CHECK MATE: En prise. (12/22)
Wednesday, June 2, 2004

The job on Xenos doesn't go smooth. And Mal, Jayne and Zoe aren't the only ones in danger ... This one's a bit gruesome and depressing. Sorry!


Anything good about this is Joss'. The rest is mine.

QUICK RECAP: River was triggered but failed to assassinate peacemaker Noe. Jakey Stone retrieved the gun she was using (Mal's) from the scene. Meanwhile Monty persuaded Inara that the Browncoat cause would be served by her injecting Wash with a serum that would restore his true personality – that of a hero. Monty failed to tell her that Wash was an Alliance pilot during the war not an Independent one. Inara's attempt to use the serum was interrupted by Jayne who threw her off Serenity but concealed the fact from Mal. Inara has fled to the safety of Monty's base on Three Hills. Meanwhile Serenity and her crew are on Xenos carrying out a job for Badger, which they couldn't turn down because Badger paid Mal's bail after a 'misunderstanding' in a bar.

* * * * *

CHECK MATE: En prise.

* * * * *

“Who'd've thought it, Sir?” Zoe asks as Jayne hangs over the side of the mule retching loudly. “Jayne having such a delicate stomach?”

“'S gorram barbaric!” Jayne protests, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Leaving a man to rot like that.”

Mal gives a little snort of astonishment. “Thought you was all for rough justice, Jayne?”

Jayne shifts in his seat and avoids the Captain's eye. “Yeah. But when a man's had his punishment, things should move on. Forgive and forget. He shou'n't be hung out to dry.” He's thinking back to Ariel and the extra hold it's given Mal over him ever since.

And the Captain knows it. “Hope you ain't sayin' I've been hangin' you...”

“I ain't sayin' nothin',” Jayne replies hastily. Best not let Zoe in on their nasty little secret. “I'm jus' sayin'...”

Mal gives him the same uncomprehending stare he often uses on River. “Well, I'm glad you've made that clear.” Then he turns to Zoe. “An' how're you doin'? Dead bodies never made you sick before but now you're...” He hesitates. Almost like it's indelicate of him to mention Zoe's pregnancy. “You know, I'm surprised that husband of yours agreed to let you come on this job.”

Zoe looks at him calmly. “We came to an understandin', Sir.”

The corner of Mal's mouth lifts in amusement. “I bet ya did! I do believe you have that man completely under your thumb.”

Zoe tosses her hair over her shoulder and she straightens her leather waistcoat. “It's not like that, Sir. Marriage is a partnership, not a chain of command.”

“Which is exactly why it wou'n't suit me. Can you imagine me always worryin' about keepin' a woman sweet?”

Zoe doesn't even blink. “And how is Inara after her last job, Sir? Must have been real tired when she got back, cos I ain't seen hide nor hair of her. A whole week companioning! Must take it out of you.”

Mal grits his teeth. “I ain't seen her either. Think she's avoidin' me.”

“What did you say this time, Sir?”

“Nothin'!” he exclaims indignantly. “I said nothin'. Why does everyone always assume it's my fault?”

“'S not fair,” Jayne sympathizes, bitterly regretting having tried to save Mal's feelings by not telling him what Inara did and how he threw her off the ship. The waiting for Mal to find out is excruciating. He looks back at the twisting corpse and swallows hard.

* * * * *

Kaylee and River are in River's bunk dressing each other's hair. At the moment Kaylee is braiding River's into lots of small plaits and finishing them off with different coloured beads. River wears a distant expression as if trying to hear faraway music.

“River,” Kaylee begins hesitantly. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies,” her friend replies in a sing-song voice.

“Sorry. Shou'n't have asked. Oughta guan wo ziji de shi,” Kaylee says quickly.

“You want to know.” River's voice has a kindly tone. “What is was like. Kissing him.”

Kaylee blushes and nods.

River pauses as if trying to remember every tiny detail. “Nice,” she says at last. “The Captain tastes nice. Bitter and sweet.” The she turns wide, almost fearful eyes on Kaylee. “But sharp teeth, Kaylee. And so hungry. Enough to devour us both.”

“And do you... you know... like him? Like him like that?”

“Like him? Yes. Love him. Not *in love* though. My brother. Seen the same things. Want to help him.” Kaylee's eyes are wide and uncomprehending but she's hanging onto River's every word. The girl suddenly laughs and pokes Kaylee with a forefinger. “You want to kiss him too!” she teases.

