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 20

"Can you stand?"

Zoe considered the request, taking stock of her body and its hurts. There really didn't seem to be much choice in the matter, so she slowly nodded her head, hearing Inara's sigh of relief. In a fuzzy way, Zoe was pleased she'd done something to make Inara happy.

"Good," the companion answered firmly. "Because I'm quite sure I can't carry you."

Zoe's lips twitched and she shook her head just a little, trying to clear some of the cobwebs coating her mind. She felt warm and lazy and just wanted to sink back down into sleep, but there was no way Inara could escape on her own. Zoe knew she needed to help, which meant getting her butt in gear whether she wanted to or not. She eased an arm around Inara's shoulders, aware of her heat and scent as she was eased onto her feet. She didn't let the other woman go once she'd found her footing.

"You okay?" Inara whispered in the icy hallway, aching to hear Zoe's voice.

"Working on it," Zoe croaked, pleased she could still speak when pressed. Some of the tension in Inara's shoulders relaxed under her arm. "Are you?" Zoe asked softly, turning her head and making eye contact with Inara at close range. She watched Inara's throat ripple as the other woman swallowed.

Inara hesitated, wondering what truths to speak and which to keep to herself for now. Zoe was staring at her intently, and the companion momentarily forgot how to make her tongue work. "I… yes," she murmured, oddly breathless. "At least I will be when we're off this godforsaken rock."

"Amen to that," Zoe said after a brief delay. Shaking her head again, she pulled Inara a little closer and shifted so they could start down the hall at a slow, but steady, pace. "Don't know where we'll hole up next," Zoe muttered, "but I'm hopin' it'll be warm."

"I'll get you warm," Inara promised only to blink when she realized how that might sound. She risked a peek at Zoe and found the other woman looking back at her with a slightly bemused expression. "You know what I mean."

"Surely do," Zoe agreed, but her mouth twitched as she fought a grin. "Thanks," she murmured to Inara, the gratitude encompassing so much more than the companion knew.

Inara glanced at her as they continued down the icy corridors on their way back to the ship. "My pleasure," she replied with the faint trace of a confused smile.

They heard something pounding toward them from up ahead and they both went still. Zoe stepped away from Inara, her hand sliding her remaining pistol out of its holster, the other weapon having plummeted to the bottom of the pit when the floor had given way beneath her. Her legs were shaking, but mercifully they held her weight. "Behind me," she instructed without preamble.

Inara complied, but she brought her own weapon up, holding it with one hand while keeping her other against Zoe's back for support. "Now what?" she complained.

"Just had to venture about on your own, didn't you, Malcolm?" Mal muttered as he made his way down another body-strewn hallway. With no audience present, however, Mal did nothing to hide his grimace of distaste at the smell or the sights that greeted him.

He felt a pang at leaving Inara and Zoe to fend for themselves, but Zoe at half speed was better than most with all their faculties. As for Inara, she looked pretty and delicate as china, but she'd tear a man's eyes out if she had to. The captain took small comfort in his crew's capabilities, wishing, not for the first time, that he hadn't dragged them out to this cold hell.

Deep down, though, Mal knew there was no choice. The Alliance was after them with a vengeance – again. They needed to know why before they could plan a move that wouldn't get them all dead. He hadn't expected this, though. No one could have expected this. No one but River, he mentally amended, aching anew for what the young woman must have been seeing in her mind's eye the last few days. How the girl didn't go as crazy as a loon was a mystery. Everyone always behaved like the young woman had a weak mind, but Mal was firmly convinced the exact opposite was true.

The captain paused at two adjoining hallways, his breath fast and jerky as it fogged in the cold air before him. The prison now seemed deathly quiet with only his thudding heart for company. Mal licked his chapped lips and resisted the urge to turn back. He would be to the control room soon if he had this place figured right. Once he had what he needed, he would waste no time or pride getting back to the ship as fast as his legs would carry him.

Hell, maybe he'd cross paths with the others while he was at it.

The thought cheered him somewhat as he chose his path.

"He's close."

