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New Morning

NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.

     Jackie DeCoeur woke to find Trotter casting glances at her from across the bed. His eyes glinted in the pre-dawn darkness, and there was mischief in them.

     Jackie stretched, and yawned, and drew herself close. She felt his fur brush against her skin, and she smiled. 

     “What time is it?” she asked.

     “It’s early yet,” the fox answered. He slipped his paw around her, so that it rested just atop the small of her back. His eyes were on hers, and they held a question.

     The red-eyed woman arched her back, and she yawned again. “I’m still not used to you waking up before me,” she said. 

     Which was true. Jackie herself routinely rose before the dawn – it was a habit the sisters had beaten into her from a young age, and which she had never really grown out of. When she had first known Trotter, by contrast, the fox had seldom deigned to venture forth from his bed before the sun was high in the sky. And, even then, he was usually a little testy until he had his first two cups of chicory – preferably with a whiskey chaser. 

     But Trotter had changed. The years had changed him, Jackie thought – or, maybe, she had. Either way, now that they were together again, the red-eyed woman routinely woke at the crack of dawn to find that Trotter was awake, too, and was looking at her, with mischief in his eyes.

     Jackie rolled over, and she glanced out the window. Outside, the Jakkard sky was still dark.

     “It’s early yet,” Trotter said again, and he kissed the back of her neck. Softly, at first. Then a second time, and a third.

     Jackie rolled back over, and she returned his affections. Their lovemaking was subtle, and practiced – the intimacy of lovers who knew each other’s wants and needs without asking. 

     Afterwards, they lay together for some time, while the first red streaks of dawn crept through the slatted blinds and cast long shadows across their bodies. Trotter lay on his back, with his eyes closed, and Jackie admired the way that his white fur caught the color from the rising sun. As she listened to his quiet, steady breathing, and studied his supine form with careful, minute interest, she could feel her own pulse beginning to quicken.

     Eventually, Trotter tried to climb out of bed. But the red-eyed woman caught him by his tail and pulled him back down. 

     They made love again, and, this time, it was anything but subtle. 

     It was only after the morning light turned from red to pale orange that Jackie finally eased herself out from beneath the sheets. She kissed Trotter on the head, which earned a contented smile from him. Then she dressed quietly, and began pulling on her boots.

     “You’re an incorrigible temptation,” she said to Trotter, who was now himself stretching, and shortly got up to dress. “But, if I don’t get downstairs and put the breakfast on, we’re liable to have a riot on our hands.”

     “Leave breakfast to me,” Trotter said, pulling on his trousers, and an old shirt. “You go walk the fence.” Then, retrieving Jackie’s black hat from where it hung next to the door, he offered it to the red-eyed woman, who was just slipping her serape over her head. 

     Jackie took the offered hat with a grateful nod, but paused for a second before putting it on. 

     “You sure you don’t mind?” she asked.

     Trotter shook his head. 

     “I don’t mind,” he said. “I like doing the cooking. It’s just the cleaning-up afterwards that I don’t like.” The fox grinned. “Besides, I promised your little legions that I’d make griddle cakes this morning, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint.”

     Jackie raised an eyebrow. “How is it that, when I make griddle cakes, no one bats an eyelash, but, when you make griddle cakes, it’s the event of the season?”

     Trotter shrugged his shoulders. 

     “I really couldn’t say,” he said, as he opened the door and stepped out into the still-dark hallway. Once he was across the threshold, though, his grin widened, and Jackie caught a flash of his canines. “It might have something to do with the three scoops of sugar I put in the batter.”

     “Three scoops?” Jackie shot Trotter a dirty look.

     “Sure. Three scoops of sugar, and three measures of whiskey.”

     Jackie DeCoeur picked up a pillow to throw at Trotter, but the fox was out the door before she could let fly. So, after adjusting the brim on her hat and slipping on her dark-tinted glasses, she headed downstairs and stepped outside to take her daily constitutional.

