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COUNTDOWN TO CHRISTMAS: 16. "The Hollow Man"
Monday, February 28, 2005

"Serenity's crew watch the Captain leave with Monty. Hours later Zoe carefully outlines her plan to the crew."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2272    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

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

SUMMARY: "Serenity's crew watch the Captain leave with Monty. Hours later Zoe carefully outlines her plan to the crew." 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.

"THE HOLLOW MAN"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Wash had to admit he didn't think she'd be able do it. Watching the Captain leave with Monty had been more stressful than he could have imagined. Seeing his dearly beloved all tied up in knots didn't help a good gorram either but the expected confrontation never materialised. Zoe had just stared, silent and stoic, as the Captain made his decision. Kaylee cried quietly while Simon comforted her with an arm around her waist. Shepherd Book told them to take care and not to assume that just because Shadow was a wasteland that no one was watching. Jayne seemed more irritated than upset but did not offer to go with them, not that it looked as if the Captain would have taken him up on it anyway. Inara watched in silence, her eyes flicking over to where Sarah stood next to Mrs Frye.

It was a solemn little leave taking. The others watched as Monty and Mal carried Ty onto the Kingfisher. Zack hovering by the ship's ramp as if anxious to be lifting off. Whether to get it over with or because he itched to be back in the Black no one was sure. Frank hesitated then approached the ramp as Zack was about to close up for lift off. The pilot raised a questioning brow but something in Frank's expression must have stayed his hand. The pilot leant back into the ship and yelled something. A couple of minutes later Mal appeared at the top of the ramp and looked long and hard at his uncle. Zoe watched the muscle jump along his jaw and resisted the urge to haul Frank Reynolds back and just let them take off. After a tense moment, the Captain gave his uncle a tight nod then stood off to one side so they could talk. Zoe could not hear what was said, their heads averted preventing her from lip-reading. Not that she would eavesdrop of course but if a word or two just so happened to be spoken loud enough to catch it could hardly be her fault only it never happened and that frustrated the *diyu* out of her.

For his part Mal didn't want this conversation nor *any* conversation with his uncle but Frank was insistent, something in his eyes making the Captain reluctantly agree to hear him out. Frank looked as if he was memorising the Captain's features with an odd intensity. "You never were a one to be in the right place at the right time, Mal."

The Captain raised an imperious brow, his nostrils flaring at the implied criticism before his brows came down in a narrowed frown. "You sayin' this is my fault, *shushu*?"

Frank shook his head sadly. "Didn't mean that, son, but I didn't want ya to know. Wanted this whole gorram mess cleaned up without ya gettin' involved." "But I am involved."

His uncle nodded awkardly and fell silent. The Captain gave him a searching look.

"Best spit it out afore it chokes you."

"*Shenme*?"

"You heard. Whatever it is you're keepin' from me. Best tell me now an' get it over with. Be one less thing to be confessin'."

Frank Reynolds tried to hide how the words affected him. Did Mal know him that well? He hardly needed to look at him to know he did. "I really messed up, son, an' that's somethin' I'll rue to my dyin' day but this - this don't feel right. Goin' back to that place is your decision, I know it an' part of me respects it but the greater part of me, the part that loves you so gorram much it hurts can't be doin' anythin' but fret about it."

The Captain closed the small distance between them. "You know somethin' about that."

It was not a question. "Yeah, Mal, I do."

A long searching look. "You know what happened to the graves, don't you?" He asked softly.

Pain flickered deep in Frank's eyes. "*Qu*." The man broke off and covered his mouth as he coughed. Throat suddenly so dry and restricted he wasn't sure he would be able to squeeze the words out. "I saw 'em come, didn't recognise the configuration of the gorram ship. Weather so foul I on'y visit once every couple'a months. Was pure providence I happened to be on Shadow when it happened." He paused and wet dry lips. Wishing with all his heart that he didn't have to tell his boy the next part. "It was a gorram blizzard near as damn it, I had John-Jo with me an' we was takin' a last look at the old homestead. Not sure why I kept goin' back but it was like a gorram compulsion or maybe it was a penance." Frank shrugged and didn't even wince this time. His shoulder was healing fast and Simon had let him take the sling off. At times he would move it too fast and pain would pinch him like a reminder as if it was his conscience pricking him with memory not the echo of a bullet from Malcolm Reynold's gun.

