The DUPLICITY Series: 48. "Playing With Fire"
Sunday, February 15, 2009

"With most of the crew reunited their new friends have some explaining to do. Mistress Barbette knows it is time to face her past. Inara escapes from House Kermos to find herself in a totally unexpected predicament."


TITLE: "PLAYING WITH FIRE" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: Zoe/Wash. Kaylee/Simon. Mal/Inara. RATING: G. STATUS: Sequel to "SWIMMING WITH SHARKS". ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: WEBSITE: None. All Firefly stories archived at

SUMMARY: "With most of the crew reunited their new friends have some explaining to do. Mistress Barbette knows it is time to face her past. Inara escapes from House Kermos to find herself in a totally unexpected predicament." 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.


"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Simon didn't want to leave the infirmary but for now there was nothing more he could do for the Captain. As soon as they had returned to Serenity he had administered a clotting agent, set up a blood transfusion, iv line then sewn up the torn stitches. Administering pain relief and a sedative through the iv line was the least he could do to make the Captain comfortable through the night. He didn't want Mal waking in pain. His patient needed rest and to give his body time to heal and Simon intended to make sure he got it. Checking the monitors one last time he was surprised when Mistress Barbette offered to sit with the Captain, promising to call him if there was any change. He knew there was some tension between the woman and Zoe but not exactly what had happened in his absence but the Captain knew her and considered her something of an old family friend so Simon nodded his thanks and hurried to the commons room. Zoe and Book had said they wanted to question Paul and Natalie and that was one conversation the doctor did not intend to miss. When he got there everyone but Wash was already gathered, the pilot on the bridge making sure River and their new friends had not been followed. Kaylee smiled when she saw him and Simon made his way over to her.

"How's the Cap'n?"

"Stable. I gave him something to ensure he sleeps for at least eight hours and set up a monitor feed just to be on the safe side.."

"He ain't gonna like bein' sedated." Muttered Jayne.

"The pain he's been in I don't think that's going to be a problem, Jayne. His mind may rebel but his body will thank me."

Zoe frowned but didn't say anything. She had discussed the Captain's condition with Simon earlier and knew that his recovery had been put back a couple of months but at least he was back on Serenity. Zoe intended to make sure they didn't split up again.

"I never got the chance to thank you for coming to our aid." Simon paused when he noticed that Paul Rinkman looked ready to fall asleep standing up. By contrast, Natalie looked too wired to sleep. The girl kept exchanging looks with River as if the two shared a secret. It was making Simon more than a little unsettled. "How did you know where to find us or that we were in trouble?"

Paul opened his mouth to answer but Natalie beat him to it. "Could feel the pull. Had to go."

Shepherd Book frowned. "The pull?"

"*Qu*." Natalie waved a hand towards her head in an action oddly reminiscent of Simon. "On'y a few of us left now. Knew he was in danger."

"You sayin'..." Kaylee stopped and stared at River then back to Natalie, comprehension dawning on her. "*Wode ma*, you mean to say you're like River?"

Natalie grinned. "Sisters out of the womb."

"That's an image I could have done without." Simon grimaced.

"She was the last." River explained.

"Mind all jumbled, images overlappin', didn't make sense. Saw all the faces but couldn't tell good from bad, enemy from friend. Decided to kill them all. End the nightmares, end the pain, *dong ma*?"

Kaylee paled. "You mean you were lookin' to KILL Simon an' River?"

The girl looked too happy and serene for comfort. It made Kaylee want to get Vera and wipe the look off her face and yet, didn't Simon say they had rescued him and the Captain? It didn't make no sense.

"If you was intendin' to kill Simon an' River what changed your mind?"

Natalie glanced at Paul, an odd shyness softening the smile on her face. All at once self conscious and not quite knowing how to handle it. "Paul explained, told me what had happened. First I was supposed to kill him then hunt down the others."

"She helped me escape instead." Paul explained.

