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Jack of Hearts

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Summary: Kyra 'Jack' Serra. A minor trip into the hospital results in a major change. A change from petty thief and child, to a Big Damn Hero and strong young woman. xOver with Riddick

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Firefly > Non-BtVS/AtS StoriesDearestDrusillaFR1519122,31433213,90730 Jul 1218 Jan 14No

Some Kind of Holy War

Riddick enjoyed laying on a real bed. A real bed with a quilt handmade by one Mrs. Radiant Cobb and a set of sheets salvaged from Imam's sister's on Persephone. A ship made from castoffs and salvaged parts, things pulled together and reforged by people who'd been abandoned and broken. A psycho little family. No, not psycho. Delightfully dysfunctional and normal. They worked together in a strange little machine that didn't need much oil and carried out nearly any job they were given.

Yes, Riddick enjoyed laying on a real bed.

“God damn it Doc!”

When he wasn't lain out from a bullet wound.

~!~

“Got us a job!” Jack came down the stairs into the kitchen proper.

It was the morning cycle, breakfast was being served up and swallowed down. Rice, egg protein whipped to fluff and fried, and strong black coffee. There was reformed chicken protein as well, but it was a strange blue green color. It was also Riddick's second day on board. Most everyone was on guard, silently judging one party or the other. Mal and Zoe were more relaxed, trusting Imam's opinion, but still asking passive questions. Riddick gave passive answers in return, passive aggressive truth told. Doo begged from him as much as he did anyone else.

“Alright then,” Mal grinned, tuning back to his meal. “Take a seat and share.”

“Believe it or not, it's from Patience.” Jack slid into her place beside Jayne. Cap'n Dad's answer didn't even surprise her.

“Nope.”

“Let's her it out Mal,” Inara set her hand near his. “How many times can she shoot you?”

“Many times as she's got bullets in her gun,” Zoe smirked, tossing a piece of protein to the dog.

“Well what's that old harpy want?” Jayne reached over with a scoop of egg fluff, depositing it on Jack's plate. “Ain't she got the decency to get eat by them space freaks?”

“She's been having some trouble on her planet, it seems some of the folk she's put herself in charge of don't quite agree with her management.” Jack handed the cortex over to Mal. “Did some research. She's been taking taxes and a bit off the top from the local businesses. Charging interest by the hour and taxing every head of livestock on every farm. And, she's got herself her own band of highway robbers.”

“Sounds like something of a problem,” Mal grinned.

“Best part of it?” Jack looked over at Imam. “Main town is Crislam. She took over when the prophet died from 'mysterious circumstances' after the last harvest hit. Worst part, she started converting the mosque into a church.”

A chorus of curses echoed through the dining room, even Mal, who followed no faith, saw fit to let out a litany. Matea uncovered Zisa's ears when the table stopped.

“The town did not begin to fight until this moment, correct?” Imam asked.

“A few bar fights, maybe,” Jack shook her head. “But nothing big until she got her talons into the stone.”

“Matea and I have been seeking new accommodations,” Imam consented. “With Zisa, I can not take the risks I once did. But I can offer you and yours safety when you need it.”

Mal looked down at the screen once more, allowing Jack the time to eat. If they helped these folks out, chances were they could clean out Patience's vault and hideout. Imam would and could give them a place to lay low for a spell when they needed it. There was a high chance the townsfolk would be only too glad to have them too. She looked up from her plate to see Inara thinking almost as hard as Mal, the subject concerned something entirely different however. Jack knew that for a fact. Simon was the next to catch her eye, except he didn't look to be thinking, he looked like he was plotting.

That seemed decidedly bad.

“Part of the dance,” River hummed by Jack's elbow. “All in the dance, in circles and center until the music stops.”

The table seemed to relax somewhat. Even Riddick who'd been eating rather guarded by the end of the table seemed to relax at River's words.

“So happens I wouldn't mind takin' a shot at that old hag,” Mal set the cortex to the side. His coffee met his lips. “We take the job. Get half our pay up front, carrying what we know to the other side.”

“Communication is going to be a problem,” Zoe pointed out. “Not much to bounce a signal off of. Lots of hills.”

“I got a way around that, assuming River wants to help me out.” River peeked at Jack from over her fork. “I can't wrap my head around the particulars.”

“Duh.” River went back to eating her breakfast.

Wash nodded approvingly while Jayne snorted into his coffee.

“Brat,” Jack flicked a grain of rice into River's hair.

“It's what she does,” Simon agreed.

~

The scent of leather and grit clung to Mal and Zoe both. The woman was a darker gray. Her scent was a darker gray than Mal's. He'd never scented people in shades before this ship. Never known the kind of person who turned their back on him either. Everyone on the ship stank of trust, except maybe the doctor, didn't trust anything out here. Trust, the lack and overabundance of it, was a dangerous thing in the black. It was a lifesaving thing out here in the black.

“Mr. Riddick.” Mal seemed to have the perfect amount of both. Leather and grit, blood and steel, and under all of that, a sort of shadow. “Need ya to get your white hat out of storage.”

Riddick raised a brow from his place on the couch. He was borrowing Jack's cortex, catching up on the news and Helion's plight. The captain was standing there with a rather big pup, both watching him with a certain eye. It was the first time he'd seen that dog away from River since he boarded. A faint wondering passed through his head regarding the dog's possible size.

“White hat?”

“Good guys ain't we? Least in this situation. Honest thievin' combined with liberation. Freedom and the pursuit of such is a popular belief around here.” Mal hooked his thumbs into his belt loops, a knowing look in his eyes. “Mayhap you wouldn't mind spreading it to the folks dirtside with us.”

Riddick had seen this kind of guy before. Monty was that kind of guy. Helped Riddick out just to piss off the feds chasing him. Mal was that kind of guy too, only difference was the why. Monty liked the idea, still liked to rebel, but Mal believed.

“Surprised you'd put a gun in my hand,” Riddick grumbled. He turned the cortex off, knowing what the journalists planned to say without reading. The long and short of everything was that the Alliance was too scared to fight off the Necromongers. Too scared without the troops to hide it behind.

“Five days and my merc is still alive? Seems to say a lot about a man with your reputation. Got three very high recommendations as it happens,” Mal spoke. “Imam goes way back, saved my skin more times than I'd like to admit to, he says you're decent folk.” That alone made Riddick want to laugh. After all he'd seen and done, the holy man thought he was a good person. “Jackie's another. Fact is she's the closest thing I'm like to have to a daughter, and she's damn smart.”

“I've wondered sometimes,” Riddick couldn't help but jab. Mal didn't rise to it, in fact, he agreed.

“Ain't we all...” Mal shook his head, walking closer. He stopped at the kitchen table, resting his hands on his knees as he sat on the edge. “Point is, I take her opinion seriously. I also take what I see seriously. I was there last time a merc snatched you up. Saw that feifei pi guh snipe those little kids in the middle of town. I saw you sacrifice yourself for the rest of them too.”

Mal was that kind of guy. The guy who looked into a man's core and saw exactly the kind of person you were. He'd been one of those guys sneaking atop the buildings to take Johns down before he could do anything else. He'd seen Riddick's white hat, stained and torn as it was, dingey

“You get on down to the weapons locker 'fore we land. Pick something you can hide and ammo to fill it up. Depending on the outcome of this job, we'll hit up Milosz and get you equipped.”

Mal pushed himself off of the table and began towards the bay. Off to see the companion or the shepherd, the captain carried both smells more than any other.

“Who was it?”

Mal paused, looking over his shoulder with innocent confusion.

“Who?” Like a damn owl.

“The third one. The one who told you I'm a good investment.”

“Ain't livestock son,” Mal snorted, turning to face him fully. Mal was the kind of man who stared straight on, didn't flinch or hide. “Crew. Why's it matter?”

“Curious.” Who did he need to talk to.

“Simon. Our doc. Says his sister's calmed down since you ran around with her on Jiangyin.” Mal turned once more, pausing with one foot on each side of the threshold. “Just realized, Jackie's my daughter, your sister...makes you kin, doesn't it?”

Mal walked out before Riddick could scoff at the idea. Kin. Kin? With these people? The mechanic wore flowered frocks and didn't have much in the way of brains. Most often she was throwing herself at an oblivious doctor, equally oblivious of the way Simon was looking at her in return. Kin, with her, with Jayne, the only man who'd ever tracked him so damn easily and kept pace with him and managed to accidentally blow up a whole town. Accidentally. He'd admit Inara, blood sister, took Jack out of trouble and set her right, not legal, but set her on the right path. She blew up a town on purpose.

