take my love, take my land, take me where i cannot stand
i don't care, i'm still free
you can't take the sky from me

episode three:
into the black

chapter one:
(the losing side)

St. Albans was not, Mal conceded, the best of stopping points, partly because of their semi-nasty history with the place, but more because it was currently the - in River's words - "pinnacle of winter" and St. Albans took winter a good deal more serious than the rest of the 'Verse. Malcolm Reynolds and cold weather had never mixed especially well, but they were too short of fuel to make it out to the Kalidasa system without stopping somewhere, and of all the options available, St. Albans was the one least likely to stage an immediate riot for their blood the moment they set down.

Besides, it might be good to visit Tracey's grave. At the very least, it was a good excuse to get out of the ship for a while, since they'd be on it for the next three weeks or so with nothing but each other's company and a whole lot of black space to look at. He'd set that up on purpose, a necessary evil after their antics on Sihnon, even though they didn't exactly have a great track record with long trips in the black, and even though it was stupidly difficult to arrange, to the point that River had actually started hitting him and Wash whenever they would step in to try and work out the kinks in the navigation. She had managed to come up with a plan that would allow them to avoid refueling altogether - something about slingshots and Jovian bodies - but due to the distinct lack of Jovian bodies that weren't crawling with Alliance, he'd been forced to throw out that plan.

They were still about twelve hours out, though, and he'd taken the helm from Wash so that he'd have time to sleep, wake up, and drink a couple cups of coffee before having to land, when something crashed through the door behind him. He whirled around, gun out, ready to either put a bullet to their tresspasser (since, hey, that crazy bounty hunter had gotten in somehow) or at least scare the pants off whoever was clumsy enough to startle him. It turned out to be Aang, sprawled face-down on the floor, glaring violently at the lip of the doorframe.

"Since when are you clumsy?" he asked bluntly, re-holstering his gun. Aang stood up, brushing his clothes off, and limped over to the other console. He looked haggard and tired, his clothes rough around the edges - might want to get some new ones on St. Albans - and he'd even, scarily enough, grown something of a beard. That surprised Mal; even with clear evidence staring him in the face, he refused to believe that the boy was old enough or possessed enough testosterone to grow facial hair.

"I was distracted," he muttered, rubbing his foot and continuing to glare at the door like it owed him money.

Mal nodded. "So what brings you up here?"

"Couldn't sleep," he replied, and made a face. "I thought I might talk to Wash. He's usually up here at weird hours."

"Yeah, that comes with the territory when you're a pilot," Mal said, leaning back in his chair. "I told him to get some rest. We're about twelve hours out from St. Albans, so he'll need to be rested up."

"What's at St. Albans?"

Mal shrugged. "Refueling, a couple o' old friends. We won't stay long. After that show on Sihnon, it's best we get out in the black and stay there a bit."

"Where are we heading after St. Albans?" he asked, apparently out of little more than boredom; he seemed distracted at best.

"Beaumonde, in the Kalidasa system." Aang glanced at him, and he raised an eyebrow. "Distinct lack o' lawmen in the Kalidasa system. Safe place to lay low, and we can pick up a job."

"Well, that's... good," Aang replied, and then looked away. "Have you decided what to do with those... men yet?"

Mal valiantly suppressed the urge to sneer. The truth was: yes, yes, he had. It involved an open airlock and two less mouths to feed, but everyone on the ship except River, Jayne, and Zoe had objected to his very simple plan, and since he was about to be stuck on this boat for upwards of three weeks without anyone or anything to distract the crew, he was deeply opposed to the idea of inciting mutiny among his men. Seeing as how mutiny - or even the risk of it - was the absolute last thing he needed right now, even below Reaver attacks and a brand new asshole, he'd been forced to come up with an alternative plan. "We'll leave 'em on St. Albans," he replied shortly. It was a good enough compromise, soothing the crew's guilty consciences without actually ensuring that their captives survived - since he had no plans whatsoever of dropping them off anywhere near that Fed station or, indeed, allowing Toph to remove the rock wrapped around them.

