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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - ADVENTURE
Book faces his past, and seeks to repent for the wrongs he committed. Inara struggles to keep Mal from loosing his grip on reality.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1856 RATING: 7 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer: As usual, thanks to Mutant Enemy for the characters and hope you can forgive the liberties I'm taking with them.
Author's note: About the bones - there are 206, according to my source.
Things Fall Apart - Chapter 9
The boy in the wheelchair watched as they brought the preacher into the theatre, with many of the Reavers gathered out in the hall following them inside, jeering and spitting. The boy turned to regard the Reaver leader.
"Remember what our purpose is here," he instructed. "This is neither the time nor the place to settle old grudges. We must look to the future of our people, not our past."
The tall Reaver's expression flickered, but he continued to watch the preacher's approach with icy intensity. River glanced between them apprehensively.
"He is my tribe now," she said, her voice sounding thin in the silence of the auditorium. "He took a different path."
"And it lead him right back to me," the Reaver leader said grimly, speaking in the common tongue for the Shepherd's benefit. "It's almost enough to make you believe again, ain't it Shepherd?"
The Reaver spat out the last word, and River saw Book flinch. They had stopped a few feet from the edge of the stage, the crowd of Reavers behind them falling silent in anticipation. The preacher looked up at the Reaver leader, his gaze unwavering.
"I am called Shepherd Book now," he said calmly.
"So you're calling yourself a man of God now," the Reaver leader said, shaking his head slowly. "Looks like your God has a few scores to settle with you still, don't it preacher? Do you see what the Great Betrayer does to those who believe in Him?" He asked of the Reaver deserters and ex-soldiers crowding into the theatre. "You are delivered into the hands of your enemies!"
There were shouts of approval, and the Shepherd was jostled and dealt a couple of heavy blows before their leader gestured for silence. The tall Reaver folded his arms and studied the Shepherd, half smiling. "You see, I learnt my lesson along with all my people. Don't look to no God to save us. We look to our own, those as gave us the skills and savvy to survive out here in the black when we were abandoned by you 'n your God." He spat to one side in disgust. "I know what you are! I know what you've done! No amount of prayin's ever gonna repay the debt you owe the spirits of those who died following your orders. Once," he snarled, holding up one finger, "Once a man is betrayed. Only dumb animals stay with the herd when they see their brothers and sisters, their parents and children being slaughtered and think that the farmer will not turn on them. Once! No more." He paused for breath, glancing around at his men, many of whom were shouting their agreement. "Loyalty to the tribe, honour to your brothers, freedom for my people. That is what I have learned out here in the black. No power in this verse gonna give us what we need, so we take it. We gonna take what we need from you."
Shepherd Book looked down, studying his hands as the Reavers around him chanted their leader's name. As they grew quiet he raised his head and met the Reaver leader's eyes squarely, "You are right, I cannot repay the debt I owe to those who died. But River is also right. I have chosen a different path now, one that allows me to right some of the wrongs that I see in this 'verse. Perhaps balance up the books a little. If there is some way that I may do that for you and your people, pay you back something of the debt on my soul, then I will gladly do so. But if I may I would also like to ask a question."
The Reavers looked thoroughly unimpressed with the Shepherd's willingness to co-operate. Their leader folded his arms, snorting contemptuously. "The lamb bleating on the way to the slaughter." He nodded to the boy in the wheelchair. "You had better ask it of the prophet, perhaps he can tell you what level of hell your God has reserved for you."
The Shepherd stared at the boy in surprise. Until that moment he had dismissed the cripple in the wheelchair as just another strangeness in a strange place, but now Book became aware that every Reaver in the room was regarding the boy with a mixture of fear and reverence. Book glanced at River, who rolled her eyes and said impatiently, "No, not that question Shepherd. You already know the answer. Ask something interesting."
The Shepherd opened his mouth, reconsidered, closed it again, briefly frowned at River and then addressed the boy.
