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serendipitous : firefly improv

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Disclaimer: Firefly and all related elements, characters and indicia © Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television, 2003. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television.

Of Battles and Bandits
by Nicole Clevenger

"Call me crazy," Mal shouted over the gunfire, "but I sometimes think we might not be the most well liked folks in this 'verse."

Zoe ducked back behind the boulder she was using for cover, a bullet narrowly missing the top of her head. "You're crazy, sir," she called back dutifully.

Weapon first, Mal peered around the corner of an adjacent rock, pulling back quickly as his actions brought on more shooting. "Now why do I get the feelin' you're just sayin' that?"

"Couldn't say, sir." Zoe got off another shot, which was followed by a satisfactory shout of pain from somewhere in the distance.

They'd been coming back from a successful rendezvous, hiking back down the rocky hillside with coin in their pockets and smiles on their faces. Happy that despite the awkward location of the meet and the somewhat suspect habits of the client, the job had gone as smooth as it should. It really wasn't their concern how someone who liked to spend most of his hours living in a rock cave miles from town could afford to have two crates of high-end protein bars smuggled in. Everybody needed to eat. All that mattered to them was that they'd gotten paid for their delivery of said goods, and were on their way back to the town to collect the others before heading out of the world.

Were now being the operative word. As soon as things began to go well, that's when they should've started looking for trouble. Because they never seemed to get through a job without trouble of some kind, not any more. Mal couldn't remember exactly when the last time was that they'd had a job go off without a hitch, but he knew there had to have been at least one. Before they'd taken on passengers, that's for certain. Not that their current predicament actually had anything to do with their newest crew members, but the timing was some kind of coincidence for sure.

Their luck had run out abruptly when the hillside broke off into a short overhang before continuing its way downward; they'd hit the edge of that minor cliff and stumbled onto a meeting of sorts taking place just below. Four men with four horses, squatting in a loose circle to divide up a collection of money and goods. For a frozen moment nobody moved, the six of them staring at each other in surprised indecision. Then time snapped back and guns came flying out of holsters into practiced hands.

The men had been forced to climb up over the low ridge, giving Mal and Zoe time to scramble for cover behind a scattering of large rocks. Unfortunately, this placed the strangers between them and the town, between them and the ship. And they were already running dangerously low on ammunition, despite most of the shooting being done by the other side.

While Zoe kept her eyes trained in the direction of their antagonists, Mal scanned the area and tried to formulate a plan. About twenty feet behind them, the hillside curved slightly, arching away from where the four men where hiding. It wasn't much, but hopefully it would be enough. Out here, he didn't see many other options.

The gap between their respective boulders was narrow, but not narrow enough that crossing it didn't present some risk. Still, if there was one thing Zoe and Mal had plenty of practice at, it was watching each other's backs in a fire fight. He didn't even need to ask her for the cover she provided as, keeping low, he ran to her side.

"Okay, here's how I see it," Mal said, crouching down beside her. "We can make it to that bend in the road, we can maybe find another way down this hill. Even if we can't get down that way, we can wait for these boys to come after us and get the jump on 'em there." Zoe was eyeing the way Mal was pointing, not saying anything. "You thinkin' we can't make it that far?"

"Mostly I'm thinking that your use of the word 'road' might be a touch optimistic." The stretch didn't even have so much as a path, just a rock-strewn dirt angle on the side of a barren hill. She turned back to Mal. "It is a quite a bit of open space, though."

"Got any other suggestions?" Their opposition had gotten very quiet. Probably reloading. If there was a time to do this thing, it was now.

"Not presently coming to mind, Captain."

"All right." He lifted his head cautiously, peering over the top of the boulder. When nothing happened, he nodded to her. "Come on. Ma-shong."

