Title: Some Kind of Crazy
Fandom: Firefly/Pitch Black crossover
Rating: PG-13 (Violence and Language)
Disclaimer: Everything Firefly belongs to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. Everything Riddick is property of David Twohy and Universal Pictures.
Timeline: After the series Firefly, before the movie Serenity. After Pitch Black, before The Chronicles of Riddick. (Dark Fury and Escape from Butcher Bay not included for plot and continuity.)
Summary:Serenity has a job and a passenger willing to pay cash for the transport of a wild animal to New Melbourne. They say curiosity killed the cat and, this time, it just might kill the crew.
Thanks: To Agilebrit for being willing to beta, tell me where the engine is supposed to be, and be willing to sacrifice her sanity.
It's Raining Crocodiles
Even a rainy day on Persephone was a welcome relief from the monotony of the black. Despite being bundled up in one of the Captain's heavy jackets, Kaylee was smiling cheerfully at the crowd. It was a risk coming back to the planet with bounty hunters still nosing about for River and Simon but Badger had promised them a quick and easy job. Since the Captain let Jayne leave Serenity with more than a few weapons, she was pretty sure he didn't expect dealing with Badger to be quick or easy.
Twirling her parasol lazily, she shivered against the cool wind and decided to pass the time by making up histories about the people milling around the docks. She imagined them with families and secrets and grand romances. The slender woman with red hair pulled tightly into a bun might be a princess in disguise who had run away from royal life to follow true love. They were silly fantasies but they helped the time speed along when there weren't nobody looking for transport. She tried to remember when space travel had seemed new and exciting; looking up at the stars and wondering what kind of glamorous life it must be.
Not that she weren't grateful for her place on Serenity. It was a good ship and a family she loved in spite of their faults. Even for all the trouble they seemed to find, she wouldn't trade Serenity for all of Persephone, excepting maybe the dresses.
"Excuse me." A man in dusty gray trousers, matching jacket, and heavy black boots interrupted her thoughts. Coal black hair was slicked back and tied into a tail at the base of his skull; there was something about the way he was standing that reminded Kaylee of the Captain. "I was told that this ship is going to New Melbourne."
"Reckon there'll be a stop or two but she'll get you there if you was looking." Kaylee smiled and twirled her parasol some more. "Just you or you got someone else?"
"I have cargo. Animal transport," he answered emotionlessly.
She frowned as she considered the animal factor. "Might have to check with the Cap'n, he don't much like animals on the ship."
"Just one animal in a cryo sleep chamber."
"Oh, that ain't a problem then. Just as long as you make sure it don't get out. Animal could get hurt roaming about."
He smiled tightly and reached into his jacket pocket, producing a thick fold of money. "I'll pay cash. This should more than cover the price of passage for me and my cargo."
"I'll say." Kaylee's smile widened as she took the money and began counting it. "Bring the critter on in, I'll see you get help securin' it." She tucked the wad of bills into a pocket of her overalls and nearly bounced into the cargo hold. "Book? You there, Shepherd?"
"I'm here, Kaylee." Book looked up from his Bible.
"One passenger already and he's paid cash. Needs help loadin' an animal onto the ship and don't go fretting none, he says it's in one of those fancy chambers."
Book gave her one of his ever-patient smiles and set the Bible down on the crate he'd been using as a bench. "I'll take care of it. Why don't you see if you can snare any more passengers for us?"
Beaming with satisfaction, she hurried back to her deck chair on the ramp and smiled brightly into the rain. The Captain was always glad for passengers who paid cash and didn't seem to mind the cost of transport. She'd already thought of a dozen ways to spend the money when the man returned with his cargo. Book helped him steer the loading pallet up the ramp, unload the chamber, and secure it to the floor of the cargo hold. It was over six feet long and nearly four feet both wide and deep, wrapped up tight in a thick canvas cloth that made the raindrops bead up and stay quivering on the surface.
"What kind of animal needs somethin' that big?" Wide-eyed, Kaylee tried to find a gap in the canvas, hoping for a glimpse inside.
"Crocodile," the man answered tersely.
"I ain't never seen a crocodile."
"They're very dangerous. That's why it's in cryo sleep."
"Wow. Ain't this excitin', Shepherd?" Kaylee was surprised to see the serious look on Book's face. "Oh! I ain't made introductions. This is Shepherd Book and I'm Kaylee. Welcome to Serenity."
"Chen Wa." The man nodded at Book and Kaylee.
