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


Part 11

Inara smiled as she followed the sounds of tinkering and colorfully muttered Chinese curses. She found the subject of her search, or at least her legs, sticking out from under Serenity's helm on the bridge. The companion leaned in the doorway, jumping a little when she heard a loud clang as a resistant panel finally gave way. Kaylee's hand emerged from under the helm as it sought a tool by feel alone. Guessing the mechanic was after her favorite wrench, Inara moved closer and retrieved it, holding it where Kaylee would find it.

The mechanic did, banging her head in surprise when she realized she wasn't alone. "Ow."

Inara winced. "Sorry. I was trying to be helpful." Amused, Inara watched as Kaylee shimmied out from under the helm and sat up. The mechanic was rubbing a small red mark on her forehead. Kaylee still sported a few splotches of the anti-itch ointment, but much fewer than Inara had seen when she'd returned to Serenity.

"S'okay." Kaylee flashed a grin at her friend and got to her knees before easing herself upright.

"Everything all right under there?" Inara asked.

"That's what I was tryin' to figure. Just makin' sure the ole girl didn't have any surprises lurkin'. Who knows what the contractors had time to do to her." Kaylee patted the console on the helm before sinking into the pilot's chair. She noted Inara's raised eyebrows. "What? I can sit here. I ain't a pilot."

"But you think the chair is cursed," the companion reminded her friend with bemusement.

"Sure seems like it. Glad to see Connor buckin' the trend so far. But I don't think Wash would mind me sittin' here."

Inara shook her head at Kaylee adorable and superstitious nature, but didn't comment as she moved past her friend and strolled toward the viewport to look at the charming central planet they'd landed upon. "It's pretty."

"It is that," Kaylee agreed as she scratched at an itch on her chin with the back of her hand, leaving a trail of grease in its wake. "Can't say that I really want to go explorin', though."

"No?" Inara crossed her arms and turned back to her best friend. "You and Simon don't want to take a romantic stroll through the woods?"

Kaylee made a face like she'd smelled something unpleasant. "Me and Simon aren't on such good terms lately." The mechanic caught a flash of color behind Inara and her eyes widened as she watched River making her way over the rocks toward the lake. The fleeting thought to call Simon and let him know that his sister was going AWOL came to mind, but Kaylee stifled the notion. Simon smothered the younger woman, and Kaylee wasn't in a mood to speak to him anyway.

"Trouble in paradise again?" Inara's voice was full of mirth.

Kaylee used her foot to twist the chair around so she could check the radar to make sure there was no one outside that might harm River. "When ain't there?" she muttered. She looked up in time to see Inara starting to turn toward the viewport and decided a distraction was in order if River was going to get any time to herself. "So!" She almost shouted.

Inara tilted her head and looked at her friend as if she'd just lost her mind. "So…" she repeated much more calmly.

"What's new with you?" Kaylee asked as she fished desperately through her mind for a topic.

"Since we spoke last night?" Inara asked with an amused twist to her lips. "Not much." She thought of her time with Zoe in the galley. Inara could still remember the way Zoe's shoulders had felt beneath her hands, all warm and strong, contrasting with the soft skin of the second-in-command's neck. "I spoke with Zoe."

"Yeah?" Kaylee asked, her eyes darting once more to River who was now standing knee-deep in the water. She shook her head at the girl's antics.

"She seemed… lost. In pain." Inara's amusement faded to be replaced with worry. "I hate seeing her like that."

With effort, Kaylee tore her eyes off River and focused her gaze on Inara. "She got hit with a couple of stunners," she informed the companion.

Inara sighed and studied the floor before taking a few steps closer to Kaylee. "I miss her."

"Zoe? She's only been gone an…"

"No," Inara cut her friend off gently. "The way Zoe used to be when Wash was here. She has such a wry wit… such an infectious and beautiful laugh. Neither put in much of an appearance these days."

It was true, and Kaylee felt her heart sink a little at the reminder of Wash's loss and all it had cost them. "She's still grievin'."

"It's been years, Kaylee," Inara murmured. "I worry for her."

"We all do," Kaylee admitted. "But she won't let us close. It ain't her way."

Inara thought of last night again, of the rarity of the evening she'd shared with Zoe. She made a vow, right then and there, that it was time for Zoe to move on… to live life rather than just exist in it. She'd do what she could to make sure that happened. It was time.

Suddenly, like she'd been fired out of a slingshot, Kaylee bolted to her feet, jarring Inara out of her thoughts. "What?" the companion asked, startled.

