Part 15 – Revelations, Suspicions, Secrets, and Lies
Allegra Little-Moon was a pilot, a damn good one if Cassandra Damato was to be believed.
"Legs is gonna take care 'a you, kid," Cas said, mostly looking down at her clipboard but still somehow paying quite a lot of attention to Dana as well, "Been doin it since she was younger than you are, and she's the best. She usually don't take on rookies, let alone let 'em fly her ship, so you count your stars, ya?"
Dana nodded and chirped, "Yes, ma'am." He was, however, internally lamenting the fact that he couldn't manage to make a good impression with his captains to save his life. First he curses out Mal, then he practically hogties Allegra, apparently Jayne's former fiancé, the one who his father left without even saying goodbye to when he decided to see the verse.
It was going to be an interesting weekend.
"Legs!" Cas bellowed down the small hallway that led to the cockpit of the Mowgli, a 01-K33 Rabbit class low-bulk transport vessel, "You decent?"
"How long you gonna hold that against me, Damato?" a throaty, teasing voice echoed back.
With a high laugh, Cas scratched at her spiky black hair and chuckled, "She's all yours, kid. Good luck." The muscular woman left him there, turning sharply on her heel and chuckling as she continued about her duties as manager of the small dock.
Dana proceeded to stow his rucksack and to take the pilot seat with deep trepidation.
"So," Allegra snickered in lieu of a greeting, her long legs crossed and booted feet kicked up onto the console, "I hear the boxin league is after you like boy monkeys after girl monkeys."
Feeling himself blush, Dana tried to concentrate on the pre-flight checks and curtly responded, "Well, they're also after my brother Sally and my sister Frankie, so I try not to feel too special. Ma'am. The prerequisite seems to be being tougher than Gideon Giroux, and that isn't very hard."
He could barely even look the woman straight in her weathered face. She was the same age as Jayne but seemed much older. Once upon a time, she had probably been pretty, but currently her features were pale and bony and sunken, almost ghoulish. Her blue eyes cold and menacing.
Tossing her long, peroxide blonde hair back with laughter, Allegra answered, "Right on, sparky. Just be sure to let me know if you do join. I got a feelin I could make some serious bank off 'a you."
"Yes, ma'am," said Dana, feeling pale eyes boring into him relentlessly. It was really eerie, how she always seemed to just stare at him. Like he was the most fascinating thing in the verse.
Allegra chuckled, shook her head, and instructed, "Take her up, rook. Let's see what you got."
"This has been one weird vacation," Mal observed, cuddling his sleeping daughter against his chest.
"You're tellin me," Jayne agreed grumpily, bouncing Sadie on his knee, "I never thought I'd run into Legs. Hannah Lynn told me she took off not long after I left."
"Been back for a few years," declared Matty, "No one's real sure what she did in the meantime, but she just turned up at Uncle Nik and Uncle Avi's place one day, skinny as a stick and her hair dyed that weird color. She helps 'em take care 'a the kids now, and flies some crop-hops for Cas. But nobody sees her much 'sides that."
Jayne grumbled, "Ya, well, a little warnin woulda been nice."
River'd barely said two words to him all week. For a woman who'd seen the confrontation coming, she was pretty sore about it.
Laughing mercilessly, Matty replied, "Nobody made you leave her behind. Hell, if I remember correctly, everybody was pretty set on you marryin the girl."
"Everybody but me," Jayne muttered.
"BOYS!" Jayne's ma called out the back door, "Lunch is ready!"
"Comin, Ma!" Matty replied, abandoning the saddle he'd been mending and scooping his little daughter off his brother's lap. "You ready for lunch, baby?" the man laughed brightly as he swung the black-haired toddler through the air.
For his troubles, he got a rare laugh out of the cranky child. Well, Matty claimed that she was actually very sweet but just didn't like new people, that she would go back to being her happy, giggly self in no time. Apparently, a little over a week wasn't quite long enough for her to get used to the Serenity crew.
Mal sure hoped she'd get over it soon. The girl had an awfully intimidating glare for such a small person. Kind of reminded him of little Murphy... Huh. Maybe it was a Cobb thing...
The three men arrived in the kitchen at the same moment that Tess was dipping her finger into the soup and inquiring, "What're all the kids doin today?" She popped a dollop of the creamy concoction into her mouth, moaning happily and chasing a stray drop all the way down to her first knuckle.
Tess was nearly forty but still very attractive (tall and curvy and pretty), and the gesture was highly distracting. Especially when the woman noticed Mal's staring and winked slyly.
Gorram. The whole family was absolutely nuts.
"Cas said that Dana could start at the docks," Sam Cobb explained, swatting her daughter away from the pot, "He'll be gone on a weekend crop-hop. Billy drove him down there this mornin, and then I think he and Retta were gonna show Sally and Ace some more 'a the planet, introduce 'em around. Dana said they could go out tonight, if they behaved."
"Mmm," Tess replied, "Fun. Jayne's crew?"
