BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JETFLAIR

The Losing Side, Chapter 68 - Farewell to Bars
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mal is finally released by the Alliance, and says his goodbyes to friend and foe before being assigned a job in stapler quality control. In the meantime, Wash rebels against the perfection of his new job by buying dinosaurs and loud shirts. This is NOT the end of the story! :)


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1219    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Wash, for once alone on the bridge, finally allowed himself to indulge the sense of melancholy that was following him around. In all those years behind fences and bars, freedom had always been the holy grail. The mythical time in the future when everything would be perfect.

He sighed. To any sort of normal human standard, it was perfect. He was flying. He was earning a fortune. He had the respect of his colleagues. He lived on a luxury vessel and didn’t even have to fix food or clean his own cabin. He was free to do as he wished, and orders were never enforced with big sticks.

Wash looked down at his pilot’s uniform. Crisp, navy blue, and damned handsome in his own estimation and in that of any female who happened to spot him in it. Life was perfect.

He pressed his head back in the smooth leather seat and closed his eyes. It wasn’t a dereliction of duty; the ship could and would fly itself. Forget needing a good pilot, the Lyaeus didn’t need any pilot. She had six. Six of the best pilots in the universe, to take turns watching an electronic navigator.

If life was perfect, why was he remembering shivering in near-hypothermia in a darkened housing unit all night, while his companions shared the heartbreak of seeing friends murdered and families destroyed, as though it were something he missed? What sort of a twisted person did it make him if he did miss it? What if he never again got to experience the sort of caring that drove six men to support each other through a night like that?

What did he have on Lyaeus? Drinking buddies, he supposed. And the perfection. The never-rutting-ending perfection. The glossy, professional shininess all packaged up in a crisp blue uniform with an endless supply of exfoliating bath products.

The captain walked onto the bridge and scanned him with an appraising eye that made Wash rankle inside. “Ni hao ma, Washburne?”

“Fine, Benny,” drawled Wash.

The captain tried unsuccessfully to soften his expression of pure irritation. “Sir will do, please.” He scratched his chin significantly. “Little bit of a shadow there, son. Not in some prison camp any more, best make sure you look the part of a professional, dong ma?”

“Sir, yes sir, sir,” said Wash, looking up. “Now about those professional nose hairs of yours I have to look at all the time….”

The captain’s expression of disapproval sharpened. “You show up on post unshaven again, you get written up. Understood?” Without waiting for Wash’s acknowledgement, he turned on his heel and marched out.

~~~~~

Mal took the papers, unfolding them as Lee spoke. "After a review of your war record, your actions in Serenity Valley and the battles leading up to it, and the leadership role you assumed, the Independent Army has granted you a retroactive commission. Congratulations, Captain Reynolds."

Mal looked at the papers, moved. Rank hadn't meant much to him; actually those that had it tended to be folk he lacked an overabundance of patience with. He could've made it further if he'd avoided insulting them so much. But this struck him different. Not a promotion. More of a thank-you. He tucked the papers carefully and very soberly into the pile of precious documents.

Lee stood silent for a long time before deciding to speak. “To see the Alliance – my Alliance – acting with dishonor hurts in a way that – I can’t even express. I violated my own ethics to fight it, and now….” He stared at his hands for a minute, quiet. “I don’t know which way is up. We won, I won, and – I feel sick.”

Mal watched him, trying to formulate a response. “Dangerous thing about a principle,” he said finally. “Come a time it turns ‘round and bites you if you cling to it too tight.”

“And what are we without them?” asked Lee, his voice soft and reflective.

“Free?” asked Mal with a raised eyebrow.

“Perhaps,” said Lee, looking down. “I find that a disturbing thought, though.” He withdrew a small box from his jacket pocket, sat, and looked at Mal. "This next – I have a fair idea how you'll feel about it. But just know – the man presenting it is doing so with great sincerity. This is a medal of valor, awarded by the transition authority for your courage and unwavering dedication on the field of battle." He handed the box to Mal.

"Transition authority."

"Yes," said Lee. “You may very well throw that in a lake first chance you get. But I want you to know that this is not an apology, a peace offering, or a political convenience. It's a tribute to a soldier of the finest sort."

Mal took it out of the box, turned it over in his hand and recalling his cocky words to his interrogator in the early days of his captivity. Reckon you'd be pinning a medal on me. Lee extended his hand silently, and taking the medal from Mal, pinned it carefully to his drab grey prisoner’s jumpsuit as he saluted the Alliance commander. It was an odd ritual, performed as it was by two men keenly aware of the ironies and conflicts it brought.

"You've served with honor, on and off the battlefield," said Lee. He nodded out the window. "I know this was it's own battle, and the irony that it's not even your own uniform I pinned that to." He looked Mal in the eyes, a smile growing on his face. "Just promise me you'll find a worthy lake."

"Yes, sir," said Mal, lost in thought. "I will." Memories were running unstoppably through his head, fragments of explosions, of bullets whizzing past his head and sometimes even into his body, screaming, starvation, and certain death.

I survived it. I survived it all.

Ten minutes into the shattering noise and terror and carnage of his first real battle, a boy from Shadow had conquered his numb and unresponsive body by simply accepting that he was not going to live through this war. Ironical then that he’d somehow stayed alive through Serenity Valley, the destruction of his entire planet, the death of his family, and the ultimate personal nightmare, capture and imprisonment by the enemy.

An enemy that had proven to be all manner of vicious and caring and was now going about pinning medals on him. His eyes focused on Lee again, and a sense of elation ripped through him like lightning.

I survived. I’m free. I – he blinked. I have a life ahead of me. A real, actual life.

“How are you faring with all this, son?” inquired Lee. His voice was gentle, respectful.

Being spoken to that way by his captors wasn’t an oddity any more, and Mal raised his head, genuinely grateful for that consideration. “Ever been hit by a train, sir?” Mal didn’t realize until he finished speaking that he was grinning like a moonbrain.

Lee nodded, acknowledging not that he had, indeed, had prior history with a train but that he understood Mal’s words. It was the first time he had ever seen true joy in the man’s eyes, and he smiled back. It was something his soul had needed to see ever since a dazed soldier with his body smashed to bits had been deposited on his couch.

It was also the best possible way to end this meeting and this tenuous but somehow deeply honorable relationship. Lee extended his hand. “Zai jian, Captain. Guard’s waiting in the room next door. You have yourself a good life.”

