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
What have I done?
Connor stared at the bulkhead above as she lay in her bunk. Her body was tired, but her thoughts spun helplessly in a constant, frustrating circle. The pilot couldn't fathom why she'd shared her first name with River. Sarah was who she had been. Sarah was the one who'd made all the mistakes and had all the regrets. Connor had jettisoned all that when she'd let go of that name years ago. What had possessed her to let that ghost of her former self have a moment in the present? She hated that name now, hated everything it represented. Had anyone else called her Sarah she probably would have pulled out her pistol and shot them. But River
The pilot fingered the locket at her throat, remembering the way River had spoken her full name with such pleasure. It had meant something to the girl, Connor sharing her name with her. She wasn't exactly sure why it was so important to River, but could Connor, in good conscience, take back that show of trust and forbid River to ever call her Sarah again? Connor knew she wanted to, but it made her feel ugly and cruel. With all that River had been put through in her young life, Connor wasn't sure she could be so callous to the girl. She didn't want to be.
And a tiny part of her had savored hearing her full name fall from River's lips. Connor accepted the truth of that, but she didn't much like the knowledge or understand what it meant. All she knew was that she felt like she was standing on a very slippery slope, and she was losing her footing fast.
Connor sighed as she felt her thoughts finally beginning to slow and settle. The silence she was immersed in was heavenly, and the pilot reminded herself that it was a gift from the very woman that was preoccupying her thoughts. She wondered what it was like for River, to be able to communicate with the creatures like that. Did they talk in words? Images? Emotions? Connor made a mental note to ask. River's gift fascinated her. She sensed others on the ship were uncomfortable with the younger Tam's talents, but Connor found them useful.
Sleep beckoned more insistently, but Connor knew it wouldn't come until she'd made a decision. Could she, for River's sake, be Sarah Connor again? That part of her life was dead and buried, locked away tight like the photo in her locket. Opening the latch on that door was just asking for trouble. Those wounds on her soul still ached, even if they were scarred over by years of hard living.
But maybe it was those wounds that had spoken her name before Connor had thought to say it. Maybe they needed some comfort, a balm of sorts, that only a gentle spirit like River could bestow.
"Guess it will be our secret, girlie," she murmured as her eyes slipped shut at last.
River lay in her bunk, staring at the ceiling. The rest of the crew slept peacefully as Serenity continued her journey through space, moving ever closer to Silver River and their next adventure. Something about their destination was worrying a sliver of River's mind, but the rest of her brilliant brain was entirely too focused on another topic to give her concerns much attention.
She whispered the pilot's name although there was no need. Simon was in Kaylee's bunk, and the ship carried no paying passengers. River was alone in the passenger quarters and that suited her just fine. The captain had offered her a bunk with the crew a ways back, but she'd declined, opting to remain in her familiar, well-lit space. It also kept her from experiencing the crew's dreams and nightmares with more intensity than she already did. Trying to sleep so close to them only kept her up all night.
But tonight it was thoughts of their pilot that whirled in River's brain. Connor's green eyes and voice had captivated her. It didn't matter if the pilot was talking about flying or philosophy or swearing at a stuck switch, River found she could listen to the woman all day. She was delighted every time she caught Sarah smirking at Mal behind his back. River noticed how Sarah's hands always wanted to rest on the butt of a gun at her hips, even when the weapons weren't there. And when Sarah smiled
River felt her stomach flutter just thinking about that grin. She had felt a taste of these feelings before from Simon as he'd grown closer to Kaylee. Her brother had been sweetly distracted for months, and she could still remember his bursts of joy and shy pleasure just being in the mechanic's presence. River thought about talking to Simon about what she was feeling, but she sensed asking him would only stir up questions she felt oddly reluctant to answer. River loved her brother, but his protective streak got to be a bit trying at times. He still treated her like she was his little sister, as if she were barely old enough to cross a street without him holding her hand. Not that River blamed him. After what the Alliance had done to her, Simon had good reason to worry. She'd been troublesome before Miranda, and her fits of madness then haunted her brother to this day.
Glancing at the time, River sighed. She was still hours away from seeing Connor again. Her fingers drummed on her chest with impatience. The night was passing too slowly. She wanted to be back in Connor's presence, learning what made her smile what made her mad what drove her. River had never met anyone as fascinating as Sarah.
