Clint hadn't ever done a female disguise for himself before, and he didn't ever intend to. He saw no reason why he should either, even to infiltrate a Companion Training House. So, he geared up. His old uniform from SHIELD, side arm, and all of it hidden beneath a gender-neutral Buddhist Monk robe. Buddhism was one of the big religions still flourishing in the 'verse, and while he wasn't himself a Buddhist, JARVIS reported that Inara had a statue of one of the Buddha's in her rooms.
Clint used a camera feed as a pin for his robe and slipped his comm unit into his ear – as well as an extra up his sleeve for Inara.
He was doing pre-flight checks on the shuttle (and getting to know how it worked a bit better) when Kaylee came in with a bit of tech in her hands, wires sticking out.
"What's that?" Clint asked.
"Pulse beacon," Kaylee answered. "JARVIS says that this Alliance guy plans to lock onto the signal as soon as we hit atmo, be able to use it to blow us all up. Was thinkin' you could drop it somewhere unpopulated along the way?"
Clint smirked – and from Kaylee's perspective, it was really weird to see Clint's smirk on the face of a wizened old bald guy in billowy yellow priest robes. "I got a better idea," he answered as he took the part from her. "I'll see you soon," he promised.
"Ping Ming," Kaylee bid him with a smile, then gave Clint a quick hug before she skipped out of the shuttle.
"Clear to detach?" Clint checked with Wash through the comms.
"Affirmative," the pilot answered. "See you when you get back."
"Roger that," Clint agreed with a smirk, and moved the shuttle out. Once he'd set it down closer to the Training House, Clint chose a large, old stick from the ground to use as a walking stick and climbed up the many stairs. No one stopped him as he walked the halls. A monk was paying a call on one of the Buddhist Companions. That was all. He certainly wasn't the only monk in the building. He was fairly sure that he was the only fake though.
He slipped into the rooms JARVIS informed him Inara was occupying without knocking, and closed the doors behind him before he knelt down at the small shrine beside her. Without a word, he placed the comm unit he'd brought for Inara onto the shrine just as she was placing a stick of incense.
Inara's eyes widened. She quickly snatched the item up, put it into her ear, and dragged a few of her dark curls over to hide her new accessory.
"Hey there Inara," Mal's voice came over. "I'd have been there myself, but I lost the coin-toss."
"You knew my offer wasn't on the level," Inara hissed. "Surely JARVIS warned you!"
"He did," Mal agreed. "And when we got your wave, we all figured that comin' to the rescue wouldn't be such a bad way to spend a day."
"You can not handle this man, and you got a venerable monk involved as well?" she demanded in a harsh whisper.
"You hear that Barton?" Mal joked. "You're venerable."
"Wuo Dwei Nee Boo Ting Boo Jen," Clint replied loftily.
Inara whipped her head around to stare at him.
"But thanks to your comm unit and that little camera you're wearing, we can see and hear everything you do," Wash answered happily. "So would you mind turning a bit so we can all see Inara?"
Clint chuckled and obliged.
Inara stared in shock as she sought out Clint's face underneath the make up and the skin-coloured cap that made him look bald – very carefully blended in so that he really did look bald, rather than like someone pretending to be bald.
"Hawkeye?" she checked, her voice tiny and high with the squeak of shock.
"I won the coin-toss, or as the captain said, he'd be here himself," Clint answered easily as the doors to Inara's room were opened by another figure – a darkly-skinned gentleman dressed in blue. A different shade of blue than Steve Rogers had worn, but still (to Clint's trained eye) clearly a reinforced sort of blue.
"Please remove the disguise," the man requested – politely, but also firmly.
Clint shrugged, and took the pin camera off his robes and attached it to Inara's nearest shoulder before she turned to pray at the Buddha statue again, and he shrugged off the robes he was wearing, folded them neatly, and peeled off the skull-cap that had covered his hair. He tucked that into a pocket, along with the fake nose, fake goatee, and the fake eyebrows.
"I can't do a thing about the wrinkles without a wash cloth," Clint stated neutrally. "But I'm fairly sure you've got my face on a bit of video feed somewhere, right?"
"Indeed," the man agreed. "You're not on any records though, which is puzzling."
Clint did his best imitation of Phil's most sympathetically patronising smile. "Maybe you're just looking in the wrong records," he offered gently, again, doing his best imitation of Phil.
"Perhaps," the operative allowed. "I admit to being rather impressed that you made it so far," he continued with a very slight, but clearly impressed smile. "But your disguise was extremely thorough."
"And yet you saw through it," Clint noted.
"I wouldn't have even thought to look at you twice," the operative admitted, "except that I was able to hear some of your... interesting conversation with Miss Serra."
Clint smirked, but said nothing.
"I mean it when I say I've no intent to harm you," the operative said. "But I think you – and your captain – are beginning to understand just how dangerous River Tam is," the operative continued, moving on to his objective.
Clint shrugged. "We've managed so far," he pointed out.
"That girl will rain destruction down on you and the ship you travel in," the operative insisted gently. "She is an albatross."
"And Alliance government officials, to say nothing of the Academy, have collectively shot her already," Clint answered easily, "and rejoiced in what they did. This is the part where they suffer for their wrong-doing," he added solemnly.
Inara looked at Clint in confusion.