“Me?! Lord, no!!” Kaylee squeals shaking her head. Then under River's scrutiny concedes “Well, OK. Maybe a little. But he's the Cap'n....”

“River. Time for your meds.” From the doorway Simon's voice is hard. The light in his eyes is cold. How long has he been in the hall way? Has he overheard their conversation? Kaylee squirms with embarassment. Would like to tell the Doctor she mostly thinks of kissing him these days. But he's so tight and brittle as he takes River's hand anything she might say evaporates on her tongue.

* * * *

This is the first time that Jakey Stone has ever been off-world and, truth to tell, he's disappointed. Always thought Brownfields was a bit of a crappy backwater and envied the rich and glamourous lifestyles folk lived on other planets. Now he knows lifestyles like that are reserved for people living on Core planets. Most of the 'verse is as badly terraformed and poorly run as his own world. An' Xenos is worse still. Never did see such barren land, such underfed animals. Not exactly a holiday destination.

But then again, Jakey ain't here on holiday. Thank the Lord. He's got one little job to do. Then he gets a bit fat paycheck from Parkin. Big enough to take a vacation somewhere rich and fanciful if he chooses.

He runs a blue-gloved hand over the side pocket of his pants. Still there. Well, strictly speaking, back there again. He slips a hand inside the pocket and along the barrel of Malcolm Reynolds' pistol. Wonders if its owner misses it, if he even realizes it's gone. One thing he sure don't know, Jakey tells himself with a grin, is that he – Malcolm Reynolds – is about to use it to assassinate Consul Noe.

Jakey looks up and across the garrison parade ground where Alliance soldiers are rehearsing for the official ceremony. The podium from which Noe will make his speech is easy to see, draped as it is with the Alliance flag. Jakey points to it with a forefinger, using the knuckles as sights. An easy shot. A kid could do it.

* * * * *

Inara is astonished – and more than a little appalled – at the way her control is crumbling. There was a time when even her weakness for Mal was easy to conceal. Now her heart is beating so hard she can hear it thumping in her ears and her palms feel damp. Sweaty even. All those years of training. All those years as a Registered Companion. Has it really come to this?

A month ago she would have found it easy to compel the two men standing before her to do her bidding. Now she has to content herself with waiting patiently until they allow her into Monty's tent. They're openly appraising her, casting lascivious eyes up and down her body as if she might actually be available to them! The gall of it would be amusing if it weren't so upsetting.

Finally there's a grunted order from behind the thick canvas walls and they stand aside, releasing wafts of body odour so thick they seem to coat the inside of her nostrils and cling to her tongue. One of them lays a meaty hand on her back and gives her a little shove through the doorway.

Inside it's cool and dark. The air smells damp and musty. Monty strides over to her and wraps her in a bearhug. She's so relieved, she's close to tears.

“Inara! At long last. You all right, girl? Terrible business this. Sit down. You look exhausted. Let me get you a drink. Got some beer round here somewhere ... but I could do with somethin' stronger. You take a whisky with me?”

Inara nods and takes the glass he hands her. The golden liquid trickles down her throat like smoke and fire. She sighs. “Thank you, Monty. It's very... very...” But something's wrong. She blinks and screws up her eyes as the room starts to sway. There's an odd sensation on her lips. “Oh you stupid....” she scolds herself before falling forwards out of the chair and onto the earthen floor.

Monty drains his glass and spits onto the ground beside her. “Bridget!” he shouts. But there's no need because Saffron is already emerging from behind the screen where she has been hiding waiting for this moment.

“Practically snared herself, stupid piece of crap!” she sneers as she regards the prone body, bending down to check Inara really is unconscious.

“Now, Bridget,” Monty warns. “Don't let yer feelin's run away with you. You got smarts. Use 'em. We need to know how much the mercenary knows. How much he may have told Mal. Or any of 'em. She's no good to us dead.”

Saffron looks up at him and flutters her eyelids. “It's OK, sweetheart. It's not like I'm new to this. I know what I'm doing.”

* * * * *

The parade ground spotlights make Lian Noe's platinum hair shine like a beacon. If Jakey Stone were a religious man, he'd think God were showing him His divine approval. As it is, he's just happy to have an illuminated target. Should make it even easier to get a clean shot.

Jakey adjusts his position and gets more comfortable. He's lying on a mossy hillock at the edge of a small wood, in which he will hide after the shooting. And where he will leave Reynolds' gun. Somewhere it can be easily found.

