit his throat and steal his gold in the middle of the night," Eduardo announces cheerily. "And run off on our pirate ship."

"Well." Mark gives this due consideration. "Don't. That's bad."

Heathers laughs, reaching out to catch Eduardo by the wrist. "Honey," she goes, and he lifts his eyebrows at her excitedly. "This is a silly question, but if you could have anything in the world, what would you want?"

Eduardo thinks about it, still leaned in close enough that his body is a streak of heat all along Mark's side. If Mark twists his wrist up and crooks his knuckles in just the right way, he could hit the ticklish spot right beneath his ribs; since he's thinking it, Eduardo twitches away, and he huffs quietly to himself.

"Bookshelves," Eduardo decides. "My whole room, bookshelves on every single wall. Even my bed would be on a shelf, and I'd always have books within reach."

Mark startles, because it sounds like Eduardo's repeating a distant conversation, far-off like a lonely echo in space, and he catches himself smiling at the side of Eduardo's head before he catches himself. He doesn't have to be a psychic to know what wasn't being said there.

"There'd be no room for your creatures if you had that many books," he murmurs, low, but it's too late: Heather's getting a particular kind of glint in her eye, like someone who's just found themselves with a new project.

A shadow falls on them from behind, and Ashleigh plants herself into their circle. Her skirts jingle, and Mark glances down to see a dozens of tiny silver bells sewed into the hem, miniaturized little versions of the kind that her goats are always wearing around their necks.

"Where are your kids?" Eduardo asks, glancing around at knee-height like he's expecting the goats at any moment.

"Your future as the town comedian is a bright one," Ashleigh informs him, completely deadpan, and then, without changing her tone, she demands, "Come dance with me."

"Aiya!" Heather swats at her. "I was working up to asking."

"You were too slow," Ashleigh responds. She and Eduardo bow to each other, formal, before she grabs his hand and drags him into the circle before he can get a word in edgewise.

Heather fishmouths after them for a moment, before turning to Mark.

"I don't suppose --" she starts, reluctant.

"No."

"Oh, good. No offense, Tinkerman, but there are women who look good with dancing partners a good head shorter than them, and I ain't one of them."

Mark doesn't try to stand up straighter at that, but it's a close thing.

They talk some more, mostly about how many lights they can safely light tonight without running the risk of burning their respective houses down, and Mark's mind ticks over a potential programmable interface for lighting fixtures that can monitor their electrical output, and then her daughter cuts through the crowd to get to her. Mandy grabs Heather's hand and yanks hard, sparing Mark a shy smile, and then the two Baos disappear in the direction of the face-painting booth.

The song that's currently playing is a hearty jig, so it's mostly young couples out on the green, kicking their boots up high and holding onto each other by the tips of their fingers.

Ashleigh's bells catch at the sunlight as she twirls, throwing a dozen tiny pinpricks of white light in every direction.

It's not just them, though; clustered in the middle, like they aren't even aware that they're out there, partnerless, seven or so Stanford girls dance together. They're spinning in slow circles, arms raised above their hands and their fingers trailing behind them.

"They turn around their hearts," volunteers a voice behind him, and Mark does jump this time.

He turns to meet a man he vaguely recognizes, familiar in a friend-of-a-friend kind of way. He's only met him once or twice, because he isn't from around here: that's Kazuo Yu, who's of indeterminate age and has hair so bright a shade of orangish-red that his whole head looks like it's been wreathed in paper mache, the sun pouring through it. He has freckles all across his nose and three missing fingers from his left hand that he lost in a rock slide, and he comes to town every couple of months with a cart full of bolts of cloth from the city, pulled by a pinto mare who shies away from loud noises.

"The girls?" he asks, recovering.

"Yes," Kazuo Yu nods. "They find a balance between their self --" he touches his sternum, before he spreads his hands to the sky -- "and their god, and once they do, they can spin forever."

Mark looks back, and counts the beats in his head. Kazuo Yu's right: one of the girls wobbles and stops, staggering a little bit before she's caught by a friend and helped off the field, but the majority of the dancers just keep spinning, around and around, hypnotically slow like they've entered a trance.

"How do they keep from getting dizzy?" he wants to know.

Yu shrugs. "Centrifugal force," he says. "Their hearts are too open right now for them to get dizzy."

Mark feels a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Is this a Diwali tradition?"

"Could be."

"Is it part of their scripture?"

Digging inside his coat with a look of concentration, Yu produces a crooked pipe with the motif of a spinner's wheel and a box of matches from somewhere. Mark obligingly lights it for him, although he's sure Yu's mastered the trick of doing it with only seven fingers to his name, and steps away before he gets blasted with smoke.

Yu puffs at the pipe thoughtfully for a long time before he speaks.

"Scripture's different wherever you go, you know. Here or in the Core or on some lost little transport ship in the black of space, scripture'll excuse or encourage whatever behavior you give it enough power to. People choose their own creeds, Tinkerman, whether it's Gospel or shruti or --" he gives a deliberate nod of his head, and Mark follows the line of his vision to where Ashleigh is still spinning Eduardo around, somewhat aggressively. "Some people find their creed in other people."

The music ends. The Stanford girls keep spinning, but Ashleigh tugs Eduardo down in order to whisper something in his ear.

He laughs loud enough that even Mark can hear it, standing on the other side of the field, and before anyone knows what he's doing, he crosses the crowd and bows an invitation to the town preacher, which earns him a startled look and an uproarious laugh from those nearby. Ashleigh smirks triumphantly, her face flushed with exertion and her cinnamon-colored braids knotted in a crown at the top of her skull.

"We live in the mountains of Sanatana Dharma, Tinkerman," Yu murmurs softly from behind him. "The mountains of eternal faith. You can have faith in anything you want, even if that something is nothing at all, so long as you believe."

Eduardo waits considerately for the preacher to get a good grip on his waist before he sets them off on a quick-footed reel. The poor man's still wearing an expression like someone's gone and slapped him in the face with a fish, but what Mark sees instead is the contented set of Eduardo's shoulders, the smile on his face. He doesn't look like a man who wakes screaming from nightmares, like a man who was once strapped into a chair with his head sawed in half while scientists discussed him the same clinical way Mark once discussed cortexual programming, and Mark understands exactly what Kazuo Yu means.

"A shepherd said something similar to me once," he says, remembering.

He's whole AUs away from that moment, a child sitting in a park on a planet that never felt like home. The man who smiled at him then is dead now.

"He was right," Yu agrees. The moment breaks, and he reaches out, socking Mark's shoulder hard enough to unbalance him. He lands back in the here and now in time to keep from falling on his face on good, earthy Jiangyin soil. "Hey, I know I've seen that ratty sable coat out there before. How come you and your lad ain't dressed in something new today?"

Mark blinks at him. "Because we're not?" he goes, nonplussed.

"Now, that ain't right, it's Diwali!" When Mark's expression doesn't change, Yu throws his head back and laughs, his prominent Adam's apple bobbing like fishing tackle. "It's the New Year! Businessmen like myself and good Shin Ross open new account books on Diwali, and everybody wears new clothes. It's tradition."

"I didn't know."

"I could sell you something simple, if you like," Yu eyes Mark's clothes distrustfully. "If ... ah, if fashion isn't your particular strong point."

Mark opens his mouth to decline purely out of habit, but stops, because Yu's right, Eduardo can't wear that coat forever, no matter how much he loves it. Eventually, when he gets enough of his own mind back, he's going to want clothes of his own. And Mark bought their clothes to share: he doesn't have anything that fits him at all, not even his Alliance uniform. He left that on Serenity, because they'd get more use out of it than he would.

"I don't have anything to pay you with," he says instead. "At least, not on me at the moment."

Yu brightens up. "Xiexie, Tinkerman, that's fine. Besides, I was kinda hopin' --" he puffs on his pipe like he's nervous about it, scratching at the back of his neck before changing tracks. "It gets kind of lonely in those mountain passes, sometimes, so I was wondering if it'd be too much trouble if ... if you could tinker me a radio. It's just --"

"I can absolutely do that," Mark says immediately, and then, "Hang on, excuse me," because the preacher's got a friendly hand clapped to Eduardo's shoulders, laughing, and Eduardo's expression has completely glazed over, the way it does when someone else's thoughts are so powerful they've completely washed out his own. Mark wonders if the Alliance factored religion in when they were programming Eduardo's behavior: no one has higher expectations for humanity than the religious.

The preacher's a rather young Sino man with a weak chin and glasses that are too small and don't hook over his ears properly. He looks soft around the edges, like Eduardo gives him hope.

Because that's what Eduardo tends to do, whether he means to or not.

"Hey," he goes by way of greeting, because Mark is an eloquent soul, thank you, and Eduardo's eyes refocus instantly. He leans into Mark's space like he's obeying gravity, and unbidden, Mark thinks, faith.

"Dharma," Eduardo parrots back to him with an enormous grin, like they're kids again, scouring the maps at the back of the Jesuit's class, looking for all the dirty names they can laugh about. "Faith. Virtue, righteousness, duty. An essential quality in every person, a fundamental principle that orders the universe and keeps it spinning, keeps the mountains from tumbling to the sea, keeps ships like Serenity from tumbling from the sky, it's love, Mark --"

"Okay, Dexter Dictionary, I get the idea," Mark says drolly, clapping a hand over Eduardo's mouth before more words come streaming out.

Eduardo's eyes crinkle back at him, and he takes it as permission to burrow into Mark's shoulder, one arm looped around his waist in a lazy kind of hug, which is strange, but Mark's willing to chalk it up to the current festival atmosphere. Even Mark feels touchy-feely, and Mark's not a psychic.

"Come on, Wardo," he says. "Dance with me or something."

"You think I'm incredibly bizarre when I dance," is mumbled into the fabric of his shirt.

"That's very true," Mark says ruthlessly, and pulls him out anyway.

 

-

 

Later, when the sun is soft and rosy-colored, close to setting, and people start dispatching family members to go back to their houses to fetch lanterns to light in preparation for the symbolic conquering of light over darkness, or whatever Diwali's supposed to symbolize, the preacher finds him again, sitting by himself on the low wall the curves around the end of Main Street, legs swinging out above the dirt. The whole thing's made with failed projects from the glassblowers'; bizarre, misshapen pieces of ceramic and glass pounded and forged into a wall.

The preacher's got Zhi Tang with him, and when they're close enough, she lets go of his hand and goes streaking past, chorusing, "Ni hao, Tinkerman!" without looking.

"Wei," Mark answers, amused, watching her go.

In the street, Eduardo's spinning in place, slow and faint, as if he's just an echo of the way the Stanford girls went round and round like their hearts were a spinning top. Zhi Tang runs up to him, and he sees her just in time to avoid being tackled with the full force of an excited eight-year-old girl.

"Is he a witch?" the preacher asks softly, when Mark is least expecting it.

He whips his head around and stares. Distantly, he hears Eduardo and Zhi start chattering at each other.

"Do you like clouds? Do you know a lot about clouds? I asked my mommy and she said that Mrs. Bao said that you're awful handsome and you know a lot about clouds, and Ms. Ashleigh agrees with me because she says you don't do anything else useful at all."

"They're right, I do know a lot about clouds. Did you know that my sisters and I used to chase storms on the moons of Osiris?"

"No, you didn't."

"No, I didn't. But I do have sisters on one of the moons of Osiris. Can you guess which one?"

"Nuh-uh."

"It's called Rasilia. Do you know where it is? No? Okay, well, it's too light out right now to see it, but if you look over there -- see where I'm pointing? Okay, see the church steeple? Follow it straight up and just about there -- that's where you can see Rasilia at night."

The preacher lifts his eyebrows.

Mark swallows.

"He's no threat to your people, preacher," he answers without really answering at all. "And if he is, well ... that's why we live on the edge of town. He's just -- he's just troubled."

The preacher nods, clearly remembering the Sihnon refugee story, and settles on the mosaic wall next to Mark. He doesn't say anything else, and Mark can't come up with a polite excuse to leave, so he doesn't bother. Eduardo's close by, and he's comfortable, and soon the sky will be full of lights. They sit together for a long while, letting the sun beat down on the backs of their necks.

Further afield, Zhi Tang suddenly shrieks with laughter, sitting bolt upright and going, "You big liar!"

"No, honest!" Eduardo holds up his hands, and then swiftly makes an X over his chest. "Cross my heart and hope to die, Zhi, that's really how it works. That's why deep-space ships have such a hard time flying in-atmo. Isn't the atmosphere so cool?"

"Not a lot of people would do what you did, you know," the preacher says finally. There's something in his voice that catches Mark's attention, and it sounds so much like respect that it momentarily throws him. Whatever respect Mark earned in the past always felt a little grudging, given out of necessity, like someone his age with his complete lack of social graces shouldn't get it at all, but the look on the preacher's face is genuine.

Brilliantly, he says, "What?"

"Give up everything, I mean. Just to take care of someone who's a little --" Pulling a face, the preacher makes a gesture with his hand that people do when they don't want to say retarded or on the wrong side of special, but do mean inconvenient and time-consuming and not normal the way you probably want them to be, sorry about that.

It's sympathetic in a vaguely insulting way.

"He might never recover, you know." Like Mark doesn't know that, thank you. "Whatever trauma he went through. No, not a lot of people would do what you did."

"Then they're stupid," Mark snaps viciously, and shoves himself off the wall before he can say anything else. He's so angry he's almost molten with it, like his bones aren't in the right place and his ribs are splintering like they're as fragile as glass in a kiln, and he doesn't think at all before he summons Eduardo with a thought, whip-crack sharp and blindingly bright, and on the sidewalk, Eduardo jumps as if touched by a live wire. He's on his feet and at Mark's side in a heartbeat, waving belatedly to a confused Zhi Tang.

He makes a worried face, but all Mark can do is shake his head, because nothing's wrong, it's just --

Something a lot like realization dawns across Eduardo's face. Mark has no idea what's going on in his own head, but Eduardo clearly does, because he blinks once, then twice, and then looks at Mark with something akin to wonder, like Mark is nothing he's ever seen before.

He looks at Mark like Mark is the whole sprawling expanse of the Sanatana Dharma mountains, wreathed with the burn of Diwali lights and visible for miles in every direction.

 

-

 

They live too close to Jiangyin's equator for there to be any real seasons, not the way Mark's used to them, and the kids in Basil's class happily tell him that it's the axis tilt of a planet that causes the seasons, you know, depending on which side of the globe currently faces the sun. Since Jiangyin doesn't tilt the way many other planets do, temperatures are really predictable year-round. That's why the Bureau of Settlement Authority was so eager to claim it as an agricultural settlement.

The sun doesn't change positions in the sky that much as the year progresses, so there's a dry reason and a rainy season, but that's it.

In lieu of winter, the winds just get higher and dryer, and the air starts to smell like ash. Dry season starts when the children start wearing sweaters that are too big for them, bagging and stretched around their knees, and they chase Mark all the way from the playground to the town hall, kicking their boots up and pulling their sleeves out over the ends of their fingers to make big monster arms.

Eduardo lets the frogs go so that they can find somewhere to burrow down and wait for the rains to come again.

He leaves with the terrarium tucked under one arm, still full of thick, loamy mud and sloshing a little bit, and Mark spends the whole day in the workshop, tinkering away at a commission for One-Handed Luke's widow while That Gorram Thing whirs and clicks and twists around, beeping suspiciously every time a stray tumbleweed catches against the perimeter of the house. Eduardo comes back at sunset, and the terrarium is now full of what has to be hundreds of earthworms, writhing in fits of worm-like ecstasy.

"It's too dry out there for them," he explains, catching the look Mark gives him as he reverently sets the terrarium on the shelf, lit on either side by the jars of glowing anemone. He flinches as the movement pulls at the scar tissue all along his back. "I didn't like the sound of them dying as they dried out."

"So you rescued every single one you could hear nearby," Mark finishes for him, and it takes too much effort to be surprised, so he doesn't bother.

He pushes his goggles up, grimacing when they catch and pull at his hair, and swings the magnifying glass around on its support, holding out his hand. Reading his intent without him having to ask, Eduardo lays his own palm-up across Mark's, and Mark peers through the glass at his fingertips.

"Thought so," he murmurs, and holds up his other hand in evidence, fingers spread. "My prints are growing back, too. If you'd be so kind as to check your busy schedule of worm-wrangling, we should pencil in an appointment with our stove soon."

Eduardo wrinkles his nose. "That's no fair," he mutters. "I have to feel it twice. Once when its my pain, once when it yours."

"Fortunately, the pain doesn't last long. The security of having no prints does."

One week passes since Diwali, then two, and on the third week, when he comes out of the henhouse and sees Eduardo intercept Ashleigh for the mail before she can get close enough to set off That Gorram Thing's obnoxious proximity alarm, the goats lowing and milling around their knees in an industrial manner, he realizes that it's been exactly that long since Eduardo wondered off while he was sleeping and came back at dawn, shivering and covered in mud.

Huh, he thinks.

Four weeks, and Eduardo starts walking on his tip toes like he's strung perilously across a tightrope, like he's suspended in midair all the time, and he smiles a lot more. Mark wakes up in the morning to hear him singing the chorus of Some Hands Will Rob You, and it's unsettling, because the last time Mark heard that song was scratchy-soft inside the Academy lobby, the day he broke Eduardo out.

"Oh," says Shin Ross amusedly, when Mark finally gives up and asks him about it, worrying that Eduardo's maybe getting sick: that happens when the weather changes, right? "This is the time of year people start falling in love, Tinkerman."

In the span of about thirty seconds, Mark comes up with twenty-five different ways to tell Eduardo to stop that, knock it off, it's too dangerous, they're supposed to be keeping a low profile and they've got a cover story they're supposed to maintain and that'll be harder to do if they've got somebody else underfoot, but if there's one thing Mark Zuckerberg is incredibly good at, it's compartmentalizing his priorities and masking his thoughts.

By the time he's entered Eduardo's range again, he's acknowledged it for what it is and filed it away, too unremarkable for Eduardo to pick up on mentally.

He's used to the ways things are, and change is inconvenient, but if Eduardo's fallen for a local, then that's good.

Better nurturing infatuation than legitimately sick, anyway. Even going to the local doctor here in town means needles, and Mark doesn't want to have to ask Eduardo to face another needle as long as he lives.

Mark finds him in the schoolyard, flanked by children who watch him etch out their hanzi vocabulary in the dirt with a stick while the teacher looks on bemusedly. They look like they know they're being tricked into learning, but the prospect of getting dirty is exciting enough that they're willing to put that aside. Within moments, they follow his example, grabbing sticks and attacking the dirt with a vengeance, their characters scratchy and lopsided, but distinguishable.

Eduardo looks up and around, like Mark's thoughts are a whistle he can pick out from everyone's else. Catching sight of him, he gets up, brushing dirt off on his trousers and beaming.

That's improvement.

 

 

2517
year of the rooster
and the year-long astrological commemoration of Our Lady of Guanyin
year of the Sihnon uprising

 

They burn through an entire fuel cell putting wake between them and anybody who might be thinking to give chase, pushing Serenity so hard she rattles, joyful as a spring hare.

When the need gets urgent (or, rather, when Jayne gets antsy to start spending their haul,) they make brief harbor on the Eavesdown Docks side of Persephone, making sure to loop around and double-back behind the shield of one of the planetesimals to make it look like they were coming from the other direction, rim-side. Persephone is one of the half-way planets between the Core and the Outer Rim with no real set extradition laws, and as such is a known harbor for white-collar criminals, and for the less adept members of the crime families.

"They'll expect Mark to use one of these ports --" Simon indicates three or four on the map, tilting his head thoughtfully as navigation highlights those areas, giving portfolios on each, "-- to change ships. Persephone's the best place for that. After all," he shrugs one shoulder. "That's what I did when I smuggled River out."

He glances at the map again. Each port's portfolio is up, showing statistics annotated with Wash's notes, which include things like don't eat the street food - BAD and the Maidenhead gross bar ugly girls NO ONE CARES JAYNE.

"This one," Zoe decides, pointing to one. "Waterloo. That'll be the first place they check. It's got a --"

"Hospital," Simon finishes for her. "Right, Eduardo's shot, and," his mouth quirks. "Not all transport ships travel with a certified surgeon."

The decision to keep Mark and Eduardo on board all the way from the Core to somewhere safe on the Outer Rim had sat well with approximately nobody.

They stay in Eavesdown Docks long enough to pick up their mail and barter for more fuel and engine parts that Kaylee's been hankering for for awhile, and to show their face to Badger, because nothing says that things are A-OK with the Serenity, nothing to see here folks, nothing suspicious at all, quite like picking a fight with Badger on his own turf.

For once in their lives, money isn't an issue, not with a large chunk of the Zuckerberg fortune mostly liquidated and stored onboard, but nobody can relax enough to enjoy it, not with radio silence on all channels and the overwhelming knowledge that they're a little transport ship with only one cannon, carrying not one, not two, but four wanted fugitives.

The solution to what they'll do if they're stopped and searched, of course, is to not get stopped.

They buy the necessities, and then Badger gets a bit unfriendly with them, so they kind of have to leave in a hurry or risk obtaining a few more bullet holes than they currently possess.

Everybody puts a lot of effort into acting normal. Zoe takes the opportunity to put in the sorely-needed hours lifting weights down in the cargo hold while Jayne spots her, going until even he drops the lecherous comments about her physique and says, "come on, now, Zoe, gorramit, that's enough." She goes to bed feeling sore all along the wings of her shoulder blades, a little unsettled in her own skin, like she's breaking in a new pair of shoes or has just gotten a haircut. Even her husband rolling over in his sleep, tugging her close and mumbling about monkeys into her shoulder, only goes to comfort her a little.

She thinks something might be wonky with the artificial gravity simulator, and hunts Kaylee down to ask her about it.

She finds her in the med bay, sitting curled up on top of the counter by Eduardo's sleeping figure with one of Shepherd Book's old tablets on her knee, and the screen gives her face a ghoulish glow. With the other hand, she's petting Eduardo's hair, cathartically slow.

Zoe drums on the hatchway with her knuckles. "Kaylee," she says, quiet. She doesn't need to be; Eduardo's sleeping the sleep of the heavily drugged, and if this were wartime, Zoe would be pushing for him to be lucid by now and recovering, but Zoe's supposed to have left the war behind, so she doesn't say anything and Simon dips into their store of the good stuff to keep the kid mercifully sedated.

She trusts the Doc to know what he's doing: he's gone through this before.

"Kaylee," she says again, and Kaylee's hand stills. "We need you to take a look under the hood, okay? The artificial grav sim might --"

"Might be malfunctionin'," Kaylee finishes for her. She flicks the tablet off, setting it to the side and swinging her legs down to the floor. "I wondered if it might be. Everything feels real heavy, you know? Like we're carryin' more than our own weight. I thought maybe it was just us, being overimaginative-like, but I can take a look, in case it's mechanical."

At that, Zuckerberg stands up, too, and Zoe startles, because she hadn't even seen him there: he'd been sitting on the floor by Eduardo's side, all his limbs folded up close to his body, child-like.

He nods to Zoe in greeting. When Kaylee moves for the hatch, he steps after her, and she visibly hesitates, swaying on the spot.

Mark looks annoyed, and then he immediately tries to soften it into something that doesn't really fit comfortably on his face.

"Sorry," he mutters, and starts picking at a hangnail, not looking at them. "I just -- maybe I could help? I'm really good with applied mechanics," and Zoe remembers that he and Dustin are incredibly close friends: it'd be hard, she thinks, to be friends with Dustin and not wind up knowing a lot about ships.

Kaylee looks politely doubtful, and Zoe doesn't bother hiding her grin. Watching Kaylee cow the folk who think they know more about engine-lore than she does is one of her favorite past-times, and she doesn't get to see it nearly often enough.

"He did crash the Kirkland network," Zoe reminds her, and Kaylee snorts.

When they come back, Mark's wearing the purposefully mild expression of the recently humiliated, and Kaylee reports that there's nothing wrong with the artificial gravity. It's all in their heads.

On the third day, Zoe gives voice to what's on everybody's mind.

"I don't trust it," she says.

"Yeah," Mal agrees, and then pushes himself upright, saying, "Wash? Are we near any kind of port of communications that can get a hail out to Mr. Universe?"

Wash snorts. "I don't there's a port of communications anywhere that Mr. Universe can't reach by hail. He's like Xuexing Mary; say his name in a mirror three times and he'll appear."

"Right. Start chanting, then. I want to know what it is we've got after us, and he owes us a good turn."

"Sir. He always owes a good turn," Wash corrects him, and Mal shrugs like that was a given.

The hail patches through on the second try, crackling and oversaturated with green, and Mr. Universe greets them with a delighted whoop of a noise. The pixelation resolves itself, showing a young man sitting amongst a throne of busy monitors, wearing a suit jacket with suede elbow patches like some kind of dandy gentleman, and curly hair that bears evidence of a recent bad dye job.

They met him at one of Mal's routine get-togethers for those of shady ill repute, by which she means, they almost got shot together at one of Mal's routine get-togethers for those of shady ill repute. He'd been a new face, then, walking with a swagger he didn't quite know how to possess yet, the false jadedness of someone who'd done a lot of traveling without much in the way of experiencing, and Zoe kept close to Mal and entertained herself by watching this so-called Mr. Universe put his foot into his mouth in every single conversation he got into.

Later, after they saved his brain from becoming a meat-pie splatter across some very cheap carpeting, he offered them his services.

"It's all about networking," he chattered at them. He'd been blonde then. "It's all about who you know. Now's not the time to be taking your chips down, especially not with all this unrest making the Alliance a mite jumpy."

"There isn't any unrest," Mal'd replied. "The war's long over."

And Mr. Universe had grinned at him, shark-like. "Don't doubt the spider in its web, Captain Reynolds, you can't stop a signal once it's out. I see everything," and in exchange for a promise not to actually try to smarm people in person, since that obviously didn't work, they became one of the privileged few who knew the location of his base of operations.

