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AMDOBELL

HEAVEN AND HELL: 4. "Mixed Signals"
Sunday, February 22, 2004

"Zoe is convinced Mal is making a big mistake. Inara and Shepherd Book make a discovery. So does Simon."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3038    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "MIXED SIGNALS" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: RIVER/MAL. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: New. SEQUEL to "A DIFFERENT EDEN" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: http://carlajane.50megs.com/Ali00.html

SUMMARY: "Zoe is convinced Mal is making a big mistake. Inara and Shepherd Book make a discovery. So does Simon." 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.

"MIXED SIGNALS"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

It seemed such a tiny concession that the Captain was baffled by the vehemence of Zoe's opposition. The more intransigent she became the angrier he got. They left Pepper Rawlings sitting in front of the saloon while they went somewhere less public to discuss the job. Mal was beginning to get the uncomfortable feeling they were talking about something else. He just wasn't sure what. "It's too risky, sir."

"Zoe, ain't no risk involved. Both Lauren and Rainbow are peaceable worlds. Ain't no one pushin' or shovin' us, no treadin' on toes or such, so why the hedgin'? What's really on your mind? An' don't tell me it's this job, *dong ma*?"

She tried not to glare at him but failed. As the silence between them deepened he sighed. Zoe had no easy way of saying what she felt needed saying. "Ain't right, sir."

"We already had this discussion."

"I mean you and River."

His look hardened and a stab of pain flickered briefly in his eyes. "Not your call, Zoe."

"You're making a big mistake, Mal."

He was all kinds of mad with her now but was determined to try and hold his temper. Zoe was his oldest friend. Trusted her more than he trusted his own self most of the time but a line had been drawn and it was all kinds of unamusing how much she was crossing it. "If it's a mistake it's *my* mistake not yours. Not that I'm sayin' it is 'cause it ain't."

She shook her head. "Your mistakes have a habit of becoming mine, sir."

"Back off, Zoe."

"Can't do that."

His voice dropped to a soft pained whisper that hurt her more than if he had ranted and raved at her. "*Diyu*, what call you got to stop me from bein' happy, Zoe?"

"Not what I'm tryin' to do, you know that Mal."

"Do I?" He paused and stared at her quietly for a moment, all the sorrow in the 'verse clouding the deep blue of his eyes just for a heartbeat. "Used to be I'd believe that all the way to the grave."

"And now?" She asked, knowing she should leave it be but not quite able to quit. Not sure what she would do with the answer.

He looked sad and disappointed. "Not so much."

Zoe stared after him as he turned and walked back to the tables outside the saloon. She could not quite make herself follow him just yet but neither could she walk away. Could tell by the slope of his shoulders and his mood that she had cut him deep but gorrammit if she didn't look out for him who would? Couldn't entrust the well being of her Captain to a brain-addled sweet-eyed girl even if the girl did profess to love him. Privately Zoe was not sure someone as damaged as River was capable of love. She knew the Captain was and that had convinced her to dig her heels in. No matter how much it might hurt. But at what point would the cost become too high? It was a conundrum that crucified her. Yet a burden of care she could not relinquish. A debt she owed that could never be repaid. So. Against the instincts of her heart she followed the warnings in her head. He might not like it. Might even come to hate her for it but he would survive. At least. That was the theory. In the meantime someone needed to watch the Captain's back and that someone had always been her.

Zoe followed a dozen yards behind him, alert to the slightest hint of danger. Was this really about her need to protect him or was she afraid that he would come to rely on River to do that for him as well? Was she worried *about* him or about losing her place in his regard? It was foolish. The Captain was happier than any time she could remember since Shadow before the war. Why then did she have the overwhelming dread that he was heading for a fall? She wanted to trust his judgement on this, to let go of that nagging doubt, but she couldn't do it. Knew she would never forgive herself if she got it wrong. Because, as damaged as River undoubtedly was, the Captain was in some ways even more fragile.

* * * * *

It was a long time since Inara had felt this nervous or out of sorts. She hid it well. The mask of her Companion training was a perfect fit. Most of the time. It would take another Companion to see the hesitation in her eyes. The tinge of regret at war with necessity. It was always a mistake to identify too closely with your target which was why she had been at such pains to keep Malcolm Reynolds at a distance. Yet there was an undeniable sexual tension between them. Less now than before River. She should have been relieved but that was one lie too many to swallow in the security of her own brooding thoughts. A number of times he had almost broken through that cool hard shell of professionalism and that was one thing she could not allow to happen. He was the enemy and willingly or not he would give up his secrets. That she had found out nothing in her time aboard Serenity was a testament to the ongoing need not to underestimate either this Captain or his *lese* crew.