"I do not understand why you are here. Why did you attack this station and destroy the colony ship? In a few hours the Alliance's battleships will arrive and you will be forced to retreat. What will you have gained?"
"Why do you think we are here?" The boy asked in his laboured, slurred speech.
At the Shepherd's continued frown, River started to explain what he had said. Book shook his head impatiently. "I understood, thank you River. You must know that you will not stop the Alliance by destroying one ship or one space station," he said quietly to the boy. "They will build another Serendipity, and another, and they will destroy you if you attempt to get in their way. Many of the men here have seen what happens to those who try to fight them the way you are doing. You cannot hope to win."
The boy shifted in his chair, an impatient movement. "What am I?" He asked.
Book looked at River, then warily back at the boy. "I...could not say."
The Reaver leader laughed. "He is our prophet, Shepherd. Your God sent you prophets back in the day to show your people the way, only seems like your people didn't want this one. So we took him. Now he's doin' for us what he could'a been doin' for you."
Book's expression stayed guarded, and the boy made a gargling sound. It took the Shepherd a moment to realize he was laughing.
"You don't believe," the boy said. "What, a prophet must be dead before you do? Where is your faith, preacher?"
"It is not that I do not believe you," Book explained, glancing again at River. "I have only recently seen some remarkable things, things that could easily be described as miraculous. It is just that the explanations for such events often raise more questions than they answer. I am...cautious. I presume that it was you who lead these men here. However, I am still unclear about why."
The boy's amusement faded, and his head fell forward as though he was suddenly weary. "The answer to your question is obvious if you think about it. It's a matter of perspective."
"But if you are a prophet, what need do you have of me?" The preacher asked. "What need do you have for any of us?"
"What use is a vision if you do not know what it means?" the boy asked in return, struggling to turn his head and look at River. "What I see does not always make sense to me. Information is of no use if one does not understand its significance."
River smiled at him, and said to the Shepherd as though explaining to a child, "If you are standing at a crossroad and you can only see down one path, how do you know whether another might not be better? You ask other travelers, that's how."
The Shepherd stared at her without comprehension, then his face suddenly cleared. "And we are those travelers?" He asked. River sighed at how slow he was.
Book considered this in silence, wondering if he had benefited at all from knowing what it was that these children thought they were doing. It was as though every answer he received was part of a puzzle, and he only glimpsed part of the picture through their fractured explanations. That was assuming he had understood it as they did. What was even more disconcerting was the knowledge that the Reavers believed in this boy's vision, but what exactly they believed their place was in it and how they would act as a result Book could not begin to guess. Religion was a minefield of possible misunderstanding, and he was only beginning to understand the complexity of the subject.
However, there was one question that seemed imperative, if only because River and this strange boy were involved.
"How exactly do you plan to find out the information you need?" Book asked.
"River," the boy said shortly. It was both an answer and a command. The Reavers who held Book took him by the arms and propelled him forward, lifting him up onto the stage. River grinned at him with great pride.
"I was always top of my class in the practicals," she explained, then darted away to fetch a large black leather bag.
Book said, "I am assuming that both the Captain and the Companion have been subjected to this?"
River looked up, her face suddenly guilty. The preacher did not find that comforting.
"The Captain has been questioned," the boy confirmed. "He was...more than helpful."
"He is still alive?" Book asked. There was a brief, crowded silence. River had absorbed herself in hunting through the bag for whatever it was.
"He's alive," the boy said, and Book had to be content with that.
The Shepherd was forced to his knees, and two of the Reavers grabbed his wounded arm and held it firmly. River knelt next to him and deftly undid the tourniquet.
"You have to loosen these every half hour or the rot sets in," she told Book.
"I know that River. Can you tell me about Inara? Is she alive?" Book asked insistently. River inserted the needle and looked at him with sorrowful eyes.
"She lives," she replied.
