A LION’S MOUTH (01) Part (04)
Saturday, May 21, 2011

The questions continue and Mal revisits his darkest hours.



Part (04)


The questions continue and Mal revisits his darkest hours.

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* * *

“I’d like to talk about Serenity Valley…” the Alliance patrol captain began.

There it was. Always, always, they wanted to bring up the war. “Well I wouldn’t,” Mal answered, feeling the quick pulse of rising anger.

“You see, I think you knew someone there who was very near and dear to me.”

That wasn’t at all what he expected. He was stunned into silence for a beat.

“Did you know Lieutenant Harold Baker?” She was asking now, not interrogating.

After a brief moment of silence, Mal answered. “Yes.” He looked at her with new eyes. “You a relative?”

She gave a small nod, and her next words were a request, not a command. “Please tell me everything you know.”

Mal gathered his thoughts for a moment. Telling everything—that was something he hadn’t done for a while. Hadn’t done—地狱 dìyù, he’d avoided it as much as humanly possible. Tried never to think on it. Walled it off until it only crept out in unguarded moments and dreams. Never thought, and never got past thinking, about the war, about Serenity Valley, about all those men and women dead, and dead at his command. The Alliance defeated them, but Independent command abandoned them. He was a sergeant, just a sergeant 该死 gǎisǐ, yet at one point he’d commanded the equivalent of a regiment. And he’d seen them die, one by one, by squads, by platoons, by companies, the consequences of his command decisions laid out so graphically before his senses that it was not possible to avoid acknowledging them. The support of those who were supposed to be commanding him had failed him so entirely, so completely, during and after the battle. Alliance fired the bullets, but he’d done the killing, sure as if he pulled the trigger himself. And he was left to live with the consequences.

But telling a relative of a fallen soldier—that was different. Didn’t change a thing, knowing when or how your loved one died—they were still dead—but it brought a measure of peace to the living. He’d done it many a time in the war and not a few times since, talking or writing to the relatives of the fallen. It was bitter medicine, but they all seemed to derive some small measure of comfort, to hear it from the lips of someone who was there, what had befallen their loved one. It was a duty he owed to those who’d died next to him in Serenity Valley. He shouldered his responsibility, looked at the captain—Baker’s relative—and spoke.

“Lieutenant Baker came to our platoon right after the Battle of Du Khang—’cause our previous lieutenant was disabled. He was a decent kind of officer and we took to him right away. Reckon he took to us, too. Used to always tell us we were like his old boots…just as beat up and just as reliable.”

There were some smiles, and even a few chuckles, from both Mal and the captain, as Mal recounted. Yep, this was the Lieutenant Baker they both knew. “He had a way with words, always sayin’ the right thing to keep us going when things went bad. He wasn’t stand-offish with the enlisted men and women, like some officers. Cared about the details, actually asked ’em about their homes and families…”

* * *

Eight Years Previously

Sergeant Reynolds and Lieutenant Baker were almost exactly the same age, born in the same month with birthdays ten days apart. The soldiers in the platoon had noticed early on how well the two worked together—like peas in a pod, or twin brothers. It was a relief, and made life in the platoon a lot more comfortable. 佛 Fó knew there’d been enough times when the Alliance’s penchant for knocking off officers meant Sarge had to break in yet another green lieutenant. The worst ones were the 混蛋 húndàn who thought their book-learning at officer training camp counted for something in field and hadn’t yet learned that trusting the Sarge’s instincts and battle experience meant saving lives.

It was a quiet moment in the war. Some folks imagined that war was all about bullets flying, curtains of fire and big explosions, but it was mostly about waiting. Days, weeks of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Sergeant Reynolds and Lieutenant Baker were taking advantage of this particular quiet moment to talk about home. The platoon was behind the line on rest detail, and although there was occasional sporadic gunfire in distance, it was nothing that concerned them. Didn’t hardly register as background noise. Their casual attitudes made them look more like buddies than officer and subordinate. Baker was showing Mal a moving capture. It showed a lovely young woman wearing a pretty dress, with her hair done up nicely. It was not as if there weren’t women in the army—but they weren’t wearing the pretty clothes and they didn’t have time to do their hair like that. The capture was Baker’s most recent letter from home, and the girl was sweet and practical, with a sense of humor.

