BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA

JACQUI

Adam's Rib Ch 10: Frying Pans and Fires.
Monday, October 3, 2005

Explosions. Kisses. Gun fire. Flirting. Talk of a mutiny. What more do you want?


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3290    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: You know they're not mine, I know they're not mine. Why are we doing this?

Comments: 1) This one took longer than I'd hoped. My muses are, apparently, as stubborn if not more than I am.

2) This is the second to last chapter. The next one will be the last (well, obviously). I really hope you enjoyed it.

Feedback: Oh, but definitely. I really like it, have I told you how much? C'mon, you know you want to email me. I answer everything, in painful detail, I do. I dare you... wily_one24@yahoo.com.au

***

- A timeline - Reports from the Academy detailing what was done to the children and when. - And the memories in chronological order.

***

"They've made contact." Dr. Miyamoto didn't wait to be asked to speak, his nervous, breathy voice broke into the room. "River Tam and two others have made it into the basement."

"Really?" Asked the man on the right.

"It doesn't change anything." Said the man on the left. "Kill them all."

"We're trying!" He pleaded to no avail. "It's not as simple as..."

His words trailed off to nothing as he stared forward, eyes wide with panic. One shake of his head and he took a step back. The two men looked at each other and then turned to see what was behind them. With a casual flick of their blue hands, they waved the doctor away, already forgotten. They both smiled.

"Jonah." Welcomed the man on the right.

"We've been waiting for you." Admonished the man on the left. "You took your time."

***

They don't take him to the med lab, they take him instead up to another floor and leave him in a room. He can't find it in them before they go, they don't know why they've been asked to bring him here. It sends more than a few chills down his spine.

Jonah.

He spins around and tries to find a source for the voice, but there is none. There's nothing but the walls. It doesn't help him, he can't read into a voice coming through hidden speakers. He suspects that they know this.

One of the walls flickers into a screen in front of him and he finds himself looking at a room full of desks, his eyes narrowing in confusion as he looks at face after face of happy students at work. It takes him a moment to register the school they'd all been dragged away from. It takes him another second to register the face in the tenth row, fourth from the right.

Jonah gasps out loud and can't stop himself reaching up to touch River's face, alight with success as she scribbles into the notebook in front of her. As he watches, River leans over and passes a note to the girl next to her. They both giggle.

He thinks about the frail, trembling creature waiting downstairs for him and his blood boils.

She has a lot of talent, that one, and it's going to waste. The voice says casually. We want a lot of things from River Tam and we have ways of getting them out of her.

Jonah wants to shout, but it itches at him, his helplessness, the knowledge that one step out of line will not only cost him bruises and blood, but mostly likely will cost the others as well.

There is a way. The voice continues. You can save her a lot of pain.

The image in front of him changes and Jonah does cry out. River strapped to a chair, eyes wide with terror as they force the instrument right through the middle of her forehead in one brutal push. Her fingers twitch and close tightly over the hand rests, her knuckles turning white. He hears the echo of her screams and knows it's happening right now.

We have a proposition for you, Jonah.

The River on the screen looks so small it's almost painful.

Help us and we can help her.

The image flickers back to the River of before, somehow larger, blown up and swollen by the peace within. The screen flickers back and forth. Smiling. Screaming. Smiling. Screaming.

Stop it! He yells finally. I'll do it. Whatever you want, just stop it.

Her face pauses in mid laugh in front of him.

We knew you would. You're such a good boy.

***

River lowered Kaylee's wrist between them and held it there with her right hand as she went to touch the blossoming colors of Kaylee's cheek with her left. Her fingers stopped short of making contact and she winced. Her sharp eyes swept Kaylee up and down, a frown formed as a crinkle between her eyes and her mouth opened.

"It's okay." Kaylee rushed to fill the gap, lip trembling through the small smile she tried to give, her own left hand coming up and touching the top of River's head, dragging down over her hair. "River, it's okay."

River closed her eyes, leaned her head forward and touched Kaylee with it. She could feel the horror and the relief and the hope and the triumph, wanted to swap herself for it. Kaylee twisted her wrist in River's grasp until their hands came level and their fingers twined, she looked over River's shoulder to the darkness of the hallway.

"Where'd you come from?"

"The dead tunnels." River shuddered through her whispers. "Can't go back again."

River!

She gasped and bought her head up to look past Kaylee.

It's you!

She's back!

We missed you!

A smile edged her lips and she nudged against Kaylee.

What are you waiting for? Kiss her!

River laughed.

Sebastian! I told you to stop it!

She pulled Kaylee into a gaggle of limbs, hands and exclamations. Sebastian grabbed her hand and she sparked with the thought of freckles on a white face. Minmei touched her arm and she felt a soft loneliness. River turned to touch Alex's cheek and bend a kiss to her forehead, slipped into a thread of despair and pulled herself out of it.

Kaylee smiled to herself as she watched River in the middle of it, preening over them, having to touch each one over and over to make sure they were there and, in turn, each of them reaching out to touch her. She felt herself being jostled and steadied in the midst of it.

Not once had River let go of her hand.

"Kaylee!" She looked up to see Simon climbing over the tables propping the elevator open and Jayne slipping down through the hole that had been made. "River! Where'd you go to?"

All eight of the huddle looked to them.

"We all here, are we?" Jayne grumbled, his eyes picking over them to assess injuries and showing more relief than his gruff voice. "Great, 'cause we've got company."

"Time to move." Daniel agreed.

***

"How's she doin', Wash?"

"Hey!" Zoe gritted out as she sat against the wall, legs splayed out, her right hand clamped over the hole in her left shoulder. "She's just fine. She can talk for herself."

"Yeah, well." Mal made a face as he eyed the corridor. "She tends to underrate her injuries. Wash?"

The man in question looked at the beads of sweat that formed on his wife's forehead, saw the tendons on her neck stretch out as she pressed her head back into the wall against the pain, saw the thick blood as it oozed through her fingers. He saw the determined set of her jaw.

"She said she was fine, Mal." Wash touched her good arm and did not look up. "Weren't you listening?"

"Good." Mal ignored the undercurrent. "We're going in. Inara'll stay here with her."

"What?" Wash did look up then. "What happened to staying here and holding the exit?"

