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Doesn't Mean Our Brains Will Change

Chapter Text

She hadn’t expected them to take it so well.

Explaining what Waller had originally intended, nanite explosives in their necks, a disposable squad of talented, dangerous individuals, to be controlled and set loose to either fix a problem or die trying… Well they hadn’t reacted favorably.

Mal had folded his arms and leaned against the galley counter, “Ya’ll might want to shut up and listen to ‘Tross there. She’s smarter’n all of you put together, and she’s got a way out.”

“A way out figured from the jump,” Riddick added from behind her. “I’m gonna get us off the ground and on course to meet up with Serenity.” He said quietly and headed for the bridge.

“Thank you,” River called after him and got rewarded with a wicked smile.

“I’ll collect my thanks later, and in a much different position,” He informed her with a leer that sent blood rushing through her body.

Damn the man, he messed with her equilibrium like no one else.


Explaining her plan, that they act like the Big Damn Heroes Waller didn’t believe they could ever be, got mixed reactions.

“You want us to go out and fight, when all they wanted to do was lock us up and use us?” Captain Boomerang…displeased was an understatement.

“Waller’s modus operandi is leverage. Offer you something, time off your sentence, safety for your nana, school for your daughter, shelter for your cousin, your mother,” River looked at Harkness, Lawton, Santana and Jones respectively. “For Harley, it would be access to books, maybe even news of the Joker.”

The Joker’s evil chuckle echoed off the walls, “I’d say Waller’d be a little late with that.”

“She would,” River agreed. “But I got to you before she could. Before she could scoop you up.” She looked at the rest of the escapees. “She wanted you to follow my Captain, under Colonel Rick Flag. She wanted to use whatever leverage she had on you to get you to fight for her cause.”

“We got that much from listening in,” Lawton nodded. “So what’s the play?”

“First… I tried to bluff our way out, but Waller had electronic eyes and a connection with Flag; she recognized me. And Riddick,” River shrugged. “I passed for a Parliament Operative with the prison guards, which is how we got into Belle Reve in the first place. With Waller in his ear, Flag called my bluff.”

“Right…” Joker was talking more than Harley which River didn’t really care for. “And that matters why? Now that we’re off the ground?”

“Because they can cripple this ship,” Riddick told him flatly as he reentered the galley. “We’re on course,” He told her and Mal. “Less than twelve hours.” He looked at the Joker, taking in the green hair, pale skin, tattoos and crazy without a blink. “Right now, they think we’re cooperating. They stop thinking that, we’re all dead. Everyone on this ship.”

“Which is why my Lil Albatross is saying Big Damn Heroes,” Mal put in. “The idea is, we do what Waller wants, but on our terms.”

“No nanite explosive,” River agreed. “No leverage. And after we go our own way.” She looked at them, “The alternative is…not palatable.”

“What is the alternative,” Harley tilted her head. “What’s this Enchantress problem?”

“There is… a meta human,” River explained. “She’s more powerful than any other Waller’s come across. She’s able to perform magic, for want of a better term. Make you see things. Change reality. Teleport from place to place, take over your mind. Waller thought she had her under control. But she slipped the leash. Not sure how yet.”

“And,” Harkness rolled his eyes. “What’s that got to do with us?”

“You like robbing banks?” River rolled her eyes. “She’s going to destroy Mission City, then the planet, the system and she’ll take over and destroy the rest of the ‘verse. You won’t have any banks to rob, if you’re even alive to rob them.”

“Her aim is to take over the ‘verse,” Mal offered the explanation in simple flat terms. “So we can let her do it, see how far we can run. Or we stand up, and we fight. Try to protect the ones we care about.” He stared at all of them.

“So that’s the question,” Mal put it to the group. “You want to run away, or do you want to fight for something that’s worth your blood and sweat? Last time I fought a war I lost. Got told to lay down my arms and wait in that valley for death or the Alliance. I stuck a needle in their eye about a year and a half ago and ever since they’ve been just a mite annoyed with me and mine. They threw me in that hole so they could forget about me. Well I won’t be forgotten. And I won’t just lie down and let anyone try to do that again. Whether its with the Pax or a Witch trying to remake the ‘verse. No such thing as a better world. All we got is what we got. We make it better or worse our own selves. Not some witch.”

River smiled at her Captain and felt Riddick’s hand on her shoulder, warm, supportive. Covering it with her own she nodded, “I’ve had enough running. I aim to misbehave. Make this witch see that she’s not all powerful. I don’t care if she’s a meta human. She wants to make the world over in her image and I will not hold to that.”

Riddick’s low thunderous growl of a voice sounded from behind her, “You all know me, some personally, some by reputation. You know I’ve fought my own wars. They haven’t made a slam that could hold me. And I haven’t found anyone I’d be willing to follow into battle until she came to find me. I don’t know if you’d call me a meta human or not. Don’t really care. I’m Furyan. Defiant until the end. And nobody is going to remake my world in their image. I don’t care who it is. River says our best bet is to play Big Damn Heroes, then I’m with her. Woman’s smarter than anyone else I’ve ever met.”

“And I’m a Reader besides,” River threw that grenade into the conversation and had the pleasure of every eye in the room staring at her. “So yes, I know what you’re thinking Harkness, and no, I really don’t want the pleasure of kneeling in front of you.” She wrinkled her nose.

“The question is, where do you stand,” Mal looked at them. “If I’m not mistaken, all of you have people you care about, somewhere. What’ll it be? Run and hide, or stand and fight?”

Chapter Text

Flag’s ship was bigger, cleaner, and Riddick still didn’t like it. They’d gotten off the cockroach of a ship River had found and, with the rest of what Riddick had dubbed the Suicide Squad, boarded Flag’s boat.

Joker had taken the cockroach boat; he and his men were planning on shadowing the squad in the hopes of picking up Harley when the whole thing was over. Or, knowing him, whenever he got an opening. Just as well, the man was crazy like a sack of cats, and a lot less personable than his girlfriend. Harley might be nuts but she still liked people, for the most part. Joker didn’t seem to much like anyone, and when he heard River say she was a Reader… The green haired man’s scent blazed curiosity and trepidation. Not a good mix, not in Riddick’s opinion anyway.

Riddick couldn’t blame him for not sticking with the Squad. The man hadn’t come to fight a war, he’d come to find his girlfriend. Harley Quinn was a big bundle of crazy in a tiny bundle of pretty. And nothing Riddick wanted to get involved in.

The Squad had come to a general consensus that they’d pretend to buy whatever story Flag planned to feed them. There might even be some truth in it. No sense in them showing too much of their own hand and the knowledge they’d been entrusted with. So it’d been funny as hell when Flag started to give them all a speech, “Listen up! In your necks...Injection you got, it's a nanite explosive. It's the size of a rice grain but it's powerful as a hand grenade. You disobey me, you die. You try to escape, you die. You otherwise irritate or vex me, and guess what? You die.”

Harley, for the fun of it apparently, held up her hand and interrupted, “I'm known to be quite vexing. I'm just forewarning you.”

“Truism,” River murmured in amusement and got a gamine grin from her old school mate. “Delights in playing with the mind. Provokes reactions with purpose.” Riddick grinned at the byplay, though Flag seemed less than amused.

“Lady, shut up!” Flag had very little patience for their antics and River regarded him coldly as he continued, “This is the deal. You're going somewhere very bad... To do something that'll get you killed. But until that happens... You're my problem.”

“So was that like a pep talk,” Lawton tilted his head.

“Yeah,” Flag dismissed him. Big mistake. “That was a pep talk.”

“You might wanna work on your team motivation thing. Your pep talks are gǒu pì,” The assassin informed him flatly. “Oughta talk to the Cap’n here, let him school you some. Study.”

Mal regarded the Colonel with a faint air of distaste before he looked at the squad and the soldiers who were to augment their efforts. “Ain’t gonna tell you this ain’t dangerous, ‘cause it’s a flat out lie. Ain’t gonna say everything’ll be fine, ‘cause that’d just be another lie.”

Weiss sneered and Mal stared at him coolly, “I will say that I will do my best to get the mission accomplished and keep all of you alive during it. You know River, she’s my Second, so if she tells you to do something it’s as good as me sayin’ it. Probably better, she’s a helluva lot smarter’n I am really.”

“Like a woman would know anything about combat,” Weiss rolled his eyes and Riddick saw River meet Harley’s gaze. From the expression on Harley’s face and River’s scent, the two of them were in completely agreement with what he was thinking. The same thing it seemed Mal had on his mind. Slipknot would be trouble. More than he was worth. But every gun would be useful, to a point.

“Don’t expect you’ll be convinced by words,” Mal shrugged. “See her in action, you’ll change your mind right quick. Gonna be a bit of a wait until we’re close enough so let’s all just settle in and enjoy the ride.”

Flag had brought up a wave from Waller at that point, and the queen jiàn huò herself had taken over the pep talk, “Behold the voice of god.”

Waller stared at all of them from the screen, “For those of you who don't know me officially... My name is Amanda Waller.” Riddick couldn’t stop the curl of his lip, manipulative jiān xié who lied like she breathed. “There's an active terrorist event in Mission City. I want you to enter the city, rescue HVT-1 and get them to safety.”

Lawton shook his head as if confused, “I'm sorry. For those of us who don't speak good guy, what is HVT-1?”

“The only person that matters in the city,” Waller explained coldly. “The one person you can't kill.” Once that seemed clear she continued, “Complete the mission, you get time off your prison sentence. Fail the mission, you die. Anything happens to colonel Flag, I'll kill every single one of you.”  Dark eyes stared out at them, dull shark’s eyes, “Remember, I'm watching. I see everything.”

“There's your pep talk,” Flag sneered at Lawton.

The assassin rolled his eyes, “Compared to your shit, she killed it.” He turned and looked at Mal, Riddick and River, confirming to Riddick at least that the man was not stupid. Plainly comparing what River and Mal had told him of the mission and what Waller and Flag said. “So that's it? What, we some kind of suicide squad?”

River smirked slightly and winked as Flag rolled his eyes, “I'll notify your next of kin.”

“Yeah, no, rather you stayed away from my kin altogether,” Lawton shook his head and took a seat at the table. Riddick doubted Flag noticed but the assassin was thinking hard and using conversation to hide it.

River had brought a pack of cards, which was nice of her considering there was no point in her even playing. She’d chuckled when Lawton picked them up and offered to deal, “Kind to offer, but no point in her playing. Even before she was turned into a Reader, counted cards too well.”

“Oh yeah, you’re one a them genius types,” Lawton had dealt the cards for the rest of the Squad, minus Riddick.

“As if you are not,” River had eyed the other assassin with amusement and Riddick took a seat next to her, stretching an arm along the back of the bench and toying with a strand of her hair. “Geometry, physics, triangulation… so much math, all in your head, all in an instant as you determine trajectory and angles.”

Riddick chuckled, “Oh, so that’s the type he is.” He leaned closer to River and inhaled her scent, amused, concerned, her brain going overtime, a bit of that burnt scent that meant she was getting uncomfortable.

“Type?” Waylon rumbled the question.

“Type of genius,” Riddick shrugged and amused himself by wrapping his arm around River’s shoulders and snugging her up against his side. She felt cooler, as if being in the Black chilled her and he frowned down at her, “You’re way too cold.”

“No excess body fat,” Her answer was absent minded as she began to work on a datapad. “Could not afford wool clothing. Synth-leather must suffice.” She glanced up at him, dark eyes and long lashes against porcelain pale skin. “He is warm though.”

“Yeah, so stick close,” Riddick grinned and looked at Deadshot who was waiting with the interminable patience of a sniper. “You’re a math genius, angles, geometry, physics, it all comes naturally to you.”

“What kind are you,” Chato tilted his head. “She,” He nodded towards River, “She said you were a genius.”

“Never really been classified,” Riddick shrugged. “Never had trouble learning anything, ever.”

“Like her,” River murmured. “No limits.” She must have heard a question in someone’s mind because she continued speaking, “Intelligence can’t be measured. Given adequate time and resources, nothing that cannot be learned. Brilliant at flying, excels at spatial awareness regarding aerodynamics and warfare.”

“Been in a few dogfights,” Riddick agreed. “Flying…comes natural as breathing.”

