I was 'pawed', we all were...

An hour after we left the bazzar, the change of atmosphere was being felt by all in the crew. Kaylee was the first to pick up on it, noticing Jayne leave the room when I walked in, and muttering profanities as he went.
I waited until I could get a chance to speak to Mal in private, and told him that we needed to talk. He looked at me, then walked over to the panel next to the hatch in the kitchen.
“This is the Captain. All crew come to the kitchen, now!”
He turned and stared at me, his face blank.
“…anythin’ you  need to say to me, that’ll affect me an’ my ship, you say it in front of everyone…”

Soon, the entire crew were once again sat around the table, and again, all eyes were on me. The only ones that were friendly are River’s.

“I’m aware that there’re some questions you have about me Mal. Instead of listenin’ to rumours, I’ve decided to tell you what you want to hear, straight from the horses mouth.”

I sensed some unease coming from Kaylee, but from Jayne there was nothing but un-censored hostility.

“I’m listenin’.”

A deep breath, and I started to tell the story of ’me’.

“I told you I left home as soon as I could. Well, I did. About a year after David was killed, before I’d turned 16, I left. Didn’t join a ship though. Travelled to Greenleaf, lied about my age and signed up to The Independents. Flight school. Within a year I was flyin’ combat missions on Boros in the winter an' spring campaigns. I flew a lot of combat, from gunship to troop-transport. When my tour ended, I opted for a second tour, in the ‘Night-Stalkers’…”
I heared a gasp from Wash as he recognised the name of the elite unit that served the Independent Special Forces Brigade.
“…6 months into my second tour, I was award a commendation for valour, for riskin’ my neck to save grunts of a cut off Spec-For‘ unit. My C.O. told me that I was being given a choice to retrain if I wanted, the Lieutenant in charge of the group I rescued, had recommended me for Special Forces trainin‘. I was 17 an‘ a few months, an' I went through the trainin’ with an eagerness that amazed the instructors. By the time I was 18, I was already a veteran of some of the hardest fightin’ so far seen. Two weeks before my 19th birthday, I was told I was bein’ selected for ‘The Wolfpack’…”
Jayne’s chair crashed to the deck as he jumped to his feet, making everyone flinch.
JIEN TAH DUH GUAY!! You lyin’ sack of turd! They never existed! They were made up to try an' put the frighteners on the Alliance troops!”
The tone of Mal’s voice instantly told Jayne he needed to obey. As he picked up his chair, it was Kaylee who asked me to explain just what had gotten Jayne so hot under the collar.
“Taylor? Who were ‘The Wolfpack’?”

I sighed, and explained.

“We were a unit that didn’t officially exist. We wore no unit badge, no rank tabs, and were outside the regular chain of command. Each member was a highly trained field operative. We were the ‘elite of the elite’. Your contacts wont find my military records Mal, they were deleted when I became a 'pack' member. I carried out solo contact missions as far into the core worlds as Londinium an’ Bernadette. If a job needed doin’ without leavin’ any trace, or if an ‘accident’ needed to happen, then the ‘pack' was where you’d find the person with the right skills for that job. You know, I once sat at the same table as General Kwan, an' played cards with Bernadette Sheridan-Hale. Anways, that aint what Mal nor Zoe wana hear, is it?”

At the mention of the Alliance General who had been the catalyst for the Alliance victory, and also the commander in charge of the Alliance troops at Du Khang, both Mal and Zoe had taken sharp intakes of breath and looked like they were reliving memories they wished to forget.

“You said to Jayne, Mal, that your unit were the only Independents force in The plain of Reeds. That’s not quite true, is it?”
“…you better choose your next words carefully Roberts, I lost a lot of good friends in that fight…”
“SO DID I! Tell me Mal, if you’re who I think you are, what does ‘Cougar 15’ mean to you?!”

The look of shock on Zoe’s face, and the way that Mal slumped back in his chair, told me that I was right.

Lao tyen! It’s not possible! You cant be him! He died! We watched his position get overrun, there were no survivors!”