“Always forward, never straight.”

He looked up to see the littlest staring down at him from the vent. He hadn't even known. She was too ingrained in the ship and the ventilation was pulling her scent away from him.

“Owes her a gift.”

Riddick grinned up at her. “Do I?”

There was an annoyed sound as the grate loosened and lifted. Her head dropped out, along with her torso, legs keeping her inside of the shaft as she crossed her arms in front of her. Any other woman, any other place he'd have pulled her down, pinned her to the table until she gave in to that primal side of her brain. But she wasn't any other woman. She was Beautiful and giving him a look he'd seen Shirah wear before. Expectant as she waited for the gift she knew he had. The gift he'd had for years. The gift resting on a chain around his neck. She raised a brow at him.

“Why do you want it?”

“It is mine.” Blunt or cryptic, there was no middle ground with her. The dog was padding back in, sitting beside Riddick and staring at River with big worried eyes.

“Why? Why would you want token from me?”

“He knows,” River's brows furrowed. “He confuses her. The gift is a symbol, it is known. It is his strength.”

“You don't know me,” Riddick stood up, unsurprised as she slipped back into her hiding spot. The scent of blood was shifting on her, hormones fluctuating and muscles tensed up the wrong way. She was in pain. Deep primal pain that called to him with the promise of life. “Why me?”

“Grandmother picked you.”

Riddick let out a laugh, turning his head to the side. Basing her opinions on what she'd been told and a snatch and grab from the day before. Ready to cleave herself to him because of rumors. Because of a scent that told him she was the most beautiful creature in existence.

“Grandmother isn't here,” he looked at her once more. Colors were lost to him, had been for nearly a decade, but hers carried a shade he'd seen many times. The color of insanity, driven to the darkness of her mind by others. “She hasn't been around for years. We're different animals now.”

River's hand went into her hair, clenching around the locks as she began to swing in place. She jerked into the airduct, a keening moan echoing from within and the dog, unnamed as he was, had climbed onto a chair, paws on the table as he began to whine. Therapy animal, had them in the upper levels of Slam City; had them in Serenity too. A pale hand slipped out, fingertips grazing the short hair of the canine. He scent mellowed before she spoke.

“She knows the important parts. Cliff notes version. Grandmother's words and teachings.”

“You need to know more about me,” Riddick told the darkness. “I need to know more about you. The old ways don't work anymore Beautiful.”

“Must update the software, new users in the system, broken system. Must be updated.”

“It is. Gotta build new traditions.” Her could see her shift in the darkness to easier touch the dog on the table. “Mal says we're going dirtside.” They could hunt again, stalking through the shadows and picking them off. Running with someone was a helluva lot more fun than run alone. Hunting in a group like they were supposed to...

“Will not allow her out,” River hummed. “Keeps her inside, away from eyes.”

“Guess I'll see you when we get back then.” Riddick moved away from the vent. “Get some rest Zheana.”

He left her and the dog, heading down to the weapons locker to pick through the stash of weapons. The crew had their arms, well cared for, older models. He wasn't expecting much downstairs. A few spare glocks, maybe an automatic or two. Anything big or powerful would be in the merc's bunk, anything with decent aim or high capacity wouldn't be in storage. He'd been around killers too long. The cabinet was up to date, well stocked and the weapons were cleaned regularly. Nothing low class either. Mal kept his ship ready to fight, even if his ship didn't consist solely of fighters.

An Ivory Soul was in there. Large caliber, low kick, the entry was small, barely noticeable, but the exit wound was enough to fit a man's fist into. Shot clean and quiet without too much fuss. Riddick was ready to slip it into the waistband of his pants until he saw the matching holster. He couldn't help but grin. Kin. What an idea.

Riddick began back up the stairs, readjusting to the weight of a gun on his back rather than hidden on his person. It had been years since he'd worn a firearm for a job. A good job. Maybe not lawful, but he'd never worked a legal job, even when they claimed to be. A long knife had been in the locker as well, blade sharp and the handle easy, sheathe just waiting for someone to strap to their thigh.

There was a bustling sound in Imam's shuttle. The soft back and forth between the holy man and his wife overrode the sound of typing and mantras coming out of the Serra shuttle. His climb was silent as he went to oversee the packing; the holy man had recommended him to a troupe of misfits with a taste for blowing things up. Not an altogether bad thing. He stopped outside of the shuttle, watching silently, leaning against the doorway as so many on this ship seemed to do.

“Kickin' dust then?” Riddick asked. Imam and Matea were packing what few belongings they had, most picked up from family on Persephone, some from Serenity herself.

“I think perhaps it is time,” he nodded. A hefty case was in his arms, at least so long as he was tall. “Time to let go of the past.” Rough hands ran along the smooth leather case. “I served beside Mal and Zoe, in knee deep blood and feces so thick you could not tell where the earth began and the death ended.” Imam looked up at him. “Mal and Zoe, they never left Serenity valley. Not in their minds or their souls.”

“Some places just keep a hold of you,” Riddick admitted. Hades was one of those places, Slam City another. Neither were quite like the Academy though. The place they taught him to be a killer, to be all he could be and more. And then the company turned on him. They turned on him for doing something good.

Zisa was playing with a doll in the corner, speaking softly to her about what they should pack.

“River came by earlier.” Imam stood with his case. “She and Zisa will miss each other.”

He began to walk out of the shuttle towards the one across the bay. Riddick had to follow. He wanted to know what was in the case. It made him smile. A holy man walks up to a companion with a long package. The companion invited them in, dressed in silks and jewels; he can see how Jack was softened and polished. He can see where she's picked up the new-found grace and her acceptance of being a woman. It's done her good to be put into a family. To be around kin.

“Miss Serra, Jacqueline,” Imam went in further, resting the large case on the table. “Inara, I hope you do not find me rude, but I noticed something particular about you, and your hands.”

“Oh?” Inara sat down across from him. Jack was still sitting on the couch, tapping away at a keyboard she'd connected to the ship cortex. He could see her eyes flicker over every so often before refocusing on the program she was creating. She hadn't asked for her portable back, but he was done with it for now. Her hand was out and waiting as soon as he pulled it from his pocket. He grinned, setting it down on her lap before sitting against the wall and listening to Imam.

“I seem to remember a competition some years ago on Londonium. I believe you attended?”

“I have attended some few, yes,” Inara admitted. She was being coy, suspicious.

“I think perhaps, you may like this.” Imam unclasped the worn leather, flipping it open. Jack had stopped paying attention. Riddick's eyes widened. “Sisters should not be separated.”

~!~

Simon listened closely as the crew planned their scheme, absently scratching Diesel behind the ears; mother's nerves had never been strong enough for a pet. They were planning to double-cross a crazy old woman for a good cause and a good sized payout. Even the holy men were sitting in, watching with sharps eyes and wise words. Riddick was sitting there as well, twirling a knife in his hand as he listened to the captain. In what world was it wise to arm a convicted killer well known for killing a crew and stealing the ship? But they had. They'd armed him and assigned him a bunk and a cut of any job they took on.

“Imam, need you to break off when we hit atmo, start gathering the townsfolk up and handin' a gun to anyone might hold it.” Mal took a sip of his coffee. “I want you to go with him Riddick. Your file says you're a mighty fine scout, need you to find best places to launch an attack from.”

Riddick's mouth quirked as he continued to twirl his knife. Getting used to the weight of it, he'd explained earlier. The man ape had grunted in understanding, continuing to clean his gun while the others seemed unfazed. The shift from core hospital to rim outlaws was surreal, the way each of them simply followed suit, soldiers without an army. A whole squad was in front of him, sniper, demolitions, officers...

“Uhm, I would like to go around the town before hand,” Simon spoke up. “If the previous priest was the town doctor, it's likely we'll be defending the dying. Any fighters might be too sick to hold a gun.” He was the medic.

“Got a point,” Mal nodded. “We'll send you into town with Imam and Riddick. Find out who's fightin' and who needs a place to bunk down for a spell.”

“Plannin' to open up the ship?” Jayne asked.