     Outside, the new morning was already fragrant and warm, and the growling of baloths filled the air as Jackie walked from the ranch house down to the stockyard, where the herd was just beginning to stir. She stood for a while just outside the gate, and she watched the great, lumbering beasts shake off their slumber, before she topped-off the water trough and hoisted a fresh bale of feed into the pen. Then she crossed to the stables to check on the acridians. The big insects were chittering contentedly inside their stalls, rubbing their segmented legs together and staring down at her with their compound eyes. Jackie gave her favorite mount a pat on the thorax and a sugar cube, before moving on. 

     She made her way down to the orchard next, where row upon row of green-leafed sunglobe trees sloped down towards the edge of her land. The sunglobes weren’t ripe just yet – at least not quite – but, after testing their flesh with a practiced hand, Jackie could tell they were close. So she plucked one orange fruit from the branch and ate it as she walked, peel and all. She wiped juice from her chin with the edge of her sleeve, and the taste made her smile.

     Finally, Jackie came to the barbed wire fence that marked the end of her claim. On the opposite side of the wire, the grass extended for just a dozen or so feet before it grew patchy and brown, then faded away into the endless, dust-colored Waste. 

     After licking the last remnants of juice from her fingers, Jackie DeCoeur slipped a heavy leather glove onto one hand. Then she rested that hand lightly atop the rusty wire, and she began to walk.

     Jackie walked the fence every morning. She did it more from force of habit than anything else – her ranch was well-guarded from anyone with hostile intent, and her most potent protections were those that were not visible to the untrained eye. After her recent run-in with Pry, Jackie had devoted serious thought to the ranch’s security, and, the next time that Hush-Hush had come to visit – the husher twins tended to materialize at irregular intervals, in accordance with their own unknowable agenda – Jackie had commissioned her hushers to make some special improvements to the property, and had given them more than enough crystal to do the job right. The result was an intricately-layered system of magical defenses, all carefully concealed from prying eyes, but very much present, and potent as well. 

     The barbed wire, by comparison, was more for keeping the baloths in than for keeping the rest of the world out.

     Still, Jackie liked checking the fence. She liked getting to walk around her property each day, liked the sights and the sounds and the smells of Jakkard in the morning, before the noonday sun baked them all away. 

     Walking the fence was a good time. A quiet, contemplative time. It did wonders for her peace of mind.

     That morning, her walk was uneventful. She found one fencepost leaning a bit to one side, with fresh scratches in the wood where a baloth had filed-down its tusks. So Jackie righted the post and tightened the wire. But that was all she found to do before arriving back where she had started, at which point she slipped off her glove, and made her way back up the hill to the house.

     Inside, she found a strange tableau waiting for her in the front parlor. Trotter was standing in the center of the room, with his arms crossed in front of his chest, and an exasperated look on his face. On either side of him, a pair of glum-looking children sat on stools, with their eyes fixed studiously on the floor.

     To Trotter’s right, a minotaur who went by Honeysuckle was massaging the knuckles on her left hand, and breathing audibly through her pierced nose. To Trotter’s left, a newly-arrived human boy who called himself Lucky was holding a dripping baloth steak up to his rapidly-blackening eye, and sniffling quietly.

     Jackie’s red eyes narrowed as she surveyed the scene. After first directing her gaze at Honeysuckle, then at Lucky, then back at Honeysuckle again, she cleared her throat.

     “So, who wants to tell me what happened?” she said, as she took off her hat and wiped sweat from her forehead.

     Neither of the kids spoke. Trotter broke the silence.

     “As you may have deduced, we had a little disagreement during breakfast,” the fox said. He picked at a clump of batter, which was caked into his fur. “Honeysuckle, here,” and he tapped the shoulder of the minotaur, who snorted a bit, “got up from the table to get seconds, and, when she came back, Lucky, here,” and he indicated with a pointed claw at the cowering boy, whose head drooped even further in reply, “had taken her seat. Honeysuckle told him to move – and she did not say ‘please,’ I might add – at which point Lucky called Honeysuckle a name, which Honeysuckle did not appreciate. So,” Trotter shrugged, and sighed, “Honeysuckle popped Lucky in the face, and good.”

