BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories II: Chapter 11
Thursday, December 20, 2007

Zoë, Mal, and a ship full of Reavers…


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2912    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I'm just playing.

Many thanks: fireflyfans.net members: leiasky and nosadseven for beta-reading and mphillipsfor the artwork.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

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Highgate’s second moon

Zoë pulled her flask out and took a long drink. She’d refilled the thing from a larger bottle she’d stowed with the least palatable packages of protein powder, not that she’d planned on drinking her way through her stay on this moon, but at the moment she had need of it.

Book sat across the fire, quietly whittling a bit of wood. It didn’t seem to be anything he had a talent for; nothing recognizable came of it. But Zoë understood – it busied his hands and his eyes and very likely his mind, just like the liquor kept her from tying herself in knots of worry.

Serenity still wasn’t answering waves. She kept trying, maybe once every half hour, but all she got back was formless crackling static. Images flashed behind her eyes: her husband lying dead on some empty flat of Highgate, Mal’s ship in a heap of wreckage, this little camping trip as an intense weightloss experience…

She took another drink.

She’d passed a bit of time going through the supplies, and it wasn’t good. Water and firewood were fine, what with the rain and the forest down the hill. The more accessible wood had been gathered by now so that it was taking longer walks and harder ax-work to replenish the pile, but it could be done. So even though the moon’s slow day had begun to darken toward evening and the wind had taken on a bitter edge, it’d be the food shortage that got them before the cold. They only had enough for two days of regular meals.

She drew in a deep breath. It’d been a long time since she had to think in these terms, had to focus real tight on the details so the inescapable truth of her situation wouldn’t become overwhelming. Think about meals, think about warmth. Don’t think about Wash and the others.

“Zoë.”

The Shepherd spoke her name quietly but with urgency. She looked to him and he tilted his head at the space behind her, toward the spot where the captain was sleeping. She followed his nod, and what she saw made her drop her flask and forget her worries.

Mal was standing just at the edge of the tent, by the woodpile. His hair and clothes were crumbled like he’d climbed out of his bedroll without bothering to straighten himself up, and he seemed unsteady, wavering a bit and turning his head side to side as if he was lost. She could see in his face that indeed he was struggling, his eyes crinkled in confusion and his mouth twisted in bouts of alternating fear and humor. All of which was extremely not good, considering that the fingers of his right hand were loosely gripping the haft of the wood-splitting ax.

“Hoi there, Reynolds,” she said as she climbed to her feet and took a cautious step toward him. “You got plans with that thing?”

His eyes found her but didn’t quite focus – he heard, knew she was speaking to him, but didn’t seem to process her words. “How can anyone… how can they do that?” he said in a thick stutter. “How can they…?”

She knew his meaning, not from his questions but from the horror that took over his face as he asked them. This was what she’d feared; this is what they’d both feared, back on the day when Mal had gotten his scan at the hospital on Londinium, the one day when he’d known what was happening to him and had made the choice to leave the ship.

“It ain’t something to be explained,” she told him. “It’s to be left behind. Now, how `bout you put that ax down?”

He shook his head. “Gotta explain,” he said distantly. “Gotta make sense, to make it go away. Lăo tiān yĕ, it won’t go away….”

She looked over to Book, saw his confusion. The last the Shepherd’d seen, Mal had been playful and full of stories of victory in warfare. Book had no reason to expect this, but Zoë did. She hadn’t been sure, and neither had Mal, but they’d no choice but to prepare for it. She just hadn’t thought it would come so soon.

“Get Simon’s med bag,” she told Book sternly. “Get it now.” To her relief, he nodded and got moving without another question.

“Zoë, you seein’ it?” Mal asked. For a moment, he looked as forlorn as a little boy in need of comfort. He raised his arm, the one holding the ax, and the sharp end of the thing passed close to his face as he wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. Zoë didn’t like that, didn’t like the heavy steel blade inches from his eyes and the tender skin of his face. She’d seen what folks in this frame of mind could do to themselves.

She surely didn’t want to set him off, but had to take the chance of moving two steps closer, close enough to reach him. Mal dropped his hand and looked at her, his breath suddenly coming in short pants, and leaned back away.

“It’s over,” she told him. “And it ain’t stronger than you.”

His lean made him take a step back. “How come I’m still seein’ it?”

She glanced aside quickly; Book had gotten the med bag and was kneeling over it, waiting for instructions. She said a second’s thanks to the powers that be for putting a man of action inside this preacher. “Double dose of the usual, Shepherd, and any sedatives we got left.”

He nodded and set about filling a syringe.

“Nobody does that,” Mal said, his voice heavy with denial and horror. “A person ain’t supposed to come apart like that. Ain’t supposed to be split open… “ He wiped at his face again, his movements quicker this time, the blade touching his cheek but not breaking skin. “God in Heaven, I just can’t stop seein’ it.”

“Don’t mean it’s a part a’ you. Don’t mean it wins out.”

