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Five By Five, Sister

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This story is No. 4 in the series "Sidle Up and Smile". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Mal was her son, all right: oddly perceptive at the most inconvenient times, and obstinately blind when he didn't care to see what was in front of him. (Ancient Slayers 'verse).

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Firefly > General(Current Donor)jedibuttercupFR1357,786105521,1884 Aug 101 Sep 13Yes

Breath and Shadow

Title: Breath and Shadow

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.

Summary: B:tVS/Firefly. Mal was her son, all right: oddly perceptive at the most inconvenient times, and obstinately blind when he didn't care to see what was in front of him. 2300 words.

Spoilers: Firefly; "Serenity" (2005); the last seasons of Buffy & Angel.

Notes: Buffy's POV, next scene after "Long-Delayed Reunion" and "What Separates Heroes". Title's from a Sophocles quote. Chinese translations at the bottom.



Xiăochén Williams breathed deeply as she strode through shadowed streets, leaving the noisy, smoke-hazed atmosphere of the Maidenhead behind her. Mal was the first child she'd raised to adulthood since Dawn; the first of her kids to ever discover even a fraction of who she really was. It stung to hear the note of betrayed accusation in his voice, but she knew she deserved it.

Buffy Summers had been a well-honed blade by the time Earth had fallen to the demons, all softness bled from her spirit, and she'd never really managed to recover. More like, never really tried to; after five hundred years, she'd learned to admit her own weaknesses. The less exposed she was, fewer ties she had, the lower her risk of taking hurt; but she also craved the warmth of passion, hoping to find that one who could relight in her the fire that had been quenched so long ago in a sacrificial grave.

It hadn't worked with Spike, nor Angel when they'd met again after Sunnydale, nor any man since. She'd never been able to stop trying, though; a creature of habit to the last. Both of the so-called Ancient Slayers were, actually; Buffy blamed it on the huntress' instincts they'd inherited from Sineya. It was just that Faith had made peace with her own drives long before the Awakening froze the maturity of every Slayer Called in Sunnydale during that last chaotic battle.

None of the veterans of the fight against the First under the Seal had died naturally. And those already Called... after a while, Buffy and Faith had discovered they couldn't die unnaturally, either. Willow had claimed they were doubly blessed. Buffy'd never had the heart to tell her how wrong she was.

She shook her head as she walked past the first row of ships at the local noncommercial docks. Fortunately, the side-effects had been magical only, not genetic; she was no X-Woman, and none of her children had been any more gifted than the first Slayer's child she'd ever met: the last principal of Hellmouth High. Except for the fact that she'd had them at all. Buffy had believed herself sterile after the many abdominal wounds she'd taken over the years and the radiation exposure she'd suffered during the last war before the Migration, and hadn't really mourned what she'd assumed she would never have. But her augmented Slayer healing could overcome any damage, apparently, if given enough time; and one day she'd woken on a generation ship to a tiny flutter of movement stirring beneath her heart.

For the first few years, she'd been too caught up in the novelty of it to look for the catch; she'd actually believed the Powers had decided to let her go, that she was finally getting a chance to live the life destiny had repeatedly denied her. But the delusion hadn't been destined to last. As much time as they spent in closed quarters on their tightly packed colony vessel, her partner had been bound to eventually buy a clue. Unfortunately, he'd told the wrong person what he'd seen – and that had been the end of that life.

Her personal hatred of the Alliance sprang from very deep roots.

Ever since, she'd left her children behind before they were old enough to remember; had dumped any significant other who'd started asking perceptive questions. They were all much safer that way. The Alliance never found out who she really was; the Council learned not to look too hard when she changed her name and dropped off the Cortex; and if she never exactly made it all the way up the scale to happiness any more... well, she did manage contentment sometimes. And there'd been more of that on Shadow than she'd found in a long while.

Most of her babies grew up fine and strong without her, her primary contribution thinning the demon presence on the worlds of their birth or the occasional anonymous donation. Most even found causes and territories of their own to defend, later. Mal and his one half-sister to survive the war were no exception – though she doubted he'd see it quite that way; she'd heard about his visits to Whitefall. And her further descendants... she didn't track them all, and they weren't all good people, but they all left their mark one way or another.