“So what’s your specialty,” Lawton looked at River as he dealt the cards. Harkness considered his hand while Harley giggled.

“She don’t have one,” The psychiatrist told him. “She can do anything. Helluva dancer, and gymnast, must make fighting her almost impossible.”

She glanced at Riddick and he nodded with a pleased grin, “Most fun I’ve had with my clothes on that didn’t involve killing someone who deserved it.” River actually blushed at bit and he smiled at her wickedly, “Really hoping to see how much fun we can have clothes off.” He murmured against her ear.

“She is curious about that as well,” River admitted, still blushing.

“How come she don’t talk straight,” Harkness really had no sense of tact. It was obvious that more than half the soldiers in the room, along with Flag and the other sword wielding woman in the room, not to mention the rest of the squad were wondering the same thing. Harkness was the only one stupid enough to actually ask the question.

“She’s a Reader,” Her Captain sent the shaggy man a killing look. “Sometimes she talks like that because it’s easier for her to keep things straight in her mind.”

Riddick nodded his understanding, feeling her shoulders tense under his arm, “Can’t be easy, so many people around.” He commented, “Like me with too much sensory input.” He was pretty sure Mal knew what her slip in pronouns meant.

“You gotta put that in plain folk talk,” Lawton told him. “I think your girl there’s the only one who got it.”

A look around the room made the truth of that statement obvious. Reynolds understood, likely because of River, and it was possible Flag and the other woman, Katana, knew what he meant, not that they cared, but nobody else had a clue. “Sensory input, senses? As in you got five? Sight, sound, touch, taste, hearing?” He sighed in exasperation. He’d never liked explaining himself.

“Furyans are…” River’s voice, slow and thoughtful, flowed through the air. “Exceptional. Vision in darkness, better hearing, better sense of smell, taste and touch…” She put cool fingertips on his forearm, “He can feel the rough tips of her fingers, knows to the millimeter where they are, what work she is accustomed to. To walk barefoot is to feel the vibrations of movement kilometers away, if there are none nearer to him.”

“So everything’s dialed up to ten,” Reynolds got it and thankfully, translated it for the rest of them. “Guess you’d hear someone talking from the other end of the boat.”

“Pretty much,” He nodded his agreement. “I can hear heart rates, footsteps, smell when someone’s adrenalin is up because of fear or lust.”

“Damn,” Lawton shook his head, “So we got four a ya’ll meta-humans on the team?”

River shook her head, “Only three, she is not the same, not born this way.” Her scent burned for a moment, and Riddick looked down at her in concern as her eyes flicked up to Reynolds.

“She’s more like you,” The Captain told Lawton. The assassin frowned over his cards for a moment and Reynolds shrugged. Riddick found himself liking River’s Captain a bit more. If River wanted to tell everyone what had been done to her she would.

“Because one is astute enough to ask the question does not make one deserving of the answer,” River murmured and looked up at Riddick. “Her difficulties are no one’s business.”

“Yeah, I got you,” He agreed. She’d told him not long after they’d met, after she had a particularly bad episode traveling back to Serenity.

Chapter Text

River stood and stretched before taking a step towards the hall of cabins. If she didn’t get some respite from all these minds… Flag’s eyes snapped to her at the movement and he stood, “Where’d you think you’re going? Both of you?” He added as Riddick stood up behind her.

“She would like privacy, to meditate, to adjust…” River tilted her head towards the doorway. There were at least five or six small rooms, suitable for soldiers bunking in close quarters. Half of them were filled with the elite Purple bellies associated with the Parliament, less than Operatives, more than simple soldiers. But there were three rooms empty.

“Rather you stay here,” Flag shook his head.

“Not under his command,” River shook hers right back at him.

“Flag, you really don’t wanna argue with her,” Mal commented laconically from his spot at the table. “She’ll win and all you’ll end up with is frustration and a headache. You ain’t a genius. No way you’re gonna win an argument with her.”

“Reynolds, you aren’t in charge here,” Flag shot back.

River sighed, “Dà xiàng bào zhà shì de lā dù zi.” Riddick’s smothered chortle behind her drew a half quirk of her mouth. “Colonel Flag, we are here for the mission. Not to stoke your ego. None of us are here because of you. Please do not force me to demonstrate just how… ineffectual your associate would be in preventing me doing anything I choose.”

Flag bristled and Katana’s mouth tightened under her white mask, looking at her commander for instruction. Riddick’s slash of his hand prevented any outburst, “We’re going to one of the rooms. Neither of us is used to this many people anymore and it’d be nice if we made it to the damn planet without carving out your liver through sheer tiān shā de irritation.”

The sergeant who was leading the soldiers leaned against the hall door, “Flag, I get that you’re on edge. But maybe you could try to remember that all of these folks have been in solitary confinement for at least a year? I’d be climbin’ the walls.” He nodded politely at River, “I’m GQ, don’t know if you caught that earlier. There’s a room, two doors down, two of the bunks are already flat to the walls. Plenty of space to meditate.” He eyed Riddick and then Waylon, “Sorry the bunks aren’t all that big, might not be very comfortable for guys your size. But the mattresses are removable, could just put ‘em on the floor and rest there if you want.”

“Very kind,” River offered him a smile. For an Alliance soldier he was fairly sympathetic. He wasn’t bad looking either. Very pretty. Not her type, more a Core look that reminded her of Simon though his coloring was different.

Riddick had a hand at the small of her back, gentle but urging her forward to the room in question, “You thinkin’ an hour or two?”

“Hmm,” She sank down on one of the bunks gratefully and laid her sword across her knees, taking a deep slow breath. “He need not stay with her if he would like to join the card game.”

“Cards are pointless when you can read tells like a book,” He shrugged. “A little quiet is good. Quiet with you in the room, that’s even better. And if you need an anchor for a bit, my reaction to that…also none of their business.”

River couldn’t help the smile that curved her lips, “She feels the same about him.” She nodded reluctantly, “If he will anchor her… for a while?”

“Hey, you need it, can spend the rest of the trip in here, get your mind settled,” He shrugged and stretched out on the bunk behind her, sliding his arm around her middle.

“It is greatly appreciated,” River admitted as she took him at his word and linked her mind to his. Relief came instantly, the subtle ache of her bones that seeped out of her nerves, overstimulation of her brain translating to physical pain eased as she concentrated on only one mind.

“Never told me,” His murmur, a low growl of contentment and desire, rolled over her skin like silken thunder. “What’d you see when you anchor to me?”

“Never asked before,” The Reader wondered why he was asking now. Because now that they’d accomplished their goal, breaking Mal out of Belle Reve their association was nearing its stated end and he wished to satisfy his curiosity? Or because they were about to do something even more dangerous?

“Didn’t seem important before, we both went into this figuring it would end after Belle Reve,” Riddick shrugged against her. “Now though… you and I…we’re both talking like we want more than a temporary partnership. Seems like there’s more weight to it.”

Understandable… She thought about it before she could give him an answer. Riddick, unlike anyone else of her acquaintance, encouraged her to use him as an anchor. The minute her pronouns began to slip he would give her a look to remind her that he was available to help. As a result she’d linked to him more than anyone else. Perhaps because of that, it didn’t take her mind nearly as long to settle.

Or perhaps it was due to his perspective, his welcome of her mind linked to his. Riddick didn’t feel it as an itch or intrusion. His primary reaction, of desire and warmth, didn’t feel like anyone else from her perspective. And what she saw…

“Difficult to describe,” River set her sword on the floor beside the bunk and allowed Riddick to pull her down beside him, little spoon to his big one, her head tucked under his chin. “Warmth, welcome, affection…” She smiled despite the mental work of putting her mind in order. “Riddick is… like shelter. Protection. A shield to hold others out and she can work to calm her own thoughts.”

“Can’t say I mind that at all,” She could hear his smile. “You know how it feels to me. Like you’re caressing every nerve and inch of skin with those soft hands.”

“Stimulation of desires…but he welcomes it…” River smiled. “Odd man.”

“Furyan,” He shrugged, tugged her body closer and she could feel the truth of his words, his body stimulated, aroused and pressing against her pì gu. “Nothing normal about me. And as long as we’ve got business to take care of, this is as close to sex as you and I get, I’ll take whatever I can, when I can.”

“Personal motto,” She murmured, amused. “His thoughts are… not loud, not over-soft, deliberate. Control… first lesson and the last.”

“Yeah, without it, too much goes wrong,” Riddick agreed. “Learned early on to keep any impulses locked down. Can’t take advantage of opportunities if you’re not paying attention. Can’t pay attention if you get distracted by incidentals.”

“Not simple,” River mused. “Animalistic, primal…but not simple minded. Singular purpose does not denote mental deficiency. He is…” She considered. “Riddick is balance. Yin and Yang. The man and animal, in balance with each other. In all things. His thoughts reflect this.”

“Took me a long time, but yeah, I got there,” His palm spread over her ribcage, fingers caressing lightly. “Makes it easier on your brain?”

“When he is the anchor…she can truly rest,” River sighed. “Knowing she does not harm him. He is not uncomfortable, does not mind being her anchor, despite the lust it ignites.”

“Well no,” His arms encircled her more firmly, possessive but comforting.

River sighed again, complete contentment, when he held her like this. He’d been worried she’d be offended. The first time, pulling away from her before she woke. The second time, she’d woken before him and found herself wrapped in his arms, she’d been startled but pleased. Riddick had woken shortly after and began to disentangle himself only to have her hands tighten on his arms.

She’d caught the thought at the front of his mind, that she wouldn’t want him practically dry humping her in his sleep even if it did ease the ache for touch produced by her link to his mind. “Satisfies,” She’d murmured thoughtfully. “Touch satisfies when sex is not an option.”

He’d nodded shortly, “With you, seems to. Mostly.”

“No objections to your touch,” She’d smiled. And that had been that. When Riddick acted as her anchor he held her in his arms. After all this time together it became more comforting than anything else.

Simon hadn’t liked it, when they’d gone back to Serenity to finalize her plans he’d come across them sleeping like this on the big couch in the lounge. He’d been outraged, and Riddick quietly furious at the implication that he would do anything River didn’t want.

They’d gotten it settled but Simon still didn’t like it. Too bad for him.

Chapter Text

River tilted her head towards the swordswoman at Flag’s side while she and Riddick waited to board the ship to ground shuttle. All the colonel said during introductions was, ‘This is Katana. She's got my back. She can cut all of you in half with one sword stroke... Just like mowing the lawn. I would advise not getting killed by her. Her sword traps the souls of its victims.’

Flag obviously hadn’t read up on River or Riddick as much as he’d initially implied. He wouldn’t have made such a sweeping statement if he had, or maybe he would have, just as a bluff. Katana’s sword was an oddity, she could almost hear the voices within it. Just like she’d heard the ghosts of the derelict Serenity had found after a couple months in the Black. Just like the ghosts of Miranda.

“Not trapped,” River murmured, and Riddick’s quicksilver gaze fell on her.

“What’s that?” He kept his voice just as low.

“Her sword, ‘traps the souls of its victims’,” River quoted Flag. “Not entirely accurate. Trapped…but release is possible.”

“Yeah?” He tilted his head curiously and River smiled.

“Wrath,” She nodded at his chest, the handprint concealed beneath his shirt. “Raw energy. Disrupts magic, disrupts technology…” River considered. “Mages…would perform rituals, call the quarters, north, south, east, west, and elements for each. And in the center, the fifth element, the spirit, to center all around it. Spirit warriors, Alphas…call the Wrath.”

“Spirit energy, trumps every other kind?” Riddick frowned thoughtfully and she could hear him filing that information away.

“Hmm…” River nodded as they boarded the shuttle, Riddick’s hand on her waist possessively, much to Mal’s annoyance at the sight.

Harley’s enthusiasm was irrepressible as she peered out the window of the ship to ground shuttle onto which they’d been loaded. The closer they got to Mission City the more obvious it was that this was not normal warfare, “Ooo. Look at the pretty lights! Are you guys seeing this?”

Lawton, perhaps in an effort to find out how much Flag would try to bullshit them, looked at the Colonel, “What happened?”

“Terror attack,” Flag lied. “Dirty bombs, bad guys shooting up the place with Grizzlies and Iskellians. You know, usual shit.”

