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
Inara's low, worried voice made Zoe's head lift from the task of fanning River back into consciousness. The second-in-command smiled up at the companion who was frozen on the steps at the sight she'd stumbled upon. "Not a thing," Zoe promised her with a smirk. "Unless there is something bad about being kissed senseless."
A hand flew to Inara's mouth in surprise as she released a startled and delighted giggle. "No."
Inara quickly descended the steps and knelt next to the slowly waking River. "Where is Connor?" she asked as she glanced in River's quarters for the pilot.
"Ushered her off to the bridge before clothes started coming off," Zoe said in a droll tone. She watched with some enjoyment as Inara's dark eyes danced at the news. "She didn't see River faint. She'd be hovering if she had."
River chose that moment to ease upright and blink at the two smiling women. Her brow furrowed as she studied them both, and she slowly came to the realization that she was on the floor with Zoe's arms wrapped protectively around her. River could sense the source of their amusement and to her mortification she felt a blush heating her cheeks. "Shut up," she grumbled at both of them before they could say a word.
Inara laughed out loud before reaching out and tucking a strand of hair behind River's ear with affection. "Come now, River. Zoe and I don't have any romantic entanglements of our own. Let us enjoy yours vicariously." She met Zoe's gaze over the younger woman's head and was relieved to see mischief and amusement sparkling in the second-in-command's eyes. It had been so long since she'd seen either in the other woman that Inara found her gaze lingering.
Zoe snorted as River scowled at them both. The effect was more adorable than it was daunting, even if River could take down a roomful of Reavers with her bare hands. "Can you stand?"
"Yes," River promised petulantly and did so just to prove it, even though it required more help than she was happy accepting. She tucked her own hair behind her ears and studied the floor.
"River," Inara said a little more seriously as she used her fingers to lift the younger woman's chin. "Are you sure you're all right? You don't have to rush into anything "
"I started it," River replied with a roll of her eyes. She moved her face away from Inara's touch and started toward the stairs, hoping she could make a clean getaway and get to the bridge.
"River," Zoe said seriously as the girl started up the steps. She waited until River had turned to look at her. "You know we worry because we care."
The younger Tam sighed and appeared contrite. "I just it caught me off guard."
"Connor kissing you?" Zoe asked.
"The way it felt when she kissed me," River clarified.
"Pretty intense, huh?" Inara guessed.
"I fainted," River reminded them.
Inara and Zoe chuckled at River's reply.
"Wish someone would kiss me like that," Inara said with humor but there was a wistful tone to her voice.
Zoe shivered for some reason. She cleared her throat. "Come on. You're going to tell us all about kissing our erstwhile pilot over breakfast."
"Do I have to?" River whined.
"Yes," Inara and Zoe confirmed as a chorus.
River scowled again and started back up the steps. Sarah was going to think she'd done something wrong when River didn't show in the next few minutes. She just knew it.
"Should I get Kaylee?" Inara asked Zoe with a knowing grin, ignoring River's exasperated sigh.
The wait was driving her crazy.
Connor had thought River would have been a few minutes behind her in getting to the bridge. That had been an hour ago. Now Connor was sure she had every bolt, scuff, dent and fabric tear of River's chair memorized she'd glanced at it so many damn times. Setting her jaw, the pilot wrenched her gaze off the empty seat and focused on the viewport. Blackness looked back, not even a pinprick of a star or planet on the horizon to take her mind off her absent co-pilot.
Rubbing her now aching forehead, Connor chastised herself once more for kissing River the way she had. She'd lost control and had probably freaked the younger woman out. The pilot glanced over her shoulder, wishing someone would come up to the bridge to spell her for a few minutes while she sought River out and tried to make things right.
She shifted in her chair, feeling like she was chained to it. Her thoughts raced from one end of the spectrum to the other, bouncing between anger at herself and remembering how gorram good that kiss had felt and how much she desperately wanted to kiss River again.
"Hell with this," Connor finally grumbled, unsnapping her harness and standing up. The damn ship could stay on autopilot for five minutes. She turned and nearly ran right into the subject of her thoughts.
"Hi," River greeted her shyly.