"Come with me, I'll show you where you can rest and put your things." Book gave Kaylee a hard look that probably meant she was supposed to stay away from the animal in the box.
"I'll just be waitin' for more passengers," she called after them. Giving the cargo box one more longing look, she returned to her deck chair. How was she supposed to concentrate on the people when there was a real live crocodile on the ship? She wasn't quite sure exactly what a crocodile was but she knew they had been on Earth-that-was and that they were very rare. No wonder Chen Wa was willing to pay so much. She hoped they could stay in New Melbourne long enough for her to see the critter out of the box.
She saw Jayne and the Captain come through the crowd and waved her parasol. The Captain didn't look particularly unhappy so it must have gone well with Badger and that meant they had a job in the works. Jayne looked a mite disgruntled but she supposed Jayne always looked that way.
"I got us a passengers pays cash, Cap'n." She held the money out to him as he came on board. "And he's got a crocodile all frozen in that box over there."
Mal looked at the chamber and a muscle in his jaw twitched. "We don't seem to have much luck with passengers bringing on cargo, Kaylee."
"It ain't nothing the Alliance is after, just a bitty crocodile."
"Bitty? That thing must be the size of man to need all that space." Jayne prodded the chamber with the toe of his boot.
"They's going to New Melbourne just like us."
"That so." Mal stared at the cargo for a second before he seemed to make a decision and turned back to Kaylee. "We got cargo of our own coming soon, gonna take up a good bit of room. Where are the others?"
"Zoe and Simon are still getting supplies, Book is showing our passenger to his bunk, and Inara said she'd be back soon as we sent her a wave." She noticed that Mal twitched at the mention of Inara's name and hoped it was because he'd smartened up about the Companion.
"You wait on the ramp, show Badger the way when he arrives. Jayne, grab a crate. Need to make room."
She hurried back to the ramp to get out of the way and packed up her deck chair, leaning it carefully against the side of the cargo hold. Weren't nobody else out there looking for transport anyway. She watched Jayne and the Captain reorient the cargo, calling out advice if they had trouble getting one of the crates to fit properly.
The rain was coming down something fierce by the time Badger's men arrived with the goods. Six monstrous crates reaching up over Kaylee's head were loaded into the back of Serenity and barely left room for them to walk between them. By the time the last crate was loaded, Zoe and Simon had returned with boxes of their own. Food for the kitchen and medical supplies for doctoring.
"Sir?" Zoe eyed the crates speculatively.
"Agricultural supplies," Mal said over his shoulder as he escorted Badger's men back off of the ship. "Gorram flowers or something."
"Flowers, sir?" Zoe was nearly smiling.
"Can't all be crocodiles." Mal glanced around, one hand on the intercom. "We all accounted for?"
"River?" Simon glanced around and visibly relaxed when he caught sight of his sister surveying the cargo from one of the catwalks.
"Right then. Wash? Send Inara a wave and get us into the air soon as she docks."
"Way ahead of you, Mal. Inara's on her way." Wash's voice echoed through the hold.
"Get those supplies secure, Doc, and make sure that sister of yours don't mess with the box over there." He nodded toward the cryo chamber beside the stairs. "Last thing I need is a gorram yaoguai roaming my ship."
"What are you talking about?" Simon readjusted his grip on the boxes in his arms as he tried to maneuver through the narrow corridor left by the gigantic metal crates.
Kaylee hurried forward to help him. "Passenger transporting a crocodile to New Melbourne. Cap'n don't seem so keen on the idea but I think it's excitin'. A real life crocodile. You ever seen one, Simon?"
"Once." Simon paused to get a better look at the box. "It must be a baby crocodile. Maybe for a zoo."
"A baby?" Jayne scowled at the box. "How big's the gorram thing gonna get?"
"They can be over thirty feet long."
"Why you think it's bound for a zoo?" Mal asked.
"Well, New Melbourne is a fishing city. Why would they want something that eats fish?" Simon seemed to lose interest in the box and headed toward the medical room.
Kaylee shrugged when Mal turned his attention toward her. "Maybe they don't know it eats fish and gets real big. It's just a baby after all. Could be someone wants one as a pet, couldn't it?"
"This passenger you took on…he say anything 'bout where it was going to?"
"Just New Melbourne is all. You ain't mad at me, are you Cap'n?"
"I ain't mad, little Kaylee. We just gotta make sure no one wakes it up." Mal headed up the stairs, stopping when he saw River bending over the railing to peer at the box.
