Title: Damage Done

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: T/PG-15 for dark themes

Summary: Firefly. Mal was fed up to the back teeth with folk warped by Alliance ideals dying senseless, wasteful deaths. 1500 words.

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is Whedon's.

Spoilers: Firefly; "Serenity" (2005)

Notes: Slightly AU for the end of the BDM. Title and a few lines of dialogue lifted from the script. Because some situations are less simple than we see.

"They take you down, I don't expect to grieve over much," Mal said, glancing over at the impassive face of the Operative. Behind him, the Persephone dockyards spread dull and damp under a fitful rain shower; about as lively as the man himself. Some vital spark seemed to have gone out of the nameless assassin's eyes that morning.

"Like to kill you myself, I see you again," he continued, prodding at the implacable will that had so near outmatched his own.

The Operative had come down on the right side at the end; had saved the lives of Mal's surviving crew and patched up their hurt, and so had bought himself a dram of clemency. But not much more than that. He'd killed many of Mal's friends and contacts; had the Shepherd's blood on his hands, and Wash's too, whether he'd been present or not; and had embodied everything Mal ever hated about the Alliance in unapologetic splendor. No amount of turning his back on Parliament could erase that.

The corners of the Operative's mouth curved up; a bare knife of a smile, as like to cut the bearer as the recipient. "You won't," he said, turning away. "There is nothing left to see."

Mal snorted, then turned to walk up the cargo ramp into Serenity.

Turned, but found he couldn't actually take that first step. The Operative's meaning sank in like a lead weight in his gut, and he pressed a palm to his chest at the sensation. Nothing left: no amount of walking away could ease that, either. A week ago, Mal might have felt satisfaction instead- but a lot had happened in that week. Regardless of what the man had done, Mal was fed up to the back teeth with folk warped by Alliance ideals dying senseless, wasteful deaths.

No shame in this, he remembered the Operative saying on that platform under Mr. Universe's complex: You've done remarkable things.

What happened to a believing man when his entire foundation was ripped out from under him, leaving only bloody reality? Mal knew. He'd been there; was to this day still healing from the experience.

He'd smiled that very smile, once, in a stretch of time between the Allied prison camp and Serenity that he'd since made every effort to forget. If it hadn't been for an outstretched hand at an opportune time- well, there were reasons he'd never deny Zoe anything he could possibly give, however much he might put up a fuss. And he'd never truly got his feet back, neither, no matter that he'd convinced himself otherwise; not until River and Book had given him sufficient cause.

Slowly, feeling every second of the last seven years pressing on him, he turned back toward the docks. A few berths down, he saw the figure of a man moving in the rain, all clad in dark colors; somehow smaller without the armor and the sword across his back, but no less deadly for that, Mal was sure. Dockworkers moved to avoid him with nary a glance, forming ripples in the general flow of humanity.

Mal swore and stepped away from his refuge, raindrops splashing against his face like tears.

The man didn't make it very hard to catch him; he slowed his steps once he caught onto Mal's presence, then ducked into the shadow of a warehouse where no passersby would easily see. Mal stepped closer again, and again, using the few inches of height he had on him to crowd him back against a stack of crates. He wasn't sure what he was doing, maybe looking for some kind of reaction to prove that he'd made the wrong assumption- that he'd gone as feng-le as River and wasn't seriously contemplating ways to talk a defeated enemy out of self destruction.

The Operative- former Operative, now- let him advance, not so much as twitching a hand toward a concealed weapon. His eyes dropped briefly to take in the holster on Mal's hip, but no more; there was a resigned sort of curiosity to the lines around his eyes, but naught else, just that blank sort of calm Mal had only seen on those assured of their place in the afterlife- one way or t'other.

"Here to shoot me, then, Captain?" he asked, as cool as though he were discussing the price of beagles on Londinium.

Mal ignored that; studied him with furrowed brow for a moment, recalling another man he suspected had gone nameless for a time and times and half a time before discovering the Good Book. "What's your name?" he asked, struck by a poetical idea. "Or- was, 'fore the Alliance got hold of you."

Dark eyebrows rose at the question. "Does it matter?"

"Suppose it doesn't," Mal shrugged. That was enough of an answer. "Just occurred to me that a man needing a new one might look up Southdown Abbey. Ain't far from here, and they're used to giving out second chances."

That sparked something in the other's eyes at last. He scrutinized Mal's face again, as though looking for evidence of something unexpected. "Why tell me this?"

Mal grimaced. The longer this conversation drew out, the more uneasy he got. But he couldn't not finish it, not now that he'd started. Jayne's voice echoed dimly in his ears, angry with frustration: Alliance starts the war, and then you volunteer.

Or his mother's voice, from his long-buried childhood: You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

He cleared his throat. "I was a believer once," he said in low tones. "And then the war ended. Seems like you've found your own ending, but you ain't likely to thrive on the same coping methods. I knew another like you, found his own measure of peace in that place."

Recognition flickered in the former Operative's expression. "Derrial Book," he said.

Mal inclined his head at the confirmation, fists clenched, the memory of those cold, bloody hands prickling against his skin. "Never did ask what his name was, before. Never mattered. He mattered, made a difference to us just as he was."

The other's emotionless fa├žade cracked further. "What I am- what I've been- there is no path forward from such complete failure," he said, words drawn like pulling nails. "River Tam was hardly my first objective; I have cleansed more imperfections in the name of an illusory better world than any one man could atone for in a lifetime."

Mal winced. More confirmation that he hadn't really wanted. And yet. "Don't, then," he said.

"...Shen me?"

Mal blew out a breath, then continued, carefully piecing concepts he'd never really analyzed before into words. Things he'd learned, but hadn't truly internalized until the man who'd clarified them for him was gone. "Second chances are about starting over. Clearing the slate, like you done for the Tams; and like Book done for himself. Can't move forward- can't help anyone, least of all yourself- with your head still stuck in the past."

"You really think I am suited to helping others?" came the disbelieving reply.

"I think you owe all those imperfections the chance to find out," Mal replied bluntly. Then he smiled, reflecting the same bleak twitch of mouth the other had given earlier. "I aim to visit that abbey a year from now, leave an offering. You still want that bullet from me, I'll give it to you then."

Silence drew out between them for a long moment; the Eavesdown Docks were growing noisier as the rain clouds moved on, but none of the sounds seemed to penetrate the private bubble drawn around them. Finally, the former Operative broke the tension, inclining his head in acknowledgement as he pressed his hands, palm to palm, in front of him.

Mal swallowed at that, discomfort roiling around the lead weight in his gut, and looked away; by the time he turned back, unsure how to end the conversation, the other man had taken the initiative and gone. Quietly, this time; tread less heavy on the pavement, hopefully reflective of a less heavy heart.

He swiped a hand over his face, feeling the sting of cool air against damp skin like a lanced wound, then shook his head and trod back toward his home.

Zoe was waiting when he returned, eyes still shadowed with her own recent devastation. "Sir?"

He gave her a faint, apologetic grimace. "We got a green light?"

She nodded. "Inspection's pos, and we're cleared for upthrust. Was that...?"

She'd seen, then. Mal nodded, but didn't elaborate, not keen to cut her further with his problems. "Think she'll hold together?"

Zoe's expression warmed then; not much, but enough. More evidence that she was the strongest person he'd ever known. "She's tore up plenty," she replied, "but she'll fly true."

And wasn't that was really the best any of them could hope for? Mal nodded, then strode up the ramp.

Zoe turned to face the same direction as he passed her, walking onward and upward at his side.