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HEAVEN AND HELL: 14. "Puzzle Pieces"
Sunday, April 4, 2004

"Simon tries to fathom what Inara did to Malcolm while the two crews wait. River knows but the only one who can act on it isn't able to listen."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2026    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "PUZZLE PIECES" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: RIVER/MAL. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: New. SEQUEL to "DEATH OR GLORY" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: http://carlajane.50megs.com/Ali00.html

SUMMARY: "Simon tries to fathom what Inara did to Malcolm while the two crews wait. River knows but the only one who can act on it isn't able to listen." The usual disclaimers apply. The characters and 'Firefly' are the property and gift of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No infringement of copyright is intended.

"PUZZLE PIECES"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

"Should'a killed 'em when we had the chance." Muttered Jayne, face averted from the too raw twist of grief on the Captain's face, the abyss of sorrow and pain in his hollow eyes. The mercenary lingered just inside the doorway and watched the silent and strained tableau.

It was a moot point as to whether or not the Captain even heard him. His whole attention centered as it was on his brother. Face pale and anxious, eyes staring at the body laid out on the bed in the infirmary. Simon did not have to sedate Malcolm. The man was out cold and so far his examination was not encouraging. Zoe hovered behind the Captain, her eyes filled with worry and concern. The others had drifted off to the commons room on the insistance of the doctor and would wait there for news. The whole ship as subdued as mourners at a funeral only Malcolm wasn't dead. Not sure what he was but dead would have been something definite. Something they could grasp. This limbo was beyond them. River had tried to comfort the Captain but he had not reacted. Not shutting her out just unable to cope with any other emotion at the moment. She knew. Understood. Had kissed his cheek gently then followed a quietly weeping Kaylee to the commons area.

They were sitting round the big oak table now. No one even pretending to make a drink or act as if everything was normal. It wasn't. Wash made no jokes and River no creepifying pronoucements. Pepper looked as shocked and stunned as the rest of them felt. His men quiet and unnaturally still as if any unnecessary movement on their part would only make things worse. It was kind of comforting how naturally the two crews had meshed. A comfort that said they were among friends even if they did not yet know each other well. It was an instinctive thing. Realising there was nothing he could do in the infirmary Jayne went to the commons area, took one look at the little sea of subdued faces and could not hold back the anger raging and burning him up inside. His hands bunched into fists at his side. "Why we waitin'? We should go after them an'..."

"And what Jayne?" Said Wash lifting his head to make eye contact.

"Ask 'em what in *diyu* they did to the Cap's brother." He blurted out. Jayne would not call him Malcolm, not even now. In his head the name didn't fit. Perhaps never would no matter what the Captain said.

Without looking up from where she sat holding Kaylee's hand River spoke, her voice a low monotone. "The attack was too sudden, too swift. He had no warning and no defences."

"Defences?" Asked Pepper in a confused tone. He did not know what the gorram to make of the girl.

River looked up, eyes sad. Kaylee sniffed loudly and wiped a hand across her face. Not so much mopping up the tears but smearing them across her cheeks like a salty film. "They experimented on him."

Shocked, Wash's mouth hung open. Jayne tried to take in the import of what she was saying. Kaylee was crying again. Her tears silent but each one wrung from her gentle heart. "What kind'a experiments?" The mercenary asked, hands clenching in a vice like grip as if locking on bone and sinew. He was strong. Had a good grip. One tight squeeze and a neck could break. No resistence at all.

"Did to him what they did to me." She said in a dull voice, not really looking at any of them.

Jayne's eyes widened. "Ruttin' hell!"

Wash looked shocked. "*Wode tiana*!"

The girl fell silent. Her mind no longer on the conversation. If it ever had been. Wash felt a stab of concern. More unsettled than he wanted to admit.

"River? *Ni hao ma*?"

She did not respond. Kaylee looked at her friend and squeezed her hand. The loss of focus in the girl's eyes a reminder of how River had been before she had taken up with the Captain. As bizarre as that union had seemed it soon become obvious that the two were good for each other. Necessary some might say. The well being of the one depending on that of the other. Such an intimate symbiosis that it was as if they were two halves of one flesh, meant to be together. Looking at her now, Kaylee could not bear the thought of losing her friend to the madness that had previously ruled over her. It was as if only the proximity of the Captain could keep her sane. When River did not respond Wash found his mind drifting, mulling over all that had happened. Surprised that the girl had chosen to be with them in the commons area rather than stay with the Captain in the infirmary.