But sometimes. Just every now and then. She wondered if they had got it wrong. If the Captain was simply what he appeared to be. A man on the wrong side of a war that had not ended with the unification of planets. A war that had gone underground. A man trying to stay under the radar long enough to eek out a life free of the straight jacket of Alliance rule. Inara had almost convinced herself that the information was too suspect to be relied on when the hatch to the Captain's bunk opened and the Preacher solemnly climbed out to join her. She could tell instantly that he had found something. Heart racing she nodded briefly, turned and walked towards her shuttle. Wordlessly Book followed, carefully closing the Captain's door behind him. Only once they were safely ensconced aboard the shuttle with the door closed did she speak. "What did you find?"

"It was well hidden. I almost missed it."

Her right hand stretched forth to claim the fruit of his labour. "*Gei wo kankan*."

Book took something from his pocket and gave it to her. In silence they stared at the object lying naked and exposed in the palm of her hand. It was a ring. What might once have been called a curio except Inara had seen its' like before. The Shepherd hadn't but was aware of its' significance. The ring was silver and fashioned in the shape of a bird, wings unfolded and curved backwards so that the proud mein stared outward, the stomach exposed showing the vibrant green of the Imperial Jade centre stone. Clawed feet spread apart as if to seek purchase. It was a beautifully fashioned piece. A myth come to life. A promise fashioned in silver - the metal of truth, innocence, loyalty and honour. The Jade a symbol of protection.

"This is the phoenix you were seeking?"

Inara nodded, hardly daring to breathe. "*Qu*."

The Shepherd raised his eyes to meet hers. Something indefinable troubling him. "How can we be certain it is his?"

She raised a beautifully sculpted brow. "Why would you have any doubt?"

He hesitated, not sure himself yet something felt out of kilter. "What is the significance of the ring, Inara?" He had an inkling but wanted her to spell it out for him. To be sure his suspicion was right.

She did not answer. Part of her surprised at his daring. Yet the greater part wondered why it mattered to her.

When she remained silent Shepherd Book looked thoughtful. "If it is his we must sieze him before he can alert the others."

"No."

Her quiet but firm response startled him. A tinge of sadness touched her but she hid it well. It would not do for the Shepherd to suspect her capable of regret. This was war. Only the battlefield had changed and in war there were always casualties. She was determined that none of them would be on their side. "It is too risky not to act now we know." He insisted.

"You have your orders, Shepherd. Do not seek to argue with mine."

For a moment he just looked at her then his training and discipline took over and he acquiessed to her unquestioned authority. The truth of the matter was that Inara Serra knew his mission inside out, upside down and backwards but he could only guess at hers. He contemplated the strange ring nestling like some ancient and mystical artefact in the palm of her hand. A thought occurred to him. "The girl will warn him."

She shook her head. "River will not know."

"How can you keep this from her? You know what she is, what she can do."

"That is why we cannot move yet. This development between her and the Captain is unexpected but it may prove valuable. An unexpected bonus."

"Inara, it is too dangerous. The girl cannot be predicted and she is strong."

"Then we will watch carefully. Nothing must be taken for granted."

He tried to fathom what it was she was not telling him but as with all things that concerned the Companion her mind was closed to him. Instead he brought his thoughts back to the pale young girl who had brought him across a sea of stars to this benighted place. River was his primary concern. Suddenly his look sharpened and he held his breath. He realised now what it was that was troubling him and wondered whether Inara had noticed.

* * * * *

The big man did not straighten in his chair but did the mental equivalent. Jayne was still lounging against the fence post watching, a faintly bored expression on his face but not fooling the big man one bit. He watched the Captain approach, his face soured with surpressed anger which faded behind locked steel doors by the time the two were once again face to face. Pepper nodded. "Cap'n. We got us a deal or no deal?"

Malcolm Reynolds appreciated the direct approach. It kept him from thinking of how angry he was with Zoe. But more than that it over rode the disappointment growing in his chest that no amount of annoyance or angry bluster could shift. "Deal."

