BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

AMDOBELL

THE PURSUIT SERIES: 19. "Unity"
Sunday, December 31, 2006

"Old friends reunite in time to help out some new ones. Far away a different kind of conflict rears its' head looking for resolution."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1913    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "UNITY" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: K/S. M/I. RATING: PG-13. **CONCLUSION** STATUS: SEQUEL to "HELP UNLOOKED FOR" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: http://unilelu.net/Alison/Ali00.html

SUMMARY: "Old friends reunite in time to help out some new ones. Far away a different kind of conflict rears its' head looking for resolution." 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.

"UNITY"

"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Simon Tam was too comfortable to move. With Kaylee nestled in the crook of his arm he did not think there could be any greater contentment in the 'verse. Without realising he was doing it he chuckled softly. Kaylee stirred in his arms and stole a languid kiss. "What ya laughin' at?"

"I'm just happy."

Her eyebrows rose in a comical expression, eyes searching his for the punchline. When it didn't come she looked bemused. "Crash landin' in the middle of No an' Where with all manner of animals an' folk wantin' to kill or 'speriment on us an' you're happy?"

He laughed a little louder and dropped a kiss on the end of her nose making her frown. Even Simon Tam should not have been able to miss her mouth from that short distance. "What I meant was I'm happy because you are in my arms." The frown vanished. Kaylee dazzled him with a smile that would shame the brightest of suns. "Could'a done this a whole lot sooner, Simon." She murmured, her lips closing over his.

Simon kept his eyes open as long as he could but the kiss was deepening, Kaylee's tongue sliding in his open mouth and drawing a moan deep from within the doctor. Wriggling to get more comfortable and mould herself even closer, Kaylee kissed with abandon. All her fears and pent up frustrations channelled into driving Simon out of his mind. Her body cradling his, her hips rolling to get as much contact where she wanted it as humanly possible. Simon gasped softly, tasting Kaylee's wicked smile just before her hand slid between them, those clever talented fingers undoing his pants and homing in on their target before he could catch his breath. Groaning Simon responded in kind, this time making the mechanic squirm, every movement of her body setting his own on fire until he was sure the pair of them would spontaneously combust.

Up on the bridge Zoe was staring blankly out the window, her mind trying to unravel everything that had happened in an attempt to rationalise the impossible made flesh. Idly she wondered whether she was dreaming, having a nightmare. If she wasn't then she was going out of her mind. It was the only thing that made sense. Zoe stifled a yawn and was about to get up and stretch her legs when the com blinked. She froze. Eyes staring at the mute flashing light. Not random. Not a consistent blinking. Slowly her dulled brain fired up again, sharp and alert, now paying total attention as the light flashed. A beautific smile lit the sombre plains of her face. Patching the com through to the Captain she woke him from a fitful sleep. His muzzy voice sailed back over the com line.

"Zoe? *Shenme shi*? We got Alliance entanglements?"

"No sir, but you're gonna wanna see this. In fact," Zoe flicked the com to broadcast ship-wide. "You're *all* gonna want to see this, sir!"

The crew trickled up onto the bridge in various sleepy states. Malcolm Reynolds stared at the light, trying to block out the way Zoe was grinning in the next seat. Simon didn't get it. Was something wrong with the ship to ship com? River turned her head and gave her brother a level look, her voice sounding a little bored. "Can't always use words."

Simon blinked. "You can't?"

Kaylee wrapped her arms around the doctor and smiled when he kissed her cheek. River seemed to be getting a little frustrated that Simon hadn't worked it out yet. "It's in code."

The Captain blinked and looked again. Sure enough the blinking lights reminded him of morse code. Deciding to test his suspicion the Captain sent a staticky wave back knowing it would cause the receiving ship to get a blinking light in return.

"What does it say?"