That was one reason why she hadn't stopped having them; permanent contraceptives weren't possible for her, but the 'verse hadn't forgotten condoms. She was a destroyer of worlds, not a builder – but there was some of Dawn and Joyce in each of her children, too. They could do and be things she and her sister had never lived to accomplish – every one held endless potential.

Yes, and opportunities for vicarious living, too. Maybe that was selfish of her, but it kept her feet moving. And as bad as things got sometimes, she'd never been one to lay herself down willing.

These last thirty years had upset all her patterns, though. Buffy slowed as she walked by a slip hosting a vessel with a familiar profile, and was reminded instantly of the fork in the road that had set the worlds turning for her again. She looked up at the worn doors closing off the aging ship's cargo bay, the engines standing up like errant elbows above, the arching silver sweep of its neck, and felt her heart catch in her throat. It was newer than the Jīngwèi – the mid-bulk transport of the same class his father had piloted – but still older than most boats that plied the 'verse these days, well-tended. Píngjìng, its insignia read. Of course Mal had chosen a Firefly.

She was still standing there, moments later, when the familiar tread of bootsteps caught up to her. "You wouldn't remember it," she said calmly as the sounds ceased behind her, "but I met your father on a boat a lot like this one. I saw Shadow for the first time from the bridge of a Firefly."

She could hear Mal's startlement in the shift of his stance and sudden intake of breath. "But I thought..." he said, then paused, weighing his words. "You told me our family'd built that ranch more'n twenty years before I was born."

Buffy smiled, slightly. "We did," she said, simply. "Faith did, actually. She went out first with our stake; put both our names on the deed. It just... took me a while to follow her out there."

She'd been a little busy with an outbreak of vampirism on Newhall when Faith had first 'waved her with news. Few vamps had escaped the well of Sol's gravity; those that did had mostly gone to ground, masquerading as men on outer worlds where the radiation of humanity's new suns was too weak for them to burn. They drained few, and turned fewer; only the smartest had made the long trip to the colonies undiscovered. But every once in awhile one of them went crazy or misjudged a new childe. And once she'd finished dealing with that mess, and the Alliance Operatives who'd come in to muddy the aftermath...

Every once in a while, she went a little crazy, too.

"Didn't mind waiting," Faith said, her voice at Mal's side. "You've done it for me, a time or two."

Her son swallowed audibly. "At the risk of askin' another delicate question..." he said, warily.

Buffy hugged her arms more tightly around herself, still looking up at fresh paint laid over deep grooves in the hull, the slightly mismatched engine arms, and the signs of wear on the grating of the lowered docking ramp. "Ship like this, be with you 'til the day you die, he told me," she said, remembering their first meeting like it had been the day before. "Wish he'd stayed with it. Maybe then he wouldn't have."

"What?" Mal replied, startled. "Man who sold me Serenity said much the same thing. Not about her, but I guess it's a common sentiment for the spacefarin' type. I didn't know Pa was, though. What was he doin' on a Firefly?"

She sighed. "Piloting. He stopped when you were two; his captain didn't want to let him go, but Gideon wanted to be there for us, more than the day in every ten they spent on-world. He sold his share for a herd; helped build the ranch back up after a string of hard seasons." She turned then to look at him, at the marks of wear life had left on him: scars visible, invisible, and worn over his shoulders like a shroud.

"Was it really a horse what killed him?" he asked unexpectedly, a frown wrinkling his brow.

"Why do you ask?" she frowned back.

"You stayed," he pointed out. "These other kids of your'n I ain't never heard of before..."

She shook her head. He was her son, all right: oddly perceptive at the most inconvenient times, and obstinately blind when he didn't care to see what was in front of him. "No; there was nothing suspicious about it. I just – I don't know. I guess I'd finally found a place where I felt I belonged. And Gideon didn't have any extended family; it was just me and Fay. You needed me."

