BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 20
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Inara faces the Alliance while the rest of the crew is reunited.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1740    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.

* * *

Inara sat in her cell and waited.

The cell was tastefully furnished and decorated. The upholstery of the soft chair on which she reclined was of above average quality, and the sheets of the small bed pressed against the wall were clean and soft. The overhead light had a warm, slightly yellow glow, not the blueish-white harshness of fluorescence. A sliding door opened to an odorless bathroom which had bottles of liquid soap and lotion of quality brands. Drinking water and, most surprisingly, a bowl of fruit sat on the center of the table in front of her.

It wasn’t a cell for ordinary criminals, but it was a cell nonetheless.

A lock had slid shut behind the guards when they left her there. The furniture was bolted down. The fruit bowl and the water bottle and cups were made of a non-brittle plastic. There were no other objects that could be lifted and used as weapons; even the soap and lotion containers in the bathroom were attached to the counter. Inara was fairly certain that there was at least one camera in the room, but she didn’t bother looking. It would be small and well hidden.

She wondered what the Alliance was hoping to gain by leaving her like this for so long. Her nerves did a lively dance as she thought about it; she wasn’t as blameless as she’d been when she’d left the Core. She’d broken the law multiple times in the past year, and knowingly protected fugitives.

But only a fool would think a Companion would crack under this kind of pressure, would outwardly show guilt. Of course, in the past few days she had proven herself quite capable of careless behavior. Her actions on the Skuld platform showed a shocking lack of control. If that was the reason she was here, it would be the end of her career. She wouldn’t go to jail; the Guild was too protective of its members to allow that. But, according to Guild law, she’d lose her license, as well as the respect that is due a Companion after she retires from taking clients. It would, essentially, ruin her life.

And deservedly so. There was no excuse for what she’d done. It was her own fault, really. A Companion must be focused on her client, open and aware of his or her motivations and state of mind. Inara had had plenty of signs of what Peter was; if she’d paid her usual attention, she would have ended the appointment before it reached the point that it did, or at least directed their interaction differently.

There were reasonable, legal ways of dealing with a man like Peter Skuld. But she’d been preoccupied with her frustration over Mal, too busy fuming to see what was right before her. She’d stubbornly forged on, determined to have a successful encounter with her client. As if it would make some kind of statement about her independence, her worth.

She had been self-absorbed and unprofessional. And perhaps now she was going to pay the price.

* * *

River dreamed while she slept.

The medication Simon had given her had worn off, and voices and images flew through her mind faster than she could understand or control. Some of these things came from strangers, people in the bigger ship that surrounded Serenity, but those were far away, and stayed in the background.

The closer minds, the people whose presence dominated her thoughts, were the few left on the Firefly. They were the ones she knew and trusted, and though their dreams were troubling and sad, they were all still here with her, and that was comforting.

Simon’s color was red, in many shades that jarred and then blended together. It was the background of the place he slept, curled around himself on the divan. The sofa hadn’t been meant for sleeping; the curve of it didn’t fit his body and he couldn’t straighten fully. He kept getting up, crossing the shuttle and stretching out on the bed next to Kaylee. He’d hold her in his arms so that she’d feel safe, but then he’d remember that she could never be safe with him and the thought would make him wake up with a start to find himself still twisted on the divan. He’d stare across the impossible gulf between himself and the mechanic huddled under the covers on the big, soft bed, and after trying and failing to find a more comfortable position, he’d fall back into his dreams.

Kaylee’s color was black. It was the Black outside the windows of the bridge, the darkness she tried to look at instead of letting her eyes follow the man who, again and again, fell to the deck, choked on a few labored, painful breaths, and then lay still.

The Captain had no single color. He was a vessel full of holes, and too many things poured in and drained out to be seen. The fragments falling out the bottom of him were caught in a trough and flowed impossibly like an Escher drawing, rushing downhill to cascade off a cliff above his head, falling into him again. There was nothing to stop the stream, and as it passed over and through him it left cuts and bruises and burns.

Book was nothing but a sound. The hollow clank of a hatch being released repeated in his mind just inside his ears. He was waiting for the sound to come in from the outside, to call him into wakefulness and action.

Of course, Jase’s color was blue with a sparkling band cutting through it, and River tried to stay with him. But strong currents, currents like those that moved through the Captain, drew her away. They carried her around and around in the kaleidoscope of dreams. From time to time, she felt distant sprays of frustration, worry, and boredom from Zoë, Wash, and Jayne, and once she passed through a deep pool of Inara’s fatigue and trepidation, but the pressure of the flow always forced her to move on.