"If it isn't my favorite swashbuckling browncoats!" Mr. Universe crows happily. His nose is crooked; Zoe wonders who rearranged it for him since they saw him last, and what he did to deserve it. "For what do I owe the honor of your summons today? Not that it isn't always lovely to see you, and Zoe, Zoe --" he spreads his arms out. "You look more gorgeous than ever, darling, stop, I can't take it."

Zoe chuckles at him, indulgent. "Hey, Mr. Universe."

"I thought you'd be running your own enterprise now, sitting up in some cushy space station and by waited on by jewel-studded minions with massive, flexing pectorals. What are you still doing still knocking about with these crusty old rustbuckets?"

"Hey," says Wash grumpily.

Mr. Universe holds his palms up, feigning innocence. "No offense meant, Mr. Zoe, it's just." He drops his voice into an exaggeratedly loud whisper. "I think she can do a lot better."

"See?" says Mal to no one in particular. "This is the trouble when all the good ones just keep getting younger and younger. Can we focus here? Wash?"

Wash pushes forward, saying, "We just pulled a big job, and everything seems too quiet. Mind checking us for fleas?"

Suddenly all business, like a switch flipped somewhere inside his brain, Mr. Universe bounds out of screen briefly, coming back with a handheld than he thumbs through quickly. "Fleas, fleas, fleas," he mutters. "Been lying down with dogs, have you?"

"A lot of money was involved."

"Say no more, say no more." He trails off, talking to himself distractedly for a minute or two before he says, "I'm not seeing any flags out for a Firefly-class transport. Nothing recent anyway. Are you sure you didn't manage to get away from this one completely clean?"

Mal looks at Zoe. "It's doubtful," she says. "We made something of a mess on the way out. Got shot at some, and took something that the Alliance might not take too kindly to being missing."

"Right," he looks thoughtful. "Maybe they don't know to look for you yet, then. Who were you working with? Who's your client?"

Mal shrugs. "One of those young, rich, up-and-coming types with more money to their names than sense. We had an outside crew, too, but they all stayed mostly behind-the-scenes, since most of them had covers they didn't want to risk exposing. If they ain't tailing us, then he's the only one they for sure got an ID on." His mouth quirks, rueful. "He just walked in there in his pajamas, like he had every right to be there. We must be doing something wrong if that's the way you're supposed to get rich now-a-days."

Mr. Universe laughs. "If only --" he starts, and then something interesting happens to his face. "Wait, pajamas?" A frown pinches between his eyebrows. "I know some pretty arrogant folk, but -- who exactly is your client?"

Zoe shoots a pointed look at the back of Mal's head, only to find him already looking back, mouth skewed down in one corner.

Mr. Universe's in the business of giving names, not asking for them.

With the tone of someone who is really going to regret saying what he's about to say, Mal offers, "Mark Zuckerberg. What do you know about him?"

Realization dawns all across Mr. Universe's face, lifting him up by the shoulders. He rearranges himself in his chair, clearing his throat, and Zoe starts really regretting ever having that uneasy feeling in the first place. Nothing good ever comes out of an uneasy feeling; you start turning over stones that you don't want to be overturned.

"Do you know what it is you're carrying?" Mr. Universe wants to know, dead serious now.

"No," says Mal with a voice like gravity. "But judging by your dumbfounded look of surprise, you do, so howabouts you tell us so we know who's going to come after us and decide to arrest us on account of us not knowing what it was we were carrying, hm?"

Mr. Universe regards them for a long moment, completely still and surrounded by a bright, jumbled, chaotic mess of lights coming from every direction, all his monitors blaring with color.

Then he says, "Do you know exactly what's involved in us communicating right now, Captain? Gross magnitudes of terabytes of information downloaded, saved, and beamed across the empty, soundless vacuum of space. The majority of that transfer is powered and maintained by an information management system called the cortex. In the days of Earth That Was, the closest equivalent was called an interweb. Wangji wang lu. Do you know who invented the cortex?"

"That's not possible," says Wash immediately, without needing to be told. "The kid's nineteen, at most. The cortex --" he glances back at Mal and Zoe. "The cortex has been around since before the days of the Unification Wars."

"The technology has been available, sure," Mr. Universe acknowledges. "But it was outdated the way ... the way farming is outdated, the way that lovely antique ship of yours is outdated -- no offense meant, of course."

Wash opens his mouth to retort, but Zoe touches the back of his neck with her knuckles, startling him.

She leans down, lowering her voice to murmur in his ear, "How about you go and fetch Mark, hm? I've a guess that he'll want to be here for this."

He looks mutinous for the space of a heartbeat, and then he just looks grim. He nods, unstrapping himself from his seat and disappearing down into the hallway. Zoe settles herself into the pilot's chair.

Mr. Universe continues, "Things have changed a bit since you and your lot fought for independence, wouldn't you say? It's getting awful crowded up in that sky, too many eyes in too many places. It makes it rather convenient for people like me, living our whole lives behind the safety of a screen instead out of out there, exploring the great frontier. The lawman's everywhere, haven't you noticed?" He leans in. "Mark Zuckerberg didn't build the cortex. He build it better. He built it faster, cheaper, more easily implemented. He did it all when he was seventeen. It's because of him that the Alliance can keep their reach extended across the 'verse. It's because of him that respectable folk like us gotta crawl further out like cockroaches to escape them."

Mal's hands clench into fists.

"They're going to want him back. He's worth more than whatever bounty they can think to put on you. They're going to want him more than they're going to --"

Zoe flips the comms off, plunging the screen into a sudden, silent blankness. Mal straightens up, and then he hears it, too: the heavy tread of boots on the bottom step.

It's Jayne, not Wash, who accompanies Mark Zuckerberg up onto the bridge, looking interested as only a man who senses impending violence can be.

There's a beat where Mal locks eyes with Mark, fear hardening his face, and then Mark's hackles go up, animalistic, and he steps back towards the hatch.

Mal says, voice wound up very tight, "The Alliance will be missing you more than they'll be missing their little friend."

Mark watches him, as unblinking and thin-lipped as a reptile, and says, mild, "Might be."

Mal swings around. He claps eyes first on Zoe, then on Jayne.

"It ain't worth it. Airlock him," he orders.

"Finally," Jayne mutters, coming to attention. He triumphantly bares his teeth and advances on Mark.

Mark takes one look at him and bolts. Zoe steps in front of him, cold-cocking him with the butt of her gun. He hits the grating hard, grunt escaping his clenched teeth and hands cupping his face, and really, she thinks, where does he think he's going, anyway? They're in deep black, there's nowhere for him to go except for where they're sending him. The blood seeps in between his fingers, darkly black and thick.

A breath, and his eyes meet Zoe's, for one second both hunted-looking and desperate.

Then Jayne steps over him, hauling him up by the armpits.

"You heard the cap'n," he says. "There's a nice, shiny trip into space with your name on it. Ow -- gorramit, what in the seven gates of hell --"

Mark wriggles half-out of Jayne's grasp, shirt pulled up into a strangle-hold around his neck and his lips curled up like he's going to bite again. His eyes fly towards the hatch, wild, so Zoe clocks him again, hard enough to hear the neat crunch of rearranging facial bones. It sends Mark sagging in Jayne's arms, too punch-drunk now to keep struggling. Blood drips down onto the grating.

"He bit me!" Jayne howls, indignant. There's a ring of teeth marks on his hand, like posies.

"Focus, Jayne," Mal barks.

"Come on," Zoe's voice comes out grim. This has never been her favorite part.

"No," Mark moans, recovering enough to start to thrash again. "No, no, no, no." He's not giving in easy, and it takes both Jayne and Mal holding him clear off the ground like they're carrying a corpse before they get anywhere: out the hatch, down the ladder, through the corridor past the bunks, towards the cargo bay. Zoe follows, listening as Mark's protests get louder, more insistent.

Their morbid little procession goes through the galley, disturbing Wash and Kaylee, who both rise out of their seats to get out of the way.

"What --" Kaylee starts, her eyes rounding, and when she starts to drift after them, Zoe catches her by the elbow.

"Nothing but the unloadin' of some unruly cargo," she tells her, low and pointed, and Kaylee's face drains of color just like that. "Probably'd be best if you went up to the bridge, I think, take the helm -- make sure we keep on flying true. Can you do that?"

Shaky, she nods, turning away, but not before Zoe can see the way her face begins to crumple with preemptive grief, mouth skewing to one side in a horrified shape she isn't quite capable of tamping down. She skitters up the steps onto the bridge.

"Quit squirming, you little worm," Jayne growls, when they almost drop Mark going down the staircase into the cargo hold.

Hating herself a little bit, Zoe clicks the safety off her gun, cocking it into her shoulder and aiming it at straight at Mark's chest. Dead or alive, it don't matter how they toss him out into space, but this way is a bit more messy. The whine of it powering up is familiar to her ear, chilling enough that Mark freezes for a heartbeat, his face swelling fast on the one side. He looks half-mad, and the pause is long enough that Jayne shifts his grip, hauling him over one shoulder in a fireman's carry.

With his hands free, Mal strides across the hold, lifting up the control panel and flicking the switch to open the airlock. An alarm immediately begins to sound.

He stands by it as Jayne makes his way over, Zoe a few paces behind him. There's a blast of cold air on her face, stinging her eyes and making the hair in her nose stick together: the only thing separating them from the deep, frozen vacuum of space is that door.

On the bright side, they get to keep Zuckerberg's money. That'll be nice.

"NO!" shrieks a voice, high above their heads like the call of an avenging angel, and everyone looks up simultaneously.

It's River, bent double over the railing, her whole face stricken and cracked open wide with horror.

Mal's mouth pulls into an apologetic shape, less like he's airlocking a man and more like he's taking River's sweets or telling Kaylee what else they can't afford while planetside this time. "We have to, little albatross, he's --"

River's whole body jerks back, as neatly felled as if she'd been struck across the face, seemingly from nowhere, just a second before, to her left, Zoe hears the muffled thud of something heavy hitting skull. Jayne grunts, wavering a little, and then falls flat on his face, half-dragging Mark with him.

Standing over the undignified bundle of limbs they make, holding a dumbbell in both hands and breathing pantingly fast, is --

"Well, now," says Mal, sounding entirely unamused at this turn of events. "Look who finally woke up. Hello, Mr. Saverin."

The Eduardo Saverin in Zoe's memory was an awkward-footed, earnest kid with hands too big for his body and a body that didn't know where it was in space, catching his boots against the ends of pews and almost sprawling head-over-heels: that Eduardo is only the ghost of the one standing in front of her now. Hell over high water, the boy sure did grow up pretty, now that she's gotten a look at him when he isn't bleeding messily all over the place, or otherwise unconscious.

"Captain Malcolm Reynolds," he returns, swarthy underneath the cage-pale grey of his skin and the thin gauze visible under the collar of his shirt: get him in the sun again, and he'll probably be darker than Inara. His eyes are big and expressive, and he stands over Mark like a back-alley dog, shoulders rounded protectively.

There's a beat of silence, and then Eduardo's face does something complicated; the look familiar to every teenager who has just seen something they really didn't want to see.

"Captain," he says acidly. "A word of advice: when telepathically asking me if I'm a psychic, can you please refrain from then immediately thinking of everything embarrassing you've ever done in your life?"

"... Right," says Mal, nonplussed. "I'll -- right."

"Thank you." His eyes suddenly dart sideways, catching Zoe like a beam of light. "I wouldn't if I were you, ma'am," he tells her, and she stops moving.

The open-airlock alarm continues sounding, and Zoe holds Eduardo's eyes, a steady pistols-at-dawn stare. It's an assessing look, until she is unable to help the way she thinks, unbidden, do you remember me?

Eduardo's eyelids flutter, his chin tipping away from her as if she'd just tried to blow ash into his eyes. There's no recognition in the way he looks at her, after, nothing that says he remembers the boy who blushed every autumnal color when he tried to wish her well at her wedding.

Zoe sets her jaw. She hates the Alliance.

"Now, look here," Mal interjects. "Little ball of crazy, we aren't looking to cause you any harm --"

"You were going to airlock Mark." Eduardo lifts the dumbbell, and Zoe has absolutely no idea why that one gesture manages to be menacing, given that he's currently facing down two very armed ex-soldiers. "I would ... really rather appreciate it if you didn't."

At this point, Mark finally manages to squirm out from underneath Jayne's unconscious dead weight, getting his legs under him again.

"How about," he says sharply, standing. It puts him shoulder-to-shoulder with Eduardo, the both of them skinny and fierce-eyed. "Instead of killing me for what I've already done, how about you consider what I can do."

"Which is?" says Mal.

Mark answers impatiently, "If I built it, then I can disable it again. Think. I can make you disappear. I can make you impossible to track, on almost every level of the government. The operative level is the only thing beyond even my hacking skills, but as I don't think any of you are carrying classified government secrets," his eyes flick back and forth between them, thoughtful and determined. "I doubt the Alliance will ever have a need to send an Operative after you. The rest I can handle."

"And you'd do that?" Mal pushes, sounding dubious, his eyes thinned to slits. "To your own creation? You'd tinker it -- botch it like that?"

Zoe's looking for it, so she sees it: Mark's eyes cut to Eduardo's face, quick as winking, the way someone might put their hand to a touchstone.

"Yes," he says.

 

-

 

Watching Eduardo and River communicate is as fascinating as it is a mite unsettling.

When he finds out what they did, Simon gets incredibly angry, which for Simon just means he gets frightfully efficient and prone to using polysyllabic words that would make a lesser man's eyes cross. He speaks very vehemently about how Eduardo shouldn't be up, did they want to undo all of his progress? And who in gorram hell (paraphrasing here) knocked Jayne out again? The man can't take that many more knocks to the head.

"Won't make much of a difference, let's be real," Wash points out, and then makes himself scarce when Simon gives him the affronted look of a medical professional.

He gets Zoe to help him escort Eduardo back into the med bay, laying him flat on his stomach with the bandage on his back peeled up, and while he's doing that, River tiptoes in through the hatch.

She installs herself by Eduardo's head, resting her chin on her folded arms. For a long, long moment, they do nothing but stare at each other, wide-eyed. Nothing moves in the med bay except for the back-and-forth tick their eyes make. Even Simon pauses in scrubbing his hands to watch, and Zoe can't look at the expression on his face for very long, because it's shockingly raw.

Then River laughs, a bright girlish sound that makes Eduardo's eyes flare even wider, and she says, "like an alligator, tchau!"

Mark -- who's been relegated to one corner with an ice pack unceremoniously slapped to one half of his face until the Doc can get to him -- watches them, hungry-eyed.

A beat later, she snorts, "Coxsackie," and Simon cuts in with a disapproving "what now?" and, feeling very much like the odd man out, Zoe leaves them to it.

It's not so much like only hearing one half of a conversation so much as it is not hearing the conversation at all, and watching it happen at warp speed.

"They seem mighty friendly," Mal comments, the first time Eduardo's steady enough to join them for dinner. Jayne's got the seat next to him by virtue of it being closer to the pitcher of beer, eating animatedly with his elbows out in every direction. Eduardo twitches out of the way, grinning, like avoiding them is a game. River comes in and stares pointedly at Jayne until he feels the powerful urge to move, letting her settle in so that she and Eduardo can do that thing where they gaze at each other and do things with their eyebrows that are a bit baffling.

Fascinated, Kaylee murmurs, "They are so funny when they do that. Folk sure do talk a lot with their faces."

"They're figuring each other out," the Doc shrugs, a marionette jerk of his shoulders. Zoe watches him turn his back, and gets the feeling he's resentful there's something Eduardo can do for his sister that he, Simon, can't.

He steps out through the hatch, and she shrugs at Mal. "It's true, sir. She's using words more. Sense-making sentences."

"She loses the words and he helps her find them again," Mark fills in helpfully from Eduardo's other side. Eduardo's eyes flick in his direction, automatic, before he turns back to River and murmurs something to the effect of, did she sleep on Miranda? At the looks everyone gives him, Mark swallows his too-big bite of protein and says, warily, like he isn't sure if this is something that'll get him tossed out the airlock for good this time. "What? You can't tell that's what they were doing?"

There are a dozen and one places to escape being noticed in the universe if you know what you're doing, so they go to ground: they hide in a stretch of no-man's land just an hour's hard-burn away from one of their bolt-holes on Greenleaf. Ain't hardly anybody comes through this part of space, which makes it a good place to duck and cover if there's a chance heat could come down on them if they get found anywhere else.

Greenleaf's their second choice. Mal had them looking at Whitefall at first, since Whitefall hardly counts as civilization and traffic through that sector is minimal, even during peak traffic times.

Zoe puts her fork down and says, "Sir, last time we were on Whitefall, I remember there being a lot of running and shooting. Mostly at you."

"Water under the bridge," he says airily.

On the other side of the table, Mark's head comes up and he says, "Not Whitefall."

Mal blinks over at him. "Beg your pardon?"

The kid's dressed again in that unsettling uniform of his, with the Alliance emblem on his breast that leaves Zoe itching to shoot things every time she lays eyes on it. Either that and pajamas are Mark's entire wardrobe, or he just doesn't bother changing clothes. She guesses it's the latter. He's been busy staying out of everybody's way almost as long as he's been on the boat, not talking to anybody, and Zoe can't tell if that's just his personality, or if he's still harboring some resentful feelings after being beat up and almost thrown off the boat.

He makes a face, and while he isn't paying attention, Jayne reaches over with his fork to take a large scraping of can-shaped meat-lover's protein. "It's my home planet," he explains.

"Oh," goes Wash sympathetically. "Man. Sorry about that."

Mark shrugs, sort of unconvincingly. "I didn't spend much time there. I got sent up to the planet for boarding school almost as soon I as was of legal age to transport. Still, it's protocol that they send someone to tell my parents that I'm missing, so we shouldn't hang around."

He looks down at his meal, and frowns at the missing chunk, but Eduardo's already moving, tipping his plate so that a large helping of peas tumble onto Mark's.

On the third day of this, everybody starts getting antsy and it's hard to remember which sun is the closest to them because they don't actually look to be anywhere, corner of no and where, surrounded on every side by the black. The men take to roughhousing down in the cargo bay to try to let off steam; even Mark joins in, a pale, pasty sight shooting hoops that has Kaylee giggling behind her hand like she can't help herself.

Eduardo's healing well enough; he'll have a nasty scar across his back that makes the criminal in Zoe twitchy, thinking about identifying marks, but the Doc says it's likely he'll regain full range of motion. He sits on the sidelines, head tilted.

Mark flops down next to him, chest heaving and arms extended to maximize his contact with the cool grating. Eduardo's body leans with the movement, seemingly unconsciously, like Mark's presence acts on him like the magnetic tug of a pole. As he reaches out, touching each of the freckles on Mark's shoulder until his fingers have traced a constellation, Simon joins them, nudging his side and offering Mark a drink from his water bottle. It's the friendliest she's seen anyone be to him, although that makes sense; they have a lot in common.

"Any reason you think they're not coming after you?" Zoe asks, after he's showered.

Or, well, the closest equivalent you get to showering on a spaceship.

Mark smiles at her sidelong, humorless. "They're probably expecting me to return him," he says flatly. His wet hair is plastered down against his skull, but when it dries, it's going to be everywhere. Zoe can relate. "Like I just broke him out to take him on a joyride, ha ha, very funny, that was a good joke, and I'll just put him back where I found him when I get bored."

"That's a bit --" Callous, she doesn't want to say.

"Something I might have done," he admits, unselfconscious. "If the Academy was really just a fancy government school. Still, maybe that's what they're waiting for before they spend any money or effort looking for us."

Zoe considers this. "It'll give us time to hide you somewhere they can never find."

Something pulls at the corners of his mouth, not quite a smile, not quite a frown. "I'd appreciate that."

She thinks about asking him why he did it -- jealousy over a prestigious acceptance is one thing, guilt over not realizing the trouble Eduardo was in is another, anger is a third, but truly, what is it that drives a man and sustains him, after he's left everything he's ever known?

But that's a stupid question. Zoe already knows the answer.

It's the only thing about him that she trusts, sure, but it's the most important part.

 

-

 

Whatever they did to Eduardo, it's different from what they did to River. That much is apparent from the beginning, and Mal brings it up at breakfast, after Eduardo and Jayne step out through the hatch, talking animatedly about automated weapons, of all unsettling things.

"He seems shockingly okay," he remarks. "Well, comparatively," and his eyes cut to River, who's using one of Kaylee's laser cutters to carve runes onto the sides of cans behind the counter, muttering nonsensically.

"It's not him," says Mark promptly, and looks uncomfortable when this just focuses attention on him. He keeps his eyes averted. "The Eduardo I knew best," he says, voice hard. "The one that was my best friend, that's ... it's like when there's a word you think you should know, except you keep drawing a blank except it's right there. I keep thinking it's him in there, I keep catching glimpses of it, but --" he shrugs. "Then it's gone again, and I'm left with the Academy version, wearing my friend's face."

"A mnemonic device is a memory aid that patterns together letters, numbers, and ideas in a sequence in order to stand for a more complicated sequence," River volunteers from the other side of the counter. "Replaces one thing for another, but it means the same thing."

Abruptly realizing that her laser cutter isn't in her pocket, Kaylee stands. "Sweetie ..."

"Only Boys Accepting Feminism Get Kissed Meaningfully, for example," she continues, quickly. "Is a phrase that would have only one meaning except for that the first letter of each word stands for a class of star, and together make the star-class defining system. See?"

"What she means," the Doc translates, going around to rescue the cans from his sister and ignoring her protesting noises ("I'm not done, I still have two lines -- no, you can't stop Hammurabi's Code, Simon!"). "Is that Eduardo is okay because we're asking him to be okay. He's a psychic -- he's responding to what he hears inside of us and giving us what we most want to see."

"The Alliance wanted a spy," Zoe fills in.

"Improvement on the last model?" Mal ticks his eyebrows up, indicating the noisily fussing River with a jerk of his head.

"Different specialization, I think, sir."

Erica said as such, didn't she? That River Tam was the Academy's greatest success, although her conditioning fragmented her neural reality matrix, making her ... well, a little woolly. Prone to shooting things and knifing Jayne. But with cases like Eduardo, there wasn't a lot to change; blending in and pleasing everybody was something he would have done already, so the Academy just ... used that. Eduardo was never taught how to dance; they were sculpting someone who could kill with kindness, not with the sights of a sniper's gun. Not like River.

"There's no one like me!" River answers.

"Of course not, sweetie," Kaylee rubs a hand along her back fondly, and with the other, grabs the laser cutter and tucks it away somewhere inside her coveralls, looking nervous.

 

-

 

"He creeps me out," Wash says decisively.

Zoe looks over, then down: her husband's eyes are peering out from underneath the console, a nest of tangled wires sitting on top of his chest, and he's looking down towards where, visible through the open hatch, Mark's talking rapidly at Mal, who looks fresh woken-up and is wearing the politely flummoxed expression of someone who ain't particularly fluent in technojargon.

"Adaptor, please," Wash adds as an afterthought, and Zoe plucks one out of the toolbox sitting as an impasse between the meat-eating and vegetable-eating factions of Wash's dinosaurs.

She passes it down to him and says, "And how old are you, exactly, sugar lips?"

"I resent your implication," Wash says pleasantly, plugging the adaptor in as a bridge between two sets of tangled wires that are hopelessly indistinguishable to Zoe.

Above her head, the cortex sparks, fizzles out, and they watch it worriedly for a beat before it pixelates itself and the connection reestablishes itself, showing a blue loading bar. "Righto," he mutters under his breath, and plugs in his handheld.

It had taken Mark approximately forty-seven minutes to come up with the override code for Serenity's intralink into the cortex the way he promised, and another four days for Wash and Kaylee to break it down into its component parts and analyze it for anything suspicious.

("This looks ... good, yeah," Wash says when he first hands it over, Kaylee peering over his shoulder, her brows lowered. "Real good."

"... yup," offers Kaylee.

Mark's mouth quirks wryly. "You have no idea what you're looking at, do you?"

"No."

"Not really, no.")

He peers around the edge of the console again, careful, like he's afraid of getting caught. "I mean," he says. "I know you like him, and that's perfectly fine," and Zoe blinks, because what. "But he just makes my skin crawl. I feel judged every time he looks at me."

"He's your cousin's closest friend," she feels the need to point out, faintly nonplussed and trying to hide it.

"Yes, because I've always credited that side of the family with a wealthy sense of rationality." If there's a person on this ship who knows her better than Mal, it's her husband, and he pauses in thumbing thoughtfully at his handheld in order to crane his neck back, seeking out her eyes with his. "Seriously, you didn't know? You think with that part of you that never left the war. I know what I married into!" he adds quickly, when she furrows her brow at him, severe. "Don't think I don't love that part of you, but it's practically hardwired into you to respect the man -- or woman! Don't glare! -- who picks up a gun for the good, the helpless, for those who can't give back but deserve to be defended nonetheless. No matter what shape that gun takes."

She just stares at him, and he shrugs, self-conscious.

"People fight wars in different ways," he says, and turns back to his fiddling. "Whatever he did down there on that planet for Eduardo, he won you over."

Zoe folds her arms, feeling the hard ridge of her pistols underneath the fabric of her vest as natural as some people would feel ribs.

Outwardly, Mark tends to keep his distance from the crew, keeping his back up with a remoteness that exists between those that do the employing and those that do the work ("that," says Simon, unamused, "and you did try to toss him out the airlock.") There's only one person with whom he willingly seems to relax around, and that's Eduardo: compared to Eduardo's easy friendliness, Mark seems downright taciturn.

"He's still so noisy," River mutters after supper, annoyed, shaking her hair out of her face like there are buzzing insects bothering her. "Doesn't think with an indoor voice."

"Eduardo doesn't seem to mind," Zoe points out to her. To her amusement, Eduardo chooses that moment to come up behind Mark where he's standing at the sink, wrapping his arms around him and rolling his face against the back of Mark's neck, while Mark just stands there and tries not to look perturbed. He's not wrong, Zoe finds; in this moment, she can clearly see the Eduardo Saverin she knew, the one from many years ago, who blushed at her wedding. He's there, sure as the yellowed bones under the skin of his sweet face.

River blinks at her. "Why would he?" she says, frowning. "Always wanted to know what was inside his head. Now he can."

