Malâ€™s legs hurt, and he pushed open the door to the housing unit with an eye towards making for his bunk, but the quiet thud of a boot hitting flesh erased any such notions.
Cody was on the floor near the back of the room, with Cole kicking him in vicious anger as three men cheered him on.Â The rest were outside, blissfully unaware.Â From his quiet demeanor, Mal guessed Cody hadnâ€™t screamed for help.Â Gorram kid was just taking the beating.
Mal watched silently, picking up a treatise on ancient civilizations.Â It had a solid heft to it.Â The advantage would be needed; Cole outweighed him by a good measure, and Mal had no interest in being a chew toy for a human pitbull.Â He walked up behind Cole and slammed the book into the side of his head.Â The man fell, and Mal kicked him as many times as he could before Cole could grasp what was happening.Â Two swift kicks to the knees ensured that Cole wouldnâ€™t be standing up to finish the fight.
The large man’s eyes focused.Â “Sergeant!Â What â€“â€œ Mal looked him directly in the eyes and kicked him with equal directness in the stomach.Â Paying no attention to Cole’s whimpers, Mal glanced at the other three who were backing away, uneasy.Â
“Let me guess.Â He deserved it.”Â The rage with which Mal spat out the words elicited a cringe from Cole more visceral even than his attempt to shrink from Malâ€™s boot.
Cole struggled to speak.Â “We got â€“ a moral code.Â Doesn’t include â€“ murdering â€“ civilians.”
“Yeah,” said Mal.Â “Apparently it involves beating prisoners out of revenge.”Â He jerked his head towards the door.Â “Kinda glad the guards don’t adhere to that particular code.”Â Mal flashed an insincere smile and kicked him again.
“He’s a murderer!” protested another of the bystanders, pointing at Cody, lying on the concrete floor with his eyes closed.Â His prosthetic leg was protruding from his jumpsuit.
“Ah.Â Right,” said Mal.Â He pointed to Cole.Â “And that’s the guy kicking the shit out of a helpless person.Â Figured by his moral code, I’d rough him up a little.Â Funny things, morals.”Â
Mal aimed another kick at Cole, who screamed in thoroughly cowed fear. Mal stopped his foot short.Â There was a point at which the average bully decided it was in his best interest to avoid the crossing of certain lines, and Mal figured heâ€™d just reached it.
“Sergeant!”Â Wilkins looked pale.Â “This â€“ this is making me sick.”
“Didn’t make you feel sick when you was in the right, did it?” asked Mal.Â The question was aimed at the group as a whole, but Cole answered.
“No,” he said, focusing on a distant spot on the wall.Â “I’m – sorry.Â I thought they took you off to solitary.Â I was only doinâ€™ what I thought was right in yer place.”Â Gone was the righteous bluster; he looked not unlike a wolf rolling over submissively and hoping for the mercy of the stronger animal.
“Why don’t you sleep at night, Cole?” asked Mal, lethal.Â “Bigger the bluster, the weaker the man.Â What dirty little secret can’t you shake?”
He didn’t wait for Cole to answer, but instead looked about the room. â€œI gave an order that Patton here wasnâ€™t to be hurt.Â Yâ€™all want to think real hard about holdinâ€™ yourselves above â€˜imÂ if beating a crippled man is right in your book.â€
Malâ€™s own words momentarily distracted him.Â They sounded biblical, conjuring up concepts of casting the first stone, and judge not lest ye be judged.Â Wasnâ€™t precisely what he was getting at, given he hadnâ€™t the slightest qualm about judging certain folk.Â No, this was about brutality.
