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EBFIDDLER

WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11) Part (03)
Thursday, May 17, 2012

War Stories and the Special Hell


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2562    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11)

Part (03)

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Follows TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10). Precedes ENDS WITH A HORSE (12).

The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
EXPECTATIONS (04)
BREAK OUT (05)
THE TRIAL (06)
SHADOW (07)
ONE MAN’S TRASH (08)
BANDIAGARA (09)
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)

War Stories and the Special Hell

* * *

Zoe stirred in her sleep, and for a minute Mal hoped she would open her eyes so he could have his palaver with her. But she shifted positions and settled back down into a deeper sleep, and he didn’t interfere.

He sat there, remembering all the times he’d lain in this infirmary, waking up to find one of his crew by his side—Simon or Book, Zoe or Inara…

He wanted to talk to Inara, but couldn’t. Kaylee told him that Inara had returned to the ship mid-morning, from those gorram appointments that he was supposed to believe didn’t have nothin’ to do with clients. She still wasn’t up and about—after taking night watch on the bridge, she’d earned her rest. Before Inara’s quarrel with him, Mal would have checked in at the shuttle to make sure all was well with her. Maybe even lie down beside her and hold her as she slept. But he didn’t figure his presence would be welcome now, whether she were wakeful or sleeping. Didn’t want no more crockery pitched at his head. Still, he hoped that if anything traumatic had happened to her on Beaumonde, he woulda heard of it by now.

Didn’t help that they weren’t speaking to one another right now. He’d had it right up to here with that. He didn’t intend to put up with no more silent treatment from Inara. He’d made up his mind. He’d talk with her as need be, and if she didn’t answer it was her that was acting uncivilized. Ship’s business—and that included the welfare of the crew—it was his business to know. In fact, it was his duty. So he’d find a time to talk with her soon. But he wasn’t going to disturb her rest. They’d have plenty of time to talk on it later. It was five days afore they’d reach Hektor.

He rubbed his eyes—just thinking about it all gave him a headache. It really had been one helluva day on Beaumonde, by any standards, and one night’s sleep wasn’t really enough time to recover. Needed some time to think on all of the ponderables raised by the strange happenings each and every member of his crew had experienced on Beaumonde. He propped his head on his elbows and watched the steady rise and fall of Zoe’s chest as she slumbered.

* * *

Mal was unsurprised to see the Shepherd standing before him in the infirmary. “Book.”

Book nodded his silent greeting.

“The usual beginning,” Mal remarked, restraining his urge to roll his eyes at the Shepherd’s predictable behavior.

Book raised his eyebrows. “The ‘usual,’ Captain?”

“Yeah, you always start out by popping up and givin’ me the silent treatment, ’til I start to spill.”

“Is that a problem, Captain?”

“No. Reckon it ain’t. Just means you find out a lot more about me than I ever find out about you.”

Book was silent.

Of course, Mal snorted. He stayed silent for a spell. He could outlast the Shepherd in a silent contest. He could. He could…he couldn’t take it. “See?” he exclaimed. “That there’s just what I’m talkin’ about. You’re doin’ that Jedi mind trick thing on me again.” Book still didn’t speak, so Mal felt compelled to continue. “Leaving space, like you’re expectin’ me to fill it with words.” There was more silence from Book. “You figure, you don’t ask, you just wait for me to drop something into the space, something I don’t want to tell.”

“And do you?”

Mal crossed his arms, stubbornly. “Do I what?”

“Want to tell?”

“Harrumph.”

All was silent for a spell. Finally, Mal opened his mouth, but to his astonishment the preacher stepped into the gap.

“You seem to be headed for the Special Hell.”

“What the hell?!” Mal exclaimed. That one sure come out of left field.

Book just nodded.

“Headed for the Special Hell?” Mal sputtered indignantly. “What kind of talk is that?” Book continued to hold his trademark preacher expression, that enigmatic slight smile. “Shepherd, I already been to the Special Hell. Hell, I live there.”

Book nodded. This time sadly.

Mal folded his arms across his chest, rocked back on his heels, and returned the Shepherd’s look with a stare of his own. “So what do you think I should oughtta do about that?” he demanded.

