Friends and Lovers

Part X—Monster

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.

Rating: R, for violence

Summary: Conclusion. Niska makes good his threat to Mal, and more violence ensues.

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Niska stood for a moment, his rage leaving him to be replaced by irritation as he saw Mal hanging unconscious from the hook. Turning to Brutus, he said, "You can have the woman. I'll send for you when Reynolds wakes up, and we'll begin again."

Brutus nodded, grinning. He walked over to River, his eyes full of evil intent. Zoe tensed beside her, testing her bonds for the umpteenth time. River turned to her and smiled, and Zoe's blood ran cold at the eerie look. "River," she said.

"Monster's under the bed," River said. "Time to look." Incongruously, she winked.

Brutus freed her legs from the chains that bound her, and she stood quietly. He reached up to free her arms. As soon as they were free, he moved to drag her away, but she quickly grabbed the chain hanging above her and swung out of his grasp, landing next to the table of gleaming knives. Grasping two blades firmly in her hands, she faced him.

Brutus smiled, completely unaware of what he was really facing and thinking what a pleasure it would be to feel her struggle beneath him. He lunged forward, and River met him midair, burying her blade in his chest to the hilt. He staggered backward, a low gurgling sound coming from his lips as he hit the floor at Zoe's feet. Twirling to face Niska, River saw to her irritation that he had retreated, and was heading rapidly to the comm unit in his outer office to call for reinforcements. She quickly turned to Zoe, freeing the woman from her own chains. Zoe nodded. "I'll get Mal. Go."

River smiled, heading toward Niska's office on impossibly swift feet. Niska turned to face her, surprise evident on his face. "Didn't want to get to know Brutus," she said with icy calm. "He was not a nice man." She advanced slowly, causing Niska to back up a step. "You're not a nice man, either. Monster with red hands instead of blue. Just as evil, no matter the color. Took your pleasure from hurting my family." Her hands flexed on the blades, itching to end the man. "Can't be allowed to live after that. Must be put down, like a rabid dog. No chance for rehabilitation."

"River," Mal rasped from the doorway, where Zoe supported his weight. She turned slightly, keeping Niska in her peripheral vision as she looked at Mal.

"Step aside, bao bei," he said, his voice almost indecipherably hoarse.

She stood still between the men. "He has to die, Mal," she said flatly.

"Ain't disagreein' with you, darlin'," Mal managed to get out. He held up his arm as steadily as he could, and River saw the gun there. "Just ain't rightly sure my aim is good enough not to hit you in the process."

River stepped out of the way gracefully. "Mister Reyn….," Niska began. The word was never finished, as Mal squeezed the trigger once, catching Niska through the throat.

As Niska slumped to the floor, Mal faltered in Zoe's grasp, the last of his strength gone.

"Guess your aim was good enough," Zoe said blandly, as she and River steadied him on either side.

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"All right, we got about five minutes to go, 'fore we're in their line of fire," Jayne said, fingering Vera. "Take us in, Inara."

Inara nodded, her hands trembling slightly as she maneuvered the Firefly into position for docking with the Skyplex. "Jayne," she said suddenly, looking out the window with surprise. "Look at this."

As they watched, a small shuttle detached from the Skyplex as weapons from the docking area fired at it. The shuttle drifted erratically for a moment before righting itself and turning toward Serenity at its top speed. "You don't suppose….?" Inara began.

A burst of static filled the bridge, and then they heard River's voice. "Serenity, we need to dock with you. Now. The shuttle's been hit and is leaking fuel. Please confirm."

"Can they dock with us, with that kind of shuttle?" Simon asked Kaylee urgently.

"It ain't a perfect fit, but I think River can do it," Kaylee confirmed. "If we can hold Serenity steady."

Inara nodded, and Simon flipped the switch. "Confirmed, mei mei. We're ready."

Within moments, the crew heard the satisfying thump of the shuttle locking onto Serenity. Zoe's voice came over the comm.. "Take us out, fast. Don't know who might decide to follow us."

Inara's hands flew over the console, and Serenity's engine hummed with greater intensity as they began to put distance between them and the Skyplex.

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"Watch it there, mate," Badger whined as Simon sewed up the last of his lacerations. "Don't wanna be scarrin' this lovely chest o' mine. Must think of the ladies, you know."

Simon rolled his eyes and Mal snorted, though he could not respond with the thought that crossed his mind, as his voice was still very hoarse.

"Wha'?" Badger asked, scowling at Mal. "Think I don't have ladies at my beck and call?"

"Not free ones, anyways," Jayne said, leaning against the door. "And by now, maybe not even the ones you were plannin' on sellin'. When I left your little office, weren't many of your men standin', and them that were seemed a mite eager to be elsewhere."

