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Can't Take the Sky

Chapter Text

Captain John Watson stared unsmiling down the length of his gun at the frail, tiny old woman on the horse.  No, he had no intention of shooting her - unless she moved, of course.  And it wasn’t as though he didn’t owe her one, anyhow.

“It appears we’ve come upon a small disagreement, your boys and I.  But there’s no need for violence,“ he said amiably.

“Course not,” she agreed, unfazed.  She was wearing a wide hat to keep the planet’s sunlight out of her eyes and off her leathered face, which suited her.

“The way I see it, we can just complete this business transaction as we discussed.  I have the payment - thank you very much” - in his other hand he jingled the small pouch he was carrying - “and we all ask our people very nicely to put their guns and” - a glance at one member of Norbury’s very eager backup contingent - “…crossbows away, and now that you have the coordinates of the goods, we can all go our merry ways.”  He risked a glance at Molly, mounted beside him, and saw her nod at the woman in a reassuring manner.

“I’m afraid that right there we have a problem,” she said, cool and pleasant as if this were a conversation about weather patterns on the southern continent.  “You see, I really hate losing money.”

John tossed the bag back to her immediately and she caught it with a neat little twist of her wrist (the one not holding a rifle).  He did not, however, lower his gun.

“There you go.  No harm done.”

He waited for Norbury to respond, but there was nothing.  After a moment, John smiled.

“So hard to get good help these days, isn’t it?  You hire a sniper, assume he can do the job, and then he goes and gets himself rendered unconscious.”  She just glared at him.

“Oh, and the other one does, too.  Shame.”  Now she looked angry.  Angry was at least something he could work with.  Angry, he understood.  “So are you going to allow my people to leave?  I’m sure we can come to an arrangement private-like, just the two of us.”  He paused, but she just kept staring him down, as though debating.  “By our own selves,” he added, in case she didn’t quite understand him.

She seemed to come to a decision, and nodded to her right.  The man with the crossbow let an arrow fly.

Things happened very quickly after that.  John felt the air stir where the arrow passed by, far too close to his arm for his comfort, but still harmless.  Molly was already firing as he dove off his horse to take shelter behind a large boulder.  

The firefight was quick and brutal.  Wig had gone quietly around to the areas where John had said the snipers would be - John’s experience mapping out such things in the war for independence had proven advantageous in at least that respect - and taken them both out.   Wig had also liberated their guns, and having their own sniper was very helpful indeed.  

Molly had taken refuge behind one of the scrubby trees that grew out here - they had to be tough as nails to survive in this wasteland and they’d certainly stop a bullet.  She’d pop out from behind it every few seconds to fire, and another of Norbury’s guard would tumble off a horse.  John tried to keep moving when he came out from the shelter of his boulder to make himself a harder target.  It must be working, because nothing had hit him yet, but he knew luck wouldn’t see him through forever.

What with the sniper on their side, Norbury herself was the last person upright, shielded behind her large bay horse.  

“You can’t win, Captain,” she called, her rifle balanced on the saddle and her eye focused keenly down the barrel on John.  “I’m still standing and I own half this moon; people are not going to just—“

John shot the bay, which fell over right on top of Norbury, and marched up to where she lay on the ground, pinned by its weight.

“I don’t really care what people on this little moon are going to do, Vivian,” he said, his emphasis on her first name nearly spat out of him.  He kicked her rifle away and lifted the little bag of money she had taken back.  “I care about my crew getting paid for good faith efforts, and not getting shot in the process.  Nice doing business with you.”

He turned his back and stomped off toward the shuttle, Molly following with her head held high.  He could already see Wig in the distance, making for the shuttle as well.

It was shaping up to be a pretty good day.

***


John stood on the walkway above the cargo bay, watching as the passengers from Meridian loaded themselves; the busy port was crawling with people looking for a ship to take them where they wanted to go at a discount rate.  There were as many visible machine guns outside as there were flat, Asian-style hats in the crowd, and the steam from a nearby pork vendor taking advantage of the throngs blotted out a good quarter of John’s view.  He appeared to be casually leaning against a bulkhead to any glances his way, but there was an intensity in his stare that would be clear to any serious observer.  Fortunately, the passengers were busy with their own concerns as they shuffled aboard, staring around them at the mostly-empty cargo bay and signs that the little Firefly-class ship had been… well-loved.  Even Irene had come out of the small shuttle on one side of Serenity that she rented from John to take a look at the new passengers.  John nodded to her as she approached.

“Here to sniff out some new business?” he asked when she materialized beside him.  “I think I heard a couple guys saying that this would be perfect if only there was a whore aboard to help them pass the time.  Person can get awful lonely between here and the Core.”

Irene just rolled her perfect, immaculately-highlighted eyes.  The topic was well-worn between them, but she answered anyway.

“I really don’t think any of your passengers could afford my rates,” she said sweetly.  “They’re looking for a discount ride to Ariel, not a first-class luxurious ride with me as well as… bonuses.”  She made sure to emphasize the word ‘bonuses’ so that every person who heard her - in this case most of the crew - was at the very least terribly intrigued.   

 ”You— you’d be surprised,” John stammered.  “What they might could afford and choose not to spend on transport.”

“Well, a Companion chooses their own clients,” Irene said smoothly.  “There aren’t that many I’d consider, anyhow.  Although -” she said, looking shrewdly at the group on the floor - “there are a few.  That one in particular looks interesting.”  She nodded at a young man standing at the top of the entrance ramp as if debating.  He was staring around the cargo bay with narrowed eyes, and John could just imagine the picture Serenity presented.  It was not terribly luxurious.  Sensing that her work was done, Irene strolled off, trailing a beautifully-manicured hand along the walkway as she went.

This passenger was unusual - he looked wealthy and well-to-do, not your average patched-together ruffian looking to hire the cheapest decent ride off this rock.  He was tall, willowy and thin.  Sharp suit that clung like a second skin, razor blade cheekbones and a head of luxurious curls that would make Medusa jealous.

John forced himself to stop staring.

“You make sure he gets inside if he’s coming,” he called to Mrs. Hudson below.  “A strong breeze might just blow him off the loading ramp, and here we’d be a passenger short.”

“Already paid, though,” said Wig, coming up beside him.  “No haggling, just handed it over.   More’n enough, technically.  Wanted us to be extra careful with that crate.”

“That don’t exactly reassure me,” John said, his eyes following the man’s movements as he carefully - a bit too carefully if John was any judge - guided the placement of a crate in the cargo bay.  “Folk as pay too much in advance make me jumpy.”

“Everything makes you jumpy, Cap’n,” Wig said with a raised eyebrow.
 
“Maybe so.  Still, I think he’s trying to keep chit-chat, questions and general conversation to a minimum.  And so.”  He made his way with causal ease down to the floor of the cargo bay.

“Afternoon,” he said to the man, eyes raking over the ‘special handling’ crate.  The man just stared at him as though he were an unknown but not terribly interesting item he’d found on his shoe.

“Yes,” he agreed, and turned back to the crate.

“Interesting package you got there,” John persisted.  “Anything I should know about?”

“No,” the man said, clearly dismissive.  God, but he was a stubborn hwen dan.  Another crate was brought on board - this one slightly smaller - and the workers carrying it made to place it on top of the other.  

“Wait!” the man - Holmes, by the name he’d put in the manifest - all but shrieked.  “Not on this one; the chemicals are rather… volatile.”  He snuck a guilty glance at John, who only raised his eyebrows, and turned back to the workers.  “Just here beside it, that will do nicely.”

He backed up as the crates were placed, carefully not making eye contact with John.

“Chemicals, mm?” John said, looking thoughtfully at Homes.  “Dangerous?”

“Only some of them,” Holmes said, immediately defensive.  “When combined.  They’re inert when contained like this, I—“

“But dangerous,” John interrupted.

“Well, yes.”

“Good.”  He turned on his heel and headed for the galley, one side of his mouth curving up where he was certain Holmes couldn’t see.  It was good to keep them on their toes.

***

John only paused in the galley.

“You’re making toast at one in the afternoon?” he asked, seeing Molly push a couple of slices in.

“Toast’ is just a polite term for warming it up a little,” Mrs. Hudson explained, coming in behind him.  “She likes the bread on her sandwiches like that.  Passengers are almost ready to go, dear.  Captain.”

John didn’t say anything; just nodded.  At least this time she had corrected herself, which was better than he usually got.  Honestly, the woman was so good with engines that she could call him ‘Buttercup’ and he still wouldn’t let her go.

“Well,” Molly drawled.  She rarely drawled, and John looked her way with surprise.  “I saw that guy Holmes we picked up with all the chemicals.  If I wasn’t married…”

“If you weren’t, then what?” John demanded.  “That was an awful pregnant pause there, and a pregnant pause means nothing good.”

“Then I just mean that he was something of a looker, sir,” she said playfully.   “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.  I saw you staring same as the rest of us.  Even Irene was sizing him up, and she never contracts with passengers.”

“No, she never does, because those are the rules.”  He wasn’t exactly sure why he was getting agitated… he hadn’t been interested at all.  Intrigued, maybe.  “Well, enjoy your sandwich.  I’m going to have a chat with your husband about taking off sometime this month.  Since you’re married and all.”

“Married, not blind,” he heard as he walked away.

He stomped up the steps into the cockpit to find Greg, his genius pilot, halfway through coffee and a doughnut with his feet up on the console.  

“I see you’re working hard,” he commented.  “That coffee isn’t going to drink itself, and you’d better finish that pastry before it gets taken by the raving bands of passengers we just picked up.”

“I am working, Captain,” Greg insisted - or John assumed he insisted; it was hard to tell as it was being forced around a mouthful of doughnut.  “See all these blinking lights?  Working,” he said, nodding seriously.  John fought it, then gave up and grinned as he glanced around.  “And,” Greg continued, “we’re on the ground.  Stationary.  Not flying.  Getting passengers - not my division.”

“Yeeeees,” John said.  “But we’re going to be flying and not stationary in about five minutes, as soon as everyone’s on and the door is closed.”

“Yeah,” Greg agreed seriously.  “But you know, Captain, preparing for takeoff takes about thirty seconds on a slow day.”

“Oh,” John said, taken aback.  “That’s interesting; most pilots need 5 or 10 minutes’ warning before taking off.  Cutting corners?”

“Nope, I’m just that good,” he said, grinning.

John sighed.  “I don’t know why I even bother.”

***

Once they were underway, John had taken a look at their flight path and had a long, more serious talk with Greg.  Twenty minutes later, he gathered passengers and crew in the galley for an update.   

“As you know, the most direct route from here to Ariel take us right past deep space station 3 at the border and straight into the Halo.  Unfortunately, the territory between here and the station is known this week to be littered with Reaver parties, so in order to steer clear we’re going to have to go the long way around, a couple days’ extra travel.”  There was the expected chorus of groans, but the passengers mostly looked resigned.  “But,” John countered, “we’ll get you to Ariel safe and sound this way, no nasty surprises.  If you’ll all just follow Wig to the cargo bay, you can collect your necessaries and he’ll make sure you get settled in your bunks.”

The passengers dispersed, grumbling, except for one who made a beeline for where John was talking quietly with a couple members of his crew.  It was Tall, Curly and Rude himself.  “I have a suggestion,” he said, without preamble, between one sentence from John and another, neither to him.  John stopped and regarded him.

“Passengers are to go with Wig to the cargo bay,” John repeated after a moment, insistent.

“I don’t need to go to the cargo bay.  I need to tell the captain of this vessel about my suggestion.  It has to do with landing on Ariel, and there is quite a lucrative reward in it for you, Captain, unless I’m very much mistaken about the nature of your business.  And in this case, I don’t think I am.”

“Whoa, whoa, just hold it right there.  What ‘business’ do you think we are in?  We’re taking passengers to Ariel, no law against that.”

“Please,” Holmes said, voice laden with contempt.  “You’re clearly doing SOMETHING else to make enough credit to keep flying; ferrying people across the ‘verse is not going to cut it, even if you normally take more passengers than you have right now - which judging by the lack of sleeping places, you don’t.  And don’t try to convince me there are other rooms; I’m familiar with the layout of a Firefly, and unless you have hammocks slung in the engine room, I don’t know where you’re planning to put them.   Of course, there’s the other shuttle where the Companion isn’t living, but I’ve been up there and observed the dust and wear patterns by the door; you don’t use that one very much at all - I’m not even convinced it still flies.  But what an older model Firefly ship DOES have is small, hidden spaces.  Good for storing cargo that you don’t want anyone to stumble across.  I mean, I could certainly find them, but it would take sniffer dogs in most cases, and there are ways around that issue.  You take smaller cargo, things that their senders don’t want the Alliance to know about.  You can cover it in the guise of legitimate business, hence the passengers.  But it isn’t difficult to see.  You’re smugglers.”

John took a deliberate step toward him, and Molly lay a less conspicuous hand on her holster.  Holmes did not step back.  “What make you think we won’t just toss you out an airlock, you making an accusation like that?” John asked.

