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 21

Breath coming fast and fogging the frigid air, Mal ran through the hallways of the prison colony, no longer seeing the dead that littered the floor around him. His chest burned from both exertion and inhaling the cold. He stumbled over another corpse but kept himself upright by sheer stubborn will, the image of River backed up against a wall while that sadistic son of a bitch advanced on her driving him relentlessly forward.

Mal feared for Connor. He hadn't seen the pilot on any of the screens in the control room and he couldn't help but wonder if Wash's so-called curse had claimed another life. Connor would have died before she left River alone with that monster. The knowledge made his throat ache.

His steps finally faltered when he discovered a hallway littered with dead Reavers. Some had died with bullet holes in them; more still had been blown to bits by a grenade. Mal swallowed, afraid he'd just discovered the fate that had befallen his pilot. He expected to find her ravaged body among the carnage and was only mildly relieved when he didn't.

Unable to do anything but move, Mal did, resuming his path to River as his grip tightened on the pistol in his hand. Knowing the ships in orbit could blow him to hell and back at any moment added a barely-restrained, jerky sort of panic to his steps. He'd known this mission would be hard. He'd known it might be fatal for some of his crew, but nothing had prepared him for a prison for the dead, a passel of Reavers, and an Operative closing in on his crew as the Alliance prepared to turn the planet under his feet into space dust.

"Just our luck," he grumped as he jumped over another dead Reaver.

On her knees, the cold soaking through her clothes to chill the skin beneath, Connor stared down the gaping barrel of a gun. She refused to yield to the fear and rage that wanted to surge up and swallow her whole. Giving in to either would just get her and River killed, and Connor knew she'd be damned before she let another Operative take someone else she cared about. Still gasping from where the bastard had jabbed her, the pilot put as much of her body between the gun and River as she could, her gaze moving beyond the barrel to glare at the man that held her own gun at her head.

The Operative looked so smug Connor wanted to scream.

River's touch tangled in the pilot's jacket once more, but Connor felt like River was holding her back rather than clutching at her in fear. This close, this upset, Connor guessed River could read every thought that tumbled through her head, could feel every emotion that wracked her soul.

Flashes of her family… of their smiles and laughs, contorted to images of blood and death. Connor clamped down on the memories, feeling River's hand twist in her coat before the younger woman's body pressed flush against her own, River offering her the only comfort she could.

"What secret?" Sarah finally ground out, bracing to feel the searing pain of hot metal burn through her body as he pulled the trigger and put a bullet in her.

The Operative stared at her for a long, placid moment. With a soft sigh, the pistol twirled backward in his grip as he reversed his hold, offering the weapon back to Connor butt first.

The pilot stared at him incredulously.

"Take it," the man insisted. "I only have honorable intentions."

"Your kind don't know the meaning of the word," Connor said, her gaze drawn to the pistol hovering at eye level again before shifting back up to a pair of lifeless brown eyes.

He smiled. "If I'd wanted you dead, I would have let those Alliance soldiers kill you and Mr. Cobb when you stopped for supplies. You looked lovely in that dress." He took satisfaction in the widening of the pilot's eyes before he waggled the weapon at her. "Take it, Sarah. I wouldn't need it to kill you."

Connor felt ill hearing her first name fall from his lips. His kind was the very reason she'd stopped using it. She eyed the gun, calculating her odds. "You think this is a game?"

"It's no game," he said politely. "Please."

Left with no other options, Connor reached for the weapon. She saw his shoulders relax, as if he was relieved she was going to cooperate, until the moment when she slapped the gun aside. She heard his gasp of surprise and pressed her advantage, tearing herself away from River as she sprung up like a cat from the floor. The gun clattered away as Connor drove her head into his stomach, wrapping her arms around his waist and using the last ounce of her reserves to pick him up and throw him backward. She had a moment of satisfaction when she heard him grunt in pain before the air rushed from his lungs.

The moment was fleeting.

