He doesn’t even take the trouble to lie to himself. The whole of the crew knows he wants her: Kaylee’s little giggles, Zoë’s raised eyebrow, Jayne’s crude comments tell him so. He wouldn’t bother to lie to them straight out, neither, if ever one of them said something that couldn’t be ignored, but his greatest relief is that none of them ever do. The one time they all manage to display tact, and that miracle is half-enough to make him believe in the Shepherd’s God. Because as long as the words remain unspoken, hanging in the air between them but not once acknowledged, he’s safe, but he knows the moment they’re said, everything would shatter to pieces. Might be cowardly, but silence is his safety.
Safety to watch her—his greatest pleasure, his worst torture—and he finds himself fixating on different aspects of her, like he did back in school on Shadow, sitting behind Rena Wilkins and staring for hours at the milky white skin of her neck revealed and framed by her coppery braids. With Inara, it’s the fall of her hair against the ivory line of her cheek; the bird’s wing sweep of her eyebrow; the grace of her hands as she pours tea, soothes Kaylee, flies the shuttle; the perfect line of her back revealed by her backless gowns; a thousand other things. It’s near enough to drive him to distraction
If it was just her body he wanted, though, that would be easily solved. He would go to her and she wouldn’t refuse him, he knows; her rule about not servicing crew would make not a mite of difference. He would have her once, get her out of his system, then move on.
But it’s more dangerous by far than that: he wants everything she is for always, wants to be everything to her that a man can be to a woman. Wants the little girlish giggle she almost never lowers herself to let anyone hear, wants the imperious tilt of her chin when she keeps tears at bay, wants the healing touch of her hands, wants both the cool wit and the warm affection of her voice. He wants her strength and her vulnerability, wants her words and her silences, wants her respect and her infuriation, wants her love and her hate and anything else she has to give.
Even more terrifying, he wants to give her everything he is, has, was, desires, sacrifices, will be.
This lust (to give and take, to see and be seen, to love) eats away at him always.
No one had much on Shadow. It was a small world of too much cattle and not enough horses, of cottonwood trees and the nearest doctor thirty miles away, of flannel and leather and rifles. His mama’s ranch was one of the smallest on a planet that was a patchwork quilt of ranches, but every day was a struggle, a battle to keep it. Hired men came and went, and Mama had to keep them all in food and board on top of working the ranch every day and raising a too-energetic mess of a boy, all on her own.
Mal knows now that his childhood was better than most: he never went to bed hungry, and even if he didn’t always have shoes in the summer, he always had clothes to wear. But there were no credits for extras, for frills or presents (Christmas was an orange, a handful of walnuts, maybe a hand-carved top or a yo-yo, a new pair of hand-knit mittens and a hat: bounty) or anything that wasn’t necessary. Life was the same for most everyone he knew, even for the town-boys whose pas ran stores or were sheriff.
But the Mayor was another thing altogether. Now Mal knows that the man didn’t get that position because of any leadership skills he may have possessed but because the townsfolk were in awe of his money. He was a small man, petty and smug, with no talents to recommend him; he’d come by his money through a very lucky stock move, a move that should have been stupid but ended up paying off.
Mayor Drake had three kids: a snooty daughter with a pale face and long blonde sausage curls and two sons with slicked back hair who wore shoes and stockings even in the summer. The rest of the boys looked on them with an intense mixture of jealousy, loathing, and awe and swung back and forth between brownnosing to them and mocking them openly.
Mal never gave thought to them and their big house, draped in wooden lacework and complicated cast iron that made it look more like a haunted brothel than anything. His own life was too immediate: Mama and school and chores and adventures down by the river. No, he didn’t think on them at all. Not till the sled.
The boys on Shadow made sleds from old pieces of tin roof or swiped their mamas’ big brass soup tureens. But one Christmas the Mayor’s sons received a real live sled with flashing steel runners and a cushioned wooden body, the kind of sled that would fly like a dream over the snow-swathed hills and gullies outside of town. It was a thing of beauty, and no one on Shadow had ever seen the like. One look, and Mal fell in love.
He lay in bed at night, up in the loft tucked under the tin roof, listening to the sound of wind howling mournful outside, and he burned for that sled. He tortured himself with thoughts of it, paying not a mite of attention in school and getting a licking for it. He looked forward to chores, because his body knew the motions so well that his mind could dwell completely on the sled. For three weeks, there weren’t five minutes together when he didn’t think at least once of that sled.
