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Firefly: "Out From Shadows"
Monday, March 20, 2006

Episode eight of my second season of Firefly: A surprising plea for help sends Mal home to Shadow, where he must reconcile the damages done by his war-shattered self.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1785    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Firefly: "Out From Shadows"

Disclaimer: If I weren't just a poor college student and could finance the series myself, I would, but I can't. So all I can do is just play around in Joss Whedon's 'verse. Also, I don't know a lick of Chinese so I haven't bothered to put the translations because they're probably horribly wrong. If it were Japanese or Latin, well, that'd be another story...

Episode eight of my second season of Firefly: A surprising plea for help sends Mal home to Shadow, where he must reconcile the damages done by his war-shattered self.

------

Captain Malcolm Reynolds's boots clicked on the steel catwalk of Serenity's cargo bay. Somehow it didn't feel right under his feet, not after they replaced it from the sand cat crash. There was a little more give to the mesh than before, and it felt too much to Mal like he was walking on air. Hence, the need for his harder-than-normal bootfalls. He needed to be certain that something was there under his feet.

His heavy footfalls became muffled the moment he stepped onto the rugs and fabrics that lined Inara Serra's shuttle. The Companion was seated in front of her active screen, which gave Mal a slight cause for alarm. She hadn't said anything about taking clients on this little trip. His jaw clenched involuntarily, but he managed to mask it as he took in a deep breath.

"We're on course for the Demeter moon," Mal told her without preamble, and had a slight, juvenial enjoyment at watching her jump.

"What have I told you about coming into my shuttle without my permission?" sighed Inara as she shut off her screen.

"Want it alphabetically or chronologically?" smirked Mal, leaning against the nearest bulkhead to his right. Unfortunately for him, the motion jarred one of Inara's delicately placed tapestries, and a fold of it fell into his face. It wasn't so much the soft, almost watery texture that bothered him, so much as the great, red tassel that was bumping against his brow. Like a cat with a ball of yarn, he batted at the jangly, red and gold object in frustration.

"I'd rather you heed them along with memorizing them," replied Inara, whose exasperated voice trailed off into amusement the moment she spied Mal's heroic struggle against the tassel. "Do you need some help with that, Mal?"

"No, no! It's shiny," said an obviously distracted Mal. Try as he might, he was unable to keep the tassel out of his face and simultaneously push the corner of the fabric back up where it belonged. In the end, he just settled for planting his hand up on the far corner to hold it in place. "So, yeah, Demeter moon. We'll be hittin' atmo in but a few. Couldn't help but notice you were searching through that screen of yours on my way in here."

"Of course you couldn't help but notice," said Inara dryly, rising gracefully and crossing her shuttle to reaffix the tapestry upon a spider's web thin hook. "It's hard to miss when you barge into someone else's room without permission. There. You can lower your hand now."

"What, this?" said Mal, glancing up at his hand still pressed on the fabric. "This is just me bein' comfortable, 's'all, 'Nara. Now, 'bout that screen; I thought you weren't takin' no clients on Demeter. I thought this was you doin' a favor for a friend, while keepin' an eye out on our honeymooners."

"And that's exactly what it is, Mal," answered Inara with a warning look on her flawless face. "Leylia needs my assistance with her new training house, and that's all I'm giving. Not that what I do otherwise is any of your business."

"No, course not," shrugged Mal, finally dropping his hand. "Just wanted some clarification on things, 'Nara. We're only lettin' Simon and Kaylee have their little honeymoon on account of you providin' protection for 'em. I need to know that you'll be there for 'em if anythin' should happen."

"Please, Mal," scoffed Inara, folding her arms across her chest. "Do you honestly think I'd let anything happen to Kaylee? Or Simon? Not that they can't take care of each other. Kaylee's grown from the little girl afraid of guns, and so has Simon."

"I ain't talkin' 'bout no tussle," clarified Mal as he went toe-to-toe with Inara. "Been on the receivin' end of the boy's punch more'n once, and I've seen what he can do at the range. I'm talkin' 'bout the Feds pinchin' the Tams. That should happen, you need to be usin' you Guild resources to be savin' them. Not expandin' your clientelle."

Indignation flared across Inara's face when her jaw worked soundlessly. He'd voiced the thought that had flashed through his mind when he spotted her at the screen, but they both knew it was a silly notion. Inara would never be careless to let that happen. Mal swallowed hard, having found himself inheritor of Simon's inability to speak properly with the one woman he wanted to.

"That ain't--" Mal sighed as he attempted to backpedal into an apology.

"No," a somewhat softer Inara cut him off, fully recognizing the attempt and growing a little tired of their missteps. It was a testament to how far they'd gotten in their relationship that neither flinched away when Inara laid a delicate hand on his cotton shirt. "No, I imagine that wasn't what you really wanted to say. Mal, I--you and--"

"Hex's cooked somethin' special for Simon and Kaylee," an uncomfortable Mal interrupted her; part of him feeling wary and mildly vindictive of the fact that she left when he'd been the one who tried being honest. "Um, iff'n you wanna eat 'fore we touch down on Demeter, I'm thinkin' you'd better hurry. Jayne, y'know how he likes Hex's food."

"Yes," said Inara, letting him sidestep the discussion for the time being. Gently, she looped her arms around his and ever-so-slightly began to lead him out of her shuttle. "I believe we're all a great fan of Hex's cooking. I wouldn't miss one of his meals unless I absolutely had to."

"That there's a smart notion," smiled Mal easily as they walked up the stairs to the forward corridor. Laughter echoed across the corridor the closer they got to the mess hall. It was obviously story time, and Mal wondered whose turn it was this evening. Both he and Inara were surprised when they found Kyo Nagiama, Serenity's pilot, seated at the table with everyone else. Normally he and River Tam stuck to the corner lounge, but judging from everyone's cheerful laughter, and his emphatic gestures, Mal could guess why he was seated there.

"My hand to Buddha's belly!" laughed Kyo emphatically. Kaylee Tam looked to be near to tears from her laughter, as she buried herself against her husband's arm. Zoe Washburne seemed to be hiding her face in embarassment, and Mal immediately found himself liking whatever story Kyo might've told.

"Sure as hell ain't so surprise to me," shrugged Jayne Cobb as he served out more gravy for himself. "Cap always was outta his ruttin' mind."

All right, Mal found himself liking this story a lot less. Inara, however, found her interest piqued.

"I can't believe that's how the Cap'n met Zoe!" Kaylee finally managed to exclaimed, looking over to Zoe for confirmation. Zoe could only give a vigorous nod as she was laughing too much to speak. "Cap'n must've had a pair of jian-ying gang-tie gao-wan the size of watermelons!"

Mal really didn't like this story, and felt the need to interrupt. "Thought the rule was to tell funny stories 'bout yourself?" he asked as he strode into the mess hall properly. To his immense disappointment, no one jumped in surprise, or looked apologetic at laughing about him behind his back. There wasn't even an ounce of fear at his glower; was he losing his touch? Or did they just make this a habit?

"I'm sorry, Mal," said a still laughing Kyo, who was anything but sorry. "They wanted to know how you met Zoe, and I can't imagine why you wouldn't wanna tell that story!"

"Thought the girl was a gorram moon-brain, Mal, but that 'bout takes the cake," said Jayne around a mouthful of chicken.

"I think it was right noble myself," commented Jonah Hex in what he thought to be a consoling manner, but that just ground on Mal's nerves further.

"See?" asked Mal a little tetchily as he pointed to Hex, but no one save for Inara noticed. "That there'd be the reason why I don't like that story to be told!"

"But Cap'n," begged Kaylee, "when Tracey said that line y'all had, I didn't--I didn't know y'took it be so literal-like! I mean, wow! A hundred kliks?"

"Do I get to hear this tale of chivalry and bravery?" asked Inara as she walked in behind a glowering Mal.

"Ain't so much of those as it was foolishness," remarked Mal tightly. His eyes focused on Kyo for a bit of payback. "How 'bout I tell y'all how Kyo and I met?"

Mal smirked as Kyo's hand unconsciously went up to rub his jaw at the memory, but there was a glint of amusement in his gray eyes.

"So long as we ain't gotta reenact it, I don't see why not," shrugged Kyo, and beside him River gave an eye-roll.

Mal settled himself down at his chair at the head of the table, and Inara took the vacant seat at his right. Just as he piled on some of the good, warm, honest food that Hex'd cooked, a beeping sound emerged from the flight deck. Kyo hurriedly wiped at his mouth and pushed away from the table.

"I'll get it," he said, knowing it to be a wave coming from the Cortex. "'Sides, I know this story by heart--and so does Zoe and River! Won't be havin' no exaggerations on your part."

"Ain't nothin' to exaggerate," said Mal with his hands raised when Kyo pointed at him. "'Less it's how bad you got beat!"

"Hey, I weren't the only one sharin' that cell!" Kyo called out as he jogged up the forward corridor.

"All right," Mal began to say, "it had to've be a week or so outta basic for me. Not sure how much longer it was for Kyo, but I'm thinkin' it was about the same. So, first time I'm on a cruiser, and I'm just a lowly private in my very first company. We're in the mess, havin' ourselves a leisure meal--not unlike this one--and the sarge starts to get a notion to explain things to me; things they ain't gone over in basic. So he says to me, he says--"

"Mal," said Kyo loudly, interrupting the story. Mal looked over his shoulder, but didn't see Kyo hanging around the corridor. That meant he had to still be on the flight deck, and anticipating trouble, Mal thought it'd be best if he went to investigate the situation. With an apologetic shrug, Mal tossed his napkin onto the table top and made his way up the neck of Serenity.

"Trouble?" he asked, coming to a stop just behind Kyo's chair.

"No," said Kyo, who spun himself around and gestured to the monochrome monitor. "Got yourself a wave. Thought you might like to take it here."

"A wave? Hell, that could've--"

"It's from Shadow, Mal," Kyo interrupted him a little uncomfortably. Mal'd never spoken much about his life on Shadow, but Kyo'd assumed enough to know a message from Shadow had to be rare and private. Immediately, all mirth drained out of Mal's face and he became like a stone statue staring vacantly at the screen.

"I'll--I'll, uh--take here," Mal told Kyo softly, but hollowly. He recaptured a spoonful of his usual self to dismiss Kyo with a nod. "Thanks for--"

"Yeah, no problem," replied Kyo as he got up to leave the bridge.

Slowly, like a building toppling over, Mal sank into the chair Kyo'd just vacated. He had to take in a few deep, steadying breaths, before he could spin around to address the camera situated right over the communications screen. Prepared for anything, Mal reached out to flick on the connection.

*****

Reynolds' Ranch, Shadow. Fifteen years ago.

Malcolm Reynolds smiled the moment he pushed open the kitchen door. Not because of the thin spots in the green paint on the worn door. That just meant more work come summer since he would need to wait until after the rainy season. No, the smile was on account of the sweet honey and freshly baked bread concoction that permeated the kitchen. That damn nearly turned his mouth into a lake.

"Outta the way, pang-ran-da-wu!" barked the light, squeaky voice that belonged to the little energetic terror who pushed right past Mal.

"Megan Reynolds! You mind your language in this house!" commanded Mrs. Reynolds to their right. Mal turned to see his mother busy at the counter chopping up carrots, and noticed the plethora of other vegetables that were already prepared.

"Yes, Momma," said Meg, affixing a tone that sounded apologetic to any ears save Mal's own. Even though her back was towards them, Mal imagined his mother giving Meg an eye-roll with a fond smile pasted on her lined face.

"We went out inna town," said Mal as he washed his dirt-covered palms in the nearest sink of the large kitchen. "Meg got herself carried away in that newfangled, fancy store that got set up."

"You shoulda seen it, Momma!" insisted Meg, some five years younger than Mal, but sharing his brown hair and blue eyes. Mal smirked as Meg wiped some of the mud smudges around her brow. She'd already sat herself down on the small, circular dinner table within the kitchen, her barefeet barely scraping along the hardwood floors; little one was practically ready to bounce out of her chair and into space, she was so exicted. Which, Mal had to admit, was normal behavior for her. "They had everythin' there! Dresses and food and candy and toys! And it was all really, really cheap!"

