DISCLAIMER: Both Firefly and SCC are the property of 20th Century Fox. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: A big thanks to zennie for the beta. Thank you for all your encouragement. I probably wouldn't have tried to tackle this without you, hon.
SPOILERS: Up through the movie Serenity. If you haven't seen Serenity, be warned. Character deaths are mentioned here.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
No Rest for the Wicked
By Inspector Boxer
River hesitantly crept outside Serenity, her acute hearing listening for anything out of the ordinary, or the footfalls of crewmembers that might try to stop her. Sarah and Jayne had left an hour before, and Mal and Zoe had followed shortly thereafter, leaving Inara, Kaylee and Simon on watch. Fortunately, they all seemed to be preoccupied with other matters, leaving River to slip away unnoticed.
The grass was cool and slightly damp. It tickled between River's bare toes, and she smiled in delight at the sensation. It had been a while since she'd smelled a forest or crisp mountain air, and River drew in the scent of both with a deep breath. The crew simply didn't see planets like this often on the outer rim where Serenity conducted her business. It was a welcome change in scenery, reminding her of home of her mother and father. With a flittering pang of sadness, she realized she hadn't thought of her parents in months.
She didn't dare wonder if they'd thought of her.
River moved toward the lake. Gracefully, she climbed over sharp and slick stones alike, making her way toward the crystal blue water. She finally reached the edge and stuck her toe in, shivering a little at the temperature. Smiling, River waded in up to her knees.
It was shockingly cold, but refreshing, making her feel like she was breathing easier and fuller for the first time in months. At that moment, in that place, life was pretty perfect. If Sarah had been there to share it, there wouldn't have been anything better.
Once her legs and feet began to grow numb from the cold, River climbed up onto a large rock to let her legs dangle and dry as she surveyed the scenery. She wished she could have gone with Sarah and explored the town, but she understood why she had to stay behind. For now, anyway.
A warm, pleasant breeze blew River's hair back from her features. Brown eyes fluttered closed at nature's soft caress, the touch stirring memories of waking with Sarah that morning. Sarah's body had felt so good and warm beneath her own. When the pilot had simply tucked a stray lock of River's hair behind her ear, River had felt her whole body heat at the touch. Even now, surrounded by so much beauty, River knew she'd give it up to be with Sarah. If that meant being on a dry and dusty outer rim planet, so be it. At least the Alliance was more likely to leave them alone out there.
A tiny pinprick of cold touched the base of River's spine at the thought of her tormentors. She frowned, turning her head to look behind her as if she were being watched. There was no one but Serenity, the firefly looming large behind her and to her right. The sensation persisted, however, and River knew better than to ignore it. Slowly she got to her feet, calculating the fastest path over the rocks to the ship.
But there was no one there. A part of her knew that, but the rest of her refused to be convinced. On the breeze, River felt a presence, like spider webs ghosting over her skin.
"Hello?" She asked softly, timidly, terrified someone would answer.
There was a flash of grey light, and River winced at its brilliance. When she opened her eyes again, Serenity was gone. River's heart leapt into her throat, and she staggered forward a few steps. The ground had become cold and hard, sheeted in layers and layers of ice. An arctic wind blew, chilling her to the bone, but it was more than the weather making her cold.
Shaking, River spun back toward the lake. Hundreds of people were looking back at her, through her, their figures fixed and rigid. She'd seen the looks before. The hollowness. The emptiness.
Miranda, she remembered.
"No." River shook her head, her brown eyes wide and filled with fear.
"Carry us," the people demanded as one.
"No!" River stumbled backward, trying to get away. She knew what they wanted, what they craved, but she couldn't do it again. Never again.
"Avenge us," the crowd pleaded.
Hands broke up from the ice, closing around River's ankles. She screamed as they clutched at her, tugged at her, until she lost her footing and tumbled from her perch, splashing into the chilly spring waters that quickly closed overhead.
"What's this do?" Jayne asked as he angled the list toward Connor.
They were walking through a medium-sized town, and Connor was relieved no one was looking at them twice. Mal's plan was crazy enough to work, she realized, even if she was on the receiving end of the worst of it. At least they would stock up with better food and supplies than they would get on the outer rim. As long as they had what they needed to hide and keep River safe, then she could put up with feeling uncomfortable for a few hours.
Connor glanced at the item in question and shrugged. "It makes the ship go. That's all I need to know."
Jayne frowned and pulled the list closer to his face so he could read Mal's tiny writing. "How are we supposed to find it if we don't got no clue what it is?"