     Jackie’s mouth firmed into a hard line. Walking over to where Lucky sat, she knelt down in front of the boy and peeled the raw steak away from his eye. The boy’s face was puffy and swollen, and, as Jackie probed at his cheek and brow with an experienced fingertip, the boy squirmed and whimpered. 

     Her inspection complete, Jackie stood up, and exhaled. The bruising around Lucky’s eye was bad, and it would hurt like blazes for days, but at least Honeysuckle hadn’t broken any bones.

     “How many times she hit you?” Jackie asked Lucky, as she handed the steak back to the boy.

     “Just once, Miss Red,” the boy mumbled, pressing the steak back against his eye.

     Jackie nodded her head, then turned to face Honeysuckle. “What’d you hit him with?” she asked.

     “Left cross, Miss Red,” the minotaur said.

     Jackie whistled softly. “Nice punch,” she said. 

     She glanced up at Trotter, who shot her a dirty look, to which Jackie shrugged her shoulders, as if to say: Well, it was.

     Trotter just shook his head and sighed.

     He was right, of course. So Jackie crossed her arms and cleared her throat. 

     “Okay, let’s talk about house rules,” Jackie said. She fixed Honeysuckle with her red-eyed stare. “Honeysuckle, what do house rules say about hitting our friends?”

     The minotaur glanced up, but could not hold Jackie’s gaze. Looking back down again, she exhaled deeply. “We don’t hit our friends,” she said. “Unless they say it’s okay.”

     “Uh-huh,” Jackie said. “And I take it that Lucky didn’t say you could hit him?”

     Honeysuckle shook her head. “No, Miss Red.”

     “And what name did he call you?”

     Honeysuckle snorted. “He called me a ‘dumb cow,’” she said, and her hurt was plain in her voice. She scraped a hoof across the floor, and she even risked a sharp-edged glance in Lucky’s direction, but the boy studiously avoided her gaze.

     For a moment, Jackie felt her jaw tighten, and she had to close her eyes and count silently to three, before she turned to Lucky and fixed him with the stare that had left hardened killers shaking in their boots. 

     “Lucky,” Jackie said, taking great pains to keep her voice level, “what do house rules say about calling names?”

     Lucky was silent for a long moment, before he muttered something that Jackie couldn’t quite make out.

     “What was that?” Jackie said, never taking her eyes off the boy.

     “House rules say we don’t call our friends names,” Lucky said again, louder this time.

     “Right,” Jackie said. She nodded her head. “And what do we say when we break the house rules?”

     “I’m sorry,” Lucky said to Jackie.

     Jackie arched an eyebrow. “Why are you saying ‘sorry’ to me?” she asked the black-eyed boy. “Did you call me a ‘dumb cow’ when I wasn’t paying attention?”

     The boy shook his head. “No, Miss Red,” he said quickly.

     “So how about you say ‘sorry’ to Honeysuckle?”

     “Sorry,” Lucky said again, this time in the minotaur’s direction.

     “Honeysuckle?” Jackie prompted.

     “I’m sorry that I hit you,” the minotaur said to the boy. “Even if you did deserve it.”

     Jackie sighed again. She walked over to kneel in front of the young minotaur.

     “Show me your hand,” she said.

     Hesitantly, Honeysuckle offered her left hand for inspection. Jackie gingerly poked at the girl’s swollen thumb, which drew a flinch in response.

     “That sting?” Jackie asked.

     Honeysuckle nodded.

     “Show me how you make a fist,” Jackie said.

     Honeysuckle curled her hand into a fist, with her thumb resting on top of her fingers.

     Jackie sighed and shook her head. 

     “You hit someone like that, you’re liable to break your thumb,” she said. Taking hold of the young minotaur’s fist, Jackie shifted the girl’s swollen thumb so that it was safely out of harm’s way. “Next time you throw a punch, you do it like that, okay?”

     The minotaur nodded her head. 