Mal pointed down the hallway.

"There are twenty bodies lying on that floor, each one connected to loaded guns." He spoke slowly. "I mean to take those guns and make sure those men stay down."

"Go." Urged Inara. "I'll make sure Zoe's okay."

"But..." Wash began.

"I ain't askin', Wash." A little tension may have entered Mal's voice.

"You go." Threatened Zoe. "Or I will."

"Fine." Wash kissed Zoe's forehead. "Fine. I know when I'm beat."

"Check them." Mal gestured to the first few men farther along the hall. "Don't let your guard down."

He stood by the second door, waited for Wash to pass and then knocked.

"Sheppard? Jonah? You still in there?"

"That we are." Book's face appeared. "Everyone alright out there?"

"More or less."

Mal watched Book's eyes travel down to his shirt and back up again.

"That blood is it?"

"That's the less part. Zoe's down, but not out." He frowned. "So you two are just... sitting in there?"

"Basically, yes."

"Ai-yah. Tyen-ah..." Mal hissed. "We could have used you out here! Inara could have stayed in there..."

"Mal." Interrupted Book. "I believe the boy was right. I don't know what he's doing, but I suspect he's making some important people very angry right now. If they find him, they're not going to be particular about who they need to get past. Or how."

Book looked down, away from Mal's eyes.

"If those children can see half the things Jonah and River can, it's probably better I'm not close when they first meet everyone."

"Well," Mal scowled, "if you're just going to use logic on me..."

He hefted his gun and stalked off. He could handle River stepping up to the plate and taking charge. Hell, he could even take Jonah boarding his ship and practically running this mission with River. Mal was no idiot and he knew their inside knowledge and particular skill set made them more than superior in that respect. It was not knowing the why behind things that got to him, made him want to spit, because it wasn't in him to keep asking for reasons. That was not his job.

"Wash?" He asked as kicked a gun away from a fallen man. "Who's the captain here?"

"Who's asking?" Came the easy reply.

Mal frowned.

"I am."

"Then you!" Wash nodded. "Of course it's you."

"Fine. Just... fine." Mal sighed. "Here, take these back to your wife."

"Mal?"

"Yeah?"

"Can we call it the rendezvous point?" Wash jiggled just the slightest bit. "I can be taking supplies to the rendezvous point."

"Just take these," Mal pointed, "over there."

"Kill joy. I vote Kaylee for captain after the mutiny." Wash mumbled and then gave a noticeably insincere smile as he raised his voice. "Why? What are you gonna do?"

"Me? I'm going to pretend I actually am the captain," Mal replied, "and check on the rest of my crew."

There had been no real movement in the hallway since the last man had fallen and Mal's eyes kept returning to the gap in which River, Jayne and Simon had disappeared. Things were going too well for him to be comfortable right now.

He heard Inara talking to Zoe, voice soft and yet still stretched tight with adrenaline and nerves. Wash's footsteps were loud, too, echoing in his ears. Mal looked over his shoulder to make sure they were staying low and on alert. He was about to yell at Wash for turning his back when he saw Inara's face as she leapt to her feet.

"Mal!"

A blast hit the side of his hip, making him stop mid step as he heard the guns. He felt the heated tunnels of air that the bullets left as they sped past him. His body thudded into the wall as several guards pushed past him. Mal saw Wash throw himself over Inara and pull her back behind the wall.

***

"Why don't they just seal us off, or blow us up?" Simon's question was met with glares from all sides as they waited just outside the elevator.

"Can't destroy it." River said as she bent her head back to look at the ceiling. "Worked too hard. Many years. It's a last resort. It's us that's dispensable."

Kaylee's hands were already shaking in the wires of the control panel when the gun shots sounded. Her eyes glanced up and she saw movement above her, people in the shaft headed straight towards them. Heat pressed up against her back.

"I got you." Jayne said over his shoulder. "Just get it working."

"I'm trying." Her voice shook as the tables were pulled out of the way of the doors. "It's easier to pull it apart than put it back together."

She jumped when Jayne's gun went off. Suddenly the space was too small, too small to hold her and one man let alone the seven other people who waited just outside the doors. Definitely too small to hold another groaning, injured man who fell through. Sebastian reached in and pulled him out of the way.

"Kaylee?" River urged desperately. "We need up."

"What's happening?" She demanded.

"Mal's been shot." Daniel explained as he looked back towards the rooms. "He needs help now."

"Oh god, oh god, oh god." Kaylee bit her lip as her fingers slipped again. She closed her eyes and breathed in. "Come on, you can do it."

A whirring sound echoed around her.

"Got it!" She exclaimed with triumph.

River knew, they all felt it, but she knew. Before the group began to file into the elevator she grabbed Daniel's arm and looked him in the eye.

"No." She spoke it so they all could hear. "You lead them. Not me. You. I'll stay."

"River?" He began. "I..."

"Go!" She insisted and pushed him through the doors as they began to close. "That's an order!"

"River?" Kaylee shoved her way to the front and tried to stop the closing. Daniel grabbed her and she struggled to get free. "Let me go!"

"We ain't got time for this!" Jayne urged as he kept watch through the hole above them. "It's now or never."

River wanted to reach in and touch Kaylee, to tell her things would work out just fine, to say the words out loud, but the doors were closing and she didn't have the time. Her eyes closed and she pushed into the throng of panic, swam through the rapidly beating hearts and pumping blood. There were too many of them.

One breath and she forced herself to hold it, she'd done it with Mal and she could do it again. Kaylee's confusion seeped into her and she scowled. There wasn't time, not yet, and she let it wash over her as she pushed past it. She found what she was looking for, Daniel pushed it to her, the others pushed through him, too, and she felt Sebastian and Bethany.

There were pieces here, she had them now, she just didn't how they fit.

***

"What are you going to do, Jonah?" The man on the right challenged, amused. "Glare at us?"

Which is exactly what he did, a frown creasing his expression as he took a step forward, getting closer to them. They had confidence on their side, they had time and experience and they'd learned a lot since he'd been gone.

"Still trying to save the girl?" Asked the man on the left, unconcerned. "Still so noble?"

They hadn't learned enough, he felt the tides of thought within them, wave after wave of meaningless data that they used to confuse him, to stop him seeing what they didn't want him to.

