THE REFLECTION SERIES: 8. "20/20 Vision"
Saturday, August 28, 2004

"Mal finds himself in a whole heap of trouble. Inara is torn by conflicting loyalties. Meanwhile the rest of Serenity's crew is not nearly so shiny."


TITLE: "20/20 Vision" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: No specific pairing. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: SEQUEL to "HINDSIGHT" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: WEBSITE:

SUMMARY: "Mal finds himself in a whole heap of trouble. Inara is torn by conflicting loyalties. Meanwhile the rest of Serenity's crew is not nearly so shiny." 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.

"20/20 VISION"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Rafe Connor tried to hide the little smirk on his face and failed miserably. Mark kept his face straight but the crinkling around his eyes gave away the trapped laughter. His brother was cleaning up before joining them at table and little Rose kept shooting sideways glances at Todd and Molly that made him want to laugh out loud. As sweet and even tempered as Molly could be she had a pretty mean and vengeful bad side and no way did he want to get on the wrong side of it. But this was just plain funny.

Chung-li did them proud. Where Todd had got the pig from nobody asked but Rafe's cook could eek out stupendously wonderful meals from it for at least a week. Not just for the top table at the 'big house' but for the boys in the bunk house too. One thing Rafe could not abide was lording it over folks, so whatever he ate at his table his men had at theirs. Not that any would have complained if the boss chose to act differently but it was one of the things that bound him that bit closer to his men. Rafe looked at the feast laid out before them and realised that Chung-li had used ever bit of the pig barring its' squeak. His smile got wider just thinking about it. In fact he would not be surprised if the squeak had been marinated and laid out on a bed of rice with lime and chillies. Of course he was not *chun*. He might not know where the pig had come from but he was all aware of what it was doing there.

Ben joined them and got himself settled next to his brother, eager to tuck in but waiting on his father's say so. Rafe smiled at Todd. "Gotta say this is the finest spread I ever seen on Glory. We're obliged to you, Todd."

The man in question dipped his head in sudden shyness. Molly squeezed his hand under the table and all the awkwardness was suddenly worth it. Rafe frowned when his eye took in the single empty chair. He looked across at his eldest. "Thought Mal was joining us?"

Mark shrugged, leaning over the table to help himself to a goodly portion of *gongbao rouding* to go with the mound of steamed rice on his plate. The others not slow in doing the same. Rafe's question seemed to be the whistle at the starting line and with everyone in motion it was too late to rein them in long enough to say grace. "Must'a changed his mind."

His father frowned, not liking the sound of that. After all, the way he had worded it the invite was mandatory not optional. Rose noticed that her father seemed a mite distracted and grew anxious. She might not know what was wrong but had picked up her *ba ba's* concern. When he caught her eye she signed to ask what was wrong. Rafe Connor bit back a sigh and pasted on a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. "*Yiwusuoyou, bao bei*."

But Rose knew a pile of *goushi* when she heard it. Ben was busy stuffing his face with *muer rou*, *tangcu paigu* and *dongpo menrou* as if he wanted to taste every gorram dish on the rutting table but he had caught that short exchange between Rose and his father. He took a moment or two to swallow what he was chewing. "Want me to go see where he is, pa?"

Rafe was in two minds but looking up at the animated faces round the table he was reluctant to go borrowing trouble that might not exist. This was Molly's day after all. "No son, *xie xie*. Mal's free to come or go as he pleases."

Everyone got back to eating with gusto but little Rose couldn't help flicking her eyes over to that empty space and wondering why it bothered her so much.

* * * * *

Zoe was kneeling one side of Wash, Simon the other. He appeared to be in better shape than he looked. Simon glanced up with a faint smile on his face. "He'll be fine, Zoe. A little sore for a few days but no bones are broken and the cuts on his face are superficial."

"A little sore?" Wailed Wash as if he had been accused of malingering.

Zoe patted his arm lightly and gave him a loving but tolerant smile. "It could have been worse, *bao bei*."

He calmed immediately, a sober look on his face. Kaylee glanced anxiously from one face to another. The suspense killing her. She reached for Simon and felt a little better when he took her hand in his firm grasp. "Well? Did we get 'Nara?"

"Sssh," The Shepherd's not so subtle whisper made her blush and dip her head.

*Duibuqi*, I wasn't thinkin' just anxious you know?"

The others nodded, settling themselves on the floor in a little huddle. Far enough away from the door not to be taken unawares by anyone opening it. Wash lowered his voice. "I can't be sure but I think I got enough out."