“About what?”

“Bein’ in the Special Hell. Unless you think I should take up permanent residency.”

“You get a certain satisfaction out of being there,” Book replied.

Like hell! Mal thought.

Book just nodded, and held his gaze.

* * *

Zoe awoke to find Mal sleeping in the chair by the side of the infirmary bed, out like a light. He hadn’t been shot (she thought), but she knew he’d had one helluva day, too. He must have taken night watch—both she and River had been out of commission—on top of all the commotion on Beaumonde, and she wasn’t surprised that he needed more sleep.

She remembered the ambush, the blow to the chest. She had fallen, and the world went black. She’d come back to consciousness to find herself draped over Mal’s shoulder, as he jogged through the streets. She knew how far they had been from Serenity when they were attacked, and he must have carried her the whole way. Weren’t easy to do. She was not a light woman.

She’d passed out again as they jolted along, and had come to once more to find herself in the infirmary, with Mal and Inara, and then Simon, fussing over her. She felt sick, and the pain throbbed in her head and her knee. The feeling like she’d been hit in the chest with a brick didn’t help none. She’d noticed the moment Mal ceased ranting and reverted to war-time mode. From that moment forth, he’d issued a series of terse battlefield commands. Dispatched Kaylee for tools. Sent the two docs to load the cargo. Designated Inara for infirmary duty. And, as usual, assigned the most risky job to himself.

Defusing a gorram Qianxia proximity detonator. Zoe snorted. Of course.

Back in the war, the Captain—Mal—or Sarge, as she called him in those days—had been sent to the UXO training course as a reward, a sort of rest vacation. Independent Command couldn’t manage the logistics of giving him home leave, so they’d arranged the next best thing: being pulled off the line for the four-week course. Nobody actually expected him to use the skills he learned there to deal with real unexploded ordnance, but, Mal being Mal, of course he did. And saved all their 屁股 pìgu. Again.

They’d been dropped as a detached unit for a hit-and-run raid. It happened often enough. Detached work required leadership and their sarge had that in spades. Hit-and-runs called for a special talent. Now, the truth was, Sergeant Reynolds wasn’t actually so 聪明 cōngming at making plans. They even had a term for it in the unit: the soldiers would ask if the plan had been “Alleyned, ” meaning, had Sarge run it by Corporal Zoe Alleyne ahead of time. Any undertaking as hadn’t been “Alleyned” didn’t have even a prayer of going according to plan. No, Sarge’s true talent was improvisation. When plans failed, and everything went to hell in a handbasket, that’s when you wanted to be with Sergeant Reynolds. Because with him, you’d come through it alive. It was when everything went pear-shaped that the man’s true talents showed.

They’d reached their objective, destroyed the machine gun nest and planted explosives on the bridge. It was a measure of their success that the ruckus they’d raised was now attracting a helluva lot of attention down by the river, at the other end of the shattered temple complex.

Their line of retreat took them through the wreckage of the desecrated temple. They couldn’t go back the way they’d come. They heard a tremendous boom down the way, shaking the ground and raining shattered masonry about their heads, and Zoe knew one of the Alliance rollers had triggered the explosives on the bridge. According to intel, the temple grounds had a back gate, and that was supposed to be their escape route. Zoe couldn’t see it, and they looked to be coming up to a solid rock wall, a sheer cliff that effectively trapped them in the temple grounds, unless they found that back gate. She didn’t doubt the “back gate”—if indeed it was there—had other defenses.

Zoe’s stealth skills marked her for scout in situations like this. While Kiri and Tedesco provided rear guard, the rest took cover. Zoe and the Sarge scouted ahead to find their exit.

They worked together seamlessly, with the silent communication that they had perfected over time—no more than hand signals and a few looks. They crept up on the gate, having encountered no human guards. Which Zoe knew meant it was almost certainly protected by an electronic barrier or booby trap. They exchanged a look.

Zoe acknowledged the silent order and slid forward on her belly to explore the limits of the presumed electronic perimeter barrier. Sarge pulled out a scope and focused on the gate itself.

