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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Mal gets a coat. Zoe gets a message.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2290 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
All day long the ships dropped out of the sky and filled the remaining spaces along the mesa top, each one spilling another crew – and sometimes passengers – into the Reunion. It had taken on a kind of carnival air, and already there were impromptu contests of various sorts breaking out all over the place. Everything from wrestling to “reactor squeezins” home-brewed spirits were being judged by ad hoc panels, with plenty of encouragement and disparagement being dispensed in equal amounts by the giddy onlookers.
Plenty of locals had come out to enjoy the mix – the Reunion was held in a remote part of the “tribal lands” where subsistence farming, nomadic herding, and hunting and gathering were the main economy. The tribesmen were an eclectic mixture of tribal cultures from Earth That Was, peoples who had held on tenuously to their cultural traditions through the Great Exodus, and had transplanted their own unique cultures to the sparse, dry wilderness of the Muir Outback.
There were plenty of Aborigines, whose ancestors had lived in the original Outback of Old Australia, long ago. There were also remnants of Siberian tribes, Native Americans, Polynesians, Sufi clans, Romany, Central Asians of all types, Maori, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Yoruba, and any number of smaller tribes. Either they had survived both the journey from the sacred soil of Earth-That-Was and the intense cultural pressures brought about by the dominant Indo-Chinese and EuroAmerican cultures that had arranged the passage, or they were endeavoring to re-discover – and, when necessary, re-invent – the cultures of their ancestors. They shared a common spiritual ideal, holding the biosphere as inherently sacred, and a common custom for inter-tribal relations, but precious little else. English and Chinese were both spoken freely among them, but only as second and third languages.
The various tribes had set up booths in the interior space of the Reunion, selling all manner of handmade crafts, trinkets, local delicacies, and sketchy services, from prostitution (the commercial, not spiritual sort – while the Sisterhood was a powerful force, locally, basic economics and human nature were still more powerful) to petty gambling to fortune telling. Many local organizations, mostly churches, temples, and monasteries, had also taken the opportunity to promote their causes and try to skim a little of the spacer’s coin, which was flowing like beer. The beer, of course, flowed freely, the organizers of the event securing several tonnes of it in advance.
A long temporary fence ringed the top of the mesa, established to keep wandering drunks from inadvertently plunging over the side. It had quickly been adapted as an impromptu memorial for various Browncoat regiments, the survivors of which proudly wrote their names, units, planets and years of service.
Security for the event was handled by a local private firm, which was largely made up of moonlighting Radical Green Militia insurgents, augmented by volunteers from the spacers. They undertook the essential mission of ensuring that the controlled chaos on the mesa did not contaminate the wilderness beyond. They ranged the crowds, curtailing petty thievery and breaking up fights and generally making sure everyone had a good time without becoming violent. Transgressors were treated to public ridicule and a one-hour “time out” in a tent near the first aid tent for a first offense. Continued offending led to the expulsion of the offenders, and was, thankfully, a relatively rare occurrence.
The aromas that haunted the air were magnificent. The harsh odors of engine exhaust, ozone, and industrial lubricants from the ships were usually covered by the more subtle and tantalizing smells of a hundred cuisines, and mixed with the sweet scent of wood smoke. Sufi vendors added to the mixture with incense, herbs and spices, while Dravidian priests cooked with curries strong enough to curl nostril hairs. When the wind shifted just right, the sweet, dry smell of desert vegetation took the place of the carnival smells, and when it shifted again the acrid stench of latrines, stale beer and vomit predominated.
The sound of the crowds, laughing and yelling and talking, always talking, filled the air, disturbed infrequently with yet another ship landing and augmented by the hundreds of street musicians who competed with the staged music for aural attention. At the extreme southern end of the bluff there was an area designated for shooting, if shooting had to be done. It was slightly lower than the mesa top, proper, and of course plenty of people found good reasons to shoot.
The stage at the north end of the butte was constantly busy, as a number of acts, locals interspersed with hired performers from off-world, spent the day entertaining the crowd. Comedians and performance artists would fill in the spaces between sets, and, of course, breaks were used to bark the inevitable announcements about lost children, points of interest, and meetings of special groups.
