From the black Greenleaf resembled Earth-That-Was: she shimmered blue with whorls of green and brown, circled by a frosty white halo of atmosphere. The continents were different but she glittered clean in the sunlight. Her cities were large, technologically advanced and well populated. And even more like Earth-That-Was, she had her slums and ghettos. But she still had enough land empty that the original settlers, who had come to settle her with their cows and their sticks, still had plenty of room to roam for miles upon miles unimpeded by anyone, or anything.
It wasn’t quite a Core world but it was close enough that it wasn’t a place Mal had ever dreamed he would have ended up living. The ranch he now owned was small and worn out. He told himself when he bought it a year ago that he would clean it up and make the place look respectable but he never had. He did maintenance work only when it was absolutely necessary. The only place on the entire ranch that was well kept was the horse stalls and only then because they were his means of survival.
He leaned against the fence and looked out over the horizon. Greenleaf had mountains and hills, valleys, oceans and ravines but where he was it was flat. It stretched out endlessly in every direction and only the occasional tree broke the monotony. Still, the wind blowing through the tall grasses had a pleasing quality to his eye and he could stand and watch the grass blowing for hours. It was easier than looking up at the sky, at least.
Pushing off the fence he walked on towards the stables. His boots crackled on the gravel road that led from the farmhouse to the stalls. He sighed and pushed the heavy wooden door open to let light pour into the stable. At present the eight stalls were empty but soon some of them would be filled. He wedged the door jam down into the dirt so the door wouldn’t close of it’s own accord and then he turned around and headed out from the stables towards the expanse before him.
In the distance he started to pick out the blurry brown forms of horses. There were six in all and it was his job to watch them, rear them and care for them. It was his job alone. He raised his fingers to his mouth and whistled through them. It was a loud, shrill cry and one that the horses knew. He walked a few paces further out and whistled again.
The fuzzy blurs in the distance soon began to resolve into horses as they came closer. He went up to them as they came, catching the first one by the reigns. He patted her muzzle, looked her over briefly and then led her into the stall. He did this for all six and by the time he had the sixth horse, a large black roan, locked into his stall the sun was starting to slant overhead.
Without turning around he said, “Generally ain’t considered polite to sneak up on a man while he’s workin’.” He looked over his shoulder at last, his face cold and uninterested at the new arrival.
A shiny new hover car was parked in his gravel drive. It was champagne pink and looked fancy and new hovering over the air. It reminded Mal of something from his past but he ignored it, pushed it down. The man he was looking at was more pressing now, anyway. “You Malcolm Reynolds?” the man asked. He was thin and short of stature.
Mal sighed and moved away from the man and went to the side of the stable to where a large well stood. He started lowering the bucket into it, working on the crank. “What’s it to you if I am?” he asked without looking at him.
The man was fairly well dressed. He had dark slacks and a button down dress shirt on, as well as a dark coat. Despite the dust one would likely find riding out to a place like this, the man was immaculate and clean. Compared to the thread bare, worn and dirty clothes Mal was in, it was quite a contrast. “I’m Davis Wright. I was told you bred horses?”
That caused Mal to look up at last. He almost stalked over to him but he had a bucket full of water now that he needed to finish hauling up. He returned to his work. “Who told you that?” he asked. His tone was dark, as were his eyes.
The man looked around the ranch, perhaps hoping to find someone else to talk to other than Mal but there wasn’t anyone else. “I’m in the market for a new horse,” he simply stated instead. “It was implied that you were the man to talk to.”
“People in town said that?” Mal questioned and heaved up the bucket of water when it reached the top. It was large and exceptionally heavy now. His muscles strained as he lifted it onto the stone ledge of the well and then unhooked it from the pulley. “’Fraid you heard wrong, mister.” He glanced back over to Davis.
The man looked nervous and confused. “But, the horses. I saw them, just now. You were putting them away.” He gestured lamely at the stable right in front of him.