A round of applause and the Consul has begun his speech which means the time has come. Resting on his elbows, Jakey takes aim. Gorramit but these blue gloves are distracting! Concentrate man. Forget the gloves. You have to wear them to preserve Reynolds' fingerprints on the weapon and to prevent leaving any of your own. Take aim. Squeeze the trigger slowly. Slowly now ....

Noe has staggered backwards, a spray of red has arched against the whitewashed walls and soldiers have started running before Jakey hears the crack of the shot or the screams of the crowd.

Next thing he knows there's cold metal pressing into the base of his skull and he's dead before he can hear the second shot.

Reynolds gun is carefully removed from his hand and tossed into the woods. Then Jakey is sealed inside a black body bag and dragged the quarter of a mile to where the short-range shuttle is parked out of sight.

* * * * *

Inara stirs as she regains consciousness. It feels as if she has been asleep for days. She tries to stretch and finds her hands are taped to the armrests of her chair. An attempt to stand confirms the fear that her legs are similarly restrained. As she opens her eyes a familiar halo of red hair comes into focus.

“Hello, sleepyhead,” Saffron coos, tilting her head from side to side in that cute-little-girl way of hers and smiling her sharp-toothed little smile. “Long time no see.”

Inara glares at her but doesn't reply.

Saffron pulls up a chair next to her. “Well, now, isn't this nice. You and me together again. Jus' like old times.”

“Save it,” Inara snaps. “What do you want with me, you jian huo?”

Saffron leaps up again and slams her hands down over Inara's wrists. She leans in towards her, blue eyes dark with anger and looking like she might spit in her eye. Then she suddenly smiles again and plants a long kiss on the Companion's lips.

“Oh don't fret, hon,” she says, performing a triumphant little pirouette as she dances away. “No drugs this time. I need you awake for this.”

The distancing technique has many layers. The first is to find your core. Focus all your thoughts on the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Feel the breath. Be it.

Inara inhales deeply and tries to concentrate. How did she get from Monty's office to this place? And what is Saffron doing here? She looks around. Canvas walls, that same damp, musty smell. This is Monty's headquarters. So why is she a prisoner? Did Saffron drug Monty too?

Saffron is watching her carefully. Zhen mei nai xing de Fo zu! Inara remembers the girl is Academy trained and that she too can read people's thoughts. Distance. Breathe. Be nothing but your essence.

“OK, boys. Time to get this show on the road,” Saffron declares as if to an audience. Inara looks over her shoulder into the leering faces of Monty's guards.

* * * * *

The grain store is the settlement's largest building and stands apart from the others in a parched field. It's imposing, but old and in a poor state of repair. Mal signals to Jayne to go check it out. The mercenary draws a gun and approaches. He leans his shoulder against the door with more force than is needed because it's unlocked and gives way easily, making Jayne stumble forward a few steps. With a quick glance back at the others, he disappears inside. A few minutes later he re-emerges and gives Mal the thumbs up.

Zoe keeps watch whilst Mal and Jayne unload the mule and lug the crates into the store. They're as heavy as Jayne remembers and heavier than Mal had been expecting.

The store is poorly stocked. Mal thinks back to his Momma's ranch on Shadow. At this time of year they always aimed to have the barns crammed to the ceiling in preparation for the winter. This one is almost empty. In one corner there's a small mound of grain that the mould is already attacking. Apart from that, nothing. For once working for Badger doesn't seem like an entirely shameful thing. These folk sure need the food supplements they've brought, even if they ain't of the best quality.

The sound of voices from outside grows steadily louder until the door opens again and a dozen or so men enter. They're thin, but wiry, muscles hardened from long toil and a hard life.

Three men detach themselves from the group and walk forward. Brothers by the look of them. The oldest looks from Mal to Jayne and back again. “You Malcolm Reynolds?”

“I am. You Angus Powell?”

He is answered with a firm handshake and a slap on the arm. “Glad to see you, friend. You're mos' welcome. As you can see ...” he gestures for them to look around them “.. it's been a bad year for farmin'. You ha'n'ta come an' I'm thinkin' winter woulda been a good season the gravediggers.” He turns to one of his brothers and holds out a hand into which is dropped a jangling canvas bag. “Here's your money, friend. Take it with our thanks.”