Nearly bent double so as to present the smallest possible targets, they moved out from behind the rocky cover. The lack of a clear path made it difficult to move too quickly, every step sending pebbles and dirt sliding down the side of the hill under their feet. It was impossible not to be overly conscious of their vulnerability, their unprotected space. But they were accustomed to moving on uneven terrain, to maneuvering across difficult territory while under the threat of fire. Different time, different planet— but the situation was turning out to be all too familiar.

Zoe's foot slipped just as the gunfire resumed; when she went down on one knee, Mal thought for a terrifying second that she'd been hit. He grabbed her arm to stop her slide and hauled her to her feet, not letting go even with her quick assurance that she wasn't hurt. They pushed forward together, nearly to their destination, half-expecting with every second to feel the sudden punch of a bullet to the back. Or the sudden nothingness of one to the head.

Steps away and a fiery swath cut across the back of Mal's left leg. He staggered and would've fallen—most likely all the way down the side of the hill—had Zoe not grabbed him. They rounded the curve out of the line of fire, their backs against the sloping dirt wall, their weapons ready for the first glimpse of their pursuers.

"Admit it, Zoe," Mal forced out through rough breaths. "You didn't think we could make it."

Zoe spared him a quick appraising glance, taking in in one sweep his pale face and the darkening stain spreading over his pant leg just above the knee. "Nearly didn't." She turned back to watch for any followers. "How bad is it, sir?"

"Ain't nothin'. A scratch."

She didn't look at him again; she kept her voice level and unconcerned. The calm one. The unflappable Second. "Beginning to look a mite bloody for just a scratch. Captain."

Mal didn't miss the way the last word was thrown in there, almost as an afterthought. Zoe's way of signaling she wasn't happy with him while remaining within the protocol of rank. It wasn't the first time she'd used the subtle tactic, and he'd bet a week's worth of rations it wouldn't be the last. "What say we worry 'bout getting out of this mess 'fore we go arguing definitions. We get back to that town, we find ourselves a dictionary. First thing."

They waited in silence for several long moments, but there came no sounds of approach or further gunfire. "Can't be that easy," Mal murmured. The adrenaline was already beginning to wear off; it was getting harder to focus on anything but the solid knot of pain growing through his leg with every new breath. He dragged a sleeve across his forehead, trying to keep the sweat from running into his eyes.

At the dull sound of horse hooves, they both tensed. But it immediately became obvious that the noise was moving away rather than toward them, and Zoe risked a look around the arc of the hillside. "They're moving off. All four," she reported. "Maybe they figure they scared us off."

"Maybe. Maybe instead they know another way around this gorram hill and reckon to sneak up on us from the other side."

Zoe watched the men ride out of sight. "Do you see a way down from here, sir?"

Mal grunted, shifting his weight. "Sure wish I could say I did."

The decline they faced now was almost vertical. Over here the hill had flattened out just enough that they had something of a ledge to stand on, but not much more than that. Another cliff edge, this one with an actual drop under it. Even uninjured, there was no way a person would be able to navigate the dramatic slope.

As they both came to the same silent conclusion, Mal's leg suddenly collapsed under his weight, pitching him into Zoe. They teetered frighteningly before she managed to regain enough leverage to push them both back against the hillside. The rested there for a moment, hearts pounding wildly and breath coming fast as she supported him with a tight hold on his arm until he could stand again on his own.

The new rush of adrenaline was almost enough to give him a fresh break from the pain. Dulled it anyway, and his head cleared some—a definite upswing, even if that meant he now felt a bit giddy. "Well that was fun. We got a next plan?"

Past him, Zoe could see that the imitation of a path continued on—though just how far it went she couldn't tell. But she thought maybe she could see the shadowy opening of another cave mouth a bit on down. Just a dark spot against the lighter dirt wall. No way to know how deep it went, or even if it was only a trick of the harsh mid-day sun. But it was a far sight better than where they were, and she pointed it out to him.

