A Quiet Game
Disclaimer: None of the characters, setting, or original ideas in here are mine. They are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and 20th Century Fox. One of these days, we'll get a mob armed with pitchforks after Fox, but that's later.
Author's Note: I have a coworker and friend, Joe Hopkins, whom I must thank for his guidance in all matters chess. At my request, he wrote the game, and then explained it in excruciating detail for me. The moves are listed below, if you would like to play the game itself. The title of the story refers to White's opening gambit, known as "Guicco Piano" or "The Quiet Game".
R-K1 QXN (CH)
K-B1 Q-R8 (CH)
K-K2 N-Q5 (CH)
R-N1 QXP (CH)
N-Q2 B-N5 (MATE)
The set had been a gift to Inara from one of her many enamored clients. It was carved from white alabaster and black onyx and inlaid with bits of lapis and malachite. It wasn't quite gaudy, but it certainly wasn't within the boundaries of Inara's exquisite taste. So, she left it in the lounge for the others to play with. Wash had been the first to discover it. That is to say, he had arranged a mock battle where the pawns from both sides had begun a revolution and were now eliminating the aristocracy, piece by piece.
"No, no, I beg you," he proclaimed in a falsetto and making the black queen do a little panicked dance as both white and black pawns closed in around her, "I'll be a good citizen! I'll be bourgeoise! We shall all eat cake! I'll bake it!"
"To the guillotines!" one of the white pawns declared with Wash's snapping teeth and dire snarl. "We'll wash the paving stones with her blue blood!"
It was as the pawns had been lined up like pallbearers to take the queen's remains off the board and start in on the next piece that Simon entered the lounge. His mind was obviously on something else, but he paused as a rook with delusions of Robespierre began to betray his fellow pieces.
"So," Simon began, not quite sure what to say, "have you ever played chess?"
Wash looked up with mild curiosity. "I thought that's what I was doing."
"There are more . . . traditional approaches to it."
"Really," Wash tilted his head to one side, considering the matter. "I don't suppose you're well acquainted with these traditions."
"Fairly," Simon answered, tipping the black queen back into a standing position. "I haven't played in a while. It's hard to remain enthusiastic about the game when your six year old little sister can checkmate you in fewer than thirty moves."
"Not really a problem I have much experience with," Wash commiserated. "But in the spirit of divine retribution, I'll let you wale on me for a bit."
Simon gave one of his rare, shy smiles. "That's kind of you."
"You just have to remind me how the horsey piece moves."
With nimble fingers, Simon arranged the pieces on the board, rescuing one bishop from a horde of carved apostates. He picked up two pawns, black and white, swapped them from hand to hand behind his back, and then put two clenched fists in front of Wash. Wash immediately tapped his right hand, and Simon revealed the white pawn.
"You get the first move," Simon informed him.
"And let me advise you not to take up poker. At least not until you talk to my charming wife about your tells."
"Tells?" Simon asked in the baffled voice he often used around the crew.
"Just sayin', you haven't really got the whole bluffing thing down."
"And Zoe knows about bluffing? She's a bluffing kind of person?"
Wash swallowed a laugh, and without preamble moved his pawn to King-4. "Zoe never bluffs. Ever."
Simon responded by matching with his own pawn. "Really."
"Let me put it to you this way: what would your reaction be if Zoe came up to you and said, 'wash the dishes or I'll break your arm' and Jayne was standing there with the soap in his big mitt?"
Simon thought for a minute as Wash moved his king's knight in front of the bishop's pawn. "How much time would she give me to get started?"
"Oh, at least five minutes."
"That's long enough to get to my supplies. Five cc's of soma would turn Jayne into a boneless blob of happiness. Is she picky about spots, though?"
"I might be better off making a break for the shuttle then."
"See," Wash waggled a finger at Simon as he responded with the queen's knight, "you learn faster than I did. Took me a couple of tries to figure out when she said 'take all your clothes off, she rea-'"
"That's all right," Simon waved his hand. "No need for details.
Wash smiled, checked the board and moved his bishop to the other bishop's fourth space. "Well, all I'm saying is that she could give you a lesson or two on how to disguise your telltale signals."
Now, this was interesting, Simon thought, looking at the new setup. Wash had done more with chess pieces than start the occasional coup d'etat. He'd begun with a specific opening, a less aggressive one, so he knew how to play the game, horsey pieces notwithstanding. It would be interesting to see where this led. He matched bishop with bishop just as Wash's comment penetrated.
