Categories > TV > Firefly
"How you doin', little one?" Mal asked as he took the canteen down from his lips and offered it, not for the first time, to the girl sitting beside him under the tree.
"Quiet," River answered with an air of bliss, ignoring the canteen. "Peaceful. Just the wind and the tree. And you, but you've learned how to live quiet in your own head. Disciplined. Soldier's thoughts. All in order. Not like mine."
"Your thoughts are gonna end up bein' real quiet if you don't drink some of this water," he said gruffly. "Even crazy people gotta have water."
"Could last two more days," River shrugged. "If we stayed here under the tree and didn't move, might could last seven minutes and thirty-eight seconds longer." But she took the canteen anyway and took a swallow. Mal watched her, saw how she was careful not to let a single drop of it dribble out of the corner of her mouth or drip down her chin; she conserved it like they weren't going to get any more water before two days, seven minutes, and thirty-eight seconds were up.
Admiration sprang up unexpectedly, and River smiled at him as she capped the precious water and handed it back to him. "If we each only have one ounce every four hours, we have enough to last twenty-four hours. They should be back by then."
"They ruttin' well better be back by then!" Mal exclaimed, and River frowned disapprovingly at him.
"Mustn't shout," she reproved. "Draws in more oxygen, exerts more energy, uses more hydration. You'll need your ounce in three hours instead of four." She quirked an eyebrow. "And besides, it isn't polite."
"Po--" Mal started, then stopped. "You're right," he sighed. "It ain't. But neither is strandin' me in the middle of a godforsaken desert moon."
"Found the only tree for you," she pointed out. "Big enough for two. No more anywhere else; it's barren here -- disappointed, womb scraped clean of hope. Everything aborted. Except him." She tilted her head backwards, indicating the tree they were leaned against. "Love's like a hurricane. He stays put. He bends but he does not break. Wind and mercy." She nodded wisely, patting the water canteen beside her. "Holds on for a miracle when the thirty-seventh second is up. Gets it."
"You ain't makin' a bit o' sense, little girl," he said with a shake of his head. Sometimes -- more often than he'd admit -- he knew exactly what she meant. This time, he was lost, though he thought her analogy somehow had something to do with him. However, hs mind was too concerned with other things -- like the fact that he was sitting miles from nowhere on a dusty moon with a girl who was missing a few vital connections between one logical thought and the next and no clue as to where his rutting crew had taken his ship.
"You're zero miles," she sighed, as if he should have somehow known that without her having to say it. "Epicenter. Here is the axis; we are sitting on it. Why we do not feel the turn. We are the turning."
"I think the heat's made you even crazier than normal," he grumbled.
"Not hot," she disagreed. "In the shade. In your shade, all the time. Shadow, cool and dry and a midsummer's night with the dinner triangle ringing bright and loud and silver in the twilight. Quiet and orderly and death in rows instead of a wolfpack. Hope grounded in defiance, not afloat on wishes."
He nearly bit the tip of his tongue off in surprise, offense sharpening his pulse until he took a deep breath through his nose and let himself remember. He couldn't really help it, the way the images swept over him.
"Snowstorm blowin' in. Get the horses in the barn, little boy! Get the horses in! Your momma'll be fine, she'll have soup waitin' on ya when ya get back. Just get the gorram horses in the ruttin' barn, kid! We don't have horses, we don't eat next month!"
And he had. He'd gotten every last one of the horses - except one stray little colt. He knew the one -- the gray mare's foal. Spindly. A runt. Always gettin' sick, had never really grown as much as he should have. Lungs always gettin' infected with the dust, always sneezin' or hackin'. He'd be down in the hollow - he'd be okay. Except he wouldn't, not if this storm kept gettin' worse.
"I gotta go find the colt!" he yelled at Shan Wu, his mother's foreman.
"Leave the runt, Mal!" Shan Wu insisted. "He ain't gonna make it through February anyhows; why try gettin' him through December?"
"He might!" Mal insisted. "Gotta find him!" He was off before Shan Wu could say anything else, though he heard the foreman's voice echoing through the storm, telling him to be careful.
He did find the colt, and it turned out to be the thing that saved his life. He brought the shivering little horse back into the stables, returned it to its mother's side in the warm hay and brought it a little of the precious bran mash to keep it from getting chilled and up and dyin' on him in the night. Runt though he was, Mal's momma had paid a powerful sum of money to breed her gray mare to Acker O'Connell's stud, and he couldn't just let the hope of the ranch die in a snowstorm. That colt needed to grow up healthy and strong and become a stud himself; they needed new blood in their stock, and stud fees could bring a handsome price.
Once he'd made sure the troublesome prize creature was safely bedded down, Mal pushed out into the snow, only to be driven back by the force of the wind that stole his breath from his lungs. He couldn't take two steps toward his momma's house, and he ended up kippin' in the hay with the horses that night, curled up against the runt's side for warmth.