The pilot just seemed to accept River, quirks and all. Not even Simon did that. He was still trying to "fix" her still trying to get back the sister he once knew. River didn't have the heart to tell him that version of herself died a long time ago, probably the first time the doctors had cut on her brain at the Academy.
It had taken time to come to terms with who she was now, to feel comfortable in her own skin. Rather than fighting her gifts, some Gods-given and others manmade, she'd learned to embrace them. Talking to the animals was just one of the many talents she'd honed over the last few years. Her mind took in everything; from the input of her five senses to the thoughts and feelings of the living things around her. Practice had taught her to sift and sort through the information, allowing her to pluck out what was useful or interesting. Practice had also helped her to keep from being overwhelmed by it all. Simon had explained to her that the surgery the Alliance had performed on her made her feel every emotion in all its glory or pain. But River's brain had rewired itself over time, making allowances for what was done to her. She still felt more, experienced more, than everyone around her, and yet there were times River thought she handled her emotions better than the crew who had far more control over what they were feeling than she ever would. There was so much she could do that the crew and Simon didn't know about because none of them ever asked about her gifts. River knew they were afraid to know.
But not Sarah. Sarah wanted to know. Sarah wanted to know all about her, even the things River didn't want to know about herself.
After all this time, the crew was still wary towards her. River understood and accepted it. She loved the crew of Serenity, but she'd never felt completely a part of them. Not until Connor had settled next to her on the catwalk and asked her for her help.
The request had been such a simple one, but Sarah had no idea how much it had meant to River to be asked. The pilot believed her, seemed to believe in her. For the first time since her imprisonment by the Alliance, River felt like she could finally be who she was with someone with no reservations.
She closed her eyes and thought of Connor's smile. Sarah wasn't dreaming right now, but River could sense she was asleep. The pilot's peace washed over her and carried River down into her own slumber where she dreamed of jade-green eyes and teasing smirks
Until that sliver of her mind preoccupied with Silver River grabbed hold of her dreams and River saw what she'd been too preoccupied to see.
Through the fog of sleep, Connor felt the shift, the altering of their course. It was subtle, a mere change in vibration, but her eyes snapped open as if someone had grabbed her and shaken her awake.
She scrambled to her feet and dressed quickly, taking a moment to buckle her gun belt and check her weapons before moving up and into the corridor as quietly as possible. It was deathly silent, and Connor took a moment to listen to the absence of sound, waiting to hear a breath, a footfall
A shadow moved on the bridge. Connor slid her gun out her right holster and eased forward, her breath slow and shallow. She took the steps quietly, her gun ready should the person altering their heading be armed and waiting. When she emerged onto the bridge, she froze.
The young woman spun to look at her then started shaking her head. "They're waiting. Always waiting. Always waiting to take you back." River turned back to the controls, her brown eyes void of personality and light. Her movements were almost mechanical as she reached for the controls.
Connor holstered her weapon as she realized the girl's intent and leapt forward before River could commence a full burn. She grabbed River by the shoulders and spun her around, slamming her none too gently against the bulkhead and using her muscle to hold her there. "River!" Connor didn't know if the girl was in the grip of a dream or something darker, but River's pretty brown eyes were unfocused and glazed, and she continued to shake her head viciously. The pilot gripped each side of River's face and forced her to look straight ahead, to see her.
"River, I need you to hear me," Connor barked.
Comprehension entered and retreated in River's gaze, flickering in and out like a light bulb in its death throes. The younger woman went still as tears welled up and spilled over. "I can't go," she whispered, her declaration sounding more like a plea. Her fingers fisted in Sarah's shirt. "Please, don't make me, please I can't go. They're there. They're waiting."
Connor felt a chill take her. She eased her grip on River but kept her palms framing the girl's face. "River, where are you? Are you here with me?"
River's fingers left Sarah's shirt to curl around the pilot's rough hands. "I have to turn us around. They're waiting. You don't understand." Her features crumpled as fear and sadness overwhelmed her, her damaged mind unable to deal with the sudden deluge of emotion. She wished she could make Sarah understand. No one ever understood not until it was too late.
