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
Zoe had never been this cold. Inside and out, she felt like she was turning into ice. Her clothes seemed to be freezing to the rocky wall, and she wondered vaguely how in the hell she was supposed to get out of this mess without stripping out of her coat.
She closed her eyes and clenched her jaws, trying to fight through the shivers wracking her frame and making her teeth chatter. Aching from head to toe, all she could do was hold on and hope like hell Mal hurried.
"Zoe?" Inara's voice drifted down, full of worry and an emotion Zoe couldn't identify.
"He comin'?" Zoe called back through her teeth.
"He better be," Inara replied, trying to keep her tone light. "Are you hurt?"
Was she? Zoe tried to take stock of her body but couldn't discern any injuries. Her body felt like it was both numb and on fire and she longed for hypothermia to set in. At least then the shakes would stop and she would feel warm, even if it were just an illusion.
"Zoe?" Inara called when her shipmate didn't respond fast enough.
"Don't think so," Zoe finally answered. "But I'm gonna leave some skin on this ice."
Inara winced at the thought only to turn when she heard someone running down the hall. Her hand tightened on her pistol and she swung it up just as Mal rounded the corner. She lowered the weapon instantly only to swear when she discovered what Mal had scrounged up.
"Are you kidding?" Inara shouted at the captain. "This is no time for jokes, Mal!"
"Who's joking?" Mal wanted to know, his eyebrows lifting in mute question as he hefted the shackles he'd found and linked together. "Zoe's hands will be too cold. She ain't gonna be able to tie nothin'."
Inara blinked, her head rocking back a bit as if Mal's logic had reached out and slapped her in the face. "Good point," she muttered before moving out of the captain's way as he scooted closer to the chasm in the floor.
"Zoe?" Mal yelled, his voice even and unconcerned, but Inara had learned to read even his best poker face over the years. He was scared for Zoe, and perhaps even himself. Inara knew Serenity was the most important thing in Malcolm Reynolds's world, but Zoe was the closest thing the captain had to family, and she didn't want to think about what it would do to Mal to lose her.
What it would do to any of them.
If River was the soul of Serenity, Zoe was its backbone. The thought of never hearing Zoe's low, silken voice echoing through the halls again, or seeing her dark, beautiful eyes across the table in the galley made Inara's chest feel like something was trying to rip it apart.
"Hurry," she urged the captain.
"Well now I thought I'd just be leisurely about it," Mal huffed with a disgruntled look at the companion. "Keep trying to raise the others on the radio. No one is answering."
Inara paused. "No one?"
Mal's jaw clenched, the only outward sign he was worried. He shifted onto his stomach and inched to the edge of the hole, peering down into its depths. He could barely make out a figure clinging to the wall about fifteen yards down. Mal licked his chapped lips as he weighed his options, fighting the urge to rush, knowing one mistake could cost him the best friend he'd ever known. "Look at you," he called down to her. "Just hangin' about when there is work to be done."
He heard Zoe snort but there was no other reaction.
"I got some shackles here," Mal went on. "Gonna lower them down to you. Think you can clamp one on your wrist?"
"There's a joke in this somewhere," Zoe answered, her voice jerky as her teeth chattered. "But I'm too damn cold to find it. Do what you gotta do, sir. I'll figure things out on my end."
Mal nodded, pleased with Zoe's lucid response. He looked back at Inara who was pacing the hallway, trying to raise the rest of the crew on the radio. When her gaze met his, he knew she wasn't having any luck. Mal looked away and focused on Zoe. "Right then," he answered in a subdued voice. "Let's do this."
River stopped screaming two hallways back, nearly going slack in Jayne and Simon's hands, forcing them to drag her. The distant boom of Connor's shotgun could still be heard, and Simon took small comfort in knowing the pilot was still on her feet and fighting. He knew it was only a matter of moments, however, when that would cease to be the case. Simon hoped to God they wouldn't be able to hear Connor scream when the Reavers got her.