Connor opened her mouth only to close it. Her gaze dipped down and she noted River's bare feet with some relief. She told herself that's why she hadn't heard the younger woman come up the steps and walk up right behind her. "How long were you standing there?"
"Not long," River admitted, but didn't elaborate further. "Is something wrong?"
Blinking, Connor tried to think clearly now that River was suddenly, and unexpectedly, in front of her. She shook her head. "Uh no I was just " She waved toward the crew quarters.
"You were coming to check on me," River guessed as a slow, sweet smile graced her lips.
Connor cleared her throat and hitched her thumbs in her front pockets. "Maybe." Feeling foolish now, she had to fight the urge to get snappish.
"I'm sorry I kept you waiting." River itched to touch the pilot again but she knew this wasn't the time or place. She started to move past Sarah only to have the other woman gently grab her arm.
"Are we okay?" Connor asked, her green gaze intense as she studied River's features. "If I did something "
Maybe it was the time and place, River decided as she leaned forward and silenced the pilot with a quick, soft kiss. "I liked everything you did," River promised seriously, her usually melodic voice dropping a few octaves. "And I hope you want to do it again."
Connor covered the sudden, uncharacteristic weakness in her knees by slumping back into the pilot's chair. "That's good," she replied, slightly out of breath.
River smiled to herself as she moved closer, letting her hand slide along the back of Sarah's chair, her fingers lingering near the heat of the pilot's back. "It's really hard not to touch you all of a sudden," River confessed innocently.
Privately, Connor thought it had been pretty damn hard to keep her hands off River before their first kiss. Now it was proving almost impossible. Her grip tightened on the helm and she cleared her throat again, focusing on the monitors, ignoring River's comment for now. "We made some good time once Kaylee brought the engine back on-line. Mal thought four days with us having to dodge patrols. Looks like we'll be there in less than one now."
Yielding to her body's demands, River let her hand slip from the seat to rest on Sarah's back, under the fall of her soft, dark hair. She felt the pilot swallow at the contact, and experimentally, River began to let her fingers brush a slow trail up Sarah's spine.
"We're on the bridge, River," Connor said with a hint of pleading in her voice.
"I saw Wash and Zoe kissing on the bridge all the time."
Connor tipped her head back to look up at the younger woman. "When they needed to keep their eyes open for Alliance patrols?"
River's hand fell away and she took on a grumpy expression that was so damn cute Connor wanted to laugh. Instead, the pilot focused back on the radar. "Maybe you need a cold shower," she suggested with a quirk of her lips.
Pursing her lips, River chose to say nothing. She tilted her head when she saw an image on one of Sarah's screens. "What's that?"
"Our destination." Connor punched the image up full so that it filled all of her monitors.
The planet was ghostly blue, rimmed with rings of ice that reflected faint light from its distant sun. It was haunting and beautiful to behold, but River knew beneath its evocative exterior was a cold, brutal existence for the men that called the rocky planet home.
Sadness welled inside her as she stared at the monitors, feeling an answering ache as the souls she carried stirred at the sight. The image of the planet darkened, the rings turning red as River watched, transfixed. Screams began to creep in at the edges of her mind, men's final pleas silenced mid-cry and ending in a bloody, ragged gurgle. River started to shiver as the cold crept up through her feet, chilling her calves before crawling up her thighs. A strangled sound escaped her.
"River!" Connor yelled the younger woman's name for the third time. When there was no response again, she pivoted on her foot and started yelling for help. She heard boots pounding along the grating in the crew quarters and tore her gaze away from River's glassy, unblinking stare as Kaylee bounded up onto the bridge.
"What's wrong?" Kaylee asked fearfully, only to have her gaze latch onto River and understanding dawn instantly. "Oh no. I'll get Simon." She scampered away.
Connor twisted River away from the screens and cupped her face between her palms. River seemed to look right through her, the younger woman's body beginning to shudder more violently. Her lips were turning blue and her breath actually fogged in the air between them. River had scared her before, but nothing like this. "River," Connor called again, her voice more desperate. "Come back to me here."
River's features contorted and she took a step away from the pilot, banging into the helm. "No," she whimpered. "Something "
Undeterred, Connor closed the distance between them again, gripping River's wrists as the younger woman started to flail her arms like she was warding off an attacker. "Damn it, River," Connor snapped, taking a slight cuff to the jaw.