"Make me understand," Connor pleaded, scared for both the girl and herself. River started struggling against her and Connor grunted, startled by the girl's deceptive strength. They grappled as River started pushing on Connor in a desperate attempt to get to Serenity's controls. "Dammit, River "
It was a small blessing that River wasn't using the skills Connor knew the girl possessed to get away. Connor was no slouch in a fight, but she suspected a girl who could take on a room full of Reavers was not one to be messed with. Using her muscle, Connor shoved River back before spinning and rushing to the helm, killing the power to the engines.
The move worked and River stilled as Serenity did.
"Okay," Connor breathed. "We're stopped." She eased back toward the girl, her hands out to her sides so River wouldn't perceive her as a threat. "Now I need you to be in the moment with me here."
River nodded. "I am. I'm always in the moment even when I'm not."
"Good, I think. Now tell me why you turned us around."
"They're there. They're waiting."
River fisted her hands then started striking herself about the head, trying to pummel the thoughts and images screaming across her brain. She could see them all dying, all screaming. Mal, her brother, Kaylee so much pain so much blood. Sarah's hands were on her again, hot and callused, as the pilot grabbed her wrists.
"Dammit!" Connor hissed. "Hey!" She yelled. "I need help up here!" The pilot kept shouting as she wrapped River up in a full body hug and dragged the woman to the floor in an effort to keep her from doing either of them harm.
Minutes crawled by before Connor heard the clang of a hatch opening. A moment later, Zoe appeared on the bridge. The older woman swore when she saw Connor on the floor, a shaking, muttering River in her arms.
"Get the doc," Connor commanded. "Get the doc!" She repeated when Zoe took too long for her liking to move. Zoe turned and scrambled back down the stairs.
With help coming, Connor shifted her attention back to the shaking woman in her arms. "Shhhh," Connor whispered in River's ear. "I've got you. No one is gonna hurt you."
"Two by two, hands of blue." River started muttering the phrase as she began to rock, almost in a catatonic state.
Connor could only hold her and whisper soothing words. Wherever River was now in her head, the woman was beyond her reach. A lance of anger pierced through the pilot as she thought about what the Alliance had done to the woman in her arms. How they'd broken this beautiful creature, damaged her so. She put her forehead down on River's shoulder and began to rock with her.
River's motions slowed and her voice trailed off into nothing. Finally all was silent, but still they rocked together in a gentle rhythm as voices began to reach them both from below. Connor felt the woman stir in her arms.
"River?" The pilot murmured, her voice husky.
River's eyes teared when she realized where she was, what she'd been doing. She could have hurt Sarah, could have hurt them all. "It hasn't happened in so long."
"I know," Connor breathed, even though she didn't. She tightened her hold on the girl and felt River curl into her, seeking her heat, her comfort. Connor felt the burn of tears in reaction and willed them not to fall.
Simon clattered up the steps and stumbled onto the bridge with Zoe right behind him. He came up short, stunned to find his sister in the pilot's arms. "What happened?" he blurted.
River shook her head. "I I lost myself. They were inside I couldn't " She closed her eyes, wishing for the words to explain, wishing for clarity and calm.
Connor met Simon's gaze when it slid to hers. "She wasn't herself," was all she could think to say.
Other members of the crew crowded onto the bridge in various stages of dress. Mal noticed the ship wasn't moving as he raked his hands through his disheveled hair. "Why are we dead in the water?"
"Because I stopped us," Connor snapped and had the satisfaction of seeing anger flash in Mal's eyes. To his credit, though, the captain held his temper in check under the circumstances.
Simon knelt next to his sister before tenderly brushing a lock of her hair behind her ear. "River? Mei-mei? Tell me what happened. Did you forget your meds?"
River shook her head. She didn't tell him that she hadn't taken his drugs in almost a year. "I was dreaming. Then I was awake and dreaming. I I "
Simon had to look away. He thought they'd made so much progress. Setbacks were always a possibility, but it had been so damn long He felt Kaylee's touch on his shoulder, a gesture of wordless comfort, as he drew in a breath.
"She kept saying we can't go there. That they're waiting," Connor told the others when Simon had collected himself and started examining the woman still in Connor's arms. River seemed to be in no hurry to move, and Connor was oddly reluctant to let her go.
"Who?" Jayne demanded from his position on the steps.