They cleared a doorway, and Jayne turned to lock it, letting go of River for just a moment. The younger Tam suddenly lashed out with a booted foot, catching him in the back between his shoulder blades and slamming him into the wall with a painful-sounding crunch.
Simon yelled in alarm as his sister grabbed his hand and twisted out of his grip. River moved fluidly, turning and tossing her brother over her shoulder with negligent ease. Simon landed on his back with a clang, feeling the impact rattle every bone in his body, even his teeth.
"I'm sorry," River told him, sounding anything but as he winced and tried to roll over. "I can't leave her."
"River " Simon tried to get his feet under him as Jayne groaned.
River stepped through the door and closed it behind her, entering the codes to seal it before running back the way they'd come.
"Gorram girl," Jayne spat, but he wasn't sure if it was anger or fear for her that made him more upset. He wiped at the blood spilling from his nose before touching the bridge of it and wincing. "She broke my nose," he groused.
Simon heaved himself up on his feet and staggered, grimacing, toward the door. He threw himself against it to no avail before pounding on it and calling River's name.
"Save it, Doc," Jayne instructed him. "We can't help 'em now." He got unsteadily to his feet. "They're on their own. And so are we."
"I can't just leave her," Simon insisted.
"Zoe needs us. Gotta trust River can take care of her own."
Too stunned to do anything but let Jayne guide him away from the door, Simon fell in step behind the mercenary, following him through the macabre halls and away from his sister.
Despite the ice, despite the cold, sweat spilled down Connor's spine and matted her dark hair to her face. The shotgun clicked impotently and she flung it at the Reavers, pivoting on one boot and turning to run, her fingers closing around the grenade in her pocket. She pulled the pin and tossed it hard over her shoulder, hearing it clank on the metal grating amidst growls and grunting bodies.
The rush of air flung her forward and partially around a corner before the sound hit, a blast hard enough to make chunks of ice rip free and tumble from the walls. Connor coughed as she hit the corner and then the floor with enough force to drag the air from her lungs. Ice splintered and rained down on her as blackness threatened the edges of her vision.
Rolling over, the pilot went for the pistol strapped to her ankle, pulling it free just as she heard a howl that made fresh fear surge through her veins. Her boots slipped on the grate, trying to gain purchase as she scrambled backward, stumbling over a dead body as she brought the pistol up to aim at the end of the hallway. Like wounded dogs, Connor knew the Reavers that remained would be fierce when they fell upon her, tearing her apart with hands and teeth, and they would let her live through the hell as long as possible. If she were lucky, they'd just kill her and not try to rape her first.
She swallowed, her hands shaking now from both fatigue and fear. She'd unload every bullet but one into the last of the Reavers. One she would save for herself.
There was a moment where all she heard was her breath and the sick thump of her heart. She closed her eyes and whispered River's name, saying a silent prayer that River was safe. That her sacrifice was worth it. Then sound and chaos slammed home again as the first of the Reavers rounded the corner. Connor's eyes snapped open and her finger tightened on the trigger.
Only to let it go as River leapt over her and headed for the cluster of mutants running toward her.
"River!" Sarah shouted, rolling up onto her knees only to stagger back to the floor as her vision blurred and clouded. She shook the lethargy off in time to see River dodge a knife thrust by one especially large guard. River caught him by the wrist and almost seemed to pirouette as she brought him around like a dance partner, using his own hand to slash the throat of an advancing Reaver.
Kicking another Reaver in the face, River twisted again and pinched the guard's hand, numbing his touch and forcing him to drop the knife, which she caught effortlessly in her free hand. She gutted him before flipping the weapon up and over and throwing it into the heart of another guard.
Sarah watched, nearly too stunned to move as River flowed through the attack, a blur of lethal grace, each step, each move, like a piece of planned choreography. She fought like a dancer, dispatched with the skill of a surgeon. When it was over, scarce moments after it began, Sarah was against the wall, staring, as River slowly rose from the floor, a serrated blade in each hand, both dripping blood.
