THE FORGOTTEN REALM: 23. "Thicker Than Blood"
Friday, January 16, 2004

Sheriff Bowman and the *laoban's* men board Serenity. Yen Mah does not follow Harkan but makes for his destination. Meanwhile the Captain's life hangs in the balance while conflicting forces decide his fate."



SUMMARY: "Sheriff Bowman and the *laoban's* men board Serenity. Yen Mah does not follow Harkan but makes for his destination. Meanwhile the Captain's life hangs in the balance while conflicting forces decide his fate." 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

* * * * *

Sheriff Bowman was actually relieved to see Zoe, Jayne and the Shepherd when they docked but his eyes flicked restlessly to either side of the little welcoming committee. Where the rutting hell was the Captain?

Zoe frowned at the men accompanying him, picking up on the tension in the little group. She recognised Deputy Crowther but the others were unknown to her. "Sheriff, what's this about?"

"The Cap'n, Zoe. Where is he?"

He saw something that looked like pain skitter across her wary eyes before the shutter on her emotions slammed down and shut him out. "Not here."

Two men standing just behind the Sheriff stiffened, looks of grave displeasure appearing. The Sheriff frowned at her. "What d'ya mean not here?"

Jayne spoke before Zoe could find a polite way of putting it. "Alliance grabbed him. That ruttin' *goushi buru* Harkan boarded us and took him away in his gorram cruiser. Can't follow neither without riskin' harm to the Cap."

The two men behind the Sheriff exchanged a look that was hard to fathom. The Sheriff looked so worried that for a moment Jayne forgot that he didn't trust him. "What they want with him, Jayne?"

Even if he had been inclined to trust the Sheriff, which he wasn't on principle - him being a lawman and all - he had no intention of saying anything in front of the others. He had all sorts of bad feelings about the men accompanying the Sheriff. "You'd have to ask the Cap that."

"Kind'a hard when he ain't here." Said the Sheriff.

One of the men behind him stepped forward, his long lean form topped by a predatory look that stared out of dead eyes. The man took creepifying to new heights. Jayne resisted the urge to shiver. The man ignored Jayne and addressed himself to Zoe. "You Reynold's second?"

Her eyes narrowed in a tight arc of distrust, instantly disliking him. "Who wants to know?" He almost smiled. He liked the fact that she made no attempt to hide her hostility. "Jubal Fox. We're from the justice department."


He nodded and indicated the man beside him. "This is my colleague Michael Grey. We came to assist the Sheriff."

"With what?" Asked Jayne suspiciously.

"We have to find your Captain."

A heavy silence dropped like a stone down a bottomless pit. Everyone frozen for a moment as if waiting for it to hit the bottom. When it didn't the Preacher spoke up, his voice calm and even. "Perhaps you could tell us why you are here and what this is about?"

Jubal shot him a piercing look. "Who are you?"

"I am Shepherd Book."

Jubal made no comment on the name but his look said he did not believe he was any Preacher. He did not say so out loud. There was something disturbingly familiar about the man. Something he could not put his finger on. "Who else is on this ship?"

"Just the crew." Said Zoe.

"And that would be?"

This was the man Grey. A compact man of average height with quick brown eyes and a solemn look that made her think of undertakers. She resisted the urge to shiver. "Besides us we have a pilot, a mechanic and a registered Companion."

Eyebrows rose in disbelief at the last crew member. The Shepherd hastened to assure them of her role on board. "The Companion rents the spare shuttle from the Captain. It is a purely business arrangement." That last sentence seemed to have the opposite effect to the one Book had intended. He had the distinct feeling he should just have kept his mouth closed. Jubal Fox cast a glance over them. "We will of course need to search your ship."

The Sheriff noted the tension in the crew and wanted to head off any unpleasantness. "I don't think that will be necessary."

"I disagree."

"If I may make a suggestion?"

The *laoban's* men glared at the Shepherd.

"You are looking for the Captain and we are anxious for his safety, might it not be wise for us to join forces?"

"And do what?" Half sneered Grey.

"Go after him."

They stared at each other. Sheriff Bowman looked anxiously at Zoe. "Where have they taken him?"