Connor shrugged. "She was saying 'two by two, hands of blue' if that means anything to anybody." River shuddered in Sarah's arms, and Sarah tightened her hold again. "Someone get me a damn blanket."
"I'll do it," Kaylee volunteered before hurrying off.
Simon and Jayne exchanged glances and the others noticed.
"What?" Mal demanded. "You know what that means?"
They both shook their heads.
"Don't know what it means," Jayne said. "But we heard her say it before. That scam we pulled when we stole those medical supplies on Ariel someone came and started killing off those Alliance guards."
"And River kept repeating that phrase," Simon added.
Everyone was quiet as they digested that while waiting for Kaylee to return. Mal sighed and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. "Well now then. That's right unsettlin'."
Connor shook her head almost in sync with Zoe at the understatement.
With a sigh, Mal knelt next to Simon and took River in. Slowly she lifted her gaze to look at him and the captain gave her a sad smile. "Who are they, River?"
"Bad men," River got out.
"Well that made sense, at least," Jayne groused.
"Jayne," Zoe scolded.
"I could have told you that much, though," the mercenary grumbled.
Mal took a breath and clearly tried to rein in some patience. "Who has hands of blue, River? Is that who is waiting for us? Are they waiting at Silver River?"
"Captain, it was probably just a dream," Simon suggested.
"I put more stock in your sister's dreams than I do in a lot of people's wakin' thoughts, doctor. River has proven herself well enough." Mal's gaze slid to Connor's, and he was surprised to see something other than animosity looking back at him for a change.
River looked at him hopefully. "They're bad men," she repeated. "They kill. They take. They destroy." Simple sentences were all her tired, overloaded brain could manage.
"Are they Alliance?" Connor asked quietly, her breath ghosting across River's neck and raising gooseflesh.
River nodded as she soaked up Connor's nearness. Even though there was still danger, she felt safe in the other woman's arms. The pilot smelled good. All soap, leather, cotton and gun oil. "They work for Parliament."
"Shit," Jayne muttered. "And they're waiting for us on Silver River?" He moved aside as Kaylee returned with some blankets.
"No," River murmured as Kaylee handed the blankets to Simon and Connor.
"No? I thought you said they were waiting for us there, River," Mal said gently.
"Not for you," River replied as Connor slipped a blanket over her shoulders. "For me."
Mal kicked the table in the galley, sending spoons and metal mugs clattering. "He set us up. Reigert sold us out. He's out for the reward on River."
"We don't know that, sir," Zoe said carefully. She sat at the table and watched the captain pace. Jayne and Kaylee were also present while Connor and Simon were below with River. "No one has made a move on River in a long time. Most are afraid of her, the rest respect her. The Alliance has been too fractured to pay her much mind."
"River ain't had an episode in a long time. Not like that," Kaylee commented sorrowfully. "Somethin' had to set her off good."
"Hands of blue," Jayne muttered, but everyone could hear the unease in his voice.
"Did you see who she was talking about?" Mal asked Jayne.
Jayne shook his head and took a sip of his mead. "Heard the screaming, though," he confessed. "Didn't much feel like hanging around to be introduced."
Mal stopped pacing and put his hands on the table. "So what are we gonna do?" he asked all of them.
"You're asking us, sir?" Zoe inquired with some surprise.
"Well we gotta decide if River was just having a bad dream or if this is real-like." Mal shook his head. "Kaylee's right. River ain't had an attack like this in a long while. Something set her off."
"If it's them blue handed people, we don't want to mess with 'em," Jayne told them bluntly. "I don't know what they were doing to the Alliance guards, but those screams could chill a man's blood."
"What Reigert will do to us if we don't deliver his cargo could have the same effect," Mal muttered.
They all looked at each other.
"So what we're sayin' is we're humped either way, right?" Kaylee hesitantly asked.
Mal shook his head again. "It never goes smooth. Why does it never go smooth?"
River's fingers were long and tapered and felt cold where they were wrapped around Connor's. The pilot studied them, keeping her eyes off the rest of the infirmary. She hated hospitals, sick wards anything that reminded her of her own mortality. Connor itched to get up, to move, but River's desperate grip on her hand kept her rooted in place. She licked her dry lips and looked up at the girl's profile. River's tears had thankfully dried, but now the younger woman simply looked exhausted. Without thinking, Connor ran her free hand through River's soft hair. Her actions drew River's attention and those wide, brown eyes focused on Connor as Simon moved about behind them.
