Author: just_slummin and Midnight Obsidian
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox….again.
Note: Takes place several months after the events of "Stormfront" in the Mal/River storyline. (And yes, it's true. The siren song of Serenity could not be resisted for one moment longer. Mal started whispering in my head again, and then Midnight Obsidian whispered in my ear, and then….well, this is what happened.)
Summary: Serenity's crew discovers that, despite the fall of the Alliance, there are still some dangers to contend with in the big, wide 'verse.
On the last day of the First War for Independence……..
He sat cross-legged on the small rug, busily engaged in playing Allies and Indies with his small stash of toy soldiers. It was fun, he thought, especially the part where he made the sounds of ships exploding in the spectacular way that only six-year-old boys can make such sounds.
He could hear, as if from some great distance, his mother muttering low and dark in another room and he wondered if perhaps he should go check on her. But he really did not want to, as the game would be woefully interrupted if she found out about it. Most of his games were brought to a halt by her arrival at any given moment and, over the short span of his life, he had come to be greatly annoyed by that fact. However, like very small children do, he loved his mother, despite her increasingly obvious shortcomings. And above all, he wanted to please her. Perhaps if he just played for a few minutes more, nothing bad would happen, he reasoned.
A loud scream interrupted his musings and he jumped to his feet, racing toward his mother's room. Little legs pumping like mad in rhythm with his heart, he ran down the narrow hall and swung the door of his mother's room open wide.
He stopped suddenly, frozen by the tableau in front of him. His mother was huddled on her knees in the middle of the floor, her hair falling wildly about her face and her eyes feverish in the way that always made him nervous. "Mama?" he asked, his voice hesitant in the sudden stillness.
She turned her head more directly toward him and squinted as if he were difficult to see.
A low moan escaped her lips, and she began to rock back and forth on her knees, her thin body shaking with some terrible emotion he could not fathom.
"Mama?" he said again, daring now to take a step into the room toward her.
"Be still," she hissed, her eyes focusing on him with abrupt venom. "Be still, you wicked, wicked boy." As if pulled upward by her concentration on the hapless child, she stood on suddenly steadier legs. "What were you doing in there?" she asked, an unspoken accusation in her voice.
He swallowed nervously and shifted on his little feet. "Nothing, Mama," he answered as innocently as he could manage.
"Nothing?" she hissed, advancing toward him with no small amount of malice.
"Just p..p..playing," he admitted. A small tremor of fear made him stumble over the word.
"Playing," she spat out, towering over him. "Playing, at such a time as this. God help me, but you are a wicked boy."
His eyes misted with tears, though he did not understand why this time should be any different from any other time he chose to play. Modulating his voice as he had learned to do when he spoke to her in this mood, he said, "What's the matter, Mama? Has something happened?"
For a terrifying moment, he watched her face, unsure of her reaction to his question. She shook violently and then, to his relief, he saw that the worst of the storm had apparently passed as abruptly as it had begun. Looking down at him, she sighed heavily and rubbed tiredly at the deep lines that ran down the sides of her nose. "Your daddy's dead," she said flatly.
The boy felt the words like a physical blow. Struggling to breathe past the sudden tightness in his chest, he said, "No, Mama, no." He backed away from her, needing to put as much distance as he could between them, praying that her words were just the beginnings of another one of her bad spells.
Her hand shot out, gripping his arm tightly and preventing the escape he so desperately needed. Jerking him toward the Cortex screen in the corner of her room, she spat out, "Look for yourself, if you don't believe me. It replays in a continuous loop."
Reluctantly, he looked at the screen, watching with real dread the words he could not yet read scroll across the picture. He did not need to read to see that what she had said was true. There, in gruesome color, was a battlefield a thousand times worse than the ones he had envisioned in his play. A somber man stood in the foreground, speaking in a hushed tone as a group of men lifted something from the ground and onto a stretcher. The little boy scrubbed his eyes with his fists, hoping with all the optimism of youth that what he was seeing would mercifully disappear before his vision cleared again.
But it was not to be. When his eyes opened again, he saw the same sight before him. His father was being carried off the battlefield. A grubby blanket covered his face, but the boy knew his father's form as well as he knew his own. Tears welled in his eyes as the reporter droned on in somber tones about the loss of thousands of the Alliance's finest soldiers in the bloody battle of Serenity Valley. No longer even aware of his mother standing behind him, he studied the faces of the people on the Cortex screen, imprinting the images deeply into his psyche. And a terrible, fierce rage grew in his small heart.
He thought of his father, the bright light in his young life, and how he often dropped by at odd hours, handing Mama a box filled with vials of what she called her 'happy medicine' before dropping to his knees to embrace the boy. He thought about the night Daddy came to visit and pried open the pantry door, releasing him from his mother's discipline with a hard scowl in her direction. He thought about the terrible fight that had ensued, and the way Daddy had held him close and told him that when the war was over, he would take him somewhere where little boys were never locked in pantries for days on end, someplace where he would not have to worry about displeasing Mama. Bitterly, he realized that now his father would not be able to fulfill that promise, nor the myriad others he had whispered into the boy's ears since birth.
Slowly, he became aware of his surroundings again and he saw his mother standing beside him. "See?" she said. "I told you." Staring at the screen, she continued, "Look at them. Look at them close." She jabbed one bony finger at the screen, pointing to a ragtag group of men wearing long brown coats. "That's who killed your daddy. Don't you ever forget who killed your daddy. Dong ma?"
The boy nodded jerkily. "I won't," he whispered. And as he stood there with his mother, soaked in his growing anger, he knew with absolute certainty that he never would forget, and that someday those men on the cortex screen would pay for what they had done.
To be continued