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was one of the few texts that he was forced to memorise in school before being orphaned and joining the circus," River supplied softly into Inara's earpiece.
Inara's expression cleared in understanding.
The operative faltered slightly at having his own metaphor turned on him so soundly. But only slightly. "You can't beat us," he said gravely.
Clint raised a hand to his comm when Mal spoke into it, blatantly letting the operative in front of him know that he did have contact with the ship. "The captain wishes to convey, at this point, that he has no need to beat you. He just wants to go his own way," he said.
"And he can do that," the operative promised. "Just as soon as I am allowed to take River Tam back home."
"The captain wishes to intimate that you should open with payment," Clint said neutrally, hand still raised to his ear piece.
"That is a trap," the operative said firmly. "I offer money, he would play the man of honour and take umbrage. I ask that he do what is right, and he plays the brigand. I have no stomach for such games."
Clint shrugged. "Well, that's a fault in your training I suppose," he allowed. "Now, as for me, since I am the one you're actually dealing with here, I'm interested to know what makes you think that 'home' for Miss Genius is where you want to take her back to."
"It is where she belongs," the operative answered, eyes narrowed a tiny bit – just slightly thrown by the line of questioning that Clint had opened up.
Clint raised an eyebrow. "When I was growing up, I was always told 'home is where the heart is'," he said. "Made being on the move all the time a lot easier."
"Then let me put it this way," the operative said. "I have a warship in deep obit, and we locked onto Serenity's pulse beacon the moment you hit atmo. I have but to speak a word and have a missile on its way to that exact location within three minutes."
"And then the Alliance would be responsible for the destruction of a Companion Training House," Clint finished, and fished the pulse beacon Kaylee had given him out of the folds of the monk robe he had tucked under one arm now that he wasn't wearing them. Gently, he tossed the item over to the man so that he could inspect the item himself. "I'm sure that would be bad publicity for them."
"The pulse beacon," the operative acknowledged unhappily as he turned it over in his hands. "How long do you think you can really run from us?" he asked.
Clint smirked again. "You only found Miss Genius through luck and great expense," he pointed out. "Though I do congratulate you on seeing through the disguise," he added.
"It was a matter of deduction," the operative answered. "Only River Tam would have responded to that code, therefore, even though the girl who responded did not look very much like River Tam, it had to be her."
Clint nodded in acceptance.
The operative sighed. "I want to resolve this like civilised men," he declared as he moved slowly around the room. "I'm not threatening you -"
"You tried though," Clint pointed out with a crooked grin as he kept the operative in front of him and the door in his sight. "And don't say you're unarmed just because you left your sword at the door and I'm between you and it," he added firmly. "You're an assassin, and any half-way decent assassin should be perfectly capable of snapping the neck of a civilian of my size and weight with their bare hands."
"Could you not invite trouble?" Mal demanded into Clint's ear.
The operative narrowed his eyes. "But you're not a civilian, are you?" he asked pointedly.
"I'm not employed by any military or government organisation," Clint replied. "Therefore, civilian."
"Nothing here is what it seems," the operative stated as he moved past Clint to where his sword was stashed. "You aren't some plucky hero."
"Know that for sure, do you?" Clint asked with a soft chuckle that was echoed in his ear piece by River. He didn't bother to stop the operative fetching his weapon though.
"The Alliance isn't some evil empire," the operative continued as he drew his sword. "This is not the grand arena," he stated as he walked around both of them to stand between them and the Buddha.
"And that's not incense," Inara cut in softly.
The operative turned in surprise to see a fuse burning down. Inara and Clint both ran for it while the operative was blown back and then knocked out by the flash bomb.
"What happened to my shuttle?" Inara demanded absently as she moved to take the controls.
"It's still docked on Serenity," Clint answered. "This is the other one. If you're determined to do the driving though, head east."
Inara nodded and took the shuttle up.
She was greeted, when they docked, with a hug from Kaylee, and then from River, and finally from Zoe. Clint only got a hug from River.
"Captain," JARVIS called once they were in the air, had deployed their decoys, and everybody had gathered in the dining area. "The operative plans to attack the people who have given shelter to Serenity in the past. I have sent warnings, and everybody but Mr Cobb and Shepherd Book have gone to ground."
"Thank you JARVIS," Mal answered. "I guess we should head to Haven and pick 'em up if they've decided they're not going to hide."
"Our plotted course takes us by that way already," Wash answered. "Won't be much of a detour to land there."
Mal nodded in gratitude, and turned to Inara. "What can you tell us about the guy?" he asked. "You didn't wave us the instant he showed up, and all your training makes you good at reading people, right?"
Inara nodded. "We have every reason to be afraid of this man," she said. "He's a believer. He's intelligent, methodical, and devout in his belief that killing River is the right thing to do," she explained, a slight tremor in her voice. The man had unnerved her, though she'd done her best not to show it.
"Did he say anything about a Miranda?" Simon asked softly.
Inara shook her head. "What is that?"
"Don't know who or what yet, but it's on River's mind," Zoe answered.
"Conjure it might be the reason they're after her," Mal added.
"Is it some kind of threat to the Alliance?" Inara asked, worried. Her loyalties had been to the Alliance for a long time, even on Serenity. But they'd been eroding, slowly but steadily, since the second month she'd been renting that shuttle.
