"Your crazy sister's 'bout to take a header off the catwalk in the cargo bay," Jayne said to Simon. He didn't get out of the way when Simon tried to go around him in the hatchway.
"Why didn't you try to stop her?" Simon squeezed by him and ran down the gangway.
"I ain't her keeper. Not like she can do any damage, 'specially if she lands on her head." He grinned at his own joke, and then frowned when nobody joined him.
Kaylee didn't bother to glare at him; instead, she shoved the coffee pot at the Captain and took off out of the galley after the doctor.
Leaving the pot on the stove, Mal chased after Kaylee and they both caught up with Simon, rounding the corner in time to see him reaching out, the fingers of his hand spread wide with being too late.
River was balanced on the edge of the catwalk, on the wrong side of the rail, her back to the bay. She spread her arms wide, threw her head back, bent her knees and pushed away into air. Mal knew Simon was shouting "River!" but it came out of him garbled with horror like it had stumbled on his teeth and fallen to rubble. Her hair spreading wide around her, her coat wide, too, like wings, River pointed her toes, her hands coming together over her head as she fell away from the catwalk.
And hung there. In the middle of the cargo bay, a dozen feet above the deck.
"Aw come on," Jayne said from behind them, his breath hot on the side of Mal's neck as he leaned around them to see. "She's levitatin' now? We oughta sell tickets."
Mal's stomach did a sudden and uncomfortable loop-de-loop. At the same moment, Simon started to turn toward them, his mouth hanging open with disbelief, his momentum lifting him off the catwalk, too. With a shout of surprise, he clutched at the end of the railing. Behind him, River was lying on the air, singing softly as she drifted toward the far side of the bay.
Kaylee pulled herself along the railing, her feet trailing behind her, and dragged Simon to the deck. Jayne was swearing colourfully, his toes hooked under the top stair, Mal anchored with a fist wound in the back of Jayne's shirt.
"Grav's down," Kaylee said calmly into Simon's ear.
"That's it?" Mal looked skeptical.
Mal's mouth twisted up as the gravity disappeared and then returned like a wave colliding with the end of the ship and rebounding again. Gravity was... sloshing... through Serenity. Mal didn't like that too much.
"Can you fix it?"
Now he looked incredulous. "What do you mean, 'nope'? That's not a good word."
Shrugging helplessly, Kaylee gingerly poked at the tiny component with a fingertip. "It's big-brain stuff, Cap'n. Quantum circuitry, mathematics that use all the letters in the alphabet and then some of them extra squiggly ones...." Her voice died away as her face fell, crumpling under the weight of his disappointment. "That's Alliance stuff. Special labs where they dress in white paper suits.... I can't fix that. If we want grav back we're gonna have to buy it."
Mal pointed accusingly at the inch-long bit of gold and plastic in her palm. "Do you have any idea how much Alliance tech runs?" he asked her hand as it closed protectively around the guilty tech in question. Breathing hard, he braced himself against the engine housing while another wave sloshed through the grav plating and back again. When he looked up at her miserable face, he wasn't smiling, but there was a light flickering on somewhere in his head. "Unless we can find one someplace else."
"Okay," Kaylee said, and he was obliged that she didn't take it upon herself to spoil his hopefulness.
"It doesn't look very... shadowy," Wash observed from the end of the ramp, squinting his pale eyes into the glare. The hand held up to his brow cast a sharp, black line across his face. In the beating white light, he looked like his name: washed out, in spite of the violently red hibiscus flowers on his shirt. "In fact," he continued, "I don't see a shadow at all, 'cept the ones we're making." Looking at Zoe for confirmation, he spread his arms wide to take in the whole grassland wavering in heat shimmer in front of them. "Am I right? Who names these planets, anyway?"
"People who don't have to live on them," Zoe answered, her eyes on the horizon.
"Trust me," Mal muttered as he stepped past him onto the dusty grass. "There's shadows." Turning his back on the plain, he looked at the crew hesitating on the shady side of the line that sliced across the ramp like a territorial border between cool and hot, home and not-home-anymore. "Just they're mostly in the people, is all. And you don't want to go lookin' for them, understand?"
"Hell, I don't wanna go lookin' for nuthin'," Jayne grumbled from the saddle of the mule. He leaned heavily across the handlebars and cocked an eye at the pale sky. "Them buzzards?" No-one answered. "I hate buzzards. What they have to bring buzzards all the way out to the Rim for?"
