Mal looked around the table. Most of his people were looking a mite shell-shocked. The Doctor looked expectant, as did Rose and Jack — he got the feeling the Doctor ran on like this a lot, and they were used to it. No wonder they let him do all the talking . . .
River was sitting with one of her bare feet twisted up into her lap, apparently absorbed in counting her toes over and over again, ignoring the rest of the room.
“So, lil’ Albatross,” Mal asked her, “Is he tellin’ the truth?”
“Everything he says is true,” River replied, calm as could be, without looking up.
Mal snorted. He knew River meant that exactly. “What isn’t he telling us?”
“Nothing you want to hear,” River said, finishing with her toes. She dropped her foot to the floor and smiled at the Doctor through the curtain of hair that had fallen in front of her face.
The Doctor grinned at her and winked like they were the best of pals.
“’Scuse me,” Mal said, distracted for a moment, “Weren’t you just scared to death of him?”
River looked at Mal with her wide, guileless eyes. “Storms can be scary,” she said in the tone of someone stating the obvious, “even if they aren’t going to hurt you.”
“A little mistaken identity didn’t help, either,” the Doctor observed, just as matter-of-fact.
Right about then, Simon — who’d been doing an impressive slow burn all this while — finally blew his stack.
“You know what was done to her!” he said, leaning forward, practically looking fit to climb over the table and grab the Doctor by the throat. “You have to tell me!”
He had a certain edge of wit’s end about him, and as the Doctor gave Simon his attention, his expression went sad.
“You’re the ship’s doctor, aren’t you? Not an imposter like me,” the Doctor shot a dry glance at Mal as he spoke. Mal did his best to keep his face blank, since he’d been thinking exactly that. “And you’re River’s . . . “
“Brother,” Simon snapped.
“Please,” Simon continued, his anger breaking apart into quieter desperation. “I need to know how to help her; I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time . . .”
The Doctor glanced back and forth between River and Simon, still looking sad. River was watching her brother, face solemn. “I . . . don’t know exactly what was done to her, in terms of step by step procedures, but I have an idea about the process. Should I . . .?” He waved a hand around to indicate the audience.
“Crew can hear,” Mal answered for Simon. That earned him a narrow-eyed, sidelong look from the Doctor, as if he’d spoken out of turn, but Simon nodded.
“All right then.” The Doctor laced his fingers together on the tabletop and looked at them for a moment, suddenly and uncharacteristically quiet. When he spoke again, he had everyone’s attention captured.
“You know how the brain and nervous system can compensate, in case of injury?” he began, in a voice halfway between a storyteller’s and a lecturer’s. “Undamaged regions take on new functions, new activities, to make up for what was lost.
“Sometimes, in the process of taking on new functions, certain areas of the brain can be . . . woken up, as it were. Brand new functions can be activated. It’s something that happens naturally, in cases of injury or disease. In fact, I once knew very nice young man who was in a vehicle accident, and suddenly became able to predict future probabilities with exceptional accuracy . . . but that’s another story.
“River is, of course, a functional telepath, as a result of the damage that was deliberately inflicted on her brain. Dreadful thought, that. You see, the only way to predict how the brain will compensate is to systematically take lots of brains, damage them, and monitor the results. It is an unpredictable, empirical process. I fear River is the endpoint in a long, long progression.”
Dead silence. Mal noticed that Rose and Jack were staring at the Doctor, completely horrified, like this was all news to them. His own crew wasn’t looking any happier, but seemed less surprised, since this wasn’t too far off of what had been figured before.
“The damage seemed to be concentrated in the amygdala,” Simon told him, voice soft.
“Hm. That would be . . . logical, now that I think about it.” The Doctor sighed unhappily.
“What can be done?” Simon asked, still speaking softly, as if in a hospital room. River watched him with a thin line of worry between her eyebrows — not for herself, or out of care for any possible treatment, Mal realized, but out of sympathy for Simon’s hurt.
The Doctor looked even sadder. “Realistically, nothing. Even if the damaged portions of the brain could be regenerated — with stem cells, say — the neural routing will never return to normal. The best possible treatments are Time, and love — which you have been administering already.” River smiled up at Simon, obviously agreeing. “I’m sorry.”
