A/N # 1 -

I've included a song between the first two stories, because it acts as a bridge between them - I hope it works the way I intend. Basically, I want the two short little fics to flow from one right to the other, with the lyrics to the song connecting them. Hopefully, anyone reading this will see what I was trying to do. The song is called The Grave by Don McLean. The titles of the first two short stories are below, and they are then followed by two more short stories – all for the Joss100 challenge at LiveJournal. All the stories written thus far for Joss100 can be found here at or at my LiveJournal, (user name: writwritewrote), linked through a prompt table.

Title: One of the Dead
Prompt: 014 – The Past (list 2)
Word Count: 204
Progress: 14/100

Summary: The past is never really past…

-and-

Title: Back to Life
Prompt: 015 – The Future (list 2)
Word Count: 447
Progress: 15/100

Summary: He realizes he believes in a lot of things now.

ONE OF THE DEAD / BACK TO LIFE

The past is never really past. It's something Mal has learned the hard way and something he has come to accept.

He remembers the name of every soldier under his command; every man that died who would have lived if they hadn't been left to rot in Serenity Valley for two weeks after the fighting had stopped.

In his nightmares, he is still there with them – one of the dead.

Serenity Valley had changed him. Like the mythical phoenix, he'd been reborn in the fire – forged by hatred and pain into something other than a man. He'd left his belief there. He'd left his soul there. He'd left his heart there.

He didn't think he'd ever want them back either. There was no use believing, when the God you believed in could so easily abandon you in the Valley of Death.

There was no use in having a heart, when loving only brought you pain. If it wasn't the pain of betrayal, it was the pain of your heart breaking when you had to write another letter to another mother. Your child is never coming home.

And souls were only for the living.

He'd buried himself with his fallen comrades.

He'd never left Serenity.

The grave that they dug him had flowers

Gathered from the hillsides in bright summer colors,

And the brown earth bleached white at the edge of his gravestone -

He's gone.

When the wars of our nation did beckon,

A man barely twenty did answer the call.

Proud of the trust that he placed in our nation -

He's gone -

But eternity knows him, and it knows what we've done.

And the rain fell like pearls on the leaves of the flowers

Leaving brown, muddy clay where the earth had been dry.

And deep in the trench he waited for hours,

As he held to his rifle and prayed not to die.

But the silence of night was shattered by fire

As guns and grenades blasted sharp through the air.

And one after another his comrades were slaughtered.

In morgue of marines, alone standing there.

He crouched ever lower, ever lower with fear.

"They can't let me die! They can't let me die here!

I'll cover myself with the mud and the earth.

'Ill cover myself! I know I'm not brave!

The earth! the earth! the earth is my grave."

The grave that they dug him had flowers

Gathered from the hillsides in bright summer colors,

And the brown earth bleached white at the edge of his gravestone -

He's gone.

Book had told him to believe in something. He had died in Mal's arms, begging. And Mal had believed. He wondered if the spark had always been there, buried under the bodies of his dead soldiers.

He realizes he believes in a lot of things now. He believes in his crew; in their ability to fly true, despite the 'verses best attempts to throw 'em off course. He believes he was right to broadcast the truth about Miranda to all the known worlds. He believes that he can make it through another day, another month, another year without putting a gun to his head and finishing the job Serenity Valley had started.

He's found his soul again, too. Had found it when he'd first laid eyes on his ship and brought together his crew of misfits, mercenaries and fugitives; only he hadn't recognized it for what it really was until he had almost lost it all. It was battered from years of neglect but Mal knew it was there and had been there, waiting for the proper time to be found.

He suspects he might have even found his heart again. Of the three, it is this that bothers him the most. Hearts can be broken, and Mal figures he's already broken enough without having something else to worry about. He don't need more scars – especially not the kind on the inside; the kind no one else can see but him.

"I see them," his little Albatross whispers from the co-pilots chair. He hadn't heard her come in and her voice makes him start a bit. "But they aren't scars, they're stones in a pond."

"Pardon me?" he asks. It's the first time he's spoken to her direct since the night she kissed Jayne, almost two weeks ago.

"They're stones in a pond," she repeats gently. "No one can see the way they made you ripple, but they're still there beneath the surface. You carry them into the future with you and because of this, they never die."

Mal closes his eyes and thinks of the most recent stones he carries – Book, Wash, Inarra – and realizes River has it right. Ain't no shame in carrying scars on your heart because it means the people who put 'em there will always be with you.

"You can't be dead anymore, Captain – it's been long enough. You must carry your stones and live for them. The fact you have so many only shows your capacity to love."

Mal nods slightly, before turning away from her to look out at the stars. He thought he had died with his men at Serenity Valley, but now he realizes he lived for them.


A/N # 2 –

I've been reading and / or listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen lately, something I blame entirely on lattelady6 and aliaspiral. Not that I don't love Leonard Cohen, because I do, but both of these fine authors have written stories recently that strongly called a Cohen poem / song to my mind. Blame them for the poem at the end of this story as well – to me, this is Mal.

This story is for mutelorelei who made a couple of valuable suggestions to me in parts 14/15. I've tried to expand on those ideas here and hope I've managed to do so, even though this piece is short. Let me know what you all think and thanks for the reviews and support and suggestions – I do appreciate them all.

Title: Stones
Prompt: 016 – Current (list 2)
Word Count: 307
Progress: 16/100

Summary: She's carried plenty 'a stones of her own in the riptide of her mind.