River twisted, seeing the glint of light off a blade as it came streaking from nowhere only to disappear into the recesses of her mind. The screams grew louder, more horrific, as she tried to curl up into a ball and hide, but something had a hold of her, something that wouldn't let her go. River sagged when she felt a fevered and warped mind touch her own, thick thoughts of blood and lust slipping over her brain like a slithering snake.
"What's going on?" Mal demanded as he clambered up the steps followed closely by an armed Jayne.
"I don't know," Connor said as she continued to struggle with River. "She saw a picture of the planet then " The pilot shook her head. "Where is Simon?" she demanded.
Mal moved closer, edging Sarah aside and gripping River's shoulders. "Little Albatross? Tell me what you see."
"Mal," Connor spat.
"Tell me what you see," Mal said again, ignoring Connor and her anger.
"Ice. Blood. It's everywhere." River's voice shook and her teeth started to chatter. "They're all dead. All dead. All dead." She finally went still, pressing her back against the flight console.
"What killed 'em, River?" Mal asked, aware of Zoe and Inara's arrival by the familiar sounds of their footfalls. "Can you see?"
River tried to pull away from him as tears spilled from her eyes.
"That's enough," Connor said tightly. The pilot felt Zoe take her elbow and she shook the grip off. "Leave her be, Mal."
Mal ignored her. "Tell me, River." His voice was low and in command, cold and calculated to Connor's heat and anger.
"Tore up. All tore up. Sliced to shreds. Chewed and spat out." River's hands came up and covered her ears. "Make it stop "
Zoe's grip latched onto Connor again and tightened. "Easy," she warned the pilot when Connor tried to go to River again.
"What tore 'em up, River?" Mal asked calmly.
Brown eyes rose and locked on Mal's and he saw the insanity in them. He flinched at the sight, but hardened his heart to it. "What tore 'em up, River?" he repeated.
"Can't see dark here. But it's there. Waiting. Waiting. Hungry."
"Hungry?" Jayne said into the sudden silence. "I really don't like the sound of that."
"Jayne," Inara shushed him, but she gripped his arm for support.
"I can hear it. It's tearing eating." River's face contorted into another grimace. "Oh God "
"That's enough!" Sarah shook off Zoe and shoved Mal out of the way just as Kaylee arrived with Simon. She reached River and wrapped her hand behind the younger woman's neck, drawing her in close.
"Sarah," River gasped as her hands suddenly came up and clenched in the pilot's coat.
If Connor cared that her first name was now out in the open, she didn't show it. She pulled River tighter. "Right here. It's okay." She wasn't sure which of them was shaking harder.
"Sarah," Mal murmured, staring at the pilot strangely. He frowned.
"What happened?" Simon asked as he threaded through the crew to reach his sister.
A soft sob from River froze them all in place. Inara moved first, coming closer, running her hand through the younger woman's soft hair as a way to soothe them both. Her gaze met Connor's in empathy. "You're safe, River."
"No one is ever safe," Connor replied automatically, but her voice was without recrimination.
"Okay," Zoe spoke since no one else seemed to have a mind to. "Let's not panic here."
"Little late for that," Jayne snapped back. "Crazy girl is talking about hungry things chewin' things "
They all stood in silence, the only sound the hum of the engines, their labored breathing, and the softly crying River.
"Nobody has to go planet-side that don't want to," Mal finally told them. Forcing his crew to go would only get him resentment and possibly killed. Those who were crazy enough to come with him needed to believe in what they were doing. They had to believe the risk was worth it. His gaze darted to Connor. "I'm guessing I couldn't keep you on the bridge if I tied you to your chair."
Connor didn't bother to answer him. All she cared about was comforting River. She tightened her grip on the younger woman, pulling her closer as River willingly melted against her.
"I have to go." River told them, sanity abruptly back and clear in her voice. She lifted her head and looked at Simon over Sarah's shoulder, her eyes rimmed with red, daring him to protest, but her brother said nothing. His gaze dropped and he sighed. "It's the only way to end this."
