Summary: Follows my other fic, Spinning In The Dark. Posits a large conspiracy against mankind, the lampshading of demons and other monsters into the series, and ignores shared actors between the shows (as that would just be squicky). Spinning In The Dark gives away the twist.
Malcolm Reynolds was spoiling for a fight.
Not just any fight, mind you. No Unification Day brawl in a pub would satisfy this itch. He longed to step back into a war that was long over and really put it to the powers that were currently making his life hell.
So hearing the news that there was a Resistance, and that they had just landed a major blow against the trade lines bringing supplies to the Alliance outskirts… it filled his often empty heart with a joy he didn't often get to feel.
So he smiled, and leaned back in the pilot's seat. "What do you think of that, li'l Albatross?" he asked.
River, sitting crosslegged on the floor, turned her neck so that her head was sideways to his, gazing at the flashing lights on the tiny, dirty monitor. "It's very nice. Of course, people died."
It was a more lucid thought than he had expected on the subject, and he gave her a mocking glare. "I do believe there'll be some business for us around there, about now."
"Because you want to help? Or hurt?" she asked sadly.
It was a probing question, and he discounted it out of hand. "Anyways, with the shipments messed up, there'll be loads of cash changing hands for goods not always obtained in a seemly way. That means we ought to be there."
"There'll be lots of men there, thinking they can find answers. Maybe if they look too hard at us they'll find all the wrong ones," she whispered.
"We're safe enough here, with our resident nasties," replied Mal.
If there was one thing Jayne hated, it was bright-eyed perky little devil women who knew big words and made him feel dumb. And could take him down with one hand any day of the week.
If there was another, it was a smug captain who thought he had a plan.
He eyed the two of them for a full minute. "We goin to New Bellasarus?" he asked them, when he couldn't take it anymore.
River nodded. "Cap'n has a plan," she sing-songed. "We're going."
He sighed. "I'll get my guns ready."
Truth be told, he was glad they were going back to work. Glad they were getting over this dry run. After Wash died the whole crew was all turned around backwards. Zoe was a strong woman—it wasn't right to see her hurting so bad.
It's in a tiny, crowded bar that Mal gets his first glimpse of what might be some kind of Resistance. They came here because the word is that if you want shady work that might hurt the Alliance, it's the place to be. (and you have to be wearing a mighty brown coat just to learn that much) He's just settled into a friendly game of darts, punctuated with drinking, while Jayne tries to keep River out of trouble, when the room goes quiet.
They'd come here for a taste of what's here, and hopefully for work. Now it seems they'll get information.
Everybody steps warily away from the man who comes in the door. He's small, scrawnier than Mal, with a look about him that Mal hasn't seen in a long time. Some soldiers got that look around them after a while, the look of a man who loves to kill, and doesn't care who knows it.
River gasps when he comes in, then restrains herself, hands over her mouth. Mal didn't need her to confirm that this is a nasty character, but it certainly makes it more urgent. Jayne grabs her, holding on tight. He remembers Maidenhead, and isn't eager for any repeats.
The man walks up to the bar and tosses down some money. "Keep them coming," he says, and his voice is a mesh of accents, low, throaty, and dangerous.
His face is a scowl. His hair… has been all shaved off, leaving a brownish stubble that is somehow even more dangerous.
He's wearing all black, a dusty black leather coat and a six-shooter on each hip. Showy pieces that show obvious wear. They practically have dust on them.
Mal approaches cautiously. Not a time to start a conversation, he can see that. He settles down, purchases his own drink silently.
The stranger takes a long drink, then looks around coldly. Calculatingly. His eyes settle on River for a second, and there's a flash of something in them when she looks away, afraid. His eyes linger on her far too long.
Mal nearly hits him, there and then. The kind of person who feels something like that in the way a little girl looks away… that's no kind of man.
His face must have changed, because the stranger glances to him next, examining him with cold blue eyes. "Well, a lot of new faces here. You looking for trouble, tosser?"