“Right,” Lawton didn’t quite roll his eyes, but it was close. “Yeah, you're a bad liar.” He tilted his head, met River’s gaze for a moment and winked before he continued baiting Flag, “I don't know if they told you... But I'm a hitman. I'm not a fireman. I don't save people.”

“Anything for platinum, right,” Flag didn’t quite sneer but it was close.

“You know the dark places, too. Don't act like you don't,” Lawton was pulling on his Deadshot persona like an old sweater, a quick shrug and a comfortable weight to go with his work clothing.

“I'm a soldier,” Colonel Flag really didn’t understand what how to deal with people like these. “And you're a serial killer who takes credit cards.” He eyed Lawton, doing some baiting of his own, “When the shooting starts, and it will, you'll cut and run.”

River tilted her head and nudged Riddick who’d been beside her watching the byplay with barely concealed amusement. “He will want to go to the cockpit.” She suggested firmly, “Likelihood of a hard, possibly fatal landing without his aid is very, very probable.”

“Why don’t I lend you a hand,” Mal stood along with Riddick.

Mal freely admitted he’d volunteered his piloting skills without much thought for what he’d say to the big hún dàn his daughter had taken up with.

Riddick stood behind the pilot and tapped him on the shoulder, “Get up. If you want to get to the ground in one piece.”

“I don’t care who you are—” The bluster started almost immediately, fingers clacking on the console keys and both stopped with a squawk as Riddick simply pulled the man out of his chair.

“I’m a better pilot than you are,” Riddick took his place and glanced at the co-pilot, a lanky looking blonde. “He’s gonna co-pilot. You two take the nav stations and strap yourselves in.”

She, wiser than her pilot, didn’t argue, simply nodded and looked at Mal, “Ever flown one of these before?”

“A time or two,” Mal nodded and didn’t mention it was close to five years ago. “Don’t seem to have changed much.”

“Basic design is the same, body and hull’s been streamlined for better aerodynamics,” She nodded and moved to the nav station. “Hopefully it’ll make hitting atmo easier. We’ve got enough fuel for a couple of runs around the city if we need it.”

“Or a hard burn to get us down faster,” Riddick observed. “Before they can shoot us down.”

“Or that,” She agreed as she strapped herself in.

Mal looked over at Riddick, “So hard burn then?”

“River thinks anti-aircraft is very likely, and you know what ‘very likely’ means when she says it,” Riddick’s hands were busy on the console, adjusting their trajectory. “Gimme some extra flow to offset the burn through we’re gonna get during the descent.”

“On it,” Mal nodded as he recalled Riddick crouching in front of River at a touch of her hand to his wrist while he passed. She must’ve passed on that little tidbit then. “I’ve had some experience with ‘highly possible’, ‘very likely’ and ‘very probable’. Never did much like the results when I didn’t take her advice.”

“Yeah she’s a caution,” Riddick grinned boyishly, the expression taking years off his age and for the first time Mal could see why River enjoyed the huge man’s company.

“She is that,” He frowned as a light began to flash. “Why’m I gettin’ a warning about entry angle here? Nothing’s wrong with it.

“It’s because you’re on manual,” The co-pilot was examining her screen. “Just ignore it. The autopilot doesn’t like manually calculated entries.”

“Then it’s really gonna hate me,” Riddick quipped.

“How d’you mean,” The co-pilot looked up curiously.

Mal chuckled, “If he’s anything like my daughter, and from what she says, he’s the better pilot of the two of them, he doesn’t manually calculate with the cortex. He figures it all in his head. Better than the cortex could.”

Riddick nodded, “Cortex doesn’t allow for last minute adjustments, evasive maneuvers, that sorta thing.” He agreed as he began to push the shuttle hard.

Keeping up with Riddick while he flew and evaded anti-aircraft…whatever they were that exploded green and turn the sky yellow, not easy and not for the faint of heart.

In the middle of an interesting (oh god oh god we’re all gonna die) evasive tactic Riddick shot a glance at him, “So you figurin’ to warn me off your daughter? Tell me I’m no good for her? Big bad convict and she’s a delicate Core flower?”

“Well…” Mal paused and compensated for the suddenly high winds around them as Riddick’s arms bulged with muscle to keep the shuttle flying straight. “I wouldn’t call her a delicate Core flower,” He admitted. “The rest of it’s pretty on target though.”

“Uh huh,” The huge man growled his annoyance at something on the screen. “Oh this is gonna be—” He interrupted himself with cursing, “Wèi le tā mā de yuán gù.”

“Well we’re closer to the ground at least,” Mal offered as the barrage of anti-aircraft whatevers increased.

“Yeah,” Riddick snarled a command at the Alliance crew. “One of you key in the code to release the speed block on the gorram engines.”

“We don’t have a—” The co-pilot began to object.

The pilot was stony-faced and Mal sighed, calling back to the passenger portion of the shuttle, “River! Can you get around this?” He looked at the idiot pilot who clearly had no intention of doing anything helpful, cutting off his nose to spite his face. “What’s the point of putting a speed restriction on a shuttle bringing in soldiers?”

The pilot wouldn’t respond but the co-pilot’s outrage reverberated through the ship, “You yú chǔn zì jiāo de dà zi ròu.”

River entered the cockpit, steadying herself with a hand on the doorway, “Did it when Riddick ordered him out of the chair. Foolish.” She moved forward and leaned over Riddick’s shoulder, keying the code in unerringly. “Released.”

“Better,” Riddick nodded grimly. “But this landing just got three times harder. Not sure how well this thing’ll fly after we hit the ground.”

“Too close for adjustments to be much good,” She sighed. “I’ll let everyone know to strap in.”

Mal rolled his eyes as he heard River’s reprimand to Harkness as she passed him, “Touch me and lose the hand. Everyone strap in, the yú bèn de Alliance pilot put speed restrictions on the engines. Not a lot of time for corrective maneuvers as a result of the delay. We will likely land hard, but in one piece.”

Riddick muttered, “Always one moron thinks he knows better than everyone else. Thinks a stupid symbol on his uniform means he’s got brains, ‘stead of being promoted to his level of incompetence. Why’s it always SNAFU and FUBAR with the gorram Alliance crap?”

It was a strange way to meet the ground, chuckling at the huge convict’s muttering while hauling on the stick and trying to reverse the back burners to soften the landing as much as they could.

The co-pilot was on the comms, presumably communicating their status, “Six-one is going down. Six-one is going down… five klicks out.”

The landing, bone-jarring, eardrum-piercing screeches of metal on concrete and stone, and an abrupt neck breaking stop, did not do Mal any good. Nor did the body of the pilot as he was thrown around the cockpit.

“Stand by. Drop the ramp.” He heard Flag and the soldiers, getting everyone up, “Drop the ramp. Come on! Let's go! Let's go! Go, go! Come on! All right. All right. All right.”

“Well,” The co-pilot rubbed the back of her neck. “That was…fun?”

Riddick looked back at her and chuckled, “Adrenaline hype?”

She nodded ruefully as she unbuckled her harness, “Leila Larue.” She introduced herself.

“Richard B. Riddick,” Mal gestured towards the man. “Captain Malcolm Reynolds.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” She gave them a half grin and wrenched open a slightly skewed locker on the wall, pulling out a very nice Iskellian HMG and several handguns, along with two knives. “Need anything from the lockers, help yourselves,” She gestured at them. “Get the feeling we’re going to need them.”

Mal nodded and took her up on that, something besides his six-shooter would be helpful. Riddick shook his head, “Got all the blades I need. But if there’s a Python or two I’ll take ‘em.” The big man also helped himself to one of the Maulers and a Justice Arms, slinging them over his back like they were feathers.

By the time they got to the back of the shuttle and down the ramp Harley was practically bouncing, “What a ride!”

Flagg’s attention was on the earwig he wore, “We're okay. We're okay. Assets are undamaged.”

“No thanks to that idiot pilot,” Riddick commented. “Who’s dumb enough to put a speed block on when you’re likely to need an emergency landing?”

“Alliance pilot, that’s who,” Mal rolled his eyes. “No offence meant Miss Larue.”

“None taken,” She shook her head. “Just don’t say bái mù co-pilot.”

“Never crossed my mind,” He assured her.

Chapter Text

No one had wept much when Harkness implied to Slipknot that the explosive in his neck owed more to imagination than fact. Christopher Weiss was a colossal pì yǎnr with no respect for women at all. Harley had flat out told him the rest of them didn’t have explosives injected into them and he’d just sneered that of course a woman would be that stupid.

It did, however, lend credence to Harkness’s claims later on. And Weiss fell for it. River slanted a warning glance at the rest of the squad. They didn’t need to advertise that the explosive in the neck portion of Waller’s program had been skipped. Flag had assumed they’d been subjected to the procedure while on Belle Reve and nobody had said otherwise at the time. (Of course the prison staff being dead prevented them speaking quite nicely.) Thankfully, while a lot of the Squad were textbook sociopaths, they weren’t morons, and no one said a word.

GQ’s voice came over the comms, “Boss, we got people up here.”

Mal’s voice sounded before Flag could get a word in, “I'm on my way.” He glanced at River and she nodded.

Riddick moved forward, “I’ll keep you company Cap’n.” He walked with Mal to the front while River remained with the squad.

She looked at them and held up a hand, “Chato, I understand if you have trouble fighting in close quarters. Will you use conventional weapons if you cannot bring yourself to use the flames?”

Chato’s expression twisted with discomfort under his skull tattoo, “I swore I wouldn’t lift my hands in anger again.” He said finally. “On the dust of my family.”

“But you are not angry,” River tilted her head thoughtfully. “This is an enemy; it is not personal. There is no reason for anger. Will you help defend your companions, your world?”

“You an’ Riddick, you can keep me from getting out of control?” Chato’s legitimate concern for their safety was touching.

“No one knows Wrath the way Riddick does,” She smiled. “If there is ever a need for yours, we will be in desperate straits and you will need have no compunctions about releasing it.”

“All right,” Chato nodded and held out a hand. “I’m better with an Iskellian or a Grizzly than a blade.”

Deadshot threw him one of the former, “Nice to have you with us homie.”

River tilted her head, angling to hear the conversation at the front line and frowned, “Waller says to divert, not to fight, fighting doesn’t work. But If we divert we will lose the other Purplebellies.”

“Well let’s not divert then,” Deadshot gave her a grin of pure mischief and she laughed softly. Floyd’s sense of humor seemed similar to hers and Riddick’s.

“Let’s not,” She nodded towards the rest and they moved forward as a group.

River stood in front of the Bravo squad leader, startling Flag and the tall chocolate skinned male in fatigues as Flag commanded, “Copy that. We're diverting. Bump out second squad two blocks east. We'll pass through you, continue north. Take bravo two blocks east. We'll leapfrog through you once you're in position.”

River shook her head, “If we divert we will lose Bravo.” She looked at the lieutenant and did not move from her position in front of him. “Bad move to split up. We can take this group. If the Purplebellies can hold our perimeter.”

GQ looked over at her and then towards Mal and Riddick who seemed to be eyeing the enemy as if determining weaknesses. “Well it’s up to Cap’n Reynolds isn’t it,” He moved up behind the two men and tapped Mal on the shoulder. “Your daughter’s got an idea, it counters Waller’s orders.”

Mal turned around with a grin, “Anything that don’t agree with that jiàn huò I’m in favor of.”

River explained Waller’s idea, pointing out that splitting up seemed like a very bad idea. “We can’t simply avoid all of these…things. It’ll take us forever to get to wherever we’re going.”

“Well Waller is in charge,” Flag argued. “Our orders are to get HVT-1 out of the city and off planet if possible.”

Riddick folded his arms and simply stared at the Alliance officer while River rolled her eyes, “Thinks we bought his lies. Thinks he’s fooled a Reader. HVT-1 is… along the way, but not our true purpose. Waller has always wanted the Squad to deal with the Enchantress problem.”

“We’ve got our orders,” Flag repeated as if they’d agree if he wore their ears down.

“Those are your orders,” Mal reminded him. “Our orders are to put a stick b’tween the spokes in this Enchantress’s plans.” He regarded Flag calmly, “You do recall we’re doing this under our own terms? Long as we’re going the same way, we work together.”