“Ain't no reason innocent folk need to get shot. Best get all belongings ready to move, case we need to double up,” Mal nodded. “After we deal with Patience, I need Wash to land on the outskirts. Zoe, you'll be...”

Simon continued to listen, asking questions that no one else seemed to ask about points Mal must have overlooked. Or perhaps he hadn't, either way it was exciting. Planning crime. Being involved. He hadn't been involved in anything with other people, not for a very long time. Especially not with people who told him exactly what they thought. Admitted, they lacked manners, and sometimes he felt as though he were talking to children, but they were honest. And scary at times.

River popped up beside him, staring down at the map of Patience's home base. She'd been spending time with the Serras again, the scent of incense and perfume was following her about and her clothes were certainly not from himself or Kaylee's closet. She was groomed as well. Tiny braids had started floating around in her messy locks. Combined with her movements, Simon might have mistaken her for his grandmother.

“This is wrong.” She tapped her finger on the blueprints, right on a wall. “Cut it out, didn't match the rest.”

Mal's mouth closed as Zoe made small marks on the map. Question marks all along the maybe wall. Why were they listening to her when she'd never even set foot on Whitefall? It didn't make any sense. The comforting weight of a canine head rest on his thigh and he found himself relaxing ever so slightly.

“Well thank you for that Lil' Bit. Don't suppose you and Jack figured out that communications glitch?”

“Solved fifteen minutes after breakfast,” River hummed, looking at the map. “Gifted with chocolate. There will be guards here and here. No surveillance equipment.”

Simon watched as his sister skipped away, calling for Zisa to come and play. Miss Edith wanted tea. Imam followed River out, smiling at her as he offered his assistance in finding the young girl. The sound of River's demands echoed back at them; Imam was to have tea in the event of his daughters absence. Riddick stood moments later, heading the opposite direction towards Jack and Inara.

“Your sister doin' okay?” Mal asked. He was watching Zoe as she continued to maybe mark the map. Obviously he was as doubtful as Simon, both of River's predictions and his first mate taking them seriously.

“She seems to be between screaming fits for the moment,” Simon admitted. “It's hard to tell what is natural and what isn't right now.”

Simon found himself under the sudden scrutiny of one very angry black woman. No matter what he attempted to stutter out or use in his defense, her glare only increased. Neither Wash, nor Mal, nor Jayne were stepping in, leaving Simon all to himself, crouching low in a worn wooden seat. He felt like a school boy being scolded by his teacher. Only when Matea entered did Zoe relax her gaze and after a few quick words there were two sets of eyes fixed on him.

~

Jack made a sound when Riddick ducked into the shuttle. A welcoming hum similar to Inara's welcoming nod. The visual and audio version of the same greeting. Riddick made a sound of his own as he walked further in. He was clean, cleaner than Jack had ever seen him and his clothes in much the same state. A benefit of the firefly class shower rooms was the drawer beneath the stall. As you washed, so did your clothes, as you dried, so did your clothes. It got a bit manky when the water was cycled too much, but at least they got clean.

She could see him waiting for invitation to sit, even if he wasn't planning on it.

“Why are you standing around?” Jack looked at him. “You're making me nervous.”

“Please, have a seat Mr. Riddick,” Inara smiled. “I was just about to prepare some tea. Jasmine?”

“Sounds fine.” He lowered himself into one of Inara's few chairs, slouching like some wild beast king. “Your crew is crazy.”

Jack grinned as Inara hid a laugh. The Jiangyin mission had been an interesting experience in bonding. Imam's gift had been another surprise, bringing the two of them closer after a small argument about secrets and trust.

“That's putting it lightly. What makes Our crew crazy this time?”

He pulled the gun from the shoulder holster, setting it on the table before he started playing with the knife again. The tech girl could see exactly what made him uneasy. The sudden trust he'd been given upon his arrival was enough to make anyone jumpy. Even Jack was skittish her first month on board. Riddick boasted his title of convict and murderer and in return Mal had given him a gun and knife and a place to sleep.

“I tried talking him into a Black Brother,” Jack hummed, looking back at her cortex. “Same gun, I know, but Mal wanted something 'auspcious' sounding.”

“Serenity is a family, Mr. Riddick. A family you've belonged to since Jack stepped on board.” Inara stirred the tea gently, the scent filling the shuttle. “A part of our family if nothing else. Richard Serra...” She looked over at Jack. “What to you think?”

“Crazy,” Riddick laughed.

“Works better than using his middle name, Brandon Serra? Richard works much better.”

“Got issue with my name?” Richard raised his brow, aggressive in his speech as he accepted the tea from Inara.

“No, but it sounds better,” She tapped at her keyboard, “when I put it in the ship roster. And considering the fact there's a certified companion and a clerk listed as sisters, they won't check too hard.”

The three of them settled into a comfortable silence within the confines of the shuttle. The scent of tea swirled around them as each fell back into their own world. Riddick had found a book somewhere, hardbound in leather, and he'd begun to read when it seemed neither woman had more to say. The soft tap of keys mixed in with the hum of Inara's mantras as the occasional whisper of paper against skin.

Only when River crept in did any change happen. Jack shifted on the couch, allowing the younger woman to cuddle up next to her. Riddick continued with his book, though he did pour another cup of tea. Inara remained deep in meditation, whispering in silent repetition as she rocked ever so slightly. Peaceful and quiet, Jack continued altering the ships logs, going so far in as to add Richard Serra's presence at the last docking at Persephone.

“Caught up with the family,” River hummed as Jack input the codes. “Escort service, family business.”

“Suppose so,” Jack hummed. Patience had just sent them a new wave, landing instructions sending them into the middle of nowhere. Hiding them from the townsfolk she terrorized. She cleaned the message up, sending it to Wash. “Escorting my crew to new jobs, escorting family out of the clutches of killers, escorting, well, Inara escorts who she will.”

Inara had broken from her meditation, blinking dreamily at the room around her. She was serene as she sat upon her cushion, watching each of them with a slight smile. It made sense now.

“Not a genius,” River looked up at her. “Forgiven.”

“Oh, thanks for that,” Jack rolled her eyes.

Sister and Sister's sister were so calm. She liked these moment the most, when Inara made her mind hum in song and Jack thought in numbers and mazes. He was new. The beast sitting quietly in his place, focusing on her. He was reading. Reading the dance. How would the Beast respond?

“Zoe worries.” Zoe was brilliant in hiding her light. She hid her worries and fears from the girl. The Woman. “The math is wrong, expects one from two.”

“Isn't that right though?” Jack asked.

Sister's sister responded before Sister had. She understood. For how long could the mockingbird speak? How long until Sister's sister became Elder sister and then little mother?

“One and one is two.” Inara was rising slowly from her place, dreamy. “Twins.”

“Mal isn't going to like that,” Jack sighed. “Means he's going to be down a gun-hand, and more kids, and Wash.”

Still the Beast remained silent. Only now had he understood what they sang of. Only now did he think on anything other than the room around him and escape plans and theft and kidnapping. He would steal her. He was a thief in the endless night, the brightest gem was his, but he needed to build the frame. The mount was part of the sparkle. The family was part of her luster. The pack was his and he was theirs. Kin.

Daddy called out, the holy man and Zisa and his wife were coming to the Serra shuttle. Gege was coming in as well with his bag of needles and pills. Hateful, dreadful little chunks of pink dreams and blue rage. They were helpful on the ground. The were excited.

“Mei, you coming?” Sister was standing by the door, cortex under her arm and a light sweater in her hand. Sister was always cold. The harpies stole her warmth away; Jayne was giving it back.

“She will. Wash promises to explain the theory behind long range orbit entry during night cycle.” She understood the basic theory, the math and the angles;Wash knew the feeling of the land, knew every shudder and shake of Mother and what Kaylee was doing though those mumbles.

“Night flying,” Jack nodded. “Scares the hell out of me.”

~!~

“Mockingbird, you are free to depart in five, four, three, two, one.”

Inara's shuttle let go. The lights were off and she was flying towards the settlement, even patience was blind to her departure. Jack had a distinct feeling that Riddick was the one piloting, Inara was just as uncomfortable flying in the dark as Jack. Flying with the lights off must have been worse.

