BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 18
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The arrival of a third party brings matters to a head.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3136    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.

Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529 and LEEH for the beta help!

Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end.

* * *

Edward Verdande III had struck a goldmine almost as big as his grandfather’s. The newly developed harvester required minimal manpower to maintain, so he had no need to hire and support mining crews. He no longer needed to subcontract to Core companies to process the lithium dubniate, since final processing could now be carried out concurrent with mining. Transport fees were greatly reduced as well; an entire year’s harvest, fully processed into ready-to-install computer components, could be shipped on one smallish freighter.

Edward III maintained control of the riches of Niflheim, completely dominating the market. The competing mining companies were, not surprisingly, eager to know all they could about the new mining process that so limited their share of the wealth. But Edward III had everything protected; as long as he kept his technology patents up to date, he was beyond their reach.

However, he had another motive for keeping the details of his new mining method a secret. There was a complication, only recently brought to his attention, that he very much wanted to hide. No one suspected this. No one, that is, except for the woman heading the Skuld Cartel.

Beyla Skuld: called Auntie Beyla by her playboy nephew, known as Aunt Betty to certain other parties she had hired for a delicate job. She’d stumbled onto information which could bring the Verdande Cartel down – all she needed was hard proof.

* * *

“But… how… ?

“What in the… ?

“Where did… ?”

The string of unfinished questions was interrupted by a commotion. Wash didn’t look into the larger room behind the cockpit where he sat stammering; he wasn’t capable of turning away from the Alliance battleship practically sitting on top of the little transport. In any case, he was pretty sure that the source of the distant noise would come find him in the very near future, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.

He was dimly aware of an echoing clang when the airlock hatch slammed open, and the string of half-spoken questions and statements that followed was a lot like the one he’d just uttered, but much louder and decorated with many colorful profanities. Then there was a crash which Wash decided was a big body being knocked into the mule – payment to Jayne for interrupting Zoë’s plan to get herself killed by going for a spacewalk in a crappy spacesuit.

A deep voiced roared through the tiny shuttle. “Wash!”

Wash’s reply was tiny. “Yeah, honey?”

“You better bào fó jiăo, `cause you're sittin’ in no big steamy pile a`trouble and I am gonna – ”

Zoë’s voice had been rising in volume as she approached the cockpit, reaching something near a bullhorn as she shoved Bucky aside and squeezed her bulky space-suited form through the small hatch, but she stopped mid-rant when she saw what Wash was staring at. There was a pause, and her voice was nearer normal level when she spoke again.

“That… ain’t what it looks like,” Zoë haltingly declared, then her voice got even smaller. “Is it?”

“Actually, it’s…” Wash started, then he paused to fish around for the proper description. When he got it, he turned to Zoë, his hand motioning toward the battleship outside the window. “Mĕi zhōng bù zú.” Zoë gave him a dark look.

Jayne caught up to Zoë a second later, and stood outside the hatch rubbing his backside. “Āi yā, woman,” he grumbled. “You could have asked why I stopped ya before you knocked me over.”

Zoë ignored the mercenary. “Why exactly are they… here?” she asked Wash.

An authorative voice sounded through the comm: Stolen Skuld cartel transport – you are under arrest. Shut down your engines and await docking.

Wash let out a heavy breath. “I’m not feeling inclined to argue.” He looked to Zoë. “What do you think, lamby-toes?”

She just glared at him, so Wash turned back to the console and started to shut things down.

He changed his mind when Serenity’s engines fired up. Wash fought to keep from getting blown into the rubble of the rings as the Firefly tilted, the back end of her beginning to light up. Then her nose lifted high enough to catch sight of the Alliance ship, and she suddenly reversed engines and slammed to a stop.

“Yeah, welcome to the good times,” Jayne said with a sneer.

* * *

“Ray’s the only one left,” Inara said. She was holding a small gun that she’d taken out of Ginger’s limp hand, carefully checking the ammo in the clip.

“We’d best move careful,” Book replied as he tied the unconscious woman to the pipes running along the base of the shuttle’s bulkhead. “We don’t want to push him to do anything desperate.”

Inara lowered the gun, satisfied that it was ready for use if needed, although she hoped it wouldn’t come to that. “I’d like to try talking to him,” she told Book. “I think I can reach him.”

Kaylee made a scoffing noise. “Don’t you fool yourself, `nara, there’s only one way to deal with these folks.”

Inara wasn’t sure if she’d heard right. She turned to see Kaylee sitting on the deck, spinning the metal disk in her hand and staring at Ginger. Kaylee’s chin was thrust forward, her mouth pinched and eyes narrow. Her face had a ferocity Inara had never seen in the girl before, nor had ever thought she would.

“I don’t think so, honey. Ray very nearly apologized to me when he found me in my shuttle.”