"Not sleeping. Waiting. Knows what it is." She swayed a little, head tilting from side to side as she stared.
"He said it was frozen. Asleep like," Kaylee assured Mal quickly.
River pulled back from the railing and moved down the stairs with deliberate, graceful steps. She reached out to touch the heavy canvas, staring at her fingers, now wet from the rain. "Remembers the rain and the sun. Can't see it anymore. Sees only darkness now. But remembers."
"It just me or is it creepy that she's communing with this crocodilly thing?" Jayne shifted one hand to his holster.
"There's some creepiness but nothing out of the ordinary in that." Mal gave Kaylee another pointed look. "Someone might take to makin' sure she knows not to look inside."
"Don't worry, Cap'n. I won't let nothin' happen to River."
River whirled around suddenly and looked at Mal with wide eyes. "Turn on you like a dog. They put the wrong one in chains. Doesn't care if you live or die, spills blood until there's none left then laps it up like water."
"I think we're all agreed it don't come out to play," Mal told her soothingly. "Why don't we settle in and get this boat in the air?"
Kaylee was pensive as she started toward the engine. River remained beside the chamber, occasionally reaching out to touch it again. "Come on, River. Keep me company?"
River blinked at her a few times before taking a reluctant step, finally looking back at the crate with a touch of sadness before following after Kaylee and staring at the raindrops on her fingers. "Doesn't belong here. Can't cage death, can't chain it up and tie it down. Needs to be free."
The takeoff was uneventful and until they were safely moving through space, Kaylee could focus on the engine rather than River's strange mutterings. Something about the crocodile had caught her attention like a honey trap for flies and she was constantly looking toward the doorway like it was calling her back. Kaylee convinced her to play a game of jacks once Serenity stopped rumbling and the atmosphere was far away.
"Thinks. Doesn't sleep, never sleeps. Thinks about escape. How to get out, to be free. Never is though. Takes the chains with him." River stared at the rubber ball in her hand as though it held all the answers in the verse.
"We got ourselves a boy crocodile?" Kaylee laughed nervously. "That's nice."
"Fell out of the sky like a comet, burned up under lan ri. Darkness had wings and voices but no eyes. Don't need eyes in the black." River closed her hand around the ball.
Kaylee bit her lower lip and wondered if she was supposed to find Simon. He'd said that her medications weren't perfect yet and might need some fixing. It wasn't like the stuff River said usually made sense but this was beginning to make the hair on the back of her neck rise. She was grateful for the distraction when Book's voice came over the comm and called them to dinner.
Taking River's hand, she led her to the kitchen and waved a greeting as they came through the door. Their passenger was already seated and quietly conversing with Jayne about something. With Jayne, it either had to be guns or women since there weren't much else Jayne cared about. It was easy to get lost in the conversation and passing food about the table kept her mind off of any unnerving talk. There was juicy gossip from Persephone and the other planets in the Core as well as the usual bits of news from the planets on the Rim. They paid mind because it sometimes led to jobs they might not otherwise have heard about.
"Mr. Chen." Mal's voice rose above the clamor. "Your cargo bound for a zoo?"
"Wildlife preserve," Chen Wa answered without skipping a beat, his voice completely neutral. "Keeps the dangerous ones out of the system and with their own kind."
"Wasn't aware New Melbourne had a wildlife preserve."
"They don't encourage tourists. Fewer get eaten that way." He finished his protein soup and set the spoon in the bowl gently. "If you have no further questions, Captain."
"You mean other than why you're transportin' a dangerous animal to an outer planet that don't have no need nor desire for such a creature?" Mal's smile made it clear that he wasn't enjoying the idea.
"I'm sure you're aware of the Alliance's restrictions on live animal transport. It would have taken me five times as long to get there had I used proper channels." He stood up slowly, keeping his eyes on Mal. "I need to check on my cargo. The cryo chamber has to be perfectly maintained or I won't have anything to deliver."
"Is it a boy or a girl?" Kaylee blurted out, her cheeks turning bright red as everyone turned to stare at her.
"You wantin' to dress it up in a little bonnet if it's a girl?" Jayne bit off a chunk of his apple and shook his head. "They even come in girls? Might be they're one of those things that just make copies of themselves."
"It is a male," Chen Wa answered, his voice was smooth and even but his eyes narrowed a little as he looked at River. He nodded at the group before leaving the room and disappearing around the corner.
"River knew it was a boy." Kaylee turned to Simon with more worry than wonder.
