The Losing Side, chapter 17
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Wash learns about Mal's past, and Mal reflects on the war and the Alliance.


:hugs readers: Thanks for the encouragement! This story just keeps getting longer, and longer, and longer......dangit, I never started out to write a novel! Here's another long, dark, angst-ridden chapter for your enjoyment:) I promise, I really do have some fun stuff in mind for these guys.....problem is it's all quite a bit later on in the story, and it keeps taking longer and longer to get there!


Mal leaned against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut, his head spinning. He felt exhausted, drained the way he usually did after a round of nightmares. He wished, not for the first time, that there was some way he could just talk his subconscious into leaving him alone, dropping this habit of re-living that horror over and over again, always with some invented twist or embellishment. Wasn’t sleep supposed to be a refuge, not someplace you went to be tortured? And why didn’t he ever dream about the good people? Why didn’t Zoe ever appear at his side with that solid, knowing smile of her face and hold out her hand to help him to his feet?

He remembered the countless times she’d done that for him in the war, and that hand on his back supporting him with wordless understanding and grounding him in sanity. That’s what was wrong. Zoe should have been there. She’d have effortlessly dispatched his attackers like an avenging angel and picked him up off the ground, held him and sheltered him with simple human contact, sharing and enduring the experience of surviving another day. Please let that be my dream, he thought. Please let her come for me next time.

Or even Wash. He opened his eyes and looked at the young man sitting quietly a few feet away from him, gazing up at the stars. He wakes me up enough times and reminds me what compassion looks like, maybe I’ll start to actually, really believe it still exists.

He thought about all the times Wash had simply, supportively walked at his side when he was going along pretending that being around the guards didn’t scare him half to death. How did he know I needed that? He thought of the many times Zoe had done almost the exact same thing for him; just walked with him, literally going through the war at his side, showing him through every bit of hell they faced that even though they got a bit hard to see, things like trust and humanity and decency were still alive. It was amazing what became bearable just by having someone to trade a single understanding glance with.

He realized that for the first time, he was allowing himself to see how much it hurt, being separated from her. I had only one thing left, and they even took that from me, he thought bitterly. He knew it had been a matter of routine, of practicality and not cruelty. But wasn’t that the very definition of the Alliance? Cruelty that originated with good intentions, orchestrated by people too blind or too careless to see or feel the harm they did? Defining for other people what constituted a good life, or in their case, humane treatment of prisoners? Taking away the one friend and the one source of support he had left, the very person who might have allowed him to overcome the horror and heartbreak of losing the war?

And Wash. He looked back at the quiet, tired pilot. They took someone brave enough and kind enough to look after me no matter how much I threaten him, and put him through what looked from his reaction to have been a brutal interrogation. The sheer cruelty of subjecting such a good, gentle soul to that kind of treatment was the heart of what he hated about the Alliance and their calculating coldness. Didn’t matter if they hadn’t tortured him, there were plenty of other ways to hurt a man and leave him shattered without landing a single blow. They managed it with me.

He remembered his slip, letting on that it bothered him, the lives that had been lost by fighting on for two weeks after the official surrender. He didn’t truly blame himself, seeing as he’d had no way of knowing. But they’d seized on that and made full use of it to remind him of each and every one of the men and women under his command who’d died horribly for no good reason. His interrogators hadn’t even had a reasonable excuse, they’d wanted to break him down and shake his confidence simply because it was what they did. But Wash, they’d had a reason to hurt, and by all indications they’d done so with a vengeance.

Wash noticed his gaze and met his eyes hesitantly. Poor fellow doesn’t know if I’m gonna talk to him decently or snap his head off, and he’s still out here, he thought. There’s gotta be a way I can get through to him without kickin’ him around all the time.

“I’m not a total idiot, Mal,” Wash said, keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard. “I get that there’s something you’re trying very hard to protect, an’ I’m not gonna ask you to betray that.” Anxious, vulnerable blue eyes were staring at Mal questioningly.

“Really important that you drop this, Wash,” said Mal firmly, hoping against hope that he’d simply listen this time.

Wash was silent for a long time before he continued. “Just can’t. I see you one night, and the next you’re gone. Months later you’re back looking like you’ve been hurt horribly and starved nearly to death, and you wake up at night screaming. That’s a pretty awful thing to see, and I simply can’t turn off the part of my brain that wonders what they were doing to you all those months.”