“He was lyin’,” Kaylee said. “They ain’t nothin’ but liars, lookin’ to take what’s ours.” She looked up, and there were tears in her eyes, but her jaw was still clenched.

Mèi mei,” Inara said gently, and she knelt down in front of Kaylee. “This isn’t you; you don’t hate like this.”

“You don’t get it. You ain’t seen what they been doin’!”

“I do know. Kaylee, the other man tried to rape me.”

The girl’s mouth fell open, and, across the shuttle, Book gave Inara a look of concern. Inara raised her voice to explain to them both, “Will was waiting when I docked, and forced his way onto my shuttle.”

The wildness left Kaylee’s eyes. “Did he – ”

Inara’s face softened into a comforting smile. “Of course not. He was sloppy and overconfident. He never even touched me.”

Kaylee reached out and gently touched the bruise on Inara’s face. “Then what’s that?”

Inara’s smile fell; she’d actually forgotten. “Long story – let’s save it for later. We need to focus on getting to Mal.” She stood up and turned back to Book. “When I left, they were on the bridge. Ray seemed almost done getting whatever it is he’s after.”

Book set Ginger’s sniper rifle against the far bulkhead, then looked up at Inara. “Whatever we’re going to do,” he said, “Let’s do it soon. Before Ray notices that this woman hasn’t returned.”

“I’m with the Shepherd,” Kaylee said. “I’m thinkin’ now’s the time to get our ship back.”

* * *

Mal sat at the helm and stared out the window, completely dumbstruck. The Alliance ship was barely half a kilometer above Serenity. In space, that’s a hair’s breadth.

“How the hell did you not see that?” Ray asked from where he stood behind the pilot’s seat.

“Scanner was off,” Mal said distantly.

“Off?”

“It’s… complicated.”

“Whatever.”

On a whim, Mal flipped on the comm.

Firefly cargo ship – you are under arrest for theft of cartel property. You will shut down your engines and prepare to be boarded…

Not surprisingly, the Alliance wasn’t here to say a friendly hello. Mal reached for the handset to reply, to say something appeasing to keep the bullies from blasting his engines off just to prove a point, but Ray flipped the switch before Mal could reach it and the transmission was cut off midsentence.

“Get goin’,” Ray said, “You got some flyin’ to do.”

Mal turned and gaped at Ray. “Are you insane?”

Ray’s face contorted and he pulled out his gun, shoving it in Mal’s face. “You keep your mouth shut and get us out’a here.”

“Whoa – whoa there!” Mal said, jumping to his feet and backing into the gap between the consoles, throwing his hands out to his sides. “Now, I don’t know your personal history, but I’m thinkin’ you can’t possibly hate the Alliance any more than I do. But I’m tellin’ you – we ain’t gettin’ away from that.” Mal pointed his finger at the window, at the ship beyond.

“Not if we sit here.” Ray cocked the gun.

“And sure as hell not if you shoot me,” Mal said, taking another step back. “I’m the only one can fly this boat.”

Ray lowered his gun, conceding the point, but he didn’t give up the argument. He glared out the window, then back at Mal, shaking his head. “I ain’t gettin’ caught – not now. If I can’t shoot you, I’ll find somebody else.”

* * *

Inara insisted that, before they do anything else, they make sure that Will was still unconscious and tie him up so he wouldn’t be a danger. She crept along the catwalk behind Book as silently as possibly, Kaylee following behind. They noticed the bright blue cylinder on the deck below, but no one commented on it until they were shut inside Inara’s shuttle.

“Do you have any idea what that thing is?” Inara asked Kaylee.

Kaylee shook her head. “Ain’t got a clue.”

They both looked down when they heard a deep-pitched groan from the man on the floor. Book was kneeling beside Will, checking his pulse. The Shepherd looked up at Inara.

“Nicely done.”

Inara smiled and curtseyed at the compliment, but then she looked at the half-conscious man’s bloody face and felt a wave of coldness rise inside her.

“He’s stirring a bit, though,” Book continued. “We’d best get him bound.”

“Not in here,” Inara said quickly, wanting the man out of her shuttle as quickly as possible. It occurred to her too late that it was a frivolous request; moving him through the cargo bay was an unnecessary risk, and a delay. But she had to have him out of her space. To her relief, Book agreed, though for a different reason.

“Of course,” he said. “It’d be best to have him in the same place as the woman.”

Book tied Will’s hands with a scarf Inara provided, then heaved him over his shoulder and carried him through the hatch. Kaylee, after a sidelong glance at Inara’s pale face, picked up Will’s discarded clothing, and followed after Book.

Inara paused as they left, letting herself savor the warm, comforting atmosphere of her shuttle for a few seconds before she followed them out. The moment was necessary – she needed to pull herself together, let go of her anger and gather her wits before moving on to what needed to be done. She had to talk Ray down. Alone. That was the best way to finish this as peacefully as possible.

