Stand in the Sun
"Seemed like the thing to do," he says, because he knows how to die. He's had practice. (Five times Malcolm Reynolds died.) (pre-series to post-BDM)
A/N: This was, of course, inspired by "War Stories", because, honestly, what isn't?
Disclaimer: Joss is Boss.
"For what is it to die,
But to stand in the sun and melt into the wind?"
- The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
The first time, Mama doesn't cry. Her face is the first thing he sees when he wrenches open his eyes, spewing muddy water out of his lungs. Her face is white underneath the sunburn, but her blue eyes are dry. And there's a roaring in his ears that he becomes very accustomed to over the years, and the sounds of other people's voices echo far away behind it. But Mama doesn't say anything; her lips make a white line in her face, and it's the first time he thinks of her as a person, someone outside of himself, who has an identity outside of just being his Mama, who would be completely alone—and lonely—if he were gone.
He shouldn't have been that stupid. From where she bent over the petticoats and overalls spread out on the laundry rocks, she had shouted at him not to go 'round the bend with the river, not to get too close—it's fast and dangerous down there, and heaven knew how many head of cattle they'd lost to the current. But twelve years old is stupid and invincible, and if he could still hear the women singing sad songs and paddling the laundry, nothing could happen to him.
Of course he fell in. Bare feet slipped on a moss-covered rock and then the only thing he knew was browngreen water with sunlight shining through it, and then he was doing somersaults and he couldn't scream, and ta ma de, it was colder than he'd thought, and then there was nothing but liquid black.
After, the other boys treat him like he's some sort of hero—he died, Shepherd said. Died for two whole minutes 'fore Shepherd brought him back—and Shepherd West gives him a very stern lecture on obeying his Mama and staying away from places where the current is strong and the goodwives all fuss over him and bake him pies.
But that doesn't last, and it doesn't matter, because all he can think about is Mama's face. She never mentions it again, but for the first time it feels like growing up because now he sees the heartbreak in Mama's eyes and the little wrinkles on her face and hears the tremor in her voice when she says grace and notices how faded and patched her dresses are compared to the other ladies'.
He prays longer than ever that night.
The second time, he realizes he's really at war.
Thirst and bugs and mud and shit and stench and rain and gunpowder and blood. That's war. Lots of men with hard or empty eyes who don't talk much or brag too much. He ain't like any of them, though. Every night he kisses the cross around his neck and prays like Mama and the Shepherd taught him. And when he wakes up in the morning, he sings and jokes and desperately doesn't think.
It's easy not to think when adrenaline's coursing through you and your body's moving on its own. He finally understands why they did everything six thousand times in basic training—so you don't have to tell your body what to do because it just remembers, like how when you're small you can walk through your pitch-black house at night and find your way and never bump into a corner of a table or a wall.
He laughs and hoots and shouts at the enemy, calling them foul names Mama would have washed out of his mouth with soap had he said 'em at home. This is his way of staying alive: life is like a game, the greatest, most elaborate you can imagine, and it's gotta be played with abandoned joy.
He's stumbling over roots and old concrete blocks and he's poised on the edge of a crater when the world explodes into sound and flying dirt. He feels a crushing blow against his chest and another against his head and then he knows no more.
The colonel is an old man, but still spry, with a glint in his eye and as much muscle as any of the new boys. He's laying nearby when Mal wakes, peering over the edge of the crater and letting loose round after round on whoever's out there. He glances over when Mal starts to cough.
"What happened?" Mal asks, because he can't remember.
"Well, boy, you may not 'a been dead, but you sure as hell looked it. Still got your gun?"
There's blood trickling sticky down his forehead, and he can barely breathe. Mal reaches down and feels the bite of metal digging into his side—it's cold. "Yessir."
"Then get your gorram ass over here and start shooting."
He does as he's told.
The third time it makes him a hero, and he finds his best friend.