"Stands to reason she would." Mal was chewing thoughtfully and watching River play with her spoon. "She reads people, don't she? Makes sense she'd know animals too."
"Like them cows." Jayne nodded in agreement.
"Don't matter none. We mind our business and Mr. Chen minds his. Our cargo goes to Santo and then we head on to New Melbourne. Don't add no more than a couple days to our journey and it's a job. Can't be choosy."
"Speaking of cargo, my wife tells me we're moving flowers?" Wash glanced around the table.
"More like seeds and girly stuff," Jayne muttered.
"Ain't gonna pass up a job where we're not likely to get shot at. Settlement starting up on Santo needs something to farm, we're bringin' it to them." Mal didn't seem to mind that there was a girly factor to their cargo.
"Doesn't like guns." River stared at her reflection in the spoon. "Blade is quieter, cleaner, more useful. Metal glows in the darkness, makes a sound as it cuts."
"I hope that doesn't apply to us." Wash looked alarmed.
"I'm sorry," Simon apologized quickly and took the spoon from River's hand. "I'm still trying to find the right combination of medications. It may take awhile."
"It's the crocodile got her all worked up," Kaylee said fretfully. "She been saying all sorts of creepifying things 'bout death and it thinking up ways to escape."
"I'd be thinking about escape too if it were me in that box. Ain't nothing wrong with thinkin' long as nobody gets in their heads to open it up." Mal finished his soup and pushed away from the table. "We take turns. If this beast has River worked up then we take extra care she don't try to commune face to face. Don't fancy coming down to find her getting eaten."
"She won't," Simon began.
"You sure about that, Doc? Seems I remember your sister being a mite unpredictable at times. Not always a good thing for her or for the rest of us. Need to be extra careful is all."
"We'll all keep an eye on her, Simon." Inara smiled graciously at River. "It shouldn't be too hard with just one of her."
They were quiet when they slept and didn't wander through River's mind like ghosts. Even Serenity slept with circuits breathing deep, one and zero, zero and one. She caught the metal rod that Simon had placed across the door. Rigged to fall if she tried to leave but he never remembered how clever her fingers were. Book was snoring and she could hear heavy silence in the passenger's room.
Passenger. Not what he seemed but slippery, slithering away from her, and his thoughts were quiet like sleep. Recognized her, knew who she was. Wanted the money, the bounty. Wanted to put her in the box with the crocodile and make her sleep. She couldn't sleep. Lying awake with the crocodile and thinking its thoughts, words in her head that weren't hers, whispers and dreams of sunlight. Artificial time was marching and she kept missing seconds. She looked for them under the bed and in the cupboards but never found them. Lost seconds, lost time, and nothing left behind but the echo.
Heavy canvas was rough against her fingers and the rain had long since passed into nothing. Where did the rainbows go? Nimble fingers worked at the knots that kept the box from breathing, tightening around it like a noose and cutting off air. Fabric fell away and there was smooth silver as cold as space. Knobs and buttons. None of them mattered, just a formality. She pressed down.
Fog rolled out of the box where the lid had rested. Flowed down from the mountain where there was snow and condensation to make the air heavy. She tried to catch it but it slipped through her fingers like the seconds. Jumbled thoughts tumbled in the fog. Thoughts of escape and revenge and murder, blood for blood. Where was he? More distance, more space, had to keep moving.
She saw fingers and arms, wrists shackled and a bit for a horse between his teeth. Not a horse. Sharp teeth but no scales, couldn't be a crocodile. Broad shoulders, well muscled, and a shaven head gleamed dull under Serenity's night-lights. Pants and shirt were black on black, clinging to his skin with icy claws still not warm enough to evaporate. He was shivering, coming in from the cold and out of the black. The eyes stared at her and she knew them from her dreams. Silver eyes that saw her even in the darkness. She backed away as he climbed out of the box, still shackled and shuddering in the night. Was it still night out in the black that never saw day? He was searching for freedom, his night eyes scouring the cargo hold for it.
"Won't find any freedom here," she whispered. "Only walls and darkness. Up and over, round about. Kaylee's never seen a crocodile. Mustn't eat her."
He tipped his head to the side and watched her for a moment before turning toward the stairs that led up and to the engine room. Small steps, chains jingling like bells between his feet. She led him down the corridor. Up and over, round about. She had played jacks here beside the beating heart. Lights were dim, she left them.