* * *

Inara wasn’t sure how long she sat. She was tempted by the bed beside her, but she couldn’t shake the notion that as soon as she lay down on it, the door would open and the inevitable confrontation would begin. Taking her rest would be like an admission of defeat to those who were watching her.

She knew the idea was ridiculous, but still she couldn’t make herself give up the imagined battle. She held herself upright and stared at the bowl of fruit on the table, trying to distract her mind and calm her nerves by picturing the attack she could mount with four apples, three oranges, six plums, and three bananas. She could set up an ambush. Definitely the plums would be the most satisfying – the apples would hurt more, but the plums had the best chance of bursting open and staining the purplebelly uniforms.

She’d managed to work herself into a soft smile when the door opened and a man and a woman entered the cell. They were not in uniform, but their clothing looked uncomfortable and plain enough that there must be some sort of dress code responsible. Civil servants?

“Miss Serra,” the man said. “I am Agent Kain. This is Agent Alvarez.”

Inara nodded and extended a hand, and was somewhat surprised when they both accepted her gesture politely, if somewhat stiffly. They sat down across from her, each setting a digital data sheet on the table.

The woman, Alvarez, took over the introduction. Her words flowed smoothly, as if she’d spoken them countless times before. “The branch of the government we work for is referred to as the Office of Professional Responsibility,” she said. “We investigate incidents and plausible suspicions of lawbreaking and misconduct attributed to officers of the state and those the state contracts with.”

Kain leaned his elbows on the table and took a deep breath before he spoke, both gestures serving to realease tension. His manner was less formal than his partner’s. “You must be wondering why you were brought here to speak with us,” he said with a smile that bordered on friendly. He looked pleasant and non-threatening, with neatly trimmed light brown hair and a cleanly shaven face. But Inara wasn’t feeling inclined to return his warmth.

“I might have wondered,” she said, “if I had known that speaking with you was the reason I’m here.”

“We apologize for the circumstances, and for keeping you waiting so long,” he replied. “It’s been rather a hectic day.”

“For more than yourselves,” she replied coldly.

“So it would appear,” Alvarez said, seeming impatient with her partner’s platitudes and eager to get down to business. “Miss Serra, we understand you just had an… assignation with Peter Skuld.” Her tone held just a hint of disapproval.

“‘Appointment’ is the commonly used word,” Inara replied.

The woman tilted her head, expressing her irritation with no attempt at subtlety. “When exactly did this ‘appointment’ take place?”

Inara felt her chest tighten with apprehension; her time with Peter was the one thing she didn’t want to discuss. “Companion-client relations are, by law, a private matter,” she replied as calmly as she could.

“I understand that a Companion would want to protect her client,” Kain said, and Inara bit her cheek, barely holding in an expression of disgust. That sentiment certainly didn’t apply to this situation.

The man continued without noticing her reaction. “There are larger issues at stake here, and you mustn’t let your fondness for your client get in the way of your patriotism, your duty to the government which does so much to make your lifestyle possible.”

His tone was kind, as if he were speaking to a child he was fond of. Suddenly, Inara understood the roles being played here. The woman, Alvarez, was the aggressive questioner, the ‘bad cop,’ and the man was the trustworthy friend. It was the obvious approach to take when questioning a beautiful woman, one who specialized in the pleasing of men and might see another woman as competition. Maybe they didn’t realize that she took female clients as well as male.

Inara smiled ironically at the thought, which seemed to annoy Alvarez. The woman took over from her colleague, cutting off his lecture on civic duty. “There are indeed serious issues involved,” she said sternly. “Attempting to economically destabilize the government by attacking a supply of basic necessities is not a private matter.”

Inara arched her eyebrows, and paused just long enough to make them think she wasn’t going to speak. Then, just as Alvarez opened her mouth to continue, Inara replied. “If that was an accusation, Agent Alvarez, I’d prefer it be made in a formal manner so I can summon legal counsel.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Kain replied quickly. “We’d just like to discuss the time you spent with Peter Skuld.”

Inara barely stopped herself from shifting in her seat. “I wish to have representation present if I’m to be questioned.”

The two agents exchanged glances. “There’s no need to be defensive,” Alvarez said, and she studied Inara closely.

“Then why have you been holding me in a locked cell?”

“It was convenient,” Alvarez replied, and she sighed impatiently. “Let’s make this easy. Miss Serra; we’re well aware of the history of the ship you’ve been traveling on.”

“Oh?”

