Summary - Zoe faces the devil and prays for help.
Comments - Thanks for keeping me on the straight and narrow mercsgoodgirl. All belongs to Joss W. I just borrow sometimes.
Simon and Inara crossed paths again on the catwalks above the cargo hold on their search of the ship.
“I can’t find her.” Simon’s agitation transformed his normally smooth mannerisms into jerks and twitches.
Inara shook her head, “I’ve looked everywhere.” Then quickly gauging his rising panic she said, “We’ll find her.”
“I know my sister. If she doesn’t want to be found… we won’t find her.”
“What should we do?”
“We just have to keep looking.”
She nodded, her eyes scanning the cavernous cargo hold, hoping to discover some hiding place they had overlooked in their last three searches. She contemplated the cargo hold a second longer, wondering at its sudden emptiness.
“Simon? Where’s the mule?” Inara asked, already knowing the answer but half hoping he would say the machine was somewhere not being ridden by River across Half Moon.
“It’s in the—?” He scoured the empty hold, until realization widened his eyes, froze his mouth open, and then set him in motion.
“No, no, no, no!” Simon raced full tilt through the ship with Inara scurrying after him.
He burst into the bridge puffing, disheveled, frantic, “Where is she?”
“I don’t—what’s the matter?” Kaylee dragged her eyes from console.
“The mule is missing,” Inara answered from the doorway.
“No way, she couldn’t have. The cargo door alarm would have—“ Kaylee checked the console to her right. “Go suh. River disconnected the door alarm. She opened the cargo doors over twenty minutes ago. Exhaust trails look like…” Kaylee looked from Simon to Inara. “She’s heading for Merrick’s place.”
“We have to go after her.” Simon said.
“With what?” Inara asked from the door. “Anything bigger than the mule would be picked up by Merrick’s security. We can’t fly the ship closer and my shuttle isn’t much better.”
“But we have to do something.” Simon looked from Inara to Kaylee.
“Kaylee, call Mal on the comm, let him know that River’s on her way.”
“She’s been so much better since Miranda. I thought—“ Simon stared dazedly out the window at the shadowed rugged terrain of Half Moon.
“Simon, don’t worry,” Kaylee soothed. “River can take care of herself… better than any of us. She’ll be fine.”
“I think River knows exactly what she’s doing.” Inara ventured, though she locked worried eyes with Kaylee.
“What if—“ Simon began but couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought.
Inara placed an arm consolingly around his shoulders, while Kaylee worked frantically to raise the Captain, “Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.”
* * * *
“Don’t look so stricken Zoë. You really didn’t think Fanti and Mingo had any loyalties to your Captain? You should know better… its not in their nature, the money was too good I suppose. But I guess we all have our price, don’t we?”
“Only a hun dan like you would put a price on a man’s life.”
“An idealist. How is that working for you?” He nodded meaningfully at the straps on her wrist.
Zoë glowered at him, but said nothing.
“How bout a little wager? Your Captain lives, shall we wager on how long he will continue to draw breath?”
“Ain’t one to wager on a man’s life.”
“Come now, Zoë . Don’t ruin my fun. We do it every day. Don’t take the high road now because it’s a friend… a comrade… whatever. Should we have wagered on Mingo and Fanti’s lives? Easier to swallow maybe? Not fair really, I had to kill them; no loyalties one way or the other. They would have double crossed me instead of handing you over if the money was good enough.” He shook his head like a disappointed parent, “Shame I had to kill them… but I can’t reward a total lack of loyalty, even if it was for my benefit.”
“Aren’t we lucky then to have upstanding citizens like you to give us a moral compass?”
“I know what I am.” He bristled.
“And what exactly is that?”
He shrugged, “Maybe I’m a thief like you, just a better one. You're nothing but a criminal. Success, even at thievery, has its rewards. I'm a businessman... a Lord, so count yourself lucky that I am more civilized than others.”
She made a show of inspecting the straps encircling her wrists, “A girl just keeps getting luckier and luckier.”
“You really are fascinating. I seem to have developed a weakness for you. That can be the only explanation for why you’re still alive. But I suppose I have only myself to blame… you really look stunning in that dress.”
Zoë held her tongue though she wanted to tell him where to put his rutting dress.