She was laughing. “…so we finally got the pigs back over the fence. You see how diligent we’ve been about tending the vegetable garden. But now I expect it’ll all go to the Alliance. Resistance is crumbling here—they’ll have finished taking over the planet by the end of the week. At least I’ve still got my work…I probably won’t be able send you another for a good, long while, so let me just tell you that I love you, and—”

Baker snapped it off. “The rest is private.”

嘿 Hěi, it was just getting interesting! Sir,” Mal added as an afterthought, recollecting that technically, Baker was his officer. A little pause restored the feeling of being buddies, and he said, “So that’s your girl, huh? No wonder you’ve been eager to get some leave. But I guess that’s out of the question now.”

“Probably ’til the end of the war. What about you, Reynolds? You got someone special back on Shadow?”

“Yeah,” he grinned. “Wanna see her picture?” He showed Baker a snap and was pleased to see Baker’s eyebrows lift in that universal gesture that says “wow.” Mal grew more serious. “I was gonna ask her—”

“This is serious, then,” Baker interjected.

“Didn’t want to rush things. I should have—”

“You should apply for some home leave, Reynolds. Independent Command owes you that, you’ve been on combat duty non-stop since the war began. A little R ’n’ R on Shadow would do you good. And Reynolds, take my advice: first opportunity you get, be sure to marry that girl. I married my girl on Boros when I went home on leave five months ago. We didn’t have but five days together as husband and wife before I had to come back out here, but I have never regretted it. If I die, I’ll know I died married to the girl I love.” Baker then lightened the serious mood. “Besides, if you don’t, someone else’s like to get to her first, sweep her off her feet—Hey!” he said as Mal mock-punched him.

* * *

Seven and a half years previously

Baker spoke in official tones. “We’ve got orders to move out, effective immediately. Command says we’re likely to be in action the moment we get there. All leave is cancelled.”

“Yes, sir.”

Baker then shifted his tone to a more personal one. “I’m sorry, Reynolds. I know how much you wanted to see her. I hope High Command sees fit to give us a little R ’n’ R when this piece of action is over.”

Mal nodded and took his leave. He moved through the encampment, all sergeant now. “We’re moving out, people! Shake a leg!”

* * *

Seven and a half years previously, Serenity Valley

That night, the action heated up. Lieutenant Baker, Mal, and the platoon occupied a sandbagged redoubt under hot and intense fire. This was one of those moments that made up for the weeks of unmitigated dullness. Artillery was keeping up a heavy barrage and the angels flew high overhead, for the most part keeping clear of the anti-aircraft fire. At the moment there wasn’t much shooting, but that would come as soon as the artillery had done their thing. Browncoat soldiers straggled in from other sections of the line with reports. Baker and Mal hustled around, listening to the reports and directing the newcomers to position. The news wasn’t good. It seemed that officers were being selectively targeted, and whole units had been wiped out.

“Lieutenant Guzman is dead, sir. Just two of us got out,” a private reported to Baker, while another pair of soldiers briefed Mal about casualties in another part of the line, “Think it’s just me, Yamada, and…” she turned to her buddy, “Did Speransky make it?”

The communications corporal flagged down Baker’s attention. “No response from ‘C’ Company, sir.” He looked up from his communications set. “Headquarters took a direct hit, sir. No word about the colonel.”

Mal bent over a wounded soldier, tying off a field dressing. Should do, if she could get medical attention soon enough. “We need a stretcher here! Get her to the field hospital.”

Zoe, as always, was by his side. “Field hospital’s gone. Took a strafing. Already overflowing with wounded.”

