CHECK MATE: Black queen moves forward. (7/22)
Thursday, April 22, 2004

Kaylee's birthday. Some dancing, some presents. River's struck down, gets lucid and disappears.


CHECK MATE: Black queen moves forward..

* * * * *

Although he pretends not to notice, Mal knows Zoe is watching him, getting ready to say something. Her hesitation confirms his suspicion that she's going to point out some failing of his as soon as she gets the chance. So he keeps his eyes on his plate. Might as well make it difficult for her if she's gonna get all critical.

Around them the bright chatter of the rest of the crew reminds Mal of birdsong on a spring morning back on Shadow and for once the memory of home is a sweet one. He glances quickly from face to face, thankful for each of these extraordinary people. For all they have given him, for how they've given him purpose again ... He wants to keep them all here, just like they are now. Wants to save them from their fates.

“What time we settin' down, Wash?” he asks, interrupting the general conversation with the brisk business-like manner he often uses to conceal emotion. “Don't want Badger's buyer accusin' us of bein' late.”

“Eleven or so, Agnis time.” Wash replies, streteching lazily. “Suppose I better go get ready for that.”

“Me too!” Kaylee says, rising from the table. “Wanna check how Serenity's landin' hydraulics are workin'. Think we might be needin' some new parts for her, Cap'n...”

“Ain't no money for fripperies, Kaylee,” he tells her sternly. “You best be certain we really need any stuff you ask for.”

Gorramit! He doesn't need to look at Zoe to feel the ferocity of the look she is shooting him. But he still isn't going to make it easy for her.

A little crest-fallen, Kaylee trails out followed by Simon and River.

“You gonna help Jayne get the cargo ready for unloading?” Zoe asks Book, signalling with her eyes that she wants to be alone with Mal.

“I don't need help from no Preacher!” Jayne protests, oblivious.

“Oh, I think you do at that, son,” Book says mildly, a gentle pat on the mercenary's shoulder propelling him towards the door. “In every possible way..”

“You rushin' off somewhere too?” Mal asks Inara, as she too gets to her feet. “Di'n't think the menfolk on Agnis would be hygienic enough for a fine lady such as yourself”

“They aren't. I do, however, need to purchase a few items ...” She rolls her eyes at the suggestive way he cocks an eyebrow. “Not that it's any of your concern.”

Zoe waits until the clatter of Inara's heels fades before rounding on Mal. “You've forgotten, haven't you?”

“No!” he assures her indignantly. All the while racking his brains for what it is he's forgotten. “It's all under control.”

Zoe tilts her head to one side, a ghost of a smile behind her eyes. “Really, Sir?”

“Really.” Now he wishes he'd just admitted he didn't have a damn clue as to her meaning. Ought to know by now she can read him like a book.

“Good. I'll leave it with you then.” Poker-faced, Zoe maintains eye contact, waiting for him to crack.

He folds his arms defiantly across his chest. “Fine. You do that.” She turns and has reached the doorway before he will admit defeat. “On second thoughts, don't. What in the diyu are we talkin' about, Zoe?”

A faint glimmer of triumph warms her solemn expression as she says, “Kaylee's birthday, Sir. Day after tomorrow. Can't believe you forgot about it. You bein' like family to her. Can you imagine how upset she'd've been? She's sure to have cried. On. Her. Birthday. They do say as how that's bad luck...”

“Yeah, and you're pushin' yours now.”

“Just tryin' to be helpful, Sir.”

Mal's scowl finally chases her away. He feels in the pocket of his pants and breathes a sigh of relief. At least he has coin enough to get his mechanic a present.

* * * * *

The scrap dealer drove a hard bargain, but the deal was a fair one. Mal tucks the synchronizer under his coat, feeling more than a mite pleased with himself. Now all he has to do is pick up the paperwork for Badger's Brownfields job from the post office and they can be on their way again.