“I got horses,” Mal agreed. “Six of them, in fact. All very thirsty.” He hauled the water up and carried it over to the stables. He walked inside the door and seemed to vanish. Davis ended up following him inside and he peered around. The six horses were still all in their stalls.
Mal poured the water into the trough of the first horse and glanced over to Davis as he did. “I don’t breed ‘em.” He raised his chin a bit. “These are all salvage operations. Nothing you’d be interested in.”
“Salvage?” Davis asked, confused.
“Horses no one wants anymore.” He hoisted the bucket up again, now that it was empty, and headed back out to refill it at the well. “Too old or too fat. Maybe too skinny, or sick or limp—whatever they reason they ain’t wanted. I take ‘em in. If they’re worth saving they move in here.” He hooked the bucket back up and began lowering it down into the well once more.
“And if they’re not worth saving?” Davis asked, following him nervously.
“I shoot ‘em.” Mal shrugged. “Have myself a tasty horse steak.”
Davis wrinkled his nose, as though eating horse were quite possibly the most revolting thing he’d ever heard of. “I was under the impression that you had sold a horse to a man name Grayson.”
Mal was sweating as he hauled up the second bucket. “Yeah. I did.” He looked over at Davis again, sizing him up. “Good horse.”
“But you didn’t breed her,” he stated, as if for clarification.
“Been on this rock just over a year, Mr. Wright. Even if I were breeding they’d not yet be dropping foal, if I was lucky.” He hoisted the bucket back onto the stone lip and unhooked it. “Which I ain’t. Now, what I do got are five horses in various conditions that you might or might not be interested in.” He carried the bucket back inside the stables and Davis followed. “All salvage operations.”
He poured the bucket of water into the trough of the second horse. “You see something you’re looking for, you let me know.” He nodded his head to the black roan. “He ain’t for sale.”
Davis glanced to the horse, which didn’t seem very friendly, and then back to Mal. His eyebrows went up in consternation. “You’re not a very good salesman,” he admitted before casually looking at the horse whose stall they were in front of.
“Don’t like people none,” Mal explained, his tone rough. “’Specially don’t like them coming over unannounced and treatin’ me like I don’t belong on my own property.” He lifted the empty bucket back up and headed back out to the well, pushing past Davis to do so and not too kindly.
“Well, I would have sent you a call but you’ve not got a hook up!” he cried in dismay as he followed Mal back out of the barn.
Mal stopped, turned around and fixed Davis with a pointed glare. “Think maybe there’s a reason for that?” He hooked the bucket back up and repeated the process of drawing water again. “You want quality horses from an established breeder then you got a couple other places you can choose from. Miller, Andrews, hell, even Long Tzu’ll sell you a breed. Probably can’t get to any of them tonight in that thing, though,” he stated with a nod to the hovercraft. “But you get back to town and ask around for a real breeder. They’ll treat you like you want.”
“Yes, well, but their prices tend to be, well, outrageous,” Davis protested. Mal heaved the bucket up again and started back to the stable.
“And you think I’d give you a fair deal?” If he were a different man he might have laughed. Instead his face remained impassive and stony. “Get back in your little car, Davis. Drive back to your little city. Live in your little world and leave me to mine. I ain’t the man you’re looking for.”
Davis seemed offended. Mal pulled the bucket out of the well again and started back to the stables. When he did this time, Davis didn’t follow. Mal filled the trough up and sighed and when he went back to refill the bucket again he noticed in passing that the little champagne colored hovercraft and it’s little driver were both gone.
He wanted to be happy that he was alone again but he wasn’t. He hadn’t enjoyed the company any either, but he was no less happy now that he was alone again.
He ran the bucket twice more until all six of the horses were watered and he was covered with a fine sheen of sweat. Then he went to the back of the stable and got out the feed and measured meals into each of the horses stalls. He checked their stall doors to make sure they were secured. When he was content he had done enough for all of them he stepped out of the stable, drew up the wedge and shut the door.
