The call came after she'd decided - finally - to attempt to get some sleep. It was easier than trying to second guess what Carver was doing to the fed. Easier than trying to talk to Fenris, or watch the doctor checking on Merrill. Easier than being in a room with the doctor's brother, who even asleep seemed to have an air of feral savagery.
"How did they find us?" she said, climbing up the stairs to the cockpit. Bela swiveled in her chair, the dim lights from the controls not enough to fully illuminate her current ridiculous shirt, although Saoirse could still see right down her cleavage. "You do know that there are buttons above the midrif on that thing, don't you?"
"Ha. Yes. And no. It's not Alliance."
"You sure?" The look Bela gave her could have melted ice, reminding her again that while there were things she knew more about than ships they nearly all involved the bedroom and that was a thought that would get her a punch in the head from her more-than-a-little jealous lieutenant.
"It's a smaller vessel," her pilot said, studying the readouts, hands flying.
"Yeah, I'm reading it as an older model…." Bela's face screwed up in confusion… "trans-u…"
"I didn't think trans-us still operated."
She felt her heart thump, hard in her chest. "Give me a visual."
"They're still too far out…"
"Get me something."
Bela, all trace of her smile gone, turned and started flicking switches. She was, without a doubt, the best pilot Saoirse had ever come across, even though she'd not flown a Firefly before stepping into Serenity she remembered how… right she'd looked, in her ridiculous shirt with her collection of piercings and her sultry attitude, sitting in the squeaky pilot's chair and telling Saoirse exactly how much she was going to pay her…
Aveline had hated her on sight.
"I'm reading a lot of radiation," Bell said, frowning now. "They're running without core containment…that's…. kwong-juh duh… that's suicide…."
Saoirse's heart thumped even harder and she looked out into space to see the faint red glow that was their pursuer. This is my ship, she thought. My crew. My sky.
"Reavers," she breathed.
Isabela's hands were stilled over the controls and her dark eyes were wide with fear. "Are we going to tell the others?"
Saoirse thought of the doctor and his brother, of Merrill in Engineering…
Of Fenris in his shuttle, dead on the floor, unrecognisable. The soft white of his hair stained with blood, the silk of his finery ruined, the delicate scent of whatever that incense he burned blotted out by the smell of dead things…
She took a shaky breath. We're all meat to them.
She reached up and pressed the comm button. Everyone deserved to know what they might be facing. Everyone deserved some say in how they met their end.
"This is the captain. We're passing another ship. Looks to be reavers. From the size, probably a raiding party." She took a breath, the echoes of her voice over comm fading into nothing. The noise of the engine seemed far louder than usual. "Could be they're headed somewhere particular. Could be they already hit someone and they're full up. So, everyone stay calm. We try to run they'll have to chase us, that's their way. We're holding course. Should be passing them in a minute. So. We'll see what they do." She flicked the comm off and looked down at Bela, who was staring at the screen as though she could will what was written there to change, then flicked the comm back on again. "Aveline you come up to the bridge."
Saoirse had been in a lot of tight spots in her life. Pinned down by enemy fire in Serenity Valley was the immediate thing that came to mind, although there had been other times as well - times when she'd been forced to put herself in the way of harm, times when she'd had to leave her own soldiers to fates she couldn't even guess at, times when she'd been wounded, times when she'd been the one to do the wounding, but the next five minutes, she was absolutely certain, would be the most terrifying of her life.
She didn't look when she heard the tread of Aveline's boots on the stairs, only sensed movement as Bela reached up to take her wife's hand.
The solid presence of her lieutenant at her back was more comforting than she'd thought it would be. Aveline would fight to defend Bell, to defend Saoirse too, and even though Saoirse knew how that fight would end the fact that she was so certain of at least one of her people made it a little bit easier to watch the ship come closer.
Isabela reached up one, slender brown arm. Her voice was flat and serious, reminding Saoirse of exactly how much calm competence there was under that flashy exterior.