     “Now,” Jackie said, “I get that Lucky was asking for it, but we don’t hit our friends, which means that you have to go on punishment.” The red-eyed woman glanced up at Trotter, who was now observing the proceedings with a bemused look. “Trotter, we have any dishes left that need doing?” Jackie asked him.

     “Mountains,” Trotter said. 

     “Honeysuckle,” Jackie said, “go help Mister Trotter with the dishes.”

     “Yes, Miss Red,” the minotaur said. Then, with all the urgency of a criminal who has gotten off lightly and knows it, the girl stood up and hurried out of the room, so that her hooves beat a hasty tattoo across the wooden floor as she rushed off in the direction of the kitchen.

     Trotter shot Jackie a sly glance.

     “How does all this compare to robbing banks?” he asked her.

     “It doesn’t,” Jackie said. “This is ten times harder.”

     Trotter offered Jackie a sympathetic smile. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek, then he followed the minotaur out of the room.

     That left Jackie alone with Lucky.

     “I don’t care who taught you that it was okay to call minotaurs ‘cows,’” Jackie said. “We don’t talk like that here, ever. Understood?”

     “But—” Lucky started to say.

     “—But nothing,” Jackie said, and more sharply than she meant to. After seeing the fear that flashed across Lucky’s startled face, Jackie sighed, and she put her hand on his shoulder. “Tell me something,” she said, “what do you want to be someday?”

     “A bandit!” the boy answered, quick as he could.

     “Uh-huh,” Jackie said. “And, tell me, who’s the greatest bandit in the Waste?”

     “Red Jackie,” the boy said.

     In spite of herself, Jackie DeCoeur smiled. She tousled the boy’s hair, which only made him squirm.

     “I appreciate the vote of confidence,” she said, “but let me rephrase: Who’s the greatest unretired bandit in the Waste?”

     Lucky considered that for a moment. “Boomstick Dazie?” he said.

     “That’s right,” Jackie said. “And, in addition to being my close friend and former partner, Boomstick Dazie also happens to be a minotaur, and a big one at that. Am I right?”

     Lucky nodded.

     “So, tell me, Lucky – when you’re old enough, you think you might want to run with Boomstick Dazie? You think you might want me to introduce you to her?”

     Lucky nodded again, emphatically. Jackie nodded back.

     “Now, when I introduce you to Boomstick Dazie, are you going to call her a ‘dumb cow?’”

     Lucky shook his head, as though the idea were unthinkable.

     “Good,” Jackie said. Then, feeling a need to emphasize her point, she added: “And how do you want me to introduce you to Boomstick Dazie? Do you want me to say, ‘Dazie, this here’s Lucky, a good friend of mine, who can rope, and ride, and shoot, and tie ten different kinds of knots—’”

     “—Eleven!” Lucky interrupted. For the first time, he dared to glance up at Jackie. “Eleven different kinds of knots.”

     “That’s commendable,” Jackie said. “But it emphasizes my point, too, which is: Do you want me to say, ‘Dazie, this here’s Lucky, who can rope, and ride, and shoot, and tie eleven different knots?’ Or do you want me to say, ‘Dazie, this here’s Lucky, a stupid human who calls his friends mean names?’”

     “The first one!” Lucky said vehemently. “The one about the knots!”

     “It doesn’t feel very good, getting called names?” Jackie asked. “Does it?”

     The boy glanced down at the floor. “No,” he said.

     “And it’s not very nice when other people judge you based on who they think you are, rather than who you know you are?” Jackie asked. “Is it?”

     “No,” Lucky said, sounding miserable. 

     “I’m glad we agree,” Jackie said. “So maybe you’ll think about all that before you call Honeysuckle a name again.”

     “Yes, Miss Red,” Lucky said.

     “Good.” Jackie smiled, but she did not release Lucky from her gaze. “You also might want to remember that, if you call Honeysuckle that name again, she won’t be your friend anymore, so the house rule about not hitting a friend won’t apply to you, will it?”

     “No, Miss Red,” Lucky said.

