BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

AMDOBELL

THE REFLECTION SERIES: 12. "Burdens"
Thursday, September 23, 2004

"Serenity's crew looks for a means of escape. Mal tries to come up with a plan to help his new friends while Inara is committed to trying to help some old ones."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2174    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "BURDENS" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: No specific pairing. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: SEQUEL to "HEART OF THE MATTER" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: http://carlajane.50megs.com/Ali00.html

SUMMARY: "Serenity's crew looks for a means of escape. Mal tries to come up with a plan to help his new friends while Inara is committed to trying to help some old ones." 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.

"BURDENS"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

There was metallic dust everywhere and it took conscious effort for Simon not to keep sneezing. His eyes were watering almost constantly now. The others were faring better but only just. Shepherd Book held a handkerchief over his nose and mouth to filter out the worst of it. They were on their hands and knees following River carefully through the narrow crawlspace in the ceiling between floors. It was dark, hot and stuffy. River was in front, Kaylee on all fours behind her with her hands on River's heels, then Simon, Wash, Zoe, the Preacher and Jayne all hanging on to the person in front in the same fashion so that they progressed like a slow moving crocodile. The air was getting warmer as if something was steadily sucking all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. Simon hated the feeling of claustrophia, his chest tightening as he fought to keep the edge of panic from closing in on him. Wash noticed the doctor's quiet distress but knew that drawing attention to it would only make matters worse.

Zoe sensed Wash was distracted and squeezed his heels gently as they shunted forward, knees aching from continued contact with the metal joists. "*Shenme shi, zhangfu*?"

Her words shook him out of his reverie. "Nothin', *bao bei*. Just wanna get out of here."

She could not argue with his sentiment though she was sure it was something else that was bothering him. Zoe had a very sharp instinct when it came to her husband just as she did for the Captain. So tuned in to them that she didn't need words to complete her understanding though at times they needed to hear her thoughts vocalised. Wash for reassurance, Mal for consensus. As they laborously continued their crawl to freedom she could not help wondering where the Captain was and whether she would ever see her friend again.

* * * * *

Inara could not hide her mounting concern. She could not help it, she had become emotionally invested in these people and in so doing had broken one of the most sacred tenants of her profession. The golden rule for all Companions was that they must never, ever fall in love. On the heels of that vow came one for the governing of compassion. Inara could still hear the words of the House Priestess at House Madrassa: 'Compassion is a quality a Companion must be able to project but never feel.' At the time, like love itself, they had just been words. They rang in her mind like the tolling of a bell reminding her of one more reason why she had left Sihnon in the first place. It was best not to dwell on what could not be changed.

Thomas was not doing well but he would not let Tollan or herself seek assistance for him. Impossibly his spirits remained high even though with each passing hour he grew visibly weaker. The Companion was consumed with guilt. This was her fault. She should never have allowed them to embark upon this search with her. Thomas should be in the best medical facility money and position could buy not spending his last days and hours on this desperate quest of hers. One that was scarcely guaranteed any hope of success.

Tollan sat next to his friend and held his hand, a gentle smile on his face. The sadness in his eyes muted by the gift of love they shared however briefly. In the darkest pit of creeping dispair they had found something so beautiful and precious that one second of it was worth an eternity in *diyu*. It broke Inara's heart to know that their time together was coming to an end. The joy in being witness to such selfless love was bittersweet. Thomas looked at the Companion calmly, his words gentle so as not to hurt her. Knowing only too well the burden of her heart. "Do not distress yourself, Inara. I have no regrets and neither should you. This is my choice, *dong ma*?"

Tollan squeezed his hand and Thomas turned to smile at him. Inara felt the prick of tears but would not let them fall. They all knew he was dying and there was nothing in the 'verse she could do to prevent it. Tollan brushed his lips over the back of Thomas's hand and let go. There was work to be done. He looked at Inara. "There are three possible places your Captain may have gone."

Her eyes sharpened on his face. "I thought no trail had been found?"

A little smile tweaked the corner of Tollan's mouth. "While you were discussing the merits of various routes and which planets lay within easy reach of Minerva, I was plotting trajectories and checking shipping manifests."

Her eyebrow rose. Impressed. Even though Thomas was tired he loved watching them interact. His fondness for the Companion growing. "What are the destinations?" She asked.