The next mornin', he awoke to eerie silence and opened the barn door with much effort, throwing himself against it, bruising his slim shoulder against the unforgiving wood in an attempt to dislodge the snowdrift that had built up deeper than six feet the night before.
With great effort, he squeezed through the tiny crack and began floundering back toward the house. "MA!" he called loudly after his third belly-flop in the shifting white powder. "Ma, I'm comin'!"
Nothin' but the distant howl of wolves answered him and he shivered. It took him thirty-eight more minutes to make it across the twenty foot distance between the house and the barn, and when he got to the house, he wished he hadn't.
"Wolves," River said softly. "Needed out of the cold. Found warm insides."
"That's enough," Mal snapped. The image wasn't one he needed described to him. It was vivid enough in his mind.
"Alliance was the one said you couldn't shoot the wolves. Alliance was the one wouldn't let you set traps. They were wolves, always feeding off your hard earned money, stopping in uninvited for dinner, making your mother feed them. If it hadn't been for them, the colt wouldn't have been so important. If it weren't for them --"
"If it weren't for them I'd be a different man and you'd be a different woman," he snapped, then stopped speaking as soon as what he'd said filtered into his mind.
"Do you understand now?" she whispered.
And he did, suddenly. Understood a whole hell of a lot. Like why she stayed close to him, why she looked at him with sad eyes that looked like they knew him and were waiting for him to catch up.
"Wolves ate my mind up. Ate me up from the inside out. Need a safe place out of the cold. Need shelter." She looked up at the branches above her head, squinting at the sun that blistered the earth around them, and though it was scorching, Mal still felt the chill of that winter down to his very bones. "Need shade." She looked over at him. "Need a soldier to set the traps."
"And what do I need?" he asked, feeling raw and resentful of the reopened wound, and suddenly exhausted. He was battle-weary, he supposed.
"A white dove flying. Sinking. Settling." She shrugged. "Wings are broken but they still have shadows under them -- inviting. Tender. Shade." She tilted her head and smiled. "Wings like a dove, to fly away and be at rest, above the tempest. Serenity."
"Speaking of," he interrupted, feeling he'd reached the end of his comprehension with all this talk. "Where the hell is my gorram shi--"
The rumble of engines interrupted him, and he saw the welcome shine of the ship's metal hull in the desert sun.
"One o' these days," he shouted to be heard over the noise of the ship as it landed, "You're gonna hafta explain to me just how the hell you got me left here with you while they took my ship elsewheres."
"Maybe," she demurred, a serene smile on her face. "Or maybe you will always wonder." She walked ahead of him toward the ramp that was lowering, her feet dancing lightly across the burning ground, her boots kicking up clouds of dust as she went. "Innocent as doves. Sheep in wolves' clothing. Wolf at the door won't be held back forever, but for a little while, barn swallow. Refugee."
She continued a stream of words that only made a vaguely creepy kind of sense as she tripped lightly up the ramp and into the cargo bay, then up the stairs to the catwalk. He watched her go, shaking his head as he followed at a more leisurely pace, stopping in the cargo hold to watch as Kaylee hit the button that let the ramp back up.
"Gosh, Cap'n, how'd you manage to get left behind?" Kaylee asked, wide-eyed. "We thought you was on the ship 'til we got into town an' Zoe went lookin' for ya!"
"It's a right fine conundrum, an' more'n a little mysterious at that," Mal answered, but before he could continue, Jayne's voice reverberated through the metal walls as he came running out onto the catwalk.
"Ambush!" he yelled as he sprinted toward the bridge. "Mal! Where the gorram hell have you been? We got Alliance on our ass!"
"WASH!" Mal called up the stairs as he took them two at a time, headed for the cockpit. "Wash! Take us outta here!"
"Aye, aye, Captain," Wash answered, only sounding a little distracted as he flipped a couple of switches and hit the intercom. "Kaylee? You ready for take off?"
"We're all shiny down here, Wash!" she crackled back over the speakers, and Mal watched through the windows as they lifted off.
"Somebody wanna tell me how Alliance picked up our scent out here on a border moon?" Mal barked just as Zoe stepped onto the bridge, her hands going to the back of Wash's chair as they broke atmo.
"It was a trap, Sir," she responded, her eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching black. "Random patrol of the border moons, training some green soldiers. One of 'em got wind of shady business dealin's goin' down from time to time. They put out an APB on you, Sir, and on River. It's damn lucky you weren't there -- if either of you had been spotted, there's no tellin'..."
"Wolves at the door," he muttered. "Broken wings, my ass."
"Nothin'," he said with a shake of his head. "Just.... keep us flyin', Wash, as under the radar as you can get."
"Don't have to tell me twice," Wash answered as he checked all his screens for any sign of a tail.
Mal stepped off the bridge and headed down to his bunk, his mind whirling with thoughts of snow and wolves and doves in the desert, and the sudden clear-ringing sound of a dinner bell on a dusty ranch long ago. In his mind, he saw his momma with a rifle on her hip, calling the ranch hands in for dinner and scanning the horizon for wolves.
Sign up to rate and review this story