As the sun set and the stars came out around the fringes of the gas giant in the sky, the small crowd directly in front of the stage grew. Enormous bonfires were lit, partially for the light, partially against the sudden chill, and partially because it seemed like a damn good time to set something afire.
A space was cleared for dancing, which the spacers indulged in with drunken glee. The beer, tobacco and hempflower tents were doing a near-constant business dispensing chemical happiness in liquid or smoky form.
The crew of Serenity all made their way to the hopping-busy Downtown area, eventually, where they participated in the festivities to various degrees.
Kaylee and Simon, newly made-up (thanks to an apology and a present of fresh strawberries on Simon’s part and a fine black felt hat and a gracious acceptance by Kaylee) took turns dancing and drinking and kissing passionately on the periphery, lost in their own world and recovering from their first real fight.
Inara enjoyed the cacophony immensely, and enjoyed dancing for the pure joy of dancing – she even took a turn with Jayne, who danced surprisingly well for a cold-blooded mercenary killer. River, of course, could not be kept from dancing even when there was no music. She was in constant motion, joining in every style and manner of dance perfectly as it was performed, and throwing herself enthusiastically into the more freestyle movements of less-well-ordered dance numbers. A sheen of sweat and a big goody smile dominated her face for most of the night.
Mal was holding forth at what was known as the Captains’ Table, a long, low surface where the movers and shakers amongst the demimonde sat by custom. He was sandwiched in between Monty, whose ship had landed only hours before, and Viktor Stiles, one of the most successful and notorious “commerce raiders” (“pirates”) to fly under the Black Star of the Independents’ movement. Captain Tanaka sat across from them, drinking tiny cups of saki, next to Captain Beatrice O’Donnelly, who sat next to Randal Omphalos, who was reminiscing with Hiram C. Byrd about their service on Boros together. The rest of the table was likewise made up of colorful and thoroughly disreputable characters. They were joined an hour after darkness fell by the rotund, jolly figure of Duncan McKlintock, one of the more popular folk on the Rim.
Indeed, it wasn’t just Duncan but his whole family that invaded the Downtown district with a palpable wave of enthusiasm. Duncan’s wives, his brother Devon, and the whole McKlintock clan, from teenaged Rowan and Tinker on down to the littlest tyke, were greeted with cheers and cries of recognition – everyone loved the McKlintocks. Their barge was a kind of traveling country store that made the rounds out on the Rim, providing essential items and luxuries from off-world to remote locations on the frontier. They were also a very generous family, often willing to forsake a quick and easy profit in exchange for long-term client goodwill. It had paid off. The McKlintocks were as prosperous as any family in the Black.
Mal’s heart was warmed by just the sight of so much domestic bliss – not that the unruly gang of kids was perfectly well-behaved, he noted. Twice Althea McKlintock was forced to raise her voice when one of the boys tried to peek up a dancer’s skirt. But it was a big, happy family, and it did him well, especially after Serenity’s recent losses, to see someone, somewhere, enjoying a good healthy family life.
“Looks like your young’un went and hit a few trees runnin’ through the puberty forest,” Monty said to Duncan with a snicker, indicating Rowan.
“She takes after her mama,” agreed Duncan, holding his hands out to represent large breasts. “And quit lookin’ at my daughter’s boobs.”
“How about your wives’?” Monty asked.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Duncan conceded. “Though Winnie’s probably not the most attractive filly in the herd, her bein’ great with child an’ all.”
“Seems t’me that a pregnant woman is about as sexy as you could ask for,” Monty countered. “Just somethin’ about her bein’ all . . . fertile. Turns a man, y’know.”
“Yes, and when she isn’t bein’ a hormonally-charged hateful bitch with the vapors,” Duncan said, mildly, “she’s not too far from fair. She still ain’t forgiven me for knockin’ her up again.”
“At least you have a spare,” Viktor pointed out, nodding at Althea. The pretty blonde was chatting with Inara between dance sets.
