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
The former Operative sat in his makeshift cell, listening to the sounds of Serenity limping along through the black. Once upon a time, he would have regretted that the Alliance had missed out on a mechanic with Kaylee Frye's skills. No longer. Now he was privately glad she'd grown up on a planet his former superiors had spared little interest in.
Her carefree spirit would have been caged, possibly broken. Much like Mal's and Sarah's. They needed to be free. Independent. They wanted to live under no one's rules but their own. He used to think people like them were selfish.
He'd been blind.
Sighing softly, he settled against the bulkhead, feeling the purr of Serenity's engines vibrating through his back. He was tired. His pursuit of Reynolds had consumed every waking moment for the last few weeks. And then there had been his mission before that, his new purpose. His hands, once smooth, were now rough with calluses, as he'd built up that which the Alliance had done its best to tear down. He stared at his palms, remembering both the good and bad he'd committed with them.
The temptation to lie down, to sleep if only for a little while, had his eyes slipping closed. There would be no rest, though. Not until he'd shared what he'd come to share. He'd risked everything coming this far and he had one last vital step to take.
The fact that he hadn't been killed thus far was a definite success in his book. He'd certainly given Serenity's crew every valid reason, and the fact that Zoe had holstered her weapon rather than use it on him spoke more to the content of her character than it did to his luck. He'd already respected her before, but his estimation of her had grown in that moment. If only his presence didn't cause her so much pain. There was nothing he could do about that short of dying, he conceded, so he didn't dwell on the fact.
He imagined Sarah had to feel the same. Not because he'd personally done her harm, but because of the ugliness that his kind had heaped upon her and her family. Even at the time, when he'd heard what many of his brothers were being sent to do, he'd thought it overkill, unnecessary brutality. He'd been secretly relieved to play no part in it, even though he would have followed through on the orders had he been issued them.
And then there was River. Seeing her in person for the first time had not gone as he had hoped, but their violent encounter had not been unexpected. She knew what he was. What he had been and would become. For a woman charged with avenging souls that could no longer speak for themselves, he was the worst kind of evil. Souls clung to him, ghosts of the past he could not outrun, no matter how hard he tried. Maybe she could feel them, talk to them and hate him as much as they did for taking that which he had no right to take.
But River had still been a beautiful creature in his eyes. A woman of deadly grace. Despite his wounds, the former Operative was glad he'd had that moment with her.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. Perhaps an hour or so had passed since their escape from the planet. Surely the crew had tended to their wounds by now. It was time.
Uncoiling from the floor and rising smoothly, he approached the door. He knew Cobb was in the other room, that he would hear him.
With a sigh for the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, he politely knocked on the door.
"There's no reason for you to stay. She'll be asleep for quite a while."
Inara lifted her head and smiled wearily at Simon. Zoe was sedated in the examination chair between them, her breathing deep and peaceful. Inara almost envied her. "I'm staying more for myself than for her," the companion confessed. She reached out and ran her hand down Zoe's arm. "She gave us a scare down there."
"River knew," Simon remembered. "She screamed her name."
Figuring it hurt no one, Inara intertwined her fingers with Zoe's, feeling the contact steady her nerves in a way little else had over the last hour or so. They were home. They were safe. The hell that had been Nix was gone forever, but Inara could still feel the cold clinging to her. She could still taste the terror.
Simon glanced toward the infirmary door. He really needed to find Kaylee but he hesitated to leave Inara or his patient alone. The doctor could only hope it wasn't a troubling sign that Kaylee hadn't sought him out since his return. Sighing, he turned toward the counter and the bag the captain had left in his charge. He unzipped it and scooped out several airtight vials that clinked harmlessly in his hand.
"Do you recognize the contents?" Inara asked as she watched him, the reminder of where they'd been and what they'd survive making her shiver.
The doctor shrugged. "Could be water for all I know. The labels are just numbers." He frowned. "I'll want to suit up before opening them, just in case anything in here acts as an airborne agent." He watched as Inara tensed, her grip tightening on Zoe's hand. "Don't worry. I can run a few tests with the contents still in the vials. I'll wait until Zoe is sleeping in her own quarters before I take a closer look."
"Of course you will," Inara said with a tight, apologetic smile, realizing Simon had picked up on her concern. "I guess I'm just being "
"Protective," Simon finished for her with a weak smile of his own. "It's okay. You're allowed to be. Especially after the day we've all had."