"She ain't lyin', Momma," Mal commented as he dried his hands on the nearest towel. "That Allied merchant mall's got everythin', and they've got it cheap. I'm a little worried myself 'bout Chen's grocer. Them gray-suits're sellin' their stuff at half what Chen sells. Don't see how he's gonna compete, Momma. Chen already takes a loss each season with his prices, and now with that mountain of a thing..."

"Won't lie to you, son, I don't think Chen's gonna be 'round much longer," admitted Mrs. Reynolds in a businesslike fashion. A new set of frown lines tugged at her thinned lips, but otherwise she seemed unconcerned.

"T'ain't right," scowled Mal, staring out the window that pointed to the town. Even at this distance, Mal swore he could see a little bit of gleam from that shining monstrosity. "What'll Chen do if he can't run his store? What about them others in town?"

"I s'pose they'll work at that mall or some such," shrugged Mrs. Reynolds, trying her best to sound optimistic, but there was something lurking that Mal didn't like. Meg seemed oblivious to it, however.

"Mal's jus' tetchy 'cause he can't spend none for Annie," giggled Meg as she picked at a loaf on the table. "Spent all his coin with McGregor and the like!"

"Malcolm!" snapped his mother, and whipped her head around so fast Mal thought it might fly right at him. "How many times I gotta tell you, boy? Stop wastin' time with them loafers; hangin' 'round bars, listenin' to them xiang-nao shi-ren wax on 'bout nothin' ain't here! You're nearly a man, son. Best you start actin' like one!"

"Ain't like that, Momma," said Mal somewhat tetchily--or as tetchy as he dared with Mrs. Reynolds. She just arched a whispy brow at him that plainly told him she didn't buy anything he might say otherwise. Mal didn't see the problem with the McGregors. They were folk like any other, though they had some mighty different views on the Alliance. His mother only acted like that because Sheriff Joe took Mr. McGregor in for disturbing the peace once.

"How is Annie doin' anyhow?" asked Mrs. Reynolds, the large salad bowl completely forgotten as she folded her still strong arms across her chest. Old she might've been, but weak she certainly wasn't. A real intelligence gleamed from behind her blue eyes, and it usually compelled Mal to confess better than any of Reverend Custer's sermons.

"Fine, Momma," answered Meg, eager to talk about Annie. Of course she would, since Annie and Meg'd taken to be something like sisters ever since Meg'd been a babe.

"Ain't seen her 'round much," said Mrs. Reynolds pointedly, and Mal could only shift his weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably. "Maybe with that fancy new store set up, you might go on and see about a weddin' ring."

"Momma!" exclaimed Mal, finally having found his tongue. Meg squealed excitedly, since she'd practically been matching the pair up ever since she could speak. Mrs. Reynolds, however, gave Mal that sly wink that said she was only joshing. "I ain't even old enough to marry yet, and what if I wanna go on and see some of 'em stars?"

"What's there to see, Mal, that y'can't see here?" demanded Mrs. Reynolds, now becoming very serious. "Some seventy worlds in this 'verse and all of 'em're meant to be just like Earth-that-was. Stop stickin' your head up 'em clouds and keep 'em in that field! I need you here, Mal."

Mal knew that's where his mother wanted him; here on the ranch for the rest of his life--that's what she'd been training him for. Farm hadn't exactly been doing as well as it had when he'd been but a boy behind his mother's skirts. Part of that was the new regulations and fees he read on the Cortex on a damn nearly daily basis. Alliance was taking a little out of every deal, but the worst part was there wasn't anything to be done. A ranch the size they owned; they needed to do business with the corporations running out of the Core. They couldn't just get buy with local deals. Mr. McGregor speculated once the Parliament might push regulations on the type of feed to use--as if the grass on the land weren't good enough.

"Yes, Momma," said Mal in a somewhat dead tone that broke his mother's heart some. She didn't want him broken like no mustang; that fire's what made him so special; that heart was going to carry on the Reynolds through the hardships she'd have to leave them with.

"Go get T.C. and Kenny," sighed Mrs. Reynolds as she turned back to her cutting board. "I want the three of you to wrangle up the hands. It's almost time for supper, dong-ma?"

"Yes, Momma," said Mal. Meg stuck her tongue out at Mal, happy to see him scolded as any sibling would, but Mal hadn't the heart to do anything in return. He simply walked on out the door.

*****

The face staring at him through the monochrome screen was the face he was supposed to have; dark and weather-beaten, with a fresh set of worried lines that shouldn't be there. It was there because of him; because he left her to do his job. The sunny face was gone, and her long, free hair was pulled up into a tight bun. A pang of blame rang through his gut at the reality staring right back at him.

"Mal," said the voice, less squeaky and more iron-wrought.

"Meg," returned Mal with a tight nod. "Been a while."

"That it has, Mal," said Meg, matching his look eye for eye.

"Seems to me I recall you sayin' you ain't ever wanted to see my face," Mal reminded her with a soft voice of steel.

"Can't help but see it every time I look in the mirror," replied Meg just as harshly. "Been tryinna wave you off and on for some months, Mal. Ain't no easy way for me to say this, but--I got me a problem here on the ranch. I--I--iff'n you're not busy an' all--"

"I'll swing by," said Mal, taking pity on his little sister's struggle. "Got some things that need doin', but I'll swing by after we do 'em."

"I can pay, Mal," said Meg, drawing herself up pridefully. "Ain't lookin' for charity. I jus' need someone...trustworthy, y'know?"

"Trustworthy," repeated Mal somewhat incredulously. "Didn't think that was no word you'd use to describe me after the last."

"Yeah, well..." trailed off an uncomfortable Meg. "Just don't dawdle much, Mal. I know how you just love to get lazy and stare at them clouds."

"Well, ain't no clouds to stare at out here in the black," remarked Mal with a slight smile. "I'll let you know when we're in the area."

"All right then," said Meg, and before any further inquiries or salutations could be made, she reached forward and cut the link.

Mal could only sit back against the pilot's chair and stare at the vacant screen. For a moment, all he could do was wonder if what he'd seen was real. Eight long years and a lot of hard words, and suddenly there she was. Old responsibilities crept up his spine and into his mind. He was worried; about the state of the ranch and the state of her. Things must be bad for her to reach out to him for help.

With a heavy sigh, Mal began to browse the Cortex just like he used to back home.

*****

"Cap'n seem a mite...strange to you?" asked Kaylee to Simon as they walked up the short flight of stairs to the cargo bay. Her carry-on was strapped around her shoulder, while Simon chose to just carry his by the handle.

"Than usual?" was Simon's reply. Kaylee paused just enough for Simon's gut to make contact with the point of her elbow. "Bao-bei, I'm sure the Captain's fine. If the wave were serious, Mal would've said something over dinner. He wouldn't have let us take our honeymoon. You know how he is; 'work then play.'"

Kaylee turned around once she stepped onto the cargo bay floor, and Simon saw her face was ridiculously distorted. It looked like her lips were trying to smile, but her brow was bent in bemusement. "Was that your impression of the Cap'n?"

"Uh--well," stammered a flustered Simon.

"It was sweet 'n' all, honey, but you been on Serenity for a long time. Would've thunk an educated man like yourself would've got a better impression," critiqued Kaylee fondly.

"Ah, well, River was the actress," explained Simon lamely. "I think I could manage Jayne, though."

Kaylee did laugh at that, and Simon even cracked a smile. They resumed their hike up the cargo bay stairs until they came to a stop just outside Inara's shuttle. All of the crew were crammed onto that catwalk and landing, ready to send them off with a fond farewell. Inara had already said her good-byes, and with a nod, conveyed to Kaylee that she'd be waiting in the shuttle.

"Well, we're off," was all Simon could say in farewell. "River--"

"We'll be fine," said River, craning her neck up to look at Kyo. Simon scowled--but only slightly--as Kyo's fingertips brushed against River's hip every now and again. "We'll have our own adventure while you're gone." At that she moved her gaze towards Mal, who could only nod slightly. There wasn't much use in keeping a secret from a psychic. "Take lots of captures! Bring back presents!"

"I second that," said a smiling Zoe, who'd never really had the opportunity to go on a honeymoon herself. There'd been little vacations here and there, but Wash's main complaint had been the overall lack of alone time on some secluded, romantic beach. Her fingers wrapped around the black necklace, not out of any resentment that Kaylee and Simon should have what she didn't, but out of rememberance.

"We well," promised Simon.

"Now, Cap'n, make sure to keep an eye on the port stabilizer! She's been twitterin' some, and I've been meanin' to buckle her down," warned Kaylee, pointing directly at Mal to emphasize her point. Simon, sensing the beginnings of a worried rant, began to gently tug at Kaylee's elbow. "And the exhaust vents look to be gettin' gunked up by space dust, and then the auxiliary power couplings oughta--"

"Easy there, Kaylee," chuckled Mal, placing a hand on her shoulder to help Simon guide her into the shuttle. "'Tween River and Kyo, I reckon they'll be able to keep Serenity limpin' 'til you get back. River's a genius after all, and Kyo's taken care of his own ship for a long while, and I certainly don't got nothin' strenuous lined up for us. We'll be fine. Go and enjoy yourself. That's an order."

"Sure thing, Cap'n," beamed Kaylee and planted a kiss on his cheek, before they disappeared into Inara's shuttle. Everyone waved good-bye as the shuttle doors hissed shut. A high whine of the shuttle's engines came through the bulkhead, and a quick lurch told everyone that shuttle one had departed. Mal let the crew look at the door fondly for a moment before he decided to get to business.

"Kyo, set course for Shadow," Mal told the pilot over his shoulder as he began his trek up the stairs. "Got ourselves a little job to take care of."

Zoe frowned and looked over to Kyo, who wore an equally stunned expression on his face. Both of them hurried on after Mal, leaving River, Jayne and Hex behind in the cargo hold. It was Zoe who reached Mal first, as she'd been nearer to the stairs to begin with.

"Something wrong, sir?" she asked of Mal, who paused with one hand on the rung of his bunk's door.

"Wrong? No, not that I know of," was Mal's unconcerned reply. Spotting Kyo charging up just over Zoe's shoulder, he reiterated his order. "Just get us on to Shadow."

Mal kicked open the hatch and was about to descend into his bunk, when Zoe's voice arrested his motion again. "It's just that... Goin' on eight years we've been doin' this, sir, and we had four different job offers on Shadow that I can remember. We ain't ever taken one of 'em. What's so different 'bout this one, sir?"

"Ain't none of those offers came from my mei-mei," said Mal softly, before he climbed down into his bunk and shut the hatch. Another stunned look passed between Zoe and Kyo. Mal'd never, ever mentioned having a sister before. Then again, there was precious little he did mention about his life back on Shadow.

During the war, there were those who could do nothing but go on about those they'd left behind, and then there were those who kept it all inside. Mal, Zoe and Kyo'd all fit in the latter. That didn't mean Mal was quiet--far from it, he'd barely shut up during the war. Mal just did things for the greater good back then. Tracey'd been right on the catwalk; Mal was full of homilies and stories about glory and honor, but there were also his sermons about the Lord. He hadn't been fighting for just those back on Shadow, he'd been fighting because he felt the Lord was on their side, and that the Alliance was universally in the wrong.

"Feels sorta...strange to think 'bout Sarge havin' a sister, don't it?" Kyo had to ask after a moment. "Somehow I imagined him with brothers and him takin' 'em fishin'. Is that weird?"

"Can't rightly say whether it is or isn't," remarked Zoe, who really didn't know what to make of it herself. With nothing else to do for it, she strode over to her bunk right beside Mal's and descended into it.

"Has to lay ghosts to rest before he can walk in the light of Serenity," said River just over Kyo's shoulder.

He twisted his head to see her and arched a brow at the comment. Through their connection, he knew that she knew that this was something important to Mal. Kyo felt an overwhelming sense of curiousity about Mal's past that'd never once came to him in all those war years. He supposed he was too busy trying to stay alive to care, or that he was too relieved to actually have friends. That and inquiry on Mal's past would inevitably bring up questions of his own. Now that his own past had been revealed, he felt the desire to take a peek into other's.

"Don't kill the fun," chided River, placing a slender finger over his lips.

*****

Megan Reynolds stood out on the weather beaten porch of the only home she'd ever known, and stared out into the deep, rich blue skies of Shadow. It hadn't been easy to call Mal for help; it'd been even harder that he wasn't there the first few times. Though he told her he'd swing by--which had once been Mal speak for "Darlin', wild horses hitched to my hips couldn't drag me away"--she didn't put much stock in his words anymore. He'd broken his promises before.