"First they swept the whole ruttin' area, not sure what in the nine hells they were after 'til they found the graves." He broke off, coughed again, and shifted his weight awkwardly before forcing himself to continue. "I thought maybe they'd found 'em by accident, didn't know who was in that ground, but they knew Mal. As soon as they brushed the snow off, they knew..."

"What do you mean they knew?"

Frank shook his head slightly. "*Wo bu zhidao* son but the way they acted was too premeditated. There was a kind'a eagerness when they read the inscriptions as if it was what they were lookin' for. That's when they removed the ruttin' headstones an' took 'em away."

"That was when they dug up the coffins, *dui*?"

His uncle shook his head. "*Bu qu*, that came later."

"*Shenme shihou*?"

"A week, maybe two."

Mal looked nonplussed. "*Wo bu dong*, why wait?"

Frank could not look him in the eye.

"You know, don't you?"

"Not know exactly, son. Suspect." At Mal's accusing look Frank sighed. "I think they were just snoopin', scoutin' trip you could say."

"Scoutin' for what?"

"*Wo bu zhidao*, Mal. I think they took the headstones back to their *laoban*."

"So you're sayin' they only returned to dig the graves up once whoever sent 'em knew who was in the gorram ground?"

His uncle nodded, utterly miserable. For several seconds neither man spoke. Mal's heart hurting him so much with memories and grief he could not trust himself to speak. Who in the nine hell's could be behind it and why? He thought about the gorram *jianyu*. Made especially to hold Ty until slowly the poor man died of starvation. He could only hope the cold had got to him first, numbed the end. But it was still a terrible way to die and for what? The next thought almost stopped his heart cold. He knew who was behind this and as the suspicion hit him a kind of sickening certainty settled in his gut that was beyond refuting. There was only one man he could think of who would drag out the point of death for days, weeks even, and consider every extenuated hour of agony a fitting price for his revenge. Mal closed his eyes as if by doing so he could block out the gloating, smiling face of undiluted evil.

"Don't go, Mal." Frank whispered in a soft urgent voice.

The Captain's eyes opened slowly, his shoulders straightening as if taking up a heavy weight that only he could carry. He looked at his uncle but was not seeing him. He understood the full of it now. The gauntlet had been thrown at his feet albeit the challenge was subtle and until he picked it up that *shenjingbing tamade liumang* Niska wouldn't stop. One by one he would find people Mal cared about and sacrifice them to the altar of his unending malice. It was time to end this. Something he had been unable to accomplish at the Skyplex. The man more slippery than an ocean full of eels and a thousand times more deadly. His face set in a mask of stone. "Best go back to the house, *shushu*."

Frank Reynolds did not like the look on his son's face. "What ya gonna do?"

"Somethin' I should'a done months back."

"Mal..."

The Captain shook his head firmly and stared hard at his uncle. "Not askin', *shushu*."

The man swallowed, knowing Mal would never acknowledge him as his father. Not even when the last star in the 'verse grew cold. Couldn't say he had expected any different but couldn't stop the wish of his heart. A wish he didn't deserve coming true. Perhaps if he had been honest with him earlier they could have worked things out but too much time had passed and now there was blood between them. Not binding them but dividing them. Had no words for how much that hurt. He nodded and prepared to step away. Couldn't blame his son for rejecting the sins of his father. Yet he still loved him. Always had. Always would. Watching over the boy had been the last promise he had made Mal's mama and even in that one thing he had failed. "I ain't got no right to be askin' this, son, but I got one request." When Mal didn't answer he just said it, left it in a puff of warm air momentarily suspended in the cooling air that seemed to be freezing between them. "Just come back, son. Hate me, love me or end me, don't matter a good gorram. Just come back."

