Back Stories II: Chapter 13
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What might have been Zoë’s first impression of Mal, back when they first met?


Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I'm just playing.

Many thanks: members: leiasky and nosadseven for beta-reading and mphillips for the artwork.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

Previous chapter | Next chapter


Highgate’s second moon

When Zoë awoke, it had clearly grown darker. Enough time had passed for the sun above the clouds to move on, and that made her come to her senses in a quick second, sitting up to check that Mal was still sleeping beside her.

He was – peaceful as a babe. An extra blanket was spread over him, making it look like he’d had a momma to watch over him while he slept.

She rubbed her eyes, then noticed that a spare blanket was spread over herself as well. The Shepherd must have placed it there, she realized, and she was grateful for it. The wind had grown a few more teeth, and the bare skin of her face was chilled already. It made her wonder exactly how much time had passed. She tugged on her boots, then wrapped her extra blanket around her shoulders and climbed to her feet.

Book was sitting at the fire, a collection of small wooden animals scattered in random herds on the rock next to him.

“Looks like you’ve got a new trade, Shepherd,” she said. “Ain’t you slept at all?”

He looked up from his whittling. “Don’t feel the need to,” he said, then added casually, “Have you, by chance, ever seen a buffalo?”

She tried to get a look at what was in his hands. It looked like a very obese dog. “Only in picture books.”

“Hmm.” He considered his newest creation and frowned. “Then you’ll do me the favor of believing that this…” – he held the thing up – “… is what one looks like.”

Zoë smiled at his spirit, then made herself drop her blanket briefly so she could put the kettle over the fire.

“How long’s it been?” she asked as she wrapped herself up again.

“Seven hours you’ve been asleep,” Book replied. “Just about three days total, since we got here.”

“That’s it?”

He nodded gravely. She gave him a close lookover; there didn’t seem to be a timepiece nearby, but he’d obviously been keeping track. Maybe having his own worried thoughts about the falling temperature and dwindling foodstuffs. And, of course, the other problem that only got worse as time passed…

She looked over to Mal; he hadn’t moved a bit. Comfy and happy in his warm burrow. Unburdened of many things since he was last awake, perhaps. Hard to tell if the burdens of his life were really lifted, or just hidden away. There was no way of knowing where his memories were going. It could be they were lost forever.

She shook her head – she wouldn’t be accepting that. It simply couldn’t be. Mal’s memories were looked up somewhere deep inside him, in an iron box that just needed the right mix of medicines and high tech doctoring to pry the stubborn lock open, make the tumblers turn. Then he’d be set to rights.

She wasn’t about to consider anything different. She’d had this man in her life so long that she couldn’t imagine going on without him. In fact, she could barely recall the time when she hadn’t know him as well as she knew herself.

* * *

Eleven years ago, Shadow

The first time Zoë sees Malcolm Reynolds is at the end of a long day of resupplying, in the early evening hours when the soldiers are just finishing their chores and joining the line at the mess tent. The mood is somber; they’re fresh from a fight that hadn’t gone well. The Independents had been forced to retreat from Beylix in a hurry, their ground lost, the battle abandoned until a better day. Now they have some time to take their ease on Shadow; it’ll be at least a few weeks before the higher ups make a fresh plan.

As happens on most Rim worlds, a few locals come asking to join up. And, as usual, they’re from the local militia, volunteers with naught but the roughest training. In times like this, when there’s not enough rookies to bother with a full boot camp, the newbs are scattered about. The theory is that they’ll have a good chance to learn the ropes quickly if they’re surrounded by experience.

Zoë’s never been thrilled about this kind of thing; a green kid can cost more lives then his own if he melts when things get hot. This time, she’s especially not pleased. The new kid assigned to her own unit looks to be the freshest of all the fresh blood. He comes to find her just outside the mess tent and hands her his paperwork, his face lit with an eager smile. All she can see is his factsheet: just joined Shadow’s defense force a few days ago, and surely he’d only done that so he’d end up here.

“Private Reynolds,” she says, trying out the name as she looks him up and down. His shaggy brown hair hangs over his forehead, his shirt is tucked slightly askew, and his trousers are all crinkled up. He carries his newly acquired brown coat over his arm like it’s naught but an old horse blanket. Truth be told, he looks neater than much of the regiment – most Independents take some pride in not being as tight-assed as those they fight. But, as a new guy, he needs a proper welcome.