Book sighed in relief, "Oh, thank God. Thank God."
The Reaver leader had come up to stand beside the boy and eyed Book with contempt. "Hope you made peace with your inner demons, preacher, coz you're about to meet 'em."
Mal woke up screaming. He was on his feet, grabbing for a gun that wasn't there and shouting, "Frazer, get down! Ben dan, there's snipers on that ridge, you'll never make it!"
"Mal, no!" Inara was out of her seat, trying to get between him and anything dangerous in the small, crowded space. "You're dreaming, it's just a dream!"
"He's gonna get himself killed! What's that gorramned idiot doing? He can hear me, I know he can!"
"Mal, you're having a nightmare, the war is overI" She managed to steer him away from a pile of plywood and plaster covered in garish paint. Props, perhaps? There were nails sticking out of them and her dress snagged on one. Inara tugged at it wearily, putting yet another hole in her clothing. Many more and it'd be falling off her.
"Yuchun hwu dan...he can hear me," Mal said in a quieter tone, "He's just not listenin'. Frazer's gone crazy, he's tryin' to get himself killed."
Mal stared at a scene only he could see, eyes wide with horror. Inara forgot about her dress and took two quick strides to put herself in front of him, grabbing hold of his arm. "Mal, look at me. Look at me! It's not real. The war is over."
He ignored her. She felt his body jerk, his mouth sagged open in shock and one hand went up in an unconscious warding gesture. Mal said, "No!" almost convulsively, then lunged forward.
Inara reacted instinctively and pushed back, hands braced against his chest. She was nearly knocked off her feet again, but he staggered to a halt and looked down at her, his expression naked with pain and confusion.
"Get out of my way!" He pushed at her, but as quickly as he realized she was there his attention was gone again and he was shouting, "Frazer, you qingwa cào de liúmáng! Why'd you do that?"
It occurred to Inara to be really afraid of his strength. If he knocked her out or otherwise made it impossible for her to keep the promise she'd made to the Reavers to keep him quiet, he would be killed. She had to do something and fast, before the Reavers came through the door again. Knowing she couldn't hold on to him for long, Inara put a hand on either side of his face and forced him to look at her. "Look at me, Mal! What you're seeing is a dream. You have to get control of yourself or you're going to be hurt."
He drew back, shaking his head, "No, I saw him die. I can still see him dying," but he looked doubtful as he glanced back over her shoulder.
She made him look at her again. "Think about it! I wasn't in the war with you. What you're seeing isn't real or I wouldn't be here. You've been drugged. You're remembering what happened a long time ago. The war is over."
For all she thought it would reassure him, there was suddenly real fear in Mal's eyes.
"Let go of me!" he tried to pull away from her, bewildered by her resistance. "I don't understand, why is this happening? Kwan Yin, I'm goin' mad!"
She could feel the tremors in his body, a reaction from the drug, and he was breathing too quickly. He was beginning to panic. Keeping her voice low she said, "Please, try to stay calm. You're not going mad, you've been drugged. You need to keep calm if you're going to control these visions. The drug will wear off and you'll be fine, I promise."
But he wasn't looking at her any more. He was staring into the distance again, searching, and she felt his body twitch as though he had heard something. Mal swore under his breath and his expression grew cold and murderous. It was Inara who panicked then.
"Mal, stop it!" Frantically she grabbed hold of his hands and held them to her body. "Do you feel that? I'm what's real! Stay with me, please stay with me."
It worked. He stared at her in shock, hands clenching convulsively. "What're you doing?"
Inara reacted as she had been trained to, using everything she had been taught to keep a man's attention with the added intensity of knowing that his life depended on it. She moved closer to him, holding his gaze, refusing to let him look away.
"Stay with me," she told him, dropping her voice to a soft, urgent whisper. "The only thing that's real here is me, Mal. Hold on to me."