* * *

By dawn, the action had relented a bit. Their ears were still stunned from the noise of the night’s bombardment, and their conversation was conducted in shouts. Everyone kept up a grimly humorous tone, keeping up each other’s spirits in the charnel house of the redoubt.

“Gotta look on the bright side, sir,” Mal quipped, or rather, hollered. “By my reckoning, you’re now a major general.”

“How do you figure that, Sergeant?”

“Well, sir, we got A company, B company, the remnants of D and E, Watkin’s entire regiment, Ching Lo’s air-tank squadron, what’s left of Srinavan’s fleet of air skiffs, and the survivors from Maghreb’s regiment. Plus the remnants of VII Brigade. That’s near about 2000 fighting men and women, and you the only officer. That makes you a general.”

Baker laughed. “Well, Reynolds, then you’re Sergeant Major of Seventh Brigade. Congratulations on your promotion. Now, you reckon you can wangle some air support?”

“Workin’ on it, General Baker.”

* * *

As night fell, the situation turned more desperate. Air cover had been sporadic and the Alliance had come in and hit the Independent forces when they were vulnerable. They hadn’t seen the angels come flying for a long while, and the Alliance finally gained the advantage in the sky. What they needed to carry the day, at least in their sector, was an armored unit to support an infantry advance. Mal never lost faith that they’d come through, and the Sarge’s confidence was catching. Baker wound up the troops with an inspiring speech about holding the Valley against the Alliance. Mal spread the word up and down the line, embellishing Baker’s words somewhat, tweaking them a bit, until he came up with a turn of phrase that really caught the ear.

The armored unit never came through. Hot bursts of fire from automatic weapons showered the trench, and those unlucky enough to have been caught without good cover paid the price. In one such burst, Mal saw Baker cut down. He and Private Graydon bent over Baker to apply a field dressing. Tearing open the lieutenant’s brown coat, Mal saw that his entire belly and much of his chest was cut up like ground meat. Baker took one look at his sergeant’s face and knew that he knew he was dying. “Hold on,” he gasped, and spoke no more.

* * *

“Those were his last words.” Mal spoke from a far away place. “We held, of course, for near another two weeks. Then High Command told us to lay down arms, and left us there to die for two more weeks while they worked out terms of surrender. Only 150 of that 2000 made it out of Serenity Valley alive.” He had to stop. His throat felt thick, and what was that gorram prickle under his eyelids? He adjusted his gaze to the captain’s face and saw that she was weeping. “I’m sorry,” he said with full sincerity. “Lieutenant Baker was your… husband,” he realized, recognizing the pretty, laughing girl from the capture behind the captain’s present severity. “Oh god…You were his girl, back on Boros.” He just barely kept his own emotions in check, and when he trusted himself to speak again, it was in a husky, choked voice. “I am sorry. I haven’t spoken of that place in more ’n seven years.”

There was a moment of silence while each of them tried to pull themselves together.

Captain Chien Baker spoke first. “Th—thank you, I never knew how he—just a listing in the bulletin—it’s better to know what happened.”

Was it? Mal wondered. He thought of all the folk he had lost whose end he did not properly know—not just the soldiers, but all the folk from Shadow. Granny MacEachern, Hank Blodgett, his sweetheart, his own Ma—it was too much. Changing the subject to try to regain his balance, he asked, “How’d you end up in this job? Workin’ for the Alliance?”

It was a relief to speak of something less emotionally charged. “My sympathies lay with the Independents, back then,” she answered. “But I lived on an Alliance planet. After the war, there was no point in fighting it. And plenty of point in helping to keep the peace. I always worked in law enforcement.”

“After what the Alliance did to you?”

“Government, bureaucracies, military, even corporations—all unfeeling entities. But they are made up of people. Bureaucrats, soldiers, corporate workers—they’re all human beings. Best you remember that.”

* * *

Aides were called in. The papers were checked and stamped. Necessary business concluded, they stood up and shook hands.

