Eurydice

Eurydice was not what you'd call a friendly place. It looked fine from wide orbit. Lots of green land and sparkly seas and swirling clouds that were raining on somebody, but you couldn't tell who from way up here, so the clouds looked pretty friendly, too.

But soon as they hit atmo, they started to get a taste of what Eurydice was really like. Bounced the boat around like a cork on a tetchy ocean and made the tendons stand out on Wash's arms and got his eyes to bugging and his grin to stretching wider in the way that meant he was sliding from wild-ride glee to crash-vision nervous. That was the point when a person started to wonder if this job is worth it, even before he lowered the ramp and stepped into the world.

The young doctor said that the original Eurydice was a wife got left behind in Hades because her husband didn't trust her to follow him. That pretty much summed it up, near as Mal could figure.

+++

"Kaylee."

She looked up from where she was sitting on the end of the ramp, squinted at the silhouette that blotted out the sun. "Yeah, Cap'n?"

"You all right?"

She found a smile somewhere and pasted it on, not very convincingly. "Sure, Cap'n. Shiny." Unable to see his expression, she made the smile wider and waited for him to do something. When he didn't, she twitched the smile up a notch by way of ending the conversation and went back to hunching down over her knees and drawing tic tac toe in the sand between her boots. It didn't help much, not looking at it, looming there above them, but looking at it was worse, so she hunched lower.

Mal brushed a hand across the back of her neck, below the ponytails. "Why'nt you go back inside."

"I'm supposed to be watchin'--" She squinted up at the silhouette again.

"I know. I can do it." He nodded her toward the cargo hold. "You can check on that compressor coil, make sure it's gonna make it to Persephone."

Kaylee already checked the coil and Mal knew it, since he'd been standing right next to her watching the whole time, but she went along and let him pull her to her feet. "Sure, Cap'n." Backing up the ramp, she made a show of brushing dust off of the seat of her coveralls. She didn't want to turn her back on it, and that was four kinds of stupid, she knew, but that was how she felt. "It's not really gonna bowl over us," she said, trying not to make it sound too much like a question, and waited for Mal's mouth to curve up on the side as he nodded.

"Nope," he confirmed and didn't look at it either. "Not this billion years, anyway."

"And Inara'll be back way before that, right?"

He didn't answer, having already turned away to scan the thinning crowd on the dock, looking for the contact and his cargo.

+++

Eurydice wobbled along around the equator of Orpheus. She was a blue-green moon spinning just a breath above the churning upper atmo of the gas giant, which was an angry red and brown and took up way more than its fair share of Eurydice's sky. Mal kept his back turned on it, or his eyes on the dirt and the passing feet, and tried not to hunch. Not that it would matter: everybody on the docks looked stunted, walked with their heads tucked down and their shoulders raised just a little, shuffling like they were bone-through weary from carrying Orpheus on their backs day in and day out, and worn-thin tired of waiting for it to come rolling over the land and flatten everything in its path. It didn't matter that the physics of that were all wrong. The planet was heavy on the little moon, no doubt about it.

And Eurydice did her best to keep folks away, too, filling the sky with storms--those friendly-looking swirly clouds that spelled gale-force winds and hail for the farms below them--and kinky updrafts and downdrafts and every-which-way drafts that made Wash start talking low and fast to himself about how nice this place was and how come he didn?t' set up a summer home here and oops sorry folks that was just a little unexpected loop-de-loop there and if anybody sees the ground anytime soon just give him a holler. Zoe'd leaned down and whispered something to him that'd made him laugh out loud, but that didn't make his knuckles any less white, Mal noticed.

So it wasn't just Kaylee who was feeling it. Even the shepherd had poked his head out and done a casual about-face and headed for his bunk, his lips moving around some Bible spell or other. Simon kept his sister in the infirmary, and that was something Mal could thank God for.

"This place gives me an uncomfortableness," Jayne muttered as he sidled up to Mal and let his gaze drift across the square, checking out the crowd from knee-level down. "Where's your gorram contact?"

"He'll be here. Relax. You're ruining my stay." He could feel Jayne's muscles tensing and twitching and stepped a little away from him. "I thought you wanted to see the town."

"I seen the town. I seen this town on twenty flea-bit moons. I don't need to go to the town to see the town." He waved a hand in the direction of the corduroy avenue with its double row of faux-fronted shops and saloons. "They cut these places out with a pattern. Low, muddy and ugly."

