TEMPTATION SERIES: 34. "Smoking Gun"
Sunday, November 6, 2005

"While everyone tries to cope with the shock Mal and Chung-li work on a plan to find out what in the nine hells happened on Glory. Not knowing that another, equally determined force, is determined to stop them."



SUMMARY: "While everyone tries to cope with the shock Mal and Chung-li work on a plan to find out what in the nine hells happened on Glory. Not knowing that another, equally determined force is determined to stop them." 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.


"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Choked. It was the only thing Simon Tam could feel. The total devastation was wrong on so many levels. Kaylee was crying so hard her breath kept hitching, the doctor's arms automatically wrapping round his wife while his mind was in a whirl. Shepherd Book moved towards Chung-li but the big man just turned sad eyes on him and gently shook his head. Frustrated the Preacher gave a reluctant nod. His look saying he would be ready when the Chinaman needed him. Any place, any time. Wash followed his silent wife up and into the commons area, Jayne shutting the cargo bay door to block out the sight that burned the edges of his retinas with images of happy memories shared with people who were no more. Good honest folk. He'd liked them and not just because they were Mal's friends, though that helped too. Relaxed him knowing they had earnt the Captain's approval. Hurt him trying to think of why in *diyu* anyone would want to raze a whole planet to the ground. 'Specially if it weren't Reavers. Didn't make no sense.

Subdued and more than a mite in shock the crew drifted in ones and twos up to the commons area until, by silent consensus, the big old table had every seat filled bar two. The Captain and Chung-li conspicuous by their absence. No one evincing much surprise to find the passenger already seated at the table. A moment's double-take to be sure their eyes weren't deceiving them then Milo was consigned to the back of their minds. Forgotten. Wallpaper. Only the Shepherd had taken note, his careful eye not lingering but aware. Inara took the makings gently out of the Preacher's hands. They exchanged a look then he took his seat next to Jayne and let Inara busy herself making tea for everyone.

In his bunk Malcolm Reynolds stood with his back to the ladder, staring at the metal wall of his room as if he were miles away. The distance measured in years and pain filled heartbeats. Memories flickering in his mind with the sepia tone of an old hand cranked piece of movie, the frames old and damaged but still identifiable in his mind's eye. Folk moved into and out of frame until he seemed drawn into the fabric of it and out of this world. His mama's smile, so wide and warm and generous. So full of love for him, the family so close knit and mocking in that gentle but ascerbic way their humour always drifted to the bright shiny edge of well honed sarcasm. It was a battle of wits but in his mama's house there were no losers just well loved family and friends joshing each other. The lively banter keeping them on their toes mentally while the banks of snow outside kept their muscles idle from ranch work while they waited for the thaw. Made no never mind what trials beset them they were happy. It was a far cry from after the War. When surrender had striped them of honour and added obscenity to the list of unbearable losses the Independents had endured.

Shadow. A land so marked and maimed nothing could live on it no more still less flourish. The feelings raw and sharp pierced him deep, pinning his heart to his soul and leaving both wounded. Memories so strong he could still smell the acrid smoke of human flesh filling his nostrils as they flared in painful dispair and distress. Everywhere he looked, nothing but death and destruction. Not content to see what had been done and leave he had to walk the land, retrace the steps of his people, visit the burnt remnants of their ranch house, the few stark blackened beams like rib cages standing out from the opened cavity of a corpse. The tears fell unabated, his chest tightening with the pain of it. Reliving the past moment by moment, images of what was crucifying his every breath. Head hung down in sorrow and shame for leaving his home to defend something that could not stand against the overpowering might of the Alliance, leaving his family unprotected. Butchered and burnt to death, the land made poison, the air filled with the stink of death and the humming drift of smoke making a pall in the air. His fault. His sin. He had neglected his duties at home and those he cherished most had paid the price.

Now, Chung-li had returned to his own war zone and for what? Why had Glory suffered a similar fate to Shadow? War was over. *Diyu*, Glory hadn't even fought in the War-That-Was. She was an innocent bystander and the war had been over more than a dozen years. He did not move as someone descended his ladder, the hatch quietly but efficiently closed and locked to preserve their privacy against the intrusion of some well meaning member of his crew. Mal did not turn, did not lift his tear stained face. Too deep in contemplation and regret, slowly surfacing in his mind to solve the mystery that made a mockery of war yet haunted those who had survived whether by default or design. His wits were sharpening even as his sorrow was compounded by this latest blow. The hand on his shoulder grounded him back in the Here and Now. The soft but deep voice as soothing and welcome as a mountain spring in the heat of day. Chung-li had once said they were brothers, a figure of speech, a declaration of unity and friendship. This day he felt closer to the man than any other soul in the 'verse with the exception of Zoe. Pushing back the memories so that he could at least function, the Captain turned and looked into the eyes of his friend.