They hit the wall, their coats slipping over the ice before they tumbled to the floor, both grappling for the advantage, which the Operative quickly and efficiently gained. One solid blow knocked Connor sideways and staggered her onto her back. The next snapped her head into the metal floor with a sick crack. Connor saw stars flare behind her eyelids, and a warning went unspoken on her tongue as blackness rushed up and consumed her.

The Operative was pulling back to deliver another blow when River blindsided him, her thin form plowing into him with startling force and knocking him off the pilot as River released a howl of rage in the form of Sarah's name.

The woman who descended on him was nothing like the assassin he had expected. River fought with her hands, feet, even her teeth, as she did her best to kill him. He could feel River's fatigue in her blows, but anger and something else drove her to fight him ferociously. For the first time since entering the prison, he felt genuine fear for his life.

Finally getting a boot between them, the Operative kicked River back, slamming her into the wall. "I don't want this," he insisted as he scrambled ungracefully to his feet, several cuts and scrapes on his face oozing blood.

River's gaze slid to Sarah, lying cold and motionless on the floor. The Operative saw the emotion enter her eyes, the look of longing and worry she directed at the pilot in that fleeting gaze before she focused on him once more. He swallowed at the hate she directed his way, so thick he could almost taste it. "River," he murmured as his hands started to ease away from his sides.

She didn't give him the chance to surrender, spinning around effortlessly before delivering a sharp kick across his jaw that sent him sprawling. Ice pelted River's face as the Operative threw a handful at her before she could land another blow. Turning her face to protect her eyes, River once again saw Sarah's body. She was too still, too quiet. For an instant, River was torn between touching Sarah and fighting for her. Her feet faltered as her mind tried to make a choice.

A sudden, frantic feeling flushed through her, and River stumbled, confused by the source, giving the Operative a chance to get the upper hand. He grabbed her by the back of the coat and shoved her hard toward the wall. She only just managed to plant her feet so she could rush up the icy surface, flipping over his back with negligent ease.

Mal, River realized as her boots struck the metal grate underfoot. It was Mal that was in a sudden panic. She couldn't spare him another thought as the Operative turned and the fight resumed in earnest.

River kicked out, blocking his next blow, the ghosts of Wash, Shepherd Book, and the very real presence of Sarah behind her driving her on. Mal's urgency laced her emotions with a chaotic edge, making it hard for River to think through the deluge of feelings. She could only fight, letting pure instinct guide her body through the proper motions. The Operative's next strike landed a glancing blow just below her ribs, but River pivoted, spinning behind him like a dancer as his momentum carried him forward. Lashing out, she landed a solid elbow to the back of his head.

The Operative stumbled, catching himself against the icy wall and slipping sideways as River's boot connected with the surface where he'd just landed, cracking off a huge chunk of ice and sending it shattering across the floor.

Even weak, River Tam was a force to be reckoned with, the Operative realized. He turned toward her and saw an opening, attempting what should have been a debilitating jab to her stomach, only to have his wrist deflected and clamped with shocking strength as River pulled them both around until they crashed into a partially open door before tumbling through it.

"River," he tried again when they broke apart and circled one another warily. "It doesn't have to be like this."

"I won't let you bring death. Not again." River felt the burn of tears, the cold lance of irrational fear that bored through her. She thought of Sarah, felt the pilot stirring back into consciousness somewhere deep in her soul. His kind had hurt her so much. She wouldn't let them hurt her anymore. She surged forward, landing a solid punch that took the man off his feet. He caught her coat on the way down, dragging her with him.

Dazed, Connor shook off her confusion and scooped up her pistol. She scrambled on hands and knees into the cell, barely making it to her feet before falling backward again as River and the Operative crashed into her. Her pistol was wrenched from her hand, bouncing uselessly away. Her only weapons left, Connor used her fists, pummeling the Operative in the mouth to force him to let go of River.

There was the sound of a gun cocking and all of them went still in a tangled heap on the floor. Three sets of eyes drifted heavenward to find Mal, his weapon pointed at the Operative's head.

"This is getting tedious," the man huffed, bringing his fingers to his split and bloodied lip.