The look on Malcolm Reynolds' face held them all in thrall. Zoe smiled but said nothing. The first mate could read the code as well as her Captain and nothing in the 'verse would make her spoil this moment. Wanted to savour it long as she could. That self same code had come in more than a mite handy during the War, enabling the hard pressed Browncoats to get useful intel passed all the high technology the Alliance so loved to beat them over the head with. Felt even sweeter that their low tech solution was something used hundreds of years ago on Earth-That-Was in older theatres of war. Felt kind of like they were keeping up the tradition. One that oppressed folks everywhere could connect with. Was all manner of pleasing.

The rest of the crew were beginning to get frustrated, impatient even. Only River looked content and happy. Wash exhanged a look with his wife then smiled gently, his arm settling around Zoe's waist where it belonged. The two as comfortable together as if they were joined at the hip.

"Well?" Yelled Jayne, about ready to start busting heads if they didn't start making a lick of sense. "What in the gorram *diyu* is it? We humped?"

Mal and Zoe exchanged identical looks. The Captain's smile turned into a grin. Even his eyes were merry, warm where so often temper and pressure turned them cold. "That is our way off this hell-hole, Jayne."

Blank expressions stared back at him. Zoe chuckled. Wash grinned, having a pretty good idea what it meant but thinking now was the time for some clarification.

"*Bao bei*, this a secret? 'Cause you know if it is I'm thinkin' you should share it with your husband."

Kaylee tilted her head, trying to figure out what the Captain wasn't telling them. "Who is it, Cap'n?"

The Captain beamed at her. "Someone we ain't seen in a good long while, little Kaylee."

"And," Added Zoe, enjoying drawing out the suspense a little more. "looks like he's brought a few friends with him."

"Him?" Said Wash, his expression tinged with confusion. Wondering if this was something he should be worrying about. "Who him?"

"Friends?" Murmured the Shepherd, his look thoughtful and deep.

Jayne frowned. He didn't get it. "So it ain't Alliance?"

* * * * *

Sometimes the 'verse was a big pile of nothing, sometimes it was full of mixed blessings. Other times it was the biggest pile of *goushi* ever. Right now things looked shiny. Better than shiny. The navigator on the Senator's ship let out a shout of relief and joy. The crew cheering at the wave from the Alliance troop transporter. Never had words sounded so sweet.

"You don't know how happy we are to hear from you, Sergeant!"

The sound of the troop transporter docking was music to everyone's ears. Now that they had knew they had a real chance of rescue hearts lifted in anticipation. The orderly move to the transporter paused for one awkward moment as Sgt Hatton glanced down at the body of Senator Lang. "We should take him with us."

The words were reluctantly said, as if out of a diminishing sense of duty rather than regard for a man he saw as a mouthpiece for the rich and pampered as opposed to a fellow supporter of the Alliance and Unification. When no one agreed with him, Sgt Hatton let his lips twist, knowing any decision he made would be carried out with no censure. Just so long as he was the one who made it. Huh. No getting away from politics even in the Black.

"You know," said Sgt Claude Hatton slowly, "we don't carry coffins. Don't have anything in fact suitable to send an official like the Senator to his maker in style."

Everyone held their breaths. Even those most anxious to board the transporter stayed put.

"In fact I'm thinking this ship would be the ideal vessel." He paused, nodded to himself then looked up. Decision made. "Crewman?" A trooper straightened. "Nathaniel Parker, sir!"

"I want you to set charges then get to the transporter. Once everybody is on we're going to leave this area and blow the ship." Sgt Hatton let his eyes glance over the sea of faces hanging on his every word. "Best send off we can give under the circumstances and this way neither the Senator nor Alliance technology will fall into the hands of the enemy, *dong ma*?"

The men murmured and nodded ready agreement, then the exodus began. Parker hurried to comply with his orders and once the charges were set shut the ship up behind him and sighed with relief as the troop transporter disengaged and moved to gain distance. When the Senator's ship exploded the survivors were far enough away to feel only relief. The men now looked towards Hatton. Putting a tight smile on his face the man began the job of rebuilding their confidence. "Send a signal, tight burst on the encrypted channel back to HQ. Tell them we need extraction then send the co-ordinates."

Just as the wave was being readied to send, a scream sent alarm through every man on board. What now? Hatton turned to Bradshaw and nodded, the man moved off to find the source of the cry, more screams breaking out and causing panic to begin building up.

