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HEAVEN AND HELL: 9. "Beneath the Mask"
Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Captain wants answers, so does Inara. Simon is distraught with worry and everyone is wondering what the *diyu* happened to River."


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2739    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TITLE: "BENEATH THE MASK" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: RIVER/MAL. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: New. SEQUEL to "TRUTH AND LIES" ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: AlisonMDobell@aol.com WEBSITE: http://carlajane.50megs.com/Ali00.html

SUMMARY: "The Captain wants answers, so does Inara. Simon is distraught with worry and everyone is wondering what the *diyu* happened to River." 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.

"BENEATH THE MASK"

A "Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Mal had known the moment he met Inara and she confessed she had supported Unification that she was a spy. Didn't matter a good gorram that the war was over. She was all kinds of subtle about it but watching for his reaction all the same and that was his first clue. Not sure even now that she realised it for what it was. That however improbable it seemed she was putting him on notice. Probably thought he was too rutting *jiandan* to realise it. She certainly seemed by turns to be amused then disparaging. He had liked her assertion that he would rent the shuttle to her and for a quarter less than his asking price. Her confident audacity had impressed him and it did not hurt that she was a mighty fine looking woman. Not that Inara was not all aware of that fact, her being a Companion and all. He could have played out the fiction that he had been given a better offer and just not rented the shuttle to her but he remembered an old saying from Earth-that-was. 'Keep your friends close but your enemies closer'. Plus he was more than a mite curious to find out what the *diyu* she was up to and why she wanted to be on his boat in the first place. Fine woman like that could have her pick of the luxury yachts and cruisers plying their trade in the black. Tempted by the challenge and giving in to his curiosity he had hired the shuttle out to her. All the while promising himself to keep at least one rutting eye on her doings.

The dance he did with Inara since she came aboard his boat was not flirting. Leastways not seriously so although there was a mutual attraction neither could quite shake off. He had been deliberately trying to keep her off balance so she could do no more than surface scans. He had heard things. Strange and creepifying things about the agents of the Alliance and what they could do. Things that made what happened to River look like an every day gorram experience. A walk in the rutting park. No words could express how upset and outraged that made him feel. It was why he was determined to tread carefully around the Companion and not fall victim to any of her womanly wiles. He was not worried about her seducing him. Manipulating him into doing what she wanted as he let her believe. His reasons were a lot more complicated and simple at the same time. Round her he embraced chaos, continually changing his manner and the seeming direction of his thoughts so she could not predict his mind nor plot his course. The moment he let down his defences she could work on his distraction and all would be lost. Only now did he realise how vain a hope that had been. A leap in fantasy not the reality of a true thing clearly seen.

She was watching him now, her eyes unwavering. As cool as a gorram cucumber. Mal could feel Zoe's tension behind him but did not turn to look at her. He needed to keep both eyes on Inara right now. Injured or not something was disturbing him on a number of levels. "What happened Inara?"

Her eyebrows rose above the white pad of gauze. "*Shenme*?"

"Tell me how you got injured."

"It happened so quickly. I was talking to Simon. I turned away, he cried out. I spun round just as something hit me full in the face. I never saw who or what it was because I lost consciousness."

The Captain was frowning slightly. "*Weishenme*?"

Inara blinked. "What do you mean *why*?"

"Simple question, Inara. Why did you turn away from Simon?"

"I was about to leave the room."

He just stared at her. Inara stared back. Behind the Captain, Zoe began to frown. Feeling as if the greater part of the conversation was going unspoken. It irked her and was more than a little unsettling. After several moments in which the silence became as taut as a bowstring, the Captain made a suggestion. "Let's take this to your shuttle."

Her eyebrows rose. The Captain had managed to surprise her. Something he was capable of doing with alarming regularity. It put her on the defensive and that made her mad though she was able to hide it behind a polite mask. "*Weishenme*?"

Something that looked like amusement flickered in his dark blue eyes but there was a quality of steel behind it that made her feel like shuddering. Made her wonder if she had ever really known this man. *Diyu* what had she got herself into with this *shenjingbing* Captain? "Why would I do that?"