"I'm sure we'll manage." Connor stiffened as she watched the crowd part for an Alliance patrol. There were about ten officers, all armed, and they were headed directly for her and Jayne. "We've got company."
Jayne's head lifted, and he swore colorfully at the sight.
"Play it cool, Jayne," Connor advised. She wrapped her arm tighter around the mercenary's, pretending to be just another one of the many couples browsing the marketplace. She could feel the tension in Jayne's frame and knew the hand in his pocket was wrapped around a small pistol. "Play it cool," she repeated.
The lead officer tipped his hat at Connor as they passed, treating her like a normal citizen of wealth and means. She smiled in return, her guts churning in reaction.
"Good day," the officer greeted.
"Good day," Connor echoed, keeping her accent out of her voice.
The patrol continued on, not even giving them a backward glance. Connor breathed out slowly and willed herself not to look over her shoulder. She could feel the tension slowly bleed from Jayne's arm beneath her hand, and the relief that flooded through her almost made her lightheaded.
"How'd you do that?" Jayne wanted to know when both of them had gotten over their shock and put some distance between themselves and the patrol.
"Do what?" Connor glanced around, her gaze studying the handful of boys that ran around the marketplace with hover sleds. Every couple in town was using one, and she decided it would look too conspicuous not to do the same. They'd require one of the devices to haul back everything they needed. People of their apparent social standing couldn't be bothered to get their hands dirty or to pull their own weight. Connor spied one boy taking the brunt of some bullying by the others and made her choice.
"Lose the accent like that?" Jayne wondered as they threaded through the crowd.
"Just a trick I learned in the war. Not always a good idea to let people know where you hail from."
Jayne grunted at that but said nothing more on the subject. "So " he began, deciding to satisfy a little of his curiosity now that he had Connor all to himself. "You knew Mal and Zoe in the war, huh?"
Connor felt her teeth set on edge. She kept walking, holding back the string of expletives she wanted to mutter. "I did," she answered shortly. Any smart man would have picked up on her tone and dropped the subject.
"So what was all that fuss about last night? Something about you leavin' 'em high and dry to fend for themselves?"
The pilot stopped walking and turned to face Jayne, anger glittering in her green eyes. "That would be between me and them."
"Seein' as how you wiped out the galley, I'd say you done dragged the rest of us into it." Jayne put his hands on his hips and tried to pretend the pilot didn't intimidate him.
Connor smiled, the expression anything but friendly. "Me and Mal resolved those differences last night. He got in his licks, and I got in mine. End of story."
"Well I think I deserve to know if we got us a coward at the helm of our ship," Jayne sneered as they started walking again. He wasn't sure why he liked poking at Connor like this. Maybe because she was so damn pretty when she got good and pissed.
Everything in Connor wanted to turn and deck Jayne. Drawing in a slow, seething breath, the pilot turned her thoughts to River. She was doing all of this for the young woman. Hitting Jayne, while satisfying, would only get them discovered and tossed in jail. Making a mental note to put her fist in his face at the first available opportunity, Connor remained silent as she maneuvered her way through the crowd, Jayne following close at her heels. Obviously he'd already forgotten about her standing up to the contractor. Connor added a lousy memory to the list of things she was learning about the mercenary.
Jayne started mumbling under his breath at her lack of response. Connor ignored him as she came upon the gaggle of boys tormenting the smallest in the group. They all took one look at her and went still.
Connor pointed at the victim of the others. "What's your name?"
The boy, he couldn't be more than ten or eleven, stooped to pick up his cap, dusting it off on his brown pants before putting it back on his blonde head with a sense of dignity. "Robert, ma'am."
"Get your sled and come with us, Robert," Connor announced, her accent once again missing.
Jayne snorted at her choice but didn't protest. Not for the first time, the mercenary pondered how he'd fallen in with the most noble bunch of thieves in the known 'Verse. Seemed like everyone on Serenity had honor, courage, or a bleeding heart. Sometimes he wondered if their ways were rubbing off on him. The thought kept him up at night.
Robert fetched his sled and hurried after Connor, sensing, rightly, that she was the one in charge. "Where to first, ma'am?"
Connor tried not to chafe at the title, knowing the boy was trying to be polite. She snatched the list from Jayne's fingers and handed it to Robert. "Can you help us find all of this?"
"Surely, ma'am," Robert agreed. He glanced up at her then, understanding that a number of the items weren't your run-of-the-mill requests. The woman was watching him, assessing him, and he straightened under her scrutiny before giving her a knowing smile. She wasn't local, he knew that much as surely as he knew he might have found a little adventure for the day with this pair. "Follow me."