"To eat the garbage." River's voice drifted out from the darkness inside Serenity.
"You'd better keep moving, then, Jayne," Simon added, poker-faced, as he pointed to the biggest bird wheeling in a slow, low circle ahead of them. "That one looks interested."
Jayne started to straighten up, but Mal was glaring, so he settled back again, making a show of snorfing and hoarking as loudly as possible before spitting in the dust a the side of the ramp, just missing Simon's polished shoe. Simon's smug expression darkened.
Sitting on the bed of the mule, Kaylee ducked her head and kept swinging her legs, her feet bumping a dull rhythm against the tires. "I like 'em," she said to no-one in particular. "It's good to see something else in the sky but stars sometimes." Jumping down, she sidled to the end of the ramp, hands in the pockets of her coveralls, face turned up to the sun. "And it's warm. Warm and wide."
Mal didn't turn to look. "Jayne, take Book and Wash and get what we need. No dallyin' in town. And by no dallyin' I mean no whoring."
Jayne grunted. "Not like a man can get a piece when he's trailing a preacher everywhere he goes."
"I like to do my part," Book replied mildly. Jayne's second grunt was drowned out by the coughing of the mule's engine as he pulled down the ramp, Wash and the shepherd chasing after and scrambling onto the flatbed.
"Rest of you hold tight and stay out of trouble." Mal looked pointedly into the cargo bay where River was spinning slowly, arms out wide, head thrown back. Simon didn't bother to answer, but Inara turned away with a swirl of blue silk and fresh scent and gathered River up on her way to the galley.
"So, it's just you an' me, Cap'n." Kaylee said, still soaking up the sun.
Mal acknowledged Zoe's raised eyebrows. "We'll be fine."
"Yes sir," Zoe said, in that way that meant the opposite.
Mal laid a hand on the top of Kaylee's pony-tailed head. "Better bring your parasol, Miz Kaylee. We're going shopping."
As with many of their shopping trips, this one didn't involve shopping so much as stealing. Of course, Mal rationalized with the ease of long practice, it wasn't so much stealing as... recyling, since nobody really "owned" the ships anymore, what with them being crashed in the middle of a minefield and all. If the Alliance had wanted them, they'd've come and got them long ago. But the Alliance had plenty of shiny new ships rolling off the assembly lines in the Core every day. The Alliance was flush enough to abandon half a squadron of Hornets and never miss 'em.
'Course, that wasn't to say they weren't mean enough to scuttle them in the midst of enough anti-personnel mines to keep anybody else from turning a profit off their garbage. They were contrarious that way. But, since buying a new grav... brain-thing meant talking to Alliance folks without putting a fist in their faces, and was far and gone beyond their financial means at this time, anyway, it was all about the recycling. The liberating. The walking very, very softly.
"It's the Bettys that's the worst." Mal went on with the lesson as he brought the shuttle around for another low pass over the wreck yard, following the black-cross shadow of a buzzard in a tightening circle. "You trigger one here and the actual mine pops up over there, shoots up about waist high and then explodes. Sends shrapnel--scrap metal, razors, nails, whatever you got handy, forks and knives I've seen, even--all over the place. They slice up the legs, the gut. Made to leave you crawling, demoralized--" He stopped abruptly. Kaylee sat hunched low in her seat, watching the ground. "Just stay in the shuttle," he finished.
"I ain't gonna be any use to you in the shuttle," Kaylee protested. "Oh, hey! See that one? The fuselage is mostly shot, but the aft compartment looks okay. I bet we could find what we need there." Her finger was pressed against the window, aimed at the twisted wreck of a Hornet on the edge of the grave yard. "And I ain't gonna be any use in the shuttle," she repeated. "I gotta see the thing myself to know if it's any good. And you can't just rack it out of there. It takes the touch." She waggled her fingers at him, smiling. "That's what you hired me for, isn't it? The magic touch?" Her grin became suddenly knowing, and the woman he'd first met shagging his mechanic under the engine housing looked out through her girl's eyes. "I ain't a baby. You don't have to protect me."
Frowning a little at her water-tight logic, Mal mulled it over while he perched the shuttle on a flattish outcropping of black rock. Wobbling at first, the little ship settled finally, listing steeply but solidly planted. Kaylee was still looking at him, her mouth a determined line, curled up at one side to take some of the harshness out of it.