He clenched his jaw as he processed what she'd said. "Xīniú Alliance. I thought you'd died a hero. Guĭ, I thought you'd died! But this... this thing where you look younger than you got any right to be." He gestured vaguely toward her face. "That's part of why you never told me. Ain't it. How old are you, Mother?"

She smiled wryly at him. "Old enough to know nothing good ever comes of answering that question," she said. "Old enough I don't want to tell you how old your sister is, either. Or how many nieces and great-nephews you have running around."

"Sister?" he replied, blinking a little as the concept derailed whatever he'd meant to say next. "Nieces? Great-nephews?"

"And great, great, great, great, great.... I think. Somewhere over on Osiris?" She tilted her head at him, blinking innocently.

Faith choked in amusement as he gaped at her. "Way to break the news, B," she said.

"I try," Buffy replied, nodding to her Slayer sister.

Mal shook his head, raising a hand to rub at his forehead. "Wŏ zài qiánshì yīdìng rĕdào shénme rén le ba," he muttered.

In a past life... She swallowed. There had been a faint kernel of doubt haunting her ever since his face grew into his adult features. Caleb's features. She'd never been sure if the First had followed humanity to the stars, and the Bible-clutching phase he'd gone through as a teenager had kept her awake at night more than once. Her first Watcher had told her that she'd been reincarnated. What if he had, too?

Faith threw her a sharp look; they'd had this argument before, and Faith knew Buffy understood more Mandarin than she pretended to. She thought Buffy was imagining things; that there was no point in weighing Mal down with their history with a certain possessed priest.

The thing was, the thing Faith didn't get, was that Buffy didn't care; it wouldn't change the fact that Malcolm Reynolds was her son. She just needed to know what she was up against. Though, weathered as he was by what he'd been through, she was less worried now than when he'd gone to war. He took more after her now than he had at twenty: youthful optimism and patriotism burnt away to reveal an unshakable steel foundation; friends gathered around him whose bonds ran deeper than blood. And he still retained many of the best things she remembered about Gideon, too: deeply feeling, earnest enough to shift worlds with the force of his smile, and fully at home in the horses-and-lasers, steampunky culture of the Black. And she'd always seen a little of Dawn in him around the edges: in the colors of his hair and eyes, in his close-kept love for verse, and in his stubborn insistence on charting his own course.

"If your last life was anything like this one, I wouldn't be too surprised," she said dryly.

And hey, that was as good an explanation for her current life as any: that the Powers had been so annoyed at their Slayer for repeatedly dying at Lothos' hands that they'd decided to make sure she'd never leave a task unfinished again.

There was irony for you. Buffy had done nothing but when not hunting for nearly four hundred and fifty years. Until Gideon. Mal. And Shadow, burned out from under her while she waited for his return.

"I get no respect," Mal sighed theatrically, then walked up to the ship.

It had been easier, with the remnants of Elizabeth Reynolds' life destroyed around her, to pick her up her Council identity again and move on. She hadn't expected the two paths to cross again. But they had. And if the Council's assignment to watch over the likely touchpoint of the next revolution – and, in a subclause she hadn't mentioned even to Faith, investigate the rumors of a girl backing his actions with Slayer-like abilities – turned out to be the work of the Powers setting her up for something even nastier....

Kàn wŏmen zĕnme sĭ ba.

For better or for worse, she would be standing at his side when it came.

"Show us your Serenity," she told her son, calm resolve settling into her bones. "Show us your home. Then I'll sit down and tell you what I can. I don't promise you'll like hearing it, but I think you'll understand better than most why I've done what I've done."

"Fair enough." Troubled eyes met hers; then Mal nodded and opened the door.

-~-

Xiăochén - early morning (aka, Dawn)
Píngjìng - Serenity
Xīniú - Cow-sucking
Guĭ - Hell
Wŏ zài qiánshì yīdìng rĕdào shénme rén le ba - I surely annoyed someone or other in a past life, didn't I
Kàn wŏmen zĕnme sĭ ba - Let's watch how we die

-~-
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