Her recon complete, she returned to Sarge’s location to hear him swearing under his breath. Or what passed for swearing with him. Zoe woulda smiled at his quaint expressions, but in a situation like this, she knew one “dawg gone it” from Sergeant Reynolds was the equivalent of a blue streak out of her own mouth. She looked questioningly at him, but he wanted her report first.

“Georgian perimeter barrier, Sarge. Runs from that column over there, to the stone lantern. Extends to the 手水 temizu basin,” she reported, directing his attention to the cracked fount, now dry and devoid of spiritually cleansing water.

He nodded. She waited, knowing there was something else. Georgian perimeter barrier was no problem. There’d been one protecting the objective, and they had the EM tools along with them to penetrate and override basic electronic locks and barriers. Finally he said, “There’s a Qianxia proximity detonator on the gate,” as he pulled out the EM toolkit.

Opening the kit, he handed her the appropriate tool for disabling the Georgian barrier. “Soon as you’re done, go back to the others.” She gave him a sharp look. He was about to do something stupid. He was gonna try to defuse the Qianxia detonator.

“Sarge!” she remonstrated. “You know that UXO course was just an excuse to give you a rest vacation. Brass don’t actually expect you to go about defusing bombs.”

“It ain’t a bomb, Zoe, it’s just a detonator.”

And that’s different how, exactly? she asked him with her look.

He gave her a look of his own, and as if to support his position, more explosions and gunfire were heard within the temple complex. Their unit would be found and pinned down if they didn’t make it out that gate fairly soon.

“Well, I sure as heck ain’t surrendering,” he told her. “And it’s not like we can call in the bomb squad and wait for them to do the job. It ain’t gonna defuse itself, and I don’t see who else is gonna do it.”

Sarge! she protested, this time silently.

“Take down the barrier, then go back and hold with the unit. You’ll know when I’m finished.”

Finished. Either he’d succeed and signal an all-clear, or they’d hear him getting blown up. Zoe acknowledged the Sarge’s orders and did her job.

* * *

Because that was Mal. Responsible. Honorable. Always lookin’ out for his crew. Or his platoon. Or company. Or, hell, his regiment. Because he’d always been that kind of leader, ever since Zoe first met him, early on in the war. Zoe remembered his earnest idealism when he first come to their unit. She remembered it as being rather funny—like he popped up out of one of them cortex dramas where everybody was more wholesome than anyone was in real life. Where fathers were strict but kind. Mothers were loving but firm. Where all the authority figures were respectable and honorable, and nobody was in it for the money or the power or the fame. But Mal had really lived that way, and when he plunked down in their unit, he was like an anachronistic breath of fresh air. He wasn’t exactly naïve, but he had a way of assuming that everybody else’s motivations were just as honorable as his, and they all worked hard to live up to those expectations. The brass noticed Mal’s ability to motivate others, his natural leadership skills, as well as his faith in the cause, and marked him for promotion. When he became their sergeant, his powers of motivation increased still further. And it was in those last four weeks, at Serenity Valley, that their sergeant had been promoted yet again—in Zoe’s view, at least. That was why she called him ‘sir.’

She still called him ‘sir,’ though she had long since considered him family. He was her brother, if not by blood kinship, certainly by blood. The shared spilling of blood had made them siblings-in-arms, siblings in life. Sometimes people wondered at her use of the word ‘sir,’ and many of them figured (wrongly, as it happened) that she blindly followed his lead. He might be the commanding officer, but she was the elder sibling. No, the ‘sir’ did not come from their service throughout the war. He was a sergeant—a rank he had thoroughly earned—and she was a corporal. A corporal didn’t ‘sir’ a sergeant. ‘Sir’-ing was for commissioned officers. It was those last four weeks in Serenity Valley that did it. When Mal’s command swelled to more than 2000 troops. He had held his eclectic regiment together in the most difficult of circumstances. As far as Zoe was concerned, Mal had been Acting Colonel. He had thoroughly earned that ‘sir.’