Holmes frowned at him.  “Well, I’d certainly have alerted the authorities before going off like that to the crew. I’m not an idiot,” he scoffed.

“You’d still be dead,”  John pointed out, and noted that Mrs. Hudson frowned next to him, but didn’t otherwise react.

“Yeees,” Holmes said, dragging the word out and staring at him. “Anyway, I didn’t call them.  I’ve got no love for the Alliance; in fact I’d like to stay as far off their radar as possible.  I only told you I’d deduced your true business because what I’m about to propose is not exactly legal, and I’m saying that I know you’re comfortable with that.  Avoids all manner of annoyances.  Although I have to say, Captain, I don’t understand your advantage in getting to our destination late.  That part makes no sense.  And we’re going around Reavers?  That’s just ludicrous.  Now why would this ship go so far out of the way of its destination and not stop anywhere along the way?” he mused, almost to himself.  “Unless you’re planning to stop for another ’unexpected’ reason.  Could be you—“

“It’s not ludicrous,” Molly interrupted.  Holmes blinked a few times as though coming back to the world outside his head.

“It is,” he said.  “They don’t exist.  They’re fairy tales about space monsters that will get you.  They’re used to frighten children into eating their vegetables.”  Molly was becoming angrier with every word he spoke, and when she got angry, she only got more quiet and serious-looking.  John felt he should step in.

“What ‘verse are you living in where gorram Reavers—“ she began.

“Okay, okay, settle down, maybe he hasn’t had call to come across ‘em.  The Alliance line is the one that says they don’t exist, remember?  Posh boy like this has grown up in the Core,” (he ignored Holmes’s huff) “and no Alliance government has ever confirmed the existence of Reavers.”

“Well, I’ve seen them,” Molly continued.  She didn’t often talk about this, and John knew better than to interrupt.  “Know what they do to a person once they find a living body.  They’ll rape them to death.  Eat the flesh.  Sew the skins into their clothing.  And if the person is very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”  

Holmes just stared at her, but John could see that she’d made an impression.  No one spoke, and with the passengers having long since trooped off to the cargo bay, the room rang with silence.

“Interesting,” he said at last.  

John burst out laughing.  He couldn’t help it; the tension in the group had been driven so high by the talk of Reavers that it was impossible not to laugh at that reaction.  Holmes turned a tentative half-smile on him.

“So,” John managed, trying to bring himself under control - and get the subject on a less disturbing topic.  “Do tell.  What is this terribly important suggestion you have to impart?”

“Stealing drugs, and selling them on the black market,” he said.  At their blank stares, he added, “From a hospital.”  

Their eyes only grew wider.

“Each hospital has its own dedicated security staff,” Mrs. Hudson pointed out at last.  “You’ll never even get close.”

“I have a plan for that.  It won’t be the impossible feat you imagine.”

“What do you get out of all this?” asked John.  Apparently the shock had rendered everyone else mute.  Holmes looked a bit shifty, and John’s expression grew stony.  

“If you’re doing this in order to get high grade hospital drugs for your own use, I want no part of it,” he continued.  “I’ve seen what addiction does to people, and there is no way—“

“Yes, your sister,” Holmes interrupted, sounding bored.  John stopped mid-rant and just gaped.  How the hell did he know about that?  No one knew about that.

“I’m not after anything like that,” said Holmes.  “I am after chemicals.  The medical grade ones in the hospital’s labs are far more sterile than anything you can find elsewhere.  There are types you can’t find elsewhere, as well - and believe me, I’ve looked.  You get me in, and I know where to go.  And which drugs you’ll need to take for the highest profit, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

“And when all is said and done, how much are we talking about my people coming out with?”

“Thousands of credits.  Tens of thousands.  Maybe more if you play your cards right.”

“I’m in,” said Wig, having just returned from seeing the passengers to the cargo bay and on to the guest bunks. He couldn’t have heard more than a couple sentences, and stood practically salivating in the doorway.

“You’ll need to - ah - commandeer a few things once we reach Ariel,” Holmes continued. “At the hospital, I will take Molly and Wig: Molly because she’s good with a gun and Wig because he’s good with… everything else that requires brute force.”  Wig leered.

“And me,” John put in.  “This is not going down without me there.”

“Well, obviously,” said Holmes.  “Molly is your number two, you work well with her, and between the two of you I feel you can be trusted too get the right drugs.  I will be taking Wig with me to collect the chemicals.”  He looked Wig up and down.  “In this case, brute force may be what’s required.”

“Not sure I like the sound of that,” John said.

“Hey, me either,” Wig whined.  “Why have I got to go with you and not be part of the ‘gettin’ thousands of credits’ part of this?”

“You are, Holmes said.  “If I don’t get what I’m there for, no one does.  You’re going to help me get it.”

“And they’re going to just let us walk in there, are they?” John asked, still not quite believing this. “Without putting up any sort of fight?”

“Well, if they do then you can just open fire, aren’t you good at that?”  He smirked at their horrified faces.  “Leave it to me.  Come on, Captain.  Could be dangerous.  Probably will be, actually.”

“Yeah,” John said.  “Fortunately, I’m good with dangerous.”

Chapter Text

The ‘borrowed’ ambulance landed squarely on its designated pad and two medics emerged.  Both were male; one tall and thin with dark, curly hair and one shorter and more solidly built with a head of straight hair, greying blond.

“This is insane,” commented the shorter medic as he loaded a grey plastic body case onto a rolling gurney.  An unmistakable thumping noise came from within.  “Stop it, Wig!” he hissed at the lid of the case.  

“I think I’m suffocatin’!” came the panicked response.

“We poked plenty of holes in the bottom; now just lay still, you’re supposed to be dead, remember?”  There was a worrying pause.

“Yeah, yeah,” came the muffled response at last.  “Just get me out of here ASAFP, if his lordship allows it.”  

“His lordship won’t allow it until I allow it, and for now I want you to stay put.  Ten, fifteen minutes max.  And I want you to be silent as death in there.   As death, got it?  If the lid opens, act dead until I say otherwise.  Do we have an understanding?”

“…Fine,” came the grumbled reply.

“Great,” he said to the lid, then took a deep breath.  Showtime.  “Holmes, you’re almost up.  I hope like hell you know what you’re doing.  I’ll follow your lead,” John said, wheeling the Wig container onto the concrete pathway while Sherlock did the same with one containing Molly.

“Call me Sherlock, for a start," he said.  "We’re stealing from a hospital; I think we’ve graduated to a first-name basis now.”

“Does that mean you’re going to start calling me John?  Because I’m not sure how I feel about that,” John said as they walked.

“Perhaps,” Sherlock said consideringly.  “I’ll surprise you.”

They wheeled their charges right up to the doors and inside like they belonged there and did this every day.  The room was clean, light-filled and bursting with the latest technology.  John knew that the uniform of emergency services carried some weight in getting them this far, but if Sherlock couldn’t bluff them the rest of the way in, they were humped for certain.  He glanced over at Sherlock, hoping his nervousness wasn’t obvious.  Sherlock looked… different.  He had a grim expression, his eyes looked tired and he hunched over the case he was pushing with an unmistakably defeated air.  

“What have you got there?” asked a nurse, clearly in charge of admissions.  She had the confident air of a woman who could summon a dozen guards with guns at the touch of a button.  

“A couple of DOAs,” Sherlock responded, and he even sounded different.  Gone were the careful enunciations of his normal, lofty tone.  He sounded like a middle-class bloke from Persephone.  “Unfortunately,” he continued.  “They were cyanotic when we got there, not responsive, and we weren’t able to resuscitate them.  Pupils were fixed and dilated.  I guess there wasn’t a lot of hope, but still.”

She looked unimpressed.  John was plenty impressed, and trying not to show it.

“Which methods did you use?” she asked.  Was that suspicion in her tone?  John was very glad that Molly had concealed a knife in her clothes - she’d have brought her gun, but Sherlock had warned it would set off the scanners at the entrance.  

“We tried pulmonary stimulators and cardiac infusers,” he said, looking even more defeated and shaking his head.  “Even applied the cortical electrodes.  But in the end we were unable to get a neural reaction from either patient.”  He slapped the heel of his hand against the trolley, and it must have been exactly the wrong spot, because the lid of the case popped open on its spring.  Molly lay peacefully inside, her pale skin coated with a deathlike sheen of makeup that would fool exactly no one on closer inspection.

“We did our best,” Sherlock growled, pushing the lid shut dramatically as though he’d planned it, “and it wasn’t good enough.”

“Okay, yes, I’m sure you performed admirably,” the nurse said.  She looked worried, but also like she wanted to be rid of them.  “Why don’t you take these down to the morgue, then swing by Counseling on your way out?  I’m sure they can help.  Maybe prescribe something.”

Sherlock nodded tiredly.   “Yeah.  Maybe I will.  Let’s go, John.”

The two of them headed into the bowels of the hospital, pushing their cases (‘coffins’, John’s mind helpfully supplied, and he quashed the thought with a vicious snarl at nothing).  Sherlock glanced at him curiously as they walked, but didn’t speak, and John tried to put Sherlock’s performance and all allusions to dead bodies out of his mind.  There were no dead bodies here, anyway; they were four people robbing a hospital.   Sherlock had just been that gorram good. Scary good.

John and Sherlock pushed their gurneys into an elevator that went down toward the morgue, and as soon as the doors closed, they both burst into hysterical giggles of relief.

“That was-“ John managed, leaning against the back of the elevator, “that was that most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.”

“And you fought the Alliance at Serenity Valley,” Sherlock gasped.

“I’m not even going to ask how you knew that.  But anyway it wasn’t just me,” he said between heaving breaths.

“Neither was this,” Sherlock pointed out, managing to get his laughter down to just a very wavery smile as the doors opened.

They pushed their gurneys side by side down a long and sterile hallway into the empty morgue, as directed. There was a gap between morticians’ shifts, and they arrived right in the middle of it, as planned.  Once there, though, it was time to get to work.  John opened Wig’s case and rolled his eyes as Wig took a deep, obvious breath as though he’d been starved of oxygen.  Since Sherlock seemed to be inspecting the doors to the openings that housed the bodies, John went around to Molly’s case and lifted the lid.

“All clear,” he said to her motionless form.

Her eyes popped open.  ”What in the gorram hell was that?  I barely got my eyes closed in time, I thought we were humped for sure—“

“Faulty latch,” John said shortly.  “You were perfect, they didn’t suspect a thing.  Up you get; we’ve got a bunch of cargo to move and we need this container.”

“Hmph,” she said, but added “Yessir,” after a moment and started clambering out of the case.

“Okay,” John said, turning to Sherlock.  “I have your list of what to get written on my arm.  Where?”

“Out this way, one floor up, turn left out of the lift, second door is storage. Anyone questions you, say you got lost. Whatever you take will be replaced within a couple of hours, but remember you have limited space so you’ll want to start with the ones at the top that have the highest value when selling to Rim doctors.”

“Well, I think the term ‘doctors’ is probably a bit much to hope for, but I’ll accept ‘medic,’” John said, grim.  “Okay, meet you in twenty minutes back at the ambulance.”  He nodded to Molly; she grabbed the nearest gurney, and the two of them headed out the way Sherlock had indicated.

Sherlock glanced critically at Wig, then started striding off.  “This way,” he ordered, not bothering to see if Wig was following.  Grumbling, Wig got behind the gurney and followed.

Five minutes later, Sherlock was loading corked vials and jars of unpronounceable chemicals into the person-shaped case on the gurney, and looked utterly absorbed.

“Listen,” Wig said, edging away, “I’m just going to go outside and keep watch.  Make sure nobody comes in.  Maybe walk up and down, you know.  Got the uniform on, I’ll blend in just fine.”  

Sherlock finished loading a jar carefully onto the trolley and stood tall to stare at Wig.  He wore a slight frown that grew deeper the longer he looked Wig up and down.  “Understood,” he said at last, and after another moment of too-intense staring, he turned back to the chemicals.  

Wig went out, muttering, then glanced over his shoulder and walked down the hall to the first console he found.  He typed a number on the keypad and within seconds, a very proper-looking man in Alliance uniform was staring back at him from the vidscreen.

“Mister Wiggins,” the man said, and Wig felt a little bit oily even talking to the guy.  “Are things proceeding according to plan?”

“Uh,” Wig said, glancing around.  “Pretty much.  Yeah.  Yeah, went fine.”

“Excellent,” oily guy said, beaming. “I will have my team there within ten minutes.”

“You’re not coming yourself?” Wig asked. He’d been dealing with this man since the beginning of all this.  Well, about a week ago.

“Oh, no,” the man said, distaste creeping into his expression, starting around his mouth.  “I don’t like… legwork.”

“Oh,” said Wig.  “Well.  I’ll look for your people.”

“I’m sure they will make themselves known in time.  And I’ll see you in person… very soon.”  The man smiled that oily smile again and the feed cut out.

Wig trudged back to the room where he had left Sherlock and his chemicals.  He already felt like he had made a terrible mistake.

