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THE FORGOTTEN REALM: 19. "Sidetracked"
Thursday, December 25, 2003

"Before the Captain can follow the tantalising map he finds himself sidetracked. In more ways than one."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2630    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

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

SUMMARY: "Before the Captain can follow the tantalising map he finds himself sidetracked. In more ways than one." 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.

"SIDETRACKED"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Wash stared at the Captain. Zoe narrowed her eyes but said nothing. Waiting for Mal to explain himself only Wash was not so patient. "Why are we going back to Porchester?"

The Captain's look was a grim blank. Zoe knew that look. It sent chills of apprehension shivering down her spine. "This have anything to do with that necklace, sir?"

He shook his head. "Just got an errand needs seein' to."

Now she was even more suspicious. "Errand? What errand, sir, and how come I don't know anything about it?"

He blinked. For a moment she thought he wasn't going to answer her. His eyes flattened into a look so bleak that she caught her breath then it was gone. Smoke and mirrors hiding what was. "My errand not yours, Zoe."

"But sir..."

His eyes flashed a warning. "*Gou le*!" He turned to Wash. "Porchester, Wash."

The pilot nodded, unwilling to push Mal in the mood he was in. The Captain gave him a curt nod and left the bridge, Zoe's eyes following him until he was gone. "I don't like it, *zhangfu*."

"What's not to like?" Wash tried to joke. "Just another fun day in the life of our Captain."

She shot him an unamused look. "*Duibuqi, bao bei*. I know you're worried but if it was something we needed to know the Captain would've told us."

The look she gave him silenced any other attempts he might have harboured to cheer her up. Zoe was right. Something was wrong but he had no idea in *diyu* what it could be.

* * * * *

Commandant Harkan was not smiling now. "What do you mean they're turning back?"

"The signal is quite definite, sir."

"It's not malfunctioning?"

"No, sir."

The Alliance officer frowned and turned to look out of the huge plexiglass window seperating him from the Black. What was Reynolds playing at? Did he somehow realise that he was being tracked? But how could he possibly know? If he had checked the bracelet out it would have given nothing away. It would only activate once he handled it, cued in as it was to the Captain's DNA. Or maybe nothing was wrong. Maybe the Captain had used the girl's ability and he was cutting to the chase, taking the direct route to the bracelet's destination rather than working it out a step at a time? The more he thought of that option the calmer he became. Yes. That must be it.

"Watch them closely. Bring us into a slow advance on their position. Not close enough to trigger the limits of even a casual scan. If they know we're following it could scare them off and I don't want to lose that information, *dong ma*?"

His communications officer nodded crisply. Not daring to query why they had gone from observation to following the Firefly. It was as if the Commandant feared to take his eyes off the transport ship. Afraid that the Captain would somehow slip out of the net that was slowly closing in on him. "*Wo dong, shifu*."

* * * * *

The plush estate sported every kind of exotic plant that would grow and Santo was nothing if not fanatical about having the best of everything. Possession was nine tenths of the law but a hundred per cent of his world. Letting the whore go had been amusing. Seeing her virtually beg had been a delicious conceit that he still relished when his current conquests were discarded. They never lasted long enough to properly satisfy him. Luckily he had an inexaustible supply. Santo smiled darkly at his mirror reflection. Straightening his cravat and brushing down his firesilk vest so that not a crease distracted the eye from his expensive clothes.

He could hear the music drifting up to his apartments. His smile grew, knowing the night's entertainment would leave him with choice pickings. Pity he would not be able to indulge as much as he would like. The wave had alerted him and he was not foolish enough to ignore a potential fly in the ointment. But neither would he deny himself the pleasures he had worked so hard to possess.

* * * * *

Cassie Mary Bowman was worried. Bad enough that Martin was going with those *wangba dans* but why did they have to leave two men to watch her and the children? She did not like it. She did not know either of the men. They were the *laoban's* hand picked thugs not her Martin's deputies though the inference had been that they were all doing the same job. Her instincts were too sharp to be fooled by polite rhetoric. Her eyes missed nothing but that did not stop her heart from stumbling one breath short of total panic.