"We're not going to tell you." The first man taunted. "And you've already guessed that there's something to know, haven't you? That's why you're here."

"We can help her, Jonah." The second man spoke with a soft tone in his voice. "We've found a way."

It didn't change a thing, Jonah knew it, they should have known it, too. He took another step forward and watched their expressions change from amused to slightly annoyed.

"You cost us River Tam." The first man told him coldly. "You cost us months of valuable research and planning."

"Now you owe us." Finished the second man. "And we will take it out of you in spades, Jonah. Don't think we won't find you in here, wherever you are."

Jonah reached one hand forward.

"It's only a matter of time before we find you." Informed the man on the right. "And don't think you'll be able to plead for River's life this time."

"Once we have you, Jonah, and everything in your brain..."

The second man stopped talking. His eyes went wide. There was a small, slow trickle of blood running down from his left nostril. It shone thin red against the blue of his fingers as he wiped it away. The two men both looked to Jonah standing there.

He smiled.

***

Book watched the muscles of Jonah's face twist, he saw the boy's hand reach up and grasp for something that wasn't there. It wasn't the one sided unspoken conversation that worried him, so much as the tremors that came over Jonah, the sheen of sweat that coated his face.

There were cries and more gunshots outside the door.

He gripped his gun and looked back and forth between the supine body and the sounds. His mind was made up before he registered the steps he'd taken. The door burst open and cracked against his face.

Book's fingers squeezed the trigger hard and he kept his ground as the recoil hammered against him. The stunner hit him in the stomach and he fell to his knees, gasping, as the armed men surrounded Jonah's body.

***

He knows what he's going to find before he gets there. They let him into the recovery room as part of the arrangement. She's lying on the bed, unable to move because she's strapped in for her own safety, and Jonah can't take his eyes off the small, weeping dot on her forehead.

River? He speaks gently. Can you hear me?

She whimpers softly in response.

You're going to be okay. He tells her. I made sure of it.

Jonah can feel the tendrils of her reach out to him, can feel her trying to find the thread of thought that they play with. For the first time he blocks her, creates a wall she can't get through, not when she's weak like this.

It's going to be better. He promises.

Her eyes flick up and try to find him, but he's standing a little too far out of her line of vision. Better for her, he thinks, so much better that she doesn't see what he's just done, that she never gets to touch the growing pit of guilt in his stomach. Maybe, he won't let himself dwell too much on it, maybe it's just better for him.

He doesn't know that woman or her family, doesn't even want to. He wants to know the girl lying in the bed, the one whose hand inches out to him and squeezes tightly.

It's okay. She manages to crack the words out and hisses through the movement it causes her head. Whatever it is, it's okay.

Jonah lets his chin fall to his chest and cries.

***

The elevator surged up, making the men above them scramble. Kaylee softened in Daniel's hands and waited until he let go before she pushed her way to Simon. They parted as one to let her through and the moment before the doors opened, as they all raised their weapons, it occurred to her that they wanted her behind them.

The six children poured out of the doors when they opened, leaving Kaylee and Simon to follow, Jayne holding the rear. Kaylee stumbled as she saw the bodies that lined the hallway. Bethany turned and gestured to Simon. They both looked to see Mal lying in a pool of blood. Kaylee and Simon fell to a kneeling position next to him as Minmei and Binh stayed just in front of them. Daniel, Bethany, Alex and Sebastian continued forward.

"Captain!"

Mal opened his eyes and blinked as he tried to shift himself up.

"Kaylee? That you?"

"Stay still." Simon ordered as he began to check the main wound. "This looks pretty bad."

"Yeah, Captain, it's me."

She saw Mal sigh and give in to Simon's effort to keep him still.

"Kaylee? I need you to do something." Simon didn't meet her eyes. "I need something to dress this wound. I need it now, no argument."

"What?" She couldn't think straight. "I don't..."

"He wants a shirt off one of those bodies." Jayne gestured as Mal gritted through a hiss as Simon's fingers pressed all manner of tender points. "And Kaylee? You take one of those flack jackets and you put it on. You hear me?"

"The bodies?" She hesitated. "The dead ones?"

"Well," Jayne suggested as he kept aim on the open elevator doors. "you could always just give them that there flimsy gown you got on."

"Not at all inappropriate, Jayne."

Simon glared at him as Kaylee swallowed and made her way over to the nearest body on the floor.

"We all up here?" Mal gasped, he noticed that Simon wouldn't meet his eyes either. "What? Who's missing?"

"River." Supplied Jayne. "Damn fool stayed down there."

Simon clenched his jaw, but didn't say anything. He and Kaylee began tearing up the purloined clothes and Mal stifled a moan when Simon started tying them around his hip and the surrounding mess. Jayne grimaced down at them, then looked at Binh.

"You got these covered, do ya?"

He waited for Binh's nod and saw him and Minmei stand guard at either end of the trio. Jayne smashed his way through the nearest door, took a quick look around and began to upend a table, taking a distinct pleasure in sending everything on top of it skidding onto the floor.

***

"What's happening?" Zoe demanded.

"They're back." Wash answered automatically from his position against the wall. "Looks like a bunch of little mini soldiers are clearing the pack from the other end."

"What about Mal?"

"I can't see." Inara gasped as she fell back and tossed aside the empty gun for another among the pile Wash had brought back. "He's been shot and I can't see."

"He's fine." Wash took a second to look at her. He could see the rising panic in her, even if he hadn't heard the hysteria in her voice. They needed her to remain calm a little longer. She could fall apart later, that was when he planned to completely lose it. Maybe he should give her the schedule. "It's Mal, he's always fine."

"Yes." Inara nodded, although she didn't sound entirely convinced. "Of course he is."

Zoe closed her eyes, let her head fall back against the wall and tried to stay awake through the pain.

***

Alex. Daniel ordered in his head. You keep going straight. Help those three hold the exit. Bethany, Sebastian, you're with me.

They entered the room quickly and silently. Nine men surrounded a body on the floor. Daniel grabbed the first man from behind and twisted his neck. It didn't kill him, but he would be useless for a while. The other eight turned and raised their weapons.