“I think there are some medications that could help,” Simon replied, doggedly. “But I just need to better understand the nature of the damage. Is there any way . . .?”
Unexpectedly, River spoke up. “You could look inside,” she told the Doctor, sounding perfectly reasonable.
Startled, Simon looked at his sister.
The Doctor seemed taken aback. “Well, I suppose I could — I’m not sure what I could tell from that, though.”
“Never hurts to try,” River responded.
“Actually, depending on what one is doing, it can hurt quite a lot . . . but in this case, no, I guess it wouldn’t."
Exasperated, Simon looked from River to the Doctor. “What are you two talking about?”
“River is offering to open her mind to me, telepathically, so I can have a look inside her head,” the Doctor replied.
“Whoa!” Mal sat bolt upright. “Are you sayin’ you’re a Reader, like River?” The thought of what a sane Reader — or even one only as sane as the Doctor appeared to be, which wasn’t one hundred percent — could do scared the hell out of Mal.
“Not like River, no.” A half-smile then, as if the Doctor could read Mal’s mind . . . “Never fear, Captain — I’d have to be touching you to read your thoughts, and you’d have to let me in. Don’t give me that look, no telepathy needed just now — it was plain on your face.”
Disconcerted, Mal tried to blank out his features more effectively. Jayne scooted his chair back a ways, so he was further from the Doctor, trying and failing to be inconspicuous. The Doctor ignored him, but Mal saw Jack smirk.
“When?” Simon asked, avidly.
“Oh, anytime, I guess. Now, if that works for you two . . .”
“All right, now, remember, this is my boat,” Mal broke in. Everyone looked at him. “And while this is all positively fascinatin’, we’ve got business to look to. Kaylee, you need to start working on the engines, now you’ve got your parts. Zoe, Jayne, those filters ain’t gonna’ change themselves. And if anyone’s gonna’ be looking into anyone else’s brain, it’s ‘cause I say so, clear?”
“Yeah, okay, Mal. Gorram filters.”
“Hey, I got us the good ones this time . . !”
Kaylee, Zoe, and Jayne all got up and filed out of the galley. Kaylee cast disconsolate glances over her shoulder, obviously dying to see what happened next. Zoe was unreadable, no surprise, and Jayne looked torn between being annoyed about having to change filters, and delighted to be the hell away from whatever telepathic weird shit might ensue.
Mal watched them go. “Inara,” he began.
She rose from the table, smooth and graceful. “I have things to see to in my shuttle,” she told him, sounding perfectly regretful. “I’m very pleased to have made your acquaintance, Doctor, Rose . . . Jack.” Her smoothness cracked open for just a second, as she and Jack exchanged amused grins. Then she was gone as gracefully as if it was her own idea.
Jack’s respect for Inara’s professonal skills didn’t stop him from watching her exit with a certain appreciation, Mal noted. Jack was the last of the remaining folks to turn his attention back to Mal.
Mal looked to River, who was tracing invisible patterns on the tabletop with a finger.
“You’re sure about this . . . telepathy thing, River?” Mal asked.
She nodded, tracing away.
“Well, then, I guess now’s the time.”
Everyone looked surprised, except for River and the Doctor. Figured.
“I’d . . . like to move to the infirmary, if we can,” Simon said.
“Excellent idea,” the Doctor told him, slapping the tabletop. He stood and extended a hand to River. “Shall we?”
She took his hand with no reservations whatsoever.
Mal noted that, and wished he felt half so confident as they followed after Simon. He made sure he was following up the rear, just to be sure. Best keep their three new “friends” all together, where he could keep an eye on them.
Sometimes, keeping an eye out was the best thing to do while waiting for further developments.
Sometimes it meant a man didn’t know what to do next, and was just fooling himself.
Hard to tell, ‘till after the fact, unfortunately.
Under the Doctor’s direction, Simon arranged two chairs facing one another, one for the Doctor, one for River. Rose and Simon took chairs off to the side. Jack stayed standing, leaning against one wall. Mal leaned in the doorway of the infirmary. Jack gave him a thin smile, making sure Mal knew he’d read the situation just fine, thanks. Didn’t stop Jack from looking infuriatingly confident.