"What in the nine hells is happening back there? Soldier, report!"

Bradshaw's mouth opened to comply, then he yelped and jumped back in alarm. The soldiers closest to him shouting in fear, guns out and pointing at the deck. Before Sgt Hatton could reach them and calm things down shots rang out. The last thing he saw before total bedlam robbed him of his senses was the dark writhing shape of a snake wrapping itself around his pilot. He opened his mouth but nothing coherent came out. Feeling something sharp piece his thigh the Sergeant looked down in horror as an angular mouth opened, a pair of bloody fangs staring up at him while beady eyes watched the poison work its' way through his system.

"We are in *shen goushi*." Hatton murmured then collapsed.

The shouting and screaming reached an unseemly crescendo, one soldier even trying to open the transporter door to escape the snakes now slithering over and under and through every part of the vessel. He never made it that far. As the pilot succumbed and the troop transporter began to dive towards the proto-moon his last thought was one of envy that he had not gone down with the Senator and his ship. It at least would have been a mercifully quick death.

* * * * *

Monty swore softly. "*Wode ma*!"

From where she was standing Inara Serra could not see the console, her view blocked by Monty's not inconserable frame. "Did you reach them?"

"*Fang xin*, they got the message."

Pushing forward through the small press of crew Inara managed to get close enough to see that Monty was not looking at the controls or the screen but staring out into the Black. A fading bloom of light disappeared before she could grasp what she was seeing. "What was that?"

The big man stirred slowly. "A complication."

Before the Companion could ask another question Monty turned, brisk and business like again. "Best you take your ease, Inara. Don't know how bumpy things might get."

"I saw a flash..."

Something flickered on the man's face then was gone. A decision he didn't want to make forming in his mind even as the words left his mouth. "That ship you were on. Seems we got to you in the nick of time." Monty held up a hand to stop any further questions. Expression a little grim he indicated for Inara to be taken off the bridge. With a sigh Monty settled next to his pilot and sent another message to the benighted Firefly crew down on the proto-moon.

* * * * *

It wasn't often that Simon saw Kaylee in a temper with the Captain. True they had their spats but they were usually small differences of opinion easily healed with a word, a touch, a shared smile of apology and affection. This though, this was coming close to outright war. The Captain's expression had been firm, no give in him at all. "Ain't lookin' to discuss this, little Kaylee. You heard the Shepherd. You fix up that thing an' we can get off this rock with a clear conscience, *dong ma*?"

"But Cap'n it's broke!"

Malcolm Reynolds sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Kaylee, we ain't got spares for this, you know that."

Her expression told him she still hadn't forgiven him for his sharp words earlier. "I should be fixin' Serenity."

The Captain nodded. "An' so you shall, may even have some help in that quarter but for now? This needs to be put back together again?" He paused at her expression, crouched down and looked her in the eye, his voice softening but not his determination. "Kaylee, you don't wanna see all them shiny animals die? Me neither. We owe more than we can repay but if we can do this, give them a system they can use to keep survivin' then its' time worth spendin'."

"I know that Cap'n it's just." The mechanic broke off and lifted up the battered Scorpion. "How'm I gonna fix this?"

River came into the commons room with a big smile on her face. Simon shot her a suspicious look but she wasn't paying him any attention. "You don't. I do."

Now the others looked baffled. Kaylee stared at her friend. "You?"

River grinned. "Me!"

The Captain had to resist the urge to smile, there was something very quixotic and endearing about a happy River. One he wouldn't want to take the shine off for anything. Well. Almost anything. River shot him a look as if she had plucked the fanciful thoughts out of his head and his smile faltered. Kaylee was sitting at the big oak table, Simon leaning on a chair next to her. The Captain stood up and put his hands on his hips. "What you got in mind, River?"

"Exactly!"

They looked at each other. Before anyone could think of a reply Zoe's voice came over the com. "Cap'n, we're gettin' a wave from Monty."

Kaylee jumped up to follow the Captain but he turned and pointed at her. "The Captain she said, not you. You got work to be doin'. Plenty of time to see Monty later."

