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man in the moon

Fic: The Man In The Moon (Prologue: "Pareidolia")

Posted on 2008.01.15 at 15:57
Affectus (State of Mind): chipperchipper
Camena (Music): "One Summer Night" - The Diamonds
Tags: ,

Fic: Pareidolia (1/6 of The Man In The Moon)
Author:  Green Owl
Rating:  PG (Regan Tam shows some skin, River calls her brother a name, Gabriel Tam encourages misbehavior)
Summary:  AU.  The Tams are sending their youngest on a vacation, but River’s not quite enthusiastic about her destination.  Prologue for The Man In The Moon.

Originally posted at Copper For A Kiss on 15 January 2008.

Disclaimer:  I don't own or buy/sell/process this mind crack - I just abuse the hell out of it.

“Correct your posture, River,” the woman ordered in a tone that was cool and smooth as the satin slip she wore. 

Standing in the midst of the vast glacially white dressing room, River Tam glanced up from her feet to watch her mother apply rouge to her pale, flawless skin.

“As I have said too many times already this week, we have already discussed this and your conversation is swiftly becoming wearisome.”

Regan Tam sat at her dressing table, a slender marble goddess readying herself for an evening’s politicking.  Self-possessed, confident and glamorous, she seemed as distantly cold to her daughter as the Reesho queen for whom she was named. 

“With all due respect, Mother, we did not discuss this.  I did not know about this until three days ago,” River ventured quietly, trying to stand up straighter.

“By ‘we’, I meant your father and I,” Regan clarified, examining the perfection of her cheekbones before reaching for her lipcolor.  “Have you finished packing?”

“Yes, ma’am,” River replied, casting her eyes down to the thick carpeting where her normally elegant feet twisted in a grotesque parody of childish timidity. 

“Excellent,” Regan said before running the tube of luxurious color over her lips with detached grace.  “Now go to bed.  You have a long journey ahead of you tomorrow.”

River hesitated for a moment, glancing at the folded document clenched in her hand as she bit her lip.

Regan glanced over at her daughter in the mirror.  “Yes?”

“It’s still not too late for you to enroll me in the Academy’s summer program!” River said quickly, unfolding the piece of paper and showing it to her mother.  “Dr. Mathias says they are willing to clear a spot for me if you and Daddy consent to sign the enrollment form.  I can pay for the tuition with my own savings - ”

“No.”  Regan answered brusquely, halting her daughter’s impromptu speech without looking away from her reflection. 

River stepped back reflexively, her teeth snapping shut with an audible click.

Regan took a deep breath and put down the lipcolor before turning her attention to her younger child.  “River, you must understand that this is for your own good.”

“But, Mother, it’s so…so bù gōng!” River protested, words bursting from her lips before she could dam them.  “I can’t go ten whole weeks without – ”

“Silence,” Regan ordered quietly, holding up an impeccably manicured hand.  “I don’t wish to revisit the subject again.  Consider it closed.”

“Yes, ma’am,” River replied, looking down again at the toes of her slippers.  She bent down and air-kissed her mother’s cheek, careful not to smudge the make-up that had been applied with such care and precision.  “Good evening, mǔ qīn.”

“Good night, nān,” Regan replied in a calm tone as she rose and crossed to the section of the dressing room where her considerable collection of formal gowns hung.

River paused for a moment, watching her mother select an ice blue frock from the rack and wondered, not for the first time, if the woman had hired a surrogate to gestate her brother and herself.

“If you’re not in bed in ten minutes, xiǎo jie, I will have your brother administer a smoother and you’ll wake up halfway to Shadow without getting a chance to make your farewells to the staff,” Regan said casually as she held the gown against the white fur stole already selected for the evening. 

River shivered as she left the perfectly climate-controlled room.

* * * * *

“Are you really going to try and smuggle that out of the house, mei mei?” Simon Tam asked, watching his nightgown-ed sister attempt to stuff yet another electronic device into her already-full carry-on bag.  “Mrs. Dao is under orders to inspect your luggage with a fine-tuned metal detector before you leave tomorrow and she’s sure to confiscate it.”

River paused in the act of trying to wedge the Niú Jīn Dà Xué Chinese Dictionary into one of the many side pockets and sank down onto the upholstered bench at the foot of her bed.