* * * * *

She cornered him in the commons room. Although he did not look at her she knew he was aware of her presence the moment she stepped into the room. He affected indifference, sipping the hot strong tea and trying to project a warning to leave him be. Naturally she ignored it.

"*Shenme shi*?"

He took a long sip of his tea and watched her over the rim of his mug, eyes finally meeting hers. "Not your concern, Zoe."

"*Bushi*! What touches you touches me, sir, you know that. You got the whole crew up tight."

His eyebrows rose, his voice deceptively mild. "Have I now? And why would that be? Seems I only spoke to you an' Wash."

Zoe flushed a little but her anger rushed in to save her blushes. "We did a one-eighty sir, a blind man could feel the change in direction. We got no blind on board, leastways not *physically* blind."

"You tryin' to say somethin' there?"

She watched him a moment then forced herself to calm down. Showing him her temper was the surest way to get his back up and if she did that she would find out nothing. "No, just worried is all. This isn't like you, sir. I know something's wrong why won't you trust me?"

He caught the faint touch of hurt in her voice but made himself not react to it. "Ain't a question of trust, Zoe."

"Then what is it?"

He shook his head. "I just got somethin' needs doin' is all. Soon as it's done we'll resume our course."

"*Wo bu dong*. We receive a wave I don't know about?"

"*Bu*. Just let it drop."

"Can't do that, sir."

"An' I can't tell you."

For a full minute they just stared at each other then the Captain turned to walk out of the room only to find himself facing Simon. Behind him was Yen Mah, River and Kaylee. He swore softly under his breath. "Don't go, Captain."

"Doc, this got nothin' to do with you."

"Which is why you should listen to me."

Zoe frowned but said nothing. Hoping the Captain would let something slip and curious as to what it was the doctor knew that she did not. "Is that so?"

Simon nodded. River was watching the Captain's face but was thankfully silent. Mal had no idea how long that stay of execution would last. "Speak to Inara." He said quietly. "Don't do something she'll regret for the rest of her life."

The silence was deafening. Zoe felt confused. Inara? What the rutting hell did this have to do with the Companion? And why was the doc involved? The Captain went to brush passed Simon but he stood his ground. Yen Mah moved passed the doctor and tugged on the Captain's sleeve. He did not need this. He looked down at her anxious little moon face. "Of all the thirty six possible solutions the best one is - leave."

"Yen Mah, I don't need you quotin' no long dead philosophy."

She shook her head. "Angry. Blind. Going deaf too."

Simon tried again. "Please Captain - Mal. Talk to Inara."

He shook his head. "Won't change my mind."

"Perhaps not but it might help you understand."

Anger was a flash flood that almost overwhelmed him. "*Dong ma? Nei shi shenme yisi?* I understand fine, Simon, and I ain't gonna let that *wangba dan* get away with this not nohow so *gun ququ* and let me pass."

"What *wangba dan* is that, sir?"

He swore under his breath. Had forgotten for a moment that Zoe was standing right behind him.

* * * * *

The Sheriff did not like how things were shaping up but at least he had some of his deputies with him. The *laoban's* men outnumbered his though so he would have to tread carefully. He could not afford arousing any suspicions. After all. He was a simple plain spoken lawman. Time to act like it. He glanced across at Jarrod Wester. The tracker the *laoban* had left with them. While he was relieved when the *laoban* left them to it he was also curious. Where did the man go when he left them? What was his real agenda? Somehow he felt it was a lot more complicated than it appeared.

"Okay Jarrod, what ya got?"

The man was nervous. Jumpy as *diyu*. The Sheriff could not blame him. By all accounts he had lost his brother only hours before the *laoban* left. Never did get the full story out of him. Any time anyone mentioned Dean the poor man went to rutting pieces. Huh. Maybe they were twins? His Mary had once said there was an awful tight bond between twins though they didn't look any way identical. Jarrod's head jerked up nervously. He whet his lips with his tongue before answering. The Sheriff sure the man's palms were probably sweating uncontrollably as well. "They took off from Shadow."