~~~~~

It didn’t hit Mal until he walked across the hall, feeling as though he were getting away with something. For the first time since waking up in that med ship, he was free. Nobody handcuffed him, nobody yelled at him to hurry up or get in the room. He put his hand on the door and paused, glancing up and down the empty hallway with a sensation of mischief that made him grin. It was impossible not to feel like he was getting away with something, slipping out here with nary an armed escort in sight.

The look of shock on Khiloh’s face when he entered only deepened that sensation, and, struck by giddy mischief, he hid the papers behind his back as though they were a weapon.

“Quick!” he ordered. “You’re gonna show me outta this place, and you’re gonna do it now.”

Khiloh’s eyes widened in shock. “What – did – what did you do to Lee?” His hand moved to the gun at his side as he sprung to his feet, an expression of absolute horror crossing his face.

It turned to puzzlement at the sight of Mal’s playful grin. “Dui bu qi. Forgot you were so sweet.” He extended the papers. “Sweet? I should deck you,” said Khiloh, holding out a visibly shaking hand for the documents and glaring at Mal with a mixture of affection and anger. An expression of sheer, unreserved joy crossed Khiloh’s face when he read them, joined momentarily after by hidden grief. It made a certain something inside Mal melt just a mite.

“Word guard has more’n one meaning,” said Mal. He paused while Khiloh digested the words. “Xie xie for bein’ our guardian.”

Khiloh braced himself and met Mal’s eyes, revealing the emotion in his own. “Didn’t do a very good job.” If Mal’s voice had been quiet, Khiloh’s emerged as a tight whisper.

“Lee set it up,” said Mal after a moment’s consideration. “What was done to me, night of the trial. Did it with the best of intentions, getting me out of here and hopefully the rest too.”

His ordeal had caused Wash and Khiloh a special kind of hurt, the kind compassionate men were hard pressed to cope with. Knowing the reason didn’t help his own self over much, but he figured to give Khiloh some sort of peace.

Khiloh closed his eyes and turned his face away for a minute. “So – not just random cruelty?” he asked finally, not opening his eyes.

“Was on the part of them did it,” said Mal. “But turns out it was – allowed – for a reason. What’s done is done, point is, we lived this patch knowin’ someone on the other side cared, would help us when we needed it. That’s no little thing.”

The expression of grief passed and the guard forced himself to open his eyes, revealing uninvited tears that he banished with a set jaw and an overly cheery voice. “After this tour’s up – I’m not renewing. Sergeant Daniels figures I’m best off someplace – not a prison. Says this won’t ever get easy.”

Mal nodded. “Happen to agree, on that particular point.”

Khiloh nodded. “Always kinda had this fantasy that I wished you were my sergeant.” He smiled, embarrassed. “He’s – a lot like you. Only less cranky.”