“Firefly class transport Serenity,” the woman said, perusing her data sheet, “owned and captained by one Malcolm Reynolds, not the fictional ‘Captain Harbatkin’.” She glanced up at Inara, as if looking for confirmation. Inara held her neutral expression, and the woman continued. “Reynolds is an ex-Independent, now a smuggler and small-time thief with a history of civil disobedience, and he was recently questioned regarding terrorist activity on Oeneus – ”

“Terrorist activity?” Inara interrupted. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Perhaps.” The woman set down the data sheet and looked at Inara, holding her stare aggressively. Alvarez’s dark brown hair was pulled back in a tight bun, and there was barely a trace of makeup around her olive green eyes. Even so, she wasn’t unattractive, and she’d be quite beautiful if she were dressed and styled in a feminine manner. The questioners had been carefully chosen; an unattractive woman would be at a disadvantage. Only a similarly beautiful woman could be properly threatening to Inara.

They really wanted something, and if it was simply to bring assault charges against her, they wouldn’t be trying so hard. Inara almost smiled again as she realized that, at the heart of it, she was the one in control of this situation.

Agent Alvarez continued, unfazed by Inara’s frank inspection. “I wonder what we would find if we searched the Firefly. We’ve already identified a number of misdemeanors visible from the outside. Give us half an hour inside that ship, and I’m sure we could have the crew in jail for quite a while, and that would make you an accessory. I can’t imagine that a criminal record would be good for your career.”

Alvarez didn’t look away; she seemed to think she had the upper hand. Inara knew better, but she broke the dueling stare first. She poured some water and took a sip, then deliberately took her time setting the cup down.

“Darling,” Inara said to the woman, pitching her voice to roll out like velvet. “I’ve had a few very, very long days. Don’t waste my time with threats. Just tell me what it is you want…” She rolled the base of the water glass in a small circle on the table, making the clear liquid swirl “…and then I’ll tell you what I want in return.”

* * *

Book was deeply asleep when the sound of the opening hatch carried into the common room. It was the sound he’d been listening for, and it drew him out of his sleep immediately. He checked the time piece he’d set on the table in front of him; it’d been almost six hours since Mal had gone to his bunk and Simon had headed up to Inara’s shuttle to watch over Kaylee. That was more rest time then Book had expected them to get, although the Good Lord knew that they could all use more.

He took a few seconds to straighten his clothing, preparing to talk business with the surly Alliance Lieutenant, then he stepped into the bay. What he saw was not at all what he expected.

Zoë had come through the smaller entrance and closed it behind her, and was now at the control board. The large airlock door slid open, and Jayne’s hovercraft came aboard, carried on a orange cargo mover driven by an Alliance worker. A few soldiers stood behind, in the airlock of the Alliance ship, watching casually as Wash directed the driver to set the hovercraft down on the starboard side of the bay. Wash exchanged a friendly handshake with the driver, and waved goodbye to his armed escort as Zoë closed the doors again.

Jayne and a strange man had also come in, and as soon as the door sealed shut they all turned and saw Book.

“Shepherd,” Zoë said with casual nod of greeting. “Where’s the Captain?”

“He’s… asleep,” Book replied, still not quite caught up with the turn of events. “Everyone’s asleep.”

“Asleep?” Wash asked dramatically. “Here we are, knocking ourselves out with the big rescue attempt, and we end up in jail while they’re all sleeping!”

“Sleep sounds good to me,” Jayne said, and set out up the stairs. “I could use some down time. I even got beer left…” He paused and glared at Book. “That is – if no one’s been at it.” “Don’t worry yourself, Jayne,” Book replied. “We’ve been a little too busy to pilfer your beer.”

“Better be the truth of it,” Jayne grumbled, “Or someone owes me money.” He climbed the stairs and disappeared through a hatch.

“So, seriously,” Wash asked. “Is everyone all right?”

“More or less,” Book replied. “Except Inara. She’s not hurt,” he added quickly at Wash’s worried expression, “but she’s been taken by the Alliance.”

“Taken?” Zoë asked.

“About six hours ago. They didn’t explain, and we haven’t heard a word since.”

“Ain’t that odd,” Zoë murmured.

“How ‘bout yourselves?” Book asked. “You doin’ all right?”

“Helluva lot better than we were ten minutes ago,” Zoë replied. “The Captain’s in his bunk?” She started up the stairs before Book answered.

“Yes, but…I’m not sure you should wake him.”

Book’s tone made Zoë stop on the landing and look down at him. “What is it, preacher?”

“He’s had a hard time of it. He really needs his rest.”

“He can get it later,” Zoë said sternly, and she continued up the stairs.

Book watched Zoë go, then he turned back and looked at the tall man next to Wash; there were a lot of tales that needing telling. He pointed at the stranger. “Who’s…?”