She caught up with Kaylee in the empty shuttle. Will was still groaning, not quite awake, but weakly pulling his arms against the bindings that Book was wrapping around him.

“It’d be best if you stayed here,” Inara told Book. “I’m going to the bridge.”

Kaylee’s eyes opened wide in fear. “Don’t do that, Inara. Not by yourself.”

“Ray believes the Shepherd is a threat – he’ll get defensive if he sees Book coming, we don’t want to pressure him.” Inara’s voice was strong; she was sure about this. “But he’s somewhat familiar with me.” She put a hand on Kaylee’s shoulder, trying to reassure her. “I don’t believe he’s out to hurt anyone, and I can make a deal with him. I’ll find out what he needs, and do all I can to help. It may be that we can get out of this without any more violence.”

Kaylee didn’t look convinced, but Book nodded. “These two need looking after anyway,” he said. He had Will’s gun on the deck beside him; by ‘looking after’ he didn’t mean simple care-taking.

“But, Inara – ” Kaylee started.

“It’s all right, mèi mei; I have this,” Inara held up Ginger’s small pistol, then tucked it into the pocket of her robe. “Just in case. I’ll be all right. You stay here with Book.”

Kaylee looked at the two bound hijackers, then shook her head. “No,” she said, her voice as determined as Inara’s. “I gotta check on Simon. He’s in the infirmary?”

Inara hesitated, then nodded. “That’s a good idea – let him know what we’re doing. And keep a look out for Zoë, Wash, and Jayne. There’s a small ship following us; Mal thinks it’s them. They may be trying to board.”

Kaylee exhaled at the news. “It’s almost over then,” she said and her face finally relaxed in relief. “We’re all gonna be just fine.”

* * *

Mal turned to look again at the ship behind him. He grunted in exasperation, his brows pulling together as he ran a hand through his hair and scratched at his head. Why did the man not get it?

“Look,” he told Ray, trying to reason calmly. “I ain’t that good a pilot. My regular guy’s the best, and I’m tellin’ you, even if he was here, there’s no way we’re gettin’ away from that.” He motioned at the ship outside the window again.

Ray wasn’t moved. He continued to glare at Mal, his eyes lit with an intensity that was beyond reach. It reminded Mal of the glint he’d seen in the other gunhand’s eyes, the one he’d shot down. Hank.

“I ain’t endin’ in a cell,” Ray said, his voice low and forceful, “and Jase ain’t going to some crappy orphanage. This job is gonna get done.”

“I understand that it would be nice to keep all your sparkly pretty goods and go running free through the Black. I hope you make it there someday, I really do. But today ain’t the day.”

“Get to flyin’, or I’ll have Ginger bring your people up here, one by one.”

Mal’s voice rose in pitch as frustration overwhelmed him. “You’re just gonna get us blown up!”

Ray stepped forward, grabbed Mal’s shirt and pulled him out from between the consoles and shoved into pilot’s chair, then he reached up and triggered the comm. “Ginger, get up here.” He looked Mal in the eye as he added, “Bring the little mechanic.”

Mal glared at Ray, but a soft voice spoke before he could do anything.

“Ginger’s not coming.”

Ray and Mal both swung their heads around to stare into the back of the bridge. Inara was stepping through the hatch.

“You’re the only one left, Ray,” she said. “It’s over.”

* * *

Kaylee approached the infirmary from the cargo bay. She was planning to go straight around to the hatch, but what she saw through the window had her crouching down and staring.

Inside the little room, a body was lying on the exam table and River was sitting next to it, hooked up to a transfusion IV. But Kaylee barely noticed the two of them – Simon was standing at the counter to Kaylee’s right, his shirt off. He was focused on a scattering of mottled bruises on the left side of his stomach and rib cage. He used his left hand to locate a sore spot on one of his ribs, the pain he caused himself showing in his face, then he picked up a syringe from the counter and gave himself an injection.

“Oh… gosh,” Kaylee whispered. She’d seen Simon with no shirt before, when they were all swimming, and she’d fully appreciated the view. And to see that fine body hurt like that, and Simon dealing with it all by himself…

He opened a jar of ointment and scooped some out, grimacing as he spread it over his bruises. Kaylee rapped on the glass, and Simon turned to her in surprise. “I can do that for ya!” she said in a loud whisper.

Simon walked over to the window, his face screwed up in confusion, his mouth forming the word What? Of course – he couldn’t hear her. Kaylee stood up and jogged around to the hatch. It was closed tight, and when she tried to lift the handle, it didn’t budge. She harrumphed in frustration and went back to the window.

