THE FORGOTTEN REALM: 3. "Nightmares"
Sunday, September 28, 2003

"Inara faces up to the past at a cost. Zoe discovers that finding the Captain is only part of the battle."



SUMMARY: "Inara faces up to her past at a cost. Zoe discovers that finding the Captain is only part of the battle." 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.


A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

The handsome face looked smug. Replete after the feast of delights he had eaten. Inara ate sparingly, her eyes watching his every movement while giving the appearance of simply being attentive. He was not fooled for a minute though it pleased him to let her have her little fantasies. She thought she could punish him for the past, win back what was lost so very long ago. But no whore in the 'verse could ever be a virgin again and that would be what it would take to make her whole. The notion amused him mightily. He smirked then chuckled darkly. Inara's eyes narrowed slightly.

"You are amused?"

He sipped his wine and watched her over the rim of the glass. Oh this was delicious. Precious. Priceless even. "Why not? I never thought to see you again. I thought my allure had worn off."

She resisted the urge to spit at him and managed a mild and almost sweet smile. Only those who knew her well would recognise the look laced with poison that went with it. "I see your fortunes have gone from strength to strength."

Paul Santo smiled smugly. "A fact you could have taken advantage of had you been wiser."

*Had I been wiser I would not have come near you except to spit on your grave*. Naturally the sentiment was not said aloud.

"You said you wanted something from me?"

She took a moment to be sure she could speak evenly, voice calm and passionless. "Yes."

He raised his eyebrows and waited. He knew what she wanted but there was always fun to be had in making her beg, even if she wanted to dress it up as a demand. The result was the same in any language. And he had already determined he would bed her again before the night was through. Willing or not, how could he lose?

* * * * *

Captain Reynolds stared for a long moment in shocked surprise then smiled and offered Wash his hand. Dazed, Wash took it. The look of genuine pleasure on the Captain's face something he had not thought he would live to see. It took years off the man. He found himself smiling back, enjoying this lighter version of the Captain. Mal was pumping his hand. "Congratulations, Wash!" He looked at Zoe. "When did this happen and how come I missed the wedding, Zo?"

Her heart contracted with pain. Wash's smile froze. He felt sick. *Tamade*, it was harder than he would have imagined to act as if nothing was wrong. The man really did not remember. He could see how devasted Zoe was. Oh God, what the hell could he say to him? How could Zoe bear it?

"It's a long story, Mal. I'll tell you back at the ship."

He hesitated, not really wanting to go there. She watched him turn and go back to the girl who had deliberately hung back and taken no part in their reuinion. She was Chinese, about 10 or 11 years old, painfully thin but with a big round moon shaped face and large expressive eyes. Zoe and Wash exchanged a look, Wash sidling closer so he could wrap a comforting arm around her. She bit back tears. Had to be strong, keep it together. Hopefully Simon would figure it out. The sooner they got the Captain back the better.

Mal hunkered down in front of the girl, her solemn eyes gazed deeply into his. A world of trust shining back at him. He smiled softly, his words gentle. "How would you like to see a ship, Yen Mah? Zoe says the rest of the boys are waitin' there which means we can get a ride home. You'll like the ranch. Not like this place. Lots of open land, fields, trees, good honest folk and wait until you taste mama's cookin'. You'll be sure you died and went to heaven, *xin gan*."

She said one word only. Her eyes never leaving his. "Safe?"

He swallowed hard, knowing what that word encompassed. He nodded and spoke slowly, his words a promise set in stone. "Yes, *bao bei*, safe. Ain't nothin' gonna touch you or harm you while I live an' breathe."

Her face broke into a beautiful smile then she wrapped her arms around his neck and let him gather her up. Hanging on to him as if he was the only thing that mattered in the 'verse. Wash raised his eyebrows in surprise and looked at Zoe. The only person he had ever seen the Captain show spontaneous affection to was Kaylee. Zoe whispered a caution. "Not a word, Wash."

He nodded. His lips were sealed. The last thing he wanted to do was scare Mal off before they could get him back to Serenity. He just hoped Simon could do something because if he couldn't he did not know how Zoe would cope.

* * * * *

Paul was moderately wealthly, his estate equal to but not greater than the Tam Estate had been. The highly polished mahogany floors shone with their rich reddish gleam, showing off the beautifully close grain of the wood. Everywhere she looked small objects of desire were placed to catch the eye and stop the heart with their beauty but none of it moved Inara. She knew the coin with which each piece had been purchased. Knew the red of the rich wood was like an old dark stain polished to hide its' crude antecedence. No matter how Paul Santo dressed himself, no matter his courtly gestures, his mannered speech and studied genteel ways he was no gentleman. And this was no noble house.