“But we don’t follow your orders,” Riddick reminded the Colonel bluntly. “We’re in this for our own reasons.”

“Just another excuse to cut and run when things get too hard,” Flag plainly didn’t think much of them.

River sighed and pushed past him, GQ gave her a questioning look and she shrugged, “Bored now.”

“Where’re you goin’?” The overly handsome soldier called after her.

“To pick a fight,” River nearly laughed.

Wǒ kào,” Mal turned behind her and she heard him issuing orders. “Purplebellies, hold the line, don’t let anyone get past you. Squad, you’re with me, we’re the breakwater, Purplebellies are the final levy, River and Rick are ‘bout to start a fight.”

Mal did know her fairly well after all, she drew her sword and axe and tried to put out of her mind that these had once been people.

“Why do they look like that,” GQ was questioning Flag, but she didn’t have time to listen for the answer. A slice of her blade later, she and Riddick were too busy trying to hold off a seeming battalion of whatever these things were.

She could feel the grin Riddick sent towards the rest of the Squad as he moved forward with her. Midway to the enemy the things turned and saw them and began to race forward. “Let’s have some fun,” River quipped and slanted a look at him. “You know that game you like to play?”

“Who’s the better killer?” Riddick chuckled as he pulled his own blades.

“Hmm… let’s see who wins,” She slashed downward with the edge of her sword, slicing a scaly arm from a weirdly distorted body and the game was on.

He heard Flag yelling, Deadshot hollering back for Harley to rescue the idiot Alliance colonel and the Purplebellies firing as more of the things came in from their flanks. Not as many as the frontal assault, River and Riddick were handling that mostly. The ones that got by them Deadshot mowed down as if having the time of his life.

Mal and the rest were dealing with the things trying to flank them. The whole thing became a semi-satisfying mess of gore, blood, slice and dice, punctuated by gunshots. He got a few good looks at Katana and her infamous sword. The woman wasn’t bad with it. No where near a match for him or River, but good, nonetheless.

Finally the gunfire died down, and they could all regroup and tend to their wounded. The co-pilot, Leila, had taken a nasty bite to her shoulder. Mal and GQ were dealing with it, while GQ stared at Flag, “The brief said terrorist. You want to start explaining this?”

“If I told you, would you believe me?” Flag stared at him and Riddick could admit that if you’d never met a metahuman it would be pretty hard to swallow.

There were some pointed observations, and more of Flag’s bluffing and lies, until Deadshot, his assassin persona firmly in place now, stared at Flag, “That’s bullshit. Thing is, he owned a three thousand plat watch. Is that a person?”

Flag stared at Lawton, “It was. Now it's not.” Cold. True but tiān shā de cold.

Riddick wouldn’t have thought a thing like that would bother the assassin, it didn’t bother him. They were attacking him, River, they started the fight. Despite River’s joking, they’d charged her. Maybe it was possible for someone to come back from whatever the Enchantress had done to them, maybe not. But if they pulled their punches they’d never survive long enough to find out. He said as much to Lawton, adding, “We can’t afford mercy right now. We’re in the middle of enemy territory, and we’ve got farther to go.”

He could almost see every one of the Squad pulling on the masks they wore, the criminal personas that helped them survive a ‘verse that alternately despised and used them according to its whims. River stood at his elbow, cleaning her blade before sliding it back in its sheath. Her dark eyes were cold on Flag’s face, “So much for his theory.”

Riddick chuckled and Deadshot smirked at the Colonel, “Yeah. That’s how I cut and run.”

River slanted a smile up at him and Riddick grinned at her, “Did he keep score?”

“Pretty much even,” He told her. Her eyes narrowed on Flag and Riddick regarded the Alliance soldier thoughtfully. “Something goin’ on with him?”

“Thinks to…make an offer… combine forces, we help with the exfiltration, he helps with the Enchantress, doesn’t realize capture may not be an option,” River murmured. “We must speak with Cap’n Daddy.”

“Mal,” Riddick jerked his head at the Browncoat and the man handed off the bandages he held to GQ and moved in their direction. “River says we have… well…a complication.”

“What’s that?” The man didn’t seem surprised, but Riddick supposed living with a Reader would get you used to surprises after a while.

“Flag’s thinking maybe he offers the purple bellies to help us, if we get the squad to help him with the exfil,” Riddick summed it up for him. “As it is, Bravo’s s’posed to split off from us once we get a few klick’s farther.”

“Can’t say it’s a bad notion,” Mal rubbed his chin. “Means we’ve got the continuing argument of who’s in charge all the way to the end of the line though.”

“Yeah,” Riddick nodded. “And how complicated is the exfil.”

“Better question is who’s HVT-1 that they, out of all the folks in the city, deserve rescuing,” Mal wondered, slanting a look back at Flag.

River sighed, “Get the rest of the Squad over here, and I’ll tell them. We’ll need them to agree to it anyway.”

“Yeah, these ain’t nicely cooperative Browncoats willing to follow my every order,” Mal nodded his agreement and hollered for the rest of them. “Squad! Form up ‘round me, got some…developments.”

“Oh this is gonna go great,” Riddick muttered. The city in shambles around them, people turned into monsters, an extremely powerful meta human to deal with and now they were adding in a rescue. He took one more look at the site of their battle and inhaled. Whatever the enemy was, they had a unique stench to them, the air felt saturated with it.

Chapter Text

He hadn’t really expected the rest of the Squad to be thrilled about spending a longer time in a besieged city. “You mean all that HVT-1 wasn’t Flag just blowin’ smoke up our pì gu,” Lawton asked skeptically.

“No,” River shook her head. “He was told that is the mission. Problem is that is not all of it. Which he was not told.”

“Okay wait,” Chato held up his hands. “You mean Waller intended us to deal with the Enchantress all along, but she didn’t tell him? Just told him to get HVT-whoever out and that was it?”

“Pretty much,” Mal nodded. “Waller likes leverage. She’s got it on Flag, thinks she’s got some on us. But not as much as she could.”

“Why keep him in the dark,” Chato wasn’t getting it, not that Mal really blamed him. The workings of a mind like Waller’s weren’t easy for anyone more straightforward to understand. And for all that ‘El Diablo’ had been a powerful man, he hadn’t been known for machinations.

“It’s the Enchantress, she’s--,” Riddick’s low voice rumbled like thunder through the air between him and the Squad, drowned out by the sound of what could be actual thunder or another storm of magic.

“Say again,” Waylon shook his head. Again, Mal could see the reason for confusion, hell he’d been discombobulated about that himself until River explained. A stand-up, do-right, Alliance officer like Flag wasn’t the type to get involved with a criminal metahuman.

“The Enchantress—” River began to explain, Flag’s shout interrupting her.

“Dangerous to stay in one spot, let’s move out,” The Colonel ordered.

Mal looked at the Squad, “We agree? Go along with the rescue? Don’t mean we’re under his thumb.”

“Yeah,” Lawton looked at the rest of them and got nods and one bored huff from Harley. “Yeah, let’s humor him for a while.” He grinned and Mal chuckled.

“Gotta say, like the way you think Mr. Lawton.”

She found herself walking beside Chato and Floyd, Waylon behind them, while Riddick scouted and Mal led, the rest of the soldiers spread around all of them. Harley was doing her best to make Flag crazy, much to Leila and GQ’s amusement. Digger was wandering in and out of the group, picking up any piece of shiny that caught his eye, sometimes discarding it just as quickly. She understood, more than ever, what Mal meant when he described life as a soldier ‘hurry up and wait’. Or as Riddick said, ‘long stretches of boredom punctuated with minutes of action and terror’. They’d both agreed and had it in common with the Purplebellies strangely enough, that the worst part of military life was the boredom.

Right now they were walking through hostile territory, but everyone seemed simultaneously alert and relaxed. A known situation, familiar and almost comforting, to understand the part they must all play. The oddities of a soldier’s life, River mused with a half-smile.

“So what’d he mean,” Floyd asked. “When he said you were more like me than homeboy here?” Dark eyes slanted towards her face curiously.

“You’re not a meta,” River frowned. All the influx, chaos… getting through the city with the thoughts of everyone, plus the people Enchantress had corrupted… pressure… this would be…difficult.

“No,” He waited for her to continue. “Just real good at one thing.”

She forced herself to concentrate on the conversation. Maybe that would help keep the rest of the world at bay. The few hours of rest, anchoring to Riddick had helped but it had only alleviated the effects of the breakout and chaos before and after. She’d likely need to anchor to him again once this was over, if she could hold out that long.

“I…” River looked at the two of them. “Mal told you, I’m a genius.” She reminded them, uncomfortably aware of the soldiers within earshot. Alliance soldiers wouldn’t be enthused or believing of her story, and that could divide the men into ‘us’ and ‘them’. They couldn’t afford that. “School… it didn’t challenge me, I learned more on my own. My parents began to look for a school that could actually educate me, challenge me… They thought they’d found one, a government run school, it had the most exciting program…”

“Yeah…” Floyd didn’t see the point but Waylon’s low growl behind her suggested he had an idea of where this was going.

“I wasn’t a Reader. Not then,” River said flatly. “I was fourteen, with an eidetic memory and an immeasurable intelligence quotient that allowed me intuitive leaps based on reason, observation, all the tells people notice subconsciously… But I wasn’t a Reader, not a meta.” She took a deep breath, “The school, the Academy, experimented upon the students, played with their brains…”

“On kids,” Chato’s anger heated the air around them before he reined it in. “That’s… Nǐ zài jiǎng shén me pì huà?”

“Not all children, some adults…” She shook her head.

“Oh that makes it better,” Floyd rolled his eyes and River continued.

“Experimented on me,” She kept her voice steady with an effort. “Operated on my brain, stripped my amygdale so I had no choice but to experience everything…turned me into a Reader. Then, training, for combat, infiltration, and implanted triggers, programming, made me an assassin.”

Gǒu niáng yǎng de,” Floyd shook his head. “Miracle you ain’t crazy.”

“Oh I was, I’m sure some would say I still am,” River nearly laughed. “My brother broke me out, sacrificed everything to do it, his entire fortune, career…and went on the run. That’s how I met Mal. Simon smuggled me aboard his ship in cryo and I was discovered halfway to Boros.”

“What happened then?” Digger asked, caught up in the story of it, forgetting, or not caring, that she’d lived through it.

“We were hunted, by the Feds, Purplebellies, by mercs, and finally a Parliament Operative… Lots of things happened, but primarily, I got better…” River shrugged. “The information in the Miranda wave, I’d Read it out of the minds of Parliament when some of them came to see me ‘perform’ using my psychic abilities. Reading Tarot cards for them. That’s part of what made me crazy. When we finally figured that out I got a lot more sane. And Mal was determined that the rest of the ‘verse should know what they’d done. So they couldn’t do it again.”

“Try to make people better,” Riddick’s voice sounded to their right, startling everyone in the group but Waylon and River. “What they did to River, only on a bigger scale.”

“That’s why Reynolds said you’re more like me,” Floyd realized. “Everything you do, you learned, your natural abilities, balance and genius… that’s yours, like math is mine. Shooting is a skill.”

“Exactly,” River nodded. Thankfully, while the Purplebellies around them were appalled, horrified and sickened by what she’d said, they didn’t seem to be denying it. The Miranda Wave had more effect than Mal realized. Alliance citizens didn’t automatically believe what their government told them anymore. At least something was going right.

“Bein’ a Reader…that make shooting easier or harder,” A professional question, curiosity about her skill… Lawton’s inquisitive nature rearing its head.

“Both,” River gave him an honest reply and elaborated after a moment. “I can shoot with my eyes closed, never miss, but it means I hear them die since I can’t stop hearing anything. Truly a double-edged sword.”

Wǒ cào,” Floyd shook his head. “Day to day…must make it tiān shā de hard to function.”

She sighed, “Can be difficult. Easier in the Black than dirtside. Very noisy, lots of thoughts, emotions…” River half smiled, “Determined ways to regain equilibrium…but not for the faint of heart.”

“Yeah?” Chato tilted his head, his expression concerned and thoughtful. “So what helps?”