"Wouldn't worry none, Meg," came the solid, reassuring voice of Annie just over her shoulder. "If you asked him, y'know Malcolm Reynolds would move mountains to get to you."

"Not this Malcolm Reynolds," remarked Meg bitterly. She folded her arms across her chest and leaned against one of the support posts. "Ain't got a shred of honor left to hold him to his word."

"Then why'd you ask him?" asked Annie, and Meg could just imagine the superior smirk on her face.

"Ain't you mad?" demanded Meg, rounding on Annie who was looking at her through the box window. "That tiao-zao chi, tai-xian fa hundan broke your heart, didn't he?"

"He did," agreed Annie, "and I imagine my measure of him'll change when I see him, but that don't mean I don't remember who he was; that I don't remember how close we all were."

"'Were' bein' the important word there, Annie," sighed Meg as she dug the toe of her mud-caked boot into the peeling porch.

"You're lookin' a little down, Meg," came a voice that made Megan's skin crawl and her stomach implode. She drew herself up to spy the reedy, arrogant swagger and the shovel-smacked face of Stone McGregor. He tilted that ridiculous felt hat which belonged nowhere near here, and leered at her with his amber eyes. Meg wanted to take that toothpick he chewed on and jam it straight up his nose--sideways. "I got somethin' that'll cheer you up."

"McGregor, the only thing involvin' you that'll cheer me up is my foot connectin' with your backside," retorted Meg with a false smile. Stone's face curled into an ugly sneer, and his dull eyes grew hard at the snickers of his posse. He gave them a look that'd strip the paint off a building--provided the paint had been poorly applied, and was still wet.

"Keep up that bravado, Meg," sneered McGregor, pushing back his leather duster to show off the gunbelt strapped around his waist. Meg spotted the nickel-plated revolver dangling low against his hip and was far from impressed, even when he hooked his thumbs into the belt. "I got me a friend by the name of Schofield here might make you sing a different tune."

"Oh, I'm thinkin' you'll need somethin' a mite bigger than that to scare me any," said Meg, keeping that smile on her face. "Reckon you'll need somethin' 'long the lines of an anti-aircraft cannon to even get me to flinch."

"Aw, hell, I got me one of those in my--"

A gunshot echoed across the field, mercifully cutting short McGregor's crude remark, and taking his God awful hat along with it. Meg's false smile turned to an honest smirk as McGregor scuttled about the grass like a crab for that thing. The cock of a rifle made him jump like a steel rod had been jammed up his spine. That posse of no-goodniks behind him reached for their weapons with trembling hands. They were ranchers--all of them--not no brigands or thugs, no matter their posturing.

"Good shootin', Annie," praised Meg.

"Don't mention it, Meg," replied Annie, who'd emerged from the house with a Spencer rifle aimed right at McGregor.

"Now I think we suffered your stench enough for a century, McGregor, so I'll take it as a kindness if you'll pick up and leave," ordered Meg in a hard voice of iron.

"Fine!" snarled an enraged McGregor as he crawled back up to his feet. He angrily slapped his hat over his head and began to stride backwards, jutting his finger at the two women like a madman. "Mark my words, whores! I'll get you and your ruttin' land! This is the jian-zi, cui-lu, duo-shu you-li-ke-tu geng-di! And it's goin' to waste with you hao-wu ni, hao-wu nai-zi, chou-e mu-niu!"

So intent upon cursing the two women, McGregor didn't even notice his men had abandoned him until he plowed into what felt like a wall. He tried to turn and unleash a new torrent of curses, but found that process out of his control when a rough hand reached around; twisted his shirt around its fingers; and spun him so fast his ankles wound together like two strands of rope.

"Seein' as we go back a ways, Stone," came a frightfully familiar voice to McGregor's ears, "I'm gonna let them words slide. Even think 'bout repeatin' them, or anythin' worse, in my presence and I'll show you exactly what the war made me capable of. Dong-ma?"

Without waiting for an answer, Malcolm Reynolds threw McGregor back, and, as his ankles were still twisted around each other, he crashed unceremoniously upon the grass. Rubbing his aching jaw, McGregor whirled around with his hand clamped onto the grip of his pistol, but the sound of a multitude of heavy-duty weapons cocking made him freeze.

Mal was staring down with his jaw set and steel blue eyes boring holes right into McGregor. In his hand was an almost bronze looking pistol, and at its distance to McGregor's eyes it looked like a cannon. Flanking Mal were three others; a hulking, broad-shouldered, brute with two pistols out; a gray-eyed Browncoat with a hand-cannon; and a dark-skinned Amazon with a sawn-off at the ready. Two more people stood behind the four, but at the moment they weren't doing anything.

"G-ge-get!" ordered a stuttering McGregor to his men, and they definetely didn't need to be told twice. McGregor ran off right behind them with nary a look over his shoulder.

Once they were clear over the horizon, laughter burst out from Jayne who smacked the side of his pistol against Kyo's gut. "Did you see that? Boy looked ready to turn them white pants brown!"

"Nothin' but rabbits," agreed Kyo a little blandly, rubbing the spot that Jayne'd just hit. He shot the mercenary a baleful look as he holstered his Peacemaker, and hid it behind the folds of his brown duster.

"Kiss to make better," said River coyly as she skipped up beside him with a handful of freshly picked flowers.

Catching Jayne's interested look, Kyo thought it best to say, "Maybe when we get back to the ship."

"I'm guessin' we just saw the reason for this job, sir," remarked Zoe as she and Mal headed straight for the compound that looked like it'd definetely seen better days.

"Reckon so," said Mal tightly, holstering his pistol and keeping his jaw clenched. The guilt and old responsibility was gnawing harder against the inside of himself. The house had definetely seen better days, and it looked like the kitchen door still hadn't been repainted. Serenity might not be winning a beauty contest in the near future, but at least she were whole and running fine. Only the pens seemed to be completely sturdy.

"So, you came," said Meg like she'd expected otherwise. Mal tried not to flinch, and instead he focused on how different she'd become. Gone were the billowy dresses she'd loved to wear, and in their place were breeches, boots, and a tunic like any other working man. Though her hands were folded, he'd bet all the fortune he'd just made that they were covered in calluses not unlike his own.

"Said I would," returned Mal tightly; his eyes drifted up over Meg's sunkissed shoulders to the woman on the porch. His jaw just about fell open so wide Kyo might've parked Serenity in there. "Annie?" he asked of the straight-backed, tall woman with coppery curls and a Spencer rifle in hand.

Annie smiled with her freckled face and thin lips, looking much more like the daisy-picking girl he'd remembered. She bounded down the stairs, looking like she would embrace him in one of her bone-crushing hugs, but instead swung the butt of her rifle around and knocked him to the ground. He was too stunned to even let out a stream of curses.

Zoe moved to draw her piece that she'd just holstered, but Annie'd already turned heel and marched on back into the house. Meg just smirked down at Mal's prone form before following in after her.

"C'mon inside," she invited them like the whole incident hadn't happened. "I've got some lemonade and bao."

Just as Mal struggled to get back up on his feet, Kyo, River, Jayne and Hex had formed a half-circle around him.

"What're you doin' on the ground, Mal?" asked a perturbed Jayne. He then craned his head back towards the house with a much more interested expression, and asked, "What's this I heard 'bout bao?"

"Gonna be one those jobs, eh, Mal?" asked Kyo as both he and Zoe reached down to help him onto his feet.

*****

Reynolds' Ranch, Shadow. Twelve years ago.

Mal sat down on the bench of the barn's second level. Technically it was used as an oversized attic, but everyone knew it was Mal's spot to think and gaze out at the stars. As a child, he once entertained the notion of flying through them. He could remember one night he'd accompanied his mother on a trade at the docks. The moment he watched that transport take off through the skies was the moment he knew he wanted to go along with it.

Fighting a war wasn't the way he'd originally planned on doing it, but that's the way it was.

"You're really leaving?" came Annie's voice from the ladder, and Mal snapped his head around to stare. In the dim, overhead lights, her hair looked to be on fire, and her yellow dress was as bright as the sun. If there was ever a sight that might entice him to stay, it was Annie's familiar curves.

"That I am," said Mal, kicking at the overstuffed duffle bag just under the window.

"Mind sayin' why?" she asked, taking her seat right beside him, and slipping her hand comfortably around his own.

"Well, I reckon it was what went on with Chen," Mal told her, trying to give an indifferent shrug, but his body was just too tense. "Man was only tryin' to get by."

"He stole from the mart!" exclaimed Annie.

"But he wouldn't've had to if that mart hadn't been there in the first place!" retorted Mal. "Man was just tryin' to get by, Annie. The mart--the Alliance--took his only livelihood and didn't give none in return. That ain't right, Annie; that ain't just! Now, all's he wanted was to steal some scratch to get on a transport off here, but them purple-bellies ordered him shot."

"That don't mean you gotta go avenge him, none," said Annie, truly afraid for Mal's life.

"It ain't just 'bout him, Annie," declared Mal, rising up from the bench to lean against the window. "It's the principle of the thing! What about Momma? She's worked her back bent for all of us, but what's she gonna do when the Alliance starts reachin' for her? They're tryin' it already! 'Nother tax hike this year and harder tarriffs on the shippin'! They ain't ranchers, Annie; they ain't farmers! What gives them the right to tell us how to do the job we'd been raised to do?"

"I don't--I don't disagree, I guess," shrugged Annie hopelessly. "I just--I'm just worried 'bout you, bao-bei. I don't want you shipped back like they shipped back Kenny--in a box."

"Hell, that ain't gonna be me," said Mal, full of invincible youth and faith. "I'm just too pretty to die, Annie, y'know that. Lord wouldn't let nothin' so unkindly fall into my life!"

*****

"So, the house looks...well," said Mal diplomatically as he took a look around the kitchen. There weren't much dust or cobwebs, but there was something about the angle of things that showed its wear; especially the rough edges to the silverware.

"Don't you start with me, Malcolm," warned Meg tersely as she laid out the plate full of bao for everyone. Annie came along with the pitcher and the glasses, which seemed like they'd go for days sitting before anyone would wash them. Mal could hardly complain as before Hex came along, Serenity was quite the same. Of course, the problem was, this wasn't Serenity, and he knew his mother wouldn't stand for that sort of mess.

"I wasn't gonna--I just..." stammered Mal helplessly. "So, Stone, huh? Guessin' that wasn't a social call."

"Figured that out yourself, did you?" snapped Meg peevishly, sitting down at what passed as the head of the circular table--their mother's old chair.

"Now, hold on--"

"Meg," admonished Annie sternly over Mal, while she poured the lemonade for everyone.

"Didn't she just hit you?" Jayne asked around a mouthful of fresh bao. "How come she's defendin' you?"

"Wonderin' that myself, sir," said an icy Zoe with a death glare at Annie.

"Broken promises," said a serene River as she tore off pieces of her bao. Mal looked shamefully down at his own plate, so he missed the shrewd look River sent towards Meg and Annie. "But he's not to blame. Boy who left--boy who made the promises of shining futures--wasn't the boy who came back. It was a man; a man weighed with broken and twisted metal, and the not-so-faceless bodies at the last."

"River," warned Mal, lifting his eyes to meet the young girl's.

"Ain't like she's lyin', Mal," added Kyo as he picked at the exposed meat of River's bao. She scowled at him, and started to inch her plate away from his hands. "Zoe and I can see plain as day you ain't the man you were. Not that it's a bad thing..."

"I take it y'all are Browncoats," said Meg; her eyes dancing from Zoe to Kyo as they both were the telltale brown.

"Not me," said Jayne almost proudly. "Weren't dumb 'nough to fight in no war. Didn't see no profit in that!"

Hex buried the left half of his face--the scarred half--into his hand at Jayne's comment. In his typical way, Jayne just continued on to eat, oblivious to the tense glares from Mal and Zoe. Kyo would've sent a glare of his own if he weren't fighting playfully over the half-eaten bao with River.

"You must be the brains of the bunch," remarked Meg to Jayne, and the compliment immediately captured his attention.

"Now, ain't that the truth!" grinned Jayne proudly.

"No, it really ain't," said Mal tightly as he pushed his chair back from the table. "Kyo, get on to Serenity and start her up. We're leavin'."