They were in the gardens. An intricate maze stretched ahead of them but at the last minute Inara steered them away from it and into a rose arbour. He allowed her the small victory and smiled to himself. They walked in silence for several minutes, Inara trying to tamp down her growing impatience. She wanted this over and done. To be gone with the stench of his monied halls wiped clean with the fresh scent of a cool night wind. At least the wind was honest. When it blew cold it was not the touch of betrayal on the edge of a hidden knife. She turned and came to a halt beside an ornamental pond. A statue in the centre of a maiden with arms outstretched as water gushed in a noisome trickle like faraway laughter chasing distant streams. It seemed incongruous that one who looked so fair could be so foul and yet he had charm, immune to it as she now was it had not always been so. The memory was painful.

"Paul, you know why I am here. The past may be past but you have something that belongs to me."

He smiled disingenuously. "I cannot give you back your maidenhead, Inara. What you tossed away is gone forever."

The urge to strike him was so strong that her hand started to move. She aborted the idea in time. An angry Paul was a danger she did not wish to provoke. All the while he considered he had the upper hand she was safe. If he felt the least bit threatened she might not get out of this alive. Either way it would end here. "I want my papers,"

He raised his brows slowly. "Ah, once so polite you were. Where you would have asked in courtly fashion you now demand. Has the 'verse so changed you Inara Serra from a lady into a wretch in her clothes?"

She gritted her teeth and used all her companion training to stay calm. To hide the tension builiding within her and the desire to do him permanent harm. "Do you still have it?"

"Your birth papers?"

He waited until she nodded. Oh yes, he would drag this out as long as he could.

"Of course. I never squander *anything* of worth." His light barb was ignored as he knew it would be. "But Inara, did you come all this way to take without any thought of recompense?"

She wanted to be sick. He wanted to barter for her birth certificate? How low could this creature stoop? Even the belly of the snake was not low enough to rival him. "How much?"

He tutted gently, a hand rising to slide careless fingers through the bounty of her dark hair. She resisted the urge to shudder and step away from him. "How could you think that I would sully my fingers with coin over such a treasure? It is said that a woman's virtue is part of her provenance, that she cannot be wed or desired in ernest without it. I always thought the notion too fanciful to be bounded in fact. Do you now tell me it is true?"

"Paul, I simply want what is mine."

His tone changed in a heartbeat. The warmth of his eyes turning to granite while a smile froze on his lips in a mockery of humour and goodwill. "Yours? Once you were mine Inara or do you so easily forget your debts?"

"I was never yours Paul. You *took* me."

"And you were so willing." He all but purred, one hand now on her shoulder, sliding down the cool column of her neck as his breath puffed eddies of warmth against her turned cheek. "Some men would carry a grudge to be so used."

She shuddered, his touch befouling her, his breath poisoning the night air. Memories paining her yet she had to steel her heart. Close her mind like a steel trap to keep it from betraying her intent and making her weak. An old remembered fear coming back to haunt her as did every man's touch that promised gentleness and love only to betray with the harsh humourless glint of possession. She would never make that mistake again. Never trust a gentle smile to not turn feral. Never give herself in abandon only to find the gift torn from her and all her treasures plundered. She had paid him many times over yet a greedy man does not count the coin already squandered on spent desires. "What do you want?"

"To love you again. One night of passion is all I ask. A small price to take your past with you."

"How do I know you still have it?"

He chuckled. A light casual sound to the untrained ear. A mocking death knell to Inara. "Come, let me show you and put your mind to rest. Then let the rest of the night be ours. Tomorrow you can leave and never set eyes on me again. Unless," He paused and waited for her to make reluctant eye contact. "I so persuade you with my passion that you consent to stay?"

She was astounded at his affrontery. And yet it somewhat reassured her. He thought to play with her, to win her affections even now. Perhaps it would not go so hard. She could play this game. "And if I consent to stay the night will you agree to release me in the morning if that is my wish?"

He bowed over her hand, looking up at her through his eyelashes. A pose which had once set her heart pounding with a rush of excitement and juvenile desire. When it had been easy to mistake lust for love. She knew him now and that affectation no longer stirred the blood though he was still a handsome man. "I do."


The additional word set a nerve jumping in the side of his jaw before he could control himself. She knew she had angered him and that was something of a sop to her vanquished self esteem. That this man had single handedly been responsible for her choice of career was not something she looked back on with pride or pleasure. She had gone to great pains to give the appearance that her profession had been a conscious and welcome choice. An honourable career rather than a place to hide her shame in the one place where no one would ever notice. When he had found her at the Heart of Gold she had fled for the second time. Now, with Nandi's death so much had come clear in her mind. She was not going to run any more but neither was she going to play this game.