Mal looked where she directed, shading his eyes with a hand to fight the glare. Seemed as good a plan as they had at the moment, since truth be told he wasn't sure he was up to trekking down the side of what now seemed like a virtual mountain on his leg—even if they returned to where they'd been attempting to descend earlier. After he got the bleeding stopped and had a minute or two of rest, maybe. But not as things stood now.

Given the narrowness of their chosen path, they had to move toward the cave one at a time. They stuck as close to the hillside as they could, Zoe trailing behind Mal as they picked their way along slowly. She was forced to watch her footing more closely than she liked in order not to trip or take a wrong step off the ledge, but her eyes continuously darted up to check the lines of his body, of muscles moving beneath cloth. Reorienting again and again and again, tensed against the possibility that she would once look up in time to see him fall. One hand trailing along the dirt wall, one stretched waiting in the space between them.

She refused to insult him by asking aloud if he could make it the distance. They'd get there because there was no other way to go.

The cave's mouth was large enough that they only had to stoop a little to enter. The ceiling inside was only slightly higher, leaving them both a bit hunched. Still—for Zoe at least—the cramped space was something of a relief after the agonizingly slow walk along the edge of all that open air. Having been raised in the sky, she'd always been more comfortable in defined surroundings. Space with limits. Besides which, all that choking dirt was bringing up things she wasn't much in the mood to confront at this particular moment.

Plus it was just nice to be out of that relentless sun.

Zoe followed the path of one cave wall, her hand trailing along the bumpy stone surface. Because the sun was almost directly overhead, the light that fell inside the cave mouth didn't extend very far. She'd gone several paces into the darkness and was about to turn around when she found the curve that signaled the dead end of their somewhat shallow hiding place. Circling back around, she returned to Mal at the entrance.

"Only goes back about twenty feet," she told him, inclining her head in the direction she'd come. "If they come after us here, we should be able to use the darkness for cover—what with the light behind them, they'll be easy targets for an ambush."

Mal nodded, his eyes on what he could see of the outside as he shrugged out of his coat. He lowered himself to the ground with difficulty, the injured leg stretched out carefully in front of him. "Any idea on how long we got before they know back in town that we went missin'?"

He was doing his best to inspect the damage in the poor light, sucking in a breath as split cloth was peeled away from bloody flesh. The wound was still bleeding profusely, making any details impossible to make out from Zoe's standpoint. As Mal's belt was the only thing holding up his holstered gun, she pulled off her own and squatted on the dirt floor beside him.

"Guess about now they'll be starting to wonder. 'Bout an hour or so before they actually start to worry." She eased his leg up just enough to slip the strap of black leather flat beneath it.

"And jus' how long after that 'fore you figure Jayne tries to take command?" His eyes darted up from her hands to her face, a tight smile betrayed by a clenched jaw.

"Round about the same time Wash starts to truly panic." She pulled the belt tight around his upper thigh, wincing in sympathy at the pained noise he was only partially able to smother. "This time let's hope we make it back before the Doc sets to doping folks."

She glanced up to see that his eyes were closed firmly, his head resting against the wall behind him; the thin line of his mouth remained clamped and unbroken in his silence. She turned back to the leg. They had nothing to wash away the blood, but from what she could tell it looked as if the bullet had deeply grazed the side, just above his knee. She tried to roughly calculate the amount of blood he must've lost before the makeshift tourniquet.

"You know," he said finally with a sigh, "I am damn sure tired of gettin' shot."

Zoe snorted, feeling some of the tension drain from her frame. She settled on the ground beside him. "You do seem to be makin' quite a habit of it these days, sir."

Mal opened his eyes, rolling his head over to look at her. "You okay?"

She nodded. They sat there for a few moments longer before Mal's eyelids began to droop; nearly out before he realized it, he jerked back awake. He shook his head hard in an attempt to rouse himself, pulling a deep breath in through his nose. "Don't be lettin' me fall asleep here, Zoe. Wouldn't be polite."

"No, sir." There was a beat as she searched for a conversation topic, something to keep his attention. "You supposin' our friends out there are the local bandits?"

