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AMDOBELL

DUPLICITY Series: 10. "Between the Devil and the Black"
Monday, May 26, 2008

"A second ship is picked up en route to Serenity and Zoe is pretty sure it isn't Alliance."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1909    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE BLACK" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: Zoe/Wash, Kaylee/Simon. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: Sequel to "SYMBIOSIS". ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: None. All Firefly stories archived at Fireflyfans.net

SUMMARY: "A second ship is picked up en route to Serenity and Zoe is pretty sure it isn't Alliance." 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.

"BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE BLACK"

"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Shepherd Book was hurrying along the catwalk towards the bridge when he met Zoe coming the other way.

"Where's Simon?"

Momentarily the Preacher looked nonplussed. "He's in the infirmary. *Weishenme*?"

Zoe immediately headed that way and Book followed. "Another ship's comin'."

"And?"

She paused and glanced over her shoulder at him, allowing him to see her worry. "At first I thought it was Alliance but now I ain't so sure."

"You think the pirates are back?"

"*Bu qu, shouwan*."

Before he could ask what she meant by worse they were at the infirmary and Simon hurried to the doorway, worried but ready for any eventuality. "I didn't hear the shuttle dock."

"It hasn't, we're still waitin' on Kaylee an' Jayne fixin' the port stabliser."

"Then..."

"Simon, you need to hide."

Worry changed to bafflement in a heartbeat. "Hide?" The doctor glanced back into the infirmary, everything laid out in preparation for whatever sorry state they found the Captain in. He stared at Zoe. "I can't, I have to be here when we find the Captain."

"You'll be here just not in sight, *dong ma*? Ain't got time to argue about this. If I'm wrong you won't be in hidin' for long."

Simon watched her with that singular intensity he usually reserved for the times his medical expertise was most needed. To have that sharp intellect focused on her was a little disconcerting. The man was much sharper than he was sometimes given credit for. "If it's not the Alliance and it isn't pirates..."

"Don't know who it is but your sister said that Alliance Cruiser never left just went beyond our sensor range like it was keepin' an eye on us, waitin'."

"For this other ship to arrive?"

Zoe nodded. "That's my guess."

"You think it's the people who had my sister?"

A leap but a deadly accurate one in her estimation. "*Qu*, now I need you to move - *mashang*."

He hesitated, about to go back into the infirmary and put everything away again but Zoe caught his arm.

"What part of 'hurry up' don't you understand?"

"You sound like the Captain."

"An' you could be a dead man if you don't get movin'. Leave us to tidy up. If those people are who I think they are an' they find you I can't see them leavin' any of us alive."

The doctor blanched, that had never occurred to him. Without another word he gave a short nod and scrambled out of the room, mind racing as he thought of all the places his sister had shown him. As he hurried off the Shepherd watched him go then turned at Zoe. "Would you like some help?"

Zoe sighed. She didn't really want to undo all the good doctor's work and *tianna* they would need to have everything ready for when they met up with River and the Captain but right now it didn't look as if Kaylee would be able to pull that particular miracle in time. She gave a weary nod. Glad to have the Shepherd's calm support. If everything was about to go to *diyu* she really couldn't have better company than this. "*Duibuqi*."

* * * * *

Inara Serra's hands were shaking even as her resolve began to surface and solidify into a force of will that nothing short of death would break. The words on the parchment were etched into her mind's eye, the contents of the buff folder committed to memory before she handed it back to the House Mistress. Cyan Barbette did not ask her if she would take up the assignment. Words were unnecessary when the answer was staring her in the face.

"I will, of course, provide whatever funds and assistance you may need."

She said nothing. Made no comment on the fact that the House Mistress had said I not we. This was as personal as it could get. For several long elongated seconds neither spoke then Inara raised her eyes to meet those of the House Mistress, her hands no longer shaking, the path before her shining so brightly in her mind she needed no map to follow nor eyes to see. "How long have you known, Mother?"

Inara's voice was quiet, barely a whisper of vowels and consonants, but in the House Mistress's study they gained volume and cadence as if uttered in one of the greatest of acoustic spaces. If Inara expected to see tension in that weathered face she was much mistaken. A steady pair of eyes gazed back at her, the deep troughs and wrinkles of age smoothed as if with a burden laid to rest, or maybe just transferred to a younger set of shoulders. "I could not be sure of its' authenticity, child, and I would not act without proof."

Proof? Inara wanted to throw the word back at her with all the venom and malice she could muster but she still had control of some of her faculties. Knew that if she wanted the full provenance she needed to exercise control of her emotional state. Inara breathed slow and deep, her mind counting and schooling each draw of overly warm air in the stuffy room. When had the Mistress shut the windows and why was the air conditioning not functioning? A bead of perspiration trailed an unsteady journey from her brow down her right cheekbone.