“Well, one would think. But them two, closer’n sisters. One gets a mood on, you can bet th’other will join in out of a sense of solidarity.”
“Serves you right,” Beatrice said with a chuckle. “Any man who’s dumb enough to voluntarily inflict two women on hisself, well, he gets what he deserves.”
“Truth,” Devon grinned. “By the way, y’all are all invited to the wedding.”
“Huh?” the chorus of gasps was unanimous. Mal looked at him evenly.
“You plannin’ on addin’ another to your harem?” he asked, gently.
“Not at all, not at all. Tinker, he done fell in love with a groundhog girl. On Vesta. Pretty little thing, smart as a whip. Name’s Daisy, Daisy Shimoda. I tried to talk him out o’ it, but he’s determined. So we took her on, an’ they been courtin’ on the Sky Hawk the last month or two. He says he’s ready to do it, but I made him wait – figure, won’t hurt to see how she does in th’Black a while, afore he gets nuptilized.”
“That does seem a mighty short acquaintance upon which to base a marriage,” Viktor said, doubtfully. “Tinker – my Tinker – and his gal, they been co-habitatin’ on the Daydream for nigh a year, now, and ain’t ready yet.” Viktor’s brother Valdemar was also his engineer, and had gotten the nickname Tinker much as McKlintock’s son had. When the two ships were together, they distinguished between them either by using proper names or resorting to “Tinker the Elder” and “Tinker the Younger”.
“Well, the girls like her, that’s the important thing,” agreed Duncan. “Though I ain’t real sure I’m lookin’ forward to bein’ a grandfather just yet.”
“Boy’s got to grow,” Mal pointed out.
“Well, congratulations!” Monty said, rising and shaking Duncan’s hands enthusiastically. “Is Rowan next?”
“Hell, no,” scoffed Duncan. “She done chased off all the young bucks that come sniffin’ ‘round. Oh, she’s interested, but she ain’t gonna give up piloting just ‘cause o’ sex. Or love. Or any combination o’ the two.” He eyed Mal cautiously for a moment. “I heard about Wash. Damn shame. My condolences. Rowan cried for a week, when she found out. She also volunteered to come be your interim pilot, ‘till you find a permanent.”
“I appreciate it,” Mal agreed. “Both the sympathy and the offer. But I went an’ promoted my supercargo to the position.”
“River?” Duncan asked, startled.
“She’s . . . changed a mite since . . . all that go se with Miranda,” he said, quietly. “Surprised me, actually. But she took to it like a duck to water. Better’n me, by now.”
“That’s faint praise. I’ve seen you fly,” Monty said with a guffaw.
“I would have thought that you’d be . . . hesitant about her at the stick,” Duncan observed. “What with her . . . issues.”
“Oh, she still got issues aplenty,” Mal confirmed. “Scrambled brain pan, on top o’ bein’ a super genius an’ a teenager. But when it comes to the stick, she takes us up and down an’ nary a complaint.”
“Glad to hear it,” agreed Duncan. “That wise, considerin’ all the heat?”
“Probably not,” admitted Mal. “But I think the Purplebellies got enough to deal with now. I saw this mornin’ they sent troops into New Melbourne. Looks like those riots turned into an insurgency.”
“Ay ya, it’s like that everywhere,” swore Beatrice. “Got turned back from Epiphany two weeks ago. Local authorities claimed there was a ‘medical quarantine’. Said no one is allowed in or out until its lifted. Ask me, they just wanna stay out o’ the problems.”
“Came in from Boros, myself,” Tanaka said. “Very bad things happening there. Assassinations. Arrests. Worse than the Occupation.”
“Heard tell they lynched the governor of Dyton, on account o’ he used to be the assistant to the Minister who approved Miranda,” Captain Byrd added.
“Lot o’ that goin’ around,” Viktor Stiles said, solemnly. “Big power struggles like this leave everything up in the air. And it’s just beginning, I think.”
“You don’t think things will settle?” Duncan asked. Viktor had a reputation for being a thinker. He had to be, as a pirate. Everyone looked to him with a great deal of respect for his opinion on such matters. The former pirate sighed.