Aang nodded, and made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. "I wish they'd talk," he groaned. "I'd really like to know more about this Academy."

"Why? Planning a righteous coup?" he asked sardonically, and was surprised when he receieved a resounding yes. "What?"

Aang sat up in his chair, looking more alive than he had since falling flat on his face at the doorway. "I can't just let this happen. They're hurting people, like they hurt River, and I have to do something about it."

Mal had a sarcastic, vicious answer planned to this, but it got stuck halfway out his throat and refused to go any further. Aang's tone was the worst kind of familiar - he sounded just like Mal himself had, seven or eight years ago, fired up with the notion of independence and saving the worlds and doing the right thing. And if he knew anything about the Alliance, he knew that Aang was walking right toward his Serenity Valley.

God? Who's colors he flying?

"You won't make any headway," he growled, a deep desperation rising within him, to make the boy see the horrible cost of the mistake he was making. But at the same time, he remembered how that felt, how exhilarating it was to have a cause to fight for and something to believe in. "They'll still be doin' it long after you're dead and gone."

"Maybe not," Aang replied, eyes blazing. "Maybe I can stop it."

"You'll fail," he said firmly. "Trust me, you can't win this fight." Part of him didn't want to stop Aang - part of him wanted to join him. What the Alliance was doing at that Academy was wrong, no question, just as wrong as what they did on Miranda, or maybe even moreso. The people deserved to know the truth, deserved a chance to fight back, and he wanted to give that to them. But the last time he'd done that, he'd had to repair just about every scrap on his boat, gotten run through with a sword, and he'd damn near lost his entire crew. It couldn't possibly be worth it.

We're fighting the just cause! Independent thought, independent dreams, independent lives! That's a thing worth dying for!

"If there's any chance, any at all, I have to try."

"Why?" he challenged, agitated. "You think your death is gonna change their minds? You think you can just wave your hands at 'em and make 'em see reason? You can't. You know why?" He didn't wait for Aang to answer. "'Cause they think they're right. They're all stuffed full o' self-righteousness and they ain't gonna stop 'cause some kid says they're wrong."

"How can they possibly think - ?" Aang now looked outraged. "They're torturing children!"

"They think they're makin' 'em better."

As you can see, it isn't what we thought.

Aang paused, and looked to the floor for a long moment, before turning back to Mal. "Well, they're wrong. And I have to stop them."

"You can't," he replied, just as firmly, even though every part of Sargeant Malcolm Reynolds wanted to agree. Captain Malcolm Reynolds couldn't go along with Aang's plan. He'd already lost too much. "What d'you think they'll do to you if and when you fail?"

"They'll kill me," Aang answered, and shrugged. "But that doesn't scare me. I've faced death before."

"There's worse things they can do than kill you, boy."

"Like what?" Aang challenged, tilting his head.

Mal hesitated. Maybe he should show him the Miranda broadwave, make him listen to the woman's screams as she was eaten alive by Reavers. Maybe he should take him by Haven, to the rows and rows of dead children, preachers, friends. Maybe he should lock him in a room with River during one of her nasty swings, or with Simon near to mad with frustration over how to help his sister. Maybe he should take him to Serenity Valley, where they said the breeze still stank of rot.

Please, God, make me a stone.

He had a thousand answers to that question, each worse than the last, and none of them were memories that he wanted to dredge up, much less show Aang.

"You don't want to know," he replied gruffly, and then turned to the console, tuning Aang out.

The fourth time Zuko went to Kaylee for leather, he had no choice but to explain why they needed it. Apparently, Sokka's explanation had involved an overdose of information about his and Suki's relationship (Kaylee mentioned something about a catsuit, and her dismay over the fact that this was a lie) so it was up to him to set her right.

Unfortunately, this only furthered Kaylee's belief that he wanted Katara.

He was reasonably certain that he would kill Sokka at some point within the next twenty-four hours.

"Here," he snapped, throwing the cloth at Sokka's face, "don't ruin this one."