"Think is a mite inconclusive, son." Murmured the Preacher softly.

"What we gonna do?" Growled Jayne. He was anxious to be out of their prison before they got sold into slavery. Visions of dying of Boden's desease or some other crappy illness making him all kinds of jittery. He had not forgotten the tale Zoe and the Captain had told after the train job. That was one screwed up eerie-assed mission he never wanted to see repeated.

Kaylee felt as if all the pieces of her life were falling apart. What with the Captain being off somewhere and out of contact, Inara off companioning and River... *Diyu* who knew what had happened to her friend? It was all becoming rapidly too much for her. All this and the prospect of never seeing daylight again. "What about River? Did she get took?"

"If she had been taken," Said the Preacher calmly, looking at Kaylee but directing his words as much to an anxious Simon. "She would be here with us."

"Not necessarily." Said Simon in a pained voice.

All eyes turned to him.

"Remember who wants her and why."

"They want you too." Said Zoe.

The doctor shook his head. "No, not them. The people who want my sister don't give a good gorram about me - unlike the Alliance. This place obviously has strong ties to the Alliance therefore if they have caught her and she isn't here..."

Kaylee's eyes widened then filled with tears, the shock and distress on her face almost palpable. She raised her free hand and covered her mouth. Simon wrapped an arm around her, sorry for upsetting her but not sorry for speaking out. It was time to be up front and honest about just how deep in the mire they were bogged down. "So," Said Simon trying to inject a positive note into his query. "What do we do?"

It was the Shepherd who seamlessly took on the role of leader and mentor. "We wait and see what happens next. In the meantime no names, no pack drill."

Kaylee frowned. "Huh? What does that mean?"

Zoe leant close so she could whisper in the mechanic's ear, choosing the one nearest to Simon so she would only have to say it once. "It means no mentionin' names when we talk about the others. Givin' no information away - however innocuous it might seem - to anyone listenin'."

Her sense of alarm went up another notch, a dusting of fear coating the tremor in her voice. Her eyes rolling around at the four steel walls, the ceiling then the door that contained them. Blocking them off from Serenity and freedom. "Ya think they're listenin' to us now?"

"Probably watchin' too." Chipped in the Preacher in a solemn voice.

Wash pressed the handkerchief a little harder to the side of his head and tried to ignore the thin but persistent trickle of red sliding passed his left eye. "Wacky fun."

* * * * *

It was full dark but the light spilling from the house dispersed the coming night better than a skyful of stars. Mal paused at the foot of the slope and looked up, liking the way the house commanded the high ground without making it look oppressive. There was a nice balance to the layout of Wellspring Ranch, everything complimenting everything else. Reminded him of what Cheng called Feng Shui and the balance of nature. It literally meant 'wind and water' but the meaning went a lot deeper, right into the heart of Chinese philosophy. What Cheng had laughingly told a teenage Malcolm Reynolds was the 'yin and the yang of the big bang'. He didn't hold with the notion that the 'verse had started with some big bang, and all that expanding and contracting just made him think of the 'verse as a giant set of lungs with the stars, moons and planets and such being the itty bitty particles of dust being inhaled and exhaled with every gorram breath. It was all fanciful nonsense anyway as far as he was concerned. At least. That was what he had told Cheng.

He took a deep full breath and absorbed the warm loamy night air as if it was something that had been missing from his life for too long. A small sound had him reacting on instincts honed over years of war and hardship, spinning with practised ease as he cleared his holster with his right hand, dipping at the hip to line up a shot only he had been anticipated. Something hard and heavy slamming into the back of his head outmatching the stars in the sky with the ones turning cartwheels that sparked and glittered inside his head before his whole gorram 'verse exploded into black. They caught him as his legs buckled. There was no sign of movement from the big house. With soft grunts of exertion the two men lugged their burden away from the pool of welcoming light spilling from the windows and door and dropped him in deep shadow. Without a word passing between them, Bill Peary quietly retraced his steps and picked up the gun. The former Captain of Serenity wouldn't be needing it any longer.

* * * * *

Thomas had exquisite taste. Only marred by his family's habit of overdoing everything. Obviously the notion that 'less was more' was not one embraced by them. Thomas on the other hand preferred a more modest lifestyle, the glare of wealth and privilege lit him with equal parts rage and a burning sense of injustice. The haves and the have-nots were always destined to live worlds apart. The garish over population of exotic and expensive furnishings made the man wince. When Inara had first seen the house she had felt overwhelmed and almost insulted by it but after a while the tackiness became something she could ignore and shut her mind to. Distracted as she was by the far more interesting play of human emotions between the two men. Now she was here again but with one significant change. This time she would be helping and guiding the Counsellor in the gentle arts of seduction and love making. It was not their fault that her mind was distracted.