"I have telltale signals?"
"Sure," Wash leaned back on the couch, laying his arms out along the top. "When you put the pieces out for me to pick, you held the white piece a little higher up and closer to your body. It was pretty obvious."
"How did you know it was the white piece?"
Wash shrugged. "Intuition, experience, a pretty good idea of how a guy like you operates." Then he leaned forward and castled his king.
Simon blinked in surprise. It was too early for that move. Was it an honest mistake on Wash's part or part of a stratagem? Well, he could certainly test it by starting a pawn charge towards the king.
He picked up the thread of the conversation again. "So, I give obvious indications through my body language what I'm thinking or feeling?"
Wash nodded, scanning the pieces on the board. "Yep."
Then why, Simon wondered, didn't Kayle understand-
"Kaylee doesn't pick up on it because she's too close, feels too much."
Simon glanced up only to see that Wash's gaze had settled on him, and the pilot gave him a gently sardonic smile – finding humor in the good doctor's plight, but willing to offer sympathy at the same time.
"You know, Kaylee and I have a lot in common," Wash said. "For instance, we both . . . no, that's not right. Hmmm. Okay, when I first met Zoe and totally fell for her, I acted like a complete clown. I did all this stupid stuff to get her attention in the hopes that she would like me back."
Simon nodded, a physician listening to a patient. "And this was different from your normal behavior how?"
Wash gave him a look, then sighed. "If you're going to be that way about it," he said, pulling a pad and stylus out of one of his pockets, "we might as well keep score."
He drew two columns, headed them "Simon" and "Wash," and marked one point under Simon. Then he put his stylus down and moved his king's rook's pawn one square.
"Anyways," Wash continued, "as I was saying, Kaylee and I have a lot in common. Now, when I realized just how much I wanted Zoe, I put myself out there. Kaylee's never been shy about letting a guy know she liked him, but she's also never worried much about whether he liked her back. With you, she worries."
"But . . . she must know," Simon objected. "Especially if what you said about my 'tells' is true."
"That's just it," Wash pointed out. "She doesn't. The rest of us do. I mean it's like you've got gorram semaphore flags signaling out of your ears."
Simon nodded again, thinking. He continued the pawn charge by moving his king's knight's pawn up, placing it under threat from Wash's knight. "You're obviously amused. What does the rest of the crew think?"
"Well, now Zoe thinks it's all kinds of sweet," Wash said, moving his queen's bishop's pawn forward one. "Jayne, I think he's a bit annoyed. He's had a crush on our little engineer for a bit."
"He has?" Simon asked, recalculating what he knew about Jayne. Maybe it was just the money that led to Jayne's betrayal on Ariel, or maybe there had been a bit more to it than that.
"Mmmhmmm," Wash responded, "Book, well, the Shepherd keeps his own counsel, but I think he likes the idea."
"Inara?" Simon asked, moving his knight's pawn forward again.
Wash took the pawn with his own, and Simon reached over and took that pawn with his bishop's pawn. Wash tsked under his breath and then moved his knight in front of the vulnerable king.
"Inara, now she's hard to read. No tells off a Companion, not if they were trained properly. I imagine she could play poker or mah-jhonng with the best of them."
He thought about asking Wash what the captain's opinion was, but didn't. He knew well enough what that [broody mother hen dictator] thought of him. He couldn't imagine that Mal's opinion of Simon and Kaylee sharing a budding romance would be any less sour.
Footsteps down the corridor announced Book's arrival. The man carried a certain sense of gentle serenity along with his Bible. When he saw the players, Book paused, studying the board and its pieces.
"No, no," Wash protested. "Don't give him any help. I've got him on the ropes, and I worked hard to accomplish it."
"Wouldn't think of it," Book replied, shifting his Bible from one hand to the other. He watched as Simon moved his queen to rook-5 and smiled. "Checkmate in . . . ten moves or less I should imagine."
Wash looked up at him. "Uh . . . right. Yeah, exactly."
Jayne wandered in and grunted when he saw what the three men were looking at.
"Whyn'cha get a game a'checkers goin'? Don't need no poncy horseys and shepherds for a decent turn at the board."
"I'm sure Wash would be willing to tutor you," Simon murmured, "though he might need to start by defining game, board, black, and white."