Mal said nothing as his uncle turned and walked away. Not once did the man look back and not once did the Captain acknowledge his plea. His head too filled with all the ways he would put an end to Adelei Niska. It was time to finish this for once and for all.

* * * * *

No one commented as the Kingfisher took off. Mrs Frye was concerned but knew there was nothing any of them could do about wheels already set in motion. She looked at Sarah's sad expression and noticing how Serenity's crew had mostly gathered together leaving the girl on the periphery her big warm heart opened that bit wider to take her in. "Come on, *fengmi*."

Sarah looked up and met a pair of warm kindly eyes. Mrs Frye put an arm around her and took her back into the house. Inara Serra watched them go with a thoughtful expression on her face. Kaylee had stopped crying and sniffed into Simon's shoulder. He glanced at his sister, relieved that River had not said anything. In fact she seemed to be lapsing into one of her long brooding silences. He didn't know what troubled him more, River being too vocal or River being too quiet. Then Zoe began to speak and everything else in his head was blown away as if by a very strong and irresistable wind.

* * * * *

The minutes stretched in unbroken silence. Neither Monty nor Mal feeling the need to fill it. Both men lost in thoughts that would have been too painful to voice and yet there were things still needed saying. Zack was careful to avoid eye contact, his attention on flying though every sense was strained to the odd tension gradually filling the space between his Captain and Malcolm Reynolds. After an hour or more Monty blew out a heavy breath and looked at his friend in muted frustration. "You ain't asked."

Mal raised an eyebrow. "What would I be needin' to ask you?"

"Why I stayed."

For a moment Monty thought Mal would play dumb but he didn't. "Same reason I'd'a hung around if our positions were reversed. Ain't no mystery, Monty, though you're takin' a hell of a chance."

"Not so much." Monty paused and flashed him a trademark grin before lifting his head and stroking his thickening beard with the back of his fingers. "Might be exiled same as you but not from Shadow." He paused, the hard glitter in his eyes fixed on Mal's face. As if he could read every thought in his friend's head. "Even if anyone was interested in me they'd be lookin' for a Magpie not a Kingfisher."

That surprised Mal. "That why you changed your boat?"

Monty shook his head then huffed to hide a sharp stab of pain. "Nope." He paused a moment. "Didn't feel happy after Bridget. Change of boat, change of luck."

Mal snorted. "Luck? That what you call it? Seems to me the on'y luck you had was findin' out about that..."

"Now Mal!" Monty warned with a low growl.

"Well, alright then." Mal said slowly, amending the string of obscenities that had been forming on his tongue where that devil woman was concerned. He took a moment or two to get passed the urge to turn the air a livid shade of blue. Mal took a moment to swallow round his dry throat, words tangling on his tongue and making him frown. He didn't feel so good.

Monty gave him a sharp look. "Mal? *Ni shou shang le*?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"Apart from ya squintin' an' lookin' a mite pale you're sweatin'."

He didn't like to tell Monty about the throbbing behind his eyes nor the way his vision kept blurring. He blinked but the blurry imagery just began to yaw and dance making him feel more than a mite sick. He closed his eyes in an attempt to right his balance only just managing not to groan out loud. No sense worrying Monty for no good reason. But Monty was watching him closely, not liking one bit what he was seeing. Moving closer the big man put a hand on Mal's forehead, the fever hot beneath his huge hand. Mal's eyelids fluttered open, eyes heavy and glazed with pain tried to focus on him. "*Ni zai zuo shen me*?"

"You're burnin' up, Mal." Said Monty quietly, the worry self evident in both his voice and his face.

"*Fang xin*, I'm okay. Must'a eaten somethin' that didn't agree with me. No need to fuss."

"Ain't fussin' but if you're sick..."

Mal straightened, worried his own self but trying to project a confidence he did not feel. He had a task to finish and not nothing was going to stop him. "Not sick, *dong ma*?"

"Maybe we should head back, let that doc of yours get a look at ya Mal."

He got a stern look back but Monty ignored him. Ready to send a wave until Mal side stepped to block his path. "Don't."