     Jackie nodded. “In that case, I think we’ve learned our lesson. Which just leaves the question of your punishment.”

     “Do I have to help with the dishes, too?” Lucky asked, sounding hopeful. A cautious smile crept across his face. “Because, sometimes, Mister Trotter lets us lick the batter bowl.”

     But the boy’s smile disappeared when Jackie walked across the room to the mud closet, from which she returned with a pair of shovels.

     “You,” she said to Lucky, as she offered him a shovel, “get to help me muck out the baloth pens.”

     Lucky’s nose wrinkled, and his face twisted into a look of disgust.

     “Gross,” he said, as he accepted the shovel.

     Jackie bent down, and she tucked the cuffs of the boy’s pants inside his boots. 

     “Bet the next time you break a house rule, you don’t do it on mucking-out day,” she said.

     “Bet not,” Lucky said.

     So the Red-Eyed Woman and the black-eyed boy walked out the door, side by side, with shovels on their shoulders.

     Her new life was ten times harder, Jackie thought to herself. But it wasn’t without its compensations.


* * *


     Jackie DeCoeur was standing ankle-deep in baloth muck, with a shovel in her hands and the choices she had made on her mind, when she heard footsteps behind her, and the sound of a throat being cleared.

     Reflexively, Jackie’s hand shot to her hip, and her forefinger curled itself around the trigger of her revolver.

     “Did I come at a bad time?” came a voice from behind her, followed by a low chuckle.

     The voice was a familiar one, although it sounded different from how Jackie remembered it. But the laugh was unforgettable. 

     Jackie relaxed her grip on her gun, although she kept her hand where it was. Then she turned around to find herself face-to-face with a fellow ghost.

     “Hello, Jackie. Or should I call you Red?” Fisco Vane said. “It’s been a long time.”

     A moment passed in heavy silence while Jackie stared at Fisco, who smiled back at her with half a smile. Jackie was so surprised by the shark’s unexpected appearance on her very doorstep that she almost forgot that Lucky was standing next to her in the baloth pen, and she was only reminded of the boy’s presence when he dropped his shovel into the muck, where it landed with a wet splat. 

     “Who’s the geezer?” Lucky said, as he stared up at Fisco with obvious curiosity.

     “Didn’t we just have a talk about not calling our friends names?” Jackie said. She was speaking to Lucky, but she did not take her eyes off of Fisco, or her hand off her gun. 

     Lucky pointed a muck-covered finger at the white-haired man who stood before them. 

     “You’re friends with him?” the boy asked.

     Fisco Vane – Old Smokey himself – smiled crookedly at the young boy.

     “Oh, Red and I are old friends,” he said, doffing his well-worn hat in a respectful greeting. 

     Jackie could feel herself tense as she waited for Fisco’s barb, the one that she knew was coming. She waited for the shark to show his teeth, to say something which would put Lucky in his place, and she edged closer to the black-eyed boy as a subtle show of support. But the barb never came. Fisco just stood there, leaning heavily on his cane, with his hat held deferentially in one hand, and a lopsided grin on his face. If anything, he seemed to be waiting for her to speak.

     Lucky glanced up at Jackie. “You’re friends with him?” he asked a second time, with an incredulous look on his face. 

     After another long second, Jackie gave her head a small nod. 

     “We’re friendly enough, after a fashion,” she said. Her hand slid off of her gun, and she bent down to pick up the shovel that Lucky had dropped. She handed it back to the confused-looking boy, before giving him a pat on the back. “Run along,” she said. “Me and my friend here need to have a chat, catch up on old times.”

     For a moment, Lucky seemed torn between wanting to stay and find out who Fisco was, and accepting his unexpected reprieve from a punishment which he had no desire to see through. His indecision didn’t last long, though. Laziness trumped curiosity, and Lucky darted off in the direction of the house with a mumbled “thank you” and just a single backwards glance.

     Fisco nodded his head in the departing boy’s direction. “Smart kid,” he said.