Zoe blinks.

River grins, pleased with herself. "It's a privilege he won't be giving up!" and she skips from the galley, high up on her tiptoes.

"It's a good thing Eduardo does read his mind," Wash says drolly, when she tells him this later. He strips his shirt above his head, yawning hugely, and he's on the tail end of it when he gives her a sound kiss. "Otherwise we'd never know what he's thinking."

But now that Zoe's paying attention, there are cracks in the facade.

Early in the morning, before anyone except Zoe's really awake, Serenity powered down and sleepy, Mark and Kaylee take a jog together, sock feet quiet on the grating as they make laps past the cabins, down through the galley and out around the bay. She worries for a beat that Kaylee might be nursing a crush, because it's her way with folk and to ask Kaylee to stop lovin' people is like asking the sun to stop burnin', and exercise has never been something she pursued much before, so why now?

She spends a whole morning going over finances with Mal, and after lunch, she heads down to the lounge, stiff from sitting so long.

She tries to crack her back as she walks and passes where Jayne has all his favorite guns stripped into parts on the rug, looking down at them with admiration, grease rag tossed over one shoulder the same way a man puts down a rag right before he tries to burp a baby. Eduardo and River are both watching from the sofa, necks craned out and owl-like in their curiosity.

"Jayne --" Zoe starts, disapproving, but movement in her peripheral catches her attention.

There's some kind of interface, newly-installed on the hatchway outside the engine room. Kaylee's standing underneath it, head tilted back and her eyes lit up, curious. Mark's with her, his hands uncomfortably shoved in his pockets.

"-- it's awful cute," she's saying as Zoe approaches. "Look, Zoe, don't it look like it's got a little face?"

It does, actually, and just as Zoe steps closer to get a better look, the whole thing lights up blazing red, shrieking an awful, shrill sound that has Kaylee flinging herself backwards, slamming her hands over her ears. Mark straightens up immediately, flipping open a control panel and thumbing at a mismatch of buttons. The sound stops almost as soon as it started.

"It's a gorram noisy thing, is what it is," Jayne offers from around the corner. "What is it?"

Mark shrugs. "You'll need to program them into it," he says to Kaylee, gesturing at the rest of them with a wave of his hand. "If you want to, I mean. It's -- it's for you, because you said --" he shrugs, uncertain. "Well, it won't let anyone in that you don't want let in. I thought you might ... I thought it might be useful, is all." If he shrugs like that one more time, his shoulders are going to pop off.

Kaylee's whole face lights up, and with a warm, sugary smile, she runs her fingertips along the edge of the interface. "Hey, there, little thing," she murmurs. "You gonna protect me?"

Zoe could kick herself for not seeing it sooner. Not everything in Kaylee's life is about her feelings about a fella; the jogging, the wanting security when she's in the engine room, all of that's a way to make herself secure, to make herself feel safer. Nobody ever did sit down with her after Early the bounty hunter boarded their ship, did they? Even though Zoe knows, she knows how debilitating it is, to be made low and helpless, and Early did both to Kaylee.

The threat of violence, she thinks. And the power of your own imagination. Both make you prisoners.

"Hey!" a voice shouts, making everybody except Zoe jump.

It comes first from the top of the stairs and then imminently closer, and out of the corner of her eye, she sees Jayne go for his gun, only to remember that it's in pieces on the carpet in the lounge.

"Hey! We got incoming!"

Wash rounds the corner, gasping for breath, his shirt flapping open, and Zoe feels alarm jolt to the ends of her toes, because why isn't he at the helm? They've got an intercom for a reason. Did something disable the comm systems? There are any number of things that can do that from long range --

She pushes herself forward, grabbing his arm and towing him towards the stairs, wondering where in gorram hell Mal is.

"What is it?" she demands tightly.

The tension goes right out of Wash, and he gives her an enormous grin.

"Absolutely nothing," he says cheerily, and pats her hand. "Oh, come on, we're sitting smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, there's no one out there. I'm just bored. Ow," he complains, when she pinches his ear in retaliation, hard. "Fine, fine. We got a wave."

She frowns. "Who from? Where's Mal?"

"Uh," and Wash tugs himself out of her grip, turning back. "It's for him, actually," and he points at Mark.

Interestingly enough, if Wash's aim was to incite fear, this approach works considerably better. The bottom of Zoe's stomach drops out. Mark's face goes shockingly white, and Jayne cusses, low.

"Woah!" Wash flings his hands out, placating. "Relax! It's just Mr. Universe! He's the one keeping his ear to the ground for us."

Mark thins his eyes, not comforted in the slightest.

Mr. Universe, when they get up to the bridge, is up on the big screen, bouncing around on his throne and drumming his fingers over every flat part of his body.

When Wash and Zoe appear with Mark in tow, his eyes go wide. Then he grins with all his teeth and goes, "I knew it! I said to myself, of all the people I know who are worth billions in platinum -- there's only one crazy enough to give all that up and not look back."

Zoe's watching, so she sees the way Mark's face lights up animatedly the way it has for nothing else. He says, "Sean," and he drags the syllable out, warm and dry and derisive and affectionate, all at once.

He crowds in close to the screen, like that makes the distance any less, and words tumble out of his mouth, warp-speed.

Wash smiles, contented, and backs out, but she stays long enough that the conversation turns from serious ("Erica got married! Like, actual married. Sean, what does that mean?" "I think it probably means she doesn't love you anymore, dude,") to utterly ridiculous ("A lovebot is not the love of your life, Sean, she's a robot," and Mr. Universe swings around in his chair, laughing and saying, "Don't insult Lenore, I needed to replace you somehow, man, you ran off and became all famous on me, what's a lonely boy to do,") and back again with the easy camaraderie of people who know each other.

And Zoe thinks -- deep in the scaly part of her heart where she pretends she doesn't keep the faces of all the young Independents in those soft, surprised moments before the bullets felled them -- that Mark Zuckerberg is just a child.

He's just a child, in the way they're all children in the end, holding on to their bleeding best friends on the floor of a getaway shuttle, saying, over and over, I'm sorry, I'm a little late, just a little late, like there wasn't ever a question as to whether or not they would come, only as to when, and she thinks that her husband is right: everybody fights a different war, but it's all for the same reason, when all is said and done.

"What are the three lies?" says River's voice from right behind her, too quiet to disturb the others. She's got her face tilted up to her, eyes solemn.

"Mei-mei, honey?"

But River shakes her head. "There are none," she says. "That's the answer. To your question. I want, I want, I need you out --" her words drop away and she sways on the spot, like there are waves swamping the floor away from underneath her feet. She hovers in that weightless moment, and then her eyes pop open again, piercingly bright. "Weren't a lie. He never imagined life without him, so he went to get him. Simple as that."

After Jayne finishes reassembling all his guns and returning them to his bunk, sparing the most essential he likes to keep on his person at all times, River and Eduardo take over the space on the rug.

They've got the darning basket with them, and they settle in cross-legged, teasingly biting at each other with knitting needles like little birds pecking at grains of rice. Zoe watches from her husband's lap on the sofa as they recreate the pattern that the dismantled guns had made, sewn together out of loose threads and scrapes of grey fabric (if anybody recognizes the ruins of the doll-clothes they cut Eduardo out of, fresh from the Academy, ain't nobody that says anything.) They work towards the middle with the easy wordless movements of mind-readers.

Behind them, Simon takes the shelves they got from Li Chen and installs them in the guest room that isn't technically a guest room anymore, Zoe supposes, so much as it is Simon's room.

"Bookshelves make a home," he says, when Wash asks. "Out of everything that's necessary to live, books are the hardest to take with you when you're on the run. The places where you put bookshelves are the places you stay."

River shrieks, delighted, and Eduardo beams, and Zoe smiles to herself, turning her head to bury her face in Wash's neck, inhaling the soapy, bookshelf-home scent of him.

"When we went to war, it was because we wanted to be able to do this," she murmurs, low into his ear.

"Do this?" he echoes, sliding a hand so high up onto her thigh that she crosses her legs and pins it there, pulling back to give him a warning look. There are two psychics not five feet away. He smiles, completely guileless. "Sorry," he says without being sorry at all. "I'm not following the train of conversation here, sweet buns."

"We," she tells him. "Put on our brown coats and went to war so we could provide a place where kids can be safe. Where kids can be kids."

She touches her forehead to his, and he touches his knuckles to her jaw, brushing and soft.

"That's what you do," she says. "You protect the children."

 

-

 

And then --

Mal comes through.

"I got you a place," he tells Mark and Eduardo. "Bit roundabout, but I figure it's best to cover your tracks, much as we can."

"Where are we headed?" Wash pipes up curiously, before anybody else can get a word in edgewise. Zoe swears she can see the star maps in his eyes from here.

"To Sihnon. Got a respectable contact there," Mal says, uncomfortable, and Eduardo tilts his head like he'd said something else entirely. Wash practically skips on up to the bridge, and within minutes, there's the sound of Kaylee happily banging around in the engine room. Serenity comes to life, a joyful hum vibrating through her hull.

"You're sending us into an active no-fly --" Mark starts, sounding mutinous.

"Trust me," Mal responds, already starting up the stairs. "Nothing's safer than chaos."

Their last night onboard, they have protein all the colors of the rainbows and beer in shiny glass bottles that they sort-of, kind-of nicked off of Badger that time they checked in planetside and almost got shot at. Kaylee gets an old jimcrack music box out of her bunk, the lid stained a bleeding cherry red and carved with a pattern of poppies, and brings it down to the cargo hold.

She sets it in her lap and turns the crank. The steady ping of a playful tune comes tinkling out, making River laugh loud and bright like it tickles her.

She turns to Eduardo and they both curtsy formally, Eduardo daintily pretending to hold a skirt between his fingers. They join hands and step together smartly, dancing around the hold with the fluid, synchronized steps of folk who know exactly where their partner's body is in space. It's both strange and mesmerizing to watch, like rainfall or the hovering flight of a hummingbird, and the sight of it makes Simon smile enormously, like a man feeling sunshine on his face after months in the black, the way he does whenever his sister does something spectacular.

Jayne gets a pot and settles in next to Kaylee, banging it with a ladle to make the beat sound faster. She whoops, and River kicks up her heels.

Mark's standing on the top level of the causeway, watching, and the expression on his face is complicated, unidentifiable.

"He could never dance," he mutters, when Zoe comes up behind him, walking slow as not to startle. She leans her elbows on the railing, sees the muscles in his thin face jump. "Not like that, anyway. He was horrible to watch. Still is, I guess, if only because it's unnatural."

"Do you have any better idea than the Doc does about how to fix what they did?" she asks.

Mark doesn't look at her, not taking his eyes off the spectacle below. The captain's taken over for Kaylee, twisting the crank on the music box so that she can sway in place, stomping her boots on the offbeats and swinging her hair, watching River and Eduardo spin each other around.

The spell's broken when Wash knocks into something heavy, sending it clattering to the floor with an awful ruckus that makes Kaylee yelp and startles Jayne out of rhythm.

"It wasn't me!" he says immediately, throwing up his hands and feigning innocence. "I didn't do it!"

Zoe feels such a rush of affection, pulling low in her gut like that moment you leave atmo, the combination of two different gravitational forces turning her both weighted and weightless, that she almost misses it when Mark says, "The people who messed around, took bits of Eduardo's and River's brains and shufled them about like they could make better people out of kids who had nothing wrong with them -- they are very, very smart. But the thing is, ma'am --"

And he does look at her then, one corner of his mouth pulled back. His eyes are clearwater-colored, and in this moment, he looks like somebody Zoe would have fought a war for.

"-- I'm smarter."

 

 

2519
year of the dragon
year of the Miranda scandal
and the dissolution of the oligarchical Alliance government at the operative level

 

The thing about living with a reader is that you can't keep secrets.

If Mark ever resented losing his wealth, his infamy, his business and the electric feeling that you get when you walk into a room and you know that everybody knows exactly who you are, then Eduardo would know. Eduardo would probably know before Mark did, would be able to feel it, settling over him like sandpaper, like clothes that didn't fit quite right and rubbed in all the wrong places.

So Mark never bothers feeling bitter. He lets it go.

It really is as easy as that. Eduardo needs him not to be bitter, so Mark isn't bitter.

If there's one thing Mark's good at, it's self-control.

See, normally, the idea of charging anything to your loving care would be the worst idea in all seven sphincters of hell, Dustin had laughed, sleep-deprived and lit only by the light of Mark's computers as he helped him erase his footprints and the places his money went. But really, if there's anyone who could turn the inside of their own mind into serene waves of shiny, shiny peace, it'd be you.

River had disagreed.

You are not the brains of the operation, she told him once, in the middle of the night, when Serenity's lights were all down dim and he was coming back from the bathroom, trying to find the handle to the door in the dark.

He'd startled, swung around, looking left and right before finally remembering to look up. She'd been balanced, seated split-legged like a ballerina on top of a rafters above his head. She leaned out over him and told him, The brains were dissecting us. The brains would have left us there -- breaking us out is an irrational act and only a dummy would risk it.

You and my brother are not brains, you are dummies.

Mark, at that point, was not entirely used to people calling him stupid. He'd been called a number of things in his life, but stupid wasn't usually one of them.

He is your brain, she elaborated, pointing at Mark's door. He is your brain and you are his heart.

Mark had never felt like much of a "heart" person, but he supposes if he could be Eduardo's anything, that's the part he keeps closest to him, kept intact, all those years they were apart. If he could build an Eduardo from scratch, that'd be the part he'd start with. The heart.

As part of a volcanic activity awareness unit that they cover in school every year, the children elect to put on a play, so Mark spends every evening for the better part of a week at the theater, helping them record songs about Vishnu's seismic history and what it means if you get a lot of earthquakes in one week, modifying the sound-bites he made for them so they could better learn to harmonize.

The theater branches off the back of the town hall, and is more often used for debates at the monthly neighborhood association's meetings, but occasionally, they'll get a troupe of performers come through the mountains. Enormous paper mache masks hang from the vaulted ceiling in the lobby, casting eerie shadows after dark, and like every public building in town, almost all its windows are made of stained glass, conscientiously donated by the local artisans hoping to publicize their wares. In direct sunlight, it casts the stage and rows of seats in mottled wine colors.

It gives Mark an idea, and he spends a mad couple creative days building the automated lighting system he first thought of during the Diwali festival, so that the kids can be lit at dramatic points in spooky red light.

They're beside themselves with joy, and ask to go over their scenes again and again so they can make increasingly frightening faces.

"It's one way to get them to memorize their lines, I suppose," the schoolteacher says ruefully, the third time a song about cone, composite, and shield volcanoes dissolves into Basil and five of his friends piled in the center of the stage, roaring nonsensically.

He honestly doesn't expect Eduardo to stay with him, but he does, sitting in the back rows and letting the kids gather around him to practice their puns on him: he laughs at every one, bright and infectious, even though he has to see the punchline coming each time.

"Why don't you go out?" Mark wants to know.

It's late in the evening, far later than he meant it to be, and he joins him in the back row, voraciously hungry.

Eduardo wordlessly passes over a container, which was supposed to have been his lunch. The rice is long cold and Mark eats it by the handful. He didn't put enough salt in it to make it sticky, so every time he thinks he's got a bite-sized chunk, it falls apart in his hand and he's left nibbling bits of rice off the ends of his fingers while Eduardo watches with a faintly exasperated expression. He pushes a utensil at him, pointedly.

Mark takes it and uses that instead.

"Or, like, stay home?" he continues, because he doesn't mind those days: Eduardo hears him coming from forever away and is usually waiting by the door, a cup of warm tea ready in his hand, and Mark sits at the kitchen table and catches his breath from the climb and lets Eduardo tell him about the thoughts snails have all day.

Eduardo shrugs, settling low and throwing his legs over the seat back in front of him.

"I like it here," he says, and when the schoolteacher pokes her head around the curtain and calls back to them, wanting to know if either of them know where Samson is, he answers, "He snuck off to buy cigarettes from Kito," and shifts his weight so he can rest his head in the crook of Mark's elbow.

"I'm going to drop rice on your face," Mark informs him dispassionately, and Eduardo convulses with laughter.

"Kito doesn't wash his hands before he makes people's food," is his reply. "He thinks because people don't see him wipe his nose, nobody will know."

"... can you not tell me these things while I'm eating?"

"You don't care." Eduardo's laughing at him. "You do it all the time."

"Yes, but mostly I'm just eating my own food. Kito serves food to other people. There's a difference!"

The next day, Eduardo starts acting weird just a little after noon, drawing into himself and flinching whenever the kids yell too loudly. He finds Mark behind the wings and all but burrows himself against his back, hunching down to make himself smaller, like Mark is a shield.

"Ow, Wardo," Mark complains, because with Eduardo pressed up against him like that, he can't stretch up to tie these wires down where he needs them to go. Then he pays attention. "What's wrong?"

"She hurts," Eduardo mumbles in response. "Her head's all full of ache, and it pulls, and it hurts and I can't make it stop."

"Who --" starts Mark, but Eduardo's finger comes around his body to point helpfully. The curtains have all been pulled back, so he has a clear view of the front row, where One-Handed Luke's widow sits with the schoolteacher, the both of them with their heads bent together. The widow is the closest the town has got to an actual certified lawyer, so she's the one everybody calls up when they need to do safety inspections. She's got a tablet balanced across one knee, and her suit jacket gapes, a little too loose on her.

From back here, her face seems grey and pinched, sure, but she's always kind of looked like that to Mark.

"Well," he tries after a beat, not knowing what to say. "Isn't she kind of old? Old people get aches and pains. If you go outside, maybe you won't feel --"

Eduardo suddenly straightens up. His mouth is pursed into a thin line, but his eyes are very bright.

Before Mark can stop him, he steps out to the center of the stage and announces, "You're having a heart attack."

The widow and the schoolteacher look up, startled.

"... me?" the widow points at herself, after realizing that Eduardo can't be talking to anybody else. He nods, and she considers it, flattening her hand out across her sternum and rubbing thoughtfully.

She's young, Mark's surprised to see. Younger than he thought. He'd never really looked too closely at One-Handed Luke's widow before; she lives removed from town the same way he does, up into the foothills in the other direction, so they don't often see each other. He'd been fooled by the lines around her eyes, the silvery color to her hair, but she can't be much older than Mark's mother, who'd been a prairie bride and got her grey hairs early.

By all rights, she looks too young to be having a heart attack.

"My chest feels fine," she insists, before she moves to grip her left arm, frowning. "And so does my arm."

"But your back hurts," Eduardo insists, and twists his arm up behind him to touch the spot in between his shoulder blades. "Right there. It hurts awful bad."

Her eyebrows leap up. "How do you --"

"That's the sign in women. Not the arm, the back. You need to go to the hospital." She keeps frowning, and Eduardo's voice cracks a little bit. "Please, Gretchen."

The schoolteacher reaches across to touch the widow's arm. "Maybe you should," she says quietly. "Didn't you say you've been extremely fatigued lately?"

"Yes, but I just thought --" she breaks off, nervously flattening stray wisps of hair back against her skull. Then, "okay. Okay, I'll go. But I'll --"

"I called an ambulance," Mark breaks in, and holds up the spare tablet in evidence.

The cortex standby screen casts a pale pool of blue across the stage.

"I didn't know you could do that," says the widow in surprise, and Mark doesn't bother to tell her that the only reason he knew he could do it was because he created the system that made it possible. It never stops being weird, really, seeing his own programming implemented as far out as the backwaters of Jiangyin.

They don't have roads out here, but they have his cortex.

When she stands, her face spasms so badly that Eduardo's eyes go huge and he says, "hurry."

The ambulance soars down from the sky not long later, bundling her up and whisking her off, and after that, it's almost impossible for anyone to concentrate on work. Eduardo keeps twitching around, distractedly turning his head whenever anybody goes by, like he's listening for signs of illness in them, too, and it's making Mark uneasy. One of the baker's younger sons approaches him shyly as he's preparing to leave, asking him if he could upgrade his sound-bite, and it's such a simple request that Mark takes it from him.

He grabs Eduardo and they go up onto the theater's roof.

"Here," he says, settling Eduardo down on the vista that overlooks the street, the mosaic wall, and the long, winding path leading out into the foothills. "You can see anybody approaching from here."

He sits down next to him, putting his back up against the shed door that houses the spare panes of stained glass windows, the more amateurish ones that they keep to put up when the regular ones are taken down for cleaning. He removes the paneling on the sound-bite and gets to work.

Eventually, Eduardo stops fidgeting and sprawls out on his side, pillowing his head on Mark's thigh.

They remain like that for so long, the shadows slowly lengthening around them, that when Eduardo speaks, it's a shock.

"I'm not much of a person," he mumbles, his cheek warm against Mark's thigh, and Mark blinks down at him, feeling like he's coming up from underwater, making the mental switch from working to conversation. "I think I'm starting to realize that now. I take in too many bits of other people, other things. They didn't leave a lot of me behind."

Carefully, Mark puts the sound-bite aside. "You don't have to be a person," he says diplomatically. "If you don't want to be. I mean, Ashleigh already thinks you're a vegetable, so it wouldn't be much of a stretch -- ow." Eduardo pinches the soft flesh at the back of his knee.

"You'd still be here?"

"Of course I will." He frowns and touches the top of Eduardo's ear with a fingertip. He imagines it'd be warm, but he can't feel it. "You okay?"

He thinks about things that would make Eduardo not feel okay, and straightens up a little bit to get a better look at the street, trying to find someone who looks like they might have come from the hospital. "Is Gretchen okay? Can you tell?"

Eduardo rolls onto his back, shifting around so that he can keep his head on Mark's thigh, legs propped up crookedly and hands drumming across the flat of his sternum. He squints up against the light, eyes darting back-and-forth across Mark's features, and Mark doesn't know where to put his hands.

"It's hard for you," Eduardo says finally, small and sad. "You gave up everything you had."

So everyone keeps telling him.

Like ... like it was supposed to be a sacrifice for him or something. There's no sacrifice about it. Asking him if he minds being here, with Eduardo, is like asking him if he minds having all his limbs intact, or having the earth beneath his feet. It's just a really stupid question.

He rolls his eyes, combing his fingers through Eduardo's hair. "I gave up nothing," he says, and means it.

 

-

 

He remembers, easily, the way Erica had touched his shoulder and said, gentle, "Are you nervous?"

And he'd answered, "No," because he wasn't. He was angry, yes, at himself and at the Academy and at whatever idiot thought a Kirkland-level security posed any challenge to him whatsoever, and he was guilty, because if only he'd gotten Eduardo's note sooner, if only he hadn't been so stupid to think his own grudge was more important than his gorram best friend --

But nervous?

No. There are things worth being nervous for, and this wasn't one of them.

When he was seventeen, a representative from the Bureau of Interplanetary Communications came to the Jesuit's school to offer him an investment. The investment turned into a job, and the job involved him packing up and moving to the Core. For two years, he was in charge of his own team, working out of a blue-glass office in the same glittering spire where the Parliament sat. For two years, he created powerful pieces of technology and got rich.

For two years, the only thing that separated his office from the Academy, where they promised Eduardo an education and instead cut open his brain to rearrange the pieces, was a single ocean.

A four-hour in-atmo flight. At most.

He never told Erica. For two years, they'd all been on the same world.

He remembers how different the Academy was on the inside than it appeared to be on the outside. The outside was picturesque, gorgeous; the very best that government funding and the Core had to offer. When you walked in through the front, you got an amazing view of the entire grounds; the sunstruck pavilion, the rows of classrooms with child-drawn paintings hung in the windows. The neat, manicured gardens of heather and rosemary, complete even with idyllic scenes of young children in white uniforms eating their lunch on the grass.

When Mark went, it was autumn on that side of the planet, and everything was still beautiful, but browning around the edges.

In the lobby of the pavilion, which didn't really qualify as "inside" yet since it was deliberately built to impress, as much a facade as the actual outside, he stood under a wall of trophies and caught the faint strains of Some Hands Will Rob You playing on popular radio, piped in through the ceiling, and couldn't help but find it ironic.

"May I help you?" the receptionist called from his desk, his eyes tripping Mark up and down from slippered feet to his sports-themed pajama bottoms to his bathrobe, his lip curled.

Like most kids, Mark had been taught that Mandarin was best used for the super-civilized talk and for the cussing, and English was best saved for telling other people what to do. He smirked, pushed his ident card across the desk, and spoke in English. "I'm here to see Eduardo Saverin."

The receptionist picked up the ident card like it was a used tissue and looked dubious.

Mark knew the exact moment the credentials went through, because the polite disbelief on the man's face turned instantly to horror, then to fear.

"Ah -- um," he fumbled.

"I'll wait here," Mark said pleasantly, showing teeth. "While you get him for me. Do hurry, though, I don't think I need to tell you that I'm on a tight schedule."

It was the longest five minutes of Mark's life, waiting for that receptionist to get his act together and hoping against hope that Zoe would be at the rendevous point and Erica's information was accurate and her people came through. The man was plainly hapless in the face of demands from someone with a security clearance as high as Mark's, which was ridiculous, because he knew for a fact that the highest members of Parliament itself had come to observe the "model students", and it was only their loose talk among their own cortex connections that confirmed everything Mark had feared ever since that conversation with the shepherd.

Then Peter Thiel came.

Thiel was intimidatingly tall, with a face as thin as a weasel's and shocking, ghost-colored eyes. His clothes were the finest the slave trade could make for him, and two girls in headsets and grey uniforms tailed behind him, both talking fast and urgent.

He shooed them away, but not before Mark caught snatches of "-- the entire perimeter is down, we've got no air support," and "don't know how it happened, sir, no one's crashed the Kirkland before --" and smirked to himself.

"Mr. Zuckerberg. We weren't expecting this honor," Thiel came forward to shake his hand, and looked taken aback. "Did you ... uh, did you not have time to get dressed this morning?"

Oh, how Mark did love the sight of his opponents unbalanced. "As a matter of fact, I didn't," he responded. "Surely it's unimportant."

"Of course," Thiel said smoothly, and gestured Mark on ahead of him. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear kids yelling and laughing, the whistle of a playground referee. "What can we do for you, sir?"