"We can do this any time, Mal," Said Monty softly. He didn't want to fight with him but he didn't want him getting sick out in the Black where no one could help him. Wasn't worth it for a man as was already dead. But saying that to Mal would be like waving a red rag to a bull. A very stubborn entrenched one at that. Hadn't gone through the gorram war without finding that out.

It took Mal a minute or two to slow his breathing, mouth open to hide the way his breath was beginning to rasp, his diaphram aching with each inhalation. Gorrammit he felt terrible. He braced his hands on the edge of a console and forced himself to raise his head and look at Monty. "Can't."

Monty was really worried now. Mal was all but panting, his face too flushed to be healthy, his body beginning to sag. What the good gorram was wrong with him? He moved a chair and eased his friend into it. More alarmed than he could voice by the fact that Mal wasn't complaining any more. "Mal? Why can't we do this later?"

Time stretched, Mal closed his eyes and felt the heat scorch through his eyelids as they closed. Burning up. What the *diyu* was happening to him? It took a massive effort to concentrate, to process Monty's question and give some kind of answer. "I know who's behind this."

Surprised, Monty stared at him. "*Shei*?"

Mal couldn't keep his head up. Monty looked at Zack and made a small discreet handsign. Zack slowed their rate of acceleration, careful not to make it too obvious that they were cutting back on the power. A slow stop while they found out what was wrong seemed the thing to do. Malcolm Reynolds didn't notice. His world reduced to a sea of pain, his joints aching, his breath rattling in lungs fighting to take in air that wasn't going nowhere. His body shutting down on him despite the indomitable will fiercely trying to block out the weakness. Monty repeated his question. It took Mal three attempts to answer him. "N... Niska."

All the blood fled from Monty's face. The ship was idling now. Not going forwards but not going back neither. Monty didn't have a doctor on his boat but he did have a medkit. Trouble was it was basic. Didn't have no medication to speak of apart from painkillers. He put a hand on Mal's shoulder. "Mal? Ya talking about that *tamade hundan* Adelei Niska*?"

"You know another evil torturin' murderin' *liou coe shuai du biao-tze huh hor-tze duh ur-tze*?"

Monty shook his head but Mal had closed his eyes, his belly on fire, his chest cramped into a vice that was making him feel as if his bones were being crushed. On the verge of passing out he didn't feel Monty catch him in his arms and lay him gently on the floor of his bridge. He knelt beside his friend, feeling for a pulse and disturbed at the way it was racing. Monty looked up at his pilot to tell him to send a wave to Carousel when Zack interrupted him, a look of surprise on his face. "We're gettin' a wave, *laoban*." "Who from?"

Now the pilot was more than mystified. "It's from Serenity."

As Monty absorbed that unexpected answer he heard the next hail come through loud and clear, Zack putting it through on the speaker.

"Monty, this is Zoe. *Shenme shi*?"

He blinked. Surprised and inordinately grateful. "Zoe, what the good gorram ya doin' out here?"

Wash's voice came across next. He sounded anxious. "Why have you stopped? You got engine problems?"

He wanted to laugh, to cry, do anything but admit how much he wished it were simply that. "*Bu qu* Wash, Mal's sick."

For a moment there was dead air then Zoe's voice sailed over loud and clear and as uncompromising as a heart attack. "Stay put, Monty. We're dockin'."

Monty nodded even though she couldn't see him. As the com clicked off he closed his eyes and said a quiet prayer of thanks. His hand on Mal's wrist, fingers tracking the weakening pulse, his own heart faltering as if the two were tied. He just hoped that they could get Mal to Serenity's doctor in time.

* * * * *

The weather conditions on Shadow had actually worsened. The snow drifts now being scoured across the scarred landscape. All tracks obliterated. The wind was a fiercesome presence, unremitting and bitterly cold. Tossing bits of ice like watery shrapnel so sharp it stung and cut exposed skin. The men were wrapped up as best as they could be but their faces were open to the elements, eyes narrowed and furrowed as they squinted into the rising wind.

"We should go, *shifu*. There's nothing to see."

Niska was quietly furious. "No, we find the *jianyu* first."

