take the sky from me
PG-13, gen, Firefly.
(four fights Malcolm Reynolds started on Unification Day, and
one that he finished)
Malcolm stands on a rock, and in the small, still voice of defeat, he says:
“Stand down. It’s over.”
No-one hears. No single voice can reach them all now, though Mal’s did once. But
by themselves and without their dead leaders, the remains of the two thousand
grow still. The wounded stop crying and the vultures cease to shriek. Mal drops
from his rock and sits, leaning against a broken-down wall, and stares up at the
peaceful sky. The ships hang in silence from the stars.
“Now what?” asks Zoë, quietly.
“Now we rot,” – Mal gives her a quick, closed smile – “like the gorram fèhuà
that we are.”
People are dying in the valley. Some from blood loss, more from hunger, but
they’re symptoms of the self-same disease: things forgotten fade away.
When it grows too quiet, Mal picks up a cracked tin of beans. It doesn’t open,
so he goes for it with his knife and cuts into his hand. “Cào nî zûxiān shí
bâ dai,” he tells the tin.
“That’s comprehensive, sir,” Zoë says, and tries to smile. “Don’t waste your bad
language now, you’re gonna need it to spare.”
When the ships come down from the cooling sky, Mal believes her.
In the years to come, everything that happens from here on is something Mal will
try his hardest to forget, except in the dark, when he can’t keep himself from
the rush of bitterness. Before this he can bear to remember, because before this
they stayed human beings, even in the blood and the filth, they with their
broken faith and broken fingers and broken hearts, they with their dignity.
As the ships touch down in the valley, they are stripped. For the last, the only
humiliation (when they were human beings they were soldiers, and there was no
shame in that) Alliance rank-and-file herd them, docile and broken, into cells
with green glass windows. All of them together, all of them that will fit, like
the Black Hole of Calcutta back on old Earth-that-was, only none of ‘em wants to
The peace talks progress in leisurely fashion, and the war criminals fester
beneath the glass. They’re beginning to stink out the place, and that, the
Alliance can fix.
And to his shame, Mal will crawl for hot water. The steam hurts his skin, and
then they give him back his clothes, and he’s feeling, if not better, then at
least like he can think; and then the woman in Alliance colours touches his
shoulder. “Who are you?”
“Don’t know my own self,” he says, roughly.
“Right.” She nods, primly, not understanding. Like enough never saw blood in the
war, and Mal feels contaminated despite the clean water. “I’ve heard the others
call you by your name. Were you always so informal, during the war?”
Mal turns away and pulls on his boots.
“I guess you’re Malcolm Reynolds. You’ve got a way about you, judging from they
all look up to you. You’d do well alongside the Alliance, you know.”
She stares at him like she’s offering him the ‘verse. “Cào nî zûxiān shí bâ
dai,” he tells her, and his boots thump down on the tiled floor.
“Zoë,” he says, back in confinement. “Zoë, it’s time to leave.”
“Better start calling me Mal,” and his voice is falling-down hollow and bleak,
“we’re civilians now.”
“Yes, sir,” – and she follows him, fist for fist, past the guards and guns and
out to what’s left of their freedom.
The world has stopped. Malcolm Reynolds is at the heart of it; the rock around
which the rest of the ‘verse revolves, quiet and still in the hand of God like a
wave or rider caught in mid-rise.
He is, of course, drunk. But the alcohol is his warmth, his comfort, the one
thing that is left for him in this world that revolves round its centre. It’s a
damn sight more agreeable on the Rim, he thinks, blearily; he can ride, was
broken in with the colts his momma always said, and he could ride out from the
core, rocking back and forth to the edge of the black. He’s heard tell men have
gone and went crazy from the sight of it, and it’s been a long time now and he’d
welcome the change.
“Mal,” says Zoë, gently; and she don’t ever use his name, not like that, “Mal,
you’ve got to wake up now. Mal, bâobèi.”
Mal wakes up. The world shakes and starts to spin again, smooth and languorous
beneath the sun. His fingers grip at wood on the way down.
Zoë picks him up, a little bit, and he leans on her on their way out of this
godforsaken bar on this godforsaken moon in the middle of godfor-ruttin’-saken
nowhere. Not so nowhere there ain’t “Unification Day” banners all-over-the-place
to be seen, though.
Mal wants to die.
