Tuesday, December 16, 2003

"River tells them what the chain represents. The Captain makes his decision then discovers something disturbing about Inara."



SUMMARY: "River tells them what the chain represents. The Captain makes his decision then discovers something disturbing about Inara." 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.


A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

"Okay, now I'm thoroughly confused." Said Wash.

Zoe patted his arm in a mildly placating manner as if he were a small and not very bright child but one she was inordinately fond of. "Pay it no mind, sweetie."

He looked pained. "But I want to know *bao bei*. You know how I love mysteries."

"Ain't no mystery." Said Jayne. "That Alliance *wangba dan* is playin' with us or rather, playin' with the Cap."

They were in the commons room. All eyes straying back to the object lying on the grey velvet bag in the middle of the large oakwood table. It looked so innocent. Innocuous. The Captain was silent, weighing up River's reaction and her words. Simon wanted to take her to the infirmary for her next shot of medicine. River's eyes parted in barely constrained panic. The Captain timed his question to offer her something of a respite. "You said this piece of *gos se* was a map, River. I'm thinkin' how that can be?"

She smiled sweetly at him, edging round the table just out of Simon's reach and closer to the Captain. One eye on her brother, not putting it past him to dart out and grab her in the mistaken belief it would be for her own good. "Look at it, Captain. Not shiny but practical."

"Practical?" Sneered Jayne. "On'y thing it's good for is trash."

The Captain frowned at him and he fell silent. Mal returned his attention to River. "Practical in what way?"

River pointed to the little spheres carefully. Making sure not to touch. Her actions reminded him of something but he just could not grasp the memory. The effort made the pain in his head sharper. Closing his eyes quickly he managed to prevent a groan of pain leaking out. Slowly he opened them again to find Simon staring hard at him. Mal purposely did not look at him. He wanted this mystery solved. Too many things needed to be sorted out without having this problem fester in the minds of his crew. Not to mention how it was baffling his own self. "These spheres..." Said River slowly.

"I see 'em."

"They represent planets, Captain."

His look sharpened. Impressed. Wash leaned closer, now totally absorbed in what she was saying. River began to rattle off the names of the planets, most of which meant nothing to the Captain and by the look of it even less to his crew. As the last planet rolled off her tongue Wash got excited. "Venture, I know that place!"

"Okay Wash, where is it and how far away are we?"

"It's three days by fast burn Captain or four and a half if we make it direct but without straining the engines."

The Captain looked at Kaylee. "What d'you say, little Kaylee?"

"Fast burn for that long wouldn't do Serenity no good, but a fair lick without straining is doable, Capt'n."

He looked at River. "You said it's a map?"

River nodded. The Captain leaned over the table and picked up the chain, slowly fingering each little planet in turn. Noticing no two were the same though several were alike. Not only were they different sizes, the weight of each varied as well. He frowned and stared hard at it. "Which one you say is Venture?"

River looked ineffably sad. She pointed to the third planet from the clasp. "This one."

"Huh." He paused and gave the chain a long measuring look as he turned it in his hand then focused again on River. "So where we headed?"

She looked him dead in the eye. "To the end of the chain."

Jayne was frowning. "Which way? Towards the clasp or the other way?"

She replied without looking at Jayne, her eyes fastened on the Captain. "All the way round to the last planet."

"Which way?" Repeated Jayne more forcefully, a mite frustrated at being ignored.

Mal realised it did not matter. He could tell from the look in River's eyes only he could not say as much in front of the others. They needed the illusion of choice, the belief that what they did mattered. That they could affect the outcome. But perhaps he could do something to ensure they didn't all have to go on this wild goose chase. Just in case River's words proved too accurate for comfort. He would need to think on how to do that before saying anything. In the meantime he decided it was time to change the subject. "Who's turn is it to cook?"

"I do believe the honour is mine, Captain." Said the Shepherd.

He nodded and tried not to flinch as the movement shot a new spike of pain through his head. Yen Mah slid her hand in his and squeezed. He squinted down at her and smiled. Was about to hand her the chain of planets then changed his mind. Carefully he put it back in the bag then put the bag in his pocket. Jayne was watching him closely but said nothing. The Captain got to his feet when he realised something, or rather someone, was missing. "Where's Inara?"

The Shepherd frowned slightly, his look a mite concerned. "In her shuttle. I do not think she is feeling too well."

