Mal does not expect, the following morning, to be handed an ident card with a travel visa logged into it. But that's what he's handed, along with a careful speech on keeping his head down and not striking up unneccessary and inflammatory conversation. Collin seems, as always, unimpressed, and today, he seems tired. Mal tries to take it in stride, especially when he's led through to the back of the house, where the horses are stamping enough dust to dim the sun, and Catriona, curly hair tied on top of her head, is perched on the outside of the fence.
Inside the ring, a woman Mal doesn't know is wrestling a horse.
At least, that's what it looks like. The horse seems a bit more alarmed by the situation than the woman does, as it's backed away and is standing, head lowered, eyes half-closed, as far away from the woman as possible. The woman stands hands-on-hips in the middle of the corral, with every symptom of a displeased parent.
"Told you," she says, to the horse, but Catriona laughs.
"Told *you,*" she says, "took me three weeks just to get near him without getting bit, and that was knowing his moods."
"It ain't his moods that're bothering me," comes the answer. The stranger is tall and straight, with skin the colour of dark honey and curves like... Mal grins, despite himself, hiding it only because, as she stalks across the corral, slowly, she gives off signals that translate pretty clearly as "I can hurt you," and Mal is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She moves like a cat. This is something with which the horse takes issue, because he's looking nervous as she approaches him again, he's looking cautious, though less riled.
Mal sidles up to the fence and stands next to Riona, who tilts her head into the corral. "She's been at this for an hour," she says, "since breakfast. You're late," she adds, looking at him for the first time. She smiles the smile that Mal knows is meant to be come-hither, but comes off more little-girl, and every time she uses it comes out a little more disappointed. Now it's approaching resigned, and the next smile is just cheerful. "Father's been waiting. Got a job for you."
"So long as I don't have to fight *her,*" Mal says, indicating the woman now stroking the surprised-looking horse along the long nose.
"Hah! You haven't got it in you," Riona tells him, "Zoe'd eat you alive."
"Don't doubt it," Mal agrees, with respect. "Zoe" is slipping the bridle slowly over the horse's ears, and finally turns to look at Riona in what must be triumph, but doesn't quite register on her whole face.
"All right, you win," calls Riona, and the horse gives a little back-kick that makes the fence shudder. Zoe cuts him loose and crosses the corral towards them. Mal takes a half-step away out of instinct as she jumps the fence and looks him up and down, inspecting. She nods a little before Riona speaks.
"Malcolm Reynolds," she says, "meet Zoe Helene. She'll be taking you to the unit."
"As a CO?" Mal can't help asking.
"As a colleague," Zoe says, steady and amused.
They shake hands.