“Un-cranky’s a good quality in a sergeant,” said Mal, grinning.

Khiloh extended his hand. “I’m not imagining I’ll hear from you after today, so please just take care of yourself out there, okay? Happily ever after, riding off into the sunset, that sort of thing?”

Mal grinned. “You ain’t the only one needs a happy ending. Do my best.”

“Cool.”

~~~~~

The cross on its chain was the last thing left in the locker, and after a long, hard stare he tossed it yet again into the bag with the rest of his motley collection of belongings.

“I’m – thrilled we might make it out of here before long, sir.” Simms voice behind him startled Mal, and he flinched. “But – what was done to you was unforgivable. We’d-“

Mal cut him off. “Downright forgivable, matter of fact.” His voice was harsh, and it was Simms’ turn to be startled. “Makes loads of sense when you cut it down to paper.”

The bitter tone in Mal’s voice couldn’t have been overlooked by a deaf man, and Simms gulped, trying to reassure himself he wasn’t the target. “I fought that war too,” he said, holding Mal’s gaze. “Might not ever ‘ave turned a gun on anyone, but it doesn’t make me like how the Alliance does things. Can’t have rutting compassion for mankind while you’re hurting people, now can you?”

Mal was the one who looked away, his expression softening. “No. That you can’t.”

Being back in this building was a foolproof way for a man’s good mood to get squashed in a hurry, and he found himself almost frantic to get out. He’d become a mirror of this Alliance with its schizophrenic shifts between brutality and caring, surviving by becoming as fractured as his environment, and the small part of him that remained whole was screaming at him to run. Run far and fast while he still had some comprehension of which side was up.

Cody’s soft approach interrupted them. “Good luck – sir.”

“Understand I owe you quite a debt,” said Mal gently, his mood worsening. Even the best moments could be made painful around here. “Gorram Alliance can’t just let me go and have a rutting party, they gotta destroy another fellow just ta’ make things fair. Shiny.

Cody shook his head, speaking in soft tones. “I – gave into pressure once, when my Sergeant ordered me to – murder. Pretty sure that’s why they picked me for this. I’ve been regretting that and wanting to somehow make up for it ever since.”

Mal looked at Cody and felt a lump rising in his throat. There was likely no way out for him, just a long future more likely to get worse than better. He didn’t want to think about the camp likely shutting down and where this gentle person might wind up. He stood and wrapped his arms tightly around Cody, who hugged him in return.

“You take care,” he said, meaning it with every fiber of his being. “If I could tuck you in a pocket and carry you out with me, I would.” Be this. Run, but remember this. This is not breakable.

Hearing the deeply sincere note in Mal’s voice, Cody hugged him a little tighter. “I’ll be fine.”

“You make sure that’s the case,” said Mal, raising his head and meeting every occupant of the room with a stern gaze. He gave Cody a final pat on the back and motioned to Simms. “Outside, with me.”

Simms followed Mal out, looking uneasily at him when the door closed behind them. “Way things stand, you’re gonna be in command when I leave.”

Simms’ uneasy expression deepened. “I’m not – really leadership material, sir. I’m a geek who – well, I don’t know how to handle things like with Cole. I couldn’t ever do what – I guess I’m saying I’ve not no clue how to be in charge.”

“I know,” said Mal. “Best figure it out. Something really throws you, bounce it off Daniels.”

Simms raised an eyebrow. “I really hear you say that, sir? Daniels, as in Sergeant Daniels?”

Mal nodded. “Won’t be the most screwed up thing to ever happen, don’t think he’s like to take advantage.”

“Okay.” Simms shuffled his feet. “Gonna miss you, sir. We were just getting all fond and the like –“

Mal eyed him. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s a part of me feels a fair measure of guilt for getting’ to walk outta here. Felt like a punch in the gut when the others left, never mind I was happy for ‘em.”

Simms winced. “No need for guilt, sir. If it comes to pass me an’ the others get released on account of what they did to you, that’s not gonna be a nice feeling to carry around, rest of my life.”

“No need for guilt,” said Mal, echoing Simms’ words back to him. “Reckon getting beat on for a while’s a fair trade just for getting my own self outta here. You lot are just icing on the cake. Bonus features, so to speak. Free gift with purchase.”

“That’s just wrong,” said Simms with a slight, deliberate drawl.

“Yeah.”

~~~~~

The twelve men walked him out to the gate, where Khiloh met him and soberly opened the barrier. There were no cover officer and no handcuffs, and Mal was grateful for the silent dignity of the farewell. He waved a half salute at the men and spared an extra-long glance at Cody and Simms before turning his back firmly.