The mechanic spun on her heel and ran for the door. "She fell in!" Kaylee shouted. "Get Simon!"

Inara watched her friend run away in shock before she turned to the viewport. Horror washed over her as she saw the water churning and splashing. Instinctively, Inara knew who was in that water. She took two steps forward and grabbed the comm, yanking it down and pulling the microphone to her lips to call for help.

Mal and Zoe slowed when they saw Inara waiting for them at the base of Serenity's ramp. The companion slowly stood, and Zoe could see it in her friend's beautiful features that something bad had happened.

"Tell me," Mal ordered as they hurried up Serenity's ramp and set down the crate of munitions just inside the door.

"We don't know," Inara said in a weak voice. "River… she snuck outside. Kaylee saw her go into the lake."

Mal's whole posture went rigid, like he was preparing for a blow. "And?" his voice was soft.

Inara swallowed. "Kaylee pulled her out, but she wasn't breathing."

"Inara…" Zoe blurted impatiently. "Tell us that girl is alive down in the infirmary."

"She is," Inara said hastily, realizing that she was going about telling her shipmates the news in the wrong way. A lack of sleep and stress at the situation was muddying her mind. She'd been obsessing over what to tell Mal and Zoe for almost an hour and thought she had the words ready, but seeing them and knowing how they'd take the news had knocked the thoughts completely from her head. "But she's…" she searched for the right word.

Mal brushed past her, too impatient to wait for the news. He needed to see with his own eyes. He broke into a run as he reached the door.

Zoe watched him go before looking back at the companion. "She's what?"

"She's just… not there. River is awake and breathing, but she hasn't said anything… hasn't acknowledged anyone's presence…" Inara shook her head. "I'm scared for her, Zoe. There is a look in her eyes I haven't seen in…"

Before she had the conscious thought to do so, Zoe moved forward and gathered Inara in her arms. Zoe shushed the companion gently as Inara's hands fisted into the back of the brown leather vest she was wearing. "She'll be all right. Simon's a good doctor. As long as River's breathing, he'll find away to bring her back to us."

Mal drew up short when he reached the infirmary. Kaylee was sitting next to the bed with a blanket over her shoulders. The mechanic looked away from the motionless River to give Mal a sad smile. "Welcome back, cap'n."

"Kaylee," Mal breathed as he moved closer. He put his hand on her shoulder and felt her own hand cover his. Kaylee's touch was cool but thankfully not cold. "How's our girl?"

Mal almost couldn't look at River beyond the initial glance. It hurt his heart too much to see her like this after watching how vibrant and alive she'd seemed of late. The young woman lay on the exam bed, her dark brown eyes fully dilated and fixed on something the rest of them couldn't see.

"Still with us, sir," Kaylee proclaimed as Simon moved about behind them. "She's just… off in her head for a bit." Kaylee reached out and moved a lock of hair from River's features. "Aren'tcha, sweetheart?"

Mal's throat moved convulsively before his eyes darted to Simon who was now watching him expectantly. "Doc." The word managed to sound like a question, an order, and an apology.

"Her vitals are good," Simon informed him. "Body temperature is where it needs to be. There is no sign of permanent damage." He didn't sound relieved, and Mal noticed.

Mal leaned over River, looking down into her features. She really had matured from a gangly teenager into a beautiful woman. He sighed. "Little Albatross? You in there?" There was no answer, and Mal's eyes darted back to Simon who shrugged helplessly.

"There is something you should see," Simon said and motioned Mal closer.

The captain squeezed Kaylee's shoulder before moving over to stand at the counter with the doctor. He watched as Simon retrieved the results of three scans, handing him one of them. "What am I looking at here, doc?"

Simon indicated a multi-hued area the size of his fist on an image of River's brain. "This is a scan I took of River's brain shortly before Miranda."

Mal's gaze jerked up to the doctor as his stomach seemed to plunge somewhere around his ankles. "I take it the pretty colors ain't normal?"

Simon pursed his lips and shook his head. He handed the captain the next scan. "This was River's brain after Miranda."

The scan still had plenty of color, Mal noted, obviously indicative of River's hidden talents, but there was no fist-sized blob. "Okay."

"This is a scan I took of River's brain half an hour ago." Simon handed Mal the last scan.

The captain raked a hand through his hair and cupped the base of his neck. What he was looking at made him feel sick. Most of River's brain was a rainbow of color, almost the entire image awash in it. "This ain't good."