***

“We have to go,” Wig announced, bursting back into the room.  Sherlock was calmly moving a capped beaker into the case, and looked up as he entered.

“We aren’t due back at the ambulance for another eleven minutes, forty-eight seconds,” he pointed out.

“Plan changed.  We have to get there now.  As soon as we can.  Now.”  Wig looked toward the door pointedly, and ran up to the case to hurry along the chemical placement.  As it turned out, the case was nearly full. Wig didn’t stop to consider why that might be, just started to close the lid (“Wait!” commanded Sherlock as he placed the last two vials in to fill the remaining space) and turn the case toward the door.  Sherlock darted in front and peered out the door first, held out an imperious hand to wait a few seconds, then dropped it, and with a quick nod at Wig he led the way out.  

“Aren’t we going this way?” Wig asked when Sherlock turned left rather than the expected right.

“Shortcut,” he said shortly, and Wig hurried to catch up.  Right, left, left, right… he lost track of the turns they made, just trying to keep Sherlock in sight.  At last he could see the light from outside flash by as they turned yet another corner… it was just there, to his left… and his legs were suddenly getting so very heavy, and he was gripping the cart handle tighter to keep from careening into the wall… the dizziness…

“Gas,” said Sherlock, swaying on his feet just ahead.  “Damn him.”  After that, everything went black.

***

Consciousness returned slowly to Wig, in stages.  He could make out muffled voices, then light through his eyelids, and the muffled words resolved into a level of clarity he could understand, then eventually into something he wanted to understand.

“Sherlock Holmes, by the authority of the Union of Allied Planets you are hereby bound by law,” someone was saying.  “Formal charges will be transmitted to the central authority.”  Wig took the monumental step of opening his eyes a crack, and saw a very self-important little man in an Alliance uniform with his chest puffed out talking to - scratch that, talking at, very loudly - Sherlock.  Sherlock was standing in front of him looking perfectly put together and very bored with the whole arrangement.  The case of chemicals Wig had been pushing was nowhere to be seen.  He took a deep breath and sat up slowly.

“Oh, so the brawn of this operation has decided to join us as well.  Get up, we’re taking you to processing,” said the Alliance man.  Wig liked him even less.  The heavies with the Alliance guy were looking threatening, however, and moving in, so Wig climbed warily to his feet.

“Lovely, I was so hoping to get to chat with you some more rather than going about my business,” Sherlock drawled.

“You’ll have plenty of time to talk to us,” Alliance man said nastily, puffing his chest out again.  “Decades, most likely.  Of that I have no doubt.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes as he was pushed farther inside and shunted over to a ‘private’ room where they would be processed.  Wig rather envied the man his confidence.

***

Molly was pushing the cart as she and John made their way with their loot quietly out the back door of the hospital and toward the waiting ambulance.  Greg was sitting in the door of the little ship, kicking his feet at the air until he saw Molly round the corner, and then his face split into a broad grin.

“You made it,” he said, rather unnecessarily but John could forgive him that.  Jesus, he thought, he’d already been around Sherlock too long.

“We did!” she said, increasing her strides.

“So far,” John countered, glancing behind him.  “Ready to get off this rock and back home.  I’ll call it made when we get there.”

“God, how much did we get?” Greg asked, wide-eyed as he helped to heft the loaded case into the ambulance.  He was starting to grin again.

“Enough,” Molly said, returning it.  

“Enough for maybe a beach holiday?” Having loaded the case and collapsed and loaded the rolling gurney, Greg reached for Molly and pulled her close.  “Maybe a nude beach holiday?”

Molly laughed outright and kissed him.  “Maybe,” she allowed, grinning into his lips.

“Okay, guys, celebrate after we’re back, remember?” John reminded them, turning back to the hospital. “Where are the others?”

“Sorry for enjoying the moment, sir,” Molly said sarcastically, but she did look a little concerned.

“Mm,” John said, distracted.  Sherlock was not in his sight, and that, he was beginning to discover, made him very nervous.  “We’ll give them a couple minutes.  It’s not quite time for the rendezvous yet.”

***


“Get up,” Alliance guy ordered.  Wig stood obediently and one of the Alliance heavies knocked him back down.  Clearly, the guy - Colonel McGuinness, apparently - had meant Sherlock.  Sherlock didn’t move from his seat at all, and regarded McGuinness as a supplicant at a throne.

“Where are you taking us?” Sherlock asked from his regal position.

“Get. Up,” McGuinness repeated, looking murderous.  Sherlock sighed.

“Why should I do what you say?  I’m certain you have a superior who is very interested in my live capture, and I’m certain of that because people who think they’re important don’t do field work.  You are clearly not important, as you’re here, and because you’ve had this uniform for five… no, six years, and while Colonel is an admirable position, you started in the Alliance as a Lieutenant Colonel due to family influences and in six years have not exactly shot up through the ranks.  No one at home is paying special attention to you as there is evidence of shaving cream behind your right ear, and also because your wife is sleeping with her yoga instructor.”  He looked again.  “Or possibly Tai Chi instructor, but I think yoga.”

McGuinness stared at him, aghast.  He seemed to be speechless, especially after Sherlock’s final barb.  At last he managed to whisper something he’d apparently not meant to say, judging from his look of stunned surprise. “My wife only does Tai Chi.”

Sherlock sighed.  “Always something.”

McGuinness stared some more.  At last he said, in a voice entirely unlike his own, “Get them to the holding area.  They’re going to be retrieved from there.  I don’t care if  you have to drag them.”

Dragging was not necessary, however, as Sherlock stood up smoothly and strode out of the room behind a heavy who had to hustle to get in front of him.  As Wig followed, he saw McGuiness staring after Sherlock, notepad held forgotten at his side.

Wig figured he had lost some of his swagger.

***

“Time?” John asked.

“Three minutes past rendezvous.”

“Something’s wrong,” he said, stopping his pacing and putting his blue ‘emergency services’ hat back on with purpose.  Molly nodded and started to slip a huge knife into her sock.

“Maybe they’re just late,” Greg offered, but even he sounded as if he didn’t really believe it.  

“Wig wouldn’t let that happen,” John said.  “If they had to be, he’d have gotten a message to us.”

“So you’re just going back in the front door?” Greg asked, a note of panic creeping into his voice.

“Nope.  You’re going to find me a way around the back.  Mrs. H. probably already has the hospital specs pulled up, it’ll be shiny,” John said, exuding a confidence he didn’t feel.

Greg got on the horn to Serenity.  Mrs. Hudson did indeed have the specs, and within ten seconds she was ready to direct them.

***

The heavies were taking them farther and farther from the main body of the hospital.  Wig was in front now, and while he was handcuffed, there were still plenty of options available to him.  He made his move in a narrow, white hallway well before they got to wherever they were going. Walking along calmly and obediently, he slowed just enough so that the heavy prodding him along was almost beside him.  The man was reaching out to push him forward when Wig slammed his shoulder into the other man’s neck.  He managed to hit him in a way that the guy couldn’t cry out, just fell into the wall nearest them.  Wig pounced on his advantage, but without being able to punch he was limited to attempting to rearrange the guy’s face via the sliding-parts-around method.  Not terribly effective.

In the meantime, Sherlock - always quick on the uptake - had managed to wrestle the heavy following him to the ground as well.  Without being able to use his hands, he was kneeling on the guy’s chest so that he stayed down.  Sherlock managed to get the other knee up to put pressure on his windpipe, and the guy wasn’t able to shift his weight to get free.

Wig was having very little luck rearranging features, and now the guy was biting his hand, right between thumb and forefinger.  He yelled silently, which was impressive as the guy was drawing blood, but he didn’t want to alert anyone else.  Finally he gave up on the rearranging and yanked the guy up and slammed him repeatedly into the wall.  The heavy went satisfyingly limp, and he turned to the other, but the man had already lost consciousness and Sherlock was climbing to his feet.

Well.  There was blood running down his hand.  He smeared it on his cheek while pretending to scratch his ear in an effort to look satisfyingly gory.  He fortunately didn’t see the exasperated look Sherlock shot his way as they grabbed the heavies’ guns and hurried quietly out the other end of the hall.

***

John and Molly made little effort to disguise their rush through the hospital, but no one questioned them in their emergency services uniforms.  They hurried through an area where doctors were tending to patients en masse, and while a few glanced up, for the most part they were ignored.  

“A little guidance would be appreciated, Greg,” John said into the microphone he was trying to keep concealed in his sleeve.

“Right, patching you through to Mrs. H,” came Greg’s voice in response.

“Hello, dear.” Mrs. Hudson’s voice, unflappable as ever.  “Quickest way to the security area, yes?  I’ll have you there in a jiffy.  Ahead on the left, you’ll see a door - go through there and down the hallway.”

John gestured at Molly to follow, and they barreled through the door to the left that had been suggested.  John was trying not to let the sick feeling in his stomach turn into full-blown panic; the chatter that Mrs. Hudson had picked up from the hospital’s security channel as they prepared to go in had been code.  It suggested - much as he wanted to deny the fact - that Sherlock and Wig had been captured.  There was very little chance that they’d be able to break them out of something like that, but he and Molly were determined to do their best.  They’d never left a man behind in the war, and weren’t about to start now.

“Left again here, then through that warehouse - at least I think it’s a warehouse, it’s certainly big enough - then right and an immediate right again, dear,” Mrs. Hudson’s voice was saying.  

They obeyed, but came to a sudden stop at that last door.

“Locked, Mrs. H,” John said.  “Is there a way around?”

“Oh dear,” came the reply.  “Not a quick one, I’m afraid - you’ll have to use the burner.”

“Right,” John said and started applying a sticky substance that they often used on salvage operations.   It went on like gel from a glue gun, then when the right current was applied, it dissolved pretty much anything.  And it was quiet.   

“All set,” he reported as the gel ate through the metal around the lock.  “Like melting butte—“  The lock, handle and all, fell with a loud clang onto the floor.  There was a ringing silence.

“Well, that wasn’t ideal,” John said.  The door swung gently open on its own to reveal a stunned looking Wig and Sherlock, both clutching pressure guns that looked rather the worse for wear and Wig with a bloody mark on his cheek.  John felt his knees loosen in relief, but gave no sign - instead, he nodded in a universal ‘Well, come ON’ gesture and the four of them ran back the way John and Molly had come.  

***

“Excellent that you were able to get it in the shuttle bay, Lestrade,” Sherlock said loftily, as though he hadn’t just been running for his life.

“I have done it before, you know.  Different shuttle, but still.  And why are you calling me ‘Lestrade’?”

“Well, that is your name,” Sherlock said, frowning, but was interrupted by John before he could continue.

“Okay, everybody and everything off that’s staying; we’re taking the ambulance back where we found it and hopefully no one’ll be the wiser.  Wig, you take the spare shuttle and follow; it’s fueled up and ready to go.”

There was some general commotion as the cargo was unloaded; Sherlock’s chemicals had made it on as well and he was remarkably closemouthed as to how exactly that had happened.  At last, John announced that they were leaving NOW and everything wrapped up remarkably quickly; cargo was unloaded, prints were wiped, and they were underway.  

Back on the planet, John was able to park the ambulance in the same bay where they’d ‘borrowed’ it… the hospital must have four or five extras, he reckoned, and they obviously hadn’t missed this one.  Wig disembarked to help him pull the tarp back over the ambulance, and was rattling on about the self-important minion they’d encountered, so absorbed that he didn’t even see John pick up an abandoned tire iron and clock him over the back of the head.

***

When Wig came to, he was lying on the ground outside Serenity’s second shuttle - not far from where he’d been, last he remembered.  The door was shut, and he blinked up at it for a while before he realized that there was a walkie-talkie type contraption next to him.

“H-Hello?” he said into it.

“Wig!  Nice of you to join in,” came John’s voice.  “I just wanted to let you know that you’ll be staying here at the hospital with your friends from the Alliance.”

Wig sat up slowly and looked around.  The ambulance bay was behind the hospital, but he didn’t relish being seen by any of them.  “They ain’t my friends,” he said slowly.  “Open up that door and we can talk about it.”

“I don’t think so, Wig.  I don’t allow traitors on my ship, and you—“ he broke off.  “I know what you did.”  

“I didn’t do anything!” Wig protested, and in answer the shuttle’s engines started cycling up.  “Okay, okay, I did - but Captain, you’d have done the same.  The money they were offering for that idiot… we could retire and buy a fleet of ships we controlled from our own private moon.  I mean—“

“I would not have done the same, Wig, and that’s where we differ.  I don’t betray my friends, my crew, and I sure as hell don’t take money from the Alliance for it.  You better take some big steps back; the blowback from this engine is going to knock you flat.”

It was getting harder to hear over the engine, which had indeed almost finished its warm-up.

“Yeah, all right. Fine,” Wig said, defeated.  “Fine, go on back.  Say I ran off or something.  But don’t tell them what I did, please, Captain.  I just left.  Okay?”

There was a pause, and then the radio crackled to life.  “You just left?”

