During the height of the war, even in the middle of the long siege at Serenity Valley, there had been a boy. Declan, from a valley on a pastoral planet, he'd said, more used to following sheep through the surrounding hills than tracking Alliance soldiers through the mud.

Not a boy, really, although Mal hadn't been able to help thinking of him that way. He'd been in his early twenties, maybe, but his face had been uncommonly fresh. It had stayed that way, mostly, even when they were all ragged with sleep deprivation and days of hunger.

Two weeks into his tour, Declan had come to Mal, his eyes wide in a way inappropriate for a war zone. They had been dancing around it for a few days, in between battles and instructions and Mal's increasing worry that the war might not go so well after all. It had been a while. Mal was tense, Zoe was tenser, and Declan looked so absurdly clean and unfit for fighting. They'd looked at each other, Mal thinking of Declan wandering the hills after sheep, his expression vague and possibly foolishly dreamy.

Then he'd wondered at the the wisdom of the Independents sending out these kinds of recruits. Declan might be well above the minimum conscription age, but it didn't say much for their position, if the brass were picking these kinds of dreamers to send out.

Declan had smiled, a little shy, a little hopeful. Being weak, Mal had told Zoe to keep watch for a while, and walked with Declan away from the troops to his tent.

It had been good, Declan's mouth slick first against Mal's neck, then moving lower. His hair had been soft in Mal's hands, despite the slight build-up of grit. They were none too clean then, none of them, and it would just get worse.

After, Mal had returned the favour, imagining he could taste the grass of Declan's home.


It went on like that, when they had time, when things got quiet. They'd meet in the tent, talk a little, then get down to business. Nothing fancy, nothing slow: they used the time they had the best they could.

When the company's position got blown and they all had to beat a hasty retreat, Mal's tent got left behind. After that, he and Declan met where ever they could, using any small space like it was their own. The troops started to thin, the survivors getting closer. After a few more attacks, he and Declan weren't the only ones using the false cover of darkness for a little company. It meant a break from the forced marches as the Alliance somehow kept finding their weaknesses and pushing them back.

Things got worse, first the food running out, then the water getting low. They all resorted to things none of them would want to remember. And Declan kept coming, touching him, talking to him, listening to Mal, Zoe and the lieutenant talking weaknesses, strategies, troop numbers and orders. His lips became cracked, losing some of their softness. Sometimes he brought food, real food, passing it over and telling Mal to eat. Mal never did ask where he got it, not really wanting to know. He just swallowed it down, not before putting some aside for Zoe.

Soon they were little more than a handful, all of them skating the edge and knowing it. Mal would lie awake on the rare nights without fighting, and think about the Independent ships, wondering when they'd come, like angels falling out of the sky. He'd lie there on his back, belly rumbling, watching the stars. Sometimes, if he wasn't on watch or patrol, Declan would make his way carefully over, and wear Mal out enough that he would finally be able to get a few hours sleep.

It was just two days before the Alliance ships landed that Declan went out and didn't come back. He'd gone out for food, hoping to meet up with another company who might have a decent cache of supplies. Privately, Mal had doubted any were in better shape, but he'd nodded his assent, and told him to come back. Then he'd turned back to their lieutenant, ready to continue talking strategies.

He hadn't slept that night, nor the next. In retrospect, he supposed it partly accounted for his behaviour when things got right down to the wire, the way he played it fast and loose with what remained of the troops. Maybe not though, them all being more than a little crazy by that point.

It was a waste of time wondering what had gotten Declan -- rifle, mine, soldiers gone so wild they could be likened to Reavers -- so Mal didn't. Such thoughts were no use, just harm.

He's thought of Declan a few times since, when he and Zoe remember the worst of the war and get a little too drunk for anyone's comfort -- especially Wash's. He can't quite remember the name of the kid's planet, although he's not sure if he ever knew. Sometimes he does remember cracked lips and gritty hair, but not too often. It's not worth it, any of it.

There are other things, things in the now, to dwell on.

It's been less than a day since they got themselves free of the Alliance interrogation, and he still can't quite believe they got away with it. He figures if the commander had been worth anything, he would have thought to check the outside of the ship, but the Alliance has become sloppy in its position of power. It didn't take long for them to become complacent. Still, he can't fault it, what with the doctor and his sister not being found.

He feels out of sorts though, and he can't place why.

Later, he's trying to sleep when the image resolves in his head. Declan with a few lines on his face, the softness of youth and a healthy upbringing having hardened with time. It's an older Declan in an ugly uniform, one with a more severe haircut and a back so straight Alliance regs must be shoved right up his ass.

He should have seen it sooner, but he'd been so preoccupied. He figures the Alliance commander recognised him right off. If not, all those questions would have triggered the memory.

He can't figure out why Zoe hasn't said anything. She's sure to have made the connection, not that she ever got that up close and personal with Declan. She'll probably say something or not, depending on how she sizes up his mood.

Since the war, he's heard stories of Alliance spies who were sent in the hundreds to infiltrate all the Independent companies, living wiretaps to the movements on the ground. The stories haven't seemed plausible until now.

He wonders if he was always the target for spying, or if Declan had gone in cold and judged him the best mark, somehow easier than the lieutenant or Zoe. He figures it was probably the latter, him never being high enough up to be an outright target.

Did the man get his commission because of his work in the war? Do the brass know how Harken got the info on the Independent troop movements and orders?  The Alliance is so tight-assed that Mal figures no, it wouldn't do much good for Harken to tell the high-ups how for months he sucked off a browncoat sergeant for intel.

He wonders how it was that the man had managed to look so young; if Declan is really his given name.  He doubts it. Declan Harken sounds off.

Abruptly, Mal feels sick.

Pairing: Mal/m
Rating: R
Spoilers: Serenity, Bushwacked
Disclaimers: Not my characters
Summary: Mal and war.

Notes:  Quite a while ago, Eli sent me email which mentioned the possibility of the pairing in this story. I won't say what the pairing is, so as not to spoil the story, but I do want to give her credit. I would not have thought of this pairing had she not initially brought it up.

Stacey did a super-fast, excellent beta of this story. Thanks, babe!

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