"Are you sayin' that you're from that academy as well?"

He shook his head and gave Zoe a tentative smile. God, he was so tired but this needed saying and he wasn't sure that if he left it until morning he would be able to wake up again. "*Bu qu*. I was one of a group tryin' to get them out. We spent years. It was very dangerous an' meant we had to infiltrate the Alliance. We lost a lot of people over the years but we never gave up." Sadness clouded his face, his eyes going suspiciously bright. Paul swallowed slowly and took a moment to control his emotions. "My wife an' brother-in-law were part of the same organisation. They died."

The others exchanged glances. Natalie hung her head and wouldn't look at anyone. Simon was watching Paul closely. "You're part of the Underground?"

Paul nodded.

"Then I owe you a debt of gratitude. Thanks to you and your friends I was able to break River out of that facility. Without your help..."

"The money you paid us helped fund more of our work, Dr Tam. Unfortunately, by then certain elements in the Alliance had become suspicious of us. It became harder an' harder to come an' go without rousin' suspicion."

River looked at him sadly. "You gave so much. Everything you had. To save us."

"That's a mighty brave thing you did." Said Shepherd Book, his voice deep and grave with approval and respect.

"Knowing Paul was part of the Underground explains his actions but how did you know what was going on, *mei mei*?"

Her smile was vague and ethereal. "Heard her, in my mind. Sang the same song. Just followed the music."

Sitting on a chair at the far end of the big table Jordan slowly stirred. He had been so quiet that most of the crew had forgotten he was even there. "I helped."

Everyone turned to him. Zoe's eyes narrowed. "Helped how?"

River answered for him. "He amplified our thoughts. Helped us to connect." She gave Simon a grin. "Taught us how to bond."

"*Wo bu dong*, what're you saying.?"

River waited to see if Jordan wanted to answer but his mind was singing in the negative. He seemed oddly drained but she understood. "When I left I took the control device with me. I'd made the mental connection, knew what to do. Seeing Jordan was like following the yellow brick road only there was no wizard at the end. Different kind of magic but no tricks, no sleight of hand. The magic was real." Her words seemed to disturb the others. Simon couldn't stop thinking about what she had said moments ago. "What do you mean you bonded?"

The smile seemed to illuminate River's face from the inside out. Jayne scowled, not sure what all this mumbo jumbo meant. Kaylee looked transfixed, Simon worried, Zoe poised ready to shoot if the answers didn't come fast enough. The Shepherd drank in every word. River felt a tickle in her mind, cool yet soothing. A balm of reassurance nudging her on. Doing what he could not. Mentally she thanked Jordan, felt his mind retreat to the edges of hers, giving her space to speak for the both of them. Luxuriating in the distant hum that told her the device though distant was in stand-by mode and aware of them. "Like an interface but fusing metal and technology to flesh and bone. The mental to the physical. Thoughts become waves, waves become sound, light, heat making the illusion of life real."

Zoe didn't like the sound of that. "Are you sayin' that device altered your mind?"

"Minds." River smiled and glanced around at everyone, seemingly unaware of how much her words were disturbing them. "It won't betray us. Part of us now."

Simon was itching to do something to break that connection. To free his sister and get back to the normal chaotic madness that was life on board Serenity. She turned her head and fixed him with a look so serene it made his flesh crawl beneath his skin.

"*Fang xin*. Without it we wouldn't have found you. You would have escaped one nightmare to be caught up in another. Much worse, more permanent, and ultimately fatal."

"I... I can't accept that, River."

She nodded as if expecting his answer. "My job."

The Shepherd was looking intently at her, well aware that Jordan was deliberately keeping a low profile but curious. "River, why did you bring Jordan with you? The Alliance will probably never stop looking for you but Jordan was one of them. I can only think that will make them more determined to retrieve both of you. Not to mention Natalie."

"They won't find us and if they do it won't be in time."

