The Last Time They Met
a Firefly story
by dirty diana
The next time that she saw him, it wasn't a surprise, not really. She sat, motionless, on the narrow, rickety cot. "Woulda thought you'd come sooner," she said.
Malcolm Reynolds shrugged. He was bruised around his eyes and jaw, it gave her some pleasure to see, and the sheriff had taken his gunbelt. He still stood like he was wearing it, though, stood like he hadn't just been forced to the ground by the sheriff's hard leather boots. He stood watching her, head tilted. "A hanging's some news on this little moon. Ain't seen one in years, I hear tell. Word gets around."
Her face flushed briefly with anger. One small run of bad luck, and this was it, reduced to a drunken bar room tale. Face to face with Mal Reynolds through iron bars.
She covered with a nameless laugh. "Still," she murmured sweetly. "So thoughtful of you to drop by, husband."
"Well." Mal shrugged his shoulders, and she noted with a half-smile that the motion pained him. "Have to admit, it wasn't so much planned."
"Sure, now." She nodded. "What'd those miners do to you, anyhow? Insult your mama?" The last said so slowly, that she knows he couldn't help knowing what she saw. Mal still wore the brown, the gorram Independent brown like a fool. It was still too easy to draw his indignance, like scratching hard for blood.
"They regret it now," he answered, and though his eyes were fire, his hands were still. He fell silent.
"What do you reckon they'll put on your tombstone?"
He said that later much later. She was watching the strip of sunlight fade as it moved across the floor. She was biting her tongue. She glared. "Whatever it is, I hope they choke on it."
"Saffron?" he asked her, and she recognised the tone, the abrasive edges that meant he was mocking her. "No, can't put that. Ain't your real name. Bridget? Can't put that either. Yolanda..."
"Maybe I haven't got a name."
That seemed to throw him, as he stared. "Everybody's got a name."
"Maybe I don't."
"Maybe you've just forgotten what it was."
"Maybe." She smiled. Knew she was pretty when she smiled, knew he couldn't tear his eyes away. "Maybe all I need is a strong man like you to help me find it."
That was when he turned his back. "We ain't all the same, you know."
"Shide." She could see the patterns of her own footprints, in the dirt lining the floor of the jail. "You are."
"It ain't the strangulation, you know."
She hadn't been thinking about the hanging. She hadn't been thinking about anything, her mind so a perfect blank, a mirror to the darkness. She let him talk.
"Not if the hangman's good. Which he maybe ain't, way out here. But it ain't the strangulation. Your neck'll break first."
"Some kind of expert?" she asked him.
"Saw my fair share. Back on...the place I come from."
His eyes were bright, watching for her reaction. She gave him none. She held her breath.
"They used to hang them, regular-like, in the town square. Some of them were real bad criminals, so they said. Some of them just men, between work, trying to feed their families. Made one mistake."
He sounded bitter. He always sounded bitter. Against her will, she listened.
"I used to go watch. Everybody would watch, like a holiday. Some of them so quiet, like they'd known it was coming all along. Some of them wouldn't stop talking, not till they were swinging. Some of them begged."
She was making a fist so tight that her fingernails scratched her palm. The blood was wet and warm.
"I didn't do it," she told him.
"Don't matter now," he said.
She didn't notice when they came to pay his bail. She went to sleep, and when she woke up he was gone, and there was a stranger in his place, grinning a crooked drunken smile.
The next time she saw him, it was dark, less than six hours till the dawn would see her hang, and she'd been beginning to feel fear. Maybe. Couldn't tell, nothing to judge against. But it was a cold feeling, restless in the pit of her stomach. She'd been beginning to think that she'd miscalculated.
"Took you long enough," she said, and a hard boot forced her forward into the pitch black. The woman, the soldier. Zoe.
"Was his idea. Weren't mine." Zoe's voice was a whisper. "Reckon I don't much care. The captain, he's got some funny ideas about which are fair ways to die and which ain't. But I reckon I don't much care, dong ma?"
The double barrel of a rifle pushed into her back. She moved.
The next time that she saw him, he was shaking his head no, and she slapped him full across the face.
"I won't owe you, Mal Reynolds. I won't owe you anything."
"Well, now," he murmured, sounding almost amused, "as fun a ride as you might be, and sure there's men that have lost everything for it that would know better than I do, can't say there's much you can do that won't make you beholden to me. Can't say I care either way, though. And ain't much I can do about it, if you do."
She was angry, trying to push it down, to find the place where she was stone. "Makes the second time you've turned me down," she whispered throatily. "Anyone paying attention, well, they might think that you didn't like women."
"Well, now." His eyes had changed, a dark, inscrutable blue. "There's some I like, and there's some I don't."
It was her first night free of the bars in months. Eighty-nine days. She'd
counted. She couldn't sleep.
The next time she saw him, the townsfolk were walking the streets in the dark, underneath paper lanterns, singing songs that she knew the tunes to, but not the words. Celebrating the harvest. It was strangely familiar, like the first time that they met. The doctor's crazy sister attracted attention as she danced in the square, kicking up dust.
It felt like she'd been waiting.
"What's you game, husband?"
He shrugged. "Same as yours, I reckon."
Her laughter was genuine. "I doubt it."
"Only one way to know." She gestured to the empty seat. He handed her a cup of wine. She drank half of it, testing the bittersweet taste on her tongue.
The next time she saw him, they were splitting the cash, something she'd never done before. Didn't reckon she'd be doing again. He didn't look at her as he counted.
"Had the drop on me back there," he said quietly. "Once or twice. Figured you might do it and go."
"Figured I might."
"Why didn't you?"
"There's always next time," she told him, before she walked away.