"What the good gorram happened, Chung-li?"

"An evil thing."

The quietly spoken words gave scant information for Mal's fevered brain. Only barely keeping his anger in check he bit off his next words as if each and every one personally offended him. Mayhap they had. "That ain't no answer. I wanna know who did this."

"Who not what, *wode pengyou*?"

That gave him pause then the Captain nodded, all solemn and determined. "Who *and* what." He amended. A long quiet sigh was expelled out of the Chinaman's barely open mouth, eyes glued to Mal's, a world of considering going on behind those knowing eyes. A wisdom lived and breathed in the man that set him generations apart from those that followed. Chung-li was a big man, shorter than Jayne and the Captain but twice as broad. His frame the size of a sumo wrestler from Earth-That-Was but without the flab. Every inch of him was well toned muscle and Mal already knew he was a martial arts expert, able to move like a freak in a hurricane and not disturb a gorram thing but that which he aimed for. Walked light as a feather when he wanted to as well. The man did not disconcert Malcolm Reynolds with his range of skills nor his manner, if anything he reassured him. With every gorram breath the big man took. But as big, brave and deadly as Chung-li could be Mal wanted to protect him. To keep his friend from harm. It wasn't a conscious thought but something so fundamental it was part of his DNA.

"We cannot bring back the dead." Whispered Chung-li in a soft voice.

His words returned the Captain to his duty. "Then best we lay your sister to rest."

For a moment Chung-li just looked at him, then raised a huge hand and gently wiped the tears from the Captain's face. Another might have been bemused that Mal was crying for a family that was not his own but Chung-li understood this man, always had. Knew deep in his heart the Captain was not only grieving for the people of Glory as a whole. Not that either would speak of it. "The others will want to come."

The Captain nodded, back in control but grim and solemn. He gave a shrug. "Let come who may, you choose the spot my friend an' I'll make it deep as needs be."

Chung-li thanked him with his eyes then opened the hatch. It was River that saw them first as they stood quietly framed in the doorway watching the crew drinking tea in gloomy abstraction. Wash looked up and rose from his seat, everyone else beginning to get up as well. Mal waved a vague hand in their direction. "No need to rise."

They retook their seats, wary and sad eyes flicking from him to Chung-li. Only Milo had not moved. The Shepherd noted it and wondered. Now here was the Captain taking control again, the crew unconsciously relaxing a tad at the comfort of having the mainstay of their lives back in focus even if there was blue murder shining like a dull promise in his eyes.

* * * * *

Milo watched, listened and drank in every move and mannerism of the members of this crew. Not because he was planning anything his own self but because it was in his nature to be cautious. To note, catalogue and measure the mental and physical abilities of all he came into contact with. It was like exercising a muscle and as automatic as breathing. Part of his early warning defence system. There was no emotion attached, no intent. He knew the Shepherd was extra sharp around him and that amused him. The man more open to Milo's brand of perception than the Preacher would have liked had he known. His concentration drifted off again. Something that kept happening when he took to coming out of the guest bunk he had been assigned.

Mixing with the crew of this ship was not good, left him open to observation in a way that having his tortured flesh remade anew would not have done. He wore his scars, his disfigurement, like battle honours. A part of him he was proud to bear not for the way others recoiled at the sight of him but for the lessons they represented. Only another neophyte would understand and he was well past the indoctrination stage of his faith. This was the final, last level and he had come through it like base metal from the philospher's stone. The impurities of wrong thinking clensed out of him. The purity of purpose stamped into body and soul with fire. A true believer. Yes. He had passed the final test. Was ready to be moulded to whatever purpose was required of him but first he needed to be back among his kind. To recover and renew. Unhurried to meet the destiny that awaited for like karma everything had its' proper time.

Nothing qualified like experience and Milo had not only been hung over the volcano's edge he had been right into the pit of it, down into the boiling searing heat until he reached the deepest and darkest revelations. He was ready now. Anything else would be a waste and Milo deplored excess above all things.