     “He is that,” Jackie said. She leaned on her shovel, and she tried to read Fisco’s eyes. “He’s also got a problem with following rules, but that’s a problem about which I am singularly unqualified to moralize.”

     That observation prompted another characteristic chuckle from the man who had once been the terror of all Verkell. 

     “You know,” Fisco said, “back when you asked me to help you die, I took it for granted that you had a plan for after.” He swept a shaky hand in a broad arc, so that his gesture encompassed the expanse of Jackie’s ranch. “Still, an orphanage?” 

     “This isn’t an orphanage,” Jackie said, her voice suddenly hard. She crossed her arms, and her red eyes flashed. “I had one of those once, you might remember? It blew up.”

     Fisco nodded slightly. “I do seem to recall that,” he said. “It made all the papers.”

     “And do you know what orphanages are?” Jackie asked. “They’re the places where people who can’t be bothered to give a damn throw away all the kids they can’t be bothered to give a damn about. Well, this here’s no orphanage. It’s a ranch.” The red-eyed woman drew herself up straight, and she placed her hands on her hips. “More specifically, this my ranch, and I give a damn about everyone here.” 

     “Yeah,” Fisco said, and he gave his shoulders a deferential shrug. “I can see that.”

     Jackie paused for a second while she tried to decide whether Fisco had deliberately been trying to provoke her. Somewhat to her own surprise, she decided that he had not. 

     So, after giving Fisco Vane a good, long, searching look, Jackie DeCoeur climbed out of the baloth pen and walked over to a nearby pump, where she splashed water over her boots and trousers.

     “You’re going to have to forgive the slightly rustic nature of my hospitality,” she said, as she washed away the worst of the muck. “I don’t get many visitors these days.” 

     “I had a notion about that,” Fisco said, as he put his worn hat back on. “After all, I saw your sign out front: ‘All friends welcome. All others will be shot.’” He grinned at her with half a grin. “Guess it’s a good thing that I’m a friend, then, isn’t it?”

     “It is,” Jackie said. She wiped the soles of her boots on a nearby bale of hay, and dried her hands on the sides of her trousers. “After everything that we’ve been through, I’d hate to have to shoot you.” Then, gesturing in the direction of the ranch house, she said: “Seeing as I’m increasingly convinced that neither of us is fixing to kill the other, I’m wondering if you’d like to come up to the house with me? I have some good whiskey in the pantry, and I might even have a crate of cigars stashed away beneath the cupboards.” She rubbed her nose. “It’s a little less aromatic up there, too, if the smell bothers you.”

     Fisco shook his head.

     “Thanks,” he said, “but no thanks. I won’t be here long, and, truth be told, I’d rather not be introduced to the whole household.”

     Jackie nodded silently. Then she took a moment to really look at Fisco Vane. 

     His manners had improved, to be sure. But everything else about him seemed to have worsened. His hair was fully white, and, though it was still thick, it was no longer oiled, such that it threatened to fly away in all directions. His brow was furrowed by wrinkles that ran true and deep, and half of his face seemed stuck in a sort of slack grimace that gave him a permanently morose look. 

     Old Smokey was still recognizably himself, but he looked as though time had finally caught up with him, and the justice of his years had been rough.

     “Maybe someplace closer, then?” Jackie said, and she nodded at some nearby bales of hay, which were stacked beneath the shady side of the barn. “We can sit down, at least, and we’ll be out of the heat.”

     “Alright,” Fisco said, and he sounded at once both reluctant and grateful. “Thanks.” 

     As they crossed the few yards to the agreed-upon spot, Fisco leaned heavily on his cane with every other step, and Jackie had to resist the impulse to offer him her arm for support. He looked older, she reckoned, but he was still proud. So, instead, she fetched a ladle from the barn, which she filled with water from the pump. 

     After Fisco had settled himself down atop a big bale of hay, Jackie sat down next to him. She offered him the ladle, which he took with a nod of thanks, and drank deeply from.

     “Somehow, I always forget how hot it is on this plane,” Fisco said. He wiped his mouth – a laborious gesture – before handing the ladle back to Jackie.