“No harm in trying, ge ge,” she whispered miserably as she wrapped her arms around her waist. 

Simon crossed the room and added his own arms to the hug.  “Shhh, this isn’t the end of the world.”

“It certainly looks like it from where I sit,” she whispered bitterly, leaning on his shoulder and his strength.

“I know,” Simon said, stroking her hair.  “I know.”

She looked around her bedroom, taking in the pale, cold décor her mother had chosen for her when she was still a toddler. 

The entire Tam estate was designed to give the impression of understated, tasteful, and “old money”, from the authentic granite statue of Buddha from Earth-That-Was in the parlor to the black walnut paneling in the foyer to the steel blue patterned satin coverlet of River’s bedspread.  She understood the attempt to convey prestige and security, but she hated the duplicity of it, pretending to be cultured and urbane when her mother’s friends and associates were just a shade away from savages in the ways they engineered plots within plots, always scheming to gain power over each other.

River had always been highly intuitive, but something had subtly shifted in the past few years, as if adolescent hormones were acting on her maturing brain, making it an antenna for people’s feelings and sometimes, their thoughts.  The signals, once fuzzy in her childhood, had gradually grown clearer and clearer, especially if she wasn’t paying attention to blocking them out and someone happened to touch her.

It was worst during the most recent spate of parties when Mother had Mrs. Dao do up River’s hair, doll her up in silk and lace and ribbons, and make her navigate through the piranha-infested waters of the eager politicians that filled her home.  They were all in a frenzy to ingratiate themselves with the rich and powerful Councillor Tam and their nasty mental asides gnawed at River’s composure.

“What a pretty little lady your daughter is, Councillor.  Shooting up like a little weed, isn’t she?”

(Not as pretty as my Umeko, and my, my, but that girl says the most peculiar things.  Her parents should have taught her better manners…)

“Have you settled on a husband for your daughter yet, Mrs. Tam?  My Chauncey’s just about her age and I’m sure they would suit each other quite nicely.”

(As would their fortunes...)

“Your daughter’s such a little beauty, Regan!”

(Definitely gets her looks from that husband Tam bought herself all those years back…)

It seemed to River that the only way to detach herself from the social gatherings and their resulting spiritual fatigue was to literally distance herself as much as possible.  She found that few people accosted her if she secreted herself in her room with her books or engineered “extra” ballet practices where even though the signal came through, it was effectively drowned out by the mental and physical exhaustion from studying and dancing. 

Within weeks, she’d become so adept at avoiding parties and fundraising events that it seemed her mother had forgotten all about her and River was left mostly to her own devices.  Unfortunately, in her attempt to pursue her education even further by asking for permission to attend the new government-sponsored academy on Londinium, River had once again attracted her mother’s attention.

Things came to a head after an especially embarrassing incident that happened backstage after one of River’s performances in Swan Lake.

Drat that D’Arbanville woman!

“Why Mother is punishing me?” River asked, wiping her eyes with the back of one of her hands.  “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“She is not punishing you, mei mei,” Simon insisted.

River gave him a withering look.  “She’s sending me to a piddling backwater planetoid for the entire campaign season while she runs for yet another upgrade in Parliament and I’m not allowed to even take a tablet!  If that does not constitute punishment, then what does?”

“A vacation?” Simon suggested tentatively.

“Why would I need a vacation?!” River demanded, craving the case of librochips above her writing desk.

“I don’t know,” Simon said, peering into her carry-on bag and noting the massive collection of books-on-disc that she’d attempted to cram into every available nook.  “Maybe because Mother thinks you need to get some fresh air?”

“There’s plenty of fresh air here!” River said, drawing her knees up and hugging them to her chest.  “And ballet classes and libraries and that quantum physics symposium I’ve been looking forward to attending since they announced it last fall.  All of it perfectly respectable and much more affordable than passage to the Outer Rim where I’ll be lucky to see a Cortex screen.  They probably don’t even have plumbing!”

Simon patted her back.  “No pouting, mei mei.  At least you get to have a vacation.  Me, I’m going to be cooped up in little better than a floating field hospital, trying to make do with equipment and mindsets straight out of the Bronze Age.”

River smiled wryly.  “I don’t suppose you’d be open to smuggling texts for credits, would you?”