Simon was pushing on the door from the inside, but with no more success than she’d had. She took a second to study the body on the bed – it was the boy she’d met in town, the one who’d set all this up. And it registered with Kaylee that River was helping him, was giving him her own body’s blood.

Simon turned and saw Kaylee in the window. He pointed at the hatch, then held his hands out helplessly. She could see all the hurts on his torso, the bruising on the side of his face. He noticed her stare, and turned away self-consciously to pick up his shirt from the counter.

“No...” Kaylee whimpered to herself. She wanted to be in the infirmary, to nurse poor Simon. He was a doctor, a really good doctor, doing his best to treat a patient even though the boy had been involved in an attack on his ship. And they’d beat Simon for it. Those no-good gorram monsters had beat him and locked him up.

* * *

“The hell it’s over!” Ray told Inara. “I ain’t gettin’ taken down when I’m this close. All we gotta do is shake that ship – “

“It ain’t gonna happen!” Mal interrupted, still trying to convince a man who couldn’t be reached. “Look – I ain’t happy `bout this my own self. Alliance is like to be lookin’ for me, not you. But we try to run and they’ll crush us. We’re caught!”

Ray stepped across to the port side of the bridge, putting distance between himself and Mal, then he raised his gun and aimed it at Inara. He looked to Mal.

“I beg to differ.”

* * *

Kaylee felt herself fuming again. Simon always took care of everyone else, and this was the thanks he got for it. He needed someone to take care of him like he deserved. If only the hatch was open…

That hatch could be unlocked from the bridge, and it occurred to her that she had every right to do it. This ship was Kaylee’s girl; it didn’t belong to no one else but her and the Captain. She should be able to go wherever she needed to go. Besides, Mal and Inara didn’t know that the infirmary was locked, and Kaylee couldn’t use the comm. Not unless she knew everything was all settled. She’d have to go up top at some point to let them know.

Simon was sliding his arms into the sleeves of his shirt, moving carefully to avoid hurting himself. He had his head toward River; his sister was telling him something, and judging from the way his eyes kept shifting to Kaylee, it involved her.

Simon returned to the window and put his hand up against it. He spoke slowly, as if Kaylee could read his lips, but he said a lot and she couldn’t make out the words. She put her hand up against his and looked into his eyes. She saw worry there - Simon was fretting over her. Even all bruised and hurt, he was more worried about her than himself.

“I’m gonna be back,” she whispered “I’ll be real careful, stay out’a the way if it’s not all done. And when Mal and Inara get the best a’that sĭ guĭ, I’ll unlock the hatch and come back `n help you.”

She smiled at him, pressing her palm harder into the glass as if the warmth of her hand would pass through and reach him, then she turned and headed up toward the bridge.

* * *

Inara tried to ignore the gun pointed at her, focusing on Ray’s eyes instead. “You don’t want to do this – ”

“Don’t you talk like you know me!” he snapped at her. “And don’t be trying none of your fancy moves. I will shoot you.”

“No you won’t,” she said calmly, but her right hand brushed against her robe, feeling the weight of the pistol in her pocket. She gripped her hand lightly around it, grateful that she had the gun as a backup. This Ray was a different man than one she’d talked to in her shuttle. His desperation was making him deaf to reason, blind to the reality of the situation.

“You don’t need to shoot me,” she continued. “I want to help you.”

“You can help me by gettin’ him to fly us out’a here!”

Mal started to speak, but Inara interrupted in a calmer voice than he would have used. “That’s not possible. That’s a battleship. It’s made to chase down little ships like this one. It can destroy or disable us easily. But you can trust me – I’ll help you talk to them. I’m sure they can be made to see reason.”

Inara was grateful that, for once, Mal kept his opinion of the Alliance to himself. Ray glanced at the ship outside the window, as if considering his options, but his face was set with resolve, and he shook his head.

“No,” he muttered. “They don’t care a damn for people like me. I seen how them security bastards treat folks. They’d just as soon shoot me down as listen to a word I got to say.”

While he was looking away, Inara felt the shape of the gun through the thin fabric of her robe. She shifted it so the butt was in her palm, and her finger brushed over the trigger guard. She could probably manage to disable Ray, to shoot him in the arm or shoulder…

But she didn’t want to do it. I’m a Companion, she thought. I comfort people; I find the joy in them and bring it out. It is not my place to cause pain. And yet, she’d been doing little else lately. That was life in the Black, that was the life she’d chosen to explore. It could bring out the beast in a man, and it had found the worst in her, too…

Inara noticed that Ray was watching her again, staring at her right hand, and he must realize that she had a weapon. She let go of it, holding out her hands and opening her mouth to explain, but then the ship rocked sideways and there was a metallic shriek from the starboard side of her.

Cào wŏ!” Mal swore. “They shot at us!” He bent over the console checking the displays, then he muttered. “Everything’s on line – that was just a warning. But I gotta shut her down, now!”