     “See, now, that’s the thing,” Jackie said, taking a drink as she did. “Last I spoke to you, I was distinctly under the impression that you were finished with Jakkard.” She glanced down at him. “Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to ever see you again.”

     “Yeah, well, things change,” Fisco said. For a moment, his face turned distant, and he stared off into the horizon.

     “That they do,” Jackie said. She studied the deep wrinkles beneath his eyes. “Do you want to tell me why you’re back, or do I have to guess?”

     “The ‘why’ doesn’t matter,” Fisco said. He shook his head, and smoothed his snow-white hair. “Let’s just say that I was in the neighborhood, and I figured I’d say hello.”

     “Awfully neighborly of you,” Jackie said. She arched an eyebrow. “Particularly seeing as I don’t have any neighbors.” She took another sip from the ladle. “I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t exactly believe you?”

     Fisco snorted, and shook his head.

     “I don’t have a hidden agenda, Red,” he told her. “But, if you must know? Well, the thing is, I never really thanked you before, for saving my life. So I wanted to do that now.” 

     For a moment, Jackie felt confused. Then she remembered: Fisco, and the gala, and the explosion. 

     She offered the ladle back to Fisco, which he declined with a small wave of his hand.

     “That was a lifetime ago,” Jackie DeCoeur said, and she shrugged her shoulders. “Or, in my case, two lifetimes. Plus, I seem to recall that you engineered that little stunt yourself, precisely so that I’d be there to pull you out of that mess. You figured it’d make us better partners.”

     A lopsided smile flickered across Fisco’s face. 

     “There’s nothing wrong with your memory,” he said. “All the same, though, you saved my life when you didn’t have to. So, thank you."

     Jackie glanced down at her feet, and she cleared her throat.

     “Yeah, well, if we’re keeping score, then I also recall that you saved my life twice,” she said. “Not to mention my soul. So, by my reckoning, I’m the one who’s in your debt.”

     Fisco gave his head a short, sharp shake.

     “No,” he said. “I don’t deal in debts anymore. Besides, it was Diana who saved your life – both times, in fact.”

     A smile crept across Jackie’s face at the mention of Fisco’s guardian angel.

     “Ah, yes – Diana,” she said. “And just where is that winged sourpuss? I don’t suppose she’ll be stopping by, too?” 

     Fisco shook his head again, and he chuckled.

     “Unlikely,” he said. “Diana doesn’t much care for Jakkard. It’s the locals, you see – as soon as they see a real, live angel, in the flesh, half of them want to worship her, and the other half want to kill her.” He grinned. “And I honestly don’t know which of those makes her more uncomfortable.” 

     Fisco glanced up at the sky, where – as if on cue – a winged silhouette passed briefly in front of the sun. 

     Then Fisco looked back down at Jackie, and he grinned. 

     “Besides,” he said, “if you want to know the truth? I think you make Diana nervous.”

     “Do I?” Jackie said, feeling strangely gratified.

     Fisco nodded. 

     “That’s too bad,” Jackie said. “She’s the only angel I ever met who I didn’t want to shoot.”

     “Yeah,” Fisco said. “Me, too.”

     For a moment, the two of them were silent.

     “Why are you here?” Jackie eventually said. “I mean, why are you really here?”

     Fisco was quiet for a long time. When he finally spoke, he did not look at her.

     “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “Maybe I’m just trying to give a damn, too.”

     Slowly, Jackie nodded at him.

     “In my experience,” she said, “dying tends to have that effect on people.”

     Fisco hummed some sort of acknowledgement. Then he reached into his coat, and Jackie almost drew her gun, before she remembered that was where he kept his cigars. 

     Except, Fisco didn’t pull out a cigar. Instead, he produced a thick sheaf of papers, wrapped around a tiny, black book.

     “You’ve got some real fancy spellwork done around here,” he said. “Powerful, and subtle, too. But there’s tells, if you know where to look, and how. Ways to get past all those wards and walls.”