"You follow in my footsteps," he ordered. "You move when I say move. If you get killed, Zoe'll kill me and that'll just give Jayne all kinds of crazy ideas about being king, and she'll have to kill him too, and then we're down a mess of crewmen. Understand what's at stake here?"
The curl bloomed into a full-fledged grin. "Yessir, Cap'n. I'm your shadow."
"So, r'we going to stop by your homestead and meet your momma? I can't believe all this time we never even knew you was a rancher."
Kaylee's voice tripped along chipperlike in contrast to their progress, which was creeping. Mal kept one eye on the scope in his hand, the other on the dirt. On the screen, mines showed up as wavering red squares, sometimes sharp-edged, but mostly ghosted and uncertain. He placed his feet carefully. Around them, the hulks of the crashed ships stood out black against the white sky like skeletons of sea creatures washed up on a beach. Or, at least he figured that's what they were like, having never seen a sea creature that wasn't freeze-dried in a foil pack.
"I bet your momma's real nice. Zoe said there were horses. We never get to see enough horses. Well, you and Zoe do, sometimes, but the rest of us are stuck with the mule and there's not much fun in that. What's the point of being on the frontier if you don't get to ride one of those pretty roans with the dark legs? We never had any roans back home. Just that ornery swaybacked bay you could never ride in a million years. So are we?"
Passing from glare into shadow, Mal paused to let his eyes adjust, squinting at the read-out, one foot hovering. "Are we what?"
"Gonna visit with your friends, your momma and the ranchers?"
He started forward again, skirting a collapsed stabilizer wing. The wiring tangled out the end of the strut like ripped tendons and veins, and tap-tapped against the hull in the breeze, a scratching, irregular sound that made his breathing uneven. He held his breath until it was his own again, and then moved on. "No," he answered.
He could hear Kaylee's boots in the gravel, stepping into his footprints. "Because they ain't there anymore."
She stopped walking. "What happened?"
"The war happened. Keep walking."
"Oh," she said softly.
One hand stroked the back of his shirt, almost like she was reaching out to keep her balance, and Mal's throat got tight. He held his breath again, then let it out slowly as they came around the end of the wing into the sun. "Okay. We're here."
Kaylee's intuition was bang-on as usual where mechanical things were concerned. The aft compartment was in good shape, even though the rest of the Hornet was pretty much squashed flat. Of course, the damage made it impossible for somebody Mal's size to get into the ship, so Kaylee laid down on the dirt and started to wriggle her way feet first through a tear in the fuselage. Just before she disappeared inside, she flashed him the expected "I toldja so" grin.
"Yes, yes, you were right. I'm glad I let you come. Hurry your ass up before I cook out here." He snatched at her ponytail, stopping her. "And don't go loitering or picking up stuff we don't need."
Her "yes, Cap'n" was oddly amplified by the crumpled hollowness of the ship. Then she tweaked the hair from his hand and was gone.
Squinting up at the sun, Mal leaned against the ship and then jerked away again with a little yelp when the hot metal scalded his skin right through his shirt. He spared a moment to wish the hole in the fuselage was on the shady side of the wreck, and then went back to scanning the grave yard. The scattered hulks of the Hornets wobbled in the heat like some kind of mirage, except that they wouldn't go away when Mal blinked his eyes. They were bones against the deadness of the sky, birds of prey laid low, collapsed into awkwardness, undignified and humbled in their pools of shadow.
Kaylee was talking a streak to herself inside the wreckage, but Mal wasn't listening. He was not-remembering the sound of Hornets. He was working very hard at not knowing any more what it was like when they scorched low across the land, a buzzing you could hear when they were still two valleys away. Only you didn't hear it; you felt it in your chest like a heart attack coming, a vibration that wanted to seize you up inside, rattled your teeth together, made your hands clench up tight as your gut. He worked on not seeing them rising up in a chevron formation over the knife edge of a ridgeline, their stabilizers extended like batwings, the hum of the engines shuddering through stone and bone and making rubble of your insides before the ships even launched a single shot. Nothing that small--barely twice the size of Serenity's shuttles--should cleave a person like that.
Mal held his breath against the remembered stench of burning flesh. He went deaf for a moment in the forgetting, so he didn't hear the voice above him right off, didn't notice the more familiar hum of the shuttle's engines. It was the shadow that brought him round, made him snap his head back to see his own shuttle hovering over him, turning slowly in a circle, and, below it, looking down at him from atop the wrecked Hornet, two men, each with a good-sized pistol aimed at his head.
