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רות בגחלילית / Ruth on a Firefly

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It's the smallest ship in the spaceport of Kir-Moab. A little battered around the edges. But there's a pretty woman in overalls and a flowered shirt sitting in a folding chair at the edge of the loading ramp, and she smiles encouragingly at them as they walk close enough to get a good look at the ship.

"You looking for passage?" the woman in overalls asks.

"We're hoping to get to Judah," Ruth admits. "But I don't know what we can pay."

"That's not so far," the woman says, and stands, offering her hand. "I'll bet we can work something out. I'm Kaylee, and this here is Serenity."

She means the ship, Ruth realizes, and clasps the proffered hand in greeting. "I'm Ruth," she says. "This is Naomi."

"Call me 'Bitter,'" Naomi says dully.

Before Ruth can begin to explain, a voice from behind them says "your God has made your life bitterness." As though it were a fact.

Ruth turns, startled and a little fearful, and sees a woman with a long dark braid standing beside a man wearing suspenders and high boots and a brown coat which makes Ruth's heart ache with a quick, fierce memory of Mahlon. The man in the coat is holding up both hands, placating, but the woman with the braid has already stepped forward and put her arm around Naomi, and to Ruth's surprise Naomi permits the touch.

"I see you found us a couple of wounded birds," the man says to Kaylee. The words are dismissive but his tone is kind.

"They're headed for Judah," Kaylee says. "And they're broke."

There's a moment of silence and then the man gives a little sigh of acquiescence. "Malcolm Reynolds," he says, and gives a courtly little bow. "Captain of this vessel. Judah's not far out of our way, and I can see Kaylee's already taken a shine to you. Come aboard."

Guests' quarters are plain: two bunks in a little room made of steel, with rough wool blankets on the beds, the only concession to ornament an origami flower tucked into a divot in the bulkhead. It doesn't take long to settle their meager belongings into the cupboard built into each bunk. Naomi lies on her bunk and closes her eyes. Ruth sits on hers, but sleep feels impossibly distant. She's footsore from their long walk, but her mind is racing.

She's never been on a spaceship. She's never left Moab at all. She wants to explore the ship, though she isn't sure where exactly on the ship she's welcome. Maybe she can find some way to make herself useful on the journey? Though all she's ever really done is tend sheep, keep house, and bargain at market, and none of those seem like applicable skills out in the black.

The hatch to the guest quarters swings open and the dark-haired woman -- River, Ruth remembers; her name is River -- peers inside.

"Biggest port on Judah is House of Bread," River says solemnly. "Should take four days to get there, but we need to drop off some cargo on Lilac first, so it'll take us at least six, maybe a week."

"That's fine," Ruth says. And then, as River seems about to close the hatch and depart, Ruth gathers up her courage. "Listen -- is there anything I can do?"

River gives a small approving smile. "Come up," she says, "I'll show you," and moves out of the way so that Ruth can climb the ladder into the small hallway.

The cargo hold, which is bigger than Ruth expected, is piled with protein bars of all sizes, wrapped in gold paper embossed with the Alliance seal. River shows Ruth the cartons of silver foil paper, and her deft fingers make quick work of unwrapping one bar and rewrapping it snugly in the unmarked paper.

"Can't sell the Alliance seal," River says, and gives Ruth a sly look as though gauging her response.

These are stolen goods, then, intended for resale.

But Ruth has no particular love for the Alliance. For all that her homeworld was an Alliance planet, she had married a man who had fought for the Browncoats.

"I'm not sure I can do it as fast as you did," Ruth says, apologetically, and picks up a bar to try her hand.

"Let's get moving," calls Captain Reynolds from outside the hold. "Doors are sealed, I want to get off this rock. Jayne, better get started."

"Can't the doc help, or Kaylee? Rewrapping all those gorram bars is gonna take all week," complains a male voice Ruth hasn't heard before. She looks up and sees Captain Reynolds standing in the doorway next to a big brawny man -- Jayne, apparently.

"River," the captain says, his voice careful, "we don't generally bring passengers into the hold."

"She wanted to work," River says simply, and stands up. "Her husband wore brown too."

There's no way River could have known that. Ruth stares at her for a moment, then looks to the captain.

"Your husband -- is he on Judah?" he asks.

"I'm widowed, now." Ruth still isn't used to the word.

"I'm sorry for your loss." Captain Reynolds looks older, then, and Ruth realizes that he's known his share of grief too. Of course he has: she's never met a Browncoat who hadn't. "Jayne! Do not lay a hand on this woman."

"Mal, you know me better'n that," Jayne protests, giving the captain a dark look, but he settles down to unwrap and rewrap bars at the far end of the hold, a few meters away from where Ruth sits.