But he wasn’t listening. He looked down at the ax, then shifted it, letting the handle swing in front of his legs and up till his left hand caught the bottom end and he had the haft in both hands. He raised it in front of his belly, and his eyes fastened on the blade, intensely focused.

“Shepherd… ?” Zoë said.

“Almost,” Book replied.

Mal’s hands tightened on the worn wooden handle of the ax, his knuckles whitening. His eyes lifted to Zoë, and what she saw there was terrifying: a desparate need, a strong will to act though the will didn't belong to this man and the act would be far outside his own bounds of reason. This was a different kind of crazy then the one he’d been fighting for weeks; a much, much worse one.

“Ain’t waitin’, Shepherd!” she called out, then she dove at Mal.

As soon as she moved, the captain’s face turned wild with rage, his teeth bared as he swung the ax back in an arc that might have ended with the blade embedded in her skull if she’d stayed still to wait for it. But Mal wasn’t doing this violence because he chose to, and he didn’t even try to block her attack. She caught him about the chest and they both fell onto the wood pile, him taking the brunt of the impact on his back, and the ax clattered on the stones behind her.

Mal was stunned and winded, maybe enough to come to his senses, but Zoë took no chance. She used her momentary advantage to shove him off the wood and onto the rocks, seeing to it that he landed face down, then braced herself across his back and used her forearm on his neck to hold him still. He swore and pushed against the ground, trying to rise, but wasn’t putting all of himself into it. This wasn’t a fight he wanted to win, not in his heart. The madness didn’t have all of him.

“Now!” she called out, but Book was there already, plunging the needle into Mal’s shoulder. He’d mixed it strong, and the captain quickly went limp.

Zoë pushed back and sat on the scattered wood, catching her breath.

“You care to maybe explain that?” Book asked into the sudden quiet.

She surely didn’t, but she knew she would. She knew she had no choice in the matter.

“Let’s see to him first,” she said.

Mal’d gotten a bit of a cut and bump where he’d hit his forehead on the rocks, and it took a few minutes to get him bandaged and back into his bedroll. Then they returned to the fire, but this time Zoë sat where she’d be looking directly at Mal; he wouldn’t be surprising her again tonight.

She clenched her empty hands together, wishing for something to do with them. She couldn’t let herself touch the flask again – as many meds as Mal had in him now, he wasn’t likely to rise for some time, but she still couldn’t allow herself the release of alcohol. She looked toward Book’s discarded whittling – a bad idea for the same reason; she didn’t care to hold any kind of blade in her hands. The madness that had touched the captain might come for her as well.

“Wasn’t expecting it yet,” she said, her voice unsteady and still breathless. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure it’d happen at all. He was the solid one before. I was the one… but with how he is these days, with the bein’ sick, it was best to be safe. He thought it best…” She realized she was muttering like a madwoman, and rocking a bit. She dug the thumb of her left hand into her right palm, trying to wear down a growing itch. It was just the adrenaline, she reasoned, the coming down from the unexpected danger.

“You knew this might happen?” Book asked.

“I did. We did.” And she was going to explain, but she’d have to come at it indirect. She needed to talk herself calm before she told the heart of the matter.

“Shepherd, did you know it was me got Mal his rank?”

Book blinked a moment’s surprise at her change of subject, but went along where she lead. “No. I did wonder how it happened, him being a volunteer and you being career.”

“Yeah, he shouldn't have even been with our group, but things were working odd that month. Couldn't move newbies around like we'd a wanted. Made it awkward for him, being in with career soldiers.

"Was even weirder that, only a year a half later, he got the rank of Sergeant. No one's fault but mine. And it wasn't easy; took some doin’.” She had to laugh, a dry, rasping sound. “Mal wasn’t a favorite with the higher ups, and he pissed off the colonel something fierce that day. Lucky for Mal, I had connections. Me and the colonel – went way back. Him and my dad did their trainin' together.”

It was working; her voice was steadying and the rush of blood in her ears was slowly quieting. She deliberately unclenched her hands and made her shoulders relax.

“Still, I had to be a mite pushy to work things out,” she went on. “See, it was a bit of an unusual situation.”

She took in another deep breath and released it, letting go of the tension that threatened to take her again. Unusual situation? That was putting it lightly.

* * *

Nine and a half years ago: Independent base, Deadwood

“You threatenin’ me?” Colonel Fuad asks, a not-subtle warning in his eyes.

“That I am,” Zoë replies calmly, though nothing about her day has been calm. In fact, the events of the past few hours are trying their best to take over her ability to stand up straight and talk sense.

So she doesn’t let herself think about it. Maybe later, when she’s alone in a place dark enough to make her feel hidden, she’ll give in to it and see how it plays out, see if she can muddle through, maybe tie it all up and pack it away somewhere out of her own sight. But now is not the time.

The colonel's glare darkens. “And what the hell makes you think you won’t end in the brig for saying what you just did?”

Zoë doesn’t hesitate. “If you throw me and Reynolds in the brig, you’ll have a whole bunch of soldiers in here saying the same thing I am. And you throw them in the brig, there’ll be more. Could be that, eventually, you won’t have many troops left out there to fight for you.”