“Oh,” Wash said. “That’s right. You haven’t met. This is Bucky. We heard there was a big party and thought we’d bring him along. I sure hope there’s enough champagne and party favors–”

“Where’s Jase?” the man interrupted, making Wash give up his joke. “They said he was here. Is he okay?”

Book saw fear in the man’s eyes. He didn’t ask any more questions, just guided Bucky to the infirmary.

* * *

Zoë didn’t hesitate to push open the door to Mal’s bunk and climb down the ladder, then she slapped the panel to turn on the brightest lights in the room. She needed Mal awake – all kinds of oddness had been afoot lately, and she needed to sort it out with the Captain.

Mal didn’t wake up immediately, which was surprise enough. One learned to wake quickly when in the military, fighting a war. He was stretched out, fully clothed, on top of his bed, but he didn’t look to be sleeping peacefully. His face was covered over in sweat, and he was breathing shallow and fast.

“Captain?” Zoë asked. She gave his arm a nudge and he grunted, as if he was having a bad dream. She tried again – it took a good hard shake to rouse him, and then he pushed himself up to sitting, blinking in the bright light and sliding away from her to press his back against the bulkhead.

“What the – ” he muttered.

“It’s all right, sir. It’s me.”

His eyes found her. “Zoë?”

“Yeah.”

He bent forward, wiping his hands over his face. He was still short of breath. “Where’s Inara?”

“Book said she’s with the Alliance.”

“He ain’t heard nothing?”

“Nope.”

“They took her away, Zoë. Just took her, and I couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t hardly move.”

“Couldn’t move?”

Zaō gaō! Kaylee – I’m supposed to be watchin’ her.” He slid across the bed and started to stand up, but Zoë put a hand on his shoulder to make him stay sitting.

“The preacher’s keepin’ watch, Mal. He said everyone’s asleep.”

“But, Zoë, I…” his voice trailed off, and he turned his head away, looking confused.

“What is it?” Zoë asked.

He put his hands over his face again. “I dunno. Gōu shī – somethin’ ain’t right. Somethin’ sure ain’t right.”

She opened her mouth, but then closed it again without asking what he meant. The Shepherd might have had a point, about how the Captain needed his rest. “How ‘bout you go on back to sleep,” she said, “and I’ll check in with the rest of the crew.”

He shook his head. “No – I can’t go to sleep now. I have to get all this settled. I have to, uh…” He stood up, one hand still on the bed to balance himself, and looked around the cabin. Then he sat right back down, taking a few deep breaths. Zoë waited until he looked up at her.

“Zoë?”

“The one and only. Sir.”

“You’re on my ship.”

“Apparently so.”

“How’d that happen?”

“Well, sir, we got ourselves a transport and found Serenity in orbit – ”

He waved his hand impatiently, as if telling her to skip ahead. “I figured that part – the Alliance nabbed you at the same time as they got us, right?” Zoë nodded, and Mal looked thoughtful. “Bet your husband was drivin’, wasn’t he?”

“As he usually is,” she replied haltingly, unsure as to why Mal was asking; it was hardly an important detail. But then the Captain grinned.

“The good lieutenant said something about traffic violations. Serious traffic violations.”

Zoë was relieved by his smile and the way his shoulders had relaxed just a little. She sat down next to him and shook her head sadly. “I tell him to slow down, but …”

“Man never does listen.” Mal rubbed his eyes again, as if trying to wake up and pull himself together. His breathing had evened out, but he seemed a little twitchy, like it was hard for him to stay still.

“Last I heard,” he said after a bit, “you were all gonna rot in an Alliance cell for a good long time.”

“It was looking that way to us, too. But then they let us go. Didn’t ask a thing. Didn’t even say a thing, just came to get us, loaded up the mule, and brought us here.”

“Wash and Jayne?”

“Yep, them too. And we got a guest.”

Mal didn’t look pleased about that. He didn’t look pleased at all. “I’m a little tired of new people on my boat.”

“Nowhere else for him to go. He helped us get the transport, and he’s under arrest too, for theft.”

“I got another criminal on my ship?”

“He ought’a fit right in, sir.”

Mal shook his head in resignation, then he stood up again and went to the sink to splash water over his face. “Hell, I guess I better go meet him,” he said as he grabbed a towel. “I hope he ain’t expectin’ a warm welcome.”

“Actually, Wash did talk it up a bit…”

“Well then, maybe I ought’a clean up a little.” Mal he looked down at himself and wrinkled up his nose. “Go on – I need to change into clothes that don’t stink.”

“Like anyone on this boat ain’t seen it, sir,” Zoë said, but she stood up and went up the ladder, giving him time to freshen up.

