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AMDOBELL

THE FORGOTTEN REALM: 12. "Friend or Foe"
Wednesday, November 5, 2003

"Serenity gets an unwanted visitor. The Captain has decisions to make and everyone is wary about what might happen next."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2591    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "FRIEND OR FOE" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: No specific pairing. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: New. SEQUEL to "TWIXT HEAVEN AND HELL" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: http://carlajane.50megs.com/Ali00.html

SUMMARY: "Serenity gets an unwanted visitor. The Captain has decisions to make and everyone is wary about what might happen next." 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.

"FRIEND OR FOE"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Captain Malcolm Reynolds stared at the Sheriff. Behind him Zoe and Jayne stood like wary bookends framing the door. They were in the cargo hold. Everyone else had made themselves scarce, Kaylee taking Yen Mah with her to Inara's shuttle.

"Not followin' ya, Sheriff."

"Martin."

The Captain gave him a wary nod. The earlier cameraderie on the planet now pacing like a caged animal behind bars in the new cooler climate. He was not about to let it out real soon. This man was all kinds of confusing. "Tell me again why I should let you aboard my boat?"

"The two brothers who kidnapped Yen Mah and arranged your necktie party broke out of goal. Reckon they must have had outside help."

"And this is my problem why?"

"I figure they'll come here. Maybe try to snatch the girl. Even their score with you."

"Ain't got no score to settle. Now if you were speakin' the other way around that would be different. Either way they'd be fools to come to my boat."

"Even fools can be dangerous, Mal."

Jayne tensed behind the Captain but said nothing. "And you figure coming with us will do what? Apart from eat into our supplies some?"

The Sheriff smiled. Even prickly and suspicious as hell he enjoyed talking to the Captain. Mal wondered why he was being so persistent. "If they try anything I wanna be close enough to catch 'em."

"We got our own muscle." Growled Jayne just a flypaper short of being outright rude.

Sheriff Bowman nodded. "That I can see but this might be one time the law would come in handy."

"How so?" Asked the Captain in a deceptively mild tone. He was not exactly suspicious of the Sheriff but he was wary of his insistence in coming along with them. Surely if there was any danger it would be while the Firefly was on the ground? Once they hit atmo they would be safe. Wouldn't they?

"A business man like yourself has enough to deal with lining up work and getting it done so he can get paid. Last thing you need is to have to deal with criminals and the like then cart them off to the authorities. Leave the clean up to me, Mal. As soon as they surface I'll have 'em, be outta your hair an' gone. You carry on with your business, me with mine. How does that sound?"

"Mighty reasonable for a lawman." Murmured Jayne darkly. His tone implying the opposite. The Captain's back stiffened. It was the only warning that he was not best pleased with Jayne's comment. The mercenary's jaw snapped shut. One glower from Zoe as good as soldered it tight.

"Don't mean no offence, Martin," Said the Captain in a slow cautious drawl. "But once we leave we don't figure on comin' back this way. Would make it mighty inconvenient for you to come back with or without your prisoners seein's as how you'd be wadin' through vacuum to do it."

He nodded slowly. "Got me some leave due, figure I could use a few weeks away. Let me worry about how I get back."

Zoe was really alarmed now. Hoped the Captain would send the man packing so they could get the hell out of here but they would have to play it careful. Any sign of panic now could screw them six ways from Sunday and no mistake. She kept her face carefully blank. As expressionless as a piece of gorram granite. The Captain gave their visitor a long steady look. The Sheriff did not fidget or try to avoid his eye. He waited patiently for Mal to make up his mind. "And if I say no?"

"I could insist, it being lawful duty an' all or I could impound your ship until the danger's passed. Not much caring to cause you any more trouble than can be avoided though." He paused and allowed his voice to go quiet, eyes glued to the Captain. "Your call, Mal."

Jayne felt a finger of ice slide down his spine. Would give a year of his life to shoot the Sheriff dead but didn't want to risk pissing Mal off. "If you come it'd be just you, Martin." Said the Captain cautiously.

His second stared, her disapproval boring a hole in the back of his neck but mouth clamped shut. There was a lot to be said for the discipline of a military background. Jayne's mouth flapped momentarily then snapped shut again. He gripped Vera so hard his knuckles cracked. The Captain watched the Sheriff calmly. "I can do that." He said.