As if she had heard his every thought River turned her head and looked him straight in the eye. "One sorrow at a time."

Wash blinked. "*Shenme*?"

River's voice sounded sad. Lost almost. Already that bright flare of sudden focus was fading, her mind already seeming to drift away from him. "Not ready for the second sorrow."

All the air seemed to huff out of the pilot's lungs at once. Lenny Goss eyed River uneasily and was glad he was at the other end of the rutting table. Girl was downright unsettling. Pepper gave her a wary look then turned his head away as if dismissing her words as some crazy aberration. Jayne frowned. Kaylee stopped crying and prayed that Simon could save Malcolm Reynolds. If he died she could not bear to think what that would do to the Captain.

* * * * *

They moved swiftly once free of the ship. Book was deep in thought. His mind troubled though outwardly he appeared calm. The Companion's control was staggering but he expected no less from one of her emminence. Diamond Harry visibly reclaimed his confidence as soon as he raced down the ramp and placed his feet on terra firma. He turned to smirk back at the Shepherd. "Dead men walking every one."

Inara stopped in her tracks and Harry froze at the look on her face. Like a cloud darkening his horizon. Harry shut his fool mouth with a snap as the Companion uttered one word. "No."

Nodding dumbly, Harry did not dare speak again. For a moment the tension stretched until the air almost vibrated with the strain then Inara gave a slow smile, softening features that had hardened into granite. Book absorbed the nuances that Harry missed. "We didn't get the girl."

"Nor will we." Said Inara.

He raised his eyebrows in mild inquiry and waited.

"Time for the chameleon to change."

"Into what?" He asked calmly. Inside his heart was racing, flashing through possibilities and not much liking any of them. But he was committed. At least as much as she. They had different methods and his agenda had levels to it even a Companion such as she would never have access to. He was a Watcher. One of a select few who could go anywhere, do anything, and become whatever the Alliance needed him to be. Inara was not subject to the same constraints as he and her agenda was different as was her prey. Thus, around her he was wary. A necessary precaution to hold back the onset of a chaos they must not unleash. He would submit to her hegemony for now but only insofar as it did not detract from his higher purpose. She knew that as well as he. Yet Companions were adept at their games and he was all aware of how tempting it could be to continue such machinations into boundaries not set for them. He must remain alert. Vigilant. And while allowing her every courtesy and obedience not allow her to steer him from his one true course.

Instead of answering his question she made a pronouncement. Simple. Stark. "The Rebellion is dead."

He did not say anything. Had she not cut off the head of the snake? The body could not grow a new one but this he also knew: 'Do not dispise the snake for having no horns for who is to say that in time it cannot become a dragon? In the same way may one just man become an army.' The proverb lingered in his mind long after they had resumed their journey.

* * * * *

Simon was exhausted. The mental effort as tiring as the physical. He looked across at the Captain who was still standing by his brother's bedside, head dipped, eyes closed. One hand resting on his brother's. He could only imagine the strength of the emotions burning through his veins. The man looked dead on his feet. Simon straightened and ignored the aching stiffness in his joints and muscles. "Captain."

The Captain did not react straight away.

"Captain," Said the doctor in a quieter voice. "You need to rest."

He lifted his head, eyes opening to lock on his. "Can you fix this?"

The question could have had a number of meanings but Simon knew what he meant. He was not asking if he could stablise his brother's condition and they both knew it. Simon took a slow deep breath "*Wo bu zhidao*. It looks as if they were doing to your brother what they did to my sister."

The Captain's look sharpened but Simon rushed on before he could say anything.

"Whatever Inara did just pushed him over the edge."

For a second neither spoke. The Captain's voice came out a pained hush as if he had to sell his soul to afford the words. "Speak plain, doctor."

"It looks as if the work was left unfinished. Inara put the last piece in place."

"Meanin'?"

"I may not be able to help him, Captain."

"Not what I'm needin' to hear, *dong ma*?"

