"Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all."
Mal had been hard at work for the last hour, his eyes wandering to the time every few minutes. She wasn't supposed to be long, only had to pick up a couple things and she was going to head back to the ship. He ran a hand through his hair, starting to wonder if maybe he should go looking for her. He assured himself she was fine; she had Jayne and Zoe with her and they capable of keeping one little mechanic from harm. Still, there was an itch that just wouldn't fade and he could feel a weight in his stomach.
He should'a gone with her or at least taught her how to shoot a gorram gun. She didn't like 'em none, but when the time came, 'least she'd have a way to keep herself safe. Three years he'd been with her and every time she was outta sight, he started to worry. She wasn't like the others on the ship; they knew how to keep 'emselves protected. But Kaylee was an innocent and while he liked that about her, it worried him sometimes that she wasn't as safe as the rest of 'em.
There was a ruckus comin' his way. Bangin' and a hollerin' and a whole damn lotta warnings. He looked up, body tensing. He got the familiar feelin' he wasn't gonna like what was comin'. Jayne entered the room, gaspin' for air and lookin' worse for wear. He was bleedin' from a gash on his face and had a limp due to a wound in his leg. He was sweatin' somethin' fierce and the wild look in his eyes said there was a whole lot more than just 'trouble' back in town. Only one question he wanted answered and he asked it right off the bat.
"Reavers," Jayne gasped, shaking his head, eyes wide. "They were all over."
"Where's Kaylee?" he repeated, jaw clenching tightly.
"There wasn't no alarm or nothin'. No folks runnin'. Everythin' was real calm like." He was goin' into shock right before Mal's eyes.
"Jayne!" he yelled, drawing the man out of his stupor. "Where is my Kaylee?"
Jayne stared at him a moment, eyes falling. Ain't nothin' he was afraid of more than reavers. "They got her." He shook his head. "There was a whole pack of 'em and we couldn't get to her. We tried. We did. We were shootin' and fightin' and we ain't planned on leavin' her behind. We didn't!" He shook his head, eyes widening further.
Mal felt his heart pounding in his ears, his chest clenching.
"There was just too many of 'em and they just kept comin' at us. Got 'emselves most of the town, we just couldn't keep 'em back. We had to go and she was... She was screamin' and yellin' and pleadin' for us to just shoot her. But... But there ain't a clear shot." He swallowed tightly. "Ain't no clear shot."
"Jayne!" Zoe yelled, loud and chastising. She came into the room, hand holding a stained cloth to her forehead. She looked back and forth from Jayne to Mal, who was slipping down to sit on the chair near him. He couldn't stand anymore; his whole body was falling and sound was evadin' him. "Sir?"
He shook his head. She couldn't be gone. They couldn't have got her. She was there just this morning, tellin' him how she was gonna pick him up something real shiny while she was in town. She kissed him goodbye, winked as she walked down the ramp from the ship, her hips swayin' and her flowery dress huggin' all her soft curves. She'd been there just a few hours ago, smiling her shiny smile at him.
His eyes fell, vision darkened, and all he could think about was how sweet she sounded when she said his name. "I ain't gonna be long. And I ain't gonna buy no fluffery. I'll get ya something real captainy, I promise." She smiled before liftin' up on her tip toes and kissing him, slow and lingering. "Might just pick up a few strawberries, if I see 'em." She smiled at him, all mischievous like. "Lil' treat for later, just you an' me."
And he frowned as she walked off. He was stuck on the ship awhile longer, too busy to enjoy the town none. "Go on then, I won't miss ya none," he called after her.
She winked at him over her shoulder. "You'll miss me plenty, Malcolm Reynolds. You don't fool me none." He didn't know how true her words were until this moment.
"MAL!" Zoe yelled, so loud his head snapped up to look at her. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice wavering only slightly. "But we have to get out of here. The reavers are still loose and if they get to us..."
"Can't take no more casualties," Jayne said.
"Will you please close that mouth of yours? You're not helping!"
He frowned, eyes falling, but he didn't shout back at her.
She turned back toward Mal, her face the picture of understanding. She lost a husband once and she ain't never really recovered. She pretended like she was okay and maybe she was a little better. But she ain't been the same since they lost Wash. "We have to go," she said, softer now.
He nodded jerkily, his mouth closed tight. If he knew anything about his Kaylee, he knew that she wouldn't want their ship gettin' in the hands of no reavers. And more over, anybody on the ship followin' the same fate as her.