Wash pulled the pad towards him and marked another point under Simon's name. "I think we'd be better off if he and I stuck to my original game."
Simon reached over, took the stylus and marked a point under Wash's name.
"Bunch a' pointless time-wasting chess monkeys that [couldn't get laid if the board was all queens]," Jayne snarled and continued on his way up to the galley.
"Simon!" It was River, and she nearly ran Jayne down as she charged into the room. Jayne, for his part, jumped like a cat force fed espresso. "Simon!"
"What?" he stood up abruptly, bumping the table and knocking over several pieces. Wash rescued them with nimble hands.
River ran straight to him, and he caught her by the shoulders, examining her with quick, perceptive eyes. No cuts, no abrasions, no broken bones…her breathing was a little fast, and her face was flushed.
"Doc," Wash murmurred, "she's fine."
"Uh…right." Apparently, he did give off tells. "River, what i-"
"Simon, you have to promise me," she interrupted. "Please, it's very important."
"You have to promise me that when I die, you'll eat my body."
Wash, who had been taking a sip of Blue Sky 'Sang Soda, spewed his mouthful across the board, grazing Simon's pants.
"River, uh . . ." Simon glanced down at the right leg of his pants and tried to get his train of thought back on the rails where it belonged. Even Book was a little slack-jawed at this point. "River, I can't eat your body. It isn't . . . that is, in our culture . . . it's just. . . "
Oh, sure, he thought. Hand him an invasive tumor or a compound fracture of the ankle, give him a commercial flivver wreck with twenty casualties to triage, or a sudden outbreak of haemephagic fever. He could handle them without breaking a sweat, but somehow, his sister managed to completely discombobulate him without even trying.
"River," he tried again, "I just can't do that."
"He does!" she insisted, pointing at Book, who was so startled, his Bible slipped out of his fingers and fell onto the floor with a thump. Wash, who had only just recovered, choked and began coughing like he was trying to get rid of his lungs.
"You . . . ate . . . my sister?" Simon asked.
Book, mouth open, could only raise his hands, palm up.
"Don't be crazy!" River snapped at him. "He eats his god. I've seen it!"
Both Simon and Book started breathing again.
"It doesn't exactly work that way, River," Book tried to explain. "You see, the doctrine of trans-substantiation is -"
"It's important!" River insisted, grabbing Simon's shirt collar with both hands. "I can't go to waste. I don't want entropy to win. You can make use of my stored energy."
Simon looked around the room, hoping, praying that someone would rescue him.
"River," Wash put his hand out in a 'let's make a deal' gesture, "I'll see what I can do, but first you have to answer a very important question."
She turned towards him and tilted her head to the side with intent consideration.
"Simon can't eat just you," Wash continued. "He'd have to know what kind of sauce, what side dishes, and what drink would complement you best."
River nodded, considering it for a long moment. "You're right. I'm mostly protein. I need balance."
She started humming tunelessly and stared at the ceiling. The three men exchanged glances and raised eyebrows. Jayne was still watching with an expression mixed from deep discomfort and schadefreude.
"A honey sauce, with cloves. Baked apples, potatoes au gratin, and kimshee. Pinot grigio if you can find any. Raspberry-flavored punch if you can't," she recited as if she were reading from a list.
"That sound good to you, doc?" Wash glanced at him, nodding significantly.
"Uh . . . yes. Delicious," Simon nodded back. "I . . . can't wait?"
River's face bent with a dazzling smile, and Simon's breath caught. She was there. For half a second, his sister was all there, grinning, eyes crinkled with delight. She stood on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss on the cheek, then danced back out of the room, pausing only to look Jayne up and down, and declare, "too stringy."
Jayne took a moment to unclench, then he also left, muttering under his breath. Book picked up his book, dusted off the cover, and took a deep breath.
"Well, I'm thinking a little lie-down is sounding quite nice just about now."
"You look like you could use one," Wash agreed, checking the pieces to make sure they were all where they had been before the excitement started.
After Book departed, Simon took his seat, finding a handkerchief to wipe up the spray from Wash's sip of soda.
"How did you do that?" he finally asked.
"Hmmm?" Wash looked up from contemplating the board. He moved his rook to King-1. "Oh, well, everyone wants to be taken seriously, you know. Not that I'm suggesting you devour your sister's remains, but I think Kaylee's got some punch mix you could borrow."
Simon took Wash's knight with his queen, putting the king under check. Wash reached over and moved his king to the bishop's square.