"Well, I'll be a sonofabitch. If it ain't little Mal Reynolds."
Mal held a hand up to shade his eyes, shifting his weight to put the shuttle between him and the sun. The silhouettes resolved into familiar features. The fact that they were familiar didn't do much to make Mal happier.
"Josh Devon, and... that's Mikey, right? Nice to see you." Mal waved with his other hand, the one holding the scope. He wasn't surprised when Mikey, jumpy as Mal remembered him, shot the casing right through the middle, blowing it to a cloud of slivers Mal felt stabbing against the skin of his arm, his neck. His hand went numb. Inside the Hornet, Kaylee let out a yell that was cut off before it could become a word. Mal could picture her with her hands over her mouth, eyes wide. He thought of going for his gun, but his shooting hand was pretty much useless and he didn't think he could reach across his body before the trigger man put him down. So, instead, he raised his hands, now empty and unthreatening, and said conversationally, "Seems you accidentally broke my scope. And stole my shuttle."
Josh laughed, showing teeth that were a lot yellower than Mal remembered. "Naw, shuttle's payment. Tax like, for being in my territory."
Looking around at the wreck yard, the derelict ships wavering in the heat, Mal had to smile. "This is your territory? You might want to consider moving."
"It's a shithole of a castle, but I'm king of it." Josh spat onto the black hull of the ship, and the spit sizzled. "Things ain't like they used to be, Mal. Times is tough around here these days. Alliance taxin' us to death one way, black market robbin' us the other. Man's gotta make his mark where he can."
"Fair enough." At Mal's feet, Kaylee stuck her head out. He tapped her with his boot and she tucked back in again. "So... now what? You gonna invite me for a drink or leave me here in a minefield to fry in the hot sun?"
Crouching down, Josh pushed his hat back on his forehead. Above them, the shuttle stopped turning. Whoever was flying was getting the hang of it. "Naw." He spat again. "I mean, I could do that, but I ain't that kind of man. I'm gonna haul you on up here and you can take me back to your ship. And don't say you ain't got a ship 'cause that shuttle ain't a long runner."
"And if maybe I don't want to take you back to my ship?"
"Don't much matter in the long run. I already know where it is. Can't land a ship outside the docks these days without somebody taking notice. Plus, you got people in the town, my boys say. So, you can stay and fry, or try your luck with the minefield. That'll be tough without the scope, though."
To illustrate, he took aim and shot a round into the dirt a yard or so from the edge of the downed stabilizer wing. Ten feet away, the Betty shot up in a cloud of dust and exploded. As throwing himself flat in a minefield was not a good idea, Mal hunched down behind the meager cover of the fallen stabilizer, turning his face away as shrapnel pocked the hollow wing like a hailstorm. He could hear the spray of hot metal shards singing past him and the noise was suddenly bigger than it should have been, opening up wide and dark in his head, spreading out into a greater cacophony, the rumble of artillery, the drone of the Hornets. Sucking in a breath hot and grainy with dust, he swallowed down the memory and opened his eyes, looking for Kaylee. Sheltered within the fuselage, she covered her head with her hands, but made no sound.
"You really oughta come with us," Josh advised. Standing, he waved his hat up at the shuttle, which started to sink toward them. "The little girl, too."
"I ain't little," Kaylee growled as she crawled out into the sun.
"Well I ain't." The jut of her chin dared them to say different.
Mikey wheezed out an admiring whistle that made Mal wish his shooting hand wasn't so numb.
"Are the ropes necessary?" Mal asked, craning his neck over his shoulder to watch his hands being tied. "Just 'cause you're highjacking me doesn't mean we can't be civilized." Josh Devon grunted and yanked the knots a bit tighter.
Up close, Mal could see that the years had been as unkind to the rest of Josh as they'd been to his teeth. The face he remembered was round, a little mean about the mouth, but with enough decency in the eyes to keep it from being too unfriendly. Now, Josh's face was sallow, his cheeks sunken and his eyes watery with suspicion. His brother Mikey, though, looked pretty much the same as ever, since he'd always been kind of skinny and twitchy, snakelike. He didn't blink enough, which gave Mal a creepy feeling up along his spine.