“Ya just gotta have faith in people,” Kaylee was fond of saying. Mal had…did he ever. He’d had faith in people, and in God. Mal could be beaten down, defeated, but he didn’t give up. He wouldn’t give up, and that’s what kept him improvising. Always finding a way to keep going when others would have surrendered. At Serenity Valley, he put his heart and soul and one hundred percent effort into it, calling on his last reserves of everything to keep his troops together, to keep them from losing heart, as a desperate situation turned from bad to worse to living hell. And when his last reserves were spent and exhausted, he dug deeper, and somehow came up with more, to give them heart, and keep them from despair. But the cost to him was his faith. No one came, neither god nor human, to pull him out of that hell, and to let him pull the others with him. He’d never truly recovered from that ordeal. Never believed that he’d succeeded. But there were 158 men and women, Zoe among them, who’d walked out of that Valley as living evidence of his success. They all would have died had he not done what he had, in spite of the cost to himself. It was why Zoe would never leave him.

And now he’d just done it again. Routine return to ship gone pear-shaped. Ambush. No advance warning, no plan. Mal’s response was completely improvised. He fought off the attackers. He dropped the 混蛋 húndàn who’d shot her. He field-dressed her wounds and—“when you can’t walk, you find someone to carry you.”

She looked over at the sleeping Captain. He’d come down here to keep watch as she slept, no doubt, and yet here she was keeping watch as he slept. Watching each other’s backs as they had for so many years.

But this time, watching each other’s backs hadn’t prevented near disaster. They walked right straight into that ambush and didn’t see it coming. They were distracted. And now Zoe turned her thoughts to the reason why she had been so gorram distracted from the here and now. It was what Mal had said about Inara. About Inara having secret appointments.

Mal and Inara had quarreled. More than usual. Bigger. Louder. More serious. Most likely, Mal had screwed up and done something stupid, because he just didn’t have no sense where women were concerned. She snorted. No, there was no “likely” about it at all. Mal had been an ass. He expected Inara to fall in automatically with his way of thinking, just because he loved her and she loved him. (Zoe was convinced that Inara did love Mal. Perhaps even more than Inara had ever loved anybody. But Zoe wasn’t sure that was enough.) And knowing Mal—and Zoe did—he had never actually talked with Inara about his expectations. Just assumed she could read his mind.

Mal hadn’t reckoned on a woman like Inara having such a different upbringing that she couldn’t accept his truths as self-evident. But it was the case. Inara had Zoe’s sympathy. Zoe knew full well that it was not easy to live up to Mal’s standards. Shadow folk were pretty strict in their notions of what was honorable and what was right, and even if Mal’s notions of “right” had drifted a bit since those old days in the war, he still had it in him. But that didn’t make it wrong for Inara to have her own standards, and for Inara to resent the implication that her standards were somehow less worthy than the standards of a transport captain living on the edge of legality.

But Inara shouldn’t be keeping secrets from Mal. This thing he had mentioned—that Inara was making and keeping appointments with clients, the nature of which she would not tell him—well, that was a problem. If Inara wanted to continue to see clients—that Zoe had no objection to. Inara had every right to conduct her business. What Zoe had the problem with was the idea that Inara would continue to see clients, and deceive Mal as to the nature of those appointments. If she wanted to continue to see clients for sex, she should tell Mal exactly what she was doing—and hopefully she would also tell him why she was doing it—so that he could either accept it and live with it, or not accept it, mourn, and move on. It was not fair to keep him in the dark, keep him guessing. Keep him in limbo. He’d already been through that, at the Valley. Zoe had always thought that Inara had a sense of fairness. That she was being anything less than open with Mal about such an important aspect of their relationship surprised Zoe.