"Huh?" said a confused Jayne. "Thought we got ourselves a job here?"

It was on the tip of Kyo's tongue to voice his disapproval at Mal's order and attitude, but he recognized the sharp look in Mal's eyes. Zoe just got up without question; her eyes boring holes into Meg's head like sharp icicles. Though Kyo wasn't about to be the voice of reason, Hex looked ready to say something. Surprisingly, however, it wasn't him who spoke up first.

"Mal, wait!" called out Annie, just as Mal's fingers curled around the heavy latch of the door. "Don't, please!"

"I'm sorry, but like Jayne said, didn't you just hit me with your rifle?" asked an incredulous Mal.

Annie's face grew hard and she stood with her hands akimbo. Her piercing green eyes threw daggers at Mal's own, and he got to thinking there was a lot of glaring going on around here.

"Well, I reckon you deserve it seein' as how you stood me up at the altar and all," stated Annie with all the sweetness of a cobra rearing to strike.

Kyo barely restrained the spit-take that threatened to fly from his mouth at that revelation, and Hex pulled his face up from his hands to give Mal a look like he'd grown a second head. Even Jayne seemed to reappraise his way of viewing Mal, with something akin to kinship, which made Mal feel all sorts of unsettled. Nothing, however, was worse than the slight arch of Zoe's eyebrow, and the distance of her fingertips from her firearm.

"You stood her up at the altar?" repeated Zoe in a flat voice. After a beat she added, "Sir?"

"I--uh--you heard--bwah--not boy--River!" stammered a Mal; his eyes never leaving Zoe's while he gestured wildly and emphatically towards the serenly seated River. Seeing that wasn't about to convince Zoe in the slightest, Mal dropped his hands to his side and gave a sigh. He turned his attention to Annie, who hadn't moved an inch since she last spoke. "I ain't--I ain't sorry I did it"--he held up his hands at the minute motions of Zoe and Annie, and rushed to get through his speech--"but--but!--I am sorry I didn't handle it better. I had no right runnin' off in such a cowardly manner that I did, and truth to tell it's always sat sorta sour with me. I just--just ain't never had the words."

"Seems to me you still don't," Jayne cracked with a smirk. "Hell, I'm surprised she just hit you when she had that rifle on you."

Mal shot Jayne the "You're not helping" sidelong glare, before returning his attention to Annie.

"Well, what you did say saved you from another hittin' I s'pose," she said with a slight frown of confusion; not knowing whether what Mal said really consituted as an apology or not. "Can't be easy to have this out in front of so many folk, but I expect to square this before you leave, Mal."

"And we will," promised Mal with an emphatic head bob.

"I'll hold you to that, sir," warned Zoe before she took her seat again.

"So," said Kyo into the heavy silence that followed, and punctuated it with a loud clap. "About this job of yours..."

"Simple transportation," said Meg, addressing everyone seated and neglecting Mal. Because of that, she missed the strange look sent by Annie, but Mal certainly didn't. "Got some cattle that needs deliverin' to Cairo, a city on the southern continent. Deal goes down in two days, but we haven't the means to transport 'em normal-like."

"Babe broke down?" asked Mal. Babe being the giant, blue hauler they'd used for transporting cattle or feed.

"McGregor sabotaged her," said Meg tightly, but she still didn't turn to address her older brother. "We ain't had the funds to fix her, and we ain't got the scratch to pay the ferryman anyway."

"Thought this was a payin' job, Mal, not no charity work," grumbled Jayne, and punctuated his irritation by taking an obscene bite out of his bao.

"This here is a payin' job," declared Meg firmly, leaning forward over the table in emphasis. Everyone else had to lean back some at the glare she shot Jayne; it looked eeriely like Mal's own. "Stand to make a lot of coin offa this deal, and I aim to pay you a larger-than-standard transportin' fee for it. Shouldn't be no trouble--round up the cattle; fly 'em to the drop off point; unload the cattle; get paid. Easy peasy."

"Heard me that before," said Jayne in an undertone.

"'Til then," continued Meg in a louder, cheerful tone of voice over Jayne's complaints, "we'll be obliged to have you stay at the ranch if you like."

"You heard her," Mal said when it appeared that Meg was done. "Kyo, Jayne, Zoe? Reconfigure Serenity's cargo hold to carry us some steer. Hex? See if you can't dig out some supplies to be sharin'. Albatross? Let's see if you and I can't get Babe up and workin' again for the sake of things."

"I ain't never said nothin' 'bout--"

"Got your orders, people," said Mal over Meg's protests before exiting the kitchen.

Meg stared at the door Mal stepped out of--not unlike the last time he graced their home eight years ago. All Annie could do was lay a hand on her shoulder while the rest of the crew set about to do what Mal'd ordered.

*****

Stone McGregor burst through the doors of the barn that had been converted into a mansion. Angrily, he pulled off his duster and threw his ruined hat into the dead fireplace. He continued on to the fully stocked bar at the corner of the room, completly ignoring the confused sputters of his younger brother, Liu.

"Stone?" asked Liu, while he adjusted the thin spectacles on the bridge of his nose. Stone noted the thick, old-fashioned book that Liu set aside, and that just further irked his mood. Just like their father, Liu spent too much of his time with poetry and books. He wouldn't have lasted a day if it weren't for Stone. "What's wrong? What'd you do to Meg and Annie?"

"Nothin!" snapped Stone as he downed a shot glass full of whiskey. "Ain't done nothin'! It's them bitches screwin' me over! Dunno how, but they got Mal to come on back."

"Mal?" asked a gobsmacked Liu. "Malcolm Reynolds? Malcolm Reynolds who used to drink with us and Dad? Malcolm Reynolds who went off to fight the war? Malcolm Reynolds who left Annie at the altar? That Malcolm Reynolds?"

"For the so-called 'smart one' of us, you ain't askin' very smart questions," sneered Stone while refilling his glass. "Yeah, Mal's come back. Knight in rusted armor, Mal. Don't matter none. I'll get their land anyhow."

"I think those whores in town have rotted your mind," said an exasperated Liu, folding his scarecrow arms across his chest. "You can't bully Mal, Stone; you could never bully Mal! He fought in the war! He survived Serenity Valley! He ain't like the rest of us what shoot birds and beasts--he's actually shot people!"

Stone slammed his glass onto the counter and rounded on his brother. "Aw, hell, Liu, he's just a ruttin' coward! You saw 'em how he came back like his back was broke and all! I reckon we can take him."

"'We?' We and what, exactly?" remarked Liu. "Certainly not no Alliance army, or else our Mal'd be lyin' dead down in Serenity with the rest of his comrades. We ain't fought no gorram war, Stone, and I never wanted Meg's place none neither! They were our friends, Stone, back when we ain't had none."

"Well, hang you, then!" gnashed Stone, draining what whiskey hadn't sloshed out of his drink. Fixing that look on his face he always got just before he did something stupid, Stone marched over to the nearest console. Liu warily peered over his older brother's shoulder. The coordinates Stone was accessing over the Cortex didn't look familiar to Liu, but then again, Stone's circle of friends was a seedier one than Liu's.

Liu frowned when the sight of a vulture-faced, squinty-eyed grandpa popped up on the screen. He smiled with all the friendliness of a shark at Stone's face, and adjusted his spectacles that were even smaller than Liu's.

"Mr. McGregor," greeted the elderly man in a heavily accented, lilting sort of voice. "So good to see you again, yes? I trust that business is doing well? Ah, but this is not a social call, is it? You are requiring something of me, I take it?"

"Yes, Mr. Niska," said Stone, and Liu's eyes practically bugged out of his brain. While he hadn't led the life of his brother, he still enjoyed parching his thrust at the bar--the only establishment left from the old days. Adelai Niska was a name uttered like that of the boogeyman in the old stories. And most certainly, like the Lord's name, you did not take Niska's in vain.

"Yes, yes, always with the people asking for my assistance," shrugged the old man benignly, like he was some sort of saint. "Tell me, Mr. McGregor, what is it you wish?"

"I been tryin' to acquire this piece of land, see?" said Stone; his voice noticably lacking much of its arrogant swagger. "I got--I got 'em near beggin', y'know? Land might be foreclosed iff'n they don't get themselves some coin. Only--only they hired on outsiders to do a job and keep 'em limpin'. These here outsiders ain't--ain't nothin' really, not to the likes of you, but to simple farm folk like myself..."

"Ah, say no more," smiled Niska. "For simple thugs, I send you...seven of my men for seventy-thousand."

"S-seventy-thousand?" balked Stone.

"Yes, seventy-thousand," said Niska in a patronizing manner. "There is transportation cost, ammunition cost, food, and labor. I think I am maybe perhaps being too generous with seventy-thousand."

"No!" exclaimed Stone. "No, no! S-seventy-thousand's fine. I need them here before two days."

"Of course," said Niska genially. "Ah, but I must ask; you do know of my reputation, yes? You know what will happen if you do not pay, yes?"

"Yes, Mr. Niska!" declared Stone emphatically. "I know!"

The fear made Adelai Niska smile an easy smile--one that hadn't graced his lips since before his dealings with Malcolm Reynolds. And it would be their tragic irony that the McGregor brothers, in truth, didn't really know the current reputation of Adelai Niska. Had they known how far Niska had fallen in the ranks of the underworld's food chain, or that Malcolm Reynolds himself had been responsible, they might've thought otherwise about dealing with him.

*****

"I thought the idea was to ask Mal for a loan, Meg, not to go through with this job," remarked Annie later that night, once the crew had turned in for the night and all the hands had gone to bed. It was their custom to spend the night in the den, mostly so that Meg could look back on the legacy her mother had left behind. Annie cared little for this tradition herself. As fond as she were of the Reynolds, they weren't her kin. Coming to work for Meg after McGregor had taken her own land had been something of a favor; there were other places she could've gone that might've had her in a more comfortable life. Then again, it'd always been Meg and Annie against the world.

"You saw that ship of his, Annie," remarked Meg with a petulant eye-roll. "I'm willin' to bet Mal's just limpin' on by himself."

"Right," nodded Annie sarcastically, "that's why Mal's cook had enough feed for the lot of us? Or why he and that girl had such a pile of spare joints to pick through? Or why they seem completely at ease, and not nearly as strung out and desperate as we are?"

"Fine!" snapped Meg, turning away from the simple windows that stared out at the twinkling lights of the city. "What d'you want me to say, Annie? That I'm a failure? That I ain't as good as Mal? That Momma made a mistake in puttin' me in charge? That she probably went to her grave wishin' it'd been Mal that stayed and I who'd gone?"

Annie softened her posture somewhat and closed her eyes for composure. "That--that ain't what I meant, Meg. You done a fair job at keepin' this ranch goin' long after it rightly oughta. You did more than your momma coulda asked for. She'da been proud of you, Meg, and you know it. But how you figure we gonna keep this ranch goin' with you sellin' off half our livestock?"

"How you figure I'm gonna keep it goin' if I don't?" retorted Meg; her eyes filled to the zenith with despondency. "Even if I asked Mal for a loan like we'd originally planned, I'd still need to pay him back."

As both women stood in the darkened den, each looking like the saddest examples of statues to be carved from human flesh, neither noticed the shape that had been watching from the ajar kitchen door. Mal turned his eyes downward shamefully. He had come back from sitting in the barn, which had certainly seen better days. The last thing he'd wanted to do was eavesdrop on Meg and Annie. Hell, he hadn't done that since their sleepover days, it couldn't be helped with the door being open.

The old blame that had been growing steadily since the wave was reaching its peak. Mrs. Reynolds had raised him to be the one to carry on the ranch. Meg wasn't ever supposed to tackle something this large. As the eldest, Mal was supposed to be the one with the backbreaking responsibilities, and Meg was only supposed to share them some. It should've been him left to suffer, and after the war, he thought it would've been a just punishment. He certainly didn't deserve the crew that had somehow gravitated towards him.

"Not to blame," said River softly, but that did nothing to ease the fact it sent his heart diving out of his mouth. It took all his years of combat training not to scream like a little sissy, or to alert the two women in the other room that he was listening in. In fact, he couldn't even trust himself to speak, she'd got his blood racing so fast. "Her or you, Serenity or Shadow, it wouldn't make a difference. Can't box it up and shove it aside, Captain. Just another tile in your mosaic."