“She needs an anchor sometimes,” Riddick answered while she mentally debated what to say.

“Anchor,” Waylon’s rumble asked.

“Yeah, something for her to latch onto, another mind, helps her get her mental feet under her,” Riddick explained as if she didn’t need to do something highly freakish. “Effects people differently though.”

“That meditatin’…” Digger had a moment of clarity. “’Cause a alla us an’ folk ya didn’ know?”

“Yes,” River nodded doing her best to keep her dignity. “Spent much time alone in the Black with my partner, difficult to go so abruptly from simplicity to complex.” She paused considering how that sounded, “Perhaps more accurately phrased as difficult adjusting from a singular mind to multiple.”

“So how’s it effect people?” Floyd wondered, “You knock ‘em out or something?”

“Nothing so dramatic,” She grinned. “It won’t work with everyone. It has to be someone at least sympathetic, but whose mind works differently from mine. My brother, and Mal, have both acted as an anchor for me. They described the feeling as an itch they couldn’t scratch, it made them irritable.”

“The First Mate and gun hand, apparently they near broke out in fist fights when they gave it a try,” Riddick chuckled.

“An’ you?” Digger’s inherent nosiness abounded. “How’s it feel ta you?”

She could feel Riddick’s grin as he answered simply, “Feels good. Doesn’t bother me at all.” Truth, one of the most welcome truths she’d heard since escaping the Academy and regaining her sanity, rang in his voice.

“Can ya try it with me?” Waylon asked, his rumble curious. “Me an’ Riddick, both got the animal in us…”

“You’re thinkin’ you could be a good backup if Riddick’s busy,” Chato glanced at Waylon over his shoulder.

Riddick’s growl, quiet fury and possession, must have hinted to Killer Croc just what the Furyan had meant by ‘good’ and Waylon hurried to speak, “Ain’t tryin’ to horn in.”

“Riddick,” River murmured. “It’s a good thought. I doubt it would feel exactly the same to him. No two minds are exactly alike. You’re Furyan, Spirit Warrior, remember?”

“Think that’s part of what makes it work so well?” Silver eyes gleamed as they met hers through the darkness and she nodded. A deep sigh, resignation and he nodded once, sharply, “Give it a try then if you want. Fuck knows you could use some backup, ‘sides Mal.”

“If you begin to feel odd, please… say something, if I can’t tell, I don’t wish you to be disturbed by this,” River turned and looked at Waylon in concern. She stopped and the group halted around her, Waylon coming a bit closer.

“You got it Shorty,” He gave her a grin full of sharp teeth and amusement and she extended her hand. He did the same, allowing her to wrap her small hand around three of his huge scaled fingers with their sharp claws. The link to his mind, anchoring herself to him, sent his body stiff at first at the unexpected sensation.

“KC, you able to talk,” Floyd asked as Riddick stood behind River in support, his hand at the base of her spine.

“Yeah… huh,” Waylon sounded completely normal and River opened eyes she hadn’t realized she’d closed. He stared down at her, his eyes shining faintly, similar to Riddick’s in the way a candle was similar to the sun. “Weird.”

“Discomfort?” River blinked as his mind enveloped hers, a warm pool where crocodiles swam, and she could simply float in the sun on the water in their midst.

“Naw… warm, like the sun, feels nice,” He shrugged. His reaction didn’t compare to Riddick’s in any way but his comfort. “Kinda makes me wanna just…y’know… lie back an’ chill.”

River half smiled as Riddick relaxed, Waylon’s reaction nothing like what he’d apparently expected. “Easy on her mind,” She said quietly. “Similar, but not the same.” She let go of his hand and smiled up at him. “Thank you.”

The grin she got was surprisingly boyish in his scaly face, “Anytime Shorty.”

Harley made a face, pouting winsomely, “Thought I was Shorty?”

Waylon slanted a sharp- toothed grin at her, “Nah, you’re Crazy.”

River almost giggled, “Usually my name. Loony, Moonbrain, Crazy.” And Harley sent her a wicked grin before wandering around the group again, bat at the ready for trouble.

“Try me next,” Floyd suggested. “So far, you got two metas and it works good with them. You an’ me, we got similar skills, maybe that’ll help?”

“Can try,” River considered. “Jayne and Zoë … did not react well.”

Riddick added, “She told me, it was like their fight or flight responses got screwed with.” That seemed to give Lawton some pause but he nodded and held out his hand anyway.

“Try it. Let go if I react bad. Then, if homeboy agrees, try Chato… maybe you anchor better to people who got a little somethin’ extra,” The assassin shrugged. “Least then we know. You got other folks can help you out and not go crazy.”

“Will try,” River pressed her fingers to the tips of his and linked their minds, seeking a way to anchor hers to Lawton’s and gasping as his mind swirled around hers. “No,” She jerked her hand back as he swayed, and Waylon put his big hands on the tall man’s shoulders to steady him. “Think too much alike,” She apologized.

“Yeah…” Floyd sounded a bit dazed. “Damn that was… like every memory or thought I had talking simultaneously…” He blinked and visibly steadied himself. “Well it was worth a shot,” He grinned, regaining his usual sense of dark humor. “So to speak.”

Waylon barked a laugh behind him and looked over at Chato, “Gonna give it a try? See if you can help Shorty?”

Chato looked worried but he always seemed worried, “Yeah…but if I hurt you…”

River regarded him with some exasperation, “Invading your mind, using you as an anchor to keep my brain in one piece and you think you will hurt me?” She could feel Riddick’s amusement at how she addressed one of the most dangerous metas in the ‘Verse.

“Yeah?” El Diablo was a very caring man, for all that his street name meant ‘The Devil’ in Spanish.

“What’s the hold up,” Flag had noticed that they had stopped. Finally.

“Makin’ sure she’s good to go,” Waylon growled at the man. “Girl’s gotta listen ta alla this…” He waved at the city and everything around them. “Hurts my ears.”

“River,” Mal had made his way back to them and regarded her with genuine concern. “Lil Albatross?”

“Waylon is able to anchor me, if Riddick is not available, no discomfort for either of them,” River told him. “We were about to see if Chato would be able to do so when Flag interrupted.”

“I am all for whatever you need to keep functioning on an even keel,” Mal nodded and took Flag’s arm, nodding politely at GQ and Leila before tugging the colonel away.

“He will explain the hazards of being a Reader and the need for mental equilibrium,” River murmured as Harley joined them.

“Don’t think my brain’d be much help to ya,” Harley kissed her cheek affectionately.

“Chato?” River nodded at his hand and he extended it, his nerves evident in the minute trembling of his fingers.

River smiled and pressed her palm to his, “Deep breaths.” She advised quietly. Linking her mind with his… Deep breaths, heat, enveloping, consuming, dancing across burning coals, sparks of light, unbelievable power…and welcome.

“Whoa…” Chato stared down at her in awe.

“What do you feel,” Riddick nearly growled the question. River would have rolled her eyes if she’d been able, the man didn’t quite understand that his reaction to her was completely unique.

“Peace,” Chato’s awed voice replied. “Like…my madre is holding me again. And purpose. Like all the rage that feeds the fire is tamed, aimed in the right direction so the flames don’t rise.”

River smiled and took her palm away from his, “Thank you.” She nodded in an abbreviated bow to all three of the men who’d tried to help her.

“Don’ wanna try it with me then?” Digger didn’t seem exactly eager for her to try though, contrarily, also displeased that he’d been ignored through the process.

“Probably too much alike the gunhand we met,” Floyd shook his head “Like I’m a little too much like her. We don’t have the time for you to go nuts.”

“Very true,” River nodded. Even if it wasn’t close to the truth she’d rather have lied than even brush against Harness’s mind.

Even if she’d had the inclination to discuss it further, Flag’s demand as he shrugged free of Mal’s grip prevented it, “Enough messing around. Let’s move out.”

Chapter Text

Riddick came between River and Floyd as they walked and looked down at her in concern. They were close to the coordinates Waller had given them which meant they were headed for another fight. The last thing River needed was her mind going haywire with overload because of the mess they were all in. “All right?”

“Will live,” She nodded again. “No time for respite.” No lie in her scent, some pain but not a lot. And she wasn’t mixing her pronouns either. But if she needed a break, more than the little one establishing that metas were better anchors than humans…

“We will make time if we have to,” He told her firmly.

“Hopefully, not necessary,” River shook her head. “We must be ready for a fight.”

“We’re always ready for a fight,” Waylon growled from behind her and Harley grinned.

“Truer words ain’t ever been spoken.”

They’d managed to get to the front plaza of the building where HVT-1 was located and Flag called a halt, “Take a knee.” He pointed at the building, “Our body’s at the top of that building. We get up there... Pull them out of the vault they're hiding in. Shuttles extract us off the roof.” He made a dusting motion with his hands, “It’s huān lè shí guāng.”

“Who’s up there,” Mal gave the building a suspicious look. John F Ostrander Alliance Building, could it be anymore foreboding for Browncoats and sympathizers, not to mention the assorted convicts?

“It’s none of your concern,” Flag shook his head and spoke into his earwig. “Waller? We're about to enter the building. Get that shuttle ready.”

Mal rolled his eyes at the Colonel and tilted his head at River, Riddick and the rest of the Squad. His little girl grinned and slanted a mischievous look over her shoulder at Deadshot.

The assassin smirked back and strode forward as if just as impatient as Mal, “What you say we get this over with?” He muttered in Flag’s ear as he kept walking towards the building.

“What the hell?” Confounding Flag could be a lot of fun, “Deadshot. Fall back.”

Proving once again that dealing with this group of killers was more like herding cats than running a unit, Deadshot ignored him.

Finally Flag stood and gestured for the rest of them to get going, taking his place next to the assassin, “You mind if we tag along?”

Mal approved of the way the Purplebellies dispersed themselves around the Squad, none of them too close. Grouping together was an excellent way to attract grenades. Riddick and River… if she hadn’t made it plain that she followed him, either she or Riddick would have commanded the Squad, with Floyd Lawton right behind them. Waylon was bigger but uninterested, Chato arguably more dangerous and again uninterested, and Harkness too unreliable, Harley would be too busy playing mind games to lead.

But Riddick, River or Floyd had that quality, knowledge or strength of will, maybe just the spine enough to do what needed to be done and live with it, if it mean getting their people through something alive. Maybe Flag had that, with his men, his people, Katana followed him for a reason. Nothing that could be seen now, but for a few sardonic remarks and a concern for his men.

River and Floyd were both scanning the upper levels of the atrium, their training coming into play, especially as the two of them had experience as snipers. Riddick’s glowing eyes stared around the ground level, peering into the shadows before he scanned the upper levels. Flag had gotten busy with the guard/reception desk, bringing up the layout of the building and where HVT-1 was located.

Chato and Waylon had stationed themselves near Mal and Chato nodded towards Flag and Katana while Digger looked at the schematics. “Get the feelin’ he knows more than he’s tellin’?” Chato nodded towards Flag.

Mal slanted a wry half smile at the self-named ‘El Diablo’, “You think?” He quipped but nodded all the same. “Yeah, I got the same feeling.” He looked over at River who met his gaze, “And so does she.”

“She can’t get it out of him?” Waylon rumbled curiosity almost buried under the rasping growl of his voice.

“As I understand it, it’s hard to Read stuff that ain’t being actively thought about,” Mal took in the postures of the Purplebellies. It had not been an easy walk to the building. The men were tired, GQ and Leila were doing all right, but the entire situation wore on folk who weren’t used to everything going wrong at once. Clearly life as a surviving Independent did more to prepare a body for a ‘gone-to-the-dogs’ situation than the easy Alliance life. Even if they were soldiers. War, horrifying yeah, but the atrocities men could commit against each other in peacetime, in the name of a greater good, made war crimes look like stealing candy. “So whatever he knows, unless he thinks about it, she might not be able to pick it up.”

“Great,” Riddick had come up behind him and Mal hadn’t even noticed, jumping about a foot as the huge man’s voice sounded damn near in his ear. “So we got secrets, he’s got secrets, this is gonna turn into a clusterfuck.”

Gǒu niáng yǎng de--,” Mal cursed and caught himself. “Don’t do that.” All he got in response was a dark smirk from the aforementioned gǒu niáng yǎng de.”