Mal weighs the bag in his hand. Should he count out the coin? Wou'n't be the first time they've been cheated. Then again, these folk have a direct, honest way of speaking he warms to. Counting the money'd look gorram rude.

Mal decides a bit of mutual mistrust might be more acceptable. “The goods are over there, ready for inspection,” he says pointing to the crates.

Powell grunts. “Don't normally bother with that. Prefer to rely on folks' word.”

“No wonder you're livin' like this then!” Jayne exclaims before he can stop himself. Mal glares at him to shut up but the mercenary has a point to make. Feels the need to educate these sorry sha guas in the ways of the 'verse. “You can't be trustin' every hun dan comes your way...”

Powell shakes him head. “It's just our way, friend. We like to give folk the benefit of the doubt.”

Jayne rolls his eyes impatiently and clicks his tongue in disbelief. “Then every pirate in the gorram galaxy is gonna take advantage...”

“Jayne.” Mal's voice is quiet but it has that tone which promises a reckoning if not heeded.

Zoe ain't happy. She has a bad feeling about this place that makes her want to take to her heels. She tries to communicate the desirability of an early departure to Mal by flicking her eyes towards the door but Powell is making his way over to the crates. He looks at Mal. “Guess I should respect your ways too...” he says, forcing the crate open with a small length of iron bar he's been carrying in a pocket. He kicks the lid up, revealing a layer of straw packing.

Clearly fascinated by the novelty of this way of doing business the other villagers gather round the crates. Some help Powell remove the straw. Then someone gasps and someone else swears. The circle unpeels and Powell demands “What in the ruttin' hell is this?”

Zoe gives Mal a searching look but he shrugs and shakes his head. “Is there a problem?”

“A problem? You tryin' to be funny?” And the man invites him to look into the crate with a wave of a calloused hand.

“Ta ma de,” Mal breathes. “Gorram Badger, that qing wa cao de liu mang!” Because the crates are filled not with food supplements but rifles.

Jayne might consider this a trade-up in terms of what the villagers were expecting but they clearly do not. The open, friendly expressions they had been wearing have been replaced with grim scowls. Eyesbrows knit and jaw muscles twitch.

Mal, Jayne and Zoe find themselves seized by the arms and Powell lifts a rifle from the crate. He points it at Mal and says slowly “I don't know what your game is, you ruttin' yi dui rou ... Or maybe I do. You Alliance? Rebels? You tryin' to set us up? Last village caught with firearms was burnt to the ground for plottin' rebellion. Every man, woman and child roasted to death. Well, that ain't gonna happen here. Fraser!”

The younger of the three brothers already knows what is being asked of him. He runs across the barn and comes back holding a length of rope.

“Hold him!” Powell commands and the hands gripping Mal's arms tighten. Jayne struggles against his captors but more hands seize him and his efforts are in vain. Zoe stands tall and still, resisting attempts to move her aside but not fighting.

“Let us go, you crazy sonofabitch,” Jayne snarls, twisting and wrenching against the restraining hands. “He'da meant to kill us Mal, he'da shot us by now.”

Angus Powell says nothing. Simply turns the rifle round and brings the butt down hard into the side of Jayne's head, knocking the mercenary out cold. Then he watches as Fraser fashions the rope into a noose. The younger man hands it to his brother who is breathing hard with suppressed anger. “You gotta God, I suggest you start prayin' to Him,” he tells Mal as he forces the loop over his head and gives it a little yank to tighten it round his neck.

The rough fibres irritate Mal's skin. “Look, friend, can't we be reasonable about this? You're right – we have been set up. You and us both. There's no need for killin'....”

“An' I say there is,” Powell spits with an aggressive thrust of his face into Mal's.

“My crew ain't a part of this...” Mal begins, his instinct to protect his people for the moment distracting him from the danger to his own life. “Let them...”

Powell silences him with a punch to the mouth. Mal reels backwards but his captors stop him from falling. He tastes blood in his mouth and suddenly the situation loses its dream-like quality and becomes all too real.

“Out here on the Rim, reputation's everythin',” Powell tells him. “Your man there spoke the truth. There's many a thievin' wang ba dan'd take advantage of us if they thought they could get away with it. So they have to know they won't. Which means we gotta make examples of you. All of you. Use you as a warnin' to others. String him up!”

Mal finds himself being half-pushed, half-dragged into the centre of the barn where a ladder leads up to an overhead beam. Holding one end of the rope in his hand, Fraser starts to mount the ladder.