Daniels intercepted them on the way down the corridor, greeting Mal with a warm smile that said more than any congratulations. Mal returned it, at first with hesitation and finally with sincerity. He supposed he didn’t mind indulging the affection he felt for these two, not when he was leaving this place in the dust. Fellow could pick mighty worse memories.

“You take good care of those men back there, okay, sir?”

Daniels extended his hand. “I will, Sergeant. It’s a thing I take very personally, I assure you.”

Mal shook it. “Thank you. For –“

Daniels raised his hand with a smile to quiet Mal. “You have a good life out there, okay?”

Mal nodded. “Got every plan to.”

~~~~~

The vast network of buildings that constituted the camp was now familiar to Mal, and walking quietly at Khiloh’s side, he reflected on the bizarre conglomerations of memories each held for him. Lee’s peaceful office, where he’d awoken from a nightmare and been given some of the most horrible news of his life. The hospital, with its memories of suffering and terror and gentle caring. Suicide watch, a place where he’d nearly gone insane yet walked into comfort and protection when he needed it most.

Wasn’t much pleasant to remember about the solitary confinement building lurking almost out of view as they passed by, but he supposed it’d been a turning point of sorts. Learn how to fight again, get a free – or maybehaps far from free – ticket out of a prison sentence….he shuddered, and Khiloh touched him on the arm.

“Don’t look,” he suggested with sympathy.

Mal stopped and looked. The driving mix of snow and sleet that was soaking him to the bone shimmered and intensified, wiping the lurking vision out of existence. “That’s how folk deal with suffering, aint it? Don’t look? ‘Cause maybe then it’s not real?”

Khiloh looked at him uncertainly, not knowing how to answer. Finally realizing there was no bitterness in Mal’s words, he ventured an answer. “It’s – hard to look, is all. To think about.”

Mal’s thoughts were not of a solitary confinement cell, but of lying in a devastated valley shivering in the leeward side of a pile of dead, the war lost. The sort of misery he hadn’t quite known existed, the kind even the worst days in here couldn’t quite top. “When a thing happens – a fellow’s too busy livin’ it to think on how he feels about it.”

“I suppose that’s a mercy,” said Khiloh uncertainly. “Know I sure felt my own days in hell, though.”

Mal reached out and touched Khiloh’s back in a mirror of the reassuring gesture the guard had used so often on him when he was helpless. “You’re responsible for what you touch in this ‘verse, not a thing more. How you cope with the rest is your angle. I – aim on running far an’ fast my own self.”

Both men were shivering uncontrollably, sleet pelting their faces and mixing with the tears that their eyes produced to wash away the intrusive touch of the weather. It made a serviceable excuse for both of them to avoid unnecessary analysis of the cause of reddened eyes and running noses when they finally reached a small, flat building near the outer wall.

Khiloh yanked the door open and held it firmly against the buffeting wind, allowing Mal to enter a stark, many-doored chamber he recognized from his trial. It was the gateway to hell, the place his chained-up self had been loaded onto a shuttle and been returned to a war criminal hours later. Khiloh let go of the door and it was slammed shut by the force of the wind, leaving Mal within for a few seconds until the guard, seeing the expression on his face, wrenched it open again and walked at his side across the chamber to a door that simply said “Exit processing.”

Mal, in shock, didn’t become fully conscious again until a gentle hand at his back guided him through the opening to a warm office with windows and a familiar, friendly face behind a long counter. He reacted barely in time to catch the dry towel that was tossed in his direction before it hit the floor, and Khiloh’s final departure was equally gentle.

The Sergeant manning the discharge office greeted Mal with a genuinely warm smile, and Mal’s mind finally cleared, allowing him to recognize the man. It was Riley.

“Wondered where you got off to,” said Mal by way of greeting.

Riley gave Mal a sheepish look. “Have to admit I was a little peeved they didn’t consider me a decent enough guy to keep guarding you folks, but -” he glanced away, embarrassed. “- this is a happier place anyway.”

Riley nodded Mal towards a chair and reached for the discharge forms, which Mal handed over reluctantly. Riley smiled. “You get them back.”

Mal cleared his throat. “Of course.” He was finding being released more frightening than being checked into this place, but there was no shortage of understanding and sympathy in Riley’s manner. He wrapped the towel around his shoulders and forced himself to trust for the last time the decent people who had just possibly helped him survive.