Inara had turned her head toward Mal and the ship outside the window, but she saw Ray moving and looked back. He was coming toward her and there was no mistaking the intent in his eyes. She reacted as quickly as she could, backing away from him and trying to push his gunhand away, but Ray was expecting it, and he deflected her hands.

Mal was out of the pilot’s seat and about to leap on Ray, but suddenly he froze, staring. Inara felt something cold and hard press into the soft spot underneath her chin. Ray was holding the barrel of his gun against her. She looked him in the eye, trying to find compassion. She saw nothing but crazed determination.

“Captain,” he said, and his voice was cool and flat. “Do we have an understanding?”

* * *

Simon watched Kaylee go into the cargo bay and start up the stairs.

“Did you think she understood?” he asked without turning around.

“She went,” River replied, her voice barely above a whisper. “That’s all that matters.”

Kaylee disappeared from his view, and Simon turned to face his sister. “And you’re sure she’s needed up there?”

River nodded. Her eyes were focused down into the corner of the room, and she didn’t look up as she shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “Made a mistake. Didn’t see both sides.”

“Of what?”

She looked up at him. “Good end, bad means.”

* * *

Inara’s head tilted back as the gun pushed harder into her flesh.

“That ain’t needed, Ray,” Mal said. “They got us. I can’t change that.”

Ray ignored him for the moment. His hard eyes bored into Inara’s. “Take that gun out,” he ordered her in a quiet voice. “Move real slow, and drop it.” Inara did as he said, and he used his foot to slide it toward the back of the bridge, out of Mal’s reach.

“Captain,” he continued in a louder voice. “You’re gonna find a way out or the pretty lady here loses her head.”

“Ray – ” Inara started, but he didn’t let her talk. He had his left hand on her shoulder, and he grabbed hold and pushed her back, making her stumble and come up hard against the lockers, the gun still pressing painfully under her chin. When he had her securely pinned against the wall, he turned to look at Mal.

“I’ll kill her,” Ray said in a certain voice. “Don’t you doubt it.”

There were a few small clicks as he cocked the gun. The barrel was pushing so hard that the back of Inara’s head pressed painfully against the metal locker behind her. She tried not to think about it, or to imagine what it would feel like to have a bullet pass up through the center of her mouth, tear into her sinuses and settle in frontal lobe of her brain.

That was definitely the wrong thought to have. Inara felt her legs weaken; she couldn’t move her head at all, couldn’t see Mal’s face, but she heard him take a step back and sit down at the helm. Then she felt a slight flutter in her stomach as the ship went into motion.

* * *

Stolen Skuld shuttle – if you do not shut your engines down immediately, we will fire weapons to disable the transport and you will be held accountable for the cost of repair.

“That’s just insulting,” Wash whined. “They’d shoot us and then make us pay for it?” But he did as they said, setting about shutting the shuttle down.

He fired her right back up when exhaust from Serenity’s engines blew them toward the rings again.

“What is he doin’ now?” Wash heard Bucky ask. He couldn’t answer; he was too busy trying to right the shuttle. He had them steady again just in time to catch a glimpse of Serenity’s tail as she disappeared through a gap in the rings, a gap too narrow for the Alliance ship to follow.

Stolen shuttle – you will shut down and stay where you are until we return.

“Um – okay,” Wash muttered. There wasn’t else much to be done. He finally shut the shuttle down fully, leaving just the life support on. The four of them sat in the darkness and watched the cruiser dive around the outer edge of the rings in pursuit of Serenity.

* * *

Inara swallowed hard, fighting down panic. She studied Ray, unable to see anything else. As soon as the ship began to move, he let out a breath and a bit of tension left his neck and shoulders. He had gotten his way, and some of the fight was leaving him. Probably, he was beginning to feel shock at what he was doing. He met her eyes again, and for the first time, Inara felt like he was really seeing her.

“How long can you keep this up?” she asked, trying to speak clearly, even though she could hardly move her jaw.

“Shut up,” Ray said. But his voice lacked the ferocity it’d had before. Inara struggled to push her fear aside, to focus on reading him. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to salvage this.

“You need to find a way to work with us,” she continued. “It’s the only way. You know by now that none of us are helpless, including me. As soon as you let your guard down – ”

“Maybe I ought’a finish you off right now,” he said, but his shaky voice belied the threat of his words, and Inara felt a twinkling of hope.

“You could kill me, but it won’t do you any good.”

“Inara, you’re not helpin’ the situation,” Mal said over his shoulder.

“I don’t think he’s a murderer,” Inara replied, still looking Ray directly in the eye. He was staring back, and she could tell that he was seeing the pain in her face and hearing the tension in her voice. He’s human, Inara reminded herself. Treat him that way, encourage it. “He’s desperate and frightened,” she continued, ostensibly speaking to Mal, “but he’s not a cold-blooded killer.”