"We'll break atmo in ten," River says, flashing a grin at Ruth, and heads for the door.

Ruth doesn't know how to mark the passage of time in the belly of a ship, and she finds that she's glad to have something to do with her hands. Unwrapping and rewrapping the protein bars takes on a satisfying rhythm. She's faster at it than Jayne.

He doesn't say much during those first few hours, which is fine with Ruth; she has plenty to think about. Wondering where Orpah is now. Wondering what her parents think about the fact that she set off with Naomi into the black, heading for Judah, a place where she has never been.

After some number of hours a new voice calls to them from the catwalk above. "Dinner," the woman says, and waits for them to climb up and follow her. She wears her hair back, a thong around her neck matching her leather vest. "Zoe Washburne," she says to Ruth once Ruth is walking behind her.

"Ruth," says Ruth, though she imagines everyone knows that already.

Naomi is already at the table, which is a pleasant surprise; Ruth had wondered whether she would have to coax her mother-in-law from their room. The table is set with mismatched plates and cups, worn from long use. Around the table are two more people Ruth hasn't yet met: a clean-cut man sitting beside Kaylee who introduces himself as Simon, the ship's medic, and a graceful woman in silks who introduces herself as Inara.

"She's a Companion," Kaylee murmurs to Ruth with admiration in her tone.

"Gracing our very ship," Captain Reynolds says drily, "once again," and Ruth wonders at the backstory but doesn't ask.

There's real bread on the table, made from roasted grain, and olive oil for dipping, and someone's turned some of the protein bars into a savory and well-spiced stew. They eat and talk. Inara makes conversation as though she were hosting a salon, and manages to draw Naomi out of her sorrow.

"I haven't been back to Judah since Elimelech and I left," Naomi tells Inara, and conversation at the rest of the table quiets enough that Ruth knows they're all listening. "Moving to Moab as newlyweds was...exciting. No one from Judah ever goes there. That was what I wanted, in those days."

Inara nods.

"But now, with my husband and our sons gone--" Naomi's voice falters, then regains strength. "I couldn't bear to stay."

"Of course not," Kaylee says, her hand flying to her heart. "You wanted to go home."

"I'm not sure Judah is home anymore," Naomi admits, "but it made more sense than anything else. Besides: there's no famine there."

Captain Reynolds doesn't say anything, but he passes the stew back to their end of the table. Ruth wonders whether his experience of wartime means he knows real hunger, but she doesn't ask.

The crew of Serenity is gentle with them -- and with one another, Ruth sees. Everyone is solicitous of Zoe despite her gruff exterior. Kaylee and the doctor take every excuse to let their hands brush or to bump shoulders as they reach for things across the table. River offers the occasional non sequitur which, upon further reflection, makes perfect sense to Ruth.

It feels as though she and Naomi have been invited into a family meal. Ruth has to swallow hard against the wave of yearning which threatens to swamp her. She and Naomi have been alone since Orpah left, since Elimelech and Mahlon and Chilion died, and being at a family table again -- even a family table which is not her family -- feels painful and sweet all at once.

"I wish the Shepherd were here," Kaylee says as they're clearing the dishes.

"He is," River tells her, and then disappears toward the bridge.

"Do you or your mother-in-law need medical attention?" asks Simon after supper. Ruth shakes her head; they need a few more days of good meals, but there's nothing medical about that.

"In that case, we probably won't see much of each other," Simon continues, a hint of apology in his tone. "I'm sorry about that. I've just taken on a load of new medical supplies, and I know from experience that if I don't catalogue them now, something will go horribly wrong and everything will hinge on me finding the right syringe at the right instant."

"Of course," Ruth says. What an exciting existence this must be, she thinks, but she doesn't say so; it would sound provincial and gravity-bound.

"If you need me for anything, don't hesitate to ask," Simon says, offering her an encouraging smile as he passes by. "If I'm not in the infirmary, I'm usually with Kaylee."

Ruth had more or less discerned that, but it's nice to have confirmation. Some small and petty part of her is envious of Kaylee: not because she's interested in Simon, but because she misses the kind of easy connection that the two of them seem to have.

Still, she reminds herself, she's not alone. She has Naomi, who is a better mother to her than her own mother ever was. She is on an adventure, heading toward Judah. Naomi aside, and Mahlon and Elimelech, she has never known anyone who has been to Judah. It is a planet she knows only from storybooks.

She is fortunate, she knows. And if she is lonely, well, so is most of the 'verse, deep down.

By the end of their second day on Serenity, Ruth knows all about Jayne's favorite gun -- a Callahan full-bore auto-lock with a customized trigger, double cartridge and thorough gauge -- and also about his mother, his cousins, and the song they sing about him on Canton. In return she tells him about growing up on Moab and herding goats (yes, they really will eat anything.) She doesn't offer stories about the sickness that took Mahlon and Chilion, and Jayne has the good sense not to ask.