STONES

If his dead are stones on his soul like she says they are, he wonders if that makes him a stone too. Do his actions ripple ever outwards until they fade? Will his face and name be remembered by the people who know him after he is gone?

His little Albatross has been making a lot of sense to him lately. He finds it disturbing 'cuz he don't want to understand her and he sure as hell don't want her understanding him.

He don't need her knowing looks or her sympathy.

He don't need her to tell him how his men live through him.

He don't need to be thinking on that one night, when he was weak and she was willing and he kissed her.

Before Miranda it had been easier to ignore her, to say she was crazy, to see Doc's little mei-mei – it ain't so easy now. He can't imagine what it had been like, having all the ghosts of a dead planet whispering to her. Millions of people, all 'a them with names and lives and people they loved and hated, crowding in her mind and her heart, begging her to speak for them.

She's carried plenty 'a stones of her own in the riptide of her mind.

He can't help contemplating on her. She's so much more than she appears to be – stronger, saner, wiser. Her quiet presence soothes him and he ain't got no defenses against her, except the ones he tries to place between them and they're half-assed at best.

She flows through him like a current and washes away his sins. She makes him believe there are things worth fighting for. She slips into his heart and sees the man who still remembers the names of all his stones and makes his burden lighter because she knows them too.

Villanelle for Our Time – Leonard Cohen

From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.


A/N # 3 -

This isn't the next prompt in order, but it's an idea that had been kicking my ass all week as I worked on cleaning and getting the Christmas stuff up. So, in lieu of Little Things which I am still working on, I give you this.

Title: Tantalus
Prompt: 072 – Myth (list 2)
Word Count: 797
Progress: 17/100

Summary: "You are Tantalus," she whispers a few nights later.

TANTALUS

"You are Tantalus," she whispers a few nights later. She's in the cockpit, looking at the stars. He hadn't expected to find her there, to be perfectly honest. It was late at night and he had purposely avoided going through the kitchen so he wouldn't have to see her.

She was the reason he wasn't sleeping.

He looks at her and wonders if it's too late to turn around and head back to his bunk.

"I have coffee," she says, holding out the cup she had in her hand. "It's very strong."

Mal sighs and steps closer. "Who did you say I was?" he asks, as he takes it and savors the heat of the mug in his hands before taking a sip.

"Tantalus," River replied. "Punished by the Gods; never allowed to eat or drink or have what he really wants, no matter how he yearns for it."

"Well, I don't know 'bout that, little Albatross. Seems to me I got pretty much everything I need. My ship is flying, I ain't starving and I'm drinking this here fine cup of coffee you made for me."

"Need and want are different things." River turns to look out at the stars. "You can have what you need and what you want. I tantalize you. If you reach out to touch me, I won't pull away."

"And I won't be reaching," he replies. "I'm old enough to be your daddy."

"But you aren't."

"You're just a kid and you don't know anything about life."

"I know too much about life," she murmurs. "And I haven't been a child since they cut me open and hurt me."

Mal pauses at that, before conceding the point. "That may be so, but it doesn't change the fact you have a chance to be a child now…again. You don't need to grow up too quickly. It's okay to be innocent."

"I've killed more people than you have, how can I be innocent?"

"Don't rightly know, little Albatross," he admits. She is studying him intently now, her eyes dark and depthless, swimming with mysteries. She's got her knees tucked up to her chin underneath her white cotton nightgown and even though the pose is that of a little girl, her expression isn't. He moves a bit closer to her despite his better judgment and takes another sip of coffee. "This…whatever it is, between us, it ain't right."

"But it is," she replies. "You know me and I know you. You and Inara – that wasn't right. You didn't love her. You hurt her."

Mal winces, "That's between Inara and me. Sometimes things just don't work out. We were too different."

"My point," River agrees. "We're the same. More scars on the inside than on the outside. Both of us created by the Alliance. They took out parts of my brain and tried to make me a killer Scarecrow. They killed pieces of your heart and tried to make you a Tin Man, but I can hear it beating again. At night, in the dark of my bunk, it calls for me."

He is standing right in front of her now – can feel the heat radiating from her body – and he realizes he's missed their odd conversations.

"I don't understand half of what you say, little witch."

"But you understand half of it," she smiles. "Is it wrong that I want to be human again? I want to belong to someone who wants to belong to me. Someone who understands me as much as I can be understood. Someone who makes me feel safe."

He crouches down to look at her and her legs drop. One of his hands reaches out and brushes a piece of hair hanging in her face back behind her ear and his fingers trace the shell of it before withdrawing.

"No one will understand," he mutters, "even I don't understand."

"You do," she whispers. "You recognized me the minute you saw me."

Somehow he is on his knees on the floor of the cockpit, his belly pushing against the seat and her legs on either side of him. Her arms are resting lightly on his shoulders, her hands dropping down his back. He leans forward until their foreheads touch. "I just want to sleep without dreaming," he sighs. "I can't stop thinking about you."

They sit that way for a few minutes. He closes his eyes and can still see her, but he finds it a comfort. "Tantalus, huh?"

"Not anymore," she sighs, "Now you are Mars, God of War, and I am Venus, Goddess of Love. You have come to me for comfort and peace and I will give you everything I am if only you will stay."

"River," he whispers against her lips as she kisses him.