Pulling a face Kaylee scowled at him and watched the Captain's back as he left the room. A small cool hand in hers made her look round to see River smiling at her. Kaylee smiled back, couldn't stay mad at anyone for long though how they were supposed to mend technology so far in advance of anything she'd ever seen before the mechanic did not know.

"You pull it back into shape and I'll fix the non moving parts."

Kaylee blinked. "You can do that?"

River nodded. Simon had reservations but one look at his sister's face and he wasn't so doubtful. If River said she could do it then she could. He might not be a genius like his sister but he was smart enough to know if anyone could pull off the impossible she could.

* * * * *

It was hours later and starting to get dark but no one gave a good gorram. Jayne and Book were deep in conversation standing just outside the ship with everyone else. Kaylee had managed to get the Scorpion repaired enough for River to programme in some simple commands. Neither of them would know how well it worked until they tried it. Zoe and Wash stood side by side, faces eagerly tilted up towards the rag tag flotilla of ships that had come to their rescue. An anxious look hovered on the Captain's face. Simon thought he would have looked a lot happier about seeing Inara again but then this was the Captain.

The Shepherd stopped talking and noticed the Captain was not looking at the flotilla. Something else had caught his eye. Just as he was about to speak the Captain started yelling. "Everybody get back inside, *mashang*!"

Confused expressions turned to him as if the man had taken leave of his senses.

"Run! 'Less you wanna be in the explosion comin' our way!"

Jayne scanned the sky to see the source of danger and swore. "*Wode ma*, it's gonna crash!"

Wash couldn't it believe it. Just as their luck was on the turn another complication had to crop up. Zoe tugged his arm and between them they made sure Kaylee, River and Simon didn't linger. Within seconds they were safely aboard the grounded Firefly, Shepherd Book hitting the switch to close the door for added protection. Jayne pressed his face against the small glass window by the door and peered out. The explosion shook the ship, the flash outside illuminating Jayne Cobb's face. The crew stood in silence, no one moving or stirring for several minutes. Wash looked at the Captain. "Someone's wavin' us."

Mal nodded, still a bit distracted by the near miss. "Must be Monty."

The two men hurried to the bridge. Zoe moved to peer over Jayne's shoulder. He muttered without looking up. "Nothin' to see anyway. No one could survive a crash like that."

River looked at Simon then stared at a bulkhead though she was not seeing it. "Already dead. No one left to signal home."

Zoe turned to look at the girl. "Who were they?"

The girl blinked and looked at Zoe. "Alliance. Soldiers. Men doing their duty only it wasn't. Didn't know the grey lines between right and wrong were so wide, so corrupted of reason. Blind obedience isn't the same as blind faith."

Jayne moved away from the window so the Preacher could take a look for himself. He nodded slowly and stepped back. "It's an Alliance ship transporter - or what's left of one."

"Monty must'a shot it down." Said Jayne, satisfaction in his tone.

"*Bushi*." Said River, correcting Jayne's assumption. "Brought down by those they had wronged. Didn't see the threat until it was too late."

"River? What are you talking about?"

She smiled at her brother. Always the last one to catch the clue bus but well worth the effort. His mind was pure and uncluttered with intrigue. "Revenge is a dish best served cold."

Before they could fathom what River meant the clatter of steps on the metal stairs distracted them. The Captain hurried over to them with Wash no more than a step behind him. "Seems an Alliance craft crashed. Monty don't know what happened, says to be cautious. They're landin' now, givin' the wreckage a wide berth. Don't want no secondary explosion takin' out the good guys."

Simon turned his head to gently bait the Captain. "And are we the good guys?"

"If you ain't figured that out by now, Top Three Per Cent, then you're in more trouble than we are."

The doctor frowned slightly, Kaylee laughed and Zoe smirked. River caught Book's eye and nodded, her expression going solemn to suit the occasion. "Safe to go out now, but don't touch. Metal's still hot."