Wash was having little to no problem with flying blind. He was jovial even, taking a patient long range landing. Mal didn't use them very often, always striking direct, but in this case, they were free to do as they wished. River was perched on an unused console beside Wash, listening to his lecture concerning trajectory and tilt and all sorts of math related thing Jack was miserable at. Yet the two beside her were alight with excitement, speaking in their own sort of language as they went, they were birds. Wash in his too hideous salmon and teal Hawaiian shirt while River sat in a a strange and colorful mix of Inara's silk, Kaylee's lace, and Jack's denim. They needed to land someplace with a decent market soon.

Jack returned to setting the town video fed on a randomized loop. She searched through the entire security system for any useful glitches or exploitable weak points. There was no reason to create a hold if one already existed. There, in Patience's own fortress was a weak relay. A frayed wire most likely, the security feed just need one tiny little surge and it would snap, sending the bioscanners down and the weapons scanners offline. She'd never even know. The function light would stay green, no new biosignatures would show up for the old woman to turn in or send a posse after. The family would be safe.

“Chances of at least one crew member being shot are one in thirty-seven.” River spoke offhanded. “Flight crew's chances are one in seventy-three.”

“I like our odds more,” Wash nodded as he set the ship down. “Which one is Jack?”

“Hey, don't be taking odds on my health!”

River tilted her head, eyes sparkling as a teasing smile lit her face up. “Chances of Jack being shot are sixty-three to one. Patience will not shoot her, has a soft spot for jieh. Wants to steal her away.”

“Oh, well that's...that.” Wash didn't know what to say.

“The chances of me Ever working for that hag are lower than the chances of Riddick spontaneously turning into a woman.” In the few moments she'd spoken on the Wave with the woman, she'd managed to rub Jack the wrong way. The same way the slavers had, the same way Johns had, the same way Badger did.

“Why am I the one turning into a woman?”

The low rumble of the convict made Wash squeak in a very un-manly fashion. To be fair, everyone had jumped. Even River jerked to stare at the comm speaker when he spoke. She wasn't very fond of technical things Jack discovered. She couldn't read them, couldn't make sense of them despite the simplicity of making it work.

“You forgot to turn the comm system off,” Inara's voice lilted through the speakers. “Although, I'd like to know where Simon falls.”

“Systems,” River waved it off. “Gege, Grandfather, and Inavva currently quantified as non-combative personnel. Vital to crew function, not ship function. Low chance of recognition, reputation powerful enough to dissuade She from harming” River swung to stare at the door of the bridge. “Believes in grandfather's book. Fervent. Zealot.”

It made sense. The destruction of heathens and pagan beliefs. They were stepping into the crusades of Earth that was.

“Always knew somethin' weren't quite right about her.”

Mal was standing behind them with a scowl on his face; he may well have been standing there for some time. His pistol was hanging from his hip and he was adjusting his brown leather coat. Inara had patched it up last night.

“Alright, time to say g'night kids-”

“Night dad.” Riddick's low rumble made nearly everyone snicker.

“...Comm system off until daybreak,” Mal reached forward and flicked the switch. His face was somewhere between wicked amusement and horror and frustration. He already had two smart mouths calling him Dad, and Jack had heard Simon call him as such during a particularly bad day. Though, in all honesty they wouldn't call him Dad, sarcastic or not, if he didn't act like he was. It was a cycle of annoyance and affection.

“That's ship communications,” Jack reached over and reset the switch. “You turned the kitchen off.”

Before Mal could pick another, Wash turned the shuttle comm off. There was a soft grumble from the captain as he began moving around, peering over both of their shoulders and making noises to imply he knew what either of them were doing. Jack had to exchange a grin with Wash and her mei both. Cap'n Dad was going to get annoyed with the whole thing in a minute and tell Jack to gear up and get down to the cargo bay.

“Jack, you finished up?”

“Five by five,” she pushed her screen away.

“Good, get your gear, get down to the bay. And tell Jayne we ain't bringing the automatic to a peaceable gorram meeting.”

“I can tell, doesn't mean he's going to listen,” Jack started following him out of the bridge, pausing just outside. “Hey, Riv, can you keep an eye on communication? Got everything set up so Patience doesn't hear the shuttle chattering back to us.”

River eyed the cortex distastefully before nodding. A nod of thanks came from Jack as she continued to Jayne's room. She'd transferred her things over while Imam and his family moved their belongings into Inara's shuttle. Hadn't that given Mal an aneurism and a half...she couldn't imagine what he'd do when she and Jayne finally decided to move on to third base. A heart attack? A stroke? It didn't bear thinking about.

“Hey Kyra, you reckon I should bring 'long Viv or Darla?”

She looked over at the two 'girls' in question.

“It's a peace meeting...bring Viv. And leave Vera.”

“Aw, but babe-”

“Jayne, Dad's already about to throw you out of the airlock and all I'm doing is storing my gear in here.” Kyra moved closer to him, taking his hands into her own. Her big grizzly hun dan was staring down at her with a softness he kept locked away until they were alone. “Leave Vera, I've got a feeling she'll be seeing a lot of action in the next few days.”

“Alright.” it was a quiet grumble, reluctant. “But only 'cause you reckon I'm gonna bring her out later.”

He leaned down and kissed her, whiskers tickling her chin and cheeks in their chaste moment.

“Thank you. I promise I'll make it up to you.” She stood on her tiptoes, whispering into his ear. The look of utter glee and shock was enough to make her laugh outright. “If you ask nice I'm sure she'll let you touch it.”

“Your sister...” Jayne began to bounce on his heels as Kyra continued to gear up. “Well hurry on up girl. Let's get this show on the road.”

~!~

Zoe was driving them to the compound at a more than reasonable pace. Almost sedate in Jack's opinion. She could see the outline of each tree they passed and count the fence posts. So dull, so boring, at least Doo was enjoying himself. Standing on the back of the mule behind Jayne, they'd rigged a type of harness so he wouldn't go flying on corners, his eyes were lit with joy and his nose was working overtime. He was excited and Jack knew there was going to be a heap of people-shaped excitement in a few minutes. Ahead of them, Jack could see the bright yellow gold light of bonfires and a little higher up, she could see bright white lights all along what must have been a fence. A tall fence, taller than most anyone could climb without notice. Patience hadn't just taken over, she'd built herself a stronghold to keep that power. A stronghold and an army all along the wall. Probably had her own priest too, or she'd gotten herself ordained.

The mule slowed in front of the compound gates, a sickly rattle coming out from the back as she came to a stop; Jayne kept Doo from skidding. If they won, Jack was stealing one of the old woman's mules...assuming hers were in any better condition. If not, then she was going to start collecting funds so they could go and get a new mule. Actually, New Mules were made on the same planet as New Guns. New guns, new comforts for the living quarters -because Mr. U's pit crew only fixed the standard hardware, bastards- and blankets galore. If their payout was big, Jack would lock Mal out of the bridge and bully Wash into driving them to Milosz.

“Next stop, far away from here,” Mal scowled as they were waved over to the overly flamboyant farm house. In the deep shadow of the night and the orange glow of firelight, the house could have been any color; all of them could tell it was some kind of bright yellow or neon green.

“Thinking on Milosz, stock up some.” Mal glanced at all three of his crew. “Not the best vacation point, but I think we'll manage.”

“Milosz means shopping.” Zoe was giving Mal a look. “You know this, right?”

“Indeed I do,” Mal grinned at them. He jumped down from the mule, Doo not a step behind him, before glancing back. “Well? Milosz gateway only opens once every three weeks.”

That fact alone, Mal willingly going dirt-side for weeks, made each of them jump out from the mule. Even their armed escort to the house didn't upset Jack. Zoe too seemed undaunted, though she was much better at hiding it. Where Jack was smiling and making a mental list, Zoe had turned back to business, only her eyes twinkling with excitement. Something Patience mistook for joy at being in her very presence. The smile on Jayne's face was seen as blood-lust and even Mal's determination to just get it done and gone was seen as bowing to her mighty...

Orange...

Top hat?

“What the hell is on her head?” Jayne kept his whisper lower than the old woman could hear, thank Allah.

“Mighty fine hat,” Mal called out, answering Jayne and paying a compliment.

“Noticed you finally got your girl out in the open,” Patience grinned. Her teeth were reddened from a new drug the alliance was pushing. Poor Man's Tobacco, officially called Eve's Leaves, grew faster with less water and higher return. The sad part was, only those folk who wanted some sort of prestige seemed to go for it. Honest, hardworking folk saved their pennies for the real thing and those with the money preferred the real thing.