Simon half rose from his seat. "Maybe I should go and..."

To his surprise the Captain interrupted him. A light hand placed on his shoulder. "It's okay, stay here doctor. I'll go see what's wrong. Maybe she's just tired."

Simon nodded then focused on the Captain. "What about you?"

"What about me?"

"That headache. I could give you something."

"If it gets too annoyafyin' I'll come find you, *dong ma*?"

The doctor frowned in frustration. "Could be I'm wrong. Maybe you just like pain."

"Nope, just hate folks fussin' an' proddin' me is all."

Without another word the Captain left. Jayne frowned as he watched Mal go then glanced around at the others. "Anyone else get to thinkin' the Cap's about to do somethin' stupid?"

Yen Mah glared at him and no one spoke then the Shepherd got to his feet and went into the small kitchen area to see what he could throw together for a meal.

* * * * *

"Are you sure?"

The man nodded. Expression solemn but a hint of satisfaction in his eyes. "Yes, sir. The beacon's functioning perfectly."

Commandant Harkan gave him a smug look.


"What is it?"

"How do you imagine he'll work it out if we can't?"

A slow smile slid across the Alliance officer's face. "That's the beauty of it. I don't expect him to figure it out."

Confusion reigned supreme on his second's face. "You don't?"

It took Harkan all his control not to laugh out loud. Oh, this was going to be so delicious. The Captain had made a fool of him once and left him feeling indebted to the Browncoat for a long time. Now he would turn those tables on him and wreck a most satisfying revenge. And he would not have to lay a hand upon him. At least, not yet. Two pairs of eyes looked down at the control, watching the slow blinking light indicating that the tracking device was inputting the changing co-ordinates of the Firefly as she laid in her course. The man frowned again when they did not pursue the vessel.

"Sir, shouldn't we be following?"

This time he did laugh. Quiet and low with a quality in it that was deeply unpleasant. "We will, but not until we know where they're going."

The frown actually got deeper. "If we don't follow them how will we know that, sir?"

A smug smile formed on Harkan's face giving an air of borrowed warmth to cold lips. "The computer is tracking them, plotting their course as they move through the Black. That is all you need to know for now, *dong ma*?"

The man swallowed carefully. Knew the warning of unsheathed steel when he heard the faint sabre rattle in the Commandant's voice. "*Wo dong*."

* * * * *

Inara had taken a leisurely sponge bath. It had been an awkward affair but necessary to satisfy her fastidious need for cleanliness. Speed had not been an option if she wanted to complete the task without losing consciousness. Once finished she dried herself off and put on a sleep gown, carefully emptying the tell tale water in the hinged sink unit then pushing the unit back into its' recess out of sight. Slowly she inched her way to the mirror and sat at her dressing table, eyes closing just a moment while she calmed herself. Unwilling yet to enfold herself in sleep knowing the nightmares that awaited her. Her eyes opened and stared at the reflection mocking her. Lifting a brush she began to do her hair, using the measured strokes to lose herself in the commonplace and be bolstered by routine.

That routine was shattered with the knock at her shuttle door. Her hand paused. Who was that? It must be Book. He was the only one who knew she was not feeling well. It would be so like him to check on her. Smiling slightly she rose with care and schooled her features, not wanting to alarm him any further and absurdly grateful for his concern. When she got to the hatch and opened it she stared in stunned surprise at the Captain. He gave her a critical look. "You missed the meetin', Inara."

Since when did the Captain knock? And why was he here to tell her about some *gos se* meeting that no doubt had nothing to do with her? She did not say as much. Something in his look stilling the ascerbic retort on the tip of her tongue. He looked concerned but what made her take a deeper look was the lack of judgement in his eyes. "I didn't know you were having a meeting, Captain."

He hesitated a fraction, a shade embarrassed that she was right. "Uh, sorta was a last minute thing if you follow my meanin'."

"I'm not sure I do."

She still had not moved from the doorway. He was beginning to feel uncomfortable but there was something else he wanted from her. Something he did not know how to ask for. "Mind if I come in?"

Her eyes widened. Silently she stepped to one side and he walked in to her shuttle. The door closed behind him. He looked nervous of all things. Her curiosity piqued Inara managed to walk back to her bedside table and retake her seat. Seeing no other chair the Captain remained standing. No way was he going to sit on her gorram bed. She watched the play of emotions on his face and hid the urge to smile, her own troubles temporarily distracted. "How can I help you?"