He continued more thoughtfully, although his expression was no more forgiving.Â â€œTricky path, chasing right anâ€™ wrong.Â Iâ€™ve been tortured on account of folk thinking I was deserving of it.Â Could be I was.Â Thereâ€™s no sort of point to it all.Â Just a cloud of gray we walk through all the time.Â Might be of use to remember that, not lose track of some manner of compassion no matter how right you think you are.â€
Mal reckoned heâ€™d come as close to making his point as was possible given he didnâ€™t exactly know what it was his own self.Â â€œEvery man here ought to know that when heâ€™s with us, heâ€™s safe.Â No watching â€˜is back, no bullying, we protect one â€˜nother.Â One of you breaks that code, youâ€™ll find Iâ€™m a hell of a lot meaner than them Alliance boys.â€
His voice was sharp like a whip, and there was not a doubt in Malâ€™s mind that every man in that room believed him.Â â€œCole!â€Â The man flinched.Â â€œYou are not my second in command, anâ€™ you got no place nominatinâ€™ yourself as such.â€Â
He extended his hand and pulled Cole to his feet.Â With Malâ€™s help, he hobbled over to his bunk with one hand holding his stomach.Â Mal knelt down and talked to him quietly as he lay motionless on his side, eyes closed in misery.Â â€œI donâ€™t want any man afraid of me, but you will not disobey a clean order.â€
Cole nodded, emitting a slight groan.Â â€œSorry â€“ Sergeant.â€
Mal nodded.Â â€œGet some rest.â€
Cody Patton had picked himself up and crawled quietly to his bunk.Â When Mal approached and sat on the bunk opposite him, he was lying down, his expression calm.Â Â He didnâ€™t want to acknowledge Mal, but after a minute of silence he moved his head enough to meet Malâ€™s gaze.Â Pain didnâ€™t frighten him.Â
He was far more at peace than Mal, who sat trying to wish away the dirty, empty feeling that lay in the wake of violating his own sense of compassion.Â “You okay, son?”
Cody nodded.Â “I’m fine, sergeant,” he said.Â He tensed and bit his lip, fighting a wave of pain.Â Mal tugged a light blanket over his shoulders, arranging the folds carefully to shelter the hurt boy in the urge to offer comfort.Â He felt the need to distance himself from the man whoâ€™d just kicked Cole into submission â€˜til the caring tone of his own voice didnâ€™t echo like a lie inside.
There was a surprisingly keen understanding in Codyâ€™s expression that stopped Malâ€™s thoughts in their tracks.Â It was easy to forget that the quiet, crippled young man was a murderer, but it was clear that Cody himself was never far from that knowledge.Â Mal looked away, wondering if war managed to steal everyoneâ€™s soul, one way or the other.Â Wondering if the gentle young man was being groomed to kill him.
â€œThereâ€™s something for you on your bunk, sir,â€ said Cody in a quiet voice.Â Mal looked back around to see Cody staring directly into his eyes with an unsettling, knowing intensity.Â â€œI wonâ€™t give you cause to regret what youâ€™ve done for me.Â I promise.â€
He heard quiet footsteps and looked up to see Simms standing near the foot of the two bunks holding a damp, folded washcloth and a cup of water. With Malâ€™s unspoken permission, he handed Cody the water and used the cloth to dab the blood away from the manâ€™s face, taking great care not to hurt him.Â Finishing, he sat down on the floor and reached for Codyâ€™s hand and held it gently.Â He hadnâ€™t said a word the entire time.
Mal remembered Simms saying after tackling Cody that heâ€™d never hurt anyone before, and watching him now it was easy to believe.Â â€œWhatâ€™d you do in the war?â€ he asked, curious.
â€œComm tech.â€Â He gave Mal a self-deprecating smile.Â â€œAlso known as the geek squad.Â I fixed things when they broke, or got holes shot through them.â€
â€œAnâ€™ you ended up in prison how?â€
He glanced down.Â â€œSomeone had to keep communications working, or – try.Â Didnâ€™t have much luck.Â I was one of the guys cowering under a desk with his hands up when the Alliance swept through.Â Now, proud owner of the badass designation of war criminal.â€Â Slouched on the floor holding Codyâ€™s hand in a comforting grip, nobody could have looked less dastardly. Cody had his fingers wrapped tightly around the other manâ€™s hand and was lying with his eyes closed.Â
So far as Mal had been able to see, the two had never been friends in particular, but that didnâ€™t stop Simms from caring or Cody from trusting. â€œThank you,â€ said Mal, his voice soft.Â Simms still had a soul very much intact, and he looked at Mal with an expression just as soft.Â
â€œWouldnâ€™t have missed it.â€Â Simms looked around, his eyes taking in the hard, glossy painted surface of the walls, the metal door, the small central table with its ragged collection of chairs, and the lines of identical double bunks before getting lost in the distance somewhere miles away.