"Inara? Are you alright?"

She looked up and found Michael Tollan gazing at her in concern. Forcing a smile she tried to reassure him. "I am fine, *duibuqi*."

Thomas, ever the avid observer, shook his head. The scowl forming on the folds of his face because he really did like her. "*Fei hua*! You're as taut as a bowstring young lady."

Inara bit her bottom lip. "Forgive me, I was distracted."

The look he gave her was kindly, eyes gentle and far seeing. She noticed with a little ache in her heart that he had put on the much hated prosthetic limbs but in an act of defiance he had not masked their impact with clothing. Yet it was not an act of disrespect. More of desperation. A need to strike out and proclaim his individuality while he still had the breath in his body to do so. He was no one's puppet. Not his family's, not his friends or former work colleagues, and certainly not Tollan's. His own man from his first breath to his last. Inara admired him immensely for he was honest and honorable in a way that defied any kind of artifice. Not a man to be moulded to another's bidding. "Inara, you have given Michael much good advice."

Her look showed a measure of surprise.

"Now let me give you some."

Inara looked at Tollan but he had no idea what Thomas was talking about. Thomas smiled with gentle indulgence, just a small fleeting thing but it warmed the Companion's heart to see it. "What advice is that?"

His smile widened, gentle and knowing but not mocking. "The truth is the key that can unlock any door. Now. What is it that troubles you?"


Thomas waved a hand at her. "No, do not insult me with prevarication however well intentioned. I see the temptation to do so lingering in your eyes and I do not have the luxury of time to indulge you."

She felt a rush of shame and sat quickly. Tollan gave her a look of concern but she decided Thomas was right. How could she help them if she allowed her personal distress to become this apparent? "I had some bad news just before coming here."

Tollan frowned. "What kind of bad news?"

She hesitated. Tollan put a brief hand over hers.

"Are we not friends, Inara Serra?" He asked softly.

Slowly she nodded. "*Qu*, we are."

"Then tell us."

Despite the circumstances Inara could not stop a little smile bowing her lips. "This wasn't supposed to be about me."

"Nothing ever is." Said Thomas quietly, such understanding shining in his eyes that Inara did not notice his infirmity only how wonderful and unique he was. It made her sad that he had so little time left. It was not fair.

"My friends are in trouble. You already know that I rent a shuttle from a Firefly transport ship?" Both men nodded but neither spoke. "We decided to stopover on Minerva for a few days rest and recuperation. I have only minutes ago received a wave from the pilot..."

"What has happened?" Prompted Tollan when she faltered.

"They were tricked. A job that should have been a simple transport of goods turned out to be a trap."

Thomas was watching Inara's face closely. "What kind of trap? Do you know?"

She shook her head. "Wash didn't have much time, the wave was voice only. He said they had been tricked and were on some ancient monolith of a transport ship known as a forty-four. The forty-fours were Alliance bulk transporters but that's not what upset me."

Michael Tollan frowned, a deep feeling of unease stirring in his gut. "It wasn't?"

Inara shook her head slowly and tried not to shudder. "*Bu qu*. Wash said it's a slave ship."

* * * * *

Shepherd Book tried to shield the doctor. "Leave him be, the boy doesn't know anything."

Badger tilted his head and lowered his index finger in the direction of Simon Tam. His men moved into the cramped cell and began to part him from the rest of the crew. Kaylee wrapped her arms around him but Simon began to peel her hands away. "It's okay Kaylee, I can't tell him what I don't know."

"Now that's touchin'." Said Badger. "All these fine folk willin' to die for you. Maybe I should let them do that, what do you say?"

"I say you should let us go."

He got an amused laugh back. "Now that is *haoxiao*. Never figured you for the comedian of the bunch."

"You don't need to do this. We've always had a good working relationship with you, why throw all that away?"

"Now see that's where you an' I don't agree. My arrangement was with your Captain not you. No Captain, no need to keep to no agreements *dong ma*?"

Jayne glared, wishing he could just wrap his hands round the little *wangba dan's* throat and have done with it. "Yeah well Cap'll rip your ruttin' head off an' feed it back to ya - an inch at a time."

"Except he ain't here is he? An' he ain't gonna be."