Bethany delivered a high kick to the man nearest her and he doubled over, groaning. Sebastian fired at the two men behind the groaning one. Daniel dove to the right and aimed even as he rolled. He took another one down. They heard the gasp of air that Bethany as she was tackled to the floor by the man she'd just disabled.

Daniel didn't react, he knew Sebastian would be on to it and he wasn't wrong. A crack sounded as the boy brought the butt of his gun down hard on the back of the man's head. He turned away and pretended not to notice the warmth that flowed between the two as Sebastian helped Bethany back to her feet.

Four men left and no time to think about it. He took another man out with a shot that was too easy. Another man fell under Bethany's gun. The two remaining men looked at each other. Sebastian, Bethany and Daniel smiled.

"You have one chance." Daniel told them.

"Where are the Operatives?" Asked Sebastian.

Nothing but confusion and panic radiated off the men, the three of them could feel it. They would get nothing from them.

"Sorry." Bethany said with a small shrug. "That's not good enough."

When they were clear, the three of them stood next to Jonah's body and looked down at him. They didn't touch him. Daniel looked over to the groaning man in the corner of the room.

"How long has he been like this?"

"Since we got here." Book managed. "An hour, maybe?"

We have to find them.

The three of them dismissed Book easily. He would be fine and his own men would help him. Their responsibility lay at their feet.

We have to find them, now.

***

River did not waste time. There were too many jigsaw pieces in her head, bouncing around, screaming for attention, waiting to be fitted together before they would sit down and let themselves be read. Wash was a piece, a piece with a plastic tree and memories he tried not to see, but River had.

Daniel and Kaylee had handed her another piece, a room with data disks. And drawers that hurt. Bethany and Sebastian theirs, another room with locked compartments, cooled and labeled, the Latin names labeled neatly. The harshness of Dr. Williams held one or two. River's mouth formed the words that had flickered through her from the doctor as he'd tried to barter with her.

She caught one and managed to see it's shape before it slipped out of her brain's fingers. Puzzles couldn't be forced. They had to be teased together. Logics and observations. River grasped another and tried to smell it.

Concentrate. River took one step in front of the other, her eyes closed as she stepped delicately over the debris. Forests and trees, she told herself, the picture is too big.

She dropped to a crouch and spun around, holding one leg straight out. It connected sharply, she leapt high and landed on top of the man who'd fallen onto his back. Her elbow slammed into his chest and he stopped moving.

"Sleep." She told him. He was going to wake up very grumpy. "Good boy."

There were echoes down here that she didn't want to think about, she couldn't help it. They snaked into her and made her dizzy. Her eyes scanned the walls as she breathed, one hand twisting in a strand of her hair. The pieces, she tried again, one into the other.

It clicked and she ran.

***

Wash listened and heard nothing, it was too silent for his liking. He promised himself that next time he was going to be on the first team inside, this holding the exit deal was hard work. He cocked his gun. Slowly and carefully, with a nod to Inara, he began to look around the corner of the wall.

And squealed as he nearly bumped into a small girl standing with her back to them, gun aimed down the hallway.

"Don't worry." Alex turned and looked up at him with a hint of amusement. "I'm on your side."

"That was my battle cry." He told her. "It puts the enemy on edge. Very manly."

Alex smiled as she scanned him and then Inara, but when her eyes fell to Zoe she frowned. Kneeling down, she placed her gun by her side and brought her hands up in front of Zoe's face. She clapped once, loud and sharp.

"Zoe!" She clapped again and waited for the slow blink of Zoe's eyes flickering open. "Zoe, stay with us, okay? Simon's on his way."

"Who...?"

Worry sparked in Wash at the dazed question.

"Simon, honey, you know..."

"She knows who Simon is." Alex shared a smile with the half conscious Zoe. "My name is Alex."

"Is everyone...?" Inara broke in nervously. "Are they all okay?"

"Mal will be fine." She assured them. "They're on their way. Kaylee too. We're all getting out."

Inara heard the catch in the little girl's voice, the slight rising of hope and fear all at once. Her eyes met gray ones and she saw the light spread of pink over delicate cheeks. It made Inara wonder when hope had become something to be embarrassed about.

***

"Team six, pick up this frequency." Dr. Miyamoto's voice grew slightly shrill. "That's an order!"

The com in his hand crackled with feedback. He felt like throwing it at the wall.

"Doctor?" Scratched a voice. "Team six."

"Status?" He tried not to sound too relieved. They needed someone in that basement.

"The children have gone." Gasped the voice. "All but River Tam. They've disabled two of our men and the doctor."

"The whole project has been compromised." The decision was made in an instant. "You know what to do."

"But doctor?" Came the shocked voice. "River Tam? And..."

"Her too. And don't worry, your families will be well compensated for their loss."

***

"Ready?" Simon asked. "One, two, three!"

Kaylee watched, wide eyed with sympathy and a little fear, as Jayne and Simon lifted a wincing Mal onto the overturned table, its legs sticking up in the air and making the whole thing more than a little awkward as they tried to fit Mal's body through them.

"We ready?" Jayne asked.

He and Simon each grabbed a leg of the table and began to push it down the hallway, Minmei taking the lead and clearing anything out of their path and Binh taking the rear.

"Wait!" Kaylee began to run back to the open door of the elevator and Binh grabbed her arm. "I'm not leaving her there!"

"We have to go." He told her as she pulled out of his grasp. "She told us to."

"I'm not..." She stopped, noticing the stubborn look in his eye, the set of Minmei's face, the slightly hopeful rise of Simon's and the furious glare of Jayne. "Fine, just let me do one thing?"

She ran to the elevator, Binh close behind, his eyes searching the spaces that made them most vulnerable. Her fingers found the controls, she stripped two wires and began to twist them together.

"No." Binh said suddenly. "Send it to one, not the basement. She'll make it."

Kaylee frowned, but nodded. It whirred again and they jumped free of the doors as they closed.

"Are you done?" Jayne growled.

She nodded as she stepped between the two men to help push the makeshift stretcher. Simon nudged her gently with his shoulder.

"Thank you for trying."

***

It wasn't as if he liked his job. He scoffed at the word, it wasn't a job, it was a sentence. There had been a name for this assignment back in the military. Gravy train with a one way ticket. Good pay, but there was no coming back. Nobody left this job voluntarily.