No one was quite sure exactly what to expect. Twisted wreckage, yes. Bodies thrown out and mangled, certainly. Smouldering fire, possibly. Snakes? Absolutely not. The stench hit them first. Burning flesh and something even less pleasant befouling the air. The snakes though seemed immune to it. They slithered and swarmed across the crash site until the ground seemed to be writhing, so many of them the eye could not follow their moving bodies long enough to count. Jayne jumped back. Amused, Zoe looked at him from the corner of her eye. "Relax Jayne, they look as if they've already fed."

Jayne turned an interesting shade of pale and backed up further. Wash squeezed his wife's hand and tried to hide how unsettled the mass of reptiles made him feel. "Now, *bao bei*, that wasn't nice."

Shepherd Book was fascinated. How had the snakes got on to an Alliance troop transporter? Then it hit him and he started to laugh, a deep low chuckle growing as his humour bubbled up to the surface. The Captain looked at him. "What's so funny, 'cause I'm thinkin' we could all use a laugh about now."

"I was wonderin' how the snakes got on an Alliance troop transporter, Cap'n."

No one took much notice of the little ships beginning to spread out to land around them. All eyes fixed on the Shepherd.

"I think it must have been when the last group of bloodsuckers landed."

Wash tried to follow the direction of Book's revelation. "You mean when the animals attacked them?"

Book nodded. "I think once the fighting, or should I say slaughter, was over the snakes must have boarded the troop transporter."

"But wouldn't there have been someone on the ship? Y'know a pilot or somesuch?" Asked Kaylee.

"Oh I'm pretty sure there was but if he left the door open they could have slithered in and hidden inside."

"I'm so glad you thought to share that with us." Simon tried to hide a shudder of revulsion but River had noticed and smiled at him. "Can we change the subject?"

The Captain clapped Simon on the shoulder. "That we can, doctor, that we can."

Then Mal was striding passed him, Zoe, Jayne and the Shepherd in his wake. Not wanting to be left behind Simon took Kaylee's hand and followed. Jayne snorted at River's expectant look. "Huh, ain't takin' your hand. I ain't crazy."

River smiled at him as if she knew a secret. "Then stay with the snakes."

It took a second for what she said to catch up with Jayne. With a stiffled yelp he made sure Serenity was shut up tight behind him then hurried to catch up. Reavers scared the living *diyu* out of him but what the others didn't know was that snakes came a close second.

* * * * *

Sir Warwick Harrow received the news with a smile, content that in some small way he had been able to help an old friend. He was also very fond of the Companion. He gave a curt little nod. "You did well."

"This mean the debt is paid?"

It was tempting to toy with the man and drag this out but Sir Warwick was not a mean or spiteful man and this had turned out a whole lot better than he had expected. That happy satisfaction coloured his expression and seeped into his voice. "Yes, it does."

The connection broke and Sir Warwick leaned back and thought for a moment. The sound of someone approaching the door to his study was enough to stir him into switching off his cortex link and standing to shuffle some papers. His wife politely knocked once then peered around the door. "Do you want something to drink before dinner, *xin gan*?"

The smile he gave her made her feel sixteen again. "*Bu qu*, I have a wine laid down before the war which would make the perfect accompaniment to our meal, Ana."

Her eyebrows rose. Something really good must have happened to warrant opening a bottle worth more than their house and estate put together. Whatever the occasion her husband wasn't telling and seeing the amused look on his face and the twinkle of merriment in his eyes she didn't care. Ana loved him and he was devoted to her. All the wine in all the 'verse could not hold a candle to that.

* * * * *

The reunion was as merry as it was welcome. They didn't have any of Kaylee's inter-engine brew to celebrate but if you could be drunk on happiness then they were all more than paralytic. Wash was amused when Zoe not only let Monty give her a hug but hugged him back, then the bear of a man hugged the Captain, lifting the man clean off his feet and twirling him around. His hearty laughter like something they had not known their ears were starved of hearing. Wash laughed, kissed his wife then turned as someone pounded on his back. Zoe was lost in another bear hug from someone Wash did not recognise but the face smiling at him was familiar enough that the flare of jealously never got a chance to ruin the moment.