He watched her with a hungry look in his eyes. “I should warn you. I am a man of many … appetites, and the longer you keep me… satisfied, the safer you will be.” He stood inches from her, lowered his lips to her captive arm. “You can be certain that I will hurt you, but I will never draw blood from you… too messy and not my taste. But without my protection, I can’t control what other more lurid characters would do to you. Do we understand each other?”
He stepped ominously close then dropped his head so that his cold wet lips trailed down her arm. A roughened tongue licked her skin intermittently like some curious animal. In her revulsion, she tried to twist way from his mouth, but the straps kept her firmly in his reach.
She endured his wet ministrations with clenched teeth, her tongue plastered to the roof of her mouth to keep down the bile rising in her throat.
He finally lifted his head, a feral grin creased his face as his hands crawled over the thin material of her dress to her breasts, “Mmm, intoxicating.”
With every ounce of her she wanted to kick and scream, and beat him till he was bloody. The hateful straps at her wrists and ankles robbed her of control and Zoë suddenly wanted to weep. Not that she was going to but being helpless was not a feeling she was used-to or took to well. But despite her rising panic, she managed to pull one simple thought together. Keep him talking.
“What did the Captain do to you?” She was pleased that her voice sounded stronger than she thought it would.
She forced herself not to move when he suddenly shifted behind her. A cold finger trailed the crystals down her back. She had never felt so naked in her life.
“It’s a long story…” She heard the smile in his voice.
“I can cancel some appointments.” She closed her eyes, silently praying to the Shepherd’s God that Merrick would take the bait.
He walked across the room and poured himself another glass of wine.
Breathing came a little easier.
“Where shall I start? Miranda then. We lived quite comfortably. Terraforming specialists are paid very well. She was a beautiful planet, until the ‘the powers that be’ ordered a change in the normal terraforming protocol, the addition of PAX to the air processors. My father disagreed with the deviation and argued, demanded, then pleaded. The change was too dangerous because of unpredictable effects, blah, blah, blah.”
He grinned maniacally staring off into space, lost in the memory, “But here’s the best part… he was right. The old goat was right... After the first two infusions of PAX he got paranoid, packed us up and took us half way across the ‘verse. But he still had friends in high places who would wave with updates on the terraforming. Soon those friends started disappearing, one by one. The final wave was nonsensical, said something about monsters and millions dead or dying… no explanation.”
He paused to drain the glass and refill it.
“I was a child, naïve, until I was forced to grow up. All I knew was that the Alliance wanted my family dead. It wasn’t until later I realized why. The Alliance had a dirty little secret, and someone somewhere had decided that our lives were a fair exchange to keep that secret.”
He smiled as if suddenly remembering she was in the room, “So now you know my humble beginnings. Do you want to hear how the story ends?”
He didn’t wait for an answer.
“Mother didn’t survive long; the outer planets were harsh and unforgiving. Father and I kept moving, never staying in one place too long. Every step we took, an operative walked in our shadow. We barely survived, changing names like clothes, doing any jobs we could. Then Father died and left me to the Alliance. I was only 17.” He laughed, a hollow cruel sound that the large room absorbed like a sponge.
“But I was smarter than the old man.” He tapped the side of his head, pride puffing out his chest. “If the Alliance wanted me dead, then I would make them want me alive more. I worked any job, did anything and when I had enough credits I made sure the right people knew how much I knew. My father’s entire research on the effects of PAX and the last waves on the Alliance’s great experiment was set to broadcast on every band in the ‘verse at a certain hour. If I didn’t cancel the order with a new generated key code and live body scan then, ‘Poof!’, Miranda wouldn’t be a secret anymore. I did what my father couldn’t; I made them need me alive. Soon the mighty Alliance was at my feet. Became an ally, an unwilling one, but an ally nonetheless. Lucrative business opportunities came my way, my trade routes were clear, they closed their eyes to certain transactions. I had a very profitable franchise. Had.”
The wine glass shattered on the wall behind her.
“I say had because now the whole rutting ‘verse knows the Alliance’s little secret and I… well you can see my problem can’t you? I am a very rich man, Zoë, but your Captain should have kept his nose out of my business. My influences in the Alliance have waned but there are always those who can be bought with a few credits. It took a while but I got a name and a ship. Your friends, Fanti and Mingo arranged for your Captain to arrive at my door… but I didn’t count on you. You were the bonus in all of this.”
* * * *
She didn’t scream.
Not the first time.
Not the second time.
Not the thirtieth time.