"It isn't," Simon agreed. "Kaylee saw her go in the water. She said it was like an invisible force grabbed her and pulled her in."

"An invisible force?"

"I looked up," Kaylee's voice hesitantly intruded. "She was on the rocks screamin' at someone. Then I swear, cap'n, it was like someone jerked her in. I went runnin'…" She swallowed and looked down in defeat.

"You did good," Mal told his mechanic. "She's still here. Whatever flipped these here parts of River's brain on must have had something to do with it."

"It's like Miranda," Simon murmured wearily. "Whatever is in River's head… it's interfering with everything that makes her who she is."

Mal glanced at the scan once more before looking back at River. He stepped closer to the bed, peering down at the woman who'd become like a little sister to him as well. "Who is in there with you, little one?" he asked. "Cause they ain't welcome." The captain handed the scans back to Simon. "Scan her again in an hour," he ordered before heading for the door.

"Why?" Simon asked in confusion even though he'd been planning to do just that.

"River was carrying millions of souls the last time doctor, and this looks worse. I want to make sure we ain't still adding unwanted passengers."

It was getting too warm and decidedly too humid in town to be wearing this damn dress, Connor decided. Small beads of sweat were forming on her chest and neck only to trickle down her back and into her cleavage. Other women were dabbing at themselves with handkerchiefs, but that was one item of her ensemble that Inara and Mal had forgotten to provide. She made a mental note to add an extra punch to the beat down Mal had coming for the oversight.

Following the young boy through the market, Connor kept her eyes off him and searched instead for the absent Jayne. He'd been gone nearly an hour and a half, more than enough time to fetch any medical supplies and get his ass back here. If she found him tossing back a pint or two, heads were going to roll. Connor was aware her mood had been sliding decidedly downhill from the moment she and Jayne had left, and it was only getting worse. She felt uneasy, like something was horribly wrong. The need to get back to Serenity pulled at her like a physical force, and Connor frowned at the almost desperate yearning to be back at the ship.

She snorted at herself. To think she'd initially wanted nothing to do with the little firefly. Now she didn't want to be apart from her. Connor smirked as she gave the notion more thought. It wasn't Serenity she was missing so much as it was the ship's co-pilot. Falling asleep with River firmly nestled against her had felt so sweet it almost hurt. River had been so gentle with her as she treated the pilot's injuries, even though Connor knew she didn't deserve such a kindness after the way she'd been behaving.

Connor's gaze went inward as she gave her evolving relationship with River some thought. Becoming anything more than friends seemed like a foolish option and just as dangerous. Neither one of them could be considered well adjusted on a good day. River deserved someone with a normal past and a clean conscience. Connor knew she possessed neither. She was fractured, broken.

But in River's arms that morning, Connor had felt whole again for a few wonderful minutes. She ached to feel that way again.

A familiar tingle at the base of her neck pulled Connor from her musings and forced her to stop and turn. Her gaze swept the marketplace. Eyes were on her. Connor knew it with the sixth sense a soldier developed in combat. She was in someone's crosshairs, and the sensation had her blood pumping and nerves jangling.


Connor's attention snapped back on the boy. Like the runt of the litter, Robert was too small for his age and one of the weakest, but damn it if he wasn't the most adorable. She felt a familiar pang when she looked at him, a deep ache time hadn't managed to heal. If she was being followed, she didn't want him becoming collateral damage. The pilot weighed the pros and cons of dismissing the boy and looking conspicuous with sending him out of harm's way on a hunch. She gritted her teeth, not liking her choices. "What?"

"We've nearly retrieved everything on the list. We just need the parts for your ship. I know a guy who knows a guy. I can get the parts for you at market price."

The pilot's eyebrows lifted. "Robert, you wouldn't be trying to scam a nice lady, would you?" she almost growled. She decided they would hurry. As soon as they were outside the city gates, Connor would take the sled and pay the kid extra for it, letting him know where he could retrieve it.

His eyes sparkled wickedly, and Connor would have laughed if her thoughts hadn't been so tumultuous. "What makes you think I need such parts at market price?"

"Who likes to pay more than they have to, ma'am?"

She shook her head. "And I'm sure you get bit of a commission," she replied knowingly.

He gave her a theatrical bow and a grin.

"Fine. Let's make it quick. My time here is running short."