That's what everyone had said.

He hadn't listened, he'd listened to the credit signs that had blinked at him from the contract instead. Listened with the knowledge of mouths to feed and bills to pay.

After a while he'd learned, like the others, to block out the large, wounded eyes of the smaller ones, the angry resentment of the others. To ignore the way they slowly lost the ability to fight back.

To disregard the screams in his dreams and the fact that his own family's laughter tasted like blood in his mouth.

They were doing good work, the line came back to him sounding bitter in his head. The same old line they spat out every time there was a problem or a query. Or a man who begged for a transfer to save his sanity. Good work, this game of torturing children, good, good work.

So he followed the order as he reached into the hidden compartment and found the blocks packed properly and kept dry. It shouldn't have surprised him, nothing about this place should surprise him anymore.

The small lumps of plasticine nestled easily into the strategic places he pressed them into. The fuses sparked easily and his eyes traveled to the darkness that he'd watched the girl run into as he began to count.

In a strange, twisted way he'd be glad when it was finally over and, along the same veins, so should River Tam.

***

She held them in her hands. Her brain itched at her, something trying to break its way in. Then she felt it, like the smell of sulphur inside her nostrils or the tick of a detonator. Her eyes flew to the door. There was no escape there.

River clutched the box of data disks and sighed.

"This is the last time." She mumbled to herself in disgust. "No more."

River opened one of the larger drawers and ran a hand over the body. She was long gone, whoever she'd been, ripped and torn for the prize inside. Tears and gasping and calls for people she had already made sure would never find her long before she wanted them to. One lonely soul.

There wasn't time to mourn this one, not now. River stretched herself along the body and slowly inched the drawer shut. Cold skin made her shiver. Darkness and close walls made her shut her eyes tight and try to picture other things, not that she ever could.

The explosion was loud when it happened.

***

You can do it.

His voice echoes around her head and River sighs patiently, curbs her frustration, she can't do it. She hasn't been able to do it yet and she doesn't think she ever will.

Don't think like that. Jonah's soft voice is tinged with its own frustration. Just because it doesn't come easily, doesn't mean you have to give up. You can't be a genius at everything.

River's eyes snap open in the dark. She feels herself primp under the insinuation. He knows what he's doing, the deep volley of his laugh tells her that, but it doesn't matter because she's going to prove him wrong now.

She looks up at the ceiling and shivers under the thin sheet. Jonah's room is four doors down and sometimes there's a lot of traffic between them. It depends on how bad the threads are from the other rooms.

Next to her Aida dreams of a mother who once kissed her forehead. Those are the dreams that hurt more, sometimes. It's strange how even the nightmares lose their meaning and the memories that used to make them smile now make them wake up with hearts that beat too fast and lungs that refuse to breathe.

Focus! Jonah finds her again. You can't stop to look at every little thing. Find what you want and ignore the rest.

That's easy for you to think. She pouts at the dark and feels him make a face. You know how to do it.

River. He pauses and it sounds like begging. You need to be able to do this.

She gets a flicker of something darker and tries to grab onto it, tries to do exactly what he's telling her to do.

Marcus. She tells him with more than a hint of pride. Pudgy guard number two. He's thinking about selling information about us to some people he knows.

Almost. Jonah rewards her with a smile in his voice. You're not concentrating like I told you.

Enough, Jonah! She sighs, suddenly deflated, and rolls over. Yes, he is thinking about it, but no he's not going to do it, because they pay him too much money and they're holding sensitive information about him. So there.

See? I told you, you could do it.

I'm going to sleep, now, Jonah.

You're welcome, baobei.

River smiles into the pillow.

***

He'd switched into doctor mode the moment he'd heard the word 'shot'. Clinical and unemotional. It's what they'd taught him at the hospital, to separate himself from his own feelings. All the easier to deal with the worst emergency cases. It was nearly impossible to concentrate on sewing up the torn platysma of a stab victim if you listened to the gurgles of blood in their throat.

It was exactly how Simon was able to stand still in the elevator and watch River not come with them, how he was able to hold back from fighting the children when they left her there, able to focus on helping Mal and getting him out of the main danger area.

How the roar of the blast below them and the trembling of the entire building did not make him jump. Simon saw, in slow motion, the paling of Kaylee's face and the way her eyes grew huge with panic. He almost envied her. She let go of the stretcher and turned back the way they'd came.

A loud crunching sound echoed in the next instant and Simon felt the compartment he had forced his fears into split in two distinct halves. One felt immediately relieved at the sound of the elevator jamming in the shaft and blocking a backdraft of flames engulfing them all. The other half was holding desperately to Binh's promise before it shattered and left him empty.

"Pick her up." He told Jayne without blinking as Kaylee's foot slipped when she began to run. "Carry her if you have to."

***

It echoed off the walls in the room. A reverberation that shook them, even this high up. The two men looked around them and the man on the right managed a short, bitter laugh.

"You feel that, Jonah?" He wiped at the bloody streak under his nose. "That's everything you're trying to save, gone up in smoke."

Jonah tipped his eyebrow with a savage kind of triumph.

"We may have lost everything," the man on the left gasped out as he tried to stop the flow of blood. "but we're prepared for that. Are you?"

Jonah stopped smiling.

"You can't go back." The first man realized. "It's too much and you can't go back."

"This is a little too far out of your league, isn't it, Jonah?" The second man smiled again. "Once again, you're too late and too weak to save anyone, let alone yourself."

Jonah shrugged, he was already here and they were right in saying he couldn't go back, he might as well make good use of his time. He pictured it the way he knew River would, the data flowing through their heads rippling and parting like water to allow his own thoughts in.

***

Alex didn't see it in colors or pictures, like some of them, she couldn't see whole words and sentences written out like pages in a book. What she got, if she wasn't careful, was a nauseating wave of feeling that washed over her, an overwhelming sense of knowing.

Knowing that the pain didn't bother Zoe, not really, it was merely an unpleasant fact of an unpleasant situation. She'd had worse and survived and she wasn't going to let this stop her now. No, what annoyed Zoe most was how early she'd been made useless in the fight, how much the injury worried Wash whose sole job was to keep that little flair of joy and innocence alive in himself so that it didn't die in her.