Connor glanced behind them, feeling the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. There was nothing there but the same carnage they'd passed on the way in, the same walls thick with ice and blood. She'd retrieved one of the gun belts from a fallen guard, strapping it on with a sense of relief. Her own ammo was gone, and she suspected the new guns she was sporting had far more stopping power than what she'd been carrying. It was strange that the Reavers had chosen to use knives instead of their guns, Connor thought, but then again, savage minds preferred savage means. She would just count herself lucky that the Reavers had wanted to feel her blood spill over their hands rather than just spilling her blood from afar. It was a damn strange thing to be grateful for, but Connor would take what luck she could get.

River also sported a pistol in her right hand, but the way she carried it with so little regard made the pilot wonder if River was even aware of the press of the weapon against her palm. The younger woman was clearly exhausted, swaying a little with each step, the pistol banging repeatedly against her thigh. Connor wanted to scoop her up into her arms, hold her close, and carry her out of this nightmare, but neither of them were in the shape to do anything more than put one foot in front of the other.

"Guess I should have held on to that grenade," Connor muttered, her accent a little slurred and thicker than normal.

"Won't need it," River answered.

"Against a monster?" Connor replied, dubious.

"A man who thinks he's a monster," River clarified, tripping a little and slumping into the wall. Connor's hands were suddenly on her, stabilizing her even as they spun her around.

"What man?" the pilot demanded, her voice sharpening. "You said a monster was coming."

River frowned and closed her eyes, trying to think. "He is. He's killed thousands." She had to put her hands on Sarah's shoulders to stay upright. "Tired," she whispered.

"If he's a man, River, then we'll hide and wait." Sarah glanced away, taking in their surroundings as she tried to formulate a plan. She was jerked out of her musings by River's emphatic response.

"No." River shook her head. "He brings death. I can feel it. We should leave. Leave him behind."

"The voices in your head telling you that?" Connor asked gently. She watched as River's eyes fluttered open and her gaze locked on Connor's own. River's eyes were clear, and something in Sarah's soul rejoiced at the sight.

"Voices are gone," River promised.

"Gone gone?" Connor asked, feeling slightly silly but breathing easier when River nodded. "Finally something is going right."

River smiled faintly. "Really want to go home," she admitted. Her gaze abruptly shifted off Sarah and back to the hallway behind them.

Sarah turned, her eyes searching the shadows, expecting to see god only knew what lurking in them. "What?" she demanded.

"He wants to find me," River stated the news matter-of-factly, as if there was nothing to be worried about in the slightest.

The knowledge made Sarah go as cold inside as she was outside. River was too weak to fight. Her battle against the Reavers had drained her. Connor made the decision to turn back. She would surprise this bastard, and put a bullet in him hopefully before he even laid eyes on her. "You stay here," she ordered.

"No." River shook her head, her grip fisting in Sarah's coat. "Don't leave."

"River, you can barely stand. I'm going to go check the way we came. I won't be long." Connor touched the younger woman's face, her leather-covered thumb stroking River's cheek. "Besides, I might need you to come rescue me again," she teased, hoping to ease some of River's fears.

River closed her eyes and bowed her head, leaning into Sarah's touch. "He'll find us," she murmured.

"He'll wish he hadn't," Sarah vowed, hoping River wasn't right. She guided the other woman against the wall. "Just stay here. I won't be long."

"Sarah," River called when the pilot was a few feet away. When Sarah turned back to look at her, River felt her words leave her, evaporating under the heat and concern in Sarah's gaze. So River concentrated, broadcasting her feelings if Sarah had half a mind to receive them. When she heard Sarah gasp softly in surprise, River knew she'd succeeded.

"River," Sarah whispered, an edge of awe to her tone.

"Hurry," was River's only response.

Sarah had to force herself to let go of the sweet intensity that had swept through her. Staggering a few steps, the pilot turned and ran, more determined to take care of this so-called "monster" so they could both get out of there and back to Serenity.

River collapsed against the icy wall and simply waited, focusing her thoughts on Sarah, making sure the pilot was safe.

Minutes later, she felt him mere feet before he was on her, and River gave him credit for that. Few could catch her by surprise and he almost had. "I knew you'd come," she said as she opened her eyes and met the monster's gaze squarely with her own.