"Eduardo Saverin," Mark prompted. "I understand he is a ... student here. I need to speak to him."

"We keep our students very closely cloistered, Mr. Zuckerberg." Thiel radiated disapproval, which Mark would pay more attention to, if not for the nervous jump of his eyes. He'd caught the deliberate emphasis. "No outside contact, no distractions, and certainly no visitors. We allow them nothing that would disrupt their studies. No exceptions. Surely you understand: these children are very important to the future of our civilization."

The hallways of the school were of the same sophisticated make that the rest of the school was, all stylish decor and modern functionality, and full of people in grey scurrying back and forth. He wouldn't call it panic, but it definitely wasn't normal either. Every time someone tried to approach Thiel, they were waved off with a sharp gesture kept close to Thiel's body.

"Naturally," Mark said. "And I'm sure the Parliament will accept that excuse when I pass it along to them."

It was almost comical, the conflicting expressions that flashed across Thiel's face. He stopped walking.

"Ah," he said, and Mark waited patiently as he parsed his words out. "Then, your nomination --" he let himself trail off, eyebrows lifted.

Mark smiled. It wasn't a nice smile: he only had a few of those, and those he kept for his family, for Erica and Eduardo and Dustin and even one for Sean. "The work you do here is incredibly important to us," he said instead, because flattery never hurt and people like Thiel (and Mark, too, he knew how this worked,) could feed themselves on their own sense of pride. "And we're very keen to keep up with its progress."

He watched as Thiel considered his words very carefully.

By the ordinance set down in the treatise signed after the Wars of Unification, members of Parliament were appointed every three years by a cabinet made of twenty-four citizens randomly selected from the population by lottery. The identities of the cabinet members were, of course, the most closely-guarded secret in the galaxy, which didn't actually stop bribes from going in every direction come election time.

As the head of a very secret government-run facility, it was in Peter Thiel's best interest to treat a potential future member of Parliament as if he was Parliament itself, just in case.

It took a moment for him to come to this conclusion, too.

"I will, of course," Mark said. "Conduct this visit with the upmost discretion."

"Of course," Thiel echoed resignedly. And then, "Who's Eduardo Saverin?"

It was easy to determine the moment that the Academy turned into the facility that didn't officially exist; deep underground, the neat rows of framed class portraits gave way to sterile, white-lit halls. Teachers turned into doctors with blue gloves snapped high up on their elbows, and they gave Mark's clothes curious looks, but carefully didn't ask questions in that way that people who work at secret government facilities do.

Needing to go deal with the security breach, Thiel left him with a man named Maurice. Mark's time, by this point, was limited, and he didn't talk to Maurice much, despite the man's jovial attempts at conversation.

Anger made him feel lit up, each nerve a burning fuse. Eduardo was in here somewhere, Eduardo who had no company except the inside of his own head and people who wore gloves to touch him. Maurice knew that, had to know that, and here he was, trying to crack a joke about Mark's bathrobe.

A doctor slipped out of a doorway as Mark went past, and around her shoulder, he caught a glimpse of a large room with a lot of equipment, and in the center, floodlit by large lights, a gurney had been leveled almost vertically. The kid strapped to it was splayed, manacled so his body was stretched to its limits. Feathers grew from his forearms, the pinions flesh-colored.

The inside of Mark's head turned to static.

Why hadn't he come sooner?

Why?

Why?

What could have possibly been more important that --

"Mr. Zuckerberg," Maurice's deep, honey-colored voice cut through his thoughts. He was holding open a door for him, palm pressed to an interface next to the locking mechanism. "After you, sir."

When Maurice tried to follow him in, Mark turned in the doorway and gave him a look. The man had a solid foot of height on him, but Mark had coursing hatred and the intensity of a well-practiced unnerving stare on his side, and after a beat, Maurice ducked his head, mumbled something deferential, and set off in the opposite direction.

Mark shut the door behind him. The lights came on automatically, and --

Eduardo was a small, hunched figure sitting atop a table in the center of the room.

He was dressed in a gunmetal grey uniform with pieces that were very plainly meant to be removed for -- Mark's stomach churned -- easy access. When he took a wavering step towards him, Eduardo didn't look up, head bowed and breathing shallow.

From where he stood, Mark could see the thin multitude of scars criss-crossing across his scalp: his hair hadn't grown back far enough yet to completely cover them. The only color in the room was the blood standing bright on Eduardo's wrist: he'd plainly been yanked unceremoniously from an IV somewhere, deposited in this room with a cocktail of drugs in his system, all because Mark demanded him to be there.

It's that thought that spurred Mark into action: he twisted, flipping open the paneling on the interface on this side of the door. He checked the security status -- still down, with huge blank spots showing on the schematics -- and the presence of personnel in the corridors between here and the delivery entrance by the school kitchens.

He really hoped Eduardo was up for walking, because at this juncture, speed was their best ally.

Just as Mark allowed himself to think for the first time that this might actually go off without a hitch, the door whooshed open and Bill Gates stepped into the room, close enough for Mark to touch.

He had reading glasses on and a clipboard in his hand, showing a cross-reference spread of the human anatomy, which he studied as dispassionately as if looking at a meal. Mark hadn't seen him since he'd come to the Jesuit school, promoting the Academy. He'd been so impossibly starstruck, back then.

They both froze.

Then Bill said, "Hey, weren't you that kid who --"

And Mark hit him in the face.

It wasn't particularly elegant, but Bill wasn't expecting it, and he went down hard. He hit his head and stayed there, limbs hooked at weird angles.

Mark stared down at him for the space of a single heartbeat (he'd hit a man! He'd hit a man and the man had actually been hurt,) before he whipped around, grabbing Eduardo's face and tilting it up. It went too easily, his neck elastic with no resistance. His skin was chilly to the touch, like somebody had kept him under a drafty vent without a care, but the touch of it was familiar in a way that made Mark want to do something drastic, like touch him more.

"Wardo," he said, desperate, and when Eduardo's eyelids fluttered, again, "Wardo."

Eduardo opened his eyes.

He looked at Mark, and Mark looked back, and for one awful moment, there was nothing in that expression, no recognition at all.

And then.

"Mark," Eduardo said, in a voice that creaked out of him. "We were supposed to meet at nine."

Relief struck Mark so powerfully that he didn't even think about it, rocking forward to plant a hard kiss right between Eduardo's eyes, feeling like a young star gone abruptly supernova, leaving the ravages of stardust scattered and painful as buckshot inside his chest.

"I know," he said, as Eduardo's hand crept up underneath his bathrobe, his fingertips gingerly pressing into Mark's ribs, like he could feel the warm coal-glow of his heart, like he never want to take his hand away.

"Mark."

"I know. Wardo. I'm sorry I'm late."

 

-

 

One-Handed Luke's widow looks wane, like someone had stretched her out into thin white pieces and then tried to put her back together again in a shape that didn't fit properly, but she smiles readily enough when Mark makes the long trek out to her house to fix her up with an intercom system.

Her sons came back with her from the city, grown men apparently feeling her mortality keenly enough to want to hover. Mark can hear them tromping around on the upper levels with big, gusty yells, rediscovering childhood treasures, and Gretchen's face is as soft and worn as the pages of a book, like this is a thing that has been sorely missed. The intercom system is for her to be able to call them from whatever room she's in, in case she starts feeling poorly again.

It takes him two days to rewire the house, and when he finishes, he finds Gretchen at the kitchen table, towels spread out in front of her and pale fruit sliced into pieces on top of them.

"That should do it," he tells her. "Send me a wave if you have any problems."

"Xiexie, Tinkerman," she replies. "Do you want any apples?" she gestures. Four bushels sit on top of her counter.

"I --" Mark gets out, shocked. He stops and blinks.

Apples don't grow in this part of Jiangyin. The climate's too mild for them, and he hasn't had them since ... since he lived in the Core, at least, and he doesn't even remember the last time he had apples, because that was back when he took them for granted.

She looks at the expression on his face and laughs, putting her knife aside and getting to her feet.

"What kind do you want?"

"Uh," says Mark intelligently. "Red?"

She looks at him, droll, and starts divvying up fruit from each bushel. They're a little mushy, but Mark eats one down to the core in a matter of minutes, blissfully unaware of anything except the flavor. Gretchen says she's thinking she might sell the rest to the baker, so he can try his hand at apple pies, and would he like one?

"As payment," she clarifies. "Since I don't have much in the way of coin."

He shakes his head. "Don't need coin," he says. "Pie is good."

Her eyes crinkle in the corners. "Does your Eduardo like pie?"

"I would hope so," Mark says distractedly, shifting his satchel around on his shoulder so that the apples won't bang and bruise against his hip as he walks. "He's my best friend."

"Not anymore," she says, and she says it so pleasantly that it doesn't register until he's already down the hill, and he stops dead in his tracks to turn around, frowning back up at the house. The house doesn't offer any explanation, its windows trimmed in light green like apple skin. The wind stirs the chimes hanging on the shrine in the backyard.

He's half-way across town, hitting the evening rush, when Mackey waylays him. It's the second disconcerting event of the day, because, festivals and other excuses to see Stanford's boy the plumber aside, Mackey rarely ever leaves the outpost where he lives, intercepting communications and radioing them out all across the mountains. Sometimes, when Ashleigh's doing accounting work in town, he'll take her goats out for her, but this is unusual.

"Tinkerman," he says, and pushes his glasses up higher on his nose. "Can I have a word? Alone?" he adds, when Mark just looks at him expectantly.

Mark sighs. Go and play nice, Captain Reynolds had told him. Wear the pretty floral bonnet, drink the fruity communal drink, and pretend you don't despise everyone there.

"Can it wait?" he asks. "I've been --"

"Please, Mr. Zuckerberg."

In hindsight, Mark probably reacted rather badly.

Mackey makes this high, surprised keen of a noise when Mark gets his hands fisted in the front of his shirt, hauling him backwards and shoving him down onto the mosaic wall with strength he didn't know he possessed, so hard Mackey almost topples right off, backwards into the dirt. He feels like his heart has taken over every other organ inside his body, fast fearful thumps reverberating under his skin.

"Where did you hear that name?" he gets out, and cuts right over Mackey's incoherent noises. "Where did you hear that name?"

He's not used to people finding him threatening, so it's a little surreal, the fright plainly visible on Mackey's face.

"I won't tell, I won't tell," he's saying rapidly. "I won't, sir, it's just ... I thought that you should know. That." He lowers his voice. "They're looking for you. A broadcast went out, is all, said you might have been kidnapped. I recognized your face, it's --"

"How many stations received it?" Mark demands. "Do you know?"

"'Versewide? A million, maybe more."

"A million members?" Before Mark came along, you'd have to disassemble a message like that into separate parts in order to get it out to a million receiving stations. He breathes out. "Aiya."

Mackey watches him, wide-eyed and careful, like Mark is an adder in the grass. He shifts back and forth on the wall. "Can you kill it?" he sounds curious, tentative. "A message like that? I won't tell!" he repeats, when Mark thins his eyes at him. "I swear on my mother's life, Tinkerman, it's nobody's business but yours. Besides," his mouth skews. "If I tell and they come and take you back to the Core, Adam will never talk to me again. He likes you too much."

Strangely, this is what makes Mark relax. That he understands at least.

"I might," he says slowly in answer to the question, and rearranges his satchel across his shoulder. "Walk with me."

 

-

 

On the day that Mark fixes up a shower, he stands in the middle of the bathroom with his hands on his hips, feeling like the king of the world.

Sure, once upon a time, he revolutionized versewide communication and it's entirely possible that he could have gotten elected to Parliament for it, but that's small beans compared to the fact that they have a water tank that makes hot water. And now they have a shower. A shower that showers hot water. No more bathing with cold rainwater in a basin. (They have an actual tub, but that's been entirely claimed by a happy family of spotted starfish, and Mark likes them, but he's never been inclined to bathe with them.)

No, seriously, hot water is definitely better than billions in Alliance credit.

He stands back, and takes a moment to look at himself, truly look at himself. They cut his hair before he left Sihnon, but it's mostly grown back, curls that hang in shades of brown and blonde. His legs, which have always been skinny, are still skinny, but corded with muscle from all the hiking up and down mountains. The tips of his fingers are bone-white, shiny, ridged with burn scars. Eduardo's fingers look exactly the same.

Outside, a bell clangs. Loud, wild peals, and Mark turns on his heel, confusion and alarm hard in his head.

"Wardo --?" he starts, and then stops, because he doesn't know if Eduardo's home. He hasn't seen him since breakfast.

He places it a moment later, already on the steps. That Gorram Thing beeps confusedly, uncertain, but Mark blows past it.

There's a bell attached to the front gate, an old brass thing with a rusty anchor and green-and-white lichen caked on the lip, that Mark always assumed was just there for ceremonial purposes. He certainly never knew anyone who used it, and they didn't need it to announce visitors, between the combined powers of That Gorram Thing and Eduardo.

He hesitates for a moment, stepping out the side door, because he's been inside all day and is barely dressed, but then he sees a small figure by the hydrangeas and forgets about it.

It's Mandy Bao, and her eyes are enormous, huge and wide and frightened. Her braids have unraveled at the ends, giving her an unkempt, hectic look, and as soon as she spots Mark coming across the yard, she starts rocking back and forth urgently.

"Mandy?" he goes, jogging the last bit of distance and crouching down to get to her level, and she averts her eyes from his bare legs, scandalized. "Mandy, are you okay?"

Her mouth wobbles.

And then, horribly, what comes out of her is, "Tinkerman, sir, it's Eduardo. Eduardo's -- he's been --"

 

 

2517
year of the rooster
and the year-long astrological commemoration of Our Lady of Guanyin
year of the Sihnon uprising

 

It gets dark early this time of year, but it stays hot throughout the day, long into the night.

It's a horrible, cloying heat that can't be shaken, the kind that lingers heavily in the soles of shoes and on the napes of necks.

The whole city smells like a tar pit, and every day, the road closures change. Only a month ago, they burned the oxygen factories to the ground, and for three solid days afterwards, the sky burned all the colors of the rainbow, blues and greens, rich magentas and a shade like cardamom. The air is richer now than it's ever been with all that oxygen released, and the act of breathing feels religious, feels electric. There are no trees on Sihnon, no parks, no green open space, just continents clustered with skyscrapers and people; a whole planet of concrete and glass, the canvas of architects.

So the Alliance built the factories to make air for the people since there were no trees to do it, and thought that would be all it would take to control the population. After all, a people can't cause problems if a people can't breathe.

(Not long from now, when she's standing on the surface of a planet called Miranda, Inara will remember this thought.)

"Ma'am?" comes a voice, and Inara pulls back her hood.

It's a lawman, Alliance-grade, and she can't see his eyes through the shiny veneer of his helmet's visor.

"You shouldn't be out at this time of night," he tells her gently. "Looters made it as far as Jiedao Shi just this week. I don't expect you'll see any trouble in this neighborhood, but it's best to be careful in these times."

"I understand," Inara answers him, careful to flatten her accent out into something bland, Cantonese, indistinguishable from anybody you might hear on the skytrains or in the supermarkets. She's looking for it, so she sees the lawman relax fractionally. "I'll be done in a minute, thank you for your concern."

He moves on, and Inara pulls her hood up again. It's too hot for it, her hair frizzing and curling with humidity, and her gloves stick to her hands with sweat, but it's the most anonymous look she can manage, and the tomato plants need trimming. She needs to have two dozen cuttings ready to be replanted tomorrow -- Chris and Xiao already finished the upside-down hanging baskets they're going to plant them in, but that means nothing if the cuttings won't take. Rooftop gardens and hanging baskets are going to be Sihnon's future, but only if they get enough handed out now.

There's a green tomato on the vine, shot through with ripening sunshine colors, and Inara touches it with the fingertip of her glove, smiling fondly.

Nearby, one of her neighbors is playing the accordion; she catches strains of a child's nursery rhyme drifting down from an open window somewhere, and a moment later, a child's laughter joins it. Even further off, she can hear whistling and stamping, the river-rush sound of applause: a demonstration.

At her hip, her communicator beeps with an incoming hail. She peels her gloves off and checks the ID.

Then she lifts her eyes skyward.

"Chingwa tsao duh liou mang," she curses.

 

-

 

Sihnon has approximately 25 orbiting satellites, ranging from enormous, colonized moons to asteroids named after obscure historical figures from Earth That Was; it's a large planet with an extreme axis tilt that resisted terraforming to the point where only the most hardy, shrubby plants managed to survive, so the government used that to their advantage and gave Sihnon up for lost as an agricultural titan. Instead, it became an urban hub. There isn't an inch of Sihnonese landmass that isn't civilized.

Because of those numerous planetesimals, each of which has its own erratic elliptical, and because of Sihnon's intense gravitational pull, approaching and breaking atmo in order to land planetside is a complicated process. You need both an Alliance permit and their navigation codes before you can approach.

This makes Sihnon a rather tricky destination for ships like Serenity.

"Well, now," says Mal cheerily, and Inara resists the childish urge to hang up on him in the middle of what she's sure he thinks will be an incredibly quippy comment. "I guess that means I better go shine my shoes and find a bowtie if I'm going to play nice and come for a visit."

Inara shifts, and her kneecaps creak with protest. "You might have trouble obtaining a visitor's permit," she warns him, widening her eyes pointedly. She knows he hears, don't be an idiot, Mal, loud and clear, and she physically sees the moment he chooses to disregard it. She hates him. "Things have been a bit ... busy here."

"Oh, that's a shame. God knows I wouldn't want to step on the Alliance's toes while they're busy oppressin' the little people."

"Mal --" she starts, temper in her tone.

But Mal just grins. "Why, Inara, is that worry I hear?" It's anger, I'm sorry your ego keeps confusing the two, she wants to say, but he's already talking. "I got the best pilot in the 'verse sitting right here, he could fly this ship through the eye of a needle."

"Sir," Inara hears Zoe's dryly amused voice from somewhere off-screen. "Stop flirting with my husband, I'm standing right here."

"Hey!" Wash's voice protests, also off-screen, and Mal's expression melts into something both put-upon and indulgent. "Don't ask folk to curb their natural instincts. Are you saying I'm not completely irresistible?"

"Babe, you haven't had a proper bath going on three weeks now. You are so resistible that the rest of us are going to go stand on the other side of the ship now."

"Mal! My wife is telling me I'm smelly, make her stop!"

All Mal says is, "See you soon, Inara, thanks for doing this," with a rueful note in his voice, and then the screen goes blank.

Outside, the susurrus of the demonstrating crowd has broken into yelling, panicked and angry, and so Inara sweeps her robes to the side so she can rise, pulling the curtains down in front of the cortex screen and crossing over to the window. The hanging baskets dangle from the sill, tomato vines curled securely around the railing -- there's nothing below on the street except for a woman with an orange bun, dressed in a municipal works uniform, heading home. She can't hear the accordion-player anymore, just the worrisome sound of a crowd.

"Trouble?" Xiao materializes in the doorway, blade in hand and the top of his head slathered in shaving cream.

"I don't know yet," she responds slowly. "Could be. If you had to, could you find somewhere else to stay tonight? Take Chris with you if you see him?"

Xiao lifts eyebrows pointedly at the open window, and looks politely dubious. Something in the distance shatters, sounding like the glass window of a storefront, and Inara slides the window shut and pulls the drapes. Inside, the room is lit only by the light of the candles sitting atop the shrine and what comes from underneath the door to Xiao's room.

"Is your ... is what's coming for us worse than what's out there?" he wants to know.

"Trust me," Inara says dryly. "I consider Malcolm Reynolds to be ten times more dangerous than a rioting crowd." Another crash, this time closer. "And ten times more stupid."

When Serenity breaks atmo and touches down planetside (and oh, Mal sure is going to be smug about that, like it was anybody's flying but Wash's that accomplished it,) she does so down at the convention center by the lake.

The front of the convention center was designed to be visible from every street ranging a mile in every direction, a glittering glass dome that presides over the neighboring buildings like some lazy, half-lidded eye. It was modest by Core standards; closer to the coast, the centers got bigger and grander, with ballrooms made of crystal and precious stones embedded in the balcony seats.

But this one is big enough to have its own dock, tucked behind the dome. It was meant to be used for late-night arrivals by finnicky musicians or as a secure entrance for starlets hounded by paparazzi or political pundits hoping to make a flashy first impression. There haven't been any events at this center since the factories exploded, but hopefully anybody watching won't think it's strange to see a ship land here this late.

Inara waits, shielding her eyes against the debris kicked up by Serenity's descent. The air is cooler down here by the lake, and she appreciates the breeze that snakes its way underneath her hood, cool against her scalp.

It's a little uncanny and a lot nostalgic, seeing her ship from this angle, like it hadn't truly occurred to her that she left until she sees it returning.

Then the bay doors open and Kaylee's sprinting down the ramp, and Inara has her arms full of girl and her mouth full of hair and her nose full of the scent of strawberries and the stale smell of unwashed bodies, and it's all so wonderful she can barely speak.

Wash spins them both around and kisses her cheek and waves a hand around modestly when Inara compliments the mastery of his arrival.

"Have you ever read the poems of Marilyn Delpy?" Inara asks him, and he shakes his head.

Kaylee disentangles herself from her arms in order to go over to the landing pad, waking up the console so she can register their arrival; no doubt using entirely fake names, manifests, and landing permissions. "Wash, come look at this!" she calls over her shoulder. "Inara, you was right about Sihnon; it looks like a field of crystal and light. Wow. Wash, ain't it pretty?"

"You should, sometime," Inara says to Wash. "There's a poem of hers -- I think it's Leaf on the Wind, but don't quote me on that -- that I think you'd really like."

She walks up the ramp, where Mal and Zoe are waiting for her.

"Howdy, 'Nara," drawls Jayne from his perch up high. "Didn't expect to see you again."

"Jayne," she acknowledges.

At the sight of her, Mal fidgets with his holster and tugs at the lapels of his familiar coat, which -- are those bullet holes? -- looks more worn than she last saw it, and this always confuses Inara's Companion training, because Mal's behavior screams both I want you to like me and don't touch me in equal measure, and Inara isn't used to conflicting signals like that. Most people are a lot more straightforward with her.

"How goes the revolution?" he asks her, before she can work out the politics of whether or not to embrace him. He jerks his chin in the direction of the city, visible through the open bay.

That'd be a no, then, and beside him, Inara sees Zoe roll her eyes expressively, her mouth quirked up in the corner. When she catches her looking, she smiles wider, more genuine, and Inara flushes with delight.

"It's not a revolution," she replies immediately. "Officially, it's nothing, and nothing is happening. Unofficially, it's unrest."

Mal and Zoe exchange a look.

"Revolution," they agree simultaneously.

"Civil uprising," Inara allows. Sihnon had been a sensitive area for months before Inara asked the Companion Guild to let her be stationed there, and after the riots started and they withdrew all Companion presence in the troubled areas, Inara begged to be allowed to stay behind and keep her juniors with her; for diplomacy, you understand.

"Didn't your side blow up the oxygen factories?" Zoe asks. "Isn't that ... bad?"

"Eventually, sure," Inara adjusts her skirts and looks towards the door of her shuttle. She wonders if she'll get a chance to see it; will it feel more like home than her apartment here? "But there are other factories, which I'm sure the Alliance are now guarding zealously in the name of protecting their own interests. It was more of a gesture than anything. The Alliance thinks they can keep people in line by controlling their access to basic necessities of survival, like air to breathe. We blow up the factories, we show them we're not here to be controlled."

"Inara." Mal reaches out, catching the loose fabric of her sleeve between his fingertips, rolling it. "Are you turning into a browncoat?"

She tugs herself loose. "It was on sale," she returns, sarcastic.

"Surely not everybody's happy with the riots and the ... blowing up of factories," Zoe cuts in.

"No," Inara shakes her head. "There are ... I'm not supposed to know about them -- the same way I'm not supposed to know about anything, I suppose -- but there are unregistered charter vessels carrying refugees to other planets. They sneak around the blockade. We call them trains."

Mal and Zoe exchange another look, longer this time.

A sense of foreboding creeps up Inara's spine. "What?" she demands.

"Nothing," Mal says, far too innocently. "There's just some folk we want you to meet."

"You picked up new passengers?"

He hedges. "In a manner of speakin'."

He tilts his head back, and Inara follows his gaze. High up on the causeway, Jayne's been joined by River and the doctor, and between them are two young faces; one sweet, doe-eyed, watching her with an eager, owlish curiosity, and the other, the younger one, with eyes as thin as helicopter seeds and an expression that Inara knows, she knows she knows, but --

"Boys, this is Inara Serra," she hears Mal saying. "The only bit of respectability we've ever had on this boat. Inara, the well-sculpted one on the right is Eduardo Saverin, and the other one who's got a problem with his face is Mark --"

She finds her voice, saying high and incredulous, "Mal, I know who he is!" She tears her eyes away and swings on him. "What did you do?"

"Nothing!" Mal retorts, kneejerk, and she's going to hit him this time, she really is. "Well," he admits. "Okay, so there was a mite of something and we got shot at a lot and kind of accidentally took a job from the friendly agent of oppression that's standing up there looking all friendly and smiley -- seriously, do you ever smile?"

"Yes," says the one who isn't Mark Zuckerberg.

"No," says the one who is Mark Zuckerberg.

"-- but other than that, nope, nothing too eventful." Mal offers her his best smile.

Inara curses internally in five different languages. She desperately doesn't want to know the answer to the question she's about to ask. "Mal. Why is Mark Zuckerberg on your ship?"

"See, I have this intricate plan about how they're not going to be on my ship anymore."

Inara has a sudden insight as to where this is going.

"Oh, no."

"I can't keep four fugitives onboard, Inara. The Alliance is more openly pedophiliac in its interest in getting the girl back first, way I understand it, and she doesn't have an inkling how to defend herself -- for the most part," he allows, remembering Kaylee's story same as she does. "It's safer for her and the Doc to be on the move with us. But them two --"

"You want me to smuggle them out as refugees," Inara finishes for him, and when Mal dithers for a beat, trying to find a diplomatic way of answering that, she magnanimously grants him, "It'd work. It's not an impossible plan: you use me and my position to your advantage, they get a new start on a new world and nobody will look twice at where they're from, and you get to fly off with the payout. I'm impressed. It's almost like you thought this through."