With surprise, Inara felt the chair nudge the back of her legs, legs grown weary of holding her upright. Without making a conscious decision to do so she found herself automatically sitting, too numb to be grateful for that small act of kindness. The House Mother moved round to face her once again. It never occurred to Inara to wonder that Barbette had extended that courtesy herself rather than call for one of the girls to attend them. But then, this was a matter too private and sensitive for any other ears. The House Mistress took two small crystal wine glasses from an ornate rosewood cabinet and filled them. Carefully she placed a glass in Inara's hand but made no move to go behind her desk. She stood instead in front of Inara, not yet sipping from her own glass. Her eyes looking like a deep well to which there was no bottom. Inara resisted the urge to shiver.

"Drink, child."

The quiet murmur was not quite a command, more advice. Inara sipped without thinking, needing her thoughts to be more gainfully employed than with the small talk that peppered the awkward silences that lay now between them. The House Mistress sighed softly, took a sip of her drink then put it on her desk.

"Inara, I may not be your friend but we are not enemies, *dong ma*?"

"*Bushi*, Mother, you have thwarted my progress too long for me to trust you without reason now."

That produced a reaction. A look of surprise as if she had not anticipated Inara's response. "Foolish child, Inara. Use your brain for something beyond your linear concept of what is and what is not. Have I not taught you better than this?"

Confusion dulled the resentment in Inara's eyes. "You hid this from me, how else should I react?"

A sour look came across the weathered patina of Barbette's face, an expression Inara was more used to seeing than this softer side. "Had I done so you would never have seen the contents of that folder. Use what wits you have to see the truth. Distance yourself from the pain of the past, let go of the emotions that cloud your judgement. I cannot help you if you do not have the sense you were born with."

Inara stared at her. *Really* stared. Friend? Foe? Arch manipulator or hidden protector? Was she lying now or sowing bitter seeds for friends to swallow? "My brother died in the War." She murmured, her voice an unquiet ghost that would not be still.

The House Mother moved around her desk, not to distance herself from Inara but because she needed to sit. Leaning forward she peered hard at one of the most gifted Companions she had ever known. A woman whose stubborn will was the only impediment to a meteoric rise in fortune. "Did you see his body? Visit his grave?"

Tears spilled and caught the light as they tumbled down Inara's cheeks. Pain and loss reflecting in eyes gone flat and bleak. "He was executed, his body burned."

"So you were told."

The words were so softly spoken yet each one was a gunshot wound robbing Inara of the power of speech. Eyes glazed with tears she just stared in shock. A look of regret passed across Cyan Barbette's face. "I think perhaps this task should be given to another."

"*Bu qu*! It is mine and I will complete what is asked of me. Do not rob me of the right to uncover the truth for myself."

While the House Mistress rejoiced to see the fire and steel return to Inara she lamented that the woman might not be stable enough to do this alone. "I will have another go with you."

Inara shook her head, scattering the last of her tears. Her back straightened. She put the glass on the desk and folded her now steady hands in her lap, only the smudge of kohl under her eyes giving away her earlier distress. "I will complete this assignment, Mother, and apologise for any offence I have caused in my outburst. If there is any chance that the papers are true then I must know it and I promise you I will not return to this House until the matter has been resolved."

"If I agree you must promise to contact me should you need aid."

For a long moment Inara just stared at her. Slowly she felt as if a film were disolving before her eyes, no longer seeing the bitter obstructive old woman who had continually held her back but a strict House Mother demanding nothing but the best from each of her students. What she had deemed harhness and spite were now seen as the exactitude of someone who would accept nothing short of excellence in all things. The fact that Mistress Barbette had a sharp uncompromising tongue made it easier to see cruelty and spite at every turn. Had she been so wrong all these years?

"Inara, I cannot let you leave until I have your assurance. Despite our differences you were meant for great things." Barbette held her arms apart in an all embracing gesture so alien to her that Inara could not look away. "All of this should have been yours. *Would* have been yours but for your stubborn nature and your ill choice of consorts."

"That has nothing to do with this, Mother."

"*Fei hua*!" The House Mother's voice snapped, the sudden raised words like the crack of a whip. "It has everything to do with it. You cannot pick and choose the pieces of your life you covet the most and discard the unsavoury and expect the picture to be true."

"What are you saying?"

"Only that whatever you feel now or think you are feeling, put it aside. Use your intelligence to guide you and discard nothing. I will expect regular updates and if you should fail I will deny any knowledge. This House cannot be a party to any scandal."

"If you are so unhappy about it why tell me anything at all?"