When Ruth exits the hold she knows now to look for Naomi in Inara's shuttle, where they will most likely be sipping tea and listening to quiet music piping in over the Cortex, and Naomi doing needlework -- repairing some of Inara's gowns, Ruth guesses. It's good to see Naomi sitting and sewing and laughing with a friend again.

And when Kaylee's not busy in the engine room, she comes and folds paper around protein bars too. She's easy to talk to. She and the doctor haven't been together long, she explains, though they'd each carried a torch for a while before they got brave enough to do something about it.

"Ain't nothin' brave about kissing a pretty girl," Jayne says dismissively. "Dunno what took the doc so long."

"Jayne!" Kaylee protests. "Ain't you ever been afraid a girl would say no?"

Jayne doesn't answer that, but he does mutter "just hope he knows how lucky he is, is all."

Had he been he interested in Kaylee? Ruth wonders. Or maybe this is the concern of a brother for the sister who isn't as fragile as he thinks. She surprises herself with the fervent hope that it is the latter. An unrequited interest in a fellow crewmate, on a ship this small, would be painful.

Predictably, thinking about interest in fellow crewmates brings Ruth's mind around to the two people she has seen the least of -- the captain and Zoe. "Are Zoe and the item?" she asks Kaylee after they've wrapped a few dozen more protein bars.

"What? Oh, no," Kaylee says, smiling as though Ruth has said something funny. "Nah, the cap'n and Zoe served together in the war. They're like brothers, you know?"

Ruth remembers Mahlon and Chilion, how they were with one another, and nods.

"Zoe's a widow too," Kaylee says quietly. "Her husband Wash used to be our pilot. We all miss him something fierce."

"I'm so sorry," Ruth says, and remembers the solemn sadness on the captain's face when he had learned that her husband was dead. Was that the loss he was remembering, the death of their pilot? Or was he inhabiting some earlier, deeper, sorrow?

"Thanks," Kaylee says, and takes a deep breath. Wishing away the tears, Ruth knows. She recognizes that expression.

"So you've been all sorts of places on Serenity," Ruth says. "Tell me a story about somewhere interesting." She's doing her best to steer the conversation into less-fraught waters, and Kaylee smiles at her gratefully before launching into a tale about a party and a duel and strawberries.

They drop off the silver-wrapped cargo on Lilac. Apparently they get a good price for it, too; Captain Reynolds is exultant when he returns to the ship, and even Zoe is smiling.

"We'll have you on Judah in a couple more days," the captain says to Ruth once the doors close behind him and they're preparing to depart. "And I surely do appreciate your service this week."

"It was the least I could do, Captain," Ruth says. There is a fluttering in her heart every time the captain stops to speak with her, as though a small bird were trapped behind her breastbone. She wonders whether this is the way Kaylee felt about Simon, before they became what they are to one another. She can barely remember what it was like, not-yet-knowing Mahlon. She had been so young.

"It may have escaped your attention, but no one on this ship calls me that," he says, leaning against the bulkhead beside her. Are they flirting? She isn't certain.

"Kaylee does sometimes," Ruth points out.

"She does like to tease me." He smiles. "But I'd surely be honored if you'd call me Mal."

"Mal," Ruth says, testing the word in her mouth. It feels intimate. He is standing right beside her. He smells good. Is he leaning in, ever so slightly?

Just then Kaylee sticks her head into the hold. "Engine's good to go, cap'n," she offers.

"See? What did I tell you," Mal says, and smiles at Ruth, but there's distance between them again. "Let's get moving," he says to no one in particular, and the moment is gone. Afterwards Ruth wonders whether she imagined the attraction between them, the gravitational pull.

Supper that night is lively. Inara provides flagons of plum wine, which they drink from teacups. Maybe it's the wine, maybe it's the relief of cargo safely sold, but the table is merry and boisterous. And if Ruth is keenly conscious of Mal at the head of the table, of every time he laughs and every gesture he makes -- if she feels dangerously as though the ground were disappearing from beneath her feet -- she has no one but herself to blame.

When Ruth returns to their cabin that night she finds a new dress spread out on her bunk. It is made of blue silk. It is beautiful.

"Where did this --"

Naomi interrupts. "I've been sewing in Inara's quarters. She gave me the cloth, for you."

Ruth opens her mouth, then closes it. The dress is as fine as any she has ever owned.

"You've been happy here," Naomi says. "We both have."

"I don't understand," Ruth says, and sits on the bunk. What does that have to do with this dress? Why would Inara give her mother-in-law such fine silk to pass on to her?

