BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JANE0904

The Bequest - Parts XI to XIII (REPOST)
Thursday, November 8, 2007

Maya. Post-BDM. To catch up on the story that got lost through the hack. Mal takes on Reilly's six daughters, and goes looking for the treasure, only someone else is after it too.


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The Bequest – Part XI

“Sir.” Zoe stood over him, the soft grey top she was wearing moving in the breeze enough so that he could see the brown swell of her belly underneath. “Not dead yet?”

“Seems not, Zo,” Mal said, his gaze transfixed for a moment until he had the grace to look away. “Ain't for want of trying, though.”

“I'm sure Freya’ll be happy to hear that.” Her tone was dry, and she was perfectly well aware of the direction of his stare.

“She is.” He pulled himself into a sitting position. “Where are the others?”

“Waiting to hear that you’re okay.” She pulled the com out of her pocket, thumbing the switch.

“No!” Mal said quickly. “Don’t.”

Zoe released the button slowly. “Sir?”

“Someone told them.”

“Someone?” Jayne looked sideways at him. “You ain't thinking it’s one of us, are ya?”

“No. Strange to say, I ain't.” Mal rested his arms on his knees. “But I've got a fair notion of who it was.”

“Sir?” Zoe asked.

River was nodding. “I think you’re right,” she murmured. She held out her hand to help him to his feet.

“I can get up by myself, little one,” Mal said shortly, doing just that. “Tzao gao, why the gorram hell does it have to hurt almost as much as getting shot?” he complained, holding his side.

“So now what?” Jayne asked, standing more easily. “Back to Serenity? Only if they’re watching …”

“No, not there. Well, we’re not, but the girls are.”

“To do what?” Zoe asked, letting his suggestion that she was a ‘girl’ slide for the moment.

“Tell Freya I'm dead.”

“Is that a good idea, sir?”

“It’s okay, she knows I'm not, but … did they get your half of the papers?”

“No sir.”

“Then they’ll be pissed, and want the rest. Except we have to make it on our terms, the way we want it.” Mal eased the wet shirt away from his body, biting back a curse as it pulled.

“Are you planning?” Jayne asked, his face falling. “Only you know what happens sometimes with your plans.”

“Only when people don’t do what they’re supposed to.” Mal nodded slowly. “No. This time we get the upper hand. And to do that we’re gonna have to stay dead.”

“And where do you propose to keep your mouldering and corpsified bodies while you decide what next?” Zoe inquired.

“Dismembered and somewhat flattened, actually,“ Mal pointed out. “Not sure.” He grinned. “But I know a man who might.”

--

“Mr Kilbrook.” Mal nodded at the image on the public booth.

“Captain Reynolds. I'm surprised to hear from you.” The lawyer didn’t look surprised at all. Something to do with his profession, probably.

“I need a favour.”

“Really.”

“Just a place to stay hidden for a day or two.”

Now Kilbrook sat up. “Are you in trouble, Captain? As I explained before, I don’t do that sort of work –“

“No trouble.” Mal paused a microsecond. “Well, no more’n I'm normally in.”

“Then why –“

“I can’t go back to my ship just yet, and I ain't too sure about the hotels around here, whether they’re … and Reilly trusted you.”

“That’s a back-handed recommendation.”

“Only one I got.”

Kilbrook considered the man on the screen in front of him. Reynolds was dirty, his hair was a mess and he looked dog-tired, but there was a fierceness, a determination in his eyes that he understood. “I have a house. It’s on the edge of town, away from everyone. It’s not in use at the moment. I think I can let you use it.”

Mal smiled. “Thanks.”

“I’ll send you my bill.” His lips twitched.

“That’ll be … interesting.”

“Or perhaps I’ll just let you buy me a drink one day and you can tell me what this is all about.”

“You’re on.”

“I won’t meet you there, if you don’t mind. Being seen in the company of someone like yourself won’t do my reputation any good.”

Mal smiled. “Just tell me where it is and how to get in.” The smile widened. “Unless you’d like me to break the door down?”

“I’d rather you didn’t. It’s in the oldest part of town, off Jambeau Street …”

--

Kilbrook’s house was, as promised, on the edge of town. It was a three storey building, all carved balusters and curlicued decoration, with a large garden and a high wall, and – more importantly – a rear entrance that wasn’t overlooked, leading out into the desert.

“Perfect,” Mal said, opening the door with the key he found waiting for him. They’d used River’s stolen hover, dumping it while still a walk from the house, leaving Zoe and their psychic rescuer to take their own vehicle back to Serenity to get Simon.

“Mal, you sure got a weird idea of what’s perfect,” Jayne complained, stomping inside.

“Hey, don’t do that.“ Mal sneezed and winced as the graze along his ribs pulled yet again. “Kilbrook was right,” he wheezed. “No-one’s used this in a while.”

Dust lay thick on the floor, now hanging in the air as it was disturbed by their boots, and the covers that protected the furniture were grey with it.

“How long d’we have to say here, Mal?” Jayne asked, his own nose itching.

“Not long.” Mal carefully pulled a cover from a chair, trying to catch as much of the cloying particles as possible. “A day or two max. Probably a lot less.” He sat down. “They’ve got one half of the papers, and by now they’ve figured Zoe got the other. But they’re unlikely to come and try for ours yet.”

“How come?” the big man wanted to know, copying Mal’s actions and sitting on a hefty sofa. “Why ain’t they just gonna try and storm Serenity?”