"Hey," Sokka replied sharply, "this was your idea. I'm sorry if you didn't think it through."

"Maybe if you learned to sew..."

"Maybe if you helped me..."

They glared at each other in cold silence for a long moment. Zuko was, he had to admit, cornered. On the one hand, he was the Fire Lord, and Fire Lords did not sew. On the other hand, he wasn't exactly in a position of power here, and - more to the point - Sokka was almost certainly going to screw this up if left to do it on his own. He hadn't sewn since his stint as a tea-server in Ba Sing Se, however, and no part of that involved leather, but - and this was important - admitting that would mean telling Sokka that he had, at some point prior to joining up with them, sewn. Of his own volition, no less.

What vestiges of his manly pride remained intact refused to allow that.

Unable to admit defeat but unwilling to get involved any further, he was forced to compromise. "Maybe we should get help."

Relief flooded over Sokka's face. "I am so glad you were the one to suggest that. My hands are full of holes. D'you think Zoe will help us?"

"After you ruined that vest of hers?" he said, raising an eyebrow. Sokka winced. "No way. Maybe Wash will, though?"

Sokka snapped his fingers suddenly, leaping up. "I know! Inara!"

Katara was well aware that she was being annoying, melodramatic, and downright whiny. But she just couldn't help herself.

"I just... I thought I got it, you know?" she sighed, and flopped back on the chair. "Now, I don't understand anything."

"Uh-huh," Jayne replied absently, far more concerned with cleaning his guns than with listening to her bitch and moan. In retrospect, Katara figured, she could have chosen a better person to talk to - anyone, in fact, would have been better. Unfortunately, her brother and Zuko had disappeared somewhere into the bowels of the ship and couldn't be found, Suki was still on heavy painkillers and seemed to be convinced that Katara was her mother, Kaylee and Simon had vanished into Kaylee's bunk and likely wouldn't surface for some time, Wash and Zoe were locked in their bunk, River was pointedly ignoring her, Toph was sound asleep, Aang was strangely morose and - horror of horrors - sitting in semi-amicable silence with Mal, and the door to Inara's shuttle was locked.

That left her with Jayne.

"You could try to be helpful," she said, with more than a little bitterness.

"I'm sittin' here, ain't I?" He picked up a terrifyingly large knife and spat on it, then swiped the cloth over it. Apparently, this was supposed to clean it, although Katara wondered at how clean Jayne's saliva could possibly be.

...That was a train of thought she never wanted to board again.

"You're not even listening to me."

Jayne snorted, and then finally turned to her, gesturing with his knife, "You thought we were a bunch o' big, bad criminals, and now you find out that we ain't the worst thing in the 'Verse, and it's got you all tied up in knots, so now you're whinin' cause you don't like to be wrong. I get it?"

Katara opened her mouth, hoping for a snappy retort to take over her tongue, but nothing came. Jayne was right - and how horrifying was that? - all of her confusion about this boiled down to simply, as he said, not liking to be wrong. But she couldn't admit that to Jayne, not ever. "No," she replied snottily, "you did not get it..."

Jayne snickered under his breath and turned back to his weapons. "I got it."

She resisted the urge to throw something at him, although it was less out of force of will and more out of the fact that he had a tableful of weapons in front of him, and the temperament to use them on her. "Fine, what about you? What are you here for?"

"Money," he answered bluntly.

"Is that all? Don't you believe in something?"

"Sure I do," he said, picking up a rather large gun and inspecting it carefully. "I believe money is good."

She was beginning to wonder why she was even bothering. "There's more to life than money, you know. What the Alliance is doing to those kids is wrong, don't you agree?"

He shrugged. "Not my business."

"It's everyone's business. Someone has to stop them! Why not us?"

A muscle in his cheek twitched, and she thought for a moment that he might shoot her. Instead, he hunched over his weapons, cleaning with more force. "We tried that once," he replied darkly. "Ain't goin' down that road again."