“You think you’re a soldier?” she asks with a harsh edge to her voice. “You’re a gorramn mess. Who taught you to put on a uniform?”

He looks down at himself, his smile gone and his forehead crinkled up in self-conscious worry as he rubs his jaw. Zoë has a moment of her own unease – it’s bad enough to have a new recruit join the regiment at this point; if he’s a cream puff who can’t take harsh words, she’ll find a way to send him back home.

“Well, ma’am,” Reynolds finally says, “I only had my momma to teach me how to dress, but I figure the heat a’ battle ain’t the place for a calico gown. Enemy might think I’m pretty.”

Zoë hears a light guffaw from someone behind her, and her worry turns to annoyance. The cocky grin that spreads across the new boy’s face doesn’t help. Well – the info sheet says he’s only a year younger than she is, but he looks so gorramn fresh-faced that if she didn’t know better she’d place him a good five years back. Doesn’t seem like he’s been off his world much. Possibly never.

“Your momma ain’t here, Reynolds,” she says, no humor in her voice. “So you better get to workin’ things out on your own. I’m your Corporal. You need any help with settling in, including how you put your britches on, you make sure and ask someone else and don’t bug me with it.”

His face falls. He looks a little lost, like he’s casting around for all the things he’ll have to do for himself now. “But…” he starts hesitantly, then he leans over, mimes stepping into something – a pair of pants. “Is it the left or the right goes first? I always forget that part.”

Zoë frowns at the innocent confusion on his face, then she hears outright laughter behind her, and the young clown straightens up and waves to the laughers with a grin.

“You eat yet?” she asks stiffly.

He shrugs. “Had a snack on the trip over, ma’am, but a little real food wouldn’t hurt.”

Real food? she thinks. He’ll learn about that right quick.

“Ain’t you lucky it’s dinnertime. We got the best protein you’ll find anywhere. Get in line.”

She hopes he’ll take the hint from her tone and quit acting like he’s just arrived to summer camp and can’t wait to start playing, but the smile stays on his face as he goes to the back of the food line. The vet soldiers ahead of him are beat after a hard day of restocking supplies and weaponry and clearly aren’t in a social mood, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He immediately introduces himself to all those nearby, and asks about their day.

Zoë knows right then that Reynolds is gonna be a headache.

And he is.

He’s never done anything but work a ranch, and he has to be shown every damn thing. He’s in decent shape for a civilian and can aim a gun eerily well, but herding cattle and shooting tin cans isn’t fighting a war. He knows nothing of the weaponry and tactics of the Independent army, much less the high tech artillery, complicated strategies, and deadly tricks like landmines and seekers used by the Alliance.

To work in the rookie and keep the rest of them from sinking into any kind of doldrums, Sergeant Ross has Zoë run the whole group through some basic drills while they wait to return to action. Of course, she keeps a special eye on Reynolds. He doesn’t do so well. She stands over him as he lags behind the others, crawling in the mud or dragging his body over obstacles, breaking down and reloading an unfamiliar gun with cold, clumsy fingers.

You havin’ fun now, rookie? she taunts. You thinkin’ you can take back that volunteerin’ you did? You wonderin’ why you raised your hand? You can put it down and go on back home, anytime you want….

But, no matter how she rides him, he comes out with at least half a grin, like he knows he’ll do better next time. And that night he finds someone else to sit next to over supper, and he talks like he’s known them all his life.

Zoë doesn’t trust that. She can’t see why he doesn’t just shut his mouth and take his rest like everyone else. It bothers her; this isn’t a gorramn social club, and she means to get that through his head before she takes him into the heat of battle.

A fortnight after Reynolds joins, the action picks up back on Beylix, and plans start coming down. The officers are meeting, working out strategies and timing the move off of Shadow. And, while the masters of the game keep themselves busy with logistics, the idle pawns do what idle pawns of the Browncoat army tend to do.

They drink.

Sergeant Ross has given Zoë her own tasks, so she doesn’t join the grunts in the mess tent until the festivities have been going on for an hour or two. But she arrives just in time for the highlight performance of the evening.

Reynolds is standing against a wall of the tent, holding one of the supports with an outstretched arm. His body is tilted sideways and one leg is lifted off the ground, as if he’s trying to float in the warm, stuffy arm of the tent. His free arm waves above him, circling in the way an arm does when a body is stabilizing itself in zero G.