The pilot smiled in return. "Gladly."
"Listen," Jayne said as they made their way toward the closest mercantile. "I promised the doc I'd pick up some medical supplies. You got this for now?"
Connor frowned, but she saw no need to object. "Just make it quick," she instructed.
"Not a problem," Jayne replied. "The sooner I'm out of this getup the better." He hooked a finger in his collar and tugged, using his freshly washed nails to scratch at his neck as he broke off from their group.
The pilot watched him go with a mixture of worry and relief.
She was completely unaware that someone was watching them both.
Zoe's head lifted from the trail and fixed on Mal's back. She realized she'd drifted into her own thoughts and had lost track of her surroundings. "So," she echoed, mentally shaking off her daze and focusing in on where she was and what she was supposed to be doing. Getting distracted could get them both killed.
"Good to have Inara back," Mal commented casually.
"Always is, sir," Zoe agreed. She rolled her neck, pleased that Inara's ministrations the night before had released much of the stiffness there that had been making her ache the last few days.
"You filled her in on happenings?"
"What little Kaylee didn't."
"Mmm. Wondering about Connor no doubt."
"No doubt," Zoe said. She removed a canteen from her belt and spun the cap before lifting it to her lips and taking a long draw of water. It had a pleasant, almost metallic, tang. Minerals, probably, from the lake they'd landed next to.
"What'd you tell her?" Mal finally glanced at his second-in-command over his shoulder.
Zoe shrugged as she screwed the cap back on. "What's to tell, sir? Connor's our pilot. We knew her in the war."
"So you didn't mention the time Connor and I woke up in bed together and she was naked as a jaybird?" Mal smirked, wishing, not for the first time or even the hundredth that he could remember that night. He didn't see the tiny grin that flashed across Zoe's face.
"Can't say that I did."
"Probably for the best," Mal mused.
"Why give Inara another reason to think less of you?" Zoe drawled.
"Hey now," Mal chastised, but he kept smiling, pleased by Zoe's humor. "Shame this is an Alliance planet. Wouldn't mind spending some time here."
Zoe glanced around at all the towering trees. It smelled wonderful, she had to admit, and the way the sunlight filtered through the leaves was kind of pretty. Her thoughts began to drift once more, encouraged by the warmth of the sun on her back as Mal continued to ramble on about fishing and camping. Zoe wished the others, especially River, could have gotten out for a bit to explore, but it was simply too dangerous. An image of Inara attempting to navigate the dusty and root-littered trail made Zoe grin. Something told her that a trek through the woods was not the companion's idea of a good time. Suddenly, Zoe wondered what Inara did like and realized she really didn't know.
Fingers snapping in front of her face drew Zoe's head back up. Mal had stopped walking and was looking at her with a mixture of bemusement and mild irritation. "Sorry, sir."
"Wandered off on me there," the captain commented. "This is the place. We're supposed to sit tight and wait on Brandon to deliver the goods."
Brandon Raggley. Zoe thought about the tall, scruffy outlaw and wondered what had brought him here to this small herding planet. As far as scoundrels went, she supposed, Brandon was better than most. The crew of Serenity actually considered him a friend of sorts. Brandon disliked the Alliance almost as much as Mal, so he was probably getting a kick out of meeting right under their noses. He'd also been a browncoat, and in Zoe's book, that made him a kindred brother.
No sooner had she thought of Raggley than he appeared, stepping from the forest with two of his men at his side. Brandon smiled at Mal and Zoe, his grin hidden by a thick, brown mustache, but his green eyes twinkled.
"You got some nerve, Reynolds," Brandon declared, his voice husky and familiar. "I thought you were out of your mind wanting to meet here, but I'm beginning to see some method to your madness."
Mal returned his grin and shook Brandon's hand. "Figured the food would be better at least."
"Zoe," Brandon greeted with a tip of his black cowboy hat in her direction.
The second-in-command offered him a quiet nod.
"We'll need to make this quick. We're on the Alliance's radar these days," Mal informed them.
"Don't we know it." Brandon motioned to his two men who moved back off into the woods. "We seen fresh warrants come out for you and yours. I thought the Alliance had bigger fish to fry these days." He noticed Mal bristle. "No offense," he chuckled.
"None taken," Zoe drawled, knowing Mal didn't feel the same way. "You hear anything out there 'bout why they're on our tails again?"
Brandon shook his head as his men returned with a four-foot long wooden crate. "Beats the hell out of me." He stepped aside to let his men drop the crate before Zoe and Mal. He flipped a dagger out of its sheath and used it to pry off the lid, letting the pair examine the contents. "What little talk I heard revolves around the younger Tam you're hiding."