"It is a planet," JARVIS answered. "Nothing about it is available on the cortex though, which is why I have only just found the information," he added apologetically.
"They're after River because of a planet?" Mal asked incredulously.
"She knows the secrets," River supplied as she curled up against Clint's chest as she sat in his lap with his arms around her. "Secrets held by old men covered in blood. It never touches them but they're drowning in it."
"Shh," he soothed gently. "It will be alright," he promised.
"This isn't the war," Inara said quietly. Her voice still carried around the room.
"Are you saying that because you think I don't know?" Mal asked.
"I... I just want to know who I'm dealing with," Inara said softly. "I've seen too many versions of you to be sure."
"I start fighting a war, and I guarantee you'll see something new," Mal promised lowly.
"I'm sorry," Inara answered. "I just..." she sighed. "Thank you for coming for me. Or for sending Clint to come for me, I suppose. I am grateful. I was terrified for you for a while when I saw that comm unit on my alter and heard your voice, terrified you'd get caught, but... thank you for coming for me."
"Weren't ever going to not come," Mal answered. "So JARVIS, where's this planet?"
"You're... not going to like this..." the AI replied hesitantly.
"How can it be there's a whole planet called Miranda and none of us know'd that?" Kaylee asked.
"If you will all congregate on the bridge, I will bring it up on the screen," JARVIS said.
"It's a black rock, uninhabitable," Mal noted from what he could read off the screen when they reached the bridge. "Terraforming didn't hold or some such?" he suggested. "Few settlers died?" he guessed
"Lies," River said softly from where she stood at the back of the room, still held by Clint. "Lies to keep people from asking questions. Don't need to be told to stay away."
"Wait a tick, yeah," Kaylee recalled, her memory having churned for an appropriate length of time by now. "Some years back, there was call for workers to settle on Miranda. Daddy talked about it."
"Nothing about it on the cortex though," Wash reminded. "JARVIS said remember? It's not there in history or astronomy. Just... doesn't exist."
"Half of writing history is hiding the truth," Mal noted with resigned cynicism. "There's something on that rock the Alliance doesn't want known."
"Lies to keep people from asking questions," River repeated.
"That's right at the edge of the Burnham Quadrant, right?" Inara asked as she moved closer to the screen. "It's not that far from here."
"Woah-no!" Wash said firmly.
"That's a bad notion," Zoe added more softly at the same time as her husband.
"Honey, show them the bad," Wash requested.
"I got it, Baby," Zoe agreed, and left where she'd been hovering behind his chair to take up position right by the screen they'd all been watching.
"Don't need to be told to stay away," River stated softly as Zoe tapped at the screen. "They never lie down," she added in a whisper.
Clint was the only one heard her. He knew exactly what she meant without having to ask though – she only said that when talking about Reavers.
"This is us," Zoe explained, "just a short ways out from Haven, and here's Miranda," she said as she pointed to the two planets. "All along here, that empty space in between," she continued as she dragged her finger across the screen. "That's Reaver territory."
"They just float out there sending out raiding parties," Wash explained.
"No one ventures there," Zoe stated. "Not even the Alliance. You do, you're signing up to be a banquet."
"Loki could get us through," River stated.
Clint shut his eyes, pretended for a moment that not seeing the world would mean he didn't have to confront that sort of suggestion, however true it might be.
"Well, we'll get Jayne and the Shepherd from Haven before we consider that sort of thing," Mal decided.
It was well known to all of them how Clint felt about Loki – an ongoing sore spot, a festering wound that Clint was learning to live with. It was healing slowly, and there had been times, brief times, when Clint hadn't objected to Loki's presence too much, but they all knew that Clint hadn't ever actually actively welcomed Loki's presence. Even when he'd walked into Niska's torture room, he'd actually had every intention to free himself without Loki's interference.
When they got to Haven, there was an Alliance ship blown in half and with a black scorch-mark across the ground, clearly left in its wake when it crashed.
"Jayne? Shepherd?" Kaylee called as she ran down the ramp and out into the empty, clearly fired-upon town.
"Kaylee!" Jayne yelled back in greeting, and appeared out from behind the sandbags around the canon, supporting Shepherd Book on his shoulders. "Get the doc to prep the infirmary! Shepherd's been shot!"
Clint hurried down the ramp then and took Book's other arm over his own shoulders and helped the old man limp up on his one good leg – the other had a very nasty hole going through it – and into Serenity.
"Clint," Mal said as they stood outside of the infirmary while Simon was patching up Shepherd Book – he'd just come from the bridge and an unpleasant conversation with the operative who was chasing them. Shepherd and Inara had been right. Man believed hard.
Jayne had already assured them that everybody else was alright. They were just... still hiding. He'd left once Shepherd Book was on the table to let everybody else know it was safe to come out.
"I hate to ask when I have some idea of how you feel on the matter, but we're a bit pressed on all sides here," Mal stated. He was the captain. He gave orders. He didn't have to ask. But he was asking anyway.
Clint nodded. "I know," he said softly, and pulled the medallion Loki had given him, so long ago now, out of his shirt. He really hoped he wasn't going to regret this – and then he deliberately rubbed the thing.
Loki faded into being on the floor in front of Clint, down on one knee, head bent and one hand over his heart while the other was straight down by his side. The very picture of a dedicated servant, waiting for orders and determined to please his master.