The other thing that surprised Zoe was that it seemed that Inara had taken a notion that Mal was fooling around with another woman. Now that was just plumb crazy. Zoe had known Mal since he was twenty-one, and he was no playboy. Sure, she’d teased him—mercilessly—about being puritanical about sex, but his integrity in such matters was actually something that she respected. Mal didn’t go to bed lightly with any woman. He tended to put his heart and soul into it, and in consequence he didn’t do it unless he meant it. He surely meant it with Inara. Zoe had never seen him in so deep, not even when she first met him and he had declined all invitations on account of he had a steady girlfriend back on Shadow. If Inara didn’t understand that Mal had integrity, she was either much less perceptive than Zoe had figured, or she was blinded—at least when it came to Mal—or her judgment was warped. And if that was the case, Zoe figured, she needed straightening out.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

屁股 pìgu [butts]

聪明 cōngming [brilliant]

手水 temizu [water spring for ritual cleansing (Japanese)]

混蛋 húndàn [bastard]

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COMMENTS

Thursday, May 17, 2012 7:22 AM

BYTEMITE


>They even had a term for it in the unit: the soldiers would ask if the plan had been “Alleyned, ” meaning, had Sarge run it by Corporal Zoe Alleyne ahead of time. Any undertaking as hadn’t been “Alleyned” didn’t have even a prayer of going according to plan.

This is now canon. JOss doesn't know it yet, but it is.

>Zoe had never seen him in so deep, not even when she first met him and he had declined all invitations on account of he had a steady girlfriend back on Shadow.

Hmm. So Zoe WAS interested at one point... Or really liked messing with his puritan little head.

Thursday, May 17, 2012 9:31 AM

NUTLUCK


Well that was interesting, good but surprising. I was expecting the other talks and stuff. I think Inara is going to be getting a ear full from Zoe in the very near future... assuming they all haven't been eaten by the Reaver Chickens by then of course.

Thursday, May 17, 2012 10:00 AM

BYTEMITE


They are hungry, and angry, and thirsty.

Friday, May 18, 2012 4:41 AM

EBFIDDLER


Thanks, ZoesMom, Bytemite, and Nutluck, glad you're enjoying the backstory. Yeah, I know, you were waiting for Mal to blow up at Ip...and I promise we'll get there. Meanwhile, keep an eye on those chickens (because I don't think the crew is doing a very good job of it right now...unless ZM is right and Jayne and Binky are tackling the problem) ;-)

Friday, May 18, 2012 8:54 AM

AMDOBELL


Loved Zoe contemplating her past with Mal both in the War and after, and I like how she reasons out that whatever is wrong between Mal and Inara needs sorting. I wouldn't want to be in Inara's shoes when Zoe has that conversation with her but when it comes at least her foolish assumptions will be blown out of the water. At least, that is the hope. Really good characterisation of Zoe and Mal's friendship, Ebfiddler, just loved it! Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Friday, May 18, 2012 4:05 PM

EBFIDDLER


Ali, thanks for shiny feedback. I always enjoy exploring Zoe and Mal's backstory, as I think they have very interesting shared experiences, and it's well worth exploring what went on before to make them such a close-knit team. Eventually Zoe will have that talk with Inara.

Friday, May 18, 2012 5:13 PM

NUTLUCK


So where's the next part? Don't make the Reaver Chickens wait, that makes the angry. :)

Friday, May 18, 2012 5:14 PM

ZZETTA13


Howdy eb :)
I really liked this installment of “What Begins with an Apple”. Really enjoyable, good and detailed back-story of Zoe and Mal during the war! The emotions of war can only be understood by those who’ve experienced it, and if they’ve experienced it together, as Mal and Zoe have, then it’s hard to divide and drive a wedge between that kind of friendship. “The war buddy bond is tuff to crack” Saffron was right about that!
Great story, the Sergeant & Corporal’s unit was lucky to have them in command!
Keep ‘em coming, Z
PS: I didn’t know that Mal was so proficient a demolitions expert? The Cap’ is full of surprises……the list of his talents keeps getting longer :)

Friday, May 18, 2012 6:17 PM

EBFIDDLER


Nutluck: Next chapter will be posted on schedule. Re: chickens: cluck...cluck...cluck...cluck...BOOM!
ZZ: Glad you enjoyed the war stories, and I agree with you about the war buddy bond. Captain's just lucky that the detonators he seems to encounter most frequently are the same type, because really he only had that four-week UXO course WAY back when...but he did pass the course with flying colors, and that's one of the reasons Independent Command kept assigning him to lead these little hit-and-run raids.


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