There's a hint of Badger in the voice, but even more of Jayne, somehow. Brashness for the sake of it. Anger and danger.
Mal smiles, and for a second he's worried this will go to violence, and way too soon. But the other man doesn't hit him, just takes another drink. "Looking for work. We have a transport out for hire—"
The man turns away before Mal is done. "Sell your wares somewhere else," he says, leaning over the bar. "Another."
Mal's got a slow-burning rage between his ears then. He doesn't like being treated like this.
Then trouble walks into the bar. Two rough and tumble men, long beards, and shotguns in hand. "Alright, Blood, put them up!" yells one of them, raising his weapon.
Mal is ducking and reaching for his a gun a second before he remembers it's not his fight. The black-clad stranger sighs, reaching for the sky. "Okay, I'll come quietly," he says, and even Mal can hear the lie in the words.
"Ain't here for you," growls one. "Reynolds, step back from the bar."
Mal knows what's happening in a quick heartbeat. These men aren't Alliance, or they'd want Blood, who may or may not be connected to the Resistance. They aren't any kind of law either. That means they work for somebody like Badger. Or Niska. Or even worse than that.
He glances to River, thinking of the bad men after her.
Blood follows his line of sight, swears, and produces a knife in each hand, out of his sleeves, throwing them as quick as can be. Then he grabs Mal, and with a wiry strength Mal didn't even realize was there, hurls him over the bar, to safety, and heads after his knives.
Shots ring out, but Mal's over the counter and his bell's been rung. He tries to shake clear, but Jayne and River have arrived, Jayne with a gun in hand already, ready to rescue the captain.
And then Blood is done with the poor fools who had walked into the place with violence on their mind, and is coming back to the bar. "Get up, get out, get gone!" he yells at them. "It's a big 'Verse. No call for you to come anywhere close to me."
River swings around and punches him in the face, already freaked out enough by him. He tumbles backwards, head over heels. Jayne presents the whole bar with his 'go ahead, make something of it' face, keeping his gun ready to hand.
Mal's not sure what's going on here. Blood threw him over the bar—was he trying to protect Mal? It all seems so odd now that he can't quite work it all out.
And the room is spinning.
Blood is up and advancing, and while he doesn't have the knives out yet, there's blood in his eyes. "Come on, girly, take another shot," he taunts, his voice filled with rage. She takes another swing, but this one he ducks—right into her outraised knee as she spins around, graceful as a dancer.
He catches it, though, tossing her away, into the wall.
Jayne is fascinated, staring. He rather enjoys seeing her get tossed around, anyway—payback for manhandling him, perhaps. Or payback for all the fear she creates in him. Anyway, he isn't going to interfere.
Mal draws his gun, quick as he can, pointing it at Blood. "Don't you touch her," he says, and even if his voice is hoarse, he thinks the threat is pretty clear and immediate.
Blood purses his lips, a smirk playing around the edges of his lips. "Now ain't that interesting."
Mal's hand is shaking, but he knows he can make the shot. Once the gun is out and they're in his eyes, he can make the shot. And he can kill em. There's just no other possible outcome.
But there's no fear, and that's when he knows for sure he's dealing with a real hard case. It's a shame, really, because the kid has moves, and he looks young—a whole life ahead of him. But Mal can't leave this guy behind, it's clear.
So he goes to take the shot.
The man moves like lightning, rolling before the trigger is even squeezed. Mal corrects desperately, but the man is on him, grabbing the gun out of his hand. It discharges, but once, and harmlessly.
River's moving again, slamming a hand into his head. But Blood rolls with that, too, then punches her, and then Jayne, for good measure.
Jayne seems surprised. He'd stayed out of the fight till now, stayed docile. Now, staggering down to the ground, he seems ready to make something of it.
The doors swing open once more, and now people are rushing the windows.
It's a group of fighters that come in, guns out. A short man leads them, short and squat, with automatic weapons in both hands. His coat drags the floor.
Behind him in a woman, and she's got a knife in hand. Behind her… calling that thing a person seems like blasphemy. That thing is tall, and wide, and hairy, and bristling with attitude.