Simon nodded. Pain crushing his heart at the emptiness in the Captain's eyes. A world of sorrow in those sheltered depths. "*Wo zhidao* but I'm no good to you if I don't speak the truth."

The Captain nodded. His eyes taking on a kind of lost look as he gazed at his brother's still and too pale face. The likeness between them was very strong. So much so that they could almost have been twins, not identical but close enough to leave folk in no doubt as to their kinship. He squeezed his brother's cold hand but there was no response. Only a strong will kept the tears at bay. "This ain't over." He murmured softly. Simon was not sure whether it was meant as a promise or reassurance.

"Captain?"

He looked up. Eyes blank and dull. It was as if Simon was looking right into the man's soul and seeing the devastation red and raw. Still bleeding.

"I'm going to have to operate. And soon."

"What was that you already did?"

"That was an exploratory op, Captain. I needed to take a look inside and see exactly what they had done to him. A brain scan would have been helpful but we don't have time to go looking for a suitable facility and the ones we do know aren't exactly going to welcome us with open arms."

"Just tell me what you need an' let me worry about that."

"We don't have time."

The doctor's voice trailed off so gently at the end that it gave the Captain goose bumps. If Simon was being this cautious and anxious not to alarm him things were even worse than he thought. "Give it to me in Captain dummy talk."

Simon did not smile. There was nothing remotely funny about any of this. It hurt to take this man's hope and so comprehensively crush it but neither could he fashion comfortable lies. His honesty was the one thing he could give him that was worth a damn. "They cut him, Captain. Operated on his brain in a way that mirrors so closely what was done to River that I suspect it was with the same intent."

The Captain's eyes glittered hard as flint. "He ain't no Reader, Simon."

"Not saying he is."

"No assassin neither." The Captain added quickly ramming the assertion home. Not wanting to leave Simon in any doubt.

"Not saying that either." The Captain frowned then took a slow steadying breath. "Then what are you sayin'?"

Simon watched the Captain carefully as he delivered the pronouncement every doctor that ever lived and breathed dreaded the most. "*Duibuqi*, Captain." He said softly, every word another nail in the coffin. "Your brother is dying."

* * * * *

Pepper Rawlings watched the crew surreptitiously, his own men well used to waiting patiently. Taking what little they had and spinning it out to cover years of want in place of plenty. Hardship was nothing new to Valley forged men. Not a one of them he wasn't willing to die for and they for him. This crew had a quirkiness about it that had nothing to do with the War, uneven pieces that only fit together if placed precisely. Knock one out of kilter and the whole balance shifted and nothing you did would put them back into place. Right now they were out of kilter and it was as if each of them felt that ghostly pain like an amputated limb haunting them with its' loss. He wanted to speak to Malcolm Reynolds but now was not the time and the Captain didn't look like he would suffer any distraction until the emergency was over. He just could not stop mentally chastising himself for letting the Companion and Preacher get away. Not that he could do a gorram thing about it without the Captain putting a rutting bullet through the middle of his brain for risking his brother. What a gorram mess.

He sighed quietly, not wanting to draw any attention to himself. His thoughts a tangle but clearing slowly, things slotting into place that he had missed first time round. Charlie Watson gave him a look but he shook his head slightly and the hint was taken.

* * * * *

Tyrone Garvin wished for the hundredth time that he lived worlds away from his sister's rutting brother. Had he known how he had been set up he would have killed Alex Trent for sure but he did not know and that was the sweetness of the whole deal. Spite drove his brother in law, using Ty as the fall guy in his complex machinations. Becky was all unaware, not realising that when the backlash came her brother would carry the blame and pay the price while her good for nothing *zhangfu* would take the role of hero here on Boros. If he played this right she would even thank him for it. Alliance was always looking for new corners of the 'verse to conquer and if he gave them a foothold they would owe him big time. His eyes glittered in the darkness, already planning on how he would spend the money.

The equivalent of thirty pieces of silver sounding just about right.

