This story is a sequel to You Can't Go Home Again, but it can be read separately. There will be a few mentions of the events in the previous story, but the actual plot is different and doesn't require reading of the first story, though if you haven't read the first story you'd need to know that Inara is dead, and Simon and Kaylee are married and have a daughter.
Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be mine. Just playing in the great big 'verse Joss Whedon created.
Pairings: Mal/River. The prequel was showing their friendship, but this one delves into the romance part of it. Some Simon/Kaylee. :)
"Never rightly thought we'd set foot on this rock again." Jayne clunked over beside Mal, a large cup of ale in hand.
"We go where the work is," Mal said, sipping on his own brew. "They needed med supplies, we brought 'em med supplies. Besides, they're a friendly sorta folk."
"'Xcept that psychotic bride ya picked up here," Jayne snorted.
"Well, she weren't really one of 'em," Mal said calmly, his eyes falling on the settlers dancing around the fire to a very upbeat song. "Just don't let no woman give you a drink and you're safe."
Jayne eyed him sideways. "What's so bad about bein' hitched?"
"To you?" Zoe asked, stepping out of the darkness. "That goes without sayin'." A small smile—the closest thing to a smirk that Zoe ever gave—graced her features, and Jayne scowled at her.
"It's—" Mal was cut off when a young lady stepped up and pulled Jayne away, and Mal shook his head.
"The beast has been loosed," Zoe said dryly. "Feel like we should put up bulletins or somethin'." She crossed her arms. "Though consequently, it ain't just the Triumph women prospectin'." She nodded at the circle of dancers, where River was laughing and swinging around on the arm of a grinning, star-struck young man.
Mal eyed the man shrewdly. "I ain't worried. River could knock him out with her pinky if she had the mind to." He turned his eyes back on Zoe. "You been breakin' the hearts of these poor, unsuspectin' settlers?" Zoe might've knocked him flat for saying this to her at one time, but it had been nearly three years since Wash's death, and she'd been healing, much as anyone did from that sort of thing.
The corners of Zoe's mouth turned up. "Takes a special kinda man to deal with me. Not sure there'll ever be another."
"You might just be surprised someday."
Zoe chuckled. "Might be, at that. But you ain't one to talk. I don't see you out there."
Mal gave her a look. "I already done this one. Ended up in a pretty predicament."
"Speakin' of predicaments, I just got off the line with Badger."
"Figures. What's that hun dan want this time?"
"Says he's got a job, if we're interested."
"Might be. Did he say what the job is?"
"Transportin' somethin' to Greenleaf. Didn't say what, and I ain't one to ask."
"Well, we ain't too far from Persephone. Might well take it; ain't like jobs are fallin' outta the sky." And it wasn't like they had a lot of steady contacts left after the events of the past couple of years. It was good to keep the ones they did have satisfied, when they could. "We still got another few weeks before we gotta pick up Simon and Kaylee. So. You'll wave him?"
"Aye, sir." With another tiny smile, Zoe turned smartly and walked off in the direction of the ship.
Mal's gaze drifted over to Jayne, who was drinking and laughing with one of the local men, the woman who had pulled him away hanging on his arm, and then over to River, who was still dancing. His sharp eye caught at least two, possibly three men eyeing her with more than casual interest. Made sense; they didn't get many strange gals from foreign parts in the settlement, and River was certainly different. Pretty, graceful, intelligent—though not all of the men eyeing her had talked to her, so it probably wasn't her intelligence that interested them.
Mal settled down with his back pressed against one of the logs the villagers used as benches and took another sip of his ale. He'd meant what he said to Zoe—he wasn't worried about River; she had long proven that she could take care of herself—but he kept an eye on her on principle.
River must have felt his regard—or maybe heard his thoughts, though he guessed there were too many people around for that to be likely—because she paused in the middle of her dance and turned to glance over at him. A tiny smile crinkled his eyes and he held up a hand in a lazy wave.
River spoke to her dance partner, who looked disappointed and said something in return. River shook her head and skipped over to Mal, managing to flop down beside him while still looking graceful about it. "What's going on?" she asked, not even breathing hard.
"Nothin'. You didn't have to stop dancin', darlin'. Looks like you broke the poor man's heart." Mal nodded at River's partner, who was walking dejectedly out of the circle of dancers, looking like he'd just been told Christmas was cancelled.
