He had a task to complete. That was the important thing. It needed to be done.
He had travelled a long way to complete it. He had followed her across more space than he had thought it would take. She'd run further than he would have credited she could. She'd tangled her trail more comprehensively than any of the others (but he'd found her, still). And she'd found associates, which no doubt she thought would make it harder.
It wouldn't, of course.
The guy looked a complete daigua. He was wearing some full body armour that was also, judging by the noise of regulated breathing, a spacesuit. It had a helmet that looked like its mother was an insect. Weird facial construction and glossy sunglass eye sockets. Couldn't see a thing of his face and he sounded like his voice was filtered, all of which, since they were having this conversation planetside with their feet on honest dirt, added up to crazy, paranoid, or avoiding being recognised. Mal had no arguments with any of those - hell, with all three rolled together. Some of his best friends were all three rolled together.
Of course, he had a cape, too. Great big black cape. Mal had been struggling with the giggles since he showed up.
"No," Mal said, swallowing his levity and praying that Zoe didn't give him a sidelong look. That'd be the end of it. "No, we are not going back to my ship. What do you think I am, stupid?"
The guy - he hadn't given a name, though he'd known theirs - lowered his hand. He'd been doing some airy-fairy handwave. It was enough to make Mal wonder if he was some privileged eccentric from the core planets. Big guy. Carried himself like he didn't fear a single thing in the universe, but Mal couldn't pick an actual weapon hanging off his belt.
Better safe than sorry, of course. He was watching the guy closely.
"Look," Mal said. "Why don't you just tell us what it is you're wanting so we can tell you to go to hell and we can all just get on with whatever it is we've got to be getting on with." OK, so, not diplomatic, but it weren't precisely the most brusque he'd ever been and this crazy conversations down dusty alleyways business was becoming old real quick.
The big guy tilted his stupidly helmeted head a little. "I don't think I'll be going to hell," he said, as though amused at the very idea. As much as his voice could show amusement. It was darker, richer, more like electronic molasses than any vocoder Mal had ever heard, but it sure as hell weren't no natural voice.
"Ain't a long trip from here," Zoe said shortly. She was wound more tight than Mal was, but that was what he relied on. Most times they walked away (OK, sometimes staggered away and occasionally were carried, but the important thing was lived to fight another day) because Zoe got twitchy while Mal was still refusing to believe he could die in such a stupid boring situation.
"The girl," Black Bug said.
Mal looked sideways at Zoe looking sideways back at him. It occurred to him sometimes that Kaylee counted as a girl, and at a stretch Inara too, and if you were feeling particularly intrepid you could even try applying the descriptor to Zoe, but whenever anyone said "the capital-G Girl" these days, there was only one person they were talking about.
Zoe's hand was on the gun at her hip now, and Mal was feeling a powerful itch to be doing the same, but the big guy was still just standing there, unarmed and radiating disdain. "You another bounty hunter?" Mal demanded. If he was, he was the weirdest one Mal had ever encountered, but he was steadily learning that they came in all shades of crazy.
"No," the guy said.
"But you want to take her back," Zoe said, flatly.
Another tilt of the helmet. "Not especially."
"Well," Mal said. "I ain't pretending I understand and certainly ain't pretending I want to. She's a pain in the neck - and her singing's entirely uncalled for, might I add - but we've kinda got used to her, so if it's all the same, we'll keep her."
When the guy looked at him, Mal could see himself reflected in the perfect black of the eyepieces of the helmet. "I see," the guy said. "It's not all the same."
In a beautiful, fluid motion, he knocked back the edge of that ridiculous black cape, and drew something from his belt. It looked more like something Kaylee'd use on the engine than a weapon, but Mal wasn't taking any chances at this point. He went for his gun.
There was a flash of red light.
He fell before her eyes. Her captain, her sergeant, her friend. All she had left, maybe. Standing one moment, toppling the next, even as Zoe had her gun out, firing both barrels.
The stranger just lifted a hand, like brushing away a fly. The shells twitched aside in the air, whistling past his shoudler and raising a cloud of brick dust further down the alley.
Mal's body hit the dust at Zoe's feet. There was a wisp of gunsmoke stil rising, and a beam of angry red light between her and the stranger. She'd just seen that beam pass through Mal like he wasn't there. And now he wasn't. She was alone. Oh, his body was still there, tangled undignified mess on the ground, but he was gone. Meat weren't the person. The gun was still in his hand.