His voice dropped lower. Soft vowels coaxed mangled consonants into a semblance of speech that made her want to send him back to school - if he'd ever had more than a passing acquaintence with one - while at the same time putting her on notice that the Captain was deadly serious. "'Cause I'm guessin' a fine *lady* like you don't wash her laundry in public." He paused a moment, a look in his eyes she could not fathom. That irked her more than the words that followed. "You an' me got unfinished business, Inara. Might want to think on the alternative if you refuse."

A look of shock reflected genuine surprise. "Are you *threatening* me, Captain?"

Now he *was* amused but it was all dark and twisted and not remotely funny. "Don't make threats, Inara. You want answers so do I. The doc can take a look at you once he gets his own self straightened out, *dong ma*?"

She realised she had little choice. And she would rather not have anyone else hear this conversation anyway. Besides, once Mal was on her shuttle he was in *her* parlour. Inara resisted the sudden urge to smile but clung to the fire he always roused in her when he was in defiant mode. Inara was careful not to look at the Shepherd, keeping her eyes fixed firmly on the Captain until he gave a tight nod then sketched a mock bow for her to lead the way. Zoe made to follow but was halted by Book's quiet words. "I think the Captain wants to talk to Inara in private, Zoe."

Zoe looked at him but his face gave nothing away. He looked so calm and wise and dependable. She nodded but privately told herself that if they were gone longer than thirty minutes she was going to go in there and see what was what. Again she felt that uneasiness stir in her belly. Touching her with a nameless fear. Her look hardened and she glanced back at the now empty doorway. Only pulled out of her dark thoughts when Simon started to speak. All heads turned to him as the doctor insisted on sitting up, eyes barely able to focus and movements groggy. Kaylee so close to him you would think their skins were fused together.

* * * * *

He was tired. Worn out almost except this was no time for sleeping. Taking a deep breath he steeled himself and slipped in behind the mass of people decamping from the transport, as unremarked as if he had been invisible. The dirty rags and his unkempt appearance meant even when folks saw him they looked away, gave him a wide berth as if his sorry state was catching. It made him want to smirk but he resisted the urge. It was a childish thing anyway. What was it papa had said in them bible readings so long ago? *When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things*. He sighed, heart sad and heavy knowing he would never hear papa again. Where one had lost his faith the other had found it. It was up to him now to prove that faith still valid. For *all* of them.

Stumbling he let his legs carry him where they may not knowing the lie of the land nor where to find what he was looking for. Ty had given him enough information to whet his appetite. Even told him which *lese* world to make for. Jeb had not wanted him to listen. Still less go. A faint smile cracked the dirt caked upon his face. Inured to the smell of stale sweat and assorted unpleasant odours that he had picked up in transit he knew Jeb didn't trust Ty. *Diyu*, Jeb hardly trusted anyone any more. It was a sad fact of life that whoever commanded the highest coin swayed the loyalty of many men. It took a strong man not to take the proffered bread when he was starving to death. Specially them as had families to feed and nothing to give them. So he was not as quick to judge knowing necessity drove some away from the path. He just hoped this wasn't some gorram wild goose chase. If it was this would be one occasion he would be willing to follow Jeb's desire to skin the *wangba dan* and have done with him.

* * * * *

It was hard for Kaylee to calm Simon down. Shepherd Book watched and Zoe forced herself not to grill the doc for answers. She had to admit he did not look so good but with each passing minute he appeared more coherent and focused. For the tenth time he tried to prise himself away from Kaylee and get off the bed.

"No, Simon, you have to wait. Get your strength back."

"Kaylee's right son," Said the Preacher. "Whatever was injected into you knocked you out and although you are now awake you are obviously disorientated and unsteady."

"I have to find River..."

"We will." Said Zoe with more certainty than she felt. Right now she was confused and anxious and more than a little ansty. "Are you sure there's nothing you can remember just before you blacked out?"

"If I knew I'd tell you!" He snapped. A look of horror swept over his face when he realised what he had said and how he had said it. "I uh, I'm sorry Zoe. I didn't mean it like that."