It was inevitable that he took it. He had an elaborate plan all worked out, but in the moment, all it took was sneaking up behind Bayard Drake while the boy’s back was turned, silently grabbing ahold of the glorious sled, and slipping around the corner of the house and down the alley out of town, tearing across the fields towards the best sledding hill on Shadow, the one only he (and forty of his Mama’s ranch hands) knew about.
It was also inevitable that he would only get one glorious ride on the beautiful shining sled (wind stinging against his flushed cheeks, screaming like a banshee from Earth-That-Was, flying faster than he’d ever thought possible down that long, long hill) before one of the hands sighted him and told Mama. Even more inevitable was the tanning that followed (he couldn’t sit without an ache for days) and the red-faced humiliation of returning the sled and begging the Drake boys’ and the Mayor’s pardon.
After, Mama smiled, ran her work-roughened hand through his hair, all forgiven with her daisy smile and a slice of apple pie, convinced he’d learned his lesson.
If she could only see him now.
Army food was like hospital food: bland, smelly, and with the sort of texture that made you want to upchuck the moment it hit your tongue. It wasn’t till he got himself all enlisted that he realized what a wonder his mama had been: food was, on Shadow, as in the army, protein. Protein was all there was, and it was the same everywhere, the staple food on the Rim worlds the way rice was on the Core worlds. Fruit was a once-every-few-years sort of treat; meat appeared only on the big holidays, if then. Vegetables might be wild onions and now and then a potato. But food: food was protein.
But somehow Mama had transformed each meal’s texture, making it edible and hearty if not brimming over with flavor. She knew how to coax the right consistency into it so as to convince your tongue you were eating something with more taste than you really were. Kaylee has that talent now, and it’s one he’s come to treasure the way he does the flawless aim of Zoë’s eye or the steadiness of the boy-doc’s hands when he gets to stitching. He’s come to think that that sort of talent is more about care than skill, and he respects it with a sheepish sort of humility.
There was no such care in the army, and no one expected there to be. Not when there wasn’t always enough food to fill pinched bellies; soldiers might complain about the taste when they had a meal, but their grumblings had no manner of truth to them, not when it wasn’t certain they’d be eating tomorrow anyways. Mal meant every word of grace he said over his meals, thankful to God for seeing him through one more day.
But he dreamed of Mama’s cooking something fierce, dreamed of it the way he dreamed of the warm flower-scent of a woman and the feel of her hair beneath his fingers, the way he dreamed of being clean and free from nits; a far-away, fairy-tale kind of dream that he never much expected to see fulfilled.
He never let himself dream of real food.
Which was why, once he and Zoë finished arresting the Governor of Hera and trampled through his house out into the back garden, he thought he was dreaming.
Hera was the key to the war, Colonel Colburn always said, and he had sent Mal and Zoë and twelve of his best men to the governor’s residence there to capture the man and find some kind of information that might let them know when the Alliance reinforcements were arriving on planet. Mal sent the pompous, protesting governor back to camp and the Colonel, handcuffed between two of his men, and then the rest of them turned that house upside down looking for papers or waves or anything else that might tell them anything.
They found nothing. Well, they found nothing inside. But outside, in the moonlit garden that smelled of heliotrope, they found the watermelon.
Mal had tasted watermelon only once before, at a church box social back at home, but the taste had stayed with him. More than the taste, he remembered the way it had burst cold in his mouth even in the midst of the summer heat. That night in the garden, he took one look at that watermelon and forgot everything else.
What he recalls of that night is the rind smooth beneath his hands, the way the juice itched when it dried on his face and neck and hands, the sound of Zoë’s laughter (that was the first time he ever heard her laugh, and the last time for a good long while—until she met Wash), the smell of heliotrope, the men’s snores around him as they drifted into sleep. The twelve of them sprawled about in the soft grass of the garden, surrounded by rinds and seeds, moaning at the way the water sloshed about in their bellies till dawn broke up over the trees. They pulled themselves to their feet in the twilight, dragged themselves back to camp empty handed.
That night, the battle of SerenityValley began.
Life on Shadow was poor, but the one thing Mama’s house was rich in was stories. Every night before she blew out the lamp, Mama would sit in the rocking chair beside his bed (his daddy had made it for her while she was pregnant, carving it out of pine, though he died working in the mines before he ever got to see her rock baby Malcolm in it) and tell him a nighty-night story. He lay underneath the quilt and listened to her voice rise and fall in step with the rocking creak of the chair against the floor, and though he had never seen an ocean (never saw one till the War, and then his first glimpse of one and the water was all stained pink with blood), he imagined that this was what getting swept away in a tide was like.