There wasn't a Reaver left standing.
"I think something is jamming our radio frequencies," Inara informed Mal as she knelt on one knee next to the captain's boots. She didn't dare get any closer to the edge in case their combined weight would be too much for the floor.
"Is it wrong that I almost find that a comfort?" Mal winced as he continued to ease the shackles over the side. He knew he should just about be to Zoe's position. She had gone quiet about five minutes ago and Mal was almost afraid to call out to her in the event she didn't respond. He took a breath, and brushed his fears aside. "Zoe?"
Zoe lifted her head, seeing a shackle in the thin trace of moonlight. It was about two feet from her right hand. She knew she was supposed to do something with it, but her mind was shutting down along with the rest of her body. "Yes, sir," she replied automatically, a soldier's instincts so ingrained in her it required no thought to answer her superior officer.
Mal paused, trying to read Zoe's status in the tone and timbre of her voice. He didn't like what he heard, and when he felt Inara's grip on the heel of his boot he knew the companion wasn't pleased, either. "Gotta tell me if I'm close," he told Zoe. "Don't want to smack you in that pretty face of yours."
"Close?" Zoe closed her eyes. "What's close?"
Inara wiped a nervous hand over her mouth. "We're losing her," she whispered.
"Like hell," Mal disagreed. "Zoe?" He made his voice sound more like a command. "You look up now. That shackle above your head? You grab a hold and snap it to your wrist. You hear me?"
Zoe heard him but it was getting so hard to think. She just wanted to sleep. Warmth was finally stealing through her muscles, easing the painful tension that had been causing them to cramp. For a moment, she forgot where she was, imagining that she was in a soft bed, a warm, bare body wrapping around her from behind. Zoe could almost feel the touch stealing over her skin. Her hand let go of the wall and reached down to intertwine her fingers with the illusion. Her balance shifted, and reality rammed home as Zoe realized she was losing her equilibrium, her body tipping away from the wall.
"Zoe!" Mal yelled, easing the shackles down another foot.
The second-in-command reached out, her stubborn will brushing off the cobwebs blanketing her mind to grip the shackle and stop her fall.
Mal slid a little across the floor in surprise, his head and shoulders slipping over the edge before he stopped himself. "Gorram it," Mal hissed. "Inara!"
The companion gripped the slack and wedged herself behind the door, wrapping the chains around her arm and holding on tight.
Later, Zoe would wonder how she got her other hand to turn lose of the wall, trusting her precarious toehold to keep her from falling to her death. With numb fingers, she fastened the shackle to her right wrist and gave the chain a tiny jerk. Words seemed like too much effort.
Mal nodded and shifted to brace himself. With a groan, he pulled on the chain, feeling Inara take up the slack behind him. Sweat broke out on his chilled features and his face tightened with the strain, but he didn't let go. He wouldn't. If Zoe fell now, he would damn well go with her.
Her heart slowed, abating from a thunderous rhythm into a sick, sluggish thump. Her breathing followed as the red gradually faded from River's vision. When she'd seen the Reavers bearing down on Sarah, when she'd felt what their warped and tormented minds had wanted to do the pilot, River had felt rage wash through her, sweeping away all sense and mercy and leaving nothing but the assassin behind. She had welcomed the anger, knowing she needed it to save Sarah, but now, with the heat of the Reavers blood all over her and pooling around her feet, all River felt was horrified.
Her brown eyes slowly lifted from the carnage, needing to see if Sarah was all right. The pilot was sprawled on the floor a few feet away, her green eyes fixed on the twin blades that dangled from River's blood-soaked hands.
The knives clattered to the floor as River looked away, unable to bear the disgust she knew she would find in the cherished green depths of Sarah's eyes. Now that Sarah had seen what she was capable of, now that Sarah knew the ugly truth, there was no way she could look at her without revulsion. River was another creation of the Alliance, as much of a monster as the Reavers that littered the floor at her feet.