Kaylee's tools rattled in their boxes as she sifted through them. One for round and one for square. Shapes and sizes turned in her fingers until they fit and she came back to the crocodile.
"These will do. Not standard, not regulation. Can't follow all the rules." She crouched down and fit the tool against the metal joint on his ankle. "Rules get old and rust away into dust that means nothing. Cease to apply, cease to have meaning. Not relevant." The joint came apart with a snap, she pulled the cuff away from his ankle and started on the next one. "Can't run if they cut off your legs. Don't want you to run. Want you to stand and drown and be a good fish."
The restraints on his wrists gave way to her clever fingers and clever tools. She reached up and locked down on the bit in his mouth. "But you're not a fish, you're a crocodile with teeth and claws."
Once the bit was out, he rubbed his jaw to ease the strained muscles. "Kid, you are some kind of crazy." His voice was low and gravel rough, as though he never spoke enough words to polish it smooth.
"Peas in a pod, we are." She smiled up at him.
"How you figure?" His gaze was moving around the room, taking in details and memorizing the placement of the tools.
"Serenity found us and swallowed us up where they can't see." She pressed her palm lovingly against the wall of the ship.
"Not that I ain't grateful to be out of that box but where the hell am I?"
"Doesn't speak the language, doesn't know our rules. Crocodile belongs far away from here." Reaching out with her other hand, she placed her fingertips gently on his arm just above his elbow. "Skin is warm now, no longer asleep."
"You got a name?"
"River," she answered, still stroking his arm lightly. "Crocodile's name is Riddick."
"Like I said," he caught her fingers, his hand engulfing hers completely. "You're some kind of crazy."
The comm buzzed a warning before Mal's voice echoed through the ship, seething with anger even through the electronic haze. "Would the Doctor please come to the bridge? There seems to be a bit of a problem."
"That the captain?" Riddick tensed.
"Malcolm Reynolds, fought against the Alliance and lost. He knows you're out." She saw him look around for a weapon. "Won't shoot you, thinks you have scales."
"That supposed to be a good thing?"
River shrugged and peered out of the engine room. Footsteps traveled toward the bridge, quick like dancing and heavy like thunder. There were guns moving down the corridor and the man with thoughts like whispers had come awake. Had to wait for them to pass by. She turned back to Riddick and smiled before stepping out and motioning for him to follow, keeping out of the line of sight from the bridge.
Once in the clear, she paused to whisper, "the choir must practice if they're to sing for the assembly. Tenor is always flat, not acceptable, but there's no one else."
"I would end up on the ship with the crazy people," Riddick cursed softly behind her.
"Quick like a cat," she darted through the corridor and down the stairs into the cargo hold, slipping along the side of the wall behind the massive crates of flowers. He barely fit into the space, his back against the hull and chest sliding along the metal. She nodded upward. "Hide under the pillows. Stay quiet. Your anger makes you noisy."
"Whatever you say." Large hands took hold of the edge and he pulled himself up out of the narrow passage.
River scurried around the far end of the crates and back toward the stairs. Footsteps were coming and the guns weren't far behind. Simon was the first to see her standing beside the empty box.
"River! What have you done?" He rushed down the stairs and looked desperately into the box for what wasn't there. Mal thundered down the steps behind him.
"Does no one actually listen to me? I am the Captain. Did I not warn everyone she might try something like this?" Mal fumed, one hand resting on his gun. "Now I got some sorta critter with too many teeth roaming around on my boat. Someone wanna give me an explanation?"
"Actually, it's much worse than that." Chen Wa appeared, slowly loading the rifle in his hands.
"How exactly does it get worse?"
"Thinks like Jayne." River pulled away from Chen Wa. "Follows money, smells it like rotting flesh."
"There something wrong with this girl?" Chen Wa frowned at her.
"A good number of things other than her wantin' a crocodile as a pet but that ain't the matter at hand. Your gorram cargo is loose on my ship, I trust you know how to get it back in its box."
Chen Wa finished loading the rifle and stepped cautiously into the cargo hold, eyes darting about the room. "My cargo wasn't a crocodile. It was an escaped convict. I tracked him across three star systems before I found him on Persephone. Not sure how many people he's killed…could be hundreds. Probably more."
"Another gorram bounty hunter." Jayne eyed the man suspiciously before turning his attention to the cargo hold.
"You mean to tell me that there's a convicted murderer loose on my ship? Gaoyang zhong de guyang, Kaylee!"
"I didn't know, Cap'n. Swear! He told me it was a crocodile!" Kaylee looked to be near tears.