"Hiro, is that you?"

Hiro Tanaka was grinning like a loon, his miraculously unlined face lit like a paper lantern. "Ah, Wash, my ship has been lonely without you!" Wash smiled back. Was Tanaka drunk? He knew the crew of Serenity was on one almighty high from the whole 'rescue from the jaws of death' thing but so far as he knew none of them had touched a drop. "Have you been drinkin' alcohol, Hiro?"

Tanaka laughed and called Renshaw over to him, one hand clapped on Wash's shoulder as if he had no intention of letting the pilot go. Renshaw swaggered into view then Wash saw it, the leather covered bottle that made his heart beat a little faster. "Is that...?"

Renshaw held out the bottle and Wash took it with reverence, only lifting it to his lips when both men pretty near begged him to taste for himself. It slid smooth and hot and spicy down his throat. Like a good rice wine twinned with tequila. The liquor had an afterburn that would make a Crazy Ivan look like a childhood stunt. This stuff could fuel anything. With a whoop, Wash wiped his mouth on his sleeve, eyes shining. Happy, Renshaw took the bottle back for a swig, Tanaka then claiming his turn before handing it to Wash. Before Wash knew it they were steering him away from the others, heads close together. Talking and coaxing him with all the wonders of the Black he could experience if he only threw in his lot with them. Although the men had their own ships they were willing to share. Six months with Tanaka then six with Renshaw. That alone convinced Wash they were both drunk but he had to admit it was shiny to have the two famed Captains trying so hard to get him to pilot their ships.

It took a minute or two for Mal to get his breath back. Monty's happy booming voice was lowered into something just below that of a sonic boom. So happy to see him again and not trying to hide his affection one jot. As Monty dipped his head to whisper something in Mal's ear he saw a glimpse of coloured silk out of the corner of his eye. Monty immediately knew the moment his cousin's attention was distracted but instead of being annoyed he smiled knowingly and moved to one side. The Captain's eyes widened, his smile growing. Inara Serra had never looked more lovely, more relaxed, than now. Her hair was in disarray, the fancy contraption holding it up in coils on the top of her head had fallen out letting the beautiful glossy black hair tumble down on to her shoulders and frame a face alight with pleasure. That she was pleased to see him warmed Mal's heart more than he could have imagined. Made breathing kind of a truncated necessity.

"Mal!"

Her voice was enough, then Monty was stepping aside, one big paw of a hand gently pushing his cousin towards the smiling Companion. Propelled by good intentions the Captain almost stumbled into Inara, her eyes laughed at him but there was something else in their depths as well. Relief, affection and a happiness that sent a thrill through him. "So, you're back."

Immediately the words left his lips Mal wanted to kick himself. What was that? Had a more pathetic sentence ever left his mouth? But Inara was still smiling so that was something. "Yes Mal, I'm back."

"I'm takin' it the whole client thing fell through or somesuch?" The Captain inwardly winced and cursed his stupid comment. Bringing up Inara's profession was a guaranteed way to kill the happy atmosphere quicker than a heart attack and yet - she was still smiling. Mayhap it wasn't just him who was drunk on happy after all.

"There was no 'client thing'."

He blinked. Confused. Before he could open his mouth to ask another question, Inara put a hand on his arm and began to steer him away from the crowd of Captains and crews all talking ten to the dozen and not a one of them making much more sense. Mal let himself be led, still felt a mite fragile though he would not have admitted it if his clothes had been on fire. Once they had moved far enough away to have a little privacy, Inara's smile began to slip though the warmth in her eyes oddly seemed to deepen. "Mal, *duibuqi*. This is my fault."

The Captain stared. How could she say that? "You build this moon?"

Inara shook her head.

"You put these gorram animals down here?"

Another head shake.

"You shoot Serenity out of the gorram sky, 'Nara? That what you did?"

"*Bu qu*, Mal, if you'd just let me get a word in."

He blinked. Mal. She had called him Mal four times in as many seconds. Mal, not Captain. Not a mistake or forgetting herself. That had to be a good sign, right? Not trusting himself to speak he nodded.