"*Wo zhidao*. We're all a mite wound up right now."

Simon took in those words and seemed to still himself as he did so. "What's Mal doing?"

"Apart from driving himself *shenjingbing*?" Simon nodded. Zoe sighed. "Tryin' to figure out what happened."

"I need to see him, speak to him."

"Captain's talkin' to Inara."

He was about to ask her why then the dime dropped. "Oh. Of course." He paused. "I want to go with him."

Zoe blinked. "Where? To Inara's shuttle?"

He frowned then shook his head, starting to get agitated. Kaylee continued to fuss over him, trying to keep him calm. It was a measure of his distraction that he let her. "No. When the Captain goes looking for River I'm going with him."

Kaylee's eyes widened in alarm. "Simon, you can't! What if the Alliance catch you?"

The doctor gave her a long slow look before speaking again. "What if the Alliance already have River?"

He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. The way Kaylee's expression crumpled in grief made his heart hurt and filled him with guilt. River was Kaylee's best friend. "I'm sorry Kaylee, I had no right to say that. It's just I'm so worried and it's making me hateful."

His words steadied her some. "You ain't hateful, Simon."

"Well no, but I wasn't exactly tactful and I *am* sorry."

Instantly he was forgiven. Her smile brighter than any sun he had ever seen on any world. And for a second. One long precious moment in time he lost himself in the dazzling light and warmth of her and forgot about his sister. When the moment of dizzying revelation passed pain and horror flashed through his heart and soul and drew an agonised cry from him. Alarmed, Kaylee's eyes widened in concern. "Simon?"

He stared at her in undisguised horror. How the *diyu* could he have been so stupid? So slow to put the pieces together? Kaylee shook him until his unfocused gaze turned back to her.

"Simon, *shenme shi*? You're scarin' me."

* * * * *

When they got to the shuttle Inara felt the smile threatening to spill across her lips widen. She quickly schooled her features as she stepped aboard. Let the Captain think he was the one orchestrating this confrontation. She carried on walking to the far side of the main room where the bed was. The Captain followed her and stopped near the middle of the room. As Inara turned to face him the door behind Mal clicked shut. Startled he turned just as the barrel of a handgun was pressed against his neck. The man's other hand deftly plucked the gun from his holster at the same time. "What the gorram you playin' at, Inara?"

She walked casually up to him, sharing a triumphant little smile with the swarthy man who now had the drop on the unarmed Captain. "Take your belt off."

Mal's eyes narrowed.

"Gun belt." She elaborated smoothly.

When he made no move to do as instructed the swarthy man unbuckled the belt with his free hand. The Captain glowered at him. Diamond Harry grinned back showing several teeth topped with gold fillings. For such an ugly man he looked damn pleased with himself. Harry slung the gunbelt behind him, the Captain's gun shoved into the waistband of his trousers. At no time did he take his eyes off Mal. Captive or not he had no intention of underestimating their prisoner. The Captain looked at Inara, eyes as hard as flints albeit he kept his tone even and did not raise his voice it was all kinds of deadly. She knew they had literally caught a tiger by the tail. "What you done with River?"

"I haven't done anything with her."

She could see he did not believe her. "Alright then, what did your trained gorilla do with her?"

The man gave no reaction to the sneered insult. Inured to anything the Captain might say. Truth was they were holding all the gorram cards. Let the little piece of Independent *goushi* say what the *diyu* he liked there was only one way this was going to end. It was up to the foolish *wangba dan* how messy it got along the way. "I'll say this one last time Mal, I haven't done anything with her."

His eyebrows lifted and for a second the dark thundering expression clouding his face lifted. His eyes sparkled briefly as a thought occurred to him. "Gorrammit! It was River that hit you, wasn't it?" He laughed. The humour of it only cut short when Inara slapped him hard across the face to shut him up.

"Did you really think you could hide?"

The Captain looked confused. "What in the nine hells you talkin' about?"

Her look was cold. Uncompromising. "The Rebellion."

"Rebellion? What rutting rebellion? You sure you didn't get knocked on the head not the nose?"