River stepped in front of him, her expression blank, but she said all he needed to hear in that moment. "See the firefly soar by the current of the river." She walked off to the front, givin' him the go ahead to leave the flying to her.
He stood up on shaky legs and ignored the way the others looked at him, as if searchin' for some kinda reassurin' words to put him at ease. He didn't need their fussin'. He stomped off toward their - just his now - quarters. He slammed the door behind him and pressed his forehead against it, closin' his eyes. He took a deep breath, tryin' to think of what she might say to make the situation shinier than what it was. But he ain't like her and no words came that could make the pain any less. Ain't nobody else on the ship that could pull him out of it neither and he knew he was gonna be one mean sonuvabitch for who knows how long. Maybe the rest of his days. There weren't so savin' for him. Ain't a light at the end of the black no more. He was lost and alone and he didn't figure that'd be changin' anytime soon.
He bashed his fist down against the steel door, the tears buildin' up behind his eyes and stingin' him something fierce. When he opened them, he turned around and glared at the room around him. There were flowers painted here or there. "Needed more shiny," she told him when he walked in to see his walls fashioned with her paints. Her coveralls were in a clump on the floor, next to her favorite sleepin' shirt. Some of the pretties she'd picked up over time sat on their dresser - couple hair clips, some earrings, a necklace she made outta piston rings. There was an antique brush she liked runnin' through her dark hair; faded silver and chipped, but she loved it anyway. Made her feel glamorous like Inara, he figured. And her ring sat right there in the center, always left behind so no thieves could get it from her. Wasn't nothin' too fancy but it was the shiniest ring there ever was to her. Picked it up a few stops back, asked her to marry him while they were rockin' in her hammock, listenin' to the hum of the engine like it was their own kinda music. Made love in that same hammock and she cried out "yes, yes, yes," to the proposal and the ecstasy.
He knew he shouldn't'a let her go; had the Reynolds itch all over when she walked away. Figured it was just nerves though. He ain't let her out of his sight often. Too gorram easy for her to get into trouble; even when she ain't lookin' for it, it came lookin' for her. Seemed his whole crew had that problem. Every stop it seemed there was another battle; a never endin' stream of bad, out to get him and those close to him. He'd hoped she wouldn't be one of those though. Hoped maybe he'd earned the right to a little light in his life. Only reassured him more that there wasn't no God doin' any savin'. They'd lost the war and now the battle. He just didn't have it in him anymore to keep fightin'.
Sluggish and exhausted, he climbed into their bed. Her side seemed so empty now and it just didn't fit in his head that she ain't never gonna lay there again. She ain't never gonna hum random tunes under her breath that always helped him sleep. Wasn't gonna paint her flowers all over or tell him to listen to their ship purr like a satisfied woman. Ain't no more laughter or smilin'. No gorram shiny anywhere on his ship or in his life.
He felt Serenity lift and closed his eyes, hand reachin' across to curl his fingers in the blanket real tight, as if willin' her to appear right there next to him, beneath his hand. But they broke the atmo into the black and she ain't appear or whisper reassurin' words in his ear. She didn't stroke his hair or curl up on top of his back, tellin' him all the ways the world was shinier than he figured, like she often did when he got into a mood. He couldn't feel the pressure of her against him, all warm and right. Couldn't smell that flowery scent of her hair near him or taste strawberries in his mouth like he always did after he kissed her. The room was empty, 'cept for him and the memory of her. And he didn't think he could take it anymore. Felt suffocatin' and he was liable to let all the oh-two leave him and join her in non existence.
He climbed up off the bed and left their room with shoulders that weighed too heavy and a mind that couldn't stop thinking of her. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't see, he couldn't make his eyes stop their stingin'. He hid away in the engine room; a room so much like her it too was almost more than he could take. Serenity hummed and hawed its own language that sounded just like her in a weird way. He felt like it was tryin' to reassure him with all the shiny words Kaylee woulda used but it wasn't workin'. He didn't know how long he sat there, right in front of the engine, starin' at it like it was gonna answer all his questions. Why her? Why now? Why ever? What'd he do to deserve it? Gorram! What'd she do? Ain't no answer to be found, he figured. He could hear his crew outside the room, talkin' in whispers that ain't quiet enough to be hidden by Serenity's hum.
"Can't just let 'im wallow. Been three days since we seen 'im. He ain't eatin' or sleepin'. Wouldn't be surprised if he kicked it in there!" Jayne said angrily.