"River--"

"Wanted to go on a walk," said River, answering Mal's unfinished question. "I like it here. Open. Free. I can be myself. Not as good as Serenity, however."

"Can't argue with that myself, little one," said Mal after a moment. "C'mon, let's give 'em their alone time."

*****

The next morning found Mal in the kitchen of his old home, and things smelling a lot more like they used to. A fresh loaf had been popped into the oven, and Annie was humming that old melody his mother used to. T.C. was already busying himself with the other ranchers in the fields. Mal was amazed to see the stooped, old ranch hand still going strong, but he was glad T.C. was there to help Meg. Especially since there were so few that Mal recognized, and less than half the number that'd been there when his mother had been alive.

None of his crew were stirring, except Kyo who never seemed to sleep anyhow. Mal surprised himself by getting up this early, if he had to be honest. All those years out on Serenity, he didn't think his body to be capable of those pre-dawn risings. Really, he hadn't felt this awake in years.

"Mornin', Annie," Mal greeted his former fiancee while Kyo lingered out on the porch.

"Mornin', Mal," returned Annie without removing her head from the stove.

Mal didn't quite know what else to say to her, only that he did know now wasn't the time to clear the air. With Annie busy cooking, he could only shuffle around uncomfortably from foot-to-foot. Fortunately, Meg came through the kitchen moments later in the midst of wrapping her hair up in a bun. For a moment--with her hair loose and eyes bright--she looked like the old Meg that Mal remembered. That faded the moment she laid eyes on Mal, and it was hard for him to not feel like a gigantic heel.

"Mal," said Meg in a stiffly polite manner.

"Meg," Mal returned the greeting. "Been thinkin' 'bout headin' on into town this mornin'. We ain't got all the parts we need to fix up Babe."

"Well, I ain't gonna stop you," was Meg's reply. That got Annie's attention quick enough, and her head whipped around to glare at Meg. Catching wind of Annie's look, Meg sighed a storm through her nostrils. "All right, lemme see if anyone else needs anythin' in town."

"Keep an eye on things 'til everyone gets up," said Mal to Kyo, who was watching the kitchen out of the corner of his eye. "Then set 'em on to whatever chores that need doin'." Kyo gave a silent nod, and that was all Mal needed to feel comfortable.

The walk to town hadn't been the same. Meg wasn't skipping around him, and he wasn't entertaining thoughts about flying off into the black or making some grand future for himself. Nope, this walk was just a straightforward, private stroll; each Reynolds keeping their own thoughts to themselves. For once, Mal wasn't even thinking about being out in the black. All he could think about was last night, and how much his leaving had really hurt his sister.

He realized he wasn't like Simon, who'd given up everything he had for River. Maybe that's why he pushed the Doc so hard--a little bit of jealousy between older brothers. Mal hadn't saved Meg, or done nothing heroic when he came home after the war. Mal'd just...ran away; didn't take Meg; didn't marry Annie or take her neither; didn't run the farm. When the 'verse pushed hard against Mal, Mal'd just ran off.

A crumbling, moss-covered structure came into view at the halfway mark, and Mal felt his feet slowing down to a halt. Meg, hearing only one pair of boots crunching on the dirt, turned to spot Mal staring at the old church with its roof caved in. She'd been solid and true of stone and mortar, but seven years of neglect and that one powerful storm had taken their toll. A piece of her heart went out to her brother, as he stood watching like he'd found his best friend dead.

"I wanna see Momma," whispered Mal; his eyes never wavering from the church.

"What?" breathed Meg, thinking that Mal'd finally snapped. Their mother had passed on, barely one year before the end of the war. Mal knew that!

"I wanna see Momma," repeated Mal, this time his eyes focusing hard on the church. Meg stared at him good and hard, and realized that Mal wasn't staring at the church, but almost through it; to the graveyard that'd be out back. She realized nobody'd ever told Mal what they did to Mrs. Reynolds. Not that Mal'd been in the listening mood for the weeks he'd stayed.

"Mal, we never buried Momma," Meg told him, and that got his attention right quick. "I know, I know! I thought--I thought Momma'd like to be buried, but when it came down she couldn't bear to be anywhere but home. So, she had us cremate her and spread her ashes out on the fields. She wanted to sustain us long after she'd... Consider it creepifyin' my own self, 'specially when the cattle feed there and we gotta sell 'em."

A ghost of a smile formed over Mal's lips and the steel of his eyes softened.

"Reverend Custer died not long after you left," coughed Meg uncomfortably, and set her eyes downward. "Fever took him, same as Momma."

There was a thoughtful expression on Mal's face as he turned back to the church. "Hell, I remember I used to come down here on Saturdays, and Reverend used to teach me how to shoot. We'd have our talks too. Anythin' Momma or T.C. wouldn't tell me, the Reverend was happy to explain in his own way. He'd even go over what he had planned for Sunday, and sometimes I'd even help him out a bit."

"I remember, Mal," smiled Meg fondly, almost seeing the younger Mal and the tall, coal-haired Reverend. She nearly laughed as she imagined the younger Mal missing the target by a mile. "Also remember havin' to fetch your sorry pi-gu so that Momma could cane it when you'd lose track of time. And I 'member you comin' dang close to shootin' me on two seperate occassions!"

"Well, it's not like I did it on purpose!" exclaimed Mal with that broad, arrogant grin of old. "Ain't no fault of mine you were such a lively critter what said 'no' only made you run faster! 'Sides, I wasn't ever gonna hit you. I was too good to make a mistake like that."

Meg guffawed, especially when Mal nudged her with his arm. That only made her nudge right back, and soon a laughing, shoving match ensued for a good length down the road. It wasn't until they ended up with the city's gates in view that Meg stopped; her laughter dying on her lips. Gone were the homegrown wood and stone that had went into the makings of their little town. It was replaced with solid concrete and glistening steel, and buildings that stretched as long as the Reynolds' property.

"There ain't nothin' left but the bar," sighed Meg.

"Yeah," said Mal, who'd long expected it having seen it on a dozen different worlds.

"I swear to on high, Malcolm Reynolds, if I hear the words 'I told you so' outta them lips of yours..." threatened Meg, suddenly rounding on the melancholy Mal.

"Weren't thinkin' it," admitted Mal, and truly meaning it; his eyes never left the Allied merchants mall that hadn' changed much, but for some new additions. "Just--just sad's all. Things change, but you don't ever expect 'em to change this much."

"I can relate," said Meg, thinking on how much Mal himself had changed; from the day he left for basic; to the day he finally came home; to how he stood before her.

"Yeah, reckon you would," said Mal, giving a feeble chuckle. Mal gave a sigh before passing through the electronic gates that would scan people for coded imprints--something Mal'd avoided as he had left before Shadow became completely converted. There was a question that'd been nagging at him ever since the wave, and he suddenly felt the need to ask it. "Why's the ranch in such trouble, Meg?"

This time it was Meg's turn to stop dead in her tracks. "What?"

"Why's the ranch in such trouble?" repeated Mal, turning to face her. "Yeah, the taxes've been higher than the norm, but they got breaks for property and occupation, right? So, I'm thinkin' that can't be it. I know the Alliance requires any registered ranchers to use the feed the Blue Sun churns out, mostly on account of them vitamins and some such their s'posed to have, but you can get 'em cheap 'nough. People still prefer cow meat to dog, and you got yourself a job lined up, so I gotta ask myself: Why?"

"T'ain't none of your concern no more, Mal," said Meg coldly, and she made to brush past Mal when his hand on her arm stopped her.

"Like hell it ain't," replied Mal, bending down to glare into her eyes. "That ranch's still got my name, same as yours! Might not be here in person to oversee things, but that don't mean I can't keep track on Shadow's dealings through the Cortex. Some habits are just hard to break. Now, I wanna know why you're runnin' it straight to dust!"

Confusion flashed in Meg's eyes, before righteous indignation swept in. Mal resisted the urge to smirk; eight years, but he still knew how to push her buttons. Of course, many would say Mal always had a knack for pissing people off. That urge to smirk became an urge to curse as Meg's toe connected with Mal's shin.

"Gorrammit!" cursed Mal as he reached down to grab his shin, but Meg didn't stop in her assault. She whacked him hard on his shoulders and then boxed him around the ears for good measure. "I was--I was just--"

"How dare you!" hissed Meg angrily, finally letting up on the hitting. "How dare you accuse me of runnin' the farm straight inna the ground? You chou-e, zhao-fan-zhi, hundan! You think you're so ruttin' good, don't'cha, Mal? Big damn war hero? Big shot captain? Gong-niu shi! Ain't nothin' but a ruttin' coward!

"Yeah, the ranch should be doin' twice as well as it oughta, but that's only if I fire half the boys and replace 'em with machines like everybody else! They do the jobs of two men, and they don't need food nor sleep! But I ain't about to do that, Malcolm! See, I still remember me a concept called family! Mighta heard it? And that's what everyone is on the ranch, and it's my job to take care of 'em! I can't cut 'em loose when there ain't no place else to work! I'm the one responsible. So, don't get high 'n' mighty on me, just 'cause you ain't ever had to face them tough decisions like me!"

Mal drew himself up with his hands going straight to his hips. There was something about the set of his jaw and the bottomless well of pain in his eyes that made Meg flinch away, but Mal wouldn't let her. He stepped up until their toes were just a hair's breadth from each other, and held her gaze. Eight long years of pain stemming from the hopelessness of the end of the war; to the starving times on Serenity; to the double-crosses; to the injuries; to the limping along; all the way to Miranda--it all sprung into Mal's eyes at that very moment.

There wasn't a great speech from Mal, like Meg might've expected once before; a speech about glory and honor, or what he had to sacrifice. There was just that look--that terrible, painfully honest look--and then he simply walked along the street like nothing had happened. Meg could only gape at his retreating form, wondering just how he carried everything so casually to the eyes of everyone else.

*****

"Beginning to see," remarked River from her spot on an old tree stump. Mal didn't know when he'd started taking over the repairs to Babe, but somehow it'd happened. Probably when he snatched that spanner out of her fingers. That was probably when River'd figured out Mal had some aggression to work out in his fixing.

"What am I beginnin' to see, little one?" asked Mal, wiping some sweat off his brow with his forearm. He picked up the handheld diagnostic next to him and clipped it onto a pair of exposed wires. A smile graced his lips as the screen registered everything as normal.

"Not just you," said River, looking at Mal like he was a selfish boy who didn't like to share. "Beginning to see the similarities through the changes. Home is home and family is family--even if that's not how they started."

"Uh huh," said Mal as he detached the diagnostics and began to reattach the access panel.

"Cut from the same cloth," stated River wisely. "Taught the same lessons, just from different teachers."

"Is Babe runnin'?" asked Annie, walking up towards them with a tray of lemonade and biscuits.

"That she is," said Mal with a satisfied grin on his face. "She should keep goin' for a few months without the need for any maintenance."

"I'll go play with Kyo," said River to Mal, jumping up from the tree stump. Mal made a sour face at the implications of that statement, which earned a giggle from River, before she skipped off. He shook his head as he continued to fasten the faded, blue plate, while Annie took the spot that River had vacated.

"She's...not quite right, is she?" asked a slightly concerned Annie.

"It's the popular theory," chuckled Mal at his own private joke with the Albatross. Noticing the frown on Annie's face, Mal stopped laughing and sighed. "Guessin' y'wanna know why I left, huh?"

"Figure we don't have much time," said Annie in a no-nonsense way. "Reckon there's nothin' to stop you from leavin' again once the deal's done tomorrow. Also reckon you'll be too busy loadin' the cattle later on to speak today. Might not get us another chance."

"Well, Annie, I tried to square things with Meg, and I'm sure you saw how well that turned out," remarked Mal, giving the closed panel a fond pat. "Consider me a little gun-shy in the talky-feelly department."

"Mal," warned Annie. "Why did you leave? Did you really love me?"

"Yeah," sighed Mal, standing up to wipe off the grease. "I reckon I did--still do, after a fashion. You--you ain't the sort of gal a fella forgets, Annie. It wasn't a question 'bout marryin' you so much as a question 'bout stayin'."

"And just what was so gorram wrong about stayin'?" demanded Annie. Mal lowered his head as he leaned against the repaired hauler, now wiping at his face with the tattered piece of cloth. Nope, this certainly wasn't going any better. "This is your home, Mal. What was so wrong about it?"