"I'm sorry," River said softly.
Connor smiled reassuringly. "Nothing to be sorry for."
"I went crazy."
The pilot's smile widened a fraction. "Maybe a little."
"You think I'm crazy."
"No." Connor's voice was firm. "I think you have something that's both a gift and a curse." Because it seemed to sooth them both, Connor ran her hand through the girl's hair again. "I hear you haven't had a spell like this in a while."
"I haven't," River sighed. She looked so tired it hurt Connor's heart to look at her. "I thought these were over."
Connor eased forward, resting her elbows on her knees but never letting go of River's hand. "Was it a dream?"
River shook her head. "It started in one."
"But then you woke up and it was real," Sarah spoke slowly as she tried to understand.
"It was real in both," River corrected. "I knew, but I didn't want to know. My brain made me see."
Speaking of brains, Connor decided this conversation was starting to hurt hers. She rubbed absently at her forehead with her free hand. "Let me see if I can translate here. You've known there was something up with Silver River, but it took your subconscious to tell you what it was?"
River stared at Connor for so long the pilot almost wondered if the girl was having another attack. Very slowly, River nodded.
"Okay then," Connor murmured. "Glad we got that straightened out."
A tiny flicker of a smile lit River's weary features, and Connor felt a flare of triumph at the sight.
"River?" Simon's voice interrupted the moment.
"I'm about to get scolded," River informed Connor with a resigned sigh.
Simon approached the bed. "Your blood tests show no medicine in your system."
"Told you," River said and Connor looked down at her boots to hide her smile from the upset doctor.
"How long have you not been taking your meds?" Simon demanded.
"Doc," Connor spoke simply and interrupted the explosion she could see brewing in Simon's eyes. "She's obviously not needed it."
"She obviously needed it tonight," he snapped.
Connor wasn't so sure. "River." The pilot ignored Simon as she scooted closer to the girl. "Who are the people with hands of blue?"
"They're some sort of Parliament " Simon lapsed into silence when Connor held up her hand and cut him off.
"Let her tell us what they are to her."
River looked from her brother back to Connor. "They're contractors."
"Contractors?" Connor asked.
"A step down from operatives," River explained. "They've been lobotomized, programmed. All they know is the mission, and they'll do whatever it takes to fulfill it."
Simon and Sarah exchanged concerned glances. Both were all too aware of what operatives were capable of, having each experienced one's relentless pursuit under differing circumstances.
"And how do you know about these 'contractors?'" Simon asked gently.
"Any time a student would escape the Academy, the contractors would hunt them down and bring them back. They were always bringing me back." River looked up at her brother. "Until you came for me."
Connor took a breath and tried to control the sudden swell of anger. "I bet they got to know you pretty well," she teased.
River's brown eyes darted to Sarah's face and the younger woman managed a smirk. Connor snorted and shook her head, proud of River's rebellion.
"I've heard of contractors," Simon murmured as he pulled a stool over and sat. "I thought they were a myth."
It made sense to use them to retrieve the students, Connor thought. "They would have performed their task like machines. No emotion for students like River to detect."
River rolled toward Connor, pulling their joined hands up under her chin.
Connor watched her, her heart melting a little at River's actions. The woman trusted her blindly. It was a gift Connor felt she didn't deserve but was touched by it nevertheless. Any remaining thoughts of telling River not to call her Sarah dissolved into the ether.
"You can detect their absence of emotion," River corrected. "If you know what the emptiness feels like."
Something told the pilot she didn't want to know. "River," Connor spoke softly. "You had this attack because there are contractors on Silver River?"
River hesitated before slowly nodding.
"I know it's been a long time since you had an attack like this," Connor said carefully, hoping her next words would ease River's troubled spirit. "But it would seem that this is a good thing, right? We know they're there."
The rigidity in River's body seemed to dissolve when the younger woman realized Connor was right. As much as she hated episodes like the one on the bridge, they could serve a useful purpose.
"They want to take me back," River whispered.
"We won't let them," Connor promised.
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