For a moment she actually wondered if he would push her away. His expression held such a conflicting mass of emotions - confusion, hurt, fear, and the desire she'd always known was there - that she couldn't say which of them would win. He swallowed heavily.
"You...you said you ain't never..." he broke off in confusion, then tried a different tack. "Why're you doin' this?"
"Because I don't want to see you hurt," Inara replied, thanking every deity she knew at that moment that he had not pulled away, that his hands had stayed where she had put them, and consciously shoving all her order's dictates to the back of her mind. There would be time for repentance later, if they lived through this. Now she just had to keep him focused.... She moved closer still so that her thigh brushed his, and heard the faint catch in his breathing that told her he'd felt that. "Let me help you Mal. Please."
"But you left," he said simply.
She was still, hearing questions beneath that statement that she didn't know how to answer. The coldly analytical part of her mind pointed out that this was why her order had all those rules. It gave her a very clear idea of how she should answer those questions in a sane, rational way. But this wasn't a sane, rational place.
"You found me again," she replied, and there were questions of her own in her answer.
He studied her in silence, and she saw something like an understanding on his face - that the answers to those questions were the same anyway. Then his breath caught and he closed his eyes, his whole body tensing.
"Inara, what's happening? I keep seein' things I don't want to be seein'. I can't stop it. Why doesn't it stop?"
She leaned forward and kissed him. At first he froze, then one hand came up to catch her at the back of the neck, holding her for a moment before he pulled away.
"'Nara, don't, not like this-"
She quickly reached up and touched his mouth with her fingers to shut him up.
"I know, it's OK," she whispered. "This'll pass, and I'm not going anywhere until it does. Just hold on to me, dong ma? Don't let go."
The hand at the back of the neck slipped around to cup her cheek, his fingers gentle even if his hand was shaking.
"Ni hao mei," he said softly. "I didn't believe."
"Didn't believe what?"
He didn't answer. The shivering was getting worse. Inara eased him down onto the floor, looking around for something to keep him warm. There was nothing.
"It's OK, you're going to be alright." She held on to him, using her body to keep him warm, closing her eyes and indulging in a wave of relief.
Over her shoulder, Mal watched the nightmare unfold.
There was a great tree standing in the middle of a field of grass. It was mid summer and the sky was a clear, faultless blue, seeming even more intense against the brilliant green. Book stood about half a mile out into the field, knee deep in grass, breathing in the sweet scent of earth and growing things. The sense of tranquility was palpable.
River stepped up on his left. She was wearing a light summer dress and was barefoot, looking around with a smile on her face.
"I like this place," she said. "Is it real?"
The Shepherd was surprised. "You're asking me?"
River glanced at him sidelong. "It's your dream."
"I remember a place like this," said the prophet, stepping into view on the Shepherd's right. Book stared at him in astonishment. On his own two feet and suddenly much more of a lanky young man than a boy, the prophet smiled at him. "I'm older than I look, and I wasn't always in a wheelchair you know. I leave it behind whenever I can."
Book smiled tentatively in return. "I can understand that. You said you knew a place like this?"
"When I was a child I lived in a place a lot like this one," the young man took a long moment to look around. "There were mountains on the horizon, and from the top of them you could see the ocean."
"It sounds like paradise," Book commented.
The young man shrugged, his expression suddenly wistful. "For a child, perhaps. But we are not children, and we must put away childish things. Show me."
"Show you what?" Book asked.
River grabbed hold of Books hand. "Show us where you buried the bones," she said, and tugged him forward.
They were under the tree, which now seemed to tower above them, it's lowest branches well out of reach. Deep shade stretched beneath the canopy, reducing the field outside to a narrow strip of light and grass. The air was cool and still. Book stared upwards, trying to see the sky, but was interrupted by River scrabbling at the earth at the base of the trunk.
"What are you doing?" Book asked her urgently. "Don't, River, you'll get yourself all dirty."
The young man, who was standing to one side and watching her, looked at him with a frown. "Help her then."
