The Losing Side, Chapter 48
Monday, November 12, 2007

Mal gets a very painful reception when he returns to the prison. This one's pretty warned, and feel free to skip if need be. I officially scare myself now, just so y'all know. Yes, there are several very good reasons for this chapter to exist, being fun to read wasn't one of them. Hard R for violence.


Mal sat in a small, utilitarian office, the burly Lieutenant towering over him. “Name’s Gunderson. You might as well know I think prison is too good for you and your kind. If you ask me, war criminals should be thrown in a garbage pit and left to die like the trash you are. As long as you’re under my command, you will know hell.”

Gunderson sat down behind the desk, looking at Mal with contempt. The guard who'd punched Mal sat wordlessly, and a third man, a grey-haired, middle-aged Sergeant, stood to the side.

Mal’s face was stony. “Sir, I been here close to a year now. Words such as yours loose their power to curdle the blood after you heard 'em a time or seventeen.”

Gunderson’s already formidable jaw tightened even further as he leaned forward and slammed his hand down on the desk. “You think it’s smart to burn your bridges before we get to know each other?”

“Oh, I been making my way by the light of burning bridges for a good while now,” said Mal evenly. His mind was filled with a maelstrom of questions and hurt and beauty that went so far beyond this room that he was almost ignoring Gunderson.

“And that would be why you’re sitting in my office in chains? Seems to be working for you, Sergeant. Keep it up. Doesn’t take a whole lot to forget to feed a man in solitary, forget he’s even behind the door until the smell starts to spread,” said Gunderson, plainly aggravated at his inability to get under Mal's skin.

Mal tried to pretend he even cared what this man was saying. Lee? Ordering me into solitary confinement and maximum security? There was nothing about that which made any sort of sense. Only way he could see was if Lee was trying to protect him….from people like this.

“Well, aren’t you a stoic little weasel,” remarked Gunderson. “Were you this cold when you were murdering our soldiers?”

“Ever been on a battlefield, sir?” Mal asked.

“No,” said the Lieutenant. “Nor do I give a damn about whatever pitiful excuse is about to come out of your mouth.”

And I don’t give a damn about your ignorant heckling. “There’s a coldness, a callousness a person takes on. But so much as a thing like that can be fought with honor, I did. My troops did. That’s not a thing a person can grasp without bein’ there, an’ I don’t suspect you’ll be taking any stock in it. There ain’t nothing fair or good in a war, but a person can find honor. We fought with honor, an’ I don’t need you or any man to excuse me for it," said Mal.

“Big words, for a war criminal. Tell me, if I find a sword, will you do the honorable thing an' throw yourself on it?” asked the Lieutenant sarcastically. His fingers tapped impatiently on the desk as he lost interest in the conversation.

“No thanks. You?” asked Mal. This idiot would listen to reason when Hell froze over and started dishing out free ice cream.

Gunderson's face flushed red with rage. “You know what it was that once and for all erased any notions I might’ve had about the plucky little Independents, being picked on unfairly by the big, bad empire? What made me determined that we had to win this war, at all costs?”

Gunderson bit his lip. “It was a capture taken after a battle, when our troops came looking for survivors. Three men hanging from trees, Alliance, with their bellies cut open like pigs. Guts hanging out, their tongues split down the middle."

He looked up at Mal. “So tell me stories of honor and freedom. Go right ahead, but you better know there are no words strong enough to even begin to get that image out of my head, nor to convince me to have mercy on an Independent war criminal.”

“Sir,” said Mal, “You need to understand a thing or two about that. I never did any such thing, nor did my squad. But more to the point, I don’t know of any Browncoat who has. If they did it was aimed at demoralizing your troops, an' those men were dead, dead with a bullet, before any blade ever touched ‘em.”

“How – humane,” Gunderson said. “Accounts for the looks of horror and agony on their faces, I suppose.”

“Having a hole blown through your body tends to hurt in the best of times,” said Mal. “I didn’t say they slipped away peacefully in their sleep, I’m sayin’ the war killed ‘em and we didn’t make it any more horrific than it already was. Well – mayhaps we did. But only when they was already dead. There's no way we did that to any living soul.”

Gunderson looked at him coldly, clearly tiring of the conversation. Logic an' fact must disagree with 'im, thought Mal. He raised his eyes and looked directly at the scowling brute behind the desk. “Look. I feel my actions were justified and within the scope of my duty. Clearly your court feels otherwise, an’ clearly you feel equally justified in whatever unpleasantness you have planned for me. Am I correct in makin’ the assumption that there’s nothin’ I can say to change your mind?”


“Then how's about you get on with it,” said Mal. “I ain’t lookin’ forward to this, an’ you plainly are.”


It felt good to fight; there was a sheer joy and exhilaration in making a stand after months of compliance, months of suppressing the urge to lash out. The fears that had haunted him for so long stood aside and let him show three armed men just how hard one determined prisoner could fight back. He clearly had nothing to lose, and he grinned as his elbow connected with Gunderson's nose. The freedom to fight, even a losing fight, was the most liberating thing imaginable, and he let out a gleeful whoop.