"Oh yeah? How long ago?"

He made a vague almost choking sound in the back of his throat. The Sheriff watched him carefully, hoping the boy was not about to have a fit. He was not a medical man but after a time you got to see damn near all there was to see in the Black. "Five, six hours."

"Got a direction?" He shook his head. "Need a ship to track a ship, Sheriff."

He knew that of course but it would allay the *laoban's* men so they wouldn't think him too smart. "Then best we find us a ship."

Jarrod was shifting from foot to foot. "Sheriff? I ain't much good above ground. You still need me?"

He shook his head. "No, son. Reckon I want folks with flying skills. Go home now and *xie xie ni*."

The boy nodded and took off before he could change his mind. He deliberately turned to Jubal Fox, one of the *laoban's* right hand men to distract him so he wouldn't be tempted to send anyone after Jarrod. The boy had been through enough. "Know where we can get us a ship, Jubal?"

The man's coal black eyes glittered darkly at him, his face a closed mask. After several moments of silence he gave a slow solemn nod. No words now. Didn't want to complicate the one thing he could do at a time by trying to talk *and* think. Jubal nodded to Micky Grey. Micky gave Deputy Crowther a sour look until the deputy stepped to one side to let him pass. The Sheriff let out a slow careful breath. This was gonna be hard as walking on pin heads but he would do it. He just hoped the Captain had gotten clean away and left no trail to speak of behind him.

The ship they found was an old Alliance interplanatary cruiser. Not the big fancy vessels they had on the Core Planets but one of those little private jobs that doubled as spacial yachts for the rich and idle. Now it was impressed into a more sober service. Rudimentary sensors were quickly augmented, with Jubal showing a surprising flare for the mechanics of the beast much to the Sheriff's private dismay. Dreams of delaying them fast disappearing like sand through his fingers. He kept his features schooled and moved carefully, his wound still painful and inclined to bleed afresh if he moved too quickly. Deputy Crowther gave him an anxious look and he could just imagine the prayer he was fashioning to the Lord. *Please keep the Sheriff alive long enough that I don't got to make no decisions*. He could not blame the man but once, just once, he'd like to have men under him who could think for themselves. Folks a shade smarter than the bad guys they were tasked to go up against.

* * * * *

If Inara was surprised to see him she did not show it. He thought she looked a little better. At least she had some colour in her cheeks though she still looked tired and a mite too drawn for his comfort.

"Simon seemed to think I should come talk to you." He allowed after a moment or two of awkward silence.

She nodded slowly. "Don't go after him, Mal."

His temper began to outpace his reason. Her cool hand on his arm stilled his tongue quicker than words would have done. She saw the misery in his eyes and her tone softened some.

"I know this is hard for you to understand but I entered a contract with him."

The Captain nodded to himself. So. It was as he suspected. A *client* had done this to her. "Don't your Guild have rules about such things?"

Inara nodded. "Yes, very strict ones but this was outside the Guild's sphere of influence."

He frowned, not understanding. She had not expected him to. After all, to anyone else it would sound like madness. To even enter into such an agreement flew in the face of all common sense let alone decency. Yet she had done so willingly, as only the desperate could do. "Inara, whatever your trouble is you know you could have come to me, *dui*?"

She nodded and resisted the urge to cry. "Yes, Mal, I know."

A bit calmer now he closed the distance between them and gently took her hands in his. "Now tell me, an' don't leave nothin' out. If I'm to understand why this *liumang* shouldn't be ended you need to do some explainin'."

She bit her lip. "How much do you know about Companions?"

He resisted the urge to refer to them as whores. "Enough to know they're skilled at what they do an' I can't afford 'em."

That almost raised a weary smile but her eyes spoke of a sadness that quelled his urge to lighten the mood. "I was raised to be a Companion, Mal, but it always was my choice *dong ma*?"

The Captain frowned at the seeming contradiction.

"I grew up in the company of such but not until I was a teenage girl was I allowed to express a decision as to whether or not to join the Guild."

"Seems to me if you're raised in it the choice has already been made for you."