~~~~~

Wash’s angry pacing stopped in front of the door to the Happy Hawaiian Gift Shop, where a disgruntled woman in a two-piece bathing suit was berating a flustered servant in full view of the shopkeeper. “You think I pay you for this? You think I provide your worthless brats access to the education far above their breeding so that you can indulge my children in prehistoric fantasy about carnivorous beasts when they should be preparing for their entrance exams?”

The savvy target of the woman’s aggression remained stoically silent as a handful of plastic dinosaurs were flung in the direction of the shaken shopkeeper. “I will, of course, require full credit on my bill for that fei ou,” snapped the bathing suit as she marched out, servant in tow.

Wash sought out the eyes of the woman behind the counter. “Rough day at work?”

She sighed and picked up the creatures, aligning them in a row on the polished resin surface. “I didn’t get her retinal scan, so I suppose this comes out of my pay. Hazard of the job.” She forced a smile to her face. “Can I help you find something, sir?”

Wash smiled back and reached for the Stegosaurus. “Always wanted one of these sets when I was a kid. But –“ he blushed at the memory. “I had a puppy, and I was afraid she’d eat them.” The plastic figure in his hand reminded him of the softhearted boy who had feared his inability to protect his potential plastic pets from his furry one, and had never asked his mother for the toys. Now they were just plastic, not sentient beings, but he felt the familiar tug of protective sympathy for them, and for the woman standing behind the counter.

“How much?” he asked, gathering them together and removing his wallet.

“Two credits,” she whispered. “You don’t have to –“

“I want them,” he said, meeting her eyes again until the clerk’s forced smile became genuine. There was a box of plastic palm trees near the register, and he added a couple to the collection. “They’ll need shade,” he said, well aware of the absurdity of his words coming out of the mouth of a grown man as he added to his new palm grove. Speaking of palm trees, there were more than a few on the garish orange Hawaiian shirts adorning the rack next to him.

He fingered the material. It was soft and light, and he pulled one on over his shirt on impulse. “How do I look?” he asked the now charmed clerk with a playful waggle of an eyebrow. “Dashing? Handsome? Piratish?”

She laughed “Ridiculous.”

“And kind of cute?”

The clerk blushed. “Yes. Sir.”

“Unprofessional?” he asked, recalling the captain’s earlier admonitions on the subject.

“Definitely.”