"Bathhouse with Hannah Lynn," Jayne answered, "Gettin mud soaks and massages and such. Except Wash and the doc. I think they were gonna swing by William's for some parts and then go check out the clinic. They said they might drop in on Nigel, too."
"Shiny," Tess declared, helping her mother dole soup and sandwiches onto the neatly set table.
The small group got seated and then joined hands. Mal had come to expect the Cobbs' habit of praying before every meal, but that didn't mean he was any less uncomfortable with it. He just... wasn't the praying type. He had been, once upon a time, but not in a long while. Still, he was thankful for his life and everyone in it so, like he'd done every other instance, just took the moment to think on that.
Lunch was leisurely and downright pleasant, with Jayne's mother and siblings teasing him throughout, all of them reminiscing fondly on their childhood.
Tess got a call at the end of the long meal and had to bolt back to her sheriffing duties, so old Mrs. Cobb put the menfolk to work with the cleanup while she spent some time with the two baby girls. Even though Adhara wasn't blood, Sam adored her and had already knitted her a big soft blanket.
Mal remembered his own mother, wishing she'd lived to meet her granddaughter.
Anyways. There was some light work to do tending to the horses and cattle and crops, and by the time that was nearly through, the kids were arriving home from school.
"Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" Melody babbled as she rushed ahead of the impressive herd. Waving a big sheet of paper like a streamer, she jumped into her father's arms and declared, "I painted you a picture, and my teacher said it was so great! And, look! She gave me a sticker for doing such a good job! It's a gold star! See!"
"That's amazing," Jayne told her, kissing the little girl's smiling cheeks, "You're a' artist just like your mama."
"Hunter!" Frankie hollered, the redhead halfway to disappearing across the lawn with Tristan, Zion, and Winnie, "You know Mouse said no going out until your homework is done!"
Turning back to huff and roll her eyes, Hunter answered, "I finished it in class. C'mon, Frankie. We're just going to the quarry and then Uncle William's shop. Don't be so bossy."
"Don't be a brat," Merry instructed, swinging an elated Ruby around by her ankles, "I have plans, too, but you don't see me sneaking away before I'm allowed."
"Ya, well, you don't see me blowing off dinner to hang out with my boyfriend," Hunter argued smugly.
So that explained the kid's absence at the table the night before... Huh.
Blushing but smirking goofily, Merry responded, "He's not my boyfriend."
With a triplet clinging to his back and both ankles, Jan playfully coughed, "Yet."
Bouncing in circles as the procession continued along down the drive, Kelly sang, "Merry likes Isaiah! Merry likes Isaiah!" He seized Colt by the wrist and dragged the startled girl with him, still chiming, "Merry likes Isaiah! Merry likes Isaiah!"
"Zip it, runt," Merry laughed, completely mindless of the stunned look on his father's face. "Hey, Dad," he said with a bright wave, "Captain. Uncle Matty. We were going to make a snack for the little kids. You want anything?"
"Uh..." Jayne gaped, "Nah, I think we're alright... Thanks."
"Ok," Merry agreed, getting a startled squeal out of Ruby as he tossed her to Ethan, "Let's go, guys. Apples or cucumbers?"
"Huh," Jayne declared not too long after the kids bickered their way into the house, "How bout that." He scratched his head quizzically.
Smirking, Matty just shrugged and shimmied up one of the many trees that bordered the lane.
Ace had almost completely forgotten how much of an insufferable horndog her older brother was. No matter where they went, Sally always ended up pairing off with a hot girl. Or, in the latest case, two: Inga and Ilsa Lupo, tall, skinny, blonde twins. According to Retta, they were the miller's daughters, identical in everything, including their taste in men. And rather than let any such men come between them, the sisters liked to... well, you get the idea...
Rolling her eyes, Ace tore her gaze away from the establishment's bar and sipped at her sweet cider. The crowd was decidedly younger than what usually frequented Auntie Hannah's place; the nameless bar (usually just called the Bar) was almost on the opposite side of the planet and known as a hangout for the sixteen-to-twenty-five set. The loud music and bright lights and bright colors and teeming dance floor were certainly more energetic than the simple, rustic décor of the Chariot.
At first, Ace had been a little uncomfortable, especially after the others left her alone, Sally wandering off with the double-slut twins, and Retta getting distracted by her boyfriend, Shen, and Billy dancing wildly on a table with his friend Petra...
But then Ace found a poker game.
"Call," the young man across from her declared, keeping a skeptical eye on his opponent as he tossed the last of his cash into the pot. His name was Oren Valenti, and he was a good few years older than she was, probably in his early twenties, handsome and apparently core-born. A surgeon, the twin brother of Kelly's teacher. And at the beginning of the game, he'd been unbearably cocky, teasing that Ace maybe wanted to think twice about sitting down with real players.
But that was then. The fact that Ace had all the rest of his money stacked neatly at her elbow had clearly made him rethink his position. Oren hadn't opened his big mouth unnecessarily in the last dozen hands.
"Flush," Ace said with a smirk, already knowing she'd won as she laid down her cards.