“Would you?”

“Hell, no,” Jayne said scornfully. “But I ain't stupid.”

“And you think these guys are?”

“’Cording to Zoe, there’s four of ‘em who ain't gonna be thinking at all no more. And if’n it had been me, I’d’a shot us dead, first chance. None of this crap with the gunpowder.”

“You have a point there,” Mal conceded, hearing a familiar shuttle land close by. “So not the sharpest tools in the box. But that don’t mean the person they’re working for hasn’t got all their faculties.”

“Any idea who it is?”

“Some. Just find it hard to believe.”

“So who –“

He was interrupted by the door flinging open and Freya hobbling through as fast as she could, Simon only half a pace behind her.

“Mal,” she said, her heart starting to beat again at actually seeing he was safe, even though she’d known.

“Hey. Missed me?” he joked.

“Looks like they didn’t.” She leaned on her stick. “Didn’t duck in time?”

“Must be getting old.”

Finally she smiled a little. “No. Careless, maybe. Old, never.”

Simon knelt down in the dust. “Shirt, Mal.”

Mal pushed his suspenders from his shoulders. “You just can’t wait to get me naked, can you, doc? Something you wanna tell me?” He undid his buttons, flinching as he pulled his arms out of the sleeves. The light glinted on the gold cross sitting around his neck.

“How about … sit still, this is going to hurt?”

“Already does.”

“Then this won’t make it much worse.”

“Much?”

Simon ignored him as he continued his work.

“Mal, can you come back one time without an extra hole in you?” Freya asked, covering her concern with irritation.

“Wasn’t my idea.” He hissed as Simon sprayed the area with antiseptic. “Dammit, doc, you said it wasn't gonna be much worse!”

“Sorry, Mal, but you were in very dirty environment. And it doesn’t look to have improved. Just be glad I’m not intending to clean it out much more than this until I can get you back to Serenity.”

“Could be a day or two.”

“I’ll try and stop you dying from an infection, then.” He reached into his bag to prepare a hypo with antibiotics.

“I’d be grateful.”

“That could have been permanent,” Freya pointed out, picking up Mal’s shirt and hugging it to her.

“Still wasn’t my idea.” He watched her standing there, her brown eyes fixed on his face. “My favourite shirt, too,” he said softly.

“I’d rather it was that than you.” She could smell his blood on the fabric, through the scent of him. “Mal, when Zoe waved to say there’d been a cave-in … I mean, I knew it wasn’t true, that it was in case … but if I hadn’t already known you were okay …”

Mal stood up, taking her into his arms, feeling the shirt she still clutched between them. “Good job you did know then.” He stroked her back, imagining the tattoo on her skin almost grey with worry and the discomfort she was in. “I’m sorry, Frey.” Apologising for almost not seeing his son grow to manhood, for not being able to hold her again, for very nearly not growing old with her …

She let go of the shirt, wrapping her arms around him. “Next time someone offers you six girls, say no,” she advised. “Not sure my poor battered body could take it.”

“Hey, not sure mine could either.”

“So you have a plan?”

“Working on it.”

“Something to do with the stuff in Zoe’s box?”

“Papers. Well, half. Not too sure what to, but it looks like land deeds.”

She moved back enough to look into his eyes. “More clues?”

“No. I think this is the real deal. Only it ’ppears Reilly was still a mite distrustful. We’ve got the signed section, but the bad guys have the other half.”

“They’re gonna come looking.”

“God, I hope so.”

Simon sat back on the sofa. “Can I finish wrapping that now?” He pointed towards the graze still oozing on Mal’s side.”

Mal let go of Freya and glanced down. “Be glad if you did.” He grinned. “Got some planning to finish.”

--

“Gorramit.”

“What?”

“Is this it?”

“Of course. You think I’d gyp you?”

“That hwoon dahn …”

“What?”

“It’s not all here.”

“You ain't making sense.”

“There’s only half here. The other part, with the signatures on, it’s missing.”

“Well, Jarvis ain't back yet. Maybe he’s got it.”

“And maybe he’s rotting his guts out somewhere.”

“Look, I brought back what you said.”

“And had to kill Mal to do it, didn’t you?”

“He’d seen us.”

“And if you’d left him alive we might have had something to bargain with.”

“You want I should go and collect the pieces?”

“No. There ain't nothing we can do for a while.”

“We could always –“

“No, we couldn’t. That’s why I’m the boss and you ain’t. You’d go charging in there, guns blazing, and get us all killed.”

“There’s more of us –“

“And they’ve just lost their captain and their friend. You think that don’t make a difference?”

“Well, I guess it might.”

“You stick to working out how to spend your share. Let me do the planning.”

“You got an idea?”

“Oh, yeah. Surely have.”

--

The Bequest – Part XII

The shuttle landed back on Serenity’s stubby extender, locking in place and being drawn into place. As Freya stepped out into the cargo bay, three people were waiting for her.

“Oh, honey,” Hil Dwyer said, hurrying across the bay floor as Freya negotiated the steps. “Are you okay?”

“Course she’s not okay,” Harry Reynolds said, climbing the stairs two at a time until he was level with her. He looked closely at her. “Can’t expect you to be.”

Monty hovered in the background, his big face tense and anxious, his beard almost quivering with concern.

“How did you -” Freya began, but Harry put his arm around her shoulders.

“Zoe called,” he explained. “Said … she told us there’s been a cave-in at a mine. That Mal …” His voice caught. “It ain’t true, is it?”