He turns a corner and almost collides with Kaylee, who slips her arm through his and falls into step beside him. “OK if I come with you to the post office, Cap'n? Got somethin' to collect my own self.”

The queue is a long, slow one. Kaylee chirrups away but Mal isn't really listening to her. He's observing the man in front of them. Noting his very blond, precisely cut hair. The way he stands tall, like a man who's never had to submit to no-one. Strange for someone on a planet like Agnis where most folk have to grub a living and ingratiate themselves with all manner of wang da bans just to put food on the table. Stranger still that he's picking up his own mail.

Finally it's their turn. The dumpy, dusty looking woman behind the counter hands Mal a large brown envelope and Kaylee a small package for which she has to sign.

“It's from my daddy,” she tells Mal, her eyes shining. “First present he's been able to get me in a long while.”

* * * * *

The commons room has an eerily peaceful feel to it as Mal enters. Simon is on the sofa reading, and River is sprawled out on the floor, engrossed in the picture she is drawing. Mal crouches down beside her to take a closer look. It's a row of Russian dolls, starting with one as big as his hand and going down to one so small it can hardly be seen. Each exquisitely detailed.

Mal whistles softly. “Well now River, ain't that somethin'? You sure can draw pretty.”

She turns to look at him as though only just aware of his presence. “Of course I can. I am gifted. Everyone says so.”

Mal can't help smiling at that. He gets up and sits next to Simon. “You seen that, Doc?” he asks. “Looks like those meds you're givin' her are finally workin'.”

Simon frowns. “I'm not so sure Mal. All she ever draws are Russian dolls. It's like a compulsion.”

Mal considers for a moment. “Well, at least she's calmer....”

Of course, he should never had said it. It was inviting trouble. Suddenly River is scribbling furiously over the smallest doll, her hand moving faster and faster, the pencil digging into and tearing the paper. “Bitch! Jian hou bitch!”

“Hey there!” Mal is beside her again in an instant. He catches her wrist and gently prises the pencil from her clenched fist. “No need for cussin'.” He feels the tension ebb from her body and lets go of her hand. “You OK?”

“Which me are you asking?”

“The one sittin' right here,” he replies, unphased by the question. “The one tearin' up a perfectly good picture.”

“It's not her you have to worry about,” River replies, her eyes suddenly huge. She leans forward and presses her forehead against his. “There's a vulture in the Easter Egg,” she whispers, her voice trembling.

“Uh-huh?” Mal tries to be non-committal. He pulls back, searching her face for meaning. Maybe she's going somewhere with this. Girl often makes a crazy kind of sense.

“I'm a gorram Greek horse,” River tells him seriously. There's a brief pause and then she dissolves into a cascade of tinkling laughter, leaving Mal wondering if she's teasing him and Simon once again fearful that Mal will throw them off the ship.

“River, mei-mei, I think it's time for your rest.” Simon attempts to take control of the situation by removing his sister from the room, but she resists his tugging hands, dancing back on light feet.

“Can't go yet. Not my time.” She smiles sweetly at him and then at Mal. “Which will be first? The chicken or the egg?”

* * * * *

When Jayne reaches the top of the ladder leading up from his bunk he finds River standing there, her eyes blank and unblinking. No wonder he finds her so damn creepifying.

“You want something?” he growls.

“Fifteen guns, including nine automatics. Six knives and handcuffs. Not all for business.”

He looks stunned. “You been in my bunk, girl? Cos if you have I swear I'll....”

“Swear you'll what, Jayne?” Mal walks awful soft for a man of his size. His tone is even. It's the familiarity of the question that's menacing.

“Nothin',” Jayne mumbles.

River steps forward and taps his chest lightly with two fingers. “Don't need to go in. Can see them here.” She laughs merrily at the bewilderment on his face and skips off down the walkway.

“Best you keep your door locked, Jayne,” Mal advises, watching her slight form disapper. “Guns and River make for unpleasantness.”