“With Mother and Father having all of your post opened before it gets to you?  Not a chance even a joketome would make it through,” Simon answered, shaking his head. 

River sighed as she looked out the window, where the Thoth hung in luminous splendor in the Osiris night sky.  “Ten weeks with no Cortex…I’ll be the idiot child when I return.”

“Hardly,” Simon scoffed before he got up and crossed to the door.  “Look on the bright side of the moon – I know Shadow’s barely civilized, but at least you know when you arrive they’ll have ‘running water’.”

“Not funny, dà shǎ guā!” River called as she shot to her feet, suppressing the urge to throw something at his head as he beat a hasty retreat.

An imposing, shadowy figure filled the doorway.  “River Nǚ-Shén Tam, what would your mother say if she heard such language?”

Gabriel Tam, entirely striking in his evening wear, stepped into the room carrying an armful of clothing.

River took a step back, instantly contrite.  “Duì bu qǐ, bá ba.  I know I am supposed to be abed.”

“Don’t fret, peaches,” Gabriel said sotto voce, doing his best to not chuckle as he began laying the clothing out on the bench.  “I’m not here to discipline; I come bearing gifts.”

“What are those?” River asked, warily eyeing the items even though she was relieved that he was not angry.

“Your mother said you might need some casual garments while you’re on Shadow so I chose these for you from the vintage wearhouse down the street.”

She stood up and perused the selection of tops and bottoms with half-hearted interest.  “Hmmm…they’re very practical.”

Gabriel put an arm around his daughter’s shoulders hugged her to him.  “That’s my girl-child, ever enthusiastic about fashion.”

River peered more closely at the stitching on a pair of dark blue cotton pants and paled.  “Dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot!”

“What – ?  You’re not getting sick, are you, peaches?”  Gabriel asked, turning her about to check her forehead. 

River tried her best silent, chewing on the inside of her cheek as her father looked for signs of fever in her temperature and her eyes, but she could feel the scorching scratchiness she identified as concern radiating off of him in waves and her mouth opened of its own accord and the words came rushing out.  “It’s Morse code, Daddy - don’t you see?  S.O.S. – ‘Specters on Shadow’.  Even the trousers are telling me not to go!”

“Is that all?  Here I was, afraid we’d have a replay of last month when Mrs. D’Arbanville came backstage to congratulate you on your performance in Swan Lake and you told her she had ‘blood on her hands’.”  Gabriel gave her much the same wry smile she’d given her brother earlier before gathering her into his arms.  “Peaches, you know your mother and I are proud of how easily your mind grafts patterns, but I’m pretty sure that Mr. Levi Strauss did not place a secret message in your denims.” 

River felt something in her soul coil with shame as she fought the burning in the bridge of her nose that signaled the onset of tears.  “Is that why are you and Mother sending me away?”

Gabriel kissed the top of her head and rested his cheek against her hair.  “We just want you to have a chance to have a normal summer.  That’s all.”

“There’s nothing ‘normal’ about a planet that chooses to model its culture on mid-20th century Americana, bá ba,” River pointed out, carefully fingering the heavy stitching that had made her so uncomfortable moments ago.

Gabriel took her face in his hands.  “Nān nān, how old are you?”

“Sixteen,” River answered and took a deep breath. 

“And how many degrees do you have?”

“Three.  One in comparative literature, one in astrophysics, one in Anglo-Sino music.”  The conversation was a familiar one.

“And how many dates have you gone on in your entire life?”

River made a face as she remembered.  “Three.  All of them engineered by Mother.” 

“And all of them unqualified disasters through no fault of her own,” Gabriel reminded her. 

“It was not my fault the first two ran screaming when I launched into an in-depth explanation of string theory,” River objected.  “And the third, he lasted as far as dessert, but he headed for the hills when I told him I had no interest in politics and was investigating a career in animal husbandry on Muir.”

Gabriel sighed as he set his hands on her shoulders.  “Peaches, your sense of humor is not universally translatable.  You need to learn how to interact with others.  Shadow provides the ideal controlled environment for you to socialize with a minimum of danger; no one will know who you are.  You can truly have an ordinary teenage experience.”

River twisted her lips.  “Can’t you just ship me off with Simon and not tell Mother?  I promise I won’t get into trouble!  I might even learn something useful while I’m on board.”

Gabriel shook his head.  “Afraid not, nān nān.”