Swapping light jibes seemed to help Mal get himself grounded, but Zoë’d been watching him closely the whole time. He’d been barely keeping himself calm. She really needed to know what the hell had happened on this ship.

* * *

Mal followed Zoë until she stopped next to Book just outside the infirmary. A stranger was sitting next to the patient bed, his head bowed over a small limp hand that he held in both of his own. Mal stepped around Zoë and Book to entered the room, and the man heard him and looked up. His eyes were shining wetly; he didn’t say anything, just sat quietly like he was waiting for Mal to take the lead. Mal wasn’t sure where to start. He hadn’t expected to find his newest guest in tears.

He looked back at the door. “Zoë?”

“I guess… it’s a long story, sir.”

“I’m Ray’s brother,” the man said, and his eyes traveled between Mal and Zoë, waiting for a reaction. “My name’s Bucky. Bucky Whittaker.” When no one answered him, his gaze settled on Mal. “I take it you’re the captain?”

Mal crossed his arms, sternly looking down at the man. “That I am. You know that Ray’s dead?”

Bucky took a deep breath, then let it out long and slow. He looked at the floor. “I know now.”

Mal shifted a little, glancing at Zoë and Book. “We’d best clear the air right now. I’m the one that killed him, and he had it comin’.”

Bucky looked up sharply, and Mal dropped his arms to his sides, not sure if he was about to get jumped on. His right hand touched his hip, but he had no gun there; he’d put it away for the duration of his stay with the Alliance.

But Bucky only grunted and looked down again, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “He’s been askin’ for it for some time.”

“Well,” Mal replied after a confused pause. “I’m glad you agree. But… but that ain’t all. You need to understand that I ain’t feelin’ too kind toward new faces on my boat. I hope you don’t think you’ll be stayin’ long.”

The man surprised Mal again when he smiled grimly. “That’s some mighty clear air you got in here, Captain.” Mal didn’t react, but Bucky looked at him and continued, talking slow and tired like a man who’d moved beyond fear. “I got no wish to trespass, but I can’t leave this one behind. Not again.” He looked at the boy and squeezed the hand he was still holding. “As soon as I get a chance, we’ll move along and leave you to your peace.”

Mal considered it. “You tellin’ me he means something to you?”

Bucky hesitated, then looked down and cleared his throat. “I got good reason to think he’s my son.”

Mal blew out a breath and stepped back to lean against the counter. He looked at Zoë, who gave him an I-had-no-idea-don’t-blame-me shrug. Mal pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes and tried to work it out. Whatever he’d been expecting when Zoë woke him up, it sure as hell wasn’t a family reunion taking place in his infirmary.

“Book,” he said firmly.

The Shepherd stepped around Zoë and leaned in through the hatch. “Yes, Captain?”

Mal pointed at Bucky. “Keep an eye on him.”

* * *

Mal went out into the common room and slightly around the corner; Zoë followed. All he needed to do was give her a look, and she set about explaining.

“Bucky’s kind of the friend of a friend,” she said. “You remember that lady Xiaojun we were goin’ to see for parts? Well, we asked her ‘bout the kid and – ”

Mal held a hand up. “Enough. We’ll have storytime later. He trustworthy?”

“I won’t be handin’ him a gun or puttin’ him at the helm, but I think he’s all right,” Zoë replied. Mal’s doubtful expression didn’t change, so Zoë continued. “Look, he came with us just because he heard about that kid, and he clearly didn’t think much of that fella Ray, blood relation or not.”

Mal sighed. “What am I supposed to do with him? I got enough to deal with.” He rubbed his eyes and looked beat enough that Zoë again regretted waking him up.

“Captain, there ain’t much happenin’ right now, and nothing we can do. Let’s work out the details later. You’re lookin’ like you need some more shut-eye.”

“I can’t have a stranger on my ship unless I know everything I can about him.”

“Do you trust me, sir?”

Mal looked her in the eye. “You know I do, Zoë.”

“Then go back to bed.”

Mal leaned against the outside wall of the infirmary and thought about it. “I will – if you’ll do somethin’ for me.”

“Just name it,” she said softly.

“You come and wake me up as soon as you get any word about Inara.”

Zoë didn’t answer, surprised at the vehemence of his demand. Mal seemed to realize what he’d said, and how he’d said it, a little too late.

“Look,” he continued weakly, “she had a real hard time, I’m just worried…” He sighed impatiently. “Aw, hell with it, think what you want. But let me know, you got it?”

Mal seemed to expect ridicule, but there was nothing about his concern for Inara that Zoë found amusing. Here was something more she needed to know about – what could have happened to make the Captain outwardly show this kind of worry?