Captain Chien Baker handed Mal’s papers back to him. “You give that first mate of yours all the support you possibly can. She’s gonna need it. Widowhood is a tough, tough road to travel.”

“I know,” Mal replied.

The captain gave him another one of those hard looks of hers. “You do?”

“I was raised by a widowed mother. I saw what she went through.” It was a start, the captain thought. Not enough, but he was going to try. She said, “And Captain, be careful. I may know the Tams are no longer wanted fugitives, but not everyone in law enforcement is as scrupulous about checking the updates. And bounty hunters most certainly aren’t. We’ll escort your ship as far as Boros, as long as you don’t fly like a crazy person. Keep the scavengers away from those enticing pinblocks.”

* * *

As Inara approached the dining room of Serenity to make herself a cup of tea, she saw Mal facing Zoe at the table, both of them nursing coffee mugs. Zoe looked a bit off-color, Inara noticed, and it seemed Mal was doing his best to comfort her. He reached over the table to take his first mate’s hand. It seemed awkward. Mal and Zoe always communicated without touching, usually without words, and often without even looking at each other. They just synchronized somehow and worked together as a team. She’d never seen them discuss emotional issues. Their relationship was the polar opposite of touchy-feely.

Inara stepped over to the galley lockers and began preparing the tea. “…’cause I, you know…just wanna make sure you’re alright,” Mal was saying.

“I’m alright, sir,” Zoe replied evenly.

Inara regarded Zoe. She did look alright, but not much better than alright. Then Inara took a look at Mal. He didn’t look alright at all, and seemed more in need of comfort than Zoe.

“Mal, are you alright?” she asked.

“Yeah…I…well…not….” He didn’t seem capable of anything beyond incoherent monosyllables.

“That was a pretty lengthy interrogation,” Inara said. “You look like you’ve been put through the wringer, Mal.”

“Not interrogation…just…talking.”

Just talking put Mal in such a state? Inara pondered what kind of talking could do that to a person.

“About Lieutenant Baker, sir?”

Mal nodded.

Zoe spoke to Inara. “Our platoon commander in the war—at Serenity Valley.” To Mal she said, “Lieutenant Baker thought the worlds of you, sir. Told his wife there never was a better sergeant…that you were the reason he was able to keep going, and get through it.”

“He didn’t get through it,” Mal ground out. “He died.”

Zoe looked at Inara. “Patrol captain is Lieutenant Baker’s widow.” Inara immediately understood that Zoe and the patrol captain had had a bit of widow-to-widow chat, during their second interview. That’s why Zoe was alright. Mal was lost in his own world of trauma, and couldn’t see it.

“She got me talking about…I ain’t never talked about it, not since…” Mal was rapidly turning to anger, Inara saw—his usual response when he wanted to avoid dealing with his emotions. “Don’t never want to.” He slammed his coffee cup onto the table.

“What you did there was heroic,” Inara offered. She’d heard enough about Serenity Valley—never from Mal, and rarely from Zoe, but second-hand from the others in the crew—to come to this conclusion.

“I lost 1878 men and women in twenty-six days. If that’s heroic, then a hero is someone who gets people killed.” Mal stomped off to his bunk, opening the hatch with a vicious kick.

Inara’s impulse was to follow him, but Zoe stopped her. “Never once since Serenity Valley has he spoken about it. That’s a first. ’Bout time he let those words come out of him.”

“He’s got to let those feelings out, too.” Privately, Inara would have liked to put Mal through a course of cognitive behavioral therapy and enroll him in a post-traumatic stress disorder support group, but somehow she doubted he would volunteer for the treatment, even if it were feasible. Still, anything she could do to encourage him to express his feelings and his grief over those events, she figured to be a step toward healing.