"You summoned me," Loki said, voice breathless with pleasure. It was clear how pleased he was to have been summoned, deliberately. He didn't so much as twitch, but at the same time it was like he was vibrating with joy where he was knelt.
"I did," Clint agreed solemnly. "We've got a bit of an issue here. We need to travel through Reaver space without getting turned into a buffet."
Loki looked up sharply, his green eyes wide in his face. "I can disguise your ship with magic," he offered after a moment's wide-eyed contemplation.
"That won't affect the workings none, will it?" Mal asked.
"Not a bit," Loki promised. "The Reavers won't even notice you. I will have to remain on the ship to maintain the illusion, however."
"Figured it might be somethin' like that," Mal agreed with a slight nod. "Clint. You gonna be okay with this?"
Clint clenched his jaw, swallowed tightly, and nodded shortly.
"Alright then," Mal decided – and since Simon had finished patching up the Shepherd, Mal went in to talk to him, leaving Clint alone with Loki.
Clint debated within himself shooting his captain for that, but ultimately decided against it.
Clint pretended he wasn't sulking in his bunk while Loki was aboard, holding an illusion over Serenity so that she wouldn't be noticed by the Reavers they were flying past. He was tinkering with arrow heads. His favourite pass-time. He'd locked his bunk from the inside though. That didn't stop River from getting in of course. The girl dropped in through the air vent.
"She apologises for voicing the suggestion," she said softly from where she'd landed. She hadn't moved from the moment she landed in a crouch on the floor of Clint's bunk. "An alternative could have been found."
Clint sighed, set his pliers down, and waved her over.
River didn't hesitate to move to his side.
"Everyone else is on the bridge, watching and tense," River said softly as she snuggled close. "No thoughts but fears of what will happen should the working of Loki fail."
The spell didn't fail though – the guy had been doing the magic thing for several thousand years after all – and soon they'd left the swarm of Reavers behind and broken Atmo on Miranda. They flew over easily a dozen rich-looking cities as Wash tracked down the only power source on the planet he was picking up – a beacon. One tiny, weak little beacon.
Wash set the ship down, the planet was confirmed safe to walk out on without a suit (if anything was wrong, the scanner wasn't reading it, though according to Mal "something sure the hell ain't right"), and everybody – including Loki, even – headed out to see what was on Miranda.
It wasn't long before they came across a dead body. Just lying in the street. There was another one in a car. A stopped car. Not a crashed one. Like the person driving it had just parked and then expired. The place was a bit spooky, really, and then Simon spotted another dead body resting against the window Kaylee had just backed into.
"Kaylee, don't -" he started.
Only she did turn around, and jumped, a short shriek passing her lips.
"How come these ones are preserved?" Jayne asked as he got closer. He and the Shepherd had both elected to stay on Serenity rather than miss out on whatever 'fun' was to be had, risks from the Alliance operative be damned.
"Place must have gone hermetic when the power blew," Mal answered.
"What are they doing?" Kaylee asked as she stared and started on the beginnings of hysteria.
Jayne moved to wrap an arm around Kaylee's shoulders. "They're not doin' a damn thing," he told her softly.
"There's no discolouration," Simon noted clinically. "Nobody's doubled over or showing any signs of pain."
"Well... there's gasses that kill painless, right?"
"They didn't fall," Inara said. "None of them. They just... lay down."
"Zhan Shi," River cried softly as she wrapped her arms tightly around Clint's chest. "Rung Tse Song Di Ching Dai Wuo Tzo. Make them stop! They're everywhere! Every city, every house, every room... They're all inside me. I can hear them all screaming and they're saying... nothing. Get up!" she wept. "Please get up. Wuo Shang Mei Er, Mei Sheen, Byen Shi To. Please God make me a stone!"
"Not you," Clint ordered Loki when the tall figure took a step closer. "River," he whispered softly into her hair. "Focus."
"She is starting to damage my calm," Jayne announced as he held Kaylee.
"Jayne," Zoe warned half-heartedly.
"She's right," Jayne snapped. "Everybody's dead. The whole world's dead for no gorram reason."
"Let's just get to the beacon," Wash advised, attempting to be the peacemaker. "Maybe there'll be some answers as to why."
The beacon was coming from a ship. A ship that had crashed through a wall and was horribly banged up, but there was one room on that small ship that was still completely intact.
River shifted a unit used for storing recordings so it was properly in place. The recording started and caught all of their attentions as it flickered to life.
"These are just a few of the images we've recorded, and you can see..." stated a woman with brown hair in a pony-tail, wearing a blue Alliance uniform. "It isn't what we thought. There has been no war here," she continued as image after image of corpses cycled in front of her, "and no terraforming event. The environment is stable." The images stopped cycling, and the woman looked like she was about to cry for a moment before she steeled herself to continue. "It's the Pax," she said, and it was an admission of a guilty person. "The G-23 Paxilon Hydroclorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression," she explained, and looked that much closer to tears with the admission. "Well it works," she announced, but it wasn't a happy announcement. "The people here stopped fighting," she stated.
River's lips moved at the same time as she watched the woman talk, her eyes wide with horror.
Clint squeezed her a little closer to his side.