"Gorram it," Inara hissed, her weapon dropping when she saw Simon and Jayne round the corner, their guns at ready. "Are you trying to get shot?" she spat.

Jayne lowered his weapon. "We're trying to get outta here," he replied, sounding stuffy as his hand came up to pinch his bloody nose. "Got lost."

"Zoe," Simon said with concern, moving closer to the clearly injured woman.

Zoe shrugged off his concern with a wave of her gun, but Simon kept coming. "Be fine, Doc. Just need to get warm and take something for a bad headache."

They all stared at each other, each team taking in the other's absent members.

"River?" Inara whispered.

"Got attacked," Jayne announced, doing a rare act of kindness by sparing Simon from having to share the details. "Connor stayed behind to cover us. River went back to cover Connor."

Zoe and Inara looked worriedly at Simon who merely clenched his jaw in reaction.

"She'll be fine," the doctor announced, but didn't sound like he meant it.

"Who attacked you?" Zoe demanded.

"The guards," Simon murmured as he touched Zoe's cheek and turned her head to study a nasty scratch down the woman's face.

"Been turned into Reavers," Jayne added with a rough swallow.

"Reavers?" Zoe said, her voice gaining strength and sounding clearer. "You sure?"

"Hard to mistake," Jayne grunted as his eyes darted around the space. "Where's Mal?"

"Off being a hero," Inara grumbled.

"Figures," Jayne grumped. "We're beatin' tracks back to the shuttle. You comin'?"

Grateful to have someone to focus his worries on, Simon slipped one of Zoe's arms around his shoulders as Inara quickly claimed the other. "We're all going," he announced in his best physician-knows-best voice. "The others will meet us there."

Simon turned his head and found Zoe looking back at him knowingly.

"You believe that," Zoe told him with conviction. "Understand? Nothing less is good enough."

Simon managed a meager smile. "It's my sister. If anyone can take care of herself she can."

Jayne let them walk past, bringing up the rear so he could cover the wounded Zoe from behind. "Sure as hell took care of my nose," he muttered to no one in particular.

"Gorram it!"

Mal kicked over a small stool in the control room, cursing further as pain bloomed from his toes all the way up his shin. He'd finally arrived at the control room, but the security discs had already been taken, leaving his foolhardy quest to find a visual record of what had happened inside these walls in tatters.

The captain grabbed his radio. "Connor? Jayne? You read?" Silence snapped back at him and Mal cursed again, praying that the other team had simply beaten him there and already retrieved the discs. Their continued silence was worrisome, though.

Mal looked at the massive control panel of switches before glancing through the window down at what had to be a workout field below. It was littered with more bodies. His head tipped back and he took in the monitors above him, each cycling through a preprogrammed sequence of cameras. He felt his heart jerk when he saw a flash of movement on one of them.

Moving closer, Mal waited and watched, desperately needing to see some sign his crew was okay. When he caught a glimpse of Inara and Simon steadying Zoe between them, he felt the breath he'd been holding leave him in a relieved rush.

He sucked it right back in when he saw River. She was spattered with blood, pressed against an icy wall to get as far away from the man who was in front of her. Mal's stomach rolled at the sight of his familiar face, and rage and fear sliced through him in equal measure.

The Operative had told Mal they would never see him again. That there was nothing left to see. He'd broken his word, but Mal was determined to keep his. He'd promised the bastard he'd kill him if he ever saw him again, and that's just what he planned to do. "Come back to mess with me and mine, have you?" he hissed as the cameras began to cycle through once more and he lost sight of River.

Mal tried to figure out where she was, which way he needed to go. His eyes skimmed the monitors and switches, his gaze sweeping past the radar only to jerk back there when he processed what he'd just seen. "Can't something go smooth for once?" he whined when he saw what the Alliance ships were doing.

Slipping his pistol out of the holster, Mal adjusted the bag over his shoulder and chose his route, hoping he could get to River before the Operative did her any harm. Little Albatross could take care of herself against almost anything, but Mal wasn't going to leave anything to chance.

"River Tam."