“Perfect.” He breathed in her hair, running his hands over her arms, down her back. “Most women beg, bargain with what they cannot give, but not you. I wonder what it will take?” He whispered in her ear, pressing himself against her back.
The rich metallic taste of her own blood on her tongue startled her. She was bleeding. It took a second to realize that she bitten through her lip. Blood poured into her mouth but the sting of the self inflicted wound paled against the fire burning down her back and over her arms.
She didn’t make a sound. Only in her head did the grind of flesh and blood find a voice, but each time she quieted herself with the singular thought.
They will find me.
“Not ready to give me what I want?” He tugged her head back, exposing more skin to his mouth.
Wo xiang mei er mei xin bian shi tou.
She wasn’t going crazy. But the voice in her head was as real as Merrick’s hot breath crawling across her skin.
Zoë wanted to smile but couldn’t muster it, knowing what was coming and trying to steel herself for it.
Stone doesn’t cry, was the answer she got, as if she had asked a question.
I’m not crying, she thought stubbornly.
Merrick’s hand slithered down her body, and despite her revulsion, she stayed impassive. Stone.
“I had to kill him you know.” He whispered against her skin. “I’m not a jealous man Zoë. Possessive? Yes. But I can appreciate that there was a time that you didn’t belong to me. But you were wearing my dress, my diamonds, in my house. So, you see, he hadn’t the right to touch you. I allowed it… well, I was going to kill him anyway… but I’m not without compassion. I made sure it was quick. ”
The full implication of his words flowed over her like ice.
He boldly fingered a curl, as if in spiteful retribution for her earlier slight. She couldn’t stop him and his smirk grated on her. He yanked, forcing her head forward painfully, his face inches from hers.
She swallowed the pain, meeting his eyes evenly, her heart refusing to believe anything he said.
“If you were wondering,” his voice dropped to a conspiratory whisper, “that dress is made to be ripped off,” he smiled.
Defying her, the tears she had kept in check flowed silently.
Please God, make her stone. The words were whispered in her head like a prayer from a familiar angel.
With slow deliberation, Merrick walked in front of her, running a hand from the bend of her elbow to her forearm as if measuring the distance. She gritted her teeth in anticipation of what she knew was coming.
He kissed the exposed skin of her arms, savoring the slight trembling in her limbs.
She didn’t flinch when he licked her skin, didn’t scream when he tore into her again.
Her knees finally buckled, only the straps that cut into her wrists kept her standing.
Stone doesn’t bend. her angel insisted, just as she felt herself breaking.
No, but they shatter.
You won’t. She sounded so sure Zoë almost believed her.
River, help me.
The ear-shattering roll of thunder in the room, and Merrick’s curse, brought her head up toward the wall to her left.
Then like the eye in a storm of dust and debris, River stood framed in an hole in the palace wall. An enormous cannon rested on her narrow shoulders. This time she wasn’t covered in blood but looked even more ethereal to Zoë.
Merrick gaped in disbelief at the slight girl in the green sun-dress, cradling a canon, and nodding in satisfaction, as happy as a child with a new toy.
“She’s big enough,” River grinned impishly at Zoë.
He was so shocked that he didn’t blink again until he found himself staring down the wicked end of a rifle with the girl on the other end, smiling like she knew how to use it.
Recognition dawned soon enough and Merrick found some of his calm and swagger.
With one hand the girl freed one of Zoë’s arms, then turned her full attention to Merrick as Zoë undid the hateful restraints.
“River Tam. I’ve heard about you.” He was a wagering man, and despite what he had heard, the girl looked harmless enough. “You’re not going to shoot me are you?”
“Maybe.” She said pleasantly. “You have something I need…” River tilted her head to the side as if listening to a melody and not the alarms blaring through the palace.
Merrick had already correctly calculated that his full security detail should be arriving in less than two minutes. He really needed to rethink the size of this place.
“Where are Jayne and the Captain?” Zoë forced her legs to move across the room, stepping carefully on bare feet through the debris, to throw on Merrick’s jacket over her naked shoulders.
“Soon, there will be too many, so we have to be quick.” River said
“The Captain an’—“
“There.” River pointed to the bookcase against the wall. “But wait for it… timing is everything.” River looked at Merrick.
He stared at River suspiciously, no longer as confident.
“Merrick says move the statue.”
His mouth fell open. “So my sources were right. It’s not just rumors. You are a Reader.” Merrick, intrigued and in awe of the girl, seemed to have forgotten the gun still pointed at his head. “Are you as feng luh, as they say you are?”