Josh grinned in a humourless kind of way as he shoved Mal after Kaylee into the hovering shuttle. "The ropes're necessary. Maybe you picked up some tricks there in the army, right? Boot camp?"
Kaylee wasn't tied up, but Mikey had his gun trained on her. She kept her head low and sat down heavily when Mikey pushed her onto a crate in the corner of the cockpit. In the pilot's chair, the third Devon brother, Orton, watched them with one rheumy eye, the other covered with a black patch. Mal was not overcome with confidence in Orton's flying skills.
"You were at Rupert Barracks, right?" Josh went on as he tucked the toe of his boot into the crook of Mal's knee, dropping him to the deck.
"Yeah." Mal cast Kaylee a reassuring grin. Her mouth turned up at the ends, but it was about as far from a smile as Mal had ever seen.
"You remember Kenny Lim? He was up at Rupert. Never made it out of the gorram barracks. Second day he's there Alliance come and flattened the place. One'a them Hornets done it. He didn't even have boots yet." Josh's face was all hard lines in the shifting shadows as Orton took the shuttle up and turned it into the sun, away from Serenity. "His momma went picking through the rubble after lookin' for him. All she ever found was his hand."
"How'd she know it was his?" Mal asked, trying to get a look out the window over Josh's shoulder.
"He was still wearin' his daddy's ring." Josh leaned in close, hot breath in Mal's face. "'Course, you were long gone by then, weren't you, Mal?" The hard lines on his face then had nothing to do with the shadows.
The flight was short and bumpier than it had a right to be. Orton leaned close to the cockpit window and navigated by landmarks on the ground, and he wasn't being too careful about maintaining a steady altitude or keeping things level. Mal remembered that Orton had always been sloppy about things. Shirt-tails untucked, gear all over the place to get tripped on. Orton used to swear a lot and kick stuff that got in his way. Josh used to whisper him down from a tear like Orton was a dog, hush-hushing him and patting him on the back of the neck. Now, Orton hulked in the pilot's chair and said nothing, his bald head cocked so he could look out his good eye. Mal wondered if Josh still talked him down like before. Watching Orton's enormous thick-fingered hands moving across the controls, Mal decided he didn't want to find out.
For his part, Mikey looked like the scraps left over after the other two brothers got put together. If Orton had the meat, and Josh had the smarts, such as they were, Mikey had the mean. Back in the day, Mikey liked to corner small things and make them crazy with teasing, with mean jabs and thin, high-pitched laughter. Mal had been small, once.
It made Mal's teeth grind together to watch Mikey sitting on the crate next to Kaylee, his pistol lying loose-gripped in his hand across his lap, his thumb slowly caressing the grip. He leaned close to her and seemed to be breathing in her air, taking it right out of her before she had a chance to use it. Pale and silent, Kaylee kept her head turned away, her hands clasped tightly around her drawn-up knees.
As the shuttle ducked and wobbled, throwing Mikey even further into Kaylee's space, Josh gripped an overhead strut and batted Mikey across the shoulder with his hat. "Back off a little there, brother. She ain't goin' nowhere."
Obediently, Mikey backed off about a quarter of an inch. Kaylee's gaze slid over to Mal and then away again. She didn't unclench her hands.
"Don't mind him," Josh reassured her. "He's just excited to have company, is all. We're all excited to have us a real celebrity in our humble presence, ain't we?"
If he was excited, Orton kept it on the inside. Mikey nodded, though, his grip tightening on his pistol. He shifted his unblinking eyes to Mal.
"News travels, even way out here to the butt end a' noplace, 'specially when a local boy like you makes a big reputation for himself." Josh kicked Mal's knee gently with the toe of his boot. "You're gonna buy us outta here, little Mal Reynolds." He made an escape flight swoop with his hand.
"Who's gonna pay you for little me?" Mal asked. But he figured already he knew the answer and there was a cold-water feeling sluicing up in his limbs.
"Well, could be the Alliance would like a piece of you, 'cept I wouldn't piss on them if they was blazin'. But I know a guy, knows a guy who runs with the black market crowd, and he says Niska, well?" Josh's grin widened, predatory. Mikey showed teeth, too, like a dog, his upper lip curling. "He's got the word out he'd like to see you again. Anybody brings you gets to keep the ship."
Kaylee's eyes were wide and dark behind the hair that hung over her face and Mal could feel the fear coming off her like heat from a fire. She made a small sound down deep in her throat that reminded Mikey she was beside him. He leaned close and laughed, taking up more of her air.