This time it was the swarthy man who hit him, the side of the gun connecting with his face quicker than the eye could follow. Something cracked. Mal staggered back a step, blood running down the side of his face where the skin was broken. Inara suspected his cheekbone had to be cracked if not broken. She glanced at Diamond Harry. Though her tone was mild it was still an order. "We want him alive."

Harry nodded but said nothing. Mal blinked, holding back tears. It took a while for the stars in his head to clear though his vision was a mite blurred. Paradoxically the pain helped him concentrate but it was difficult to make sense of what the gorram was going on.

"No sense in lying to me, Mal, we found the ring."

Baffled, he tried to make sense of what she was saying. "Ring? What gorram ring?"

Inara looked at Diamond Harry. He took something from his top pocket and handed it to her. Carefully she held it up so the Captain could get a good look at it, the silver figure of the Phoenix set with an Imperial Jade centre stone and silver wings swung backward so that the bird looked as if it was either just taking off or just landing. "Recognise it now, Mal? The Phoenix."

"Inara, I don't gotta ring."

"It was in your room."

That got more reaction than production of the ring had. He stared at her in astonishment. "What were you doin' in my bunk?"

She shook her head, eyes fastened on his like limpets. "I wasn't in your bunk but that's beside the point. How I got the ring is not nearly as important as how you did."

"How many times I gotta tell you? I don't got a ring."

Inara frowned. "There's one way to settle this. Harry, open his right hand. Maybe we can jog the Captain's memory."

Mal would have struggled if he thought it would do any good but was too numb to do more than let them do what they had to. Once they saw that the ring didn't fit they would have to find another guinea pig for this three-ringed circus. Inara kept eye contact and held her breath as she slid the ring on his third finger. He snapped shut his sagging mouth with an audible click. It fitted perfectly.

* * * * *

"Two by two, hands of blue. Two by two, hands of blue..."

The grill marked her knees through the thin cotton dress. Her bare feet made no sound, her limbs folded into the tiny crawlspace as if her bones were rubber. Double jointed but she still felt pain. Hers. *His*. White faced she forced herself to concentrate on the bigger picture. Not go racing off to follow her heart. It would be hard and the timing had to be so gorram perfect. She didn't want to kill him. Didn't want them to find out. He was brave and all kinds of strong. River clung to that knowledge hoping it would be enough. Caressed his image in her mind and let the silent tears wash the blood from her hands. Blood that she could not prevent from falling. It was all cloudy anyway. Nothing clear or certain any more. Only her love for him.

Her hands were shaking so hard River wove her fingers together, body trembling uncontrollably in her distress as the tears multiplied like some depressing and heart breaking baptism. *Mal, Mal, Mal, love you so much *bao bei*. Hold on, hold on, hold on! They'll try and break you and I can't help you, not now, not yet* She choked on a sob then stuffed the fingers of both hands in her mouth to muffle the sound. *Duibuqi, ai ren. Just hold on and remember I love you...*

* * * * *

Simon blinked hard then turned his head and looked at the Shepherd. "You know. Tell them."

The Preacher gave him a carefully blank look. "Tell them what? I don't know what you're talking about."

"You were there, you saw what happened."

Zoe frowned at the Preacher but he seemed baffled, mystified. "I'm afraid you are mistaken, doctor."

He shook his head as if something inside it was loose. Kaylee squeezed his hand. Simon blinked and tried to get his thoughts into some kind of coherent order but it was so hard. Difficile. He glanced again at Book and could not remember what it was he had wanted to say to him. Zoe noticed his distraction and waved a hand in front of his face to get his attention. "Simon. What the *diyu* do you mean the Shepherd knows? Knows what? What did he see?"

Simon felt all fuzzy. The words were wafting through the air towards him but somehow never made it in one piece to his ears. He got fragments and bits of fragments, nothing as whole or useful as a single word. He frowned, felt sick. The 'verse was warping around him bending both light and shadow around the shape of vowels and consonants yet leaving no afterimage. Who were these people? And if they looked like friends why were they tormenting him?

"Simon?"