Her voice turns icy there at the end, almost against her will.

Mal opens his mouth, looking indignant, but Inara says, "You are still so unspeakably stupid," and that one hits home: Mal's brows come down, and he turns and stomps off, muttering something along the lines of, I don't have to put up with this.

"Whew," comments the other one -- Saverin? Eduardo Saverin? -- from the sidelines. "That tasted a lot like sulfur."

"Combustion," River argues.

"Brimstone."

"Chemistry," River stresses, and they duck their heads together and giggle in tandem.

"Yeah," grunts Jayne, catching Inara's expression. "We've got two of them now. It's like kidnap one crazy person, get one half off."

Inara rolls her eyes, and when she looks at Zoe imploringly, Zoe just lifts her eyebrows like, Honey, it's your problem now.

She picks up her skirts and goes to find Mal.

Finding Mal turns into talking to Mal turns into fighting with Mal, like it always does, because the Academy? Mal, really, the one place you know for certain is full of unspeakably evil people programming unspeakably evil things into children, and you decide to walk right in?

One of these days he's going to take a job looking for easy money and he's going to get killed, and then what's going to happen to all the small faces here on this boat that depend on him?

What about the small faces that aren't on this boat?

"There's always going to be some little voice in the 'verse crying for help," he scowls at her, either deliberately misunderstanding her or putting it out of his mind. "I plan on fighting a fair fight for many, many years yet."

And she stomps her foot, because that's exactly the point. If Mal keeps leaping into messes like Mark Zuckerberg's (ta ma de, Mark Zuckerberg, she leaves them alone and this is what they get up to? And since when was Mark Zuckerberg a fugitive? Wait, no, stupid question,) then sooner rather than later, there wasn't going to be a Mal to leap into those messes anymore.

(Different versions of this thought compiled reasons thirteen through seventeen on the list of why Inara left.)

When she gets back down to the bay, the rest of the crew is already there, brightly lit by the docklight streaming in from the open cargo door. She pauses at the railing, the churning in her stomach easing with affection for one startled moment. There are so many beloved faces here, all gathered in one place. Wash has taken over for Kaylee at the console outside, tapping fast through the security mainframe and grinning, elated by the challenge. Simon's got Eduardo's shirt hiked up to his armpits so he can check under a thin wrapping of gauze, talking quickly, and River and Kaylee both stand in front of him, presenting him with a folded-up quilt. They unfold it together, and it startles a laugh out of Eduardo: Inara can't see it clearly from where she is, but she thinks the patchwork design resembles a disassembled gun, or a computer.

Close by, Jayne and Mark are both bent over the contents of a duffle; Jayne's rumbling voice going on about usefulness ("you can be as smart as a ... a smart person all you like, but if you don't got good rope and a knife, you ain't gonna survive, got it?") and Mark nodding, looking faintly nonplussed. Inara knows the feeling -- Jayne sure does pick and choose his decent moments.

She starts down the stairs, moving slow.

As she does, Zoe comes out through the lower level. When she crosses the bay and wraps Mark up in a brisk hug, nobody's more startled by it than she is. Mark pats at her back in probably the most awkward gesture Inara's ever seen, and when they part, they regard each other solemnly.

Inara stops looking, because it's not her moment.

"Are you ready?" she directs at Eduardo, milling her way around to him.

He offers her a sunny look, but almost immediately, his expression wrenches to the side, and he turns his head.

"You're picturing me naked," he informs Kaylee.

She turns an absolutely stunning shade of red.

He tilts his head, considering. "My chest doesn't look like that, I don't think, but thank you."

She flails her hands at him, babbling something too fast in Mandarin to catch, before she swings on Inara and says, loudly, "Inara! We hardly got to see you at all and now you're leaving! We missed you something awful, don't you got any stories for us about your glamorous life before you go?"

Inara laughs, wrapping Kaylee close under one arm. She does, in fact, have a story, and it's one she knows Kaylee will love, so she tells her about Tori, her junior partner, who'd relocated to Sihnon to work with her and Xiao on the hanging basket project, back before the riots got really bad and the Guild started putting pressure on them to pull out. Tori was ornamental and strikingly elegant, tall and seemingly made entirely of angular bones like someone had constructed her out of matchsticks. She only had to meet a person once to remember them forever, and Inara adored her.

Not long into their assignment, Tori met an electrician in the lobby of their building; an off-license immigrant worker from one of the moons, who worked out of a tiny little cruiser with a hand-made sign propped between its struts, advertising going rates and a relay number.

Within three weeks, they were married, and then Inara and Xiao got Chris as a replacement.

"The Guild is probably going to have to drop her sanction," she finishes ruefully. "Some Companions can manage their job and a marriage, but Tori never struck me as the type. She made her choice and ran with it." There could be constellations in Kaylee's eyes, they've gone so starry. "For her, it was love at first sight."

"Love at first sight?" Simon echoes. He and River have clambered up to sit atop the mule, their legs dangling down. His mouth is skewed into a strange shape, like he just tasted something sour.

"What?" Kaylee lifts her chin at him challengingly. "What's so funny about that?"

Simon meets Inara's eyes over Kaylee's head, and Inara widens them warningly. "Ah," Simon fumbles, but it's too late to take it back. "Nothing, I guess. I just ... don't believe in it, is all."

Kaylee's nostrils flare. "I don't think this is like believin' in the tooth fairy, Simon," she scoffs. "You doesn't get to decide whether it exists or not. Folks just love, that's all." Simon opens his mouth, but before he can put his foot in it to make it worse (Inara's sure glad to see nothing's changed since she left, at least in some regards,) Kaylee turns on her heel and stamps back up the stairs, muttering loudly about arrogant pigs who gotta ruin everything.

Everyone watches her go, and then Jayne raises his hand.

"Can I make a suggestion?" he says, and before anybody can say no, he points at Mark. "Can we airlock him? Fer old time's sake?"

"Jayne," says Zoe evenly. "We're grounded."

"We are physically on the ground," her husband adds incredulously. "If you tossed him out the airlock, the only thing that would happen is he would go skidding across the dirt on his face --" and he stops.

"Well, when you put it like that," says Mal from the back, and Mark rolls his eyes, bending down to pick up his duffel, hefting it over his shoulder. He doesn't look back. Eduardo gives a little wave to the crew that remains, tucked down low next to his body like he isn't sure it's welcome, before he looks lingeringly at River one last time and follows Mark down the ramp.

Jayne still has airlocking on the mind. "He's just ... so scrawny," he says wistfully. "And wimpy. It just makes you want to --" he gestures. "Squash him. Or flush his head down a toilet, like, instinctive-like."

Inara sighs, and pats his bicep. She follows the other two out into the night air.

"Bye, Inara!" she hears Kaylee call longingly, an echo of a lonely sound. "It was good seeing you!"

 

-

 

Eduardo Saverin tells her they've spent the last several weeks hidden in space, so she shouldn't worry about having to take them the long way back to her apartment to avoid streets where there might still be rioters, or worse, lawmen with ident scanners. They'll enjoy the chance to stretch their legs.

Mark Zuckerberg doesn't offer his opinion.

Inara tries not to quietly freak out, because Eduardo's watching her sidelong, his eyes dancing, and she's sure her mind's an open book to him.

He starts out matching her stride, past long rows of brick buildings with all their windows shut up tight and the lights turned out: you can actually see the stars in some parts of the city, they've gone so dark. She points out a row of housing that used to belong entirely to one family. They've lived on this part of Sihnon for decades; a myriad collection of brothers and cousins and grandparents that sunned themselves on the balcony, and they all disappeared three days before the oxygen factories exploded. The whole block is still empty.

They haven't gone far before she notices Eduardo isn't keeping up anymore.

At first she thinks it's fatigue -- too much walking for somebody who's recovering from an injury, and Inara would slow down, but it's not safe out here -- until she gets a look at his face.

She stops. "Is he okay?" she asks, watching Eduardo twitch in minute, unpleasant jerks, pulling at his hair. It's grown in strange patches, she notices, which gives it a rumpled, rakish look, but she's willing to bet there are scars under there, distorting the way his hair grows.

He reaches out, and Mark's there instantly, supporting his weight.

"Hey," he mutters, low and terse. "Wardo, listen to me."

Eduardo opens his eyes. His pupils are enormous, swollen and unnatural. "Can you think of storms?" he asks.

"Of course," and presumably, that's exactly what Mark does, because Eduardo's eyes lid again and he sways towards him. Inara stands there and sees so much of River in him in this moment, in those moments when she first woke up, naked and torn open and screaming to be heard over the voices in her head. For a beat, she almost understands Malcolm Reynolds, because she wants to throw herself into the face of danger, too, if it means she can spare a child like the one in front of her.

Eduardo mumbles something about Sihnon being very crowded and very noisy.

"Do you know what he's capable of?" Inara asks.

"Yes," says Mark at the same time Eduardo says, "No."

"Okay," she says helplessly.

There's nobody left on the streets except for people like them, walking fast with their heads down and their backs tense enough to crack bones. Twice, she turns them down different streets to avoid walking directly past somebody, and once, when she sees a lawman coming in the other direction, she makes them hide behind a trash compactor.

"You shouldn't be out this time of night, miss." The voice coming from behind the visor sounds weary, its gender indeterminate. "It isn't safe."

"Oh, I know," Inara babbles rapidly, canting her voice up into a high, giggly midland accent, because when Inara needs to, she can pretend to be sixteen years old, spoiled and pampered. Whatever it takes to keep those eyes on her, and not on the young faces peeking out from behind week-old waste, lost and a long way from home and relying on her. "I'm so sorry, I just left my communicator here, you know how it is. Can't live without it."

When they rejoin her, Mark brushes the grit off his palms and says lowly, "I didn't realize things on Sihnon had escalated like this."

"Well," Inara acknowledges. "When you work for the government, they tend not to tell you those things."

"Captain Reynolds said that nothing's safer than chaos."

"The man does fire a working brain cell every now and then. It's a good cover for you two to escape under." They walk through an unlit neighborhood in silence, and when they're back under the street lamps, Inara offers, "I was born here, you know. And raised here. Sihnon is my home planet. It only felt right to come back here."

"I'm from Whitefall," Mark returns, and she realizes that she didn't actually know that.

She considers how to best frame her reply, hedging around trying to find something polite, before she remembers that he just spent a considerable amount of time with Serenity's crew, and gives up on the diplomatic.

"I didn't know there was much in the way of civilization on Whitefall," she says, sardonic, and Mark's mouth quirks. "Hairy apes clubbing each other for food, maybe."

"Well," Eduardo drags out.

Mark's mouth twitches, and Eduardo finishes the rest of the smile for him, nudging at him with his elbow as if to say, There, that was funny. Wasn't that funny?

Inara laughs, tipping her head back. She takes a deep breath, the air rich in her lungs, and says, more to herself than to them, "I think when we're done here, I'll volunteer at the Guild training house. It's nice on that world, I hear. We're almost there, by the way. It's just --"

She doesn't get to finish that sentence, because all expression just tips sideways off of Eduardo's face, replaced with something bug-eyed and disbelieving.

"What -- no way," he breathes out, and before Inara or Mark know what's happening, he takes off, sprinting down the rest of the block. He rounds the corner by grabbing onto the lightpost and using his momentum to swing himself around, face spasming with pain as the movement pulls at his back, and disappears.

Both Mark and Inara run after him, and when they turn the last corner onto her street --

It's Chris, his whole face cracked open with an expression Inara's never seen before, half-running the last few steps so that he and Eduardo collide in the middle, arms tangling in their haste. They crush each other close, exclaiming in wordless rushes and almost tripping over the ends of Chris's robes.

Then Chris pulls back, framing Eduardo's grinning face between his hands and babbling, ecstatic, "You're all right, oh my god, you're all right."

"Your hair!" Eduardo returns, like this is equally important, and he skates his palms over Chris's shiny bald head.

Then Mark's on top of them, and Chris can barely get enough range of motion to get his other arm around Mark in turn, slapping his back hard.

"What are you doing here?" Mark demands. "I thought you went into politics!"

Chris disentangles himself, pulling far enough away for them to get a good look at his initiate-level Companion robes, orange-and-yellow. "... I did."

Inara hangs back and watches all of this unfold, feeling a lot like she's been used. First by Malcolm Reynolds, which isn't actually all that strange, and now by Chris Hughes. It's not a pleasant feeling. "I take it," she interjects mildly. "That this isn't a coincidence."

Chris has the decency to give her a deeply apologetic look.

"I'm sorry, Inara," he mumbles. "It's just ... when I was looking for a post to take, Shepherd Book mentioned to me that they might be coming this way, and that a familiar face would help ease the transition, so I -- you aren't mad, are you?"

"You know Shepherd Book?" Mark's face collapses with surprise.

Chris blinks back at him. "You know Shepherd Book?"

"The shepherd doesn't care what you believe, so long as you believe it," Eduardo says solemnly, and then -- sounding a lot less like he's reading from a tombstone -- he tilts his head and asks, "What do you believe in, Chris?"

Chris doesn't even hesitate.

"Change," he says, sure as the stroke of a pen, and lets them into the building.

Xiao's gone, which Inara's grateful for, because that's one less person she has to explain the whole "Malcolm Reynolds unnecessarily complicates my life" saga to. She flits around, checking to make sure all the shades are drawn and the lights dimmed down low, before she circles around to grab her handheld off the shrine in the main room, where she left it. She starts flicking through it, hunting for information on the next departing train. It wasn't information she ever thought she would have to use, but she's glad she has it.

Behind her, she hears the duffel bag hit the ground, Mark and Chris talking lowly, hears Eduardo shuffle over to sit by the window where the seedlings are.

Carefully, Chris offers, "There's a guy we know over on Jiedao Shi -- he does paperwork. He could ... if you wanted, he could truss up some kind of document that declares Eduardo to be your dependent. Wasn't that part of the original problem? Eduardo was legally independent and that's why nobody could do anything?"

Inara blinks, but Mark doesn't ask how he could possibly know that information.

"Do you think the Alliance really cares about who signs what papers?"

"It would make it that much hard for them to legally justify kidnapping Eduardo back, if you'd have to sign off on it."

"Or they could just get me declared unfit for care," Mark retorts. "It wouldn't be hard. I have a history of rash, reckless decisions."

Chris frowns, and Mark nudges his side with his elbow, gentle.

"Chris," he says, quieter and more matter-of-fact. "If the Alliance comes after us, I'm not going to fight them with paperwork."

Inara finds what she's looking for. "There's a train leaving tomorrow shortly after six," she announces, pushing herself to her feet. "I ... think Jiangyin's closest to us in terms of elliptical, so I'm assuming that's where they'll drop you. The meeting point is at the dry cleaner's, which is a hike from here, but it's doable. Chris." He looks up, and Inara's eyes fall on the canister of shaving cream that Xiao left sitting by his place at the dining table. "I need you to get rid of that," she points at Mark's head. "It's too distinctive. And we'll need to get you two dressed like locals."

Chris and Mark exchange a glance. Pulling a face, Mark protectively flattens his hair down close to his head, and Chris laughs sympathetically.

"I know that feeling," he says, and pulls Mark into the bathroom.

It leaves Eduardo alone with Inara, and she holds her hands out to him. "Come on, sweetie," she murmurs, and it comes out redundant, because Eduardo takes her hands without hesitation. "It's a good thing we had a riot today. There are always more people trying to get out the day after a riot: hopefully the train will be too crowded for anyone to get a good look at your faces."

Xiao's spare robes will do, she decides. They'll be a little long on him, but he'll be able to get them on and off without pulling at that wound in his back, and Xiao will sigh and mope around and complain under his breath for a week about the loss, and then she'll grade him on it, because the passive-aggressive guilt trip is a true Companion art and it's always good to get in practice.

She tugs the knot in front and surveys her handiwork.

"We'll need something to cover your head with." She glances around the room. "Do you know how to tie a niiqab?"

"I do now," Eduardo responds. "Since you're thinking about it. And now I know it."

"Right. That's handy." His eyes are a very soft shade of brown. In the bathroom, she can hear Chris and Mark talking with a boyish, loud enthusiasm ("no, really," she hears, "A lovebot! He's going to marry her. I told him he shouldn't do it, which means it's probably the first thing he did after he cut the wave,") and she hears herself say, low and urgent, "Di-di, do you trust him?"

Eduardo blinks at her, before his gaze slides inexorably sideways, drawn towards the bathroom door.

She grabs his chin and makes him focus on her. "You don't have to go with him if he isn't good for you," she tells him in an undertone, and thinks it loudly for good measure. "You know that, right? Say the word, and we'll find you another way out, somewhere the Academy won't get you, somewhere he won't get you. Do what makes you safe. Your life is yours now."

"Inara." He catches her hand and presses a reassuring kiss to the fleshy part of her thumb, which is both confusing and sweet at the same time. "Trust me when I tell you that he's the one who'll need protecting now."

"You'll go with him?" she has to be sure. She knows nothing about Mark Zuckerberg except for what she's read, what every Companion is required to know about the people who make shocking amounts of money and may potentially be part of their government, and none of it paints a very appealing picture.

He just looks at her.

She looks back, just as steady. "Then you already know what I'm going to say next, I think."

"When you give something away, it's always yours," Eduardo answers immediately, like the start of a poem. He's smiling, and oh, bodhisattvas have mercy, the boy has dimples. "When you love someone, you're giving a part of yourself away, but in giving it away, you make it yours forever. Even if you're rejected, even if you never have a chance, even if it's just someone you fall in love with for a moment, a single moment, on a bus or a transport somewhere, you've still loved. And that will always be yours to keep."

Inara touches his cheek with the back of her knuckles. "Remember that, little one."

The bathroom door opens, and she steps back. Chris pokes his head around the doorframe.

"Nice," he says approvingly. "Wardo, do you want a haircut too?"

"No," says Eduardo, before Inara can interject, and he tugs at the uneven tufts of his hair. "Camouflage," he explains, and all the easy humor drops off Chris's face the instant he understands.

She nudges at Eduardo to get his attention, passing over cloth and band. "Here, try this on," she orders, and adds wryly, "Use a mirror, even if you're absolutely certain you've mastered the technique from seeing inside my head."

He goes, and Inara steps past Chris into the main room. Mark's studying the new hanging baskets clustered on the coat rack, and his idea of looking like a local is to jam a knit cap over his shaved skull. He sets his jaw when he catches her looking, like he's daring her to say anything.

Inara turns away and kneels in front of the shrine, pulling out two thin sticks of frankincense to burn for luck. Out of the corner of her eye, turned to catch his reflection in the mirror, she sees Mark's shoulders relax fractionally, the way people do when they think nobody's watching them anymore.

"This is it, you know," she says, level as can be. "I want to make sure you understand the gravitas of your decision. You're giving up your family, your fortune, your life's work. Permanently."

"Yes," says Mark, like that's a given.

"Everything," Inara stresses, because he needs to be certain. "You're not going to be able to go back and pick it up when you get bored. You're giving up everything."

"I'm sure you've done your homework, ma'am, so I don't have to tell you that it's not going to be a problem," says Mark; he's not looking at the back of her head anymore. Around the arrangement of incense she's creating along the altar's ledge, she flicks her eyes to the other mirror. Eduardo's reentered the room, deftly knotting the band of his niiqab at the nape of his neck, and clucking his tongue when he sees Mark's half-assed attempts at a disguise.

Mark's eyes track his movements, reflexive as breathing.

You don't get to decide whether it exists or not, Inara thinks, and smiles.

 

-

 

Later, much later, after the train is gone, after all the ships have vanished into the sky with a faint firefly pulse of light, until even she can't distinguish between spaceships and stars, Inara finds Chris sitting out on the steps, long after everyone else in the building would have left. His trousers are rolled up to the knees, baring bony ankles and the thin, elegant lines of his feet. He looks up, curious, and she settles onto the step next to him, rearranging her skirts around her.

"They're your friends," she says by way of greeting, and it's not a question. She brushes grit off her palms. "Do you think they'll be okay? That's an awful big burden for somebody like Mark Zuckerberg to carry on his own."

"It's no burden," Chris corrects her, quiet. "Love never is."

 

 

2519
year of the dragon
year of the Miranda scandal
and the dissolution of the oligarchical Alliance government at the operative level

 

Mark doesn't think.

He bolts.

"Tinkerman!" Mandy Bao's shrill high voice cries out behind him, indistinguishable as a bird's call. "Tinkerman, wait!"

But he doesn't. The ground is littered with sharp rocks, dry twigs, brambles that snag against the bottoms of his feet, his legs bare all the way up to his underclothes, but it's a distant awareness, pain filtered through the lens of panic, and Mark pitches himself through the gate, skids recklessly down the mountainside. The path is familiar, the turns he's taken for months suddenly hairpin and frightful, the trail loosely skittering out from under his feet.

This is how people fall and break their necks, but Mark isn't going to worry about that. He has no room in his head to worry about that.

He glances back once to make sure that Mandy isn't following his example and sees her far behind, using a stick bigger than she is to feel her way.

He makes it to town in record speed.

He doesn't know what he's expecting to find. Eduardo dead, probably, drowned in a patch of rice or shot by some twitchy highwayman or poisoned by a cottonmouth snake when he got too close, forgetting that he wasn't a snake himself; Shin Ross pulling him off the main street to take off his hat and give him the news, somber-voiced, his eyes lowered, already planning a rotation of townsfolk to traipse up to the farmhouse to check on him the following week.

Or worse, Eduardo taken; Heather Bao fluttering with panic and full of stories about a big Alliance cruiser just come down out of the sky, Ashleigh too speechless with shock to do more than fishmouth, and Mackey looking apologetic: I tried to scramble them, I tried to stop them, but they got him, Mark, they --

He spots a cluster of people down at the end of the street, gathered around the mosaic wall.

One turns at the sound of Mark's rapid approach, and Mark recognizes the butcher, the front of his apron streaked with dark, sick-looking blood, and the inside of Mark's head turns to static and bibbledy and cacophonous discord for the span of one heartbeat, then two, and then the butcher steps aside and he sees a familiar profile, a familiar black coat, a familiar neckline and head tipped back and hair that sticks straight up.

He registers Eduardo -- in one piece -- sitting on the wall.

He registers Zhi Tang with her arms wrapped around his waist and the town doctor bent over him.

Then Eduardo looks up.

And Mark --

Mark --

Mark prides himself on his self-control. It's the only thing in the 'verse you can control, is yourself. Never a day in his life has he wasted energy on trying to control anybody else, so he's gotten very good at knowing the inside of his own head.

If there's one thing Mark trusts himself to do, it's to control his emotions.

He has to, or else he risks turning his mind, his thoughts, into a trap that Eduardo could never escape.

But he can't, in this moment, he absolutely cannot do a thing to stop it, and when Eduardo claps eyes on him, when he smiles like it's automatic, like Mark and smiling are completely intertwined elements in Eduardo's head, it burns through him, as powerful as the fission reaction of a ship's core, as powerful as the choir-song of growing things, the preternatural glow of anemones and starfish in the dark, a warm nest of blankets on the workshop floor, and Mark cannot do a thing to protect himself from it, can do nothing except feel it.

The expression on Eduardo's face looks like he's been shot through a prism, and he stares at Mark like he's seeing him in full color for the first time. It's a shockingly open look.

Then he beams, his smile turning into a laugh that shakes right through him.

"Hold still, please, young man," says the doctor, pulling back. He glances over his shoulder, and his mouth twitches with surprise. He's a big man with a bushy black beard that goes half-way down his chest, and he smiles more in one day than Simon Tam did in the entire time Mark and Eudardo were on Serenity. "Well, Tinkerman," he says amusedly. "That's a side of you we've never seen before."

Half-naked, Mark remembers, and he sits down on the wall on Eduardo's other side before his knees give out of their own accord.

"What happened?" he gets out.

Zhi Tang peeks out at him from under the protective hold of Eduardo's arm. "It was my fault," she says waveringly, and Eduardo tightens his grip on her shoulders, murmuring lowly, no, it weren't.

Mark takes in the scene for the first time. The little girl's face is scratched up, like she landed face-first into a patch of thorns, and she's missing a sandal. Her parents hover close behind; Mark's never really talked to the Tangs before. Her mother fought in the Unification Wars, and lost both her legs below the knee when she went racing across a field to come to the aid of another soldier and stepped on a mine, hidden inside an abandoned cornhusk doll. She and her husband deliver the newspapers on bicycles. Mrs. Tang altered hers so she could fit her prostheses right into the gears. For extra coin, they sing at funerals, and sometimes, when the wind is blowing right, Mark catches snatches of Psalms coming in through the window.

"I got lost," continues Zhi. She points. "Up in the forest. I couldn't find my way back down."

"And her parents were so worried I couldn't not do anything," Eduardo volunteers, and Mark knows what that kind of high-pitched, high-whine worry does to Eduardo's brain once he picks it up. "And I know those trees, so I went looking for her."

Zhi gets her arms all the way around his ribs and squeezes him, hard. "He found me, but he weren't the only one. There was a -- a --" she looks up at the butcher for help.

"A wolverine," he finishes for her. "One of those government ones," he adds for Mark's benefit, gesturing at the blood on the front of his apron like that should say the rest for him. Mark nods; before even the Anglo-Sino Alliance was officially a thing, the government tried to splice together a number of different creatures when they realized that terraforming the planets had to include the introduction of natural predators. It didn't really work in their favor, so they just let them go in wild places like the volcanic ring of Jiangyin, thinking no one would ever settle there.

"I couldn't shoot it," Eduardo says to Mark. "I didn't have a gun, and I'm not like River, I don't have the arms or legs for dancing, so I had to talk to it."

"It was amazing, Tinkerman. It was bigger than he was, but he got really scary-looking and he leapt in front of it and made big arms and roared --" she screws her face up helpfully. "And it looked real surprised and it kind of made this noise," she demonstrates with a puzzled-sounding whine. "And then it went away."