"There's the magnetic grappler," she said. "They grab hold of us with that…"
She could almost hear the clang of metal that would signify their capture. "Bell I don't need to know. Just tell me if they alter course."
The moment stretched as the ship passed close. She was bigger than Serenity, pits and scars across her hull and the bright orange light of the uncontained core burnt patterns into her retina as she stared. She couldn't bring herself to tear her eyes away. A small part of her - a very small part, wanted to pray for their safety. Her eyes kept zeroing back on the grappler that Bela had pointed out, but it stayed tucked in against the other ship's hull.
What are they thinking? Have they even seen us? Do they even think in what's left of their crazy brains?
Bela's chair squeaked as she sat back suddenly, a beautiful grin spreading across her face. "They're holding course," she said. Saoirse was sure she only imagined Serenity herself breathing a sigh of relief, but the tension level certainly lessened. "I guess they weren't hungry," Bela continued, and Aveline punched her lightly on the arm, grinning, but Bela's face was still serious. She eyed Saoirse, one eyebrow twitching. "Didn't expect to see them here."
"They're pushing out further every year too," Aveline said.
"Gettin' awful crowded in my sky," Saoirse muttered.
It didn't take a genius to realise that Aveline and Bela would appreciate a little alone time in the aftermath of almost-getting-eaten, so Saoirse excused herself and headed back down to the medical bay to check on Merrill. The little engineer was asleep when she went in, long black lashes resting on her too-pale cheeks, the marks of her tattoo looking even darker than usual. Saoirse didn't think she'd ever seen Merrill so quiet and still and she looked away, not wanting to see it any longer.
Unfortunately the only other place to look was the aligning cot, where the doctor's brother still lay. If it weren't for the brush of stubble across his jaw the boy would look younger than Merrill in the low light of the room, but Saoirse could remember the strength of that arm across her neck, and how tall and solid he had been at her back, and reminded herself very forcefully that whatever else he was, this boy… was not safe.
Merrill's voice was soft, but steady, and she turned to see her big green eyes open and the pink lips turned upwards in a smile.
"Hey. Morning Merrill, what's the news?"
"I'm shiny, captn! A. O. K!" she spoke slowly. Saoirse knew the doctor had given her a lot of painkillers, the little engineer was probably flying higher than Serenity at the moment. "I can't feel much below my belly though. It's getting cold."
She tried to ignore the small rush of fear that came at those words and turned to get a blanket from a nearby chair. "Well, you just gotta rest," she said as she tucked the blanket around Merrill's middle. "Something's gonna break down on this boat real soon. Who else have I got to fix it?"
"Don't you worry none. Doc fixed me up pretty well." Merrill's eyes glinted and her smile turned sly. "He's nice."
She chuckled. Oh, don't you let my brother hear that. "Don't go working too hard on that crush, mei mei*. Doc won't be with us for long."
"You're nice too."
Merrill. She was clueless, but somehow it didn't matter. "No I'm not. I'm a mean old lady."
"He wasn't gonna let me die. He was just tryin' to…" she frowned, looking down at the blanket over her body, then reached out a hand to Saoirse's arm and patted it. "It's nobody's fault. Just… promise me you'll remember that."
Not true, she thought, remembering the fed locked away in the passenger quarters. There's only one that shot you. "I'll keep it in mind."
"You are a nice lady, captn," Merrill was wandering now, the grip on her hand getting looser. "Always lookin' after us. You just…. gotta have faith in people." She turned her head to look the the boy on the other cot. "He doesn't look much like his brother, does he?" Saoirse turned to look at the sleeping boy and sucked at her cheek, opening her mouth to say something about sibling resemblance being not necessary - she refused to believe she looked anything like Carver, for example, but Merrill's fingers slipped through hers and her voice trailed off…
…when she looked back down at the small face, the green eyes were closed and Merrill was still.