* * * * *

It was so plush that at first Shepherd Book felt more than a mite uncomfortable. The Companion noticed but made no comment for which he was grateful. His thoughts remained carefully shuttered not trusting himself not to show a degree of anger over the way in which the Companion was disrupting his schedule. A sense of time slipping through his fingers like fine grains of sand was making him even more on edge. A runner braced against the blocks waiting for the starting gun only to realise the race would be aborted robbing him of victory. It was frustrating. Calm. He must project calm. And be prepared to act when the time came.

Inara watched him then sent Diamond Harry to send a wave. Once he was gone she arranged her robes to fall like liquid velvet around her as she took a seat. "You do not approve."

"It is not for me to approve or not approve."

She nodded, watching him closely. "You will return with me to Sihnon."

That got his attention. He stiffened before he could mask the reaction then got himself quickly back under control. "I cannot do that."

"Your work here is done. Do not overstep your mark, *Shepherd*."

"You know as well as I that our paths fork, Inara. Your agenda is not mine."

Her brows rose. "He will die."

"I did not come for him, you know that."

Inara nodded slowly. "The girl is too far gone. Crazy. Pick another subject."

He was so shocked and surprised that he simply stared at her. When control seeped back through his numb senses he remembered to breathe and slowly framed the boundaries of his will. "I must go back."

That amused her. "They will kill you."

His voice was mild. "Perhaps."

"What do you expect to achieve? Your subject has allied herself with that pathetic *wangu wangba dan* of a Captain. Too simple to even recognise the import of his brother's sacrifice."

He could not believe how hard she had become. How cold. Her voice, though mild, dripped with a very refined venom that chilled him to the bone. Yet he knew the poison was her lifesblood. Too late to be surprised about it now. "I will go back and finish my duty."

For a long time she just stared at him, her eyes looking deep into the abyss that bound him and seeing nothing but her own dark and empty reflection. The pitiless depths in her own soul drew a smile upon her flawless lips. "I could command you to stay."

"And I would have to refuse."

The simple calm statement gave her recourse to contemplate his statement anew. On some level she was even impressed with his commitment.

"Inara? I *have* to do this. It is what I was trained for."

She nodded. Oddly moved but not by anything he had said or done. Rather by the reminder of the sheer grace that could encompass a single word, an ideal, a sacrifice. She recognised the fashion of it even as she finally nodded her assent. The word was loyalty.

* * * * *

River slipped out of the commons room as soon as Zoe appeared. She looked worn out. Quietly devastated. Wash watched River go, surprised when Zoe made no move to stop her. That struck him as odd but he had no intention of saying so. They were all so tightly strung that one wrong word could bring the whole house of cards down around their ears. Jayne Cobb stopped pacing to stare at Zoe, waiting for an update that never came. She could ignore him until Judgement Day if she chose and he knew it. The tension was making Wash all kinds of uneasy but one look at his wife's face told him this would be one time it would be wise to hold his tongue. Even Kaylee stayed silent. The glum silence that clothed them like a death shroud deepened.

* * * * *

The infirmary was filled with a profound hush when River got there. The Captain half standing, half bowed over his brother's still form. Face almost as pale. It was doubtful if he knew that Zoe had left, so silent had she been as she had watched anxiously over him and his brother. When she could take it no more she had left, River knowing the moment was right to return to him. A seamless watch of caring hearts. Simon carefully laid out his medical instruments in readiness for the operation. He caught a slight movement and raised his head, surprised to see his sister but knowing it would do no good for him to tell her to leave. Where the Captain was concerned she seemed to write her own rules and for once he was glad of it. If anyone could comfort the Captain it was River.

The small hand reached out to cover the Captain's where it rested over his brother's. Cool but with a slow seeping warmth that held the chill that had invaded his soul at bay. The Captain looked at River. His heart so full of sorrow yet melting with love for her. An uneven mix of emotions that threatened to unman him. She curled her fingers around his and without thinking he turned his hand palm up and they clasped hands. *You shouldn't be here, 'ai ren',* her words rang soft and low inside his head. *Let Simon do his work, 'dong ma'?*.

He shook his head, the pain radiating throughout his body and searing his mind. Memories blinding him with unshed tears. She tugged on his hand, so gently that he could have easily stood his ground and left her holding nothing but he went with her. The urge, the desire, the need, the simple craving to be with the one he loved stronger than his fear for his brother. His need to be close. To watch over him. "I should stay..."