"They don't usually come this close to town," the butcher purses his mouth.

The doctor nods to him. "That may be so, but we are stretching further out every year as well, these things are bound to happen. But you two," he says to Eduardo and Zhi. "I give you a clean bill of health. Except for some scratches, you are just fine."

The Tangs make happy noises behind them, and with a scuffle, Mandy Bao pushes forward to the front, having finally made it down the mountainside.

"Mandy!" Mark gets off the wall and goes to her, compulsively fixing the front of her coat and pulling her shoelaces taut so he can reknot them. He complains, "Don't do that to me! You made me think something really bad had happened."

"You didn't let me finish!" Mandy replies petulantly, and bops the top of his head in reprimand.

When he stands and turns around, Eduardo is right there, extremely close. His eyes flick back and forth, like Mark is laid out before him in long strips of text he can devour like scripture.

With a soft noise, he pushes in closer still, wrapping his arms around Mark's neck and pulling. Mark tolerates being held and burrowed into, because he understands the impulse. The inside of his chest feels pulverized, tender and sore with the remnants of whatever that was that he felt back there, when he saw Eduardo alive, when he saw --

There's nothing in the 'verse quite so horrible as the fear, that fear that flung him down the mountainside with the force of a tectonic shift, a fear so grisly and all-consumingly physical that it made him want to crawl out of his own skin and leave it behind.

The thought that Eduardo would be gone --

And Mark would be -- what would he --

-- Eduardo gone --

It sends him onto his toes like he's going to take flight, his arms wrapping around Eduardo's shoulders in turn. They push, and pull, and sway on the spot, trapped by each other's elbows and pressed so close that the right amount of heat would fuse their bones together. Mark buries his face underneath Eduardo's jaw, breathing unsteadily.

A mnemonic device, he thinks. A simple word or phrase that stands for a more complicated sequence.

To say, "Eduardo," and to really mean a hundred different things, all at once.

 

-

 

"Did you really leave the house like that?" Eduardo asks him when they've put the town far behind them. He sounds amused, the bastard.

Now that the adrenaline's worn off, Mark's bare feet are feeling every sharp shard of rock underfoot. "You were in trouble!" he retorts defensively, and tries not to mince his steps, because whatever, he's tough, he can handle sharp rocks. "Besides, since when do you care about how we look leaving the house? You're in that same coat all of the time."

"I care about clothes!" Eduardo immediately protests, and then scuffles to a stop, like he's been surprised.

Mark stops, too, and looks back.

Eduardo thins his eyes accusingly, and pulls his coat closer around him like he's trying to keep it from being insulted. The pockets are starting to pull, fraying loose at the edges.

"I didn't know that. Did you just think that about me?" he demands.

"No," Mark answers truthfully, although he's thought it dozens of times before. In school, Eduardo always dressed like a border moon kid with airs of grandeur; nice shirts with no darns and polished shoes that you could see yourself in, and Mark always thought Eduardo would want to keep dressing like that. It'd be an armor, or at the very least, it should have been programmed into him when the Academy was conditioning him to be a spy. It feels like it should be fundamental, written into his genetics: Eduardo Saverin likes looking nice.

Mark doesn't want to hope, doesn't want to think that maybe Eduardo's starting to remember things that other people haven't had to remember for him -- first Zoe's wedding dress on the day of Diwali, then this.

Eduardo doesn't move. He studies the dirt, biting at his lip, and then his head comes up and around like he heard someone calling his name.

Mark sees what distracted him a moment later, when Eduardo skitters back down the path a pace or two and crouches on his heels, moving a rock out of the way. It exposes an overturned beetle, its tiny legs motoring helplessly at the air, and Eduardo flips it back over. He folds his arms over his knees and murmurs something that sounds like, "you're welcome," as the beetle scuttles away.

Then he says, in an unidentifiable kind of voice, "I used to like to dress up, didn't I?"

Carefully, Mark slides back down the incline, and the soil here is rich, blackening the bottoms of his feet. He nudges at Eduardo's side with his knee when he reaches him, and Eduardo leans back into the touch unconsciously. Mark reaches out, tracing the cartilage of Eduardo's ear with his fingertip before folding it down in a rush of affection. He feels too much today.

"Are you the kind of person who dressing up?" he asks back, reasonable.

Eduardo picks at a streak of mud on his trousers, like he isn't sure.

Mark offers him a hand up. He has plenty of time to figure it out. Years, if necessary.

He hears a phantom, far-off memory, like dropping a pebble in still water and watching the ripples spread like a symbol struck, do you know what it takes to rebuild a person?

Time, shepherd, he thinks back, feeling it settle inside of him, riverbed calm. And dharma.

They're almost back to the house, the familiar shape of it huddled against the cliffside, when Eduardo stops dead in his tracks. Mark almost runs directly into him, sidestepping at the last moment.

"Wardo --?" he tries, but Eduardo casts him a single, wide-eyed look of alarm.

"Found you, Mark Zuckerberg," he whispers, and his voice is not his own.

Panic detonates inside Mark's chest, instant and white-hot and obliterating everything else. He whips his head around, and -- yes, yes, there, bootprints in the dirt heading across the yard, bootprints that aren't his and aren't Eduardo's and aren't Mandy Bao's and there's nobody within walking distance that knows Mark's surname except for Mackey. He'd almost forgotten what it was until he heard it again.

"Go," he says to Eduardo, thinking of the rice fields on the next farm over so forcefully that Eduardo stumbles as if shoved. He turns and disappears seamlessly into the rocks.

Mark steps carefully towards the house. His heart thrashes against his ribs.

He literally has nothing on him; shirt and shorts, but only in the loosest sense of the word. He doesn't have a weapon.

He scans the ground and finds a rock with a jagged edge, grips it hard in one hand. In his lifetime, Mark has held some of the finest pieces of technology the Alliance has to offer; nanontech interfaces thinner than the wings of a dragonfly, microphones that could be hidden in a salt crystal. He has used his own modified cortex to bounce a wave across three quadrants: a feat previously considered impossible until he did it.

But none of those things made him feel nearly as powerful as he does right now, armed with something and prepared to defend himself and Eduardo.

If he can get inside the house, there'd be knives and a gun, tools from the workshop.

The chickens cluck unconcernedly, moving out of his way, and That Gorram Thing chirps at him when he silently eases himself in through the side door. His heart trips a beat, because he expected to find it in pieces: to see it working, intact, is almost more frightening, because that means it just let somebody in without sounding the alarm.

He moves towards it, and freezes.

Christy Lee is sitting at his kitchen table.

"Found you, Mark Zuckerberg," she says in a voice like an echo. Mark heard it before, just now, coming from Eduardo's mouth.

Brilliantly, he drops the rock.

She looks stunning, her long hair held back with a silver headband and her eyes beetle-black, fixed on him, and he feels conscious of his bare, hairy legs in a new and embarrassing way. She's in uniform: the beige trousers and overcoat with the Alliance emblem emblazoned on her breast, and, bizarrely, a brown box sits on her lap, wrapped up in twine.

Like the rest of his friends, Mark only made the vaguest attempt at keeping up-to-date with her life after he left school. Where he went on to revolutionize verse-wide communication, Dustin went to piloting school, Erica went black-out, Chris went into politics, and Eduardo got trapped by the Academy, Christy enlisted. Last he heard, she was doing grunt work on a personnel carrier outside the asteroids of Ariel, hoping to get herself assigned to one of the massive, armored dreadnoughts that, officially, were supposed to provide protection for supply trains from the Core to the Rim, but in reality were just used to intimidate settlements with long-standing Independent sympathies.

He scowls at That Gorram Thing. "You are useless," he informs it, and it chirps worriedly.

"No," says Christy. "I'm just smarter."

She sits up straight, setting the box down on the table in front of her. "Housewarming present," she explains, catching him looking. "You never sent out any invitations, so I had to improvise."

Leaving the rock where he dropped it, he crosses carefully to the sink, twisting the tap and scrubbing the dirt off the heel of his hands. He grabs the dishtowel and turns around, putting his back to the counter. There are three knives in the drawer right under his left hand. Christy's a trained Alliance officer, all her adolescent violence channeled into militarized training and purpose, but Mark has desperation and adrenaline on his side.

There can't be a warship in orbit, there's no way Mark could have walked through town without hearing about it if there was. River Tam might be worth calling down the wrath of a full destroyer or a battleship, but Mark and Eduardo sure aren't. So she must be here on her own, or maybe with a small reconnaissance team, which means a cruiser. There are dozens of places you could hide a cruiser in the Sanatana Dharma mountains.

There are even more places to hide a person, though, and she'll have to find Eduardo first if she's going to take him.

"It's just me," she tells him absently, glancing around his kitchen. "Everyone made such a big fuss about how you disappeared, so when I found myself with some unexpected leave time, I decided I would try to find you. There's no way you could have been kidnapped, you're way too annoying to keep this long."

"Thanks," he says dryly, and she flashes him a smile, guileless.

"I must say, though, when I imagined Mark Zuckerberg's secret lair, this isn't what I was expecting," she drags her thumbnail through a crack in the surface of the table and glances towards the doorway, where the edge of Mark's workbench is visible in the next room. She turns back to him, demanding, "What are you doing here?"

"What, a prodigy with absurd amounts of money vanishes and turns up on a border planet, raising chickens and tinkering with toys in some mountain retreat?" Mark flaps a hand dismissively. "What's so remarkable about that?"

Christy gives him an unimpressed look. "There are two pairs of shoes by the door," she says after a beat.

And then, "Is Eduardo home?" and Mark is probably going to have to kill her.

It's a depressing thought -- Christy used to be a really good friend when they were little, and they'll have to leave immediately, because the folk in town can abide a lot of strange behavior, but they might not take too kindly to murder. When he thinks about what might happen if Christy leaves, though, if she goes back to the Alliance knowing full well that there are two pairs of shoes by the door and Eduardo's animals in the next room and the nest of blankets on the floor, knowing that they're going to --

Yeah, no, he's thinking they'll bury her quick; the soil up in this parts is aerated, almost fluffy when dry, and an unmarked grave would be hard to find. Maybe he can program her cruiser to auto-nav right into the sun or something, make it look like a malfunction?

"Woah, hey," Christy's voice goes sharp. "Zucktard! Chill! That wasn't a threat!"

She has her hands up, palms splayed open in a gesture of peace, and only then does Mark realize he's gone for the knife.

It's frustrating, because this isn't the type of memory he wants Eduardo to have to carry, but he doesn't think killing Christy is something he can lock away so that Eduardo won't have to see it, either. He adjusts his fingers on the hilt, hearing Zoe's words, clear and calm in the back of his head, use your momentum and body weight to shove down and twist.

It's plainly taking every inch of Christy's self-control to hold herself still, to hold her position open and vulnerable, to not act to defend herself.

"Stop!" she yells, voice cracking, and Mark hesitates. "I'm not a threat!" she continues. "I'm not a threat! Turning you in is the last thing on my mind, Mark, I'm dead."

That was not what he was expecting.

"What?" he goes.

"Or close enough to it," Christy exclaims on a shaky exhale. "When I said leave time, I meant leave time of the permanent sort. If I don't show up at an Alliance outpost soon, I'm going to get declared KIA, and I do show up at an Alliance outpost soon, I'm going to get my ass as fired as it can get, or killed, if they aren't feeling particularly friendly, because I know too much. There's no way this could end well for me."

"Sure there is," he fires back. "You turn Wardo and I in to a bounty hunter. You take your cut of the reward, and you use the money to disappear, start somewhere fresh."

Now she just looks angry.

"Do you really think I would do that?" she grits out, knuckles going white on the corners of her box. "To you? To Eduardo? Mark, you are my friends. I've known you since I was ten. I was the only one who placed higher than you on that stupid intelligence-ranking system that you and Eduardo made in your last year --"

"No, you didn't," Mark cuts her off. "I did. I ranked the highest in intelligence testing -- I always have."

"Oh, please," she snorts. "You only say that because those tests were biased in your favor from the beginning, created by men and better suited to place men first. I've hard to carve out my place in computer science since the beginning, and what do I have to show for it?" She spreads her arms. "My commanding officer is dead, my entire fleet is dead, and I am --" her eyes are incredibly bright now, and she's blinking fast. "I am -- I am lonely and desperate and I don't know where else to go."

For a long moment, Mark can't find anything to say. He looks at the floor to give Christy a moment to recompose herself, and realizes he's still holding the knife.

He tosses it back into the drawer and heads to the stove. "Are you hungry?" he asks over his shoulder.

"Yes."

He nods to show he heard, and puts on a pot for rice and a kettle for tea. Then he pulls out the chair across from her.

She takes a deep breath, and begins with, "Have you ever heard of a planet called Miranda?"

"Sure," he responds, and thinks about it. "It's about -- three clicks out from Haven, isn't it?" And closer still to that magnetic cloud that shrouds Sean's strange little planet. "But it's a blackrock. Terraforming never took."

She shakes her head. "That's what it says in the textbooks. Miranda terraformed just fine: the Alliance scrapped it as a planet after they used it to breed the Reavers."

Mark cannot take any more shocks today. He really can't; he is a human with a human heart and the human heart only has a set number of beats, and he's using his up too fast, he can feel it.

"The Reavers?" he echoes, thinking of cannibals on the edge of space; a raiding party hit the prairie side of Whitefall when Mark was eighteen, and preemptively he threw himself into interface work for a solid two days before somebody broke through to tell him that they got a hail from his parents, they were fine. It chills the blood, thinking of them pushing that far out, and further still, every year. "They made them?"

"We did," Christy confirms, and right, Mark used to wear that same emblem.

"How'd'you find that out? I don't think that's something the Alliance would like to advertise."

She looks down at her lap, drawing her knees together. "They don't. I was part of a ten-thousand-man task force at the disposal of an Operative, who was assigned to find River Tam," and Mark's heart lurches in the other direction. "We chased her all the way to Miranda, where the Reavers met us in orbit." She spreads her hands out, as if the rest of the story should be obvious, and Mark supposes it is: Christy's here in front of him, hungry and shaky, and there was a letter that Mark burned to ashes at an altar in memory of the shepherd, of Wash, of Sean.

The kettle whistles, and Mark puts himself to the familiar motions of steeping tea leaves, finding clean cups and saucers.

"That's a warning, Mark, I know you hear it," Christy tells his back. "The Alliance's credibility as an institution has been sorely shaken, its regime crippled since the news of Miranda first hit the airwaves. It's not going to survive, not the way it is, so what do you think it's going to do in its death throes?"

Mark sets a cup down in front of her. She curls her hands around it and watches him.

When he says nothing, she speaks up.

"This isn't like with River Tam," she tells him, inexorable and soft. "They're done with her. They were all kinds of stupid-desperate to get her back, but they couldn't get to her before her secret got out. But she's not the only one out in the 'verse. Those kids," she leans forward. "Those kids were the pinnacle of government-sponsored scientific achievement. They show the limits of human endurance, the extent of human potential. The Alliance always thinks they can make people better."

"They're going to come get him." It's not a question.

"Maybe," she sighs, and sinks back tiredly. "I don't know, that's my guess, and my guesses are usually pretty intelligent. They're not going to want repeats of the Miranda incident."

"Eduardo isn't carrying classified government secrets, though," Mark rubs his thumb nervously along the edge of his teacup. "He wasn't as special to them as River was."

"No," her smile turns a little wistful. "No, there were only a couple people in the 'verse to whom Eduardo was genuinely special, and two of us are sitting right here in this room. Mark -- and again, this is just a guess, I'm extrapolating and making predictions based on previous behaviors I observed in my superior officers -- but don't you think it's a little weird that they just let you walk right in and take him out?"

"We got shot at!" he retorts, indignant.

She gives him a bored look. "Yes, well, for a secret government compound, they were incredibly stupid about security."

"You think they want to see what he can do," he thins his eyes at her. "And they're going to come get him, to -- to see what he's managed to learn out here? It's not going to be much," he snorts. "Unless they really want to know what chickens and snails think about all day."

"I don't know. It could be nothing, but listen. If they're coming after you, if they're going to try to get him back in a last-ditch effort to collect their most valuable possessions before they're dissolved, they're going to send an Operative. Not mine, I don't know what happened to him, but another one, just as methodically trained and pitiless. Listen very carefully. His name, back he had one, was Divya Narendra. That's who they'll send, if they send anybody. And if I can find you, then ..."

She trails off, disheartened.

Then she gives herself a shake and focuses on him again.

"Do you have a plan?" she wants to know.

"Hiding's not a plan?" he returns dryly, and at her cutting look, gets defensive. "Christy, we have nothing. We have -- we have knives and that useless thing --" he jabs a finger at That Gorram Thing. "As our only defenses. And no money left, and the good will of the town isn't enough to stop someone like an Operative, Jesus, Christy --"

"You're being stupid," she interrupts, and Mark's jaw clicks shut. For someone whose IQ is higher than that of about 99% of the 'verse's population, people seem to call him stupid with alarming frequency. "Haven't you been listening to me? Eduardo isn't your only friend."

"I know that --" Mark starts. He's rapidly losing the thread of this argument.

"Nobody has reported seeing Dustin Moskovitz or the Stephanie for nigh on a year now," she continues ruthlessly, and he sits back in his chair like she'd struck him across the face. "Chris Hughes is missing from his post on Sihnon, and Inara Serra claims that she doesn't know where he went. Sean Parker is dead. I've been to his grave. Zoe Washburne and the crew of Serenity buried him in person, with full maritime honors. You have Erica Albright, although I don't know her exact location, which means the Alliance doesn't either. You have me. You are not alone in this 'verse."

Her voice rises on the end, bitten off sharply, and she reels it back like this reveals too much. She straightens, flattening her feet to the ground.

Mark swallows against a dry throat, and the silence stretches between them for a long moment.

Then she closes her eyes, like she's gathering strength. "There's something else," she says, something sharp and fragile shaking the edges of her voice. "How much do you know about what the Academy did to Eduardo?"

"They programmed him to be a spy," is his immediate reply. "They used predictive binary and adapted Eduardo's own behavioral tendencies so that they become ingrained, automatic: his first instinct is always to blend in, to ingratiate, to please. Invaluable camouflage for a psychic. Eduardo can go anywhere and be invisible."

"Yes," she nods. And then she says, "Do you know it's supposed to evolve?"

His blood runs cold. "It's -- what?" he manages.

"I don't know how," she admits quickly, like she knows that's the next question that's going to come out of his mouth, once he remembers to use it properly. "I just know that with the experiments that came after her, they were trying to fix where they went wrong with River Tam, to try to find ... alterations that would change and grow as the subject finishes puberty so that their reality matrix would remain more or less intact. Eduardo's extrasensory abilities are supposed to continue to develop."

"Why?" he says, numb.

She hesitates.

"Come on, you keep saying your IQ is just as high as mine. Tell me what I already know."

"The Alliance could have any number of uses for a spy," she says finally. "And more than one thing a spy could be. There are those that gather intel, those that are sleeper agents, those that act as protection, those that are there to plant suggestions, those that are assassins. Mark, Eduardo could turn into any one of those; his own brain is the enemy."

Mark shakes his head left, then right. "It's not going to happen. He's not some -- he's --"

"What are you going to do?" Christy asks again.

"Live," he snaps. "We're good here. We got him out this far, and he's ... he's happy here, and I'm not going to be the one that takes all that away from him."

"And if the Alliance decides they've had enough with letting you and him play house?"

"Then we'll outsmart them," Mark says firmly. "Again."

He pushes himself out of his chair, heading over to the stove to take the rice off, lifting the lid and letting the steam billow out the window. When he turns around, Christy's standing right behind him. His heart jolts, still on edge, but her hands are empty and her eyes are warm.

"I missed you," she confesses, and when she wraps her arms around his neck and squeezes, he remembers that she's barely older than he is. She used to drop spiders down the back of Dustin's shirt and once, when she was eleven, she went around holding hands with Sean Parker for three days before she broke her tablet over his head and called him a pig's left testicle and ignored his every attempt to win her back for two years.

He hugs her back for a long time, and then he asks, "What about you? What's your plan?"

She looks startled, stepping back and pushing her hair behind her ear. Then she laughs, "God, I don't know. Run, I guess. Keep my head down. I'm really good at shooting people -- that's a really useful skill out here on the Rim, isn't it? Know anyone around here who's hiring?" she looks up at him.

Mark takes a deep breath, and feels all of seventeen again, remembering the way Christy kissed his cheek almost aggressively the day he left, saying, Good luck, Zuckerbooger, and I expect you to change some stuff for us when you get elected to Parliament, dong ma?

"Come on," he says, and his voice comes out shockingly gentle, even to himself. "We need to do something about your fingerprints, and the stove's ready."

 

-

 

He watches from the window as Eduardo waylays Christy by the hydrangeas at the front gate.

Her hair swings, catching at the light in waves of violet and almost-black, and she picks at the heavy bandages wrapped around her fingers with a morbid kind of curiosity. They talk for a bit -- Eduardo with an unaccustomed stiltedness that suggests to him that Christy's mind is nothing but locks and files that redirect -- but when Eduardo tries to take one of the blossoms and tuck it behind her ear, she shoves him into the bush.

Mark laughs, although he probably shouldn't, and turns around.

The package Christy brought is still sitting on the table, which disorients him for a moment, because he'd kind of expected it to vanish with her.

Housewarming present, indeed.

His hands, he finds, are shaking with leftover adrenaline, a spindle-wire tremor, and it takes him two tries to pick the knot out of the twine holding the box together. Bad enough, he thinks, that just this morning he'd expected to arrive in town and find a coroner there, asking him when was the last time he saw Eduardo and if he could identify a body. But Christy ...

He'd been prepared to ... to dispose of her. Honest, hand to God or Buddha or Sarasvati or whoever, Mark had fully expected to have to kill her to keep her from betraying Eduardo's location to her superiors.

And he would have done it.

Nothing, he realizes with a crashing thud of his heart, nothing is quite as unsettling as realizing that you are perfectly, absolutely willing to end somebody's life for the sake of another.

Inside the box, there's something distinctly bowl-shaped, wrapped up in a newspaper cover, and Mark rocks back in his heels, fighting another chill as it tries to shake him out of his bones. He recognizes it, of course, because the newspaper's the same one everybody in town uses as cushioning, out of date enough that the headlines on front have stopped moving, their batteries run down. The bowl's from an artisan in town; swing a dead cat and you could hit any one of them around here with a kiln that she could have bought this from. Or, hell, she could have just walked into Shin Ross's -- it wouldn't even have been much trouble.

But. This had been her insurance. If Mark had killed her, there would have been someone in town who remembered her, someone who could have reported it if anybody came investigating her disappearance. Christy came here fully expecting Mark to try to kill her, and she came anyway, because she had information that he needed.

Christy, he thinks, affection warring with nausea.

The sudden upset clamor of the chickens is Mark's warning to pull himself together, which he does as best he can before the door swings open and Eduardo comes in. He's still picking twigs and petals out of his hair, bright red scrapes showing on his wrists, vibrant on top of the ones he got communing with wolverines, and the sight startles Mark into laughter.

"Do you remember," he starts. "Back at school, that time that she --"

"Shut up," Eduardo says quickly, gleaning where he was going with that off the surface of Mark's thoughts.

"And she set your --"

"Mark, stop talking."

Mark laughs. It's a slightly hysterical sound. Eduardo's face changes, like he's just now catching on to the violin-string residue of panic that's still hot in Mark's blood, but Mark looks away before he can say anything. He leans against the stove, which is still warm, and listens to the scrape of the chair against the floor as Eduardo settles at the table, crossing his legs and hooking his hands around his ankles.

When he finally turns around, feeling much calmer with his thoughts locked away under an admin key, Eduardo's watching him carefully.

He's got a look on his face that throws Mark for a beat. He doesn't recognize it. Eduardo's face, in this moment, is completely alien to him.

"We'll be fine," he says, like there's no possible other outcome. The moment passes, and Mark places the expression on Eduardo's face: it's Mark's own. "You know that, right?"

Mark moves to the table, and Eduardo tips his head back with a twitch of a smile.

He repeats, "We'll be fine," still with that absolute, Mark-like conviction, and Mark returns the smile, digging at the crack in the tabletop with his thumbnail. "Sanatana Dharma, Mark. Have eternal faith." He drums out a beat on his ankle bone, and his smile turns into a boyish grin. "It's too late to catch us."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Anyone who tries, it ... it'll be like turning up on Monday for a race that was run on Sunday. Don't you believe for a second that anybody's going to catch us. We'll never get caught."

"Would you be able to take care of yourself, do you think? If we had to split up?" Mark hears himself ask. He unwraps Christy's gift from its newspaper cover -- it's a ceramic bowl that survived the journey up from town intact, so he puts it in the dish cabinet, turning it so the design faces outwards. The glaze is uneven, he notices, running his thumb along the bump it makes on the bowl's surface. The irritation flushes up inside of him, mild and scratching familiarly at his ribs; he's never abided poor craftsmanship very well.

There's a beat of silence that follows his question. Mark almost misses it, thinking about pots and bowls and the disadvantages of country artesians.

Then he jerks his head up, looking over his shoulder, thinking snap-fast, no, hard and possessive, because he doesn't want Eduardo to leave, no no no no that's not what he meant. He doesn't want Eduardo to get left behind, ever.

Eduardo's face twists, straining a little around the edges, the way it does when Mark shoves thoughts at him too forcefully. But he smiles anyway, purposefully reassuring.

Mark relaxes, swinging the cabinet door shut, and Eduardo collects his words.

"I could," he answers, musing. "But I would lose myself, I think -- there would be too many minds. None of them would see me, or know me as me. Nobody would look at me like they recognize me, so why would I hold onto myself?" He smiles at Mark, wider now and more honest, his eyes crinkling up around the edges. "I like who I am when you look at me. I remember what it's like to be arranged in skin."

Mark can't help the flush he feels at that, something a little like pride, and he absorbs himself in fiddling with the doorknob on the cabinet, twisting it around.

He's uncertain of his reply, but Eduardo's better at thinking Mark's thoughts than he is.