"I told you what I'd do to you if you ever came near me and mine again," Mal stated flatly. "And I know your penchant for wearing body armor so I'll be aiming for that big, pretty head of yours this time."

The Operative sighed as Connor gripped River's shoulder and pulled the younger woman away from him. He watched them with keen interest, noting the way they rested against one another, the way the pilot's hand came up to cradle River's face to check the younger Tam for injuries. With a faint, knowing smirk his gaze slid back to Mal. "We don't have time for this. As we speak, the Alliance ships could be powering their weapons."

"You would be right about that," Mal said through clenched teeth, ignoring the sharp glances Connor and River turned his way. "So I'd best be pulling this here trigger so we can be on our merry little way."

"Wait." The Operative held his hands out to his sides. "You shoot me, you won't know what this is all about."

Connor put her back against the wall and used it to leverage herself up, dragging River by the elbow along with her before pulling her shivering body closer.

Mal's gaze slid to Connor and River. As relieved as he was to see his pilot alive, they both looked a mess, covered in blood and bruises. His jaw hardened and his finger flexed on the trigger. "I'm thinking I can live with that."

"Can you?" the Operative asked mildly. "Or will taking revenge over learning the truth just bring death to your door in ways you cannot imagine?"

"We should go," Connor insisted to Mal, wanting to get River the hell out of there. "Either shoot him or take him with us," she told the captain, not relishing the idea of having the Operative on-board in the least, but accepting his presence might be the only way to get answers.

"I would suggest the latter," the Operative pointed out in a calm voice, his gaze locked with Mal's. He gave the captain a serene smile. "I'm here to help you, Malcolm. I'm here to help your whole crew. Now, as your pilot says, either shoot me or take me with you. We're out of time."

The helm felt slick and warm under Kaylee's sweating palms. This wasn't her place. She was supposed to be in the engine room, not sitting in a dead man's chair piloting a passenger-less Serenity toward a penal colony. Her gaze darted to the monitors, checking the status of the ships in orbit. Apparently blowing up the planet was still on the Alliance's agenda as they continued to power weapons. Kaylee swore softly, almost afraid to make any more noise in the deathly quiet of the bridge. There was only the soft static from the radio and the purr of the engines, the rest of the ship empty and silent.

Kaylee was glad she didn't have to pilot by sight. The snow the engines kicked up whipped angrily across Serenity's viewport, still trying to bury the little firefly even in flight. No one was answering their radios, and Kaylee felt her fears mounting with each passing mile. She was closing in on the prison, but if the others didn't respond soon then they were all as good as humped.

"C'mon," she whispered as she scooped up the radio again. "Cap'n? Zoe? Come in." More static greeted her and Kaylee struggled to keep her hands from shaking. "Connor? Jayne? Anybody read me?"

"Kaylee?" Inara's voice suddenly cut through the white noise and startled the mechanic, as if the companion had just snuck up behind her. "Where are you?"

"Halfway to you. We got problems," Kaylee replied.

There was a jostling sound followed by an ominous click. Kaylee felt her stomach twist with worry until she heard Jayne's voice sounding strangely congested.

"We got Reavers here. Zoe's hurt."

"Reavers," Kaylee whispered feeling a chill take her that had nothing to do with the icy planet. She shook her head. "Bigger problems than that," she answered. "Ships in orbit are powerin' ball busters."

There was a pause followed by Jayne's unmistakable voice. "Gorram it!"

Kaylee clenched her jaw and focused on flying since Jayne had taken over the radio with a long string of Chinese curses.

"Ball busters?" Inara asked Zoe as Simon buckled the second-in-command into a chair inside the shuttle.

"Laser," Zoe answered tiredly. "One powerful enough to blow a planet apart."

Inara blinked, the only outward sign that she'd been affected by the news. She put her hand on Zoe's knee, squeezing gently before reaching out with her other hand to brush a lock of damp hair away from Zoe's proud features. Inara felt eyes on her and she was startled to see Simon watching her with open curiosity. Inara cleared her throat and stepped back, going all business. "Care for her," she ordered, hoping she didn't sound as rattled as she felt before heading to the front of the shuttle.