During the day, Mama worked too hard, rising before dawn, nary a moment to rest her feet till she sat in the dark to tell him stories. Even during mealtimes, Mama never got to rest, lighting for a moment (like a butterfly, he thought at the time, though more like the little yellow ones that dart between the cornflowers than the wide-winged, silk-painted exotic ones that remind him of Inara) to swallow a mouthful before hopping up again to rush to the stove, to scrape more food onto the hands’ plates, to pour more water. In the mornings, the hands were all quiet, sullen, with faces shining too bright from shaving, before dragging themselves out to work; at supper, their mouths gaped open to yawn almost more often than to shovel food in, and they ate quick before stumbling off to fall into their lumpy beds and snore like a mess of bears growling all night long.
But noontime meal, before the work of the day got too hot, they were garrulous, full of boasting and stories and tall tales. Somehow, through some witchcraft Mal never could conjure out, the best storytelling hands on Shadow always came to work for Mama. He never did meet a one of them who couldn’t tell a story as deftly as Mama could flip a protein flapjack, and he loved to listen. Some of them had wandered wide and far and had outlandish stories of happenings they’d lived through; the others had folktales from Earth-That-Was, the kind their grandpappy’s pappy had told around campfires, the kind that were more legend than fact, but more truth than lie.
Mal liked war stories best. Stories about Lemuel Zane’s jumping frog were all well and good, and he liked tales of the Black and the space pirates that haunted that darkness, but the war stories shone like in Mal’s mind like Mama’s prize copper kettle by lamplight.
He never grew weary of tales of glory and honor and courage and sacrifice, and Mama liked to say that he grew up on those more than he did on her fatback. He reenacted them all in the schoolyard with his friends, alone in the barn loft for the cows below, lived through them each night while he lay in bed. And he would burn then with envy, longing for adventures like those, a cause to spill blood for, a flag to hold high. He wanted it so badly he almost hated those who had lived it when he never had.
He told Shepherd West that one Sunday after meeting, sitting in the dark church that smelled like wet pine, watching the flickering of the candles, and Shepherd had looked grave, like he was worried, though Mal couldn’t conjure why. War ain’t a game, Malcolm, and it ain’t all glory and guts. It’s hell. I wouldn’t go longing after that if I were you.
But then Shepherd’s face had cleared. Not likely you’ll ever have chance to find that out your own self, though. Have your play.
And Mal had put Shepherd’s long face from his mind and carried on with his wishing even after he grew to be a man.
So maybe it was fate made Malcolm Reynolds dream of war and then provided him with one. Glory was sharp and bright as copper in his mouth as he rushed out to sign his name and be handed his weapon.
It wasn’t till his first battle, the blood of his best friend, Sam Wilkins, splattered on his hands where he tried to hold the boy’s guts in and covering the ground when he failed that he realized why Shepherd always preached so brimstone hard against envy.
After (after Wash and the Shepherd, Mr. Universe and the Operative, Miranda and the Reavers), they drift. They take a few jobs here and there, but only on the most backwater of worlds and the most straightforward of missions. But mostly they wander the Black.
From what they can tell from the Cortex and the few bits of news the little pioneer worlds manage to scrape together, the Miranda news burst big, shattering faith in the Alliance in ways that the whole gorram War never managed to (and no, he ain’t the least bit bitter, thanks for askin’). Miranda had been a new world, terraformed, yes, but it’s clear now that it had been designed by the government to be the Osiris of the Outer Rim, a place of clean lines and well-cultivated parks, not of ranches and shotguns. And that knowledge, that it was a planet like theirs, that it could happen to them was what shook the fat cats of the Core out of their complacency. They could be next in line, their children next to be experimented on (how few of them knew that that had already come to pass?).
There’s a revolutionary spirit in the wind, one of the news talkers on the Cortex said, and from what he can tell, that seems to be the case. The high and mighty in their silks and jewels are ready for reform if not outright revolution, passionate in ways they never were back during the War (it wasn’t till he met Inara and the Tams that he realized that the War didn’t loom large in the eyes of the Core citizens the way it did on the Rim—the rich had barely noticed that a war was going on at all except that there were a few more dress uniforms at their fancy-ass balls, and that burns Mal something fierce when he thinks on the way that he can’t name a single one-mule town on any of the Rim worlds that didn’t lose at least one son to the Cause).