One more night and it would be over. All the heartache, tears, and lost dreams. Come tomorrow she would pick up the threads of her past and begin again. A new world, a fresh beginning. But she had not been able to tell her friends. Could not bear to have the other companions think that all these years she had been ashamed of them. When the truth was that she was ashamed of herself. Only one man held the mirror to her lies and he did so without any malice aforethought. No intention to hurt or wound her. Yet he touched on so many unspoken truths in his rough mannered way. Leaving would be hard but she had already told him she would go. Just not why. It was better this way. Yet no matter how many times she repeated the mantra it still had a hollow ring in her heart.

* * * * *

Mal had so many questions for Zoe but most of them were answered so briefly that he wondered if he had done something to offend her. At last he fell silent, his heart heavy for no reason he could fathom. Yen Mah tried to cheer him up, tugging on his fringe and teasing him in Chinese and swearing in English just to raise a smile. Wash could not quite surpress a grin. He leaned in close to Zoe to whisper in her ear. "You know, they're kind'a cute together *bao bei*."

She grunted softly and said nothing. His laughter faded, concern flickering in his gentle eyes. Mal was too close for him to risk saying what was on his mind and Zoe had become more and more reticent the nearer they got to Serenity. Wash felt his spirits rise when he got his first glimpse of the Firefly transport that had become home to him. Zoe relaxed a fraction but was so on edge it hurt him to look at her. He sneaked a sideways glance at the Captain but there was not a flicker of recognition on his face. Yen Mah had fallen silent and was simply staring up at the ship. He could not tell if she was impressed or horrified.

It seemed everybody was standing on or around the ramp waiting for them. Wash was pleased but Zoe seemed too uptight to appreciate the support. Kaylee ran down the ramp and Zoe just managed to draw her aside in time. "Kaylee, just leave the Captain be for a while *dong ma*?"

The hushed warning made Kaylee panic. What was wrong? She glanced passed Zoe at the Captain but he looked good. In fact he was smiling and laughing at some street urchin he was carrying. Her eyes narrowed slightly. Now that was odd but tweren't nothing wrong with it, Captain had a sunny side when the mood took him. So why was Zoe so edgy? Zoe gave Wash a look and he quietly moved away from her to pass word to the others about the Captain so that no one would ask any awkward questions. But even Wash could not run interference for River. She danced around them before anyone realised she was there and skidded to a stop in front of the Captain. "The pain in your head won't drown out the pain in your heart."

He stared at her as if she were quite mad. Yen Mah shrank back from River, burying herself against Mal's chest. "What did you say?"

River tilted her head. "Have to fix the Captain's head then find some boots."

He looked down at his feet, the socks now sporting assorted holes where he had been forced to walk barefoot. Before he could think of anything else to say she danced off. When he next looked up it was to find himself face to face with Shepherd Book. It was almost a relief. "Howdy Preacher, I understand my people are aboard?"

"Your people are all around you, son."

Mal frowned. He craned his neck looking for Cheng, twisted round for any sign of Davy and the boys but he could not see them. His frown deepened. Perhaps they were inside? Then a man in a shiny silk vest approached him, a wary smile on his face but keen sharp eyes. "Captain, I understand you got hit on the head?"

He stared. What was all this with the Captain stuff? "Uh yeah, got robbed a ways back. They stole my ruttin' boots. Who are you and why do people keep callin' me Captain?"

The doctor blinked, immediately realising that the Captain could not remember. He recovered quickly. "I'm sorry, you just reminded me of someone. What's your name?"

Mal's face cleared. Relieved to be given such a mundane explanation. "Malcolm Reynolds and this sleepy tiger is called Yen Mah."

That got a smile. "My name's Simon, I'm the doctor on Serenity."


Simon waved behind him not taking his eyes off the Captain, watching him closely for any reaction. "That's the name of this ship, Firefly class."

"Oh." Not knowing quite what to say Mal nodded back. "Nice ship."

Simon frowned then peered at the girl. "Hello, Yen Mah. You hungry?"

She looked at Mal, clutching his neck tighter as if she thought Simon was going to pull her out of Mal's arms. He hushed her, voice soft and soothing in her ear. "It's okay Yen Mah, let's go and get something to eat, *dong ma*?"

It was a subdued crew that boarded the ship. When Jayne joined them Zoe took him to one side to explain that the Captain had been attacked and robbed and as a result of a head injury had lost his memory. At first the mercenary had been amused but one look from Zoe killed the laughter in his throat.

"He'll get his memory back though, won't he? Doc'll fix him up good as new."

Zoe did not know and she did not have it in her to make assurances she could not back up.

Simon wanted to get the Captain straight to the infirmary but he would not leave Yen Mah and she would not go with the others to get anything to eat unless Mal was with her. So they all traipsed into the commons rooms and settled around the big table. It drew some odd looks when Mal just picked an empty seat and sat Yen Mah next to him. A few people looked to the head of the table but no one said anything. Jayne went to take the empty chair but a glare from Zoe made him grumble and pick another seat. Shepherd Book was surprised when the Captain made no move to eat until he had finished his prayer. Yen Mah simply copied everything Mal did as if her life depended on it. Jayne watched them sourly from across the table but several warning looks from the others kept him silent. As soon as he finished eating he left the table to go and practise some weights. The Shepherd excused himself and went with him though he would rather have remained to find out just what had happened.