“We figured out the clues, Harry,” Freya said, barely managing to speak. “What it meant. Mal went to –” She sat down suddenly on the stairs, jarring her hip, tears forming in her eyes. “Oh, I wish we’d never come to this damn planet!” she whispered.

“Hey, hey!” Harry sat down next to her, pulling her close to him. “Don’t, Freya. Mal wouldn’t want you to … Look, maybe they’re still alive. Might be. Could be a section came down and they’re further in.”

“We should be out there,” Monty said unexpectedly. “Get some crews digging …”

“They already are. That’s why I had to fly back alone. Zoe and the others are still … they’ll come back with the hover before dark … but there’s only so much room in the mine …” Her voice died away.

“So he was after Reilly’s treasure?” Hil asked.

“Half of it. Zoe and … they got some, but … it’s just papers. It doesn’t mean a thing without …” She sobbed suddenly. “It ain’t worth Mal’s life!”

“You shoulda called us. We’d’ve …” Harry paused. “We’d’ve helped.”

“I know.” Freya sat up, looking ashamed of her outburst. “And you’re right. Maybe Mal is still … still alive. I can’t give up hope yet.”

“What about the race tomorrow?” Hil asked. “That horse of yours … you’re the owner now.”

Harry shot her a hard look, squeezing Freya’s shoulder. “She don’t have to go if she don’t want to.”

“I’m not,” Freya admitted. “I can’t. Not be around all those happy people. I just can’t.”

Hil wouldn’t leave it. “Then who’s –”

“Zoe’s taking everyone. Except Kaylee. She’s … Zoe said she’s refusing. Mal was like a big brother to her, and she - we’ll stay behind.”

“Frey, I wish I could help,” Harry said softly. “I know how little girl feels. What with Vinnie gone, Mal’s near enough most all the family I got …” He stopped, shaking his head.

Freya looked into his eyes, so like Mal‘s. “Could you … would you go with them? Zoe and Simon and … I’d rather they had someone with them.”

“I don’t know –”

“Please?”

“Okay. All right.” Harry gave in. “I’ll go.”

“Me too,” Monty rumbled unexpectedly. “Can’t let anything happen to any of ‘em.”

Freya managed to drag up a smile. “Thanks.”

“Well, I’d go too, but I’ve got to leave,” Hil said apologetically. “I got a job to get to, been planned a long while, and if I’m late it’ll just be given to someone else.”

“If it’s work, I know Mal’d understand.” Freya hung onto the railing and climbed laboriously to her feet. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to be alone for while.”

“You know, I think that’s a grand plan,” Harry said, standing up. “You look like you need to get some rest before you fall over.”

“It’s not rest I need, Harry,” Freya said softly. “It’s Mal.”

No-one had an answer to that.

--

Mal turned over yet again, trying to find some comfort on the sofa.

“You gonna do that all night?” Jayne asked from the depths of the armchair.

“Thought you were asleep.”

“Ain’t happening.”

“No. I know what you mean.” Mal pounded the cushion behind his head. “Never do sleep well without Freya next to me.”

Jayne gave a soft bark of laughter. “Up ‘til a while back I never had that problem. ‘Specially with my girls on the wall. ‘Cept now there’s a kinda hole where River goes …”

“Jayne, that sounds a hell of a lot like sentiment,” Mal pointed out, his lips lifting. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”

“I don’t,” the big man insisted.

“Singing love songs, waxing poetical … she’s changed you.”

“Not that much.” He pushed his shoulders back into the seat. “Still prefer to shoot someone than talk to ‘em.”

“You’re talking to me.”

“Don’t think it ain’t never crossed my mind.”

Mal smiled. “Oh, I know it has.”

There was silence in the room for a few minutes, then Jayne stirred again. “It ain’t much fun, this being dead.”

“Seriously not sure it’s meant to be.”

“There’s other things I’d rather be doing.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“Any more sign of you knocking Freya up?”

Mal lifted his head and glared at the mercenary in the dark. “Not so far.”

“Only with Zoe carrying Hank’s sprog, kinda figured you might be feeling left out.”

“We have a son, Jayne. I would’ve thought you’d notice.”

“Oh, hell, I know that. But you want a little girl. I know that too.”

“Be nice,” Mal conceded.

“Someone to look after and tie ribbons in her hair.”

“Mmn.”

“Someone to bring a guy like me home one day.” Jayne chuckled.

“I’d hope she had more taste.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“You and River talked about having a kid?”

Jayne blushed, glad the darkness covered the rare sight. “Nah. We’ve only just got together, Mal. And I ain’t sure there should be another me out there anyway.”

“And if River has other plans?”

There was a pause. “You think she wants a baby?”

“Look at how she is with Bethie and Ethan.”

“Yeah, but they’re …” He let the possibility sink in. “You really think I might be a dad some day?”

“I think it’s more than likely.”

“That’s kinda …”

“Scary?”

“Little bit.”

“You know, they could be psychic, if you do have kids with River.”

“They? We gone from one to lots?”

“You never know.”

“Dammit, Mal, now I really ain’t gonna be able to get to sleep.”

Mal smiled and pulled the blanket further up around his neck. “Glad to help,” he said, and closed his eyes.

--

“It looks like a good day for a race,” Hank said, peering out into the small light of Mead‘s early morning.

“Be better if you’d slept at all,” Zoe said, following him to the door.

“Just keeping you company,” Hank smiled.