Jayne rolls down behind the bar, getting his gun up, but Blood is already recovered enough to see what's happening, and he yells. "Weapons down, people!"
Then he kicks River's right leg out from under her. She stumbles, and he pushes Mal back a step, keeping Mal's gun to hand. "All right, we're done here," he says, tossing the gun down. "You folks go on back where you came from; you have no part of this."
But Mal isn't even looking at him any more. He's staring back at the group of rag-tags that came in the door. "Brian?" he says, just a bit too hoarse.
The hairy mountain frowns at him. "Malcolm Reynolds?" He let out a musical curse in Chinese that quite adequately expressed what Mal was suddenly feeling. "That's Reynolds," he says, and it's like a curse.
Blood is halfway out the door, but he stops. Looks back. "I don't care what kind of Big Damn Hero he is," he spits out. "He and his are no part of this." He eyes River again, but this time there's too much there, and Mal sees it.
River gasps, and even with blood running in a trickle from her nose she manages to look both scared and like she's going to kill him.
Blood sneers. "Oh, yes, pet, run for your life. Secret's out. Heard about Miranda, big heroic action, changed things, yadda yadda. Brian, where's my horses?"
"End of the street," said the big man, eyes still locked with Mal. "Go on ahead; I have to talk to him."
Blood curses roundly. "I think not. You come with me now, or you can get left here. Brian! Yoko, tell him."
The girl shakes her head. "We all know about Malcolm Reynolds. We're staying here, Blood. Get over it. You can go cry to the big man if you don't like it."
Blood bears down on his jaw, and hard. "We're on a schedule," he says, and his voice is too tight. "I don't have time for another lost soul in this 'verse." And if his line is a little half-baked, their reactions aren't. They hesitate, weighing it.
"Call the big man," says his other thug, the short man.
Blood's face goes blank; drawn. Pale. Chalky. He's a heavy; not in charge. Mal files that away for later use.
"Fine," grinds Blood, glaring back at River. "Bring them along for the ride, huh? In the cart."
Mal could fight it, but he's staring at the mountain man. Brian. Never did have a proper last name. They called him Smith, for lack of one. He was a good soldier. Fortunately, he'd never been in Serenity Valley. Quiet, loyal, and very useful in a fight. Sneaky.
Hell, even Zoe liked him.
Brian smiles tentatively. "Sergeant, we got a cart… I promise it's all on the up and up."
"What about supplies?" asks the short man.
Blood snorts. "If we're gonna do this, we don't have time. Let's move!"
River wasn't very scared, not once they got clear of the violence. Not while Blood was in the other room in the tiny roadhouse, sending out a wave. Asking permission.
He wasn't as bad as a Reaver, even up close. But that gnawing in her brain, the way he actually thinks of drinking other people's blood, the constant flow of violence in him… it drains and exhausts her.
And he knows. When he looks at her those clear blue eyes see right through her. He's not Resistance like Mal thinks. He's a fighter, a scrapper. He does it for the violence.
Or does he? There's other bits in there. Complicated bits that make her think too hard about him.
The big man continued prowling around the outside, keeping watch. That one was easy to read. Loyal. Fighting a war against the Alliance. He and Mal exchanged a few words, but he doesn't have a lot to spare.
Still, River wasn't very scared.
The woman was watching them, but she wasn't interfering. She was also a Browncoat, and it was pretty clear that this was a full-fledged Resistance. Exactly what Mal was looking for.
But it doesn't take a Reader to see he's not happy. Pacing back and forth, muttering under his breath.
It's Blood that put him on edge, of course. Blood wasn't what Mal expected. Blood was too dangerous, too violent.
Jayne is looking a little surly as well. He got hit by Blood, and now he's biding his time, waiting for a chance to repay the favor.
River was already starting to doubt he could do much against 'Blood.' What she had picked up suggested the pirate could carry himself well. That he had taken several blows she had put killing force behind and returned them—well, there were few who could do that.