Book stared doubtfully at the dark patch of earth that River had cleared. "I...I don't think I want to."
"You might as well, your hands are already dirty."
The Shepherd looked down and found his hands blackened with muck and earth. He hadn't even noticed before. Reluctantly, he knelt down beside River.
"What are you looking for?" He asked her.
She sat back, brushing hair from her eyes and leaving a black streak on her forehead. "Do you always ask questions you already know the answer to? It's your dream, you tell me what we'll find."
Book stared at the shallow pit already dug. "Bones," he said, and began digging.
The day grew hotter, until the air beneath the tree became stifling. When Book paused to take a break and look around, he was surprised to find that the branches of the tree were now bare. The sun was beating down on them from a cobalt sky, and the fields of grass had bleached yellow in the heat. Tall stems waved in a breeze he could not feel, whispering like the ocean. The young man who was a prophet stood a few feet away, staring at the horizon and shading his eyes with one hand.
"Have you found them yet?" he asked without turning around.
"Just a few." Book looked at the collection of bones that lay neatly beside him on the baked red earth. "Do you know that many ancient peoples used to tell fortunes with bones?"
"Oh yes," the young man examined what Book had found. "It is still practiced today by witchdoctors and fortune tellers on many different worlds. I don't subscribe to it myself. You will have to tell me the story of these bones."
Book picked one of them up and studied it. He thought it was part of the wrist, a small piece of the larger puzzle. "The story," he murmured, and a quick spasm of pain crossed his face. "One for each of them." Abruptly his fist closed around the fragment and he stared grimly up at the young man. "Old bones are best left buried."
"My people are going to die, preacher."
Book frowned. "What?"
The young man squinted in the glare of the sun as he studied Book's face. "I'm a fortune teller, remember? I saw the future, and I saw my people dying. I saw that there was no place for them in this 'verse, nowhere left for them that the Alliance couldn't follow. They were being wiped out."
Book absently rolled the bone between his fingers and said to hurt, "There's plenty of folk would say that that's not a bad thing."
"'Cept the folk it's happening to," the young man replied. "But I'm not finished. It wasn't only my people dying, preacher. It was men in brown coats. It was poor people struggling to make a living in the border colonies. It was folks in the core worlds, rioting in the streets, being shot at by men in Alliance uniforms. I saw the future for all of us, preacher. I saw the Alliance's future. The center cannot hold, and chaos will be loosed upon the worlds. Only they didn't want to believe me."
Book stared at him, and now the young man had stopped talking the only sound in the shimmering heat was River, humming a tune as she scrabbled at the red earth. The young man laughed a little and shook his head.
"They looked at me like you're looking at me now, and they decided they didn't like what I saw. So they didn't believe me. I'm not a machine, Shepherd. I don't get programmed to see what people want me to see. They left me to rot in a high security medical facility on some god-forsaken moon because they didn't like the answers I gave them."
The young man abruptly broke off, turned and stalked away, his bare feet raising puffs of red dust from the hard-baked ground. After a moment Book called after him, "Don't go into the grass, there are snakes out there."
The young man stopped, standing with his back stiff and straight, staring towards the horizon. Book stood up, feeling his shirt sticking to his chest and back. A hot, dry wind was blowing up from the south. It felt as though he was standing in front of a blast furnace. He followed after the young man, stopping a couple of feet behind him.
"That seems like a pretty clear vision to me, prophet. I don't see as you need much explaining from me or mine to help you understand it."
"I don't need to understand it, I want to understand how to prevent it." The young man turned his head, regarding him coldly. "If there's one thing I've learnt about the future, it's that it's always in a state of flux. I've had this vision countless times, Shepherd, and every time it's different. Sometimes I'm standing on one side, sometimes on another. Sometimes the Alliance troopers shoot the rioters, and sometimes the rioters overrun their positions. And once," he smiled a little, "once I even saw a place with no soldiers, just ordinary people living ordinary lives. I thought I'd seen heaven." The smile faded. "I need to know why the visions change, Shepherd. I need to know which path to choose, and I need to know who will be taking that path with me."