“Doubt anyone got that much in the way of rest last night. I heard Freya go into the galley around three, and I don’t think she came back.”

“Missing Mal.” He glanced around, making sure no-one else was listening. “If she’s like this now, what’d she be like if –”

“Pray we never have to find out,” Zoe said equally quietly. “Come on. We all need to eat. It’s going to be a big day.”

--

“I want you to go,” Freya said firmly.

“But I don’t … we agreed …” Kaylee was arguing, looking around the rest of the crew gathered at the table.

“Please, Kaylee.” She sighed. “I’d feel better if you’d go with them. Take Bethany and Ethan. Please.”

Kaylee opened her mouth again, but felt something odd in her mind. It wasn’t a thought as such, just a deep concern that she and the children should be protected. Still, this wasn’t what had been arranged. “I just hate the idea of you bein’ here on your own. And I really feel –”

“I’ll stay,” Honoria put in unexpectedly from the doorway. “I’ve got a headache, and horses do nothing for me.”

“I don’t need company,” Freya said sharply, then visibly drew back. “I’m sorry, but I don’t. I ain’t gonna do anything stupid, in case that’s what you’re wondering.”

“We never considered you would.” Zoe leaned forward. “If we did, none of us would be going.”

“And I don’t mind staying,” Honoria repeated.

“If you‘ve got a headache I can get you a painkiller,” Simon offered.

The girl smiled. “It’ll go away. I’d just like to lie down in my room for a while. Having five sisters around all the time is tiring.” She looked at Freya. “If you don’t mind. You won’t even know I’m there.”

“I suppose …” Freya nodded. “Okay.”

River stood up. “We have to get going. I need to be there very soon.”

“Then we’d better gather ourselves up,” Zoe said, pushing her chair back. “We don’t want to keep the winner waiting.”

--

“Come on,” River shouted, standing on the ramp and staring into Serenity‘s interior. “If you don’t hurry up I’ll have to go without you!”

“Sorry we’re late,” Harry said behind her. “Didn’t know you were waiting for us.”

River turned and smiled at him and Monty. “It’s not you. It’s the others.”

“Hold your horses,” Hank called, carrying Ethan on his hip down the stairs.

“If you make bad jokes like that again …” River threatened.

“We’re here,” Kaylee said, moving the five Reilly girls out of the common room in front of her, Simon carrying Bethany.

“Do we have to?” Rosemary whined. “It’ll be boring.”

“Can we place any bets?” Valentia asked.

“No.”

“Then why –”

“Because we say so.” Zoe appeared on the top catwalk. “We all ready?”

“Come on!” River called again, stamping her foot impatiently.

Mal watched from a safe distance as the large group of people left his boat and started towards the racetrack.

“Thought Kaylee was staying behind?” Jayne murmured, watching the mechanic walking hand in hand with Bethany.

“Freya wasn’t happy about that. She felt something could happen to her.”

“Oh, I ain’t saying anything. Better Kaylee does go. Keep out of the way.” He looked up into the sky. “Looks like it’s gonna stay okay. So what do we do now?”

“We wait.”

--

“I hate this,” Hank muttered to Zoe as they entered the owner’s enclosure. “Not being there.”

“So do I, dear,” Zoe agreed, her lips barely moving. She was keeping an eye on Harry, Monty and their charges, while Simon and Kaylee rounded up any stragglers. “But Mal’s right. This is the perfect opportunity for them to come after the box. Except they’re not going to do that with Serenity full of people.”

“But Frey –”

“Can take care of herself.” She looked at him, his grey eyes tight with worry. “And she ain’t alone.”

“I’m kinda glad Honoria got a headache,” Hank said softly. “At least she’s got some female company.”

“Yeah,” Zoe said, her tone just a little off. “That’s good.” She shook her head. “You’d better check in, make sure everything’s okay.”

Hank nodded and melted away to find a quiet spot to wave Mal.

-

River adjusted the hard cap she was wearing, making sure all her hair was underneath. She was in borrowed silks, and they were a little big, but she’d taken time the night before to paint Serenity’s name in Chinese on a square of fabric, and she now wore this tied to her chest with tapes.

Casmir put down his head and pushed at her slightly, as if telling her to get up on his back. She laughed and leaped lightly into the saddle, settling her feet in the high stirrups.

“Ready,” she whispered, and back on Serenity Freya smiled.

-

“… and riding Casmir at 100-1 is K L Frye.” The announcer couldn’t have put more disinterest into his voice if he’d tried.

“She up?” Hank asked, sliding in next to Zoe.

“Ready, I guess.” Zoe watched the young psychic. If she hadn’t known River was a woman, she’d be hard pressed to tell her sex. “Everything okay?”

“Fine and dandy. They’re waiting.”

“Then that’s all we can do too.”

Hank nodded then looked around. “Where’s Harry and Monty?”

-

Casmir was ready. His ears were pricked forward, and as he was led into the electronic stalls he was tamping the soil with his hooves.

“Easy,” River murmured with both her voice and mind.

He understood and settled a little.

“Okay?” Howell called from the stall next to her.

She smiled. “Shiny.”

He gave her the thumbs up, then concentrated on getting his own mount ready. River watched him from the corner of her eye, the way his hands comforted the big bay beneath him, how he murmured soothing words continuously. He’d been lucky - Osiris Lad’s regular jockey had been thrown during the previous event and deemed unfit to race. The only other registered rider available at such short notice was Howell, and much to the consternation of the other jockeys he was now up on the favourite. The odds were lengthening somewhat, but not by that much. Everyone pretty much knew Osiris Lad could win this with a sack of oats on his back. That didn’t stop Howell from giving it his best.