Tollan glanced at Thomas and received a tiny nod for him to clue her in. "Your Captain may still be on Minverva..." When Inara opened her mouth to protest he raised a hand, his smile amused but cautionary. "If he left Minerva he would have needed transport. He did not return to the Firefly so some other means must have been found." He paused and watched the way the ambient light reflected off her dark eyes. Truly, the Companion had breathtaking beauty. To see it focused on a single intent was mesmerising. "Of all the ships that came and went in that period only two would have appealed to him." Now Inara looked openly surprised as well as intrigued. "You have never met Malcolm Reynolds, how can you determine where he would or would not choose to go?"

Thomas chuckled lightly, the humour turning into a troublesome dry cough. Tollan rose and brought a glass of water, holding it up to Thomas's lips so that he could drink. When he was done he nodded and Tollan put the glass on the side table and continued talking. "He was an Independent during the war?"

*And still is* thought Inara. Out loud she said, "Yes. *Weishenme*?"

"All destinations but two were to Alliance worlds or protectorates."

Inara nodded, it made sense. "And the two that were not?"

"One is called Orobos. The other is called Glory."

Something sparked in Inara's back brain. "That's it! Mal went to Glory."

The two men exchanged a look. Tollan leaned forward. "How can you be so sure?"

"We've been there before. Only a brief stop to drop off cargo but I know that he liked it there, even compared it favourably to Shadow."

Thomas realised she was right remembering that Inara had told them Shadow was the Captain's home world. A planet which, thanks to the Alliance, he could never revisit. He looked at Tollan but did not have to say anything. The man was already rising to his feet. "I will have a course set, *mashang*."

Inara stood with him. "*Duibuqi*. How long will it take to get there?"

He admired her barely concealed impatience. "We should reach Glory within the next 24 hours."

She felt a rush of relief, hot on the heels of which a more sober introspection drew its' mirror image in her heart as another thought popped into her head. Even if the Captain had gone to Glory it did not mean he was still there. But as *wangu* as Mal could be Inara could be just as stubborn. She was determined to follow in his footsteps until she found him wherever those steps might lead. The lives of their friends depended on it. She just prayed to the merciful Buddha that they would find him in time.

* * * * *

Some people carried all their ugly on the outside. Written in the flesh like some malformation carried in the DNA gifting them with twisted spines or dowager's humps or misformed faces and such. Others were more devious. Subtle. They carried it on the inside while outwardly showing a more enchanting face. Handsome even. Until you dug down through the *goushi* that was buried beneath the surface ready to engulf you once it was too late.

Cyrus White was just such a man. Beautiful in a way which was more suited to woman than man, his flesh was flawless, his smile an exercise in grace that most mortals would envy. Rafe Connor had long ago seen beneath the surface of the man and he was not fooled by the comeliness of his appearance nor the semblance of polite rectitude that coated his tongue like honey. The sweet poison of his words were cloying to the knowing ear. Neither man was inclined to underestimate the other.

"How are things goin' Rafe?"

The rancher nodded pleasantly enough, his look wary but not confrontational. "I get by, Mr White."

"I been hearin' things, *dong ma*?"

"What things?"

Cyrus took his time replying, his two henchmen standing poised like ill matched bookends either side of him. They filled the room and made Rafe all manner of uncomfortable. "Heard the barn caught fire."

That surprised him. How in the nine hells had the *hundan* heard about that? He nodded warily. "That it did."

"What happened?"

For just a moment he wondered how much the man knew then realised it didn't matter. He had no intention of telling him the truth of it anyway. He gave a dismissive shrug. "These things happen. Most like we'll never know the full of it."

Cyrus White raised a cultivated brow. Not a hair on the man's head was out of place. "That a fact?"

The rancher just looked at him for a moment, his voice going quiet. "That's not why you're here though, is it?"

"Why would you say such a thing? Can't a man be worried about his tenants?"

'Other men but not you' thought Rafe, inwardly wincing at the notion of being a 'tenant'. He was a rancher gorrammit and not in no one's pocket neither. Yet the fact remained that though the ranch and all the cattle on it were his the land belonged to White. It irked and it rankled but wishing could not change hard facts. Best swallow that bile and move on only Cyrus was not looking to move on anytime soon. Rafe wondered what was really on his mind. Gut instinct telling him loud and clear it would not be anything good.

In the kitchen Mal tried not to fidget and fuss while inwardly he seethed. He did not like this. Waiting like some *nuofu* while a friend was in trouble was not his idea of repaying a kindness nor showing loyalty yet it was what Rafe wanted, had all but begged Mal to do. He did not have it in him to disobey him but that didn't mean he was not braced for action should the talking achieve nothing good. Chung-li watched him in silence, his serene face flickering with subtle undercurrents it would take a lifetime to read. Yet Mal had the instinct that the Chinaman felt the same. On some level it comforted him.