Oren swore colorfully and slammed his losing hand down on the round table. Pretty-boy face flushing angrily, he glared and demanded, "Who the hell taught you to play cards, little girl?"
"Natural talent," Ace chuckled over the raucous music and conversation, winking brightly as she swept away her winnings. Addressing all four men at the table, she declared "Well, seeing as how you're all out of coin, I think we should probably call it a night. Nice meeting you, gentlemen. Let's do this again some time."
Three of the men took the loss relatively gracefully, laughing it off, offering to buy her drinks, asking if she wanted to dance. Ace politely refused; she'd promised Mouse that she'd stay away from the hard stuff, and Sally was likely to pitch a fit if he saw her doing anything with a guy but beating him soundly at cards. The hypocrite.
Anyways, three out of four were nice and left the dim back corner without incident. Oren Valenti was a different story. Of course, he seemed to have a little gambling problem and had lost almost twice as much as all of the rest of them combined.
"Beginner's luck," he accused tersely, not moving from his spot. He folded his arms across his solid chest and glared. Though he was way too baby-faced to be intimidating and the expression came across more as a petulant, childish pout.
"Maybe," Ace replied, brightly counting her stack of bills, "If I hadn't been playing since before I could walk."
Oren frowned, a kind of cute dimple appearing between his dark eyebrows, almost obscured by the messy fringe hanging across his forehead. "I should've gotten some gorram warning if Cobb was going to bring a shark in here," he complained.
Standing to leave, Ace grinned smugly and declared, "Consider yourself warned."
Billy found her and made her dance (thankfully not on a table). Even though dancing was really more the twins' thing, Ace found that she didn't dislike it nearly as much when her pockets were weighed down with a fat take.
"MURPH!" Jan bellowed, "MURPHY! C'mon! It's time for dinner!"
The little blonde had disappeared into the orchard for hours every night that week, always making Mouse find her before she'd even think of interacting with the rest of the family, and even then she'd been listless and grouchy. Since all the older kids from Mouse to Frankie were out, the job that particular night fell to Jan. Hunter, too, but she was screwing around with the cousins rather than (as she put it) pandering to Murphy's bad habits. Psycho ginger was probably just sneaking away to set something on fire.
"MURPHY JEAN!" Jan tried again, scanning the dim canopy. With the sun almost down and the valley in deep shadow, he could barely see anything. But, fortunately, the teen was well-trained and tracked his little sister without incident for a quarter mile before her footsteps disappeared. Mouse had mentioned that she liked to hide up high.
A flash of movement had Jan quickly scaling a cherry tree. After a bit of climbing, he was rewarded with the sight of Murph clinging to the trunk. She frowned at him peevishly.
The little hellcat had been in quite the mood ever since they'd started school and refused to tell anyone what it was about.
"Jeez, Murph," Jan puffed, flopping down next to her and staring cautiously at the long drop, "Didn't Mouse tell you to stay under ten meters? You're going to break your neck if you fall from up here."
Murphy continued to pout, picking at the bark. "Not gonna fall," she insisted softly.
Jan sighed and put an arm around her slight shoulders, squeezing and teasing, "Since when are you immune from gravity, little one?"
"Go away," she grumbled, hugging the tree, "I'm not coming down! You can't make me!"
"I disagree," Jan said with a poorly hidden smirk, "But we can get to that later. For now, how about spilling what's got you so upset lately?"
Still refusing to make eye contact or to let go of the trunk, Murphy muttered, "Nothing. Leave me alone."
"C'mon, Murph," Jan wheedled, tickling her side, "How am I ever going to make you feel better if I don't know what's wrong?" At a hint of a reluctant smile, he continued, "Is it boy trouble? I promise not to tell Sally."
"No," the girl answered with a huffy eye roll. She sulked for a few more moments before finally admitting, "I hate school."
"I don't think you're supposed to enjoy it," Jan said with a shrug, "Like P.T. You go because you have to, and it's hard, and it sucks, but it's not all bad. Maybe you'll have more fun if you start hanging out with someone aside from me during lunch. Making friends, you know?"
Huffing, Murphy argued, "I like P.T.! I'd much rather do P.T. instead! The kids in my class are dumb! And my teacher is mean! Really, really mean! And Mouse promised that if I didn't like school, then I wouldn't have to go anymore, and I was going to tell him this morning, but he was too busy, and then he left, and he said he won't be back the whole weekend, maybe even until Monday, so I'll end up having to go anyways, and that's not fair cuz Mouse promised!"
Though the tirade gushed out a bit fast, Jan got the general idea. Ruffling his sister's curly pink-blonde curls, the teen playfully commented, "I'm sure it's not that bad. What's going on that you don't like?"
Sniffling, Murphy replied, "My teacher yells at me all the time... and she said... she said I was stupid."
"Screw that bitch!" Jan declared, instantly incensed, "I'll burn her gorram house down!"
Murphy giggled and finally quit strangling the tree.