"Huh, didn't make much sense before. Makin' none now." Grumbled the mercenary.

Zoe gave him a low level stare. "Jayne!" She wasn't mad at him just needed the big man to let River finish explaining. Once that was done they needed to talk this out, discuss what had happened and what it meant so they would know what to do next. Jordan spoke before she could put any of that into words.

"I can't stay."

"*Shenme*?" His assertion surprised Zoe. "You're goin' back to the Alliance?"

He shook his head. River had a look of annoyance on her face as if this had already been discussed and she had been against it. Jordan didn't look at her, his eyes fastened like limpets on Zoe. She was the defacto leader, everyone else was a pawn. In the end it all came down to strategy. Emotions just messed things up, got wires crossed that needed to be straight, unequivocal, accurate to the last decimal point. "*Bu qu*. I am what I was made to be but have awareness now." He did not blink and that disturbed Zoe more than his words. "There are only a few people who know what the control device does. Is. Everyone else just follows orders. Orders can change, the truth can't."

Natalie watched their faces and Kaylee saw something like impatience gather in the jittery movements of her fingers and hands. It was like she was trying to be patient, fighting to keep still. To be *good*. As the thought struck her Natalie's hands stilled and her eyes fastened on the mechanic. Her lips drew back into the flash of a grin. Quick and alarming in its' sudden appearance and disappearance as if she had just read Kaylee's mind by tearing off the top layer. Kaylee took a step back and felt the welcoming warmth of Simon's hand on her arm, his sensitive face tilted towards her.

"Kaylee, *zenme hui shi*?"

She shook her head, flushing as people's attention turned to her. Feeling stupid and foolish and wishing she could just go back to the engine room and calm herself with Serenity's workings. Tinkering and coaxing the best out of her girl. Anything to forget the feeling she had now and couldn't shake. "*Mei shi*."

Simon didn't seem convinced but River started talking and just like always his attention and focus switched. Kaylee had never been so grateful for the reprieve.

"It's safe for now but we have to retrieve it."

"River, there was an explosion, *jide*? It took out the warehouse and the Alliance ship."

River nodded. A feeling a dread turned the pit of Zoe's stomach to stone.

"Surely there will be nothin' left to find, *dui*?"

"*Bushi*. You can't destroy matter only alter it. Liquid to gas to solid. Buildings and physical structures to rubble and particulate matter. Building blocks getting smaller but not disappearing. Flesh and bone reduced to DNA, too small for the eye to see but still there. Dispersed and diluted in the process but not gone. Never gone."

"What the *diyu's* she talkin' about?" Jayne blurted.


She looked at her brother, wished she could show him what she saw when she connected with the device. What she felt and understood when standing in Jordan's mind. How possibility became certainty when she looked at Natalie. The device was a connection. A highly advanced mechanism that married technology and mental ability into the kind of ticking time bomb that could rewrite the 'verse. But they didn't need to rewrite it. Just remove a few fatal flaws. "It's still intact, Simon."

In the hush that followed those words Simon wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or the beginning of the end.

* * * * *

Mistress Barbette stared down at the sleeping Captain, her thoughts a jumble of competing emotions and memories. Her main objective was to save her son but would she really do it at the cost of this man? A man she had taught to read, write and do his sums? A man she had seen grow from a gangling boy into a strong and right minded man? Would he even know her if he knew the path she had taken, the things she had done, the blood indelibly staining her hands no matter how many times she washed them? Yet everything she did had a purpose. A compromise of one thing to gain another. On and on until the tangled path she trod became a maze to be navigated with wit and skill.

Her hand reached out almost of its' own volition and gently brushed the hair from his face. He looked so young in repose despite the heavy bruising now discolouring his skin and distorting those unmistakable features. How much like his father he was. Yet his heart was his mother all over again. Wanting - no, needing - to reach out and protect those that could not protect themselves. To take up the burdens others would not carry, to lead through adversity no matter the cost to himself and those who walked with him. Such a strong mix of his parents yet also an individual in his own right. Even as a child the signs were all there and Cyan had not been surprised when a young Malcolm Reynolds chose brown over purple, right over wrong, the protection of innocents to the garnering of wealth and privilge with all its' trappings.