“I’ll take two.” Wash added the garments to the pile and searched the store for more merchandise with which to infuriate his new captain, selecting the most garish and ill-fitting attire with inner glee.

~~~~~~

"Let me take off that band," said Riley, nodding towards Mal's wrist and picking up an electronic device. Mal extended his hand and glanced away, his posture a casual slump. There was no way any man alive was going to know how much it meant to have that harmless little device taken off. The fact that he forgot he was wearing it most of the time made him loathe it even more. A matter of seconds, a series of beeps, and it fell away. Mal casually pulled his arm away and stuffed his hand in his pocket.

Looking to see that it was really gone, feeling the white skin where it had rested – those things would wait until he was alone and unobserved. He was free. He closed his eyes for the briefest of moments to savor it. Standing in his own clothes, clothes with a familiar comforting scent. No more band. Only the Alliance could come up with something so humane, so innocuous, that would mark a man, hold him prisoner, and track his every move.

Comfortably.

"Re lie zhu he, Captain," said Riley, breaking the reverie.

Mal smiled. "Congratulate me as I run through that gate, okay?"

“I’ll definitely do that, Sir,” said Riley, reaching for a brown folder with one hand as he gave Mal a brief but genuine salute with the other. “Last thing we need to go over first is your employment after you leave this facility. The Allied Planets have realized that one challenge to full integration following the Unification is ensuring that former Independent soldiers have access to stable employment following release. I’m authorized to place you in your first position –“

Mal threw up his hand. “Don’t need the Alliance to find me a job. Matter of fact, don’t want the Alliance to find me a job.”

“Not your choice,” explained Riley, meeting his indignant look with sympathy. “You are free to work and travel where you wish, provided you register a source of gainful employment with Reintegration at all times following your release. So unless you already have an outstanding job offer not registered with our office –“

“I’m still your prisoner,” finished Mal, his voice flat.

Riley closed the folder, looked down at the battered wooden desk, and placed a hand over Mal’s, speaking quietly. “At all times following your release, or until such a date as you leave this planet in the gainful employ of a vessel licensed for interplanetary commerce.” He raised his head and looked Mal directly in the eyes. “If that were to happen, you’d fall off the grid, at least until such time as you chose to come back to this planet – when you would of course re-register with Reintegration.”

“Oh, I ain’t coming back,” said Mal. The quiet, almost gentle tone of his voice might have caused the force behind his words to be overlooked by a person standing nearby, but they were crystal clear to Riley, whose unbroken gaze showed that he understood every word.

“Fare well, then, sir,” said the Sergeant, moving his hand away and opening the folder again. “Take care – okay?” He didn’t wait for or expect an answer, but instead busied himself shuffling through papers and becoming once again the official. "What would you say your primary job skills are?"

"Hmm. Infantry tactics, cattle ranching, and getting tortured," said Mal, leaning back in his chair with a playful grin. His decision to trust in Riley’s innate decency had paid off, he was walking free – it was shaping up to be a good day.

Riley grinned back. "I remember calling you a smartass."

"That too," said Mal. "I'd prefer a job not in the getting tortured field, if you don't mind."

"Nooo problem," said Riley. "It's a competitive area anyway – hard to find you a spot."

Mal snorted, and Riley continued. "Well, we have several entry-level opportunities with companies who have indicated a willingness to retrain soldiers in new professions. They get quite generous subsidies for doing so, so it won't be hard to place you. Let's see…..we have several retail positions, but my advice is to stay away from those. Tends to be pretty demeaning work. I've got some nice office jobs here. Mid-range shuttle sales rep, um – a little bit of glamour here, office assistant to the marketing consultant for the Fighting Elves…" he looked at Mal hopefully.

"Pass," said Mal.

“You’re going to be difficult about this, aren’t you, Sir?”

“Me?” asked Mal in feigned innocence. “Never.”

Riley snickered and selected one of the sheets, passing it under a scanner. “Beats me how’s you’re still alive, mister.” He handed it to Mal. “Congratulations on your new position as Logistical Assistant to the Vice President of Quality Control for the Sing Pie Stapler Corporation.”

“Why, thank you, kind sir.” Mal accepted the papers with a flourish. The jumpsuit was gone, the tracking band was gone, and only a couple gates and a friendly Sergeant stood between him and the path to those stars that were etched into his soul. It was getting a mite difficult not to feel downright giddy.

Riley stood and picked up a box that was sitting on a long, low counter. “Your possessions,” he said, setting it down in front of Mal. “Even the uniforms you had on you, but I’d advise you against wearing them. Feelings out there still tend towards the volatile, and you’re as likely to run into a lynch mob as a friend. You stick to that outfit you have on until you got something more of your own picked out.”

“Okay,” said Mal absently, distracted by his exploration. His hands touched a familiar shape, and he gulped, wrapping his fingers around it in sudden gratitude. His pistol. They were giving him his pistol back. At that very moment, that meant almost more than any kindness he’d been shown here.

He traced his fingers over the grip and pulled his hand away, filled with memories of Shadow, and his home, a world that made sense and people he loved. He didn’t even notice Riley’s hand on a buzzer and a brief radio call, not until the Sergeant gestured towards the open doors in his path and spoke five quiet words.

“You’re free to go, sir.”

~~~~~~~~

Author's note: This is not the end of the story; my plan has always been to take this up to the point where Mal purchases Serenity in the Out of Gas flashbacks, and a little beyond. I never planned on it taking so long to get there, though!

COMMENTS

Thursday, January 15, 2009 11:21 PM

AMDOBELL


I almost fainted with giddy delight when I saw you had FINALLY posted up another chapter! And hooray! Bells, whistles, whoops of joy, party balloons and fireworks - Mal is at last out of that asylum of a prison complex! You can't see it but I am doing a Happy Dance and oh, the joy, the glee, of Wash purposefully buying those outlandish Hawaiin shirts and the dinosaurs and such to annoy his irritating Captain on that oh so perfectly boring ship. This was wonderful, some lovely touches with Mal saying his goodbyes and can't wait for when he finally finds Serenity. This has been a marvellous, if sometimes tortuous ride, not only for Mal and Wash but also for your loyal readers. Brilliance in a nutshell (ouch). Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, January 16, 2009 2:54 AM

NCBROWNCOAT


Good to see another chapter from you. Mal is free, Wash has his Hawaiian shirts but I feel that there's much more to come, especially with Mal Logistical Assistant to the Vice President for Quality Control of the Sing Pie Stapler Corporation. LOL at last!

Friday, January 16, 2009 3:03 AM

JANE0904


Thank you so much for this! At last ... Mal is free from prison, and Wash has started buying dinosaurs and garish shirts. I'm still intensely curious how you're going to handle Wash and Mal meeting again once the latter has bought Serenity, although I have a sneaky suspicion you might just end this story at the point where Mal decides he needs a pilot ...