"That… was the plan," Simon murmured before he stripped out of his jacket and tossed it aside.

"Give me that," Inara sniped, ripping the radio out of Jayne's grip and ignoring the undignified hand gesture he gave her in response. "Kaylee, how much time do we have?"

"Figure they're 'bout at seventy five percent." Kaylee bit her lip, hoping the shuttle would be able to meet her halfway; otherwise they'd be skating way too close for comfort.

"We have five minutes," Inara wagered. "We're going to take them. Mal, River, and Connor are still inside."

"Oh jeez," Kaylee whined, fear lacing her voice. "Understood." The mechanic took an unsteady breath, not even noticing when her foot accidentally kicked a small, velvet box further under the helm. "Come on, Cap'n," she whispered.

"The firefly is on the move."

"Saw us powering weapons did they?" Commander James Ellison smiled as he laced his fingers behind his back, eyeing the icy visage of Nix out the viewport window. The prison planet loomed large, and he drank in its ghostly image, knowing it would soon be nothing but chunks of space rock. Reluctantly he turned away, taking in the activity on the bridge of his Alliance vessel. "Is it leaving atmo?"

"No, sir," a sergeant replied. "Heading toward the prison."

Ellison stroked his bottom lip with his forefinger as he considered the news. "I'd say they have about ten minutes to clear the planet. Apprise me if it looks like they might make that deadline, Sergeant."

"Yes, sir."

With one last glance at the soon to be extinct planet, Ellison picked up his overdue report and began to fill it out. His superiors would be pleased to know everything was going according to plan.

They moved through the hallways at a pace too slow for Mal's liking, but Connor and River were in no shape to run. The two members of his crew held onto one another behind him, each trying to keep the other upright and moving. Mal had made sure to position himself between them and the Operative, his gun trained on the bastard's back.

"You should let me help," the Operative called over his shoulder. "We could move this along."

Connor gritted her teeth, knowing she was holding them up, but her damn concussion was making the usually effortless process of putting one foot in front of the other exceedingly hard. They could all die, even River… especially River, if she continued to slow them down. But the thought of him touching her made Connor's stomach twist and her skin crawl.

Mal risked a look back at them, his gaze meeting Connor's and lingering there. The pilot realized he was leaving the choice up to her, and she felt an unexpected flare of gratitude toward the captain. Sucking in a hurting breath, she gave Mal a tight nod and stopped moving.

"Sarah," River whispered, clearly not liking the idea of the Operative touching her anymore than Connor did. Connor gave River's shoulder a brief squeeze, hoping it conveyed the emotions that she couldn't voice.

The Operative realized everyone had stopped and he turned, genuinely surprised the pilot was going to allow the contact. After a brief hesitation, he moved swiftly to her side, grabbing her arm and slinging it around his shoulders before she could change her mind. Connor hissed in pain and he felt her natural instinct to jerk away from him shudder through her body as she fought her revulsion. His lips pursed into a thin line of understanding.

"I am sorry," the Operative murmured, compelled to utter the words.

"Just shut up and walk," Connor said through her teeth, angry with herself and her circumstances that left her with no choice but to accept his unwanted help. His very touch felt like a betrayal to her family, and she became intently aware of the locket around her neck, the silver suddenly ice cold against her skin.

Mal kept his gun on the man, maneuvering quickly behind the trio as he adjusted the bag slung over his shoulder. "You heard the lady."

River moved even closer to the pilot but her gaze was fixed on the Operative, seemingly daring him to try to do Sarah harm. "Try anything and I'll kill you," she vowed.

Connor turned her head and felt a thread of bemusement worm through her. She managed a slight smirk for River when the younger woman finally glanced at her, and Connor was charmed to see a blush rise on River's cheeks as they began moving again, much more swiftly than before.