The colonel leans back in his chair, folds his hands in front of him, and glowers. “That’s insane.”

“Sir, folks like Reynolds.”

When Colonel Fuad finally replies, his voice is even, but she knows that he’s close to being really peeved. Not matter that she's very nearly a niece to him; it isn’t good to have this man get really peeved. He's earned his rank in the coalition of Independent armies for good reason; he knows how to use his power and get his own way.

“You’ve been a fine soldier, Zoë,” he says, using her given name as he’s been wont to do ever since she can recall. “With Sergeant Ross gone, you’re due to move up. Don’t blow it over this. I won’t take mutiny in my ranks – not even from you.”

“It ain’t mutiny, sir. It’s the thing that’s right. If Private Reynolds dies, I expect him sent home with a Medal of Honor and I’ll take over for Sergeant Ross, if you still ask it. But if Reynolds lives, I want him gettin’ the sergeant stripes to go along with that medal.”

Fuad leans forward, his face reddening. There’s no first name used now. “You’re way off, Corporal! I won’t put some damned rancher volunteer who lacks the sense to shut his mouth and do as he’s told in charge of my troops. He’s got no training, no idea of how to handle a battle – ”

“Beggin’ you pardon, sir, but he does. And he’s got something else. The troops believe in him. They’ll follow him. To be truthful, they were lookin’ to him already, more than to me or Sergeant Ross. And now he’s taken a risk, gone against common sense and orders from above to save… to save lives. And he’s near dead from it. You can’t punish him for being a gorramn hero.”

Colonel Fuad pushes himself to his feet and leans over his desk, and a few bits of spittle fly past his lips as he speaks harshly at her. “Zoë Alleyne, I take a lot from you because your father was a good man, but this is where I draw the line! You will not criticize my decisions! I couldn’t send anyone after you, not with the situation I have here. And I had no idea what the hell that ship was. I didn’t know what weaponry they had, or how they’d fight. It could have been some ruse by the Alliance, tricking me into sending my forces up and leaving this garrison unguarded. I had no choice but to let you go!”

Zoë blinks for a second as she realizes his meaning, then she drops her head and shuffles back a step. She hadn’t really thought about it, not from his point of view. Fuad’s known her since she was a little girl, and today he’s had to make a decision in the heat of the moment. It’s the only choice he could have made, but still it’s cost him some pain.

“Of course you had to, sir,” she says, her voice softer now and showing the respect she’d been short on before. “I didn’t mean to say that you should have done different.”

He sits back down, but still eyes her doubtfully.

“I know you would have sent someone sooner if you could,” she continues. “Reynolds might have known that too. He did it the only way it could have been done – one soldier, a single small transport, and he got out on our trail as quick as could be done. Hell, he probably didn’t even look like a threat to… those that had us. If there’d a’ been more, a bigger ship, mayhap they’d of fought harder and no one would’a gotten out.”

She starts to shrug, then stops at the fresh burn from the wounds on her back, shoulders, and arms. The medics’d given her a few local painkillers when they’d stitched her up, but it’s not enough. She has to steel herself against the things that come with the pain, shove the memories aside so she can focus.

“I’m telling you sir,” she says, “Reynolds got me out of a bad place. I can’t stand by and see him punished. I won’t.”

She stands still, but slumps as the pain stings anew, seeming to flare up just because she can’t stop herself from remembering. Can’t help thinking on what would have happened if Reynolds hadn’t shown up when he did. But her argument is done and now it’s up to the colonel to decide where to go, how to act on what little he knows. She hopes it’s enough.

Fuad doesn’t fully understand what happened on that ship. She hasn’t shared the details of it with anyone and doesn’t mean to. That few minutes of her life doesn’t need to be gone over again; she prays that it’ll fade away and stay gone. It seems possible to happen that way. The Alliance has claimed that the soldiers they lost were killed in an accident, and they’re denying the reports that a third party was involved.

“Hell, Zoë,” Fuad finally says. “Sit down.”

She does, lowering herself painfully into a hard wooden chair.

“I meant what I said,” he grumbles. “That boy doesn’t know a thing about fighting.”

“He ain’t as bad as you think. Besides, I know a lot, and I’m in his unit, and I don’t mean that to ever change.”

His unit?” the colonel asks pointedly, but there’s a glint of humor in his eyes. “He’s got the rank already, does he?”

“I think he does,” Zoë replies, her voice soft but dead serious.

Fuad exhales in a rush, then gives in. “Yeah, he does. Might even be a good thing to have someone who thinks different, ain’t tied up with all the same training everyone’s got. But he is a wild one. For a rancher boy who goes to service every chance he gets, he does act up.”

“He… has his own approach, but it ain’t all bad.” Zoë can’t stop herself from adding, “Way I hear it, that’s what we’re fightin’ to keep – the right to do things our own way.”

“Damn, Zoë, who’s got you spouting that?” Fuad asks, and she arches a brow at him. He clucks. “Of course. The new sergeant. But it's not a done deal – he’s still gotta pull though. Since you know so much about doing a colonel’s job, you probably know medicine too. Why don’t you get down to the infirmary, make sure those medics are doing their thing right?”