“I don’t want them to think of me as a traitor.  I helped take the ambulance back and I ran off.”   

A longer pause.  At last, the door cracked open, but the engine didn’t slow.  Wig’s eyes widened.  

“Thank you, Captain!” he said, jumping for the door.

“In the cargo compartment.  There’s air in there; and anyway, this is your only option so take it or leave it.”

“There’s whatever air is in there when the door closes,” he said dubiously.

“Lucky we aren’t going very far, then.  In you get, or run off like you planned; I’m not lying for you.”

Reluctantly, Wig lay down in the cargo hold of the little shuttle.

“Is there any heat?” he asked into the device as the door sealed.

“Oh, you’ll be fine,” John said, and they lifted off.

Chapter Text

John was so agitated that he was pacing up and down the narrow hallway, barely missing the walls as he gestured.

“There is absolutely NO gorram way you are blowing up anything on board on purpose while we are on a spaceship.  In space!  Do you know the precautions against fire on ships?  Do you know why they were set?  Do you have any idea—“

“I have no intention of allowing anything to get out of my very tight control,” Sherlock insisted, unflappable as always.

“I’m sorry, I wouldn’t want our imminent death to get in the way of your CRAZY TIME,” John fumed.

“How about you stay close by, observe?  You can keep a bucket nearby,” he offered.  John was aware by now that Sherlock didn’t often…ever… invite people to observe him working, and was rather flattered by the offer.  Still.

“I have not got the spare time,” John said, “to peer over your shoulder while you’re mixing god knows what and make sure you don’t accidentally kill us all.”  There was a pause.  “And water is not often what’s needed for chemical fires, anyway.”

Sherlock beamed at him.  “You know that because you work in space.”

“I know that because I was in a war and the gorram Alliance used to drop little care packages of chemical explosives on top of us quite often,” John corrected.

Sherlock looked suitably chastised.  “Ten minutes,” he offered.  “The potential explosives will be well out of the way after that.”

“Three.”

“Five.”

“Fine, but I’m wearing a full hazmat suit and keeping a chemical fire extinguisher pointed at that stuff the entire time.”

“Agreed.”

“Pardon me, boys,” said Mrs. Hudson, appearing suddenly at the top of the ladder leading from the bridge.  “Sorry to interrupt your little domestic, but there’s a call from Irene for you, Captain.”

“Irene?  Well, that’s unusual.  She’s not due back until tomorrow.”  He started toward the bridge and called, “And it wasn’t a domestic!  It was… a discussion.”

“Of course, dear.”

He sighed and stomped into the bridge area, muttering about respect.

“Oh, you didn’t have to come in here, Captain,” Greg said, turning guiltily away from the dinosaur models arranged on the console.  He moved a couple away from the center.

“Was the closest vidscreen,”  John said.  He honestly didn’t know why Greg bothered; he’d been aware of the ‘model’ wars for over a year.

Irene was already on the screen, looking gorgeous as ever (it’s her job, he reminded himself, intentionally not looking down at his stained shirt and well-worn trousers).

“Irene!” he said, a little too jovially.  Damn it.  “To what do we owe the pleasure?  Hope you haven’t managed to bang up the outside of that shuttle too badly… you know, the heavy banging happens on the inside, I believe.”

“Ha, ha,” she said, wry.  “It’s nothing to do with the shuttle, Captain.  I’m just concerned that I won’t be able to make our planned rendezvous tomorrow.”

She looked concerned, and Irene almost never looked concerned.  

“Oh yes?  What’s the delay?”

“You’re aware my latest client was on Highgate,” she said, “and I left the area to meet you near the border of the Rim.  Well, there are several ships in quite an orderly line, blocking my path.”

“Blocking it?” John frowned.  “Surely there’s enough space between them that you could fly through.”

“Don’t be an idiot, John,” Irene said.  There was a snort from behind him, and John turned to see Sherlock watching as well.  He turned back, a little frustrated, to see Irene looking flustered and - could it be - desperate.  

“There’s not enough space between that I couldn’t be seen on their radar, and I’d have to pass by them close enough for them to catch up with me.  And they would, John, they’d break all the rules of safe flight to get to this shuttle.  They’re all Reaver ships.”  

There was a gasp from Mrs. Hudson, and an ‘oh, ta ma duh’ from Greg, but otherwise the little bridge was utterly silent.

“Turn around,” John said grimly.  “Go back to Highgate, and we’ll find a way around this line of ships and meet you there.”

“I can’t,” Irene said.  “I don’t have enough fuel to get there, and even if by some miracle I make it, I certainly don’t have enough for reentry.”

“Wait there for us, then.  We’ll head straight there, can’t be more than a day or so—“

“No, John,” Irene said, firm.  “It would take you at least three days out of your way to get around this line, and another three to get back in to where I am.  I don’t even have the reserves to sit where I am for six extra days.”

“Can you meet us partway?  Shave a little time off?”

“They’re already tracking me.  I’m afraid to move.  I don’t want anyone else coming after me from Highgate… they’d be seen and I don’t want another person’s death on my conscience.”

“Clearly, the only thing to do is to commit suicide by an injection of that drug you’ve cleverly hidden away - really, that hidden shelf wasn’t even a challenge -  as you attempt to ram one of their ships with your shuttle,” Sherlock put in calmly.

“What— he’s joking, Irene.  Joking!  Haha!  Okay, sit tight, we’re on our way and we’ll figure something out.  Contact us if anything changes.   See you soon!”  John cut the feed out on Irene’s worried face and rounded on Sherlock.

“What the bloody hell were you thinking, saying something like that?”

Sherlock blinked at him.  “Not good?”

“Oh god.”   John raised one hand and rubbed at his forehead, hoping to stave off the headache he knew was lurking there.

“Look.  I will think of something else.  I think best when I’m working, ergo…”  He gave a hopeful jerk of his head at the door.

“Is this the five minute thing?”

“I thought we agreed on seven.”

“FIVE, and I need to get into the suit.”

“Fine, just don’t take forever,” Sherlock ordered, and went skipping - skipping - out of the cockpit.  

“Take us toward the source of her transmission, Greg,” John ordered before following more sedately.

“Interesting that there’s a special suit,” Mrs. Hudson commented, and before Greg could say anything she added, “Well, live and let live, that’s my motto,” and went out toward the common area.

***

John was standing just outside the medical bay, which had been determined the safest area for experiments thanks to the many protections against illness therein and also a handy sprinkler system.  He was wearing a hazmat suit and carrying a fire extinguisher, as promised, and was explaining the situation to Molly.

“HE’S WHAT,” Molly said, going from calm to thunderous in .03 seconds.

“I know, it’s like the gorram care packages all over again, but he’s stubborn as a Priam mail clerk and I’m going to be with him the entire time.  Prepared.”  He held up the fire extinguisher to demonstrate.  Molly took a very slow, deep breath.

“I still feel like this would be better done on the ground, sir,” she said carefully.

“So do I, but there’s no ground for another week, and I’ll be damned if we’re changing course just so this buhn dahn can blow things up while we cool our heels waiting for him.”

“This is such a bad idea.”

“I agree, but - OH ai ya jwai leh,” he said, and dashed inside as a bluish flame flared up from where Sherlock was hunched over the table in full Mad Scientist mode.

“I thought you were waiting,” he accused through gritted teeth.

“I thought you were hurrying.  But that was a very exciting start, if I do say so.”

“Start?” John repeated.  “We’re only starting?”  Sherlock was already bending over a second flask, and John didn’t have time to react at all as as a torrent of yellow flame brushed his shoulder.  

“Oh.  That was unexpected,” Sherlock said, and John raised the extinguisher threateningly.  

“Hold on.  I will not hesitate to bash you about the head with this thing if you set the ship on fire.”

“John, I hardly think unconsciousness will be a help when we’re all about to die in an inferno or possibly a vacuum if the fire damages the hull to the extent that—“

“I’ll feel better,” John yelled.  He stood there breathing heavily, fire extinguisher raised, and added, “Your five minutes are already almost up.”

“Right,” said Sherlock, though he surely knew it hadn’t been anywhere near five minutes.  He turned back to the table obediently, and began carefully gathering a dropper full of some pinkish liquid and holding it over a beaker with green goo in the bottom.  “All right, shi yan this is the last one.  There should only be a small puff of smoke, nothing to get excited about.”

John pointed the extinguisher at the beaker anyway.  A drop fell.  There was indeed a small puff of smoke.  It was followed by a much larger puff of smoke, within which visibility was basically nonexistent.   John found himself coughing and trying to wave away smoke with one hand, while with the other he was still clutching the extinguisher, hoping against hope that nothing was on fire.  Like Sherlock.

“Sherlock?” he called between coughs.  “Sherlock, are you—“

“That was amazing!” came the excited comment, and John very slowly lowered the extinguisher.  The smoke gradually cleared, revealing a purplish powder that covered everything he could see, including most of Sherlock that wasn’t behind goggles.

“What is this?  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, and this is just an unexpected product of the reaction.  It’s mostly non-toxic—“

“What,” John broke in.

“Only mild effects after skin contact of about thirty minutes or so.  In that suit you should be fine,” Sherlock said excitedly.  In those goggles he looked - well John was having to fight not to break into undignified laughter.

“Well, you need a shower, and after that you can clean this up.”

Sherlock looked around at the purple mess that was the medical bay.  “I’ve figured out how to help Irene,” he tried.

“Excellent; you can tell me about it while you’re cleaning.  Now go!”

To his credit, Sherlock went.

***

“So here is Irene,” Sherlock said an hour later, plopping an empty syringe down on the now-spotless floor and gathering an armful of plastic tubes, individually and neatly bagged, before sitting down next to it.  John eyed it warily.

“And here are the Reavers.”  He placed the bags in a neat line in front of the syringe.

“If Serenity is a colostomy bag, I think I should leave now,” said John, and he was only mostly joking.

“Serenity isn’t in the picture yet,” Sherlock said, with great dignity for a man sitting on the floor.  “Irene can’t go through them and she can’t go around them.  She won’t allow anyone to come from behind to help, and honestly, given what Molly has told me about them, I doubt anyone could do any good.”

John glared, but frankly, he wasn’t wrong.  “So what do you suggest?”

“We get the Reavers to move,” he said.  “If they get out of Irene’s way, Serenity can rendezvous with her as planned - maybe a little late, but as planned.”

“That would be perfect.  Get rid of the block, perfect.  Just one tiny little problem.”

“Getting them to leave?”  Sherlock grinned, as if this was the punchline he’d been waiting to deliver.

“Exactly,” John said, and Sherlock slammed down an oxygen mask on the other side of the line of ‘Reavers’.

“Serenity,” he announced proudly.

“Yeeeeees,” John said doubtfully.

“I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on Reavers since Molly first told me about them.  They will chase any ship that runs from them, whether they’re hungry or not, correct?”

“Well, yes.  But where the hell are you learning about Reavers?  You said yourself that you didn’t even think they existed when you got here.  It’s not like you can just search a database about them.”

Sherlock waved a hand.  “Unimportant.  And before you get up in arms about it, no, I am not going to endanger your crew by having them run from Reavers.  Serenity comes in here,” - he slid the mask with its little tube attachment to the left side of the line of Reavers - “far enough away to stay off their short range radar.  They will most likely ignore you.  They will give chase to this.”

He detached the tube from the ’Serenity’ mask and moved it forward, closer to the leftmost ‘ship’, then started dragging it in front of the line.

“Serenity’s spare shuttle.  The Reavers will chase a fleeing shuttle, but there’s no evidence that they communicate with each other, so one coming after the shuttle at this end doesn’t mean that the rightmost one will give chase until the shuttle is seen to be fleeing from it.  Therefore, the shuttle moves along the line, and each ship leaves its place to come after it.  They all head off this way, leaving Serenity free to go and get Irene.”  He swept all the plastic tubes into a little pile to the right, then placed the mask on top of the syringe.

“That’s fantastic,” John said admiringly.  “But the shuttle can’t pilot itself.”

“I’ll be piloting it.” Sherlock announced, sounding nonchalant.  There was a silence while John just looked hard at him.  
 
“I’ll admit,” John said carefully, “I was a bit surprised when you took me up on the offer to stay when you didn’t want to get off at Ariel with the others.  I don’t take on crew who can’t pull their weight, and you made it pretty ruttin’ clear you’d be able to do it.  But getting yourself ate by Reavers to save another crew member is not what I had in mind.”

Also, it caused a nasty jolt in his stomach that he’d rather not examine too closely.

“I have no intention of getting myself ‘ate’, as you put it, John.  I will lead the Reavers chasing me in a wide circle, giving you time to collect Irene and then rendezvous with me at some point in the circle.  And then we will lock everything: the ship’s controls, the shuttles, the engine.  We make them useless if removed, and we make it obvious.  But there’s one thing we don’t lock, and that’s the access door.  And then we hide.  We smuggle ourselves.”

John stared again, but it was in a rather different way this time. “You want us to let ourselves be boarded.  By Reavers.  That’s… that’s insane.”