His aide Lawrence tried to reason with him, his tone deeply respectful. Injecting just the right amount of regret. "A man would have to be a fool to come in this weather."

"Unless he was driven."

The two exchanged a meaningful glance.

"He will come." Asserted Niska. Lawrence nodded.

"*Qu, shifu* but when the storm dies down. You said he was smart, had the heart of a lion. How many lions would brave this weather? They would sit it out. Wait. Return when the winds die down an' visibility is clear."

Niska knew it made sense but he was impatient. The wind chose that moment to scream at him in gusts that pulled at his clothing like greedy hands. He nodded. "We come back, yes? Send Rico to check."

Lawrence nodded and spoke into a throat mike. They moved as quickly as they could and got back into the landing craft. They had only taken three paces out of it. Once the door sealed shut after them their ears ached with the sudden silence, air pressure filled with a warmth they craved. He nodded to Rico as the man bundled up then a fresh swirl of snow and ice howled through the doorway until the door was shut fast behind him. Lawrence grinned at his *laoban*. "See *shifu*? Only a fool would be out in this."

Nodding, Niska walked passed him. Lawrence's smile evaporated and his cold hard eyes stared out through the window at the inhospital planet. As far as he was concerned Malcolm Reynolds was welcome to it. Trudging in his master's wake he mentally prepared himself to wait out Rico's return. Only when the man gave his report to the boss would Niska allow them to take off. He was surprised when he reached the cockpit to see Niska's animated expression as he leaned forward on bony hands to stare at the ship's scanner. "Another ship? You are sure, yes?"

The pilot nodded. A smile of triumph began to spread across Niska's face. He glanced at Lawrence and let his lips peel back showing his teeth. He looked like a happy shark about to feed. "He would not come back? Yet you can clearly see..."

His happy expectations were dashed with the pilot's next words. "*Shifu*? The other ship isn't a Firefly."

Niska blinked as if the words did not make sense. "*Shenme*?" How was that possible? Who else would be coming to Shadow?

"It's a Kingfisher."

Niska sucked in an irritated breath. "Go, we leave."

Lawrence looked at him in surprise. "You don't want to find out what they're doing here, *laoban*?"

The boss shook his head. Annnoyed but not wanting anyone else to note his interest in this place. It would not do for the wrong people to be able to keep tabs on the business of Adelei Niska. No. That would not do at all. Lawrence had been right. They would come back when the storm died down.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *shushu* = uncle shenme* = what *qu* = yes (lit. go) *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *dui* = correct *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *shenme shihou* = when *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *laoban* = boss *jianyu* = prison *shenjingbing* = crazy *tamade hudan* = fucking bastard *tamade* = fucking *liumang* = bastard/asshole/criminal/gangster *fengmi* = honey *ni shou shang le* = what are you doing? *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *dong ma* = understand *shei* = who *shifu* = sir *liou coe shuai du biao-tze huh hor-tze duh ur-tze* = salivating son of a bitch and a monkey

COMMENTS

Monday, February 28, 2005 11:25 AM

KAYSKY


"There was only one man he could think of who would drag out the point of death for days, weeks even, and consider every extenuated hour of agony a fitting price for his revenge. Mal closed his eyes as if by doing so he could block out the gloating, smiling face of undiluted evil." >> Just perfect. I loved this chapter. =o)

Monday, February 28, 2005 11:03 PM

KISPEXI2


Excellent. Although as usual, more questions than answers. What's the matter with Mal? Did someone poison him? Pass on some disease deliberately? Cos I know who I'm suspecting.

Thank goodness you write so quickly!

Tuesday, March 1, 2005 10:14 PM

MAI


Another great chapter. Poor Mal, will he ever get a break?
More soon, please!

Thursday, March 3, 2005 9:11 AM

SOULOFSERENITY


What in the diyu is wrong with Mal?

I can't wait until Mal get's his hands on Niska and finally has his revenge!!

More!

- Soul

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 7:51 PM

SHINYZOEKAYLEE


Shiny!!! But poor Mal, just can't catch a break!! Uh oh... Lawrence? O.o


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