Friday, January 16, 2009 4:14 PM

GUILDSISTER


Joy, joy, joy! A new chapter ;-)

The flow, the flavor, the nuances... still a pure pleasure. That you manage to keep such consistency over long gaps in writing is quite remarkable in itself.

Wash and his scenes were grand; really liked them. Mal's, as well, were--as ever--so very well done with the dark and light crisscrossing and twining. I did want him to give a thought to Zoe and was surprised he didn't. Well, a lot on his mind just then.

So very good and looking forward to the continuation and conclusion of this grand tale.

Friday, January 16, 2009 4:23 PM

WYTCHCROFT


you have no idea how happy it makes me that you've finally added another chapter - and a fine one.

i shall read this again right away while i calm down my joy-flash!!:):)

Friday, January 16, 2009 4:40 PM

KATESFRIEND


I was just thinking that it was about time for more of this story. Great job as usual, and so glad a little bit of happy has crept into the 'verse. Someday when you have nothing left to do, you should write a reunion story with Mal and some of the characters from the camp post BDM. Times change and people grow, usually for the better.

Saturday, January 17, 2009 8:33 AM

BYTEMITE


What an emotional ride this has been!

Now that I've read the whole thing up to current, I'm ready to give a more comprehensive review. I’ve had some issues posting it… Yikes, this is almost 3 pages! But I want to post it all, so I guess I’m going to have to split it up.

So, length. A lot of people seem intimidated by how many chapters there are up here. I don't think you have to worry about that, it went by fairly quickly and kept me engaged. Most chapters advance the plot to some goal you had in mind (which seems to have been this), and even though it did advance incrementally, I think the pacing was good. Every chapter kind of has a lot to put into it character and emotional-impact wise before you can even think about the plot, in order to properly portray the rarely interrupted gloom of a POW camp. The long steady build up, to me, just feels right for the passage of time as seen by the prisoners. You mentioned years, I seem to recall that Mal finally purchased Serenity about two and a half years after the year ended, so that's probably about right. The few chapters that don't advance the plot at all are genuinely hilarious or heartbreaking or important backstory; they advance the characters. In fact, I think the chapter where Mal finally grieves about the loss of his family and Shadow is one of your best, and the overarching plot doesn't even peek in to that one; the plot might even have gotten in the way if you'd tried to sneak it in.

You explore some potent and complicated themes in this. There's the dichotomy between decent people wielding power and the people who abuse it (often gleefully), and how sometimes even the decent people have to step over that line. The decent people are put into a bad situation here, because running a prison for people who technically haven't broken any laws, who are just political dissenters and soldiers in a civil war, that is very morally ambiguous and gray. Then you have the prisoners in the middle of that mess, trying to cope and remain some approximation of their old selves (or at the very least, human), prisoners who some of the crueler guards feel like deserve whatever happens to them. You have to cover freedom and a lack of it, what that does to people, how they've had what seemed such a fundamental right to live and choose for themselves taken from them, and how desperate they are to get it back, how miserable life can be without that. Dark themes, but worth exploring, and offset by themes of friendship, healing, support and comfort, people on occasion doing the right thing instead of what's expected of them or what benefits them. Finding something good about life, no matter how horrible the rest of it may be. How people change in bad situations, often for the worse, but sometimes the struggle helps them find something positive about themselves that they thought they lost. And when it comes right down to it, I think that sort of commentary on human endurance and our positive potential, in the midst of what is negative, is what makes a story worth reading, gives it meaning.

There's a LOT of Mal beating here, but it's also appropriate considering the setting and who Mal is, plus he can take it, so while it's dark it's understandable. You never put in a beating where there isn't a good reason for it first. Even the one time with Lambert, who has NO good reason to beat up Mal, there's an important reason for that in the STORY. It shows Khiloh having to choose to be a guard and not a friend, it showed the underlying problems in the prison that Khiloh was having to deal with that were taking such a toll on him, and it showed the way the worst guards could be, not just provoked and angry over their own losses in the war, but that some of them are just plain sadistic.

Saturday, January 17, 2009 8:34 AM

BYTEMITE


The plot itself always kept me wondering what bad thing was going to happen next, kept me worried about the well-being of the characters. And you also rewarded that anxious anticipation at times with good moments, like the last few chapters, with the cliffhanger "what next?" then the completely unexpected amnesty and release. And you foreshadowed some things well, like I had been wondering why someone as wise as Lee didn't have a plan to protect Mal when he came back from his war trial. At first, it almost seemed like a plot hole (but one I was willing to forgive, since I wanted to find out what would happen next), and then you dropped the bombshell on us. Very, very good with that one, you tied it back to being 'oh, yep, that's the canonical Firefly 'verse Alliance mindset we all know and loathe.' Up until that point, believable as the story was, you could have replaced the Alliance and the Independents with any other warring factions in history, literature, or media, and it wouldn't have seemed to make a difference. But right there, you made it VERY clear, and I appreciated that. And I was also wondering how it could be canon with Mal being a convicted war criminal, and you resolved that. So all in all, I'd say you've followed canon very well, and made a very convincing account of Mal's time in the prison camps. I can't see yet how Mal could get out of that scandal without being famous verse wide (because clearly he's not in the series and movie), but I guess you'll probably address that.