“This is how it’s gonna play out,” he pronounced. “Expect another six months to a year of political instability. That’s going to be the period of moral outrage and calls for accountability. The Old Regime, who have been in power since the War, will be out of favor. The Opposition is going to take advantage of the chaos and resulting power vacuum, and will seek to move in. The acting Peace Minister is powerless, for all practical purposes, and the anti-Hegemony MPs are grilling him like a tender piece of St. Bernard about how close to a third of the Rimward fleet got taken out by an enemy the former Administration wouldn’t even admit existed. The military, believe it or not, has a number of factions developing, most lining up behind senior officers. Every world on the Rim is starting to scream for a permanent fleet to keep the Reavers at bay, and if they don’t get it, the politicos suffer. Then there are the recriminations for the Miranda project, which is a shit-storm all its own.
“The question becomes, who will be the dominant, policy-shaping force in the new regime? The obvious answer is the anti-Hegemonists, of course, but upon close inspection their Opposition is hardly organized. Most are corporate shills, a few are out-right robber-barons, and the gorram few genuine statesmen are wisely waiting to see what the next election holds before they start committing themselves.”
“So what about . . . out here?” Beatrice asked. “Do we go to ground, or . . .”
“I wouldn’t worry, too much,” Viktor dismissed. “In the absence of a strong central authority, we’ll see stronger local leaders emerge . . . likely at the planetary level. The Corporations are already involved, of course, and they’ll be playing the situation to their best advantage. For some folk, that won’t be so bad. Here,” he said, gazing out over the glorious panorama of the Outback, “here, not so much. The IDC will start putting pressure on, without the Alliance lookin’ over their shoulder. Might get a little bloody here. These nice Greenie folk aren’t about to let them get away with too much. In fact, I ‘spect there’ll be a dozen or more insurrections, one way or another, Core to Rim.” He paused to take a drink. “We’re lookin’ at regional warlords, corporate states, bandit states, failed states, all manner of chaos in the next decade. Good news for gun runners, smugglers, and other disreputable elements,” he said with a grin. “Not so good news for anyone what actually works for a living.”
“And then what?” Tanaka asked.
“And then . . . one of two things. Another strong centralized power evolves in the Core, one with the moral authority and political will to keep the Alliance intact, or . . . we break down into regional powers again. Wouldn’t surprise me none if some folk started talkin’ ‘bout the U-War less from nostalgia and more from a ‘where did we go wrong last time?’ point o’ view.”
“Enough of that talk,” Mal grumbled, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “I done served one lost cause.”
“We all done our share,” agreed Monty. He paused. “Still, if folk are talkin’ . . .”
“Let them talk,” Viktor said, tiredly. “Truth? The best way to establish a strong Alliance government right now is to start showin’ the Black Star and singin’ ‘Rally ‘round the banner’ too loud. All them yahoos in the Core would need to get their collective shit together right now is even the perception that the Independents are back in business.”
“I always though o’ you as a die-hard Independent, Mal,” Duncan observed. “You still wearin’ that coat.”
Mal looked down at the browncoat he had worn for over a decade. “Ain’t givin’ up on a perfectly good coat,” he said, at last. “Been through a lot together. You could say I’m a little . . . emotionally attached. Yessir, just ‘cause I ain’t in a hurry to slap a patch on it don’t mean I’m gonna give it up.”
“Malcolm Reynolds!” his mother yelled. “You get down here this instant!”
“Coming, Ma!” he shouted in reply. He was hurriedly trying to wash off the dirt and blood from his hands. It had been a busy night.
Captain Renshaw had warned them it would be tough. The results of the election were still up in the air, due to widespread fraud on the part of the Hegemonistic Unity Party, who would not accept an anti-Alliance Independents Party in power. Governor Hecht was ruling by decree, even though popular opinion showed him to be a little more popular than a root canal, but not by much.