He wakes with a gasp and a fumbling for the cross around his neck and finds a face looking down at him. It takes him a minute to figure out it's a woman under that tangle of dark curls weighted down with mud and blood and maybe something else he isn't sure he wants to identify. There ain't too many women fighting on either side, and at first he thinks she's one of those nurse women who follow their husbands to war and stay behind the front lines to care for the wounded. But that don't fit her face. And she sure ain't one of those "women of ill repute," as Shepherd West used to call 'em who cling to the camp like fleas on a dog. That don't fit her eyes.
No, her face is carved like a soldier's and her eyes are just as hard as any he's ever seen, and it takes him several weeks to figure out that she's beautiful. By then, it's too late for him to fall in love with her, and so he never does.
Just after he wakes, though, she stares down at him and all he can think of is how she ain't Mama. The doc is fumbling at his side (blood, thick and sluggish and dark, is crawling from a wound) and this woman's holding his hand. "Guess you were dead."
"Ain't the first time," he grits out (he hadn't noticed till just now how much his side hurts. And he can't feel his legs). "Just hope it'll be the last."
"Remember what happened?"
After a while, he does. It was a transport ship, dropping off him and the rest of the reinforcements on Ithaca. Still miles up in the air when the ship rocked with the blow—only nobody in the ship rocked with it 'cause they were all packed so tight. Took him an eternity to fight his way through the sweat and the fear and the crush of bodies to the cockpit and wrench open the door. By then the ship was spinning like a merry-go-round, and he threw up twice. Pilot was hit, blood was pouring out of his chest, but he was still holding on. Mal shoved the not-quite-dead body away from the yoke and then yanked the ship up. He was fighting gravity and he'd never piloted anything but the mules back home on Shadow, but he held on, making sure that he could still see blue and not just brown in front of him.
Of course, in the end, all he saw was black.
She doesn't smile, but the way she talks, it's sort of like a smile. As close as anyone gets out here. "Reckon you saved my life."
"Huh. Well, ain't that somethin'."
After that, whenever he glances over his shoulder, she's always there, all long legs and brown coat and guns like they're parts of their body (he realizes quickly that he'll never be half the soldier she is). He don't much mind, though, because she don't talk much and the way she looks at him don't put a weight on his shoulders.
She ain't like the pups, Tracey and Morgan and them, who stare at him with big hero-worship eyes (at first it made him feel like somebody, but now it's just too much to bear). She don't look at him all soft and shining, either, like Rena Wilkins did back home ('fore the damp lung took her and her daisy smile away forever).
She's just steady and sure and there, and she ain't goin' nowhere, and that's all the constancy he can ask from the 'Verse.
The fourth time, and it feels less like a resurrection and more like a hangover. Only times a thousand. Or a million. His head's swimming too much for him to do the math proper.
Once his mind clears enough to hear, Niska's telling him he died.
"Seemed like the thing to do," he says, because he knows how to die. He's had practice. And dying can be awful useful sometimes. There's only so much pain a body can take. Of course, he'd forgotten how it can hurt more to come back to life again.
He kind of never expected to die alone. For all he shuts people out, he knows he's only ever defined himself by his relationship to other people. Or ships. Or governments. Seems sort of anticlimactic and pretty out of character to die alone.
Oh, well. He'll get it right the last time around, he's pretty sure.
Still, this was a pretty degrading way to die. Torture and blood and no fighting back. At least he was standing—and his boots were on. The old colonel used to tell him, Make sure you die with your boots on, boy, and he's always tried to live up to that.
His life didn't flash before his eyes—never has—because the time before was only pain. Now, though, it's the after, and he has time to think. He thinks Zoe'll come back after him. He wishes she wouldn't. He wishes she'd get the doctor to patch up that husband of hers and they'd all fly off and go hide somewhere in some corner of the galaxy where they'll all be safe. He can't think about somebody hurting 'Nara or Kaylee or the little crazy girl. Can't handle the thought of Zoe and Wash never having them some ugly babies—they'll look like their pa, of course. The Shepherd may be a man of God, but he's been nothing but good to the crew. And the doctor might be a pompous hwoon dahn, but he does care about his sister, and loyalty counts for something in Mal's mind. Hell, he'd even regret it if Jayne died. Maybe. Sort of.