She had failed him. As a teacher her path should have been clear and straight. Her example a legacy to hand down to those that followed. Instead she had veered from the path, taken the easy way, been flattered by the lies and wealth used to oil the awkward joints of her conscience while that inner voice grew small and then faint until finally it was stilled. Yet even far from him as her ambition had taken her, his exploits had reached her ears. Pricked her conscience with memories pushed to the back of her mind. Taunted her and dared her to reassess a life lived to the full but in the wrong direction. How had she gone so far to fall so low? And yet, she had done good too but always in odd fits of compassion rather than a consistent desire to right the wrongs she saw. Everything was a lesson in expedience even the life of her only son, reduced to a cipher in the hands of strangers until finally, at long last, circumstances forced her to make a pained choice. Only, once made it was liberating in a way that scared her. Chains falling that had embraced and given the illusion of strength, something to lean on. Purpose. Stephen did that without even knowing it. His predicament sparking a belated surge of protectiveness that both surprised and gave her reason to celebrate. The old withered heart was not made of stone after all but there would be a price to pay.

Rising slowly from the chair beside the infirmary bed, Mistress Barbette dropped a kiss on the Captain's forehead. She knew what she had to do. Had known for some time but been reluctant to take that last step. Malcolm Reynolds had paid enough for her mistakes. It was time to take the burden from him, if only for a little while. Her son was even now playing roulette with his life to rules she had never fully explained. That ignorance was the only protection she could give him just as leaving Inara on Helena had been the only way to avoid dragging the Companion into the nest of vipers she had stirred up. No. No one else would pay for her actions any more. Cyan was tired of the subterfuge and that left her free to do the one thing she had denied herself all these years. Keeping her silence in order to keep her position in the Guild. It was time to put that right. When her son returned she would finally have the means to do it.

* * * * *

Climbing down was harder than it looked. The moonlight on the terrace was casting shadows which didn't help Inara. On the other hand it meant she could not see how far below the ground was. Her hands ached, sore from slipping on the fabric. She cursed her impatience knowing she should have put more knots in the sheets. It would have given her a way to slow her descent. As it was she half feared being discovered before she could reach the ground and breaking her neck. At last the ground resolved beneath her and Inara gratefully let go, her legs almost crumpling beneath her. Taking a moment to catch her breath, she leant on the wall of the tall house, grateful for the dark shadows. Her head while clearing was still a bit foggy with the last of the drug still in her system. *Renci de fozu*, what had they given her?

It took a few minutes for her to get her bearings as Inara tried to picture where they had left Serenity's shuttle. Carefully she crept around the grounds and headed over to the the hangar where the Guild flyers were housed. The building was naturally locked. The electronic security pad was fingerprint access only. Inara held her breath and wondered whether her Companion acces was blocked. Was the shuttle inside or had it been left elsewhere in the grounds? She bit down on her bottom lip and tried to stop the tremors running through her body. It was reaction. Her arms and shoulders felt as if she had been stretched on a rack but at least she was no longer in that room. Deciding to check the grounds first Inara crept around the back of the hangar and tried to remember the layout, cursing the fact that with the girls all firmly in their beds the exterior lights had been switched off.

Just when she was about to give up and chance inputting her thumbprint on the access pad to the hangar Inara pushed passed some bushes and stopped in her tracks, the moon shining unobstructed from view by trees or shrubbery and buildings to reveal the distinct outline of the shuttle. Weak with relief Inara hurried and let herself in. As the hatch closed behind her she froze and listened. Not wanting to find Mistress Barbette waiting inside. But no. There was only silence, the little short range vessel just as she had left it. Quickly Inara got in the pilot's seat and hurried through a basic pre-check to make sure she had enough fuel to reach Serenity. The muzziness in her head vanished as adrenaline coursed through her veins, the familiar controls coming to life under her hands as she completed the take off sequence and rose in a swift arc leaving House Kermos behind her.