Mal's knees were cramping up, so he shifted around awkwardly until he was sitting with his back against the partition between the cockpit and the little cargo bay. That sluicing cold was up to chest level now and even Kaylee's fear couldn't warm it away. "You didn't used to run with thugs, Josh," he observed as the shuttle started to spin its way toward the ground and touched down with a lurch in a little dust storm of its own making.
"Between Alliance and Niska, we get fucked both ends. Makes a man bitter after awhile, Mal," Josh answered, his voice sagging with something that almost seemed like genuine regret. "Some of us weren't lucky enough to fly away from this dustpit when things got tough. Some of us got to make our own luck." He slapped the hatch release and the hot air billowed in, carrying with it the smell of horses. Outside, half a dozen of them whirled and spun in a makeshift corral, eyes wild. Some of them ran against the fence, causing the metal tubing to shudder and ring. Josh hopped down, nodding at Mikey, who followed. "We're just gonna wait for a few more of my boys to get back from patrol. Then we'll make that visit to your crew." Then they were gone, leaving Mal and Kaylee in Orton's sullen care.
"Roan," Kaylee said.
Mal stopped watching Josh and Mikey talking out by the corral, and looked at Kaylee instead. She was pointing, one finger loosened from her tightly clasped hands.
"A strawberry roan. You can tell 'cause the points ain't black. She's a beauty."
Mal leaned forward again and peered around the edge of the hatchway. Against the fence, a smallish horse with dark red legs and face was stretching her neck down through the rails, her soft lips yearning toward the dry, yellow grass that was just beyond her reach . Beside her, Josh and Mikey had their heads together.
"We never had any roans back home," Kaylee went on, her voice thin and sing-songy in a way that made the hair stand up on Mal's arms.
He shifted uncomfortably against the bulkhead. The ropes were cutting deep now and both his hands were numb. Orton was silent watchfulness. He didn't seem too interested in either of them, but his gun was pointing steadily at Kaylee, the threat clear as shouting.
"I always liked the dappled ones. They're not sleek like a chestnut or something, but they've got personality." Kaylee met Mal's eyes. "I saw a blue one, once. Steel blue with legs and mane perfect black."
"Yeah, they're nice," Mal agreed. "We had a couple of them when I was comin' up. Good draft horses." Kaylee's mouth did that not-smiling thing again and the cold sluiced up neck-deep inside him.
He was formulating something reassuring to say when Josh's shadow filled up the hatchway. Tilting her head to see around him, Kaylee kept her eyes on the little strawberry roan.
Clearing his throat, Mal said, "Josh, Kaylee's not worth a thing to you. Niska doesn't even know about her. Whyn't you let her go, for old time's sake?"
Hiking a foot up onto the edge of the hatchway, Josh rested his arms across his knee and seemed to consider the proposal. Behind him, Mikey smacked the little roan across the rump and she sprang forward, taking off with a snort for the far side of the corral. Stirred up by her agitation, the rest of the horses stormed around the enclosure in a swirl of dust and muted colour. Kaylee's eyes clouded.
"Could be that Niska don't want her," Josh said musingly as the racket died down and only Mikey's hissing laughter stained the air. "But could be he has a use for her. A little leverage. Keep you in line, maybe."
Mal didn't mention that the only things Niska needed to keep folks in line was a fancy knife and a few well-placed electrodes. Kaylee was looking at him now, her face expressionless, like the thought of being used against him had frozen her up. After a moment, she shook her head, refusing. Leaning in beside Josh, Mikey laughed. Josh waved Orton out of the shuttle, standing aside as the big man lumbered out of the cockpit and through the hatch, then heaved himself in, Mikey trailing after him.
"But," he said, leaning on the back of the pilot's chair and folding his arms, "Mikey here got an idea. Maybe we could do a little business." He smiled that predatory smile again. "A little horse tradin'."
Mikey reached over and pulled the rubber band from Kaylee's hair, taking a tangled clump with it and loosing it down around her face. With a filthy hand, he smoothed the hair away from her neck before his fingers traced the curl of her ear and the line of her jaw. Kaylee closed her eyes. Something hot and snarling stirred at the base of Mal's skull, making his jaws lock tight.