Jayne snarled. "Fine," he groused. "I'll go. But if I get 'et, I'm gonna be pissed."
"You're not going."
Inara glanced up and found Zoe in her doorway. The second-in-command looked righteous in her anger, her sharp cheekbones more pronounced as she clenched her jaw. "I'm going," Inara promised her. "Nothing you can say will change that." She went back to laying out the clothes she was going to change into for Nix, trying to find the attire that would keep her as warm as possible but still allow her the freedom to move easily if she needed to do so.
Zoe put her hands on her hips and watched the companion. She was afraid for all of her shipmates, but something was curdling in her stomach at the thought of Inara going down into that cold hell. "Nix is no place for you, Inara."
"It's no place for any of us," Inara answered hotly. "I don't much want you to go, either," she announced before spinning to face Zoe again. "That enough to get you to stay on-board?"
Zoe sighed and stepped into the companion's shuttle. "I'm a soldier " she began.
"You're a friend," Inara cut her off, her voice breaking a little. She watched as Zoe's gaze snapped up to her face and stayed there. "Wash wasn't the only person on-board that cared about you, Zoe."
Tension rose between them, and Zoe could feel it creeping into her muscles, tightening them almost painfully. "What do you want from me?" Zoe asked, and as soon as the words were past her lips, she understood she was curious about more answers to that question than just the obvious.
"I want you to live," Inara said after a moment of lingering in Zoe's intense regard. "I want all of us to live through this." She shook her head. "Could you stay behind and do nothing? At least Kaylee has a purpose. She can fly us out of here. I would just be pacing the catwalks worrying about you."
"About me?" Zoe asked, her voice sharpening.
Inara sucked down a startled breath and hoped Zoe didn't noticed. "All of you," she corrected, trying to keep her voice casual. Confusion clouded her mind when she realized it was, in fact, Zoe that she was worried about most.
Zoe carefully came closer, glancing down at the bed at the items Inara had laid out. "None of this will work," she said in a subdued tone, her fingers brushing down a silk sleeve where it rested on the satin of Inara's bed.
The companion's gaze was riveted on Zoe's profile. "I don't have anything else."
"Might have something that will fit you," Zoe admitted reluctantly. She looked up into Inara's eyes at close range. "I don't want you to do this."
"I know," Inara admitted. "I don't want you to do this, either."
"Gorram, Alliance," Zoe spat when the silence between them began to stretch and thicken. She turned away and moved back to the door. "I'll bring you a few things in a bit."
"I would appreciate that," Inara replied sincerely. She watched Zoe go, the other woman not bothering to even say goodbye. The companion's fingertips slipped down the sleeve Zoe had touched a few minutes before. She tried to imagine she could still feel Zoe's heat on the soft fabric. What she was beginning to feel was dangerous. It could only cause hurt. But a part of her held fiercely to the awakening truth inside her, not ready to let go of the dreams she hadn't given herself permission to dream until now.
The mechanic raised her head up from under the engine. She was giving it one more going over before they arrived, making sure Serenity was in the best possible shape before they entered Nix's orbit. She discovered Simon in the doorway and managed a smile for him. "Hey."
"Hi." Simon dredged up a grin of his own. "I know you're busy. I just I needed to "
"I was gonna come by in a spell," Kaylee informed him as she dropped a wrench into a nearby toolbox and stood up fully. "Don't want us to still be fightin' when we get there."
Both knew how things could end. There was no need to say the fears aloud. Simon moved closer, a small bag in his hands.
"I don't want that either," Simon agreed with a relieved sigh. "I'm sorry that I upset you. That wasn't my intention."
"And I took it personal when I shouldn't have," Kaylee admitted. Her eyes dipped to the bag. "What's that?"
"It's for you," Simon admitted as he shuffled a little closer. He swallowed nervously.
"Not really hungry," Kaylee confessed assuming the contents were food.
"Good. You wouldn't want to eat this," Simon said with a faint smile. "I keep trying to find the time and the courage to give this to you but I always seem to lack both." He handed her the bag. "Do me a favor and open that after we leave, okay?"
Kaylee glanced up from the bag to Simon with some confusion. "What is it?"