Smiling in the sudden euphoria of making her escape, Inara was startled by a noise behind her. Eyes widening in panic she risked a look over her shoulder, all the blood draining from her face. The figure was barely upright, stumbling forward as if drunk or drugged. Seeing the state of her uninvited guest, Inara's initial panic was quickly replaced with confusion and alarm as she recognised him.

"What the *diyu* are you doing here?"

Opening his mouth to speak the only thing to come out was a half strangled cry, then he was falling. Inara couldn't take her hands off the shuttle's controls to go to him. Cursing under her breath, Inara could only watch in alarm as Badger crumpled to the floor and lost consciousness. The sooner she got them both to Serenity the better.

* * * * *

Niyan Shair did not like this. His Command of the Alliance Cruiser had been terminated early and with no explanation other than 'the higher exigences of High Command'. He wanted to snort through his nose to show what he thought of that pack of salivating wolves but did not dare. It pained him to think how the quality of men rising to the top positions had become poorer both in judgement and integrity. It irked that good men were being sacrificed to the vain altar of power and corruption. To be a part of that, even unintentionally, soured all that was still good in him. Yet Shair was not a foolish man. So when they stripped him of his Command he did not fly into a rage, which most would have expected. Instead he waited, silent and calm, and watched the circus now called the chain of command tie itself into knots.

When the atmosphere in the room became uncomfortable, for them not him, the Minister of Internal Affairs, a Jacob Rosenbaum, cleared his throat. He did not stand but stared at Shair for a moment before speaking. To either side of him were Generals Armitage, Hampton and Berrington. At least his court martial would be behind closed doors. No public shaming then, that was something.

"You have had a long illustrious career with the Alliance Military, Commandant."

Both knew the use of his former rank was not meant as a kindness, merely a reminder of what he had lost. Shair barely blinked, unaffected by the mild insult. He did not speak but waited. Patience was one of his specialities and he could see early on that Minister Rosenbaum could not come close to matching that skill. It was mildly entertaining to watch his pale cheeks redden with barely surpressed rage, annoyed to get no response from Shair. If he wanted Shair to say something he would have to ask questions. Tell him what this trumped up trial was all about. Rosenbaum shuffled papers, his composure slowly reasserting itself as he did so. Finally he looked up again.

"We are most displeased with you, Commandant." Rosenbaum waited but Shair remained silent. Irritated, the man seemed to realise he would have to spell it out. "Remove your military tags."

Shair blinked. Startled. "*Shenme*?" He had been in the service of the Alliance military for 43 years, working his way from purplebelly to the command ranks. Earning promotion both in the field and on his return at War's End. A soldier's dog tags were an integral part of who and what he was. Removing them would be like an amputation including the phantom pain of a non existence limb.

The Minister nodded to General Armitage. "If you would be so kind as to assist Mr Shair, General. He seems to have forgotten how to follow orders."

It was a nightmare that made no sense. Of all the things they could have done to him this was the most hurtful and humiliating. As the tags were handed over he kept eye contact with Rosenbaum and fought to remain calm. He still had no idea what this was about. Rosenbaum opened a drawer in his desk and removed some kind of reader. Shair frowned. He had not seen it before. To his consternation he watched as Rosenbaum inserted one of the tags into the device and activated. His eyes widened, what the *guai* was this? Yet worse was to come. As he stared the device produced a holographic image which hung with an electrical blue tinge between them. Shair felt his heart rate speed up and his mouth go dry. *Shangdi*, it was a rutting recording device!