"And then they stopped everything else," the woman declared with a tremor in her voice. "They stopped going to work... they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There's thirty-million people here, and they all just let themselves die," she said sadly – and guiltily, and with a horror lingering in her eyes.
Suddenly, the sad recording was interrupted by a roar and a thump. Everyone – even Loki – jumped at the sound that had come out of nowhere.
"I have to be quick," the woman said desperately. "About a tenth of a percent of the population had the opposite reaction to the Pax. Their aggressor responses have increased... beyond madness. They've become... Well they've killed most of us. And not just killed. They've done things..." she said in a clearly horrified whimper.
"Reavers," Wash said, voicing what everyone (except maybe Loki) was thinking. "They made them."
"I won't live to report this, but people have to know," the woman said, near tears as she spoke desperately. "We meant it for the best. To make people safer. God!" she cried and raised a gun that, until then, none of them had realised she'd been holding. She fired it off into a space that the recording hadn't captured, and then brought it up to her own head.
A second figure joined her in the recording before she could pull the trigger though, and wrenched it from her hand before forcing her to the floor – whereupon violence was committed, with much screaming on the part of the victim.
"Turn it off," Jayne demanded gruffly before it got much further.
No one wanted to be forced to stand by and just watch a Reaver attack, with the knowledge that it was much too late to do anything for the person being attacked. It just turned the stomach.
Mal was the one to oblige. He reached out and took the recording and stuffed it in his pocket. This was the secret that had burned up River's brain and seen an operative set on their trail – and frankly he agreed with the woman in the recording on one point: people have to know what happened on Miranda.
Simon threw up in a corner. There were carrots – which meant that the good doctor had a secret stash of them somewhere, because none of the rest of them had carrots. If they all survived this, there would be questioning.
"This report is maybe twelve years old," Mal started when they'd re-grouped in the dining area of Serenity. "The parliament buried it – and it stayed buried, until River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear, 'cause there's a whole universe of folk out there who are gonna know it too. They're all going to see it. Somebody has to speak for these people," Mal declared softly, but with iron resolve as he clutched the recording in his hand.
"We all got onto this boat for different reasons," Clint interjected softly. "But we still all ended up here, together. All because the Alliance held fast to the belief that they could make people better."
"All?" Book asked. "How do you figure that?"
"All," Clint agreed. "There was the Unification War. The Alliance held to the belief that they would bring civilisation to the outer planets. Then they spread the Pax on Miranda and set Reavers loose on the 'verse when they screwed up – but they didn't learn. They tried again," he said as he lay a gentle hand on River's shoulder. "And now all three of those are going to come back to bite the Alliance in their collective asses."
Mal nodded. "As sure as I know anything, I know this," he said. "They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people..." Mal met River's eyes. "Better."
"Different methods, new approaches, always of the belief that people can be improved upon," River agreed. "Sometimes even enjoy minor successes," she added with a look at Clint. "Non-replicable though. Human DNA too varied."
Clint nodded. He had personal experience of that sort of thing. Steve Rogers and the super-soldier serum. Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Tony Stark and his arc-reactor heart. Natasha and the brain-washing she'd suffered through. Loki and his glorious purpose at the end of his "glow-stick of destiny".
"I do not hold to that and I will not stand for it," Mal said firmly, here referring to the Alliance and their views on the improvement of the 'verse. "So no more running," he decided. "I aim to misbehave."
"How can I do anything but support such a declaration of intent?" Loki asked with a wide grin on his face. "If you'll have me, of course."
Mal glanced at Clint, who shrugged shortly, before Mal himself nodded in agreement.
"Well, I suppose if you can't do something smart," the Shepherd said with a smile, "then you should do something right."
Jayne smirked, toasted the sentiment, and once he'd had a slug from the bottle of booze in his hand, he slid it across the table to Simon.
"Do we have a plan?" he asked as he picked up the bottle and sipped from it himself.
"Wash, how do you feel about calling in a favour?" Mal asked his pilot.
"Mr Universe?" Wash checked.
"We don't have the equipment to broad-wave this code, but he can put it on every screen for thirty worlds," Mal answered.
"You're forgetting the skyplex we took from Niska," Clint pointed out. "It wouldn't be that hard to convert. Take a while though."
"Mr Universe's moon is currently only three hours out at full-burn," River stated. "Skyplex is a week out, and it would take a further twenty-four hours to prepare it for broad-wave provided that Alliance hasn't destroyed it for being collective property of Serenity. Alliance is too close and we do not have that much time."
"Either way, we've still got the Reavers and probably the Alliance between us and them," Wash stated.
"It's a fair bet that if we tried to contact Mr Universe then the Alliance would find out about it, if they don't know about him already. They're gonna see this coming," Zoe chipped in.
"They may well be waiting for us," Mal allowed, "in fact, I hope they are. But they're not going to see this coming," he insisted.
According to JARVIS, the Alliance did know that Wash and Mr Universe knew each other. They had flight school records after all. They also knew that Mr Universe had settled down on his own moon and what was likely the best technological set-up for receiving and broadcasting anything and everything that existed outside of Alliance control. They also monitored any and all waves that came and went from his moon.
Also, they had destroyed the skyplex. Which was mildly disappointing, but no great loss really.
So, with the operative keeping a watch on Serenity, and the Alliance in general keeping watch on Mr Universe, it was practically guaranteed that any communication between the two would be watched by a third party.