"Why don't you and your crew go back to the bridge? I'll take care of this." Chen Wa glanced into the box. "If you're lucky, he's not already there waiting for you."
"No way I'm gonna hide and risk you blowing holes in my hull. Zoe, take the starboard catwalk, get us a view from up top. Jayne, take the port side. I want whatever was in that box back in there." Mal pulled his gun out the holster, backing up slowly to check the rooms behind him.
"Go back to the bridge, Captain Reynolds. I'll take care of this." Chen Wa edged closer to River. "I'm trained to track these monsters so let me do my job."
"He does have a point, Mal. There's no shame in letting the guy with the big gun do all the work." Wash glanced around nervously.
"There's truth to that, sir." Zoe stopped halfway across the center catwalk. "Can't see anything."
"He can't have gotten far, Captain. Coming out of cryo sleep has an hour recovery time before full mobility returns. You have my word that I won't damage your cargo or your ship," the bounty hunter assured them.
"I don't like this," Mal protested angrily.
"Don't be stupid. You worry about the safety of your crew and I'll worry about my prisoner."
Mal's face turned an unusual shade of red and he muttered a string of curses under his breath before he shoved his gun back into the holster. "Everyone on the bridge! That includes little miss zoo keeper."
River nodded, kept her head bowed so as not to be threatening and trailed after Simon and the others. She turned back to give the cargo hold one last look.
"Crocodile is listening, Simon. You'll see." She smiled at the thought before the door closed behind her.
They hurried to the bridge and found Mal pacing back and forth looking about to explode. The muscles in his jaw twitched when River entered the room and she knew he was doing his best not to throttle her.
"Don't suppose it's worth asking what the gorram hell she thought she was doing?" He demanded without interrupting his pacing.
"I'm sure she just wanted a pet," Wash offered helpfully. "Who hasn't wanted a crocodile at some point?"
"Seems to me that if she knew it had male parts then maybe she knew it weren't no crocodile." Jayne frowned when everyone turned to stare at him. "What? Ain't I allowed nothin' insightful round here?"
"It's just so very unexpected." Wash swiveled around in his chair. "Wait a second. Am I the only one noticing a complete lack of Inara in this room? Did someone forget to tell her about the psychotic murderer loose on the ship?"
"She'll be safe in the shuttle, right, sir?" Zoe's furrowed brow contradicted the surety in her voice.
"Provided she don't open the door for strangers." Mal seemed to consider that. "Send her a wave. That way we won't tip him off that she ain't with us."
Wash swung around to face the console and brought up the right screen. "Inara? You there? Might want to think about locking your door. Inara?" They could see her sitting still as a statue on the corner of her bed, never turning toward the screen to acknowledge the wave.
"You don't s'pose she ain't alone, do you?" All color had drained from Kaylee's cheeks.
Inara kept her spine and shoulders straight, feet delicately crossed at the ankles as she sat on the end of her bed. The man standing across the room was managing to watch her and the door to the shuttle at the same time. She could hear Wash's voice and see his face out of the corner of her eye. Relief gave her air to breathe. Now they would know she was trapped with what should have been a large reptile. Another look at the man's silver eyes and she wasn't sure Chen Wa had been lying about that part.
"You can relax, I'm no threat you." Her voice was soft and seductive, using her training and skill to attempt putting him at ease. "What's your name?"
"Riddick." The one word answer didn't give her a lot of information and there wasn't any change in his demeanor that would indicate she was having any effect on him whatsoever. He eyed the wave suspiciously but stayed out of range of her transmitter.
"The shuttle doesn't have much of a range and we're days away from any habitable worlds," she informed him conversationally.
"Not looking to run." The low voice fit the intimidating bulk of his frame.
"It's also a dead end. They will find you here. Wouldn't it be easier, and less dangerous, to find out if you and Captain Reynolds can reach a compromise?" She hoped Mal could hear her as well but the wave screen had gone black and silent.
"Malcolm Reynolds, fought against the Alliance and lost." That seemed to amuse him for some reason, the barest of smiles appearing on his lips.
Inara felt her blood run cold. "Did the Alliance send you? Are you one of their assassins?"
"Ain't nobody's anything." He appeared to notice the décor of the room for the first time. "What exactly are you?"
"I'm a registered Companion."
"Companion," he repeated.