Never again would Sarah look at her like a lover, not when she now knew that a killer lurked beneath the surface. Trembling with adrenaline, fear, and shame, River closed her eyes, feeling hot tears spill down her cheeks only to freeze on her chin.
There was a rustle of fabric on metal as Sarah got unsteadily to her feet, followed by the sound of a pistol sliding home into its holster. River could imagine the pilot's pained movements, her struggle to stand, but River didn't move to help. Sarah would not welcome her touch. Not now.
A gasp escaped River's lips and her eyes fluttered open. Sarah's bare hand was against her cheek, wiping away the tears forming tracks through the spatters of blood on her face. River's eyes searched Sarah's, expecting to see disgust, fear, even hate, but there was nothing there but gentleness and
Love, River realized, the same love River had felt infuse every fiber of her soul when Sarah believed she was about to die. Fresh tears brimmed in River's eyes and a soft sob tore lose from her throat.
"You " Connor started to say, tears of her own brimming in her eyes. She could only shake her head when words failed her. Her jaw clenched and pulsed beneath the skin. Sarah swallowed and swayed a little in place. "I should "
"You're hurt," River whispered when she noticed a thin trail of blood making its way down Connor's neck, spilling from just behind the pilot's ear. She reached for Sarah only to have Sarah step back and grab her wrist. River looked down at her gloved fingers, seeing how they were covered in the Reavers' blood. "I'm sorry," she hissed, trying to pull away, horrified and sickened that she'd almost touched Sarah with tainted hands.
"I'm okay," Connor promised, not letting River go and even jerking her a little closer. "Just got my bell rung." She dipped her head and looked at River carefully. "You okay? I've never seen anyone " Connor had to shake her head again, unsure if it was the concussion she was pretty sure she was sporting or what she'd just witnessed that was making speech so damn hard. Something in River's face finally hit home and Connor realized the cause of the other woman's distress. She eased her hand behind River's neck and pulled the younger woman against her, ignoring the blood and gore. Sarah drank in River's heat, feeling grateful that she was able to hold her again. This moment felt like peace, Sarah realized, even surrounded by the vivid reminders of violence and death. She closed her eyes and blotted out everything but the woman in her arms, reveling in the sensation for as long as the fates would allow.
River shuddered in relief at the contact. "Please don't hate me," she pleaded into Sarah's shoulder and felt the pilot's hands twitch on her back.
"Never," Connor promised her. She leaned back and brushed River's hair from the younger woman's eyes. "Never," Connor repeated with more ferocity. "Don't even think it."
"I'm sorry," River murmured, burying her head in the crook of Connor's neck. "I'm so sorry." She closed her eyes as Sarah's hand gently massaged her neck.
"Nothing to be sorry for," Connor replied, leaning heavily on the other woman. "In fact, give me a bit, and I'll be damn impressed."
A clang from behind them made them both turn and look down the charred remains of the hallway.
River frowned, finally able to focus on her surroundings now that so many of the Reavers that had been clouding her thoughts were gone. "He's coming," she murmured.
"Jayne? Simon?" Connor asked, hoping the doctor might have something in his bag for the pounding in her head.
River shook her head. "The monster."
Mal grimaced as he was finally able to reach out and grab the scruff of Zoe's coat. His second-in-command was dead weight as he pulled her the rest of the way out of that damn hole and rolled her out into the hallway. His hands ached as he flexed them and reached into his pocket for the key he'd found with the cuffs.
Inara dropped to her knees, turning Zoe over so she could look into her still features. "Zoe?" she called, barely able to control the panic that wanted to creep into her voice. Her palms framed Zoe's face and the companion winced at how cold the other woman was. "Zoe, please," she pleaded.