“Yes, sir,” she says, and she stands up stiffly to salute. She walks to the door, but stops there to look back.

“Colonel?”

“Yeah, Corporal?”

“Thank you. It means a lot.”

He just nods and waves her away with one hand, then shuffles through papers on his desk like he’s in a hurry to get on with more important things.

She makes her way to the med center, her thoughts held stiff and quiet and tightly focused on the route her feet take, and she finds Reynolds groggy but awake. He’s laying on a low cot behind a privacy curtain, a tangle of lines running to and from his body and a thick blanket over the top of him. He isn’t moving much; the extent of his hurts sees to that. But his face breaks into a dopey smile when he sees her.

“Hey, Corporal,” he says. “You come to arrest me?”

She pulls a folding chair across the room and carefully lowers herself in to it, then leans forward on her elbows and looks down at him.

“How you feelin’, Private?” she asks.

“Oh, I guess I been better,” he admits. His eyes are heavy with whatever painkillers he has in him, and his voice is scratchy. Zoë picks up the bottle next to the bed to offer him a sip through the straw.

“You’re lucky you’re breathin’ still,” she tells him. “Should be dead after what you pulled.”

He finishes his sip, managing to drink without loosing his grin. “Momma always said I have an angel lookin’ over me.”

“Sounds like a smart woman.”

“Yep.” He takes another drink, then rests his head back on the pillow. He looks at her hard, like he’s trying to will himself out of his haze, and his face takes on a bit of something serious. “Seems the angel had a little help this time `round. Last I recall, we were just getting out, and then….”

“Bit of parting surprise, knocked you flat. I got us into the Black, the colonel's men picked us up there. After a while.”

“Anyone else make it? Harris?”

“Just you and me.”

“Oh.” He looks away for a bit, then his eyes flick back to her face. He’s nowhere close to grinning now. “You okay?” he asks. “You were… not lookin’ too good.”

“Just some cuts and such,” she answers stolidly, adding to herself: Don’t think about it. Don’t even start. “Nothin’ too bad. I’ll be fine.”

“That’s good.”

He closes his eyes and lies still, breathing deeply, and Zoë thinks that maybe the drugs have taken over. She can feel her own weariness creeping up and considers leaving the news of his rank change for later, but can’t make herself move. Once she leaves here, all she’ll have is empty hours alone in her bunk, waiting to see what kind of nightmares find her. She’s got no need to hurry toward that.

Reynolds isn’t asleep. He speaks up after a moment. “So… when am I goin’ to the brig?”

She can’t help but smile a little. “Not anytime soon, `less you take it in your head to do somethin’ stupid again.”

He opens his eyes, looking more awake than she expects. “Not anytime soon?” he asks. “Fuad gonna skip the demotion and throw me out?”

“Actually, I just came from a talk with him.”

He smiles faintly. “That’s why my ears were burnin’. You two were talkin’ `bout me.”

“Your name came up.”

Reynolds has never been the serious kind, and he has a way of giving into drugs like there’s an even more boyish, carefree side of himself that wants to get loose. “What’s it gonna be?” he asks with a wider smile. “Lashes? Plank-walkin’? Time in the stocks? Three rounds in a boxin’ ring with you?”

“We got no planks or stocks, and any lashes or ass-whoopin’s are like to finish you off.”

“So?” He turns his head toward her, and through whatever chemicals have ahold of him, a hint of worry shows through. However the boy might talk, the man in there doesn’t want to leave this war. The man believes.

“Well, Reynolds,” she tells him. “This ‘private’ thing has to go.”

He frowns thoughtfully. “Ain’t a rank lower than private.”

“Which is why you’re a sergeant now.”

He stares at her for a moment, his expression frozen. “I’m hearin’ things,” he finally says.

“Sergeant Reynolds. Best get used to it.”

He holds her eye for a bit, then looks away with a grunt: hunh, sounding like ain’t that something?

“Guess I better write my momma,” he says.

“She’ll be proud, long as you don’t tell her how you earned it.”

“Yeah, she wouldn’t go so light as the colonel.” He thinks a bit more, than looks at Zoë again. “So I’m the new sergeant, huh?”

“Didn’t I cover that?”

“Just makin’ sure.”

Zoë sighs. “Long as you don’t kick in the next day or two, you’re the new sergeant.”

“Don’t think I’m keen on kickin’.” He gives her a sharp look. “Corporal Alleyne – if I’m a sergeant, then I reckon I can call you Zoë if I want.”

She has to think about it; she may not have considered about all the details before she’d gone to talk to the colonel. “I suppose I’ll let you do that,” she eventually says.

“And… ” His eyes narrow. “I can give you orders.”

She feels her mouth tighten. She certainly should have thought this out more carefully. “I reckon that’s so,” she admits reluctantly.

“Here’s my first order, Zoë. You go get yourself some sleep. You look like hell.”