"Be my first guess, yeah. Probably ride on into town every now and again, see what they can scare up. Real quality folks, no doubt."

"No doubt."

The vague noise came from outside just before the shadow fell across the entrance. They scrambled to their feet, guns drawn even as they were still in motion; they slipped backward into the shadows as a figure filled the cave mouth. Backlit, there was no way to make out any details about the person who stood there in their sights. The voice that came, however, was decidedly feminine.


With guns lowered but still at the ready, Zoe and Mal moved slowly out of the darkness toward the stranger. The featureless shape looked first at Zoe, then at Mal, then down in the direction of Mal's leg. Zoe and Mal shared a wary look between them.

"You must come with me now. There is very little time."

"Now wait jus' a -"

Her voice lifted over his. "There is very little time," she repeated. "We will tend to your injuries, but you must come with me now."

It was disconcerting not to be able to see her face, her expression. "Got nothin' that needs tending. 'Specially not 'fore we start hearing some answers that are a bit less with the cryptical and confusing."

She turned her head, looking back over her shoulder. "Everything will be explained to you. But we must leave here. If I was able to find you, they will return and do so as well."

Mal shook his head, shooting another glance at Zoe. "Still kinda cryptical, dontcha think?"

"Sounds that way to me, sir." She wondered if the other woman could detect the strain she could hear creeping into his voice. "How did you happen to find us?" Zoe asked her.

"Your man is wounded. I merely followed the trail of his blood."

A hand on his leg, featherlight touch. The faint outline of five long fingers through cloth, the pressure barely reaching its way to the skin. Sliding slowly upward—ankle, calf, knee. An unspoken question. An offer. An invitation. Possibilities and promises made more clear with this slight pressure than with any fumbled words. Just a hand moving its way up the path of his leg in the dark of another lonely night.

Another lonely night filled with death and the threat of death. A bleak night just like the one before, terror and the sharp taste of pain dulled by so much repetition. Another night to survive, another battle to be fought— whether out there or in here in his head it didn't matter. Another night like all the others, until this hand. This hand which brought with it a whisper of life.

Tent flap opening to admit a silent form, a familiar outline even in the darkness of this rare quiet night. Silent as she nears him, lying here on his back staring up at where the stars should be. Silent as she kneels beside him, and even though he can't see her eyes he knows their shape. Her silence is like a spell, one that he will not break. It wraps this moment in a bubble of time, removed minutes with their own separate infinite opportunities. A hand on his leg.

A fractional turn of her head and he sees the silhouette swell of her full lips. There are so many reasons why this shouldn't happen. But floating in this bubble of charmed darkness, it seems as if nothing they do here can ever touch their daylight lives. If they don't break this silent spell, their actions will have no consequences. Just one wispy dreamlike bubble of time, enclosed and safe and evaporating into nothingness the instant it is popped.

The hand slips further up his leg...

Someone was trying to take off his pants.

Mal opened his eyes to find a blurred and unfamiliar woman working at his waistband; he pulled away from her and cracked his head hard against the stone wall behind him. Despite the now dueling aches in both his head and his leg, he struggled into a sitting position, watching the young blonde warily through a pained squint.

She seemed just as hesitant about him, now with a decent distance between her and the bed. Bed? He recalled leaving that cave, every step an exercise in will power. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep the world from narrowing itself down to a pinhole focus, nothing but spiraling spokes of electrical fire running up and down his leg. Until the numbness had started to take over, slow and sweet with its whispered promises of relief. He remembered looking up from the toes of his boots to see what looked like hundreds of square windows cut into the looming rock face. And then a vague memory of pale dirt rushing up to meet him.

So the bed must've come after then. None of that, however, explained what he'd woken up to. Or why it felt like his thoughts were coming through some kind of syrupy mess that he suspected just might start leaking out his ears at any minute.

Okay, wait. Maybe it did.

Damn but he was tired of getting shot.