They made the call anyway.
"No problem!" Mr Universe said with a smile once Wash had finished explaining the situation to him. "Bring it on, bring it on, bring it on! From me to the ears and the eyes of the universe," he proclaimed happily. "Not even the Alliance can stop the signal, after all. Everything goes somewhere, and since I go everywhere, I might as well carry this with me. Should be some fun."
"We won't be long," Wash promised his one-time bunk-mate.
"You're gonna get caught in the ion cloud," Mr Universe warned. "It will play merry hob with your radar, but pretty pretty lights and a few miles after, you'll be right in my orbit."
"You know there's a very high probability the Alliance won't take too kindly to your helping us," Clint interjected from the co-pilot seat.
Mr Universe just grinned. "Ask me if I care," he said daringly.
Wash chuckled. "See you planet-side," he bid, and the wave cut off.
"JARVIS?" Clint asked the room at large.
"I have full blueprints of Mr Universe's complex, and have left myself a way in should it be needed," the AI answered. "He has a back-up unit over his power generator. Even if the Alliance beats us there and destroys his mainframe it is likely they would miss it completely. If they do destroy his main unit, however, it will be difficult to reach the back-up."
"Hopefully we won't need that knowledge," Mal said from the door that led between the bridge and the dining area. "Good to have it though."
"Agreed," chorused both of the pilots.
"Are you ready, Loki?" Wash asked.
"I am waiting only for your word," Loki answered through the comms.
"We're almost through, so I'm going to gun it now," Wash said firmly.
"Illusion is down," Loki confirmed.
"Kaylee, full burn!"
"Kan Wo Men Zen Me Si Ba!" Kaylee answered fiercely and then the whole ship accelerated – and all the Reaver ships around them gave chase.
"Not planning on dying today," Wash muttered resolutely as he flicked switches and pressed buttons.
Soon enough, they were through the ion cloud – which had played merry hob with their radar – and charging into the middle of an Alliance fleet with Reavers right behind them.
Chaos ensued, with just a touch of panic around the edges to keep things interesting.
Even with both of them at the helm, with all the chaos around them of the fleet of Alliance ships meeting the horde of Reaver ships in the air all around them, it was almost inevitable that something would hit them. It was just particularly unfortunate that whatever hit them took out the power to one of the jets and blew the back-up as well.
"We're fried!" Wash complained as he frantically checked buttons. "I got no control!"
"Back up reads thirty percent," Clint supplied a moment later from the co-pilot's chair. "River, Kaylee, you down there?"
"Can't give you any more," Kaylee answered. "Got things blowing up, and the arc-reactor's been completely disconnected. Took River an' me two hours to get it hooked up the first time, an' that was when we weren't spinning around in the sky!"
They were going to have to glide Serenity in. With a Reaver ship on their tail as well.
Clint retracted the landing gears that Wash had put out. He knew they'd just break off the moment they hit the ground at speed. A couple of bounces later, and they were skidding. Clint lowered the landing gears then, the extra friction slowed them down a little more, even as they screeched from the drag and Serenity did a tidy one-eighty under Clint's command to try and lose a little more forward momentum.
Finally, they stopped – and just before Serenity would have tipped into a lower bay too. Clint was out of his chair immediately.
"Gloat about the landing later, work to do now," he reminded Wash briskly.
"Right," the senior pilot agreed, and unclipped himself and got out of his chair. A Reaver harpoon went right through his chair not a breath of a moment later. Wash stared in horror at where he'd been sitting, visions of his own mortality flashing before his eyes. Then Clint grabbed him and dragged him out of the bridge as more harpoons were fired at them. "Way too close," the pilot breathed as he got his feet under him and ran to follow Clint down to where everyone else was waiting for them.
"That was smoother than I expected for a glide-landing," Mal said, eyes a little wide with the adrenaline that had been shot through his system already.
"Barton's had to glide in a craft one engine short before," Loki offered with a proud sort of smile.
"As I recall, you're the one who shot out that engine," Clint quipped back.
"Would you have preferred I shot that pretty red-head sitting beside you? I could have," Loki answered. "It would have risked you being hurt, but I had supreme confidence in your flying ability to see you land and be able to walk away from it."
"Not the time to be rehashing old fights," Jayne insisted as he pushed between the two of them with his many weapons and spare ammunition strapped to his person.
Clint silently eye-balled Loki for a moment before he turned and moved to walk level with River – so that she could hand him the weapons she'd been holding for him (in addition to her own) while he'd been on the bridge.
"JARVIS?" Mal asked as the ear pieces were checked and the cargo bay doors were opened.
"A small ship went ahead of the rest of the fleet to dispatch Mr Universe and destroy his system before rejoining the main fleet. They did, as I predicted, miss the back-up unit over the generator," the AI supplied. "It is, however, nigh inaccessible."
"Something can be done about that, right?" Mal asked, a little desperately. No more fear, but a whole lot of determination to not trip at the finishing line.
"It will take me a moment, but I can certainly raise the walkway into an appropriate position," JARVIS answered.
"Hold off on that until I give the word," Mal requested. "Don't want any Alliance stooges to be able to get to it and wreck it before I get there."
"Of course Sir," JARVIS agreed.