"Everythin'," admitted Mal, tilting his head back to stare up into the deep blue sky. "Or maybe nothin' was wrong 'cept me. Hell, I don't rightly know, Annie, 'cept I just didn't belong no more. Y--you remember...Reverend Custer tried to show me some kindness, by lettin' me speak 'bout the war? Thought I might, I dunno, give a sermon 'bout how God somehow managed to keep me safe?"

"I remember you were stone drunk and kept blasphemin'," said Annie with a fond smile, but one that said she found no amusement in the blasphemy. "Also remember you sluggin' the sheriff and spendin' the night sleepin' it off. You were lucky there weren't no charges pressed against you."

Mal gave a hollow snort and pushed himself off of Babe. He stared off back to the house that looked so much smaller to Mal's eyes--not just because of the distance, or maybe because of a different kind of distance.

"It's a mean thing for a man to say he's outgrown his home, but there it is. If we'd won? If I hadn't been stuck in Serenity? I could see comin' back, maybe. Marryin' you; tendin' the ranch; hell, I might've taken over for Reverend Custer. But that ain't the way things fell, Annie. Every--everyone kept wantin' me to be old Mal, but that ain't who I was anymore. And I--I couldn't stand it. Couldn't stand thinkin' 'bout how many boys I might've sent to death with lies from my lips. How all my speeches and homilies were just...empty, 'cause God weren't there when we needed him; God switched sides on us. I need the space; I needed to move."

"Why didn't you take me with you?" asked Annie mournfully.

"Why didn't you find me?" asked Mal, pinning her down with a sharp look. It wasn't that Annie didn't try, nor that she wanted to, and Mal could see it all in her eyes. The routine had just become too comfortable; the hate and the blame were just too easy. Not to mention Annie couldn't leave Meg; they'd been friends too long and gone through so much. That wouldn't have been fair.

So that was it? Five long, hard years of worrying through the war; eight long years of hate and resentment mingled with respect and admiration. All that just to find out that things had simply changed? That life had just been too hard for them? Annie felt cheated.

That quickly turned to fear when Mal visibly tensed, and his gun found its way in her face.

*****

Kyo's head snapped up at the sound of gunfire off in the distance. Immediately he threw open the lid he kept tight on his psychic abilities, which was partly there for privacy, and partly because secrecy had been so ingrained into his life that it was always better to act like he didn't have those abilities. Like a very advanced radar, it told him all needed to know; seven armed men--well, six now--and an injured Mal.

"Status?" demanded a worried Zoe.

"Seven armed men hired by Stone McGregor," reported Kyo, dashing into the house for the Spencer rifle owned by Annie and the box of ammo. "Mal's already shot, and they're gonna use Babe to get back to the property."

"Mal?" gasped Meg in concern. The old dish she had in her hands fell heedlessly onto the floor, mimicking the very motions of her heart. Hot fear pounded away at her temples; the last thing she had wanted to say to Mal was an arguement. And then she remembered Mal wasn't alone. "Annie?" her jaw barely managed to work out.

"Shootin'," reported Kyo, already moving back to the porch. "Poorly, I might add."

The need to defend her lifelong friend snapped Meg out of her fear-induced stupor. "Annie's one of the best--"

"Anyone can shoot good when they ain't got no one shootin' back," said Kyo coldly. He took a knee out on the grass, cocked the Spencer rifle, and took aim. They were too far out for visual confirmation to be any good, but Kyo didn't need to use just his eyes. His mind told him all the trajectories and calculations he'd need. After all, that's what the Alliance'd made him for. "Easy shootin' animals too. Harder pullin' the trigger on a man knowin' you'll take away all he is, and and all he'll ever will be."

Kyo squeezed the trigger and a body fell off in the distance. The other six scattered under the sniper fire, and Kyo paused to cock the rifle again while he recalculated the firing order.

"River?" called out Zoe just as Jayne and Hex ran up from the pens.

"Heard shootin'," was all Jayne said; his pistol already out. "What's goin' on?"

"Trouble," said Zoe in a tone meant to convey "What else?" She was about to call for River again when the girl rode up on a horse, leading another one by the reigns. Despite the situation, Zoe had to smile at how handy it was to have River at a time like this. "Hex? Meg? I'm hopin' you know somethin' 'bout dressin' wounds. Jayne? You'll have to carry Mal into the house."

"Cap injured again?" asked a resigned Jayne, which Meg found to be rather improper when her brother might be dying.

"Do you really gotta ask?" remarked Kyo before he fired off another shot.

"You know the orders," said Zoe as she mounted up and rode off with River to provide better cover.

"Miss Reynolds," came the gruff growl of Hex. "Do you have any medicine or bandages?"

"Ah, I've got a few," said Meg, who was thoroughly overwhelmed by the fluidness of Mal's crew. It was like they'd been in these situations on an almost daily basis, and Meg simply couldn't fathom that.

"That'll have to do 'til we can clear a path to Serenity and use the infirmary," said Hex. "Well, let's get it set up."

"Sure," said Meg, casting one last worried glance back to the horizon. She issued a quick, silent prayer to God to keep Mal safe.

*****

"Who taught you how to drive? Was he blind?" exclaimed Mal from the passenger seat of Babe. Another violent jerk of the wheel reintroduced Mal's head to the doorframe of the hauler's cab for the fifth time. It certainly wasn't helping the gut wound that was currently bleeding out over his hands.

"Is now really the time to question my drivin'?" asked an irritated Annie, doing her best to drive and provide cover fire with Mal's pistol. "You're not bein' much help yourself with you all shot up!"

"Yeah, and your crazy drivin' ain't helpin' me none!" Mal shouted back lightly to distract himself from the pain.

"Would you prefer gettin' out and walkin'? 'Cause I got no quarrel with pushin' you out!" snapped Annie tetchily. Finding the hammer falling on an empty chamber, she pulled her head back in through the window, and tossed the gun onto Mal's lap. As he wasn't expecting it, the pistol landed somewhere south of Mal's gunshot wound, north of his legs, and was considered to be very important to him. "It's empty."

"Well, it don't feel empty," gasped Mal, as he plucked his pistol up. He was about to fumble in his belt for a new clip when he spotted Zoe and River riding towards them like the calvary. Another report of a Spencer rifle echoed through the air, and another of the thugs hit the ground in the rearview, leaving only three chasing after them. Through the dirtied, reflective glass, Mal saw Zoe shoot down two with her sawn-off, quickly cocking it between shots by flipping it in her fingers; River took down the final one with her Peacemaker.

"Just get us home, Annie. Don't mind the bad men none," said Mal with a confident smile. Annie tried her best to return it, but her eyes were inevitably drawn to the blood-soaked, blue shirt of his, and just wet it looked.

*****

Kyo set down the Spencer once the thugs had been cleared out. The large, eight-wheeled hauler came skidding up to the front porch of the house, and Kyo silently marveled at Annie's foresight to present the passenger side. He ran up and opened the front cab's door with Jayne right behind. Mal would've came tumbling out of the passenger seat if it weren't for Kyo and Jayne restraining him.

"Easy, Mal," said Kyo, sliding under one of Mal's arms and bearing him easily despite the dead weight.

"I'm not an invalid!" said Mal through gritted teeth, but he'd gone a shade paler.

"You got shot," stated Kyo flatly as Jayne slid under Mal's other arm.

"I'm shiny," remarked Mal, still struggling to walk under his own weight, and throwing off Kyo and Jayne's rhythm in the process. "I'm a picture of health!"

"You got shot," repeated Kyo, this time poking Mal's wound on account of his own irritation.

"Ow!" exclaimed Mal, shooting Kyo an irritated, stupefied glare. "What'd you do that for?"

"You got shot!" said a thoroughly exasperated Kyo.

"Mal?" asked a worried Meg, and he felt the need to try twice as hard to put up a brave front for her; she didn't need to add this worry on top of everything else.

"Oh, he's fine," said Kyo before Mal could do anything. "Same, stubborn, dumb ass as ever."

"Couldn'ta said it better myself," growled Jayne as they practically had to drag Mal into the house; they dragged him through the kitchen; through the den, and into the dining room, which contained the long table for all the ranchers to eat off of. Hex was already there with his snow-white hair pulled back into a ponytail, checking through the meager first-aid kit.

"Lay him down," ordered Hex, which they did promptly.

"Is it bad?" asked Meg, who'd seen many a grevious injury at the hands of the cattle, but hadn't ever seen a gunshot wound. She and Annie hovered behind everyone, fidgeting with their fingers, their lips, their clothes--anything.

"It's glorious," snorted Mal, while Kyo and Jayne worked at pulling down his suspenders and unbuttoning his shirt. Kyo cracked a smidgen of a smile at that remark; a throwback to the old Mal of the war.

Meg and Annie winced as the gunshot wound came into view; all blood and gunpowder and sweat and axle grease. Hex peered down to examine the wound with his right eye--his good eye--and grunted something of approval. "It went clean through."

"Missed the vitals," added Kyo, leaning in close for his own inspection.

"He'll be fine," said Hex in a soothing way, despite his gruff and gravelly voice. "I think..."

"You think?" exclaimed a horrified Annie.

"Well, we're no doctors," said Hex flatly. "And we're not workin' with the best of conditions."

"River went back to Serenity," reported Zoe, striding into the somewhat cramped dining hall. "Says she knows what the Captain needs. She'll be bringin' it back by Mule."

Kyo frowned and stared out as if he could see Serenity through the ranch walls. There had been something in the minds of the thugs that didn't sit well with Kyo; something about their weapons and their training that told him they weren't locals. He sent those worries and concerns along to River, who responded that she was already aware of it. Kyo shut his eyes at the memories River'd culled from the minds of the thugs, and gave a long-suffering sigh.

"Serenity's damaged," said Kyo, moving to sit down in the nearest chair while Hex showed Meg and Annie how to dress a gunshot wound; thinking it would calm them if they understood the process better.

"What's wrong with my ship?" demanded Mal. He tried to sit up, but Jayne's firm hand on his chest restrained him.

"The thugs did a number on her engines," sighed Kyo, rubbing his face with his hands. "River and I can fix her, but definetely not in time to make the meet tomorrow."

"Told you we should've left the security system on," said Jayne in a superior fashion to no one in particular.

"Well, how was I to kno--Ow!" said Mal as Hex began to treat the wound with the stinging antiseptics.

"That you say 'ow' too?" remarked Annie incredulously. "You get shot, and you don't say anythin', but Hex rubs ointment on it and you're cryin' out!"

"He's got cold fingers!" said Mal defensively, which managed to bring a smile to most everyone's faces.

"Wouldn't you know, just when we need the Doc and li'l Kaylee they're probably off ruttin' on some beach," said Jayne, mostly to himself, as he picked up a slice of apple from a bowl right next to Mal's head.

"No deal?" Meg said in a voice full of so much worry that everyone stopped to stare; the realization of Kyo's words sinking in through the panic of her brother's plight. "Then--then how... I mean, we--we need the money to keep the ranch..."

Mal focused hard on his sister and Annie, and then at the room he used to eat in with T.C., Kenny and the rest. "I--" he began to say through labored breaths "--I got me a solution. If--if I'm still your brother, that is, and if I'm still allowed to care 'bout this here ranch."

"Mal, you wouldn't have been shot if you didn't come here in the first place," Meg told him plainly, not wanting to believe that Mal would still care about what happened to her or the ranch; certainly not if he wasn't getting paid like the arrangement.

"Believe me, that thought did cross my mind," coughed Mal as Hex began to apply a weave to stem the bleeding until they could get a suture kit. He managed to smile, however, and Meg found herself not caring about the past eight years anymore; her brother was really back--at least, a more acceptable form of him.

"We'll talk after you heal up, ge-ge," she promised, holding his hand in her own. Annie walked around to pick up the other one, and Mal turned his gaze to look over at Zoe. He nodded slightly towards Annie, telling her that they'd cleared the air, and Zoe gave a fond smile in return.

*****

Kyo found himself on his back and elbow deep in the innard of Serenity's engine. The thugs hadn't known a damn thing about engines, and, instead of disabling her in a civilized way, had taken a liking to smashing anything in sight. Fortunately, the damage wasn't as bad as it looked, but they'd already missed the meeting time like Kyo'd thought.

"Kaylee's going to be mad," said River from her spot on the mechanic's hammock.