River smiled and rolled her eyes a little. "He doesn't get out much," she confided.
Mal turned a half-smile on her before taking another drink. "How do you figure?"
"Because he thinks I'm exotic," River said, breathing out an amused laugh. "I've had two marriage proposals. It's a good thing Simon's not here." She studied Mal through her curtain of dark hair. "So what's going on? Don't tell me 'nothing.' I can see right through you." She leaned her head against his arm, and her cheek moved against his arm as she spoke. "Even if I couldn't read you, I know you. You had that look."
"I got looks now?" Mal carefully shifted his cup from his right hand to his left so he could drink it without disturbing River.
"Loads of them." River curled her legs up and wrapped one arm around them. "And if looks could kill, my dance partner would be dead. Or possibly just unconscious."
"He'd just better be careful with you, is all. Don't need my pilot bothered. Especially as she's workin' as my mechanic while my mechanic's off gallivantin'."
"Gallivanting wouldn't be exactly accurate," River said thoughtfully. "Kaylee's not wandering about seeking pleasure or diversion, or going about with members of the opposite sex. Except Simon, but that's different. It's—"
Mal nudged her with his elbow. "You know what I mean. Ain't no call to be a smartass."
River looked up, her dark eyes dancing mischievously. "What can I say? I'm gifted."
Mal laughed. "Ain't hard to be gifted at bein' a smartass, River."
"Just saying." Her grin faded as her eyes turned back to the settlers. "And he wasn't going to hurt me," she said, nodding at her forlorn-looking dance partner, who kept shooting woeful glances her way. "He's a sweetheart. A little shy. Now, some of the others…" Her eyes narrowed slightly, and Mal felt a little shiver run through her. "I don't like their thoughts," she murmured. "I'm used to the…occasional fantasy invading my mind, but…not…" She shook her head. "It's unpleasant," she said simply.
Mal gazed out at the men, wondering which ones would be thinking unpleasant fantasies about River, and not liking the idea at all. "Maybe we should head back to the ship."
"I like dancing," River said. "Besides, if I let bothersome thoughts get to me all the time, I'd never do anything."
They rested in companionable silence for a moment, and then Mal dragged himself upright and held a hand down for River. She took it and swung lithely to her feet. "Go dance, then. Let me know if I gotta knock anyone out."
"What? You don't think I could do it?"
"I know you could, but you're a lot nicer than I am. Might take you longer to hit someone that deserves it."
River laughed and shook her head. She gave Mal one last smile before trotting over to rejoin her partner, who looked as if the sun had just come out after a week of thunderstorms. The sight of it still bothered Mal, but he knew there was no reason it should and did his best to shrug it off. River was twenty; an adult capable of making her own decisions.
He kept an eye on her—and on Jayne, getting drunker by the moment—the same way he always kept an eye on his crew. He watched Jayne get tipsy to the point of passing out on the ground, and figured he'd leave him there till he woke up, since he was a mite heavy to be dragging back to Serenity.
It wasn't long before River again stopped dead in the middle of her dancing, but this time, she focused her gaze outward, at something that Mal couldn't see. Her head tilted slightly to the side, as if she was listening, and Mal was suddenly tense and alert. He'd seen that look from her enough to know that she sensed trouble coming.
He quickly spoke into his radio. "Zoe."
It was several seconds before her voice crackled out of his radio. "Sir."
"What's your position?"
"On Serenity. You got trouble?"
"Think so. Ain't sure what yet. Just have the ship ready."
He made a beeline for River while he spoke. Mal had almost reached her when figures materialized out of the darkness surrounding the camp, and the sound of gunfire cut the air.
Mal had his gun out in an instant, turning around as he eyed the intruders. There were a lot of them—maybe twenty men emerging from the surrounding area. There were less of them than the villagers, but that didn't mean much, since they were armed and the villagers weren't. They had obviously planned this, as they had come from different angles, completely surrounding the unsuspecting settlers.
One of the strangers, a lean man with a scruffy face, fired another round into the air, and spoke into the dead silence. "If I can have your attention!" he called. "We ain't lookin' to kill no one, so just stay nice and quiet and we won't have no trouble."