“It’s so unfair!” River said, looking down at her bitten fingernails.  “Most parents spend all of their time trying to get their children to study and I’m being penalized for enjoying the education process.”

“That’s not the case at all,” Gabriel said gently.  “We just want you to have a little fun before you’re too old to enjoy being young.”

“Fun?” River asked, pulling back and looking wistfully at the walls of literature that adorned her room.  “Fun would be scouring the Strand on Londinium for a reproduction scroll of the Book of the Dead.”

Nān nān, you’ve been on a mission your entire life to live up to your intelligence, all the while disdaining the questionable activities that the most ordinary of teenagers enjoys,” Gabriel reminded her.  He went over to her carry-on bag and began systematically removing the collection of encyclopedias, dictionaries, anthologies and high-level mathematics chips she’d secreted in her socks.  “Your mission, if you choose to accept it – and you’d better, according to your mother – is to romp heartily with your cousin Kaylee, play in the dirt, go crazy over boys, maybe even get into a little trouble.”

River’s shot a jaundiced look at her father.  “You want me to get into trouble?”

“Why not?” he said, patting her head affectionately before counting the chips and placing them in his breast pocket.   “I think a little mess or two would do you some good.”

“What about Mother?” River asked, the beginnings of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Gabriel shared a co-conspirator smirk with his daughter.  “What Mrs. Tam doesn’t know won’t hurt her, now will it?”

“No, I don’t suppose it would,” River said, gazing with unabashed yearning at the calculus chip that her father had extracted from the bundle of neck scarves she’d packed.

“I’ll make a pact with you,” Gabriel offered, holding up the chip for her perusal before adding it to the others he’d already removed from her luggage.  “For every hour of play outside, you’ll earn ten minutes in the local library, to be collected at the end of each week.”

River’s eyes flew up to her father’s face.  “Zhēn zhèng?”

Zhēn zhèng, nān nān,” Gabriel said, and held up a cautionary finger.  “But don’t even think about trying to falsify your accounting.  Nothing gets past my sister, and you know it.”

“Pact,” River said, yawning as she extended her hand.

Her father shook it and then turned to the clothing on the bench.  “Remember, all of this needs to be in your trunk before you leave tomorrow.”

“I’ll do it in the morning,” River said, climbing into bed and pulling the covers up.

“And I’ll make sure Mrs. Dao makes your favorite breakfast before she pads you down for further contraband,” Gabriel promised, tucking her in with her favorite stuffed animal, a green rabbit named Chang-Ngo.

“Good night, my favorite daddy,” she said, kissing his cheek.  “I’ll miss you dreadfully.”

“Good night, my favorite girl-child,” he said before he kissed her forehead, just as he had every night since she’d been born.  “I’ll miss you more.”

“Daddy?” River asked, before he turned off the lamp by her bed.

“Yes, peaches?”

“There’s a perfectly logical explanation for me seeing blood on Mrs. D’Arbanville’s hands.”

“Truly?” he asked, willing to humor her.  “What would that be?”

“When she kissed my cheek, her breath smelled of heme,” River explained, her brows quirking together.   “And her thumb was damp when she gripped my hand.  She’d pricked her fingers on the roses before she gave them to me.”

“Such inconceivable intuition…definitely my daughter.”  Gabriel smoothed his daughter’s hair back from her forehead.  “Sometimes I think you missed your calling as a Companion.”

River’s eyes drifted shut as she whispered, “Better as a detective.”

“Why’s that?”

“Difficult to find true compatibility of spirit with others, bá ba,” River replied as she smiled sleepily.  “Most people irritate me.”

“Verily.  Neither you nor your mother suffer fools gladly,” Gabriel acknowledged.  “And I have to admit I’m glad that you’re not growing up too fast.  Sometimes I thank my lucky stars that the only male you’d willingly spend time with other than me and your brother is the 'man in the moon'.”

“Thoth is master of games, wisdom, writing, magic…mysteries,” River said, nestling her cheek into her pillow.  “Makes moonlight and measurements…asks me to makes sense of the pieces.  What more could I wish for?”

“What more, indeed?”  Gabriel smiled to himself as he reached over and turned off the lamp by her bed.  He stood up and walked over to the door, gazing at her serene face revealed by the light of the full moon.  “Sleep well, nān nān.  You are ever in my heart.”