“If you have an alternative plan, by all means, suggest it.”

“Can’t they, I don’t know, smell us?”

“According to all reports of attacks and captured subjects,” (John lifted his brows but let that slide) “Reavers are, under all that paint and the mutilations and piercing and…things…people.  Men and women.  They have no enhanced senses.  They can no more smell us out than you could.  As long as you’ve had a shower today, everything should be shiny.”  He grinned in an unsettling manner.

“What if they leave a couple behind to work on gettin’ the ship running?”

“Interesting theory, though they never do that.  But in the very unlikely event they do, we will have all the weapons and the element of surprise; I think between the six of us, we can take them,” he said wryly.

“Well, I. I just don’t like it, all right?”  John couldn’t come up with a convincing reason why, but he was at least certain of that.

Sherlock sighed.  “It will be fine, John.  Irene and I will be fine.  We just have to follow the plan very, very precisely.  And unless you want to suggest something else very, very soon, we should see about using the hours we have left to prepare as well as we can.  Get everything of value hidden away.  Don’t bar any doors; they’ll only tear through them - just hide things.  Reavers are incredibly violent, but as a group they’re not very bright.”  As he spoke, John was falling into his ‘Captain’ stance out of habit. Truth be told, he wasn’t certain when he’d fallen out of it.  Sherlock had an oddly disarming effect.

“I guess I’d best fill in the crew.  They are not going to like this any more than I do.”

***

As predicted, the crew didn’t like the plan at all, but as no one had an alternate suggestion, they were grudgingly going with it.  Wig seemed especially terrified, and predicted their impending doom often as he worked to clear out any food and weapons.  Sherlock was huddled with Mrs. Hudson, of all people, and she was alternating her work on locking the engine with helping Sherlock create something involving tubes.  John really did not want to know.  Eventually, he got nervous and questioned her about it, and she informed him that the Reavers couldn’t take so much as a screw out of that engine.  She added that he shouldn’t bother her right now, dear, as she was trying to work out a way to avoid hiding their food reserves "under every cooling drive so tight that we'll strain the primary artery function and end up having to recycle secondary exhaust through a bypass system, just so we don't end up pumping it through the main atmo feed and asphyxiating the entire crew."  After a very confused pause, John just nodded and left her to it.

When they were pulling into their position and everything was as secure as they could make it, John found Sherlock in front of a vidscreen, looking utterly bored.

 “I can’t protect you from this,” a voice from the screen was saying.

“Noted,” said Sherlock.  He glanced up to see John approaching and smirked.  “Oh look, barricade of Reavers coming up, must run, bye bye.”  He cut the feed abruptly.  “Showtime?” he asked.

“Looks like you’re up, yeah,” John said, nodding.  “Who was that?”

“Oh, no one important, he’s useless as usual.  Now remember, you go to Irene as soon as the last Reaver ship leaves and not a moment before—“

“And then we get to the coordinates as quickly as possible to meet you,” John finished.  “We’ll be there.  You just keep up your end of the bargain.”

“And radio silence.  We’re not sure how much they understand.”  Sherlock continued lecturing all the way to the shuttle door, then with an abrupt “see you soon,” he disappeared inside and shut the door on John.

“Good luck,” John said to the door, and when it was clear it wasn’t going to reopen, he continued on to Serenity’s bridge to watch.

***

One by one, the Reaver ships left the line as though being picked off by a firing squad.  John tried not to watch the little fleeing shuttle in front - not far enough in front, to his way of thinking - but it eventually became too small to see, and all eyes turned to the radar to watch.  When the last ship took off after the shuttle, he waited a whole ten seconds before allowing Greg to head for Irene.  She met them partway, and no sooner had she docked than they were off to the rendezvous with Sherlock’s shuttle.  

When Irene emerged with desperate thanks and was told the plan as her little shuttle-home was being descended upon - fabrics folded away and her items thrown into crates for hiding - she marched straight up to the bridge to confront John.  She told him the plan was insane, he told her that was the consensus, yes, and she asked what she could do to help.  He told her to prepare to hide, and turned back to stare worriedly at the radar screen.

“Ah,” she said softly, and went back to help with the disassembling of her shuttle.

***

Lio coh jwei ji neong hur ho deh yung duh buhn jah j’wohn,” John said with feeling.

“Yeah,” Greg agreed, glancing worriedly up at his captain.  “If they get a tractor beam on him, this becomes a lot more difficult.”

He didn’t say ‘impossible’, which John appreciated, but he well knew the danger of that happening.  He desperately wanted to have Serenity leap forward and snatch Sherlock out of the sky, but the whole plan depended on Serenity giving the impression of an empty, dead ship.  The Reavers looking for the one shuttle pilot they knew was on board would give up and turn to greener pastures after an unsuccessful couple of passes.  If they knew Serenity was not a metal husk and there was a full crew aboard, they might not be so inclined.  Sherlock had insisted on the Reaver ability to reason, and so all John could do was wait and hope that the little shuttle stayed just out of their range until it made it back.

Greg made a decisive move for the ship-wide comm.  “Okay, everybody, it’s this-is-not-a-drill time.”  He hesitated.  “I actually shudder to think what a drill for this would look like.  Anyway, all of you head to your hiding places and get settled.  Our second shuttle is coming in hot, pursuing party right behind, and we can expect them to board less than a minute after the shuttle docks.  See you after.”

He put the comm down, but through the open door they could hear an incredulous ‘pursuing party?!’ from Wig as the sound of engines started to vibrate the ship.

“Oh, thank god,” John said, turning toward the door.  “Okay, Greg, anything left to do here?”

“I’ll take care of it.  Go,” he said, and John went.

***

Sherlock came running out of the shuttle the moment the door would open.

Fa feng; that was close,” John said, squeezing his shoulder and then running beside him for their designated hiding spot.

“Of course it was; they had to believe they could catch me so it would be worth leaving their little blockade.”  Sherlock vaulted down the last few steps onto the floor of the cargo bay and dashed for his space.  There were sounds of docking and doors being wrenched open.

“That was intentional?” John sputtered, skidding to a halt as Sherlock did.  “I was terrified!”

“No time, John,” Sherlock said, ushering him into a small bay on the wall.  A grate covered the entrance once they were inside, but they had to lie on their stomachs, side-by-side, to fit.  The cargo bay door was starting to open by remote command just as Sherlock pulled the grate into place in front of them, so he didn’t have to fight too hard to make John be quiet, but the glare he received communicated enough.

There was a sound from the docking ship.  John would find it difficult to describe after - it was like a gentle roaring, soft, but filled with both rage and pain.  The people that emerged were ravaged and looking to ravage, some missing eyes or limbs, and the wounds left to heal on their own with not even the blood cleaned off.  Their filthy, lanky hair draped over pointless piercings with what looked like chopsticks, metal bits and broken off engine parts.  All visible teeth were sharpened into points, the better to tear at their victims.  They were wearing patchwork clothes made from bits of remaining cloth, bark, and a horrifying, papery material that was clearly human skin.  John could feel himself recoil… again, there was dried blood still clinging to it, which suggested the victims had not been dead at the time their skin was harvested.  There was a parade of these creatures past the silent crew, hidden away in - for the most part - a line of similar bays in the wall.  A few Reavers stayed in the cargo bay, but clangs and roars of frustration could be heard coming from other areas of the ship.  

John risked a glance at Sherlock, expecting horror to match his own expression, and saw only a childlike fascination.  He was staring at the Reavers who remained there, taking in every detail of their appearance, behavior, and who knew what else.  John took the advantage offered by their close quarters to stare unobserved at the man, parted lips and impossible eyes - well, it was a good thing he wasn’t tempted.  Much.

He looked away as a Reaver came closer, its furious eyes roving over their hiding place.  It was unbelievable that it could see at all through that matted hair and the flap of…skin, probably… hanging grotesquely down over its visible eye.  Unbelievable that it wasn’t a corpse.  He tried not to recoil from the stench of the thing.  It was so close.

There was a loud clanging as other Reavers shuffled onto the walkway above the cargo bay, growling.  John wouldn’t have called what they were doing anything as civilized as ‘talking’ but he recognized vague directions and movement toward - thank heaven and whatever deity saw fit to run it - the cargo bay doors.

John could feel Sherlock tensing as the last few Reavers made their way through the area and - agonizingly slowly from John's perspective - back to their ship.  The moment the cargo bay door closed, Sherlock was out and pulling up a large floor grating that revealed an access area for engineers to reach the bottom part of the hull.  As John was about to ask what the hell he thought he was doing, he saw that Mrs. Hudson had emerged from the next bay down and was running to meet him in the access area.  John could hear snatches of their conversation as he scrambled out himself and approached.

"They're powering up to disengage; I've got the DC line active now, so everything should go off as planned," Sherlock was saying.

"As long as that jerry-rigged pressure catch holds.  I hated having to do it with spare pa--"

There was a jolt that knocked them all off their feet - fortunately, some of the crew hadn't stood up yet.   It was followed immediately by a clanking on the other side of the airlock behind the cargo bay door, as though a rain of metal was being hurled at it.  After a few seconds, the noise stopped.

"What the hell was that?" John demanded.

Mrs. Hudson grinned.  "That, Captain, was the result of their ship exploding and bits of it thunking into our hull.  But Serenity held up beautifully, just like I knew she would."  She patted the nearest beam lovingly, then started up the ladder from the access area.

Sherlock looked happy as well, but it was a bit more muted as he climbed out.  After a glance at John, he explained more thoroughly as he began replacing the panel of grating he'd removed.

"One section of my research revealed that Reavers sometimes leave booby traps on ships they've terrorized," he said, "to blow up the rescue ships when they try to help.  Mrs. Hudson and I worked up something similar up over the last few hours - wasn't a pretty job, but it worked.  Triggered it when they latched on and just took a liiiiiittle tweaking as they left."

"You blew up their ship," John clarified.

"Well, yes."  He looked a bit sheepish.

"Brilliant," John grinned, and Sherlock's expression instantly transformed into the grin he'd been trying to hide since he'd climbed to his feet after the explosion.

John stared at it, and not quite comfortable with the answering grin he felt on his own face, he clapped his hands briskly and turned to the others.  “So!  No rest for the wicked, I'm afraid.  We’re going to make a quick stop on Lilac before we leave this system and do that bank job we were talking about a few weeks back.  The mule is in good shape as far as transport, and we're here, and honestly I think we could all use a little spare cash for celebratin'."

There were grins of agreement all around, and even a whoop from Wig.  Things were looking up.

***

The mule cruised into town with a full charge and a well-armed crew of John, Sherlock, Molly, and Wig.  They left it just down the street from the bank, and wandered about to get the feel of the place, chatting to local vendors enjoying good foot traffic in the afternoon sun.  The town itself felt like a dusty afterthought - not large itself, but home to quite a few folk who preferred the atmosphere of a waystation between larger cities on the moon.  Perhaps they liked the illusion that there were any larger cities.  

One man in particular was selling all manner of hats - seemed an odd thing to put out as such luxuries were not often seen in these parts.   Many of them were of a fancy brand that was well out of these folks' price ranges as well, but he seemed happy enough to watch people wander by.  John sauntered up to his stall and started perusing.

"Interested?" asked the man.  He didn't seem interested in selling to John, but he'd been keenly watching every move he made around the merchandise.

"Just admiring the floral bonnets you have here.  Do you do a lot of trade, Mister-?" he trailed off.

"Oh, just call me Jim, all the folk here do.  You must be from off-world; no one here wears that sort of… jacket."

John glanced down at his brown coat, a very obvious remnant from the war for independence.  The war they'd lost, quite publicly and spectacularly.

"We are from off-world, yes," he said, suddenly not liking this man very much.  Sherlock came up behind him, and he was glad to have an excuse to change the subject.

"Oh, Jim, this is Sherlock.  Sherlock, Jim.  He sells very fine hats."  John smiled, and even he could feel it was strained.

"Charmed," Sherlock said shortly.   "John, we do need to get on.  Wig is not getting on well with the locals, and it's best we conclude our business here as soon as possible."

"Sherlooock," Jim said.  John didn't like his tone.  "I think I've heard of you.  Your family, certainly, is very well-known."  Jim grinned, and looked just unhinged enough that John's 'danger' senses were triggered, and he'd learned long ago to pay attention when alarm bells first started to ring.

"Great to meet you, Jim, but we really do have to go," John said abruptly.  He didn't like the way Sherlock was returning the stare, either, and all but dragged him away from the stall.

"Catch you later," Sherlock said, but John didn't hear if Jim replied.  

"The sooner we're out of here, the better, I think,” John said, heading toward the bank.  They met up with the others outside, all of them strolling around and then up the steps like they just happened to enter at the same time.  Once inside, they sprang into action.  Molly took out the cameras first thing, Wig knocked out an Alliance guard, and they were in business.  They gained entrance to the vault, subdued the guard there and were starting to load up the haul when they heard the first scream.

John held up a hand to silence the noise of their motion, and more screams floated down to them.  Among them was a cry that made his blood run cold.