Mal jumped slightly at the sound of River's voice, very near his ear. He spared a glance her way, and saw that she was standing just behind him.
"I don't think I can take them all," she murmured. "Too spread out. Too many guns. The variables are too great. Death would be inevitable."
Mal had seen some pretty extraordinary things from River, but even he thought it would be stupid to try to take on all of these armed men. He'd bet on River living, but she was right—someone would surely die. "Think you might be right. Know what they want?" he whispered.
She didn't have to tell him, for the next moment, the leader of the group was explaining quite plainly. "Now, I need for all the pretty young ladies to come on over this a-way." He waved his gun behind him. "We're gonna all take a little trip together."
Mal's breath hissed out between his teeth. Slavers. Had to be. There'd been a lot of reports lately of mercenaries being hired to collect slaves, and women were in quite a lot of demand in some areas, for reasons Mal didn't want to dwell on. The authorities had been trying to shut the slaving ring down, with very little success. He started to raise his gun, but River shook her head subtly. "If they see it, they'll shoot you. Not the right time."
"Come on now!" the leader shouted. "I ain't got all night!" He nodded, and half a dozen of the men began weaving through the settlers, pointing their guns and forcing the women out, like lambs to the slaughter. Several of the village men gave angry shouts and threw themselves on two of the gunmen, and during the ensuing struggle, Mal grabbed River's wrist and pulled her to a crouch. The sound of gunfire and the sudden silence from the village men told their fate.
"Ain't much time to be a right time, River," Mal muttered, eyeing the crowd and trying to figure a way out of it. These men might not be stupid enough to be fooled by thinking Serenity had weapons, so having Zoe fly over might only anger them.
River pinned Mal with her eyes. "Do you trust me?"
A few years ago, the answer would've been no, without a question. But times had changed, and so had River. "You gotta ask?"
"Good." And to his surprise, she stood swiftly to her feet as the men approached. She held up her hands calmly, and shot Mal a look that clearly told him not to interfere. He gave her his own look in response, and thought, as strongly as he could, what the hell are you doin'?
She only offered a quick, reassuring smile and headed off with the other women. The slavers separated them, taking some of the women—probably the ones they determined they'd get a good price for—and leaving others behind. Mal didn't even bother hoping they wouldn't take River. She was too pretty for them to pass by, and sure enough, they took her along, disappearing with their quarry from the firelight into the darkness beyond. As swiftly as they'd come, the slavers were gone, and chaos ensued as the village men began to panic. Mal ignored them all and radioed Zoe. "Zoe, do sensors pick up a ship anywhere nearby?"
"Just a tick…yes. Not far from your position, looks like it's taking off."
"I'm headed back to the ship. Do not lose that boat!"
In less than a minute, Mal hit Serenity's cargo bay at a dead run. "I'm on! Take us out." He reached the cockpit moments later, as Serenity lurched underneath him.
Zoe was in the pilot's chair, and spared him a glance. "Jayne and River?"
"Jayne's passed out drunk. River's on that boat. Slavers paid the Triumph settlers a little visit."
"And they managed to keep hold of River?" Zoe asked skeptically.
"She went willin'. Might be she has a plan to get away when the advantage is better—weren't much of one back in town."
"They're gonna see us on sensors if we follow 'em," Zoe pointed out.
"Doesn't matter. Look at it—Thesius-class transport ship. Minimal weapons."
"Yeah, but they got weapons," Zoe said pointedly. "Opposed to us. Sir."
"Then we'll just have to try to stay outta the way of the weapons." Zoe gave him another look, and Mal sighed. "Yeah, I know. I hope River's got a better plan, too."
River had the entire layout of the slavers' ship memorized by the time she was locked into a tiny room with a dozen other women. She had pieced it together from the minds of the mercenaries, and her general knowledge of ship models. This boat was boxy, with two mismatched floors. The cockpit was on the bottom floor, fore section. The room River was in was on the top floor, aft.
And it was very crowded. Not only physically—she barely had the space to move—but also mentally. Thoughts swarmed in and out of her head, bits and pieces of panic and hopelessness. She did her best to focus on her own thoughts, a difficult feat with all the voices in her head, but if she concentrated hard enough, the others' thoughts became background noise. That, she could handle.