"Kaylee can yell at the Captain," grunted Kyo as his hands weaved through a bit of tangled wires.

"Doing it wrong," stated River. "Not how Kaylee does it."

"Well, Kaylee won't be doing anythin' 'less I get Serenity up in the air, lai," remarked Kyo, just as his greased-up hand slipped, and his knuckles crashed against metal bolts. Kyo gave a wordless cry, and tried to jerk his hand quickly out of Serenity's engines. River giggled while he clutched his burning hand against his chest.

"All right!" said Kyo aloud, hearing the "I told you so" over their link. "I guess there's somethin' to be said 'bout Kaylee's way."

River cocked her head with her patented "You're a boob" look, and even though Kyo couldn't see it physically, he knew it was there. Pointedly ignoring her, he managed to extract himself out from under the engine to examine his bloodied knuckles. It wasn't that bad now that he could see it clearly; just a slight tear on the middle two knuckles. His body would heal it up in no time, so there was no sense in going to Simon.

Kyo hefted up the power flow capaciter and began to affix it onto the engine mount. That would be enough to get Serenity limping to Demeter and pick up the vacationing trio.

"You won't tell him?" asked River, in another one of her seemingly nonsequiturs. Kyo, however, had the handy translator in his mind.

"No need to," said Kyo flatly as he snapped the oblong shape into place. "Niska's got other things to worry 'bout than Mal at the present, and Mal's havin' too much good fortune to be bothered with this."

"A pre-emptive strike would solve any complications in the future," stated River flatly, and Kyo paused in his workings; his irritation flashing loudly across their link. No matter the peace he'd made with his past on Angel, he would always feel he was the weapon. The last thing he wanted was River thinking militaristic thoughts, unless she was in life-or-death trouble.

"So, we oughta take out Blue Sun, then?" asked Kyo with a dead smile. "Maybe sign up with the Rebels?"

"Suicide," frowned River. Kyo opened his mouth to counter, but shut it silently, and River's frown deepened. She was right, it was suicide, but that didn't mean it wouldn't be successful. He'd be lying if he said he hadn't been drawing together a plan piece-by-piece ever since she'd came into his life. That, of course, was a secret locked far away from her reaches. She knew there was a secret now--around this very subject--though, and that made her irritated. "Not nice to keep secrets."

"You're a secret and I keep you," pointed out Kyo, resuming his tinkering with the engine. "I'm a secret and you keep me."

"But we share," returned River. "We share with Serenity."

"Then I'll share that secret with Serenity," smirked Kyo, to which River just stuck her tongue out at him.

*****

"Mal, this is too much," protested Meg; her eyes glued to the open case in front of herself.

"We hit a good bump," shrugged Mal, and immediately regretting it when his stitches protested loudly. "Don't think of it as a loan, think of it as back pay for not pullin' my load 'round the house for eight years."

Meg laughed and shut the case. She glanced up at Mal, who was smirking down at her in his sure-footed way. She was glad to see him with it in a better environment; one that didn't involve lots of blood and his ragged breaths. When she'd helped Hex tend to Mal's gunshot wound, she couldn't help but notice all the other scars that had lined his chest. Those were scars that certainly weren't there from their childhood.

"Still, Mal, you kinda look like..." Meg trailed off and waved her hand around to indicate the interior of Serenity. "Especially with the damage to your engine room."

"Don't worry none," grinned Mal, further inching the case towards her across the mess hall table. "We got a seperate fund for Serenity's upkeep. That there's from my own pocket." Mal's grin got larger when Meg's eyes bulged, and he went on to say, "Like I said, we hit a good bump. I know it weren't fair to leave the ranch to you when it was my responsibility, and I'm sorry. I got selfish. Ain't no amount of money in the 'verse'll square that 'tween us, I reckon."

Meg sighed and sat down in one of Serenity's chairs. She let her hand roam across the smooth surface of the case before letting it fall into her lap. "Maybe I was mad at myself for not havin' the courage to do what you did. Maybe I was mad at not seein' past the ranch."

"Ain't nothin' wrong with bein' content in your surroundings," said Mal, taking the seat right next to her. He meant it, considering he was content with Serenity, and would be for a good long time.

"Until the surroundings change, or the conditions change, and then your surroundings seem suddenly alien," said Meg ruefully; her eyes focused on their reflections in the case. "I thought about sellin' the property once or twice, leavin' it in T.C.'s capable hands. But, hell, Mal, we both know T.C.'s a great hand 'round the farm, but a poor business man. It'd go under 'fore I could even step foot off the property. But--but then I'd think; 'Why would it matter? It wouldn't be your responsibility anymore.'"

"But it's home and it's all you got," said Mal, laying his hand on the table and taking a fond look at Serenity. "Momma raised us too well, I reckon."

"You got yourself a good ship and a good crew, Mal," said Meg approvingly, turning to smile at him properly. It was important to say it now; now that she understood just what Mal's work--Mal's life--entitled. "Momma would've been proud at what you accomplished. I'm sorry for bein' angry at you when you just needed some time to sort out your life. I didn't mean to be selfish and hope for you to come home just so that I didn't have to worry about the ranch anymore."

Mal let a slow, honest, easy smile split his face as he laid a hand on Meg's bun and jerked it around a bit. Meg squealed in indignation and made to slap his hand away, but the damage'd already been done. He got up to move behind the counter while she shook out her long hair.

"Reckon Momma'd bring out the pie for us makin' up like we did, but I'm afraid all's we got are some of Hex's sake bottles," remarked Mal, holding one up in the air as he rummaged around for glasses.

"That'll do, Mal," laughed Meg, getting up to pluck it from his grasp. "Now that we have made up good and properlike, I 'spect you to keep in regular contact, Malcolm Reynolds, and don't be shy 'bout visitin' none. Annie and I'll be glad to meet them newlyweds of yours!"

Some of Mal's smile fell, but he hid it by lowering his head to get a closer look in his search for glasses. None of the crew had mentioned Inara, mostly on account of Kaylee not being around to accidentally let it drop. He was sure Inara would be miffed at best about not being mentioned, and if he had it his way, this visit home was something he'd like to keep seperate from Kaylee and Inara. Kaylee was too damn inquisative for her own good, and Inara...well, he'd rather prefer never having the need to mention he'd been engaged. She hadn't taken too kindly to Saffron, after all--though for good reason.

Then again, with the engine room as damaged as it was, Kaylee was bound to ask questions that River or Jayne were bound to answer honestly. Well, just so long as Inara never met Meg and Annie, Mal'd be happy. He didn't want to think about the note sharing that might go on between the three women.

"Well, I'll see 'bout keepin' in touch," Mal teased, finally getting around to pouring the drinks.

"You better," warned Meg in her iron voice, though her blue eyes sparkled teasingly in retun. "Don't make Annie and I come lookin' for you, 'cause we will now, dong-ma?"

Mal only answered with a smile and a silent toast of his cup against hers.

*****

Mal was waiting the moment Inara's shuttled docked with Serenity. Kaylee bounded out first, looking a little darker, but with a relaxed smile on her face. Even the good Doctor seemed like he had a weight lifted off his chest, as his eyes never left Kaylee's face. Of course, a new weight seemed to have been added in the shape of shopping bags of various sorts, but that wasn't the kind of weight that bothered Simon.

"Cap'n!" beamed Kaylee, and before Mal knew it he found himself being mauled by an energetic mechanic. He was pleased at first, until the stitches in his side began to protest again. Simon noticed the wince and the minute groan of pain he gave out, and immediately the sparkle of vacation was whisked out of his eyes.

"What's wrong?" asked Simon; his eyes roaming over Mal's body as he extracted a confused Kaylee from Mal's arms. "What happened when we were gone?"

"Just a little excitement 's'all," Mal waved off in an unconcerned manner. "Go on, then. Hex's got another feast for y'all's return, and I'm thinkin' River and Zoe are mighty excited 'bout any souvenirs you might be carryin'."

Kaylee apparently didn't need to be told twice, as she picked up a few bags from Simon's arms and bounded up the stairs like a rabbit. Simon gave Mal another appraising look, knowing full well from years of being a trauma surgeon that the Captain had been injured somehow, but Mal just shook his head. "I'm fine, Doc. Go see to your wife, and make sure she don't tell no embarassin' stories 'bout you to Jayne."

Simon simply smiled in return before he bent down to pick up the remaining packages. Apparently it was long past the time where Mal could scare the Doc into motion anymore--not like the joke he made about Kaylee being dead. With a sigh at yet another change in their lives, he watched Simon walk calmly up the stairs.

"Did I hear we have another special meal from Hex?" inquired Inara fondly, standing in the doorway of her shuttle; half of her enshrouded in shadows.

"That we do, Miss Serra," said Mal, bowing slightly in front of her. That earned an amused look on Inara's face, but Mal couldn't help it; something about him felt lighter after Shadow. A truly pleased and somewhat goofy smile greeted Inara when he raised his head. "Care to join us?"

"I--ah--have something I need to get first," a somewhat suspicious, yet pleased, Inara informed him, gesturing back into her shuttle.

"Why's the engine room door close?" Mal heard Kaylee say from the upper deck. Even in the cargo bay, he could feel an uncomfortable silence settle over everyone in the mess hall.

"Um, better plan; how 'bout I come in there and help you look," said Mal quickly, and began to push Inara gently into the shuttle over her confused protests. He shut the door just in time to catch a muffled shriek tug at his ear. Shameful, he knew, but hell if he was the one to explain the state of his engine room to Kaylee. Kyo and Zoe could manage that just fine.

"I had no idea my presence would be missed after just one week," teased Inara, but there was still the element of confusion and some fear in her voice. Mal gave a snort of laughter at that. He had missed her, though, and he realized that after turning around. She stood under the low light of the shuttle in some of her finest clothing, but Mal had long known she wasn't a coward, nor a trophy on a pedestal. A broken nail or a tarnished outfit would be mildly bad for her business, but that didn't mean she'd shy away from it. Mal smiled, not knowing he was looking at her strangely, and wondered how she really would've reacted to seeing Shadow. Maybe taking her to meet Meg and Annie wouldn't be such a bad idea.

"Mal?" said Inara, this time the fear and confusion shone through a lot more. Mal blinked a few times and drew himself up, inwardly chastising himself at getting lost in his thoughts.

"Just had ourselves a little adventure while you were away," Mal told her mysteriously. "There was a bit of a problem with the engines..."

Inara's brow raised in alarm and surprise, to which Mal simply shrugged. She gave a slight shrug herself, letting the subject drop for now, and glided on over to a bag nestled against the dresser. The intercom on the ship buzzed and Mal could barely hear Zoe's inquiry of "Sir?" over the din of Kaylee's angered curses. Mal gave an innocent whistle, knowing that River, or perhaps Kyo, would inform his first mate of his feelings on the matter. Unless he wanted an engine part to be hurled in his face, he was planning to steer clear of Kaylee--especially after what he told her in reassurance before they left.

"Here," said Inara, bringing Mal's attention back to her--or, well, a giant brown thing she was holding up in front of him. It took Mal a few blinks to work out just what she was presenting him with; a brown duster, not unlike the one he currently owned. "I--I thought you might appreciate a new one. Your old one's seen better days, Mal."

That was the plain truth. It still sported hurried patch jobs from bullets and tears from all their adventures--including their recent trip to Shadow--but he hadn't been able to find a suitable replacement for it. Nor did he especially have the money, after all the coin he'd given his sister. Of course, the question arose of when did Inara have the time to go searching for one on her own? It couldn't just be luck that she picked one up on Demeter.

His eyes snapped up from the coat and looked at the screen on the far wall, clearly remembering the last conversation held in the shuttle. Inara's eyes followed his for a moment, bringing a slight smile to her face as a reproached look crept over him.

"Yes, Mal," she confirmed, "that's what I was doing on the Cortex. I was looking for a gift."

"But, why?" asked Mal, not ungrateful, just confused. "There--there ain't no occassion for it or anythin'."

"Well, if there must be an occassion," said Inara with a teasing grin, while she began to fold up the duster in her arms. "You can either wait until Christmas, or you can tell me how you met Zoe, and why the engine room is a mess?"

Though her face looked like she was teasing, Mal knew she wouldn't hesitate to follow through just to be stubborn like himself. And he did want the coat, not just because it was really nice and all, but because it was from her.