“Does what I tell her,” Mal shrugged. “If of course she wants to do it.”

“I believe the term is mercurial,” Zoe agreed.

“That it is. Course, unless we all hear the details of this here job, I'm not entirely sure any of us are up for doing it.” Mal smiled congenially at Patience. “Got jobs lined up and whatnot.”

“Course you do,” Patience grinned at them with a mouthful of red teeth. She was patronizing, indulgent and snide as she spoke. “Plain and simple truth is I need a few folk to keep watch here. I know your kind Mal, you ain't the type to go in and do the real hard work. So the fact is, I want you and Zoe to keep watch on my manor while I go in with my boys tomorrow night.” She almost leered at Jack and Jayne both. “Course, your crew is welcome to tag along, less those ragheaded scum keep o' their old faith, less we gotta fight 'em to convert to the good book. The real book, not that fucked up go shi them Crislam's worship.”

Jack tried very hard not to let anything clench in anger. Not a muscle twitched until she imagined the woman burning on a stake, hanging upside down as crows pecking her eyes out, trapped in the middle of New Mecca...as Necros shot everyone down. As they burned her home and enslaved the living.

“I take it you ain't a fan.”

“Weren't for the fact they're a bunch of corpse fuckers, I'd kiss one of them necros for what they done.” Patience spat a gob of red spittle onto the ground, watching as the dog went to sniff it. She grinned wide when he sneezed.

“Hm, well, I'll tell you what. Let me run it past the rest of my crew. Got ourselves an appointment in a few, and if we miss our window, well, ain't gonna be enough gas to do much else.”

“Hell boy, fill yerself up.” she waved a hand in the direction of a particularly well guarded tower. “Job shouldn't take more'n a night. You just keep an eye on this place while we do ours.”

“What's the payout?” Jack found herself asking. How much was Patience willing to may them for helping in genocide? How much was she paying for this crusade?

“Ain't god's work enough for ya?” Patience snorted. “Hell, don't seem to be enough for anyone these days. You get forty thousand, more iffin your folk decide to help on out with the good fight.”

Jack was pretty damn sure they'd be doing a lot more than helping.

~!~

Simon waved the next patient forward. In the dark of the night, he came, with needles to ease the pain. The doctor paused as he felt the young boy's glands. River was rubbing off on him. The whole crew was rubbing off on him truth told.

Within the shuttle, Inara was attending to the female colonists. Running scans and inspections, feeling for what Simon warned her of and checking rashes and markings against the cortex. Every so often she would come out with a capture, showing him something she herself couldn't identify. Most of the ailments were women's issues, pending pregnancy, a scan to check general health. Only a few required Simon step in; those few involved Simon telling the husband to stop doing one thing or other, to stop forcing his wife into the heat so often.

His time on Serenity, exposed to Crislams such as Jack and Zoe and Imam...he'd expected all of them to act like they did. He'd expected all Shepherds and Christians to act like Book and Kaylee...

“Something on your mind?”

Simon looked up as Inara exited the shuttle, hair covered in respect to the native culture. She was dressed simply, though she was still far more glamorous than the women here.

“I'm just being reminded,” Simon answered. The sun was going to rise soon. Everyone knew it. Everyone knew the doctor had to return before even if their new Prophet remained behind to steer them through the darkness. “How long did it take you to really understand the difference out here?”

“I don't think I understand It now,” Inara replied. She was being honest with him, he would see it in here eyes. “But I understand that everything I learned in the guild, everything I was told...doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. My sister doesn't understand it yet either, if that's any consolation.”

“Jack?” Simon could hardly believe that.

“Abencerrajes and New Mecca are both considered Core.”

Just not Anglo Asiatic core.

“The universe is a very big place, isn't it?” Simon asked, closing his bag up.

“Could be bigger.”

Only years of River and Grandmother sneaking up on him kept Simon from dropping everything. Years of his mostly silent father and the recent sneakings of Jayne the Ape. Riddick's sudden reappearance was strangely comforting. Strangely...familial. The entire trip, he'd been watching the convict, studying him and looking for the traits every core doctor was trained to watch for. Minute shaking of a junkie, the facial twitch of a con man, the staccato pulse of a liar. He hadn't seen one. Not a single give to discredit him. He actually seemed rather polite, given the circumstances and his surroundings. Bullish, broody, speaking only when he had to or when he felt the need to irritate Mal. Dad...Mal was never going to escape that.

Inara jumped ever so slightly, just under a foot, causing Simon to grin.

“I suppose Grandma Tam taught you how to sneak around,” Inara finally caught her breath. Simon had to bury his face in his bag to keep from laughing to loud. Until Tam entered his thought process. “River mentioned you knew her.”

“You knew Grandmother?” Simon asked. Familial. Familiar. Everything began to click in his mind. He acted as his father did in Grandmother's presence. Strong enough to hold his ground, respectful enough to back down. “How did she not kill you?”

“Simon.” Inara's tone was meant to chasten him. She'd never met Shirah Tam, she'd never really known the harsh and intense woman who'd raised he and his sister both.

“I'm not entirely sure.” Riddick understood the question perfectly. “You?”

“Apparently she liked me,” Simon shook his head. “Just enough to keep from smothering me in my crib, but, it's something.” He paused in his movements. It was something. Something big and important and ever so small, smaller than any microscope and small enough to escape his notice so completely. “You're a born Furyan, right? I mean, both sides, mother and father?”

“Wouldn't call them parents, but yeah.”

Simon took his cortex back from Inara, all social niceties forgotten as he sought out River's genetic scans. River was special. She always had been, regardless of what ran through her mind, but what if the Alliance hadn't targeted her for those thoughts. What if they were hunting for her blood, just as they had hunted Grandmother for hers?

“Do you think the Academy took River because of her DNA?” Inara asked. She'd caught on, perhaps not fully comprehending the situation, but she was quick.

“I do.” Simon continued to inspect River's genetic code. “But...I'd need...Riddick, would you mind if I took a small sample, just a drop or two...The Furyan genetic code isn't open to the medical community and grandmother disappeared...I've been treating my sister as though she were fully human and...”

There was a moment of silence as the convict stared at him. Furyan genetics and traditions were pulled from the fog of Simon's childhood. The stronger male was always in charge when there was no Khalessi around. In charge until the moment someone rose up against him. Until Simon had challenged his father and proven to be the stronger of the two. The fleeting memory of an ambulance flickered across Simon's mind as Riddick sat on one of Inara's many couches, hand fisted and vein exposed.

“Shirah was pretty specific about making sure River was safe.”

Of course. The only reason anyone did anything in their family was Grandmother had approved it. Even Regan was bound by Matriarchal Law. Riddick's primal behaviors were suddenly refined, traditional, not just a creature of circumstance. Well, that may have been going a bit far. He was still a criminal...like every other Furyan left in the universe.

“I'm not sure I understand,” Inara came to watch Simon pull a sample. “If she's your sister, why not compare your own genetics?”

“The Furyan gene...” He glanced up at Riddick as he drew a small vial. Technically he wasn't supposed to know; River had broken that rule when Simon went to Medacad, she needed her doctor to know what he was doing. The convict didn't move to stop him. “The gene needs to be awakened. It isn't even a gene at all really. It's a microorganism working in symbiosis with the formerly human natives.”

“Started altering genetics,” Riddick bent his arm, staring at the broken skin. “Stopped being Sapien, started being Superior.”

“I suppose I'm bound to secrecy now.” Inara went to prep the shuttle for flight, knowing Riddick would fly them back.

“Unless River or grandmother says otherwise.” Simon began to analyze the blood as best he could, looking for that one trait in Riddick that he shared with River. That one tiny little key to everything.

“A Matriarchal civilization.” Inara was surprised. Given what she knew of the Tam family and what she'd seen in Riddick's behavior, her surprise made perfect sense. A group of people well round in art, war, and science; the building blocks of civilization. “Then, were men relegated to menial tasks?”

“That is actually the extent of my knowledge.” Simon glanced up. “In Grandmother's world, you were worthy...or you weren't.”

“She will as she wills it.” Riddick was waiting for Inara to move, watching her start the ship up as she spoke with Simon. “This is known.”

“This is known,” Simon echoed.

“It is known. They will be silent now.”