Zoe had been gazing blankly at a wall, only half listening to the conversation going on around her. Wash half leaning on her with the metal wall propping him up into a half sitting position. She stirred now and looked at the malignant little kingpin, intense feelings of hatred only just held in check. How Mal stood to do business with the *tamade hundan* time and time again was beyond her. "What do you mean he ain't gonna be?"

The little man shrugged. "I got eyes."

Hers' narrowed. "You said he ain't gonna be - future tense not present."

"I don't have to talk to you, don't have to spell it out neither but I'm feeling generous. Helpful you could say." The last sentence was accompanied by a meaningful look at Simon. "He ain't comin' 'cause he don't know you're here."

* * * * *

The meal was merry enough, Todd relating stories that had her brothers and sister chuckling while her father's eyes folded into a smile but Rose Connor was not laughing. Not joining in. She ate like a sparrow but her attention kept wandering from the bounty of food to the empty place next to her father that had been meant for Mal. Although she had only known the man a short while she had summed him up in that first moment when their eyes had met, some deep instinct forming a bond that had only grown as their understanding of each other deepened. That instinct telling her that if he had been told he was expected at the boss's table he would be there or have sent word for his absence. Neither of those two things had happened and that just felt plain wrong.

Ben glanced across at his youngest sister, once again noticing her distraction. At first he had intended to let it slide. The family having an unwritten rule not to push or pressurise her into anything but he sensed some underlying disquiet and that troubled him. Every one of them adored Rose, it was like a law of the 'verse. "Rose, you okay *xiao mei mei*?"

She raised her head and looked into Ben's eyes as she signed. Her movements as fluid as they were economical. *Worried about Mal. He was asked to come and he did not come*

"Maybe he had other things to do, *bao bei*." Said Mark kindly.

Rafe Connor frowned, his earlier stab of unease returning. He decided now was as good a time as any to do something about it. "I'll go see what's keeping him."

Everyone sprang to their feet but Rafe held up a hand, an apologetic smile on his face. "*Tingliu*. This won't take but a moment."

Ben had caught the anxious look on Rose's face and put his napkin down with a smile, remaining on his feet while the others retook theirs. "I'll come with you, pa. Think I need to stretch my legs a mite what with stuffin' myself so much so quickly. I can fill in the corners when we get back. That is if Rose don't eat it all."

Good natured laughter met his comment and Mark gave his brother a little nod of approval. Molly turned to say something to Todd. By the time she looked round again her father and youngest brother had left. Mark smiled at Molly to reassure her. "It's alright, Moll. Pa likes Todd just fine, you know he does."

She blushed prettily and Todd squeezed her hand. The look the two shared said it all. Mark's smile widened but he could as easily have been invisible at that point, the two lovebirds having eyes only for each other. Rose fidgetted and pushed her food around for a moment or two longer then slid off her chair and went to the front window, pulling the curtain back just far enough to press her face up against the glass. Outside the contrast between their world of comforting light and the dark stillness of the night sent trails of cold shivering down her spine. She watched her father and Ben until the darkness swallowed them up, suddenly worried for them too. She was about to move away from the window and sneak out of the door to follow them when she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. Ben's voice pitched in her ear so as not to disturb his sister and Todd on their engagement night.

"What's up, Rose?"

Rose turned and signed slowly, as if by doing so she could slow the rising panic inside. *Mal didn't come, why didn't he come?"

Ben opened his mouth to answer when his eyes suddenly widened in horror and shock. Having turned to face her brother, Ben now saw what she did not. Even in the inky blackness of the night nothing could mask or hide the unmistakable thickening rise of grey smoke. It was coming from the direction of the barn.

* * * * *

Mal had no idea what in the nine hells was going on. His first sensation on regaining consciousness was that he was going to be violently sick. His head felt like it was breaking apart, sharp flashes of light striking his optical nerves like lightening. He was swaying only as he became more and more aware did he realise it was actual movement not something that was happening in his brain. It took a moment to clarify that he was hanging upside down. Voices yawed in and out like a badly tuned radio gradually coalescing into ones he recognised then wished he didn't.

"He's comin' round."

"About ruttin' time. Thought you'd hit him too hard an' that would be just plain frustratin', us holdin' a party for him an' all. Can't celebrate without the guest of honour, *dui*?"