Her smile was soft, so full of love that he could not say anything else. He felt the depth of her understanding and something else. Something more important. Illusive. He knew she sensed it too. Simon was relieved, opened his mouth to encourage the Captain to go then snapped it shut again. What right did he have to push the Captain away? If Malcolm Reynolds died then his brother had the right to be standing beside him, giving what comfort he could before his light was forever extinguished from the 'verse. He imagined how he would feel if anyone tried to keep him away from River. No. He could not ask him to leave just to ease his own discomfort in the presence of such raw emotion. To place himself outside the burning circle of the heart's agony known as grief. The Captain's next words, though spoken to River not himself, shook the doctor.

"He's dyin', River, an' not a gorram thing I can do about it."

She hushed him, kissed the knuckles of the hand she held, her eyes swallowing his and pushing back the walls of darkness compressing his soul and plunging his heart in the icy cold depths of revenge. Her light, her warmth, would brook no resistance. She loved him in spite of himself. Loved him enough to carry him across the abyss and bring him home. She tasted the tear upon his lash before it could fall. Her arms folding gently round him as he leaned down and hugged her close. His tall frame taking strength from her diminutive one. Her words sang inside his head, *I can help, 'ai ren'.*

He kissed her hair, his words mumbled through the dark strands as if no one else existed in the room but him and her. "You help just by bein' here, *xin gan*."

"No." River raised her head and looked him in the eye. Took his grief, wrapped it in love then buried it deep inside her heart where it could hurt him no more. How the good gorram did she do that? "I can help." She repeated in a whisper.

Stunned, he watched her gently pull back, turn enough so that she was looking down on his brother. Her hands unlinked from his, she brushed the fringe off the still face. The Captain held his breath. Simon opened his mouth to say something but no words would come out. River glanced at the Captain. Her pupils so large he could feel himself drowning in them. "Do you trust me, *ai ren*?"

"Heart, body and soul *bao bei*."

River smiled at him then turned her attention back to his brother. Her hands now cradling the top of Malcolm's head, resting gently on the bandage that bound Simon's earlier incision but careful not to apply any pressure. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Images rushed up to meet her. She resisted the urge to gasp and made an effort to slow them down, the pictures like raindrops beating down in a rapid tattoo now slowing, elongating into deep and full teardrops that wept images not pain. She was in his head now, saw the damage, the broken lines of communication, the severed strands that left him a victim of fate. River opened her mind wider, reached to embrace his but it was so heavy. A door fastened like solid concrete or steel a mile thick, denying her access. Not even a trickle of his drifting thoughts rose to meet her. He must be closer to death than she thought but it puzzled her. She did not think death so imminent. Perhaps Simon had been right and she had been wrong. Perhaps this attempt was no more than an affectation. A lie of the heart.

She was about to let go. Lean forward to bless him with a kiss of benediction before withdrawing when something fey touched her mind. So bright and golden and gentle. Tender to the point of ecstasy. Her mind gasped. She closed her eyes the better to concentrate. To welcome him in. Not wanting to scare him off when a life hung in such delicate balance. Her mind all but soaring above all mortal sorrows with the beauty of revelation. Rising up through flames of gold that illuminated yet did not burn.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *wode tiana* = God in Heaven *ni hao ma* = how are you *shenme* = what *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *dong ma* = understand *wo zhidao* = I know *duibuqi* = sorry *zhangfu* = husband *ai ren*/*xin gan* = sweetheart *wangu* = stubborn *wangba dan* = bastard (lit. bad egg) *bao bei* = precious/treasure

COMMENTS

Sunday, April 4, 2004 2:54 PM

ANONYMOUS


BC

This is beautifully written. River helping the Captain's brother by trying to bring him back from the brink.

Monday, April 5, 2004 7:58 AM

ARTSHIPS


Bugger. You always end it too soon. :-)

Tuesday, April 6, 2004 6:42 AM

ANONYMOUS


Dang it... You ain't writin' this fast enough!! Keep it coming.
Ms.Sam

Tuesday, April 6, 2004 11:10 PM

KISPEXI2


Thank you Ali. A pleasure to read, as always.

Thursday, April 8, 2004 7:12 PM

NEROLI


Wonderful. :-)


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