The lights in front of them turned red. It was the signal that all the stalls were filled and any second now … the lights flashed green, the barrier went up, and they were off.

--

The Bequest – Part XIII

Casmir leaped forward, finding himself amongst the pack as they all pulled into the first bend. River could feel his muscles bunching and relaxing, moving smoothly under his skin between her knees, responding to every movement of her hands, but even more to her thoughts. As she saw an opening begin to form, Casmir surged ahead, barely scraping through, but now he was in front.

Just on the edge of her hearing she could perceive the roaring of the crowd, like a huge wave crashing forever onto the shore, yet here, riding this wonderful horse, she was in a world of her own, just being River.

-

“You sure they’re coming?” Jayne asked, barely making the words have any sound.

“They won’t get another opportunity,” Mal breathed.

“Yeah, but if they take much longer, the others’ll –”

“Jayne.”

Instantly the big man was still.

-

She could feel the other horses very close, bunched up behind her, and she risked a glance to her right. Howell was almost level on Osiris Lad, not using the whip like the other jockeys were, just urging the horse on with his knees and voice.

Ahead she could see the winning post, coming up very fast, even though she seemed to be hardly moving. It would only take holding on to win …

-

Honor waited outside the galley in the corridor to the engine room. As instructed she was keeping at eye on Freya, making sure she didn’t interfere. The woman was currently sitting at the table, a coffee and comunit in front of her. She seemed to be waiting, poised, ready for something to happen.

The watching girl shivered slightly.

-

There was a flash to the left, then a bell, and Casmir began to pull up. The race was over, and the rush of sound filled River’s world again. Other horses and riders jostled her, but she waited, listening to the voices as they thought about what had just happened.

“Miss?” Howell looked at her, his face glowing.

-

“Heads up, Frey. They’re inside.” The voice was tinny, distorted slightly by the comunit, but Honoria was certain she knew the speaker. And if that was the case … She ran down the stairs, through the common area and into the bay.

“Momma, don’t, it’s a trap!” Honoria shouted, but she was too late.

Mal stood on the ramp, Jayne next to him, both aiming their weapons at Hil Dywer and her men.

“Mal …” Hil said, her mouth dropping, her hand very close to her gun.

“Don’t,” Mal warned. “Only so many shots you can take before one of us gets you.” He glanced at Freya as she stepped onto the catwalk above, a rifle aimed unerringly at the other woman’s head. “And I figure she’d kinda like you to try.” He looked across at Honoria. “Momma?”

“She’s my mother,” the redhead said, her face stony.

“Thought you didn’t marry Reilly.”

Hil shrugged. “I lied.”

“Guess you did.”

“And I ain’t the only one.” She looked up at Freya. “I believed you. All that about how broken you were over this man …”

Freya hefted her rifle a little higher. “If you’d succeeded it would have been a whole lot worse.” She levelled the gun at Hil. “Did you really expect to betray Mal and get away with it?”

“Frey.” Mal shook his head slightly. “It ain’t worth it.”

“She tried to kill you.”

“Still ain’t worth it.”

There was a long pause, during which Mal was waiting for the gunshot, for the splatter of blood and brains over the cargo bay, but it never came. He saw Freya relax just a little, and he smiled slightly.

“Got it, Mal,” Harry said, striding up the ramp behind him, the box held high, Monty at his heels.

“You … you been on my ship?” Hil’s jaw dropped further.

“Two can play at this game,” Mal pointed out. “You and your boys come to Serenity, Harry and Monty go to your ship. Only I’m kinda curious … what were you planning on doing with Frey once you got the box?”

Hil shrugged. “Not sure.”

“Don’t lie to me, Hil.” Mal’s voice was hard. “Another little ‘accident’?”

“I don’t know her, Mal. Not like you.”

Mal’s finger tightened for a moment on the trigger, but he forced himself to relax and smile. “Good job you never got the chance.”

“How did you know?” Hil asked, honestly curious. “What told you it was me?”

“Truth to tell, I hoped I was wrong. But things you said at Reilly’s wake, knowing just a little too much about his business … then you told Frey you had a job to get to.”

“So?”

“You already told Pickett you were free.”

“That’s it? Just a few words and you put things together?” Hil couldn’t believe it.

“That and the fact that Honoria looks kinda like you did once. Long time ago. ‘Round the mouth.” He didn’t add that he’d only just noticed. “Besides, I knew Honor here was feeding someone. Only six people on board likely to, and the other girls weren’t anywhere near as interested in what was going on.” He looked at the young woman. “Don’t seem to me Reilly named you well.”

I called her that,” Hil said.

“Then I apologise to Reilly. But not to you.”

“And them?” Hil nodded towards Monty and Harry. “It could’ve been them.”

“Nope, it couldn’t. I trust them with my life.”

“Thought you felt that way about me.”

“Can’t say I ever did, Hil. Not really. Soon as I figured who it was, they were the first people I told.”

Hil let her hands drop away from her gunbelt. “So now what?”

“Maybe I should ask you the same. What would you do, if the tables were turned and you were in my position?”

Hil laughed. “I guess a slap on the wrist would be out of the question?”

Sudden anger flared in Mal‘s blue eyes. “You tried to have me killed, Hil!”