The one deviation from canon I do see is Mal and Wash's relationship. I've read your comments about that, and I understand them; the flashback scene in Out of Gas does allow that they could kind of know each other MAYBE. In the same episode Mal doesn't seem too bothered about bullying Wash around and trying to intimidate him into working on Serenity 's problems. Here, in the prison camp, it definitely does bother him when he disturbs, bullies, or frightens Wash, although maybe it's not shown outwardly, and maybe he was uncomfortable having to act that way in Out of Gas too. Mal is often shown as someone who has to make hard decisions that people will be angry at him/repulsed by him for, and a scene in the movie shows him being a little more affected by that then he normally lets on. But Wash's jealousy and lack of understanding towards Mal in War Stories just doesn't quite fit to me with their closeness and Wash's admiration as depicted here in the prison. Maybe that'll make sense later, and I'll keep reading for that, but right now this part of that is an enjoyable AU, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Characterization. I think you've nailed Mal, even as he progresses from someone who is very scared and typically not how we'd think of him, it's still him. He's still bold and defiant, cracking wise with his interrogators and anyone who gives him a hard time or hurts him with his dark humour, his most notable defensive tool against feeling helpless. He still has his sound judgment, ability to inspire and command, to read what people need, and an understated education and intelligence.

And you also captured both Wash's silly pilot-ness and something more vulnerable underneath him that we see hinted at in the original material. I loved what you did with his back story and the two missions he's believed to have flown in the war before he was shot down.

What you have of Zoe, you got the back and forth banter between her and Mal and the dry stoic-ness they share. The understanding they have between each other that's not romance but deeper than friendship. I'm not sure about the scene where she cries and gives Mal something to be a sergeant about, Zoe seems like more of a tough love character to me, but it worked for the purpose. I really wish you had more of her, being in the women compound it makes sense that she's not there in person, but I found myself wishing a lot that Mal would think of Zoe at some times. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn't.

Normally I avoid OCs, but in this setting, to flesh it out, they're inevitable. There are a lot, and I think they're pretty good for what they need to be, so I'll just focus on your two strongest, Lee and Khiloh. They do have personality, and it does come across, though it can be vague at times. You've defined these characters more by their actions and interactions with the main characters than by their point of view and their lives separate from the prison, and that's fine for the purposes of the story. They're complex characters, though they're not the focus and you've left it that way, which is a mistake some authors make with OCs in canon material. You've painted Lee all along as the guy who is maybe good intentioned and smart enough to understand the prisoners, but damn if he isn't scary, dangerous, and if he doesn't wield power in terrifying ways. Once again, NICE bombshell. And Khiloh, he's a little harder to suss out, but I see him as someone who is nice, and who is trying to reach across the gap between prisoner and guard to where everyone is just people. And his niceness makes him kind of a doormat when he needs to be harsh and unyielding (sometimes he manages it, like the punishment scene, although I'm still not quite convinced he really would have beaten Mal or Wash if he had to). And there is definitely a conflict of interest in how he wants to be a friend and trust, and how he needs to be a guard and be wary. I think Mal doesn't want to see him get taken advantage of, the way Gray and Straaker mistakenly tried to, and that's why in the last ten, twenty chapters, he starts distancing himself from Khiloh and giving advice that plainly seems to hurt the guard's feelings. I also have to say, nice job on Straaker, I actually felt sympathy for the poor guy every time the prisoners in 28A just dismissed him (dumb as some of his orders were), and you made good on that, didn't just make him into an annoying minor antagonist.

Um, I think that's mostly it for the past chapters. Sorry about how long this response is.

I love where the release could go, and am looking forward to the next part, and to when they all meet up again.

Saturday, January 17, 2009 7:50 PM

JONDESU


Wow.

That was well worth the wait (though I wish we hadn't had to wait so long)! Don't make us wait for the next one like that! JK, I know it's hard, I'm still trying to finish up a much less detailed and much shorter story.

Anyways, don't ever stop flying.

jW


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