Mal rubbed the fresh bump on the back of his head. The young woman was still watching him, unmoving as if unsure what to do next. He slid his hand down to the back of his neck as he tried without much success to stretch the muscles there and in his shoulders.

"You got a name there...ah, Miss?" His tongue felt thick and useless against the roof of his dry mouth. "Seein' as how we were 'bout to get real familiar, seems only right to -"

"Her name is Alise."

Fuzzy as he might be at the moment, Mal recognized the new voice immediately as the one from the cave. It belonged to a woman who—despite her red hair and whole speaking thing—appeared remarkably similar to the so-called Alise. Both wore simple white shifts, the same woven sandals. Both wore the same contented smile, a look that Alise had picked up when this new woman entered the room.

Mal was starting to feel at a bit of a disadvantage, being the only one sitting in a room full of strangers. Maybe there were only two strangers, sure, but it was a small room. And continuing to get smaller. He started to get to his feet.

"See, not cryptical at all that time." The belt was still tight around his thigh, he saw, and it looked to have done its work. The blood on his pants leg was already beginning to dry, brown and flaky. "Since we're on such a roll with this thing," he went on, as casual as he could while trying to hold on to his unsteady balance, "maybe you could tell me who you are next. An' where Zoe is."

The woman watched him, the peaceful smile still in place. "I am Rachel. And your woman will be here in a moment."

"My—Hey, whoa now. She ain't my—" He took a step toward her and his knee buckled. Hands grabbed for him, small hands trying to keep him from going down. The room spun around him as he fought to get his bearings and then there were other hands, hands he knew. Strong hands with skin darker than his own.

"Captain. Mal."

He blinked hard, trying to clear his vision. He was sitting on the edge of the bed again, but this time Zoe knelt in front of him. Her eyes were dark and concerned, more concerned than he could recall seeing her in a while. He tried to force the heavy corners of his mouth up into a smile.

"Hey, Zoe. Where you been?"

Zoe glanced over her shoulder at the women standing behind her. Mal looked over her head to see that they had been joined by a third. Or, at least, he hoped they had—if not, he'd hit his head harder than he thought. She turned back to him. "Grand tour. You all right, sir?"

"Shiny. You?"

Her voice was low. "'Bout ready for the comforts of home. Such as they may be."

His leg was throbbing, a hot pulsing in time with the lesser drumbeat of his head. But her tone was setting off a faint warning bell, somewhere in a back room of his mind. Not loud, but nagging all the same. And then he noticed something else, and the bell got a little louder.

"Where's your gun?" He looked down at his waist. "Where's my gun?" He looked over her head again at the trio. "Uh, hello? Guns?"

Rachel stepped forward, still smiling. "Weapons are not permitted in the Sanctuary. Your woman surrendered hers willingly." Mal didn't have to look at Zoe to see that eyebrow climbing nearly to her hairline. "They will be returned to you when you leave here."

"Which then looks to be now," Mal said, pushing himself off the bed. The throbbing increased until it became sound as well as feeling, pounding in his ears as his vision started to go grey. He leaned heavily against the wall, determined to stay conscious and on his feet. He could feel a clammy sweat break out across his upper lip, his hairline.

"You may leave any time you wish, of course. But Marston and his men may still be out there, and it is time for our midday meal. Perhaps you would like to wait a little longer, to have something to eat. I will have something brought to you here, if you wish." Without waiting for an answer, Rachel left with Alise and the other woman.

Mal rubbed his eyes, the grey receding somewhat. "So did I miss the part where we agreed to stay for lunch?"

Zoe stood up from the floor and watched him settle back on the edge of the bed. She shrugged. "Suppose having some food wouldn't be the worst idea, sir."

He looked up at her. "I thought you were the one itchin' to get back to the boat."

She glanced over at the open doorway as her fingers moved vaguely in the air where her side arm usually rested. She ended up rubbing her hipbone absently as if her hand, finding nothing, needed somewhere to land. "There's just something about this place I don't like, is all."