“But he ain’t wrong,” Chato agreed.

“Looks like they finally got somewhere with the schematics, let’s see what’s up,” Riddick nodded towards the desk area.

“They’d’a let River deal with the gorram thing it’d’ve been done in less’n half the time,” Mal muttered the complaint quietly and got a smirk of commiseration from Riddick.

The cameras didn’t show much in the way of movement, not anywhere. Mal rubbed the back of his neck against the feel of someone walking over his grave. Digger, of course, couldn’t keep his mouth shut, “Looks like we have a spot of luck, eh?” He looked around with a grin just short of shit-eating, “Be a walk in the park. Easy peasy.”

Mal, Flag and River all gave him identical looks that said for him to shut his mouth. Riddick growled and fingered one of his ever present shivs meaningfully. Floyd simply stared at the man, “Don't make me shoot you.”

Bì zuǐ,” Riddick snarled at the same time. Digger just chuckled, unfazed by the malevolent aggravation aimed in his direction.

After a moment’s study of the schematic they began to make their careful way across the lobby floor. And then of course, something had to go wrong. Harley deciding to take the elevator up did not fit in the plan. Mal had no doubt she was up to something, she’d been way too quiet on the shuttle ride in, and most likely involving the Joke. He could use just a little less excitement in his life, he decided as he watched the scantily clad young woman from his position on the ground floor.

The perfect touch was Harley’s little wave and happy grin as she rode up the glass lift.

“Seriously,” Floyd shook his head as they all began to rush the stairs.

“Yeah,” Mal agreed. “Let’s just be ready for any surprises. River says Harley’s almost as smart as she is. And she’s twice as manipulative.”

“Oh, there’s some good news,” Riddick quipped from behind them.

“You want good news watch the puppet theatre they call a broadwave cast these days,” Mal sniped back.

River was giggling as she ran along with them, “Not everything is plots and plans. Though much is.” She slanted a glance in the direction of the elevator. “Not as easy a time of it as she thought though.”

“And am I right,” Mal wanted to know as they hit another flight of stairs.

“Not wrong,” River told him. “Timing is everything.”

Nǐ tā mā de tiān xià suǒ yǒu de rén dōu gāi sǐ,” Mal cursed again as they ran.

“Yeah, I don’t see that going well,” Riddick agreed. Well that surely made him feel better, River’s big hún dàn of a partner thinking the same thing he was. Not by much, but some better at least.

The Captain increased the speed of his pace, “Pick it up or we’ll die of old age.”

When Harley stepped out the elevator they saw what River had meant. While their charge up the stairs had been tiring, it had also been relatively uneventful. Harley, however, had to deal with the attention a rising elevator drew, and a few subsequent attacks.

Riddick exchanged an amused look with River as Harley hopped out of the lift with a chipper, “Hey, guys!” The one-time gymnast and psychiatrist strutted past them, “Come on. Let's go.”

He smirked as Lawton, Waylon, Mal and Flag regarded Harley with identical expressions of frustration. Funny as hell, seeing the same thing on four different faces.

River grinned up at him, “Dichotomy of different race, upbringing, genetics versus all being male and annoyed with the female.”

“Get the feeling they’d be the same way no matter what her sex was,” Riddick commented as they took rear guard.

The route Flag had mapped out took them through a suite of offices and a bullpen set up for desks, what was it about Alliance buildings that everything looked the same? Riddick shifted, inhaling and caught a whiff of that same odd stench he’d smelled on the streets. “Somethin’ ain’t right,” He muttered.

Waylon had been doing the same thing, scenting the air, “Them things, close by…” He agreed.

He didn’t need to hear the alert from Flag’s comm unit, “I got motion detectors going off on the secure floors. Flag. They're all around you.”

“Hold,” Flag held up a hand.

The comm continued advising, “Use extreme caution.”

“Yeah, as opposed to merrily charging in all crazy,” Mal muttered, maybe to himself. GQ and Leila shook their heads in amusement, despite the situation, guns at the ready. “We gotta keep moving Flag, we stand still we’re even more of a target,” He informed the Colonel.

“They are all around,” River murmured, and Riddick gave her a sharp look.

“I don't like this, Flag,” Lawton hadn’t missed that either.

“I don't like it either.” Not exactly a reassuring reply. River tilted her head and eyed the ceiling meaningfully and Riddick bit back a curse.

Lawton was taking out his mask with the built-in targeting and Harley, likely from pure reflex, taunted him, “Pussy.”

“I will knock your ass out,” Floyd’s voice, even and controlled, said more than his words. “I do not care that you're a girl.”

Mal had gotten them moving again by dint of pushing forward, the soldiers following his lead, but too late. The damn drop ceiling caved in on them bringing dozens of the enemy with them. And of course, everyone with a gun unloaded on the enemy. Problem was, since the things were everywhere, you ran a high probability of shooting an ally. Riddick pulled the shivs he carried, noting River had her sword and axe out, and went back to back with her.

Thankfully, after the initial frenzy of gunfire, the Purplebellies got their act together and reacted more professionally. Lawton gave a shout, more irritation than dismay, “They're after Flag again!”

Mal had the Purplebellies holding position, taking out the enemy in a good methodical fashion. Riddick and River, along with Katana were holding the rear.

Flag’s curses filled the air, “Gǒu niáng yǎng de! Get off me!”

Chato hadn’t used his flames yet but the Grizzly he carried did very nicely instead. Mal shouted to the rest of the Squad, “Get Flag, we’ll cover you.”

He and River couldn’t disengage without opening a hole in the line and he said so, “Deadshot, you got this?”

“On me,” Deadshot shouted back as he shot down the enemy. “Put him behind me,” He called to KC as the huge meta grabbed for Flag and dragged him away from the creepazoids. Harley covered him while she and Harkness hauled the Colonel up. “Circle up! Circle around him!”

“Let me fight!” Flag’s hollering didn’t make it easier for the Squad to protect him, nor did his trying to use his one weapon.

Riddick mentally blessed Floyd’s quick mind as the assassin retorted, “You die, we die.” Not that there was a whole lot of time to dwell on details but he’d rather Flag continued to believe they had that explosive nanite in their necks. The longer the Colonel believed it the better off they were.

Chato had been using his weapon to good effect, covering GQ, Leila and Mal as they reloaded until the creepazoid monster enemy had either fallen back or been killed.

“Clear up,” Mal shouted from his end of the wrecked office space. With no response he repeated himself, louder, “Clear Up!”

“Clear down,” The call came back from the opposite side, the huge black head of Bravo waving back.

“Right, bandages, reload, breathe for two seconds and then we move out,” Mal ordered. “River, you and Harley got the most medical experience. Anyone else with knowledge or skill speak up. We’ll need every bit of help before this is over.”

Riddick lifted his hand and got a shocked look from Flag and Katana, “You think finding the sweet spot is pure dumb luck?” He shook his head and moved to the nearest Purplebelly, checking the wound to his shoulder and slapping sealant over it after soaking it with cleanser. “Gotta study anatomy to get as good at killing as I am.”

Waylon was helping someone up, “Think this one’s got a fractured arm, got slammed into something.”

River and he converged on the soldier and Waylon, River expertly feeling along the man’s forearm, “Slight fracture, movement is good,” The man obligingly wiggled his fingers and River turned to her Captain, “Bà ba need the cast bandages.”

“Gotta set it first,” Riddick reminded her. He looked at Waylon, “Hold him steady, shoulder, upper arm, while I put it in place.”

The other meta nodded and got a firm grip while Riddick grasped the man’s arm below the elbow and above the wrist, “On three,” He told the man. “One…” A quick jerk and the bone was snapped into place completely.

Blood welled up from the soldier’s lip as he bit it in an effort to contain the shout of agony. “Thought you said on three,” He gasped a protest.

“Yeah, so you wouldn’t tense up and make it worse,” Riddick shrugged as River began to wrap the cast bandages around the man’s arm. They’d keep it fairly immobile but he’d still be able to shoot.

A few more like that, and other minor wounds treated, and they were ready, “All right, let’s move out,” Mal commanded. It was to his credit and theirs, that the Purplebellies obeyed him as readily as they would Flag.

Getting through the building was worse than slogging through a swamp. When she voiced as much Waylon grinned and said at least in a swamp one of them would be comfortable. The atrium appeared deceptively light and bright, and the Purplebellies took point with Riddick along the balcony.

They’d barely made it a quarter way around when the creepy crawly mutated things that had once been human began to come down the walls. No escape but back the way they came.

“Chato,” River turned to the meta urgently. “Please. We need you, we won’t survive this otherwise.”

“Yeah, where you been homie,” Floyd undoubtedly though he was helping with that challenge.

“Floyd, not now,” River glared at him repressively.

“I could bring the whole building down,” Chato’s mind twisted and keened, the need to help opposing his fear of losing control.

“I’ll help you,” River took his hand. “Floyd will guard us,” She saw Mal hurrying forward with Harkness and Harley. “Chato please!”

The handsome face twisted under the skull tattoo, “I can’t.”

“You can,” She told him flatly. “I won’t let you lose control, I’ll help you channel it.” Dark eyes met hers and she pressed, “Feel my mind in yours? You anchor me, but I can anchor you. You won’t get lost in the fire.” Deadshot’s guns punctuated her words, “Chato, they need help, now.”

She felt more than saw his capitulation, and he moved her hand from his, pulling her between his arms and against his chest, “Safest place for you.” He thrust both hands out and fire streamed from his palms like twin rivers of heat and fury. The enemy had no chance.

Heat, rage, like standing in a volcano, fire surrounding her, the spirit of it pushing back against her mind, wanting to break free of Chato’s will, her calming influence. River clenched her fists and knew immediately that fighting back would avail her nothing. Calm, sweetness, the gentle breeze of a spring day, the sensations unfolded in her mind and flowed to his, dampening the fire, cooling the rage.

“What in the tián mì de xié 'è tā mā de d’you think you’re doing,” Riddick’s furious growl brought her back to herself and she forced her eyes open to see him standing over she and Chato, glaring at the other meta human. She couldn’t stop panting, as if she’d run kilometers on short oxygen and Chato was shaking behind her.

“Riddick,” She extended her hand, fingers trembling, and he took it, hand sliding under her forearm in support as he felt the extent of her shaking. Strength, firm, safe, a bulwark in her mind to lean against and she let out a long slow sigh of relief.

“I knew you’d come through,” Harley pressed a happy affectionate kiss to Chato’s cheek.

Mal stood beside Riddick, when had he gotten there? River shook her head and Riddick pulled her closer to his body, “Wèi le tā mā de yuán gù, what happened?” The Furyan growled the question at the group of them.

Chato was leaning against the railing, Floyd shaking his head, “That's shit crazy.” He continued after a moment, reloading as he spoke, “She could tell ya’ll were about to be overwhelmed. Convinced homeboy here that she could help him control the fire.”

“She did,” Chato nodded, straightening as strength came back to him. “But I had to put her between my arms, out of harms way.” He looked Riddick in the eye, “Only place I could be sure she’d be safe from the flames.”

“River,” Riddick’s voice…gentle but with that growl of possessive fury beneath it. “How much did this take out of you?”

“Need to ground herself. Feet on the ground, breathe, water,” River pushed the words out with an effort. “Not an anchor, a…levy, against the fire. To slow it, remind him of something besides the flames.”

“So what do—”

Flag cut off Mal’s question, “If you ladies are through standing around, gossiping like a sewing circle.” He rolled his eyes at the Squad and their positions around River and Chato. “Maybe you’d like to continue onward?”

Fèi fèi gāng mén,” Harley sneered.

“You missed it sir,” GQ looked as if he’d gotten a little singed. In fact everyone sported some sort of charcoal smear across their faces or clothing. “El Diablo, he saved our collective pì gus, but without her, don’t know if he could’ve pulled it off, not without cooking the lot of us.”

“Yeah,” Flag seemed unimpressed. “Isn’t that what they’re for? Let’s go.”

River narrowed her eyes at him and shook her head, “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not.”

Chapter Text

He exchanged a look with Riddick, the two of them on the same page. River hadn’t started referring to herself in the third person, goofing up her pronouns or tenses constantly yet, but they needed to keep a good eye on her. His yǎng nǚ push herself until she dropped if left unsupervised.