For the first time since they had met Pepper smiled. Not the forced smile that looked more like a bad case of wind but the easy relaxation of muscles too long spent in frowning now enjoying the release of tension though the eyes held back a little in that welcome response. Pepper eased to his feet and offered a hand. The Captain did not even hesitate. The firmness of the handshake and the direct look in the man's eyes made him proud he had taken the job. Might be routine and dull to some minds but it was life and death to these good folks. A part of Mal was drawn to that, so hard that it settled in him like a promise set in stone. Then they were both seated as Pepper ordered drinks. Once they had been served the Captain raised his glass to him. He could almost feel the frown approaching behind him as Zoe hooked a chair with her foot but did not sit down. He bit back his annoyance then eeked out the rest of the details from Pepper. "Of course, it would suit us best the sooner the goods were traded."

The Captain nodded. "We can do that."

"Load's heavy."

The Captain flicked a look towards Jayne. The man was watching him like a hawk for all of the casual air he adopted. Pepper was smiling when the Captain glanced back at him. He raised his eyebrows as he brought the glass back to his lips, wondering at the faint look of amusement on Pepper's face. "*Shenme*?"

"I see you got yourself a good crew, Cap'n."

A small smile touched Mal's lips then tipping the glass he took a deep slow swallow of the warm amber liquid. It was strong stuff but right now the burn as it went down was so beautiful it seemed a sin to speak until it had coated the back of his throat in its' rich glow. His smile deepened slightly, a little look of quiet pride shining in eyes that were no longer angry. "That I have."

"Perhaps when all the haulin' and ferryin' is done you might like to meet mine?"

The Captain paused. He really did not want to remain on Lauren any longer than the job necessitated but he liked Rawlings and he liked the fact that the corner of No and Where these people had chosen to settle had a familiar frontier edge to it that set an empathic ache in his bones that was all kinds of tempting. Which was why he really should refuse. Before he could reply Pepper leaned forward. Out of the corner of his eye the Captain saw Jayne stiffen and sent the tiniest shake of his head back. Happy when Jayne relaxed again. He could not see Zoe but felt every inch of her tense body poised a few sullen feet behind him.

"An' don't go thinkin' on all the reasons why it would be a bad idea." Pepper paused only long enough to flash a quick grin. "We got good people, Cap'n Reynolds. Solid folk. Honest an' hard workin' not soft like them as are core bred if ya take my meanin'."

Mal's smile returned but briefly. "I can't promise, Mr Rawlings, but if we can we'd be happy to spend a little time with you an' your folks. Chance to unwind an' such but first let's get the job done, *dong ma*?"

"Name's Pepper." He paused until the Captain nodded back. "Business before pleasure?"

Even though there was no pleasure Mal could imagine on this depressing planet the people were another matter entirely. Especially if they were in the same mould as Pepper Rawlings. So he agreed, took a last appreicative sip of the home brewed whiskey, and rose to his feet. They shook hands to seal the deal then Rawlings barked something and men appeared from every direction. For one horrible soul-destroying moment the Captain thought he had read the man wrong but then the tension in him almost hissed out in one hit when he saw Pepper snap off orders to them and the men dispersed as quickly as they had appeared. Pepper's eyes were gently laughing at the Captain's expression.

"By the time you and yours get to the loadin' site all the crates will be ready."

"Seems to me you have a goodly crew your own self."

The man smiled broadly. "That I have. An' when our business dealin's over, I'm gonna insist ya take a little pleasure with us."

Mal's eyebrows rose so high they vanished in his windswept fringe. Behind him Zoe's scowl deepened. Not caring that the big man would see it. Concerned only with how badly she wanted to thrash her Captain right now and not even completely sure why.

* * * * *

Kaylee was laughing. It seemed to be the single most constant thing in her 'verse since River had gotten together with the Captain. They were in the kitchen area of the commons room making a dance of boiling water for tea and exchanging odd oblique references and little snickers of dirty laughter that had Simon all but crawling out of his skin. Every time he made to leave they chided him and drew him back. He was confused but also intrigued.

"I have no idea what you two are up to." He sighed at last. The exasperation clear in his voice.

His reaction made Kaylee's chuckle deepen. For some reason it brought a flush to Simon's cheek.

"Why don't you tell me what is so amusing?"

"You would see but not comprehend." Said River cryptically.

