She hummed a song that no one knew now, a song from Earth-That-Was, as she walked. New Dunsmuir reminded her of Hong Kong and London all smashed together — two places now lost forever to her. She pulled the cloak around her a little tighter — the suns in this 'Verse were stronger than what she was used to, so she wore a cloak and hood to protect her fair skin. Hefted her pack on her back, worked her neck to hear the fluid crack between them.
It was summer here, and she'd just gotten in from Paquin, having taken the sights of the carnivals and circuses there. The weather here was far more pleasant, closer to the ocean. She wandered for her living. She would never have to worry about money — the long, slow death of Torchwood had ensured her all of the funds she'd ever need. After all, she had all the time in the world, as it were. In the 'Verse.
She and Jack held hands, looking up at the ceiling of her quarters. Hearing the Doctor rummage around near the controls down the hall and curse in something the TARDIS wouldn't translate as he dropped something on his foot.
“What do you think it's like to live 900 years? To be immortal?” She asked quietly, wondering if he was still awake.
Jack turned to her and smiled, squeezed her hand, then looked back up at the ceiling. “Based on the Doctor, I would say that it would be tiring.” He got more serious. “That it hurts, it would hurt to lose everything you ever knew and loved and have to live with that in you for centuries or eons afterward.” He'd lost only two years of his life, but who knows what had happened then? He sighed, rubbing his forehead.
Rose nodded, overwhelmed with grief for him and the Doctor at that moment, gripped Jack's hand a little tighter. He just grinned, loud and bright at her and she felt a small smile forming back at him.
“You, Rose Tyler, hopefully won't suffer that fate. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.”
Little mica stars embedded in the ceiling shining down, refracting back from the fairy light of the TARDIS' functioning core and this was home.
She felt the years weigh heavily on her shoulders all of a sudden — as much as her pack — and she felt the need for a drink. Haunted by two pairs of blue eyes, one pair of brown, and the shout of “FANTASTIC!” from the distant past. Ringing in her ears. Shut her eyes, got control of herself. How many times had this happened before?
She found a bar on the nearest corner from the Port, and went in. Ordered something that tasted like Hyper-Vodka (but there wasn't anything like that here in this 'Verse), sat down at an empty table and nursed it. She hadn't had any actual good alcohol in awhile (sorry, but Mudder's Milk wouldn't cut it for her), so it was refreshing.
She had many names (some of which weren't even hers, and wouldn't the Doctor laugh if he heard them calling her what they did?), she was legendary. She took off her cloak, stuffed it in her pack. She heard there this place also functioned as an inn. Maybe she'd stay here for a spell, get some fresh food, fruits. Let her mind drift, listening to a conversation a few tables down, nodding off. And in her sleep, felt her spine stiffen when she heard them.
Still in the bar, still life like. Almost like she was in the TARDIS again with its intensity of dreams.
Huai Lang. Blaidd Drwg.
A voice behind her, soft child-woman's voice.
“You dream too loud.” She said and Rose looked up into River's face. “But we need your help, Blaidd Drwg.”
Rose's arms grew goosepimpled at hearing the Welsh pronunciation of those two words, goddamn words, but she nodded. One thing the Doctor and Jack had taught her — if people ask for help, help them. And this haunted girl standing before her, strong but still not quite right, definitely needed her help. River gave her her hand, and Rose took it, standing up, shouldering her pack and let herself be led along.
It's not like she had anything to lose, anyway.
She opened her eyes and looked at the clock. Only an hour had passed on by.
The words swirled in her ears upon waking. “Awaken from your sleep and help us, Rose Red. Rose White and the Bear wait for you. The Doctor and Jack wouldn't want this grief from you. Arise.”
River's eyes flew open.
“Wei lai bao feng yu.” She gasped as she sat up. This was the fifth day in a row she'd woken up from those dreams, the dreams of a girl traveling, then suddenly being sealed off, trapped, hating, crying, hurting. Hurting. Rose White, Rose Red — who got the bear in the end?
Her head in her hands, trying to control her breathing, sweat streaming down her back, the screams in her ears, the crying endless crying that she heard from the girl in her dream. She was so lost in these memories that weren't hers, and started to wonder if she were going crazy again.
Warm large hand on her shoulder that was freckled from sun exposure.
“Lil' Albatross.” He said kindly, checking to see if she was okay. It had become wordless between them now that she'd taken to sleeping on the bridge with her soft futon and blankets because of Simon and Kaylee not making up their minds on whose bunk to use at night — whenever she had bad or strange dreams, he'd usually be there, getting ready for his own shift or leaving from it. Or maybe he never left at all. She looked up at him, blinked twice. Once seeing that she was okay, he patted her shoulder awkwardly, roughly. “Get to work.” He said with a lopsided smile.
