Take My Love

Jack moved steadily around the desk, tidying a few papers here and there, completely immersed in his own thoughts. It was quiet in the offices, and under his breath, Gwen could hear him humming a low tune which sounded like the kind of scooping twang of American country ballads.

"What's that?" she asked, standing in the door of the office.

Jack looked up, seeming to have only just noticed her. "Huh? What's what?"

"That song you were just humming, it's pretty. What is it?"

"It's just, uh…" Jack straightened an already straight stack of folders. "It's a song my uncle used to sing to me, back where I grew up."

"Can you sing it?" Gwen asked. Jacked looked through the glass walls of his office, taking stock of the empty lab. Everyone else had gone home for the night.

"Um, alright," he moved around his desk until they were both standing out on the open catwalk. "Warning, I haven't sung in about…150 years."

Gwen shrugged. "I won't judge."

"Okay." Jack took a deep breath.

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

Gwen found herself entranced by the dark, far away look in Jack's eyes. They were fixed on some point across the room, but he seemed to be looking across time and space, back home, back to little boy Jack. She imagined him sitting on a porch on a warm summer's evening, with some faceless man who had a guitar on his lap, singing this song in a husky, Bruce Springsteen-like voice.

Take me out to the black
Tell 'em I ain't comin' back
Burn the land, boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me

There's no place I can be, since I found Serenity
B
ut you can't take the sky from me…

Jack turned, raising his eyes to Gwen's, as though awaiting a verdict.

"God, that's beautiful," she whispered.

Jack nodded. "Yeah, I thought so too. The freedom, the wandering. That was Uncle Mal. Devil may care and damn the consequences. And once he got himself a ship, he lit on out good an' proper." A small nostalgic smile touched Jack's lips. "That was a free man. Nothin' tyin' him down."

Gwen noticed that his accent had taken on a hint of soft southern drawl. "Was he a captain too, then?"

"He was a sergeant first, during the war. Afterwards he got himself his boat and he never looked back, not once."

"Did you go with him?"

"Too young. I was only ten when Mal went off to war. I remember my mom begging him not to go. That was the first and last time I ever saw her cry. Forbade me right then and there from ever becomin' a soldier." He laughed grimly and gestured to his coat. "You can see how well that worked out."

"Did you ever try to find your uncle?"

"No need to. He, uh…" Jack laughed again. "Inadvertently entered into galaxy-wide infamy, a little. Exposed the government's deepest darkest secret to everyone. Whooboy, they had to run after that. That was the last time I saw him, on a newscast. Alliance had him pegged Public Enemy Number 1, public had him as Independent Hero. Nearly started the next civil war.

"I was twenty, then, and all I could think about was being brave, fighting like him, saving the world. Not that he was ever a hero, but that was how I saw him. I would dress up as him when I was little, pretend I was the great Malcolm Reynolds." His face darkened, and he dropped his gaze to where his hands rested on the railing.

"What is it?" Gwen asked, placing her hand on his.

"He died," sighed Jack without looking up. "Murdered, only months after the broadcast that changed the galaxy. Official reports said it was an accident, but I knew…I found the guy who killed him." Jack's hands curled into fists. "I found him and I made him sorry. I made him beg for mercy, and I granted it." He looked back up at Gwen. His eyes were hard and cold, like two impossibly deep pools completely iced over.

"Jack?"

"I shot him in the head."

Gwen felt a shiver run through her body, but she hid them. She didn't flinch away from Jack, but held her ground, kept her hand covering his fist. He didn't scare her, not anymore.

"I'm sorry, Jack," she murmured.

"But that's the thing about being a Time Agent. Time travel's in the job description. My first thought was to go back, to be with him when he died, just so that he wouldn't be-wouldn't be alone. But I knew I couldn't trust myself not to interfere. So, I went back, signed on to fight alongside him. I got to live my dream with my hero, and he was everything I'd imagined him to be and more. And it was great."