Zoë finally nodded in reply, and Mal turned and left without another word. She watched him go, and noticed that Book had stepped out of the infirmary as soon as Mal passed by.

“We need to talk,” the Shepherd told her.

“`Bout what?”

Book pointedly looked the way Mal had gone, then back at Zoë. She nodded and joined him on the sofa in the common space.

* * *

An alarm broke into Inara’s troubled dreams. By the time she found the bedside clock and turned it off, the details of the nightmare had already faded, but the grief lingered. She sat in the dim nightlight as her uneasiness slowly faded, and finally she remembered what needed to be done.

She turned up the lights and did the best she could in the cell’s small half bath. Not that her appearance mattered, but it was a routine she was accustomed to, and the familiarity of it steadied her.

Agent Kain arrived exactly when he’d said he would, and he led Inara down a few corridors to a large utilitarian office. There were no decorations on the walls, no artwork or plaques, and the floor was of cold gray tile. On the far side of the room, Lieutenant Brady sat at a large desk with his hands folded in front of him.

Facing him were two tables; Agent Alvarez sat at one, her bun and suit just as polished and bland as they’d been the night before. Seated at the other table were a strange man in a suit that screamed high priced lawyer, and Beyla Skuld. Inara had expected to see the woman, and she didn’t pause, just took her seat next to Alvarez as Kain took the chair on Inara’s other side.

“This is everyone?” Brady asked.

Agent Kain stood up. “We believe the Peter Skuld was involved in the crime as well, but he is currently being held in the ship’s infirmary.”

Brady appeared to be more annoyed by the man’s absence than concerned with his well-being. “The infirmary?” he asked.

“He had an… accident,” Beyla explained. Her eyes slid to meet Inara’s.

“He’s not needed at his point, Lieutenant,” Kain said. “We’re just trying to show that we have enough evidence to press charges and force extradition to the Core.”

“Very well,” Brady said. “On with it.”

The preliminaries didn’t take long; Kain established Inara’s identity and had her take the standard oath of truthfulness. Then he began with the questions. It went smoothly; he had worked with Inara earlier and she was ready for each question. He quickly established her profession and the timing of her visit to the Skuld cartel.

“And while you were there,” he asked, “did you have occasion to discuss cartel business matters with Peter Skuld?”

“Yes, I did. Nothing detailed.”

“Did you discuss mining operations in the Niflheim system?”

“Yes.”

“What did he tell you?”

“That there was a new mining and prefabrication scheme in use by the Verdande cartel, and that it was frustrating not to have the legal rights to use it. As I understand it, this is common knowledge.”

“Did you hear anything that isn’t common knowledge?”

Inara cleared her throat, then held her chin up defiantly. “I heard Beyla Skuld talking about a woman named Ginger.”

Inara heard the old woman take a sharp intake of breath, but she didn’t look toward the table where Beyla sat.

“What did Beyla Skuld say about Ginger?”

“That she’d found a ship, and should be getting the harvester in the next few hours. Also, that Peter would need to be secretive about getting the harvester to her engineers in the core.”

Kain continued without pause. “And what did you find when you returned to the Firefly?”

Inara cleared her throat. “There were hijackers holding the ship. One was named Ginger.”

“The others?”

“There was a man named Will. He was waiting for me when I docked and he… he tried to subdue me by force.” Inara didn’t go into more detail; she didn’t want to revisit that scene, not now.

“You’re the one who beat him unconscious?” Brady asked.

Inara saw the look of disbelief on the Lieutenant’s face. “I’m a Companion,” she replied. “I’m trained to handle violence of that sort.” She was tempted to stare down Brady’s doubt, but she let it go. It was best to get this done as quickly and simply as possible.

“The other man?” Kain asked.

“His name was Ray. He threatened me, held me at gunpoint. That was why we had to flee from the Alliance battleship, and that’s why the Captain shot him.”

Kain turned to Brady. “Lieutenant, do I really need to continue? Surely you see what happened here. You have the evidence of the undercover Alliance agents, records of the calls made by Ginger Larkin to the Skuld platform before and during the hijacking, and now you have testimony from an independent party. A Registered Companion, no less.”

Brady nodded, then he sighed, as if steeling himself to take a big step. “It would appear that I have no choice. Beyla Skuld; you and your nephew Peter are under arrest. Agent Kain will prepare a full list of charges before we leave to transport you to Londinium for a full trial.”

Brady nodded at two guards in the back of the room, who came forward to stand behind Beyla. Inara sat still, her spine stiff and straight, as Beyla was pulled to her feet. But the woman wasn’t ready to leave peacefully.