She smiles. Private or sergeant, he’s the same person. Cheeky and smart-ass, but somehow bang-on with seeing how things are. But she doesn’t get up.

He’s still staring at her. “You disobeyin’ orders?” he asks, like he’s planning to jump up off that cot and give her a licking over it. As if he can do that, even when he’s not half dead.

“No,” she says, trying to sound casual. “I’m just movin’ slow.”

“Why’s that?”

She looks down. Don’t wanna be alone to think about it, she answers in her head. Don’t wanna go back there. But she does anyway, goes right into the horrible place like she never left. It makes her suck in a heavy breath that catches when her lungs fill enough to pull the broken skin on her back. She swallows hard against the burn, though that’s not the worst part. Physical pain fades after a time, but the swell of other feelings doesn’t. It brings an itch to her palms, and her hands clench around it. It’s like these hands belong to someone else, someone who needs to grab anything solid, anything hard or sharp. Anything that can hit, tear, cut, because maybe rage is the only thing that can cut though horror replaying in her mind…

“I gotta ask you somethin’,” she says, amazed at how calm she’s kept her voice.

“Go on.”

She doesn’t ask her question right away, doesn’t know if she can bring herself to talk about it. She might lose herself, and she’s beginning to sense that she can’t let that happen. It won’t be any regular tantrum or post-battle teary release of nerves and fear and adrenaline. If she lets go, it’ll be the storm of the century breaking on an village of grass huts; death and destruction are sure to follow.

She hears a rustling of the sheets, and looks up to see a hand on the edge of the cot, palm open toward her. She glances up the bed and sees a shadow on Reynolds’ face, a painful understanding in his eyes. He hadn’t been on that ship near as long as she had, but he’d been there. He knew.

She hesitates only a second before she accepts the offer. The warm grasp of his hand quiets the itching need to do violence with her own.

“I take it you saw what was happenin’ up there?” she asks, keeping her eyes focused on their joined hands.

His voice is deep with his own pain. “I saw enough.”

They sit like that for a while. The sounds of the infirmary’s main room are distant, and Zoë gets the feeling that she’s still out there in the Black, adrift in a void, hoping she’s made her escape for good, hoping that those monsters won’t be coming back for a second chance at her. But this time she knows for certain that she isn’t alone.

After a time, Reynolds lets go of her hand and starts shifting, and she hears his breath hiss when the movement pains him.

“What the hell are you doin’?” she asks, startled into speaking sharp. He flashes her a look, so she adds, with a little sauce, “Sir.”

He grins. “I gave you an order and you haven’t followed it. That’s 0 for 1. But, given as it’s new to you, I’ll let it slide. Even help you out a bit.”

She realizes that he’s inched over to the far side of the bed. There’s just enough room on the cot for her to squeeze in next to him.

She shakes her head. “Reynolds – Sarge – I ain’t after any kind of… anything like that.”

His eyes fix on hers, and she sees how deep the shadow in them goes. “You think you’re the only one feelin’ it?” he asks, his voice suddenly tight with the same kind of thickness that’s been trying to burst out of her own chest.

She nods her understanding and climbs onto the bed, then pulls the blanket over them both and lays back, all stiff and awkward, her arms over her stomach but her hip and shoulder pressed against his. The sounds of the medics doing their chores off beyond the curtains seem to fade even more, moving into the distance until all she hears is the low, deep rush of air in her lungs and the shallow, labored breaths of the man beside her.

“What the hell were they?” he asks into the dim light.

“Reavers.”

She hears a soft exhale in reply, then even softer words: “Didn’t think they were real.”

“I knew, but never saw `em before. Didn’t think they could be as bad as that.”

Mal doesn’t reply, and Zoë lays still a long time. She sees it all happening again in her head: mouths contorted in screams as skin peels back beneath shredded Alliance uniforms. She hears grunts of agonized pleasure from the creatures who hand out torment like it’s the sole purpose of their existence. She feels the weight of them on top of her, the blades and nails and teeth slicing into her, the slime of their bodies and the stench of their breath, like rotten meat. And she feels a ghost of the panicked desperation in her chest and stomach like too much coffee and not enough sleep and a pile of fear so deep and heavy it’s out to smother her, and she needs to get away, to make it stop, to do anything to bury the horror, no matter what the cost to herself or anyone else.

Her own words echo in her mind: Shoot me, Harris! You shoot me dead right now!

She clenches her hands into fists again, feeling her control slip. But cutting through the memory, the need to do something to escape this thing that has a grip on her, is the warmth of the man beside her. He has some of the same pictures in his head, the same feelings making his breath came uneven and shaky. The solid press of his body against hers is reassuring; it makes her certain of where she is.

She’s not up there anymore. She got away.

* * *

Zoë didn’t even try to explain the feeling to Book; she just listed the facts of Mal’s promotion, cold and hard and simple, without too much mention of the event that led to it.

“You actually gave Mal the rank you could have had?” Book asked. “Even though you’d been serving all your life and he’d just joined?”

Zoë nodded. “He was gonna be better at it.”

