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Nightly Ritual

By Phantasmal


Chapter 1

Stars had just begun to scatter across the darkening sky and the evening ritual began again. First the sound of a limping shuffle on unpolished wood, then the creak of a door long in need of oil. Sand scoured heedlessly against the ramshackle deck as the owner of the lonely house finally made it to the simple bench and sat.

Scanning the empty desert from pure force of habit Mal then turned his eyes to the crystal clear stars. The years had not been kind to the captain of Serenity but he was all but unaware of his sunken features and haunted eyes. Even though his gaze was fixed upon the night sky above him, Mal was staring into the past as he did every time the sun set.

The years, tears, fears and laughter of the time on Serenity streamed through his mind in an instant, all the good times and the bad gone in a blink. And what was left? Just the things he didn't want to remember, the things he could never ever forget. A shimmer blurred the reflection of the stars in eyes still as blue as the midday sky.

Things were in motion long before, but seeing the Shepherd and his family slaughtered on my account, what else could I do? Ta na mei guan xi, but that never stopped that hun dan. Took me too long to figure we was humped from the moment that Operative was set on us, and me being thick as a gu yang got Book killed. Hell not just Book, everyone he watched over. There weren't nothing else I could do but go on to Miranda. Couldn't let the preacher die for nothing could I?

Second was Wash. That damn-fool crew of mine following their captain on to 'take down the Alliance'. Yeah gorram right. Sure that ruttin' log was awful compelling and all, and sure we got it out on the wave for everyone to see... But what good did that do in the long run anyhow. The Alliance went running scared for a few months, but it didn't take long for them to throw some spin on it and make up for lost ground. And us? It lost us our pilot. Gorram Wash and his floating like a leaf... Why couldn't he have dodged like something that can dodge?

It didn't take long for Zoe, no matter how strong she pretended to be after. That pian zhi de woman, the first job we had on a border planet instead of tacklin' me out the way like she had a thousand times before, she just stepped in front of the bullet. Lao tian ye, I can still see the look on her face as she died without a word. She never even looked at me, just past me to something else.

Things really started goin' to hell after that and we was caught in a huge Reaver invasion. They ripped through the planets on the rim like they was nothin' and they made it as far as Santo before the Alliance got their collective heads out of their pi gu enough to fight back. I know that 'Nara were on Persephone when the go se hit the fan, and I saw the pictures that came out on the official wave once the Alliance zang hou appeared to 'save the day'. Weren't no way a beautiful Companion would have survived that, hell, they probably went for the Companion Houses first. I don't want to be thinkin' about that though.

We were out on the edge of the rim, worst place to be, and managed to get as far in as Highgate before we was blown out of the black. I won't ever be forgetting Highgate, sometimes I scream about it in my dreams.

We hit hard and something exploded in the engine room. When I could see straight enough to walk I staggered down towards the rear and tripped over Kaylee who musta been thrown out by the explosion. Her arm, lao tian bu, there weren't nothin' left but a raggedy stump and a twist of bone shinin'; not even the doc could've fixed her. Funny how she smiled at me as she breathed her last. Weren't nothin' that could wipe that girl's smile, not even death.

For a while I wondered why the doc didn't come running when the banging and blasting happened around his Kaylee, but didn't take me long to realize that the moment we stopped moving we was infested by the gorram Reavers. I don't even know for sure how but River had been crushed by the walls of her bunk room, it looked gorram-near imploded. I got there just in time to see him, Simon, kneeling on the floor bloody to the elbows trying to dig her out. The Reavers came round the corridor then and I nearly messed my breeches when Jayne grabbed me and muscled me behind some boxes in the cargo bay, still could hear the good doctor's screams though. I think maybe half the planet could've heard him screaming.

Me 'n Jayne could hear the sounds of the Reavers but we had a few seconds before they were finished with the doc. I couldn't pray for them to take their time though, wouldn't wish that on nobody. I guess I still weren't thinking straight which is how Jayne managed to do what he did. Makin' sure there wasn't no one watching he all but picked me up and frog-marched me off towards the shuttle that weren't smashed to smithereens. I couldn't hear the doctor's screams no more and the Reavers were comin' for us, but Jayne just stood there with that gorram Vera of his and held those hun dan off until I was safe at the shuttle.

Burned into my brain the last sight of Jayne gorram Cobb. He took out maybe fifteen Reavers before looking me in the eye and blowin' his own brains out. He always were mortal feared of ending up some Reaver's appetizer. Fengkuang de hun dan, I wouldn'ta made it out of there if he didn't buy me the time. Haunts me though, to think maybe we could'a both... Cao! Ain't no use thinkin' it now.

So that leaves just Mal, just me in a broken shuttle. Don't know how I made it Shadow but that's where I am so I musta done. Didn't think no one could live here no more, but through sheer luck I hit one of the pockets of terraform that the Alliance didn't blow to diyu after the war. Even an old ranch house mostly standing that I patched up with what I could find.

And that's it. I got no way off this rock and I ain't sure I'd have anyplace to go if I got back out in the black. About everyone I ever gave a good gorram about is rotting in an unmarked grave or ended like a yi dui rou in a Reaver's gut. I ain't who I was no more and I don't think I got the heart to be nobody else.

A single tear he couldn't stop dropped down Mal’s weather-beaten cheek completing the ritual for another night. It was full dark now and the stars twinkled overhead, mocking him and everything he had lost. Wordlessly Mal dragged himself to his feet and retreated from the 'Verse for another night. Since Highgate he had ceased to live and was simply drifting through existence waiting for death to take him. After the war he thought he had known hopelessness, but it was nothing compared to this hell.

The bed creaked as he lay down not even bothering to pull the blankets over him. Silence enclosed the decaying house and the desert wind blew unaccompanied until the screaming once again shattered the night. 

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