"Yeah, my Captain Sense kinda picked up on that. You wantin' to be a bit more specific?"

Zoe shot him a look. "Captain Sense doesn't extend to details, then?"

"Got a bit of a headache. You'll have to fill me in."

She folded her arms across her chest. "Don't trust them. Way too much smiling, Captain."

"Sure don't want that." She frowned; he waved a dismissive hand, an ignore me sort of gesture. "Sorry. You're right. Kinda hard not to notice those smiles—right creepifyin', actually," he admitted, flashing back to Rachel's serene face. "Too gorram peaceful."

She nodded. "They say this place is some sort of abbey. Sanctuary, they call it."

Mal thought of Alise. "They say anything about takin' in mutes as part of the strays?"

"Apparently the first year is spent in complete silence. Helps to focus the mind."

He tried to stretch his leg, wincing as his thigh muscles cramped and recramped. "Now why didn't I think of that. You suppose it's too late to set up somethin' like that on Serenity?"

A smile twitched at her mouth. "Jayne's been on board more than a year already, sir."

Mal sighed, giving up on the idea. "Yeah, and I don't guess that it'd keep the crazy little sis quiet anyway."

"Not likely."

"Pleasant sort of idea for a minute, though."

Rachel entered the room again, followed by Alise balancing two steaming bowls on a thin tray. "I am pleased to see you have decided to stay and take a meal with us." There was a small table beside the bed; at a nonverbal signal from Rachel, Alise rested the tray there. "I will leave you to eat together. If you require anything, please let us know." The two young women left a second time.

Zoe picked up a bowl, sniffed at the hot liquid. She handed it to Mal, taking the other for herself. "These seem like poisoning sort of folk to you, sir?" she asked, poking at one of the few vegetable-looking pieces floating in the dark broth. The object dipped under the surface only to bob up again a moment later.

Mal eyed his own soup speculatively. He wasn't at all hungry, but they hadn't eaten since leaving the ship at dawn. "Reckon there's just one way to find out." He took a tentative spoonful of the hot broth after blowing on it to cool it off a little. When he took another, Zoe followed his lead and began to eat, sitting on the edge of the bed beside him.

She was hungry, and the salty broth wasn't bad. The presumed vegetables were crunchy, and almost sweet. An interesting combination. She was half-way through the bowl when she heard Wash's voice in her head.

"Mmmm, wife soup. I must've done good."

Zoe flinched, set the spoon back in the bowl. When she finally looked up from the soup, Mal was watching her curiously.

"Problem?" he asked, spoon frozen halfway to his lips.

Her appetite gone, Zoe put the bowl back on the tray. "No, Captain. No problem. Just lookin' to get back to my husband is all."

"Oh." He dropped the spoon back into the bowl without putting it in his mouth. Now it was his turn to stare at the thin liquid, his voice struggling for light humor. "Thought you were 'bout to tell me we'd gotten ourselves poisoned after all."

"Wish there was some way to let them know we're all right."

"You'll be able to tell 'em yourself, soon enough." He leaned to set the bowl on the ground, but his leg refused to bend properly and he couldn't reach. The nearly-full bowl wavered in his grip, sloshing some of the hot broth onto the back of his hand. "Tzao-gao!" Balancing the dripping bowl precariously on the hard mattress, he brought his hand up to his mouth to suck at the scorched web of skin between thumb and forefinger.

Zoe picked up his bowl and returned it to the tray beside her own. "Just as long as we avoid Marston on the way back. Man seems to have a shoot-first sort of reputation."

"Marston being one of our friendly neighborhood armed robbers, I take it?" Mal mumbled around his hand.

She nodded. "Word is he doesn't much like strangers. Or people, for that matter."

His leg was still beating out its own personal rhythm, reverberating strong throughout his entire left side. "Got that loud and clear when all the shootin' started," he said, dropping his hand. "They say why that is?"