In the distance the sun was low in the sky, near sunset. He ignored it, turning his back to the beautiful array of clouds as they turned gold and cinnamon in the dying light. Mal just trudged towards the rickety little farmhouse he now lived in, his eyes fixed, almost permanently, on the ground.
The inside of the house was as dreary as the outside. The wood was worn, even rotted in some areas. It looked as though the place had been abandoned for years before Mal had moved in, although moved in wasn’t quite the word. Moved in implied things he owned had been brought over but the interior lacked even the slightest bit of personal affects. For all he knew of the homestead’s history it very well might have been abandoned for years before he purchased it, too. He hadn’t inquired.
There was a large table that looked as old and tired as the rest of the house. There were four mismatched chairs, two with the seats punched out staggered around it. A fireplace stood at one end, dormant and cold and filled with enough debris to suggest that it hadn’t been lit in the year since Mal had arrived. The couch was tattered and worn but at the same time looked unused.
The raggedy appearance of the house was a far cry even from the dilapidated looking Firefly called Serenity he had once piloted. Yet, despite it all, Mal was not out of place. His hair sat limp on his brow, filthy and unkempt, his clothes were worn and tattered, and there were circles under his eyes. If, like the wood, he could rot, he would have.
Mal made himself a tasteless meal of warmed up protein and water and ate it standing up, leaning against a derelict countertop in the tiny little kitchen. When he was done he went to sleep in the large four-poster bed that had come with the house. It once had been a magnificent piece of furniture but now it sagged sadly in the middle. The sheets looked thin and moth eaten and whatever color they had originally been had long ago been washed out of them.
When he awoke in the morning it was due to the incessant drumming of rain on the tin roof. Mal sat up and immediately pulled on his boots. He had slept in the clothing he had worked in yesterday and so with just the boots on and his suspenders pulled back over his shoulders he was dressed, ready for work. It was another day of the same old thing, only this time he’d be doing it in the rain. He glanced out the window at the gray world outside and his expression reflected it.
He didn’t bother to pull on a coat or get any sort of umbrella or protection before heading out. The rain soaked him thoroughly between the time it took for him to get from the farmhouse to the stables to feed the horses and let them out, but he didn’t seem to notice. The rain only seemed to further emphasis the feelings he harbored.
He stood by the fence again, watching the horses as they grazed and ran, blinking the water out of his eyes as it ran into them. The horses enjoyed the water for a short period of time but they grew weary of it long before Mal did. Most of them came without him needing to whistle, tossing their manes and their tails, trying to shake the water off. Mal shook his head and led inside the five that came to him.
He brushed them each until they were dry and he made sure they were warm and well fed. In the process he dried himself off but it was a secondary measure. He got thoroughly soaked again as he began the lengthy process of filling the bucket up and bringing it back and forth six times to fill the horses troughs.
Then he walked back out and peered through the driving rain looking for the sixth horse, his big roan. It was hard to judge the hour because the sun wasn’t able to penetrate the thick rain clouds but Mal knew that the horse had been out plenty enough and that it was now time to bring him in. He raised his fingers to his mouth and blew out a whistle. “C’mon home, boy!” he called out into the sheet of rain before him. He walked out a bit further and whistled again.
It took nearly ten minutes for the roan to show up but he looked proud and alive when he did. He wasn’t the water bedraggled looking creature that Mal was. Mal sighed at the fierce looking horse and reached for him and grabbed his reins. “You ought to know better than this,” he muttered to the creature. “You ain’t supposed to stay out in the rain all day. T’ain’t heathly for you none. And what’ll I do if you catch cold?”
He led the horse back to the stable and put him into his stall. Then he got a brush and set about drying and grooming the creature. “Only one of us here deserves this weather and I guarantee it’s not for you,” he stated as he ran the brush down the horses side, slacking off water as he did. “Ain’t for none of you horses,” he muttered softly.