"Let's try this again," the stranger said, angling his - what was it, some sort of laser blade? She'd never even heard of them, never even heard they were possible. Whatever it was, it hummed like an unshielded power source, the crackle of it setting Zoe's teeth on edge. Or maybe that was the body at her feet. The stranger twitched his weapon, the air full of its noise. "We're going back to your ship."
Zoe lifted her chin a little. "Not without the captain."
The stranger stepped forwards, and kicked the gun out of Mal's fallen hand. It span away across the dirt, lodging beneath some junk against the alley wall. Some kid'd find that in a day or two and blow someone's head off, his own or a friend's. Zoe was having a hard time caring about that right now. "So bring him," the stranger said.
He waited until she reholstered her useless gun and stepped forward before he turned his weapon off. The red blade disappeared, the noise stopped.
Mal had always been a heavy bastard. There was no blood (thank heavens, this time) just a faint scent of charred meat. It made her gag a little as she rose, slowly and carefully, so as not to stagger under his unfamiliar weight slung over her shoulder. (Not so wholly unfamiliar; she'd carried him like this once before, out of his head with pain, telling her that if a man had to go her rump was a fine last sight. She'd slapped him for that, three days later when he regained consciousness.)
She turned and started walking without saying a word, without checking to see if the stranger was following. The thing about docking in a two-bit mining township on a back-of-beyond moon was that no one cared if you walked down the main street with a dead man over your shoulder. No one would bat an eyelid if she turned and shot the big stranger dead. If she could. If she hadn't tried already, and watched a shot she'd never miss go wide. And then there was that red blade, and how fast he'd moved with it.
The only person she'd even seen move so fast was River.
"What do you want with her?" Zoe asked blankly.
The dark, sandy voice came from behind her. "To reunite her with the rest of her kind."
"Her kind?" Zoe repeated. She didn't understand. She didn't really care.
The stranger walked lightly for such a big man wearing so much armour. "You have no idea what she really is," he said.
Maybe Zoe didn't. What was River? A good kid. A weapon. A girl who loved her brother. Meat weren't the person, but neither was history.
It wasn't that far to their dock. Serenity no longer looked like home. She was just a big hunk of metal. She'd never been Zoe's. She'd been Wash's other feisty lady. She'd been Mal's dream. Nothing of Zoe's. Nothing anymore.
When she'd laid Mal out beside her, she couldn't get back up off her knees. Stayed there in the dirt, staring at the ugly burn striped across Mal's chest. Body wounds, huh? Always big damn body wounds. A shadow loomed over them, and the stranger said, "Open the hatch."
She looked up at him, and said, "No."
"So be it," he said easily, and lifted a hand.
The air grew solid in Zoe's throat. Her lungs heaved and she gasped ineffectually. She thought maybe now, now was the time to panic. She thought that maybe she'd grown tired of waiting for her turn.
The sun grew dim and died and a rushing filled her ears.
The door slammed back so fast it actually lifted off its rail. Simon flinched so hard he fumbled his book, and River scrambled into his room.
"Gotta go," she said, breathless with urgency. She grabbed his arm, and tugged him towards the door. "Gotta go."
"No," he said, dropping the book on his bed so he could grab her arms in return, try to calm her down. "No, River, we're staying, the others have gone. Remember? We're babysitting Serenity." Her term, delivered with laughter, carried through with all seriousness. She'd been singing to the ship when Mal, rolling his eyes, had headed out with Zoe. Simon had been somewhat glad Jayne had already gone. He could tell Kaylee all about it when they got back.
"Simon." River stopped, looked him straight in the eye. And there wasn't a twitch in her face, not even the signs she usually got when she was being overwroughtedly earnest. She was serious. "We have to go. Now. Or he'll--" She stopped as though a scalpel had claimed the rest of her sentence, her chin jerking up, her eyes darting to the side.
"Or he'll what?" Simon asked, soothing as he could. "Who's he?"
"Too late," she said, distracted and short, frustrated. Her gaze slid up, to the ceiling, and she spun out of his grasp. Two steps to the door. She said over her shoulder, "You have to hide."
"Is it the Alliance?" Simon asked. He needed some handle on this situation. What had River spooked now? "Because you know that's not--"
"Not the Alliance," she said, and stepped out into the hall lithe and measured, like she was stalking. "Worse." She looked back at him, and added, "True."