She knew it would seem like that to him. "Appearances can be deceiving."

"Can't they just."

"I was raised among them, Mal, but they were always careful to ensure I had outside teachers. Tutors from every branch of study to widen my horizons. I had trips out, visits to all the major planets, the museums, the county seats and market places. I was taught several languages, many political systems of government, the use and function of mathematical equations not just simple commerce. I led a rich and varied life until I came of age." She paused and looked down at her hands, demurely cupped together in her lap. Mal's calloused and suntanned hands lightly cradling them between his own as she struggled to find the right words. She looked up and lost herself in those dark blue eyes. For a moment she was adrift then at a slight squeeze of his hands she found her anchor. "I chose to be a Companion and it's a choice I have never regretted."

"Until now." He said softly.

She shook her head. "No. Not even now, Mal."

"But after what that *goushi buru wangba dan* did to you..."

"Not even after that. Would you turn from your ways just because you have to work for a lowlife like Badger from time to time?" He frowned but did not answer. "I thought not. You still have to eat as do I."

"Ain't the same, Inara."

"Of course it is. But I was saying, I chose this life Mal and for that I have no regrets. My fate at that man's hands was a considered judgement. A price I had to pay..."

He cut her off, angry and impassioned. Eyes blazing. "No man has the right to do that to you or any woman, Inara. Don't try to tell me it's right when it ain't."

"I'm not saying it's right," She said more gently than she would have expected. Why was she now the one consoling the Captain? "What he did was wrong but I *allowed* it Mal, you have to understand. I knew it was going to happen and I let it happen."

He looked in pain and was all kinds of confused. It hurt to think on her words, they baffled and impaled him. "*Wo bu dong*."

"I know, that's why going after him in some misplaced ideal of defending my honour would be worst than a mistake, Mal."

"*Weishenme*, Inara? Why would you do that?"

A sigh seemed to drag itself up through her diaphram from her toes. "He had something I wanted back. Something I lost long ago."

"*Shenme*?"

It was crunch time. To tell him or not to tell him? Inara realised she had gone too far to back down now. Some secrets were not worth risking friends over and it had already cost her enough. She rose to her feet and let go of the Captain's hands. He went to rise with her but she put a hand on his shoulder and gave a tiny shake of her head. He stayed put, his eyes glued to her every movement. She walked to her dresser, opened a drawer then fiddled inside the back of it until a little hidden compartment slid out. She could have hid her actions from his view but this was a time of revelation not concealment. She did not want the Captain losing his life over her mistake. His eyes searched hers as she re-took her seat beside him and handed him the folded piece of parchment.

He took it with shaking hands. Knowing it must be very important for her to go to such lengths to get it back. What was it? At a nod from her he opened it with care, his eyes widening slightly as he realised what it was. His head came up and his eyes found hers and locked on. "Your birth certificate?"

Inara nodded and managed to bite back the threat of tears.

"Why's this so gorram important, Inara?" He asked quietly.

"I'm a Companion, Mal. It's not just a classy title for a whore it's my life, my vocation. A whole way of living. But without a birth certificate I can never marry. Never sponsor children let alone have any of my own."

"You want children?"

She almost smiled that he had fastened on the latter not the former. "It's a biological need, Mal. I'm not getting any younger."

"*Wode ma*, I never guessed."

"You weren't meant to, it has nothing to do with you."

"An' the marriage part of it?"

"A woman doesn't need to be married to sponsor a child."

He fell silent. Something clouded his eyes but it passed before she could pin down what it was. It was not condemnation. Nor was he judging her but he was surprised.

"Inara, you don't need no gorram piece of paper to marry nor have children. I'm thinkin' there has to be somethin' you're not tellin' me."

"I only need this because I'm a Companion, Mal. If I marry without being able to prove my lineage then I will be struck from the Guild. They will no longer offer me their patronage or protection. I will no longer be able to carry out my duties."

"But you'd be married..."

"Mal, a Companion is a Companion for life."

He looked shocked. "You mean... you'd carry on even with a *zhangfu*?"