"Reavers," he repeated grimly.  “One of those ships must've followed us.”  He stared around at his motionless crew, as frozen as they were, until another scream jarred him into action.  “The mule, now," he ordered, and everyone scrambled for the stairs.  "Does this vault lock from the inside?" he asked the frightened guard.

"Y-yes," the man said, looking after Molly at the open door and - at least temporary - freedom.

"Focus!" John snapped.  "You get as many people down here as you can and lock that door.  Long as you got air, you don't open it."

At last, the stunned guard nodded and John ran up the stairs after the others.

There were already Reavers visible on the streets, snatching panicked and screaming people at random.  John followed the others as they ran for the mule, pausing to fire towards a Reaver in the way, or maybe one running up from behind.  Victims caught screamed and then screamed louder as groups of attackers started tearing at living flesh - John tried to fire at the victims rather than look, and those hit by his bullets were dropped in the street.  The crew members were all zig-zagging over the place in the chaos, yelling and gunfire and dust being kicked up by so many racing, skidding feet.

They piled into the mule by Jim's empty stall, abandoned hats swinging in the breeze that the mule's engine kicked up as it started.

"Wait," John roared suddenly.  "Sherlock."

He wasn't in the mule.  Everyone froze and looked frantically behind them.

It was hard to see anything through the giant cloud of dust obscuring the street, and distressing sounds were coming from the direction of the town, but John listened closely.  He looked hard.  He started to get out of the mule.  Hands pulled him back.  

“You can’t go back there alone, sir,” Molly was saying.

John started to argue that he wasn’t about to leave a man behind when he saw that Molly was preparing to climb out as well, but they both froze when they heard a familiar voice cry out.  

John’s eyes shot to the source of the sound, and he saw Sherlock being pulled into the dust cloud by three Reavers.  They were lifting him, struggling, off the ground.  Tearing off that stupid coat he insisted on wearing, even in this heat.  

John had only a second, maybe two.  He pulled out his gun, aimed at Sherlock’s head, and knew that his aim was true.  No time for anguish about this - he pulled the trigger.  There was only a clicking sound… at exactly the wrong moment, John was out of ammo. Sherlock had vanished into the dust.

He could hear Molly firing behind him, but nothing could be seen any longer, and there was no guarantee she was hitting anything.  

“No, no, no, no,” he could hear himself muttering as he tried to reload with shaking fingers.  Beyond that, he could hear the yells and screams of former vendors, the panicked hoofbeats of frightened, stampeding horses.  At least one was screaming in pain - the Reavers weren’t that picky, when hungry, about where (or what) their next meal was coming from.   

There were harpoons snaking out of the dust now, trailing black cords.  A few latched on to the mule, but Wig and Molly were able to pry them off.  More Reavers were emerging from the cloud, running toward them, and the functioning guns they had were not going to hold them off for long.

“All right,” he heard a voice utterly unlike his own say.  “We’re running.”

“But Cap’n—“ began Wig.

“I have two more crew members to get to safety, and that is going to happen right now,” John said, steel in his voice, and started firing his newly reloaded gun at every Reaver he could see.  Most dropped instantly, and those that didn’t only kept coming because their wounds weren’t fatal.  It was as if they couldn’t feel them.

Wig got enough of the harpoon traps off the mule that they could move while Molly and John provided cover fire, and as they turned John took a last desperate look at the dusty mess of the town, but there was no sign of Sherlock.

He knew he was going to be haunted by that last cry from the man when the Reavers had grabbed him.  At least he didn’t hear the screaming that had surely followed.  He closed his eyes as the mule picked up speed.  

Well, he wouldn’t hear it in the waking world, anyway.

Chapter Text

(Three weeks later)


Serenity drifted.  

It was out on the edge of the ‘verse, past most of the Rim worlds and way, way out of the usual flight path of Alliance patrols. Or of anyone else, for that matter.  The ship was silent in the black, engines dark and lights extinguished.  To any passers-by, it would just look like a large piece of space junk.  There was certainly plenty of it out here on the edge of oblivion, no longer even a memory to anyone still breathing.

Inside the ship, it was a different matter.

“I don’t see them altering course at all, Cap’n,” Greg said, eyes flicking between the view screen and a dim readout.  “In fact, they’re speeding up.  Another thirty seconds and I figure we can turn the lights on.”

“Give it five minutes,” said John, watching the drunkenly swerving skiff veer toward moderately more inhabited space, leaking containment and a good deal of radiation.  “Get on the Cortex in the meantime, warn those ships around the planets that they have Reavers incoming.   At least there won’t be any surprises.”  This last was muttered as John turned to grab the ship-wide system and announce that they were holding dark for a few more minutes.

He’d decided not to alert the crew to the actual danger this time.  Their thankfully brief encounters with Reaver ships had been growing more frequent lately, and after that last incident on Lilac - his mind shied away from it no matter how hard he tried to steer it in that direction - they were all understandably more jumpy.   The crew were mostly in the common room, cooling their heels and - knowing Wig - being coerced into an unlucky (for the rest) card game while the outer lights were dark to hide from ’the law’.

Mary, of course, knew better.  She climbed the few steps to the bridge gracefully, fingers twirling in a long necklace that set her apart from the others.  No one else on board would bother with jewelry.

“Are they moving on?” she asked, though the lack of panic and John’s unhurried broadcast surely answered her question better than anything that he could say.  John pulled her in with one arm as he continued to look out the window.

“Think so. They’re headed away in a hurry, so I’m thinking we can call it a close but successful one.”  He pulled her in closer and she went willingly, stretching up to give him a kiss on the corner of his mouth.

“Good. They’re probably afraid of what you might do,” she said.

“Oh, yes.  I’m terrible fearsome.”

Mary had been a refugee at the first world they’d stopped on after Lilac.  Molly had been the one to make the decision to take her in - tell the truth, John hadn’t been worth much at the time, and Molly took over for him in those first, confusing days. He didn’t remember them very clearly.  But Mary had some medical training and they did sorely need that - someone or other was always getting sprained or grazed or… a little bit stabbed… that once.  It was handy to have her and she was willing to stick around, so they made it happen.  The romance between them had sprung up rather suddenly, but John had needed something - or someone - to drag him out of the hole he’d fallen into after Lilac.

“Can’t really see the ship anymore,” Mary said.  “Suppose I’ll go and break up whatever card game is going on down in the common room, let them know the outer lights are coming back on.”

She smiled up at John, and squeezed his hand as she left.   He had just turned back to the view outside when he heard Molly’s footsteps coming toward the bridge.  

"Tzao gao,” Greg said, and John looked at him incredulously.  

“And you married her!” he accused, as Molly stepped onto the bridge.

“Are we all meant to buy this?” was her opening offering.  John just shrugged.

“Come on, Captain,” she said, moving hands to hips in that way that meant business.  “There is no gorram way the Alliance would get within a billion miles of this corner of space, and you know it.”  

She was too respectful to add “so cut the crap,” but they both knew it was implied.  After a moment of staring at each other, he nodded slightly.

“All right, I didn’t want to panic the crew.  Reavers have been pushing further and further out to conduct raids, probably because the locals are wising up to their methods, and that isn’t a discussion I care to have.”

At her skeptical look, he added “Not a conversation I care to have with Wig, for a start.”

“Coward,” she said, but didn’t push it.  John knew that privately, she agreed.

“Fascinating as this is,” he said, “I’m heading down to check on our cargo before the rest of the crew start climbing all over the ship.”

“Sir,” said Molly.  “Our current cargo is bunch of boxes.”

“And I told the Sanchez brothers that I’d keep an eye on it often, and I intend to follow through with that.  You’re welcome to join me.”  He could see Greg giving her ‘that look,’ though, and didn’t especially expect her to accept his offer.

“No, thank you, sir,” she said, eyeing Greg right back.  “I’m going to observe our flying pattern for a while, make sure everything is how.”

“As we’re not moving right now, that will take some close examination.”  John sighed.  “Okay, try not to hit the propulsion lever and send us flying backward this time; that’s just embarrassing.”

***

When he stepped into the cargo bay, he found Mary already there, poking around the boxes.   She seemed out of breath, like she’d been running.

“John!” she said brightly.  “I was just checking on our cargo; everything looks good to go.  Artifacts are packed up nice and tight, just like they asked.”  She crossed to where he stood and whispered conspiratorially in his ear.  “We could pass the time between here and the drop off on Parth in a productive way.  Or unproductive, depending on your viewpoint.”  She grinned cheekily, but John wasn’t really tempted.  He was distracted by the misaligned cases - he was always very precise (‘anal,’ Molly said) about placement of storage and cargo, and things here were not quite right.  He tried to cover his discomfort.

“There’s so much clutter in here.  Needs to be gone through, most like,” he said, straightening a crate under the pretense of rearranging.

“Mm,” agreed Mary.  “You should get rid of these boxes that Holmes brought aboard.    Make some room in here.  I’d be happy to help you declutter.”  She ran her hand over one of Sherlock’s crates, and John’s discomfort ratcheted straight up to alarm.

“Oh, that’s all right, I’ll do something with these eventually.  I guess uh.  Well, I don’t know how to dispose of the chemicals safely.  But I’m sure someone’ll set me right, sooner or later.”

“Of course,” she said.  There was a pause while both of them stared at the crates.  “You could just eject them into space,” she suggested at last, slowly.  “Even if they were to find their way to a planet, they’d burn up in the atmosphere.”

“Might create poisonous gases,” he muttered, but they both knew that was rather ridiculous.  He turned, staring unseeing in the opposite direction.  “I could,” he said at last, then headed back into the main body of the ship.  She didn’t follow.

***

He wandered rather aimlessly toward the common room, lost in thought.  He should get rid of the crates, he knew that.  They were taking up space, and Serenity didn’t have that much to spare.  It just felt too soon.  Right now they were fine on room, and it was his gorram ship and he’d do it when he was good and ready.  Possibly when the chemicals started to emit a noxious odor.  He turned on his heel and was about to march back to the cargo bay and tell Mary - in a nice way - to keep her filthy hands to herself when Greg appeared in the door to the common room, looking disturbed.

“Captain.  There’s something you oughta see.  I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it doesn’t look good.”

John raised his eyebrows.  “Thought I was giving you and Molly some private time so this sort of distress wouldn’t be necessary.”

“She had to go and sort out some kind of emergency involving Wig and a bottle of castor oil.”  At John’s incredulous look, he added, “I didn’t ask.”

“Probably best,” John said warily, following Greg back to his controls.  “So what’ve you got to show me?”

“These,” Greg said, and leaned over his chair to tap a key at his console.  A list of communications records started scrolling up the nearest screen - quite a few of them, each with a date, time, and destination.

“These are logs of communications that we didn’t authorize, and they go on for months.  Sporadic, maybe one or two a week, but consistent.  Most of them originated from this ship, but not all - the others were transmitted here.  And they’re empty.  All the data has been removed, so we have no idea what the gorram hell was being sent or received.  But here’s the thing, Captain - I was able to piece together the destination and source of these transmissions.”  He glanced away, as though wanting to afford John privacy.  “Alliance.”  

He glanced back to see John frowning.  

“And there was an uptick a couple of weeks ago in the number of contacts - daily, sometimes multiple times per day, for several days.  Then they just stopped altogether, very suddenly.”  

John had a suspicion about where this was going, but he had to ask.  “And what was the timeframe of these transmissions?”

Greg grimaced.  “They started a few months back when we picked up those passengers on Meridian.  They stopped the day that Sherlock… left.”

“I see,” said John, staring at the screen, but he didn’t really see at all.  What the hell had Sherlock been doing talking to the Alliance?  Why the sudden uptick?  What could he have sent to them that didn’t end in Serenity’s immediate capture?

“You’re right,” he said, raising his eyes grimly to Greg’s.  “It doesn’t look good.”

***

It was a bright, crisp afternoon a couple days later when John and Mary were racing out to the middle of the Bellerophon desert to root around in a misdirected trash bin for a priceless antique gun.  It was exactly the sort of caper John loved; the sort he’d expect to be having with - well, he was here with Mary.  It was fine; more than fine.  Exhilarating.  He laughed out loud and set the shuttle’s destination on autopilot.

“I absolutely loved,” he said between giggles, “the story of Wig and Mrs. Hudson balanced on top of Serenity, trying to reprogram the destination of that trash bin.”  He moved into the small cabin of the shuttle, crouching automatically to avoid the low ceiling in the cockpit.  “I can just imagine the two of them trying to balance on their toes on the ship’s nose.  The winds alone!”

Mary dissolved into laughter as well, rolling back on the crate she’d perched on.  “And poor Greg, trying to keep it steady.  Ta ma duh, I wish I had a picture!”

“Well, the whole thing pales in comparison to that idea of getting the thing out past all that security by throwing it into the trash.  And if you hadn’t intercepted those codes…”

“Oh, that was long before I joined you; I never suspected I’d have the means to use them.  Glad I did, though - this particular ‘cargo’ is going to mean so much once we shift it.”