Knowing that Wash was holding together because the idea of folding at that moment and failing them all, especially Zoe, was just too much responsibility that he couldn't handle.

Knowing that Inara hated every minute of it, hated shooting her gun, hated being shot at, hated that everyone she cared about was in danger, but most of all she hated the level to which it excited her, made her feel alive in ways being a companion and selling facsimiles of herself never had.

Alex watched the approaching group without reacting to the new onslaught of emotions that crashed over her, pounded into her. She stood still and let the debris of it settle itself through and around her.

Suddenly she knew Mal was a kaleidoscope, angry at himself for being overcome so stupidly, triumphant at the fact of overcoming so many of them first, relieved to have Kaylee back unharmed, worried about River, about Zoe, and scared beyond belief that this could be it and he would never see the result, never know how it all turned out.

Knew the release of Kaylee's sob, Kaylee who had stopped struggling against Jayne and melted into a numb automatic trance, led by Jayne's firm grasp on her wrist. There was a torrent building in there, held tenuously at bay by Minmei and Binh's repeated assurance that River had made it out, a desperate need to believe it. A pressure Alex felt eddy and shift and threaten to boil over as Kaylee let herself be drawn into the solicitous hands of Inara, hands that ran over Kaylee, making sure she was really there, because they couldn't run over Mal.

Knew the thin, tenuous control that radiated from Simon, a desperate gratitude, and guilt for that gratitude, for Zoe's injury as he went to check on her, an act that let him concentrate on something other than the urge to forcibly shake one of them until they told him exactly what was happening to River. Alex knew a silent horror in him, too, the resentment of seeing herself and Minmei and Binh, of Daniel and Jonah, of all of them, of seeing what to him was an unharmed version of what River should have been. And wasn't.

She knew Jayne's confusion, the fear of these little people he didn't know and was risking his life for. Not his mortality, but his life, Serenity as he knew it, the safety and surety of days where Mal strutted like a cock in a farmyard, but watched over them all. Where Kaylee made them all humble and gave them the word family. With Zoe's unflinching loyalty, Wash's easy jokes. A life where Book offered him friendship in a form he'd never had before, equality and acceptance. He was even guarded about the back and forth bickering with Simon, a camaraderie he hadn't felt since he'd left his brother. And River, the fear of her unpredictability that was slowly leaking into a grudging respect and awe for all that she'd been through and the strength she had. He didn't want to lose any of it.

"Book's in that room." Alex pointed as she looked at Jayne. "You better go get him."

***

Burning the candle, the words danced through her head, fire consuming both ends. River felt the buckles of her boots heated through the leather, she felt the blisters that formed on her exposed calves and wanted the cool of Simon's burn gel. Soon, she told herself as she pulled her body forward another few inches and then pushed the boxes in front of her, soon. Data for Simon, savior in the making. The crackle of flames roared ahead of her.

River crawled from the frying pan into the fire.

***

"Stay with him." Daniel ordered Bethany and Sebastian. And stay alert.

Bethany blushed as she nodded.

"Gonna gimme a hand?" Jayne asked as he lifted Book's arm around his shoulders and tried to get him into a standing position. "He's not light, ya know."

Daniel looked at them.

"I have to check on the others."

Jayne opened his mouth to say something, but he was stopped by the light flutter of Book's hand waving at him to forget it as he forced himself up.

"Let him be." Book managed to gasp. "Boy has a job to do."

As he walked past them, Daniel paused.

"It's just a stunner. He'll be fine in half an hour or so." He couldn't stop himself, couldn't hold back the bitterness that crept into his voice. "I guess they had orders not to hurt him."

He found the rest of them crowded around either side of the hallway entrance. Before he reached them, Daniel knew Alex was in love. She was almost purring on the inside and he ached for her. Three years was a long time for someone so young to be without family. It was inevitable, he already knew it without having to feel the tendrils that were beginning to sprout in the others, that they would fall in love with her, too.

She did that.

"I'm Daniel." Was his introduction and then he asked, even though he already knew the answer. "Everyone okay here?"

He waited for the visual confirmations, the quick, curt nods of his team and the slower, shakier nods from the others. Regroup and reaffirm, the words were like instinct to him.

"Jayne's right behind me with Book." He eyed the group. "It's all clear right now. I want the injured on the right side, closest to the exit, as well as Wash, Kaylee, Simon, Binh and Minmei. Standard cover points."

He knew the last order confused most of them, but that wasn't his concern right now, the twins knew what he meant. That left Alex, Jayne, Book and Inara on the left. From what he'd seen, it was a line up that could handle themselves admirably. As they shifted and moved themselves, Daniel let himself relax the slightest little bit.

They were going to get out. And they were going to get out relatively unhurt. A few minor scrapes and gunshot wounds, but he knew their team had faced worse and so had his. Simon was capable, he had no doubt of it, anyone related to River couldn't be anything but. He smiled at Kaylee.

"How are you doing?"

"Been better." She tried to smile back and ended up grimacing instead. "Been captured, poked at, shot at, dragged back here and people I love are either bleeding to death at my feet or trapped in fiery explosions. Plus, I dropped my chair leg. You?"

He chuckled.

***

It led to the furnace room. River clung to the edges of the tunnel she crawled out of, halfway up the wall, and scanned the room. It glowed hot red in the back of her eyes and on the skin at the back of her neck. Slowly, she picked her way along the wall to the opening she needed and crawled back in.

The air was cooler and fresher in her lungs here.

The higher she rose the easier they came to her, the more eager she was to join them. The metal around her became cooler and she let her hands and the skin of her legs linger on it. As long as she could feel them, she knew they were safe, knew that they were there.

It was Jonah that worried her more.

Flashes of him forced their way into her, leery skeery faces, trickles of blood, sounds of screams in her ears. Her own screams. The rapid acceleration of a heart in panic. His body lying vacant and helpless on the floor.

The room was empty when she forced her way in and through. Not too many guards in the hall. First floor Binh had said. River had gone to the third. Silently, she tiptoed up to the men with their backs to her, her eyes taking in the scorch marks that covered the wall near the elevator. The doors were warped, twisted into themselves, folded open slightly against the weight of the car itself.

"Explosions do that." She said calmly.