Jayne looked up from his guitar, startled by having his uncle Avi crash out of the brush. The man was old but no less athletic, preferring to run everywhere and accordingly showing up abruptly no matter where he went. Especially so early on a lazy Saturday. "Avi!" Jayne crowed, jumping up to give his father's best friend and his own childhood idol an appropriate hug, "Where you been? I been lookin out for you all week!"
"Sorry, Jay," the old man huffed, fine blonde hair long since gone silver. He pulled back from the hug at the first available opportunity, wide eyes scanning wildly as he hurriedly explained, "I meant to come by earlier, but I just been... uh... distracted. Your mama around? I gotta talk to her."
Put off by the lack of enthusiasm for their long overdue reunion, Jayne replied, "Er... she's pro'ly in the kitchen."
"Thanks," Avi chirped, dashing inside without another word.
Jayne sat back down with his guitar, keen ears perked for what they could possibly be talking about that was so urgent. But all he could make out was muted nonsense.
"Please tell me that boy ain't on the ship with Legs," Avi pleaded as he appeared suddenly in the kitchen doorway, "The oldest one. The one I saw waitin tables last week at Hannah's place."
Arching a slim eyebrow at the old man, Sam pulled a tray of muffins out of the oven and replied, "Good mornin to you, too, Mr. Little. Stay for breakfast?"
"Sam," he snapped (and Avi never snapped; he was a teddy bear), "Just tell me."
Sam fixed him with a quizzical, rather annoyed stare, gnarled hands fisting at her slim hips. "You talkin about Dana?" she asked, "Ya, he's on the crop-hop with Allegra. They ain't due back 'til tomorrow at the earliest. Why? What's goin on?"
Avi groaned miserably, tugging hard at his silvery hair and looking to be sending a prayer up heavenward. He said, "I... I can't tell you, Sam. I don't know if it's even for sure. Let me just be sure."
"For the last time, Jan, we are not burning the woman's house down!"
"Why not? We can make it look like an accident! Just a few well-placed incendiaries, and BAM, no more bitch!"
With an eye roll, Sam turned her gaze to the doorway just in time for Frankie and Jan to step in from the living room. "Language, baby," she scolded her wiry, wily teenage grandson, "And say hello to Uncle Avi. He was one 'a yer grandaddy's very best friends."
Frankie smiled politely and shook the man's hand, brightly chirping, "Nice to meet you, sir. I'm Frankie, and this is Jan."
"Hi," Jan grumbled, not paying the new face very much mind before he went back to badgering his sister. "She called Murph stupid!" the teen cried, "We have to retaliate!"
"No, we don't," Frankie argued pointedly, kissing her grandmother on the cheek when the woman handed her a fresh muffin, "At least not right away. I'm mad, too, Jan. But our first step has to be talking to Aunt Alma. I'm sure she'll set Ms. Arkwright straight."
Ignoring the freshly baked treats (which was downright unheard of for the boy), Jan continued to scheme and complain as he followed his sister out into the sunny morning.
Seeming slightly bewildered by all the talk of arson and vengeance, Avi muttered, "Uh... they seem... real nice. You must be proud."
Sam smirked over her shoulder, declaring, "I surely am."
"Not bad at all, kid," Allegra declared as Dana performed yet another flawless takeoff in the Mowgli, "At this rate, we'll be back on world way ahead of schedule."
"Thank you, ma'am," Dana replied, concentrating on the next drop they had to make, all the way on Beryl. It had been an... interesting day.
The flying was amazing, no question. Dana hadn't realized how good he'd gotten under Wash's capable tutelage. The Mowgli was smaller than Serenity, designed for much shorter journeys, so handling her was a dream. And she was so fast and so fun.
However, flying with Allegra... well, that was just strange. There was something about the woman that irked Dana, made him intensely uncomfortable whether she was just quietly painting her toenails on the dash or trying to wheedle every detail of his life out of him. She really did seem relatively nice, if a bit weird and nosy, but still... Dana couldn't quite put his finger on it...
Chuckling and rolling her eyes, the woman scolded, "Quit callin me ma'am, sparky. I ain't that old. And I certainly ain't no drill sergeant, neither." She was amusing herself by plaiting the ends of her unnaturally blonde hair.
Even though he knew he shouldn't, Dana asked, "What should I call you?" He kept one eye on his vector and another on the navigation screen, not wanting to wander off course while he was talking.
Looking up with a suddenly somber expression, she fixed him with her pale, feral stare and softly replied, "I'll let ya figure that out for yourself."
"Sooo," she began plainly, voice rough and gravelly (echoing a lifetime of smoke and liquor and who knew what else), "Couple more smooth test runs like this one, and Cas'll pro'ly bring you on as a solo pilot. She's got a couple ships, but you'll do much better to get your own. Ain't nothin in the verse like havin your own ship."
Nodding, trying not to smile too broadly, Dana stated, "My uncle William said I was welcome to any craft in his salvage yard, if I could get it running. And my sister Hunter is kind of a genius with that kind of stuff."