Were there...? There were tears in her eyes. He crossed to her, cradled her face in his hands. "Meimei, what's wrong?"
"Don't." She had her hands around his wrists, prying his fingers away from her face. Her voice was barely more than a whisper. "Don't call me that, Simon, please. I'm sorry. Oh Stars, I'm so sorry." She pressed his hands together, pushing him away, more urgent now: "You have to hide."
"Hide from who?" Simon was saying, exasperated, when he heard it. A step from above, the sound of the gangways flexing beneath a tread.
Silence, otherwise. If it were Inara, he'd have heard the shuttle docking. If it were Mal and Zoe, they'd be arguing. If it were Jayne and Kaylee, he'd be grumbling and she'd be calling to come see what she'd bought. Not a word, just another step, and the sound of someone descending the stairs.
River pushed him back into his room, but Simon caught a hand on the doorframe, struggling back. "No," he whispered, crowding back towards her. "You hide, I'll misdirect him, whoever it is." She was shaking her head, on the edge of losing it and yet more lucid than he'd seen her in more years than he liked to remember. She was muttering that it wouldn't work, it wouldn't work, he had to hide. "River, no, I'm not leaving you, you're my sister."
"I'm not!" she cried.
And a voice from above, dark and malevolent, said, "You should listen to her; she's right."
He was tall, the black-clad stranger. He had to bend a lot to step through the door, his boots big and heavy, like the rest of his attire, some sort of spacesuit, judging by the panel of controls on the front. His helmet was inhuman, just the thing for that voice to echo inside of before spilling forth. He had a cape. He should have been ridiculous.
He wasn't. He made Simon's blood run cold. But before he'd even thought about it, he moved, putting himself between River and the stairs that the stranger loomed at the head of. River shook his shoulder, but Simon wasn't budging.
The stranger began to descend the stairs, slow steps weighted with menace. "She's not even human," he said, the conversational tone completely wrong in that sepulchral voice. "Though her species comes closer than some. What gives it away is the brain. It's not like ours. And it can see straight into yours, and change what it sees there. She could make you believe anything. Like, for instance, that she's your sister. That you threw everything away to rescue her. Instead of the truth, which is that she ran further than you can even comprehend and manipulated you and all the people around you in an attempt to avoid one thing." He spread black-gloved hands. "Me."
Simon was no stranger to crazy, but this was a new and flabberghasting breed. But when he looked at River, she was staring hopelessly at the stranger in black, tear tracks carved down her face. "How did you find me?" she asked in a small voice.
"The Force is greater than all the space between," the man said, in the condescending tone of a preacher admonishing the weak in faith.
"What?" Simon looked back at him, as he took the last few steps down to the floor. "The Force? What--? Who are you?"
"Destiny," that hollow black voice said. He lifted a hand, holding something cylindrical and chrome, and River was shouting, grabbing at Simon's arm even as he tried to keep her behind him, tried to keep an eye on the black stranger, who said, "And you are in my way."
She caught him before he hit the floor, but couldn't stop herself falling with him. She cradled him close, his skin, his hair, his eyes shocked open in surprise and River closed them, gently, a drop of salt water splashing against his cheek.
How? How could this hurt even more than the Temple? How could she have come so far, done so much, only to wish with every single part of her that she never had. That she'd died that day rather than this. Anything rather than this. Anyone rather than him.
Her fingers were digging into Simon's flesh, but he'd never know, he'd never care. Her knuckles were white and trembling. "Skywalker," River snarled, looking up at him.
He was still standing above them, lightsaber low in one hand. "No," he replied.
River eased backwards, sliding Simon gently off her knees and onto the floor. "Vader," she spat, rising to her feet. She wrapped the Force around her, pulling it in, tight and deep, more than she'd ever managed before, more than she thought possible. She couldn't be doing this, this couldn't be happening.
She'd been playing crazy for so long, the reality settling over her felt like home.
Vader was laughing behind his mask when she leapt at him. She'd tear it away, she'd reduce him to scrap, she'd taste the strange ichor of his blood. She would make him hurt, tear this pain from her heart and carve it into his. There was lightning in her fingertips and blood singing in her brain. She felt the dark snap closed around her like a trap. Like a welcome.
He was still laughing.
He killed her, of course. It was what he had come to do.
Every Last One by dee
A Star Wars/Firefly crossover. Of course I'm not suggesting this is how it is. It's just a crazy, crazy notion. You kinda need to squint and tread lightly. Work with me, here.