"I was wonderin'... Look, I'm still tryin' to fit all the pieces in and I'm not sayin' the ones I got are in the right places nor nothin' but I have this feelin'..."

Her eyebrows rose when he trailed off and seemed lost for a moment. "Feeling?"

The prompt got him going again. "Yeah, uh, the kind'a feelin' that says..." He broke off, definitely a mite embarrassed now. "You an' me, is there...? Are we...?" His eyes widened as if he had been caught in a vehicle's headlights. "You know is there anythin'..." He made a gesture of his hand from himself to her. "Between us?"

She had to swallow carefully to hide her surprise. Now she felt uncomfortable though she hid it well. "Between us?"

He nodded. "Are we... friends?"

His hesitation over the word spoke volumes. Inara realised he was wondering whether they were romantically involved. Perhaps even lovers. Part of her was tempted to intimate that they were but she could not do that to him. If his memory were to return he would never forgive her let alone the fact that she would never forgive herself. But for one delicious moment she savoured the temptation then weariness began to creep up on her again with a vengeance. She realised he was still awaiting an answer. A patient look on his face that was so rare she thought she must be imagining it. "Yes, Captain, we are friends."

"Captain? Are we always so formal?"

She shook her head and no longer wanted to string this out. She was tired, wanted him to go so she could crawl between her silken sheets and seek the oblivion she so badly needed but would not find. Never again. "No, Mal."

"Then why now?"

She paused. "It's late, I'm tired and this conversation would be better in the morning so if you don't mind....?"

He stared at the obvious hint and something glittered very briefly in the depths of his dark soulful eyes. Soulful? Since when did she consider his eyes thus? And why did they feel like deep magnetic wells drawing her in? "What's wrong, Inara?" He asked softly.

The sudden change in tack almost undid her. "Nothing. Why would you think anything was wrong?"

He took a moment then raised his left hand. It took Inara a moment to realise that his fingertips were stained with crimson. The blood in her face fled leaving her white with shock. Oh God. He *knew*. "I almost missed it." He explained quietly. "But when you took a while to answer my knock I glanced around, that was when I noticed the bright spots on the deck floor. I bent down and took a closer look. When you've been cut and bloodied more times than you can count you recognise blood." He paused a second. "You're injured."

How could she tell him? She shook her head. "You're mistaken, Mal..."

He shook his head and simply raised his hand in mute disagreement. She bit back tears. More alarmed than ever he took a step towards her.

"I think you should go Mal."

"Not 'till I know what this is about. I may not remember everything from the past few years but I want to know. To help. Seems like the kind'a things friends would do for each other."

She wanted to send him away. To give him some excuse for the blood but it all became too much. Tears spilled down her beautiful face. A sorrowful rain that tugged at his heart and moved his feet without his knowing until he stood inches from her, his right hand gently brushing away the tears while his eyes projected sympathy and caring. As a sob caught her throat, Inara felt the last of her strength desert her and leaned in towards him. Gently he wrapped his arms around her, words tumbling in a low waterfall that caressed her ears like some soothing balm. She laid her head against his chest and closed her eyes, taking comfort in his strength and presence. Mal held her gently and for the longest time neither of them spoke.

Dropping a kiss on top of her head he drew back slightly to see her face. Inara would have looked away but he placed a hand under her chin and gently tilted her face so that he could see into her eyes. "Tell me what happened, Inara? Where did the blood come from?"

Her mouth opened then closed empty. Her eyes pleading for him to drop this. His look telling her he would not.


The way he said her name made her go weak at the knees, not that she ever intended to show it. There was a look of such tenderness in his eyes that before she knew it the story came tumbling out of her lips shocking her ears with how easily her feelings had betrayed her. The stunned shock on his face turned to a slow deep burning anger. Fierce and building still fiercer as he listened. Finally he found words though each one he spoke pained him. "He *raped* you?"

She tried to calm him, a hand on his forearm, the other resting unconsciously over his heart. "Mal, it's in the past, over."

"His name, Inara."

She shook her head, beginning to tremble. "No, Mal. I don't want you going off with some ill-conceived notion of vengeance."