“You don’t know anything,” Ray said. “I’ve killed before. I’ve killed when I needed to.” But the gun wasn’t pressing as hard as it had been, and the hand clutching her shoulder was weakening.

“Not this time,” she said as gently as she could. “There’s another way.”

His voice lowered so only she could hear him. “Lady, I don’t want to hurt you.” The gun backed off a little more, so it was touching her but not pressing. She was getting through to him.

“I know. You’re better than this,” she told him. “I know you are.”

He shook his head. The gun pressed again and his words barely squeezed past his clenched teeth. “I told you - you don’t know anything about me.”

“I see more than you think. I know you’re not cruel, that you didn’t mean for all this to happen. I’ll tell the Alliance that you took no part in the violence.” She was able to move her head a little, and she saw Mal turn around, his mouth open to object, but she went on before he could speak. “I’m a Registered Companion, what I say has some weight. I’ll do all I can for you.”

The gun backed off again, so that it was barely touching her. Carefully, Inara raised her right hand, letting it slide up his forearm so he’d know what she was doing. No surprises now. Please, no surprises.

“It’s all right, Ray. We’ll work together. We’ll get through this. All of us.”

His free hand moved from her shoulder to her throat as her fingers reached the wrist of his gunhand. “Stop it,” he whispered. “Don’t make me hurt you.”

“It’s up to you whether you hurt me or not,” she said. “You don’t have to. You can choose.”

Gently, she started pushing the gun away. For a second he let her, and she thought she had him. But then his eyes lit with determination and regret and he tightened his hold on her neck.

“No,” he said, “there ain’t no choice for me anymore.”

Inara choked as her windpipe was squeezed closed, and he easily twisted his gunhand free of her grip. She couldn’t move to avoid the blow she saw coming – he raised his right hand, ready to bring the gun down on her temple.

Before the blow could land, there was a gunshot from Inara’s left.

* * *

Shepherd Book didn’t move when the bound man finally raised his head and focused his eyes.

“You’re gonna regret this,” Will mumbled, and his face broke into a feeble grin. “You have no idea who I am.”

“I can see enough for my needs,” Book replied coldly.

The sound of a distant gunshot interrupted the man’s reply. Book sat up straight and looked toward the hatch, tempted to go see what had happened.

“I hope it’s that gorram bitch,” Will muttered. “I hope she got a bullet right in her pretty face.”

Book didn’t reply. He stayed where he was, watching the bound gunhand until the man passed out again.

* * *

Inara coughed, dragging air through her bruised throat. She turned toward the back of the bridge to see Kaylee standing in the hatch, holding the gun that Inara had dropped. Kaylee didn’t look at Inara; she was stared at the deck. Inara looked down too – Ray had crumpled in a heap, and he wasn’t moving.

A voice startled her. “Were you bein’ factual?” Mal asked, “about him bein’ the last one?”

Inara was still gasping and couldn’t speak, but she looked to him and nodded. Mal quickly turned back to the controls, and brought the ship to a hard stop.

Inara looked down at Ray again, then crouched beside him. The bullet had entered the side of his rib cage, which had been exposed when he raised his arm to strike her. She felt his neck – there was no pulse. Blood pooled on the deck at his side.

Distantly, she heard Mal speaking into the comm: “This is Captain Harbatkin … We were hijacked, I had no control over my ship till now. But the last of `em is down. We won’t resist…”

Kaylee voice, stern but forced, broke through Inara’s shock. “He was chokin’ you,” she said.“He was gonna hit you.” Inara looked up; the mechanic was gripping the edge of the hatch, her face pale and the gun hanging from her shaking hand. “He was gonna hurt you bad,” Kaylee continued. “He was just like the other one.”

Mèi mei…” Inara started, but she broke into another fit of rough coughs.

“Is he…?” Kaylee’s voice pinched out before she could finish the question. Inara couldn’t answer, but she didn’t need to. Kaylee knew. The girl slid down the wall awkwardly, landing heavily on the deck just outside the bridge, and she turned her face away from Ray.

“He was a bad man,” she said quietly. “I had to…”

“Oh gods!” Inara said, realizing that Kaylee might be going to shock. She stood and stepped through the hatch, then crouched in front of the girl. Kaylee let Inara take the gun out of her hand, but she resisted Inara’s attempt to hold her.