"I could," he says again, with a bird-like shrug of his shoulders. "I could live without you. It wouldn't be hard. I could go anywhere and be anyone. That's what they trained me to do, isn't it?"

Mark swallows.

"So, yes," Eduardo agrees, like he'd said something. "If we had to split up, I would manage just fine on my own. So long as you promise to come find me again."

"I --" he starts, and then finds he has approximately nothing to say to that.

"Have faith in us," Eduardo says again, and doesn't get up when Mark slips past him and out the side door.

The chickens are less than pleased, scattering out of his way and squawking resentfully at his retreating back. It's dark enough that they should start settling in the coop soon enough, because they can never really seem to find it if they put it off too long. Mark's never blessed their poultry with an overabundance of intelligence.

He stops by the shrine, rummaging around until he finds the box of matches, with which he lights another tribute for Sean and the shepherd and Wash. He bows, and leaves.

He passes the hydrangeas and keeps going to where the path curves sharply down back towards town.

The cool mountain air stings sharp in his lungs as he stands there, looking down into the valley. He sees the town like a cluster of amber-hued fireflies, traveler's lamps all lit in preparation of the coming night, and beyond it, a single flickering campfire that might be Ashleigh. He scans the sky, but there are no ships out tonight: either Christy is quicker than he gives her credit for, or she's taking the scenic route back to her transport.

He stays there until he feels all right again.

When he comes back in, Eduardo's still where he left him, sitting at the kitchen table.

He fixes Mark with a look and says, in the manner of someone who's been waiting a long time to say something important, "The only thing you ever wanted me to be was ... okay."

 

-

 

There are a hundred and one different things buzzing right underneath the surface of his brain, and he winds up spending the rest of the night in his workshop, interrupted only when Eduardo discovers their brand-new working shower and shouts indignantly at having not been told about this sooner.

He crashes and falls asleep there, face-down at his station, goggles pushed up high on his forehead and digging into his skin.

Eduardo wakes him up eventually, murmuring something about how Mark shouldn't sleep like that, and Mark lets himself be lifted up into an upright position, letting Eduardo hold most of his weight. It's still dark, the room lit only by moonlight and the glow of the river-anenomes and the standby light coming from That Gorram Thing, everything etched in hues of silver and blue.

"Working on something for Christy?" Eduardo asks curiously.

"Hmm. You know what we should do if she comes back?" he mumbles sleepily. "Can't believe I didn't think of before. Give her to Erica. No, it's a brilliant plan," he insists, because he doesn't need to be psychic to feel Eduardo's disbelief. "Erica's birthday is coming up, even. I think she'd definitely like a new girl. Girls get stuff done."

"Mark. You can't just give people girls as gifts."

Eduardo's voice rumbles, more of a vibration than a voice. Mark knows this, because he's got his ear pressed to Eduardo's chest, listening to his heartbeat the way one might put their ear to a seashell to hear the ocean. Eduardo sighs.

"Okay, fine, sleep. I'll pester you about ethics when you wake up. Come on."

Before they fixed up the upper levels and got enough habitable rooms that they could each claim one, they used to sleep together in the middle of the workshop floor. Somehow, Mark isn't surprised to see that Eduardo's pulled down their bedcovers, pillows, and all their blankets -- including the gunmetal grey one that River and Eduardo sewed together, that Kaylee gave them when they left -- and made a nest on the floor. Today seems like the kind of day for a nest.

Today involved a wolverine and Christy Lee. Today, they were fragile, glassine, suddenly aware that they were pieces of a glass menagerie, so easy to smash.

He keeps one hand on Eduardo, tucked close to the coal-glow of his heart, and he sleeps.

The next time he wakes up, Eduardo's straddling his lap.

It doesn't really register at first. At least, not as a sexual thing, because Eduardo used to like waking Mark up out of a deep sleep just because he enjoyed the soft cotton fuzz of Mark's sleep-adled thoughts, so he's used to being woken up in strange ways and this isn't even among the top five, really.

He's about to make some sardonic comment about how I am not a mule, Wardo, get off, when Eduardo says, "Mark," in a voice that comes completely from the throat, and --

His eyes fly open.

Eduardo's face is incredibly close, and Mark's hyperaware of all of his features like they're sun and moon and horizon because they take up his entire field of vision. His eyes are blown and dark, and his mouth is open and what. What. No, Wardo, no.

"-- get off!" he goes, panicked, because this has never been a -- he's never thought --

But Eduardo grabs hold of his wrists and pins them back into the blankets.

"Sorry, sorry!" he's saying rapidly, like Mark's panic is making him panic too. "I had to get your attention somehow. Mark! Listen to me!"

And Mark does, Mark stops, going still and pressing his shoulders back into the blankets like there's anywhere for him to go. He can't use his hands, but he can use his mind, and he thinks in slow, comforting things; the rushes growing in the claw-footed bathtub and his hands petting Eduardo's hair and he goes in a mental murmur like the babble of rainfall, what's wrong?

Eduardo's eyes flutter shut. The pulse in his throat slows.

"I didn't --" he says, near inaudible. "I've been so stupid."

"Wardo --"

"All this time, all the time we've been here, I've been thinking that because I can now read your mind, that you couldn't keep secrets from me. Stop that," he adds quickly, eyes moving quickly underneath his eyelids, like he's tracking the movement of dragonfly thoughts. Mark stops. "I'm not talking about the locks. I respect the locks, because I always figured you couldn't lock away something really important."

Outside, the sunrise is visible, mist curling around the peaks of the Sanatana Dharma mountains.

He has a single absent thought to spare for how they should go out to the coop soon for eggs, when Eduardo's hands tighten around his wrists and right, right, now is not the time to be thinking about chickens.

"The problem is -- and I didn't see it, how could I not -- is that if you don't think something is important, then I don't realize it's important either, and Mark, do you have any idea what it's like to feel your feelings and know it's not the first time you felt them? Mark, you --"

His throat bobs, the words in them caught and jumbled, and Mark wants desperately to put his hands on Eduardo's shoulders or ribs or hips, something, anything reassuring, because this hurts to watch.

"Think," Eduardo stresses. "Please think. Back there, in town, when you found me alive --"

The feeling of it had been enormous, Mark remembers, uncontrollable, a feeling like song and love and.

Lost inside Mark's head, Eduardo rocks forward like the ground underneath him swayed away, and.

And.

Love.

Love?

Is that what Eduardo meant? The things Mark felt without even realizing he was feeling them? Love shouldn't be surprising, you don't abandon your job and break into a government facility with the help of an ex-girlfriend and put up with Jayne Cobb trying to airlock you if you don't love somebody, and he's sorry if Eduardo was confused on that point, but.

But Eduardo doesn't just need love, does he? That's what One-Handed Luke's widow was telling him, when she told him that Eduardo wasn't his best friend anymore.

There's a difference between love and being in love, and Shin Ross brought it up, too, the way Eduardo's been behaving: the smiling and the walking on tiptoes and Mark's been suspiciously eyeing the village girls for awhile, wondering which one of them has the mind Eduardo likes so much. He wouldn't have minded sharing Eduardo with Ashleigh, not necessarily, because she's smart and --

"Stop!"

Voice gone sharp, and Mark startles, cut off mid-thought. Eduardo just stares down at him and doesn't say anything else.

He doesn't know how to not think, because he's Mark Zuckerberg and thinking is what he does best, but every time his mind darts away to anything else, Eduardo makes this wounded noise in his throat like it hurts that Mark could think about something that isn't him. Mark feels a lot like he's been stuck in a jar like one of Eduardo's anemones, shaken until all the silt and grit has fallen away, leaving nothing but a phosphorescence underneath.

And then, finally, Mark corrals his own mind back to center and stays there, so that the only thing present inside his head is the questioning sound of Eduardo's name and the reality of the man himself poised above him, his wrists as still as sleeping birds. Everything else is inconsequential.

"That's right," says Eduardo, his voice the scarcest exhale.

He smiles, and it's nobody's smile but his own.

"Me," he murmurs, like a declaration, and when he leans down, it's easy to slip his wrists from his grasp, so that Mark can go up onto his elbows to meet him.

Their noses touch first, heads tilting to find a good angle, and then they're kissing.

And it's ... it's weird, Mark's not going to lie, it's really weird, because he knows Eduardo better than he knows anything else, better than he knows the insides of programmable code, but he never knew this. Eduardo's tongue against his lower lip, his upper lip, and Mark has no idea how to do anything except feel. He kisses back, and it's like meaning a hundred different things, a mnemonic device of stardust and weightless gravitational spin and the overwhelming love that drives you every day.

From somewhere very deep down, Mark remembers a far-off echo of something, he is your brain and you are his heart, and then he fists his hands in Eduardo's hair, stretching his body up, and he --

He wants, he wants, oh, how he wants.

Never in his life has anything felt like this, nothing, nothing at all, nothing as warm or as wonderful as Eduardo's body all along his, long muscles and his weight and his heart underneath Mark's questing palms, the way his ribs expand into the flat of his hands, like every cell in Eduardo's body is straining to meet him.

There is nothing, nothing in his head now except for Eduardo. Eduardo, Eduardo, Eduardo.

And since Eduardo is in his head, he's nothing but Mark, and Mark is nothing but him, and somewhere between them, they are a brain and a heart and they make a full person.

 

 

2520
year of the snake
year of the official schism of the Anglo-Sino Alliance

 

"You sure this is the place?" Mal asks skeptically.

Zoe gives him a look. It's a familiar look, the one that says she's wondering where exactly he left the other half of his brain, since it's obvious he's only got the one lobe marinating up there in his brain cavity, and it makes Mal pleased as pickles to see it, because nothing's wrong with the 'verse when Zoe's looking at him like that. Everything's spinnin' just right when Kaylee's cheerful and Zoe's thinking that mutiny might be the best option for everybody.

"Sir," she says, like it's a bid for patience. "I can't particularly say I've been dress shopping anytime in the last turn of the worlds, so it's a gander at best that the place will even still be here. Might not even be the right port."

"It is!" River calls assuredly from a few paces behind them. She's bent double in front of a dog, chained up to the post outside a bar front. The mutt's an ancient, bony thing, its muzzle grizzled with grey, and it regards River in the same forlorn, solemn way that she is regarding it. She reaches out, careful, and rubs her knuckles under its chin; its eyes lid, weary.

The girl went and cut her hair not so long ago, and it still gives Mal a start to see it, feathering around her ears like a newspaper boy's. It makes the shape of her face all different. Older, somehow.

She straightens up, skipping to catch up with them, and then she just looks like River again. "It's in your head," she informs Zoe, matter-of-fact. "I can see it, it's the same place."

"I'm glad somebody does," Zoe's voice is dry.

"I don't suppose, little albatross, that it's worth trying to convince the pilot of my ship that she should stay with her ship? In case something goes wrong and we need to make a fast escape from ... ?" he gestures in the direction they're heading, realizing that the rest of that sentence would be from the dressmaker's, and figuring that it's in the best interests of his dignity not to finish.

"Nope!" River chirps, cheerful, and, "Ohh, look, ice cream! Mal," her tone turns very serious. "Mal, Serenity needs ice cream. She told me. It's very, very important that Serenity gets ice cream."

"That your expert opinion?"

"It is."

She stares him down: it's a formality, of course, since she can already read the answer inside his head, but he folds his arms and thinks stern things anyway. Around them, Waterloo port bustles busily; spacers hawking wares from the open bays of their ships, bored-looking local artisans manning their booths in the alleyways of the swap meet, and a group of young medical professionals break around their stalemate like mint-colored minnows in a stream, heading towards the hospital on the hill. Lawmen watch from every corner, but to Mal, they look like ants, laughable and petty. Mal ain't afraid of much, anymore.

He sighs, and fishes a few crumpled bills from the pocket of his coat. "Get enough for everybody!" he calls at River's back, but she's already darting away, a tiny shape in a blue dress weaving easily through the crowd.

He watches until he can't see her anymore, and when he looks back, Zoe lifts her eyebrows, looking unimpressed.

"What?" he goes belligerently. And then, "come on, focus on the mission."

"Yes, sir."

It's one of the mysteries of the 'verse, how Zoe can put that much sarcasm into two words. "I don't appreciate your tone, sergeant," Mal informs her, but he's talking to the unapologetic sway of her retreating figure, and steps fast to catch up.

It's been some time since Serenity took flight from the surface of Mr. Universe's tiny little world, reborn in firelight and the smell of fresh paint and gravedirt, the echo of Miranda burning through every airwave. Mal still walks with a limp and Zoe ain't quite all there, but she's doing better.

It helps that there are new lovers gettin' their feelings all over the place, making Serenity soppy and a little unbearable, but it's worth it, Mal knows, for the soft little smile at the corner of Zoe's mouth, wistful but not hurt.

Kaylee wants a wedding on a spring world, and she's been dropping hints about wanting to see her family again so she can tell them the news in person. She ain't said anything about what she's going to do about a dress: Simon, they ain't worried about, since they're all pretty sure he came out of the womb dressed like a groom and isn't going to loosen his collar for anything short of the end of the world. Mal don't need to be told that, given a choice between spending their money on new parts for Serenity and spending money on a new piece of frippery she's only gonna wear once, Kaylee'll choose Serenity, every time.

It's why they're here, in the Waterloo port on the sunny side of Persephone, looking for the shop where Zoe commissioned her own wedding dress, years ago and against Mal's express orders.

She'd been stunning then, radiant as the sun, and Mal's got the capture of all of them together (it wasn't a big wedding, so they could all fit in the picture; Jayne had been cross-eyed drunk, Kaylee had flowers in her hair, and now he recognizes the tiny, young faces of Dustin Moskovitz, tucked under Wash's arm, and Eduardo Saverin, standing awkward behind Wash's mom) and it's impossible to look at anybody but Zoe, every time he looks.

Mal wants nothing less for Kaylee.

The girl deserves some unexpected windfall in her life. She still gets nightmares with the kind of frequency that makes Mal think they ain't ever going to go away.

She won't say anything, and Simon keeps her silence for her, but Mal don't need to be told, since River is always listening. She tells him whenever he asks, her eyes turned down and sad, saying, we put death in her head and now it's there to stay.

He wishes it weren't that way, and he wishes he doesn't know what that's like.

Mal's dead will never leave him: he's still in Serenity Valley every time he closes his eyes, and the faces around him are a haunting mix of old and new, the devastation of Miranda permanently etched onto the backs of his eyelids: he sees the Sanchez brothers; Li Chen bent sightless over the previews of his autumn issue, blood in a dark pool around his head; Book; Wash, pinned, and Zoe's voice cracking clean through like she'd been shattered into pieces; even that sweet, curly head of Mr. Universe, dead with his face turned down in his lover's lap, helping them even when he was beyond help. They're there when he dreams.

He is never alone.

"I think it's down this way," Zoe calls over her shoulder, pointing at a neon sign just visible above the awning of a pawn shop.

Mal opens his mouth, and he's sure whatever's coming out will be manfully witty, when --

When River gives the warning cry.

It's as high and sharp as the call of an albatross, pained as if someone had run her clean through with an awl, and it's the kind of sound you could hear in any din.

Mal spins in the time it takes to draw a single breath, seeing Zoe's hand fly to her holster in his peripheral, gun safety flicking off with a reassuring whirr, but River's nowhere to be seen; he can't catch a glimpse of her in the crowd, and the front of the ice cream parlor is deserted.

There's only one thing that scares River so badly she evaporates.

Sure enough, as soon as Mal and Zoe round the corner past the pawn shop, there they are, pushing themselves off the wall and stepping right into their path, pulling them up short.

"You Malcolm Reynolds?" goes the one on the left.

"Mornin'," Mal returns pleasantly, feeling a little resentful that he has to put his head back to maintain eye contact. "'Scuse me, who?"

6'5", 220, and there's two of them: identical Alliance boys in pleasant suits. They're not even trying to blend in, strutting with a certain Eau du Evil that Mal wishes he wasn't so used to, and when their feet are apart, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder like a brick wall. It makes him think of Bobby, in an awful way, except these boys weren't the kind of men you make in a tube or steal off the street. They chose this.

The other one moves, scratching his nose, and he's wearing a blue glove snapped high on his wrist.

Mal's blood runs cold. Zoe falls in at his flank.

"We were wondering if you had a moment," says the one who'd spoken before.

"That so?" goes Mal, neutral. He shifts his weight, fight or flight response thrumming inside of him. "Do you work out?" he wants to know. "You guys look like you work out."

A slow, terrible smile starts at the corners of their mouths, stretching across their faces like boats tipping in a wave. The hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up, and for one mournful moment, he thinks about how they were just here to get a wedding dress made for Kaylee. Weren't supposed to be a single hiccup, errand like that, except maybe one involving lace or a number of bows.

"I'm Agent Winklevoss," says the Big and Beefy on the right. "And this is my brother, Agent Winklevoss."

"Wow, that's --"

"And we wanted to talk to you about something Mark Zuckerberg took from the Academy."

Mal shuts his mouth.

The trouble with cutting the legs out from underneath one government, he thinks, is that you can never be sure if the one that takes its place is going to be any better.

You see, as far as Mal's concerned, there is one single major difference between the Alliance and everybody else.

The Alliance went and kidnapped children and turned them into soldiers (worse, he thinks, remembering the ballerina curve of River's spine and the easy malleable shift of Eduardo's expressions, into assassins and spies) to fight their insidious war for them. Whereas the browncoats, back when they were trying to do more than just survive, did it the other way around: they sheltered their children from the slaughter best they could, even when they lost. Especially when they lost.

That's what you do, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, if nothing else is left.

You protect the children.

"Well now," he looks up at the Winklevoss boys. "I don't rightly recall what you're talking about."

 

 

2520
year of the snake
year of the official schism of the Anglo-Sino Alliance

 

When Mark was nineteen years old, he met a shepherd in the park.

It was high summer, rich fields of blood-red poppies bobbing their heads congenially with every stirring wind, and Mark sat by himself on a bench by the pond, legs folded under him and tablet balanced on his knee, flipping through files with the aimlessness of someone with too much to do and too much to think about.

Compared to the usual splendor of the Core, the park itself was shabby, but you can't take the border planet out of the kid once you get the kid off the border planet, and Mark frequented that park because he felt comfortable there, where the concrete was grey and the fences were barbed with wire, where the rumbling of a passing train made the holograms shimmer, the picturesque sailboats flickering on-and-off on the surface of the pond.

A wireless radio sat on the bench beside him, crackling with an interrupted signal for every enormous tank that went overhead, headed for the Union of Allied Planets military base on the other side of the fields.

He heard, rather than saw, someone approaching, but didn't register it because people who walked in parks weren't exactly a strange phenomenon, until a voice above his head said, "Excuse me, young man, what's this song?"

It took Mark a second to tune in. "Um," he started, and then was surprised to find that he actually did know the answer.

"Some Hands Will Rob You." He drummed his stylus against the edge of his tablet. "On some of the planets in the Outer Rim, they're calling this song the hymn of the Sihnonese revolution, which is dumb because it's just a catchy song about pirates," and he laughed to himself, because a supposed uprising on Sihnon had so little effect on his daily life it was almost ridiculous.

There was no reply, but Mark felt the boards under his thighs shift as someone sat down on the bench with him, moving with the slowness of the elderly.

After a pause, the man spoke again, seemingly directing his words out in the direction of the lake. "Is this what's supposed to make us human? Ponds and parks and tinny music?" The poppies were real, but the gardens within the fence line were not, shuddering in and out of view as a train roared over the tracks.

The man waited until it'd gone by before he spoke again.

"The whole thing is constructed purely for our benefit. Is this the idealized version of humanity you want to adopt?"

Mark looked up at last, amused enough by then to be willing to be distracted. The first thing he saw was the brown shirt, the pressed slacks, the clerical collar.

"I'm already saved, Shepherd," he said, sighing internally at having been tricked into conversation. "I got no use for God unless I can send him a wave."

Silence. It stretched for so long that the deliberately pointed nature of it goaded Mark into looking up again. The shepherd had a flat nose and brown skin, his white hair pulled back and knotted with a leather cord. He met Mark's eyes evenly and said, "What is it about being a shepherd that generates such disrespect in you? Do I deserve less respect than you do because I believe in God?"

Mark didn't answer, already regretting saying anything.

"I am not a man in love with his own cynicism, boy."

Smiling thinly, Mark acknowledged the statement. "I'm sorry if you were offended, it wasn't my intention," he said stiffly.

The shepherd smiled back, wry, picking up on the insincerity just fine. "An apology that's not an apology at all," he remarked. "Just what I'd expect from a government man, if we're still speaking in stereotypes here." He chuckled. "You'll learn, I suppose."

Oh, Mark sure did hate condescencion. "Learn what?"

"Respect," the shepherd said, so matter-of-fact that Mark's stomach went squirmy. Mostly, though, he felt irritated, because seriously? He had other things on his mind, he didn't have time to be sniping at an old man on a park bench. "It's sad, how much you really see when you stop and take a step back. Nobody truly respects anything anymore. Not money, not God, not the deep and the black of space, not the people they claim to love."

"Respect is just fear by another name," Mark answered.

"Then tell me, Mr. Zuckerberg, do you want to be feared?"

It shouldn't surprise him still, the recognition he gets from completely unexpected corridors, but it does, and he took a moment to be startled by his name coming out of a stranger's mouth. Someday, Mark decided as the shepherd smiled knowingly, when he is that age, he'll get to piss off the younger generations by turning every statement around into an uncomfortable question, but until then, he'll just have to be annoyed by it.

"I don't care," he said, waking his tablet back up again, and his stomach clenched because, for the briefest of moments, he'd forgotten what he'd been working on. Eduardo's handwriting crawled across his screen, cramped up in tight letters, like it hurt to move, and the unlocked encryption sat on top as an overlay in shiny red text.

I was always the one that wanted to help. Now I'm the one that needs help.

They're hurting us.

Don't leave me behind.

"Nothing buys your apathy quite like Alliance credit, hmm?" the shepherd asked. And then, "Don't look at my collar, boy, look at my face. They like to snap us up when we're young, burn us out fast, and leave us. Think, Mark, when you're my age, where do you want to be?"

"I don't care," Mark said again. "I'm already rich, and I just -- I just like making things."

The shepherd studied him then, looking unperturbed even when Mark gave up his scowl for his best, blandest poker face.

Finally, he said conversationally, "I hear you're potentially up for a Parliamentary nomination. By the time you're twenty-one, you might be one of the twelve most powerful men and women in the entire 'verse. Not just the richest, either, but in charge. Truly in charge. It's a bit of a step up from that little moon you came from, isn't it?"

Mark said nothing. The rumor, back then, was just a rumor: Mark didn't ask to be part of Parliament. All he did was reinvent the cortex, and from then on, things had largely been out of his hands.

"I was a member of the Election Cabinet, did I tell you?" the shepherd said out of the blue, and Mark stared up at him in shock, because that was supposed to be a secret. "Oh, yes, you were still very young, I imagine, but I was. Let me tell you, two weeks of being cooped up with twenty-three other people who didn't know a lick of politics will make you want to do something drastic, like join an abbey." He touched at his collar and looked rueful.

Then, even more shockingly, he looked at Mark and he said, "I'd cast my vote for you, if I had to do it again. You know how people work, and you'd never try to control them. The only person you've ever tried to control is yourself. I'd call that respect, and that's something our government ... sorely needs. Tell me," and something about him became urgent in that moment, there around the edges of his eyes. "Do you know how to build a person?"

"I -- what?"

"Could you, if I handed you stardust and bones, make a boy?"

Mark blinked. "I know my uniform says Alliance, Shepherd, but I do communications, not androrobotics," he said. "We're not all part of the same amorphous whole, we're actually individuals."

People were always more comfortable thinking of the Alliance as something abstract, insubstantial, some distant, ominously evil institution of oppression, but Mark had worked for them for two years, and he knew all of the other coordinators and most of his employees by name. There was nothing evil about the parts that make up a government, and the government was made of people just like him.

The shepherd stared at him unnervingly for another beat, then finally, looked away, out across the pond, towards where the poppies spread in every direction.

"We didn't inherit this universe from Earth That Was," he said quietly. "It wasn't a responsibility bestowed upon us by our ancestors. Rather, we're borrowing it."

This was news to Mark. "From who?"

There was no answer, not for awhile, as the Shepherd considered his words.

"From those most in need of protecting," he offered, and then turned his whole body to face Mark, and the look in his eyes was fierce. "From our children. From you," he said. "And from River. And Eduardo."

It jolted through Mark, surprise and fear both, and underneath it, the radioactive, supernova burn of disbelief, of hope, at hearing his best friend's name inside a stranger's mouth. His tablet slipped from his slack hands, the radio crooned, and the shepherd lowered his voice.

"My name is Shepherd Book," he said. "And I need you to listen very carefully."

Three days later, Mark sent Dustin a wave.

 

-

 

A dead man once told him that it didn't matter what you believe in, whether it was God or good folk or the power of change, so long as you believe it. So here it is, the deepest, truest belief of Mark's heart:

Everyone should have sex with a psychic.

At least once.

Just to try it.

Seriously.

Seriously. If he was ever planning on having sex with anybody ever again -- which, now that he thinks about it, he hadn't really, because he'd been busy and sex is the kind of thing you forget about when it's not happening to you and it's not important to you that it's not happening to you and you aren't constantly being reminded that it's not happening to you -- then it's not going to happen. He's been completely ruined.

Psychics ruin sex with anybody else forever. This is a truth.

Because who else would literally be able to read his mind and know what he wants and where he wants there to be hands and a mouth and oh, maybe that was kind of an enjoyable thing, can we do that again -- all before he's capable of putting two brain cells together to fire a signal to the third? It's like having twice the number of everything, and it's so overwhelming and yes, ruined.

Sex with people who aren't Mark and Eduardo has to be tragic.

The first couple of times Eduardo gets Mark flat on his back with that burn in his eyes that says Mark's mind is so stunningly open he never wants to surface from it, it doesn't last very long, it doesn't last very long at all, but Mark could not care less, because this is Eduardo and Eduardo's here with him and he's so glad one of them was brave enough to want to try this, he is, he is, and quick is fine, so long as he gets to stay here afterwards and suck on Eduardo's jaw a little bit, because he isn't really sure if he's capable of anything more complicated than that, like moving more than one limb at once.