He had transformed the Constabulary service into hit-squads, and had borrowed troops from the garrison at Penumbra to keep the restless natives at bay. The last year of sabotage, ambushes, and other violent opposition now had the purple-armored soldiers all over the city, and leaking out into the countryside to “maintain order”. This despite the fact that order was pretty well kept anyplace that didn’t suffer from an overabundance of purplebellies.
Tonight – last night, he corrected himself, noting the sun peeking over the mountains in the distance – Renshaw’s company had been tasked with delaying a column of reinforcements to the beleaguered guards at the Company factory over in Risen. The instructions had been scant on how to effect such a delay. What had started as a harassing movement, designed to slow them down, had turned into a pitched battle, though, and for the first time in his life Mal Reynolds had been forced to kill a man.
The Company security guards hadn’t been the only victims, however; three of Renshaw’s raiders had fallen, and several had been wounded – including Royce and Rachel. Royce had a huge bruise on his face from the butt of a Company assault rifle, and Rachel had caught part of a shotgun blast to the face. A glancing blow, luckily – nothing vital was hit – but her left cheek and ear would be full of shot for weeks, and if the wound didn’t produce a dandy scar then Mal was no judge of such things.
He felt exhilarated, and scared, part predator and part prey. He almost admired the way he had drawn his father’s pistol and taken down the Security goon who was trying to “subdue” him. Another part of him was sickened, and afeared for his mortal soul over the act of killing another human being.
“Mal! Mal!” his mother said, bursting into his room. Mal’s heart rushed to his throat. He glanced around – he hoped he had concealed his activities well enough. His ragged burlap “browncoat” was stuffed under his bed, covered in blood and dirt. His hands and arms were clean, and he had hurriedly changed his shirt.
“Yes, Ma?” he asked, innocently.
“What were you . . .? Never mind. I got two sick heifers, and I need you to escort the vet out to the Sunrise pasture, where they’re pegged off. Too many gates for the old man, and the hands are out actually working for a living. Then, if we don’t have to put ‘em down, I want you to go to town and pick up the groceries for the week. The hands have let me know if they get cold rice and vegetables again for dinner that they’ll seek better conditions elsewhere. Now . . .” she looked at him for the first time and sighed. “Mal, you done missed a spot.”
“Huh?” Mal grunted.
“Blood, Mal. You got a big ol’ bloody handprint on the left side of your face. You must have missed it.”
“Ma . . . I . . . I think I . . . I was—”
“Oh, don’t bother. I’ve known for months. You can’t hide that sort of thing from your own mother, Mal, and don’t you forget it. I take it you’re one of these ‘browncoats’ we hear about in the news all the time?”
Mal looked at his boots, noticing another drop of blood there he had missed. “Yes’m.”
“Good.” Mal looked up, instantly, his expression as shocked as it could carry off.
“I said, ‘good’, as in, ‘I approve’. There, I said it. You don’t have to keep it secret, no more.”
“Oh, relax. What did you think I’d do? Forbid it? When has that made any difference to a strong-willed, thick-headed buck like yourself? No, you’re a man now, or as close as makes no never mind. You’ve already made a man’s decision by joining the underground.”
“Haven’t you been . . . worried?” he asked, confounded by the sudden reversal of a lifetime of maternal oversight.
“Every gorram time I heard that window of yours open. But that’s what a mother does. Too much of your father in you, I expect. Oh, I thought you’d run off and become a spacer – the Black runs thick in your blood on his side, powerful thick – but I should have known better. Joe was a fighter. So is his son.”
“I . . . I can’t help it, Ma,” he admitted, eyes downcast. “I keep thinkin’ of Dad walkin’ up those stairs—”
“And you think I forgot? Hell no! I’d like to put a few rounds in some purplebellies my ownself, if I could get away with it. I vote Independent. I donate a little, under the table. But I’m an upstanding member of the community, and someone has to be around to lie about your whereabouts when the constables come lookin’.”
“What?” Mal asked, shocked. He didn’t think anyone knew.
“Oh, yes, they’ve been by. But I’ve been able to play the worried mother who won’t let you stray from my apron strings long enough to keep them at bay.” She looked him up and down. “Any of that blood yours?” she asked, casually.