Once he was certain the horse was dry he left, locking the stall door. He turned around and looked at the roan. “Don’t make me worry about you none, now,” he demanded. “I ain’t got the heart left for it, y’hear?” He stared at the horse for several more moments and then shook his head and left to head back into the rain with a grumble.
He fed himself dinner again and when he finished he flopped down and passed out in the bed without undressing, his clothes were still damp and wet, his boots heavy and water logged. Despite his exhausted state, he dreamed dark, heinous dreams that haunted him the whole night and into the early hours of the morning.
When he awoke he was not refreshed. He hadn’t been refreshed since he’d moved to Greenleaf. He hadn’t even been refreshed before that but he had learned to function on his reserves. He pulled himself together and just started going through the motions again.
Serenity hummed warm and welcoming in the darkness of the night. Even though the rest of his crew was asleep, Mal wasn’t. He paced the ship, unable to sleep but content in knowing that even if he was alone he had his ship and his crew surrounding him. At least, most of his crew: there was no replacing Wash, or Book, but there was moving on; recovering and that’s what he was doing.
His pacing brought him to the cockpit and he was surprised to find River seated there, curled up in the co-pilot chair, staring emptily out into the black. “Can’t sleep?” he asked as he moved further inside. He pulled the pilot chair around and settled down into it. It wasn’t as comfortable as it used to be; he doubted it ever would be again.
“They don’t know it but the noise is too loud,” River protested. She put a hand to her head. “They just get too happy.”
Mal raised an eyebrow and then nodded. “Yup, that they do.” He shrugged and leaned back in the chair, watching the stars drift by outside the windscreen. At least someone on the boat was still enjoying life. “That’s what people do when they’re in love, though.”
River turned her head to look at him. She studied him for a long time in the silence. “It’s going to fall apart.”
Mal looked over at her. “Simon and Kaylee are?”
“All of it.” She put her hands out over the console dash. “Everything burns up and dies, in the end.”
“Now, I thought we were past your creptifying stage,” Mal protested. When she spoke like that these days it made him nervous: she was usually right.
“It isn’t me,” she warned. Her brows furrowed. “It just cracks and swallows you up. It swallows her, too. Zoe.” She blinked and looked back to Mal. “Spits you back out changed, different.”
Mal lowered his arms from where he had them behind his head for comfort. He watched River as she spoke and tried not to let her words freak him out. “You feelin’ all right girl? ‘Cause about now you’re saying things that’s crazy, even for you.”
“They all go away. They leave you. Inara, Jayne, even me. I leave you.” She looked up at him, her eyes seeming pained, like she was sorry for a crime she hadn’t yet committed. Mal started to his feet, went to her but she raised her hand instead, not looking at him, and caught one of his hands in hers and clasped it. She closed her eyes tightly. “It’s the black away from the black,” she whispered.
“It’s going to be bad.” She opened her eyes and looked up at him. “It’s going to be so bad and there won’t be an escape anymore. You’ll drown but you won’t die. You’ll just suffer, dragging on in agony. So much pain, so hollow.” She shook her head. “And I don’t know if he can help you.”
She sprung to her feet and broke their contact. She was at the door of the cabin before she turned around to look at him again. “Kaylee and Simon are going to go first. They don’t mean to but this isn’t the life they want for their babies.” She smiled and it looked like such a natural, happy smile that for a moment Mal thought the crazy-spell was over. It wasn’t. “You should go with them.” Then she shook her head.
“I should go with them,” she reprised. Then she sighed and looked at Mal. “Stay close to home,” she whispered. “Don’t go out after dark.” She paused, considering. “It’s always dark, now.” Then she looked back to him. “We’ll be gone soon. Say your goodbyes.” She moved back inside to him, close enough that she could stretch up on her toes. When she did she kissed him on the cheek.
“Good night, my captain. Goodbye.” Then she slipped out like a ghost.
Mal shivered at her words and crossed his arms uncomfortably.
Within the month Kaylee and Simon both told Mal they were getting married and that, when they did, they, regrettably, wanted off Serenity.
FEEDBACK Van Donovan