"Am I?" Inara breathed as her gaze lowered once more to Zoe's features. "She doesn't want us to care; doesn't want us to worry."
"Sounds like a lot of the people on this ship," Simon murmured good-naturally.
"True," Inara allowed with a slight roll of her eyes. "She and Mal are cut from the same cloth in that regard."
"Is that a good thing?"
Inara chuckled. "Exasperating, perhaps, but it's a part of their charm as well."
"If you say so," Simon murmured. He scratched his chin, debating whether or not to say what was weighing on his mind. "You um talk to Kaylee?"
Sensing an odd note in the doctor's voice, Inara lifted her head again from her study of Zoe's peaceful features. "Kaylee? No, why?"
Simon turned back to the vials. "Just making conversation," he said quickly.
Inara paused, mulling over Simon's tone and sudden change in behavior. "Is there some reason she would have wanted to talk to me?"
The doctor gave an exaggerated shrug. "No. No reason," he answered quickly, not turning around to face the companion.
"I'm told she's fine. Clearly since the ship is still moving and we're all still breathing."
Simon nodded. "I'll go check on her in a bit."
Inara narrowed her eyes, now determined to dig out whatever the doctor was hiding. "What is it, Simon?"
He sighed and slowly turned. "It's just I left her with something before we went to the planet."
"Something?" Inara prompted, needing clarification.
Simon cleared his throat. "A ring."
Inara's eyes widened almost comically. "Oh," she breathed. "And Kaylee hasn't said anything " She let her words trail off as Simon shook his head morosely. "What was her reaction when you gave her this ring?"
"Well," the doctor began, "she hadn't actually seen the ring when I left. I sort of chickened out and gave it to her in a bag."
The companion brought a hand to her lips to stifle the inappropriate laughter that wanted to escape.
"I know. I'm pathetic. The most unromantic man in the 'Verse."
Bemused, Inara offered him a genuine smile. "Maybe in all the fuss she hasn't had a chance to open it," she suggested.
"You think?" Simon wondered hopefully.
"Simon, if you'd given Kaylee a ring, I can guarantee I would have heard about it from her by now." She paused, and then continued, "The whole ship would have heard about it by now."
Feeling slightly better, Simon managed a slight grin of his own. "She does tend to share "
"She does indeed," Inara confirmed, not bothering to tell the doctor just how intimate some of Kaylee's details were about her relationship with Simon. "Let me be the first to say congratulations."
"Nothing to congratulate me about yet."
"You wised up and gave Kaylee a lasting sign of your affection. I'd say that's plenty of reason to offer my best wishes."
Simon smiled bashfully before turning back to the vials and finally getting down to work.
The captain banged his head on the underside of the helm, wincing as he saw pretty silver stars streak across his vision. Jayne's bellow had not only scared him witless, it had made him stab himself in the thumb with a pair of pliers. Muttering a steady stream of curses, he slid out and stood up, sucking on his thumb as he crossed to the stairs. He looked down the corridor to where Jayne's silhouette was framed in the doorway to the galley.
"Ain't no call to shout," Mal huffed. "Unless you're trying to shuffle me off to an early grave." He reached up and rubbed the growing knot above his right temple.
"Wants to talk," Jayne growled, jerking his head at the door to the hold.
Mal went still, his jaw bunching as he clenched his teeth and swallowed a wave of unease. "He does, does he?" he asked with forced casualness. The captain hesitated a moment before finally tossing the pliers back in the pilot's chair. Adjusting the gun still resting on his hip, Mal descended the stairs and sauntered closer, willing himself to take his time. "Say what he wants?" he asked Jayne as the mercenary stepped back and let him into the galley.
"Like he'd tell me," Jayne grumped, shifting his grip on his own gun. His nose was still packed, making him sound more congested than menacing. He reached up and pulled the wading out, ignoring Mal's grimace of disgust as he tossed it in the trash.
"What happened to you, anyway?" Mal asked, putting off the moment where he would have to face the Operative for just a few seconds more.
"River." Jayne spat the name.
A tiny twitch of Mal's lips betrayed his amusement. "You'll never learn."
"Was trying to keep the fool girl from dyin'. Next time I won't bother."
"Guess we should get this over with." Mal sighed as he slipped his pistol out of the holster and motioned for Jayne to open the door. As it swung open, he found the Operative sitting peacefully on the floor, looking up at Mal with benign interest. "You want something?"