"All right," he sighed, settling himself down onto the sofa, and picking up a small metal ball Inara had lying on the table. Inara grinned a combination of gratitude and triumph as she took the seat beside him, laying the folded duster on her lap. "So, it was 'bout Zoe's first tour, but I'd been 'round for a while. Routine patrol out on Minos--rainforesty type of peninsula out on Muir--when all of a sudden..."

*****

Stone McGregor thought he was in hell, propped up against some sort of horrid, vertical totem of rusted iron. Liu was to his right, but a look over his shoulder revealed that he didn't seem to be breathing; not from the way his head just lolled limply around with every jostle. Stone also noted the ugly burn that scarred the back of Liu's once delicate neck. There was a metallic tang to Stone's mouth that he recognized as his own blood. Shang-di de dan-tian, he didn't even remember being captured!

"Ah," came the genial, lilting, accented voice that sent shivers through his whole body. "You are finally awake, yes? Your brother, I am afraid, he was not--how do you say--so receiving of my hospitality. It is no matter, yes, as my issue is with you, I am thinking."

"B-but I didn't--"

"Seven of my men were killed, Mr. McGregor," stated Adelai Niska, bringing his face into view of Stone--who finally realized he had no left eye with which to see out of.

"But that wasn't--"

"You assured me these men were nothing special, Mr. McGregor," Niska reminded Stone, and he pressed his face uncomfortably close to Stone's, like he was trying to see through Stone's skin. "That cost me seven of my men; men that I cannot afford to be losing at this moment in time."

"I--I paid you!" protested Stone desperately.

"You paid for the services, yes, but you did not pay for their replacements," Niska informed Stone tragically; almost apologetically. "Do you have an idea of how much it costs to replace good thugs, Mr. McGregor? No, I think you do not, for if you did you would have some of your own, yes? There are applications to sift through, auditions, salaries to negotiate. All very tedious, Mr. McGregor, and I am a very busy man."

"W-why me?" asked Stone feebly, sinking lower in the restraints. "W-why not the ones who killed your men?"

"Because they are not the ones to put my property into jeopardy through false pretenses, Mr. McGregor," said a smiling Niska. "Therefore, I am seeking the compensation from you. Your property has been seized by me, and I found myself a lovely buyer at a tidy sum. Familiar name, but then, this is a big 'verse, yes? That was, however, not enough to replace seven men. The rest, I am thinking, I must have from your flesh. I have a reputation to rebuild. It is seeming to me that the Rim is no longer friendly, and perhaps the Core would be more welcoming, maybe? You shall be the example I require. Jody?"

Stone had a few smart remarks about using a thug with a girl's name, or just a girl in general, but those remarks died quietly on his lips.

Out from the shadows emerged the biggest, strongest looking man Stone'd ever seen in his life. He wore a torn, tan vest over a clean, white shirt that was tucked into his faded blue jeans, and his boots clomped menacingly on the mesh floor. Jody looked to be an older sort of fellow with long, graying hair pulled back into a ponytail, and a receeding widow's peak. There was real gleam of intelligence in his blue eyes, and a heart-stopping malevolence in the smile that played over his prominent jaw.

"All set, Mr. Niska," reported Jody in a truly casual way, like there weren't no difference between torture and lunch. He dropped a brown coffin onto the ground, with green tubing coming out of the section where the head would be and they reached up to the ceiling. Concrete weights were chained around the grips, and a large padlock was affixed to both lids. Stone whimpered again, trying desperately to sink against the obelisk he was tied to.

"This is a new method that I must admit I had never thought of before, but from how Jody explains it, I think I like," said Niska, giving Stone a predatorial grin. "You shall be the--what is called--guinea pig, yes? How long you think Mr. McGregor will last, Jody?"

"Sly-lookin' boy like that? Reckon he ain't gonna last two, maybe three hours," guffawed Jody as he began to open the coffin. "Here's how it is, boy. You go in the coffin. The coffin goes in the water. We'll feed you air, so you ain't gotta worry 'bout suffocatin', and we'll seal it up so you ain't gotta worry 'bout drownin'. It's just everythin' else. For as long as Mr. Niska says."

"O-oh God! GOD!" screamed Stone as two of Niska's other men freed him from the rack. He tried to struggle, but his hands were cuffed behind his back and his ankles were chained together. Stone never stopped screaming, even as Jody lowered the lid easily in spite of his bucking hips and knees.

The very last thing Stone saw before blackness encompassed him was Niska's smiling face. Point of fact, that was the last thing he would ever see.

------

Author's Notes, Justifications, and...well...Excuses:

Originally, I really was going to give you the story of Mal and Zoe's first meeting, along with Mal and Kyo's first meeting, but as fun as that might've been, it sort of pulled the story to a halt. I am thinking, though, that before I go ahead with episode nine, that I just write out those stories for fun. I like writing about wartime Mal, then again, I like writing about Mal period. And, much like Joss and Nathan, I do enjoy beating down on Mal.

The idea about Shadow is that it was once a Rim world that got absoarbed into the expanding Core shortly before the war. As the opening scenes to Serenity, the Alliance is meddling with the Rim worlds--which is the view Mal takes--but you can also see how they'd easily consider it to be bringing enlightenment. Yes, this is also a mild critique about America and Walmart erasing Mom and Pop stores, and also about the cattle industry/USDA as opposed to free-range.

Meg and Annie are Shadow's Mal and Zoe, but then again, Meg and Annie are also Kaylee and Inara to Mal. The latter is the reason I didn't have them on Shadow. That would've been too many characters to juggle, and too many relationships to sift through at once. Poor Mal might've been overwhelmed.

Megan was always planned, but Annie I came up with at a later stage in the game. Primarily, she was there to be the Zoe to Megan, but then I had to make her and Mal engaged. You get the sense from his reluctance to talk about marriage with his mother that Mal's not entirely sure Annie might be the one, and I wanted something powerful to punch up Mal's abandonment of Shadow, and to show the difference between the faithful soldier in flashbacks, to the captain we all know, from a closer-to-home perspective. Essentially, I envisioned young Mal as something of a Luke Skywalker if the droids never came/Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru not dying, but post war Mal's much more like a Han Solo who never joined the Rebels.

Babe, the hauler vehicle on the ranch, is named after Babe the Blue Ox, naturally.

Kyo's comment about Mal having brothers and taking them fishing comes from Saving Private Ryan, where our Nathan Fillion played the Private Ryan from Minnesota.

Kyo's line about shooting people comes from the Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven--a great western, by-the-by.

I wanted to throw in the line Mal says in Safe ("This is the last time with cows"), but seeing as how they never actually got the job done, it seemed pointless.

Yes, the vindictive Niska makes his return. I like the idea of Mal and Niska passing each other like ships in the night. That and the irony of him selling the property to Meg, was too nice to pass up. Mal and Niska working unknowingly as partners to benefit Megan. If she'd planned that out from the beginning, that would've been a scheme worthy of Saffron.

Jody comes courtesy of Garth Ennis's Preacher graphic novels. If you've ever read them, you know Jody's the perfect son of a bitch to play top thug to Niska's sadistic habits. As in the comic, Jody also puts the coffin treatment to use here. Reverend Custer actually comes from Preacher as well.

The speed with which I got this done surprised the hell out of me, and actually makes me somewhat wary about posting it--as if I should take more time to polish it up, instead of the two quick readthroughs I normally do. Ah, well...

COMMENTS

Monday, March 20, 2006 1:23 AM

ANA


Wow, and here I was thinkin' we'd have to wait a couple more days for a new one. Thanks, Geek! :)

(Comments to follow when I have a spare few minutes to read. School sucks! ;) )

Monday, March 20, 2006 3:26 AM

TAYEATRA


Excellent as ever.

I like the fact that you used Niska as a B plot line. So many fics focus on him as a major character so it's refreshing to see him just slipped in.

A nice Mal/Inara moment at the end and River and Kyo are progressing well in a way that feels completely natural.

Thanks for posting so quickly.
Taya

Monday, March 20, 2006 7:02 AM

ANONYMOUS


Ah, finally, some time for thoughtful comments.

I like the idea that Mal came back to Shadow for a spell after the war ended, but couldn't stay. I'm sure it's a common occurence for many ex-soldiers. The people back home remain very much as they were, and no matter how they try, they expect that the ones who have left will come back the same as well. It's tragic, really, and Mal, Megan, and Annie are lucky that they were able to finally accept each other for who they are now , instead of continuing to live in the past.

Oh, goody, The Return of Niska! He's just one of those villains that you love to hate. And you're right, it was a cute idea that he would resell the property to Meg. I didn't pick up on that until you mentioned it in the Notes, though. Good to know that he doesn't hold the sister accountable for what he feels her brother owes him. I did feel kinda sorry for Liu, though. Oh well...

Please do write the meetings. Wartime Mal was a barrel of laughs, at least until Serenity Valley. Kyo, God, he would've been what, seventeen? Yikes. And Zoe? When I hear the words "a hundred klicks", well, that is one tale of heroic derring-do that absolutely must be written! :)

Wonderful job. Don't worry about posting too fast. There were a couple of extremely minor typos, but it wasn't a big deal at all. I'm a spelling and grammar Nazi, and two or three mistakes in the course of a several-thousand word story is nothing to be worried about. If you are concerned, beta readers are excellent resources.

Monday, March 20, 2006 7:03 AM

ANA


Sorry 'bout that, I didn't realize I wasn't logged in. That's me above.

Monday, March 20, 2006 8:01 AM

AGENTROUKA


Another lovely part!

Kyo is one of the rare original characters that I actually look forward to reading. He's great.

Mal's backstory, while not what I personally imagine for him, is very plausible and this was a lovely moment of reconciliation for him, a beautiful point for the episode to focus on.

Especially well done: the contrast of Mal and his different aspects of cowardice when it comes to women. Unable to tell Inara that he loves her, unable to tell Annie that he didn't love her enough to stay. Seems he's learned a little bit there, I loved the ending!

A great episode, especially the inflections of humor, the entire theme of stories from the past in so many variations.

And Niska. Huh.


Much looking forward to the next one!

Monday, March 20, 2006 8:24 AM

ANONYMOUS


You are a wonderful storyteller, and your characterizations are spot on! I am completely engrossed by your plots, they have all been so well thougth out and plausible. I too enjoyed Niska's return and can't wait to see if you throw in some more recurring characters(Saffron? :D). Take your time writing, they are well worth the wait!

Monday, March 20, 2006 8:26 AM

LEIGHKOHL


THat was mr above-forgot to log in!

Monday, March 20, 2006 8:29 AM

AZHEA


Staring at a screen, trying to partake of this wonderfullness, has seriously strained my eyes. Solution? I've printed every episode you've posted to read in confy chair with a glass of Mudder's Milk (read beer here) and good light.

What I have read impresses me NO end. I look forward to future installments. Thank you.

Monday, March 20, 2006 9:22 AM

LEIASKY


Have to just echo what everyone else has been saying. Lovely, well thought out plots and characterizations. And Kyo is probably the best OC that I have read in a long time.
Definitely looking forward to the next installment.

Monday, March 20, 2006 1:13 PM

THEABYSS


Another sensational episode! Damn! You're in college and you have the time to write these wonderful stories? How the hell? I was almost too busy to finish reading it. I really love the dynamic of Meg and Annie. Great stuff. You brought back the sadistic Niska also, cheers to you. I can't wait for the next episode.

Monday, March 20, 2006 5:18 PM

2X2


This was another great part. I loved meeting Meg and Annie... and I'd love to get a chance to one day see Inara meet them too <g>

As usual, you've woven a wonderful story and I can't wait for more!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 12:53 AM

GEEKUSA


Thanks for all the comments!

I'm working on the meetings of Mal/Zoe and Mal/Kyo, so that'll be flying out next.

Never fear, Saffron will make her return. I've got an episode for her, but it needs polishing because of Saffron's well-thoughtout deviousness.

Yeah, I'm in college and I write. You can tell which aspect of my life I choose to focus my energies on, haha.

Monday, April 9, 2007 7:49 PM

CBURTON


I absolutly love your stoires, i only started reading from fathers and sons part1 and havent had the time to go back and read the others as of yet but damn these are great, after reading fathers and sons part1 i tried to go to bed and sleep but i was to excitted to so i ended up staying up to read part 2, you truely are a gifted writer, you should send this to Joss to see what he thinks

good work, keep on flyin

-Jared


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