Badger nodded. "It's a shame and disgrace what happens to a businessman such as myself in these hard times." Then he grinned. "But, now as Niska's organization is in a bit of a spin, could be there's an openin' for a gent such as myself to help 'em re-organize."

"You are a vulture. You know that, right?" Mal rasped from the bed beside him.

Badger bristled importantly. "Just a man what knows an opportunity when 'e sees it," he said defensively. "Might even be willin' to cut you in for say…20 percent. Since you were kind enough to give me a ride back to Persephone."

"Twenty percent?" Jayne said incredulously. "After they cut you down from Niska's hook and saved your sorry hide?"

Badger pondered for a moment. "Could go up as high as twenty-five, I suppose."

"Think I'll leave the re-organizing to you," Mal whispered hoarsely. "Ain't aimin' to be back on Ezra any time soon."

Badger shrugged. "Suit yourself. But that's the difference between you and me, Captain Reynolds. I'm a man of vision."

"Little bit cross-eyed, if you ask me," Jim said. Badger's answer was drowned out by the laughter of Serenity's men.

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Jim slipped down into his bunk, his back throbbing with the motion of climbing the ladder. Unbuttoning his shirt, he pulled it off carefully, wincing as the new skin across his wound pulled.

"That as painful as it looks?" Zoe asked softly, moving from the shadows into the light.

Jim flinched in surprise, causing him to hiss. "Shouldn't oughta' sneak up on a man like that," he said pleasantly. When Zoe didn't respond, he added, "And yes, it hurts like a sonovabitch."

Zoe looked at him, her eyes bright in the soft light. "May be you need someone to tend to it," she said calmly.

Jim's lips curved into a smile. "Could be," he agreed. "Hear tell you have some experience with being a field medic."

"A little," Zoe replied, closing the distance between them. "I expect I could try my hand at it." She placed a small, chaste kiss on his surprised lips. "Course, might be I'll have to fit it into my busy schedule." She pulled away, her wicked smile warming Jim in all manner of pleasant ways.

"I'd appreciate it if you'd pencil me in," he said, reaching out to pull her closer to him again.

Zoe wrapped her arms around him, careful of his injury. Jim touched her shoulder lightly. "This still hurt?" he asked.

"A little," she replied.

"Then perhaps we can nurse each other back to health," he said, brushing her hair to the side to ghost his lips along her slender neck.

"Think I'd like that," she sighed, giving herself to the feel of his solid warmth against her and feeling suddenly more alive than she had in a very long time.

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"I think you should be the one lying down, ai ren," River protested as Mal helped her up onto the infirmary bed.

"I'm fine," Mal said, leaning his weight against the bed on one side and the unshattered cane Jayne had retrieved on the other. "Besides, Simon can hardly do the thing with you sittin' or standin'."

River grimaced, but lay back against the bed, resting her hand on Mal's. Simon draped a sheet across River's legs and examined her thoroughly while Mal tried very hard to think about something else. After a few minutes, Simon nodded his head in satisfaction. "Everything looks good, mei mei. Are you feeling all right?"

"I feel fine, except for the mental fuzzies," she said. "And of course, I'm a little tired."

"I can't imagine why," Simon said dryly. Looking at Mal, he said, "Would you like to see your daughter today?"

Mal's smile lit up the infirmary. "Can't think of anything I'd rather do," he said, his enthusiasm contagious as he squeezed River's hand.

Simon set up the equipment and prepared River. After a few seconds of searching, he said, "There." He pointed to the small screen, and Mal leaned forward eagerly.

"There she is," Mal breathed out, fascinated by the outline of his child. "She's an active one, ain't she?" he observed as the baby waved her arms and legs restlessly.

"Yes, she is," River confirmed, rubbing the side of her abdomen for emphasis. They watched for a long moment, all three of them mesmerized by the miraculous sight. Finally, Simon cleared his throat. "Well, I'll just give you two a moment alone," he said, putting the equipment to the side and stepping out into the corridor.

"What are you thinking, ai ren?" River asked, touching Mal's face tenderly.

Mal grasped her hand in his own, turning her palm up and brushing his lips along it lightly. "I'm thinkin' that for all the horrible go se in this 'verse, it's still full of beauty and wonder too. And I'm thinkin' that I'm a lucky man to be able to see it."

River sat up in the bed and wrapped her legs around his waist, leaning her head on his shoulder. "Love you, ai ren," she said softly.

"Love you, too, darlin'," he replied, feeling their child's kick against his abdomen as he held River close to him.

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Author's Note: Thus ends another tale of the 'verse. As always, thank you for sticking with the story to its conclusion. I know that this one was a little nerve-racking for some readers, and I really appreciate your patience with it. And thanks for leaving such shiny feedback along the way! There are, of course, more tales to tell, and hopefully, there will be time to tell them another day. Until then, happy reading and writing to you all!