Disclaimer: Of course, as always, disclaimers still apply. See chapters 1 - 9 if you still haven't gotten that one yet...

A/n: Wow. It really has been a long time, hasn't it. Two years. I wonder if there is anyone even still with me, lol? If not, it's all good. To be honest guys, I really don't think I can apologize enough. Seriously. I feel so bad for having left all of my loyal readers where I left them...I've had the story in my head for two years now, and I never even let you guys finish it! Well...this is kinda a test. I decided to go back, since I have finally gotten back into my writing, and see if anyone is even still interested. If so, then I really truly plan on finishing this. If not...then I guess this is the last chapter. So, only reviews will tell me! Not meaning to put this on you guys, but that is the only way I know if there is even a point of putting this on paper. I have other, non-fanfic stuff I need to be working on too. Okay then, I guess I'll let you get to the story now...Enjoy!! And to those who actually remember and stayed with me...I LOVE Y'ALL!!!

Chapter Ten:

"He who does not fear death cares naught for threats." -
Pierre Corneille

"In fact, I think you'd all better come up here."

The ceiling lay above her, a blank canvas of words and colors and sounds and numbers. Pastel fragrances swirled about her, capturing her mind until the low-pitched voice cut through her stillness. She lifted her head gently, clumped and greased blonde locks bunching around her mismatched eyes.

The strong one calls.

Her vision focused, then unfocused, then refocused as the muscles in her back strained to lift her to an upright position. She placed one foot upon the ground, followed by the other, her motions smooth and blank as those of a young child. She was small for her fifteen years. But she had practiced.

She brought her hand to the side of the ship's wall, dragging it softly as she padded along. Her dirty brown overalls wagged in a loose fashion around her ankles, swaying and brushing the skin on her legs, raising gooseflesh. Walking…walking…climbing…climbing…Serenity helped her. It liked her. It told her she had a home. But there was no home to be found there. She had a mother. And food. And soon she would have her four walls.

Every step caused his heart to sink a little lower. In a rather ironic fashion, Mal noted warily how the leaden thud of his boots on the grated step sounded a mite bit like a death knell. Or somethin' akin to that. As he stepped fully onto the helm floor, his vision fell quickly to the front view. Nothing.

He glanced around to examine his crew. Zoë sat somewhat slumped in Wash's chair, one hand drifting subconsciously to lay on her gracefully rounded stomach through the thin fabric of her gauzy brown shirt, the other lying near the wave vid controls. River had moved from her usual position in the co-pilot's chair to huddle underneath the control panel, her dark eyes gone large as she stared up forlornly towards the vid screen and muttered incomprehensible phrases underneath her breath, her lips moving in too rapid of a succession for the human eye to follow.

Jayne and Simon stepped in behind him, having quickly fallen into pace with Mal at Zoë's call.

"What's wrong with the crazy?" Jayne asked as he stepped to lean towards the side of the controls that she was buried under.

At that moment Kaylee appeared and smacked Jayne clean across the back of the head, grabbing Simon's hand and pressing herself into his shoulder in one smooth motion. Her hair was pulled into a high ponytail at the crown of her head, while the smell of sweat and machinery rose from her coveralls, a smudge of grease swiped obscurely across her nose and above her lip, rising to her cheekbone.

Simon allowed his hand to drift absently in the direction of her neck, brushing his fingers against the nape of skin and fingering the small tendrils of hair that had escaped from the tightened elastic. Jayne glared.

Mal turned his attention back to Zoë, a small smirk crossing his face and then disappearing at her down turned mouth and the strained lines written into her forehead.

"Got a wave from a small patch over the cortex, says she's a friend of Inara's. 'Cept the word 'friend' sounded real funny."

Mal sighed, tracing his hand in a weary motion across the back of his neck. He thought he'd been rid of her nonsense. There was no person in the 'verse he wanted to be reminded of less.

"Live or vid?" he replied, stepping close and leaning past Zoë's left side to support himself on the console.

"Recorded, simple mail message. Haven't opened it yet. Soon as the data began to stream, River screamed and shoved herself up under there. Hasn't come out since."

Mal's brow furrowed over his eyes as he glanced over at the psychic, a deep ache sliding into the pit of his stomach.

"Albatross?" he questioned, his body taking a slight lean in her direction in a small attempt at comfort. At the sound of his voice, River's head snapped up, her eyes going wide and panicked.

"Leaves," she whispered, her voice lilting like an eerie breathless wind. "Wind and rocks and stones and sticks." The words began to jumble together in a syncopated rhythm as her pitch grew higher. "Never safe, never slumber, leaves and wind and stone and rocks and sticks. Too long, too late, never waited, never asked, never wanted. Wind and stones and sticks and leaves, too small to see what was never there, never accepted the warning!" Tears began to slip from her small eyes as she buried herself into her hair, incoherent mumbling taking over once again.

"Mei mei?" Simon whispered, his voice thin as he longed to reach out for his sister, but his fear, along with Kaylee's viselike grip on his forearm, kept him from venturing closer.

Mal frowned, lines and wrinkles etching their way into his forehead as he leaned back and folded two slightly shaking arms across his chest. He sighed, a discontented sound that ended with a slight growl.

"Well," he groused, his heart beginning to pound as his stomach dropped lower with each slowed beat. "Let's see it."

Zoë frowned, her lips forming a thin, passive line of resistance and acceptance. She moved her hand naught but a few inches, her fingertips brushing against the pad she had been so poised over and ready to activate.