If it hadnâ€™t been for the quiet filling the small room, they could easily have missed Codyâ€™s timid whisper.Â â€œMe neither.â€Â He didnâ€™t open his eyes, preferring to remain in whatever world heâ€™d gone to.
Mal closed his own eyes, carried back to endless nights in trenches, days in rubble and gunfire, and the many weeks that blended together in a seamless wash of shouting, screaming, explosions, and cries of triumph.Â The only things it had in common with this small, clean world they were confined in were these moments of quiet caring and love between human beings sharing experiences of extraordinary intensity.Â â€œMe neither,â€ he echoed at last.Â
He stood, at peace.Â Heâ€™d intended to offer comfort, but instead they had given it to him.Â Mal returned to his bunk and picked up a single sheet of paper that was placed neatly on his pillow.Â It was a drawing of himself, looking at something with an expression filled with everything he didnâ€™t feel now.Â Love.Â Hope.Â Joy.Â He was dressed in what looked like a canvas jacket, and a cloth shirt; no trace of the prison jumpsuits and not a fence in sight.
Something choked up in his throat.Â He looked young in the drawing, younger even than he felt now.Â No way was he going to look that young when he got out of this place.Â He looked across the room at Cody, who gave him a timid smile.Â
Mal returned his eyes to the drawing, and remembered the calm that had come over him after the trial.Â He flexed his fingers slowly, looking at the torn skin on his knuckles. The man in here, playing at going nuts â€“ it wasnâ€™t him.Â Just a part of him.Â The other parts â€“ he stood and walked outside.
It wasnâ€™t fully dark out yet, but the stars were visible, twinkling in the sky that went on for an eternity.Â The rest of him was still out there, untouched, waiting patiently for this mess to be over.Â â€œHi.â€Â He wasnâ€™t sure if his whispered greeting was aimed at himself, or Wash, or simply at the stars.Â Maybe all three.Â
He closed his eyes, once again feeling the peace that had followed him off and on ever since the trial.Â That man in the drawing was going to exist.
â€œMalcolm.â€Â It was late evening, and Mal was alone in the yard, the others having retreated to the warmth and light of their little housing unit.Â The soft voice came from outside the gate, and Mal turned to see Daniels.Â His silent approach hadnâ€™t alerted Mal to his presence, but it didnâ€™t seem unnerving.Â Mal walked to the gate.Â
Daniels looked at him with a soft expression.Â â€œThey were incredibly kind to us.Â The browncoats.â€Â Mal leaned his arms on the gate, settling in to listen, but Daniels didnâ€™t say any more.
â€œIâ€™m glad.â€Â Malâ€™s voice was equally soft.Â Danielsâ€™ gentle manner was contagious, even relaxing, and Mal identified it for the first time.Â It was trust.Â Sincere, calm trust, and it inspired the same in Mal.