The hearing took hours but to Shair it could have taken all eternity for all he cared. All his decisions and actions were scrutinised but Rosenbaum seemed not to care about the odd minor lapse or display of compassion. No. He was searching for something specific. Shair felt the hairs on the back of his neck stir. A spy, a traitor in their midst. It was the only reason he could think of for this witch hunt. Just as he was wondering what in the nine hells they were looking for the scene changed and he recognised the interior of the Firefly. Shair felt his palms begin to sweat. Rosenbaum was paying rapt attention as he scrolled through the recording. When Shair went into the infirmary he slowed it down to real time and zoomed in on the conversation with Shepherd Book. The realisation hit him in the gut. A solid blow out of nowhere. The first thread in his unravelling. *Wode tiana*.

"How do you know this man?"

It was useless denying it. They had heard him call Book by his Christian name and the two had not been formally introduced. "I recognised his voice first." He said dully. He wondered who this meek, pathetic creature was that he had become. Did they expect him to give up a lifelong friend because of lines drawn on some imaginary map? Because of a past that blurred the understanding, robbing a man of clarity while gifting him with a measure of wisdom? These heathens wouldn't understand and he had no words to convince them to educate their ignorance. They dealt in absolutes. Friend. Foe.

"You will tell us everything you know about him. And then. You will explain why you deceived us."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: *Mandarin - Pinyin)

*qu* = yes (lit. go) *wode ma* = mother of God *dong ma* = understand? *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *mei mei* = little sister *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *shenme* = what *diyu* = hell *zenme hui shi* = what's the matter? *mei shi* = it doesn't matter *bushi* = not so *jide* = remember *dui* = correct *Renci de fozu* = merciful Buddha *guai* = devil/ghost *Shangdi* = God *wode tiana* = dear God in Heaven


Sunday, February 15, 2009 7:53 AM


This is almost Shakespearian in its complexity! Particularly Mistress Barbette's thoughts as she watches Mal sleep - the washing of blood from the hands for instance.

Sunday, February 15, 2009 10:20 AM


Thanks for the feedback Jane0904. You made me chuckle about Shakespear, you wouldn't be thinking of 'The Scottish Play' would you? - Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Monday, February 16, 2009 7:25 AM


To read or not to read, that is the question....LOL!! Wow. I totally agree with Jane on this. Your story is getting creepy, intense, and over the top suspenseful!! I am so waiting to see how far you take this...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 5:45 PM


Another finely crafted installment! Well done!


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His head still ached from the rutting probe but after the men had satisfied themselves that his story was true a thousand questions peppered the air like machine gun fire.

The vessel was shiny, sleek and black with nowhere near the bulk of an Alliance ship. Something about the way it moved through the Black was more than a little creepifying.

Personally she didn't care if Serenity was towed off to a junk yard and stripped into spare parts. She had promised the ship to Jer and his crew as a bonus but it looked like scavengers had beaten them to it.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: 2. "Counting Chickens"
The fact that her eyes were hard and sharp with intelligence kind of chilled him. Smart women always made him uneasy, it just weren't natural.

What in the nine hells were they so afraid of? Then he remembered Tracy. The body mailed to them by their old war buddy and all the trouble that had brought down on them.

If it was too gorram wet to hunt for rabbits what in the nine hells was his son really hunting? And was it something on four legs or two?

The man was in a terrible condition, his pulse weak, and for some reason he was soaking wet which did nothing to staunch the blood soaking through his clothing and seeping from the poorly tended wound where he had been shot.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 9. "All The King's Men"
The man sighed like the weight of the of the 'Verse was on his shoulders but unlike anyone else he looked like he could carry the weight.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 8. "All The King's Horses"
Without warning something came through the opening and rolled with a metallic clang across the ground before exploding.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 7. "Friend or Foe"
Then he found himself falling, the whole world silent as in slow motion the hordes of *diyu* came to swallow him up and everything disintegrated in fire, blood and pain.