“You can not lose track!” he says in a gruff, lecturing way, mimicking a voice that’s awfully familiar to Zoë. “Can’t be forgettin’ which way’s up, or you’ll – “ Suddenly he cuts off with a girlish yelp and waves both hands in front of his face, like he’s batting at stuff in his way. His audience laugh loudly at first, but then cut it back when they notice that Zoë’s watching.

The bastards are sneaky though, they don’t clue Reynolds in. She stands a few meters behind the newbie and folds her arms, watching him play up his act, and her frowns deepens. She recognizes the moment he’s bring back to life for all to see, and she’s not happy about it.

This unit specializes in surface warfare, but they spend plenty of time getting moved around between worlds, and can come under attack while in transit. Therefore, each soldier needs to know their way around a ship, with and without grav. Given that Reynolds has never been in the Black before, Zoë’s made sure he’s taken part in a few runs up to the orbital supply ships, just to give him a chance to get his space legs. If zero G is like to make him vomit, best he get over it now.

He certainly had his troubles the first time up. Not of the vomiting type, more in the way of a lack of grace. He tumbled all over the hold of the ship, not listening to a word Zoë said about making small movements and using a light touch. Nope, he had to do it his own way.

On the second trip up, he got a little better. Had time to think on it, was her guess. So she started giving him lessons on how to move faster, how to deal with pressure loss and get himself into a suit before his eyes and ears explode. Reynolds, of course, didn’t take direction well, and she lit into him just like she had on the training course planetside. She was in mid-rant when she went and kicked her foot against the bulkhead and set herself to spinning. In desperation, not wanting to look a fool in front of the hapless rookie, she grabbed tight to a package strapped to the wall.

It wasn’t a good choice of handhold; her fingers tore right into the soft sides of a packet that some idiot left unprotected, and a bit of it pulled away in her hand. She found herself floating free and enveloped in a cloud of white: cooking flour, thick gobs of it rushing into her throat and up her nose. That set her to sneezing something fierce. Which made her spin more. Which – she has to grudgingly admit – probably had been a mite funny to see at the time. Still, it isn’t anything she wants acted out for the whole damned squadron.

Reynolds does an impressive job of recreating zero G, playing up the sneezing and the spinning, and the troops at the tables just smile and sip their drinks, knowing that the show is set to get even better once the rookie catches on to Zoë’s presence and she makes her opinion of all this known.

It isn’t long before an acrobatic move turns Reynolds, and he finds himself face to face with her. She expects him to be embarrassed and apologetic, but that’s asking too much. “Corporal Alleyne!” he says as he straightens, his words slightly slurred with drink. “Glad you made it. You’re just in time for the good part. Look at this…”

She stops him from going into another move. “Oh, I seen plenty.”

“But I –”

“Reynolds, I think maybe you ought’a have a seat and a canteen of water.”

Her tone finally gets through to him, and he straightens and gives her an assessing stare.

“Maybe you ought’a lighten up,” he says with a frown. This brings a round of ooo’s from the troops sitting behind him, and then it gets quiet. Very quiet.

“What?” Reynolds asks innocently, looking around at his peers, but they’re no longer meeting his eye. The stupid boy has no idea what he’s walking into, Zoë thinks, and if he can’t read this situation, what the hell will he be like in a few days, when bullets are flying and shells are raining down?

“Outside,” she says in a tone that makes all the other grunts look down at their hands. But Reynolds still doesn’t have a clue.

“What?” he asks again, this time directing the word at her. “Come on, pull up a chair and have a drink – ” She walks forward and grabs his arm, then gives him a shove toward the door of the tent, just in case he’s too far gone to find the way himself. There’s a rustle as some of the others get up to follow, but she stops them with a look.

“The rest a’ you stay put,” she orders. “I’m just havin’ a few words with the newbie, ain’t none of your business.”

They know better than to cross Corporal Alleyne, and with a few disappointed clucks they sit back down to their whiskey and ale.

Reynolds is waiting outside the tent, looking like he expects a hug from his cohort more than what Zoë has in mind. Which explains his surprise when she punches him.

She doesn’t put everything into it – can’t chew him out if he’s unconscious. He stumbles back a few steps, wobbling and barely keeping to his feet, then wipes blood from his lip. He looks up at her, mouth and eyes open in befuddlement.

“What the hell was that for?”