They moved through the marketplace once more. Connor kept her eyes peeled for Jayne, but the mercenary had obviously found a deep hole to hide in. There seemed to be no one out of the ordinary watching her. No sign of any more Alliance patrols. She tipped her head back and looked for cameras. There were some, inconspicuously hidden among the trees. They weren't the source of her unease, however. Connor knew what it was like to be the prey under the intense focus of a hunter. She needed to get the last of the parts and Jayne and get the hell back to the ship. "Let's pick up the pace," she told Robert, shifting her attention onto the boy. All she could do right now was protect him. She'd chosen him, plucked him from the group in an attempt to save him a few bruises. She hoped she hadn't just condemned him.

Connor wasn't sure she could live with herself if another little boy died because of her.

She was onto him. It was in her movements, in the tightness across her shoulders. He caught her looking for him, for the cameras, and he smiled, wishing he could tip the hat he kept low on his forehead in acknowledgement, but it was too soon to be revealed. He needed more information.

Privately, the hunter was impressed. Very few were ever aware of his presence until it was too late. He paced her as she made her way through the marketplace with the boy. He could have followed Jayne, but this woman was new to him, a wrinkle in his well thought out plans. Wrinkles intrigued him.

He'd captured an image of her lovely features and was running it against all known criminals and vagabonds. His device beeped softly, and he glanced down at it, frowning when it returned no hits. The hunter shifted his gaze back to his prey as she followed the boy. She moved closer to him, obviously trying to protect him. A mother's instinct, he realized. Was it innate in this one? Or learned?

She traveled with Malcolm Reynolds, the hunter mused. She was younger than him, but perhaps… He brought up the resistance database and entered her picture, waiting curiously. It didn't take long for the device to ping back a hit.

"Hello, Connor," the hunter purred with a smile. There was no first name, and he made a mental note to dig deeper. He glanced over her credentials. "Well, well. Mal found himself another pilot." Looking back up at Connor and the boy, he watched them duck into an alley. "Let's hope you last longer than the previous men who warmed your chair," he murmured.

Jayne glanced around as he emerged from the clinic. He had a bag stuffed with the supplies the doc had requested, and a little something extra in his pocket that just might get Simon out of the doghouse with the mechanic. Kaylee liked her shiny, and Jayne had to admit the doc had nice taste.

He stepped into the street, barely dodging one of the sled kids that were running about. Resisting the urge to cuff the boy upside the head, Jayne merely growled at him and watched the boy back away. His ego happily stoked at the kid's fear, Jayne scanned the crowd, spotting a flash of dark green against the white and grey wood of the buildings around him. Unnoticed, he snatched a clump of red grapes off a fruit stand and headed after the pilot, snacking on his find as he went.

An idea formed, and Jayne grinned, hurrying his steps to catch up with them. As soon as Connor stopped moving, he swooped in and put his arms around her waist, letting his fingers rest a little too high on the underside of her breasts.

"How's my sweet cheeks?" he rumbled before planting a sloppy, wet kiss on the back of her neck. "Urk." It was the only sound that came out as a hand grabbed a portion of his anatomy and twisted.

Connor slowly turned, never letting him go, and smiled sweetly. The ample folds of her dress covered what she was doing, and unless anyone happened to notice the pained expression and beads of sweat rolling down Jayne's face, they would never know something was wrong. "I'm just delightful," she replied through clenched teeth. "Did you get the medical supplies, dear?"

Jayne nodded rapidly, wishing he could go back twenty seconds and knock the idea of copping a feel on Connor right out of his head.

"Good." Connor released him and wiped her hand on her dress as Robert returned. "That the last of it?"

"Yes, ma'am." Robert eased closer and lowered his voice. "Two new patrols have entered the city, ma'am. Should we take our leave to get to your ship?" His gaze cut to Jayne, noting the pained look on the man's features. "Sir, are you in need of a doctor?"

Jayne cleared his throat and shook his head, deciding his voice might come out too high at the moment if he were to speak. He bit his lip and started walking, doing his best to look like someone hadn't tried to twist his man parts off. "I deserved it," he muttered to Connor as he passed. "But don't mean I won't get you back."

The pilot wiped at her neck. "What makes you think we want to avoid the patrols, Robert? This is a Central planet."

"And you have outer rim written all over you, ma'am," Robert said with a grin. "The Alliance ain't all that liked here." He pointed at Jayne's back. "And isn't that Jayne Cobb?"

"You recognized him?" Connor blurted in surprise.

"There's money to be made in knowing who your clients are. Got to look beyond the surface. See what people don't want you to see." He tapped the bill of his cap. "I got all the bulletins on the Serenity crew. They're on my walls at home. Don't got yours, yet," he declared with a twinkle in his eyes that belied his age.