“You foolish whore,” she hissed at Inara. “You don’t know what you’ve done. I needed that harvester, as proof!”

One of the guards grabbed the old woman’s arms, and put hard metal cuffs over her frail wrists. Beyla didn’t struggle, but she looked from Inara to Brady with venom in her eyes.

“It’s his fault,” she spat. “The whole world is dead because of Edward Verdande!”

Inara took in a sharp breath and looked up; the woman was vehement – she truly believed her words. The guards began to lead her out of the room, but Beyla had time to finish what she wanted to say. “The chemicals used in the harvester, the by-products, they killed this world! I could have proven it!”

Then Beyla was gone, and Inara sat in the suddenly silent room. Agent Kain took her arm and gently pulled her to her feet, then led her away.

* * *

The two agents escorted Inara back to her cell. They reached the room, and Inara went inside, but Alvarez paused at the door to have a quiet word with Kain. The man departed, heading back in the direction from which they’d come.

“Thank you, Miss Serra,” Alvarez said as she sat at the small table in the center of the cell. “We’ve recorded your testimony. A transcript is being drawn up, formalizing what you just told Lieutenant Brady. Agent Kain should return with it in a moment, and once you sign it, you’re free to go.”

“What about the rest of our agreement?” Inara asked.

“Everyone on the ship Serenity and the stolen Skuld transport has been pardoned for any action they’ve taken in the past two days.” She smiled and her eyes actually twinkled as she added, “I can’t make any promises regarding anything further in the past than that.”

Inara didn’t share the woman’s amusement. “And?”

“The Firefly will be allowed to refuel at the Verdande platform – ”

“At…” Inara prompted.

“ – at uninflated Core fuel prices. I can’t control what you’ll pay for stocking up on other supplies.”

“That’s fine. The other thing?”

“We’ll be leaving the system in two days.”

“That will suffice,” Inara said. That was the whole of the agreement, but Inara wasn’t done.

“What about the accusation Beyla Skuld made?” Inara asked. “Is that of any concern to you?”

Alvarez took her time pondering the question. Now that the woman wasn’t focused on manipulating Inara, her manner had completely changed, her face softened and her bearing relaxed. She gave Inara a measuring look, but it wasn’t hostile. It was almost respectful, as if appreciating a worthy opponent. Then she sighed and leaned back in her chair.

“Miss Serra, this battleship came to Niflheim because we believed, based on reports sent to us by undercover officers, that the supply of a product which is needed by Alliance peace-keeping forces was in danger due to cartel in-fighting. As it turned out, those reports were true. Now the threat has been eliminated. We’ve done the job we came to do, and the Alliance is safer and more stable because of it.

“The matter which was raised by Beyla Skuld is tragic, but…”

The woman paused, looking doubtful, and she studied Inara again. When she continued speaking, she didn’t sound at all like the pre-programmed government official she’d been the night before. She sounded like a human being. A person with a lot of work to do.

“You’ve been helpful. If you want to continue to be helpful, it would be best for you to let this matter rest.”

Inara didn’t back down. “What about holding Verdande accountable for what he’s done to an entire world and its inhabitants?”

Alvarez shifted uncomfortably, but her eyes settled on Inara, and there was determination in her look. “Miss Serra, we have a deal and I will honor it. But – as I told you before – your crew has only been pardoned for crimes committed in the past two days. Need I go on?”

Inara considered bluffing. She could play the snobbish high-class Companion, tell the woman that she didn’t care for the crew of Serenity and that sending them off to jail wouldn’t bother her a bit. But the confidence on Alvarez’s face showed that Inara had already tipped her hand.

She was tired. In the past few days she’d resorted to every skill she had, and used them in situations she hadn’t even imagined while she was training at the House. She was worn down to the bone, and this agent had read her easily. Inara wouldn’t be winning any more battles; it was time to stop. She dropped her eyes in defeat, and sat quietly until Kain returned with the forms for her to sign. A few minutes later, she picked up her bag and followed the two agents out, wondering if she might really be on her way to peace and rest in the quiet comfort of her shuttle. Finally.

* * *

Translations:

zaōgaō; damn it gōu shī: crap

* * *

On to Chapter 21.