     Jackie shot Fisco a sideways glance. “And I’m sure that you can patch all those holes for me,” she said. “For the right price, of course.”

     Fisco sighed.

     “I told you, I don’t deal in debts anymore – just gifts.” He unrolled the papers from around the book, and he held them out to her. “Here.” 

     Jackie narrowed her eyes at him, but she accepted the papers. Glancing down at them, her brow furrowed, and her mouth hung mutely open, as she tried – and failed – to sound-out the strange writing which covered each page from top to bottom. After barely a minute, her eyes started to water, and she could feel a headache coming on.

     “Are these even words?” she asked, looking away from the pages before her eyes got too crossed. 

     “Forgot you’re not much of a reader,” Fisco said, with a chuckle. “Cross-eyed Jackie – now that’d be a thing.”

     Jackie shot Fisco a dark look, before squeezing her eyes shut and rubbing her own forehead. 

     “Do I have to give you a lecture about name-calling, too?” she asked.

     “Sorry, I’ll behave,” Fisco said. Then he gestured at the papers covered with arcane writing. “Just give those to your hushers, okay? They’ll understand what to do.” With his good arm, he pointed towards the edge of the ranch, and to the Waste that lay beyond. “Bottom line is, right now, I could poke holes in your fence. I’m talking about the magic one, mind you, not the wire.” He shrugged. “Small holes, sure, but large enough to sneak through. It wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t be cheap, but, when you’ve attracted the caliber of enemy that you and I have?” He trailed off, before clearing his throat. “I just want to make sure this place stays safe. That’s all.”

     Slowly, Jackie lowered the papers so that she could look – really look – at Fisco Vane. He was staring slightly off to one side, his lopsided face sad and contemplative. But his shoulders were straight as they could be, and his eyes were alight, alive.

     “What happened to you, Smokey?” Jackie asked him. “I mean, what really happened?” 

     Fisco chuckled.

     “I just died, is all,” he told her, smiling crookedly. “Like you said, dying changes a man. But then I’m sure you know all about that.”

     Jackie had to smile back. 

     “Better than most,” she said, before stuffing Fisco’s papers into her pocket. “There’s nothing quite like dying to wipe the slate clean.”

     “My thoughts exactly,” Fisco said, and he made a small note in his black book, before slipping it back into his pocket. He stood up, then, and doffed his hat once more, before turning away, as if preparing to take his leave. 

     Jackie stood, too. “Fisco?” she said.

     He turned to face her.

     “Since we’re not dealing in debts anymore,” she said, “I have two favors to ask.”

     Fisco cocked his head slightly, and he waited for her to continue. 

     “Yeah?” he said.

     “Yeah,” Jackie said. “First favor is, don’t get yourself any deader than you have to, okay? A little dying can be good for the soul. Too much, though? Well, best not to find out.” She grinned at him, and her red eyes flashed. “Think you can manage that?”

     Fisco nodded slowly. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “What’s the second favor?”

     “Second favor’s this,” Jackie said. She placed a hand on Fisco’s shoulder, and she looked him right in his smoke-stained eyes. “The next time you need someone to give a damn about you? Well, you know where to find me.”

     “Yeah,” Fisco Vane said. “I do.”

     He rested his hand on top of hers for a moment, before he withdrew it. Then Fisco Vane turned away.

     “Glad you made it, Red,” he said over his shoulder.

     “Glad you made it, too, Smokey,” Jackie replied.

     Fisco’s old, dark eyes met her red ones then, and she could have sworn that she saw them twinkle.

     “Oh, I haven’t made it yet,” Fisco Vane said. 

     Then he vanished into the dry Jakkard air, leaving behind just a hint of smoke, and the last words that Jackie DeCoeur would ever hear him say: 

     “I haven’t made it yet. But I will soon.”

"New Morning" by OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

To learn more, and to read more Expanded Multiverse stories, please visit the Expanded Multiverse forum at No Goblins Allowed.

Fisco Vane and Diana are original characters created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse.

Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use. 

All works copyright their respective creators.

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