Mal decided ignoring the man (at least visibly) was the best revenge. That type couldn’t hardly stomach it when people refused to pay attention to them.
“I’ll have to touch you,” the Doctor told River. “Is that all right?” She nodded.
He reached out to press his fingertips lightly to River’s temples. The touch was measured and careful -- looked like it was actually doing something, Mal noted.
The Doctor and River closed their eyes in perfect unison, then, which was a little creepy. But, creepy wasn’t a reason to draw down, so Mal held still.
“All right,” the Doctor said, sounding light and professional, almost like, well, a doctor. “Now, to let me in, you’ll want to visualize a door that you can open . . . oh, very quick! You’ve done this sort of thing before, I can tell . . . Now, the visualizations I’m used to involve doors and rooms and pathways, but I don’t know what you’re used to; if you could just show me the sorts of images you’re familiar with, it can make this easier . . .”
Suddenly the Doctor broke off cold, jerking his hands out and away from River’s head. His eyes flew open and he stumbled to his feet, nearly getting hung up in his chair as he recoiled, gasping.
Mal kicked away from the wall and had his hand on his gun before he even knew what he was doing. His peripheral vision told him Jack had come forward, too, and Rose and Simon had started to stand, but all of them stopped as the Doctor came to a halt.
River, still seated, had opened her eyes, and was looking at the Doctor in surprise. He was staring at her with eyebrows drawn down and teeth bared in a horrified, unbelieving expression. After a moment, he visibly controlled himself, and slowed his breathing.
“I . . . yes, well, I won’t be using . . . that . . . imagery,” he said, his voice shaky. He straightened and sat back down in his chair, scooting it back to be within touching range of River again. However, he kept his hands in his lap.
“I think it would be best if we used doors and rooms, as if your mind was a house — or a ship, would you prefer a ship, like Serenity . . .?" he asked, obviously working back to pleasant professionalism with an effort.
River, still looking a little confused, considered. “Ship,” she told him.
“All right, then. Now, you’ll let me in the lock, and I’ll take a look through the rooms and corridors. Anything you don’t want me to look at, you just visualize it being in a room with a sealed hatch, all right?”
River, seeming surprised, told him “Yes. What don’t I want you to look at?”
“You have to decide that yourself,” the Doctor said gently. “You can do that, you know, it’s your mind.”
River blinked, and smiled, suddenly a dazzlingly pretty young woman.
The Doctor smiled back, and, somewhat gingerly, Mal thought, placed his fingertips back at her temples. Their eyes closed again.
“Oh, there’s the lock already, well done . . . now, just relax . . .” The Doctor fell silent, though his lips moved as if he was subvocalizing. Once he laughed, and River smiled at the same time, but for the most part, they looked calm and serious.
Mal hooked his thumbs though his belt and sweated, hoping to hell he knew what he was doing.
River was surprised. The Doctor was very polite. It was like meeting the biggest, scariest monster you could think of, and having it sit you down in a soft chair and offer you tea and dumplings instead of ripping you limb from limb. She hardly would have known he was in her mind at all, if he hadn’t kept up a running stream of chatter, to let her know where he was.
He cared about her, and he didn’t even know her. It was an amazing thing.
He was like Mal, who would have been smartest if he’d tossed her and Simon off his ship ages ago, but who instead kept them around and called her his lil’ Albatross. Not that Mal hadn’t moved in a tossing-away direction once or twice, but he’d never quite finished the cast, so to speak, because something in him wouldn’t allow it.
Unlike Mal, though, the Doctor could hear her, all the things she said without her mouth and her lungs. That was a surprise, too. And he listened. And he understood -- which was the flat-out biggest surprise of all.
The Doctor finished his tour of her mind-ship, taking in the artificial image structure one last time, and giving her wordless approval, like he was nodding his head as he looked ‘round. He moved to the lock, and just before he exited, he whispered, Tonight, when you dream, look for me — I think there are things we should see together. Then he was gone, and it didn’t even hurt.
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