“Yes, Cap'n.” Her voice was faint in this hot summer day. They'd flown in to the beaches of Beaumonde the night before from a job on Whitefall, and things had actually been somewhat pleasant with Patience this time around. Somewhat pleasant meaning Mal didn't get shot, the job got done, and no one got killed or unduly cheated. But as they'd been doing jobs back to back to keep their finances in check, the Serenity crew was frankly exhausted. Mal made the executive decision to grant two days of shore leave here on Beaumonde that could possibly be extended, provided no one fuck up or get into trouble.
River clambered awkwardly, still wearing yesterday's light dress, into the pilot's chair, still half awake and not as graceful as usual. She'd been sleeping deeply and that was rare for her. With the warm summer weather it made her dizzy, a fuzziness at the edge of her senses. She ran all of her usual checks, made sure Serenity was happy in her spot shaded by some trees, and could see the ocean, the End of the World, stretched out in front of them. She could feel Mal's eyes on her, studying her. They'd grown somewhat closer in the past year since that fateful day Wash died, and buried on Haven. River had grown exponentially more lucid, less crazy, less prone to outbursts — much to the relief of the crew. It seemed that purging that awful secret of Miranda and the Pax that the Academy had embedded into her brain had been the real problem, had broken her in the first place. She'd never been whole again, that was for sure, but she could function like a girl now, function properly, though still a bit awkward in her body as if she'd never been in one before.
Long nights spent piloting with Mal or Zoe, but mostly Mal, since he'd been worried about how she could do the job. She didn't require much sleep — only about 2-3 hours at the most and those usually were pretty good quality hours. That's one good thing that had come out of the horrible tortures of the Academy, at least. They'd spent their time in silence, very occasionally talking, and it grew routine, comfortable. But the more comfortable they'd gotten, the more they watched each other like curious cats. Circling. River had made it a point not to poke into his mind (though it would be so easy), but she was curious. Up until the last few days, her dreams had been his dreams, she dreamed the bad dreams of the crew and gave them good ones, but his were the ones she couldn't sort out, and how she was in them, and how she glowed. How she was a girl, not just a functioning prototype, but a real girl he held in his arms and watched her fight and her reality rippling around her like a halo.
And then these dreams now of a different girl, and she'd shut the door from her mind to his, and there was Rose Tyler and the Doctor and Jack Harkness. Waking up, wanting to vomit from a grief that wasn't even her own.
She found it harder and harder to look at him. Not out of anger, but out of skittishness. Because she wanted to be a real girl. Badly. All she wanted was to be seen as such, and now that he was, he buried it in his subconscious and dreams, leaving her to sift through the mess it made in her brainpan. All trembling, awkward, fumbling. Her captain. She stretched, feeling her muscles pull and ache pleasantly, then settled back in her chair, bare childish monkeyish feet on the dash, closing her eyes and breathing in, finally starting to feel her cells wake up with the sun soaking into her skin.
“What's the story?” He asked, swinging around in his chair, studying her. She turned to him. “She's fine, happy”, she said, patting the dash. “She needs to rest now and again. We found a good spot for her. Cool, dry. She likes the Earth as much as she loves the Black.”
She could hear the distant whooping of Kaylee at the sight of the beach outside, Simon's gentle laugh and Jayne's grumbling about her cheerfulness so early in the morning, though it was well after noon. Zoe was quiet — probably still asleep. River could feel her dreams pressing against her temples. She was dreaming of Wash again. Always Wash. Or Serenity Valley. Hera. War.
In the end, that's what it came down to: Love and War.
Mal had his own wry little smile, standing up, looking out at the waves. “That so?” He patted the dash as well.
“She feels whole, wants to burst from joy.” At that point she hadn't made clear who she was talking about — herself or Serenity — when feeling him watching her again. She spoke again hastily, “To have her crew in her happy. Makes her want to laugh. Joy.”
“It's been awhile. Long hard year.” He put his hands in his pockets, going on tiptoe and back on his heels for a bit, trying to get the blood moving. “For all of us.” He murmured. “Time we had ourselves a little break.”
Around the kitchen table with fake coffee they talked of their timetable for the next few days. Kaylee was to find gas for Serenity; Mal handed her coins and she dutifully nodded. Simon was to find medical supplies if possible (too much friendly fire on Jiangyin) — if anything went awry or he encountered Alliance, he was to run. He also nodded, took Kaylee's hand, and those two left. Inara mentioned in passing that she had some clients and that she would be back the next day, draining her tea hastily to go get ready.
He, River, Jayne, and Zoe remained. Seeing the look on his face, Zoe sat back, arms crossed against her chest. “I knew there was another reason we stopped here, sir.” She said dryly.
“We have contacts.” He said, sitting back himself, taking another sip of coffee. He grimaced at the taste — they'd definitely have to get some fresh, or some real next time around in the marketplace.