"Sweet deal," Allegra chirped. After a moment's pause, she mused, "It's nice that you got all those brothers and sisters. My dads adopted me and a bunch 'a kids, and I always had a lotta fun runnin around with all of 'em. Still do, since they still ain't stoppin."
Encouraged by having the subject move off his own personal life, Dana guided the craft out of atmo and questioned, "How many do you have? Siblings, I mean."
Allegra laughed and listed, "Nine of us, all together, but I really only grew up with Roger, Kristof, and Marjani. Lola got adopted the year I left home, and by the time I got back, there was Tariq and Geraldine, and Oliver and Clara have come along the last couple years. Anyways, I'm still the oldest, so I look after everybody."
"Ya, me, too," Dana agreed. Allegra was still weird, but at least they had that in common. That, and big, eclectic families.
The craft gave a sudden shake, and Dana had a small moment of panic, his knuckles going white around the yolk.
Allegra didn't even flinch. "Space junk," she noted breezily, "It scraped along the starboard side and hit the thruster. Nothin to worry about. You just gotta listen to your ship. If it had been more of a growly, tremblin sound, that spells problems."
"Yes, ma'am," Dana replied without thinking.
The woman just shook her head and sighed.
Building explosives from scrap was difficult but not impossible: it was all about scrounging the proper components.
Uncle William's junkyard certainly had no shortage of rusted-out crafts or stray parts, but all the nuclear cells—the really fun bits—were hard to come by. In fact, Uncle William seemed pretty diligent in stripping those out himself and kept them in a lead-plated safe in his locked office. Hunter was capable of getting into both but didn't want to do so, except as a last resort.
Fortunately, Murph's teacher lived in an apartment building in town, so the blast Hunter created to dispose of the woman would have to be small. Contained. She didn't need to go injuring any neighbors or poisoning them with fallout. Non-nuclear combustibles would be more than enough, but those seemed to be in short supply as well. Gorram, what Hunter wouldn't give for just an intact gas cylinder or a handful of C4...
"We're bored," Tristan complained, he and Zion slinging pebbles at each other in the cluttered lane.
From her perch in a caved-in cruiser high above their heads, Hunter proclaimed, "Nobody forced you to come."
With a jolly laugh, Zion replied, "You made buildin a bomb sound so much more excitin than this."
"And gettin some sunshine ain't never a bad thing," Winnie beamed, weaving a daisy chain from the sparse patches of pretty weeds she'd of course managed to locate amongst the trash.
Elbow-deep in a turn-of-the-century engine, Hunter sighed heavily. The cousins were great and all, but they could be quite a distraction. And they didn't seem to grasp just how important her mission was. In fact, they didn't seem to even be taking her attempt to kill Ms. Arkwright very seriously. Like it was just a game to play, a reason to skip school.
But as far as Hunter was concerned, the teacher had forfeited her right to go on living as soon as she said one cruel word to Murph.
"Ain't you kids sposta be in class?"
Hunter peered over the edge of the craft and down into Uncle William's stern, stoic face. She gave a crooked smile that didn't impress her uncle or the stocky, dark-haired man standing beside him. "Just putting together an extra-credit science project," she claimed.
The newcomer chuckled gruffly, his face mostly hidden beneath the brim of a beat-up hat. He had a goatee, Hunter could see, a small trim patch settled just below his lower lip.
"Uh huh," Uncle William muttered skeptically, fixing Tristan in place with just one blank look when the boy attempted to slip away. "Well," he continued, "Long as you're here, c'mon down and introduce yourself."
On the ground in just a few seconds, Hunter wiped one greasy hand off a bit before offering it out. "Hunter Zehna, sir," she said to the stocky man, finally noticing a very old scar curving from right corner of his mouth to the right corner of his glassy right eye. The eye was slightly out of line from the other and also a different color: dark brown as opposed to murky blue-green. Hunter wasn't certain if it was blind or just a bit off from whatever damage it had sustained. Since the man wore a browncoat just like Captain Mal's, Hunter decided she could probably assume that it was a war injury.
"Roger Little-Moon," the man declared, smirking slightly, "Your uncle tells me you're quite the mechanic."
Shrugging with faux modesty, she replied, "I dabble."
"Any experience with mining equipment?" Roger asked, mangled face still nonetheless handsome and genial, "I got a busted drillin rig, and nobody can figure what's wrong with it."
Because she always loved getting new toys, Hunter beamed, "I'd be happy to take a look as soon as I, uh, turn in my science project." (As soon as that bitch teacher was dead...)
"Soon as you get off school," laughed Roger, "We try to keep kids in there whenever possible, but if this works out, I'll see bout hirin you on weekends. Lord knows we ain't got no shortage of broken machinery."
"Shiny," said Hunter.
"Get back to class now," Uncle William declared gruffly, sending one more warning glance at his son, "And you and I are gonna have to have a talk tonight, Tristan. I'll let Tess, Hannah Lynn, and Dana deal with the rest a y'all."
The rest of the cousins looked appropriately shamefaced at the thought of their parents finding out.