She helps him with the horse, saying nothing but with the whole world’s
stillness left in her eyes. She’s thinking, this isn’t how her sergeant gets
drunk, and Mal knows it. It’s true, but drinking for victory and for despair
remain, as ever, two different things. It’s been a year, he thinks, but time
ain’t healin’ fast enough, and he thinks he needs help and hell, now, there’s an
old friend at the bottom of every bottle.
A year. They weren’t chased out of Alliance detainment because they weren’t
worth the cage space. Since then, the Rim, bleak sand world after bleak sand
world, desert and marsh and the subsistence of existence. Nothing more, nothing
else, except the right to be forgotten by the centre worlds. Mal gave a damn,
By the cavern by the canyon, like in a song from long ago, the sun rises and
shines hot, cleansing, sweet, and Mal rocks from side to side in his saddle and
hates that the world clears behind his eyes. The cross around his neck hurts
him, slicing neatly across the skin as he pulls it.
Zoë glances up. “Sarge, no.”
“I’m not your sergeant” – Mal looks at her in a momentary lapse of anger – “and
I ain’t under the thrall of anythin’ no more.”
The chain breaks. He holds it for a moment and sheds the weight of faith. It
turns and flashes in the light, once, twice, before falling away into the dark.
Zoë hopes Mal will resist the temptation.
Another year goes by. Malcolm Reynolds washes up beneath the dusty, pale sky of
the back end of nowhere, out on the Rim where he was born, and for some reason
they’re having a party. The noise drifts over the scrubland of Whitefall, and
the houses creak and threaten to fall down in the wind.
He shakes out his coat – brown for now, brown for life – and follows Zoë into
the bar. “A pint of best for your wife,” the barkeep calls, “and it’s on the
“She’s not my wife,” murmurs Mal, but he takes the drink and hands it to Zoë.
“Not that I’m complainin’, because I’m not, but why the largesse?”
“This here’s a day of celebration!” The man’s brow furrows. “You’re not
“I ain’t your friend, either,” Mal says, too quiet for the man to hear. “Now
“Sir,” says Zoë quickly, “sir, shut up.”
But Mal doesn’t. “Isn’t anyone going to answer me?” he yells out to the bar in
general, and Zoë sighs.
The silence is sudden and comprehensive. All the men and the few women out here
in the back of beyond turn to look at Malcolm Reynolds. A bluebottle buzzes
across and heads for the door.
“I’d think you were ignorant,” says the barkeep after a while. “I’d think. Only
thing is, that there’s a brown coat you’ve got on.”
Mal stands up and deliberately, carefully, twirls. “You’ve got a good pair of
eyes on you, friend.”
With the same deliberation, the barkeep spits. “Independent tamāde húndàn.
You should have been razed from every world spinning.”
Somewhere behind, a glass smashes. “Doing well for yourselves, aren’t you,” Mal
says. “A whole gorram two years after and none of you’ve got two coins to rub
together. Alliance forgotten you, have they? Gonna be here any day now to tax
you to death and put bullets in your kiddies?”
The first punch lands in his mouth.
Zoë holds off the second one, Mal dodges the third, and within five minutes
they’re both on the floor and fighting their way towards the exit. It takes a
few broken noses and knocked-out teeth, but the door swings open eventually and
the morning shines in.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Zoë tells him as they run. “We don’t need to call
attention to ourselves like that.”
“I got a right to an opinion.” Mal throws his head back, and his eyes flash with
sun-reflected gleams. “I got a right to say what I want, never mind their
rutting Unification Day.”
Zoë doesn’t say anything, because if he wants to fight, then he wants to live.
“We have a tradition on board this boat,” Mal says happily. “Unification Day, we
go to an Alliance friendly bar and have a sit down and a drink, just to show
there’s no hard feelings.”
“Wow, Captain,” says Kaylee, “that’s mighty chivalrous of you.”
“That it is,” agrees Wash, and grins. “But if you don’t mind, I’d rather I had
my girlfriend safe up here with me while you’re off being chivalrous.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” protests Zoë. “And I couldn’t let the
captain go alone, he’ll need, um...”
“Back-up?” suggests Wash.
“Company,” Mal tells him. “Don’t wait up.”
His boots tap on the metal as he walks down towards Serenity’s cargo hold. “Be
careful!” Wash calls after them, and he and Kaylee disappear.