The other rough voice laughed in response. Low, harsh and cruel. Mal realised his hands had been tied behind his back and he was hanging from his feet. The comforting weight of his gun was missing but given his circumstances that was hardly surprising. Even before he opened his eyes properly he knew where he had to be. The unmistakable odour of the horses, the feed and bales of hay. The smell of the wood, the dusty air tingling in throat and sinuses. It made for a signature too accurate to be missed. But what, why and how? A slap on the face made his closing eyes reopen. He saw their worn boots, the bottoms of their trousers and the swinging backdrop of the hayloft. The hayloft? What the good gorram was he doing up there?

Bill Peary dropped down on his haunches and looked into Mal's face. "Know where you are now I reckon."

"What the *diyu* you think you're doin'?"

Peary seemed amused. "Puttin' a ruttin' stinkin' Browncoat in his place, that's what."

"We call it vermin control 'cept we got more fondness for vermin." Chimed in Harper Brooks.

"I can see how that would be," Said Mal, feeling more than a mite dizzy and trying to think straight. "Seein's as how you come from the same end of the gene pool."

He didn't see the blow that rocked his world and closed his right eye. Peary jumped back just as Mal was violently sick. It missed him but caught the toes of his boots. Vaguely Mal was aware of Brooks laughing at his friend's anger and disgust. Peary stomped away and grabbed a handful of straw to clean off his footwear returning in an even worse mood than he had been in before. Mal knew he should be worried but he couldn't work up the enthusiasm.

"That's the last mistake you're gonna make in this world *ni meiyou muqin de xiao gou*."

Mal didn't register much beyond pain after that. The sickening realisation that this must have been what they had in mind when they hung him upside down was no comfort at all. Their boots raining blows thick and fast catching him in the face and smashing his nose, cheeks and jaw. Think he heard his cheekbones crack just before he passed out.

Brooks was actually winded when they stopped to review their handiwork. Their victim was a mess, blood pooling on the boarded floor a couple of feet beneath his head. Peary grinned, a hand reaching out to slow the creaking swing of the unconscious body hanging from the winch and pulley they used to haul up the bales of hay. "We gonna kill him now?"

An evil smile slid across Brooks' face. "Nah, let's make it mean an' slow. We won't be able to stay after this anyway. May as well settle a few scores along with the pleasure of it."

Peary laughed, the weight and thud of their retreating footsteps sending little showers of hay dust into the air like a forewarning of their intent. By the time Ben saw the tell tale smoke from the big house both were long gone.

Ben raised the alarm, the clamour enough to wake the dead. Only feet from the barn Rafe and Mark were running full pelt. Clearly able to see the lick of flames beginning to eagerly swallow up the dry timber of the walls of the building. Mark pulled his father back suddenly as the barn door splintered and flew violently open, the horses racing out in a blind panic to escape, their whinnies and cries cutting through them like knives through butter. Rafe felt a terrible fear twist inside him and shook off his son's restraining hand, running into the smoke filled barn and praying they would not be too late. Up on the little hilltop Rose cried and cried and cried. And nothing Ben, Molly or Todd could do would console her.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*gongbao rouding* = shredded pork stir fried with chillies and peanuts *chun* = stupid *yiwusuoyou* = nothing *bao bei* = precious/treasure *ba ba* = daddy *goushi* = crap/dogshit *xie xie* = thanks *diyu* = hell *muer rou* = pork stir fried with wood ears (a kind of mushroom) *duibuqi* = sorry *tangcu paigu* = sweet and sour spare ribs *fei hua* = garbage talk/nonsense *dongpo menrou* = marinated pork fillet, boiled and steamed until tender as bean curd *qu* = yes (lit. go) *bu qu* = no (lite. no go) *haoxiao* = funny *dong ma* = understand *wangba dan*/*tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *xiao mei mei* = baby sister *tingliu* = stay *dui* = correct *ni meiyou muqin de xiao gou* = you motherless fucker


Saturday, August 28, 2004 11:52 PM


Well so much for Mal's little holiday! And my goodness how things have turned around so it appears Zoe & Co. are actually in the *more* pleasant place.

Sunday, August 29, 2004 12:38 AM


And you reckon *I* put Mal through the mill! Yikes, I hope Inara's going to pay for the cosmetic surgrey the poor man's going to need .... ;)

Enjoyed Mal smart-assing in the face of death. "We got more fondness for vermin" "I can see how that would be."

And Brooks and Peary - a fine pair of villains. Am looking forward to Mal making it 'mean an' slow' for them.

Sunday, August 29, 2004 3:28 PM


You sure have a way of making us desperate for the next chapter!!! Wonderful story!

BTW, that was my not-too-subtle way of pleading for you to HURRY with the next installment! :)


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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.