“She’s gonna need to anchor herself in one of us,” Mal muttered as Riddick drew up beside him while the Purplebellies took a look around and then began to set the charges. Blowing a hole in the cinderblock wall to the back stairwell was a better bet than winding their way around through more offices and the creepy crawly bumpy headed things that kept dropping on them. “Tā mā de hurry up an’ wait,’ He muttered in irritation and got another look of agreement.

“Yeah, figured to nudge her towards that,” Riddick agreed quietly. “Just too many tiān shā de people and not enough rest.”

“I didn’t figure getting sucked into this mess being part of the plan to bust me out,” Mal nodded.

“No,” The huge meta shrugged. “Idea was get in, bust everyone out, go their separate ways, and get you back home. Sheer dumb luck the Enchantress started the fight when she did. And worse luck that Flag was bringing in Slipknot as we were leaving.”

“Yeah, our luck tends to run that way,” The Browncoat sighed. “River’s always sayin’ huò bù dān xíng.”

“Hmm…” Riddick glanced at Harley as she came up on Mal’s other side. “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

“Where’d one of the most dangerous meta’s in the ‘verse learn Shakespeare?” Harley wondered as they all backed up.

“Know how to read don’t I,” Riddick sounded as if he was rolling his eyes behind his goggles. “Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

“Yeah, but reading is a long way from reading and quoting the classics, like y’know, understand them,” Harley retorted.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” The self-called Furyan sniped back with a half-smile.

“That her new name,” Waylon asked from behind them.

“Might as well be,” River giggled. “Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well when our deep plots do pall, and that should teach us there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will—”

“Oh now that’s comforting,” Harley rolled her eyes.

“I don’t get it,” Waylon shook his head and Mal glanced behind him to see similar looks of confusion on most of the faces, Flag’s included.

“Mean’s that even with all our plans that get screwed up, there’s a God in heaven to guide us in the right direction,” He half smiled at Flag’s astonishment. “Looks kinda like the Operative, an’ Inara too, when I knew about the Albatross don’t he,” He looked at River who nodded, still giggling.

“Skews his worldview that the Browncoat and murderous Furyan can discuss Shakespeare,” She agreed. “Bad men should be uncouth, uneducated, ignorant.”

“Clear,” GQ had been steadily ignoring them as he supervised the placement of the charges. “Book club is over, everybody back up.” He grinned at Mal as they all took a few steps back. “I always liked Much Ado About Nothing myself.”

“My Lil Albatross could give Beatrice a run for her money,” Mal grinned back.

Explosive charges did their work, dust and debris clearing to reveal a nice sized hole in the wall, “Well, onward and upward.” Riddick shrugged and entered the hole.

“Ughh…more stairs,” Harley groused.

“C’mon Horatio,” Waylon rumbled a laugh. “Get that fine pì gu in shape.”

“I ain’t outta shape,” Harley argued.

Mal gave her a grin, “Well we’re all gonna get a fine chance to prove it.”

Three flights up Harley leaned against the railing, “I gotta work on my cardio.”

He watched as she looked over the railing and her eyes stared into the past for a moment before Floyd bumped her and she drew her gun, “It’s just me.” The assassin showed his hands, temporarily empty.

“You ever been in love,” Harley must be feeling sentimental.

“Nah, never,” Deadshot persona firmly in place as he answered.


“You don't kill as many people as I've killed and still sleep like a kitten if you feel shit like love,” Floyd told her.

“Another textbook sociopath,” Harley rolled her eyes before looking over at Riddick. “What about you?”

“Me,” Riddick chuckled. “Do I look like someone who’s found love?” He didn’t owe her an answer, didn’t have time at the moment to analyze everything growing and twisting inside him.

“Not an answer,” Yeah Harley might be crazier than River, but she had close to River’s smarts. Damn psych doctors.

“Never knew what it was,” Riddick could give that much of an honest answer. “Not a lot of softness in my past.” Involuntarily he looked back at River, walking between KC and Chato, and half smiled when she met his gaze.

“Guess you’re kinda a learn as you go sorta guy,” Harley nodded. “Makes sense.”

“Yeah, institutions of higher education don’t really allow escaped murderers to enroll,” He chuckled and dropped back to guard the rear.

The calls of ‘clear’ sounded through the office area they wound up in. Dead end. Completely unremarkable in every way and just like every other office space they’d passed through. Except for the steel door and encrypted lock on the far wall.

“Nice,” Flag nodded at the Purplebellies as if they were the only ones working. Riddick glanced at Mal whom he could hear grinding his teeth. “Clear the roof. Sweep for shooters so we can bring in our aviation assets.” To his credit, GQ looked at Mal, following the chain of command as much as he was able with Flag ordering him around.

“Yeah,” Mal agreed quietly. “Keep an eye out for anything might scale the walls. We don’t really know all the capabilities of these things.”

GQ and Bryan, the Bravo squad leader, nodded. Bryan grabbed four guys from his unit, GQ selected four from his and the ten of them quickly and carefully mounted the stairs.

Riddick looked over at River, who’d gotten her portable cortex out of her side pocket, her fingers moving rapidly. “Got something,” He murmured quietly as he moved to her side.

“Husking,” River winked at him. “To make certain all involved believe we are firmly under the thumb.”

So whoever HVT-1 was, they were involved with the whole ‘Suicide Squad’ project. And would expect them all to have those explosive nanites in their necks. “I’ll pass the word around.”

“Grateful,” She gave him a smile before continuing her work.

“Wait here. Please,” Flag looked at the rest of them. “I don't wanna gave this dude a heart attack, okay?”

“Aww,” Harley mocked. “He's embarrassed of us.”

“Hey, Flag.” Floyd narrowed his gaze at the Colonel, “This dude better cure cancer after all of this shit.”

Riddick chuckled as Flag disappeared past the steel door and quietly murmured River’s plan to the Squad, Mal included. He slanted a glance towards the door once that little chore got done and then looked at River, “You’re kidding me.”

“No,” She shook her head as she finished with the cortex and tucked it away. Those dark eyes looked around the squad, “Must act surprised but… do not overreact.” She cautioned them.

“O…kay… what’re we not overreacting to?” Waylon grumbled.

“HVT-1 is Waller,” Riddick told them. “I can hear her voice.”

“Great,” Digger grumbled.

Riddick glanced behind him as Floyd took advantage of the Purplebellies distraction to slip past the steel door. River chuckled softly, “Curious as a cat that one.”

“Yeah, he’s got an inquiring mind,” Mal shook his head. “Anything else we oughta know?”

“Not that she can see at the moment,” River frowned. “Split second decisions, long term plans… something…” She shook her head and Riddick didn’t like her expression one bit. “Something about the mission.”

“Gotta figure Waller’s got more information than she’s sharing,” Riddick suggested.

“Might as well tattoo that on her pì gu,” Harley rolled her eyes. “She’s got plausible deniability written all over her.”

“Yeah…” He turned as the door opened. “Zài dì yù de dì qī gè guā yuē jī zhōng shì shén me…” Waller looked so damn smug. The urge to sink a shiv into the sweet spot and twist…getting a little harder to push that back.

Waller hesitated for a moment as she caught sight of River and Riddick, two people she didn’t have leverage on, and her thoughts flickered over how they’d been caught, how she could use them, what sort of leverage she could get on them, on Mal for her, on her for Mal… If Riddick had an attachment to her how it could be used, if she had an attachment to him… The calculations never ended.

River sighed as Harkness decided to push the boundaries a bit, “Yeah, let's go home. That sounds good.” He glanced at the rest of them, “You guys wanna go home? Or you wanna go back to prison?”

Floyd moved from behind Waller to stand with the rest of them, he and Riddick bracketed her, while Floyd spoke, “I'm not going back to prison.” Flat statement could be taken several different ways, but the story his thoughts told…to provoke Waller into a threat. Show her hand.

“What I'm saying is...We kill the pair of 'em now before they kill us,” Digger suggested boldly. Brighter than he’d been acting, pushing, pressing, wanting to see if he could make Flag react, make Waller react.

Katana began to pull her sword and Waller held up a hand, “I got this.” From a pocket she pulled out a palm cortex and waved it so they could all see the display, a row of faces, reflected before her. “You all made it this far. Don't get high-spirited on me and ruin a good thing.”

She pushed past them towards the stairs to the roof and Harkness winked at River before Waylon growled, “I like her.”

“’Course you do,” Harley laughed with a shake of her head.

River frowned and caught Harley’s hand, “I know he’s going to make his move soon.” She murmured to the other woman. “It’s not a good idea. Too risky.”

“He ain’t the type to care about a little risk,” Harley shrugged. “He does what he does.”

“I know,” River shook her head. “But it could get him and everyone on his shuttle killed. Tell him to call it off.”

“You might as well try to train a cat,” Harley retorted but pulled out the little purple cortex and began to key in a message. A soft beep as a reply came in before they’d arrived on the roof might as well have screamed that the Joker was close. “And he ain’t listenin’.”

River shook her head, “This will end badly.” She scanned the roof as the Purplebellies lit flares to guide in the shuttle they’d called.

Leila had gotten on comms, trying to wave the shuttle, “Screen says they’re on approach but they’re not talking.” She told the rest of them.

Mal leaned over her shoulder to see for himself, “Yǔ sheng chù hùn zá de bēi wéi nú lì.” He swore as the shuttle came into view.

“Whoever it is, that’s not Savior 1-0,” GQ seconded.

That apparently was all Waller needed to hear, her flat voice commanding into her cortex, “Savior 1-0's been hijacked Shoot it down.”

“Roger that, ma’am,” the reply from the same screen came back after a second.

“Take cover,” Mal ordered. “We ain’t exactly out of the line of fire.” He began to tug Leila back behind some of the rooftop climate units. The rest of the Squad and Purplebellies followed suit while Flag and Katana got Waller.

“Don’t,” River had grabbed Harley. “Don’t do anything stupid, they’ll shoot you where you stand.”

“But they’re gonna…” Harley’s fingers worked the phone frantically in an attempt to warn the Joker of his situation.

“I know, but we can’t do anything about it,” River shook her head. “And if you try, you’ll get killed.” Along with the Joker, she added mentally.

Tā shì suǒ yǒu dì yù jì nǚ de mǔ qīn,” Harley cursed as the shuttle came under fire, two missiles hitting the rear of it and sending in a spiraling fiery crash.

“Target destroyed, ma'am,” Came the wave once the shuttle was no more.

“Thank you. Now get me off this roof,” Waller’s voice never changed inflection and River grabbed Harley to keep the girl from taking her bat to the woman’s skull.

“Harley…” River hissed and tilted her head, listening, a smile slowly curving her lips. “Boss this bird is baked…” Her smile widened, “One in the oven… but this bird is just a decoy…” Harley’s eyes grew big as she took in exactly what River had heard. “Don’t give it away,” The Reader cautioned. “You’ll have to behave as if he’s dead. At least for a while.”

The crazy haired woman nodded before they all cautiously stood now that the fireworks were over. Mal slanted a glance at the two of them and Riddick frowned thoughtfully, no doubt having heard what she said to Harley.

“We got a bird inbound,” Leila called from her station. GQ had turned the comms over to her while he stood, gun at the ready. “Confirmed, that’s your ride Ma’am.” She turned her attention back to the cortex and comms, “Rooftop with blue flares, affirmative.”

River stood as Waller boarded the shuttle, calling that she’d send another back when it was needed. “It’s not going to work,” She murmured.

“What’s not going to work?” GQ and Leila were packing up the comm equipment.

Instead of answering River simply pointed in the direction of the shuttle. The cry-babies it dispersed couldn’t fool a magical enemy. Technology couldn’t triumph over magic. If it could the Enchantress wouldn’t be nearly so dangerous. As they watched a tentacle of glowing gold and black shot through the sky and pulled the shuttle down.

Flag sighed and used his headset to call in, “Ops just confirmed. She’s down, maybe one klick west.”

“Well, weren’t like we got to leave now anyway,” Mal quipped. “May as well pick her up along the way.”

Riddick nodded, “If she survived.” He shrugged as he checked his weapons. “Hey, I can dream.”