Wash spun in his seat to look at Zoe. It could be that it was the first time he had ever heard her with such a tone in her voice. Was it panic? Horror? Disbelief?!

“Baby? What’s going on? Who was Cougar 15?”

Mal finally spoke, and as he did, I could see it as clear as yesterday in my mind.

“Cougar 15 was the call-sign of the miracle that saved our Company in The Plain of Reeds. We’d dug a position on a small hill in the middle of one of the shallow valleys, an’ we only realized we were surrounded by Alliance when our communications were blocked before the first attack. We held out for 3 days, but by the evenin’ of the 4th, we knew we’d last maybe one or two more attacks at best. Then, on a short wave radio net’ came his voice. He told us he was part of a unit that was advancin’ to us from the north, an’ that if we could hold out for another hour, his unit would begin an assault to take pressure off us. An hour later, what sounded like all hell breakin’ loose was heard on the other side of the valley, an’ in the dark we watched the mother of all fire-fights. We held on for another 2 days thanks to him, long enough for a relief force to get through to us. That last evening‘, he told us that his unit were down to 10 men, but that they were gonna act as a diversion to allow the relief force to break through to us from the south. They had 10 men, against maybe a hundred or more. We listened on the radio ‘til it got cut off, then we watched as wave after wave swarmed up the side of the valley, ‘til the firin’ stopped. In the mornin‘, the relief force made it through, the Alliance pulled back off The Plain, an’ we went to look for survivors. For 3 days, we’d listened to what sounded like a hundred men fightin’ a pitched battle, but all we found were ‘bout 30 bodies in uniforms without any unit marking, surrounded by hundreds of dead Alliance. There’d been hand to hand fightin’ in the worst possible way.
Maybe ‘bout 30 troopers’d fought an Alliance Battalion to a standstill, an’ not one of ‘em had so much as an identity tag. We never knew who they were. When we reported it, there was no record of any other Independent unit supposed to have been in the area. It was like they had appeared out of thin air. The only thing that there was to identify them, was a tattoo, on the inside of their forearms, of…”

I didn't let him finish. Instead, I rolled up my right sleeve, and unlaced the leather cuff that I wore. Everybody leant forward, to see the tattoo that I hadn't shown anyone since the end of the War.

“It was our unofficial badge. A Wolf’s paw mark. We all had them. When we completed our trainin‘, it was tradition that we'd get ‘pawed’ before joinin’ our squad.”

There was silence around the table. Jayne and Wash looked like they were in shock, both Mal and Zoe looked like they had seen a ghost. Kaylee was silently crying, Simon sat there with his mouth open. River, I found to my surprise, was holding my hand. It's Shepherd Book who managed to say something first.

“Son, Zoe had said that your position appeared to have been overrun and there had been no survivors. If that is the case, then how do you explain your sitting here now?”

“I got hit, an' knocked out when the final attack came in. When I went down, I think there were 3 others still fightin‘. When I came to, it was almost dawn. I checked the others, but they were all dead. I acted on instinct an' trainin', an' headed out of the immediate area. Later that afternoon, I made it to a forward position dressed in a uniform I took off one of our dead, an' that’s when I met Monty for the first time. He was the one that took me to a first aid post. By the time I recovered from my wounds, the war was over.”

Mal stood, and leant on the table. He looked like he was trying his hardest to find the right words.

“Before we lost the radio link, before that final attack, me, Zoe an' Cougar 15'd had a conversation. If you’re really him, what was it?”

I looked at Mal, then Zoe. I couldn't help but laugh, remembering it.

“Well Mal, you aint brought the steaks, an' Zoe, as you’re a married woman now, I doubt I’d be allowed to take you dancin’ like I promised. As for the bathtub of beer that I was supposed to bring to the party, I could stretch to a few bottles, if that’d be ok?”

A smile broke out on the faces of both Mal and Zoe.

“So, am I finally to be trusted Mal? Or are you still plannin’ on shootin’ me?”

The End

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