“ Boo tai jung tzhang duh, but more than you.”
Merrick snorted, but kept his mouth shut.
“Time isn’t waiting; move the statue.” River nodded impatiently at the bookshelf and a weighted stature of a man deep in thought.
Zoë grabbed the heavy metal and slid it easily to the right. With a hiss, the panel slid back and to the side. Jayne and the Captain charged through the opening in the wall like reavers were on their heels.
They stopped short, taking in the giant hole in the wall and the sight of River holding a gun to Merrick’s head. Zoë, weary and pissed, crossed the room and helped herself to one of the guns Jayne was holding.
“There’s another party and nobody told us?” Mal smirked.
“What the hell are y’all doin’ here?” Jayne wasn’t as subtle.
“Waiting for you.” River answered matter-of-factly.
“We have to go, now.” Zoë suddenly had the need to be as far away from Half Moon as possible.
“We still need them codes.” Mal insisted, eyeing the unusually quiet Merrick.
“No, we don’t.” Zoë answered.
“Pardon?” Mal had a bad feeling what was left of his plan was about to go to hell.
“Fanti & Mingo are dead… I’ll tell you a story when we get back to the ship.” Zoë turned and started picking her way carefully on bare feet through the debris toward River’s door.
Merrick found his voice, “You might as well put your guns down and save yourself the trouble. You won’t make it off Half Moon alive.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth that he found a gun jammed against his temple. The big mercenary on the other end of it snarled.
The sudden lack of air made him forget about the gun to his head. Merrick’s groomed fingernails clawed at the hand Jayne had wrapped around his neck as if air could stop the bullet chambered inches from his head. Jayne tightened his fingers around Merrick’s throat and squeezed, just a fraction, enough to widen Merrick’s eyes and put a little more fight in his hands.
Only the Shepherd’s voice in his head held Jayne’s rage at bay, preserving the unforgiving gap between bullet and hammer, and the crush of muscle and bone against windpipe. Jayne could feel the preacher at his back, and for a few seconds Merrick’s life hung on the goodwill of a ghost.
You only get one, Shepherd.
Jayne’s hands unraveled from around Merrick’s neck and the man gulped in mouthfuls of air, wheezing through his bruised windpipe. The pale skin of his temple bore the imprint of the pistol’s barrel. But not even the Shepherd’s good will could keep Jayne from slamming his fist into Merrick’s face until he heard something crack. He’d wanted to do that all day.
“Jayne. Now.” Zoë’s voice reached inside him and stilled his bloodied fists.
He dropped Merrick and turned to look at Zoë.
One dark hand clutched the front of Merrick’s jacket closed, and the other was wrapped possessively around the handle of the gun she had taken from him.
“Let’s go,” she nodded toward the gap in the wall and Jayne, River and Mal followed.
Merrick managed to lift his head, “This isn’t over.” He garbled, spewing blood down his chin onto his clothes.
“Is there a ‘bad guy’ manual or something, and how come we didn’t get a copy? Seems like every time, I got to hear the same gorram speech,” Mal groused as he headed through the hole in the wall.
“Ain’t so sure we’re still bad guys. You know, with this whole dressing up and stealin’ nothing thing.” Jayne complained.
“You’re all dead,” Merrick sputtered.
“Chapter one.” Mal shook his head ruefully.
“Zoë.” Merrick spat out a mouthful of blood.
Merrick’s voice snaked up her spine, burning all over her raw, bruised skin.
Jayne saw Zoë’s hand tighten on the gun she palmed.
“You think I won’t find you?” Merrick gurgled.
He grinned painfully, a bloody mess of flesh and broken teeth. His half-hearted chortle bubbled with blood. “You really think I won’t find you?” His eyes locked on Zoë. “Reynolds, you can hold onto her for now. I’ll collect her later and the rest of what you owe me—“
Merrick’s head rocked back as metal tore through skin, bone, and brain. Dead center between Merrick’s shocked grey eyes, a red-rimmed third eye wept blood.
His body slumped, lifeless, to the floor.
Zoe lowered her gun, a little disappointed she didn't get to kill Merrick herself. But dead would do any way she got it.
Wo xiang mei er mei xin bian shi tou. - I will close my ears and my heart and I will be stone.
Boo tai jung tzhang duh - Not entirely sane
This is a link to What I want...What I need Part 9