“`Cause I don’t like you,” Zoë answers, her voice cool and even. She steps forward, meaning to put a little fisty punctuation on her statement, but he catches her by surprise and strikes before she can wind up proper.

It’s her turn to step back, and the copper tang of blood fills her mouth. She focuses her eyes again and sees Reynolds watching her, his hands raised, his balance almost steady as he waits for her reaction.

“m’I gonna end up in the brig for that?” he asks.

Zoë spits, then squares off. “I reckon I’m the one started it.”

He grins, though the expression doesn’t touch his eyes the way it had while he clowned in the tent. “That mean you’ll be in the can?”

“I’m thinkin’ not. We’re just settin’ aside the rules for a bit. Ain’t no corporals or privates out here. Not right now.”

She steps forward and tries him with her right fist. He blocks it and swings at her, but she’s expecting it and dodges just enough. She’ll have a bruise on her jaw where his fist glances off, but he’ll have a bigger one where she lands an answering left jab on his right cheek. This time he goes down.

“Ow!” he says from his hands and knees, one hand on his face. His jaw works sideways as he checks the damage. “I think you broke my gorramn tooth!”

“I suggest you stay put, Reynolds. Way you move, this ain’t gonna go good for you.”

He looks up at her. “You start a fight and I ain’t supposed to fight back? What the hell are you after?”

“Just wanna make sure I got your attention. I got a few things to say.”

“Ha!” He snorts a short laugh. “It’s worth a knock to miss out on an earful of gōushī.” He gets up and gives himself a shake, then takes a loose fighting stance and looks at her like now he means business.

This time, she lets him move in and take the first swing, which she avoids cleanly. It leaves him wide open, and she punches him in the stomach. When he doubles over, she hooks a foot around his knee and gives a push to upend him. She could hit him again, but it’s too easy, beating up Reynolds. She’s proved her point by now, and it’ll do no good to damage him.

“Gorramn, woman,” he says when he’s half done coughing, half curled up on his side. “I been drinkin’.”

“That supposed to be an excuse?”

“You ain’t supposed to hit a drunk in the stomach!” he says. “Gonna make me puke.” He keeps coughing, and makes a few sounds like he just might lose his dinner.

“Swallow it down, farmboy. And when you’re done, if you’re still feelin’ stupid, get up.” She keeps her fists raised, but Reynolds just dumps himself over onto his butt and looks up at her.

“I thought we was supposed to be on the same side,” he sputters.

“That’s right,” she says. The fight’s out of him now, so she drops her fists and steps up to tower over him. “We’re on the same side, Private. For a purpose – and that purpose is comin’ at us fast. A shuă zuĭ pí kid like you ain’t ever seen what we’re up against. I have. This ain’t a barroom brawl we’re headin’ into. Which is a good thing, `cause you ain’t no gorramn good in a fight.”

He gets a hurt expression over that, but he doesn’t argue.

“Those Alliance folks got their stuff together, Reynolds,” she continues. “They’ll be waitin’ for us – standin’ ready with high tech guns in their hands, the kind we’ll never have for ourselves. They’ll be all set to finish those of us who make it through the fire that’ll be coming out of the sky. If you want any chance of livin’ through it, you’d best shape up, `cause I’m tellin’ you, there ain’t no joke gonna get you through what’s comin’.”

He stares at her, his breath short and mouth hanging open like maybe Zoë’s gotten through to him at last, made him figure out that he’s military now and better get in line and start acting like a soldier. She steps back, giving him room to climb to his feet, and waits while he spits out a fat glob of bloody phlegm and wipes his mouth.

“Corporal Alleyne,” he says when he’s ready to speak, “with all due respect, I thought the point a’ all this fighting was that we don’t end up like them.”

He straightens up all the way, still looking at her, and there’s no joke in his face now. His words are so far from what Zoë expects to hear, and have such a ring of something true, that she just shuts her mouth.

He turns away and heads back to his tent on unsteady feet.

They find a distant peace after that, partly because they have to, what with the battles coming on. There’s too much that needs doing and Zoë doesn’t have time for swapping words. But she quits razzing Reynolds for his attitude, and lets him have his fun with the gang, long as it doesn’t get in her way. And he tones himself down around her, shutting up whenever he sees her nearby. He acts out her commands without rolling his eyes like he used to, even seems to make an active effort to listen when she talks, to understand her orders and make sure others do too.