"You'll see," he promised her. "And when I get back there is a question I need to ask you that goes with what's in that bag."
Kaylee frowned in confusion and started to open the small sack. "Why don't I just " Simon's hand came to rest over hers and she stopped.
"Please wait until we're off the ship. I think it might be the only way I can do this." Simon dipped his head and kissed her, lingering for long moments as Kaylee leaned into him and the kiss deepened. It was an unexpected gift, both Kaylee's forgiveness and her welcome touch, and both were strong reminders of why he needed to survive the hell he was about to rush into. He had something and someone to live for, a future he'd never imagined for himself, but one he was now eager to embrace.
"Okay," Kaylee finally agreed when they parted. "Simon, I "
"We'll have plenty to talk about when we're all back on the ship," Simon said. He kissed her gently on the forehead, breathing her in before he turned to go.
"You better make it back," Kaylee called after him with hollow bravado. "You don't want me bein' the one who has to rescue you."
Simon turned back. "Yeah," he agreed. "You don't have your pigs this time."
Kaylee smiled as he winked at her and left. She looked down at the bag, testing its weight a little. For the life of her, she couldn't figure out what was in it. She brought it to her nose and sniffed it, smelling nothing but the grease and oil on her hands. With a shrug, she set it aside for later and got back to work.
For the remaining hours, the crew did their level best to forget everything River had revealed on the bridge. Kaylee continued to pamper the engines, oiling them and tightening every bolt and screw in reach.
Simon packed and repacked his medical kit, finally deciding to leave out all but one vial of River's medicine. Connor seemed to be the thing his sister needed most right now, and the rest of the crew might need the heat packs more.
Mal pawed through his belongings, looking for the one pair of long johns he knew he had tucked away somewhere. He finally found them, torn and slightly tattered in the back of a drawer. He sniffed them carefully, deciding they were acceptable before turning his focus on finding a needle and thread.
Jayne primed his weapons, laying them all out on his bed and trying to decide how many he could carry and still move quickly. Whether Mal liked it or not, he was taking his grenades.
Inara wrote in her journal, pouring her fears out on paper as she waited for Zoe to return. She finally paused, flexing her cramping hand, and reread what she'd written. She sighed knowingly when she saw how often the second-in-command was mentioned in her thoughts.
Zoe lifted the lid on a trunk she hadn't opened in years. She dropped to her knees, breathing in the smell of her husband that still clung to his clothes. Her fingers brushed over the fabrics and she closed her eyes when she felt the tears threaten. The smell brought back the sound of his voice; the feel of his hair as her hands would tunnel through it. Wash didn't need any of this anymore, but Inara did. Slowly, Zoe started to sort through the shirts and pants, looking for the cold weather gear her husband had always kept on hand. She knew in her heart Wash would understand.
A tense calm had descended on the crew of Serenity for the last few hours. Connor wished it could last. She'd give damn near anything to keep River from what was coming. The temptation to lock the younger woman away somewhere until this was over was making her twitch.
She sighed and checked her pistols one more time, spinning the barrel of each and making sure they were fully loaded before sliding them back in their holsters. She had a knife in a small sheath on her belt and a third pistol strapped to her ankle. Connor considered moving the holster to outside her pant leg since she had on so many damn layers between her and the gun. Someone could easily shoot her in the time it took to wrestle the weapon loose.
Nix loomed ahead in the viewport, and Connor eyed the planet with apprehension she couldn't shake. She didn't have to be a psychic like River to know they were going to walk into something horrible. Connor wished she could turn the clock back twenty four hours so she could wake up with River in her arms, and this time she wouldn't let the younger woman out of bed.
"It's pretty," River whispered as she slipped an arm around Sarah's waist.
Connor sighed. One hand was now resting next to the viewport as she stood and watched the planet draw closer. She welcomed River's arrival and her heat even more. "If you like icy cold planets of death," she drawled and was rewarded with a light chuckle from River a second before the younger woman inched closer, nestling against her without hesitation. The pilot closed her eyes and soaked her in, knowing they were almost out of time. In less than half an hour, they'd be on the surface. She took this moment of heaven and held tight to it before they all had to walk into hell. Connor licked her lips. "Any more visions?" she asked softly, relieved that River had seemingly returned to normal quickly after her earlier episode.