“They worked as hard as men can to take care of us.Â But they had nothing.Â Not supplies, not food, not money.”Â He studied Mal.Â “But â€“ maybe they gave us what was just as important.Â They let us keep our dignity and our friends, and didn’t â€“ didn’t try to control us more than was needed.Â Just too bad we almost starved to death when the cold wasnâ€™t trying to â€“â€œ
He looked at Mal, a troubled expression deep in his eyes.Â â€œThere are so many rutting decent people in the world â€“ odd thing, how we end up hurting each other so badly.â€Â He sighed and banged his head against the gate.Â â€œItâ€™s never going to end, is it.Â This war didnâ€™t change a thing.â€
â€œIf weâ€™d met out there, one of us would aâ€™ killed the other and felt good about it,â€ said Mal.Â â€œDonâ€™t think whoâ€™s a decent sort has much to do with war.â€
â€œSuppose not,â€ said Daniels.Â His next words were thoughtful.Â â€œDo you hate us?â€
Mal considered the question for a minute before resting his wrist on one of the horizontal bars of the gate and pulling back the sleeve of his jacket to reveal the inmate tracking band around his wrist.Â â€œIt bothers me,â€ he said slowly.Â â€œComfortable enough, you forget itâ€™s there most times.Â Itâ€™s the fact that itâ€™s locked on me anâ€™ I got no sort of say in the matter thatâ€™ll never be okay.â€
Daniels nodded his understanding, and after a secondâ€™s consideration reached out and touched the band lightly, as though the gesture might remove its impact.Â â€œDo you hate the people who put that on you?â€
Mal gave a tight smile.Â The man who had attached the device had been respectful and considerate, explaining exactly what it was for and ensuring that it caused him no discomfort. â€œYou know your way around a metaphor.â€
â€œNo.â€Â Mal shifted position and pulled his sleeve back over the band.Â â€œNo moreâ€™n they hated me.â€Â He looked Daniels directly in the eye.Â â€œIâ€™ll never forgive them that destroyed my home.Â Not ever.Â But I understand what was in their minds when they did it, anâ€™ I suppose that eases the hurt.â€
Daniels looked at Mal with deep respect.Â â€œMaybe thatâ€™s as good as civilization gets.â€
â€œWould it be too much to ask of you to have faith?â€ asked Daniels.Â â€œFaith that good does exist, and that this might yet turn out?â€
Something caught in Malâ€™s throat.Â â€œYes,â€ he whispered, fighting the feeling that he was being strangled.Â â€œI – donâ€™t believe in your world any more.â€ he stopped.Â It hurt too much, facing that part of him that no longer expected any one or any thing to come to the aid of right.
â€œWhat-â€ said Daniels in a voice as quiet as Malâ€™s.Â
â€œThe one where everything works out shiny in the end.â€Â Malâ€™s words were harsh and clipped.
â€œAnd youâ€™re that certain you have in fact reached the end?â€ queried Daniels.Â It was more an observation than a question, and it caused Mal to look at him with thought, if not agreement.
Daniels extended a small, folded slip of paper in an obvious decision to change the subject.Â Mal opened it curiously; handwritten was a brief message.Â “Thank you for your complaint.Â Please enjoy the complimentary strawberries and champagne while we endeavor to improve our levels of prisoner service.Â The Management.”
Mal grinned and showed it to Daniels.Â “Where’s my champagne?”
“In an effort to be not so soddingly nice, I drank it.Â Ate your strawberries, too,” said Daniels.
There was a storm forming, but for the time being the weather outside was acceptable enough.Â Â Mal ignored the chill and watched a distant bank of clouds slowly approach and color the blue winter sky with shades of gray and dark, inky blue.Â Inch by inch, they crept up on the sun and made their move in a flash, blocking out the bright light and replacing it with solemn gray.Â A sense of quiet fell over the yards, and a light wind began to blow.
Walking to the back of the building in advance of the storm, Mal asked for permission to join the miserable young man lying on the ground next to the wall.Â He was keenly sympathetic to Cody Pattonâ€™s unwillingness to go inside and face the others.Â When a body wanted to disappear, last thing he needed was prying company.
