Rock and a Hard Place

Part XII—Serenity Restored

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: I own none of these characters. I just like to play with 'em.

Rating: R

Summary: The crew finds Mal and destroys the plans of the Alliance.

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Moving in effortless tandem with the three Academy students, River caught up quickly with Zoe as the older woman approached the prison entrance. On her signal, the four fanned out, each taking a corridor to clear of any Alliance personnel unfortunate enough to be in their path. Zoe, watching their progress with a practiced eye, thought with a shudder of what such warriors could be capable of in Alliance hands. Snapping her mind immediately back into soldier mode, she advanced toward the general holding cell.

Hearing the sounds of a firefight, she ducked into the large area, pleased to see the Operative, Simon, and the other team member had freed themselves from their fake restraints and armed themselves with the guns and clubs plucked from the fallen bodies of their former guards. She took note that Simon, usually so reticent to take up arms, had improved somewhat in his prowess with a gun. Seeing that everything was under control in the holding cell area, she slipped quietly down another corridor.

Jayne, having effectively cleared a wide swath through the guard shack where he'd been when the lights went out, made his way down the main prison housing unit, opening doors and herding startled prisoners out into the hallways. Realizing the confusion their release would cause, he figured it would buy Serenity's crew extra time to do what they came to do.

He chuckled as he saw a group of soldiers round the corner and stop in their tracks, suddenly confronted with a mob of angry prisoners not looking to show mercy when they'd been shown none. Had a certain poetical feel to it, he thought, leaving the prisoners to handle the soldiers themselves.

He slipped quietly to the armory and slung several weapons haphazardly around his neck, being sure to gather up grenades for his trip to the lab.

On his way out, he met the Operative, who had come in search of a weapon more suited to his temperament. Finding, to his disappointment, no sword, he settled for a bayonet and grabbed a few grenades of his own. Hearing sporadic shooting coming from a room down the hallway, he stealthily padded to the doorway and looked in quickly. Simon sat, hunkered down behind a desk, covering Kaylee with his body and venturing a shot occasionally in the direction of the guard taking shots at them.

Moving with silent, deadly precision, the Operative ran the shooter through and withdrew the bayonet, dropping the corpse at his feet. "Get back to the ship," he told them briefly. "It needs to be prepared for takeoff now."

Nodding briefly, Simon helped his wife up and they moved out into the corridor quickly, headed for the exit closest to where the transport ship sat waiting. Zoe, coming into the same corridor, covered them as they made their way to the ship. Turning back to the interior of the prison, she moved toward the labs. It was time to retrieve the Captain.

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River glided down the corridor, her blades dripping with the blood of any who had tried to stop her purpose. She was vaguely aware of the progress of her classmates, as they entered the lab containing the genetic material that had been so cruelly stolen from them in their captivity. Satisfied that Jayne's grenades would finish the job they had started, she moved forward with a panther's grace.

Tilting her head to the side, she stopped, listening for the thoughts of the first snake she sought. Smiling, she pushed open the door to her right, and stood gazing at the man who had started the chain of events that had deprived her of her ai ren. Senator Holmes stared back at her, wide-eyed with sudden dread. He had never seen her personally, but he had seen the capture from the Maidenhead and had read the files about her extraordinary abilities. A slight tremor betrayed his burgeoning fear.

"You are Ezekiel, brother of Jeremiah Holmes," River said flatly.

"Yes." The answer came out as a whisper.

River advanced into the room to stand mere inches from her prey. "Your brother took someone who belonged to me, and paid for the indiscretion at the edge of my blade."

Holmes backed up as far was the wall would allow, licking his dry lips nervously. River closed the distance between them, her face hard as stone. "And now you would presume to do the same. I will say this now and for the last time. He belongs to me."

More quickly than Holmes could see, River's palm shot out, driving the bones of his face through the soft tissue of his brain. Shuddering a last breath, he slumped bonelessly to the floor.

Wiping her hand across her skirt, she turned and headed for the laboratory at the end of the corridor. Listening closely at the closed door, she heard the low murmur of voices.

"What do you think is happening out there?" one voice said.

"I'll check it out. There's no need for us both to sit here. We can't proceed anyway until the power is restored."

Standing to the side of the door, River waited until the man had cleared the entrance. Then, felling him with one sweeping swing of her blade, she stepped into the dim light of the lab.

"Who's there?" Dr. Lee asked, unable to see clearly beyond a few feet without the overhead lights.

River made no answer, padding silently along the wall until she was behind him. "Anyone there?" he asked again, more than a little uneasy now.

Mal stirred on the table, moaning slightly. Lee turned to check on his victim. Leaning in close to see better, he heard an eerie voice behind him.

"Don't touch him again." Lee whirled around, coming face to face with River. "In fact," River said, tilting her head to the side, "you mustn't touch anyone else ever again."

She reached out and with a sharp twist snapped his neck cleanly. Hearing a sound behind her, she whirled quickly. Zoe stood in the doorway, weapon at the ready.

"You 'bout done here?" Zoe asked calmly. "The captures have been taken, the documentation of what's been happening here has been packed up, and the prisoners have been evacuated to the outside."

The Operative appeared behind her. "And the charges have been set. Our people are all accounted for. What about Captain Reynolds?"

River turned to her husband. His eyes fluttered open at the sound of his name. "Hope to hell I ain't just dreaming this," he murmured weakly.

River gently touched his cheek. "We all are, ai ren."

Jayne appeared in the doorway. "Can we make with the getting the hell off this rock already?" he asked.