"What would I see, *mei mei*?"

"Everything you want and have never had."

A brief stab of pain wiped the smile off his face. He tried to recapture it before they noticed but wasn't quick enough. River reached out a hand and gently touched his face.

"Open your eyes, Simon."

He swallowed. "They are open."

"What do you see?" She whispered, moving aside so that he was staring at Kaylee.

Suddenly he understood. Stepped back, eyes widening with alarm. Torn between fear and desire. His emotions in turmoil as if any moment now they would betray him and he would be lost forever.

"Not lost." Said River. Her smile became so gentle, calm and knowing that he stared at her transfixed. "Found."

Then River left and it was just him and Kaylee. Her eyes were so bright, her face aglow with goodness and promise, her lips shiny where she had licked them as she laughed. Her eyes sparkled happily and outshone every star in the Black. Her dark hair was touselled with strands going every which way not fussy like Inara's, nor straight and swaying like River's. It was a vibrant tangle of life that was free thinking and celebrating its' own existence with the kind of flourish and gusto that gathered him up in the sheer wild joy of it. As she smiled so did he, a hesitant hand reaching out to her before he realised what he was doing. Unconscious of his feet mirroring the action. "Found." Murmured Kaylee softly, her voice warm and welcoming. Her lips parting for the word to slip out. That oh, so inviting mouth. The kiss surprised him more than her even though he had been the one to instigate it. An idle part of his brain reflected that it was one of his better decisions.

Simon jerked his head back, face flushed with embarrassment until he saw the look in Kaylee's eyes. She looked so happy. So shiny. Joy unabated washed over him with a pleasure that filled him with light. As he began to relax he realised River was right. His oh so gifted sister really was a genius. One day he would have to thank her for that.

* * * * *

"You should put it back."

Inara shook her head. "It's evidence."

Book raised a brow. "Of what? He could have obtained the ring anywhere."

The Companion gave him a closer look, noticed little give away clues she should have spotted before. "This makes you *bushufu*?"

"*Bushi*."

Her look clearly said she did not believe him. He considered how best to explain himself.

"You know my mission." The Companion showed no outward sign of assent but something in her look solidified. It was enough to encourage him to continue. "While I do not know yours, nor am I seeking to find out what it is, I am anxious that nothing either of us does impinges on the orders of the other."

Her smile was soft, secretive almost and put him on notice that he was crossing a very dangerous boundary. Not that her words belied that fact. "*Fang xin*, your observations will not be interrupted."

"But if we sieze the Captain..."

She shook her head. "Nothing so crude or overt I assure you."

The Shepherd's eyes narrowed slightly. "What will you do?"

"Nothing until I find what I am looking for."

A pause. "And if you don't find what you're looking for?"

"The matter will be placed in other less intuitive hands."

The Shepherd went cold but dared say no more. Long after he had left the Companion's shuttle he berated himself for asking so many questions. Truly. He had wanted to know the answers at the time but now wished he did not. Ignorance really was bliss.

* * * * *

Jayne could not understand it. The tension between Zoe and the Captain had at first been amusing but now he had run the gamut from humour through confusion to the first stirrings of concern. The Captain had relaxed once they got to grips with the job, throwing himself into the lifting and loading right alongside him but the tension from Zoe had not lessened. He glanced at her from time to time but could not get a feel for what the rutting hell was wrong. It unsettled him. The Captain sensed his distraction and called him on it.

"*Shenme shi*, Jayne?"

He was going to shrug it off but... "What's up with Zoe?"

A frown appeared on the Captain's face. Jayne expected to be told to keep his nose out of it but to his surprise he got a truthful answer. "Zoe thinks I'm makin' a mistake with River."

That surprised him. "*Gou pi* Cap, Zoe ain't got no call to talk. Look who she ended up with! Not that I'm sayin' Wash ain't a good pilot, but ruttin' hell, the man lacks all kinds of sense."

"Jayne..."

"Well he does, Cap'n, an' don't go tellin' me he don't. But she loves him an' he loves her."

"Your meanin' bein'?"

The big man got uncomfortable. He did not like talking about feelings and such and having this conversation with a man who had come so close to spacing him did not sit well with him but it wasn't like he hadn't asked for it. "Far as I can see crazy girl loves ya bad an' anyone can see it goes both ways."