She shrugged. "*Wo bu zhidao*"

Jubal could not hide his displeasure. "What do they want with him?"

"Don't know but a while back we came across a drifting vessel. We went aboard with the Captain to see if anyone needed help. If it was abandoned we intended to claim salvage."

"You mean you were going to steal whatever you could lay your hands on." Muttered Grey darkly. Jubal shot him an angry look and the man shut up fast, but his eyes glowered with simmering resentment.

"The ship had been hit by Reavers," Continued Zoe. Nobody contradicted her which surprised her. "Captain found but one survivor, we brought him to our infirmary and began to unload what might be useful."

"And the crew?" Asked the Sheriff. "What happened to them?"

The Shepherd looked sad. "They were dead. Reavers had cut on them, hung them up from the ceiling like some grotesque sculpture. Commandant Harkan accused the Captain of being responsible, put him in handcuffs..."

The Sheriff's face paled. "*Diyu*..."

"That ain't the best of it." Said Jayne. "The man we saved got out of the infirmary an' cut on himself, went into hiding. Harkan took the Cap with him to search Serenity. Cap knows every inch of this boat. The crazy man near killed Harkan. Cap saved his gorram life." The last sentence was seeped in disgust as if saving Harkan had been a big mistake.

Jubal Fox looked at them blankly for a moment. "*Wo bu dong*. Why the long faces? If Reynolds saved the Commandant why did he come back for him? What does he want with him?"

No one spoke. Jubal's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"What is it you're not telling me?"

"*Yiwusuoyou*," Said the Preacher. "We can't tell you what we don't know."

Just then Wash's anxious voice came over the com. "Zoe you there, *bao bei*?"

"Who's that?" Hissed Jubal.

"Wash, my *zhangfu* and the ship's pilot." She raised her voice to reassure her husband. "*Shenme shi*?"

"I was about to ask you the same question."

Zoe gave the Sheriff and his party a pointed look, waiting for them to tell her if anything was wrong. Jubal sucked his bottom lip before speaking. "Okay, we'll start the search with the bridge, that way you can tell your *zhangfu* that all is well. Just routine."

That made her raise her eyebrows in disbelief. Before she could say anything the Sheriff interrupted, sounding more agitated than she had ever heard him sound before. The patience he had been hanging on to had finally snapped. "*Gou le*! We got no time for this nonsense. Best we follow that ruttin' Alliance vessel and find out what in the nine hells is going on."

Everyone stared at the sudden passion in the man's voice. No mistaking the urgency blazing in his eyes. Jayne felt his opinion of the Sheriff shift a mite, especially when he caught the furious glare in Jubal's eye. Oh yeah, he was liking the Sheriff more and more with each passing minute.

* * * * *

The old man gazed around the compound. Silent people drifting through it like ghosts. Sad eyes and heavy hearts yet striving to give what little peace and comfort they could. He fretted for the *haizi*, knew nothing he did or said would stop the girl from fretting. His heart torn by the hope he cherished with guilty fervour and the fear that darkened his sleep with nightmares that were also haunting his waking hours. They were kind to him. Solicitious even. But it could not heal what ailed him nor make whole what had been torn asunder. Eyes rheumy with tears he steeled himself to his duty of care and tried not to think of how much rested on the shoulders of the *nianqing*.

* * * * *

Live or dead held no distinction for him. His 'verse was all pain and dizzying burning. Not the flames of an open fire, nor the immolation from an explosive blast, nor even the fire of fever running bright and ragged circles through his veins. No. This fire was in his brain, behind his eyes, burning out his synapses one by one and re-routing every thought in his gorram head into one of agony. It pierced him. Gutted him and flayed him without ever once setting on him with a physical touch. Creepy did not come near to this type of torture. In the background of his suffering he could hear River's muted voice. Sad and soulful like a vanquished angel. Were they her nightmares or his? Then the pain went up several notches, strangers hissing in his ear while bright ribbons of pain flashed slowly through him making his body spasm and his heart shudder and flex as his lungs gasped. Perversely he stretched the tatters of his mind in search of the lost angel. Aching, needing, yearning, longing for one who understood even though she could not lead him home.