“No, ma’am,” he assured. “I was right careful. Couple o’ Company goons weren’t so lucky.” He paused. “Neither were Jasper, Kim, and Goli.”
“Oh, those poor boys,” she whispered, shaking her head and closing her eyes in prayer. “That’s a damn shame. Damn shame.”
“Ma, I . . . I’ll quit. You say the word, I’ll quit right now,” he declared, resolutely.
“Boy, you can’t quit,” she replied, sternly. “You got into this for a reason. That reason ain’t gone. You got to see this through, to the bitter end. I ain’t lookin’ forward to buryin’ a son on top of his father, but I also know Joe Reynolds wasn’t a quitter, and neither are you. If this world has any chance of freedom in the future, it’s gonna be on account of thick-headed rascals like yourself. What’s that?” she asked, nodding to his bed.
“What?” Mal asked, dumbly.
“That, that. Under the bed. Where it’s leaking blood.”
“Oh,” Mal replied, mildly. “That. That’s my . . . browncoat.” He watched as Mai Reynolds scooped up the misshapen heap of bloody burlap – not much more than a bag with holes for his arms and head – and looked at it disdainfully.
“You been out raiding in . . . this?”
“Yes’m. I figgered that it would be easy to toss, at need, and hard to track.”
“Well . . . you’re right about that. Take it down and burn it, get rid of the evidence. But Mal?”
“Come with me. I got somethin’ I been . . . savin’ for you.”
Mal walked dully down the hall to his mother’s room – twice as big as his, and filled with the mementos of a happy married life. She went to the trunk at the foot of her huge bed and started punching in the lock combination.
“You remember that buck you an’ your Daddy took two years ago, up in the Highlands?”
“Yeah, that was the last time we went hunting,” he remembered. “Good eating, that buck.”
“It was huge – massive,” agreed his mother. “Two seasons worth of good eating. Well, I took that hide and had Du Fu tan it for me. Then I made you this, about the time you started riding. You with Mr. Lamont?”
“Captain Renshaw,” corrected Mal.
“Stands to reason, he and your Daddy bein’ so close. Well, I thought if you was going to be a Browncoat,” she said, taking a large bundle from the open trunk, “you should look the proper part.” She shook it by the shoulders, and the long, dark brown leather coat, spotless and unstained, was revealed. “Sewed it my ownself. Said a prayer over every stitch that my boy would be safe. Every stitch,” she repeated, wistfully. “Might be a bit loose in the shoulders, but unless I miss my guess you ain’t quite done fillin’ out – though the thought o’ my baby any bigger makes me weep.” She motioned for him to try it on, and then helped him get it settled.
Mal inhaled the clean, fresh scent of quality leather, felt the strong, rough texture, and fingered the fastenings in wonder. “Ma, this is . . .”
“I know, son,” she said, quietly. “I can’t give you much to help you on your way, here,” she admitted. “But I can make sure you look stylish while you’re up to your shenanigans.” She smiled warmly at him, a tear in her eye. “Damned if you don’t look just like your Daddy the day I laid eyes on him.”
Before he could respond, there was a knock at the front door. Mal swallowed and drew his pistol by reflex. He was surprised to see two small automatics appear in his mother’s hands.
“You stay up here,” she warned. “If it’s the constabulary, I’ll tell ‘em you got the runs or somethin’, were here all night.”
Mal nodded silently, knowing what kind of risk she was taking. A Browncoat over in Lanceyville had been taken by the constables, and when his parents put up an argument all three had been shot dead. Mal stood at the top of the stairs, gun drawn, trying to listen. He wouldn’t let his mother get killed that way.
“Mal! C’mon down! It’s Mr. – Captain Renshaw!”
“Captain?” Mal said, taking the stairs two at a time as he holstered his pistol.
It was, indeed, the craggy face of his leader. He grinned widely.
“Mal, thought you’d like to know: Judge Nei Lei has ordered that the Independents Party won, and ordered that they take over the government. Hecht and his cronies won’t let that happen. He declared martial law this morning.”
Mai Reynolds’ face fell. “That means . . .”