"Your post-ograsm endorphins are showing," Eduardo rumbles amusedly, one hand still in Mark's hair.

"Your post-orgasm endorphins," Mark mutters back intelligently.

He apologizes, once, for not being able to return the favor -- unsurprisingly, mind-reading powers are not sexually transmitted, and the only head Mark's ever been inside is his own -- but Eduardo just laughs at him and says, "I feel everything you're feeling, you think that doesn't do it for me?"

Insomuch as he ever put Eduardo and sex together in the same sentence before -- which he hadn't, because Eduardo's his best friend and it's weird to think about your friends having sex, unless they're having sex with you, in which case you should probably pay attention, but Mark isn't really the expert on these things -- Mark supposes he'd assumed that the Academy had taken Eduardo's sex drive away.

It'd seemed like the kind of thing they'd do: go in and strip away everything inside his brain that might act as a distraction, so as to better control him.

Joke's on them, though -- even if they'd gone ahead and altered all of Eduardo's hormones, it wouldn't stop him from falling in love, because nothing, Mark's fairly sure, nothing could stop Eduardo from falling in love with the fuzzy, disjointed, peculiar things that people think all day; from the bitten-off, half-completed thoughts that zip around Mark's head to the uncomplicated philosophies of the snails that ooze around happily inside their terrariums.

He loves it the way Mark loves creating things.

And Mark thinks, once, then twice, about how, if he hadn't talked to Shepherd Book that day, he would still be the youngest, richest man in the 'verse. He could have been elected to Parliament.

He could have been a part of that system that created kids like River and Eduardo, used them, and wouldn't have thought twice about it. He could have been part of the government that they speak of so casually out here on the Rim, like "Alliance" is synonymous with "evil," and it would have been easy. He could have been so powerful. At school, Eduardo once teased him for thinking he could run some little moon, but Mark?

Mark could have run whole worlds.

The thought makes him laugh, the idea of all that power, because it all pales incomparably to being able to summon Eduardo from anywhere, not so much with a single thought so much as with sensation. To stand in the kitchen, peeling the shells off hard-boiled eggs, and in his head, to relish the feel of it: the lure of lust like a sting, the low-in-the-gut burn of anticipation, and the desire to be on his knees and to see Eduardo's face when he goes there, because it's the kind of thing that could consume stars, as fathomless and endless as empty space.

"Mark," comes strangled from the other room, where Eduardo is busy transplanting the new tadpoles to a bigger habitat.

Or was, because he's now leaning against the doorframe, an expression of great long-suffering on his face. Mark would believe it, except his eyes are as dark and wide and overwhelmed as they got when he was running over with excess emotion at the Diwali festival. Mark did that, all by himself.

"Don't do that," Eduardo complains. And again, "Mark."

Mark turns around and puts his back to the counter. He bites his lip to keep from smiling and doesn't even have to think about sex, because Eduardo's crossing the kitchen from that alone.

"You," and Mark's heels knock hard against the bottom of the drawer where they keep the saucepans, Eduardo pressed all against his front, and Mark doesn't know how anybody failed to mention it could be like this, the tectonics of physicality, how utterly and utterly breathtaking it is to be this close to someone. "You," Eduardo says again, quieter and less frustrated. He looks dizzy.

Mark wraps his arms around Eduardo's neck and laughs when Eduardo whines against the side of his face, "If you keep doing that, we're never going to get anything done."

"You can't get anything done while thinking about sex?" He tilts his hips so their legs fit together, and Eduardo widens his stance accommodatingly. He's got one palm spread open across Mark's ribs, so Mark breathes into him with every inhale. "How do you even get through town? People there have got to be thinking about sex."

"Yes, but this is you," Eduardo replies, like that makes all the difference. "It's you and me," and there's so much joy shot through his voice that Mark grabs a hold of his ears and thinks very pointedly about kissing until it happens.

And Eduardo's laughing at him, and they're kissing and laughing, and what are worlds and governments and money compared to this, this thing that they make here, together?

Ruined.

They're in the yard once, scattering meal for the chickens while the rain rolls mistily across the valley below, the earth oxygenated and vibrantly green, when Eduardo calls out to him, "Do you know what it's like to be a reader in love, Mark?"

His voice is full-throated, as jubilant as the clap of a bell, and Mark can't remember what the Eduardo before this was like: it's like someone had thrown open a dozen windows to let sunshine into an empty room and given someone permission to fill it with a hundred things, like white light shot through a prism, cascading into a full spectrum.

This Eduardo is a person. His own person.

"It's like I'm everyone who's ever been in love, and everyone who's ever been in love is me." Eduardo is suddenly right there, the collar of his coat open and his hand reaching for the bag of meal in Mark's hand. It hits the dirt, right in front of a brown-speckled hen who squawks bemusedly and eyeballs it, not entirely sure that it isn't a trick.

Eduardo drags the backs of his knuckles across Mark's face and says, soft, "I feel like I've loved you before there were ships, before there were stars, before our brains even fired neurons for the first time."

It strikes Mark hard as the blow of a hammer, leaving him dazed, and he has no name for all the things inside of him, some cacophonous mix of the base-line hum of Serenity's engines and the choir-like vocalization that Eduardo says growing plants sound like and a too-loud explosion of color, every bright thing he's ever thought about, and it doesn't matter that Mark doesn't say anything back.

Eduardo knows what he means.

 

-

 

Around the time the hydrangeas start blooming again, covering their front gate in sprays of pale pink and purples and dawn-colored blue, a wild yak wanders onto their property and gives birth.

She's big the way Bobby's big, the way the wolverine was big, and Mark doesn't know if yaks are naturally that big, or if this was another thing the Anglo-Sino Alliance tried to improve when they took to terraforming the planets. He rubs her nose as she lays on her side, whining piteously and huffing out great, gusty breaths. That Gorram Thing beeps uncertainly from the side door, unsure if she's a threat, and the chickens all huddle on the other side of the yard, clucking judgmentally.

After, Eduardo cradles the newborn calf in his arms, all wet and slick and seemingly made of legs.

For a moment, they just look at each other, and then Eduardo says something that's all consonants. The calf lows back and then heaves, knocking itself out of his arms. Its mother sits up, turning her head to nose at it contemplatively, before a single swipe of her tongue covers it from nose to rump. It blinks back at her, surprised.

Eduardo repeats the sound again, careful, and Mark laughs at how ridiculous he looks. Human throats weren't made to do that.

He looks offended. "Don't laugh, Mark, that's her name."

"I can't pronounce that, Wardo." The calf wobbles upright, bumping against Mark and flicking her ears at him. "Try translating it into English or Mandarin. English would be better, I think: its pronunciations are closer to yak."

They don't intend to keep either mother or calf, but they just wind up not leaving, even when the calf grows steady on her legs, and Mark eventually gets used to having an enormous, unimpressed audience every time he needs to do something in the yard.

It turns out that the cheese made from yak's milk isn't actually that horrible.

"There are seriously so many animals on my property by this point, I'm not quite sure if I can handle living with any more," he tells Heather Bao in her carpentry shop, after they go over his commission for a trough. The yaks are drinking out of the old bath basin for now, but they're going to need something bigger as the calf grows. "I live in a zoo."

"Imagine what it must be like for Eduardo," she replies, mild. "You've got human company, at least. He's just got you."

"Oh, ha, ha," Mark drawls. "Very funny."

"I thought so!"

And life goes on. Mark lives it like existence in amber, frozen and lovely.

The chickens get them up in the morning and Mark puts off going to collect the eggs so that he can burrow under Eduardo's arm for a few minutes more. They milk the mother yak, and the calf wobbles over and presses against Mark's side and tries chewing thoughtfully at the ends of his hair, which never fails to make Eduardo laugh.

Some days, especially when the fog is bad, they don't leave the property. Mark spends the day in his workshop, creating toys for Zhi Tang's younger twin brothers, who are now old enough to play with things without automatically wanting to swallow them, or creating something for the town hall or for Mackey or for One-Handed Luke's widow. Or, when Eduardo's creatures are content and he's lazy-eyed with the feel of it, he comes in to set his mouth to the back of Mark's neck and they spend the day in bed instead, and that usually ends with them -- feeling a lot like their bodies don't belong to them anymore, like they've spent so much time touching, pressing, licking each other that it's a disconnect, remembering what their own bodies are like -- in the shower, which now has hot water, Mark is never getting over that.

Other days, he bundles up cartons of fresh eggs and collects blocks of cheese and bottles of yellowed milk and hikes down into town.

Eggs for the baker, milk for the nursemaid who says it's good for mothers who can't nurse proper-like, cheese brought directly to the Stanford school because the girls think it makes their hair shiny, and whatever excess he has, he can sell to Shin Ross.

The children still chase him when he goes down the street, new faces and old faces, and whenever Eduardo's with him, they treat him with wide-eyed awe, because everybody heard the story about how Eduardo saved Gretchen's life.

Whenever they cross paths with Samson the glassblower's apprentice, he starts in with some obnoxious pirate shanty, because he still believes they're going to turn into cutthroats and traitors any day now.

Nobody really likes Samson, and he knows it. His face is too pinched to be trustworthy, he never says anything nice if he can help it, and he lurks out back behind the butcher's where all the impure meat is kept, hoping to convince Kito to give him cigarettes. He's always so angry, but it's not the kind of anger about anything anyone can fix. It makes him hard to be around.

"Maybe I'll take him," Mark finds himself offering, after Shin Ross throws him out of the store for trying to pocket matches, muttering about the glassblower being one vicious outbreak away from sending Samson right back to the city.

Shin Ross and Eduardo both stare at him.

"Do you think that's a good idea?" Eduardo asks, despairing. "I don't know if I can handle two of you."

"Maybe I want an apprentice, why can't we have one?" Mark fires back, and Shin Ross pulls a I'm not getting involved in this kind of face and makes himself scarce.

Sometimes, for the big holidays where it's difficult to turn down invitations to share tables, they'll eat with Gretchen and her sons. The oldest is getting married soon, to an arms-dealer who sells guns and tasers with filed-off serial numbers up and down the Sanatana Dharmas. She gives discounts to women living alone, and Mark hasn't yet found a polite way to ask her if she's looking to hire.

Sounds like something Christy might enjoy, though.

Both Mark and Eduardo spent their formative years eating holiday meals with Jesuit monks, so the novelty of home-cooking hasn't entirely worn off. Gretchen good-naturedly lets them hover as she cooks, politely looking away whenever they stand too close to each other, Eduardo conditioned for how their sides line up to take up the least amount of space and Mark extremely aware of how little movement it would take, to tip his head up and kiss Eduardo's mouth while Gretchen slices apples on a towel not five feet away.

And, of course, there's Eduardo himself, the best part of Mark's everything.

He reacts badly to needles and goes white-faced at the sight of knives, and the thing he hates most is the sound of pain inside Mark's head. The minds of plants and simple animals help him sleep, and he and Mark argue about money like it's a competitive sport (Eduardo always wins, which Mark pretends is because he has an unfair psychic advantage.) Whenever Kazuo Yu comes through for festivals, he jokingly asks when he's going to be allowed to put Eduardo in a suit, and Eduardo looks wistful.

"You can, you know," Mark prompts, fingering the collar of Eduardo's black coat.

There's not much call for suits on a farm. "Maybe," he allows, and leans into the touch.

In hindsight, Mark's mistake was wanting to fix Eduardo, or wanting to wait for Eduardo to fix himself. It doesn't happen because you don't fix people. That's what the Alliance keeps trying to do.

Once, Mark and Eduardo were children making dirty jokes out of the names they found on a map, and then they took a trip through space and found themselves here, and the best thing Mark could do for Eduardo, he's learned, is just to let him live. He wants to live with him, living with Mark is good for him, and Mark trusts that with the kind of faith they name mountains after.

Lately, Eduardo has more good days than bad, days in which there's nobody in his head except for himself and Mark; no ghosts of memories crowding as close as his shadow, nothing but the memories he made on his own.

They fixed the upper levels, but never really bothered decorating; they live most of their lives on the ground floor, in the kitchen and the workshop-menagerie, where Heather Bao has installed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves so they'll always have homes for anemones in jars and books that the schoolteacher donates to them and space for all of Mark's projects. They keep a mattress in the middle of the floor, all their blankets piled on top of it.

It leaves upstairs all barren rooms with clean windows, and when Eduardo gets nightmares, this is usually where Mark will find him.

He wakes him up, preemptively filling his mind with thoughts of storms; breathless explosions of lightning, the exhaling rush of rain, and Eduardo opens his eyes to breathe, looking right at him.

"They told us to sleep," he says in a voice Mark doesn't recognize. "They said all new places had strange noises."

"I'm not strange," Mark offers.

"No." Eduardo's eyes move, slow, and then he says, "Mark."

Mark lets him take refuge inside his mind for awhile, thinking carefully of the atmosphere and black starry space and the fiery autumnal colors of the trees on his homeworld and everything he knows about love, so that Eduardo doesn't have to remember the years he spent with his head sawed open, touched only by people wearing gloves.

"Do you ever wonder what would have happened if the Academy had picked you instead?" Eduardo asks him.

Mark stills, and then scrapes Eduardo's hair back in order to kiss the side of his face, ignoring the bared scarring at his temple.

He doesn't answer.

He wouldn't trade a second of this, not the way Eduardo feels wrapped up so close it's as if Mark's holding his own beating heart in his hands.

 

-

 

Mark asks him, once and only the once, if Eduardo is sure he wants this.

If he wants it for himself, he means, not because Mark wants it, Mark who didn't even know that he wanted it, wants it so bad it feels like a disease, twisting in his stomach, like he isn't entirely sure how he survived without it, just that he did. There's a difference between Eduardo wanting something because he wants it, and wanting something because he finally recognized what was in Mark's head and realized it was something he could give.

They're lying on their backs in the middle of the menagerie, warm and moonlit, and Eduardo still smells a little like salt from where he cleaned out the inside of the claw-footed tub, since the starfish were getting finicky.

"You're being stupid."

That almost doesn't phase him anymore.

"Well," he presses, because this is important. "How can you be sure I want it? I didn't even know I wanted it!"

"That's because you have the sexual awareness of a tadpole. One of the really ugly ones. It took drastic measures to get your attention, remember?" Eduardo rolls over then, throwing one leg over Mark's hips and pinning him there, palms pressing his shoulders back.

"Maybe I only want it because you want it. I would. I would give you anything you ask for --"

"Mark."

He stops talking, mostly because there's a hand over his mouth, but also because Eduardo looks serious, and it's almost a relief to be taken seriously about this, because Mark's trip-wire brain had been chasing it in circles, worrying.

"We're happy, right? This makes us happy. I want you to be happy, and you want me to be happy. Trust me to know the inside of your own head," says Eduardo calmly. "Since it's the safest place I know."

That night, Mark falls asleep to cricket song and wakes up to the sound of chickens clucking and Eduardo talking, soft, to the yaks, and he misses nothing.

 

-

 

Christy's still on-world, and occasionally when Ashleigh brings them the post, there will be something from her in it.

It's mostly letters that don't say a whole lot, except in general that she's okay and she's still not very happy with them for leading exciting lives and making hers exciting by default.

She sends them odd bits of junk, too, that Mark can immediately implement in his tinkering, which he enjoys, and other times, they get scraps of tactical plans: potential deployment strategies that the Alliance might use in an ambush; where the good, discreet spaceports on Jiangyin are, in case they need to get off-world in a hurry. And in one memorable instance, she sends them a whole pack of grenades.

As soon as they come within sensor range, That Gorram Thing freaks out and triggers its defense protocols, except Mark never really finished programming those, so it just spits soap bubbles in a particularly violent manner until Mark gets into its control panel and deactivates it.

Eduardo laughs at him for days afterwards, the bastard.

He thinks, sometimes, because he can't not, about Christy's warning that Eduardo's powers are supposed to evolve as time goes on.

"You can stop looking at me like I'm a ticking bomb," Eduardo informs him, after they get a note that just says, remember they let you walk out with him, because sometimes Christy's idea of subtlety is a brick to the face.

"Would you know?" Mark asks, eyeing him. "Would you be able to tell, do you think, if something was different?"

"Mark. I think that, the second anything in me changes, you'd notice it before I did."

Mark startles, and Eduardo's mouth quirks at the corner.

"Face it," he says. "By this point, I'm pretty sure you can read me almost as well as I can read you." He stands, cracking the kinks out of his back and pressing a kiss to the crown of Mark's head. "So let me know if I go crazier than normal, dong ma?"

Rainy season turns to dry, and for a week straight, the Kali rumbles and spits enormous columns of ash into the air, obliterating the sun and turning the whole world to greyscale. Eduardo locks the chickens in the coop and the yaks in the mudroom off the back of the house, and they celebrate Diwali that year huddled under tents on the school green, candles and lanterns held in their hands like it's a vigil, not a festival. Ashleigh loses fifteen goats from her herd, and comes back to town with eyes haloed in red, short-tempered and grieving and wondering whose brilliant idea it was to establish a township right by an active volcano.

The Kali settles again without eruption, and Mandy Bao hikes up the mountain to their house a few days later to return the spare the spare blankets they lent her and her mother.

"Samson Babchi says you're pirates or thieves or scound-a-rels or something," she announces by way of greeting. "But I don't believe him."

Mark blinks at her in alarm. "Did you come up all this way by yourself?" She bobs her head proudly, setting down a crumpled pile of blankets that looked like they might have been folded once. "Mandy, we don't know if any of those paths are safe yet, you could have gotten seriously hurt, you're only -- how old are you now?"

"Tchi, Tinkerman." She helpfully holds up seven fingers in case he missed it. "And in --" she counts. "-- three years, my age will be in the double digits like yours! I hope that means I get to do all the grown-up things."

In the other room, Eduardo starts loudly humming snatches of Some Hands Will Rob You, and Mandy's face lights up.

"Is that --?" she starts edging sideways, her teeth bared gleefully.

Mark waves her on. "Go on. He's a pirate, you should ask him about how he makes seven-year-old girls walk the plank."

Eduardo makes some obliging kind of pirate noise, or at least, something that might be a pirate noise to somebody who hasn't actually met any pirates. For all that Mark keeps on talking about taking on an apprentice ("you're not old enough to be teaching anybody a life skill, Mark, quit that,") he really thinks it's Eduardo who might actually gain a protegee first; Mandy thinks his menagerie is the coolest thing she's ever seen, and this is keeping in mind that Eduardo's menagerie shares a room with a veritable toyshop.

"I told you we live in a zoo," he remarks, leaning against the doorframe and watching as Eduardo very carefully takes a pickle jar off the top shelf.

"Why does it glow like this, Mr. Wardo, sir?" she wants to know, cradling the jar between her palms and peering at the pear-shaped anemone inside. It's the smallest one in Eduardo's collection, no bigger than a chicken's egg, and somehow, it's one of their brightest shiners, a pale turquoise glow up near the ceiling like a miniature moon.

Eduardo looks at Mark, who shrugs.

"They used to be sea creatures, you know," he says, and Mandy looks at him wide-eyed. She's never seen the sea. "But when they finished terraforming Jiangyin, all the phosphorescent anemones migrated into the fresh waters and adapted. Maybe because it was safer. Who knows?"

She absorbs this. "Do you think they'll ever want to go back?"

"Mine don't," Eduardo answers. "But that's because I make sure mine are happy and healthy and protected. Besides," he crouches down so he can point. "See that? That's an anchor. Anemones don't move around a lot."

"Not like people."

Eduardo's eyes meet Mark's over her head. "Some people have anchors too, Miss Mandy," he says quietly. "But our bones are made of stardust and dirt and lovely things, and stardust wants to be with the stars. That's why we always want to travel."

After she leaves, Mark corners Eduardo out by the gate. The hydrangea curl high along the arch of it, rustling in a mountain breeze. Their petals are wilted, shriveled up and grey-flecked by ash. The whole yard is covered in the stuff, except for the single clean bit Mark scraped out around the shrine.

"Were you serious, back there?" he asks, and continues before Eduardo can actually answer. "Because we can, you know. If you want. We could run, we could travel, we don't have to stay here if --"

Eduardo turns, catching Mark around the neck with the crook of his elbow and pulling him in. The kiss lands at the corner of his mouth, and lingers there until Mark slides an arm around his waist and turns it into a proper kiss. He can feel Eduardo breathing, feel his heartbeat like it's his own.

"Of course we could," Eduardo returns, in a voice that sways through him like a firefly pulse. "We could do anything, because we're you and we're me. And if Christy's right, and they let you walk away with me, then they're dummies --"

Dummies? Mark mouths back, and gets a bite on the chin for his trouble.

"-- because do you know how well we work together? There's not a power in the 'verse that could stop us."

"You believe that?"

"I believe that." It's a mnemonic device, a single word that stands for so many things at once; Shepherd Book's quiet, urgent voice and Kazuo Yu's definition of dharma and the strength that carried Malcolm Reynolds onward when he thought the weight of Miranda might have broken him, and when Mark fists his hand at the back of Eduardo's neck and kisses his mouth, there's nothing in his head but stars.

He has a plan.

What? he can hear Sean's voice in his head. You lived in a city and then you lived on a farm and now you're going to live in space?

They'll grab Christy on the way out, because she basically told them that if they didn't, she would skin them alive. All three of them are fugitives, and since they will always have to watch their back, they'll need someone who knows guns and the Alliance military-grade, roughly in that order.

Once they find Dustin and the Stephanie, they'll have the skeletal bones of a crew. It won't be a proper crew until they have Chris, so that'll be their first mission -- unless Chris managed to get himself elected to the new Sihnonese democratic council, which is totally something he would do. He'd never settle for just getting his Companion certification, that's not who Chris is.

Dustin never wanted to be captain, and Mark supposes that could be him, but let's face it's, Mark's a tinkerman: he'll keep that ship flying as long as there's a breath in his body.

And really, there's only one person suitable to be captain.

There's only one person they would all follow.

"Yo ho," Eduardo murmurs against his mouth. "Hoist the colors."

Mark would be lying if he said it's not what he wants. He never thought of himself as a spacer, but there you go. He wants it -- wants to see the violinists on Greenleaf, wants to find an actual hardcover book of Marilyn Delpy's poetry and keep it on a bookshelf, wants to visit Erica's baby, wants to show Eduardo the meteor showers they get in springtime in his home quadrant, wants to see Eduardo's face when he's listening to starsong.

And, he thinks as he turns around. If they never get to do any of that, that'd be okay, too.

Their house sits against the cliff-face, and it still bears the faded colors it'd been painted long ago, shades of dull blue and grey and sunflower yellow, giving it the look of a new dawn. There are chickens in the yard and starfish in the tub and That Gorram Thing in the window, and if they live the rest of their lives here, making toys for children and taking care of animals and keeping the lanterns lit all through Diwali, then that'll be good, too.

They'll be happy.

Behind him, he hears, "Do you remember the algorithm?"

It startles him, and he smiles so hard it cuts into his cheeks, because that's from so long ago. They were hungry border moon children and they decided to rank the other students on average intellienge: it was the very first thing Mark and Eduardo ever made together, and it had nothing to do with the Alliance.

Some things, he thinks. Some things can't ever be taken from you.

Mark turns around, and he says, joy lifting all through him like he's attached to a dozen helium balloons, weightless and without gravity, “Yes, I do.”

Eduardo's eyes go wide.

And only then does Mark stop and realize –

Eduardo hadn't spoken out loud.

 

 

2520
year of the snake
year of the official schism of the Anglo-Sino Alliance

 

He's gotten so used to sitting in the dark that when the twins come back in, flipping the light on, Mal flinches against the burn of it, sharp as needles in his eyes.

He squints through the glare; everything has a burnt-colored halo around its rim, but he makes out two great, looming shapes.

Well, don't this mighty fine shindig just keep getting better and better.

"Do you need anything?" goes Big and Beefy #1, the picture of consideration. Whichever Agent Winklevoss it is, Mal doesn't hanker enough to care. "A beer? A sandwich?"

"Nah," goes Mal, mild. "Being held and restrained against my will does tend to curb the appetite."

Big and Beefy #2 snorts.

"Funny," he deadpans.

"We've never heard that before," agrees Big and Beefy #1.

"The thing is, Malcolm Reynolds," goes Big and Beefy #2. "We're looking for someone. You know how it goes, I'm sure -- you've got something valuable, and then someone steals it, and then you start to realize you needed the person more than you ever needed the thing they stole."

"We think you might know him." Big and Beefy #1 folds his arms. "He took something from us, which we can replace easily enough, but we're keen to have him back."

"Stole?" Mal echoes, widening his eyes at them in faux shock. "From the Alliance? Well, now, that ain't right. I thought you boys were top brass. If you can be stoled from, then where's the hope for the little folk?" He shakes his head sadly. "Does me a great deal of hurt to say it, gentlemen, but I'm losing a little more faith in my government every day."

Big and Beefy #1 pulls out a syringe, peeling off the cellophane casual-like.

Mal's voice dries up in his throat.

He swallows audibly.

The other twin comes around, dropping something in front of him. It takes Mal a moment to focus on them and realizes they're pictures, helpfully spread out for him so he can look at each one in turn.

As soon as it registers what he's looking at, Mal fights the urge to scream, to kick like an injured creature, because that's the house in White River, a blackened-out husk, and those are the girls, bleeding from their temples and face-down dead, and that's Bobby, Bobby the door guy, Bobby Erica's husband, and that's a baby blanket, peeking out from underneath his corpse.

He flicks his eyes back and forth, but sees no tweed coat, sees no brown plaited hair.

"Now," comes from above his head. "I don't think you need us to tell you just how vulnerable a position you're in, Malcolm. There are some very curious gaps in your file, so we know you've cooperated with us before." Mal cringes inwardly and hates that Operative with every gorram fiber of his being. "It's in your best interest to cooperate again."

Agent Winklevoss leans in.

"So tell us," he says, low. "Where is Mark Zuckerberg?"

 

 

-
fin