Mal slapped the table, laughing raucously while Zoë rolled her eyes. "You men. No way am I marryin' no one. Uh, uh. I will pass on that."

"Ah, come on, Zoë." Jack threw his arm around her shoulders. "You know you want me."

"You better watch where you put that hand, Private," Zoë warned, but she was smiling now.

Mal laughed too, and for several shining seconds they managed to forget the sobering fact that the next morning they would be sent out to the front lines, and might very possibly not return the next night, or ever. Jack, of course, knew that neither Mal nor Zoë would die, but he couldn't say as much to his uncle without encountering some very awkward questions. And he couldn't impart any such comfort to himself. He was very much mortal and could very well be killed the next day.

"Obviously I wasn't," Jack said. "Came pretty damn close, though. I was going by the name Duster Cabbot back then, 'least that was the one I used when I signed up. Couldn't tell Mal my real name at any rate. But I told him who I was, eventually."

"When?"

"The next day we were deployed to Serenity Valley, on the planet Hera."

It was hell. This must be what hell was. That was the only thought in Jack's head as he sprinted through the carnage, bent double, eyes fixed on the hill top still several hundred yards away. Behind him, he could hear Mal and Zoë scrambling through the dust. Jack didn't look left or right. He didn't want to see the bodies. Please God, no more bodies.

Suddenly all the strength flooded from his legs and he collapsed to the dirt. The explosions grew brighter, nearly blinding him, and he found himself staring at the sky filled with flashing, flaming ships.

"Duster! DUSTER!" Mal's face filled Jack's vision. "Come on, you're okay." Jack felt Mal's hand behind his head, lifting him into his lap. Jack could now see Zoë's face as well. It was blurred, but he could see the hard, cold expression that he'd seen so many times before-as she'd watched all their other friends die.

Only then did the pain come, a deep gnawing ache eating away inside his chest, and he knew it wasn't the shrapnel. It was the knowledge that he would have to leave his uncle and his best friend. He knew time was running out. He needed to return to the Time Agency base, more specifically their medical center. They were the only ones who could, or would, help him now.

"Hey," he said to Mal. "We had a good run, huh?"

"It's not over yet, boy," said Mal. "You ain't getting' out this easy. You're stayin' right here."

Jack shook his head. "Mal," he said, weaker.

"Right here, son."

"You'll find your Serenity. You just gotta know it when you do."

"I will," Mal promised, even though Jack was sure he had no idea what he was talking about.

"Mal…will you sing to me?" Jack asked. "Sing that song you used to back on Shadow."

"What are you-?"

"al, it's me," Jack whispered, not sure how Mal would hear him over the continued cacophony surrounding them.

"Johnny." It wasn't a question, and some part of Jack suspected that Mal had known all along. "Okay."

Over the continued screams and explosions, Jack hear Mal's low, husky voice.

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…

"Don't let them take your sky, Mal," Jack said urgently.

"I won't."

Jack let his eyes slide closed. "I have to go." He tapped the last coordinate into his Vortex Manipulator and activated it...

and appeared on the floor of the Time Agency emergency rom. Immediately he was hoisted onto a gurney and wheeled into operation. They saved his life, but he remembered nothing of the next two years of it.

oOo

Mal was left staring down at the place where Duster had lain. His blood was on Mal's hands and on his pants, proving that he was real. And hadn't he known all along? He had been so familiar. It really should have been obvious that this man was the same little boy who had perched himself to often upon Mal's knee to hear Shadow's native stories and songs. Even after Mal had left on tour, his sister Maybelle, Johnny's mother, had sent him letters and pictures of little Johnny, sayin' how he loved playin' pretend war, callin' himself Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds.

He didn't understand how Johnny had become Duster Cabbot. By all rights it made no kinda sense-Johnny should only be 11 or 12-but Mal found he didn't want to know. He loved his nephew and he loved his friend, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Johnny/Duster would be okay, wherever he had disappeared to.