It was another hour before Rafe reappeared, face grim as any reaper. Cyrus White was not with him which was probably a goodly thing. Mal's temper hit the flashpoint the moment he got a good look at the rancher's face. "What in the nine hells did that *liumang* say to you, Rafe?"

"*Mei shi*, Mal."

"The *diyu* it doesn't!"

"Mal..."

"Not gonna be put off. Best say what words passed between you, I'm thinkin' they weren't ones you wanna think fondly on."

Rafe took a deep sighing breath. Rose tugged on his hand, her little face turned up in concern. He tried to smile for her but it kept sliding off his face. Molly looked from face to face, her own unease growing. "*Fuqin* what's wrong?"

Before her father could reply Mark and Ben joined them from the main room. Mark had a thunderous look on his face but Ben looked thoughtful. Rafe raised an eyebrow and Mark nodded curtly. "He's gone pa. For now."

Mal pounced on the word, addressing himself to Mark in the hopes that the son would be more forthcoming than his father. "What d'you mean 'for now'? He comin' back?"

"*Wo bu zhidao*."

"Is someone gonna tell me what the good gorram is goin' on or do I have to go after that *tamade hundan* an' ask him my own self?"

Rafe nodded and gestured for everyone to sit down and only when they were all settled round the big old table did he explain. "Told ya Cyrus owns the land, *dui*?"

Mal nodded.

"Well seems he knows all about our recent troubles, the fire in the barn and what happened to you."

"I take it he didn't offer to help?" Said Molly.

Her father's expression was answer enough. "No, Molly, could say the opposite. He came to make sure his 'investment' was safe."

Before Mal could protest Ben spoke, his voice calm, only the fire in his eyes betraying his own inner fury. "Can't we pay him off, pa? We got coin, we could sell a pretty piece of the herd an'..."

"Not sellin' a single calf son." Said Rafe firmly.

"Yeah but if..."

"No ifs, no ands, no buts or cans. Ain't lettin' him take my ranch by default."

"That wasn't what I was meanin'." Said Ben in a quiet injured tone.

Mark put a brief hand on his brother's arm. "Not meant that way, Ben."

"Then what way are ya meanin' it, pa? If Cyrus White squeezes we choke to death, simple as that. Better to have half of somethin' than half of nothin'."

Mal needed to be on his feet but Chung-li sent him a silent warning to stay put. Mal might be up and about but he was far from recovered and tired easily. Lungs still needing to finish healing and breath coming sparingly to him leaving him with an almost permanent oxygen debt. He spoke in hoarse whispers that sounded as if they were dragged through shards of broken glass. Each period of activity demanding a longer period of rest. It was all kinds of frustrating but Chung-li had the patience of a saint and the determination of a devil. The body had a way of paying a man back in kind. Given time to recuperate the body would bounce back with vim and vigor to spare, keep pushing it when reserves were on empty and it would let you down the one moment you couldn't afford it to do so.

Chung-li knew all about a body's workings and a soul's mending. Mal knew it was an argument he would never win and he did appreciate all the Chinaman had done for him, it was just his sense of righteous indignation pushing him beyond the boundary of common sense to the place where his anger could unleash the tidal wave of fury that would bring a bad man down. But nothing was ever that simple. That black and white. He bit back his frustration and leant forward instead, the better for his pained whisper to travel. "Rafe, tell me 'exactly' what that *goushi buru wangba dan* said."

"Ain't your quarrel, Mal."

Sparks flashed in Malcolm Reynolds' eyes and both father and sons got a good clear glimpse of just how implaccable an enemy the man could be when roused. Rafe Connor had the distinct feeling that his life on Glory was about to become a whole lot more complicated.

"Ya ain't gonna like it." The rancher cautioned softly.

"Just spit it out, no need to tidy it up with fancy words."

Rafe nodded.

"Now," Said Mal in a quiet calm deadly voice. The words mild but forged in steel. "Tell me from the beginning how you came to Glory an' the whole tale of this land deal with Cyrus. Don't want you leavin' nothin' out, *dong ma*? If'n you got any papers Rafe, I'd be obliged if I could see 'em. Whatever throws light on this dark unseemly pact with the devil."