"Every time she does something like that, I freeze," Simon shook his head and moved his queen again, to the rook's square.
"Well, when it comes to your sister – like with Kaylee – you're all raw nerve endings."
"Yes, well, Kaylee's never asked me to eat her. Check."
It took him a moment to realize why Wash was covering his mouth with a hand, stifling an almost hysterical fit of laughter.
"That's not what I meant," Simon insisted as Wash calmed down and moved his king out of danger.
"I know, I know," Wash waved a hand, trying to get his breath back. He took the pad and marked out one of Simon's points. Simon didn't even try to argue. "It's just . . . you're so serious around her. She's not used to that kind of behavior. She can't figure out your tells, for all that she's pretty good at reading men."
Simon thought for a moment. "Can you or Zoe read River?"
Wash looked up, startled. "Well, it's . . . no, not really. It's kind of like her conversation. Her tells don't match up with what's going on, so I can only presume something really interesting must be going on inside of her head."
"That's putting it mildly."
After a moment's consideration, Simon moved his knight to Queen-5. "Check."
With an exasperated sigh, Wash looked down at the pieces, then frowned. "How'd you do that?"
"Pretty easily, actually," Simon replied.
Wash restored the point to Simon's side, and then moved his king to Queen-2. "This won't take too long."
Simon took Wash's knight's pawn with his queen, forcing Wash to pull his rook over to the knight's square in defense.
"Anyways," Wash continued, "Zoe's usually really good at figuring out which way a person is going to run, when it comes down to it. With River, she can't figure. Makes her a mite nervous, you might say."
Simon took the next pawn in line with his queen. "Check."
"I'm going to fight to the bitter end," Wash announced, and moved his king to bishop-3.
"Any suggestions?" Simon asked.
"Be gentle with me?"
Simon closed his eyes. "I meant about River. Or Kaylee, for that matter." He moved his rook's pawn to rook-4.
"Oh, that. Hell, give the kid a break. Next time we're planetside, I'll pick up some crayons for her. My guess is, she's happier when she's got stuff that takes her attention up from the rest of the world."
Wash picked up his knight and moved it to block the queen from his king. "As for Kaylee, you could just tell her that you like her."
"Aaaah . . . I'm not very good at that sort of thing. It always comes out wrong." As he spoke, he moved his bishop to knight-5, penning the white king in. "Checkmate."
Not that he doubted Simon, but Wash surveyed the board. Sure enough, the only two moves open to his king would bring him under threat from the knight. He was well and truly humped. With his index finger, he knocked the king over, signaling the end of the game.
"Not bad," he admitted, "for someone who used to get beaten by his six-year-old sister."
"Didn't I mention," Simon answered, "that was the year she figured out how to prove the existence of a new type of subatomic particle." He stood and pocketed his hands.
Rolling his eyes, Wash stood as well, and set the board up again. "So what do I owe you? Dishes?"
Simon shook his head. "You're fine. Maybe another game sometime."
"Sure, why not," Wash grimaced, "because I like getting spanked like a little girl, especially in front of the rest of the crew."
"What're you two up to?" Kaylee asked, wandering in.
"I . . . uh . . . chess. That is, uh . . ."
"What Dr. Suave is being so modest about," Wash cut in, "is that he ground me into a sticky paste on the chess board. Interested?"
"Chess? I ain't never played chess," she blinked. "Mostly my pa stuck to checkers. Don't know much about the fancier games."
"Well, you're in luck," Wash answered, laying a hand on Simon's shoulder. "What you have here is a bonafied chess champ-een. He can even teach you how the horsey pieces move."
"Would you?" she smiled at him in that manner that always made him feel like his knees had been disassembled.
"I . . . uh . . . certainly!"
The exclamation popped out of him thanks to Wash discreetly digging a thumb into his shoulder joint. The pain was enough to make his thoughts snap back into focus.
As Kaylee took a seat across from him, Wash made himself scarce, pausing only to mouth words to Simon from a direction outside of Kaylee's field of vision.
I. Like. You. Wash mouthed, moving his hand in a forward circle. Simon's thoughts promptly fell out of focus again, then snapped back like a rubber band. He sat back down and met Kaylee's smiling eyes. All he could think of was semaphore code.
He cleared his throat. "You know, the most powerful piece on the board is that of the queen."
"Really? The only girl piece?" she grinned. "Tell me more."