“And a colonel let you – a corporal – demand it?”

“Independent army ain’t like the Alliance,” she said. “We set some value on folks thinking for themselves, no matter what titles they got comin’ before their name.”

He nodded and looked aside thoughtfully. The rain outside the tent was falling as heavy as she’d seen it. A solid gray curtain of wet closed everything out, trapping her in this place with the Shepherd. And with Mal.

They’d decided together, the captain and her, to get off the ship. Not so many days ago, they’d kicked Simon out of the infirmary so they could talk in private, and without ever spelling it out in plain words, they’d come to an understanding: it was best for the crew that the captain leave his ship. It was best for him to be in an empty place, far from weapons lockers and engine systems and a galley and a infirmary where plenty of sharp things were to be found.

At the time, she hadn’t worried so much about how she’d deal with this her own self. She’d beaten it once, and she could beat it again. The one thing she couldn’t do was be left to carry it alone. This memory was being lost in Mal’s head; even now as he slept it was slipping away, leaving her with the full weight of it. She couldn’t allow that.

She took in a deep breath, then got started in earnest.

“We were fightin’ out on Deadwood,” she said, trusting the Shepherd to know she was stepping further back in time. “We’d been there some months already, tryin’ to keep the place clear. You know how remote it is – out that far, it was solidly Independent. After a few little squabbles the Feds must’a decided they needed a permanent base there, to change the tide of the sector or somesuch.

“They got a foothold pretty easy. We weren’t set up for heavy fighting then, and they only took a small spot. It led to an uneasy quiet, a peace while both sides stocked up for the real fight.

“The day Mal was made a sergeant, the Alliance had a few ships come in, unloading gear to their new base. Sergeant Ross – he was the Sarge before Mal – he gathered up a little group to do recon. Ross and I went with two privates, Harris and Connor, to help out. One to pilot, one to run the scanner and comm system.

“We made a few passes over the Alliance camp. Weren’t nothing risky about it; they didn’t have anti-air stuff set up yet. But then we saw another ship coming in. Somethin’ big, comin’ along nearly the same trajectory that the Alliance transports were using to approach the site. We wanted to see what it was, but moved aside a little so we wouldn’t start nothing.

“Turns out, we didn’t move far enough. We got a glimpse of the incoming ship, just enough to figure that it wasn’t like anything a sane person would fly. No containment, and the outside of it torn and mangled like it'd gotten chewed up and spit out. And then, `fore we could figure what was going on, we found ourselves gettin’ tugged along sideways – gorramn thing got us with a grappelin’ hook and pulled us along behind, reeling us in as it flew.

“It also got one of them Alliance ships that were sittin’ on the ground, people still walkin’ in and out of it. I could see the thing tumblin’ along behind us on another line, purplebellies flyin’ out the open hatches.”

She looked up at Shepherd Book, needing the sight of him to remind her of where she was. It wasn’t an easy story to go back over. She never had told it aloud, not even to Wash.

“We got drawn into what might’a been a cargo bay, back when it’d been a ship that carried cargo. The inside of it had been torn to bits worse than the outside and… well, you seen what they do, Shepherd. You can imagine the things they used to decorate. Some of them ‘wall-hangings’ were still moving. Still alive.” Barely.

“The Reavers hacked at our scout ship for a while, but once the Alliance ship got pulled into the bay and the doors closed out the wind, they went for the easy prey.

“You see – we were lucky, me and Sergeant Ross and the two privates. We’d been flying when we were caught with the grapple, had the engines and artificial grav on, the ship sealed up, and some time to lock down tight and hold on. The poor bastards on that Alliance ship weren’t so well off. Their hatches’d been open when they were snagged, and a bunch of folks had been shaken out while it was towed up.

“The ones that fell had the easy way out. The ones still in there… they got dragged into the bay.

“The scout ship I was on had a lot of windows… and... and that’s when I learned how the Reavers got their name.”

She glanced toward Mal, wishing he’d kept his sane on so she could let herself keep up with the flask. Now was truly the time for something, anything, to soften the edges.

She shook her head. “If I knew then what I know now, I might’a kept our ship sealed up and sat tight until the air ran out. But we didn’t understand. We just knew those Alliance soldiers were gettin’ an end worse than any human being deserves. We grabbed up what weapons we had and went out there.”

Now she looked up at Book, at his dark eyes glowing in the firelight against the backdrop of rainy gloom.

“They ain’t human, Shepherd. I don’t care what the stories say, there ain’t no way human beings could be how them Reavers were. The things they were doin’… the way they came runnin’ at us like they didn’t care a thing `bout bein’ shot – and not a one of them with guns, like they didn’t give a damn about living or dying, just wanted to act out their rage. They kept clawin’ their way toward us, even after they were full a’bullets and should’a given themselves up for dead.

“We fought `till the ammo got low, hopin’ we’d see the end of them sometime, but it took a lot of hits to take each one out. Most of the Alliance folks were dead, hit by our fire or torn to bits by the Reavers. Private Connor went down, and then the sarge got pulled down too, when he tried to help. Those things were crawlin’ all over him takin’ bites and… and trying to… and so I trained a gun on the sarge to stop his screamin’.”