“I’ve got a few buyers lined up.  We couldn’t have done it without you, honestly…” he hesitated.  This was incredibly impulsive, but what, really, did he have to lose?  “Let’s get married.”

Her eyes grew round.  “John—“ she whispered.  

“I know it hasn’t been long,” he said quickly.  “But the life we lead - I’ve missed a lot of opportunities because I thought the timing wasn’t right.  I thought it was better to wait.  And I don’t want to miss out on this one.”

“Are you sure you want to take this step?"   

“We do have a life of crime and law evasion ahead of us; we’ll be one shaky step ahead of poverty and I very much doubt we’ll live long.”

“Well, you put it that way,” she allowed, straight-faced, “how could I refuse?”

He laughed again, feeling reckless, but the proximity alarm went off and he pivoted from his Engagement Kiss (TM) to the front of the shuttle, yelling “We’re here!”  Fortunately, Mary didn’t seem to mind.

John had a small, generic remote trigger that should tell the locking mechanism on the bin to open.  Well, Mrs. Hudson had said it would work, and while he had his doubts, he had every confidence in that woman’s ability to work miracles, so he’d accepted it silently.  The doubts were growing louder now, but he took the trigger with him to inspect the outside of the bin.   It looked like… a bin.  About three meters square, and a truly hideous mint green color.

There was a small hill above it where he could get a good view of the bottom of the bin and locate the gun, and he gamely climbed to the top.  “Shouldn’t be much else in there,” he called to where Mary waited below.   “The reprogramming called for a bin change immediately, so it won’t be full of garbage.  Just our little prize.”

She gave him a thumbs-up signal and grinned.  He hit the button to raise the lid - and it actually started to open.  Mrs. Hudson hadn’t had one too many herbal soothers after all!  His crow of delight morphed quickly into something strangled, then gave out altogether.  As the lid opened all the way, he could see that standing in the bin, cradling the pistol like a newborn baby, was Sherlock Holmes.

John vaguely felt his mouth moving in nonsensical patterns, but that was all right as he wasn’t making any sound, anyway.  He tried to take a step forward, his legs gave out, and he landed on his ass in the dirt.

***

“How,” John managed, once they were all aboard the shuttle.  “How?” he tried again.

Mary had gotten the autopilot engaged to take them back to Serenity.  She wasn’t a great pilot, but she had at least managed that much, and had taken a seat next to John.  She looked resigned, as though she wasn’t thrilled to deal with this, but shit happened.  

John was in no state to be feeling much of anything, but he kept reaching out to touch Sherlock’s shoulder as though making sure he was solid.

“I did not intend to be captured when I was leading those Reavers away from Irene,” Sherlock began.  “However, I was not… unprepared… in case of such an eventuality.  Also, we’ve been through this before, John,” he said, his expression turning pleading.  “Reavers are not the brightest stars in the galaxy.  The herd mentality with them is quite strong, and my observations of their behavior when we encountered them on Serenity coupled with my research was more than sufficient for me to—“

“Hold it,” John ordered.  “You’ve mentioned ‘research’ before, but you can’t research Reavers.  There’s no record of their killings except in places that have actually had some, and those aren’t places most folks care about.  The Alliance has been denying their very existence for years; where—“

“The Alliance has a database,” Sherlock interrupted.  “A secret one, obviously, but accessible enough with the right sort of influence.  They have data on Reaver attacks, of course, but most of the information is on the creatures themselves.  Behavior, clothing, habits, means of attack.  It’s fascinating, I’ve been through it several times.”

“Hang on,” said John, regaining some of his lost footing.  “Why would the Alliance have this secret cache of information about something they don’t believe exists?”

Acknowledge, John.  They don’t acknowledge it exists, but their obsession with amassing facts about them suggests something very different is actually happening.  They know that this threat exists.  And given that they have made no other effort to assist the Rim planets that are the victims of Reaver attacks, we can deduce that they are only interested in the Reavers themselves.  And they would only be interested if there is some sort of danger to the Alliance if they ignore the Reaver threat.  I need more data about this, but there is clearly more to the situation than is readily apparent.”

“Huh,” John said, lost in thought.  “So you broke into this secret database - is that why there was so much communication with the Alliance on our logs?  Because that right there would be a giant red flag.”

Sherlock looked shifty rather than excited, all of a sudden, and John’s eyes narrowed.

“Well, some of it.  I did mention that one needed the right sort of influence. I admit I had a number of communications with Alliance sources, but I swear to you, John, I never gave away our location.  And I blocked any tracking software on their end; there’s no way anyone there could find us.”

“So you were doing more than just looking at their Reaver database.”

“I, um.  Well.  There are some things going on that I haven’t been entirely forthcoming about.”

“Really,” John said flatly.  “That is a shock.  I may need you to apply the cortical stimulators that you mentioned in that hospital.”

Sherlock heaved a long-suffering sigh, which John thought was rather rich, but continued.  “I have a brother who holds a fairly high position with the Alliance.  It is in his best interests that I am not… hindered… but he will not hesitate to use any advantage he has to locate my cargo.”

“We’re coming up on Serenity,” Mary announced before John could respond, and they could indeed see it looming ever closer, the empty shuttle bay turned toward their approach.  John was relieved, but he was no longer sure he could still see Serenity as the sanctuary it had been, back when he’d thought everything had been under his control.  Still, he supposed having Sherlock back was a fair trade. And his engagement.  Can’t forget the engagement; this was the happiest day of his life, after all.

“This conversation is not finished,” he said, finally, “but I have a shuttle to dock, a crew member to re-introduce after he was seemingly killed in front of us, and an engagement to announce.”

“Engagement?” Sherlock asked, looking between him and Mary, who gave him a challenging look right back.  There was a long and pregnant pause.

“Congratulations,” he said, just as the thunk of the shuttle landing on its magnetized pad reverberated through the room.  The whirring of the shuttle being pulled into its place on Serenity’s side drowned out any potential conversation, for which John was grateful. Things were awkward, and he couldn’t quite pinpoint why.

***

Sherlock was not anxious to divulge all the facts about his miraculous return, giving precious few details and those were only of his observations and things he had ‘heard’ while preparing to help Irene.  He at least gave enough of the illusion of a full explanation that the most of the crew were dubious but ultimately satisfied.  They had to be, because they weren’t getting any more details and John was looking more and more grim for a man who had just gotten engaged.  They had been distracted by news of the engagement, anyhow; there were heartfelt congratulations and a surprising offer from Wig to perform the ceremony.

“I’m ordained and everything.  Pretty sure I am; there was a lot of whiskey involved, and I think they made up a song about me.  Best gorram day of my life.”

Greg had summoned John to the bridge again before he could respond to this offer.  He honestly wasn’t sure what he’d have said.

“So,” said Greg, once he had John’s attention.  “First we start with the less unusual part: there’s a ship up ahead of us.”

“Alliance?” John asked.  Ever since Sherlock’s revelation about his brother, John had been more wary of Alliance involvement, not less.

“Not sure,” Greg said.  “It’s big… I guess it could be, but could also be - I don’t know, a modified Orion cruiser, something like that.”

“Hmm.  We’ve been booking it at a pretty good clip away from Bellerophon and such ‘civilized’ places.  Bit odd for a passenger liner to be out here.”

“That’s what I thought,” Greg agreed, nodding.  “And now for the weirder part: it’s heading right for us.”

John turned to stare at him.  “Eeeexcuse me?”

“I know, Captain,” he said grimly.  “Has been since I could first detect it, hours ago.  No matter what heading we take, it’s right there on an intercept course.  It’s like we’re carrying a beacon - it shifts course the moment we do.”  

“Well, that’s disturbing,” John said, staring at the approaching ship.  It wasn’t hurrying, exactly, but it was certainly moving with purpose.  Drawing closer every second.

“John,” Sherlock exclaimed, bursting onto the bridge from behind them.  John jumped, startled.

“Jesus, Sherlock, take it down a notch.”

“John, there is something very wrong with that ship ahead of us.  It’s got some kind of strange shielding mechanism that blocks all my efforts to look past the hull—“

Your efforts?” John put in, but was ignored.

“However,” Sherlock continued, rather loudly, “I have something of a - well, secret weapon is the wrong word - a way that we are guaranteed to know what’s on that ship.  My other secret, John.”  He glanced at Greg, but continued.  “My sister.”

“Your sister?  Is she with the Alliance, too?  After hearing about your brother I don’t think—“

“He has a brother with the Alliance?” Greg asked, wide-eyed.

Sherlock was getting impatient.  “Just come with me, John.”

John sighed loudly but went along.  “So your invisible sister has just been stowing away aboard this ship for months, not eating or drinking anything, including the time you were dead,” he said sarcastically as they left.

“Yes.”

What?

***

Sherlock enlisted John’s help to move his top crate of chemicals, brought with him at that long-ago boarding on Meridian, onto the floor.  John had assumed the bottom crate contained more of the same, but when Sherlock cracked its seal, the smoke and pressurized coolant escaping into the air put that assumption to rest. Aside from that, though, it was empty.

“There was a person in here,” he said dumbly, staring at the empty crate.

“Full marks, John.”  Sherlock was frowning at the empty crate and looking increasingly panicked.  A few members of the crew - Mary, Molly, Wig - filtered in and stopped dead when they saw the smoke hissing out of the crate.

“Eurus - my sister who was in here - she’s…special.  Very smart.  But she’s not entirely - well, she’s not like the rest of us.  In the head, I mean.”

John had never heard him stammer like this, and was getting a little worried.  “It’s okay, nobody on this ship will hurt her.  Right, everyone?” he asked, glancing up, and they nodded quickly.  “She’s perfectly safe here.”

Sherlock was clenching his hair, and now he let out something between a growl and a moan of anguish,  “No, John, she - she might hurt others!  She can make people see strange things, she - well, no one is quite sure, that’s why it’s imperative that the Alliance doesn’t get their hands on her.  I took her so they wouldn’t use her for their own ends; they wouldn’t hesitate to make her into a weapon.  Particularly my brother,” he added, expression darkening.

There was a soft thunk from the docking end of the cargo bay; the mystery ship had arrived, and its occupants apparently intended to visit.

“That’s it,” Sherlock said, “I’m going to wave Mycroft and find out what on earth is—“

“No,” said Mary, stepping forward.  “You’re not,” she said, and bringing a large gun up to aim, she shot him in the chest.

***

Sherlock!” John screamed, diving for him.  He had been blown backward several feet by the force of the blast, and lay on the floor well away from the crates.

“Oh, calm down,” said Mary.  “It’s not like I put a bullet in his brainpan.  All I could find was a pressure gun - and I see that, Molly.”  Molly, who had been slowly reaching for her pistol, opened her hands and held them both up, empty.

“Put it on the floor and kick it my way.” Mary ordered.  She sounded completely different.  Gone was the demure and friendly woman with medical knowledge; her voice was gravelly and her accent had mutated to the less popular regions of the Core, where filthy deals the Alliance pretended didn’t exist went down.  Some of John’s contacts in that area sounded the same.  

Molly obediently removed the gun from its holster slowly and knelt to put it on the floor - then she turned it on Mary, lightening-fast.  Unfortunately, Mary was watching for that and shot before Molly could fire.   In a moment, Molly was in the same situation as Sherlock, and Wig bent to check on her.

John could see that the man was still breathing; he even started to blink open his eyes, but standing or even sitting up on his own was still many hours away.  Still, John hovered over him, glaring at Mary.  Times like these, he wished he carried his own pistol on the ship, pressure gun or no.  She was backing toward the door, still covering them all, and at the last moment stepped to the side.

In all the excitement, John had nearly forgotten they were about to be boarded by parties unknown until the hiss of the airlock brought him back to the present.  There was a great deal of creaking as the door opened, and a small figure in a suit and - sunglasses? - stood there, surveying the cargo bay.  He smirked and strode forward.

“Well now.  Isn’t this quaint.   Though it does seem that several of the crew are on the ground - waaaait.  Is that Sherlock?”  He removed the sunglasses to reveal dark, not-quite-sane eyes that looked strangely familiar to John.  The man made a tsk noise several times and shook his head, but he was grinning widely.

“What would big brother say, Sherlock?   Nothing good, I’m certain.  But as a special favor to you, I don’t plan on telling him anything about where you are, or where little sister’s got to.”

There was a wordless noise from Sherlock, but John didn’t look away from the man in the suit.  If the man changed tactics and attacked, John was pretty certain he could take him.  The man lifted his eyes to John, and he finally knew where he’d seen him before.

“Jim?” he asked.  Jim clapped his hands together with glee.

“Oh, you remember!  I’m so glad.  Aren’t you going to welcome me aboard, Captain?  I’m just here to help, honest.  I’m going to take a stowaway off your hands.”

Another noise from Sherlock, who was making a mighty effort to sit up, but wasn’t getting very far with it.