"Sir!" Zoë shouted, snapping Mal back to the present. Together they sprinted the rest of the way up the hill to where the pathetic remains of their platoon were holed up.

oOo

"I never saw him again, 'cept once," Jack finished. "Although, I am immortal. We might just meet again."

"I hope you do," said Gwen softly. Jack squeezed her hand in thanks. "Me too."

The amazing thing, and the thing for which Mal was infinitely grateful, was that only seven months after the Reaver broadcast, Serenity's infamy was eclipsed by even bigger news: aliens.

At last the human settlers were contacted by sentient extraterrestrials, chief among them an ambassador claiming to be from Earth-That-Was, who called himself the Face of Boe. Which was odd, to Mal, because the man had a body, not just a face, albeit a very distinct face. The ambassador had requested a meeting with Mal, and when he'd been gruffly denied, had gone all the way out to the old shack of a space port on Shadow where Mal had parked Serenity to refuel.

She was on her last legs, he knew. Kaylee and Simon had gone off together to get married, and already had a mini Tam in the oven. Work was harder to come by than ever now, what with half the galaxy knowin' his face. His older girl was slowly but surely listin' to scuppers.

Mal breathed in the familiar dusty air of his home planet. Some part of him always knew he'd return here some day.

"Malcolm Reynolds." Mal turned. The dock was mostly empty, but standing right in the center of Mal's stall was the oldest man Mal had ever seen, wearing a tattered grey great coat, like a soldier's. The first thing Mal noticed was how incredibly old he was. The man stood erect, but his face was so covered with wrinkles that any features there might have been were barely discernible.

"Hi," Mal said, running his eyes up and down the stranger, who said nothing.

Mal waited, but the old man remained silent. "Um…who are you?"

"My name is the Face of Boe." Mal wasn't sure, but he was fair sure that old man was beaming at him, and he couldn't think of any reason why.

"It is very good to see you, Mal," the Face of Boe said. And with that, he walked away through the tiny dusty spaceport.

Mal watched him for a moment, then shrugged and walked back through Serenity's cargo bay.

oOo

A week later found him slumped in a back alley on Beaumond, bleeding out on a street behind a dumpster, thinking about his little albatross.

"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he gurgled to himself, and he wasn't just talking to River but to everyone.

They say your life flashed past your eyes in your last moments. He found it wasn't his life, but his people, that he saw. Of course his little albatross, curled up in the pilot's chair, reading Serenity just like she read everyone else, but also Zoë and her contrasts; between the fiery fearless warrior and Wash's loving wife. Wash himself, with his plastic dinosaurs and sharp quips, the sadistic pleasure with which he wound Jayne up. Jayne. A small smile twisted Mal's bloody lips. What to think about Jayne. And Shepherd Book. Mal didn't want to admit that he'd learned a lot from that old man. He hoped he'd lived a good life. Kaylee would tell him he had. He could always count on Kaylee to love him no matter what, to see the best side of everyone and everything. He loved his little Kaylee. He also loved Inara. He supposed he could admit that now, now that he was at rope's end. He loved Inara and he had from the first moment he met her. He loved Inara. It felt impossibly wonderful to think it freely.

"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he told her.

"Me neither." Mal looked up. A shadowy figure sat down beside him, grasped his hand, wrapped an arm around his shoulders. His vision must've been going from the blood loss, because Mal could've sworn the man looked just like Duster. Couldn't have been him though. This man was older, sadder. And Duster was gone.

They sat side by side as Mal's breathing slowed, his heart beats grew fainter. A soft voice echoed around them, yet seemed to come from inside Mal's far too hardened heart.

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

Take me out to the black
Tell 'em I ain't comin' back
Burn the land, boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me

There's no place I can be, since I found Serenity
But you can't take the sky from me…

"Go to the sky, Mal," whispered Jack. Mal let out a long sigh and remained still.