She was also the only calm one in the room. Several of the women were crying, and one girl—no older than fifteen—was in hysterics. River drew a deep breath, focusing on what she needed to do. She gently laid her hand on the girl crammed nearest the door. "Would you mind switching places with me for a moment?"
The girl, in her panicked state, looked at River as if she were crazy. Which, River admitted to herself, she had been, a time or two. Still, this had nothing to do with sanity and everything to do with ability.
The poor girl switched places with River, who ran her hand over the wall. The locks on the ship were wired into the doors, and could be locked individually from the inside, or overridden and completely locked down from the outside, just like on Serenity. But they were all wired, and the wires ran straight through this wall. And these walls also had panels so that the wires could be more easily repaired if something went wrong.
River dug her fingers under one such panel and began to pry it off. Normally, such maintenance would require tools, but she didn't have tools available. She ended up having to use her fingernails, which actually tore half of one off. She hissed in pain, but gritted her teeth and continued to work on the panel.
She was rewarded when it finally came off the wall. By now, the other women had noticed her actions, and the fact that she seemed to be doing something had calmed them down a bit. They were all watching her as best as they could from their various positions in the room.
River set the panel on the floor and began to sort through the wires. She found the ones she was looking for and smiled. "Don't worry," she told the others. "I'm going to get us out of this." It took only a moment for River to cross the right wires and pop the lock on the door. She reached out with her mind, closing her eyes and concentrating. The thoughts of the numerous people on board rose and swarmed in her mind, swimming together in a giant pool of babbling. It took tremendous concentration to sort through the cacophony of voices in her head, but before long, River was positive she had the positions of the twenty-four slavers on board. None of them were out in the corridor, but that might not last for long, so she swiftly opened the door and clambered out. "I'll be back," she promised, before shutting the door behind her.
From there it was simply a matter of getting control of the cockpit, and for River Tam, it was a fairly easy task compared to a lot of what she had faced in her life, especially because the slavers didn't expect one of their captives to be out wandering the ship.
The only difficulty River had was with some of the thoughts around her. Not everyone on board was female—though these particular slavers had been ordered to deliver a lot of women to those that had hired them—but quite a few of the women had been badly abused in the time they had been on board. These thoughts clawed at the inside of River's brain, so ugly and vile that she wanted to be sick, but she couldn't. The best thing she could do for these people was to rescue them from any further harm.
She managed to get to the bottom floor of the ship without raising an alarm—she had to knock three slavers out on the way, locking their unconscious bodies in a utility closet—but she slowly and surely made her way to the cockpit. She stopped outside the door—there were four men in there, all armed, but three of them were standing fairly close together.
In their minds, River heard that they were debating what to do about the ship following them, as they weren't in range for their cannons to do any good.
Making a quick calculation, she threw herself into the room, aiming for the man standing off by himself. He was the closest to her, and she had his body in front of her as a shield and his own gun in her hand in less than two seconds. It took that long for the next man to realize she was there and pull out his gun, but he was two seconds too late. She shot the gun out of his hand, and then moved forward, forcing her bodyguard along, and swept into the middle of the others, until they all lay unconscious on the floor.
She quickly dragged the bodies out of the cockpit, then shut and locked the door and hurried to the pilot's seat. A quick look at the console told her everything she needed to know—Serenity was still behind them, and she quickly waved them.
Mal's face appeared on the screen in front of River, and he visibly relaxed when he saw her. "Well. There you are. Was wonderin' what was takin' you so long."
River wasn't in a very lighthearted mood; not with everything assailing her brain. "I have control of the cockpit. I'm turning back around to set down on Triumph; I'll take down all of the slavers one by one if I have to, but they're not getting off this boat."
"There ain't much law out on Triumph, but there's an Alliance cruiser 'bout two hours out. Can you disable the ship so's they can't fix it? Get the slavers locked up?"
"You need to ask?"
"Right—wave when that's done and we'll move the prisoners onto Serenity and take them back to Triumph. We'll leave the slavers for the feds."
"I'm always careful, Mal."
Mal snorted in disbelief. "Think we got two different meanings of the word in mind, darlin'." He nodded at her. "Get goin', then."
River ended the wave and took a deep breath, rolling back on the balls of her feet. Time to show the slavers what happened when their prey could fight back.