The words were spoken with a reverence that made River want to shudder. The man's voice was deep and smooth, carrying an edge of undeniable sophistication, but River knew it was the voice of a killer, of a man who'd ordered the deaths of thousands. He was the reason Shepherd Book died in the sand. The reason Wash no longer laid down beside Zoe at night.

Although River knew she carried some of the blame as well. It was because of her, because of what she knew about the Alliance and Miranda that her friends had died. Their deaths had been years ago, but seeing his face, knowing what he'd been and everything he'd believed in… River felt the memories rush back, the pain of loss. She stumbled a step to the side, her back scraping on the ice as she shied away from him, trying to stay out of his reach. Her suddenly scared and hurting soul called out for Sarah.

"We finally meet," the former Operative said gently.

River stared at him; at the man she'd only caught glimpses of through Serenity's viewport or in her mind's eye. He almost didn't seem real now as he smiled at her in the hellish lighting.

"I mean you no harm," he vowed when she eased another step from him. He frowned and seemed truly bothered by her fear of him. "River," the former Operative held out his hands. "We need to talk."

"No," River whispered, wanting nothing to do with him, terrified of his touch. He had too many dead souls clinging to him and she didn't want to feel their pain, their anguish. "Don't touch me."

He paused at the fear in her voice, glancing down at his hands, so close to coming to rest on top of her own. He let them drop to his sides in understanding. "I won't touch you," he promised.

River reached a corner and pressed herself into it. "Leave me alone," she pleaded mournfully.

The former Operative pursed his lips. "I can't."

The sound of a gun clearing a holster with a whisper slide of metal against leather came from his right. The hammer clicked back and the former Operative stilled, glancing slowly to his right and discovering Connor with mild surprise. He turned his gaze back on River. "You have a protector," he commented casually.

Connor stepped between them, forcing him to retreat a few steps and blocking his line of sight of the younger woman. "Back up," she ordered, her voice tight and angry.

He tilted his head and smiled. "You really think she needs defending?" he asked the pilot, bemused by her chivalry, but pleased to see it nonetheless. She was breathing hard, as if she'd run back to be at River's side, and she appeared as battle worn as her companion.

His eyes told Connor that he knew full well what River was capable of. He'd seen so first hand. "Just because she doesn't need it doesn't mean she doesn't deserve it." He started to move past her. "Ah-ah." She waggled the gun at him.

"I must speak with her," the former Operative insisted, his face losing all traces of amusement. "It's of the utmost importance."

Connor felt River's hand fist in the back of her coat as the younger woman's chin came to rest on her shoulder. Warm breath, coming a little too fast, ghosted across Connor's neck. She could feel River's fear, her revulsion, and it stirred her guts and nerves like a hornets' nest.

"What do you want?" River asked slowly.

The former Operative merely looked at her for a long moment. "River," he murmured, seeming to forget Connor was even there. "I've waited a long time for this moment."

"Look," Connor said forcefully, growing more wary of the man by the second. "I don't know what this is about…"

"It's about destiny," he said as his dark gaze flickered to Connor before tracking back almost magnetically to River's. "River and I have always been destined to meet. When our paths last crossed we changed the universe."

Connor took a sharp breath and jammed the muzzle of the gun into his chest in the vicinity of his heart. "You're the Operative." The monster, Connor realized.

"Former," he corrected primly. "Mal has spoken of me. Not surprising."

Connor shook her head. "No. River told me about you. How you hunted her, murdered her friends. Because of you, I'm flying in a dead man's chair." Thoughts of her son, of her family, flickered across Connor's mind. The screams they'd made as they died. She met his gaze unflinchingly. "Give me one good reason I shouldn't pull this trigger. Give me one good reason I shouldn't give Zoe a measure of satisfaction in making you dead."

He looked at her blandly, a serene expression on his features. "Then you wouldn't know."

"Know what?" Connor spat, her finger twitching on the trigger.

He moved like a blur of light. One second he was unarmed, at their mercy. The next, Connor and River were on the floor in a tangle of limbs. The pilot coughed as she tried to suck in air, her sternum screaming in pain where he'd jabbed her with his fingers. He had her gun pointed at her head.

"The secret," he said with a smile.

Part 21

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