“No!” Mal hardly recognizes his own voice. “You have to let her ...” he indicates Zoe with a tilt of the head, “You have to let her go. She's preg... She's having a baby.” And as his eyes meet Zoe's he finally accepts it. Welcomes it. Loves her even more for it. “Please, please don't .. I beg ...” He can't finish.

This ain't the first time Zoe's heard Mal plead - plead for her, for himself – but that don't make it any easier to bear. She know it means he's given up hope and that scares her.

A silence descends and everyone falls still as the villagers try to process this information. Even Fraser stops climbing. Then a low murmuring starts, gradually growing louder as the men discuss what's to be done. Angus Powell speaks with one man, then another and another. Finally he announces their decision.

“We ain't monsters. There'll be no murdering of babies here.” He turns to Zoe. “You're free to go.”

The men holding her let go of her arms, but Zoe stands her ground. “Prefer to stay,” she says tersely.

“Go,” Mal whispers. His eyes are beginning to shine with tears. He's afraid like he's never been afraid before. Not even in the war. Then death seemed inevitable and yet avoidable at the same time. There was always hope that the bullet wouldn't find you, that the seeker would miss its target. And sometimes Mal yearned for death, for the oblivion that would wipe out all the pain and loss and guilt. And not just during the war ...

The death that's staring him in the face now is pointless and inescapable. If it weren't so pitiful, it might almost be funny. After all those years of being empty inside, he's at last starting to have things to live for. With all his heart he wants to see Simon find a cure for his sister, wants to see Kaylee find the man of her dreams and be there to grumble about how he's not good enough for her. He aches to see Zoe's child, hold it in his arms, hear it bawl with rage and hunger for life. And Inara ... a kiss. One kiss would be enough.

But none of that can be. Soon the breath is going to be choked out of him by his inexpert hangman's badly knotted noose. He wonders how long it will take to die. And then panic snatches at his throat. Already he is gasping for air, struggling with limbs weak with terror against this unjust fate. His heart shudders in his chest. A salt flush fills his mouth, the muscles at the back of his tongue tighten and he's afraid he will vomit. Then his bowels start to churn and he fears a worse disgrace.

“Go,” he tells Zoe again, tears rolling down his cheeks unchecked now, wetting the crimson of his shirt. “Please.”

She presses her lips together and bites the inside of her mouth as if that pain might blot out the agony ripping at her soul. She holds Mal's gaze and fingers the leather knot around her own neck. Their bond. She will not leave him until death parts them. He should know that.

“She can stay if she must,” Angus Powell tells his supporters. “But we've delayed enough. Justice must be swift, sayeth the Lord. Fraser!”

And Fraser resumes his ascent of the ladder.

* * * * *

The body is an imperfect shell whose destruction should hold no dread for the enlightened soul. The stories nerve endings tell of pleasure and pain are lies, ephemera. In the vastness of eternity the physical world is a mere blink of an eye. Only the spirit endures.

Pleasure. Inara has known little real pleasure and even that was snatched prematurely away. But pain is her familiar.

“You're quite a woman, Inara Serra,” Saffron tells her, not without admiration, as she gently slips a hand under Inara's. “You've been very noble. And for what? Mal? Let's not delude ourselves, darlin' – he doesn't love you cos he doesn't respect you. Never will. Not even after this.... After this he won't even wanna bed you. Face it, you do look pretty horrific.”

Inara could speak if she wanted. Even with all the bruising. But she does not want to.

Saffron lets out an impatient sigh. “Let's try again. What did you tell Jayne about the serum?” She slides her hand sideways, separating Inara's little finger from the rest with a hook of the thumb. She wraps her own fingers tight round it and as she pushes it sharply backwards there's a loud crack. “Who else knows about it?”

* * * * *


Wednesday, June 2, 2004 9:50 AM


Everybody seems to have it in for our heros. I guess that what makes them mighty. Can't imagine this ending well at all, but I'm looking forward to the next chapter!

Wednesday, June 2, 2004 1:33 PM


I want something awful and bloody and downright terminal to happen to Saffron - in *slow* motion, and don't mind if Monty hangs with her. Who's gonna save our heroic Captain and Jayne? Gorrammit, now my eyes are too rutting bleary to read right. Ali D :~)
Doing the impossible makes us mighty

Wednesday, June 2, 2004 9:24 PM


Holy go-se, I hope you don't leave us hanging too long (she punned badly), waiting for the next part!


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