The Operative smiled. "I want many things, Malcolm, many of them unattainable, but your company is all I require at the moment."
"Gee, I feel special." Mal stepped over the threshold, his gun ready. "You wanted to talk, so talk."
"I trust the members of your crew are all right?"
Mal's jaw bunched again. "They're fine. No thanks to you."
The Operative dipped his head in acknowledgement. "I will confess that my meeting with River did not go as I had hoped."
"You mean you losing?" Mal jabbed.
The prisoner smiled. "I prefer to think of it as a draw. Who knows what would have happened if you hadn't come along when you did?"
Mal didn't want to think about it. He adjusted his grip on his gun. "You going to tell me what you were doing there? Who has you hunting us this time?"
"Of course," The Operative stated blandly. "But I would prefer to do it with your crew present."
"No." Mal's voice was flat and hard. "You got something to say, you say it to me."
"I mean no one any harm, Malcolm." The Operative spread his hands out to his sides. "But you're wasting time. We can settle this all at once, and you'll need River to tell you if I'm speaking the truth."
Jayne shifted behind Mal, ready for whatever came next.
"What makes you think I'm gonna let you in the same room with that girl?" Mal demanded to know, taking a step forward and glaring down at the man on the floor. The temptation to wipe the serene expression off the Operative's face with his fist had Mal flexing his free hand.
"Because you have no choice," the Operative declared, sounding almost apologetic.
Mal glared at him for a moment longer, a battle of wills he couldn't win. Finally, the captain pivoted and walked out of the room, shoving the door closed behind him. "I hate that guy," he grumped as he stomped past Jayne in pursuit of the others.
It took ten minutes for Mal to wrangle the reluctant crew into the galley. Kaylee had been less than pleased to leave her precious engine, but she'd done so with a worried frown when she'd heard the reason why her presence was required. Simon had found himself taking Inara's hand to lead her away from the sleeping Zoe, promising the companion no harm would come to her in the time they would be away. If anything, Zoe would sleep more soundly without them hovering.
Mal put his hands on his hips, regarding the three of them and the cranky-looking Jayne. "I've been aft to stern. Anybody seen Connor or River?"
Simon frowned. "When they left the infirmary they were going to get cleaned up."
"That was over an hour ago, Doctor. How long does it take?" Mal grumbled.
"Depends on if you're washing alone," Inara stated with a small, knowing smile.
Everyone blinked, except for Jayne. The mercenary's head swung away from the hold door so fast his neck popped.
Mal cleared his throat. "I checked their quarters "
"Did you look upstairs?" Inara asked, more pleased by Mal's discomfort than she should have been.
"Upstairs?" Mal asked weakly.
"Upstairs?" Kaylee echoed before her face suddenly cleared and an impish expression crossed her features. "Oh. Upstairs "
The captain ran a hand over his features. "Yes. Well Better than the hull, which was the next place I was about to check." He looked at the doctor. "You want to go fetch your sister?"
Simon rapidly shook his head. "Are you kidding? She's my sister. I'm not going to I mean if she's " He abruptly went quiet, his face reddening.
Inara covered her helpless chuckle with a delicate cough into her fist.
Mal looked at Kaylee.
"Oh no. I ain't goin' up there."
"Aw c'mon," Mal complained. "She's practically your family too," he pointed out, giving Simon a glance when the doctor twitched strangely at his words.
"All the more reason for me to stay right here," Kaylee argued.
"Inara " Mal began, hoping to charm her with a soft smile.
"Sometimes it sucks to be the one in charge, doesn't it?" Inara asked sweetly.
"I'll go," Jayne offered.
"No," the rest of the crew said in unison.
"It's your bath," Mal snapped at the companion.
"Your ship," Inara countered.
They stared at each other, tension crackling in the air between them as the rest of the crew watched with keen interest.
"Fine," Mal finally announced, his eyes only for Inara and the galling smirk on her pretty features. "All a man has to do is knock. That ain't so hard."
"Then why are you still standing here?" Inara rejoined.
Mal straightened as his gaze darted to Kaylee who was biting her bottom lip in an effort to hide her smile at his expense. He muttered a few choice curses under his breath as he pivoted on his boot and stomped out of the galley.
He tried to pretend that he didn't hear Kaylee's delighted giggle following him out the door.