Words were beyond him. Thoughts were fragmented epistles from someone else's creed. Not nobody nohow could help him. Even the Preacher with all his fire and brimstone could not rock this hell.

* * * * *

Yen Mah was almost beside herself with anxiety. She sat at the controls of shuttle 2 and stared for a moment at the vast ocean of space that lay between her and her *pengyou*. Sad beyond measure she opened the grey velvet pouch with hands that shook. Carefully she tipped the contents into the palm of her hand. The *choulou* silver necklace formed an uneven weight in her hand. She closed her hand over it as if it were the most precious relic in the 'verse then closed her eyes and opened her mind to him. A very vague humming sang from the spheres, not in the auditory plane but on some deep sub-level that linked mind to mind. The pain that flashed back at her almost made her drop it. Eyes sprang open bright with tears. They were torturing him. She gulped and prayed, sorrow and regret damning the beat of her heart. This was her fault. She could have told him. Warned him. But her own quest had kept her silent. Using him as the coin for her own deliverance. Only it wasn't a game.

Tears streamed silent down her sorrowing cheeks. She knew without a doubt now that she would not reach him in time. Her *pengyou* was dying. The nightmare vision was coming true and she could not bear it. Sobs catching in her throat she changed her heading. No longer in pursuit she headed instead for their ultimate destination. Whether that *liumang* of a Commandant knew it yet he would be going there. She had to make certain she got there first or everything she had been through. Everything she had put her beloved *pengyou* through. Would be for nothing. The tears on her face would dry but her heart would weep until the last stars in the 'verse had grown cold.

* * * * *

Commandant Harkan watched through the glass. His expression glum. The Captain had not given him what he wanted. Not a gorram thing! His fury had abated to a dull simmer, the edge taken off by the knowledge that as much as he crucified this *wangu* man he could not break him. At last he understood why Adelei Niska had failed. It did not comfort him nor did it soften his heart towards the pain of the man he held in thrall. The two men in the room with him were mostly silent. One watching impassively while the other wielded that tiny wand. How could such a small thing cause such agonising death and destruction?

As if thinking of them alerted them to his interest, the observer turned his head and looked straight back at Harkan. Harkan bit back a sigh and went into the room. He could almost smell the approaching sweet and sickly fragrance of death. He had not cut the Captain with the knife though he had threatened to. The staining on his face and neck was not from that bright blade but where tiny blood vessels had burst under pressure leaking his life's blood through his ears, eyes, nose and mouth. He remembered running his finger through the warm greasy fluid, the bright crimson turning a dull red as it slowly congealed while he dragged his bloody fingers over his captive's face and neck. Watching the patterns form at his touch, fascinated and excited by the seductive taste of power.

Now that power was gone. Stolen from him by the man's pure obduracy. Anger sparked briefly behind his eyes then faded with nothing to sustain it. A useless expenditure for an audience that was no longer aware of his presence. Irritation railed inside him. The *tamade wangba ban* could not die now. Damn him! How dare he! He turned to man with the wand. "How close to death is he?"

There was no expression on that white impassive face. Dark eyes stared holes through him until at last the pale lips parted to answer. "Hours. Do you wish the end to be quick or slow? I promise both will be agony."

Suddenly he did not want any more of this. He knew now with a certainty that even in his dying breath Malcolm Reynolds would not betray the siblings. It wore him down but it also made him curious. Under other circumstances perhaps they could have been friends. Colleagues at least. Anything but enemies. There was no going back which meant once the deed was done that would be an end of it. He hunkered down beside the fallen man. "Is death inevitable?"

Surprise was a brief flicker shared between the two men from the facility. "No, but it is usual. We have delayed enough. More than was perhaps wise."

Harkan looked up at that last comment. "Wise?"

A slow emotionless nod met his query. "Yes. His friends will try to save him."

The Commandant laughed bitterly. Why did that thought hurt him? Make him feel so empty inside? He pushed the thought away yet something lingered. Made him reluctant to close this book when so many pages were unread. Calling out to him with a subtle insistence that defied all logic. He could not explain his sudden reluctance other than the fact that once dead he could no longer pleasure himself with another's pain. Was that it? Was he really that *shengbing*? "I do not want him to die." He said softly.