Keep going, she told herself. Tell the tale` till it’s done, don’t you dare stop and think about it.

“We were backed toward a corner, me and Private Harris. Decent soldier; kept his cool, kept the fight goin’. I was on my final clip, and I was savin’ the last of it to end us when the other bullets ran out.” She managed a shrug. “Coup de grace ain’t usually my thing, but given what those things were doin’ to the others …”

Book nodded his understanding, and she went on.

“Didn’t matter – I never got a chance to use the ammo. The Reavers were throwing stuff at us by then, bits of scrap metal and whatever else was in that hellhole, and I took a hit in the head. Didn’t knock me out, but got me down, and I dropped my gun. Harris kept to his feet and backed off, but those things were all over me in a second.”

She had to stop. She could still feel it, could feel every detail of smell and sound and pain… But, somehow, the clearest thing to her now was the expression on Harris’s face. He’d stared down at her the way she’d just been looking at Sergeant Ross and at those poor purplebellys: with horror, pity, and disgust. It was like she wasn’t human anymore. It was like she was already dead, a thing instead of a living person.

“I told Harris to shoot me,” she said, her voice cool and steady as she could make it. “Those things were ripping at my clothes and cutting at my skin. Biting. Putting their… I ordered Harris to shoot me dead.”

She stopped again, trying to think of how to explain what she’d felt at that moment. It couldn’t be done.

“It was bad,” was all she could say, then she was quiet for a spell. What she’d seen on that ship would never be erased from her mind’s eye. Only when she was with Wash did it fade away enough that she could, for a time, completely forget.

“You might guess that Harris never did shoot me. Never had a chance, `cause just then the damnedest thing happened.

“The airlock door opened up, and instead of the winds of atmo or the vacuum of space, what came in was a blaze a’ gunfire, and those demons on my back went flyin’.” She actually smiled at the memory: Malcolm Reynolds, howling with the joy of battle as he walked into that hell with a big-ass rapid-fire gun in his hands, a minor arsenal of weapons and ammo strapped over the rest of him.

The words came easier now.

“Harris got to me and dragged me toward the airlock Mal’d come through. Once Mal figured out where we were, he threw a few grenades. Just like that, we had a path to get us out.”

Her voice cracked on the last word – just a little, but enough to be heard – and she had to pause and clear an ache of gratitude and relief from her throat.

“The three of us piled into the boat Mal had stuck against the outside of the airlock. I was cut up but not feeling much, just in a hurry to get the thing movin’. Harris got right to clearing the gear Mal’d used to force open the hatch on the Reaver ship, and Mal stood just behind him, gun working on what Reavers were still alive and comin’ after us.”

She paused to recall it – it was beyond her, the way those things kept coming. What kind of creatures act like that? Mutilate their faces and bodies? Take bullets like they relish the pain? Tear into people, devour even the injured of their own? And Mal had seen it too – What the hell…? he’d asked as he kept firing.

Book spoke up before she could go on. “Booby trap,” he said, not a doubt in his voice. Zoë gave him a questioning look, and he explained. “Kaylee let it slip some months back, how she took she care of a threat when we docked with that wreck, just after I came aboard. I've wondered how Mal knew to look for it.”

She nodded. “Captain learns his lessons. Well, now and then he does.

“The blast wasn’t big. but it probably killed Harris straight up. The force of it blew Mal back into the cockpit of his transport, which is the only reason he’s still alive today. We’d left atmo since we’d got sealed into the Reaver ship, and the explosion vented us to the Black. The hatch to the cockpit closed on its own behind him, and what air we had was mostly kept inside.”

That was another moment Zoë could close her eyes and recall as clearly as if it was happening again: Mal crashing against the back of her chair, then floating limply as the transport’s grav went out. She’d got out of the pilot’s chair quick, running into drifting globules of blood – her own and Mal’s – that had already begun to fill the small space.

“Mal got hit pretty bad. Burns and a few bits of debris stuck in his chest. I figured he wasn’t gonna make it, not the way he was lookin’, but I couldn’t leave him. Not after he’d come in there to get me.

“The transport we were in wasn’t gonna fly no more; it was crackin’ apart. But we’d got knocked away from the Reaver ship, and they had their own breach to deal with, so I had some time. I wrapped up the worst of Mal’s wounds fast as I could, then got the spacesuits. Stuffed Mal in one, myself in another, opened the hatch, and out we went.”

Drifting away from the shattered transport and the torn up abomination, hoping to whatever deity’s out there that those monsters don’t come back and finish …

“They shot out a grapple for the wreck we’d just been in. Guess they thought we were still there. They took it along, headin’ out of the system, leaving a trail of filth behind.”

…she watches them leave, floating in the Black, the sounds of her heavy breaths and racing heart trapped inside her helmet along with the smell of her terror. Her injuries begin to sear as the adrenaline slowly wears off….

“You got picked up?” Book prompted.