"With any luck on my part, you won't." Connor grabbed the brim of his cap and pulled it down over his eyes. "I knew you were too smart for your own good the minute I laid eyes on you." She allowed her natural accent out, deciding if the boy was going to turn them in he would have done so already. He giggled in amusement, and Connor felt her heart both warm and break at the sound of the young boy's laughter. For a moment, she wished for something that would never be, but then she spotted the patrol coming and shoved the thought to the back of her mind, her hand reaching for the silver locket at her throat and missing it when it closed over Inara's necklace instead. "Time's up. We need to move."

"Just tell me where your ship is," Robert instructed. "I know all the best shortcuts."

"I'll just bet you do," Connor agreed as they gathered the sled and moved off after the slowly shuffling Jayne. She cast one last look at her town over her shoulder. Someone was back there – watching. The only question was whether or not her hunter would leave the safety of the town for the woods. They would soon find out.

River's hand was as cold and lifeless as the young woman's fixed stare at the ceiling. Inara eased onto the stool next to her, assuming watch for Kaylee and Simon who'd gone to fetch something to eat at her urging. Seeing River like this hurt Inara's heart, and she privately blamed herself for her friend's condition. Kaylee hadn't been the only one to know that River had stolen away for some quiet time in the sun.

Leaning forward, Inara studied River's placid features. There was no emotion present whatsoever. Only the occasional involuntary blink of the young woman's eyes indicated she was alive. At first glance, Inara thought with a shiver, River looked like a corpse.

Inara sighed, wishing there was something more useful she could do than sit helplessly by and hold River's hand. The companion had tried to convince Mal that they needed to fetch Connor and Jayne, that the pilot would want to know that River was hurting. Even Jayne would care in his own way, she knew. But Mal had refused, and she had to admit he was right to do so. They needed the supplies, now more than ever.

Irrationally, Inara felt anger at the missing pilot. Connor's place should be at River's side right now, not off stocking up on food and engine parts. Why she thought Connor could make all of this better, Inara had no idea. Perhaps it was the hopeless romantic in her talking.

An idea formed, and Inara decided to give it a try, figuring it certainly couldn't hurt. "River?" Inara beckoned the girl in a soft, quiet tone. "You need to talk to us, sweetheart. I was so looking forward to some time alone with you. You haven't filled me in on our new pilot." Inara's voice warmed. "You seem quite taken with her."

River continued to stare ahead and said nothing.

Inara swallowed and began to thread one hand through River's hair. "Not that I blame you," she went on, undeterred by the lack of response. "You should have seen her in my dress. Not sure I can wear it now. I wouldn't do it the justice she does." Inara bit her lip as she considered what else to say that might draw River out of her self-imposed prison. "I've seen the way she looks at you, though. Her eyes are always on you, following you. You aren't the only one who is smitten, I believe, and I know about these things."

River blinked, but her blank stare continued.

Inara rubbed at an aching temple. "River," she sighed. "Connor will be back soon. You don't want her coming back to you like this, do you? Sweetheart, you need to wake up."

A noise from the guest quarters drew the companion's attention to the doorway. She expected Simon or maybe even Mal arriving to check up on the girl, but there was no one there. Inara frowned and turned back to River only to gasp.

River was sitting upright, her legs already swung over the side of the bed. Her face was still devoid of emotion, her brown eyes nearly black as she stared through Inara as if the companion weren't there. It was as if a switch had been flipped, and River had risen on autopilot. Inara hadn't even heard her move.

"River," Inara breathed, feeling the thud of her frightened heart against her ribs. "Goodness. You scared me." She smiled hesitantly. "Should have known talking about Connor would get your…" Inara trailed off as River slipped off the bed and stood before walking away without a word.

Once they were far enough past the city gates and into the secluded coolness of the woods, Connor stopped the sled by putting her foot on it. The persistent sensation of eyes boring into her back wasn't lessening in the least. Going another step without a weapon was out of the question.

"Ma'am?" Robert said with a worried edge to his voice.

"Stop calling me that," Connor snapped as she began hiking up her skirt.

"What should I call you, ma'am?" Robert asked as he stared with rapt attention.

"Sa…" Connor swallowed when she realized what she'd almost called herself. "Just call me pilot, okay?" She watched his young eyes widen almost comically at her actions. Belatedly, Connor realized she was giving him quite a view.