The men turned around in shock. River smiled. And waited. They attacked first.

***

They sit in silence, chewing on their incredibly nutritious food, perfectly balanced and packed with everything their bodies need and nothing that they want. River remembers when a person could take pleasure in things like food. When even simple meals were a sumptuous feast of texture and color and taste, heat and sizzle.

She sighs.

Jonah isn't with them today and it makes River's nerves jingle. Jangling up her spine and scratching there until she wants to scream it all out. They don't hurt him much anymore, nor her or any of the others, it's a form of stasis that she doesn't understand.

He brings her things, little presents from outside. Nothing tangible, nothing that can be taken from her or used against him. Important things, though, so very important that those who keep them wouldn't realize their true value.

Last week Jonah brought her a song. A thin thread of music that someone else had been humming inside their head. River can hum it herself, now, knows the tune by rote. It makes her heart beat to imagine hearing the melody, to imagine the steps she'd dance to it.

He gave the boys a dirty joke and they've all been giggling over it for two weeks now, even Bethany and Kiku. Something about a Minister, a Preacher, a sequestered Companion and a duck. Put it on his bill, indeed.

For all the baubles that he brings, River knows that it's worse when he goes. Because he's going to come back all closed and sheltered, he won't let her inside for days.

He keeps telling her that he's made it better as he reaches up to touch her forehead and River smiles when he does this, smiles because he cares, because he is the one thing that keeps her sane, because he needs her to.

Because he can't acknowledge how much everything still hurts her, so how can she?

It's always calmest before the storm.

***

River climbed up the shaft, foot over foot and hand over box laden hand. It was blessedly quite when she got to the fifth floor. Home base. Daniel had already grabbed Jayne and was headed down the hall to meet her as she placed her back against the elevator door and stood to the side.

Daniel aimed and River heard the sound of men gasping and falling behind her.

"Time to go." She smiled at Daniel, then handed Jayne the boxes. "Give these to Simon."

With her hand suddenly free, River lightly wrapped it around Jayne's neck and watched his eyes widen with fear as she lifted herself up onto her toes and placed her lips very gently on his.

"And give that to Kaylee."

She took the gun that Daniel offered her and they left Jayne standing a mite bewildered as they spider climbed their way up another two floors of the shaft.

"Before today," Daniel told her in a half whisper, "I never knew how fun this place could be."

River rolled her eyes in response, but she silently agreed with him.

Dr. Miyamoto, Dr. Mathias and half a dozen guards were waiting for them. River felt an involuntary spasm, a hundred needles poking at her, hands that tore parts of her away. She lost the air that held her upright and her face pointed straight to the floor.

***

"Are they going to be alright?" Kaylee asked, more than a little fear in her voice. She could have been asking Simon or Minmei the question, either of them would have her answers, but Minmei kept quiet and Simon looked up to find her watching him. "Simon, are they okay?"

"Yes."

He wasn't sure exactly what to say. Mal's hip was torn up pretty bad, he had a bullet hole in his left arm and he was falling in and out of consciousness with the loss of blood. Zoe was faring much better, she had one wound in her shoulder and that had been taken care of straight away. If he could get them to the infirmary soon, Zoe would make a full recovery and Mal would have very little to show for the pain he was now in.

That soon, though, wasn't soon enough and he was entirely sure that telling Kaylee that wasn't going to help her get any calmer. They all heard Jayne's footsteps returning and he left his patients to look around the corner with the rest of them.

"Here doc," Jayne thrust something into his hands. "that's from your sis."

Minmei smiled and raised her eyebrows at Jayne. He blushed and glanced at Kaylee.

"Um... yeah." Quickly, moving faster than strictly necessary, Jayne leaned in and pecked Kaylee's lips, leaving her stunned. "That's from River, too."

"Aw, Jayne." Kaylee broke into a grin. "That was sweet!"

"No it weren't." He insisted, still blushing and his face getting redder with every second. "I ain't sweet."

Two rooms away, Sebastian grinned as he read the thoughts in Jayne's head, the memory of whispered words. Bethany rolled her eyes and batted him across the arm. She smiled coyly.

She and River aren't the only ones who can do that.

Sebastian paled.

***

It's not them, River. Daniel kept his eyes forward, facing off with them, as he felt her wilt beside him. The images aren't from them. The Operatives and Jonah are in the room behind them. That's where our real fight is.

"Children." Dr. Mathias spoke as if greeting old friends. "You need to stop this now."

He's scared, Daniel. Everybody's scared. Can't give up, retribution will hurt.

Daniel spared a quick glance to the figure next to him, her hair was covering her face now, her neck bent forward, her shoulders rounded and he knew the posture well. It was burned into his memory, the small form of the girl before she'd been broken out, scared and afraid of anything.

"River?" Dr. Miyamoto began gently. "We know it's hard, still. We can help you. You see what we've done with the others? How well it's worked with them?"

It wasn't words that came into Daniel's head then, it was a sound of longing, a whimper half formed.

"All gone." She whispered under her hair.

Daniel's face went smooth in shock as he felt River let her gun slide out of her fingers and fall to the floor. He held out his hand to stop her, but she stepped forward, out of his reach. One step, two steps, gentle and awkward towards the men. He saw the triumphant look enter Dr. Miyamoto, felt the spark of hunger for scientific interest and a sharp sense of loss over what they were about to do from Dr. Mathias.

"River?" Daniel had to try. "Don't go to them."

She shook her head in jerks as the two men reached out to take one arm each, the guards watching Daniel carefully.

Now! River's clear and concise order hit him when he most expected it to.

River grabbed both doctor's wrists and swung them around. Daniel rolled and released the spring loaded blade attached to the wrist they hadn't even looked at when he'd pointed his other arm forward to reach for River. He'd have to thank Jayne later. The guards' fire didn't even come remotely close to him as he slashed at their ankles.

The doctors fell against a wall, on either side of River who swung into a high kick and stunned Dr. Miyamoto with a foot to his head. She turned and smiled at Dr. Mathias.

"River?" He pleaded. "Don't do this."

"Don't worry. I haven't killed anyone in twelve months." She assured him. "Not yet, anyway."

And then he was out for the count. Bullets sounded behind her and she turned to glare at Daniel, surrounded by six bleeding bodies.