"Give it up!" yelled the grey-haired Sergeant, wiping away the blood trickling from his lip. "You ain't gonna win!"

"I'm gettin' used to losing," said Mal, grinning despite the blood trickling from his nose. "Doesn't make the fight any less fun." He fought as hard as any man could, but eventually the three officers overpowered him. Mal braced himself, gasping for breath as they finished tying his arms above his head.

"You – rutting – bastards!" he yelled, glaring at Gunderson as something painful slashed down across his back. After the beating he’d taken in the fight, his body was telling him in no uncertain terms that it wanted to collapse in a heap on the floor, not stand there and be beaten on some more.

He forced his head up and his thoughts away from the pain as he glared steadily at Gunderson with cool fury, focused like a razor. It didn’t allow for fear, and it didn’t waver. He knew full well nothing he could say would stop this, but he’d rather let these hypocritical bastards have it than simply suffer in silence.

“I know torturing prisoners of war is a time-honored custom, laden with tradition and all that, but could I make one small point?” he asked.

Gunderson’s fist slammed into the side of Mal’s head, knocking him sideways and making his head spin. The Lieutenant shook his hand in surprised pain, his knuckles smarting from sharp contact with Mal’s cheekbone. He looked at Mal with a pained smile. “See?” he said sarcastically. “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” Gunderson chuckled.

Not bloody likely, thought Mal, tasting blood in his mouth and taking short, gasping breaths as he tried to keep his legs under him. He returned the sarcastic look. “Hurt me all ya’ like, 'cause every second ‘a this is convincin’ me just how right I was to fight your miserable excuse for an empire."

The blows stopped, and the aging Sergeant sat on the corner of the desk, trying to catch his breath. There was a sheen of sweat on his face. Got tired. Unwittingly, he met Mal's eyes, and Mal looked at him steadily. "Enjoying yourself?" Mal asked.

The Sergeant held his gaze for a long time. Mal couldn't quite read the expression on his face; he seemed caught between satisfaction and sympathy and loathing as Gunderson grabbed a piece of rubber belting and started whipping it viciously across Mal’s back. Mal squeezed his eyes shut and made the Sergeant he’d once been yell at himself firmly. You will get through this. They're going to hurt you, not beat you to death.

He bowed his head down, dazed, tense and shaking from pain and adrenaline but in an odd sort of way, completely relaxed. He didn’t struggle, even when each new blow jolted him, forcing the occasional stifled cry of pain from his lips. He didn’t have to cry out; he could have taken the beating silently but suddenly it seemed like too much bother.

He felt each strike hit, momentarily forcing everything else from his mind. Those seconds make it worthwhile to focus on the pain, to let himself hurt instead of bracing himself against it. Thinking clearly meant remembering a prison sentence; it meant dread and anger. He heard his own low cries through the blur as though they were coming from someone else. He recognized them, cries of men and women struggling to be brave for their friends and their Sergeant as they lay injured and dying.

The Alliance killed them. You didn’t. Mal felt the world come sharply back into focus as in an instant, the images of the friends and family and soldiers the Alliance had slaughtered stopped haunting him as he placed the blame squarely where it belonged: in the hands of the killers, in the hands of people like this. Amazing how it was easier to recognize evil when it had him tied up by the wrists and was beating him relentlessly.

It had been a few blessed seconds since the last blow, and Mal opened his eyes and took a deep breath, wondering if it was over; wondering if he cared. Beat me. Lock me up. I don’t give a good gorram what you do to me, it all hurts.

The Sergeant was sitting silently on the desk, avoiding Mal’s eyes. Wonder if I actually got to ‘im. Gunderson flicked Mal on the back with his finger. Funny, how that was more irritatingly painful than enduring the beating.

“So, we got ourselves a war criminal here what thinks he’s a tough guy.” Flick. “Ain’t that right?” Gunderson mistook the dullness in his eyes for submission, and a smug smile grew on his face.

“Me? No, I’m a towerin’ whimp,” replied Mal. “Don’t think I’ll be able to stand up to your diabolical plot to tickle me to death. If that’s your big and evil plan, it ain’t workin’ overly well.”

Gunderson’s eyes flashed in rage, and Mal locked eyes with him in equal anger. “War criminal? You were the ones started this war, an’ decided you wanted to rule the universe. You were the ones that destroyed a planet full of civilians.”

“Ya know what I wants?” Gunderson asked.

“Ta be purty enough to get a boyfriend?” asked Mal with feigned innocence. "Or to be able to conjugate verbs?"

Gunderson slammed his fist into the side of Mal’s face, and replied, “No, to make you scream and piss yourself, just like your own victims did.”

“Are you tryin’ to be the epitome of evil?” Mal asked furiously. “I’ve killed a few too many men for my liking, but I ain’t cruel. I don’t like seeing pain or fear on a person’s face, even if he’s my enemy. Seems to me you do, an’ that damn sure doesn’t make me the guilty one here.”