His strength and speed were too good. What kind of training could he have?
Her muddled monologue was cut off by Mal's stomping, and she looked at him in confusion for a second. He was glaring at the short man, who was not a Browncoat, and for a second River touched that mind.
It was closed down, tightly, but around the edges was a loyalty that wasn't to Blood, which made River happy.
"He almost done?" asked Mal, and the question was as biting as any curse.
The short man shrugged. "Sometimes they talk. Won't be long."
As if on cue, Blood burst out from the back room. His face was dark now, full of emotion. "Malcolm Reynolds," he said, pointing.
Mal folded his arms carefully. They hadn't called Zoe, which meant she and Simon would be looking for them very soon. That was his safety net, and they hadn't left it yet. Which meant big trouble could soon be coming.
That made River smile a little bit.
Blood sighed loudly. "It has been called to my attention that you're one of the very few survivors of Serenity Valley, and that you were sort of moved up to Captain at that time. Captain Reynolds, right?"
Mal nodded tightly. "Seems you have the advantage of knowing my name."
Blood shook his head. "Blood. William T. Least, that's what it says on my travel papers." He smirked at some internal joke, but didn't bother to clarify. "These ragtags are my boys. Seems you know a bit about some of them, and the colossal joke we're playing on this 'Verse."
Mal twitched. "I think I see what you mean," he said, oh so carefully.
Blood smiled. "Right. I plan to cut up a few Alliance boys—they have a battle Blade, one of the big ships, not too far from here, and we're gonna blow it to kingdom come, put a hole in them they won't soon forget. If you want a part of that…" He looked so unhappy, swallowing his pride and making the offer. "…you can have it."
Mal glanced to River, and his head was suddenly filled with the anger, the rage, the protective impulse. "Maybe," he said, his voice still cool and reasonable. "But first, if you please, how'd you know all about my pilot?"
His voice was too polite; the kind of polite that usually meant he was about to kill somebody.
There was a shuffling of feet. Everybody else had noticed what was happening, and was positioning themselves to take sides. Jayne was suddenly at Mal's elbow, and even if the man couldn't be trusted half the time, you could always trust that in a fight he'd more than handle his own.
And he was just dying to prove it.
Mal glanced at River, who was feeling a little nauseous. Blood was enjoying this—would enjoy it even more if they started fighting. He was a creature of Blood, both in name and in deed. She was beginning to suspect that he had picked that name out, that his amusement at the name was in the rightness of it.
So she spoke up. "You were there, before, weren't you?" she asked, trying to sort out all the dangerous little bits of him. Trying to figure out the familiarity, and where she had felt his presence before.
Mal's shoulders squeezed together, and she knew that he would go for his gun in a heartbeat.
Blood's smile turned towards her, and there was a dangerous charm in it now. "My crazy-talk is a little rusty, pet," he said, and the lazy drawl was filled with implications she didn't like.
"In the place with the needles," she said. "You were there. I never saw you, but you were there."
He twitched a bit. He knew what she was talking about, and he knew she was in his head. He was trying to hide the important bits, but he couldn't hide everything. She saw him watching, and felt happiness, satisfaction, at her own escape.
She looked around. He wasn't the only one. The squat man had flown the ship that picked her up, she saw. He was a simple mercenary, with no complicated mind like Blood, no defenses against her Reading. "You're the people Simon paid to help!" she said, surprised by the revelation, and entirely taken off guard.
Blood sighed. "Another good deed comes back to haunt me."
Mal's face cleared. They were mercenaries, and they had been slightly involved in River's escape. That made him far more inclined to trust them. "So, then, you're planning to fight a Blade? Seeing as that's the biggest, baddest ship in the Verse, I take it you're not planning on just taking it head on."
Blood grinned back at him. "Well, a frontal assault is obviously out—I'm a mite attached to this life, such as it is. I presume the rest of your crew will be joining us shortly…? We'll all need to move on out of here. Such messes as I make tend to come back to haunt us. We're meeting up with my … crew … I'll give you the coordinates. Bring your ship."