* * * * *

Jayne Cobb was solemn and silent as he watched the Captain and Chung-li carefully manhandle the now smelly box onto the back of the mule. They were wearing handkerchiefs over their noses, the squares of cloth impregnated with some kind of antiseptic Simon insisted on which made the eyes water judging by the looks on the two men's faces. Not that Jayne was in a position to judge. He hadn't liked Shen Ling, thought the woman was nothing but gorram trouble, but he hadn't wanted anything bad for Chung-li and when all was said and done it was the man's sister. Too rutting bad she wasn't like her brother. He noticed that despite what they had found on Glory, River had been unusually quiet. She stood almost close enough to him to touch but he wasn't crazy enough to do that. Still, her silence intrigued him. Dipping his head and speaking soft he spoke his mind. "How come ya got cryptic craziness on every gorram thing but now when we got us a mystery ya ain't got a word to say?"

She didn't look at him. "The dead don't speak and the living don't listening."

"That's just the kind'a thing I mean. Case ya don't recall we got us a dead world out there."

River knew. She had been staring out at it for the last ten minutes. "Only a world," She said sadly, her voice going distant and far away as if keeping pace with her thoughts. "Ball of mud and rock. Time to build a new one."

The mercenary jerked his head back round to stare at her. He frowned in confusion when she did not explain. "Why make a new world if ya ain't got the people to live in it?"

When she did not reply he turned and stomped over to the mule, knowing the Captain wanted him to drive them out once the coffin was loaded up. He did not hear River's response as she gazed at the scene of utter devastation and destruction. "Exactly."

Shepherd Book went back up the ramp to where the Captain was standing next to Chung-li in the cargo bay alongside the laden mule. Bible in hand Shepherd Book looked like a man with a mission. "Captain, I would like to accompany you."

Mal nodded back at the Preacher, not needing to ask Chung-li how he felt about that. They had spoken only a handful of sentences in words, the rest conveyed in looks that bypassed the needy necessity of imperfect speech. It wasn't telepathy so much as empathy plus each knew the other's mind. "*Xie xie ni*, Shepherd." "Chung-li, is there anything in particular you would like me to say?"

The big man placed a large padded hand on the top of the coffin, well aware whose hands had crafted the last resting place of his sister. "*Bu qu*, though after you say your words I would like to add some of my own."

Book nodded. Had been expecting no less. As Chung-li predicted everyone wanted to go along and help. The Captain would have preferred to keep the company small but could not deny his crew their right to pay their last respects. Plus, he was all kinds of uncomfortable about what they might see when they got to the ranch house. It had been a mighty fine spread, laid out to take advantage of the contours of the land so that from the big house Rafe could see more than half of his ranch from the top window. It was an impressive view and not counting the hilltop where his foreman had hung Brooks and Harper most of the country was on the level. It pained his heart to think of what had happened not only to Glory but the fine folk that had settled there. Taking a few steps down the ramp the Captain removed his kerchief and cleared his throat to get his crew's attention. Chung-li following in his wake.

"I know you all want to show your respects not only to Shen Ling but everybody who died here." He paused a half-beat then continued. Chung-li moved to stand almost protectively beside him as if it was Mal's sister they were burying not his. Would have been funny had it not been such a solemn occasion. "But first it'll just be me, Chung-li an' Jayne a-goin'." He raised a hand to stop anyone from complaining. "Ain't a pretty thing to stand by an' watch a grave bein' dug but it's what needs doin'. Once the site is picked we'll dig the grave an' lower her down. Cover her then come back for you so the Preacher can say his words."

"Mal, I can help." Wash paused at the look in the Captain's eyes. "With the diggin'..."

The Captain's look softened a mite. Wash was a good man, Zoe had chosen her *zhangfu* well. He shook his head with a trace of regret. "*Xie xie* Wash, it's a kindly thought an' well intentioned but I'm thinkin' your place is here for now. Got all the help we'll be needin'."

The pilot nodded. Zoe squeezed his hand but said nothing. It was the longest spell of silence he could remember her having when decisions were being made around them. Now Wash realised she wasn't speaking because there was no need. She already knew the way of it, what would likely happen. Her silence was how she showed her support and respect for the Captain. How she acknowledged Chung-li's right to handle the funeral arrangements in his own quiet way. The baby lay silent in her arms, awake, blue eyes fixed on Zoe as if deep in baby thoughts of his own. Made Wash smile down at his son, such a treasured gift and smart. He just knew the child was the brightest gorram star in the 'verse. Didn't have to be top three per cent to know that much. So wrapped up was he that he only noticed the Captain, Chung-li and Jayne were leaving when his wife gently eased him out of the way so the mule could pass.

Simon Tam turned to follow the others back up the ramp and noticed his sister's face staring back at him. She looked even paler than normal, her eyes pinched, her body slightly hunched over. Kaylee was speaking about how sad it was and wondering what had happened but Simon blocked her out, the chatter a warm familiar background noise as his attention focused on his sister. "River? *Mei mei, shenme shi*?"