He sees a light in the eyes of some of the people he meets during the jobs on those dustbowl worlds, like hope flaring up again. This time, they say. The time wasn’t right last time, but it is now. We’ve got the Core on our side. Alliance’s gonna fall, right certain. But more often he sees weariness, a kind of bone-deep tiredness he knows more intimately than he ever has any woman, the kind that knows it’s too tired to hope again.
This is his chance, he knows. Could play up his role in the discovery of Miranda, get young Doctor Tam and Inara to hook him up with contacts and funds, fan the flames, fight the fight his way this time. He could be the hero that overthrows the Alliance once and for all.
Instead, he drifts. That weariness is chased away now by the pitter-patter of tiny feet in huge combat boots, the taste of the birthday cakes Kaylee labors so hard to make, the sight of Zoë’s belly swelling with life, the scent of sandalwood that clings to Inara, the feel of Serenity breathing around him. But whenever he even considers fighting his battle again, taking up arms for the Cause, the weariness returns, pounding in his temples, gnawing away inside his chest. He wants no more of that.
Instead, he drifts.
The War’s long done. They’re all just folk now. And he wants no more than that.
During the War, he didn’t fight with hate. He didn’t hate at all. Malcolm Reynolds was an idealist, a true believer, and as such, he had no room in him for hate. He never thought of himself as fighting against anything; he thought only in positive terms: he was fighting for freedom, for justice, for the right to be left alone. So he fought with joyous abandon, convinced that his fight was righteous, and that made him mighty, and so there was no way his cause could lose.
After, the bitterness of defeat again left no room for wrath but only for despair. In the hollow of SerenityValley, knowing that no one was coming for them, that those he had believed in had surrendered, he himself surrendered to a despair so deep that wrath was washed away in its wake.
And then there were no more battles to fight, just escape: the Black, Serenity, keeping the crew in victuals and engine parts for one day more.
But now, in this moment, wrath is building up inside of him till he can scarce keep it in check, and he ain’t really sure why he should. Because he can’t shake the memory of Book’s hand limp in his (the man had always had the firmest grip of anyone Mal’d ever known) and the stain of blood on his lips. He’ll never forget the nightmare of that pike through Wash’s chest, his eyes blank in the red light, Zoë, who never begged for anything in her life, pleading for her husband to stay with her. He knows now what monsters did to children like River, breaking innocent spirits, cutting up their brain-pans like Christmas turkeys. He hears he terror and horror of that woman’s voice on the hologram as she realized what had happened to Miranda, feels the hollowness of the dead planet with its endless echoes and too-bright light, sees the corpses that just…laid down.
He remembers all this, and for the first time, he feels wrath.
He lets it propel each punch, absorb each blow, force him to stumble to his feet again. The Operative is a true believer in some ideal that leaves a foul taste in Mal’s mouth, but even his faith cannot hold up under the force of Malcolm Reynold’s wrath.
No power in the ‘Verse can stop him.
Mal isn’t one for superstition, not any longer: he abandoned that long ago in SerenityValley, along with anything like faith and any trust in government. Kaylee has an elaborate system to avoid what she calls jinxing; he’s always saying things that make her gasp, eyes wide and tiny grease-stained hand covering her mouth: You can’t be sayin’ that! You’ll jinx us!
If it was anyone but Kaylee, he would have put an end to that long ago. But it is Kaylee, and so he finds himself trying to remember her rules, what it is and ain’t proper to say, even if he doesn’t believe all that fei-oo for one second.
But a part of him he keeps tucked away sort of understands. Because this thought scares the gos se out of him: that he’ll take too much pride in what’s his and it will be taken away from him.
And this is what’s his: the ship, the crew. He had everything he believed in stripped away by the nightmare of SerenityValley, and he never expected to find anything to replace that again (even the name of his ship a practice in self-flagellation). But he has: he’s found people and a place, and he’s scared to hold onto them too tight for fear they’ll be ripped away. Never mind that inside he’s holding onto them with everything he is; he doesn’t acknowledged that out loud for fear that a God he no longer believes in or a universe he’s lost all faith in will hear and call his bluff.
So he doesn’t speak his pride in Zoë’s loyalty or Kaylee’s sweetness, in Inara’s grace or River putting herself back together again, in Wash and Book’s memories and Simon’s steadiness, or hell, even Jayne’s decision to stay one more day. He doesn’t speak his pride in Serenity’s purr, her lines and curves, her clinging to the sky when gravity would pull her down. He doesn’t speak his pride in the lives his crew has carved out in the Black’s endlessness. Though he sometimes feels he’s about to burst with it all, he doesn’t speak it.
He’s too afraid he’ll jinx it.