"My ship," Mal grumbled as he climbed the steps, his boots rattling the metal grating. "If only they'd remember that more often." His pique fueled him as he climbed, mentally giving his crew a witty, verbal lashing that he knew he'd never voice. Inara had bested him in a war of words again. It would be damn infuriating if he didn't find a smart woman so damn beautiful.
He raked his hands through his hair as he approached the door to the bath, clearing his throat and nervously scratching at the growing stubble on his chin. Raising his hand to knock, he paused when he heard the swirl of water and a breathless moan on the other side. His palm went flat on the door instead and he winced. "Why me?" he murmured to no one in particular under his breath.
Feeling his face heating in embarrassment, Mal took a step back from the door and shook his hands at his sides. When he heard another moan, he spun on his boot heel and nearly ran to the stairs as if he'd been shocked. He was never going to be able to look at River in the eye again.
Halfway down the steps, he stopped, thinking about what they needed to know versus what he could be interrupting. There was simply no choice. Connor and River would understand. He hoped. Slowly he turned and made his way back to the top, lingering outside the door until he forced himself to knock.
The gun felt cool in Connor's grip after the heat of the water and River's skin. "What?" she growled, watching in disappointment as River sank down, hiding most of her body from view.
"Uh sorry to intrude " Mal had to clear his throat again, sternly telling himself not to imagine what was happening on the other side of the door, no matter how pretty a picture it probably was. "Our guest has requested everyone's presence."
"Does it have to be now?" the pilot wanted to know, shooting a worried glance at River who had gone still, a thoughtful expression on her features.
The captain grimaced, hoping like hell he wasn't about to get reacquainted with Connor's right hook again in the next few moments. Or shot. "Do you really think it should wait?" he asked honestly. There was a long moment of silence, one Mal prayed wouldn't be broken by the sounds of anyone else moaning.
River slowly turned and rested her hands on the pilot's thighs as she held Sarah's gaze. "He's right," she whispered.
Connor's jaw clenched while she flicked the safety on her gun and set it aside. "I'm gonna kill him," she confessed.
"The Operative or Mal?" River wondered.
Sarah didn't smile.
"We'll be right there," River called out.
"Right. Sorry I'll just leave you to uh bye." Mal pivoted again and bolted, figuring Connor couldn't punch him if he wasn't there.
"That man has the worse timing."
River sighed as she moved closer, sinking into Sarah's heat and curves, willing her body under control with effort. "It's not his fault," she managed around a rough swallow.
"I know," Connor breathed against the wet skin of River's neck. She kissed the surface gently, feeling River shiver in her arms. Reluctantly, she let the other woman go, moving away quickly before she changed her mind. She reached over the side and fetched two towels, turning around just as River stood up, towering over her in all her naked glory.
A string of Chinese curses flowed from the pilot's lips as she closed her eyes and handed River the towel, missing the younger woman's pleased smile.
"There can always be more baths," River promised. She started to say more when Sarah abruptly stood, and she got a full view of the body that she'd only caught glimpses of beneath the water.
It was Connor's turn to smirk as River stared with open appreciation. Her brown eyes were wide and nearly black with arousal, and Sarah felt insanely flattered by the reaction. With an aggrieved sigh, she wrapped the towel around her torso. If River kept looking at her like that, they were never going to get out of there.
Connor climbed over the rim of the tub before offering her hand to River who took it with a shy smile. The pilot grabbed the younger woman's towel, using it to gently dry River's skin, taking extra care with the bruises on her back. "You're going to let me treat these later," Connor told her.
"I'll let you do whatever you want," River said innocently.
The pilot's mouth opened and closed as River faced her again, sliding into her robe and cinching it at the waist. "Don't tease a girl," Connor mumbled.
River frowned, clearly not understanding what Connor meant.
Connor quickly dried herself off and slipped into her pants, t-shirt, and boots as River drained the tub.
"This better be good," the pilot snarled as she jerked open the door, disappointed Mal hadn't lingered so she could give him a piece of her mind.
Inara's smile was apologetic when Connor and River arrived. "Don't shoot the messenger," she teased the pilot as the couple settled next to her.
"We'll see," was all Connor could promise, but she offered the companion a weak smirk.
Jayne was leering at them and no one wanted to imagine what images were traipsing through that brain of his. No doubt he'd be taking to his bunk when all of this was over.
Kaylee looked pleased and gave them both a tiny wave while Simon looked at anything else but his sister.
Mal didn't wait for them to settle in. He entered the code and unlocked the door. The Operative was already standing and waiting for them on the other side. Everyone tensed, those that were armed letting their fingers rest at the ready on the butts of their guns.