The Captain somehow managed to keep a straight face. Jayne looked so serious and ernest. "So you're sayin' I'm crazy too?" He deadpanned.

"No!" Jayne blurted anxiously. "Just sayin' the both of ya look *gaoxing* an' far as I can see there ain't enough happy in the 'verse to walk away from it once ya find it."

Mal could not argue with that. Whatever anyone might say about Jayne the mercenary did have a knack for going right to the heart of a problem instead of taking the scenic route. Why make life more complicated than it was? "I just wish she saw it the same way." He mumbled.

* * * * *

He felt real smug. Tyrone Garvin scowled at him. "What's so ruttin' funny?"

Alex Trent allowed his secretive smile to widen to include his brother in law. "Nothin', just a whole lot easier than I expected it to be."

Tyrone's scowl deepened in warning. "Don't take the man for a fool, Alex."

"He was a browncoat, wasn't he?"

"So were you."

"Now, ain't no call for you to insult me."

For a moment his brother in law seemed to be lost for words. He had a whole pile of them he could launch at the little smug *tamade hundan* but Becky would strip his hide off him with her tongue if he rubbed her precious little piece of passion up the wrong way. Much as he was tempted to do it anyway. "How d'you know they were on to you?"

He gave a little shrug. "Saw the writing on the wall. Not my fault the man is so damn niave where the war is concerned."

"This could backfire badly."

"Nah. Told you before, I'm the brains of the family."

Tyrone bit back the urge to rewrite the man's perspective in a messy pool of blood. He kept thinking of his kid sister and what his mama had told him about looking out for family. "If you're so gorram smart how come they were lookin' for you in the first place?"

"Ever think it wasn't me they were watchin', bro?"

He hated it when Alex called him bro', like they were some kind of close kin instead of a gorram accident like the aftermath of a train wreck. One day he would call him on it but not right now. Smart ass or not the boy had a point. Plus he was mighty weary of arguing with him. He wanted to go home but that they could not do until the rest of the plan had been put into operation. For now Alex was riding high. Taking far too much pleasure in the little already accomplished and not enough pains to ensure the rest flowed as sweetly so that none of what followed could be traced back to them. It irked Tyrone but it was Alex's plan so for now he would bite his tongue. Act nice and play the dutiful camp follower. After that, well he would wait and see. If a week was a long time in politics it could be eternity in their line of work.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*dong ma* = understand *diyu* = hell *lese* = crap *gei wo kankan* = show it to me *qu* = yes *shenme* = what *mei mei* = little sister *bushufu* = uncomfortable *bushi* = not so *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *shenme shi* = what's the matter *gou pi* = bullshit (lit. dog fart) *gaoxing* = happy *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard

COMMENTS

Monday, February 23, 2004 7:13 AM

BRITCHICK


Oh No! Inara and the Shepherd are really baddies?? This is terrible! (hence the 7) But still I can't stop reading it!

Hope you post the next installment soon Alison, the wait between last time and this time seemed endless!

Keep up the great work, and thank you as always.
Hazel

Monday, February 23, 2004 8:26 AM

ARTSHIPS


I've always been a bit peeved at Inara for keeping herself from Mal, so to find out she's an enemy agent is not so bad. I expected better of Book, though. Still do. Mostly, of course, I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

Hope your father's doing better, too.

Monday, February 23, 2004 1:13 PM

HOTPOINT


I like it. Dark conspiracies are great

Tuesday, February 24, 2004 2:31 AM

KISPEXI2


You never let us down, Ali. Another brilliant chapter. Love the Zoe/Mal and Jayne/Mal dynamics. Chilled to the bone by Inara. Slightly iffy about Book.

Thursday, February 26, 2004 1:58 PM

AMDOBELL


Thanks for all the kind comments. As for dad he is still very poorly but a little more stable. They hope to wean him off the oxygen and give him a 50-50 chance of survival. The next part of this story will be up in a couple of days, thanks for being patient. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Wednesday, February 8, 2006 6:00 AM

OBSIDIANAGIRL


Okay, I get the whole Inara/Book thing, but what the heck is the ring for?

I hate when people use Mal's feelings about the war against him.

I feel real sorry for Zoe because she is throwing a cog in the workin's of her relationship with Mal. Doesn't she see that he let her have her life and she should let him have his?

Great I wish I could read more today...sigh..RL sucks.

SID


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