"No doubt," the Operative replied mostly to himself, grunting a little at his own wounds and how they complained under the pilot's added weight.

Mal kept an eye on all of them as he tried his radio again. If the others hadn't made it back to the shuttle then they were all going to be in a right fine ugly mess. He swore when static snapped back at him, only to feel his hackles rise as the Operative chuckled mirthlessly.

"Did you really think your radios would work in here?" he asked. "This place is shielded to all frequencies save for those the guards are assigned. Your radio will work once you're beyond the prison walls."

"Ain't you just a wealth of information," Mal grumbled, not liking how stupid the man made him feel in the least.

"I certainly hope so," the Operative murmured as they rounded another corner.

"Going to be a tight fit in that shuttle," Connor muttered, her mind trying to focus on anything but the man touching her. The shuttles were meant to hold four or five comfortably. With eight on-board, Connor hoped they could get the damn thing off the ground in the bitter cold.

"You're not flying." River noted Connor's startled glance toward her and she managed the thinnest trace of a smile. "I'm not reading your thoughts. It's just easy to guess what you're thinking."

"You ain't flying, either, Little Albatross," Mal told River, his gaze still fixed solidly on the Operative's back. "Inara knows the shuttles better than anyone. She can get us back to Serenity."

Connor gave up on having any more say in anything at the moment. She just held on, relieved to round the final corner as they headed for freedom from this cold hell.

"Inara, we got to go!" Jayne demanded.

"We're not leaving them," the companion snapped, her hands kept from shaking by gripping the helm so hard her knuckles were white. The shuttle was already powered up and purring, just waiting to lift off. "They have another sixty seconds…"

"In another sixty seconds we could all get dead," Jayne pointed out. "Not much good you being all noble will get you then."

Inara's jaw clenched, pulsing beneath her flawless skin, but she didn't bother to respond.

"Gorram it, woman," Jayne spluttered in frustration at her calm, giving up on words and going for his sidearm. He paused, his fingers barely closing over the butt when he heard the whine of another weapon being primed. He glanced back at Zoe, finding the second-in-command with her pistol already drawn and pointed at his head.

"You'll want to leave that alone," Zoe said smoothly, no hint of weakness in the hand holding the weapon. It didn't waver in the slightest.

"I wasn't gonna shoot her," Jayne protested but he held his hands out away from his sides all the same. "Just… persuade her a bit was all."

"I'd prefer we all put the guns away. Bullets ricochet and this is a small space," Simon reminded them calmly as he continued to treat the gash on Zoe's temple.

Zoe gave the doctor a wry look and lowered the gun back into her lap.

A sudden pounding on the door made them all jump.

"Knew they'd make it back in time," Jayne announced, missing the others as they all rolled their eyes. He threw the latch and slid the door open, letting in a bitter blast of cold air as River, soaking wet and bloody, pulled a woozy Connor into the shuttle and away from the Operative.

Simon and Inara surged to their feet as Jayne and Zoe drew their weapons in unison, pointing their guns at the familiar but unwelcome face they discovered at their door. The Operative tripped and stumbled inside as Mal pushed him, landing on his knees in a dusting of snow in front of the doctor.

"Mal…" Inara blurted as he climbed inside only to fall silent when she saw the condition Connor and River were in. She swore softly.

"Time to go." Mal put a boot in the Operative's back and forced him face first down on the floor. "You, stay there, or the doc's shiny boots will be the last thing you ever see."

The Operative sighed but kept his hands to his sides as River eased Connor into the only remaining chair and began to buckle her in.

Connor shook her head, feeling the heat of the shuttle buffet her chilled cheeks as her damp hair tumbled over her forehead. "Help Inara," she ordered gently, reaching up to wipe a few melting flakes of snow off River's brow. "I'll be okay."

"Sarah…" River protested, clearly not believing the pilot for a moment.

"She needs you more than I do right now." Connor quirked her lips. "You can tend to me later."

River's features took on a determined cast that indicated she would make sure she did just that. The thought made Connor's stomach flutter and she felt a sudden, sensuous warmth steal through her. River must have gotten a taste of her reaction for she paused, their gazes meeting and holding intently for a long moment.