Suddenly the House Mistress looked every one of her eighty two years. The weight of ages seemed to cause the woman to shrink but her eyes were still bright and full of intelligence. "Because child, we all of us protect most the things we love."

Stunned Inara opened her mouth then shut it again. What was she saying? Before she could ask the House Mistress straightened and seemed to pull herself together.

"Will you abide by my instructions Inara Serra or shall I pass this assignment to another?"

"I will keep you informed of my progress, Mother."

"And if you need my help?"

Inara took a long slow breath. There it was. The matter of trust. In that pause something in Inara slowly shifted. She nodded, "Indeed I will."

Oddly enough it did not feel so much like submission as a compromise reached. And if the House Mother was correct Inara would be needing more than her help before the mission was over.

* * * * *

Everyone was on edge. Wash tried not to show it but Zoe knew him too well and the waiting was as interminable as it was excruciating. Shepherd Book had gone to speak to Kaylee and Jayne. The silence left on the bridge was almost painful. Wash wanted to say something light and funny but the closing image of the ship was testament to just how screwed they were. Even if, by some miracle, Kaylee got the stabliser up and running again it was already too late.

The hail when it came was as officious and bland as any Alliance order. Maybe it was just that? But something deep in Zoe's gut didn't believe they could be that lucky, not that she thought she would ever see the day that being boarded by the Alliance was the better option.

In the engine room Kaylee sat back on her heels, tears streaking through the greasy dirt on her face. Her hands black with it, the broken stabliser only partly patched. Jayne was manfully carrying on with the welding but it was still too slow and would take another half hour by their best estimates. Time none of them had. Shepherd Book was as sorry as they were, his face reflecting worry he could not hide. "You did your best and that is all anyone could ask."

"I failed!" Kaylee wailed. She hefted the broken stabliser in her hands as if it was proof of her incompetence. "I let Serenity down."

Jayne shoved his goggles up off his face and switched off the gas to the cutter. He was watching Book, knew they were all out of time but what the *diyu*, he'd been in deeper holes than this and climbed out again. "Ain't givin' up."

There was a loud clanging sound. Fear crowded onto Kaylee's face, her hands began to shake. Gently the Shepherd leaned forward and took the stabliser out of her hands before she could drop it. Her eyes were wide and fearful. "They boardin' us? Tell me they ain't boardin' us, Shepherd."

Shepherd Book couldn't give her that reassurance. Jayne swore and threw his cutting equipment against the wall. They could all hear the thunder of many booted feet now, Serenity's decks thrumming with the unwelcome vibration.

* * * * *

A long time ago Malcolm Reynolds had been a good God-fearing man. Grown up with the Lord's words ringing in his ears and many a sermon to carry him through both school work and chores and the labour of growing up. Times weren't so much hard on Shadow as constructive, not no one had idle hands on that world. Most of the folk were either ranchers or farmers with a few settlers whose contribution was more in the supply and demand side of living. They built shops and little hardware stores, ran stables and ferried goods from one end of Shadow to the other. Them with no learning and only the gift of their hands to their names put them to the best use they could and built houses, farms, cattle sheds and dug wells. Womenfolk turned those simple houses into homes, demanded cloth and dry goods and all manner of bits and pieces to bring comfort into their own little piece of heaven.

Funny how times can change so rapid-like. How happy voices raised in song can change to cries of pain and anguish. How hands that tilled the soil could turn to dealing death and destruction from the barrel of a gun. How sweet kind biddable women became as hardened as their menfolk when facing an enemy not satisfied with winning a War but wanting to erase the very ground from under those that opposed them. Burning homesteads, stealing whatever goods could be put to Alliance use and destroying anything they couldn't take with them. Anyone that opposed them was either cut down, burnt along with their homes or taken by force of arms and put in some distant Alliance *jianyu* to be tortured into confessing crimes they never committed before they were hung. And them that weren't killed wished they had died. Returning to a world in ruins was worse than any kind of death.

River hovered, anxious and full of worry. The Captain was running a fever and had not been conscious for hours now. The few mumbled words she could make out broke her heart. She did not know how to reach him, to give him comfort or banish the nightmare images from his mind. Haunted and drifting in a sea of pain she felt helpless to do anything more than gently wipe the sweat from his face. She took his hand and cradled the palm against her cheek, the sting of tears in her eyes held back with difficulty. Images flashed inside her head, the War a dark impenetrable barrier of sorrow intercut with memories of happier times. A matronly woman with reddened cheeks and a brisk capable air, children round a bonfire baking potatoes and exchanging ghost stories into the night, cattle lowing, the concatanation of explosions and canon fire, men running up a muddy hill only to slide back down in the red clay of mingled blood and soil. The flash of flares, the thunder of Alliance heavy artillery and the cries of the dead and the dying.

"Stay with me, don't go." River whispered.