Kaylee stopped talking and stared at her friend. Anxiety suddenly welling up in her. "River? Sweetie, what is it?"

"Feel sick."

Before Simon could reach for her River darted down the ramp and leaned over. The sounds of her retching drew every eye in her direction. Book started to walk back down the ramp to see if he could help. Simon got to her side, unable to hide the worry and anxiety from showing. Flicking her hair back from her face River looked up and smiled brightly at him. "All right now." Oddly enough she gave Kaylee an even bigger smile. Unable to resist Kaylee smiled back even though the girl confused her. "Not a girl." River corrected then she eased out of Simon's fussing arms and walked towards Inara. "Sorry, I ruined your make up."

Inara smiled, glad of the distraction. "*Mei shi*, I can always do it again - if you would like?"

River nodded and the two went on ahead chattering quietly to each other and leaving a baffled Simon in their wake. He glanced at his wife. "What just happened?"

His wife laughed. "*Yiwusuoyou*. River's just growing up is all, Simon." The look he gave Kaylee just made her laugh even more. Chuckling, Kaylee slid her arm in his. Book lingered at the bottom of the ramp. Everyone else now back inside, his eyes squinted across to the distant speck that was the mule carrying its' sombre cargo. Then he looked slowly across the charred and blackened landscape, a hard look coming into his compassionate eyes. A lifetime of hard choices and still harder decisions haunting him like a nightmare he could not leave behind.

* * * * *

"Who do you think did it?"

Didn't even have to guess. "Alliance."

Shepherd Book shook his head slowly. "I don't think so."

Simon Tam narrowed his eyes at the Preacher. It was their turn to cook so he was helping the Shepherd turn protein cubes into the equivalent of bread and fishes. "Then who do you think did it and more importantly why?"

Before Book could answer the Captain walked into the commons area. The whole crew sorting themselves into chairs around the big table. "Was wonderin' that my own self." The funeral had been a solemn but dignified affair. Odd in that the burial had been a perfunctory duty, the sorrow being not for the woman laid in her coffin but the folks that had died on Glory. In terrifying and pain-filled fashion. Mal was absolutely convinced in his mind that they had been burnt alive though he did not share that suspicion with his crew. It would fit the pattern of evil that had torched his own homestead and turned a once peaceful world into dust. A planet poisoned for no other reason than it wasn't Alliance. Now the same fate had been meted out to Glory but why? That was the burning question of the day. As he glanced from Shepherd Book's face to the rest of his crew he found himself gazing at Chung-li's bowed head. His expression turned thoughtful as he wondered what the good gorram it meant. Were they punishing the planet or someone on it? A horrible suspicion began to worm its' way into his gut. Mal stomped on it but like the growing rattlers it wouldn't die. Unable to face the food being laid on the table he went for coffee instead. River looked across the table and caught his eye, something in her look telling him she knew.

Frowning, Malcolm Reynolds was wondering why she didn't just blurt it out or was this some new gorram game? If so, he wasn't in the mood. While plates were handed back and forth and chatter began to overtake the gloomy mood, he stared at River.

"No game, Mal." She said softly. He felt the hair on his neck begin to stand on end. "This was a warning."

They were unaware that everyone else had suddenly stopped talking. All eyes on the Captain and River. "Warnin'? What in the nine hells you meanin'? They killed everyone River, not nobody left to warn."

She shook her head. "*Bushi*."

His heart leapt. The hope a painful surge he could in no way control. "River, you sayin' some folk survived this cullin'? 'Cause I gotta tell you, me an' Chung-li been over this planet with a gorram toothcomb. On'y thing we found was crispy remains an' charcoal dust."

Instead of responding River turned her head. Puzzled, the Captain looked round to see who she was looking at and saw her lock gazes with Chung-li. With a shock he realised that whatever River knew, Chung-li knew it too. Instead of calming him down it made him all kinds of anxious. The rattlers in his stomach multiplying so fast it was hard to draw breath.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *wode pengyou* = my friend *xie xie ni* = thank you *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *zhangfu* = husband *xie xie* = thanks *mei mei* = little sister *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *mei shi* = it doesn't matter *yiwusuoyou* = nothing *bushi* = not so


Sunday, November 6, 2005 8:09 PM


Chung-li knows? Gotta see what all this is about - Thanks, Alison.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005 2:05 AM


Ooh. Spookier and spookier.

And methinks there's more to River's sudden nausea than meets the eye... Gotta say I like these little hints at what's to come. Very Joss-like.


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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.