The group, well armed, ran down the halls.
"This is a good place to hold them," Zoe declared as she looked around the room with crates and a set of blast doors.
"We stick together," Mal said firmly.
"Sir," Zoe countered. "We can bottleneck them here. Slow them down here. If we do start to get overwhelmed, then those are blast doors."
"I can rig 'em so they won't open from the outside," Kaylee offered.
"Then you do that and you hide," Mal insisted.
"This is the place," Zoe told her captain. "We'll buy you the time."
Mal frowned, but he knew that they were pressed for time.
"We'll be here standing on a pile of Reaver corpses when you get back," Clint promised absently as he checked to make sure there wasn't anything in the crates that would explode.
Loki smirked. "Thor will be so jealous when I return to Asgard with tales of this battle," he added with the dark pleasure of a little brother about to one-up his elder (more popular) brother.
"Ni Men Dou Shi Sha Gua," Mal muttered as he shook his head. "Alright," he allowed. "Just don't die," he ordered, looking each member of his crew in the eye – Zoe, Jayne, Wash, Kaylee Clint, Shepherd Book, Inara, and River. He passed over Simon on his way from Kaylee to River, but the Core boy (for all that he was 'their doctor') still wasn't properly crew yet.
"Brought too much ammo to be taken out any time soon," Jayne growled in answer.
And Mal was off down the hall to the elevator – JARVIS giving him directions for the quickest way to the generator.
"Crates okay for cover?" Jayne asked Clint as he moved to the other end of one Clint had just checked.
"Nothing in them is going to blow us up," Clint agreed, and the two of them started shifting the steel crates into a semblance of a wall. The others quickly followed their lead.
The last crate, a big, heavy thing just about the width of the door they'd come through, was pushed into place to block it – but only after Jayne had lobbed one of his grenades through it at the Reavers that were rushing them.
"This is not how you're supposed to fight zombies, ask any horror movie," Clint muttered to himself as he settled down next to River.
"Not infectious undead," River answered with a smirk. A smirk which quickly fell away as she brought a hand up to her head. "They're all made up of rage," she whimpered. Tears began to cloud her eyes as her face crumpled in pain.
Clint grabbed her shoulder and forced her around to face him, to look him in the eye. "Go Hwong Tong," he said gently, but firmly as he brought River's hand down from where she'd tangled it in her hair. "Focus, River. Do. Not. Bao Xin Jiu Huo. There is no sound in your ears that is not what you need to hear to find your enemy and shoot them down. When faced with a Ching Soh, we must Fahn Dahn. We are all that stands between those we care about, and death. Will you stand aside?" he asked her seriously, his voice soft.
"Choo fay wuh sih leh," River answered firmly.
On Clint's other side, Inara took a deep breath. "Rung Tse Fwo Tzoo Bao Yo Wuo Muhn," she murmured.
"What happens when we run out of ammo?" Wash dared to ask, a little tremulously.
"Then you all get behind the blast doors while Barton, Miss Tam and I will get to find out who is better with a blade," Loki answered him.
Then the first Reaver twisted the blocked door open enough to stick his head through – and Zoe got the first shot off.
"No," Simon objected. "You're not -!"
"Bi Jweh Simon," River ordered casually, but firmly.
She pushed him through the blast doors herself when the time came, threw him almost all the way to the other end of the hall – and his bag with him – before the doors shut. Simon had other things to worry about anyway. Kaylee and Shepherd Book had both been caught by some nasty, spiked Reaver ammo that was probably covered in poison as well.
And Mal had rejoined them. Beaten, limping, bleeding. Apparently the operative that had been chasing River had reached the generator and the back-up unit not long after Mal had, and since Mal was determined to share with the universe one of the secrets that it was the operative's job to make sure didn't get shared around, well, they'd had a bit of a disagreement.
The three of them on the outside of the blast doors moved in almost surprising concert. Perhaps it shouldn't have been so surprising though. Loki was a warrior of thousands of years. Clint, not so long ago for himself personally, had been forcibly made privy to the full knowledge of how his own method of battle could best compliment Loki's – the "glow-stick of destiny" really was a very efficient horror – and he'd been training with River for the past almost-year. River the Reader.
It was like they'd rehearsed it.
Of course, Clint – being a guy approaching his mid-thirties – wasn't quite as spry and bendy as River, and didn't have Loki's amazing powers of instant-injury-removal, so he took a few more hits than either of them. Nothing serious though. Mostly just scratches and such. Things he'd want to get some jabs for to make sure he didn't get anything nasty from later, but nothing that seriously hindered his fighting ability. Nothing like Mal's state. Clint, after all, wasn't being distracted from his fight by trying to do something else at the same time.
And he had help.
And then the Reavers stopped coming.
"Is that all of them?" Loki asked, surprised as he looked down at all the bodies that were piled up around the room.
The three of them were standing on top of a few corpses, but there were more around the sides, where they'd been pushed out of the way so that they wouldn't be tripped over.
Clint looked over at River for confirmation.
"Alliance," she said, and tightened her grips on the axe and sword – both of which were dripping blood – that she'd taken from the Reavers not long into the fight.
A wall was pulled out and men in uniforms moved in, guns raised, light flooding into the dark room from behind them. The soldiers didn't come in far before they stopped and looked around at all the dead Reavers.