“Seems to me a court says otherwise,” said Gunderson.

“Not sporting, arguing with a man without two brain cells to rub together. ‘Sides, I’m finding it a little creepifying, holding a conversation with the guy beating me. Maybe later, over tea?” suggested Mal.

In an instant Gunderson and the third officer were both beating him, alternating strokes so that there wasn’t a second of relief between blows. “Nice teamwork,” said Mal through clenched teeth. “Didn’t know single-celled organisms were capable of such a thing.”

Finally they stopped, and Mal gasped in relief, his body shaking with pain and exhaustion. Gunderson pulled open the front of his shirt, and he suppressed a shudder of revulsion as a cold finger scraped down his chest and stomach. Mal swallowed hard and set his face, trying desperately to keep his suddenly even shakier legs under him as Gunderson approached with a lethally sharp-looking knife. Tell me they are not going to do this. It took every ounce of courage he had to keep from throwing himself against the ropes in a desperate attempt to free himself. No no no. Don't. Please don't.

He tensed, his whole body shuddering as Gunderson put the tip of the blade to his chest and paused significantly before pressing it into his skin. The cutting sensation as he drew the blade slowly downward hurt far less than Mal feared. The cut stung, but it was far from deep. What did hurt was the brandy-soaked cloth Gunderson dragged down the length of the wound, pressing hard. Mal gritted his teeth and screamed as he discovered exactly how many gorram nerve endings he had. His whole chest and stomach were enveloped in biting, fiery pain, and he struggled furiously against the ropes.

Finally Gunderson tossed the rag aside, leaving Mal gasping. You’ve been through worse, he reminded himself grimly. You’ve been through worse. It was the only positive thing he could find to think. The worst passed quickly and he drew in several deep breaths.

It proved a useful mantra as Gunderson produced a suturing needle with a long string of wire hanging from it and began sewing the wound closed. The process was more horrifying than painful, but Mal found himself with a growing inclination to vomit. He choked it down and looked away, trying not to concentrate on what was being done to him. He'd once had Zoe dig a bullet out of him without anesthetic, and he reckoned he'd prefer to go through that again, given the choice.

The man’s fingers were shaky, and Mal felt Gunderson wince when his body jerked in pain as the needle went into the tissue below the wound. He didn’t mistake this for compassion: Gunderson had clearly never done something this hands-on in its gruesomeness. Imagine it's givin' him stomach issues.

Gunderson yanked unexpectedly on the end of the wire tail hanging from the last of the crude stitches, and the startled Mal screamed again as pain ripped up his stomach and chest and seemingly ripped apart his entire upper body. His legs crumbled under him, leaving him dangling from his wrists, uttering gasping whimpers of agony as he struggled to regain control. You miserable, soulless bastard.

“Sir?” said the Sergeant. “Might want to disinfect your hands, your not having used gloves and all.”

The Lieutenant glanced down at his hands and beat a hasty retreat. Mal raised his eyes to the Sergeant. “He didn’t go to torturer school yet, did he?” His arms felt like they were being ripped out of their sockets, and with great determination he managed to plant his quivering legs under his body again.

The Sergeant gulped, approaching Mal grimly. “He does this a few more times, he’ll get it figured out, I’m afraid.” He pulled the remains of Mal’s shirt down, covering the wound running down the front of his body and giving him a sober squeeze on the shoulder. Looking up, he met Mal’s eyes for a long minute and sat back against the table as footsteps approached.

“So, how’s my patient?” asked Gunderson. His face was twisted as he tried for a satisfied leer and succeeded only in making his nausea evident.

“Resting uncomfortably,” replied Mal. “Wrists elevated, -" he stopped and gritted his teeth as the expected blow struck. The Lieutenant stepped back and put a hand on the table to steady himself, obviously losing the battle against his stomach. His gaze lighted on an object lying casually on the desk.

Gunderson picked up the remote and aimed it at Mal. “Nice of them to leave me with this,” he said. “Considerate, you might say.” Mal barely had time to comprehend what it was before pressed the button.

Pain consumed Mal’s entire body as every muscle convulsed involuntarily. He would have screamed if he’d been able, but the shock from the band on his ankle robbed him of all control. It didn’t just hurt, it wrenched him to his core and left him free-falling, sickened and helpless, as though from a tall building.

“Oh, nice,” said the commander with satisfaction. “I have to get me one of these.”

“You can have mine, if you like,” Mal gasped as he recovered from the searing pain. He was hanging limply from his wrists, and he couldn't have stood on his own feet if his life depended on it. His chest was heaving desperately for air, and he could barely form words. “After – I’m – done with it.” The nausea overtook him and he threw up.

The furious officer slammed his finger down on the button again, and Mal’s world was transformed into one of pain and blackness. He fell, screaming and flailing, through the air, until he felt nothing.



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