"I…" River failed to find any more words, her brain overloaded by the unexpected physical reaction Sarah's thoughts and feelings created. She swallowed and almost toppled backward when Mal grabbed her shoulder and gave her a gentle tug toward the front of the shuttle.

"Alliance. Laser. Planet about to blow up," Mal reminded the young woman.

River shook herself and gave the captain an apologetic glance as she passed. Her gaze drifted to the worried expression on her brother's face. "You should see the other guy," she joked faintly.

Simon felt the tension in his body relax at the sight of her and he responded with a hint of a smile, relieved to see the clarity in his sister's eyes. Having done all he could for Zoe, Simon patted her on the shoulder. She nodded, understanding that he wanted to switch his focus to Connor, but Zoe's eyes never strayed from the man on the floor at her feet.

The shuttle went vertical without warning. Everyone swayed as it turned and rocketed away from the prison, the snow that had gathered while they were inside ripping away from the windows in chunks that scraped against the hull as the shuttle gained speed.

Inara forced herself to keep her gaze on the helm and not on her young friend's bruised and bleeding features. River was a mess, and Inara felt cold and brittle anger at Mal for putting them through all this. It only made matters worse that Mal had dragged that bastard onboard with him… that the man responsible for Wash's death was breathing the same air as Zoe. Inara swallowed and pushed the throttle, forcing the shuttle to fly harder and faster than it wanted to go.

Mal fixed on Zoe. She was still as a statue, her gaze intent on the Operative as her finger traced the trigger of her gun. The captain had seen that look before and his stomach went cold, aching for his friend and all the pain he knew was boiling beneath the surface. As if sensing his gaze, Zoe looked up at him as Simon settled next to Connor, titling the tired pilot's face toward the light.

"What is he doing here?" Zoe asked, her voice deceptively calm.

"I reckon we're gonna find out soon," Mal promised her.

Mal was out the door of the shuttle the moment the docking clamps engaged, his shoulder banging into the wall in his haste. He winced and staggered before regaining his momentum, ignoring the sounds of his crew disembarking behind him. He had to trust Jayne and Inara to get the Operative into the hold, and he prayed Zoe wouldn't put a bullet in the man before then. Not that he would blame her a bit if she did.

Setting his worries for his crew aside, Mal shouldered the bag and kept running.

Kaylee nearly sagged in relief when she heard the captain's familiar footsteps pounding up the stairs. She unbuckled her harness with one hand, keeping the other on the helm. "Never been so happy to see you…" She declared only to have her voice fade at Mal took a seat in the co-pilot's chair, slinging the bag over his shoulder down onto the floor as he sat. Kaylee's head whipped around as she looked behind her, searching for signs of either River or Connor. Her stomach plunged when she saw neither. "Cap'n?"

"Keep flying, Kaylee," Mal told her as he strapped in.

"But Connor… River…" Kaylee peeked behind her again, hoping to see their friendly faces.

"Ain't in no condition," Mal said tightly. He gripped the helm, his knuckles whitening as he channeled his anger into his ship.

Kaylee stared at him, her thoughts picturing the worst. "Oh God…" She shook herself. "I should… the engine…"

"Jayne knows what to push and when." Mal felt the firefly beginning to shudder as it surged toward atmo.

"Jayne?" Kaylee almost yelled in mortification. "You let him near my…?"

"Kaylee!" Mal shouted and his volume was enough to snap Kaylee back to the seriousness of the moment.

Kaylee gripped the helm, helping the captain to hold the ship steady as they flung toward the heavens. "Ain't neither of us good enough to go up against an Alliance ship, Cap'n," she murmured. "Let alone two of 'em."

"We don't gotta," Mal said. "We just gotta break atmo and run like hell."

"They're gonna see us comin'," Kaylee told him in a subdued voice.

The ship continued to shudder around them for a long moment.

"I know," Mal finally breathed.

Part 22

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