“Aw, Mal”, Jayne looked pissed. “I thought we was here to relax.”
“Oh, we are. But we work before we play.”
Jayne mumbled something about how hard they'd been working lately into his coffee, returned to polishing his guns. “So why is she here?” He asked crankily, gesturing to River, who was poking her teabag in the empty cup with a sharp nail.
Zoe sighed, long suffering. “You know she's proven herself on jobs, Jayne. Girl can fight better than any of us.”
At the same time, Mal said, “'Sides, she's been saying very interesting things in her sleep lately.” Mal peered at her curiously.
River looked at him, chewing on her lip. “Not polite to hear people's sleep talk.” She said, holding his stare for a beat too long. Then realized what he was saying.
“What she says when she sleeps...when she wakes up..” Her eyes widened, remembering, “Wei lai bao feng yu.”
Zoe stiffened. “The Coming Storm?”
Jayne scratched his head with his unloaded pistol. “Why does that sound familiar?” He asked aloud, “Coming Storm...”
Mal smiled, slightly grimly. “We're on a hunt for the Bad Wolf.”
Zoe looked at him. After a beat. “Sir, I think you have a problem with your brain missing.”
Mal got up, took his cup to the coffee maker to get more. “And why would that be?”
“Everyone knows that Huai Lang isn't...I mean, she's just a legend, isn't she?”
“Why would we want her anyway?” Jayne asked, still confused. “Why are we trusting her dreams anyway?” Though he and River had made an uneasy peace, he still distrusted her sometimes. Make that a lot of the time, especially when it came to their jobs.
“Because they have come true more times than you can count on your fingers and toes whenever we have jobs.” Mal and Zoe said, their voices clashing against each other. “Saved us quite a few times over.”
River just stared at the table.
“You've been dreaming about the Huai Lang, Lil' One.” He said, not a question but a statement. She nodded. “What did you see?”
“Christ, this again.” Jayne grumbled and Mal told him to shut it.
River closed her eyes, her words came out with her breath in a rush. “She cannot die. She has been all over the 'Verse. She isn't from this 'Verse but another. She is the last survivor of the Earth-That-Was. She is empty inside. She looked into the heart of a living machine and saw everything. The Bad Wolf is still just a girl. She never grew up. Lost everything. Scatters her name across the stars, like breadcrumbs. Lost in the woods, can't go home. Her name will lead her home, she believes, one day. No home left, burned to the ground with Rose White inside. Rose Red wanting to meet the Bear again. Rose Red, Rose White, not complete without each other.” After a pause, now not making herself quite clear on who she was talking about. “She wakes up, wants to vomit she's so sad. 500 years of loneliness, no more home. Not anywhere anymore. Nothing and nowhere.”
Used to following her tangled thread of descriptives, it still took them a moment to unravel it into coherence — though it was way better than it had been before. “And you've dreamed all of this?” Zoe asked gently, but firmly after she'd finished.
She nodded. “She was with someone named the Doctor. But not anymore. The 'Verse closed up and swallowed him whole so that she could live and the Earth-That-Was died anyway. That's why she's dead inside.”
“Who the hell is this gorram Bad Wolf anyway?” Jayne growled, slamming his pistol on the table. “If she's just a legend, why are we wasting time chasing her down?”
“You will take a civil tongue at this table.” Mal said mildly but with a glare. “The Bad Wolf...it sounds like the legends all line up, then.” Now more to himself, musingly, as he paced around the table and back. “We heard about her in the war, that she was helping our side of things. That she used to work for something called Torchwood, and even they couldn't help what happened to Earth-That-Was. That she knows things that even most Alliance historians don't, even about the Doctor.”
“So she failed at everything. Who cares? Why do we need her?”
Zoe watched her Captain, then caught on to his train of thought. “We need more information.” She said, having it dawn on her. “The Alliance's weak points, its actual history, what really happened to Earth-That-Was, the Academy . It's all connected.”
“But that's the past. How does that earn me money?”
“The past never stopped happening”, River said softly, wringing out her tea bag around her spoon. “Still going on. Time keeps flowing on but not for her. Heart frozen beats on.”
Mal nodded. “As long as she's intact in the brainpan, that's fine. I think the Bad Wolf can help. Maybe about this Academy thing, maybe about everything in this 'Verse. She can help us keep flying.”
“And if she ain't?”
“Then we take our sweet time here and relax. Either way, we don't have much to lose here.”
“Talk about puttin' all your eggs in one basket.”
Zoe nodded at the Captain. “Know your enemy”, she smiled, “Like the first day of trainin' all over again. But where do we find her?”
Mal looked at River.
“She's here on Beaumonde. New Dunsmuir.” After a beat, stirring around the teabag in the empty cup as the others stared agog (they never did get used to that Readin' of hers) while she shrugged. “She dreams too loud.”