“Didn’t take too long. Maybe an hour.” Felt like years. The only thing to hold onto is the tether connecting her to another suit that shows nothing but wet red inside the faceplate. Just a bled out body, maybe, but she holds on anyhow. He saved her, and she’ll take care of him best she can. Even if it’s only to send his body home so his Ma can see him buried right.

“Turns out, though,” Zoë said, “it wasn’t a rescue ship that found us. The colonel thought I was long gone, and was only out to track Mal down and arrest him.” She glanced over to Mal where he slept. “Stupid húndàn’d stole them guns and that fighter, came after us against direct orders.”

Book smiled. “And he got promoted for it.”

She had to admit, there was some irony there. “Yeah, he did. So maybe I deserve part of the blame.”

“The blame?”

“For his attitude.” She felt an awkward smile spread across her face – wasn’t easy to speak lightly after the tale she’d just told. But the Shepherd got her meaning.

“I doubt anyone can take credit for that,” he said. “He seems to have been born with a heightened sense of independence.”

“Drove me crazy at first,” she admitted with a shake of her head. “I thought he’d be dead or AWOL within weeks after he joined. Didn’t think someone like him could fight in a war. And then I go and make him a sergeant.” She rubbed her neck, feeling an ache there like holding her head up was hard work. “But that’s a story for a different time. I’m talked out.”

“Are you… are you all right?” Book asked gently.

She had to think about it for a minute. She did feel tired and emptied out, but now that the telling was done she felt no dizzying edge closing on her. She looked down at her hands – these were her own. Under her own control, with no itch to do harm.

“I do believe I am,” she said slowly. “Could be better, maybe. Wouldn’t mind much if our ride showed sometime soon.” She looked across the hillside to the level spot where Serenity had landed just a few days back. It jarred her a bit to remember all the complications of the present, the unknown disaster that must have taken place on Highgate. She hated not knowing. She should have planned better, should have done something to see that this didn’t come to pass. And one regret twisted her stomach more than any other – she should have said a better goodbye to Wash.

“They’ll be here,” Book replied, his voice as firm as if he truly believed it. “Simon’s running things, and he’s as capable as they come. He won’t let us down.”

She shook her head. “Sad to say, the doc’s lettin’ us down already. Mal ain’t doin’ good. He’s gotten weak, mighty weak, for this thing to take him like it did.”

She rubbed her eyes; recalling the complications of her present situation – and Mal’s – didn’t do her any good. There wasn’t a thing she could do, no one to fight, no one to bark orders at, no one to blame for the delay. There was nothing to be done but sit and wait, and try to hold on to hope.

“Why don’t you get some sleep?” Book suggested.

She looked toward Mal; the Shepherd read her meaning.

“I’ll keep an eye on him. I understand the danger.”

Once the suggestion was made, Zoë felt exhaustion pile onto her like a blanket of lead. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than sleep – as long as old nightmares didn’t come for her.

She went straight to her bedroll without further argument, but then hesitated. After a moment, she shrugged and slid her sleeping pad right next to Mal’s. Let Book think what he wanted; she needed to feel the sarge next to her while she slept.

* * *

Translations

lăo tiān yĕ:God
húndàn:bastard
* * *

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COMMENTS

Thursday, December 20, 2007 3:50 AM

MAL4PREZ


And here is a chapter that’s been written for nearly a year and a half, though it’s gotten many little fixes here and there. This was the first of Mal’s history to be written out, and done before any of Book I. By which I mean to say – I’ve been waiting a damned long time to post this LOL!

Although, it isn’t the first bit of BackStories ever written. That’ll come in Book III. :) Two more chapters left in Book II, but no worries – I won’t be taking a long break between books this time. I’ll move right ahead…

Thursday, December 20, 2007 5:34 AM

WYTCHCROFT


great stuff (natch!)

Thursday, December 20, 2007 4:31 PM

PLATONIST


Wow! I didn't see this coming at all, but it makes sense with Mal's knowledge of Reavers and Zoe's line in the Pilot. And, it would have created a brilliant bit of dramatic irony, if this flashback would have surfaced in the series, with Wash's demise by Reavers in the BDM.

This is a finely crafted tale you’ve woven, mal4prez. I can’t wait to read more.

Thursday, December 20, 2007 4:34 PM

KATESFRIEND


It took me a couple of readings to get the gyst of this story. So Mal and Zoe were faced with the choice that the settler faced in Bushwacked? Originally Zoe succumbed to the madness a bit, but Mal didn't, and now is Mal's turn to risk the madness in his unsane state. Did I get it right?

The action was dynamic and nonstop. Telling this story backwards is definitely a challenge! I really loved the bond between them that was only deepened with the experience, and definitely defies explanation.

So glad to see more so soon! We're getting spoiled...

Friday, December 21, 2007 12:09 AM

DESERTGIRL


oh dear, you expect me to ge to sleep after reading that?

wonderful as usual though, even if it is somewhat disturbing, but what do you expect from reavers?




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Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.


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The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

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Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

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The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

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Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

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