* * *

Mal dropped down the ladder into his bunk and aimed a kick at the bulkhead. It didn’t give like the hatch, and he hobbled, cursing fluently in Chinese, over to the desk. He drove his fist into the filing cabinet, and drew it back, shaking it in pain. He tried to take refuge in anger—it was his favorite defense mechanism to avoid dealing with the deepest wounds. Didn’t want sympathy, didn’t want pity, didn’t want Inara’s melty-eyed looks. What did she know about war? He’d just spent an hour opening the door to some of the darkest corners of his life. It hurt, gorramit, it hurt. He sat heavily on the bed, scrubbing his hands over his face, trying to rub away the visions of death and destruction dancing before his eyes. Hold on. Hold on. Rubbing away the wetness that seeped through his fingers, despite himself.

* * *

The Captain’s pain was palpable, River thought, looking deep into the black as she guided Serenity on a steady path towards Boros. The physical hurts didn’t even begin to distract him from the pain within. She gazed out at the stars and felt the river of tears flow down her face.

* * *

There was no approaching the Firefly now, with its Alliance escort. The blue-gloved hands glided over the smooth control panel. The latest generation of long-range sensors made it easy to track the quarry while keeping well out of range of the battered old transport’s proximity detectors, even if the stealth system had not kept the ship sufficiently disguised. Perhaps targeting the quarry was not entirely necessary. There were other ways to play the game.

* * *






地狱 dìyù [hell]

该死 gǎisǐ [damn it]

佛 Fó [Buddha]

混蛋 húndàn [bastards]

嘿 Hěi [Hey]

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Saturday, May 21, 2011 7:40 AM


That was an interesting turnabout. :) Some nice emotion at the end there, good character voices. And the stinger for a follow-up.

Saturday, May 21, 2011 11:37 AM


Pity the Alliance vessel couldn't detect that gorram stealth vessel and take out those blue handed demons. Gorramit, things never go smooth do they? Really good emotional content and the reactions were spot on. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, May 21, 2011 4:52 PM


Maybe I'm strange, but this chapter caused me to wonder about Mal's predilection toward Indy Ploys (TV Tropes article name for last minute, too crazy to fail plans to escape a nasty fate) he incapable of making long-term "good" plans, or is Mal psychologically blocking himself from planning anything where the concept of ordering someone to their injury or death for a greater good? We certainly see the scars of Serenity Valley and the lingering belief that he was the killer of almost 2000 men due to commanding them to fight with 110% effort to beat back the Alliance. Some tough territory for anyone, not just Inara, to cover :(

In any case, this was a fantastic chapter, ebfiddler! Voices? Spot-on. Plot? Tight and powerful. Shines a light on Mal's cracked psyche? Every hairline fracture that needs healing up!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 3:40 PM


Thank you for your comments! I really appreciate the feedback.

I'll be posting the next story soon--I'm working in a few revisions suggested by my beta reader, and retrospectively adding in some elements to make things more consistent with my storyline further down the pike.


Thursday, November 29, 2012 5:47 PM


Oh, thank you, R_T. Glad you enjoyed it. The Alliance Patrol Captain is this fic is actually named for a conflation of the names of my sister's Chinese teacher and one of my roommates in grad school. But thanks for your fun fact anyway. That is amusing. :-)


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ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (20)
“Vaccinations?” Jayne asked, with a stupid expression. “Fer chickens?”

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (19)
“Inara, I ain’t willing for you to bribe—” “Who said anything about bribes?” “What other form of persuasion you plannin’ on using? I’m not sure I like this plan.” “Mal, I can be very persuasive,” Inara replied. After a short beat, she added, with a touch of asperity, “Fully clothed.”

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (18)
Extreme measures as more things go wrong

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (17)
In which things begin to go wrong

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (16)
Waiting for the other shoe to drop

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (15)
Serenity enters the Core, Mal and Inara sleep together, and Simon and Ip come up with a plan.

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (14)
In which we find out more about Miranda

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (13)
Simon makes an announcement; Zoe and Inara take Mal to task

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (12)
Mal tells Inara a folktale from Shadow

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (11)
Inara and Zoe have a little palaver