There isn’t fear or resentment in how he treats her – there’s respect. Like maybe he’s heard what she said about being in the military, and he’s had a thought or two about how death is waiting right around the corner, ready to take anyone who slips up. Maybe he knows that she’s just trying to prevent that as much as she can.

But when he thinks she isn’t around, he’s just as much a smartass as ever. Though it grates on her, Zoë watches from a distance. She sees how the troops take to him. It gets so there’s a crowd around whatever serves as a table during chowtime, with Reynolds in the thick of it. Not that he talks all the time, but he has a way of getting other folks to feel easy and open up, a way of making it seem like a meal and not just grub shoveled down in haste.

When they make their move back to the fight on Beylix, leaving the easy days on Shadow behind, Reynolds surprises her by making it through the first day of fighting.

He surprises her more when he’s still there at the end of the second.

After a week, he’s caught the edge of a bullet, but not enough to keep him out. He doesn’t even whinge about it, just wraps his wound and keeps going. For all his attitude, the boy has a fire in his belly. If she had more time, she might ponder why. But, as it is, she lets it alone, just keeps a curious eye on him.

After a few weeks of fighting stack up, Zoë sees more to make her think. She’s always stayed back out of the way when folks return from battle half-dead tired and full of thoughts about the death they’ve seen or caused that day. They need the time to themselves, or that’s what she’s been taught. So she’s always watched silently as they sit down to another too-small meal of tasteless goo then stretch out for a few hours of down time before being roused from their bunks to do it all again.

But Reynolds does things differently. He always has some spirit about him, a few light-hearted words and a story of the day told in a way that makes the horror of the battle shrink in everyone’s memory. Zoë soon sees that the soldiers in their unit face their hardships a little easier with some banter to buoy them up, to remind them they’re still people and there’s more to life than hate and fear and death.

Despite herself, Corporal Zoë Alleyne finds her own respect for the volunteer private from a ranch on Shadow, the boy who doesn’t seem to take anything seriously and isn’t the most keen when it comes to following orders. Cause here’s the thing – Private Reynolds not only continues to survive, he has a habit of bringing those around him through the fire as well. They come out in one piece, body and mind ready to fight again tomorrow, and that’s something.

* * *

Highgate’s second moon

Zoë was still staring toward Mal, her eyes set in that direction but not quite seeing since her mind was elsewhere, when he woke suddenly. He sat up like he’d been startled out of a dream, and put a hand to his chest, feeling for a pendant that wasn’t there. “She’ll kill me; she finds out I lost it,” Mal muttered.

His hands kept groping the top of his shirt. The sight reminded Zoë of a day she’d learned something else about Malcolm Reynolds.

* * *

Eleven years ago, Beylix

The squad has been holding the western flank of the battle front for a day and a half without rest. It’s a necessity; most of the regiment is busy moving new supplies up to the shifting battle lines, and manpower is limited.

It’s not as bad as it could be, since the other side’s taking a bit of a break themselves. There isn’t a lot of firing, just a few volleys when the Alliance makes feints, as if trying the Browncoat defense out. The group following Sergeant Ross and Corporal Alleyne lose only one of her unit, a lady name of Daniels, when a chance shell lands right next to her during the dark of night. The shrapnel near tears her apart, and that never is a good sight to see.

Other than that, it’s been nothing but occasional sharp shooting of Alliance scouts that creep close in the dark, looking to make mischief with a grenade or two. This is something that Private Reynolds shows some aptitude for; the boy is a good shot, whatever else he may be.

Another unit finally shows to replace them in the cold pre-dawn hours of their second day out. Zoë rounds up her bunch to follow Sergeant Ross back to the temporary barracks that’s been thrown together just outside of the village they’re defending. A few of the soldiers go for a bite to eat, but most find an empty tent to pass out in. Sergeant Ross goes to talk strategy with the higher-ups, and Zoë stops by the mess tent. Not because she has any desire to eat, but because it’s her job to see that all the troops are filled up and bunked before she gets horizontal herself.

It doesn’t take long to settle her flock – all except one. She takes a last walk around the perimeter, looking for her lost sheep, and finds Private Reynolds on the edge of the camp beside a clump of trees. The sun is about to rise, off to the left of the copse, and Reynolds is down on one knee, his head bowed toward the lightened edge of the world. He’s clutching one hand around something that hangs from his neck, and his eyes are closed.