"Gladly," the Operative replied, helping River remove the probes and leads and free Mal from his restraints. Flanking Mal on either side, he and River each took an arm and steadied the Captain as they made their way to the transport ship, leaving Jayne to detonate the charges.

Almost before everyone could board, Jayne came out of the complex, grinning like a kid in a candy store as he stepped onto the ship. "Best be taking off pretty gorram quick, less'n you wanna leave in pieces," he said.

Zoe returned his grin. "Like those charges near as much as the grenades, huh?' she said as she eased the ship into orbit.

"Damn straight," Jayne replied.

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Simon examined Mal as thoroughly as he could without access to his diagnostic equipment, while River sat silently beside him, one of his hands enfolded in her own. When Simon finally stopped poking and prodding and left them alone, Mal said softly, "Can't believe you came for me, bao bei. That was a gorram foolish thing to do."

Not even vaguely chastised, River said simply, "I'll always come for you."

"That's the case, we're both like to die sooner rather than later, I conjure," Mal replied mildly.

River quirked one eyebrow. "Perhaps, but then again, maybe we're not so easy to kill."

Mal chuckled. "Maybehaps you got a point." Turning more serious, he asked, "You okay, darlin'?"

River nodded, her eyes luminous with the depth of feeling she had for this man. "I'm all right."

"And the little one?" Mal asked, his voice catching with the memory of assuming he would not live to see his family again.

"He's fine, Mal. Growing stronger every day."

"He?" Mal asked.

River smiled, tears of relief and joy mingling on her cheeks. "Yes, ai ren. We're going to have a son."

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"I understand I owe you quite a debt," Mal said to the Operative an hour before they reached Osiris.

"No more of a debt than I owe you and your crew," the Operative said. "Thanks to your merry band of travelers, I have reason to believe the Academy Project has been permanently halted. Also, now that I have been at least partially accepted into the underground movement, I believe I will be able to achieve certain of my other goals with their assistance."

"You plannin' on overthrowin' the government?" Mal asked with a hint of humor in his voice.

"Not today," the Operative said, allowing himself a faint smile. "But the evidence of corruption we've amassed should go a long way toward, shall we say, reforming the system. Care to join us? Once those bruises heal, you'd make an appealing poster boy for the new revolution."

Mal smiled wryly. "Thanks, but I think I'll pass. Got me and mine to see to. Don't need any more complications, way I see it."

"I expect you're right about that," the Operative said, standing to leave. "I have to say, for a man who craves simplicity, you do seem to attract complications."

"Yeah, well, it's a gift," Mal said.

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After dropping the Operative, the members of the underground movement, and River's fellow students back on Osiris, the crew arrived safely back at the docks. Inordinately pleased to be back on Serenity again, Mal sat in the galley with Zoe.

"Quite the big rescue you pulled off back there," he said, sipping his tea gingerly to avoid hurting the still healing scar in his mouth.

Zoe gave him a slow smile. "You know me, sir. One daring mission after another."

"Guess you'll be glad to have Anya back," Mal said.

"Yes, I will," Zoe answered, looking at him with such warmth in her eyes as he never thought he'd see again after the day they'd buried Wash. "I'm glad you took her on, Zoe," he said, perilously close to a tender moment with his first mate.

"Me too," she replied softly.

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As soon as Serenity landed on Harvest, Zoe could see Anya in the crowds on the dock, jumping up and down and tugging on Inara's sleeve. Inara leaned down gracefully, apparently giving the child permission to run ahead without her. Long blonde hair flying wildly behind her, Anya ran as fast as she could and jumped into Zoe's outstretched arms.

"You came back," she said, joy radiating from every pore.

"Said I would, didn't I?" Zoe asked, hugging the girl close to her heart.

"And you brought back Captain Mal," Anya said when she spied her other favorite person sitting on a stack of crates in the cargo bay. Frowning, she observed the still-purple bruises marring Mal's face. "You bad hurt, Captain Mal?"

"No, blondie," he lied. "Nothing a pinch of little girl suger can't cure."

Anya wriggled out of Zoe's arms and ran to him, climbing up beside him on the crates. Planting soft, sloppy kisses along his jawline, she asked, "That better?"

"Much better," he said, kissing her forehead. "Now run along and see who else is needful of a kiss."

As Anya disappeared up the stairs, Inara walked into the cargo bay. "Hello, Mal," she said warmly, pleased immeasurably to see him again.

"Hello, 'Nara," he replied easily. "Everything go all right here?"

"It was wonderful," Inara said. "Spending time with that child has to be one of life's finer pleasures. And how are you?'

"Better, now I'm home," Mal answered, walking up the stairs carefully.

Jayne met him on his way down. Seeing Inara standing at the foot of the stairs, he smiled a lazy smile.

"Hey you," Inara said, her heart beating a little faster than it had a moment ago.

"Hey," Jayne replied. "Want I should go with you to get the shuttle?'

"That would be lovely," Inara replied, slipping her hand over his arm.

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Mal lay in his bunk, listening to the sweet sound of Serenity's engine, as they sailed into the Black once more. River sighed, burrowing into the warmth of his side. Running his fingers softly down the smooth skin of her back, Mal asked, "What are you thinking right now, darlin'?"

"Thinking about Serenity, and our family, and picturing the future," River answered.

"And what does it look like?" Mal asked.

"Like freedom," she answered, resting her head softly against his beating heart.

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Author's note: Thus this story of Serenity's crew ends, after two and one-half months and over 100,000 words. I want to thank all who have taken the time to read the tale from its beginning in "Voices" to its conclusion here. And I extend a special thank you to those who, through their comments and reviews, helped make the experience a real pleasure for me. Happy reading and writing to you all.