"Sounds like your kind of place," Mal said mildly, smiling to himself when Jayne grunted and headed back inside. Mal resisted the urge to crack his neck. The day was getting heavy.

+++

Inara's shuttle was just tucking in over Serenity's wing when the cargo arrived in the form of a bad idea times three. They stood there in front of their father with their big, soulful eyes looking up at Mal, each one with a little carpet bag no doubt full of things little critter people thought were important like dolls and pencils and whatever else kids coveted and kept when they were only allowed one bag to start a whole new life with.

The father was a lean sort of stick-man type with a cravat knotted not so neatly under the collar of a shirt that had seen too many vigorous washings. He looked prosperous enough, but there was something in his eyes, a kind of feverish glow that made Mal wonder if maybe the doctor should be handling the negotiations armed with some kind of calming potion. His hands moving constantly from one kid's shoulders to the next, fingers smoothing their hair and patting the dust from their jackets, the father looked a little like he was wanting to jackrabbit but couldn't and had to put the motion somewhere. For their parts, the kids just stood still as fence posts except for those big eyes blinking back unshed tears now and then.

"Um, I... I was told I was to be moving some livestock," Mal said in a slow, steady kind of way, the smile he wore hopefully making his absolute rejection of this cargo seem more like a friendly conversation. "I didn't agree to babysitting."

Stuttering out a little half-crazy-sounding laugh, the father corrected, "These aren't babies. This one, Bishop--" He prodded the tallest boy, fair-haired and sullen, who stepped forward to be inspected. "He's got lots of skills, including some numbers and reading. And he's strong." Yanking Bishop back into line, he ushered the girl, forward--middling in height with long braids down her back--and, waggling a finger in a turning motion, got her to do a slow pirouette so Mal could see her from all sides. "Ellie can cook and she's on her way to being useful otherwise. In a few years anyway," he qualified with a twitchy, almost-apologetic smile. Mal wasn't sure who deserved the apology there. "And Samuel-John, he's small yet." Samuel-John blinked slowly and a big, round tear traced a path through the dust on his apple-fat cheek. "So, good for getting into small places. Firefly class has lots of small places need cleaning and fixing. He's got good handy fingers."

Behind Mal, Jayne let out a bray of laughter, but stifled it behind his wrist when Mal shot a glare over his shoulder.

"We don't--" Mal began.

"They'll fetch you a good price someplace closer in. Whitefall, even. Shadow. I know folks on Shadow who'll take 'em." He held out a flexi. "Names are there. 'Less you find someplace, someone who'll give you more."

Little Samuel-John started to sniffle, and Bishop nudged him into silence with his elbow. Ellie was pale and still blinking up at Mal. Behind them, the father looked something between hopeful and hopeless which was as gruesome an expression as Mal had seen anywhere. And he'd seen it everywhere.

Swallowing a slow-rising bile, Mal said, still low and calm, "We're not slavers. We ain't going to buy your children. Or sell 'em for you."

Father's prominent adam's apple bobbed up and down a few times as he processed this information, his shoulders hunching up just a little more. Above them, Orpheus hung low and ominous. The day was certainly heavy. Finally, he pushed his way between Bishop and Ellie and leaned close to Mal, reaching for Mal's hand and missing when he pulled away.

"Listen, Cap'n Reynolds." He stole a quick glance over his shoulder at the giant and when he looked back his face was paler in the ruddy light. "These young'uns. They're still good. They still got a chance to be right. They don't got to grow up crawling under that heaviness there, with the storms rattling their souls around in them like little bits of paper on the wind and the hail beating on the roof until they start screamin' just to hear something else. Their mother's already gone inside her head and won't come out no more. You don't know what Eurydice does to you. How that giant there weighs on you." Stepping closer so that he could aim his watery, crazy-glow gaze right in Mal's eyes, he whispered vehemently, "I don't want your gorram money."

Muttering under his breath, Jayne pushed himself away from the strut he was leaning on and climbed the ramp. "Maybe Kaylee can play momma for you, Mal," he called with a bark of laughter as he disappeared into Serenity's dim interior.

"Sure," Mal conceded finally, feeling something in him settle a bit. "I'm sure she can."




THE END


Notes: Written originally for a Contrelemontre challenge in about one hour--but then I forgot the slash so it never got posted there. ;-)

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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