Her voice was soft and sweet as if carried to him across the room.  “And you in mine, bá ba.”

As he closed the door, he tucked the memory of the past ten minutes deep into his psyche.  Who knew how long he would have until she was old enough to leave him and start her own family?

“Will she be all right?” Regan asked softly, placing a hand on his shoulder.

He turned to his wife, gorgeous in satin and fur with diamonds clips and a luscious gardenia decorating her pale gold hair.  Her face was carefully composed, but he could taste the anxiety exuding from her.

“She’ll be all right,” he whispered, taking her in his arms and holding her, careful not to smudge or crush her.  “Just a little headstrong and opposed to change.”

“I hate having to play the villain,” Regan declare in a low, frustrated tone, gloom shading her voice as she looked up into his eyes.  “She’s so obstinate…I never what to say to her, to make her see reason!”

Gabriel smiled as he led her down the hall.  “Whether you like it or not, she is unquestionably your daughter, Regan.  Would you have ‘seen reason’ at her age?”

“I suppose not,” Regan admitted with a defeated smile before she took a moment to admire her mate.  “My, my, don’t we look dashing this evening?  Husband, you do me credit.”

“Wife, did you not say if there was any night during the season that we had to look like a million platinum, this was it?” Gabriel reminded her with a roguish gleam in his eye.

Regan’s grin widened.  “So I did.”

“Then let us hope that the voters think so, too,” he added, assisting her down the stairs to foyer.

Mr. Tam, né Gabriel Serra, was what polite society referred to as a “trophy mate”.  Sinfully handsome, impeccably mannered and a genuine connoisseur of women, he had once been the most expensive male Companion that had ever debuted on Sihnon.  Ten years of engagements later, Regan Tam outbid five hundred other heiresses to buy out his contract and Gabriel retired from the whirlwind life of glamour to become the husband of one of the Core Worlds' most promising elected officials.

Some called it a brilliant political maneuver – Gabriel Tam was an outstanding networker and his wife was sure to be included on any invitations extended by with his former clients – most of whom were once the daughters of Alliance officials and who now ran Parliament. 

Others wondered if Mrs. Tam was attempting to thaw the public’s opinion of her arctic personality by taking to husband a man who practically oozed warmth and charm out of his perfect pores.

Few suspected the truth, mainly because Regan Tam would more likely turn browncoat than divulge the reason she’d chosen him as her spouse.

But her saw it in her eyes, felt it as he took her hand and helped her into the limousine:  she loved him.

More than her very proper and refined upbringing would ever allow her to admit.

As they drove down the long lane that led to the street, Gabriel thanked all of his years of training in suggestion that he’d managed to get his wife to think it was her idea to let their daughter have at least one summer free of the stifling rules and restrictions of the Core. 

It was too late to undo the damage that decades of public scrutiny – first as the daughter of Londinium’s Head of Parliament, then as a Councillor herself – had done to Regan Tam, forcing her to practically bury her heart and render it inaccessible to anyone except her deeply intuitive husband. 

River was more like her mother than she knew and Gabriel was determined that his baby have the chance to be a child, to at least once live life fully without caring what anybody thought.

Tomorrow, River would leave for Shadow and the care of his sister, Inara.  She and her husband would know what to do.

Gabriel glanced up at Thoth, shining brightly in the night sky.  He thought he could just make out a ghost of a smile on the stern, hawk-like face that the star-chitects had blasted into the craters of the moon when they lunaformed it, as if the Egyptian god of the moon approved of his course of action. 

Perhaps he wasn’t the only one in the family to see things that weren’t there…

* * * * *

bù gōng – “unfair” / “unjust”

mǔ qīn – “Mother” (formal)

nān – “child” / “daughter” (formal)

xiǎo jie – “young lady” / “miss”

mei mei – “little sister”

Niú Jīn Dà Xué “Oxford (College)”

ge ge – “elder brother”

dà shǎ guā! – “Big silly melon!” (“Jerk!”)

Nǚ-Shén – “Maiden” (River’s middle name)

Duì bu qǐ – “I apologize”

Bá ba – “Daddy”

Nān nān – “little darling” / “baby”

Zhēn zhèng – “Really?”

Prompted by and dedicated to romanceguru.


Much affection,

Green Owl

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