"Not armed," said Mal, just a little touchy about that suddenly.
"Won't make a difference. We're none of us in this in the traditional way," replied Blood, smirking. "Anyway, you're all invited to dinner."
Dinner with the pirates. River wasn't entirely sure how she was supposed to feel about that. These folks were, for the most part, just survivors of the first war, getting into a guerilla war that is meant to sap the Alliance's great strength.
Most of them are far too noble about it, seeing this as a chance to right wrongs and free the galaxy.
In addition to Brian the hairy man-mountain, Yoko, and the dwarf (Blood calls him various names, but none are his name, and River hasn't found it out quite yet), there are several other warriors. Most of them are muscle. A tall man with a long scar on his face and a thin, scratchy beard. A man who looks like he weighs twice as much as Jayne, and is half his height.
And, at the head of the table, the too-pretty man who smiled too much.
He was even harder to read than Blood, and she'd thought Blood was closed off. She had never seen a mind like this before, all doors and walls and barriers. Sometimes it was like he wasn't even there.
He was tall, as tall as Jayne. And he was pleasant and charming, unlike Blood. Mal didn't trust him, on sight. Charming pleasant men didn't sit well with him, for some reason.
"Call me Liam," said the tall man, with a bit of a smile. "So, Captain Reynolds..." He paused here, waiting for a similar first-name invitation that wasn't coming. He covered by nodding at Blood. "Our William here tells me you're pretty good with that gun there. Very fast, very sure."
Mal nodded brusquely. "Better'n some, slower'n others. Just how are you planning to fight a Blade, exactly?"
Jayne, sitting at Mal's side, hunched his shoulders thoughtfully. River could pick up the steady flow of thoughts from him as easily as listening to her own thoughts—easier, most days. He's unguarded mentally. We oughta ditch this. Ain't no pay good enough for a war like this. Ain't no way to fight a Blade; none.
"Obviously, we can't fight it," replied Liam. "So we've used subterfuge and my contacts to find out their route, and we mined it ahead of time. They're going to take severe damage entering the system. Once they do, they'll dock for repairs."
"We're going to be aboard the dry-dock station," said Blood. He was watching River a bit too closely. She hadn't forgotten that he knew what she was, even though Simon had never told him. Mal hadn't caught that, but she was paying very close attention. "Sneak in the night before, before the security lockdown when they know it's coming in for repairs."
"I take a team to the forward engines, sabotage them, William will arrange our getaway…"
"Just like that?" asked Mal, skeptically.
"William is good at getting away," replied Liam, but there were daggers in the words. Blood didn't wince, instead grinning, a leer aimed right at River.
She tried reaching into his head again, but it was frustrating. How were these two so shut down?
It occurred to her briefly that the reason they might know about her was some sort of kinship. That idea floored her, and she studied them. William could fight much better than he had any right to, well enough to face her, and she had been trained to extreme deadlieness.
It would explain why she couldn't get into their heads, only get these dark whispers of death, dying and blood. Both of them were so filled with darkness. What if somebody had put it there?
She decided that was the explanation. Somebody had dug into their head and given them the same unfiltered reality they'd given her. They were her brothers in spirit. That was why they had taken Simon's money and helped her.
She smiled at Blood, who glowered at that. He ignored her for the rest of the meeting, apparently more unnerved by that smile than by her attempts to kill him. She filed that away for future use.
When she turned back to the others, Mal was just agreeing to help provide some kind of distraction to facilitate the getaway.
"I want to help," she chimed in. Mal gave her an odd look.
"Of course," he said slowly, drawing it out.
"I mean them," said River. "I want to go with them."
Mal frowned slightly. As much as he loved the idea of a Resistance, he still didn't trust the particulars, it was clear. "I don't think…"
"I can help," she said.
And he didn't want to let her. She could see that. But at the same time he couldn't stop her.
Liam smiled politely, and thought terrible things about her neck. Blood just sulked.