“Not now,” Kaylee said, not looking at Inara. “Just leave me alone a sec. I gotta think `bout this. I just gotta think…”

* * *

Mal had everyone gathered in the cargo bay as the Alliance finished docking. Everyone except River, who had given him a brief but tight hug as soon as she saw him coming down from the bridge. She was somewhere in the upper levels of the ship now; there hadn’t been time to ask where she meant to hide. Wherever it was, it wasn’t like to be good enough. Mal had to prevent the Alliance from searching the ship. Everything else could wait. Just give them what they needed and stop them from searching…

Mal felt a nearly overwhelming wave of exhaustion as he looked around at his crew. They didn’t look much better than he felt. Simon was bruised and stood slightly hunched to one side, favoring his sore torso. Book was holding a compress to the back of his head, his wrists chafed and red. Inara had a bruise high on her cheek and red marks on her throat, and stood wavering on her feet. Kaylee…

Mal couldn’t look at the mechanic. He was afraid of the change he’d see in her eyes. She’d had to shoot someone. Kill someone. His little Kaylee –

A hollow boom echoed in the bay as the docking equipment locked down. Mal turned forward, eyes scanning the bound man and woman lying next to the dead man on the deck. One problem solved, he thought.

When the airlock door started to swing open, a dull voice in his mind added: But the fun never ends… * * *

Translations:

bào fó jiăo: clasp Buddha's feet; make a hasty last-minute effort mĕi zhōng bù zú: (idiom) a small problem in what is otherwise perfect āi yā: damn mèi mei: little sister sĭ guĭ: bastard cào wŏ: f**k me

* * *

On to Chapter 19.

COMMENTS

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 6:46 AM

MAL4PREZ


Hey all – I’ve been following the thread about fic comments, (Missing reviews...) and feel I may have been remiss in expressing my love and appreciation for your feedback. I could probably do better as far as responding to your thoughtful comments, sorry about that! I hope you know that I read and re-read them, the good and the bad!

I may do the same thing I did with the Fish Job, and kick in with some follow-up commentary at the end. I just hate to give stuff away in the midst of the story, as I’m likely to do if I start discussing any details now!

But… I must ask about the discomfort with Inara in the past chapter. I’m very interested! What’s the discomfort? It is the characterization or situation in the story? I can see either - I am definitely stretching her character, and I will stretch it more in the future. (As I am with others – Kaylee in this chapter, for example, which I know is going to raise some hackles!) My theory is that Joss would have changed these people, and in trying to be Joss-like, I have to make guesses as to how they would have changed. Not everyone’s going to agree with me. Don’t hesitate to speak up if you disagree – these are fascinating characters, and there are countless ways to interpret them. None of us are right or wrong.

Anyway, thank you for being supportive and so polite with your criticisms! And thanks for waiting – this chapter was very delicate; it needed many thoughts and tweaks and back and forths with my fabulous betas.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 7:12 AM

LEIASKY


Another excellent chapter. I confess to fearing that Kaylee was going to get shot after she left the infirmary, especially after River's cryptic comment to Simon!

Nice and tension-filled and now the Alliance is going to board them? With Simon standing right there? And who is comforting Kaylee? They must have realized she was in shock?

>He needed someone to take care of him like he deserved.

And here I was hoping she'd get her chance once they were free, and now she's going to be the one needing the comfort. Draw out the angst, why don't you! :)

Post again soon!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 7:20 AM

MANICGIRAFFE


While I agree with Leiasky that I thought Kaylee was going to get her chance with Simon, I can't help but remember the comment you made regarding the Simon/Jayne/Kaylee tirangle way back in the beginning. I have a feeling you won't make it that easy on them.

As for Inara (sorry, I had my mother in law in town and appear to have missed the furor), I would actually say that you didn't go far enough. These people attacked and locked up River and Simon (even when he was the only one who could fix up their own patient), beat Mal senseless several times, beat Book, were effectively holding Book and Kaylee hostage against Mal's good behavior, and attempted to rape her in her own home. I'm was expecting (hoping?) she'd just shoot them all.

OTOH, I'm not as worried about Kaylee. As the movie showed, she'll kill to protect her family with no regrets (OK, so she shot a Reaver rather than a normal human, but still). She'll most likely have a bit of PTSD, but help from Simon and Inara should take care of that well enough, I think.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 8:22 AM

TAYEATRA


The site doesn't seem to want me to review at the moment so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this goes through.

I thoroughly approve of the direction you've taken Inara's character. I feel she comes accross as a mentally strong woman and you added nice touches with the fear in her thoughts.

Good choice of what to do with Kaylee's character. I have to admit I saw it coming as soon as River had her cryptic line, but it was still well written.

I'm looking forward to the next chapter. Thanks!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 11:04 AM

LFABRY


very sweet out of the oven and into the Alliance's pan sequence. Don't worry about getting things just right, as it is impossible. Just remember that when you're playing with the toys, you can do whatever you want with 'em.

My best advice to you is: stop being all take and no give! You owe us fans some comments on our fics. And may I suggest: me first! me first!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 11:14 AM

TAMSIBLING


Gotta say, I've been jumping in and out of this one, but I'm still loving it!