That was the one who called herself Kaylee. At least she *looked* like Kaylee, didn't she? He frowned. Felt so gorram dizzy and confused. Up was no longer up and down was all over the rutting place. And why the *diyu* was the ship swaying about like that? Kaylee put a hand on his shoulder, he began to shake his head. BIG damn mistake. Without time to warn her he promptly threw up over Serenity's startled mechanic. Without missing a beat Zoe's dry comment landed like muffled cotton wool on his ears just before he passed out. "Guess he isn't doin' so well after all."

Down in the cargo bay someone else wasn't doing too well either. Jayne was all kinds of frustrated. Wash tried not to show his impatience not wanting to set the big man off. "This is gettin' us ruttin' nowhere. That crazy girl ain't gonna come out less she wants to."

"Why wouldn't she want to?"

Jayne shrugged but despite his words kept right on looking. Wash hid a smile. "Who knows? She weren't right in the head before an' even with the Cap helpin' she still ain't right."

"Well, that was profound."

The mercenary paused and glared at him. "Meanin'?"

"Meaning nothing Jayne, just that you were making sense."

Jayne frowned not at all sure that Wash wasn't making fun of him though he looked sincere enough. He decided to let it ride this once and they finished the rest of the search in silence. They even searched the gorram airlock. Then Wash had an idea.

"You remember when that Alliance ship searched us? Thought we murdered those folks off that transport ship that got hit by Reavers?"

A shudder went through Jayne before he could stop himself. "Like I'm gonna forget. What about it?"

"I think we should check the EVA suits. Maybe River really isn't *in* the ship any more. Maybe she's *on* it."

For a moment the big man just looked at him then a big grin slid over his face. "Good idea. Bet that's where she's been hidin'."

With renewed hope and vigor they checked the suits. Wash's face fell when they found none were missing. "Gorrammit, I was sure that was what she'd done."

Jayne shook his head. "She ain't here, Wash, not unless she's hidin' with Inara."

"Nah, Inara would've said something and we already checked the spare shuttle."

Jayne looked troubled. "I ain't lookin' forward to tellin' Mal we can't find her."

The pilot nodded. Both men now subdued. Wash felt sad knowing it would hit the Captain hard. He could not remember ever having seen the man as happy as he was with River. It damn near broke his heart to think of what he would do without her. And then there was Simon. "Yeah, me neither."

For a moment neither moved then Wash and Jayne exchanged a look.

"Perhaps we'd better check one last time? Just to be sure."

Jayne nodded, relieved to be able to put off telling the Captain they had failed.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*jiandan* = simple *diyu* = hell *shenme* = what *weishenme* = why *lese* = crap *dong ma* = understand *wangba dan* = bastard (lit. bad egg) *wo zhidao* = I know *shenjingbing* = crazy *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *goushi* = dog shit *duibuqi* = sorry *ai ren* = sweetheart *bao bei* = precious/treasure

COMMENTS

Saturday, March 20, 2004 2:13 PM

JEBBYPAL


Great as always. The ring! Auuggh, can't wait to find out if mal is or isn't in this rebellion. Write speedily.

Saturday, March 20, 2004 4:09 PM

CASSANDRAE


Alison,

I have always enjoyed all of your Firefly fanfiction. Great job as always! Beautiful work, makes me miss the show even more.

Sunday, March 21, 2004 12:10 AM

NEROLI


Love it, love this series...love that with each chapter I think I know what is going to happen next, but you always manage to surprise me in some way...LOL

This chapter it was Mal knowing all along Inara was a spy. :-)

Really wondering who the mystery man is more and more and who it is he is looking for!

Sunday, March 21, 2004 3:17 AM

MALSDOXY


wow, this is getting very very interesting...Poor Mal, he can't lose River !!

Waiting impatiently for the next chapter

Sunday, March 21, 2004 4:56 AM

KISPEXI2


Another cracker, Ali. The plot's getting nicely muddy and the atmosphere anxious. My favourite combo! Looking forward to the next one.

Monday, March 22, 2004 11:47 PM

GUILDSISTER


I just read your Forgotten Realm series in a couple long sessions--Holy go-se! Powerful. Dark. Intense.

Thanks for a good read.


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