The Way We Never Met: Marseillaise
Friday, June 4, 2004

First in a series of five things that never happened to Mal. The Independence wins the war.


Disclaimer: Dude, Fox, if you're serious enough to sue, you should have been serious enough to keep the show on the air. Joss, I love you. No copywright infringement upon your marvelous creation is intended. Author's Note: As in all "Ways We Never Met" stories, the lyrics are Matthew Ryan's property.

Songs are souvenirs of the peace that hasn't come. And if it never does, better still that they be sung.

When they staggered out of the ratholes and lined up in front of Deane, their ragged band of thirty-five including Bolis, who'd started talking to himself some days ago, and Reggie, who liked carving Bible verses in the purplebellies' flesh, Mal felt a sharp burst of joy at the horror in the general's face.

He'd sent them a thousand strong into Serenity Valley, and thirty-five strong they came out of it. Mal wanted to take the general down the nearest hole, show him where they slept and ate these last six weeks while HQ dined on salmon, napped on cotton sheets.

Unable to believe it, for which Mal couldn't hardly blame him, Deane asked, "Where are the others?" and went white to match his silvery hair when Zoe gestured to the Pile, tarpaulin not quite covering the bodies they'd run out of room to bury.

All the general said was, "Thank you, sergeant." It wasn't enough, but then, nothing would have been.

He will never tire of this, the feel of fine whiskey burning down his throat. Bolis is plugging the jukebox with his one good arm, singing along with the rock and roll chorus that starts out, "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right." Singing it into Reggie's face, and Reggie's grinning, snaggletoothed and still dirty after three hot showers. Mal would run from them both if he met them in a dark alley, but right now he could kiss them, lovable scamps, closer than brothers, right now he'd trust them with his life savings, with his life.

He will never tire of this, Mal swears to himself, of singing browncoat songs in a browncoat bar. For the rest of his life, he will celebrate this day.

Serenity Valley will be the Alliance's graveyard, the generals had declared, and it was. No matter how many troops they threw at the embankments, the Alliance couldn't break the line. No matter how many reinforcements they called in, weakening their fronts on other worlds, risking the precious Southern Front at Balleymoraine, they couldn't make the browncoats give up on Serenity. Mal and Zoe and Bolis and Reggie ate their own shoelaces and drank rainwater out of their boots and they made the purplebellies pay dearly for every friend they lost.

And when the air support swept in, strafing the best of the Alliance fleet in a wall of explosions that looked like an ocean of fire breaking on sand, didn't it tear the scum's heart out? Didn't that kill their best men, and their bloody ambitions with them?

When the fighter ships landed and opened their ramps and browncoats came pouring out, shouting that they'd broken through in the south, that it was just a matter of time, and where oh where were the heroes who'd held this position so they could be thanked and given medals, oh, wasn't it the grandest, finest thing that ever was?

Thirty-five only they may have been, ragged and dirty and half-mad, but they had held the line right up until Armistice Day. Wasn't that something to write in the sky?

Zoe is twirling in the arms of a burly lieutenant, but she steals a glance over the jarhead's shoulder and smiles at him. He will never tire of it, seeing Zoe smile. Zoe who kept him from going crazy the night Evangeline bought it out at the ammo dump, trying to steal them enough cartridges to get through the next day.

"She took it all out with her, sir, all their bullets and mines," Zoe whispered, holding him tight as he wept. "She died in a hail of fireworks, like a comet smashing into the earth, and she hurt the Alliance scum bad. She made it worth something."

If it hadn't been for Zoe, he'd have gone bats along with Bolis who started muttering about prophecies and saints and lakes a-burnin'. She picked thread out of their dead major's coat and she stitched up the cut on his arm, all the while talking about how she didn't want no gou pi sewing shoved on her just because she was the only girl left.

She was pulling those stitches out when their angels screamed over the smoking horizon.

Deloused and showered, shaven and fed, they were relieved of duty along with the rest of their squadron. Mal gave one last order: march double-quick to the nearest bar, to tie on the most ferocious drunk any of them had ever seen, in honor of the Alliance and its ignominious demise.

When they walked in, swaggering as well as half-dead men and a woman can, people looked up and smiled, clustered round, asked if they were back from the war. When Mal said they were, an old man at a table near the door stripped his sleeve and showed him a faded blue tattoo.

"Had this on the northern flank, nigh on fifty years ago," the grandpa rasped, and stared at Mal like he knew all his secrets. "It's hell, ain't it, boy?"

Mal put an arm around the man, and leaned in close. "Yeah, it is, gramps. But we're still alive, ain't we?" And saw his answer in the man's defiant smile.

The barkeep shoved their money away; pouring some gorram goat-piss drinks is the least he could do, he said, for heroes of Serenity.

Mal looks at Zoe, up at the bar, leaning against it with her dance partner, letting him put his hand on her hip. It's so good, so sweetly simply good, to see her curls soft around her face, to see her eyes bright like any girl who's trying to find herself a bedmate.

Tomorrow, maybe, he'll make inquiries about transport home. He puts the whiskey bottle down and feels beneath his brand-new shirt for his crucifix. Tomorrow, he'll talk to Zoe about going back to Shadow with him, set up business somewhere, maybe.

Bolis has got himself up on the bar and is drinking firewater straight from the bottle when Mal slips out the door. Zoe's decamped with her conquest, and he doesn't feel like sleeping yet.