Kaylee, getting all distracted at seeing Simon's bare chest - well, the girl is focused and I was really hoping she'd get to take care of him soon too. It is only fair you know?

And I think her shooting Ray was perfectly in character. And Inara, she's got some b*** that's be realistic, but I think we always knew that.

Now if they could just get away from the pesky alliance ...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 11:18 AM

MAL4PREZ


LFabry - Good point! Can I admit that I'm so obsessed with writing that I find it near impossible to focus on anyone else's 'verse? I've tried, but I can't settle in to another story enough to do it justice.

I hope to remedy that and do much catching up when this is done!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 1:47 PM

AMDOBELL


Wow, I just love this story and this part was awesome! Loved that our Big Damn Heroes are finally free of the tyranny of Ray and his demented gang but now the Big Bad Alliance have to show up and another whole level of danger looms over them. This is so shiny I don't have enough words, thank you so much for a great tale now I am chomping at the bit waiting for the next part! Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 2:08 PM

CAPERCAILLIE


Hi Mal4prez,

Here I sit....or rather, shiver and flop senselessly....in my chair.

That was another nail-biter. I wish I could be more erudite and offer some helpful critique but I just love this series. I am agog at how carefully you set up your story and I feel so grateful that you share your hard work with all of us.

I know I have mentioned it before - I loved the epi-blog you wrote for the Fish Job. I'm crossing my fingers for the same treatment for Easy Tickets.

I do have one comment. Right now we don't know what turned Inara off when she was "on the job". I think you should keep it that way - it fits in with Joss' comment that he can make people scarier than anything in latex and the unknown is always worse than the known.

Thank you again for this installment!

Caper

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 11:23 AM

NOSADSEVEN


Oooh, fun chapter! I like how you balanced everyone's perspectives - the quick cuts to keep up with the action were totally appropriate, and well suited to set the tone.

Zoe, Jayne, and Wash cracked me up. I love how you had Mal, Inara, Kaylee, and Ray all in different frames of mind: Inara thinking she can talk him down, Ray beyond reason, Kaylee unforgiving, and Mal just trying to keep his ship from getting blown out of the sky. And poor River's guilt at the bad means to (relatively) good ends. It's actually such a tragic resolution of that conflict... Kaylee finally getting a little relief, and then things twisting in such an emotionally difficult way (for everyone). No fluff here! I'm looking forward to the rest of Mal's 'never ending fun', and finding out just who exactly Will is...his core background and the perfect timing of the Alliance ship leave me anxious.

---
As for the Inara-Ginger thing... I have no criticism for how it was written - I had no problem as accepting it as in character (especially under the circumstances). I just had an emotional recoil from the reality of Inara wielding her Saffron-esque Companion weaponry so calculatingly. If you hadn't shown so much of her struggle to maintain her facade, it probably would have dehumanized her to me. I think it's just an aspect of the character I'm as uncomfortable with as Mal is - as demonstrated by his fears re: Inara in the Fish Job. I don't think her playing Ginger makes her that cruel person from Mal's delusions, but I do think that aspect of her is where Mal draws his insecurity with her from.

Thursday, July 13, 2006 6:13 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oh...this was masterful, mal4prez! Simply masterful!

I definitely think you did the right thing here by having Kaylee shoot Ray. After situations like the fight at Niska's complex and Jubal Early's invasion of Serenity, Kaylee would have needed a moment where she stood up and let forth the dogs of war on an opponent in defence of her ship, her friends and her own life. Yeah...she's gonna need a lot of help from the entire crew, especially Mal and Zoe due to their experience in the Unification War.

On the Inara matter....really think you are diving into waters that Joss meant to explore but couldn't. Inara is highly trained in diplomacy and persuasion, with a background in all manner of subjects; she is gonna have the skills to play Mental Keep Away with people if she so chooses. Here, she uses it to distract Ginger long enough for Kaylee to Tazer her...but like with Mal's dreams and insecurities, she could just start doing it to avoid problems she doesn't wanna face. Certainly makes one think on Inara's character and how we really have little to go on canonically;S

Still...can't wait for part 19 and the fun Mal & co. are gonna have sweet-talking the Alliance:D

BEB

Friday, July 14, 2006 8:12 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


“Of course not. He was sloppy and overconfident. He never even touched me.”
-I can see this line being said with the same tone as "You don't play a player" in 'Our Mrs. Reynolds'.

I had almost forgotten that I was still upset at you for not explaining what happened to Inara in Peter's room, but I suppose you will explain it when you feel like it.

“That’s just insulting,” Wash whined. “They’d shoot us and then make us pay for it?”
-HAHAHAHAHA Another good one.

:-O @ Kaylee shooting/killing Ray.


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