"Maybe she gives us a toss and we set her loose in the town instead of takin' her to Niska." Josh's voice was thick with satisfaction at his own cleverness, like a man who's been counting cards at the table and knows he's got all the cherries. "Like you said, no reason we can't be civilized."
Mal didn't even make it halfway across the cramped space before Mikey was on him, the butt of his gun coming down on Mal's skull twice before the boots started on his ribs. Then, as he lay on his side sucking for breath that wouldn't come, there was the muffled thud of a blow connecting with something else, someone else, and Kaylee's hair spread over his face, her body across his back and shoulder, her knees pressing into his chest as she curled around him.
"Kaylee! Get off me!" he gasped, spitting blood and writhing away from her.
"Let him be," she said, her voice muffled by his shirt at his shoulder. Her fingers curled tight into the fabric, catching the back of his suspenders and twisting them hard. Then the hair was gone from his face as she sat up a little. "If I do it, you'll let him be?"
"No reason not to be civilized, right?" The hand against his back was shaking, setting up a tremour that ran all the way through him.
"We ain't barbarians," Josh said from somewhere in the sparking red outside of Mal's skull.
Kaylee leaned down again and put her lips close to his ear, her fingers loosing his suspenders and the hand spreading flat against his back, steady and firm. "It's not like I never did it before," she whispered. And then the warmth of her body was gone, leaving only the desert heat and the smell of frightened horses.
Mal wished for the deadening drone of Hornets. Anything to drown out the black silence of the sounds Kaylee wouldn't let herself make.
He leaned his head against the partition and glared at Josh, who was still propped against the pilot's chair, ankles crossed, his pistol aimed at Mal's head. Behind the partition, Mikey was proving that the Devon boys weren't barbarians. The snarling thing was clawing away at Mal's throat, setting up a fever-prickle that turned his vision red at the edges.
"What happened to you, Josh?" he asked, not because he gave a good gorram but because the muted noises from the cargo bay threatened to white out his reasoning and he didn't want to lose his head just then, not until Josh Devon was thrashing in the final throes. "You used to be a decent man."
Offended, Josh uncrossed his ankles and stood up straight. "You got no right to ask questions like that, Mal. If you'd been here, you'd know the answer. But you weren't here, were you?"
"Not like I had much choice." He tried to keep the snarl out of his voice, but it was clawing close to the surface now.
"You wanted the glory. You was a skinny kid with some kind of idea you could be a hero." Josh's face was twisted up with disdain and Mal could see the years there in the lines around his mouth, the deep notches between his eyebrows. He was wearing the angry years there in his flesh. He waved the gun, the barrel close to Mal's eyes. "You went off, didn't you? You went off in your fancy uniform." He kicked at Mal's legs, the tan breeches with their piping up the side. "You with your big guns and your fast ships." He crouched low so he could look in Mal's eyes, steal his breath. "And where were we, huh? We was here. Fightin' with pitchforks and mule teams."
With a snarl he back-handed Mal across the jaw and stood again, paced the tight space, two steps one way, two back. In the cargo bay, there was only one voice, wordless. Mal could feel the other silence through the bulkhead, a cold permeating his skin.
"Where was the mighty Independence when the Alliance swooped in and burned everything, crops, herds, every living thing? Where was the glorious Browncoats when the bastards whipped us and stood on our necks and made us into cringing dogs?" Josh was shouting now, a raspy, desperate sound, like a voice locked up for years and rusted and hollowed out and empty. "Where was your fancy army when the bombs turned Burke's Plateau to glass?" In the cargo bay, the voice was getting louder, the silence colder. Sweat stood out on Josh's brow as he leaned down, spitting eight years of fire and humiliation and loss into Mal's face. "Where were you, Mal? Where were you when they come to the ranch, when the Hornets fell on us like black angels from hell? Where were you when they come for your ma?"
The gunshot rang out from the cargo bay just at the second the snarling thing broke free of Mal's control. So Josh wasn't looking at him when Mal lurched forward and rammed his shoulder into Josh's solar plexis. By the time Josh's head rolled back on the deck and his eyes met Mal's, Mal was kneeling on his chest, his knee grinding into Josh's shattered sternum. By the time Mal leaned as close as he could without losing his balance, blood was foaming up out of Josh's gaping mouth. By the time Mal hunched close to his blank, bloody face, and hissed, "I was in Serenity Valley," Josh Devon was already dead.