Jayne turned to see what the fuss was about and grimaced. A particular part of his anatomy still hurt too much to enjoy the slow reveal of leg, although it was pretty damn impressive. He would have offered to help if he hadn't been so terrified that Connor would finish what she started and leave him a eunuch.

"Uh-huh," Robert said as he watched Connor reach under her skirt and retrieve a pistol that had been strapped to a strong thigh. He swallowed as Connor stood and let the folds of her skirt drop back to her ankles. His attention snapped to the woods when he heard a bird cry warble from somewhere deep in the forest.

Connor went still, feeling her stomach sink at the look of concern on the young boy's face. "What?" she demanded, already suspecting the answer.

Robert gave a swift tug on the sled and it glided forward. "Patrol is coming."

They heard a second warble, and Connor looked at the boy with alarm. "I'm going to guess that means they're armed."

"Good guess, ma'am… pilot," the boy corrected. "Some of the other boys recognized Mr. Cobb. Maybe one of them did something stupid. I'll make 'em pay if I find out who it…" His words jammed in his throat as Connor spun him to look at her. She knelt in front of him, her green eyes sharp and serious.

"No you won't. You keep you head down. Do you hear me? Don't draw attention to yourself. That's a world of trouble you and yours don't need." She put a bag full of coins in his hand and closed her fingers around it. "We'll leave your sled at the lake that ends this trail about a mile from here."


"Connor, we need to go," Jayne called impatiently. He slipped a pistol from his pocket and scanned the trees. "We got company coming."

"Please…" Was all Connor got out before a shot struck next to the sled, spraying them all with dirt. Grabbing the boy, she put herself between him and any bullets.

"It's a gorram patrol," Jayne yelled, firing back into the woods when he saw a flash of a uniform. He grabbed the sled and started running, gritting his teeth against the pain in his groin. A second shot splintered wood off a tree, the slivers stinging Jayne's face. He swore but kept running.

Connor grabbed Robert and tossed him behind a clump of bushes. Jayne was moving away fast, and she could hear the patrol closing in. Voices reached her, shouting frantic commands. She was out of time. "You stay here and stay down," she ordered. Robert looked up at her, his features brave but his eyes full of fear. She reached out and, in a moment of weakness, ran her fingers through his hair before she turned and ran, firing off a string of shots toward the patrol. The shouting increased, and Connor could hear men breaking through the underbrush, barreling down on her position.

Her lungs and thighs burned as Connor put on some speed, grateful she'd kept short boots on under her dress. If she's worn the shoes Inara had tried to talk her into she'd be dead already. Several members of the patrol returned fire, and Connor jerked as she felt and heard a bullet whiz by her ear.

Pivoting, Connor fired, drilling down on the sound of someone close. An Alliance officer went down with her bullet between his eyes. Connor hefted her skirts and started running again, Malcolm Reynolds' name a repeating curse in her head.

They reached the clearing with the patrol hot on their heels. Jayne was running for Serenity's ramp, and Mal appeared with Zoe when they saw them coming.

A bullet spit through Connor's skirt, and she tripped, the ground rushing up to meet her hard. The impact jarred her teeth and tore at her flesh, but she ignored the pain and rolled, bringing the pistol around to bear on anyone behind her.

Five rifle shots cracked in quick succession from deep in the woods. Then there was nothing but sudden stillness.

Connor clamored back to her feet, feeling Zoe's grip latch onto one arm to help her. They both hurried to Serenity, running up the ramp and just missing the now empty hover sled as it came zipping down past them.

The pilot looked at Jayne in surprise as Mal closed the cargo bay door.

"What?" Jayne sneered. "Kid needs it to make a livin'."

Connor just blinked at him as Mal moved off to fly them out of there.

Jayne motioned toward the infirmary as his other hand none too subtly cupped an area below his belt. "I'm gonna stop off in the infirmary. Say hi to the doc." He turned and shuffle stepped away.

Serenity's engines fired and the ship began to shake. Zoe and Connor looked at each other, seeing a story to tell in the other's eyes. "What happened?" they both demanded of the other.

The hunter slipped the rifle onto his back, feeling the heat of the recently fired barrel through the leather holster. He smiled as he passed the wide-eyed boy in the woods. "Your friends got away just fine," he informed him.

"You kill those patrols, Mister?" Robert asked fearfully.

The hunter smiled and kept walking. He'd hoped he would see River Tam, but today was not to be the day.

Soon, though. Very soon, he promised himself.

Part 12

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