River shook her head. "Nothing useful anyway," she admitted, her voice faint.
"More blood and ice?" Connor guessed.
The pilot let her hand drop from the bulkhead and wrapped her arm around River, pulling her closer. The younger woman was dressed warmly, thick pants and solid boots on display beneath her buttoned leather jacket. Connor actually thought River looked rather dashing and badass in the gear. Her lips quirked. "Blood and ice I can handle."
"And whatever is alive down there?" River inquired, her gaze focused on the planet.
"I'll happily let Jayne and one of his grenades take care of that."
River smiled again, turning her head where it rested on Sarah's shoulder and laying a gentle kiss on the pilot's neck. She felt Sarah shiver in reaction, and her smile turned more sensual. It was hard to believe she could have such a physical effect on such a beautiful woman, and it filled River with an odd sense of seductive power. "You always know how to make me smile."
They were quiet a moment.
"I wish you didn't have to do this," Connor confessed.
"Easier for me than you," River replied. "I know what's down there. I've seen it and worse in my dreams carried the images in my mind." She sighed a little.
"Still no idea what the Alliance is up to?" Connor wondered.
River shook her head again. "You cloud everything up," she whispered. "You keep the bad stuff away but sometimes the bad stuff tells me things. Not that I ever seem to be able to make sense of them."
Connor considered that. "You telling me I should stay away from you?" she asked softly.
"Please don't," River answered readily. "I almost feel normal when I'm with you. Like I'm balanced."
The pilot felt the sudden fear that had coiled in her stomach unwind. "Want to know a secret?"
"You do the same for me."
River slowly eased back, bringing one hand up to cradle Sarah's face and easing the pilot closer so she could kiss her with simple, quiet passion. Sarah's hands rested in the small of River's back before inching upward, her fingertips sending electric currents through River's body. River pressed closer, feeling everything fall away for several long, sweet moments.
A throat cleared and they parted reluctantly.
"Really hope this isn't gonna be a habit," Zoe announced from the steps. "Me interrupting, not you two kissing," she felt the need to explain with a weak smile.
Connor snorted softly in amusement. "Time to go?"
"Time to go," Zoe confirmed as she stepped aside and made room for Kaylee. "You okay to land this bird?" she asked the mechanic.
"If I didn't always have to fix her, I'd be flyin' her," Kaylee promised them, a small bag clutched in one fist as she settled into the pilot's chair.
"Take care of her, Kaylee," Connor said as she took River's hand and they followed Zoe down the steps.
"Take care of yourselves," Kaylee whispered when she was alone.
The cold awaited them.
The surface sheets of ice and snow. The breath-robbing temperatures that could literally chill a man's blood. And, of course, the hundreds and hundreds of cold, still bodies.
Would there be blood everywhere? Would it be spattered on the walls, temporarily melting a thin layer of ice with heat before succumbing to the inevitable and freezing into the frost?
The former Operative found it likely as he mused about his current destination. The crew of Serenity was no doubt preparing for their departure right about now. Mal had wisely brought his ship in on the light side of the planet, the prison colony being the lone structure hidden in the shadows on the other. Two Alliance cruisers hovered there, and he knew they would take few precautions in regards to unwanted ships in this sector.
No one came to Nix unless they did so in shackles on a prison transport, and those transports had been halted until further notice. That was just one of the many reasons the planet was perfect for the Alliance's little experiment. According to his sources, it had worked but it had been far more violent than the doctors and scientists had anticipated. Obviously, he thought, Parliament would never learn to leave well enough alone.
He spared a moment to wish that he could see Mal's face when he discovered the carnage that was sure to greet him. And River how would she handle the sight of all those bodies belonging to the souls he was sure were in her head now? Not that he wished them ill will. Far from it, in fact. He was simply fascinated with them all to varying degrees, and merely wondered how they would endure this latest test of their mettle.
It wouldn't be long now until he joined the little firefly's crew he thought with a faint smile as he detected the first hints of the ice rings that surrounded the ghostly blue planet. Nix was actually quite beautiful when you looked at nothing but the surface. It was rather like the Alliance that way.
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