"So what happened to you?" Asked Kaylee, unable to keep quiet a moment longer.

Mal pushed his finished plate away and took a sip of tea before responding. "I got knocked out and robbed."

"Who by?" Asked Simon.

Mal shrugged. "Didn't see. Must'a jumped me from behind."

Kaylee turned to the girl. "What about you Yen Mah?"

Yen Mah stared at her but did not answer. She shrank back towards Mal who put an arm around her. Kaylee frowned. Usually she could make most anyone open up to her especially kids. This one seemed to be afraid of just about everybody except the Captain. Was as jittery as a spooked calf. She wondered what the girl's story was. Zoe leaned on her elbows and looked at the Captain.

"I think before anyone asks any more questions Simon should take a look at that crack on your head."

"Don't fuss Zo, it's just a mite sore. Not bleedin' no more leastways."

Simon straightened, taking his cue. "I think I'd still like to take a look just to be on the safe side."

They bullied and cajoled him until he gave in. As he got to his feet Kaylee smiled at Yen Mah and went to take her hand. "Come on, while the doc fix's the Cap'n up I'll show you around the ship."

Yen Mah pulled back and grabbed the Captain's sleeve. Looking down he gave her a smile of reassurance then looked at Kaylee's crestfallen face. "Don't mind Yen Mah, Kaylee, she's had a hard time and trustin' folk don't come easy right now. Just let her get used to you, *dong ma*?"

She wanted to cry but instead just nodded, not trusting herself to speak. All she wanted to do was help but she felt out of her depth and the Captain didn't even recognise her. Hell. He didn't even recognise Serenity. What if he never got his memory back? She bit back tears and looked away. When she turned back Simon was hustling the Captain off to the infirmary, Yen Mah hanging on to him every step of the way. Kaylee sniffed and was surprised by a cool hand slipping into hers. When she looked round it was to see River looking into her eyes with understanding and compassion. "He knows but he doesn't remember."

"What happened River?"

"Told you."

"I know he was attacked, robbed, but what happened? Why can't he remember nothin' 'cept Zoe?"

"His mind has gone back not forward."

Kaylee wiped her face and tried to calm down. "So we just have to wait for his memory to go forward again, is that it?"

River nodded.

"What if it gets stuck and he don't remember?" She paused and when she spoke again her voice came out so quiet and small that it almost vanished. "What if he forgets all about us?"

River stroked Kaylee's face gently. "Patience."

Kaylee nodded and let River hug her but the fear had taken root. She didn't know what she'd do if he didn't remember. The thought was almost more than a body could bear.

* * * * *

The two men lounged on the edge of the market. One looked particularly ill favoured, his pock marked face dark with displeasure. Not a handsome man his obvious discontent made him look sour and spiteful. Tall, lean and rangy he played with the knife as if married to the bright blade. His companion was shorter by a head, stockier and a few years older. Perhaps in his mid thirties. A thin moustache framed mean lips. Beady eyes were constantly flicking left and right, missing nothing. "You sure the girl came here?"

The lanky one nodded. "She was with some man, never seen him before."

"Maybe it was a different girl."

"Nah, recognised her smell. Fear that strong can cross continents."

Both men sniggered. For a few minutes neither spoke then the tall one broke the silence. "Think she'll get off planet this time?"

"Our job to make sure she don't."

"But if she does?"

The tall one made a face then spat on the ground. "We'd best be gone or dead."

"Can't help thinkin' though how such a little bitty thing can be so much gorram trouble."

"Tell me about it."

"Specially with half her brain missing."

Another silence fell. The stocky one got a thoughtful expression on his face.

"Y'know, I almost feel sorry for her, Briny." He gave a snort of humour. "But I get to thinkin' of the money and I don't feel sorry no more."

"Gotta catch her first."

The stocky man grunted. "We'll catch her. Did before."

"What if these people try to stop us?"

"That'll be their last mistake."

Briny nudged his companion's shoulder. Both men looked across at the Firefly transport. Noticed a big man peer down the ramp then go back up, shutting it fast behind him.

"*Tamade*, looks like they're about ready to take off. What we do now?"

"Find us somethin' to follow that's what."

"No reward is worth this much trouble." He grumbled.

"Watch your words Ricky. We don't find her they come after us. Either way we can't stay once that ship leaves."

The stocky man nodded, clearly unhappy and more than a little pissed off. "Then we'd best find a way to make sure it don't leave."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*xin gan* = sweetheart *tamade* = fuck *bao bei* = precious/baby/darling *dong ma* = understand



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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.