Zoë knows that the respectful thing would be to hang back until he finishes, but in this quiet moment between fighting and oblivion, the rules don’t seem to matter much.

“You puttin’ Daniels to rest?” she asks, meaning the woman they’d lost in the course of the night.

He doesn’t start when she speaks, which might say something about his improved instincts, that he’s heard her approach enough to not be startled. Or maybe he hasn’t even heard her words, because he’s as still as the dead for another half minute.

Finally, he kisses the thing he holds in his hand – a silver cross, she sees – and tucks it into his shirt. He stays kneeling, just rocking back on his knee to half-sit, then without looking up at her he speaks in a soft voice.

“I killed three this time out, near as I can tell.”

Zoë tenses at his words. It isn’t that she doesn’t understand how he’s feeling, but she knows that thinking on war the way he is can tear a soldier apart from the inside. Her own dad taught her that; there’s more to protect in battle than your body.

“It’s war,” she says coldly. “It ain’t killin’.”

“That so?” he asks, but she knows he isn’t looking for an answer.

The sun comes over the horizon, and he looks up at it. Zoë doesn’t, she watches the light on his weary face, sees the struggle in his eyes and the effort it takes him to draw a steady breath. She understands that what she’s seeing now is normally hidden behind a grin; she just hadn’t known that such a light-hearted boy could feel so much.

And, just like that, she stops thinking of Malcolm Reynolds as a boy.

“Hit the sack, Malcolm.”

He looks at her, and she hopes he sees kindness in her face. He must; he nods, then stiffly rises to his feet and goes in search of an empty billet.

* * *

Highgate’s second moon

“It ain’t here,” Mal said, wiping a hand over his sleep-filled eyes. He gave up the search for his pendant and crawled out of his bedroll.

“What’s that, s–,” Zoë caught herself before she called him “sir.” He wouldn’t understand that now. “What’s that, Reynolds?” she said in a stronger voice.

He glanced at her once, but she wasn’t at all sure he saw anything. He looked to be still half caught up in whatever dream had been occupying him. He scratched at his head, like he was trying to get blood flowing, then took a few clumsy steps toward the fire.

“Malcolm,” he said. “I go by Malcolm.”

She nodded. The name of Mal was given to him by the squadron. That had to mean he thought he was early on, just after joining. That was a big step, a lot of his life gone from his head since last he was awake.

“You hungry?” Book asked, not like he meant to offer food but just like he was trying to get Mal to focus on something. Like Zoë, the Shepherd was trying to read the captain’s mood. But Mal didn’t get a chance before something else caught all of their attention: a rumbling that seemed to come from all directions at once. It might have been thunder, but it didn’t roll and fade, just steadily grew and focused until Zoë and Book were stepping outside the tent, their eyes raised to the low hanging clouds, and Mal followed a few steps behind.

It started as an orange light, a diffuse glow that turned to a ball of fire as it broke through the clouds, and then a darker shape coalesced above it, a ship riding the pillar of its in-atmo burners down toward the surface. This ship wasn’t the one Zoë’d been watching and hoping for; it had only one burner, and its bulky shape was far smaller and less graceful than a Firefly. She started to step toward her bag to grab her carbine, just in case, but the ship’s course eased her mind. Whoever was at the helm, they knew about this camp. The pilot brought the ship straight down to a spot about forty yards out from where she stood, just far enough to keep the tent clear from the engine’s burn.

It was exactly in the same spot Serenity had landed to offload them three days ago.

Zoë was moving toward it even before the transport shut off, and her feet stepped faster when there was no heat of the engine to singe her skin. She was five steps from the hatch when it opened, and she was in Wash’s arms the second he stepped out.

She hadn’t ever been so happy to see her husband – not that she did a lot of seeing him in the first few seconds – as she was now. She couldn’t recall ever being more grateful for his arms around her, his lips on hers, his hand on her back to clutch her tight and damned what any on-lookers might think of them being so needy of each other. This moment wasn’t for anyone but them.

When she finally pulled away from Wash, it wasn’t very far. Her hands couldn’t let go of his neck, his jaw, his cheeks, his ears, the familiar curve of the back of his head. Her forehead couldn’t lose contact with his.

“Where the hell have you been?” she asked.

Wash broke into a smile. “Well, that’s a bit of a story.”

“Start tellin’.”