“You gotta drop the idea they did anything to me. If it helps any, probably wasn’t so bad as what you’re imagining.”

Wash shook his head. “Mal, I know you don’t trust me with your secrets, an’ you’re right not to. But I’m not curious, I’m scared, and your stoic silence is giving me a set of shiny nightmares all of my own.”

Mal sighed. That was fear in Wash’s eyes, and that fear probably went a lot deeper than he’d imagined upon first getting to know the funny, happy-go-lucky pilot. The last thing he wanted to do was deepen those wounds. He realized with a sick little feeling in the pit of his stomach that his unpredictable reactions and attacks were the cruelest thing he could be doing. I’m acting just like they probably did. You keep this up, you’re no better than those who put him through that in the first place.

Wash’s head was low, his eyes avoiding Mal as he continued. “I can’t decide which I like the least. In scenario number one, the Alliance wanted something, and they tortured you to get it. They never did do that here, and the idea they’ve changed-” Wash stopped and took a very deep breath, obviously hating this conversation even more than Mal. “In scenario number two, you did something so horrible that you actually deserved whatever they did to you, and that scares me because I’m locked up with you.”

Mal closed his eyes, thinking. “It was……provoked. I did something I wasn’t expecting to survive, and had the misfortune to be wrong. Not saying I deserved what they did, but they had their reasons.” “Provoked? Provoked as in you served a guy a spider for breakfast, or provoked as in, I dunno, you beat an irritating ex-pilot to death for asking you a few too many personal questions?”

Mal looked away, grinning a little. “I’m sorry, Wash. I shoulda told you before. I put a spider in a guy’s lunchbox, and it turns out I misjudged his sense of humor.”

Wash was silent for a long time, thinking. When he spoke again, his voice sounded odd, stress adding a higher pitch than usual. “It was you, wasn’t it?”


“It was you. General rumor has it you’re dead.”

“Uh… I haunting the place? I’m the prison ghost now or some such?”

“Yeah. Nice try, but the whole dodging a sticky situation with smart-alecky comments? That’s my thing, got the copyright and everything, so just – just – no ghosts allowed in this conversation!”

Wash glared at Mal in frustration as Mal raised his eyebrows innocently. “Months back, we heard some of the prisoners crossed one of the more sadistically lethal of our – uh – caretakers. Stories differ, but burning building, dramatic rescue, dead guards, and some poor heroic guy never heard of again –”

“Rumors,” said Mal weakly. Inside, he was stunned that Wash had managed to put two and two together so accurately. The young man was a lot smarter than he sometimes acted. Moment of truth, Mal. Lead him astray or just tell him what he already guessed.

Lee never had told him not to talk about this; he hadn’t needed to. If protecting the both of them required a cover-up, a cover-up it would be. But the whole prison knew something had happened, and as Lee had pointed out, rumors could be disregarded; his own body was the only real proof. Even if Wash did know, his story would be no different from the rest of the rumors.

“Why do you need to hide it so bad?” asked Wash gently.

He looked directly at Wash. “By all reason I should be dead, an’ I would be if a couple of people hadn’t taken some big risks to give a stranger his life back. Protectin’ them means keeping everything about what happened, including the fact that I was hurt at all under wraps. That answer enough of your questions?”

“No,” Wash whispered. “But it’s a start.” Mal was gratified to see that the fear was finally gone from the man’s eyes, but it was now replaced with a heartrendingly sincere mix of admiration and sadness. “How’d you manage to kill a guard-”

“Two, actually,” interrupted Mal, holding up two fingers with a faint smile.

“-Okay, two guards, and even live to see the next day? I can’t think of anything more lethal – I mean – good God, Mal, even Khiloh would shoot me if I did that.”

“That kinda goes back to the whole protecting the guy who saved my life thing. This quits bein’ a rumor, either I’ll be dead or he’ll be payin’ for doing me a good turn, and I ain’t too keen on either.”

Wash nodded in understanding. “I’m sorry, Mal. This makes ya a hero to me, I’m just so sorry you – just let me help if I can, all right?”

“I’m not a good guy, Wash. Gave up my claim to that title in the war, along with a lot of other things,” Mal said quietly. “Nothin’ heroic about doing what’s gotta be done.”