COMMENTS

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 3:18 AM

MAL4PREZ


Riverismygoddess: mmm, beer. :)

Leighkohl, BEB – I love your guesses as to what was coming, and they made think, damn I should have written that! But it is what it is already, and I’m too wiped to add more. Wash interrogation? Oh, what fun that would have been…

Goodduck – goodguess. :)

Eloisa – I hear you about the timing issue! This story got wicked complicated and it was very hard to present all the parallel sub-plot things in a way that made sense. I originally had chapters 13 and 14 in the other order, which was more proper for the clock timing, but I switched them for the exact reason you pointed out. And because starting the sciency intros with the Inara chapter was just better.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 4:00 AM

LEIGHKOHL


What a great chapter! I loved that Inara brokered a deal to free Serenity's crew! The agents were portrayed as I would have expected, good cop bad cop tag team (haha) and I love that, of course, I nara sees right through that! They way the agents handled the dilema raised by BEyla Skuld is just perfect to what we would all expect Alliance procedure to be! ANd I love that Simon took over the role of caregiver to Kaylee but had his own guilt and reservations about the situation. Jayne worried over his beer, hilarious and true to character! So now that everyone is on the boat....what next?!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 5:05 AM

MANICGIRAFFE


See, this is a good illustration of why my brain rejects the Jaylee concept:
Simon: watches over her for 6 hours, tourtured the whole time.
Jayne: worried about the beer (but God, it's funny!).

You've really made Inara a force to be reckoned with here. I suppose the show didn't really give her time to display her manipulation skills, but they are indeed formidable.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 5:27 AM

LEIASKY


Ohh, Inara was so well done here! I loved everything about her interrogation. Mal and Zoe were great as well. Heck, everyone was great and in character! Jayne worrying about his beer. . .heh just perfect. Simon and his tortured thoughts, and thinking Kaylee can't be safe with him. Though I think she'd have another opinion of that. Well done!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 5:56 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


I was serious about the beer, I am sending several bottles of it out today. If you truely want some, message me and I'll see what I can work out.

I like River seeing the colors of the crew, very nicely done there.

Inara thinking about fighting with the fruit was too damn funny.

“I’ve had a few very, very long days. Don’t waste my time with threats. Just tell me what it is you want…”
“…and then I’ll tell you what I want in return.”
-Perfect Inara-speak

“I got another criminal on my ship?”
“He ought’a fit right in, sir.”
-BWAHAHAHAHA !!!

“It’s his fault,” she spat. “The whole world is dead because of Edward Verdande!”
-I kinda figured he had something to do with it, if I have not already said that before.

Yay for this chapter, now post another one. :)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 7:16 AM

ARCADIA


I loved this chapter: Inara's interrogation, River's interlude, Zoe's return, all of it. Can't wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 8:37 AM

TAYEATRA


Well done writing Inara's practical response to her interrogation.

Very much looking forward to the upcoming 'doing the right thing regardless' story arc that I'm convinced is heading our way.

Also still waiting to find out exactly what happened to Inara.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 9:12 AM

AMDOBELL


Loved this, I particularly liked Inara cutting through to the meat of the interrogation and then being the one to broker a deal not the other way around. I also loved Zoe, Jayne and Wash coming back to Serenity, it felt so wrong all the while the crew was parted. Can't wait to see what happens next, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 10:10 AM

2X2


I really enjoyed watching Inara in this part.

And then finding out that Beyla Skuld was trying to expose the Verdande cartel! not that she surely wouldn't profit in the meantime, but... could it be true? and what will that mean? And what exactly went on behind closed doors?

Intriguing and a great read as always! I so enjoy this!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 12:09 PM

ELOISA


... and there is still a handful of whatever was in the container in Ray's pocket.

Wonderful stuff. Long may the short posting intervals continue.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 4:33 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oh...I bet Inara really wants to be like Mal and just sleep off the last couple of days, in order to regain her bearings. Finding out she inadvertantly prevented an important revelation from coming out by stopping Beyla Skuld and her freaky nephew is gonna weigh on Inara's mind:(

However...I really liked how you had Inara just plot and pontificate with the Alliance! She was definitely in fine form here, facing off against Agents Kain and Alverez until the depostion/trial. Though I get the feeling this whole matter ain't over till Verdande's plot (intentional or otherwise) is revealed:D

Oh...and I am happy to have given ya shiny suggestions...even if you couldn't use them:P

BEB

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 8:13 PM

NOSADSEVEN


OMG, things actually went smooth!? Oh wait, that must be because Inara's running the show at the moment (without Mal tying her in knots)...

I just loved Zoe's "He can get it later," re: Mal's rest, then her realization that, damn, that boy needs to get some sleep... And Mal's belated comprehension, "You're on my ship," cracked me up. As did Bucky's, “That’s some mighty clear air you got in here, Captain.”, and, of course, Jayne's beer.

I'm already starting to get anxious about this all drawing to a close... Hello, painful withdrawal, my old friend... every Browncoat's familiar companion.


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