Visions of swordfights and Mal bleeding to death to defend her honour made her shudder with dread.

"Not thinkin' about vengeance. Who, Inara, and where is he?"

"I won't tell you."

"Then I'll do it the hard way."

She saw the resolve solidifying on his face. Her heart quailing within her. "No, please don't."

Something vulnerable in her voice made him quiet for a while. His eyes looking deep into hers for answers not even the grave would claim from her. "Inara," His voice was quiet, low, a hush of almost-pain. "Don't shut me out."

* * * * *

The evening meal was almost finished when the Captain stepped into the commons room. Wash was teasing Zoe and Kaylee was laughing at his terrible jokes while Jayne pretended to get surly. The Shepherd had rustled up a kind of stir fry using herbs and spices to give flavour to the ubiquitous protein cubes that formed their staple diet. Crisp steamed vegetables gave the dour meal a more festive air. Simon was the last one eating, picking at his food with chopsticks and laughing lightly at something River had just said.

Kaylee turned her head and began to smile at the Captain, Yen Mah sitting in a curl of limbs on the chair next to her. "Hey Cap'n, gonna have somethin' to eat?"

He shook his head slightly but he was looking at Simon. "No, little Kaylee. Think I'll borrow the doctor though."

Simon started to get to his feet. Zoe looked at him in concern. "You alright, sir?"


His reassurance reassured no one. Getting nothing further out of him, Simon went immediately into doctor mode. "I have something in the infirmary that will clear that headache for you, Captain."

Mal nodded and did not correct him. Seeing everyone else still staring at him he waved a hand in the general direction of the table. "Go on now and finish your meal."

Once out of the commons room Simon was surprised when the Captain led him not to the infirmary but towards Inara's shuttle. "Why are we going to the shuttle?"

"I want you to take a look at Inara, doc."

Simon's eyes widened with concern. "What's wrong with her?"

The Captain gave him a look which made him wish he had not asked. "That's what you're gonna find out. Inara didn't want no fuss an' can't say I blame her but we're needin' some answers here."

He was confused. "Fuss? Why would anyone think it was a fuss for Inara to see a doctor if she isn't well?"

There was no response to that question. Now at the door Simon was not surprised to see Mal simply open it and usher him inside. Inara liked her privacy and barging in unannounced was simply not her style. The Captain's yes but her's no. Before he could take another step the Captain stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Not a word about this leaves the shuttle, *dong ma*?" He said in a low voice.

Simon's eyes searched the Captain's, wondering what this was really about. "I can assure you that I will say nothing, Captain. Doctor/patient confidentially is a sacred trust."

"Then best you don't break it."

He opened his mouth to protest then saw the deep concern in the Captain's eyes and let the comment pass with a nod. Satisfied, Mal led him over to the bed. Inara looked pale and listless. Feeling a slow dread settle in his stomach the good doctor set about examining her, soon forgetting the steady serious eyes of the Captain boring into him. The damage he found did nothing to improve the Captain's worsening demeanour nor his own rising concern. Tears, ruptures and internal bleeding added to the bruises and trauma. The Captain getting wound so tight that for a moment he even toyed with sedating him. Trouble was when the drugs wore off he would have one very pissed off and dangerous Captain on his hands. No. Better to endure the fit of rage and weather the storm only no storm broke. Simon found out why when he turned his head. The Captain was no longer standing behind him with his watchful gaze. In fact. He was no longer in the shuttle.

When Simon turned back to look at Inara their eyes met and he saw the depth of her misery tinged with concern. Longed to ease that burden for her if he could. Realised that as impossible as it seemed she was worried about the Captain. "He mustn't seek revenge, Simon." She whispered.

"Does he know who was responsible?" He asked gently. His eyes silently asked *do you*?

She bit her lip then shook her head slowly. Simon tried to cheer her up. "Then there's no reason for you to worry."

"You don't understand. When Mal sets his mind to do something nothing can deflect him."

"The Captain has other considerations, Inara. I don't think he'll jeopardise those."

"I wish I had your faith, Simon."

Before she could protest he injected her with a sedative. It took less than a minute to take effect. Only when she was unconscious did he take a moment to review his options then he resumed his work, steadfastly determined to heal the damage as best he could before the drugs wore off.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *wangba dan* = bastard *gos se* = crap *dong ma* = understand *wo dong* = I understand



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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.