The mercenary could not believe he was listening to this *gos se*. Why wasn't the Captain reading the man the riot act and sending him off his boat with his gorram tail between his legs? Okay so he was a lawman but they hadn't done anything wrong so what was the problem? Captain could just say a polite 'no' and give Wash the word. They'd be off this depressing rock and into the Black in no time at all. The whole thing gave him the creeps. Mal considered everything the Sheriff had told him. Recalled River's words and resisted the temptation to shudder. How the *diyu* had the girl known?

"If I were a suspicious man," He said slowly. "I'd be thinkin' you were blackmailin' me."

Sheriff Bowman raised his eyebrows, his expression mild and vaguely amused. The Captain was keeping his tone deceptively light and both men knew it. "Not making any threats, Mal, just laying my cards out on the table *dong ma*?"

"Now that's the point that has me a mite puzzled." The Captain paused. Zoe, Wash and Jayne tensed further. Shepherd Book had now appeared at the top of the stairs and looked down from the catwalk. Not saying a word but focusing his attention on every word spoken and taking in the mounting tension. "Are you layin' your cards out or deliverin' a threat? I should warn you I'm not a man as takes kindly to bein' threatened. Not to my own self or my crew."

"Yen Mah isn't crew."

"No," Said Mal softly, his eyes hardening. "But she *is* under my protection Sheriff and I'd take it as a kindness if you left her safety in my hands. Not that I'm not obliged for your concern."

For a long moment the Sheriff just stared at him. He was not smiling now. All pretence at any cameraderie between them vanishing. "I think you and me need a quiet word, Captain Reynolds."

Jayne shifted his weight ever so slightly at the formality creeping into both men's voices. No polish of friendly banter to take the shine off what was after all a pretty thinly veiled threat. The subtle implication being that the gloves were about to come off. The Captain did not respond straight away. He was thinking. While he could brush the lawman off and eject him without too much trouble the consequences could put his whole crew at risk not to mention the impounding of his boat. He might be taking his time acclimatising to this life but he was a fast learner and instincts were kicking in warning him not to give a gut reaction that others might have to pay for. Slowly he nodded. "Best come up to the commons area. Zoe, see that we aren't disturbed."

He got a tight unhappy look from Zoe but ignored the plea in her eyes not to do this. Didn't she know the stakes? It was not as if he had much choice. The look he gave her back said 'trust me'. Gritting her teeth she gave a strained nod, unable to trust herself to speak. It was enough for him. Jayne openly scowled with clear disapproval but did not say anything. Instead he moved closer to the cargo bay door to make sure none of the Sheriff's deputies tried to force it open and come aboard. In silence they watched the Captain turn and climb the stairs two at a time, the Sheriff smoothly falling into step behind him as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Jayne's eyes narrowed further, not liking the fact that the Sheriff was behind the Captain. The Shepherd had the same thought and made sure he was in a position to watch the Captain's back as they passed him. Only when they disappeared from view did Jayne say what was on his mind.

"What the ruttin' hell was that about?"

"I don't know but I don't like it." Said Zoe.

Wash stared up at the catwalk with a thoughtful expression on his face. "Me neither, *bao bei*."

Jayne turned and looked Zoe in the eye. "What now?"

Her expression was unhappy but resolute. Eyes hard as diamonds in the rough. "We wait on the Captain."

He snorted. "Ya know he ain't been right in the head since we got him back."

Anger smouldered in her eyes at the implied criticism but she let the comment pass in order to stay calm. Losing her temper would simply give Jayne an excuse to go off the deep end. "Captain wants to play this smart Jayne. One wrong word from any of us and we could get impounded, lose the ship. That happens there'll be people crawling all over Serenity, taking her apart inch by inch. You know what that'd mean?" She paused so that her words could sink in. "We wait and back up whatever decision the Captain makes."

"That's *chun* an' ya know it."

"Nevertheless that's the way it's gonna be, *dong ma*?"

Jayne huffed, eyes darkening with concern. "Just hope the Cap knows what he's doin'." He muttered.