Mark and Ben stared at Mal as if he were mad. Their father would never agree to such a thing. Much as they liked him the fact was that they had only known Mal a couple of weeks. Mattered not that it had only taken hours to form the kind of friendship that took most folk lifetimes, in many ways he was still a stranger to them. Molly looked worried but thoughtful. Rose climbed into her father's lap and stayed quiet, seemingly content to trust that between them a solution would be found. Chung-li pulled up a chair and sat to Mal's right, his calm impassive face giving no clue to the thoughts within. Rafe Connor looked at Mal for a long moment then nodded. "Molly?"

"Yes, pa?"

"Get me all the papers from the safe."

Just as she reached the door he spoke again.

"And Molly?"

"Yeah?"

"Ask Todd to join us. This is a family matter an' Todd is good as family now."

Chung-li got quietly to his feet, rested a brief hand on Mal's shoulder, then got to work making the coffee good strong and black. If this went the way he expected not a one of them would be stepping out of this room for a good long while.

* * * * *

John Porter Clements could barely contain his fury as he surveyed the empty cell. There was dust and debris everywhere, part of the ceiling hanging down around the ragged hole above their heads. He spun round and glared at Badger. "This is your fault!"

The little man frowned, his men bristling and ready to mow the slaver down at a word or sign from their *laoban* but instead of responding in anger Badger smiled. Crooked teeth were punctuated with black, oral hygiene not being a hobby of his. "Now, is that any way to be speakin' to a valued business partner? Me an' you go way back, see? Not likely I'd plan to let somethin' I value slip through my hands if you follow my thinkin'."

Clements frowned and nodded reluctantly. Badger made a good point. Both men knew it had been his anger talking.

"Now," Badger straightened and automatically tugged at the lapels of his very fine business suit. "We got us some prisoners to catch an' I know just where they'll be headin'."

Clements looked at the glint in Badger's eye and grinned back. "That *goushi* transport ship of theirs?"

"Smart man. Always knew there was a reason I liked you."

Still grinning, Clements stepped closer to the little man. Invading his personal space with impunity, using his height and the glare in his eyes to hammer home his point while on either side of the men two groups of mercenaries stood edgy and poised for any face-off. "*Bushi*! You like me 'cause I get you your pretties. Man like you can't get what he wants with a smile, has to pay for it. What you get from me only costs you the one time then they're yours forever."

The smile on Badger's face never reached his eyes. "An' I got the contacts that keep you in business."

John Porter Clements stepped back and both groups of men relaxed. "Best we remember that."

"Best we do an' in the meantime if I was you I'd close off any exits." Badger looked up at the hole above their heads and Clements did likewise. "They're in the ceilin' space. What else does that tap into? Can they get into any shafts or access hatches?"

"Place is covered with 'em but that don't matter." He watched Badger raise an eyebrow then explained. "If we know where they're goin' why run ourselves ragged lookin' for 'em? I say we let 'em come to us."

Badger's eyes glittered as he tilted his head back, with a finger he pushed his bowler hat back enough so he could get a clear unobstructed view of his business partner. "Good thinkin' an' in the meantime..." He let the sentence hang and waited.

A genuine smile oiled its' way across Clement's ugly face. "I got a songbird just waitin' to sing for ya."

"On'y tune I want to hear can't be set to music."

Clements gave a dirty laugh and after a moment Badger joined in, only the laughter never reached his eyes. Cold, flat and unforgiving he was already planning on how to repay the man for letting River escape in the first place. But in the meantime he could play nice. Had a whole lifetime of practice. Once he had dealt with Clements there would be plenty of time to deal with Reynolds' troublesome crew.

* * * * *

They had been talking for over three hours now. Mal was tired but determined not to show it. He had his head wrapped around the way of it now and things were slotting into place that made a whole lot of sense out of his friend's current predicament. Rafe still didn't want him getting involved. "You're just one man, Mal. Best you step aside."

Before Mal could speak Chung-li shared a quote with them. "*Do not despise the snake for having no horns for who is to say that in time it will not become a Dragon? In the same way may one just man become an army*!"

Mal half turned in his seat and smiled at Chung-li. "That's a very fine quote, Chung-li."

He bowed slightly from the waist. "It is from the Outlaws of the Marsh."

"*Wo zhidao*," Said Mal. "It was required readin' when I was growin' up."

Rafe looked surprised. "You read the Chinese Classics from Earth-that-was?"

Mal laughed softly with what sounded like genuine regret. "*Bu qu*. Our foreman Cheng used to recite them to us as children. I swear that man memorised every gorram one of 'em."

"I doubt that," Said Molly with a little smile.

She got a serious look back. "No, no, he did. I heard those stories dozens, maybe hundreds of times, an' he never added nor took a word from a single story."