A soft glow began to radiate as the video panel lit with the unopened message. River began to squirm and push herself backwards away from the glowing panel, her fingers wringing her hair.

A thin, reedy, and seductive voice rang through the cockpit speakers before the image on the screen ever fully materialized.

"Greetings to you, Captain Reynolds and the crew of Serenity. I hope my message has not found any of you in any less than a healthful condition." Mal stared at the small screen, his eyes widening slightly as the picture faded into view. An angel, almost, seemed to grace that screen, with a halo of dazzling red hair that fell in flawless waves down bared shoulders and an open back.

"I know that in my greeting to this message, I stated that the contents were for a Ms. Inara Serra. I'm afraid that I haven't been quite honest with you."

Mal raised an eyebrow as he leaned in closer to study that angelically porcelain face. Perfect red lips. A nose that seemed to fit on a perfect oval face, not too round, but not too narrow. And her eyes…large, violet, and…something was wrong…with her…

The rest of the crew stood behind him, silent.

"I hope you will forgive me, Captain Reynolds, but this message is more about Ms. Serra than it is for her." In that instant the screen fuzzed as whatever recording mechanism swiveled violently to the left. As the distorted image cleared, Mal sucked his breath in quick, throwing himself upright and away from the screen. He felt as if he'd been punched damn-near in the gut.

Inara lay before them, clearly unconscious, her hands bound tightly behind her. Her lip was swollen and cut; her high cheekbone bruised an angry green and purple. Dried blood etched a small path down the side of her nose, from a cut on her temple, joining with a flow that leaked from one nostril and down to the bottom of her soft chin. Mal growled low under his breath.

"You see, Captain, Ms. Serra had no idea what she was getting herself into." The young woman leaned forward, her face drawing closer to the screen, a wide, haunted, menacing smile spreading across her lovely face. Mal shivered, chills coursing down his spine. He stopped breathing as her eyes turned dark. Hollow. It was her eyes that were wrong…all wrong. But her next words forced his heart down to his feet in a near microsecond.

"We know you have them. We want them, Captain Reynolds. But you just do too damn good of a job of hiding from us." The woman leaned back from the screen, her voice becoming almost playful. "So, now it's time for you to come here. We're weary of chasing, Captain. So very weary." She smiled again and Mal was certain that he felt each body in that room move a step back from that wicked gaze.

"The faster you come, the less time Ms. Serra has to suffer."

Suddenly a wrenching shriek echoed through the cockpit, an awful noise that ripped through Mal's system and released a fire in his veins that hungered only for blood.

It was the sound of a cry of pain, a guttural scream that echoed distinctly like the soft soprano of Inara Serra. His Nara.

He heard Kaylee squeal softly behind him, her face buried in Simon's shoulder as every other crewmember remained paralyzed in fear.

Who the hell does this chou san ba think she is?

"You have three days Captain Reynolds. We know you're not far. And every second you waste is one less place that you will find unbruised or unblistered on Ms. Serra's body." The woman's smile dropped, her face morphing into a hollow mask of hurt and anger. Mal never thought he coulda been more scared of one person. He was wrong.

"Three days, Captain."

The viewer flashed off, leaving the cockpit drenched in a thick web of silence, outside of River's gentle sobs and occasional moaning.

Mal stared at the console he was leaning on, trying to keep the feeling in his legs from vanishing as his heart threatened to tear him apart.



His mind swam, replaying backwards and forwards the agonizing sound of near panic that had been the last he'd heard of her voice. That wonderful, melodic, seductive tone that had whispered in his ears and echoed in his head and become his own personal saving grace. Tortured. Pain-streaked. Wretched.

He had to go to her. There was no other choice. She needed him, and maybe now he could finally prove to her that he wanted her for more than just some gorram trophy or shiny bauble. Or the damn good sex.

He loved her. He really, truly, honest to god loved her, and that sound of pain had cemented every hold he'd ever sought to claim on her. It killed him. It bit threw his sense and unleashed a rage like he'd never felt before in his life. How dare anyone else touch what was his?

Unnoticed, his hands began to shake as his teeth clenched together, his rage consuming every feature and morphing his face into a rack of pain. Zoë grimaced, rubbing her stomach absently. She had only seen that look once…in the middle of a battlefield, many years ago. That woman had no gorram idea what she was in for.

Leaning over, Jayne ventured to reach towards Mal's shoulder, his hand hesitating in the air as one hand ran through his close cropped hair.

"Mal…" he spoke as loud as he dared, his voice trailing off with unmarked questions.

Mal leaned back from the console, his lip twitching upwards in anger, his face stony. Looking at Simon, he motioned for him to take Kaylee from the cockpit and down to her bunk.

"But –" Simon started, his voice cracking. Mal's throat was husky with anger and emotion as he replied.

"Don't worry Doc, we'll take care a your sister. She's safe with us."

Simon nodded, his eyes betraying his concern, but his mind, soul, and body staying with Kaylee, her comfort his only care.

"Jayne?" Mal turned to her mercenary, his eyebrows raising in question. Jayne almost grinned, would have grinned if not for the sobbing psychic wrapped around his leg and the surreal anger that possessed Mal's face.

"Full party?" Jayne replied, his expression hopeful. He loved full scale rescue operations. Especially complicated ones.

Mal's expression remained hard.

He spoke, his voice dense, soft, and commanding, almost threatening in his tone.

"Full party."

No one would be left alive.

Ummm...I don't even know if I have the right to ask for these anymore, but review?? PLEASE!?