Man deliberately interpreted Codyâ€™s silence as acquiescence and sat, leaning against the wall.Â â€œYaâ€™ know â€“ folk can overlook a lot when they like and trust a person.Â Even murder.â€
Codyâ€™s eyes opened, the unexpected words creating a small breach in his shell.Â â€œYeah?â€
Mal nodded.Â â€œAmazing what a man can come to terms with.â€Â He looked very directly at Cody.Â â€œStarts with trust.Â Man has a hard time liking a soul he doesnâ€™t trust, but once he does, heâ€™s liable to walk through fire for you.â€
Cody sat up and leaned against the rough-hewn wall of the housing unit next to Mal, wiping his eyes.Â They were bleary and red from tears, a fact he obviously wished he could hide.Â â€œNobody trusts me,â€ he whispered.Â
Mal studied him for a long time before speaking.Â â€œI trust you.â€Â Fresh tears appeared in Codyâ€™s eyes, and he struggled with his emotions.Â â€œPeople fear the unknown,â€ said Mal, his manner gentle.Â â€œAnd to the boys in there, youâ€™re a whole bundle of unknown.Â The way your mind works, your injuries, murders, mysterious disappearances â€“ lot there for a man to suspect.Â You want people to stand by you?â€
â€œMore than anything,â€ said Cody.Â His expression begged Mal to listen and understand.Â â€œIâ€™m â€“ okay with where I am.Â Even getting beat up.Â I just â€“ would like a friend.â€Â
Mal sighed.Â â€œPoint is, folk arenâ€™t gonna trust you â€˜less you talk to them.Â Itâ€™s quite a leap of faith even for me, sayinâ€™ I trust a man who gets hauled off by the enemy for hours anâ€™ wonâ€™t talk about why or where heâ€™s been.â€
Cody didnâ€™t physically turn away from Mal, but his whole being shrank in recoil, and his eyes went blank.Â He shook his head, and kept shaking it almost obsessively.Â â€œNo.Â No.Â No,â€ he whispered.Â â€œNo.Â I canâ€™t.Â I canâ€™t.â€
â€œWhat canâ€™t you do?â€ asked Mal, keeping his own voice soft.Â
With great difficulty, Cody regained control over himself and answered.Â â€œTalk about it â€“ do â€“ I canâ€™t.â€
Mal remembered Washâ€™s concerned questioning in the dawn of their friendship, and his own myriad reasons for refusing to answer.Â â€œOkay.â€Â He waited for his acceptance to sink in.Â After Cody relaxed in relief, he spoke again.Â â€œIâ€™ll leave you be.Â No need to punish yourself, kiddo.Â â€˜Verse seems to be taking care of that on its own.â€Â
Mal walked inside and lay down on his bunk, feeling a twinge of Codyâ€™s loneliness his own self.Â He was surrounded by the chatter and laughter of a dozen friendly soldiers; if he hadnâ€™t grown accustomed long ago to the intimacy of the trenches the utter lack of privacy might have driven him off the deep end.Â Yet despite Simms quietly reading a book on the bunk above his head, the noisy card game taking place at the table, and the laughter of four infantrymen mocking an assortment of former superior officers, Mal felt alone in the room.
Wasnâ€™t that he wanted friends in particular, not new ones.Â Missed the ones he had.Â He thought about Zoe digging him out of rubble that had seen fit to collapse on his head, and the long hours she lay at his side while they waited for a medic, talking as the world intermittently blew up around them. They eventually found themselves laughing hysterically at jokes only people in a delirious state would find amusing.Â Sheâ€™d been jealous that he got to ride in a helicopter.
Mal rolled over on his side and caught himself grinning.Â Get yourself bashed upside the head by a brick wall anâ€™ Iâ€™ll see you get a free helicopter ride too, he remembered promising her.
He thought about her in one of these little buildings somewhere off across the acres of fences and tangled human lives, and wondered if she had friends, or if she was waiting soberly in that shell of hers for it all to be over.Â He thought about Wash, out exploring the stars and the changed landscape of their â€˜verse.Â What did it look like?Â What sort of a world was out there for a funny, sweet-natured guy who had grown up in a prison and still loved people?