With a quizzical frown, Roger stated, "Thought you said Jayne was the girl's daddy." (His opinion of the man was pretty clear just from the way he spat the name, but since Roger Little-Moon was likely related to Allegra Little-Moon—the fiancé Jayne abandoned—the animosity was understandable.)
Hunter didn't manage to stop herself from snorting loudly as she proclaimed, "Mouse is C.O. He totally outranks Dad."
"Her oldest brother," Uncle William clarified, "You pro'ly seen him around Hannah's place."
With a low belly-laugh, Roger agreed, "Oh, sure. The one that nearly put a whole tray of meals into my wife's lap last week. Seems like a nice boy."
"School," Uncle William stated, expression as unreadable as always but at least calm as always, too, "Now."
On the way out of the junkyard, Hunter found a couple dry blasting caps in an old mining lift and considered it a good sign.
Dirt lanes weren't exactly wheelchair friendly, but a pair of beefy off-road tires and a well-developed upper body made such conditions relatively passable. Wash had learned that and many other handy lessons in his nearly a decade of paraplegic-hood.
(He'd also learned that his lap was like a portable shelf and that wifey-on-top sex never got old.)
Wash managed the last few rolls into the planet's small clinic, smiling at a few waiting patients before charming himself into the back room (the old nurse at the counter, Marguerite Proudfoot, was a total sucker for him). He followed the sound of voices down a short hallway and knocked on the office door.
"Come in," Simon called.
Wash did so and immediately got the distinct impression that he'd interrupted a rather heated argument.
Oren Valenti was the doctor in charge. He'd seemed like a nice enough man—young and core-born, handsome in a pretty-boy way—but town gossip held that he and his twin brother, Omar, were only on world because of Oren's impressive gambling problem. That Oren had bankrupted them both and they'd had to flee the core to avoid being slaughtered by at least three different loan sharks.
Frowning quite petulantly across his cluttered desk, the dark-haired doctor curtly demanded, "Can I help you?"
With a bright grin, Wash answered, "Just bringing by some lunch." He detached the small picnic basket from his chair and added, "Courtesy of Gramma Cobb."
Ace jumped to her feet and whirled around, wearing that terrifying impression that meant she was about to make someone cry. She stormed out of the room and then the clinic, the front door slamming hard enough to make the whole building shake.
"Uh..." Wash began, "What?"
Simon sighed heavily, also standing. He said, "I hope you'll reconsider Dr. Valenti." And then he shuffled and shoved Wash out of the office.
"I have the feeling that I missed something big," the pilot remarked, scanning the area for Ace and finding her already out of sight. He wouldn't be surprised if the girl was a full mile away.
Giving another irritated huff as he pushed the chair along the street, Simon explained, "Dr. Valenti doesn't want to let Ace work in the clinic."
"What?" Wash scoffed, "Why?"
Simon snorted, "Well, he says that her qualifications are suspect... Ace seems to think it's because she beat him quite badly in a card game the other night."
Wash rolled his eyes. "Wow," he remarked, "That pretty gorram stupid... you might want to warn your colleague about the girl's gigantic overprotective brothers. And her scary sisters. And the whole family, really."
"He'll come around," replied Simon, "The clinic is understaffed, and even a bruised ego shouldn't keep him from accepting another set of capable hands."
A shouting match a ways down the road drew their attention, both men turning to find Ace and Hunter squared off and bellowing back and forth. Hunter should've been in school, so the subject of the argument wasn't hard to guess.
"Should we try to break them up?" Simon questioned warily.
Ace snatched what looked like a small explosive device away from the redhead, frantically ripping out wires as Hunter shrieked at her to stop before she turned them into a rutting crater.
Wash shook his head, backing away as he honestly answered, "I wouldn't."
"Bombing Ms. Arkwright's house is not an option," sighed Dana, doing his best to rub away the headache gathering at the base of his skull. He was wrecked and could barely think past the need to fall into bed.
Hunter huffed and stomped her foot. "That's not fair!" she claimed, "Ace is the one who nearly blew us up! What kind of complete moron randomly yanks wires out of an incendiary?"
"What kind of total psycho builds an incendiary to kill a bitchy teacher?" Ace fired back. She was in one of those volatile moods again, and Dana wasn't sure how to tell her to shut the gorram hell up without making himself a casualty.
Gramma bustled by, setting a sandwich in front of him and tenderly carding her fingers through his hair before retreating into the kitchen.
Lost for a moment in wonderful gesture, Dana had to shake himself back into his current conversation. "No explosives without command approval," he declared firmly, "And quit skipping school. Run five miles and then get back here and do whatever chores Gramma needs."
Briefly, Hunter looked like she might argue, but the girl seemed to think better of it and went stomping out through the front door.
Dana bit into his sandwich and sighed, closing his eyes and wondering if he could manage to chew and sleep at the same time.
"Five miles and extra chores for building a bomb?" Ace challenged snottily, "You sure showed her."