"Maybe your memory ain't so shiny, Mal?" Said Ben with a chuckle.

"*Yexu*, but Cheng was a learned man for all that he was a man of simple means."

They stared at him, oddly touched at the glimpse into a life in ashes. A past that could not be returned to, not ever. Rafe cleared his throat carefully. "You're still one man, Mal." He said quietly.

To their surprise the man in question was smiling with something like high content back at them. Mesmerised they wondered what in the nine hells could be going through that *wangu* mind of his. "Not plannin' on takin' on nobody my own self."

Mark looked confused. "You're not?" Mal wanted to laugh outright at the expressions on their faces. "Nope. We need us an army to put this wrong right."

"Ain't got one," Said Todd frowning. "We're just ranch hands, Mal. Good men in an honest fight but goin' up against someone like Cyrus White?" He snorted, eyes darkening with worry. "That man has more money than God. He can buy just about any gorram thing he wants."

"Can't buy an honest man." Mal countered firmly. Each word set in stone.

Silence rang around the table. Chung-li was watching Mal carefully, noting how his body was sagging but holding his tongue. Curious to hear what plan he had in mind. He would berate him about not resting properly later.

"Mal, much as I like the notion of standin' up to him I got nothin' to fight with. Papers are legal an' bindin', *dong ma*? Ya saw 'em an' stupid *ben dan* as I was to sign away so much when I first came to Glory it was my mistake that made this pit beneath us not Cyrus. He just capitalised on it an' last I heard that wasn't no hangin' offence."

"You ain't gotta stand up to him, Rafe."

Puzzled looks chased each other around the table.

"We need us an army but not one with guns an' such like. We need one much more subtle. Play the devil at the only game he understands." He paused then gifted them with the words of Sun Tzu. "*The supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting*." Hanging as they had been on his every word, almost without exception they looked at him as if he was totally *shenjingbing*. Only Chung-li looked calm. A spark of pride touching him deep inside where every spiritual warrior found rest.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shenme shi* = what's the matter? *zhangfu* = husband *nuofu* = coward *bao bei* = precious/treasure *diyu* = hell *dong ma* = understand *weishenme* = why? *duibuqi* = sorry *shenjingbing* = crazy*mashang* = on the double/quickly/right away/immediately *wangu* = stubborn *goushi* = crap/dog shit *tamade hundan*/wangba dan* = fucking bastard *hundan* = bastard *liumang* = asshole/bastard/gangster/criminal *dui* = correct *mei shi* = it doesn't matter *fuqin* = father *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *goushi buru* = lower than dogshit/lowest of the low *laoban* = boss *bushi* = not so *wo zhidao* = I know *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *yexu* = maybe *ben dan* = moron

COMMENTS

Thursday, September 23, 2004 4:29 AM

JEBBYPAL


Glad to see another installment....intrigued as to where Mal is taking this--was thinking he would be wanting to get Serenity in on the action, but now not so sure.

Aaaahh, Badger, me thinks he won't enjoy meeting River when he finally gets her.

Thursday, September 23, 2004 5:35 AM

SOULOFSERENITY


Nice installment! I'm rather intrigued to see exactly what Mal has in mind to help out Rafe. And I agree with jebbypal, when River and Badger meet, it's not gonna be pretty!

Thursday, September 23, 2004 6:39 AM

GUILDSISTER


Happy-happy to see a new chapter!

I liked Inara's part, the insights and introspections. ("He was an Independent during the war?" *And still is* thought Inara.)

Again struck by Mal and his choice of vacation spots ;-) He really ought to never take a holiday again. Picks a sweet world that's like home, gets beat up, burned alive, and now he's quoting Sun Tzu and planning a war. *snicker* Don't think I fully understood how the baddie owned the ranch and cattle, but I suppose all will become clear.

Didn't seem like weeks had passed for Zoe & Co. Good sense of claustraphobia--I was feeling it too.

Thursday, September 23, 2004 6:51 AM

ARTSHIPS


You've a knack for making tedious setups and transitions nonetheless interesting. Thanks!

Thursday, September 23, 2004 10:19 PM

KISPEXI2


As always, I can't wait to see where you'll take us next.

What I liked most about this chapter was the sense of the past weighing down on the characters - lightly on some, heavier on others. And the way the claustrophobia of the crew in the roof space was echoed by the sense of oppression on Rafe &Co.

Something else I liked was the fact that Mal hasn't magically got well again after his ordeal. The slow recovery - two steps forward, one step back - is so much more satisfying.


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