His words surprised himself as much as the two men. The one with the wand withdrew it slowly, huge dark eyes staring right into Harkan's thrice damned soul. "*Weishenme*?"

"I don't want him to die - yet."

Something that looked almost like suspicion flickered across the pain technician's face. These men were like walking cadavers, death shone in their dark eyes, and mercy was something that afflicted other people. They kept the Alliance's most sensitive and nefarious secrets. Cruelty was their stock in trade. Harkan could tell they were reassessing him. "He is of no further use to us."

"No," Said the Commandant slowly. "But his friends will come after him."

A cold eyebrow was raised. "How can you be so sure? They do not know where we have gone. We should end this."

Harkan shook his head. "No. They have the tracking device."

Time seemed to stop. Harkan had the sudden fear that the wand would be turned on him but he had gone too far to back down. Any show of weakness would be his death warrant. So why was he doing this? He had always followed orders before. Enjoyed them even, taking a vicarious delight in seeing these pale merchants of death extract the most exquisitely drawn out death throes he had ever witnessed. Delicious. Exotic. But over too soon. Now he was standing up for a man he barely knew and had no respect for. A man who had fought against them in the war. Who in his heart was fighting them still. Why? What would it profit him if Malcolm Reynolds lived? From somewhere unbidden an unknown voice spoke softly into the dark shadows of his soul and said *What will it profit you if he dies?*

* * * * *

They were in the commons room. Serenity's crew and the Sheriff, his deputy and the *laoban's* men. Wash, Kaylee and Inara had joined them. No one wanted to miss this discussion knowing that it could decide what happened to the Captain. Always supposing they could find him. To Inara's consternation she turned to find River and Simon stepping into the commons room behind her. Her mouth dropped open in shock, her heart thundering with fear for them. Sheriff Bowman stepped forward, knowing that Jubal Fox and Micky Grey had already made the connection. *Wode ma* didn't that *feng le* pair of fugitives have a lick of sense?

"Maybe you two should wait outside?"

Simon shook his head, a look of grim determination on his face. Before anyone could say anything River spoke, her pale face anxious and distressed but looking spookily sane for a moment. "No, too little time."

"Hush, *mei mei*, we don't know that."

"Do too," She said stubbornly.

The Sheriff wanted to protect them, keep them out of the line of fire but what could he do? Jubal was right by his left shoulder. "We don't know where they went."

"I do. I can find him."

Everyone stared at her. Jayne was scowling, Kaylee looked scared. Inara was dumbstruck. Wash and Zoe were afraid that River and Simon were about to be whisked off the ship and taken into custody leaving them with no Captain, no doctor and no crazy moon-brained friend. Shepherd Book seemed the only one not discomfitted by their appearance. If anything a sparkle of something like approval flickered in his eyes. He was looking hard at River. "How can you find him, *haizi*, when even the Sheriff and his men don't know where the Alliance are taking him?"

"The map."

Jubal Fox was trying to push passed the Sheriff but he was a stocky man and managed to keep angling his body enough to hold him back without making it look too confrontational. Jubal was too interested in what River had to say to spare the man a glare. Mickey Grey turned his cold eyes on the Sheriff and glared for him. "What map?" Said Jubal.

"The necklace. Planets all in motion, in other people's orbits."

Wash closed his eyes and prayed. *Not now, River*. Jubal looked thoroughly confused. "*Xianglian*?"

Zoe sighed. Useless now trying to hold the information back from them. If she kept quiet River would probably tell them anyway. "It was a necklace, a *liwu* from Commandant Harkan to the Captain supposedly to thank him for saving his life."

Twin looks of disbelief settled on both Jubal Fox's and Mickey Grey's faces. She knew exactly how it sounded. "*Ni yansu?*."

"I am serious, believe me I wish I wasn't."

That drew equally baffled looks so Zoe went on to explain.

"The necklace is silver and has little spheres spaced out along its' length. The spheres are different sizes and weights and the spacing is not equal."

"Wait a minute," Said the Sheriff. "I'm not following why this Commandant Harkan would give the Captain a *liwu* then come back and kidnap him."

River rolled her eyes. "It was a trap."

"Trap?" Said Jubal. "*Zenme*?"