“No, now, that ain’t strictly speaking the case. My boys here just took my instructions a little too literally.” She looked around at her men.

“And they were?”

“To put you away somewhere safe.” She shrugged. “It was their decision to make it permanent.”

“Don’t tell me, you’d’ve cried over my grave.”

“Course I would. Ain’t that many good Browncoats around we can afford to lose any.”

“Good Browncoats don’t steal from each other.”

She stared at him. “What cloud do you live on?”

“Not like this.” He shook his head. “Why, Hil? Why all this?”

“Why do you think? The money, of course.”

“The money? Hil, Honoria would have gotten her share.”

“Her share.” Hil scoffed. “Yeah. A sixth of what that hwoon dahn owed me. He took all my money, Mal! Gambled it away then came home and apologised. I had to go out to work! Just to pay the bills! I had enough. I left.“

“And Honor?”

“He said he’d look after her. Then when the war came …”

“Why’d you join up?” Mal shook his head, trying to make it clear enough he could understand it. “You could have taken her back -”

“He’d married again. The serial bigamist that he was. I can’t even guarantee I was the first.” She laughed. “And I knew our cause was righteous. Remember that, Mal? Being righteous? Being so damn sure we were gonna win?”

He’d had enough. “You leave, Hil. Take your men and go. You’ve lost.”

She glared at him, as if by sheer will she could make him drop dead. But she was no River. “And Honor’s share?”

“She’ll get it. Whatever else she is, she’s Reilly’s daughter. Gets her apportionment.”

Hil nodded. “And the horse?”

“Don’t push your luck, Hil. Casmir’s mine. Whatever he makes goes to me and my crew. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty for you to cheat Honor out of. Though if she’s got the sense she was born with she’ll figure out you ain’t the kind of mother she needs.”

The woman stared at him, as if she was working out the odds that he was going to shoot her in the back, but obviously decided he was still the honourable soldier. She lifted her head and strode out, her men following.

“Make sure they don’t try and come back,” Mal said to Jayne.

“On it,” the mercenary said, loping after them.

“She didn’t ask about the other girls,” Monty said softly, shaking his head.

“She doesn’t care.”

“What happened to her, Mal? She was always so strong.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she just can’t live with the peace like we can.”

“She tried to get me to join some Browncoat movement.”

Mal nodded. “Yeah.”

“You think a war might be brewing?”

Mal didn’t answer for a moment, thinking back over what he’d said to Hil only a few days ago, even though it seemed a lifetime.

“We fight, we’ll lose, Hil. It won’t be glorious, like you seem to remember. It’ll be hard, bloody and pointless. The Alliance have things … Hil, I have a wife and child. I want more kids. That’s what’s important to me right now.”

“And? If it does happen?”

He sighed. “I’ll defend them, Hil. Like you damn well know I would.”

“I hope not,” he said finally, looking up at Freya.

“Yeah, me too.” Monty scratched his chin. “You know, I’d maybe kinda feel more sympathy for her if she’d said she was aiming to give the money to the movement.”

“Instead of being an honest thief?”

“Nah, Mal,” Harry put in. “I reckon there’s degrees of dishonesty, and she’s half a compass away from the rest of us.”

“You sure about that?”

“Course I’m sure.” He slapped Mal on the back. “You wouldn’t’ve done what she did. None of us would. Steal things, yeah. But kill like that? We’re too good for that.”

Mal couldn’t help it. He laughed.

Freya headed down the stairs, holding onto the handrail. “You’d better get back to the racetrack,” she called. “Find out what happened.”

“We know what happened,” Monty said. “Casmir won.”

--

“He came second, Mal.” Hank didn’t seem that disappointed. “Closest finish they’ve had in years, ‘parently. Less than a nose. Had to go to a capture to separate ‘em.”

Mal rubbed the horse’s shoulder, the green and yellow sash of the runner-up still around his neck, his blanket secure. “That close?”

Hank glanced around at the rest of the crew, nodding. “It was the favourite won, but no-one was talking about him. Only about Casmir.”

Mal smiled, feeling the hot breath on his neck. “Good lad,” he murmured. “Maybe Reilly knew what he was doing after all.”

York, the steward, bustled out of his office and smiled at Mal, even if it didn’t reach his eyes. “I had heard you were … injured,” he said, rubbing his hands.

“You’d heard I was dead,” Mal corrected. “Plain to see I ain’t.”

“And I’m so pleased.”

“Sure.” Mal looked at Casmir. “So did someone buy him? Only I was kinda thinking –”

“Oh, yes,” York interrupted. “There was some spirited bidding, and he went for the largest sum of the day.”

“Really?”

“And I have it ready for you, less the handling 10% fee, of course.”

“Of course.” Mal’s lips twitched, as did his gunhand. This man really could rub him up the wrong way without trying. He hadn’t killed anyone so far, but the day wasn’t over yet. “And who is the new owner?”

“Me.”

Mal turned, and wondered if he was getting psychic in his old age. Or maybe living in such close proximity to Freya was rubbing off on him. Because he wasn‘t all that surprised. “Kilbrook.”

The lawyer smiled. “Captain.”

“You know each other, of course,” York said. “I’ll just get the papers ready for you to sign.” He hurried off to the office, leaving the two men looking at each other.

“You paid more than for the winner,” Mal said, smiling slightly. “Not sure that was such a good idea.”

“I paid what he was worth, Captain.”

Mal’s eyebrows raised. “How’d you figure that?”