This time she took his hands in hers. Unconsciously her thumb stroked back and forth across his palm, her tone pitched to calm him. "It's our way." A horrible thought assailed him.

"Inara, tell me you didn't marry this ruttin' *dongwu*?"

Her eyes widened in shock then softened a little at the tension she felt in him. "No, I didn't marry him. I am still single, Mal."

A breath huffed out of him. Another thought almost stopped the beat of his heart. "Did you... did you 'sponsor' a child with him?"

He looked so concerned she felt a flood of tenderness sweep through her. "No."

Confusion returned to dull the blue of his eyes. "Then I don't understand..."

"Lineage, Mal. You cut your hand and your blood runs red. The certificate proves my bloodline, Mal." Suddenly it hit him. "*Tamade*." The birth certificate made her a brooding mare. The notion made his blood boil anew. Seeing his reaction she tightened her hold on his hands.

"Mal?"

"This certificate is so you can breed?"

"No Mal, it's not like that."

His eyes darkened. "Then what is it like? Answer me true Inara and don't think of lyin' to me. You said it proves your bloodline. Allows you to marry. To sponsor a child. What is it then if it ain't for breedin'?"

"It's my dowry, Mal."

Her answer closed off any other questions that rose to his tongue. His mind taking stock of something that had not occurred to him. He swallowed slowly. "Inara, you don't need no dowry to find a husband. Fine woman like you don't need to go cap in hand to nobody."

A tiny smile made it to her lips. Somehow easing some of the pain churning around inside her. Who would have thought the Captain would be her knight in shining armour? "Don't go after him, Mal. *Qing*, for me."

It was a long time before he could bring himself to answer. Head bowed over their joined hands he could not speak. Could not fashion the words of his surrender but she felt it in the slump of his shoulders, the tremor of his hands. She lent forward and dropped a gentle kiss on the top of his head, her arms gently folding around him. Her thanks for his final acquiessence. Knowing how much it pained him to give her this. After a few minutes he raised his head and looked at her. She took her arms away and folded her hands in her lap, waiting for him to speak. "I won't go huntin' for him, Inara, but I promise you this. I ever meet that *wangba dan* I will end him. No promise you can force me to make that will change that fact."

She nodded, accepting the conditions of the truce. He realised he had to speak to Wash and stood up.

"Best go an' tell Wash to go back to our previous course."

"Where are we going?"

He gave her a little lop sided smile, feeling more than a mite self conscious. "Followin' some map the Alliance Commandant left for me." At her look of alarm his smile actually widened. "No call for alarm. Seems the Commandant had a *liwu* he wanted me to have. Not sure why or what it means."

"You said a map. Why would he give you a map?"

"No idea but I admit it's a mite intriguin'."

"Mal, don't do it. It has to be a trap. Why else would he leave it for you?"

"Maybe he didn't know what it was." He put his hand in his inside pocket and drew out the plush silver pouch. Intrigued, Inara stood up and leaned over his hands to get a closer look as he upended the pouch and shook the contents into the palm of his free hand. The gasp from her lips drew his eyes up to lock on hers. There was a stricken look on her face. "Inara, what is it? *Shenme shi*?"

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*zhangfu* = husband *duibuqi* = sorry *bao bei* = precious/treasure *diyu* = hell *dong ma* = understand *wo dong* = I understand *shifu* = sir *wangba dan* = bastard *laoban* = boss *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *bushi* = not so *bu* = no *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *nei shi shenme yisi* = what does that mean? *dui* = correct *gun ququ* = get the hell out of here (lit. roll away out of here) *xie xie ni* = thank you *liumang* = bastard *goushi buru* = lower than dog shit *weishenme* = why *liwu* = gift *shenme* = what *wode ma* = mother of God *dongwu* = animal *tamade* = fuck *qing* = please *gou le* = enough

COMMENTS

Tuesday, December 30, 2003 5:41 AM

KISPEXI2


Oh, way to leave us hanging, Ali!!

I really like that way you write Inara. And that was a really touching scene between her and Mal.

Thanks for keeping us flyin'. Kis


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