End Song

-----

The second time Mal walked into Serenity Valley, he carried someone with him.

The grass was growing back in places, wiry green strands that strained against hard baked, burnt earth. Twisted pieces of metal gleamed from between the thicker patches, shrapnel like fragments from a nightmare that would remain until the ground swallowed them, making them memory.

His boot heels thumped against the ground, twice as heavy with her weight, the sound echoing off the ragged walls.

"When you can't walk, you crawl, and when you can't crawl, when you can't do that…"

The landscape rolled down and away across the bottom of the valley, rich browns and greens slowly reclaiming life from blackened ruin. A few tiny yellow flowers poked their heads up from the green spaces, a white winged butterfly fluttering in their midst.

"Don't you go. Don't you go on me."

"Wish I wasn't, sir."

-----

He dug as the first few fat drops of rain spattered against the ground, their fall unmindful of the sunlight that peeked out from between the clouds. He dug until his shirt soaked through with sweat and his arms throbbed. Until the light slanted red, bathing the valley in the crimson color he remembered so well. The one that'd made blood invisible, and smoothed piles of bodies into the landscape.

"They're not coming, sir."

"You been to that valley since then?"

"Every day."

-----

A golden cross, still on its chain, twinkled around her neck; a ghost from a past abandoned, bloodstains like broken dreams still caught in the links. He'd cast it from himself the day his world died, trampled it beneath the mud and blood right here on this very ground and bid it good riddance.

"It's just an object. It doesn't mean what you think."

"None of it means a damn thing."

He'd walked on and never looked back. Hadn't seen it or given it a thought since then.

Until the day she'd gone cold and he'd been left behind to go through her things.

"Treat her proper, she'll be with you 'til the day you die."

-----

He gave her gently into the embrace of the earth, laying her to rest with slow reverence. He brushed the dust from her cheek, moved aside a stray curl, his fingers finding reasons to linger, to keep her with him just a little longer.

"Whatever happens, remember I love you."

-----

He buried her beneath an apple tree near a sheer wall of the valley. Its limbs were stunted, but there were leaves, tiny green leaves that curled upward toward the sun, tasting the rain and seeking the sky.

He knelt, reached into the mound of earth and pulled out a fistful of dirt.

Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave.

Dust streamed away through his fingers, and he sat, watching it fall.

"When we walk out of this valley, Zoe, we're gonna be the biggest heroes ever lived. They'll build a monument right here, sing songs and dance and such, celebratin' the day we won the war."

"You think so, sir?"

"Sure as God did make us all."

-----

The second time Mal walked out of Serenity Valley, he walked alone.