She couldn't imagine anyone who didn't know what a Companion was so she assumed he was wondering why she was affiliated with Serenity. "It's an amicable agreement between Captain Reynolds and me. I rent the shuttle, find clients in the cities where Serenity has business, and bring in a little extra money for the ship and the crew." That didn't appear to clear up his confusion, which only added to hers. But it also gave them more time to come rescue her. "What part haven't I made clear?"
He wandered away from the door to peruse some of her perfumes. "Silk sheets, incense. You're some kind of whore?" There was no judgment in his voice and, despite the crass label of her profession, she could tell that he was more confused than anything else.
"I prefer Companion. I've had years of training at the finest school and I'm highly sought after for my skills."
"What kind of fucked up universe did I wake up in?" He sniffed at one of the incense sticks.
"I don't understand."
"How does Captain Reynolds keep you on this bucket of bolts? Woman like you could be with anyone she wants."
"You would think that." She looked down at her hands so he wouldn't see how she felt about the situation. "It's a mutually beneficial arrangement."
He studied her intently with liquid silver eyes. "You're in love with him."
"That's ridiculous," she protested automatically but even she could hear the lack of conviction in her voice. "I'm going to be leaving the ship soon actually."
"Why?" He was getting closer and the proximity was beginning to make her nervous.
"It's time to move on, personal reasons. And you? You must not be from this system if you've never heard of a Companion."
"Been under a rock." He shrugged and continued to wander, touching the silk and satin fabrics with more gentleness than she would have thought possible.
"And now? What do you intend to do now?"
His smile was both enigmatic and frightening before he turned away from her and checked the door again. "At some point a man's gonna come through that door with a gun. Need you to keep your head or you might lose it."
"Are you going to kill him?"
"It's him or me. I won't go back in the box."
She tensed as she heard footsteps outside the shuttle and swallowed hard when he motioned for her to be quiet. For a large man, she was surprised at how well he faded into the shadows, only the shine of his eyes giving him away. The door slid open and her breath caught in her throat as the muzzle of a rifle came through the doorway. At the other end of the gun was the passenger they had taken on in Persephone.
"Quingjin, Mr. Chen. What can I do for you?" She forced herself to smile brightly.
"Seen anything unusual? He's a little over six foot, eyes like a snake." Chen Wa began a slow sweep of the room.
"Nothing out of the ordinary."
"Nothing?" His voice was cold and incredulous. Halfway around the room he stopped to smell her perfumes and turned around with a calculating smile. "I thought you might be one of those fancy whores."
"It's a popular word around here."
"Here I was thinking this was gonna be just a standard prison run." He let the gun swing to his side and hang loosely. "But I found another bounty to collect and a bona fide Companion. All that's left to do is getting rid of that pesky Captain and I've got my own ship."
Inara struggled not to let her alarm show on her face but he looked far too smug for there to be any good in his intentions. Her fists clenched tightly around the fabric of her skirt and she refused to give him the satisfaction of looking in Riddick's direction.
"Imagine my surprise to find River Tam on this ship. Do you have any idea what the Alliance will pay for that little girl? She's worth near as much as Riddick and she'll be easier to deliver."
"She may surprise you." Inara smiled for real this time. "And you may find Captain Reynolds to be a surprise as well."
Chen Wa patted his rifle lightly. "Nothing surprises me anymore. You sit tight, pretty whore. I'll be back for you."
"You'll understand if I don't hold my breath."
He chuckled as he shook his head. "Easy way or the hard way, it's your choice."
"Ain't no way to talk to a lady." Riddick's voice was low and threatening as he stepped out of the shadows. Before Chen Wa could bring the rifle around, something metallic flew through the air and embedded in his neck. Blood spurted out over his hands as he tried to pull it out, choking on the blood filling his throat. Another second and Riddick was in front of him, snapping his neck with a sickening crunch and wrenching the rifle away.
Inara was frozen. She knew there was blood on her face and clothes but couldn't bring herself to move. Numbly, she watched as Riddick set the rifle gently down on the bed beside her and part of her screamed that she should pick it up. She had almost convinced her hands to reach for it when he finished whatever he was doing near the body and came toward her.
"Here." He held out a cloth and one of her small bowls; she saw that it had water in it.
"I'm fine, thank you." Her voice wavered embarrassingly.
"Cause sittin' there covered with that bastard's blood is fine." Slow and easy, as though he was dealing with a wild animal instead of a trained Companion, he reached out and took one of her hands to wipe the blood off. It was thoughtful, if a bit clumsy and far too rough. She had the vague idea that it was more about wanting the blood gone than caring that it was on her skin.