“Yeah. Don't want her doin' her math on me with one, that's for sure.”

* * * * *

Rantoong is using the pliers he acquired during his visit to a skyplex a few years back to carefully prune the bonsai tree on his desk. They've never lost their edge. Still sharp enough to cut through bone. The door opens silently and Parkin walks in, equally silently. Rantoong doesn't bother looking up.

“Is the bird in flight?” He sounds almost bored.

“Yes. As expected, the dove is on its way.”

“You're certain?”

“According to my sources. Went to confession at the Abbey before he left. Seeking absolution.”

A cold chuckle escapes Rantoong. “Really? Absolution? Other people's superstitions are so .. convenient. Is everything else in place?”

Parkin nods with grim satisfaction. “The package has been uplifted, although remains, as yet, unopened.”

“Naturally. Sensible girls don't open birthday presents early. Takes away half the pleasure.”

* * * * *

Jayne wipes the foam from his lip with the back of his hand and sets his empty glass back down on the counter hard enough to attract the barman's attention. “'Nother one, Mal? I'm payin'.”

Mal would like to be back on Serenity, checking that Badger's cargo is properly stowed but if he goes back now he'll make Zoe mad. Since the handover was so easy, she reckoned it would do Simon and Book good to take responsibility for getting the crates on board – under her supervision. Make them feel accepted as part of the crew. So Mal pushes down his twitchiness and accepts the beer Jayne has already bought.

They fight their way through the teeming bar to a table and take a seat.

“Not often jobs go as smooth as that, eh Mal?”Jayne grins. “Thought any contact of Badger's would be as slippery as him, an' twice as hard to track down but here we are, all done an' dusted already.”

His words only increase Mal's unease. As a rule his life don't go smooth and when it does, it usually means trouble of some kind.

“So it looks like we got ourselves some free time... ” Jayne comments casually.

“We're off this rock as soon as Inara's back on board,” Mal tells him firmly. “Before nightfall, for certain.”

“Oh, I won't need more than an hour,” Jayne replies. “I know what I'm lookin' for. An' I know exactly where to go to get it.”

Not for the first time, Mal envies how simple and easy a thing gratification is to Jayne. It almost distracts him from recognizing a straight-backed, very blond man talking with a couple of whores in the corner.

* * * * *

They touched down on Brownfields thirty-six hours ago and still there's been no wave from Badger's contact. Without payment for the goods they can't refuel or buy in provisions. The waiting's more than enough to make a man tetchy. Mal is glad they have Kaylee's birthday to distract them.

“A synchronizer, sir?” Zoe asks incredulously as Kaylee unwraps Mal's gift. “How ... thoughtful.”

Wash leans in confidentially towards him. “That's my wife being ironic, sir.”

But Kaylee is delighted. “Shiny!” she exclaims, reaching up to kiss Mal's cheek, making him feel utterly cheap and needful of making up for it.

“Now mine!” Jayne insists, pressing a box into Kaylee's hand.

Everyone's jaw falls open as Kaylee opens it and lifts out a delicate gold filigree bracelet. Her eyes go wide with surprise and pleasure. “Ooh, Jayne...” she murmurs before crushing her arms around him in a tight embrace, making the mercenary grin from ear to ear. Simon's confidence in the perfection of his gift - a book on engine design - evaporates and even Inara wonders if the tortoiseshell hair combs she used to dress Kaylee's hair were good enough for this special girl.

“Nothing says thoughtful like jewelry” At Mal's side Wash shakes his head sadly.

There's only one parcel left to open. The one from Kaylee's daddy. Mal can tell by the way she lingers over opening it that it means more to her than any of the others.

“Can of snakes.” River pronounces. Her eyes cloud over as she looks at Kaylee. “And you can't charm them for all your singing.”

Mal glares at Simon who hastens to silence his sister, even though Kaylee is giving him a sympathetic, forgiving smile. “Oh! How did he know? It's a tape of dance music like I got from the ball, Cap'n.” An idea occurs to her. “We should have our own ball here! I'll get my player...”