“Now… might not be the best time.” His voice held a note of practicality that she couldn’t allow herself to ignore. Awareness returned; there were others here, people she needed to care for. She raised her head and saw Kaylee standing just behind Wash, waiting for the reunion to end so she’d have room to step through the hatch.

“Hey Zoë!” the girl said with a finger-wiggling wave of her hand.

Zoë could do nothing but nod. “Does Simon have it?”

“We’re all set,” Kaylee said cheerfully. “Just need to get the captain over to Highgate, plug him in.”

Zoë turned back toward the camp – the Shepherd had it all well in hand; he was pulling tarps down already. Zoë nodded to Kaylee, then took Wash’s hand and led him over to the tents. The packing up and leaving couldn’t happen too fast; storytelling could wait for the ride.

Mal was still standing a ways out from the camp, looking on. Zoë paused, prepared to make introductions yet again. But it’d be easier this time, she reasoned, since she was dealing with a private who (ideally) took orders, rather than the stubborn captain of his own ship.

“This is our ride, Reynolds,” she said.

Mal backed off a step, and the defensiveness in his eyes sent a shiver up her spine.

“What is this place?” he asked. “Who are you people?”

* * *


gōushī: crap
shuă zuĭ pí: smart-ass
* * *

Previous chapter | Next chapter


Wednesday, January 9, 2008 8:57 AM


No – this is not the end of Book 2! I’ve changed my mind yet again, and I’m going to keep the next section (6-7 chapters) in Book 2. It just makes sense – this isn’t a proper ending to a Book. No closure at all. (Good call, Nosadseven!) So, there will be closure before the Book ends, at least some LOL!

Goodduck – welcome back! Does this mean the dissertion is done? If so - yay! :)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 10:05 AM


ooookay, it happened again, I left a big long comment and now it's not here...
You've done it again, another perfect chapter, both in the past and the present. Your detail is engrossing as usual, both on the moon and on Shadow and Beylix. And that's the fight you mentioned, huh? They are hard to write. I had Zoe win, too. :) I love spending this time with Zoe and seeing Mal through her eyes. Plus you are kind enough to have their rescue show up. I could learn from that. :)

"Mal backed off a step, and the defensiveness in his eyes sent a shiver up her spine."

Mine too, M4P, mine too.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 10:25 AM


All right - is there any doubt that Zoe'd kick Mal's butt, even if he was sober and all grown up? :)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 12:44 PM



Absolutely no doubt as to who would win in a brawl - Mal is the worst of the three fighters (Zoe and Jayne being the other two) when it comes to fisticuffs. Saying that, he probably enjoys the chaos more than the others (Jayne more the winning/beating others up...)

I really liked the history. Could have been there.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 4:23 PM


I may die from happiness to see another chapter so soon! What is Zoe going to do now if Mal doesn't know her? Another excellent chapter and a sheer pleasure to read.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 6:44 PM


On my second read through I caught a lot more subtle details. Loved the Zoe observation about the sensitivity behind the grin, and the enigma that attracted Zoe to Mal in the first place.

The Zoe/Wash moment was perfect. But my favorite line was: “I killed three this time out, near as I can tell.”

Zoë tenses at his words. It isn’t that she doesn’t understand how he’s feeling, but she knows that thinking on war the way he is can tear a soldier apart from the inside. Her own dad taught her that; there’s more to protect in battle than your body.

This explains how Mal was more devastated emotionally in the war than Zoe, and how he ended up with PTSD, and how he was so devastated by Inara. Lots of meaning behind those words.

Thursday, January 10, 2008 6:19 AM


I just love the attention to detail here. Both you and homespun are SO good at that.

The history was very plausible and well placed in relation to Mal's current state.

And - yay! They're finally getting off that planet! And you already know I'm dying to know about the crew's adventures while we were seeing what was going on with Mal, Zoe and Book.

Friday, January 11, 2008 8:37 AM


i can't wait to find out how mal handles being with all these strangers. And I can't wait to hear Wash's story. The next chapter can't come too soon. Hint hint :)

Friday, February 1, 2008 11:25 AM


Jeez louise this is good. I am always impressed by the thought and care you put into your writing.

Like everyone else, the notion of Mal being so much more aware of the cost of his sharpshooting rings very true. You're doing a wonderful job of getting these characters we love to the place where we meet them.

I loved Book carving animals -- it made me think of a Noah's Ark -- a nice image for this bunch of desperadoes on a boat.

Yeah for you.


You must log in to post comments.



Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.

Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.