He groaned, "Don't start, Ace. I just spent a cramped, awkward weekend on a ship with that weird Little-Moon woman and all night and all morning unloading an unexpected shipment of steel beams. I'm sore and exhausted, and I'd like to at least finish my lunch before you go off on me for my sub-par parenting."
His sister glared. Then she slapped the sandwich out of his hand and went storming out the back door.
Dana pouted at the ruined meal all over his lap, mournfully doing his best to scrape all the pieces back together. He quickly determined that it was a lost cause.
He was nearly finished cleaning up when Gramma returned, the white-haired old woman quirking an eyebrow at him and commenting, "I guess that didn't go too well."
"She's not easy to talk to when she's in this kind of mood," Dana replied. He abandoned the remnants of his sandwich on the plate on the coffee table, rubbing his bleary eyes.
Sitting down beside him, Gramma patted his shoulder and soothed, "You don't need to be frettin on that right now. Just go get some rest, sweetheart."
Dana shook his head, scrubbed a weary hand through his hair and murmured, "I should talk to Murph. Is she still upstairs?"
Gramma rolled her eyes but nodded. She said, "Poor thing was pretty upset, so I told her she could stay home today. At least until we got the situation with her teacher all sorted out. I told the rest not to confront Ms. Arkwright."
"Ya," Dana agreed, standing, "Good call." He shared a smile with the white-haired old woman and then dragged himself out of there, upstairs into what used to be his Auntie Hannah's bedroom. The many small beds jammed inside didn't detract from the flowers and butterflies and rainbows painted over all the walls and even the ceiling. It was such a bright, happy space. Exactly the kind he'd always envisioned for his siblings. The polar opposite of the sterile dorms on Bastille.
Murph was curled up in the far corner, her back against the wall and her little arms wrapped around her yowling, hairless kitten. She pouted briefly at Dana as he entered then dropped her forehead to her knees.
"C'mere, little one," he cooed, scooping the girl up with only minimal protest. He sat them down on the nearest bed and didn't have to wait long before she was clinging to his neck and crying softly. "Shhh," he murmured, "It's alright. Just tell me what happened."
Sniffling and probably smearing snot and tears all over her brother's shirt, the blonde wept, "Ms. Arkwright was really mean to me all week. And then she was making us practice handwriting on Friday, and I tried really hard, but I couldn't do it good enough. It was too shaky and messy. Ms. Arkwright let everybody else do reading time, but she made me keep doing handwriting, and I told her that I couldn't do it any better, but she just said that I'd have to be stupid if that was true. She made me write all day until my hand really hurt and then tried to keep me after school, but I didn't want to, so I climbed out the window."
The adorable end to the horrible story was the only thing that kept Dana from marching straight to the school and shoving a pistol into the teacher's mouth. Well, that and the fact that he'd barely slept the entire weekend (kept opening his eyes to find Allegra Little-Moon staring at him all creepily) and might pass out before he could get there.
"I'm sorry, Murph," Dana muttered, "I'll take care of it. I promise." Maybe he'd been a little too hasty taking away Hunter's explosives...
Huffing, Murphy squeezed him tighter and insisted, "I don't like school. Why can't I just go flying with you?"
With a smile, Dana questioned, "So you want to be a pilot now?"
Murphy nodded vehemently. "I'm not too little," she insisted, "And I'm not stupid."
"Of course you're not," agreed Dana, "And you can be anything you want when you grow up. But for now, your job is to enjoy being a kid. That means going to school and making friends and having lots of fun. Alright?"
"Alright," she pouted.
Dana stretched out on the small bed, his legs dangling off the end. He only really intended to rest a minute, But as soon as his head hit the pillow, he was out cold with Murph sprawled across his chest.
Sally wasn't a very good liar. He rarely felt the need to even try.
"Ms. Arkwright didn't show up for work today," Aunt Alma announced, staring him down (quite menacingly for someone so small), "Turns out, she left world early this morning."
Sally fidgeted at Gramma's kitchen table, doing his best not to look guilty.
"She didn't give a reason," the petite woman went on, "Just wrote a note sayin that she couldn't possibly stay here anymore and wouldn't be comin back."
Sally glanced toward Gramma for guidance, possibly even help, but only received a look of fond exasperation.
"A neighbor saw a very tall, dark-haired young man visit her apartment late last night," continued Aunt Alma, "The same neighbor claims that Ms. Arkwright packed in a rush almost as soon as he came out. Everyone at the docks said that she still looked scared for her life when she boarded the shuttle."
Sally felt that it was probably in his best interest to keep his mouth shut, at least until the evidence against him proved more definitive.
"Well?" the irate woman demanded, hands fisted at her slim hips, "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Despite his earlier decision to remain silent, Sally blurted, "She called Murph stupid."
Aunt Alma's dark cheeks flushed with anger. "And that gives you the right to terrify her? To drive off world? Do you have any idea how difficult it's gonna be to replace a teacher right now?"