Normally Mal would have forbidden any arrangement that might force him to dance, but he can't deny Kaylee her birthday party. He'll just sidle off and do captainy things as soon as the music starts...

But this music is not like the sedate, measured stuff played at Inara's fancy shindig. It's a frenzy of fiddles and flutes that has everyone tapping their feet. Singing too, in some long forgotten tongue. Simon remembers there was a dance on Earth-that-was called 'Strip the Willow' that would suit and paces it out for them. River picks it up instantly, and begins pulling the others into the dance, whirling them round till they are all reeling, laughing and breathless. The pink flush on Kaylee's cheek is not simply the result of exertion. Its pure joy from made all the more intense by Simon's arm circling her waist as they spin round together.

Mal finds himself paired with Inara and which is exactly what he did not want. Dancing means touching, and touching means ... The curve of her hips against his side is unsettling and the sweet, spicy smell of her evokes that familiar longing he tries so gorram hard to ignore. He's just about to make an excuse to leave when the music picks up speed again and, trying to keep up with it, River loses her balance and crashes into them.

“Whoa there,” Mal begins but before he can finish the girl has collapsed onto the floor where she lies twitching, a trail of foaming drool seeping from one corner of her mouth.

Mal scoops her up in his arms like a wounded soldier and with an exceedingly agitated Simon in tow strides off to the infirmary as quick as a man under sniper fire. He lays her carefully down on the exam table. Despite the shot Simon gives her, for a full half an hour she convulses, head and heels pulling her body backwards into an arc like a bow under tension. Simon frets, Mal looks grim and Book begins to pray. Tears trickle down Kaylee's face as she pleads “She'll be OK, won't she? Cap'n? Simon?” Everyone waits anxiously for a diagnosis, an improvement. Something.

And then it happens. River sits up, wipes her mouth with a tissue and smiles sheepishly. “I'm all right. Really. I'm so sorry to have worried you. I don't know what came over me. Let's go back to the party. We were having such a lovely time.”

Mal can't remember her ever having sounded this much like a normal person before. It should be a good thing and yet it's not. It makes the hairs on his neck stand up.

He glances over at Book who's standing on the threshold, observing River carefully, and knows he feels it too.

* * * * *

“Mal! Mal! For God's sake, wake up! Please!”

As Mal comes to, he realizes it's Simon who is shaking him by the shoulders, clutching his fingers so deep into the muscles it almost hurts. He blinks the sleep away and pieces reality back together.

He's in bed. His medic is holding him tight as though his life depended on it, eyes swimming with an urgent need that reminds Mal painfully of Nandi. For a moment he doubts his own assurances to Jayne that the boy is not sly. He also wishes didn't have to be naked to sleep properly. With one hand he gently but firmly pushes Simon away and pulls the sheets tight around his waist with the other.

“OK, son. Yi qi shen hu xi. Slow down. I'm assumin' you've got a real good reason for comin' down here uninvited...” Uninvited was a bad choice of word. Makes it sound like handing out invitations to visit his bunk is something Mal might do. Ignore it. No time for that now. “Wanna tell me what this is about?”

Simon swallows hard and takes a deep breath. Seems to be afraid of saying it, whilst all the while having to. “It's River. She's gone.”

Even half asleep Mal can glower fit to freeze the blood. “Gone? Where? How?”

Simon hangs his head. If his mother had ever hugged him, he would be missing that right now. “I don't know, Mal. She took the spare shuttle.”

“O, zhe zhen shi ge kuai le de jin zhan!” Mal hisses. “Ain't no point in askin' if she knows how to fly the ruttin' thing, I suppose? No, I thought not. You an' me are goin' to have to have another serious talk once we get her back, Doc...” Mal is about to leap out of bed and into action when he remembers the nakedness issue. “Go get the others.”