"You know who I am?" Asked River.

Jubal nodded his head slowly, looking from River to Simon then back again. "Yeah, you're the Tam siblings, *dui*?"

River nodded. "My name's River and this is Simon. They say I'm gifted. The Alliance did things to me..."

Simon tried to stop her. "*Mei mei*..."

She looked at him. "No Simon, they have to know. Evil men don't care." She looked at Jubal and Mickey. "But you aren't evil men are you?"

Jubal squirmed a little under her unblinking gaze. "No m'am, we're just doing our duty."

"The people that put me in that medical facility are evil. They make the Devil look like a choir boy." Mickey Grey smirked at the analogy but a glare from Jubal wiped the humour from his face.

"The spheres on the necklace represent planets."

"An' I'm guessin' if we follow them planets it leads us to... where?"

She smiled at the Sheriff. "Dead end."

Jubal had had enough of humouring the girl. They had found what they wanted and that was all that mattered but before he could arrest them the Preacher's low measured tone gave him cause to reconsider. "Just hear her out. It makes little sense now but there is a point to this. Nobody is going anywhere after all."

"The planets are out of sequence you see," Said River patiently. "The destination is hidden, *dong ma*?" "Yeah but why give the Cap'n a map with a hidden destination? Don't make no sense." Said the Sheriff in quiet bafflement.

"To find me." Said River simply.

Everyone stared at her.

"He wanted me but couldn't find me. Knew the Captain wouldn't give me up. Serenity would keep me safe. So he used guile instead of brawn. He gambled that if I was in hiding when I came out again - once he had gone - I would solve the puzzle of the map and he could follow us there."

Jubal shook his head. It was starting to hurt. "Why? And how could he follow you if he'd already gone?"

"Because the necklace is a tracking device." Said Inara.

All eyes now shifted to the Companion. Jubal looked suspicious. "How would you know that?"

"Because I'm a companion and I supported Unification. I mix with many tiers of society and have seen this kind of device before. As soon as I saw it I recognised it for what it was and realised Captain Reynolds had been set up."

Sheriff Bowman looked weary. His wound was beginning to trouble him again and he did not like how complicated this was all getting. "Why didn't you warn him?"

"I did but the Alliance cruiser turned up just as we realised what was going on. To be blunt Sheriff, we had run out of time. All we could do was hide River and Simon and hope that the Commandant would have his angry tirade and go."

"But he didn't?" Said Jubal, shrewdly reading between the lines.

Inara sighed softly. "No. He had the ship searched - again - and even though he never found anything they took the Captain away in handcuffs. We were told if we tried to follow they would kill him - slowly."

"Yeah," Added Jayne darkly. "Do to him what them Reavers did to those families."

Mickey Grey went pale. "Reavers?"

River interrupted before they could get sidetracked. "We have to go, follow, while there is still time."

"Time for what?" Said Jubal with a frown. "We got what we came for, why should we go running around after your *baichi* of a Captain?"

A tremor of tension ran through the crew. Looks hardened, backs stiffened, but Jubal didn't care. It was River who turned the tide as she leaned forward and stared deep into Jubal Fox's eyes. "Don't you want all the pieces of the puzzle?"

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*goushi buru* = lower than dogshit *laoban* = boss *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *diyu* = hell *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *Yiwusuoyou* = nothing *bao bei* = precious/treasure *zhangfu* = husband *gou le* = enough *haizi* = girl *nianqing* = young *pengyou* = friend *choulou* = ugly *liumang* = bastard/asshole/criminal/gangster *wangu* = stubborn *tamada wangba dan* = fucking bastard *shengbing* = sick *weishenme* = why *wode ma* = mother of God *feng le* = crazy *mei mei* = little sister *xianglian* = necklace *liwu* = gift *ni yansu* = you serious? *zenme* = how? *dui* = correct *dong ma* = understand *baichi* = idiot


Friday, January 16, 2004 10:35 PM


YEY! I'm so loving this fic. You do River so perfect, its scary. I miss Mal though. He's not walkin' or talkin'. Can't wait to see how they are gonna rescue him.
Keep flying!

When you can't run, you crawl, and when you can't crawl, you find someone to carry you.


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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.