River's voice echoed through the shuttle. Despite Mal's instruction to silence. She spoke up before he could question her. The sun would rise in twenty-five minutes, but if they didn't return in the next ten, the light would bounce off of the shuttle and they'd be seen. She seemed surprisingly lucid today. Maybe the less people around...

“A later time, he will comprehend. It is recommended you return immediately. Jack is boiling and is in need of her Jiehjieh.”

“I suppose that's my cue,” Inara settled herself in the passenger seat. “You know Mr. Riddick, the more I find out about you, the firmer you plant yourself in our family.”

Simon had to agree.

Grudgingly.

He was still going to find a way to intimidate this man.

~!~

Zoe had never seen her mei so pissed off. That was really the only term that fit the young woman in this moment. In every moment since they'd left the compound and every second in between. The girl had never been really enraged by something. She'd never held an ideal or a belief close to her heart. Even now, she was crislam, but that wasn't what enraged her. It was the same thing that had started the war. It was freedom combined with loss and a massacre to inflame a whole people.

“Death has claimed Neo-Bedouin.” River's whisper made Zoe close her eyes in pain. Helion 4 had fallen. They were moving inwards from the outside. They'd have the whole system taken within a year. “I'm sorry. They did not suffer.”

“Good to hear,” Zoe leaned against the railing. Jayne was holding the sandbag for his girlfriend, coaching her as she took her rage out. Was this the world she wanted for her child? A world of hatred and war?

“Plural.” Zoe glanced down as River's fingers touched separate points on her stomach. “One spark. One spark. They're holding hands.”

“Oh.” Zoe watched as River's hands spread across her stomach. The girl was special. She knew things others didn't. Reminded Zoe of things she never knew she'd forgotten. Foretold blessings and warned of disaster both. A regular oracle, except she wasn't regular at all, because she was part of their family.

“That alone makes her special.” River looked up at her with wide eyes. “Truly?”

“Truly,” Zoe nodded. She placed her hands over River's own. “You were right you know.”

“Of course she was.” She looked up at Zoe once more. “She has never been modest in regards to her abilities.”

“Wouldn't have you any other way,” Zoe laughed. She wrapped an arm around River's shoulders. “We should probably move away from the stairs. Have a feeling the shuttle's about to dock.”

River nodded, moving away from the stairs and Zoe both as she swayed into the kitchen. She was off to see Book. The shepherd had been distraught when they came back with the news. Book's face had paled and very suddenly he was an old man lost in the woods without a guide. His bible said to convert, by force if necessary, but his faith and his soul were screaming that it was wrong.

Zoe hoped Jack didn't do something stupid tomorrow.

~!~

“She needs to go to bed.” Mal was giving Jayne a look. “You need to make Jack go to bed.”

“Ain't shootin' her up with the doc's smoothers,” Jayne argued. The captain had come into his room a few minutes ago. For the last hour and a half Jack had been shouting and crying in Inara's shuttle.

“I'm not talking about drugging her up.” Mal got uncomfortable, shifting before he finally let out a breath of frustration. “Wear her out...do...I ain't happy she chose you, but there's worse men and you're prolly the best choice she could have made.”

Jayne narrowed his eyes at the captain. It was almost a compliment, probably the closest Jayne was ever likely to get from the captain that didn't relate to his ability to fight, track, or destroy a target.

“Less'n you got plans on a shot gun wedding I ain't touchin' her Mal.” The hamster in Mal's head stopped dead in it's wheel, staring at Jayne with much the same look the captain was wearing. “Ain't done nothin' cept maybe some kissin' and a few...no wedding, no ma, no consumatin'.”

“You...” The hamster was trying to keep moving. “You're serious?”

“Yeah.” Duh. “Kyra ain't likely to calm down 'til she actually gets into the fight. You know that well as I do. Ain't' never been in a real firefight, been in a real battle.”

Mal nodded, understanding. “Was hopin' she'd be...hoping to keep her on ship. Know it ain't gonna happen, but a man can hope.”

“I hope.” Jayne went back to loading his guns. “Gotta trust her Mal. Same as I gotta do.”

~!~!~

The next morning had the crew eating quickly before heading off to do their jobs. One last rehash of events. At dusk the shuttles were zipping over to pack in the kids and the elders. Jack and Zoe were in charge of cleaning out the safe and fueling up the ship. Mal was going to be moving along with Jayne and Riddick, taking out the posse one by one in the shadows. Of course, plan B involved arming the townsfolk. There was less chance of peaceful resolution that way; but it was a plan B.

“Grandfather mustn't worry.” River was sitting next to Book, ignoring the crew as they went about their business. Team One was heading out now, Mal reminding everyone about their jobs and promising that yes, they were in fact going to head towards a decent market when they were done. Team Two was taking a nap before they went out.

“I know child. I know.” He looked out across the table. “It still makes me sad. To know that man is still so far from peace.” Book's hand found it's way to rest upon River's head. “One day, one day I know men and women will put this aside.”

“Faith.”

“Indeed.” Book set his bible down and gave River a devious smile. “Such as the faith Mal and your brother have in me to make sure you stay on board.”

“You're going to go to sleep?”

“I'm an old man,” Book nodded, still smiling. “I also have some bad habits.”

“You heard the Beast talking to her. Wanted to take her into the wilds but Daddy said no.” River tilted her head as she put it all together. The Beast would wake for her. “The girl thanks her grandfather. Wishes she had you when she was young.”

“So do I River. Now go. Run and be young with a handsome young man.”

River nodded, kissing Book on the forehead before running up to the crew bunks. Serenity's return home had given everyone a kind bed, bright and shiny and ready to hold their load. The Beast's bunk was unlocked. The lock light was green and inviting as the jungles grandmother told her of and the door of his bunk swung open without a sound. She slid down the ladder, toes easing her weight onto the steel of his floor. No carpet. Her bare feet would make no noise, but he had no carpet.

It was troubling.

No ground cover, refusing to give her gifts...

River stared at the man on the bed. She could see them. The spirits were soft blue, just beneath his skin; she was no threat to him. They did not wake him. Training woke him. Experience woke him. Paranoia jolted him from bed with a knife in hand as moonshine eyes stared at her in narrow slits. She could see his nostrils flare as he took her scent in. The scent of old blood radiated through his haze, the scent of pain and beauty and female. His female.

“I don't like peppermint.” His brain was not yet awake. “I will not kiss you if I smell it on your breath.”

She could feel him relax, though his mind was becoming more active. Speeding up to process her words. It almost stopped when she moved to sit at the foot of his bed. River could feel her muscles jerking and curling inside of her. Angry with her for not carrying that which it did not want. Was not ready for.

“Don't like the smell of licorice.” He propped himself up, watching her in the darkness.

Safety lights illuminated the floor, tracing around the ladder and shining from beneath the bunk. New additions from the Universe. Protecting his investments. His privateers.

“He will be distracted by the scent of her blood tonight.” River leaned closer to his cyan form. His spirits were fluttering at her nearness as his heart sped up, deeper breaths savoring her and the natural readiness of her form. “We will run. We will know each others heartbeats and scents.”

“No rescue mission, plenty to hunt.”

~!~

Zoe had Jack's gun.

Keeping her from making a stupid mistake and costing them the job.

She saw the logic in it. She knew that blowing the old hag's brain out was firmly in the Bad category until such a time as it became okay to open fire on the lot of them. And there were a few hours left until the changeover happened. Quite a few. The only upside of the entire affair was Patience not asking them to enter the chapel with her and the rest of her crew. It wasn't Sunday and the chapel was private to those not a part of her little family.

The way she'd looked at Jack as she shared that, the gentle coaxing from behind her blood red teeth, it dampened her boiling rage to a simmer. That look was dangerous. It wanted things that weren't hers to take.

“She's Mal's to shoot.”

“I know.” She did know. “Don't want to be near her anyway. I've got this feeling in my gut every time she's in the room.”

Jack looked up from her screen. The lockbug program was eating away at every number not in the safe's sequence. By the time it finished, it wouldn't matter which numbers were punched in, the door would open. It worked faster than the decrypting program, but the lock was completely worthless afterward. Of course, that only mattered if the owner was going to be alive after the heist. Like bankers, or doctors, or...people who deserved to live.

“It's almost sundown,” Zoe commented, looking out at Patience and her gathering forces. Mercs and scabs, roughnecks and bushwhackers, the kind of person who wanted power but didn't have enough of their own to take it and keep it. “Parasites. All of them.”