In answer Kilbrook turned to River. “Why did you pull him? He could have won.”

“He knows,” River said. “But he likes Howell.”

“The boy who rode the winner?”

“He trusts him.” River looked at the older man. “Take him on as your jockey and Casmir will win. Every race.”

“You can promise that, can you?” Kilbrook asked, amused.

“Casmir does.”

“And I can take your word for it.”

“Take his. Look.” She nodded towards the horse. Howell was standing next to him, smoothing his flank. Casmir was relaxed, almost leaning into the young man.

Kilbrook smiled. “I think you may be right.”

“Of course I am.”

Kilbrook felt the lightest feather touch of something on his mind, and he shivered. “As much fun as this is, I think I’d better sign the papers.”

“Good idea,” Mal agreed. “Then tomorrow I think we need to have a chat. I’ve got a proposition to put to you.”

“Really? Is it going to cost me money?”

“You’re a lawyer. Don’t think that’s possible.”

Kilbrook laughed out loud. “It isn’t.” He strode away, still chuckling.

“Is Howell a Reader?” Mal asked softly as soon as Kilbrook was out of earshot.

River shook her head. “No. But he is talented on a subtle level. His hands are good, and with a horse like Casmir he will be successful.”

“Did you really pull him?”

“No, Captain.” She looked at him guilelessly, then added, “But I might have suggested it.”

“Ain’t that the same thing?”

She smiled and he found the thought Would you do everything I suggested? settle in his mind.

“Enough of that, albatross,” he warned, and she laughed.

“He wants to say goodbye.”

“Who, Howell?”

“No, Casmir. He wishes you’d ridden him, just once.”

“Now why would that be?”

“Reilly used to talk to him. Tell him about you. About the honourable man you were. And still are.”

Mal raised his eyebrows. “Did he tell the horse about the … that treasure of his?”

“Yes.” River smiled. “But it was a secret so he couldn’t tell me.”

“Secret.” Mal shook his head. “Right.”

“Say goodbye to him.”

Feeling something of a fool, Serenity’s captain walked over to the large horse, and Howell tactfully left them alone.

Mal leaned his head against Casmir, feeling the short dark hair on the horse’s flank under his hand. “Good boy,” he said, patting him gently. He grinned. “Wish I could keep you,” he went on, “but you can plainly see there’s no space. But Kilbrook’ll take good care of you. Tell River if he ain’t.”

Casmir lifted his head, then lowered it, almost as if he were nodding.

“And you ride well for him. I figure he’s good folk, so do your best.”

For one brief moment Mal was back in his home on Shadow, and in front of him was a man on horseback, tall in the saddle, his thick dark hair falling over his forehead. He was reaching down his hand, to pull Mal up behind him, to ride out to cattle. His father, dead for more than thirty years. But it wasn’t as his other memories were of him, faded and little more than feelings. This was crystal clear, Ethan Reynolds’s face smiling, his blue eyes sharp and gentle. He felt the hand in his, enveloping his fingers, being lifted up, putting his arms around a strong waist … the image faded, and he was back in the yard.

“That you, albatross?” Mal asked quietly.

“No, Captain.”

“Then –”

“Casmir wanted to give you something.”

“He’s a Reader?”

River laughed. “He’s a horse.”

Mal wanted to argue, but decided it was one he was unlikely to win. “Thank you,” he whispered instead, patting Casmir’s shoulder. He looked across at Howell. “Better take him in now, make sure he doesn’t get cold.”

“Yes sir.” Howell led the horse back into his stall.

“We going home now, Cap’n?” Kaylee asked, leaning into Simon and holding onto Bethany’s hand. “Kinda need to take a nap.”

“Goin’ home, mei-mei.”

“Uncle Mal?” Bethany asked. “What about Casmir?”

Mal went down onto his heels and looked into the dark brown, trusting eyes of childhood. “He’s gonna stay here. Going to a good home, too, so you don’t have to worry about him.”

“He likes you.”

“Does he?”

“Told me.”

Mal smiled. “Well, I kinda liked him too.”

“Didn’t you want to keep him?” Kaylee asked. “I thought maybe you might …”

Mal stood up. “I considered it, just for a moment. But we ain’t got the wherewithal to keep body and boat together some days, let alone a horse. He’s better off with Kilbrook.”

“And maybe now I can deal properly with that bullet wound,” Simon said pointedly.

“Ain’t nothing but a scratch.”

“As I’m sure I’ve said before -”

“And I’m sure you’ll say again, you’re the doctor around here.” Mal laughed. “Come on,” he added. “Freya’s waiting.”

--

“Everyone on board?” Mal asked, walking up the ramp. He’d had a good night’s sleep, completed his dealings with Kilbrook, and felt good about the ‘verse. Zoe strode along next to him, her flame top moving in the breeze.

“Just waiting for you, Mal,” Freya said, waiting for him in the cargo bay. “Business done?”

“Kilbrook’s a happy man.”

“And are we?”

“We were right, you know. Those papers were the land deeds to some of the most expensive real estate in town. And no-one’s paid any rent in a long time. He’s enjoying composing the letters as we speak.”

“So the girls are wealthy?”

“Will be. And Inara?”

“I just spoke to her. She’s happy to take them on.”

“Did she laugh?” Mal asked.

“Only a lot.”

“Great. I conjure we’re gonna have some grand words when we drop the girls off.”

“They’ll do well there. She can teach them to be ladies and how to deal with people like you.”