Zoë catches up. “They’ve got a point, sir,” she says, her voice suddenly
serious. “You should be careful.”
“You’re sounding like my mother,” Mal complains. “But you’re coming, ain’t you?”
Neither of them speaks again as they mount the mule and career headlong across
the land. The closest settlement is your classic Rim town, a dozen houses and a
decrepit saloon. Alliance-friendly, of course; they lost that there rebellious
spirit round about the time Mal was in Serenity Valley on his hands and knees.
The bar is cold and murky. Maybe it’s the same one as last time, Mal thinks; he
can barely remember the first days out of detainment, no more than he can
remember the white walls and hiss of steam on broken skin. Nor can he remember
where he threw the cross.
“No browncoats in here, this day of all days!” shouts the sheriff, but Mal could
have walked away.
Instead, he takes the bait and picks a fight, like his momma said he never
should. There’s the usual trading of insults, the thrown chairs, the
glockenspiel melodies as the bottles are swept off shelves, and then the big
guns come out. That was the problem in the valley, too; they were outnumbered.
It’s strange how clearly Mal thinks in mid-air.
His body arches as it hits the window. For a moment, the glass is a suspended
broken galaxy about his head, and then he’s kissing the dirt, like always.
Zoë walks out on her feet, through the door. She’s got dignity, Mal thinks from
ground level. No wúnéug de rén ever gonna mess with Zoë. “That was quite
a tumble you took there, sir,” she tells him calmly. “Sure your skull’s got no
dents in it?”
She holds out her hand and Mal takes it. For a moment, it looks like they’re
going to be chased out across the sand, but there comes the sound of more
breaking glass and Mal guesses they’ve been replaced by easier meat.
They go back to the ship, which seems closer than Mal remembers leaving it. But
the cargo doors open with their usual shriek and hiss, and he forgets that his
crew have ideas of their own.
“Have fun, kids?” asks Wash cheerfully, having scampered down to the hold to
“Bundles,” says Mal, straight-faced.
Kaylee sticks her head out. “Want I should get something for your head, Captain?
You’re kinda, um, oozing.”
Without waiting for an answer, she’s gone, muttering about cotton and
antiseptic. Mal runs one hand through his hair and peers at bloodstained
Wash smiles before going back up. “Good to know you’re being careful.”
Nothing happens for a minute. In the silence, a ship’s silence undercut by the
engine and the roar of the passing dark, Zoë gives Mal a long, hard look.
“Happy Unification Day, Captain Reynolds,” she says. “Don’t you think you’ve
been punished enough?”
And before he can figure out what she means by that, she’s gone too. Mal is
alone, here on a ship that should be all his own.
“Drink up, sweetie,” Kaylee tells River. “Captain’s gettin’ antsy.”
River nods and spins on her stool. One of her white, delicate hands swings out
across the bar. With a resolute thud, a glass topples and a pint of something –
horse piss, Mal said – makes a filthy wave across the side.
“Hey!” The newly-drenched patron jerks to his feet. “Ruttin’ crazy…” He stops,
eyes resting on River, who is making patterns in the puddle with her finger. She
grins happily, and with a sudden jerk, he slaps her. “Pōfù.”
River hisses in pain, and Mal stands up. “I don’t hail from here, friend,” he
says. “In point of fact, I’m pretty much new in town. And I ain’t got your fancy
core manners and such, I’m sure. But when I was growing up, my momma told me
never to lay a hand on a woman” – Mal punches him – “and well now, I guess it
Dazed, the man reels. Mal hits him again, conversationally. “And now I guess
you’ll be saying you’re sorry to River, dong-ma?”
“Captain!” Kaylee says, ineffectually. But it’s too late. Their new friend has
caught his breath and gone for Mal, and within a minute, they’re trading blows
whilst taking turns pinning each other to the floor.
“Shiny,” says River.
For a moment, Mal seems to be getting the advantage, but he’s thrown off. They
disappear under a table for a moment, and with her practised ear, Kaylee hears
the shriek of a gun being wrenched from its holster.
“Kaylee!” yells Mal, and Kaylee jumps out of his way. “Out of here! Both of you,
Kaylee grabs River’s hand and they run, River’s bare feet making no sound next
to Kaylee’s clumping combat boots. They get out of the door and as far as they
need to make sure they aren’t being followed, and Kaylee pulls River back into
the shadow of the building, out of the way.