“You see, I’ve found,” Jim whispered, as though imparting a great secret, “that a certain corner of space has a Reaver problem.  People around there are terrified of invasion.  Incursion.  Ingestion,” he said, drawing the word out slowly.  “I want only to help them.  Keep the Reavers away from their little settlements for a simple, modest fee.”  He grinned again in that unhinged way that John was beginning to understand was just ‘happy Jim.’

“But the Reavers won’t listen to reason, unfortunately,” he continued.  “You can’t pay them to go where you want.  Can’t convince them that you’re in the right, or persuade them of anything or even appeal to rationality at all.  What is a poor criminal mastermind who just wants to protect his interests to do?”  He pulled an exaggeratedly sad face.  “I mean, does that seem right to you?”

“That sounds like extortion to me, actually,” John said flatly.  Jim only hummed.

“Well, it won’t work unless you can get the Reavers to do what you want.  And, Johnny Boy, I can do that.  Or rather, little sister Eurus can.”

He gestured grandly to the side of the room, and a girl with long, lank brown hair and wearing a white shift appeared slowly from behind a vertical beam. She didn’t seem to be completely aware of what was happening, and hid her suspicious, terrified eyes behind her hair until Jim, all conciliatory comfort, stepped forward and took her hand.

“Don’t worry,” he continued, “she’ll be very well looked after and cared for.  After all, I know at least some of what little sister can do and it’s in my best interests to keep her happy.”

He nodded to Mary and she narrowed her eyes at them, backing toward the door as he led the girl carefully into the airlock between the ships.  Sherlock yelled something that might have been “Eurus,” but it was still too garbled for John to be certain.  Mary answered anyway.

“You’ve kept her a prisoner in there for months.  She can do more than we even know, I’m sure, but we’re going to find out.  Carefully,” she assured them as she backed into the airlock behind Jim.  “And I’m sorry, John, I just don’t think the wedding is going to happen after all.”

“Yeah, I sort of got that when you tried to kill my best friend.  Thanks for making it official, though,” John growled.  She smiled merrily at them all and the door closed.

***

The injured parties were carried to the small medical bay, but with Mary gone and Molly incapacitated, that left only John and his shaky wartime experience patching up soldiers to help.  Fortunately, with a pressure gun shot from that distance, there wasn’t a lot to do but wait, watch for problems.  John had expected Sherlock to do himself further injury struggling to rise too soon, but with Eurus’s departure all the fight seemed to have gone out of him and he just lay still with his eyes closed, sometimes with his hands in a prayer type position.  John fretted over him while Molly recovered over the next few hours, talking more and more animatedly to Greg and struggling up to sitting.  She was considering trying her hand at walking when Sherlock’s eyes flew open.

“Bees!” he exclaimed.

“Um.  Okay?” said John.  Certainly he was relieved that Sherlock seemed to be awake and not corpsified, but mentally he might not be entirely there.

It took a few moments, but Sherlock’s eyes came back to focus on John.

“John, the Reavers have been following patterns most similar to various species of bee.  And now they have a queen!  Of course they’re going to do what she says!”  He struggled to a sitting position, while John told him to take it slowly and was ignored.

“When bees swarm, they take the queen with them.  Only she has gone ahead; they are going to follow her to the new hive and use that as a base for foraging.  They’ll cluster around her; bees care for their queen.  Well, occasionally they kill their queen, but generally they care for her.”

“That really doesn’t sound like a healthy system of government,” John pointed out.

“John, look around you.  Is this a healthy system of government?  Anyway,” he said, trying to turn so he could slide himself off the medical table, “follow the Reavers and we will find my sister.  She’s going to be used as a weapon, which is exactly what I was trying to avoid by keeping her from the Alliance.”

“Hang on,” John said, stopping Sherlock a little too easily for his comfort.  “I am not taking Serenity into a hive or whatever of Reavers.  There are people on this ship that have no interest or investment in this game of finding your sister surrounded by those creatures, weapon or no.”

Sherlock looked at him pleadingly. “They’re likely very docile in the hive, John.  I doubt they’ll pay any attention to us.”  John sighed.

“Okay, look.  There’s some talk of a job on New Canaan; would make our interest clear if we showed up in person.  Now that’s near Reaver space, but if there’s any invading of hives to be done, we’ll be doing it in a shuttle, just you and me.  Leave the others out of it altogether.”

Sherlock just stared at him.  “John, there’s no need for you to come.  I know very well that this is my fight—“

“Yes, there gorram well is a need for me to come.  After seeing you with chemicals, there is no way I’m letting you handle a gun, and I’m not watching anyone walk into a hive of Reavers, docile or no, without being well-armed.”

And honestly, he wanted to be with Sherlock.  He’d thought the man had been killed by Reavers once and was not ready to go through that again.  Not that he would say so - but he had a feeling that Sherlock could tell, anyway, from the way he was looking at him.

“Agreed,” Sherlock said suddenly.  “The trip will give me time to hide our shuttle from the alarms that I expect Jim has set up.  Not that there will be many; only a maniac would approach a place filled with Reavers, after all.”  He swung his legs over, slid off the table and his legs promptly buckled.  Fortunately, John was close enough to catch him.

“Give it another hour or so.  I might be able to help you walk to the shuttle.”

Sherlock glared.

***

John eyed the three Reaver ships he could see with the naked eye outside the shuttle’s navigation pane.

”Relax, John,” said Sherlock.  “Unless we make a sudden move, they’ll ignore us.  They are far more interested in getting to the hive.”

“I’m still going to watch them, thanks.  I’ve spent too long being wary around these creatures to just relax and trust we won’t be attacked.”   

“Hmmmm,” Sherlock said, clearly not listening.  “Well, we’re nearly there, so you can stop staring out that window and help me with the docking.”

“By which you mean it’s time for me to do it while you stand there and watch me.”

“Certainly not; someone should really keep an eye on all these Reaver ships.”

“Oh my god,” John said, but he went to complete the docking process anyway.

The ships were all heading for an object similar to the deep space stations John had seen before, but much smaller.  There were docking ports all over it, many with ships covered in Reaver markings already attached.  The shuttle joined them easily enough, and as predicted, they weren’t attacked or otherwise prevented.

“Well, we won’t be alone,” John said as the door leading onto the station opened.  He checked his pistol as they walked out. They stepped into a large, open room, and the loud humming that was immediately noticeable did give the impression of being in a hive.  But John could see that the humming was generated by giant fans and air purifiers scattered through the room.

“Mixes up the pheromones,” Sherlock said, and John, on high alert, looked at him as though he was speaking a different language.

“Individuals within the colony communicate with each other, but not with Reavers of another colony.  I mean ship, not colony.”  He shook his head as though to clear it.  “They’re all one colony here.  Besides, it helps with the stench.”

 It was clear what he meant; the fans were not easy to make out through the crowds of Reavers.  John’s hand moved to his gun, but they were only wandering around, sitting on the floor, some of them tracing patterns on it - almost like normal people.  He could see Eurus sitting on the floor in the center of the room, cross-legged and not talking, but perfectly alert.  He nudged Sherlock and nodded toward her, and they started over.  The Reavers ignored them, not exactly moving out of the way at their approach, but not stopping them or interfering in any way.

Sherlock kneeled down beside his sister, who didn’t seem to see him.

“Eurus,” he said softly, and she looked over at him and smiled, to John’s relief.  He’d been silently harboring the suspicion that the reunion would not go well, the Reavers would turn on them at her command, and he’d have to blast their way out of here.  But she and Sherlock were embracing, and he could feel his hand automatically moving away from his holster.

“Eurus,” Sherlock was saying, “I don’t think this is a good place for you.”

Eurus looked around. “They’re my friends, though,” she said and John could see that speech was not exactly coming naturally to her. The patterns were…unpracticed. “They need me.”

“They got along fine without you before,” Sherlock pointed out.

“It was harder,” she said solemnly.  “Now he tells me where they can find food.  They don’t have to hide and follow ships in, do all that work, for weeks sometimes.  He just points to a place, and I tell them, and there’s food there.”

“That’s not the kind of food that normal people eat, though,” John said.  It was like trying to explain to a four-year-old.  “It hurts other people, scares them.”

“Oh!” Sherlock clapped his hands together.  “Normal people!  John, you’re a genius.”

John was not sure at all about this pronouncement, but if Sherlock had an idea, he was willing to go with it.

“Eurus, your friends used to be like us,” Sherlock said.  “Can you make them like us again?  That way, they won’t need Jim’s food.  Just start with one and see if you can do that.”

She looked doubtful, but obediently focused on a Reaver nearby, sitting hunched over and hissing at his toes.  For a while there was no change that John could see.  But the man had stopped hissing; that was something.  And then he began to sit up straighter.  He was no longer focused on his toes, but something in the middle distance - then he looked - really looked - at John.  He didn’t have a Reaver’s mad eyes, just regular brown ones peering through filthy hair and with a part of a screwdriver through his cheek.  

“Barbara?” he said, though the screwdriver made it difficult to talk.  “Where’s Barbara?”

“Just stay calm, sir, we’re going to get you taken care of,” John said quickly, bending down and reaching out to the man.  The former Reaver was looking increasingly panicked.

“Why don’t you sleep,” suggested Eurus, and the man instantly closed his eyes and went limp.  It was fortunate John was in a position to catch him as he fell back.

“Wow,” said John as he gently laid the man down.  “They really are just people.”

“Not exactly,” said Mary.  She had edged up to them through the crowd of Reavers and was now pointing a not-a-pressure-gun pistol at them and looking so unlike the woman John had known that he could only think of them as different people.

“Ah-ahh,” she sing-songed at him when he started to reach for his own pistol.  “We’re going to take a little walk,” she announced.  

“No, they’re not,” Eurus put in, and amazingly, Mary lowered her pistol.  “You’re going to allow us all to go. And to take that man.  He belongs with us, now.”

Mary instantly turned and walked away, and John tried not to waste too much time staring after her before bending down to lift the ex-Reaver into a fireman’s carry.  Before he could lift the man, though, Mary returned with a wheelchair, and John put him in it.

“Thank you,” he said to her rather vacant eyes.  She nodded and pushed the sleeping man toward their shuttle.

As they approached, Sherlock spoke quietly in Eurus’s ear.

“You should leave,” she told Mary when the chair wheeled up.  “They won’t be happy when I go.  Not calm.  No mercy.”

“All right,” Mary said.  “Goodbye.”  And just like that, she turned and marched off to another airlock and her undoubtedly powerful ship.

John looked back at Sherlock, incredulous.  He shook his head wordlessly.

“I think we’ve been successful,” Sherlock said.  He clapped his hands together once, laid them on John’s shoulders, and after a momentary and uncharacteristic hesitation, planted a gentle kiss on his head.

Once released, John stared up at him; Sherlock wouldn’t meet his eyes.  “You kissed me!” he exclaimed.

“Not good?”

“Of course it was good, you idiot, but it was in slightly the wrong place.  Like this,” he explained, and kissed Sherlock properly, on the mouth.

The correction took quite a while, until Sherlock grudgingly pointed out that they were being stared at, and John agreed to board the shuttle.  He didn’t quite let go of Sherlock, though.

***

John was thoughtful as they headed back toward Serenity, watching the receding station as the Reaver ships detached one by one and sped off in the opposite direction.

“Think she’ll outrun them?” he asked suddenly.

“Well, she had a head start.  And she’s pretty wiley - she might, at that.”  John found that he didn’t really care one way or the other; he was just vaguely curious.

“So I guess Eurus is going to change the Reavers into people, one by one.  And I’m what - going to feed them up?  Give them showers?  Bandages for the piercing holes?”

Sherlock shrugged.  “If you like.  Eurus will be staying with me, not my brother, so if you’d rather we found a base elsewhere—“

“No, no, I’d like you to stay, I was just asking,” John said hurriedly.  “They don’t need much, but we have to keep flying.  There’s not a lot of money in Reaver mending.”

“My  brother can see to it that you are compensated. I may not know the specifics, but they’ve gathered a lot of information for a group that denies all knowledge of Reavers’ existence.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re responsible, somehow.  They’d owe you a lot if you were going to quietly get rid of the problem for them.”

John laughed quietly.  It didn’t sound like there was much humor in it.  “Maybe, but Sherlock, I don’t fancy being on the Alliance’s payroll.  There was a war, remember?  Don’t like them very much?”

“I can relate,” Sherlock said, smirking.  “Okay, how about you continue as you have been and they just look the other way for most of your dealings?  I’m not sure they can ignore anything major, but you do tend to stay off the radar for the most part.  And, of course, you’ll have me helping, so you’re guaranteed to do well.”

“Modest, aren’t you?” John asked, but he was smiling.  “It would certainly be a help not to have them breathing down my neck all the time.  Okay, if you can make that deal, it has my blessing.  We’ll accept ships docking with Serenity for as long and as often as Eurus wants, so long as we can still make our way.”

“Deal,” Sherlock said, returning John’s smile in a rather stupidly besotted way.  “In a rare fit of usefulness, my brother has offered to have some of our things sent care of Serenity, including our instruments.  Eurus and I both play.  How do you feel about the violin?”