The prisoner scanned the faces of those present, noting the lone absence. He looked at River and Connor, both appearing much better than the last time he'd seen them. "Thank you all for coming," he told them.
"This ain't a dinner party," Mal warned him. "Say your piece."
Now that the moment had arrived, the former Operative wasn't sure where to begin.
"Why are you hunting River again?" Connor demanded, giving him an excellent starting point.
"Hunting is such a strong word and indicates that I wish to capture or kill that which I seek. Neither is the case, I assure you."
"Your assurances mean nothing," the pilot promised him.
The former Operative smiled ruefully. "I'm not the one hunting River."
"The Alliance has fresh warrants out for all of us," Simon interjected. "That seems like hunting to me."
"The Alliance does, yes," the prisoner confirmed neutrally. "But they no longer represent my interests nor I theirs."
The crew exchanged glances and River slid a little closer to Connor, as if needing her touch. The pilot automatically wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her in protectively close.
The former Operative sighed. "I'm here because of the Pax," he admitted.
"The stuff the Alliance added to the air processors on Miranda? The stuff that killed all those people?" Kaylee asked, confused.
"The thing that created the Reavers," Inara added uneasily.
"Yes," the prisoner confirmed. His gaze slid to Simon and stayed there. "For so long, Miranda was considered a failure of epic proportions among Parliament. Over 30 million dead. The Reavers born and wreaking havoc amongst the outer rim planets. A project with the best of intentions turning tragically and wickedly wrong."
Mal glanced from the Operative to Simon and then back again, wondering why the prisoner was focusing his attention on the doctor. "We know the history. Ain't a soul in the 'Verse now that don't."
"Thanks to you and your crew," the former Operative said with a trace of a smile that quickly faded. "But while many of those in Parliament fell as the truth came out, others rose to take their place, many of them much worse men than those they replaced. Men who would use whatever were at their disposal to bend people to their will, to make sure all the planets were under their rule."
"What does any of this have to do with the Pax?" Inara asked.
"Oh my God," Simon suddenly murmured and the rest of the crew looked at him, watching as his pallor turned pale and ashy.
"What's wrong?" Kaylee asked.
"The prison colony," Simon whispered, his gaze horrified as he looked at the Operative. "They were a control group?"
The former Operative bowed his head in acknowledgment.
Simon covered his mouth with one hand, looking as if he were about to be sick.
"A control group," Jayne finally spoke. "What the hell is that?"
"They refined it," River suddenly realized. "The Pax they refined it found out what made some meek what made others into "
"Monsters," Inara breathed. "Oh my God," she echoed Simon as the truth sank in.
"They experimented on the folks in that prison," Mal said, his voice low and filled with hate.
The former Operative raised his head and looked at Mal. "Who better to test it on, Malcolm? Men who were the worst of the worst, the hardest to control brought to their knees in supplication by a simple additive to the air."
"And the guards?" Connor asked gruffly.
"Probably fed to them in their food. Two distinct groups, two distinct reactions. I imagine Parliament is very happy with their results."
The crew stood in stunned silence.
"Doc, you ain't opened those vials " Mal asked, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.
"Vials?" the former Operative asked in alarm.
Simon shook his head. "No. Not with Zoe still asleep in the infirmary. I wasn't going to open them without full contamination procedures in place."
"Wise of you, Doctor. Depending on which you cracked open first, we might have all been trying to tear each other apart."
Simon swallowed, shivering a little at the thought. He stared at the Operative. "I don't understand. Why are you telling us this? Why follow us to Nix?"
"I didn't follow you, Doctor. Who do you think arranged for you to find out about it, knowing you'd go?" The former Operative wasn't surprised in the least when Mal grabbed him, spinning him around and slamming him into the counter.
"You set us up?" the captain demanded to know. "Let my crew walk into that hell and nearly die?"
"I enticed you with promises of a truth you now know. You, Captain, let your crew walk into that hell and nearly die," he answered placidly.
Mal's face twisted with rage but no one was sure if it was directed at the Operative or himself. He finally released him, stepping back as his hand dropped to the butt of his gun.
"Raggley is working with you?" Connor asked, feeling bile rise in her throat at the thought that someone she trusted had helped this bastard.
"Raggley works for me, Sarah. Just like you used to."
Everyone went momentarily still before their heads swiveled in the pilot's direction.
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