"River?" Zoe's voice sharpened.
"That'd be the one. She always seemed plugged into the Alliance's secrets. Maybe they got themselves a new one they don't want coming out." Brandon handed Mal a rifle to inspect. "You'll like that one. Some sweet distance on that girl."
Mal sighted down the barrel before nodding with approval. He lowered the weapon. "Heard anything else out there? We've been disconnected for a spell."
"You heard about Bardeen?" One of Brandon's men asked. "Shipful of Reavers hit 'em. Nothin' left."
Zoe and Mal exchanged glances. "Shame," Mal said simply.
"You don't know the half of it," Brandon muttered. "Some of the ore we were getting to make these here weapons was coming from there."
"I thought Bardeen was an Alliance operation?" Zoe wondered.
"It is." Brandon smiled, revealing a glimmer of straight, white teeth. "But we had someone on the inside, skimming off the top and making sure people who needed the money we were paying for it got it."
Mal shook his head and gave Zoe a knowing look. "Connor?" he drawled.
"Hey. You know her? We was bummed to hear she died in the Reaver attack. Damn wrong way for a woman like that to go."
"Mmm," Mal muttered, deciding to keep the fact that the pilot was alive and flying his ship a secret for now. He was also intrigued to hear Connor had been robbing the rich to give to the poor. That made more sense than her giving in and working for the Alliance. Made him feel damn better about her too. He put the rifle back into the crate that held a few other pistols and plenty of ammo. "Looks good, Brandon. Zoe, pay the man."
"With pleasure, sir." Zoe took out a bag of coins and tossed it to Brandon.
"Shiny," Brandon said when he felt the weight of the bag. He didn't check his payment. He knew Mal's word was golden. His men sealed the crate up again. "You headed back for the outer rim?"
"There abouts," Mal admitted.
"A piece of friendly advice Stay away from Nix."
Zoe noted there was something in Brandon's eyes, a secret he wanted them to know but didn't dare speak. "That's on the ass-end of the outer rim," Zoe muttered. "An Alliance prison colony that's as cold as a witch's tit. Why would anyone go near there if they weren't being hauled there in restraints?"
"All true," Brandon agreed. "But something is going on out there. Big enough to draw two Alliance ships out that ways for a few weeks."
"They still there?" Mal asked, chomping at the tasty little morsel Brandon had tossed his way. He didn't see Zoe roll her eyes at her captain's gullibility.
"Didn't exactly go and peek." Brandon tipped his hat at his customers. "Wasn't of a mind to become a resident of the place, if you know what I'm saying. Now if you'll be excusing us, we lingered too long as is. Always a pleasure."
Mal and Zoe watched them blend back into the forest before they each took a handle on the crate and started back toward Serenity, the munitions between them. Mal was blessedly silent for about a quarter of a mile before he spoke the words Zoe had been dreading to hear.
"Maybe we should "
"No, sir," Zoe cut him off.
"You don't know what I was gonna say," Mal protested.
"You were gonna say we needed to check out Nix. We're better off going to ground, waiting until things blow over."
"What better place to do that than the ass-end of the outer rim?" Mal challenged, throwing Zoe's words back at her. "They're up to something, Zoe," Mal said with a little more seriousness. "The Alliance is up to something, and they want us and River out of the way."
"We don't know that what they're up to has anything to do with Nix, sir," Zoe said wearily, already resigning herself to their next stop and wondering if she still had a heavy jacket. "They could be dealing with a prison break for all we know. And the last thing I want is for a sensitive soul like River to be exposed to the thoughts and urges of a penal colony. They throw some of the worst away there, sir," she reminded him.
Mal considered her words as they walked in silence for several minutes. "Zoe."
She glanced up at her captain and waited.
"The Alliance would just blow Nix off its axis. Why would they need two ships to deal with a prison break when two shots from one ship would rid their hands of it?"
Zoe went as cold as the planet they were talking about at the thought. "They wouldn't sir," she answered in a faint voice, slowly coming around to the idea that a visit to the ass-end of the outer rim might be necessary.
"They wouldn't," Mal agreed seriously.
Behind them, still lingering in the forest unseen, Brandon watched them go until the pair disappeared over a small hill in the woods.
"You think they're crazy enough to go to Nix?" One of his men asked.
Brandon frowned as he turned to his men. "Afraid so," he murmured, hoping like hell he might be wrong. "But someone has to go. And it ain't gonna be us."
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