The whiteout came then, a sizzling static that foamed across Mal's brain. When it passed, he was still looming over Josh's face. The first sounds to penetrate the fog were the squealing of the horses and the pounding of their hooves. It was only in his imagination that he could still hear the report of the gun ricocheting around the inside the shuttle.
With a grunt, he rolled off of the dead man and stumbled to the hatchway and looked out. Halfway across the corral, Orton was shuffling forward, one hand hitching up his breeches, dodging this way and that as the spooked horses milled and wheeled around him. With his elbow, Mal hit the hatch release and the hatch slid home, sealing Orton out with a mechanical sigh.
The static flared again as he rounded the end of the partition into the cargo bay and he stood swaying for a moment, gulping air. Outside, Orton was pounding the shuttle hatch with his meaty fists, dull concussions that Mal ignored.
On the floor in the corner, Kaylee and Mikey were sprawled in a tangle of limbs. Mikey was slumped between Kaylee's legs, his head on her breast like he was sleeping. Kaylee's face was turned away, the side of her neck red with a crazed spattering of blood that continued onto the bulkhead beside her. Next to her outstretched hand, Mikey's gun lay where she'd dropped it. Her eyes were open, but she didn't see Mal when he slumped down beside her and kicked Mikey's body away with both feet. As if by reflex, though, her arms folded across her chest, covering her nakedness.
He wriggled his legs through the loop of his bound arms so that his hands were in front of him. Then, he started to reach for her, but stopped, his fingers inches from her face. The cold water rose up over his head, and he had to open and close his mouth a few times before he could force air into himself again. "Kaylee," he whispered. After a long pause, she blinked and focused on him.
"Hey, Cap'n," she said, her mouth curling up again in that chilling not-smile. Moving stiffly, she started to pull her coveralls on, awkwardly stuffing her arms into the sleeves. She couldn't manage the zipper, though, so Mal did it for her, even though his own hands were senseless and clumsy and he had to watch them very closely to make sure they did what they were told. When she was decently covered again, she crawled forward and felt around Mikey's belt, sitting back finally with his knife. With a deft swipe, she cut the rope around Mal's wrists.
"Can we go home now? They'll be worried." She didn't let him help her up. The blood on her neck was black against her pale skin.
Setting the shuttle to hover at sixty feet, Mal opened the hatch and kicked the bodies out. They landed in a crumpled heap beside the corral. Orton was a paleness in the blot of his own shadow, his upturned face a circle enclosing the black hole of his shouting mouth. In the distance, the dark crosses of buzzards swooped closer, their shadows rippling ahead of them across the yellow grassland. Mal watched them spiral in before closing the hatch and turning the shuttle toward home.
Jayne swore in Cantonese until he ran out of breath. Then he sucked in another one and started again.
"What happened? Are you hurt?" Simon reached out to touch the blood on the side of Kaylee's face, but she ducked under his hand and went around him, pacing deliberately along the catwalk between two rows of concerned faces.
"Just--just let her be for a minute," Mal told them as he followed her. They fell into step behind him.
In the engine room, Kaylee sank to her knees and dragged her toolbox away from the wall, pulling out a bottle of compressed air and a screwdriver. The crew was scattered down the gangway outside, waiting and silent. Mal knelt next to her and helped her to unbutton the flap of her breast pocket. It was stiff with Mikey's blood. Kaylee fumbled in the pocket for a moment and then pulled out the tiny rectangle of gold and plastic. With careful attention, she cleaned it with a few blasts from the bottle, holding it up to the light to check the leads. Then, handing Mal the component, she unscrewed the housing to the grav control panel, laying it carefully aside. It was only a few seconds before she had the new component in its place and then the lights inside the panel flickered and steadied. Mal could feel the slight lurch in his stomach as Serenity's gravity harmonized with Shadow's. Then, Kaylee replaced the housing, put the tools carefully back in the toolbox, and pushed it back against the wall.
Then, she started to shake, and Mal folded her up close.
"Zoe," he said, and she nodded to Wash who turned and headed for the bridge.
As Shadow dwindled behind them, becoming just another faint pinprick of light against the black, Kaylee cried.
Notes: This was written for the Live Journal Firefly Ficathon back in April 2004. I was tasked to write Mal and Kaylee on Shadow and to include a scavenger hunt. Well, this is a sort of variation on that request. My apologies to Kaylee, even though she's, like, fictional an' all. Thanks to Otter for her lightning fast beta.
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