This story was written as a response to Leven Kemal's story, "Ground Pounder." You may want to read that one first, to fully get this one.
"Sir," said Zoe, as she and the Captain trudged toward the small, dust-beaten town, "Wash tells me we've burned up a dangerous amount of fuel coming to this moon."
Mal gave her a long look. "I know. I've set back reserves."
Zoe raised an eyebrow. "That you didn't tell your pilot about?"
"That you didn't tell me abou-"
Mal held up a hand.
"Sir," she began, "I think-"
"I appreciate your concern," said Mal, as they neared the bonfire in the center of town, "but this is important enough to risk. Believe it or not."
The sounds of a local musical combo reached their ears as they came closer, and dancing figures were reflected in the firelight.
Zoe glanced at the scene, then over at Mal, who seemed to be searching the crowd.
"Sir," she said, "If it were up to me, I'd be the first to force you to get some real R & R, but really... a secondary school graduation? Surely you're not-"
The look Mal gave her was... unusual.
"You brought up my 'ground-pounding' ways when I objected to you an' Wash. I know I was wrong."
Zoe observed him, saying nothing. She nodded.
Mal sighed. "Man's word, where I come from, is tied to the land. No land, no word, no honor. You can't just fly away."
"You aren't saying, sir..."
"Moonside's different, not holdin' you to that, Zoe. Part o' my point." He paused, gestured around him. "Where you think most o' these kids came from?"
Zoe looked around at the people, young and old (though mostly young) dancing, sitting around and chatting, eating, or just watching the fire.
"Right," said Mal. "More than that."
Instead of answering, Mal strode into the crowd, searching, until he spotted a red-headed girl being talked up by several young men.
" 'Scuse me," he said, shouldering his way though the crowd, who glared at him. The girl turned to do likewise, until she saw his face. Her arms dropped, letting a few boxes and bouquets drop to the ground.
There was a moment of frozen silence as they just looked at each other.
She finally let out a small squeaked word, tears springing from her eyes.
He smiled, tears prickling the edges of his own eyes. "Yeah."
"I thought- I heard you- It's been ten YEARS!" she wailed, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face in his chest.
He stroked her hair, ignoring the (jealous) stares of the boys around them.
"I said I'd dance with you on your first real fall dance," he said, quiet-like.
"But you were just one o' the hands, like-"
He brought her face up to face him, and smiled at her.
"Li'l girl, that was my momma's land. Good as mine. I keep my promises."
She started blubberin' again."Oh, Mal, oh-"
He brought up a finger, hushing her. "Think we should get on with all that fancy dancin' you promised you'd learn." He stepped back and held out his hands.
She looked at him a moment longer, then smiled. She took his hands, and led him off.
Zoe watched as Mal and the girl took another turn around the fire. She had lost count of the dances they had taken, the hours of reminiscence. She'd had to fend off a few of the more adventurous villiage fellows, but that was nothing new. She'd called back to the ship, letting them know they'd be there a while longer than planned.
What was troubling her was a pain in her jaws. Was it an effect of the water? The food she had eaten? She traced her fingers down her face-
"Oh. Oh," she said, massaging her facial muscles.
Guess it wasn't such an emergency after all.
She went back to watching Mal dancing the girl around the bonfire, the same silly grin plastered across her face.