"What?" she asked, coming up short. When had they tried to stop the Academy? Or was Jayne talking about the war? But that was wrong - Jayne wasn't in the war, was he? "When did you..." she trailed off when that muscle twitched again. Clearly, she was treading in dangerous waters. "I'm sorry. I didn't..."

"No," he said sharply, "you didn't."

She winced. Backtracking, she decided, would be good, if she could only come up with something to say. As it stood, all she could think of was "since when does Jayne care about doing the right thing" and "I'm so sorry I'm so sorry please don't kill me we aren't close to a moon I can't defend myself" and she doubted that either of those would help her case much.

(Although, all things considered, falling to her knees and begging for Jayne to spare her would probably convince him to do so, if for no other reason than because it would boost his ego. Her pride would not stand for such rubbish, however.)

"Can I... ask what... happened?" she asked hesitantly, and recieved a violent glare for her trouble. She nodded. "Gotcha. I'm just gonna... leave now." She stood up and slunk out of the room, feeling like a puppy with its tail tucked between its legs, awkwardly wondering what to do with herself now.

Maybe she could find Sokka.

"How do you feel?"

Suki looked up. Mal was standing in the door to the infirmary, arms crossed. River, who had been sitting on the countertop that usually doubled as a second bed and chatting amicably with her, winced.

"As well as can be expected," she replied, with an apologetic shrug. "I'm not loopy anymore, so that's good, right?" She glanced to River, an unspoken plea for the other girl not to leave her alone with Mal. It wasn't that she was afraid of the Captain, or even that she couldn't withstand whatever he had in store on her own. It was just that she didn't want to. She knew that she deserved whatever was coming to her, and she completely understood why he had been so angry with her, but she'd much rather never have this conversation. Guilt and shame weighed heavy on her, two emotions she wasn't especially used to feeling.

Suki did not like them, and she didn't want to go through this alone. River shot her a too-understanding smile and crossed her legs, staying right where she was.

Mal nodded. "You know what I'm here about."

"You're going to chew me out for going off on my own at the prison," she supplied. "For putting everyone at risk."

"No," he replied, and she started.


He walked into the room, and leaned against the counter opposite River. "No," he repeated. "I ain't mad at you for going off on your own. You did good at the prison, anyone can see that."

"Then..." she began, confused, "why are you here?"

"Talked to your boyfriend," he said. "He tells me you're the leader o' some band o' warriors where you come from?"

She nodded. "Yes, the Kyoshi Warriors."

Mal blinked. "Right. Them. Now tell me," he asked, tilting his head, "what would you do if one o' yours ran off on a dangerous mission all alone, and didn't even tell you where he was going?"

Suki shrank into the bed. "I would..." she started, looking anywhere but Mal's face, "I would be furious."

"Of course you would." He leaned on the edge of the bed and glared at her, until she was forced to turn and face him. "Now, I get it," he said in a low voice, "I ain't your leader. You don't call me Captain. But you volunteer to come along with me on a mission I run, then you will answer to me, dong le ma? You will tell me what you're gettin' up to, and you will never run off without permission, especially on such a dangerous mission. You know why?"

This, she did know. She knew it intimately. "Because you're the leader," she whispered, "and that means you're responsible for your crew."

There was a long, tense silence where Mal stood very still and searched her face for something. Finally, he nodded. "That's right. And when you run off and get yourself into nanchu, I'm the one's gotta find you."

"I understand," she replied gravely.

"I believe you do," he said. "Now that's taken care of, I trust we ain't gonna have any more o' these problems."

"It won't happen again, sir," she answered, instinctively bowing slightly, as much as she could from the bed. It startled Mal, and it even startled her - why had she called him sir?

"Right," he muttered, a little off-guard, and then turned on his heel and left. Suki heaved a sigh of relief, and glanced to River.

"At least that's over," she breathed, but River was watching the door, a strange expression on her face.

"Doesn't want you to call him sir," she said, in the airy tone that Suki had come to associate with River's more odd moments. "Not one of his soldiers."

"I, ah," she started, and then winced. "It just kind of came out."