He thought about his old housing unit and its quieter facsimile of a family.Â Of lying on a bunk covered in blankets and draped with a haze of drugs, at peace in the wake of a nightmare.Â Of the unwavering caring of his companions, and the relief of surrender and trust.Â Maybe that was what he was missing.Â Trust.Â Not the kind of trust he had now, which consisted of the fair certainty that none of these boys would kill him in his sleep.Â No, the kind of trust that came from knowing that a person simply cared.
His eyes drifted over to the card game.Â They liked him.Â The friendly smiles, the jokes, the growing respect in their eyes â€“ they were well on their way to accepting him as a leader and friend.Â Even Cole was beginning to look him in the eye again.Â But they werenâ€™t his friends.Â Could be easily enough, but it felt simpler to lie alone in the room.Â He supposed as time wore on, friendship would be inevitable.
Mal closed his eyes, growing sleepy.Â He let the voices turn into the chatter of the ranch hands outside around the fire, beer and anecdotes keeping them awake as he drifted off in his bed with the one wobbly leg that creaked when he moved.Â There wasnâ€™t much softer or more comforting than the warm blankets surrounding him at the end of a tiring day, or more relaxing than the background of friendly voices and the musty, woodsy smell of his bedroom.
Wasnâ€™t often he thought about home these days â€“ too painful, but right now it didnâ€™t hurt.Â Right now it was love, and comfort, and that elusive trust that had been so unwavering in his young self.Â He wondered if a home like that was something heâ€™d be able to have again.Â Would any place on any planet be that safe and solid, or would he just be waiting with his gut in a knot for the day it would be destroyed in an instant?
Iâ€™m going to do it.
His own sudden wash of conviction startled him. Iâ€™m going to love something in this world again.Â Just try to take that from me.Â
He was outside when they came for him, trying to catch a few moments of peace and sanity.Â Last thing he wanted was Khiloh’s voice ordering him over to the gate, the cover officer behind him telling him he was going somewhere.
Being handcuffed felt even worse than usual; the metal was icy cold against his skin and he shuddered, managing not to pull away.Â The snowstorm that had moved in the night before had yet to hit in earnest; it was flirting with the gray landscape by means of biting gusts of wind, hail, rain, and the occasional snow flurry.
“I’m sorry,” said Khiloh.Â He meant it sincerely.Â Mal remained silent.Â What was he going to say?Â It’s okay?Â It wasn’t okay, but short of adding more guilt to Khiloh’s burden he chose to shut the hell up.Â If he were in the guard’s position, he’d hate himself for doing this to a prisoner he liked.
Freezing rain stated to fall, wind driving against his face and neck, against any unprotected skin. He put his head down to block against it, instinctively trying to pull his hands forward to wipe at his face.Â When that failed he simply closed his eyes.Â Khiloh had his arm and was leading him forward, and Mal tried to prevail on himself to care about anything enough to open them again.
Curiosity finally grew strong enough, and he recognized the destination.Â Across the icy grass, his view of it obscured by a billowing wave of sleet, was the administration building.Â Mal looked at Khiloh with an unspoken question.Â Lee?
Khilohâ€™s face was set hard against wind, ice, and worry.Â Yes.Â He gripped Malâ€™s arm more tightly, as if to reassure them both.
The clerk at the entrance to the building was well prepared with a stack of dry towels, and the two guards dried themselves and Mal off the best they could.Â Mal wasnâ€™t sure whether he should be embarrassed, amused, or indignant.Â â€œSo this is what dogs feel like when you give â€˜em a bath,â€ he commented, locking eyes with the cover officer who was trying to dry his hair with a towel.Â The man winced in embarrassment, and the three of them were silent for the elevator ride to the top floor.
Lee greeted him with a quiet nod, and spoke to Khiloh.Â “Take the handcuffs off, please, and you can wait in the office next door.Â Itâ€™s warm.â€
When the guard had departed, Lee stood, approaching Mal with a simple tan envelope in his hand.Â “How are you, son?â€Â
Mal removed his soaked jacket and placed it carefully on the peg of a wooden coat rack.Â â€œI suppose that depends on why Iâ€™m here, sir.â€