"He is still your captain and you have no idea what he's going through!" Zoe told him harshly.
"Hey I knew Kaylee too! She was... Well she was Kaylee and that's all need be said! I lost a friend back there and all of us are hurtin' over it. So don't tell me I ain't knowin' what it feels like!"
"We've all lost friends, Jayne. We've lost mothers and fathers, siblings and friends. But when you lose a lover; a husband, a wife, someone you couldn't stand to really lose because they feel like the other half of you... That's a pain that ain't compared with nothing." She sighed. "When you find that, you'll know. Until then, you leave him alone. You'll only serve to make him feel worse and he ain't able to take anymore."
"I ain't goin' in there and tellin' him to get over her. But we need a plan. We can't be flyin' 'round black all the gorram time!"
"We will get where we need to go. For now, you'll return to your room."
"You ain't orderin' me around."
"I am and you're going to listen. I don't have time for this. I've got a dead mechanic and a captain that ain't workin' right. You do what you're told or you can sail the black with no ship to keep you."
Guffawin', Jayne kicked the wall before he stomped off.
Mal knew she was lingering. Hangin' round the door in hopes he might open it and sit down to have one of their understandin' talks that consisted more of just knowin' and noddin' and gettin' on with it. He ain't ready for that though. So instead of walkin' to the door, he stands up, makes his way to hammock, climbs in and just lets the ship sway him. He doesn't move again 'til Zoe appeared in front of him. Figured he'd been starin' at the wall all blank like for what felt like hours, but was probably more.
"Have you eaten anything we've brought you?" she asked, though she already seemed to know the answer.
He didn't reply, just let the hammock sway and stared at the wall some more. If he concentrated really hard, he could hear her laugh in the click, clickof the engine. Sometimes when he blinks, he swears he sees her; lookin' back at him over her shoulder, winkin' all promisin'-like. She ain't never return though. Didn't bring back them strawberries or that real shiny gift she went lookin' for. She ain't never returned.
Zoe sighed. "It's been a week, Mal." Her jaw clenched, eyes searching him for some kind of response. "You're going to die here if you don't eat or sleep or drink. Something, anything, please?"
He kept his quiet, eyes starin' at the walls as if he expected them to produce her. She was so much a part of the ship and his mind was so muddled, he was startin' to think she was the ship and it really could give her back to him.
"She wouldn't want you to do this to yourself."
His jaw twitched. He ain't need anybody tellin' him what Kaylee wanted.
"She wouldn't want to see you like this."
"She ain't never gonna see me again," he croaked out, voice raspy from no use.
"If she were here right now-"
"Well she ain't!" he yelled, eyes turning up toward her. "And she ain't comin' back. She left, she's gone, and she ain't comin' back like she said she would. She said she wouldn't be long... Been longer than long."
Zoe swallowed tightly. "Mal..."
"Said she'd bring back strawberries."
She nodded, eyes closing for a moment and he knew she was holdin' back her own tears. Ones he'd cried a dozen times a day, he was sure. He was all outta them tears now. Burned his eyes raw, they did.
"Told her I wasn't gonna miss her and she told me I would." He shook his head, jaw clenchin'. "Too damn right for her own good," he whispered.
"It gets easier," Zoe told him softly.
He shook his head. "You're wrong." His fingers curled around the holes in the hammock and he felt it sway beneath him, answerin' the movements of the ship. "Gets harder by the second. Not havin' her around, not hearin' her voice or her laugh or..." He trailed off. Seemed maybe his tears had come back; rebuilt themselves. He was so tired; of cryin' and missin' her and not havin' her.
"You're right. It doesn't stop hurting," Zoe admitted. "But some days don't hurt as much. You might not think of her as often or you might find yourself remembering her fondly rather than feeling lost and alone. You look back and you remember her for all the shiny things she did for you and with you, rather than all the sadness there was after she was gone." She sighed. "It's gonna hurt a good long while, sir. But... You can't spend your life here in this hammock, waitin' for her to come back. Cause she ain't." She reached out, hand finding his shoulder. "She ain't comin' back, Mal."
He closed his eyes. "That's the part that hurts most, I figure." He sighed. "Didn't expect her to ever go. Figured I had her for good and I was gorram happy with that." He shook his head, opening his burning eyes to glare at the wall in front of him. "Ain't nothin' go smooth though, I should know that by now. Soon as anything's goin' good, it gets right messed up."
"Don't try and convince me of any of that shiny bull now," he told her, setting his jaw. "Ain't no use anymore. Ain't no more shiny."