So he's got to get out and get to them before they take it into their minds to get themselves killed—and he's pretty sure they're every last one of 'em crazy enough for that. So he drags himself to his feet and starts to fight again.
"You wanna meet the real me now?"
He ain't gonna die in this place again.
The fifth time, and it's the last, and he still ain't old.
'Nara's hand rests on his cheek when she kisses him, just like it always does, and for the thousandth time, he remembers the early days, when her hands were silk and velvet, delicate but sure, and that time doesn't seem quite so far away. But now there are calluses on the sunburnt skin, and he thinks maybe she's more beautiful than ever, maybe because of the silver in her dark curls and the lines around her eyes. There's worry in those eyes now, sorrow she doesn't even try to mask, and he thinks of how much she's changed and how much she must love him to show him what she's feeling like that. How much she must love him to let him walk out the door. He thinks that the love of her is all that gives him the strength to.
Even though he's spent the last two weeks saying goodbye to them in the only way he knows how (pouring love and time over them), the little ones are unsuspecting. He ruffles Nate's hair, then slaps his back to make up for it; at seventeen, mussed up hair is a crisis. Janie smiles her slow, quiet smile, the one that's more in her eyes than on her lips and kisses his cheek. He tugs one of Gracie's long braids and laughs as she shoves her hands on her hips and coolly regards him. Then he hoists her up in the air and all resemblance to Companion Inara is gone, and she's shrieking with laughter like her mama does on rare occasions that are worth living for.
Then he lets the screen door slam shut behind him—it bounces against the doorjamb before settling in, and that's the sound of home to him now. Zoë's waiting out by the gate, still looking as comfortable in her leather and brown coat as ever, rifle resting on her hip. He glances over his shoulder to see Inara silhouetted in the door, graceful as ever, and then there are three other figures crowding in close to yell goodbye to their daddy. The sun blinds him as they strike out east and the heat is already enough to make him break out into a sweat.
They find Serenity right where they left her, a half-destroyed lump of metal and wires sprawled on the floor of the canyon. He runs a hand reverently over a curve of metal, touching her like he's only ever touched Inara, and whispers, One more, baobei?
It takes them the better part of three hours to coax her to life and even then she sputters. But she finally limps off the ground, protesting that first they crashed her, dragged her to a dusty rim world, left her alone to rust for eleven years, and now they want her to fly again? But he pours his love into her, coaxing her into the darkness of space, and she barely rattles when they shoot off into the darkness. He wishes he could see her from the outside, wonders if her light shines as brightly as it used to.
He and Zoë don't say anything for the whole trip, but he knows that she's thinking about Wash. She knows that he knows and so he doesn't feel wrong at all to reach up and take down one of the dinosaurs and warm the plastic in his hand before slipping it into his pocket.
They reach the battle just as it's heating up, swinging down through the atmosphere and feeling Serenity tremble around them. They only get a few shots out of the cannon before they take one hit too many and bury themselves in the side of a hill. He isn't quite sure how long it takes them to fight their way out of the broken ship—it's like Serenity's a mother, fighting to keep them close to her—but he can hear the familiar sound of battle as they do.
Then it's the shriek of bombs and the shout of machine guns and the grunts of bullets striking bodies. And he doesn't move as fast as he used to, but his feet are sure and so are his hands and he's firing and firing and its blood and stench and sweat and Zoë is at his back and he remembers this, perhaps better than anything else.
He knew before he left that he would die here. He never expected to make it out of the first war, and he knows he won't be able to cheat destiny again. This is the end for him. Somehow he doesn't mind.
He thinks of Simon and Kaylee teaching their children to fix up people and machines with the same care. He thinks of River and her dances and her poetry and how her eyes are almost shadowless now. He thinks of Wash and Shepherd Book and Jayne, all gone now, dying as they lived. He thinks of Zoë beside him, just where she's always been. He thinks of Serenity, dying in this battle with him. He thinks of Inara and Nate and Janie and Gracie and the land and tomorrow. He thinks of peace and freedom and the right to be wrong.
And it seems like a pretty fair trade.
When the bullet finds its mark, he doesn't even feel it. He just lifts his face to the sun.