But the Captain couldn't hear her and with every passing moment he was losing ground. Gorram War! Frantic, River leant close to him and rested her forehead against his, ignoring how his flesh was burning up and opening her mind to him. She knew he could not tell reality from memory, the past trapping his mind just as pain trapped his body. But she would help, be a bridge between the two, and whatever it took she would bring him home.

* * * * *

Zoe Washburne was determined not to give them the satisfaction of seeing defeat on her face. Assembled as they were in the cargo hold she glared at the man in the black suit, his pristine white shirt and black tie making him look like a funeral director or worse still, a politician. When he opened his mouth she knew he was worse than either.

"Where is River Tam?"

"Ain't no one of that name on this ship."

He had been pacing, his long lean body topped by a gaunt clean shaven face. No emotion or sense of warmth about him. In a loose circle around them Alliance soldiers waited with weapons drawn. Zoe had been surprised to see no high ranking Alliance officer commanding the troops, which meant the suited man probably outranked any military commander. That did not bode well for any of them. The man jerked his head slightly, "Search the ship. I want every inch scoured until you find her. The brother should be here too but the girl is the most important."

Some of the soldiers peeled off, not a word spoken. They spilt up and began to search, not caring for the mess they made or things being broken as they were tossed aside. Kaylee flinched everytime something shattered, her body trembling, full of worry for Simon and sure that any minute now one of them gorram purplebellies would open fire on them. The man seemed to notice her and clicked his fingers. A soldier stepped forward to grab Kaylee but Shepherd Book blocked him. "I'm sure if you have any questions you can ask me."

Irritated, the suited man narrowed his eyes. "Tell us where River Tam is hiding and the rest of you can go."

Book affected the kind of calm his friends envied. "She isn't here."

The man's eyes snapped as if falling on information unknowingly spilled. "But she was?"

The Shepherd nodded. "*Qu*."

Zoe felt anger boil in her veins but was too far away to lash out at the Shepherd. What in the nine hells did he think he was playing at?

"You see we were attacked by pirates. They damaged the ship which is why we can't go anywhere and took our cargo."

"What about River Tam?"

Book was nodding slowly, his expression sorrowful as if the words pained him. "They took both River and her brother as well as the Captain."

"Where did they go?"

Zoe spoke up, realising Book's quick thinking was the only lifeline they were going to get. "*Wo bu zhidao* but some hours after an Alliance Cruiser came by. We reported the attack to them and they took the Companion with them but left us adrift. We thought they had sent you to help us."

The man snorted. "You must think me a fool to believe such drivel!"

"Ain't lyin'." Said Jayne. "You don't believe us just ask 'em. Bet they got records an' everythin'."

"And how would we know which cruiser it was?"

Kaylee swallowed. "They took 'Nara with 'em. She contacted the Guild askin' for help an' the Alliance Cruiser came by on'y the *tamade hundan* of a Commandant refused to help. Said he'd on'y been asked to pick up the Companion. We been waitin' ever since."

The man wanted to say he didn't believe them but remembered the transmission he had exchanged with the Cruiser. It had the ring of truth. Just then the soldiers returned from their search and shook their heads. Frowning with disfavour the man in the suit was not happy but if the crew's story was true there was a pirate vessel out there about to feel the full force of his wrath. "Very well, I want to know everything you can tell me about that pirate vessel. And don't think of holding anything back. We have prisons so deep and far from civilisation that you will never see the light of day again if you seek to thwart me."

"Hell no!" Yelled Jayne, eyes a-glitter at the thought of getting some revenge. "I'll tell ya. Wash, what'd ya call that type of ship again?"

"It was a Cumberland. It's been retrofitted so if you intend to go after them you should know they have rail guns. Pretty much shredded our port stabliser."

"The name? What is the name of their Captain?"

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*weishenme* = why? *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *shouwan* = worse *dong ma* = understand? *qu* = yes (lit. go) *duibuqi* = thanks *mashang* = at once/on the double/immediately *bushi* = not so *fei hua* = garbage talk/nonsense *diyu* = hell *jianyu* = prison *wo bu zhidao" = I don't know *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *tianna* = oh God!

COMMENTS

Monday, May 26, 2008 1:51 PM

ANGELLEMARCS


Oooooo...I 'm wondering what's going to happen next. Edge of the seat!!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:18 AM

JANE0904


So maybe Inara is going to learn the truth, but I'm not sure what that will be or if it will be in time. With every minute counting, maybe she can help Mal? Great tension, and I can't wait to see what comes next!

Thursday, May 29, 2008 3:22 AM

WYTCHCROFT


Whole sections (like the one starting "Funny how times can change so rapid-like...") of very intense writing which was a pleasure to read:)


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