* * * * *

Yen Mah enjoyed having her hair brushed and being fussed over but some sixth sense had her on edge, her big brown eyes straying time and again to the door of the shuttle. Inara noticed but said nothing about it, talking steadily to try to keep the girl's mind diverted. She looked from Inara to Kaylee with big wide eyes. "Why are we hiding?"

"Not hiding *bao bei*, just spending some time together that's all."

The girl looked suspicious. "*Shenme shi*?"

Inara knew better than try to fob her off. "The Sheriff wants to talk to the Captain so we're staying out of the way until he leaves."

A flash of fear shot through her. Kaylee saw her tremble and caught hold of her hand giving it a gentle squeeze. "Hey, it's alright *dong ma*? Cap'n'll talk to him a bit, Sheriff'll leave then we're up into the atmo and away."

"He wants to take me away!" She wailed.

"Who does?"

"The Sheriff."

Inara tried to soothe her. "He offered to give you a home with his family as I understand it, Yen Mah. Sounds like the Sheriff took a liking to you and is worried about you."

"I don't want to go, don't make me go!"

Inara put her arms around the frightened girl and drew her on to her lap. Kaylee picked up the abandoned brush and resumed brushing her hair. Inara was alarmed to see tears in the girl's eyes. "Don't worry, Mal won't let anybody take you anywhere you don't want to go."

"I want to stay here with you and Kaylee and Mal."

Kaylee grinned. "Then here's where you'll stay."

Yen Mah stared at her. "*Zhen de*?"

Kaylee nodded firmly. "Yep, really."

"You won't send me away?"

Inara felt her heart go out to the girl. "No, Yen Mah and neither will the Captain."

"Now," Said Kaylee brightly. "Wanna play a game?"

* * * * *

The Captain stared at the Sheriff. "You have got to be kiddin' me?"

Sheriff Bowman shook his head, his expression grim. They were sitting at the table. The Captain had made a couple of mugs of coffee. Rare enough to get good makings it had helped calm things between them after the Sheriff apologised to Mal and explained why he had been so tetchy with him. Although it did nothing to put Mal's fears at rest it did make him feel easier around the lawman. So far Martin Bowman had always been straight with him. He had no call to believe different now though it felt strange to have a lawman calling him by his first name as if they were friends.

"You were gettin' mighty uptight with my crew back there." He mused.

The Sheriff huffed, blew on his coffee and took a slow sip of the murky black liquid. His lips curled slightly at the rich dark flavour. "Just irked me that I couldn't seem to get through to you folks that I'm not a threat. 'Specially with the crazy stuff that seems to be chasing your tail."

"What kind of crazy?"

"I did some checkin', Mal." He watched the Captain over the rim of his mug to see his reaction. "You got yourself quite a name."

The Captain flinched slightly. "I have?"

"Yeah. Seems you're a man who don't much like to back down. Made yourself some powerful enemies along the way."

"You one of 'em, Martin?" He asked quietly.

The lawman looked genuinely surprised and a little hurt. "Hell, no. Wouldn't be here if I was."

"Then no offence but why are ya here? An' don't tell me it's to adopt an 11 year old Chinese girl who screams every time she sees your gorram face."

The Sheriff had the grace to flush slightly. "You an' the girl are the key."

The Captain did not like the sound of that. "Key to what?"

"That tornado on your tail is one I've been chasin' for seven months. Runs a skin trade that stretches from one end of the gorram rim worlds to the other."

The Captain's face darkened. "Slaver?"

The Sheriff nodded. "Among other things."

"*Chusheng xai-jiao de xiang huo*! What other things?"

"Dirty Alliance work their own people won't touch with a ruttin' tent pole. He's got gangs working many a non-Alliance world."

"Why non-Alliance worlds if he does Alliance work?"

"So's he can run information in trade that's why."

Mal's eyes widened. "Ya mean spyin'?"

"That's about the size of it."

"Where d'you fit in an' how does it concern Yen Mah an' me?"

"We've lost kids before, Mal." He said sadly. His face crumpling slightly. He looked down into his coffee and for a moment seemed to age before the Captain's eyes as if he carried his own kind of grief. He looked up slowly and met the Captain's eyes. "Never could prove where they were goin' or who was to blame. Every time I got close folk died. That's why I'm worried about those two boys."

The Captain gave him a keen look. "That why ya didn't want 'em to hang?"