The only light besides the bar's in the whole street is coming from a small brown shack at the end of the block, and as he draws closer Mal makes out the crude cross carved into the door.

"He has led me out of the valley of the shadow," he murmurs, "and brought me to the door of His priest."

The door swings open at his hard knock, but the shepherd in the corner doesn't look up.

"Come in, son," the preacher says.

"My name is Malcolm—"

The shepherd waves him off. He's a tall man, muscular, with a shock of white frizz around his dark-skinned, gentle face. He doesn't smile at Mal, but with a gnarled hand he gestures that Mal should sit.

"Don't need to hear your name, young man," the older man continues. "I know everything I need to know about who you are from that scar on your arm. You got that in the war, right?"


"Then you're part of that band of hellraisers blew into town today fresh from Serenity Valley." The shepherd looks back down at his Bible, resting on his brown-robed lap. "Town talks of nothing else."

It's hard to read the preacher's expressions in the dim light of the oil lamp. "That's true enough, shepherd …"

"Book," the older man says. "You can call me Shepherd Book."

They sit in silence for a while, Mal uncomfortable, and the preacher placid, turning onion-skin pages and occasionally nodding to himself. Never in his life, Mal thinks, has he met a preacher so quiet. Most of 'em back on Shadow seemed to love the sounds of their own fancy sermons. This one doesn't even ask why he's here.

"Do you know why we call despair a sin, son?" Shepherd Book asks, and Mal shakes his head.

"It's because in despairing, we forget what we are capable of as God's creations. We begin to refuse the graces he gives to us, to see only the darkness around us, instead of the candle we carry.

"We cease reaching for the stars, convinced we can no longer reach them.

"Believe me," Book says, looking up at Mal with an expression that gives the man who'd seen his friends blown apart by cluster bombs a chill like nothing he's ever felt before, "I know."

Mal bows his head, ashamed he could be read so easily. "For a moment," he confesses, low and nervous, "before the Angels came, I thought God had given up on us.

"Zoe, my friend, was taking the stitches out of my arm, here, and I told her, 'They ain't comin'.' I told her, 'We ain't gettin' out of this alive.'"

The preacher nods, closing his Bible and listening intently now;

"I was ready to tear off this cross I'm wearin', because what use was Almighty God when we were livin' somethin' that, if it wasn't hell …"

"Was close enough to feel the flames," Book says, and Mal chokes down a laugh.

"I prayed in that moment, Shepherd, for the souls of my dearest girl and all my friends, lost in that Valley. I prayed and when I was finished, I told God that was the last he'd be hearin' from me."

"Not only despair, but pride," Book chides, and Mal ducks his head.

"The very moment I finished my prayin' is when those ships came in to rescue us," Mal whispers, his throat very tight. "And I was too ashamed of my weakness to even thank God for it."

"God knew," Book says, looking inward again, talking to himself and not Mal. "Even when you wandered away from him, God knew where you were. He's the only one who knows, sometimes.

"It doesn't matter that you may have lost sight of him in that dark valley, son. He never lost sight of you."

The shepherd looks up at Mal again. "So which of your multitude of sins have you come for me to absolve?"

Mal slips off the chair Book had offered him and slumps to his knees, remembering his mother's instructions when he was five, accompanying her to church at the township for the first time.

"Bow your head for absolution, Malcolm," she'd told him. "Bow your head and fold your hands and the priest will take away your sins."

"I haven't just come for me, preacher," Mal says in a whisper. "It isn't only my sins need forgivin'."

He asks for absolution then, for Reggie, whose idea of a joke was cutting off the purplebellies' fingers, one by one, as he sang verses of "Amazing Grace." For Bolis, who climbed up top the wall one night and shot his last full cartridge into the air, saying he saw dragons circling over the camp, and wasted ammo that would have lasted a week.

For General Deane, isolated from the pain and blood and death, who Zoe found retching behind the ship after their debriefing was through. For Zoe, who crept into his bunk one night and rode him into exhaustion, the first time since Evangeline that he'd been able to sleep four hours straight.

For every single méiyôu mûqin de xiao gôu he killed, and his last count was two hundred and fifty-seven.

For himself, for forgetting what this strange old man in his old ratty shack never has: that God is merciful, that he listens, and sends his angels down with righteousness in their mighty wings.

Mal drops a hefty portion of his back pay into the cup near the preacher's door; the man deserves it, sure has lifted his burden some.

Tomorrow he'll make plans for the rest of his free and prosperous life. He runs his fingers over the cross and chain, silver and gold smooth beneath his scarred-up hands. He feels its weight around his neck, no longer an albatross, now an anchor. Tomorrow, he'll begin again.

Tonight, it's enough to pause for a moment, and to thank Almighty God for answering his prayers.


Friday, June 4, 2004 7:26 AM


Now that's some damn good writing there!! WOW! I can picture all that actually happening.

Keep it coming!

Friday, June 4, 2004 8:34 AM


whoa... good prose. And I do mean prose. You created images using the barest, and yet richest descriptions it's ever been my pleasure to read. This wasn't just good writing - damn good, if I may say so - it was indeed sheer poetry.

In particular - thank you for truly making Book a Man of the Word. Everyone's so caught up in speculation on his past these days, they tend to wholly negate his current path on the Journey.

On to the next.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 6:34 AM




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