Jack couldn't help but agree.

“On the upside, we're getting free gas.” She looked down at the notification on her screen. “And our shuttles are back home. So we can gas them up too.”

The townsfolk were going going to raid Patience's compound alongside the crew for seed and clean water and hygene supplies. A whole room of the house held nothing but soap and lotion and perfume. Loofah's and sponges and razors, all of them sold at outlandish prices, profiting off of religious belief. Patience didn't respect the Korat, but she didn't see a problem making a few platinum off of it either. Probably would have printed off copies if she could.

The sun was setting.

Serenity flew up just as Patience and her men began to ride down into town. Book was the first to exit, still visible to Patience. The look of glee on her face, the light of divine inspiration had the old woman ushering her horse to move faster. Kaylee came out next, peeking around the wall of the ship before waving their helpers out of the ship. Children held tight to fearful mothers, elders hobbled out, enjoying the freedom to walk without thugs staring them down. Doo was leading no less than seven young children off of the ship, standing between them and the world.

The goods in the safe were already boxed up when the three crew members entered the house.

“Where's River?” Zoe asked as Book and Wash hefted two heavy bags.

“She, well, that is to say,” Wash looked at Book. “River and Riddick took off together after Mal and Jayne left.”

“Oh.” Jack opened her mouth before closing it. “Well, that's something.”

“Somethin' mighty shiny,” Kaylee grinned as she came back in for another bag. “Ain't never seen Riv' lookin' so calm.”

“Does Simon know?” Zoe asked.

“Do you honestly think River would be off ship if he did?” Jack asked as she walked out of the safe with the last bag of cash. That thought made her pause. “Why isn't Simon clucking at us?”

“Noticed his absence myself,” Zoe admitted.

“He's with Inara back in town. Apparently she's acting nurse tonight.” Wash hefted one of the larger bags over his shoulder. “We should hurry before the natives decide to investigate our actions.”

Jack and Zoe took the two remaining bags and followed Wash from the house to the ATV waiting just outside the door. Kaylee was waiting for them in the trailer while Book sat in the driver's seat, engine running as he smiled at the passing citizens. It must have been a real picnic at first, a shepherd surrounded by those his faith had attacked, but they were smiling at him as he drove past with the crew. He must have said something. A few somethings if Jack knew him.

Wash and Kaylee jumped off when they reached the ramp, working to fill the ship before the fighting finished and the victor returned. It was making more and more sense, Jack realized. Mal leaving Zoe with her rather than taking his first mate into the fight. A strange, sad sort of sense. If he fell, if this fight didn't pan out as he hoped, Jack would very suddenly have a ship. And she'd need someone to help her keep flying.

“I find myself wondering who is going to be shot this time,” Book hummed as he helped the girls hide their haul. There were seven compartments in the ship Mal had only recently learned of. River had found them a few weeks ago. Learning about Mother.

“Not a member of the crew until you get shot,” Zoe poked her head from one of the compartments. She took the panel from Jack after she exited, holding it steady while Jack screwed it back on. All three of them moved on to the next hidey hole. “I have a feeling Simon might get his first battle wound.”

“Mal,” Jack shook her head. “Patience is going to get in one good shot. You know she is.”

“Well, whomever it is, we should get the infirmary prepped.” Book handed the bag up to Jack. Zoe was not climbing up into the walls. Her choice of course. Kaylee ran back in, past the two f them and up to the spare shuttle as Wash jogged past and towards the bridge. “Then again, perhaps we should hope that it is the divine will of god that none of our crew suffer.”

Zoe gave the shepherd a look.

“You do realize which crew you're talking about.”

A shudder came from the shuttle as Wash's cursing echoed from the bridge.

“Well, more than usual.”

Jack stuck her head out of the nook.

“You do realize which crew you're talking about.”

~!~

River peered down from the tree as she watched him hunt. She was not ready yet. The gleam of light on the blade was blue. Cream blue, rubbery and the painful edge cut into her eyes. She had not yet hunted man. Stalked, chased, ran and incapacitated, but she had not shown them Slumber.

He had. Mr. Sandman, sending them to dreams. He glorified in the battle, the rush of blood across his skin, the scent of fear that floated up from their corpses. Jayne did not enjoy it as the Beast did. A means to an end. The job for the cheque. Daddy hated it. Hated what they did even more. Not her Beast. The Beast was made for the hunt. Molded and trained by grandmother and the operatives. The same men who took her had taken him. Drawn them both in with the promise of power and strength. He'd gotten away before they knew what they had.

She saw another light flicker and die. She saw him taste the blood of his enemy before spitting it back out.

“Hype,” she whispered from her perch.

“Cophen,” Riddick agreed.

They spoke too loud. Daddy and Jayne were staring at them.

“Had to watch.” she told them very seriously.

“Be that as it may,” Mal hissed. “You, are not very well known for makin' things go smooth Lil' Bit.”

“She has not made noise until this moment,” River countered. “Has been watching, thinking. You would strike faster if you raised your elbow three degrees.”

Mal opened hi mouth to argue until he saw Jayne nodding in agreement.

“True, laggin' a bit.”

“Inara said if I raised my elbow too much i'd start to loose speed.” Mal crossed his arms. His sleeves were sodden with blood. “Imam agreed.”

“Head on sword fight isn't the same as taking a man out.” Riddick's rumble seemed to echo through the darkness. “Gotta sneak up on 'em. Slice through like butter before the can make a noise.”

“Well noise is gonna be made anyhow ain't it?” Mal scoffed. “Only men left is cavalry, gotta start taking shots.” He looked at her. Eyes wondering. “River. You gotta go find Inara and Simon, dong ma? Can't be worryin' over you.”

“Don't need to.” Riddick jumped up, grabbing hold of the low branch and swinging himself up. “We'll see you in town.”

He was waiting for her to start. She wouldn't make him wait long. Daddy had a speech bubbling from his lips and the man named Jayne was hoping. Hoping Jack wouldn't find out, hoping Mal wasn't going to take it out on him, hoping the Beast knew what he was doing. Of course he knew what he was doing.

He was following her.

~!~

Mal was mighty glad Imam was shooting again. The first one down had been a big un dhan, armed to the teeth with two submachines and a small grenade launcher. He'd a crazed look in his eyes yesterday and this afternoon. When his head had disappeared from his shoulders, a fine red mist spreading across his teammates as the bullet continued on and into the chest of the man behind him.

~

“I suppose I'm sworn to secrecy now.”

Inara smiled as she continued to watch. Simon was teasing her, just as she'd teased earlier. The seriousness underlining the joke was as serious as hers had been.

“Well, I'm not entirely certain anyone would believe you.”

Inara sat up and looked at the world from another view. She could see the torchlight going out behind Patience and her men. One at a time, two at a time, three men were doing what they could, lessening the load for those still in town. After the elders and the sick had left, after the boys too young to fight had gone, only ten men had remained in the town. Ten men and eight women, each armed and stationed atop buildings and behind shutters. She could see them shaking as they prepared, as Imam had showed them how to hold a gun.

“It certainly makes me wish I'd paid more attention to the olympics.” Simon glanced over at her. “Is it true that-”

Inara crouched back down, focusing on her target. Inhale, exhale. Thum-thump. Thum-thmp.

The sound of the rifle echoed only after the man fell dead from his horse.

Thum-thump.

“Always fire between heartbeats,” Inara told Simon as she adjusted her scope to the next target. “And always fire on the exhale.”

She didn't see Simon nod, instead she saw the horsemen scatter, she saw them pull their guns and ride faster, firing at the buildings, firing at windows and the corners of wagons. Fools.

“Five time champion,” Simon's hushed whisper floated across the air.

~

The townsfolk were firing too. A horse went down, another bucked and rode off, dragging his rider as he ran into the underbrush. Patience was firing wildly at the windows. Exposed as they were, three men had already been hit. Mal could hear them screaming inside of the stone and wood. There were maybe three people hitting their targets. Jayne passed Mal by as he ran for cover behind an overturned wagon. The rear fire had the men starting to panic and Patience had turned from insulted to livid. She knew she'd been betrayed.

Good.

Mal ducked behind a building, eyes watching as Riddick took cover behind the building across from him. Saw him peek into the window before rolling over the sill and into the building, River following close behind with the same animal grace and hard eyes. The alliance had broken something in her.