The tiny piece of bone in Book's closed fist was biting into his flesh. He made himself relax a little, saying dryly, "Well, you certainly know how to talk the part of the prophet. The Alliance are going to regret letting you fall into Reaver hands."
"I hope so," the young man snapped back. "Well?"
"Tell me the story of the bones. Show me what you know that I should know."
Book studied the boy thoughtfully. "Alright. On one condition."
The young man's eyes narrowed. "What is it?"
"You tell me exactly what it was that you saw. Everything, including what you learned from the Captain. If there's any truth to your vision, then we all should be doing something to prevent it."
The young man stared at him in silence for a heartbeat. "Done."
Book looked suspicious. "That was too easy."
The young man shrugged. "Just because we're on opposite sides doesn't mean we can't agree on something once in a while. So talk."
Book sighed, opened his hand and let the bone lie in the center of his palm. He held it up until it was level with his eyes and those of the prophet.
"A bone for every one," he said softly. "I woke up one day and I realized that I had personally killed as many people as there were bones in the human body. Many more had died indirectly of course, but these were the ones I watched die. I don't even know all their names. It is such an intimate experience, being there when someone dies, but I had become numb to it. I felt nothing anymore. I didn't even feel God. That frightened me." He closed his hand and met the young man's expectant gaze. "This is going to take some time."
Some time later, River, Book and the prophet sat at the base of the tree next to the trench that River and Book had dug with their hands. Beside them a skeleton had been neatly laid out on the dry red ground, each bone in its place. Book was staring up at the tree, which towered above them. There were two branches extending out on either side of the trunk, and the significance was not lost on the Shepherd.
"I didn't expect it to be so high," he murmured.
The prophet glanced at him, then up at the towering cross. "It's a wonder you managed to get the body down," he agreed.
River had her knees tucked under her chin and was staring at the bones with an expression somewhere between horror and fascination. "I never even felt it," she whispered.
Book studied the body with some curiosity. His own face stared back at him, skin grayed in death, the pristine uniform now covered in red dust. "I think I look better now," he said matter-of-factly.
"I'm not so sure," the prophet commented, staring mournfully at the body of the boy. "I think I looked better then."
"They must've broken me when they took me down," River said to no-one in particular. "They should have been more careful. All those pieces, how did they ever hold together?"
Book looked from one to the other. "I thought this was my dream."
"Perhaps we're seeing your answers to our questions," the prophet suggested, standing up and taking a slow look around at the desert landscape. "I like this place too," he said. "You can see the bones of things here."
The Shepherd stood up more slowly, wryly conscious of how his old bones didn't take so easily to sitting cross-legged on the bare earth any more. "Many a good prophet has come out of the desert," he agreed. "The climate seems to agree with them. Come, River, time to be going."
She glanced up at him. "We're just going to leave them here?" she asked of the bones.
"I think so," Book looked up at the brilliant sky. "It's time they were left out in the sun and air. Well, prophet, do you know the way?"
"River will show us," the young man said, holding out his hand to her. She took it and stood in one quick movement.
"There is one more path I need to show you," she told the prophet.
"I know," he smiled. "It was a crossroads, I can count."
Book's eyes widened in surprise. "But I thought...wait a minute, who else is there?"
But River and the prophet were already walking towards the horizon and didn't answer.
Ben dan - you idiot
Yuchun hwu dan - stupid son of a bitch
qingwa cào de liúmáng! - frog-humping sonofabitch!
Ni hao mei - You are so beautiful
Wednesday, January 07, 2004 4:00 PM
Tuesday, January 13, 2004 7:17 AM
Tuesday, January 27, 2004 7:53 AM
Tuesday, January 27, 2004 3:10 PM
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