He nodded. "I wanted information outta them but someone got there first."

"You think they were deliberately helped out of gaol?"

"I hope that's all it is."

"Hope?"

"Yeah. My fear is the break out was set up so they would run away. Easier to kill 'em an' have the bodies disappear. Dead men keep the best secrets."

"Ruttin' hell. What do they want with Yen Mah?"

"She's gifted."

A shiver ran down Mal's spine as he thought of another gifted child. Genius even. "What do you mean?"

"That child could do some pretty neat stuff, Mal. Not that I seen any example of it my own self. Never laid eyes on her until the boys claimed you'd abducted an' raped her."

"Then how d'you know it's true?"

"I got my sources an' from what I hear tell she could predict things. Had a real uncanny way of seein' into the future an' such. Not sayin' I believe it but it was creepy enough that some pretty top people wanted to dig around to find out how she did it. What made the girl tick."

The Captain's eyes widened with horror. "*Wu de ma*!"

"Mal? You okay?"

"She said they cut her when I first met her only I wasn't thinkin' too straight my own self. You mean they were pokin' around inside her ruttin' head?" He had a sickening feeling growing in the pit of his stomach thinking about River. There were too many similarities for there to be no connection. Only River had been part of a secret Alliance project. Rescued only by the determination of a brother who would not give up until he had broken her out of the facility that held her and was now spending every spare moment he possessed trying to put right whatever it was they had done to her. The Sheriff reached a hand out and touched Mal's forearm, a look of concern etched onto his face. The Captain had gone so pale he thought he was going to pass out.

"Mal? Talk to me."

"Sorry, Martin. Call it an over active imagination." He paused. "When you said you were willing to take Yen Mah into your home what did you really mean? An' don't think for a second of lyin' to me."

For several moments the Sheriff was silent. "I knew ya were smart the moment I laid eyes on ya an' that gave me hope." He said slowly. "I have contacts with an underground group. We're tryin' to piece it all together. My job is to locate the ring leaders an' if my sources find any leads, any information, they pass it on to me. We have some doctors - not nearly enough - an' a whole load of people both Alliance an' non-Alliance with a vested interest in recoverin' the kids an' gettin' them the medical attention they need. Sometimes we're right quick an' get to them before they can be experimented on. Sometimes we're too late to do anythin' but prevent further damage. Their minds too gone to bring back if you know what I mean. Them as are too damaged don't live long." He paused and needed to take a moment or two to calm himself. Mal watched him closely. Could see the emotion in the man and felt a kinship with him. "I got kids myself Mal, that part was true. One of my boys is near Yen Mah's age. When we first found you with the girl in your bunk on this boat I was about ready to fill you full of lead without explanation I was that mad an' sick at heart. It was the girl's reaction that stayed my hand. Confused me a mite if you must know. Ain't never seen no kidnap victim so reluctant to be saved. Way she clung to you gave me a clue we might not have the whole story."

Mal snorted softly and took a deep sip of his drink, hands cupped around the mug as if savouring the heat. "That's some tale ya got there, Martin"

"Worst part is it's true, Mal. Wish to *diyu* it wasn't."

"Those two men?"

"What about 'em?"

"They really break out?"

"All I can tell ya is they're gone. Came to get 'em this mornin' for questioning an' the cells were empty."

"What did your deputies have to say?"

There was a look of pain in the man's eyes. "Not much. The two on night duty were found dead. It'll take weeks to scrub all the blood off the walls." He paused, the colour of his face grey with sorrow. "Some of them boys I grew up with, Mal. I swear by all nine hells that I'm gonna find the *goushi buru wangba dans* responsible. When I've finished with 'em their three souls and seven spirits will leave this world forever."

The Captain closed his eyes and swore softly. Sharing the man's pain as echoes of memories beyond his reach touched and moved him. It was as if he could walk in this man's shoes without having to give it a second thought. Something stirred inside him that he had been thinking on these last few days. The urgency of knowing now much keener than it had been even a day before. He looked at the Sheriff. "What you wantin' from me? I'm guessin' it's more than my rapier wit and keen intellect."

"Don't go to Shadow, Mal."

The Captain could not hide his shock. "What the gorram do you know about Shadow?"