* * * * *

They're all waiting for him when he gets to the commons. Even Inara, who manages to look serene and alluring despite the hour and the situation. Jayne is toting Vera, keyed up and ready for action. It just worsens Mal's ill humour.

“Put that gorram gun away, Jayne. We ain't gonna be shootin' her.”

“Better that than she shoots us,” Jayne declares, tightening his grip on his favourite girl.

The penny drops and Mal takes a step towards him, clenching a fist. “What? You got somethin' to be confessin' here Jayne?”

“She's armed,” Jayne tells him, all matter-of-fact. “Tried to stop her myself, but she ....” He breaks off as Mal grabs him by the shirt. “Hey! What ya doin'?”

Mal is all but snarling into his face. “Thought I told you to keep your qing wa cao door locked!”

Jayne's lip curls. “It ain't one of my guns she took Mal. It was one of yours.”

* * * * *


Thursday, April 22, 2004 2:04 AM


Wow--this keeps getting more and more intriguing! I can't wait to see where it's going next.

Thursday, April 22, 2004 7:47 AM


I've done myself a disservice, waiting until you had so many parts posted before reading any of them. Thank you for keeping the characters three-dimensional while moving them about an increasingly fascinating plot. Very enjoyable!

Thursday, April 22, 2004 7:50 AM


Love this, and that comment at the end from Jayne made me smile. Hope River is okay and they find her soon. Poor Kaylee having her party ruined. Very shiny, and very much wanting more! *Xiexie ni*, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, April 22, 2004 10:09 AM


Awesome! Getting very tense an' all.

Sunday, April 25, 2004 3:57 AM


Wow. I just finished reading the whole series, and I can't wait to see what happens next. Great, interesting story. Please, go write it!


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HOLDING ON: Ch 2 - Tangential
Much to his annoyance, Sanzo's urgent quest to find Goku gets diverted. Meanwhile Mal meets someone from Inara's past. WARNING - slashy but not graphic

The Wheel Never Stops Turning
Mal meets a blonde in a bar. Violence ensues. And Mal discovers religion has its uses.

This is primariy a <i>Firefly</i> fic, but the character Mal ends up doing a job for is from the manga/anime <i>Saiyuki</i>. It's also <b>PG-13 nothing-explicit SLASH</b>. Because that's who I am!

MAKE ME A STONE: Ch 7: 'til the day you die.
Inara leaves Serenity for a new life. Mal gets a job with a couple of new employers, but sinks further into despair.
Slash so lite you'll probably scarcely notice it.

MAKE ME A STONE: Chapter 6: You just learn to live there.
Another job goes less than smoothly. Meanwhile River takes matters into her own hands and Mal has a brainwave.

SLASHFIC. SPOILERS for the comics, novelization and movie.

Make Me A Stone: Chapter 5: Chickens come home to roost.
Mal has to accept Badger's offer of a job. Meanwhile old enemies seek to take advantge.
Spoilers for the comics. Very light slash.

Make Me A Stone: Chapter 4. Some residual heat.
SPOILERS for the comics/BDM. Mal has to accept Badger's job offer. Not much else in his life is going right either.

MAKE ME A STONE: Ch 3: It's complicated.
Mal decides to pull a job of his own. Simon offers to help. It doesn't go smooth - but that's not entirely Simon's fault.

Non-graphic SLASH.

MAKE ME A STONE: Ch 2: And who exactly could fix you?
Simon'a altruism leads to a job going wrong. Mal's not happy.

MAKE ME A STONE: Ch 1: Pray there ain't any more surprises.
Warning: SLASH, but not graphic. Mal and Simon both find that the other has hidden talents. It kinda piques their interest ... *g*

TRAUMA MEDICINE: Chapter 23. Two by two.
Four years have past since Mal was forced to blow up Serenity and Simon disappeared with River and Book. A lot has changed since then. But a lot has stayed the same. The CONCLUSION to this series.