"What?" He asked her as he bent to retrieve some more weapons. "I can't make any such claim."

They moved to the closed door and Daniel kicked it down. River saw two men standing side by face, facing the other wall. She saw no one else in the room, but she felt him. Felt the thoughts and memories Jonah was throwing at them, all their works reflected back to them in ways they'd never considered.

It was doing absolutely nothing to them, they didn't care. They turned as one and River felt a link snap as she met their eyes.

Go, Jonah! Go now!

She and Daniel looked at the two men. The two pairs of blue hands. River's fear was not for show this time. Neither was Daniel's.

***

It was loud, the crack of a door being thrown open. Alex didn't flinch, she grabbed a gun and skidded it down the floor of the hallway. Faces all around her turned to watch the figure run out of the room.

Jonah bent down low enough to scoop the sliding weapon as he ran down the hall, closely followed by Sebastian and Bethany. Alex sighed as she watched them climb into the shaft.

They never let her fight.

A hand came down and rested on her shoulder and Alex curved into it, let herself fall into the comfort that Inara offered, both with the touch and the flow of understanding that poured from her.

***

"Your kingdom is falling." River told them. "We can see the Emperor's nudity."

"Yeah." Agreed Daniel casually. "I guess it's just really cold in here."

"River Tam." Said the man on the right.

"We've been waiting for you." Said the man on the left.

"You call me that, the doctors call me that, but you don't call me." She set her jaw. "I am a girl, I walk like a girl, sometimes I talk like a girl. There is sun and laughter and I play."

She smiled dreamily.

"I flow like a river, ripple like water." River became serious again. "You couldn't take that from me. You couldn't take it from any of us."

The man on the right held up a little silver instrument, a small cylinder, its end spiked out and River felt the pressure build up inside her head. She didn't turn away.

They watched her keenly, eyes boring hard into her skull as they waited, watched for the first sign of what was to come. The device exploded in the man's hand and his blue fingers clutched at empty air.

"Your toys and trinkets don't scare us anymore." Jonah walked into the room, flanked by Sebastian and Bethany, his gun arm lowering slightly. "You don't scare us anymore."

They stood in a line, the five of them, and began to walk forward.

"Your men have all gone." Sebastian told them.

"Shot down or run away." Bethany added.

"There's nowhere left to turn." Daniel explained.

"We're not the last." The first man said. "Killing us won't stop anything."

"Oh," Jonah closed his eyes momentarily, savoring the thought, "but it will feel so good."

The man on the left didn't say anything, he scrambled for his own little silver instrument in his breast pocket. River and Jonah glanced at each other and smiled as gunfire sounded from behind them.

Jonah held out his hand and River took it, letting him draw her in and felt his hand come up to support her waist. She dipped her knees and sprung up as he twisted her onto his hip. Her feet flew out and hit the man hard as she continued the momentum and landed, changing balance enough for Jonah to spring forward and grasp the device as the man staggered.

They stepped back and Jonah held it in front of him. The two men's eye widened as they watched him click it open.

"Go ahead," Challenged the man on the left. "It won't affect us, we..."

He stopped in mid sentence as River lifted her gun and shot him twice. Once in each of his blue hands. Sebastian took the hands of the man on the right. They both doubled over.

"Okay." Jonah said. "Where were we?"

"About to kill yourselves." Gasped the first man. "You use that thing and..."

"What?" Jonah challenged back. "It's not pointed at us. You don't think I ever watched you? It's not a blanket weapon."

"And we can hear how it works." River pointed out as she tapped the side of her head. "You're getting very loud."

River, Jonah, Daniel, Bethany and Sebastian watched calmly as the two men stopped still, seemingly shocked to feel the blood that trickled out of their noses and then began to pour from their eyes, mouth and ears.

Two floors down, Minmei, Binh and Alex closed their eyes and watched as well.

***

"It's too quiet." Wash whispered.

"And what?" Zoe managed to gasp out. "You thought you'd jinx us all?"

The loud explosions of renewed gun fire gave her the perfect opportunity to glare at him. He accepted it, she was right, she was always right.

"Get them ready to go." Binh said to Simon. "We need to move fast."

Jayne and Simon steadied the stretcher, while Book and Wash lifted Zoe to her feet between them. Kaylee and Inara stood and waited. The three children stood at the end of the hallway, guns pointed and ready.

"Retreat!" Minmei ordered as they began to shoot.

The table screeched on the floor tiles as Simon began to push it forward, Wash, Book and Zoe followed. Jayne joined the cover fire. Kaylee waited, resisting Inara's attempts to pull her away. Daniel rounded the corner first, turning to fire in the direction he'd just come from.

"Kaylee!" He yelled. "Just go!"

"Come on, mei mei." Urged Inara. "Let's go."

Bethany and Sebastian flew into sight and they kept running, not even pausing to look at Kaylee and Inara as they caught up with the group of injured. Kaylee watched the space that the children fired into.

"Come on, River." Kaylee urged.

And there she was, skidding around the corner, Jonah right behind her.

"Kaylee!" She gasped. River ran up to her, threw her hands around Kaylee's waist and spun her around once. "We have to go."

"That's what I keep saying." Inara murmured as Jonah grabbed her hand and all four of them began to head back to the ship. "Do you think she listened?"

"No chance." Jonah answered and smiled at the glare Kaylee sent him.

They caught up easily with the first group. Serenity gleamed ahead of them, welcome and shining as she stood on the ship bay. Kaylee grinned as she saw her. It had only been a few days, but it felt like a lot longer. The gunfire sounded loud behind them all.

Jonah, River, Daniel, Sebastian and Bethany stopped as one, shock and pain on their faces.

Pick her up! Jonah's thoughts shouted desperately. You pick her up and carry her back!

***

End, Chapter 10.

COMMENTS

Tuesday, October 4, 2005 8:56 AM

KIZZIECSTARS


don't, don't you dare stop there... get that last chapter writ, quickfast!

Monday, March 6, 2006 10:13 AM

BURNANDBOIL


Excellent excellent excellent!

Monday, October 20, 2008 3:30 AM

RIVERRED


Oh no was it Kaylee who got shot or River...i think it was kaylee poor kaylee.


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