"The reason I left Serenity was a ruse, Mal. The Guild wanted me out of the way."

Anger began to crush the air in his lungs. Gorramit, if the rutting Guild wasn't bad enough without it messing with Inara's life. He realised Inara was still speaking and forced himself to hold his temper in check, for her sake.

Inara found a place for them to sit. Just a few rocks but high enough and wide enough to make an impromptu seating area. "It seems the Guild knew what was going to happen, don't ask me who warned them, but House Madrassa has contacts everywhere. Somehow Sheydra got word and instructed my friend Leylani to entice me away. I didn't suspect a thing but once I met up with Leylani she confessed the real reason I was called away was because Serenity was going to be taken along with all her crew. The Alliance set it up and I'm ashamed to say the Guild went along with it."

The Captain stared at her, a bleakness coming into his eyes that hurt her more than anything he could have said. She had hoped to never see that look upon his face again let alone be the one to put it there. "An' you wonder why I don't like the Guild?"

"The Guild isn't evil, Mal."

"No, just a manipulatin' bunch of..."

Inara put a hand on his arm and the Captain amended what he was going to say. This wasn't about lashing out at Inara. Far from it.

"You know how I feel about 'em. Ain't to say I tar you with that same brush, 'Nara. You an' me will likely never agree on that score. The Guild may not be evil as such but it's the biggest gorram pimp in the 'verse."

She bit her lip to steady herself before replying. Her voice quiet, not quite a plea. "It's my life, Mal."

"No." He shook his head, every line of his body adamant. Eyes sparking with muted fire. "No, 'Nara, it's theirs. Don't have to be yours, least by their say-so. You're better than that. Never told you before an' maybehaps I should have but I'm sayin' it now."

Inara wanted to touch him, hold him, ease the pain and ache inside that she knew was partly her creation. But there was so much between them. Barriers of thinking, of faith, of personality. They clashed in so many ways yet somehow it just made the see-saw of their attraction that much stronger. Sweeter and more painful by the hour. Inara wanted him to understand and not just to win points in some shouting match but to end the distance that kept coming between them, the harsh brittle words that turned biting wit and sarcasm into weapons. "All you see is the sex but it's so much more than that."

He felt sad. Defeated in a way that wounded his soul. "What I see is slavery. Oh, it's all done very fine an' fancy but you ain't free, 'Nara. Only able to sing the song they teach you. I remember an old song from Earth-That-Was. Mama used to sing it when we was kids. 'Bird in a Gilded Cage'."

"No, it's not a cage Mal. This is my choice."

A tiny spark of possibility glimmered in his eyes, so close to hope that he was wary of catching hold of it 'less it vanished. "So, it bein' your choice an' all, what happens should you decide to leave?" Inara looked shocked, the unexpected question producing an automatic response. One drummed into her through years of Guild training. "No one leaves the Guild, Mal. It's our life."

The Captain nodded sadly and took a step back, his eyes so full of regret Inara felt she could drown in it. "Like I said, 'Nara." He murmured softly. "Cage."

Trying to stop the tears from falling, Inara watched Mal walk away. The men from the slew of ships that had come to their aid welcoming him among them as if they were all peas in a pod. Unwittingly she overhead one of the men on the periphery speaking in a stage whisper to a man next to him. Obvious by his glance her way that they were talking about her. "Who's she anyway?"

"A Companion."

The first speaker shook his head and gave a smug little smile. "Nah, she's Malcolm Reynolds' painted whore!"

Silence fell. So utter and complete you could have cut it with a knife. The Captain turned his head and raised a hand when Monty would have said something. Zoe had heard the quip and waited for the Captain to errupt into an angry tirade of righteous indignation on Inara's behalf. The silence stretched a beat of two before the Captain spoke, not breaking contact for one moment with the man who had made the cruel comment. "Ain't mine."

Then Mal weaved passed a stunned Monty and ignoring his crew made his way back to his ship. Let the others celebrate, he was no longer in the party mood.