"Told ya I checked up on ya. I know ya were born an' raised on Shadow. That ya fought for the Independents an' were at the Battle of Serenity."

He had to let go of his mug, his hands were shaking too badly. The Sheriff bit his lip, sorry to have caused the Captain any distress but time was pressing and he did not have the luxury of letting him down easy. "What else ya know?"

Something in the Captain's soft speech alerted the Sheriff to go carefully.

"As I recall ya got hit on the head, *dui*?"

Captain Reynolds nodded.

"How much about the past do ya remember, Mal?"

"Accordin' to my reckonin' when talkin' to Zoe everythin' 12 years ago and further back is shiny. The last few years - not so much."

"How much is not so much?"

"Huh," Mal grunted softly in reluctant admission. "The last few years aren't there."

The Sheriff raised his eyebrows. "A blank?"

"Yep."

"*Tian Yehsu*."

The Captain looked at him for a moment. "*Shenme shi*?"

"I was hopin' for your help."

Mal shrugged. "I'll help if I can but first I have to talk to my crew. This ain't no one man show, Martin. What I do drags my people with me, *dong ma*?"

"You could come with me."

The Captain shook his head. "Not gonna happen."

"This is serious, Mal, and I can't get to the bottom of this without your help."

"An' why is that? I'm one man, Martin. What the gorram does this mess have to do with me?"

The Sheriff hesitated. "Speak to your people, Mal. I'll go, come back tomorrow. Just give me your word you won't try to take off before you get back to me with your answer?"

Mal nodded wondering what in the nine hells he was getting into.

"Come this time tomorrow you may wish you'd never seen hide nor hair of me, Mal."

*I'm wishing that now* Thought the Captain, only he did not say it out loud. He watched the Sheriff get to his feet. "What time you comin' by tomorrow?"

"How about first thing in the mornin'?"

The Captain nodded. Martin paused and stuck out his hand. The Captain looked at it for a moment then shook it. "Until then."

Every head turned as they walked onto the catwalk then down the steps to the cargo bay. Shepherd Book's eyes narrowed suspiciously but he held his tongue. Jayne looked as if he was itching to rip the lawman to pieces. Zoe looked concerned but relieved to see the Sheriff go. Wash was looking at the Captain, trying to measure his mood from the look on his face and his subdued manner. When they reached the doors Jayne punched the release and felt a surge of satisfaction as the big bay door hissed open. The Sheriff paused and looked at Mal one last time. "Until tomorrow then, Mal."

"You'll have my answer then."

He watched him leave then nodded curtly to Jayne to shut the door. His expression so grim that no one said anything until the door was sealed shut. Zoe was first to speak, her voice deceptively low as she fought to hold in warring emotions. "What's going on, sir?"

"Too much to mention in the hold. I want everyone in the dining room *mashang*. That includes Inara and Yen Mah."

The Shepherd looked really worried now. "She's just a child, Captain..."

"*Qu* but this concerns the girl and what they did to her. Seems only right she should be there."

Wash looked alarmed. "What do you mean 'what they did to her'? What did they do?"

The Captain's lips compressed into a thin line only a fool would cross. "Dining room, now."

Stunned they followed the Captain as he spun round and went back up the stairs. Zoe looked at Wash. "Best go fetch Inara, Kaylee and Yen Mah."

Wash nodded and hurried off to Inara's shuttle.

"I'll go and get Simon and River." Suggested the Preacher.

Zoe nodded somewhat distracted. Jayne looked to be sinking into a foul mood. He spat out a plug of tobacco he had been chewing and put it into words. "Why can't anything ever go smooth?"

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*gos se* = crap *diyu* = hell *dong ma* = understand *bao bei* = precious *qu* = yes *chun* = stupid *shenme shi* = what is the matter? *zhen de* = really *tianna* = oh God *chusheng ai-jiao de xian huo* = animal fucking bastard *wu de ma* = mother of God *tian Yehsu* = sweet Jesus *goushi buru* = lower than dogshit or 'lowest of the low' *wangba dan* = bastard *dui* = correct *mashang* = immediately

COMMENTS

Thursday, November 6, 2003 5:40 AM

KISPEXI2


I'm doing a little dance of excitement. This is SUCH a good story. And so satisfyingly LONG.


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