"Well, if we'd known you were coming, we'd have saved you a couple," Clint said drolly, and adjusted the grip he had on his sword to start pulling arrows out of corpses. He'd check them over properly later. He was going to have to make a few more while he was at it too. Some of the arrows he'd fired had been tipped with explosives.
"Targets acquired. Do we have a kill order?" one of the soldiers requested.
"Stand down," the voice of the operative ordered – and it echoed from every soldier's helmet. "It's finished."
Every gun was lowered.
"Who are you?" the operative asked Clint while he worked on fixing up a part that would be attached to Serenity as soon as he was done.
"Clint Barton," he answered without looking up from his soldering iron. "Yourself? Because I don't buy that 'you have no name or rank' bullshit. Your parents must have called you something when you were born."
There was silence to answer him. Clint finished the bit he was working on, and looked up at the darkly-skinned man who was once a devout believer in the Alliance and all that it claimed to represent.
"Well?" Clint pressed. "If you don't give me an answer for yourself I'm just going to start calling you Joe."
The operative frowned – or his forehead did. It all bunched up between his eyebrows as they came down in confusion. "Why 'Joe'?" he asked.
Clint shrugged absently. "So, Joe. Why aren't you dead yet?" he asked.
The operative blinked, and his confused expression eased into careful neutrality. "Captain Reynolds wanted me to see what my 'world without sin' looked like," he answered. "It was... not what I thought it would be."
Clint ticked up one corner of his mouth. It wasn't a smile though. It was an expression that invited elaboration.
"The broad-wave has caused an uproar. There are riots, protests, cries for a recall of the entire Parliament," the operative said.
Clint shrugged and bent down over his task again. "We have all kept abreast of the situation," he said as he picked up his soldering iron and some wire. Actually, it was JARVIS that had kept track of it all, and informed the crew of pertinent details.
"Are you pleased?" the operative asked, almost sharply. "I'm certain that captain must be."
"Captain's more concerned about getting work," Clint answered absently. "He didn't do this because he was a soldier in the war. He did this because it was in front of him to be done and doing it was the right thing. He's the Big Damn Hero type, I think Inara called him once."
"You didn't say if you were," the operative pointed out, "and that is what I actually asked."
Clint shrugged. "No government body should be blindly trusted," he said. "A little shake up every now and then is good for people, and a change is as good as a holiday, I remember one of my old bosses told me once."
It had been Phil, when he was approaching Clint about joining SHIELD.
"I can't guarantee they won't come after you. The Parliament," the operative said. "That they won't come after every single person on this ship. They aren't exactly forgiving."
Clint grunted in assent. "They survive this thing without more dirty laundry being aired, maybe they'll have time for us. You, on the other hand..." he left off.
The operative nodded. "You're right," he agreed. "I've told them that the Tams are no longer a threat. Damage done. They might listen, but I'm fairly sure they know that I'm no longer... their man."
Clint hummed and reached for his pliers. "Quite the upheaval for you, actually learning some of the secrets that the Alliance has had you killing to keep," he pointed out.
The operative was silent again. Clint would have thought he'd left, except that the operative was wearing the sort of shiny shoes that always make a clipping sound when you walk in them, however lightly you tread – and granted he was deaf in one ear, but that was only one ear, and the man was right there. He'd have heard.
"How do you go on?" the operative asked at last. "When you've lost everything," he clarified when Clint looked up at him questioningly. "Everything you had, everything you believed in. How do you go on when it's gone?"
"One day at a time," Clint answered. "Breathe in, breathe out, find something new. I don't expect you'll get much of a chance to do that though," he added. "Don't expect to see you again."
"You won't," the operative agreed. "There is nothing left to see."
Clint nodded, and this time when he turned back to his work, he did hear the man's shoes gently clipping away.
The sound was eclipsed by the lower, gentle thud of a pair of boots walking up to him. He knew those boots. It was Loki. Unlike that time in his apartment in Stark Tower so long ago, Clint didn't look up. He didn't visibly acknowledge the interloper. Loki was now no longer categorised as a "must be watched very carefully whenever he shows his face"-level threat. He'd been re-classed in the "don't forget he's dangerous just because he's on your side now – because it may only be for now" category.
"Clint," Loki said softly.
"What do you want, Loki?" he answered, staying focused on his task.
The answer seemed to come without thought, and Clint snapped his head up to look Loki in the face, to class exactly how intended that word was.
Loki's eyes were wide and there was a hand over his mouth. Apparently he hadn't thought, just answered. "I am sorry, Master, I was out of line," Loki said and quickly got down on one knee in front of Clint, his head bowed and both hands resting, in plain sight, on the other knee.
Clint grunted and returned his attention to his part-fixing. "Is there some reason you haven't left yet?" he asked after a few silent minutes throughout which Loki didn't move.
"I..." Loki hesitated. "Will you become involved with Miss Tam?" he asked.
"Don't know," Clint answered shortly, "and I don't see how it's your business. Now, unless you have something else important to say or you're actually interested in helping to repair the ship, kindly piss off."
"As you wish, Master," Loki said softly, a little sadly.
When Clint looked up again, Loki was gone, and when he got back to his bunk, River was waiting for him, patiently cleaning the axe and the sword she had taken from the Reavers. The first in her own collection of weapons.