Unlocking the shackle, Mal worked the cuff off Zoe's wrist, ignoring how the metal had gouged a deep ring in his friend's skin. He shoved the shackle aside, listening as the chain links clattered over the side of the hole then fell away. Mal pulled himself up on his knees and studied Zoe's face. His hands were too cold and in too much pain to check for a pulse. He eased his face down next to Zoe's lips, waiting for the telltale sign of her breath on his cheek. It took way too damn long before he felt it, but it was enough to make some of the tension in his body unwind.
"Still here," he announced and he watched as Inara nearly sagged with relief. "I need you to get her back to the ship."
Inara stilled. "Me? Aren't you coming with us?" she asked in disbelief.
"Nothin' I'd like more," Mal promised. "But we came here for a reason. I ain't leaving until I got answers."
"What about that damn bag?" Inara said with a wave at the satchel that sat almost forgotten against the wall, her fear now making way for frustration. "Maybe your gorram answers are in there."
Mal pursed his lips. "Could be," he conceded without rancor. "Need to be sure, though. We didn't come this far and nearly lose Zoe to turn back now."
Zoe groaned softly and both the captain and companion's attention were instantly riveted back on her.
Inara gripped Zoe's hand and leaned closer. "Zoe?" she called softly, letting the backs of her fingers caress the sharp edge of Zoe's cheekbone.
Dark eyes fluttered open and Zoe groaned again, curling her body in on itself. Mal's jaw clenched, but there was no other outward sign he was affected by her suffering. "Find the doc," he instructed Inara. "Get Zoe back to the shuttle."
"And what if we run into whatever killed all these people?" Inara wanted to know as she brushed her hand through Zoe's hair, trying to bring the semi-lucid woman fully back into the present.
"Might want to avoid that," Mal advised as he stood and grabbed the satchel and flung it over his shoulder.
"Mal," Inara spat.
"Time is a'wastin'," he told her. "Take care of her," he ordered with one last look at both of them before he turned and ran down the hallway.
Inara sighed. "Promise me I can slap him later," she said to Zoe. Zoe almost seemed to smile at the sentiment and Inara found her own mouth easing into a soft grin. She leaned over and gently brushed her lips against Zoe's cool forehead. "Come on," she coaxed. "Wake up and help me," Inara urged. "You know you want to," she teased.
"Inara?" Zoe's voice was rough and painful to hear, but it had never sounded sweeter to the companion.
"Right here," Inara vowed, leaning closer until they were nearly nose-to-nose. Zoe's dark eyes focused on her face and Inara saw the recognition flare in their depths. She stroked Zoe's cheek again just because she could.
Zoe stared up at her before slowly reaching up and wiping away a tear the companion didn't even know she was crying.
A soft beep slowly roused Kaylee from sleep. She lifted her head, her eyelids fluttering open to reveal a viewport covered with snow. Sniffling slightly, Kaylee checked the time before shifting her attention onto the radar. It was clear save for the two ships in orbit, but those had been there when they'd landed so no surprises there.
Tunneling a hand through her hair, Kaylee yawned and sat up straighter, her other hand tightening on the paper bag she had clutched to her chest. She couldn't believe she'd drifted off, but none of them had been getting much sleep lately. Noting that she hadn't missed any waves from the crew, she began to look around for the sound that had roused her from sleep.
The beep came again, and Kaylee turned her head, looking past her right elbow to various screens just beyond it. When she finally located the source of the noise, she bounced up so fast that the bag toppled to the floor, its contents spilling out and tumbling under the helm. "Oh jeez."
Kaylee tried to raise the captain on the radio but only static came back. Frantically, she tried the others, but to no avail. Swearing, Kaylee reached up and flipped a switch to spin the engine up. According to Serenity's sensors, the Alliance ships were powering up their weapons. Either something bigger and badder was headed right for them, or they were about to blow the penal colony all to hell. Mal and the others would never make it back in time. She would have to go to them.
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