He put his arm around her waist. “Just so long as she don’t encourage ‘em to become Companions.”

“I don’t think she’d dare.”

“Zo, get us ready to leave this mudball,” Mal said, looking at his first mate.

“Yes sir.” She smiled at them both then headed up the stairs to the bridge.

“And our cut?” Freya asked. “Do we, as Jayne pointed out, get a finder’s fee?”

“It ain’t ours, Frey. Never was. Reilly made that pretty clear. But there is the price of Casmir to take into account.”

“And the bets.”

“Bets?” He looked down into her brown eyes. “Who was betting?”

“Oh, just about everyone. Each way. Casmir came second, so we all did pretty well.”

“So no-one needs paying this month?”

She laughed. “I think you’d have an argument about that from at least some members of the crew.”

“I conjure you’re probably right.” He grinned and kissed her.

“So when do the girls see this cash?”

“Probably take a while, leastways according to Kilbrook. But give it a month or two, and they won’t be needing for anything.”

“Good,” came a voice from outside the ship. Hil Dywer stood in the washed-out sunlight.

Mal glared at her, his hand on his gun. “You’d better leave, Hil. We did all the talking we’re going to do.”

“I’m not here for you,” the woman said, pulling her brown coat around her. “I’m here for Honor.”

“For …” He shook his head, “Ain’t gonna happen.”

“Yes it is.” The girl walked up behind him, her bag in her hand. “I’m going with my mother.”

Freya stepped forward. “Honor … what about your sisters?”

“The only thing I had in common with them was Reilly, and he’s dead.”

“But there’s been arrangements made. Someone’s gonna be looking after you -”

“I won’t stay. Wherever it is, I won’t stay. My mother will come and get me.”

Hil nodded. “My baby, Mal. My daughter. And she’s gonna be with me.”

“You sure about this?” Mal asked Honor, ignoring the other woman. “’Cause I could get Jayne to tie you up and throw you in the hold until you come to your senses.”

“As much as I might like that, and he certainly would, it doesn’t change anything.”

“And your share of the money? Kilbrook’s handling it all, but … where’ll he send it?”

Honor smiled, looking so much older than her seventeen years. “I’ll let him know.” She held out her hand. “Thank you for having me, Captain. And I won’t forget you.”

They shook, and she walked out of Serenity.

“Do you think time travel is possible?” Mal asked, watching as Hil Dwyer and her daughter walked away from the Firefly.

“What?” Freya glanced at him.

“There’s just something about that girl that makes me wonder.”

“You’re thinking about Saffron.”

“Same hair colour, same determination to get what she wants …” He shook his head. “It wouldn’t surprise me somehow to hear, a ways down the line, that she’s married a hell of a lot of men.”

“I wouldn’t go too far down that time travel route if I were you,” Freya said, putting her arm around his waist. “Otherwise it could occur to you that you might have got yourself hitched to your stepdaughter …”

Mal turned to look at her in appalled wonder. “That’s …”

“Don’t worry about it.” She pulled him towards the common area. “Pickett’s given us another couple of days – what do you have on that man, anyway?”

Mal’s lips twitched. “Have on him?”

“He’s being awfully accommodating.”

“Let’s just say I don’t think his wife would like to hear about the incident with the contortionist and the swagger stick.”

“Really.” Freya’s eyes widened. “You’re going to have to tell me that one. But, anyway, we can get the other girls to Inara’s with time to spare.”

“Are we ever gonna have a nice, easeful trip?” Mal asked, wrapping his arms around her and making her stand still.

“One day,” Freya admitted. “And won’t that be boring.”

“I’d kinda like to try.”

She snuggled a little closer. “There’s something else I’d like to try right now, though.”

He looked at her, at the mischief in her eyes. “You ain’t allowed.”

“There’s other things I can do. Like …” She whispered in his ear.

His eyebrows raised. “Really.”

“We’re ready to go, Cap’n,” Zoe said, reappearing on the catwalk.

He glanced up. “Where’re the girls?”

“In the galley, sir. Kaylee’s teaching them the finer points of cooking.”

“All of them?”

“Even Bethany.”

He grinned at Freya. “Close her up, would you? And tell that man of yours to get us off the ground.”

“Lazarus?”

“Lazarus.”

“And what are you planning on doing, sir?” Zoe asked as she descended the stairs.

“Taking a rest.”

“Sir?”

“Captain’s privilege, Zoe.” He smiled at her and let Freya go ahead of him into the common area.

“Not to be disturbed, sir?”

“Not unless it’s Reavers.”

“Yes sir, captain.” She smiled, stroking her belly as she watched him follow Freya towards their temporary quarters.

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Jayne had told him a story once, about being on the hunt for someone who owed him something or other. He’d waited for his target for three hours in four inches of slush as the temperature dropped, and had grinned when he’d admitted to Hank that he’d had to break his feet free from the ice when he’d finished.
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He slammed the door behind him, making the plates rattle on the sideboard. “It’s okay, girl, I ain't gonna hurt you.” The cook, as tradition dictated, plump and rosy cheeked with her arms covered to the elbows in flour, but with a gypsy voluptuousness, picked up a rolling pin.

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“Did we …” “We did.” “Why?” As she raised an eyebrow at him he went on quickly, “I mean, we got a comfy bunk, not that far away. Is there any particular reason we’re in here instead?” “You don’t remember?” He concentrated for a moment, and the activities of a few hours previously burst onto him like a sunbeam. “Oh, right,” he acknowledged happily.

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