Gunfire drew him back into the fight. Foolish thing to do, getting distracted by something so silly as a teen girl and he needed to stop sticking his head out. His shoulder stung from the kiss of iron and fire. Some of the men were riding back, running back. Zoe and Jack would take care of them. His focus was on the woman in the silly orange hat. One of Imam's folk managed to catch a thug in the shoulder, a woman, hard and used. Girls like her didn't stay girls long. Followed camps of mercs for an extra buck.

Mal finished her. She'd seen River and pulled her gun. Patience was starting to run and that just couldn't happen. Mal kicked the lantern near his feet, setting the ground alight as the kerosine spilled into the sand, bright and hot. The horse reared, sending the old woman to the ground while Jayne and Riddick continued to pick off those who were hiding. Every so often Imam's rifle was snagging those who hid under and inside.

“Boy!” Patience was calling him out, brazen in the middle of town as her men died around her. “You are stepping into the divine works of God Malcom Reynolds!” Her gun was ready, eyes searching for him and his brown coat. “Get out here you heathen! Get out here and face me!”

“Ain't shootin' me again ya batty old hag!” Mal shouted back. “Give it up, and we'll let these fine folk see 'bout your sentence.”

One of the old woman's men was still twitching, shooting towards Imam. There was a shout from the direction. Angery and not Imam. The man was snuffed out a moment later by Riddick.

“No way in hell boy. This here is god's work. 'Verse needs a good cleaning out.” She'd figure out where he was, walking closer, but still protected from Jayne and Riddick. Imam wasn't firing at her. Waiting instead for Mal's next move. “You can be one of the first to die for these ragheads. You think I ain't seen what you done to that girl? Think I don't know you're lettin' her lose her way?”

Patience fired when Mal peeked out.

“Ain't god's work ya daffy woman.” Mal saw River watching, batting the reaching hand away from her. Didn't' seem entirely strange in that moment. Seemed mighty normal in fact.

A shot came from one of the buildings, grazing the old woman's lower back. She fell to the ground screaming, lips pulled back as a filthy red snarl spread across her face. She fell facing River's direction, saw the girl in the door and fired. Mal stepped out; he wouldn't look to see.

A woman her age shouldn't have been so fast. Her gun was trained on him before his own was raised and aimed.

A fine red mist spread across the ground, followed by the sound of Imam's rifle. Hundreds of little noises erupted around him. Riddick's cursing, pain filled as he growled and roared. A quick glance showed he'd been hit, pushed Riv out of the way and ended up with a big red blossom for his trouble. A flower and a troubled young woman cradling his head in her lap.

Mal saw Jayne popping out of his spot, the mercenary picking the men over for new or useful weapons.

He looked up to Imam, grinning until he saw the marksman. Standing there, upon the edge of the roof was a woman he'd never have expected to hold a weapon. Much less use it. Inara Serra, woman of mystery, amateur demolitions woman, was looking down at him with Death Sentence by her waist.

“Only I get to kill you Mal.”

Mal nodded, hooking his fingers through his belts loops. Simon rushed past him and over to Riddick.

“I'll remember that.”

“But will you remember to knock?” she teased. The gems in her top were catching the light, her eyes twinkling with the fire of battle and the fire blazing behind him.

“Ah, now that...” Mal grinned. “That might take some work.”

The shuttle returned a bit quicker than Mal expected, for the best considering the ever reddening wound on Riddick's stomach. River was still next to him, eyes filled with confusion and admiration, filled with something Mal could only call pride. Strange thing. A rather unhappy thing. Didn't need two of his girls falling for uncouth thirty-somethings.

“Looks like Kaylee wins,” Wash called back as they went back to Serenity. The pilot was quick, ducking and diving as he sped them to the compound.

“You were taking bets?” Mal looked over at his overly cheerful pilot.

“Flight crew always takes bets,” Wash replied. “On the upside, I win for guessing Riddick took less time to join crew than Jayne did.”

Mal was struck by a curious thought. How often did they bet on their captain coming back injured?

“River, please calm him down,” Simon urged. Confusing thing to say. Mal turned to focus on the companion instead. Didn't seem the time to have a talk. A talk didn't seem the thing to have. There wasn't any way to be delicate about this situation. Blunt was just plain...wrong.

“How long you reckon til our ambassador turns crew?” Mal asked Wash. But his gaze met Inara's. “Makin' me rethink my career choice.”

“You might be pretty Mal, but you're sense of decorum is appealing.” Inara was taking the rifle apart and laying the pieces back inside the case. deft hands and practiced actions. “You don't pay attention either.” She tapped the wall above her head. A collection of golden medallions glittered against the crimson velvet.

“Always figured they were...” He didn't finish; she had a gun now, didn't she? “Mr. Riddick, a fellow is liable to think you're dying.”

“Fuck you Mal!” Riddick was cringing, gripping a bar as Simon finally injected him with a pain killer. He'd been mixing things, searching through his bag and pulling out all sorts of vials before injecting the convict. “Doc, asqoyi will addrivat yeri pansy choyo!

“Shafka vos,” River poked the man in his chest. “Simon, he is unmoving.”

“I figured it would be best to numb him until the bullet was out of his abdomen,” Simon was staring down at Riddick. Not at River. “Don't worry, I'll get it out as soon as we get him into the infirmary.”

Mal saw Jayne trying to hold back his laughter and Inara hiding her smile behind a delicate hand. Even Wash was grinning. The doc wasn't much of a fighter, but he knew how to stand his ground with the crazy folk. Crazy folk, talkin' in tongues. No, he wasn't about to have a talk with Inara, but a crew meeting was very close on the horizon. Very Close.

~

Jack watched with a certain amount of admiration, confusion, and amusement as Riddick was carried into the infirmary. Riddick, the man who'd saved her ass on Hades and Kublai Khan, was being carried on a cot, grinning like the goofiest bastard that ever did live. Laughing even as blood left a trail of droplets on the grating. Simon had gone first, River following close behind the laughing man.

Wash was chuckling as he came over to those who'd remained behind.

“Apparently, Simon found something that both incapacitates and turns a killer into a giggling puppy.” A 'woo' noise echoed from the infirmary. “Mal must have told him he was pretty. Or they figured out what organ was hit.”

Jack rolled her eyes.

Everyone knew he was going to get hit in the appendix.

~!~

“Gege is being overly cautious, he will not harm her.” River was sitting on the cot opposite Riddick's own.

“No. I'm not worried about that.” Simon looked down at the increasingly groggy man. He was getting grumpy and staring at everyone with a measure of anger or frustration. The pain killers had worn off but the numbing agent remained. “Would you mind letting me have a moment alone with him?”

River tilted her head at him, staring at him sideways before sliding from her perch.

“Three minutes.”

“More than enough time meimei,” Simon nodded. He waited until River had left the infirmary before closing the door. He didn't speak until he saw his sister leave for her room. Then he turned to Riddick. This crew had a bad habit of getting shot. And a strangely lucky habit of being shot in the most worthless organ in the body.

“You know what I'm about to say, don't you?” Simon asked. He leaned over the end of the bed, staring Riddick in the eyes. “You also know that I didn't get the same treatment as you and my sister.”

“Not worth it,” Riddick replied. Not accusing, honest.

“Not to her, no. But I'm the one who got River out of the Academy. The one who broke into the Company's little science fair and set the inmates loose on them.” Simon leaned closer. “I'm the one who slashed Mathias open from groin to throat. I shoved a defibrillator in there too.” Simon wasn't proud of that fact. Didn't glorify in pain as Grandmother had. The man deserved all that and more. He deserved the constant stream of electricity and all the cooking flesh and more. “I'm the one who got her out here to meet up with you. Just remember that. Hm?”

Simon sat up straight, smoothing his vest out before sliding the door open and leaving.

He hadn't intimidated the man. He didn't need to.

Simon remembered that he was strong enough already.

~!~!~!~

Every time I hear 'Devil's Dance Floor' by Flogging Molly, I think of River and Riddick.

Dothraki/furyan time! Quick note, you'll notice Dothraki doesn't have certain words, ie, Can, will, please. But the meaning comes across well enough.

Doc, asqoyi will addrivat yeri pansy choyo! - Doc, swear will kill you pansy ass

Shafka Vos – you not
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