“We ain’t gonna let that scorpion stay in power,” declared the old man. “Just got our orders. All Browncoats are to assemble at their rendezvous and prepared to march on Penumbra, in support of the Independents Party government. If you’re up to it – Royce insisted, though I tried to make him stay home ‘till he healed. So did Rachel, for that matter.”
“Rachel?” shrieked Mrs. Reynolds. “Royce, I could see – he’s always been a troublemaker. But little Rachel is involved?”
“Yes, ma’am. Accounted herself a warrior, too, last night,” Renshaw said proudly. “Took a bit o’ shot to the face, but she’ll keep her looks – and her fightin’ spirit’s done doubled!
“I can imagine,” she said, shaking her head. “That girl’s a pistol, Mal. You could do worse for a wife.”
“Mother!” Mal whined.
“I’m just saying . . . all this fuss will be over soon, and it wouldn’t kill you to give thought to my grandbabies, now would it? Rachel’s a sweet girl.”
Renshaw grinned despite himself. “Well, enough time for that, later, I expect. Grab your rifle, Mal, and you can go with me while I get the others. With your permission, ma’am,” he said, nodding deferentially towards Mai.
“Oh, you boys go ahead, have your fun,” she said, acting far more casual than Mal knew she felt. “Give ‘em a lick for me!”
“Will do,” Renshaw agreed. “You ready?”
“Horse is still saddled from last night,” Mal nodded. “Rifle is in the saddle.”
“Let’s go, then,” Renshaw said, putting on his wide-brimmed hat. Mai Reynolds put a restraining hand on her only son’s arm, giving Mal a start. Had she changed her mind?
Instead, she pulled him down for a kiss on the cheek, and then took off the wooden cross she wore and placed it around his neck. “I’ll still be prayin’,” she whispered. “Now go kick some Purplebelly ass!”
“Yes, ma’am!” he said, enthusiastically. As he followed Renshaw out into the yard, the older man gestured back. “Fine woman, your Ma. Hey, and that’s a damn fine coat, there, too,” he added.
While the others danced, drank, smoked, and cavorted among the revelers, Zoe Washburn clung to the shadows, content to watch and lurk and sip from the bottle she had acquired.
She missed him, missed him terribly. As she watched Simon and Kaylee embrace lovingly on the edge of the dance area, she felt a heated pang of loss that ripped through her heart. Then she took another drink. If she drank enough, she knew, the pain would recede to just above a memory, and someday she might be able to sleep without the thought of her husband’s sudden, bloody death haunting her dreams.
She had killed them, of course, killed every gorram Reaver she could, and still it had not been enough to blunt the pain. She had half-way hoped to follow Wash into death – but it wasn’t to be. River had intervened, and left her wounded, alive . . . and widowed.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, she chided herself. I was the gun hand. He was just the pilot. I was supposed to get killed, not him. Inside her chest was a raging tempest of emotion, totally at odds with the gaiety that surrounded her. She took another drink.
As she lowered the bottle, she noticed a tall man nearby who was not paying any attention to the wild dancing near the great bonfire. He was at least six feet and a half tall, and wore a long stove-pipe hat that had seen much better days. He wore a leather vest that revealed an intricate series of designs painted white against his dark black skin. The design went all the way up to his face, and surrounded his eyes, which seemed to bore into her.
She stared back for a moment, then curled her lip and took another drink. She wished the tribal would proposition her only because she wished to do someone violence about now, and that would be an adequate excuse. When she lowered the bottle, the man was standing directly in front of her, his expression somber and his eyes searching.
“Can I do you a service?” she asked, quietly.
“You are Zoë Washburn,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, for lack of a wittier retort.
“You are going to rescue my brother.”
“You are full of—”
“I have a message for Zoë Washburn,” the man said in a funereal voice.
“A what? From whom?” she asked. Everyone who cared about here was here, now. She couldn’t think of anyone who might send her a message – especially by means of this wild man.
“I have a message for Zoë Washburn,” he repeated slowly. “A message from your husband.”
Friday, October 20, 2006 10:20 AM
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