A long minute goes by, and then Mal emerges, dusty but grinning and dragging his
opponent by the scruff of the neck. “Make it nice and pretty now,” he cautions.
“I apologise,” says the man, sulkily. Mal gives him a jerk, and he goes on, “I
was wrong to do as I did.”
“There’s a gentleman for you!” Mal grins and lets him go. His vanquished foe
hits the ground and lies still a second before picking himself up. He delivers a
bitter glare all round and repairs back to the bar.
“Should carry himself a gun, if he wants to go round slapping girls.
Particularly this girl,” Mal adds, with a thoughtful glance at River. The three
of them begin walking away, towards the flat, sparse horizon.
“Still, Captain…” Kaylee hesitates. “You didn’t ought to make enemies when we’re
on a run.”
“I don’t like men who hit girls.” Mal’s voice is final, like the sound of his
boots on the hard ground.
There is a pause.
“You’ve hit girls lots of times,” River chirps. “Whack. I’ve seen you.”
Mal is silent for a minute. “Well, that’s different. When I do it, it’s, well.
You know. Personal.”
“Personal,” River repeats.
Kaylee giggles. “He gift-wraps his fist and everything.”
“You know, I do believe you two girls are laughin’ at me.” Mal shakes his head.
“And me the wounded champion, an’ all.”
“Aww, we didn’t mean it.” Kaylee gives his shoulder a friendly pat.
“I did,” says River.
Mal grins, but he keeps eyes raised to the sky in mock-hurt all the way back to
Serenity. The ship’s battle-scarred bulk is the only thing visible on the
They are met in the cargo hold by Simon, who stares at them with barely
concealed irritation. “River, Kaylee, I’m glad to see you both in one piece.
Captain, follow me. You’re bleeding.”
Mal goes after him, after exchanging a confused glance with Kaylee. “Something
crawl up your ass and die, Doctor?”
There is no answer. In the infirmary, Simon has everything laid out – dressings,
forceps, medical alcohol in a neat glass jar – and ready to hand. Mal blinks.
“How did you know-”
“You were in an Alliance-friendly bar. I wouldn’t have let River go with you if
I’d found out in time. Now please lean back.”
Mal does, and Simon begins to clean a cut on his head with his usual deftness.
“I have no objection to your picking fights on Unification Day; I need to keep
my professional skills sharp, after all. But River-”
“Unification Day?” Mal repeats, and thinks about it. “It’s Unification Day.”
“You didn’t know?” Simon’s hand pauses.
Mal sighs. “If you must know, I got into a fight defending your sister’s
Simon nods. “My sister’s honour. Of course.”
“I did!” Mal’s eyes catch a quick movement by the door, and he calls out.
“River, xiâo mèimei! Tell him!”
River stands in the doorway and nods emphatically. “My honour is unified.” She
pauses, and then grins. “There was gratuitous violence.”
“My apologies, Mal,” says Simon stiffly.
“That’s okay. Now please let me out of here.”
Simon isn’t so easily swayed; he works carefully for a few more minutes before
allowing Mal to stand up. The moment he can, Mal bolts, in time to see the small
shadow of River flit down the corridor out of sight. He hears her singing to
herself, softly, before her voice fades into the sounds of the ship.
Behind him, Simon has gone back to work, sorting bottles and phials in one
corner of the infirmary. Mal is alone.
For a while, at least. Zoe clambers out of her room and walks into the corridor.
“Sir? Back so soon?”
Serenity purrs as he doesn’t answer. There is a long minute’s silence for
“Unification Day,” Mal says, helplessly. “Unification Day. I forgot.”
He lets out a long, shuddering breath, and Zoe steps forwards to stand beside
him as she has always stood. If they hadn’t been together in the war, she might
have held him, then. But they were, so she doesn’t. He leans back against a
bulkhead and closes his eyes.
“It’s not okay to forget, Mal,” Zoe says after a while, into the silence around
his head. “But it’s okay to forget for a while.”
She touches his shoulder, briefly, a fleeting touch to mark the years through
which she’s carried him, and then her warmth and her presence are slipping away
from him in space.
When Mal opens his eyes, it is not to Zoe but to River. “Sun’s come up over the
valley,” she says clearly. “Ride on out.”
And she’s gone, and Mal is too, carried forward by Serenity through time
and the black.