"Inara says he's a good man," Naomi says. "I want you to bathe, anoint yourself, put this on, and go to the captain's quarters."

Realization slams into Ruth all at once. Naomi wanted to find her a new husband, someone who would take care of her, someone who would make her happy. Naomi is sending her to the captain. To Mal.

"I will do as you suggest," Ruth says, and is proud that her voice doesn't shake. She is not at all certain that Naomi has read the situation right -- what if Mal doesn't want her? -- but she gathers her courage around her and steps out of her work-worn clothes to take a spongebath in the corner of their cabin before putting on the dress that Naomi has made.

They're both adults. It's a reasonable thing to do. If he says no, they'll disembark in House of Bread and never see him again.

What does she have to lose?

Late that night Ruth tiptoes to the bridge. River is there, but not the captain.

"He sleeps," River says, before Ruth can even ask. She gives Ruth such a sweet smile that Ruth can't help pressing her hands to her heart in wordless thanks. It's already beginning to seem normal to her that River knows what she's going to ask before she asks it.

The hatch to the captain's bunk opens silently and Ruth climbs down the ladder. She can hear Mal's quiet breathing, steady and slow. It reminds her of lying in bed listening to Mahlon sleep. But this isn't Mahlon: this is Malcolm Reynolds, who strides the corridors of this ship as though it were his palace, infinitely precious to him. Who smells of sandalwood and gun oil. Whose smile makes her heart do somersaults in her chest.

All of a sudden she wants this terribly. Wants him. Her first night with Mahlon she had been nervous and afraid. But she is no virgin now: she has known a man's body. She can imagine Mal's hands, his mouth, his hips against hers. She will not think about the humiliation which will ensue if he says no.

The moment she sits at the edge of his bunk he wakes. She hears his breathing change and she freezes there, waiting. It feels like an eternity before he responds.

"Who's there?" he asks, his voice roughened with sleep.

"It's Ruth," she murmurs. And then, feeling as though she needs to offer more, she stammers, "I'm grateful that you've taken me in."

Mal pushes himself to sitting. Despite the darkness in his quarters she can see his white nightshirt faintly. It's open halfway down his chest and her fingers yearn to touch. "Gratitude's all good and well, but I don't--" He pauses and swallows hard. "You've paid for your passage. You don't need to be here."

Ruth takes a deep breath. "Maybe I want to be."

"You could have anyone on Judah," Mal protests. "I've been to House of Bread more than once: ain't any women there prettier'n you. Plenty of younger men would look your way."

He's offering her another out. And he doesn't think much of himself, does he? Tenderness wells up in her alongside the desire.

Ruth reaches out and takes his hand in hers. His quick inbreath betrays his surprise. His thumb strokes over the back of her hand and she can't help a shiver.

"If you're sure," Mal says. His voice is broken gravel.

"Yes," says Ruth, and with their joined hands Mal pulls her close enough for a kiss.

They stop in House of Bread. Serenity takes on new cargo. Ruth and Naomi walk the streets of the city and Naomi points out the places she remembers from her long-ago youth here, before she and Elimelech boarded that cargo vessel heading for Moab. And then they return to Serenity, and the gangway closes behind them, and they leave Judah behind.

"Wherever you go, I will go," she had said to Naomi. She had not imagined that they would find home on a Firefly-class vessel darting through the stars. Nor had she imagined Mal, who redeems her widowhood into something transformed and new.

Zoe comes to Ruth and makes the offer. Although Mal tries to talk Zoe out of it, she is determined. "I'll just get Jayne to move your things next time you're planetside, and then you won't have any control over where anything goes," Zoe says. "Sir."

Mal throws up his hands. "You two are in cahoots!" he says, looking back and forth between Zoe and Ruth.

"If you say so," Zoe agrees, and gives Ruth a conspiratorial smile.

The first time they make love on the big bed, where there's room to move without bumping into the bulkhead or risking the fall to the floor, Ruth makes a silent promise to do something really nice for Zoe next time she gets the chance. And the time after that. And the time after that, too.

The guest quarters become Naomi's quarters. She picks up cloth on one world and sells garments on the next, and in her spare time she knits tiny hats and booties.

When the time comes, Simon delivers the baby, with Mal cursing in Chinese even as he clenches Ruth's hand through the contractions. He and Naomi hold her feet as she pushes. Simon cleans the baby, wraps him in a dry cloth, and places him on Ruth's chest. His little legs are frogged up beneath him. She presses kisses to his fists and head.

And after a while, Ruth passes him to Mal, who holds him reverently, as though afraid he might break. And then Mal passes him to Naomi, and when Naomi holds her grandson her eyes are bright with joyful tears.