Her eyes fell and she just nodded her head. There wasn't any convincin' him now. Only girl had the power to turn his feelings around was long gone and deader than dead. He rolled onto his back, starin' up from the hammock at the grey ceiling of his ship. He'd laid in this exact spot with her right there on top of him, bodies sweaty and thrumming and buzzin' real nice like. And she'd stroked his chest, fingers tracin' scars. "Reckon life with you is gonna be a real shiny ride," she whispered, tilting her head to look up at him. "I ever tell you I love you, capt'n?"
"Once or twice," he replied, stroking her damp hair from her face.
"Figure I should say it more often."
"I ain't opposed to hearin' it more," he drawled lazily before closin' his eyes.
She cuddled up close, restin' her head on his shoulder. "I love you more than all the shiny in the 'verse," she said, real serious like.
He opened his eyes to look down at her, kissin' her forehead. "And I love you the same Kaywinnit."
She smiled, kissin' his chin before she snuggled her head against him. They fell asleep right there, to the sway and the hum and the love of their ship.
Still, Zoe was right about one thing. His Kaylee wouldn't want him wastin' away in memories of her. She'd want him to make new ones; shiny ones. He knew he wasn't gonna find any without her there, but he also knew that she'd be right fussed with him if he didn't captain their ship. So it was with a dark mood and a heavy heart that he lifted himself from their hammock, standing on legs that weren't strong enough to hold him after days of no movement. He waved off Zoe as she tried to hold him up and used the steady walls of the ship to keep him upright. He made his way out of the engine room that sang her name to him with each rackety noise it made and stumbled unsteadily toward the control room. River was flyin' with ease and simply looked at him as he walked in and took his seat.
"You're sure you don't want to sleep awhile?" Zoe asked.
"I'll get plenty of sleep when I'm dead," he replied roughly. "'Til then, I'll be captainin'."
She nodded, staring at him a minute more before finally leaving.
"You're more broken than the scattered stars of the 'verse," River told him in her usual tone.
"Ain't gonna get fixed none, neither."
She stood up abruptly and was gone without explanation. He liked the quiet better anyway. There was nothin' but black and stars in front of him; drastic difference from the wall he'd been staring at for days. He heard a racket and glanced at the tray Zoe put down near him. Nothin' too heavy, he figured. Hadn't eaten for a week and couldn't feel the hunger pains through the emotional ones. He figured food could wait until River came back from wherever it was she went off to. Didn't care to ask and wasn't all that inclined to know. His crew left him alone and he appreciated it as much as he could in his state. Wasn't much thinkin' of anyone else though. Had Kaylee on his mind and hurtin' in his heart.
When River came back, he didn't even notice until she was standing in front of him, head tipped sideways as if examining him like an unusual bug.
"What?" he asked gruffly.
"The broken pieces don't always fit together, but add a piece from something just as broken, and it could fix it just enough."
He stared at her, brows furrowed.
She lifted out a chain, Kaylee's engagement ring hanging from it. "The last piece of shiny," she told him, letting the chain fall from her hand.
He caught it easily, reflexes reacting automatically. The ring sat in the middle of his palm, staring up at him with more meaning than he cared to examine. He looked back up to say something to River, he didn't really know what, figured the words would just come out as they were meant to, but she'd left as quick and quiet as she came. He slipped the chain over his head and let the ring fall to his chest, right over his heart. It was all he had left of her and he wasn't lettin' it go anywhere. His hand wrapped around it so tight, he could feel the metal biting into his skin, nearly drawin' blood. He let go of it, palm throbbing and lifted it back up to his eyes. The inscription inside was simple, just: "Kaylee and Mal - forever shiny" She cried when she read it; got all fussed and babbled about how sweet he was through her tears.
He slid the ring beneath his shirt, felt it against his bare skin and took a deep breath, letting it out as he reopened his eyes to the black 'verse in front of him. There, far off in the distance, was a planet. Their supplies was probably low and he found himself hankerin' for some strawberries. He pressed down on the acceleration and felt the ship speed up like he wanted. Wouldn't be long now.
He ain't believe she was up in some make-believe heaven, smilin' down on him all proud and shiny. But even without her watchin', he knew that he was gonna do what she'd want him to. Keep on goin', fightin', livin' as best he could. It was all she would want for him. He ain't never gonna replace her and he knew that for him, the only shiny piece left in the 'verse was around his neck and in his heart, but he'd make do. He always did.