Zoe got to her feet, moving around the small room restlessly. Mal followed her with his eyes, aching to be doing the same. "They didn't say much, but that we'd be safe as long as we stayed within the Sanctuary. They seemed pretty scared of him, sir."

Another fight that wasn't his. Another fight he didn't want to get involved in. He had no plans to become some kind of champion for the underdog on every lèsè world they landed on. It was just too exhausting. And it didn't pay worth a damn.

So he forced away the image of these people being terrorized by a bully with a big gun, the idea of people in that town having to give up possessions and pride whenever this Marston fellow got a whim. You bleed for everybody, you find you got no blood left for yourself. "You figure he keeps out of here 'cause all that smilin's just too much?"

"Would you blame him?"

"Can't say that I would, no."

They both turned their faces toward the door as Alise entered alone, this time carrying a bowl of clear water and a white rag along with a rolled cloth bandage. The peaceful look was back again as she set the items on the floor in front of Zoe. Apparently assuming an explanation was required, she used a short series of uncomplicated hand gestures between the supplies and Mal to get her point across. Then, satisfied that Zoe understood, she turned and left them alone again.

They watched her go. Then Zoe bent to pick up the bowl with the wet rag. She handed it to Mal. "Believe this is yours, Captain."

He took it from her, his faint smile containing an even fainter hint of mischief. "An' here I thought maybe you were gonna try and get my pants off too."

Her eyebrow climbed again. "Did I miss something interesting?"

"Very nearly." He dabbed at the skin around the bullet's path, hissing through his teeth as the wound stung at the touch of the warm water. "You see any kind of back door on that tour, Zoe?" he asked, trying to distract them both.

She watched the water in the bowl turn a sickly pink as he dipped the cloth in and out. Memories of impromptu and inadequate triage—of weak offerings of comfort when comfort was all that was left to give—beat at the edge of her mind before she pushed them away. "Roof exit looks promising. They say it opens near the top of the hill. Back way down's supposed to be a lot easier going."

He nodded, resolutely not glancing at the darkening water. "That's the way we'll head out then." His efforts loosened a clot of blood, and red began to seep from the graze again—albeit slowly, due to the belt still cutting off much of the circulation. "Go se. Hand me that bandage, will ya?"

She placed it in his outstretched hand, and he began to wrap his leg with a clenched jaw. Zoe moved to look out of the small window cut into the rock wall. "What is it you'd guess these people worship, sir?" She wasn't usually one for making conversation just to fill the silence, but she'd been vaguely wondering since she'd first seen all the looks of blank happiness. Now seemed as good of a time as any to bring it up, if only for the diversion from the directions her thoughts seemed intent on running.

Mal grunted as he tucked in the end of the tight bandage. "It matter? One set of hollow comfort's pretty much the same as the rest."

Zoe felt her shoulders tense at the dull note in his voice; she eased them back down and turned away from the window. "Suppose not, Captain."

Mal pushed himself carefully to his feet, swaying just a little before gaining his balance. His leg still hurt like hell, and picking his way down the side of a big hill didn't sound at all fun. But the little that he'd eaten seemed to have cleared his head some, and the injured limb seemed to be taking most of his weight. He doubted it was going to get much better before night fell and they lost their opportunity to get back to town.

He nodded in the direction of the soup bowls. "So no poisoning—think that's a sign maybe not everyone hates us after all?"

"Could always be a slow-acting kind of poison, sir."

"I always do enjoy that optimistic streak of yours, Zoe." She didn't say anything, just moved to his side to pull his arm over her shoulders. He considered protesting, just for the sake of the thing, but decided it would be easier to give in now than half-way down the hill if his leg suddenly opted to quit working on him. It'd be even less fun to roll his way down the side of a big hill.

He looked around the small rock room, and a wave of exhaustion washed over him. Another fight that wasn't his.

"Come on," he said, moving with her toward the door. "Let's get you back to that husband of yours."

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