"Probably less difficult than convincing Murph to go back to school," Sal bit back, already feeling mighty defensive, "I'm not sorry. Nobody talks to my family like that, especially not some bitter old hag who likes to pick on little girls."
Gritting her teeth, Aunt Alma insisted, "Not that I had the opportunity to find out before you drove Ms. Arkwright away, but I'm sure it was just a misunderstandin-"
"No," interrupted Sally as he leapt to his full, impressive height, "Murph has nerve damage in her hands from being experimented on in a rutting Alliance prison camp, and that bitch had the balls to mock her for not writing neat enough!" Cutting his aunt off again when she started to speak, the teen continued, "And Arkwright knew about the nerve damage! Mouse gave all the teachers a full briefing when we the dropped the kids off on their first day! If I were you, I'd be less concerned about finding a new teacher and more concerned about finding one who's not a gorram sadist!"
Sally and his aunt glared at each other for a few moments before Mouse appeared in the doorway, bed-headed and likely still in the half-asleep mode that made him dopey and suggestible. "S'goin on?" he grunted.
"Charades," Sal replied coolly, greatly enjoying his brother's puzzled frown.
Mouse muttered, "Huh?"
With a smirk, Sally instructed, "Go back to bed, alright? We'll wake you when it's your turn."
Mouse blinked around the room in confusion for a few more moments before finally agreeing, "K." He turned around and stumbled out of sight.
Sally chuckled under his breath. That never got old.
And witnessing the exchange had at least softened Aunt Alma's anger: she looked like she was fighting down one of those gooey expressions women get when they think something is oh so adorable. It might've even gotten him off the hook.
Unfortunately, the expression quickly morphed into a rather ominous smirk, and Sal couldn't help his gathering worry. Again, he glanced toward Gramma for support but saw that she was gone, probably trailing after Mouse to make sure he didn't wander into a well (which their father had apparently almost done several times sleepwalking as a child).
"You ain't landed a job yet, right?" questioned Aunt Alma, arching a slim eyebrow.
Hesitantly, Sal confirmed, "No..."
The petite woman answered only with a downright sinister laugh.
Except for the stretch of years when she disappeared without a trace, Allegra Little-Moon had never been very difficult for her brother to find. He knew her better than just about anyone did, her secret obsession with those cheesy serial dramas floating all over the cortex and her deep, irrational fear of clowns. He knew that while he'd been getting himself blown up in the U-war, she'd gotten hooked on booze and pills, that she'd done a lot of awful things to finance the habit before finally hitting rock bottom and crawling back to Galena in her current, almost unrecognizable state.
Roger still loved his big sister, always had. They'd been best friends growing up, did practically everything together. Unfortunately, Legs was stubborn and rarely listened to his sound advice, especially the advice concerning Jayne Cobb.
"I thought you were through with him, Legs," the stocky man declared as he sat down beside her in the shade of a twisted, wind-ravaged cypress twenty miles into her favorite stretch of nowhere, "You ain't fixin to do somethin stupid, are you?"
With a broken smile that still broke Roger's heart, his skeletal sister chuckled, "Nah. I gave up on Jay Cobb a long time ago. And he's married now, anyhow. Little slip of a thing ain't quite all there, but she seems sweet enough... and they're happy." She took a swig out of the dark bottle in her hand, hissing past the burn of the hooch before tightly adding, "You were right about him all along. He never loved me. He was just killin time."
"I'm sorry," Roger murmured, snaking his arm around her painfully thin shoulders and trying to keep her out of his blind spot, "I wish it were different for ya. I know you were head-over-heels for that hun-dan since we was kids."
"Ya," she replied, stringy blonde hair falling over her eyes, "I wish a lot of things were different." She paused again, took another drink and leaned into Roger's embrace. "Rog," she whispered, "I... I did somethin really, really bad while I was gone. Worse than what I told you about."
He felt his stomach twist a bit at the very thought of something worse than what he already knew. All the crime and degradation and one notable murder.
Swallowing hard, Allegra went on, "I think Daddy figured it out. I came home today and... and he could barely look at me. He tried to ask and couldn't even make himself say it... Took me years tryin to forget the worst thing I ever did. I almost convinced myself it was... that it was all a horrible dream... but then I saw the kid, and I just knew..."
Roger had lost her face in the smudge of blackness that dominated his right eye but heard the hitch in her voice and knew she was crying. "C'mon, Legs," he murmured, "Whatever it is, we're all here for ya."
She laughed bitterly, mirthlessly, swiped at her damp cheeks before finally looking up. Seemed like there was an ocean of sorrow churning behind those blue eyes. "Jay's oldest boy, Dana," Allegra wept, "I'm his mother."
hun-dan – son of a bitch
Author's notes –
Mowgli – a character from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book stories who was orphaned as an infant and subsequently raised by wolves in the jungle.
P.T. – physical training.
C.O. – commanding officer
Hope that was enough tantalizing plot setup for y'all, haha. More to come hopefully soon, and reviews equal inspiration :)
(Also, feel free to let me know if you have any questions. I know all the storylines and characters can be hard to keep track of.)