"Have you done this before?"
"Killed my share of people."
"I mean…this." She nodded to her hand and his rather awkward attempts to wash the blood away. Gently, she took the cloth and bowl from him, continuing to clean her hands and arms. That way, she would have some skin left when all the blood was gone.
"Oh. Can't say I have." His voice sounded huskier than before and he didn't quite meet her eyes.
"It's all right." She felt some of the tension ease out of her muscles, deciding it was unlikely that he was planning to kill her.
"You enjoy it? Being whatever it is you are."
"A Companion? It's a worthy profession, timeless. Not all women are allowed the respect that a Companion receives. We choose our clients and we're not misused." She momentarily lost her train of thought, trying to wash away the blood on her face and throat without destroying her carefully applied makeup.
"You're all some kind of crazy on this ship."
"It's a crazy world we live in. But they're good people, every one of them and they've become like family." That made him pause and she wasn't surprised when he changed the subject.
"The girl, River. What's her story?"
"We don't really know much of what happened to her. The Alliance has put a bounty on her and her brother, we don't know why."
"You're a very good liar." Silver eyes met hers unflinchingly.
"And you understand why I'm lying to you."
He nodded once. "Not interested in your secrets, just getting off at the next stop."
"I'm sure that will be agreeable."
The shuttle door burst open and Mal barreled in with gun in hand. Riddick had the rifle leveled at Mal in the blink of an eye and the two eyed each other like bulls across the arena. Zoe and Jayne were behind Mal in case things got out of hand and behind them, Inara could hear the others whispering.
"Let her go and you might just walk away from this," Mal ordered.
"Put down the gun and we'll talk."
Mal's eyes flicked to the dead body of Chen Wa and he shook his head. "Ain't how it works, chou wan ba dan. My ship, I make the rules."
Inara moved herself between the two men, afraid that she and the rest of the crew would get caught in the crossfire if either of them started firing. "Don't be ridiculous, Mal. There's no sense in shooting people. Try to be reasonable. All Riddick wants is safe passage to the next port."
"You know his name?" Wash peered through the shuttle doorway. "Did we miss something? Is it Be Nice to the Serial Killer day?"
"He hasn't tried to kill any of us," she insisted.
"Keep that gun pointed at me and I might change my mind," Riddick growled.
"Will you please try finding a nonviolent solution before you start shooting? This is still my shuttle and I'd rather you not destroy it." She matched Mal's glare, refusing to be intimidated.
"Maybe if he goes back in the box where he belongs, I might be obliging to not puttin' a hole through him." Mal scowled at Inara.
"Ain't gonna happen." Riddick tightened his grip on the gun.
"Then it seems we got ourselves a bit of a problem."
The stalemate was beginning to look as though it would hold forever when River stepped through the doorway behind Mal and surveyed the scene. "Can't shoot him later if you shoot him now."
"Doc!" Mal bellowed. "I thought I told you to keep her on the bridge!"
"I'm sorry, she got away from me." Simon looked more worried by River's proximity to the guns than Mal's anger.
"Anybody else notice she's making a gorram habit of doing just that?" Mal cursed with frustration and he turned his focus back to Riddick. "I got no powerful need to kill you but I don't take to letting convicted murderers roam free around my boat."
"You let Jayne," River commented as she stared down at the dead body.
"Hey!" Jayne spoke up quickly. "Don't be counting me, been bound by law plenty but ain't never stuck around for the jail part."
"Jayne's part of my crew. He ain't." Mal nodded toward Riddick.
"Doesn't want to be. Wants freedom and open space and no more chains." River turned her luminous eyes on Mal. "Crocodile dreams of the sun and the sea and the smell of the rain. Won't kill you 'less he has to, takes no glory in it, doesn't like the taste of blood even drowned in peppermint."
Mal looked back and forth between the Inara and Riddick; a muscle in his jaw twitching as his frown deepened. In one smooth movement, he holstered the gun and folded his arms tightly. "You get off at the next stop and you find a way to make yourself useful 'til then. Starting with getting rid of that body. Any part of that ain't clear and we'll have a problem, otherwise, I got no quarrel with you."
"Sounds fair." Riddick lowered the rifle.
"You got any skills other than killin' people?"
"I'm a fast learner."
Kaylee looked out from behind Jayne's burly arm, her expression one of disgust and annoyance. "You killed him with one of my cotterpin picks? That's treated carbon steel, you know. Now I gotta clean it."