“Yes, there is,” replied Wash. “And I may have called you violent and cranky, but I do think you’re a good guy.”

Mal smiled his thanks, withdrawing again into silence. I know better. He thought sadly of all the men and women who died in his arms during the war, who’d died carrying out his orders, orders he’d known would lead to their deaths. People who’d looked at him with the same fondness and admiration that Wash had in those sincere eyes of his right now. Not much hurts worse than watching someone die still looking at you like that. It was the only time he’d ever lie to the folks under his command; he’d hold them and tell them they were gonna be just fine, medic was going to come along and fix them right up. Even when they knew it was a lie, it still helped ease the fear and make those last few seconds a little easier to bear. Last thing he needed now was someone else to look up to him, someone else to hurt.

You’re hurting him right now, he reminded himself. Wash was plainly lost and in need of a friend, in need of a leader to turn to who’d steady him and reassure him. If that Straaker moonbrain was half the commanding officer he thought he was, he’d have recognized that. If Straaker won’t reach out to this guy, then I guess it’s my job.

“Anything else you need to know?” he asked Wash softly.

“Khiloh. Just tell me he didn’t have a part in doing this to you.”

Mal shook his head. “Your friend’s a good man, and he had no part in it. Appreciate if you didn’t go exploring our history, though.”

Wash looked deeply relieved. “Fair enough. Mal, I’m so sorry,” he said again. “I wondered where you were all those months, I just never guessed-”

“Last I checked, you weren’t the one that done this to me, so don’t go feelin’ all mopey, all right? I got a feeling from your face in there that I ain’t the only one with a history.”

Wash looked heartbroken. “They didn’t hurt me. They didn’t torture me, they didn’t lock me up and starve me, they didn’t-”

Mal threw up a hand, cutting him off. “Wasn’t so bad as all that. The response team got there and beat the hell out of me, broke more’n a few bones and dislocated my shoulders. I woke up on the floor of a cell in all kinds of pain, and people talkin’ about killing me. Couple guys came in after a while and stuck a needle in my arm, took me to the hospital. That was it.”

Wash looked down. “Mal, what about those scars, how come you looked like you hadn’t eaten in months?”

Mal sighed. “I was handcuffed when they beat me. Got cut up pretty bad. Everything else is just surgery scars. They really did do their best to take care of me, after. Wasn’t a sanctioned thing they did, and I had a whole passel of doctors feelin’ all kinds of sorry for me.”

He paused for a minute, trying to clear the memories from his head. “They didn’t starve me. I did that to my own self, got some bad news and just kinda stopped wantin’ to do much of anything.”

Wash very hesitantly reached out his hand and placed it on Mal’s. “I’m sorry I made you talk about it. But thank you. It – it – helps, knowing.”

Mal smiled at Wash. “Hey, you keep us entertained with your puppet shows, I figure it’s only fair that I tell a bedtime story every so often.”

Wash raised his eyebrows. “Uh- Mal? I don’t know who the heck raised you, but you’ve got one twisted idea of what constitutes a bedtime story.”

“Sorry.” Mal grinned. “Am I givin’ you nightmares? I got a nicer one I like to call Danny’s Web, if that’s more to your liking.”

Wash leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes theatrically and wiggling as though settling in to sleep. “Yes, please.”


Monday, May 8, 2006 9:06 AM


Brilliant, the only thing shinier would be longer chapters posted every five minutes! Okay, so a little unreasonable - how about on the hour? Seriously, I adore the way Mal and Wash are getting to know each other and coming so close to a good solid friendship. Shiny, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Wednesday, May 10, 2006 4:55 PM


This was a tad expository in that it was a rehash of info we already knew. That is okay in many regards as Wash didn't know it and getting to see Mal reveal the info, and his struggle to do so, was fascinating in itself. It worked.

I totally understand about stories getting longer and longer. I went over 150,000 words on "Blue Sun Job"--had thought originally it would be 15-20,000 words. ;-) Don't fight it! I'm enjoying this story of yours immensely.

Sunday, May 21, 2006 4:36 AM


Was gone on vacation when this came out, so am catching up. *g*

Wonderful chapter! I love how Mal reluctantly comes around to telling Wash what happened. Off to read the next bit.

"I love my captain."


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The Losing Side, Ch. 63 - The Art of Insanity
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