Inara stared, stunned, feeling as if she had been slapped though the Captain had spoken nothing but the truth. She had made a point time and time again of letting him know that she was not his, that there would be no servicing of him or his crew. A line had been drawn from the outset, one with her fingerprints all over it. Not for the first time Inara bitterly regretted that decision especially as she now realised just how much she wished it was not true. This was why it was wrong to get emotionally involved. The Guild was right. But deep inside her heart Inara knew she was lying again. She was trapped. Her life was a cage. Pretty and gilded but still a cage.

* * * * *

The Special Envoy stared at the woman on his cortex screen. "She is alive?"

Leylani allowed herself to smile back at him. Her manner would tell him more than her words. "They all are."

He was not interested in the others, she knew that. It was a subtle inference that Inara Serra was with people she cared about and who cared about her. They were a group, belonged together in ways her childhood friend had never managed when growing up in the oppulence of a family with more money than love. Power stirred that caudron, intellect guided the will, and ambition shaped the direction in which it would flow. Leylani knew the truth but would die before such words ever slipped from her tongue. Inara was a like a sister to her and she would protect her like one too. It was enough. It did not matter that Inara was oblivious to the fact that this man was her father. So long ago that tie had been cut, the child severed from him at a stroke of the umbical chord. Sir Edward Serra binding a barren wife to him with the promised child she could never conceive. Payment had never been a problem. It was conscience and unbearable loss that haunted Stephen Clarkson still. His wife had died a couple of years ago. Cancer, they said, but he knew the truth. She had died of a broken heart. Leylani was the only link he had to the daughter he could never acknowledge as his own. It was a bitter-sweet connection that he valued more than life itself and he would do anything to protect both Inara and Leylani.

"*Xie xie ni*."

Leylani would have offered words of comfort but none must be allowed to be spoken. So her manner said it for her, her eyes full of compassion. The sight brought a pained smile to lips that laughed too rarely. Yet more precious was the gift. Long after the connection was closed, Leylani stared at the blank screen. Her thoughts on Inara, the temptation to send a wave so strong that she almost did it. Prudence stilled her hand. No. It was better this way. She would see Inara again and that would be reward enough. The last clinging vestige of guilt fading now that the outcome was assured and the danger averted. How long until the next time? Leylani touched the stone in the pendant that hung around her neck, knowing Inara had the matching one. It was a symbol of their connection, of a friendship that spanned worlds and kept them attuned the one to the other. Thinking of all that had happened Leylani was tempted to leave the Guild. To step out into a wider 'verse and make her own way but one thing held her back. Inara. Some instinct told her that even more than before someone needed to remain on the inside to watch her friend's back.

Smiling gently, Leylani rubbed the stone and thought of her friend. She would stay with the Guild not because she had to, not because she could but because it was the best gift she could think of. One day she hoped to see Inara again, perhaps even meet the crew that had become a second more fulfilling family to her dearest friend. Moving with easy grace, Leylani lit her incense and began the calm ritual of making tea. Sip by sip memories swirled in her teacup and her beautiful smile grew carrying the joy all the way to her heart.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shenme shi* = what's the matter? *diyu* = hell *bao bei* = precious/treasure *goushi* = crap/dog shit *dong ma* = understand *shen goushi* = deep shit *wode ma* = mother of God *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *mashang* = on the double/quickly/without delay/immediately *bushi* = not so *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *xin gan* = sweetheart *duibuqi* = sorry

COMMENTS

Sunday, December 31, 2006 4:23 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oh...my...god! That was unbelievable! Especially how you handled Mal and Inara's conversation...which was definitely something I would imagine Joss turning out after God knows how many sleepless nights. And you got to trump him:D

And Edward Serra is in this? Wow...you been mooching off of TamSibling, huh? Well, even if it's coincidence...it certainly makes for spectacular character growth:D

BEB

Monday, January 1, 2007 12:57 AM

AMDOBELL


I don't know what 'mooching off' means but gather you mean 'borrowed'. Didn't remember recall it from TamSibling's work at the time so will drop a line to acknowledge and give thanks for that. Glad you enjoyed the ride and thanks for all the feedback. Happy New Year!
Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me


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