Flag shook his head grimly, “She’s way too vicious to die easy.”

Floyd nodded, “That is a mean, mean, lady.” He agreed.

Mal didn’t bother to disagree, “Bravo squad, when we find her, alla you hole up somewhere quiet, wait this out. Mean lady she may be, but she won’t survive alone.”

“Not for long,” Bryan nodded his agreement with that plan.

“Load up whatever you can,” Mal called to the rest of them. “We’re in for a fight.”

“Oh, because until now this’s been a stroll in the park,” Digger quipped.

“Compared to some places I’ve been,” Mal eyed him, deadly serious. “Yeah, this is a little too easy.”

Riddick nodded, “He’s right. This is a cakewalk. It can only get worse from here.”

“Truer words,” River sighed and checked her weapons. They’d been lucky so far, the creepazoid monster things fell to bullets and blades. But the Enchantress…they had no guarantees and the way the shuttle had been snatched from the sky… What had she gotten them into? She’d had no other way to get them out of Belle Reve and not get shot out of the sky once Flag showed up.

Riddick’s big hand traveled up her spine to rub at the base of her neck, glowing eyes looking down at her. “Hey, life ain’t a guarantee. We all agreed to this. Take our chances as Big Damn Heroes and try to get out alive. You didn’t conscript anyone.”

River took a deep breath. She never thought anyone would know her better than Simon or Mal, but Riddick… he knew her in a way that felt uncanny. “Tiào chū fǔ dǐ jìn huǒ kēng,” She murmured. “I brought us here. They agreed with my plan. Did I xuě shàng jiā shuāng?”

He shook his head, “Did your best with the hand we got dealt. Shuǐ huǒ wú qíng. We just keep going. We’re gonna get through this.”

River leaned into his side for a moment, stubborn Furyan, somehow made her feel better than anyone else. And if anyone knew anything about defying the odds, it was her Furyan. “Somehow. Zhì zhī sǐ dì' ér hòu shēng.”

Chapter Text

Something was up, he just couldn’t figure what. River had been pretty adamant that Waller had been hiding something. Which yeah, of course she was. The woman lied for a living. He figured it would come out eventually. In his experience, nothing stayed secret for long, especially in a fight. Violence tended to stress people, well semi-normal people anyway. And when regular folks got stressed the truth had a way of emerging. Unfortunately that wasn’t always a good thing.

When it did…none of them were prepared.

Riddick had snagged Floyd to give him a hand rummaging through the shuttle. GQ and Leila were patching into the comms to update Ops on the situation since wave reception had gotten spotty. Everyone was getting a little low on ammunition and the shuttle would have a supply.

“Ho, jackpot,” Floyd called. “Got the ammo supply.”

“Yeah?” Riddick had found a couple more knives to supplement his shivs.

“Yeah…” The assassin sounded preoccupied. Riddick pushed past a half-crushed bulkhead and found the man pulling a binder marked ‘Top-Secret’ out of a briefcase. “Think this might be helpful?”

“River’s been saying that Waller’s hiding something,” Riddick agreed. He smirked at the assassin. “Why don’t we find out what?”

The binder made a very satisfying explosion of paperwork next to Flag’s head. Riddick growled furiously as he and Deadshot stalked up to the Alliance officer. “You tell everyone,” Floyd demanded.

“Everything,” Riddick added with a menacing snarl. “Or you and me, we’ll go right now.” He could feel the Wrath pulsing in his chest ready to tear this mùzhōngwúrén gǒushǐ duī to pieces and piss on the remains.”

River’s head snapped around to stare at the Colonel; Riddick guessed Flag’s thoughts had been loud enough to get her attention, “Dào dé shuāng shǒu de liǎng gè miàn duì lǘ zi.” She drew her sword with a furious curse and moved towards Flag.

Katana’s blade came between River’s and Flag, more’s the pity. Although the fight between the two women was a thing of beauty, he could admit that objectively enough. Katana had no small amount of skill, and experience, pressing every time. But for pure talent River had her beat, countering each strike effortlessly, a cold smile on her face.

Riddick glanced at the rest of the Squad and the Purplebellies. It was a mark of how effective Mal had been as a leader to them that none of the Purplebellies tried to intervene. To their minds, Mal had kept them alive through all of this, with few losses, and while they might obey Flag if given a direct order, without one, they wouldn’t go against Malcolm Reynolds.

As it was, everyone’s attention, including Flag’s, had fixed upon the sword fight between the women. A fight River seemed on the verge of winning. “Much as I’d love for River to beat the woman’s pì gu, we do have other things to do,” Riddick reminded Mal.

“Flag,” Mal got the Colonel’s attention, though the Browncoat’s tone held a pretty hefty amount of displeasure. “You an’ me, we grab Katana. Rick, you an’ Floyd get River.”

Easier said than done but Riddick managed it by waiting until River pivoted with her back to him and wrapped an arm around her waist while Floyd grabbed her wrist. Mal and Flag had a harder time with Katana but eventually they got the women separated.

“River, we’ve got a job to do,” Riddick reminded his partner, quieting his tone and forcing the Wrath back along with his anger. Deep breaths, control, time and place for everything. If he lost it she’d likely be right behind him.

“We do,” River stared at Flag. “And it just got twice as hard. Liú kǒu shuǐ de biǎo zi hé hóu zi de bèn ér zi.”

“How d’you mean,” Harkness, not being a Reader, was in the dark along with the rest of the Squad and Purplebellies.

“The Enchantress isn’t the only trouble,” River spat the words at the Colonel. “There’s another meta-human, with powers similar to hers.” She threw her hands in the air, “Knew you were hiding something. Didn’t think you’d be this tā mā de stupid. Jiào nǐ shēng háizi méi pìgu yǎn.”

Riddick kept his hands around River’s waist, in part to keep her from attacking Flag again, partially to keep from doing the same thing himself as the Alliance stooge began to speak, finally coming clean. “Three days ago, a non-human entity appeared in the rail station here.” He paused, “So Waller sent me and a woman with incredible abilities. A witch. Waller…Waller had her heart, kept it in a case, near her at all times. So that way she had leverage on the witch. If her heart died, so did she.” He shook his head, “See, nobody could get near this thing, but... The witch could.” River shook her head as he continued, “Needless to say the whole thing was a bad idea. And that's how she escaped from Waller.” He looked at all of them, “So now you know.”

“And if they got Waller, they got the Witch’s heart too,” Mal concluded grimly.

“And he knew this all along?” Harley stared at Flag in disgust. “Knowin’ we’re gettin’ sent in to deal with the Enchantress? And he didn’t think to mention there’s two of ‘em?”

“Yes,” River nodded. “He’s been careful. Not thinking about it. So I couldn’t Read it out of his thoughts.”

“Because that’s a genius idea,” Riddick scowled. “More of Waller’s gǒu pì no doubt. And you don’t have enough spine to speak up against orders. Bèn tiānshēng de yī duī ròu.”

“Well…you can just shoot me right now,” Floyd shook his head and gestured at a nearby bar. “But I’m getting a drink.”

“Best idea I’ve heard in hours,” Mal agreed. “Anybody else want a drink?” Seemed like most everyone did. Two of the Purplebellies played a round of rock paper scissors to see who got stuck with guard duty on the door but the rest of them all crowded into the bar. Even Katana had shaken her head in disgust with Flag and joined them, leaving Flag standing in the rain outside.

Harley had decided to play bartender, and Mal was acting as her willing assistant, maybe because Harley had batted her eyes and said please. But Riddick figured mostly due to Mal wanting to look people in the eye instead of down the bar when he spoke to them. Seemed like the type of thing Mal’d think about.

“Feels like we need some help,” Mal admitted.

“More like we need a miracle,” Floyd agreed. He glanced at Riddick and River, sitting at the end of the bar closest to the door. “You still think ‘Big Damn Heroes’ is our best bet?”

“Nobody else can deal with this,” River sighed. “She remains convinced it is right but… cannot blame anyone for doubting. Does not wish to compel anyone, but it cannot be done with the Purplebellies alone.”

Riddick gave her a sharp look and Mal’s eyes snapped to her face. “River,” Mal handed Leila a beer before he moved down the bar to look at his daughter. “This getting to you?”

“Some,” River admitted, rubbing her temples. “Lots of influx, high emotions…”

“Need to anchor?” Riddick kept his voice low. “How bad is it? Like that first time or not as much pain?”

“She does,” She must really be feeling it to admit she needed help that quickly. “The pain is…” She wasn’t moaning with it, but he’d never met anyone with as much self-discipline as this woman. That she’d let him see the amount of pain she’d been in that first time he’d acted as her anchor had been a huge gesture of trust he hadn’t fully understood back then.

“Been pushing it off,” Mal muttered. “Trying to deal with all of it on her own.”

“How long d’you need,” He rubbed a hand up and down her spine, feeling the minute trembling of her body. “How bad is the pain?”

“Thirty minutes?” River hedged, an attempt at a conservative estimate, he could tell from how her voice sounded. She didn’t smell like her brain was on fire yet at least. He’d made her promise him after that first time that she’d tell him before she ever got to that point again. A promise she’d kept.

“What’s wrong Shorty?” Waylon rumbled the question and drew Chato’s attention. Riddick watched as the two of them made their way down the bar to stand on either side of he and River.

“She needs to anchor herself,” Mal explained quietly. “At least half an hour, more if we can manage it.”

Riddick didn’t growl at the other two, though he did hold River a bit closer, pressing her spine to his chest, his hand under hers. Damned if he completely understood what it was that ignited his blood when it came to her, but it had become a fact of life. Chato leaned forward, his hand covering River’s and Waylon took her free hand.

And River gasped in shock.

Fire, Heat, Warmth… once she might have thought all were the same, little differentiation between terms, simply a matter of degree. Once she could have ignored any such distinctions as no concern, having little to no bearing upon events set to unfold.

She had been terribly, stupidly, wonderfully wrong. The Fire of Chato’s rage, that dark part of him that spawned hellfire, feeding on his rage and the rage feeding on the fire, a vicious circle. A continuous inferno always threatening to blaze out of control.

The Heat of Riddick’s desire for her, filling her in ways she could never have imagined, tingling and tantalizing. A endless well of lust and beyond, a deep affection and desire for more and more of everything he found with her. And underlying all of it, the Wrath, spirit energy. Pure, light, fueling all the unfamiliar, and yet still welcome, feelings he had for her; the woman who accepted him without reservation.

Warmth…simple, so commonplace, taken for granted, easy and comforting, the Warmth of Waylon’s scaled skin and huge form. So easy to mistake for something less than it was. Warmth like bathwater, like a sunny river, flowing and filled with life. The warmth of a pond in summer, green grass and trees with the sun filtering through in long fingers of light. Simple and pure.

She braced, instinctively, for pain, shock or dismay, for one of them to pull away, leave her unbalanced, or worse, overtake her mind until she’d been shunted aside, lost in herself.

Deep breath. Slow. Steady. Inhale on a three count…hold it…exhale on another three count… Repeat.

Riddick’s voice, low growl of disquiet, hard body against her back, thick arm ‘round her waist, hand spread over her ribs. His forehead pressed to her crown, breathing with her.

Chato…quiet concern. Remembering how she’d help him control the flames. Hoping he wasn’t making things worse. Recalling the serenity she’d brought him once before.

Waylon, warm huffs of breath, patiently watching, feeling her in his mind and basking in the sensation of comfort. One of the few times in his life he was un-alone.

She didn’t need to speak aloud, wasn’t sure if she had or if they simply heard her, “We are linked.”

“Yeah,” Riddick’s matter-of-fact agreement suggested he’d figured that much out on his own. Waylon and Chato weren’t as blasé about it but they weren’t surprised either, though neither of them bothered to vocalize their lack of shock or realization.

“Ace in the hole,” River smirked mentally and showed the trio of males her thoughts.

“What’ve we got to lose,” Waylon agreed.

“Not like we had much in the first place,” Chato shrugged mentally.

“What’s the old saying, ‘If you give me a lever and a place to stand, I can move the world’.” Riddick’s chuckle echoed through their minds.

“Then we are agreed?”

“Yeah. Might be the only way.” The men concurred and River opened her eyes.

“Then we have a plan.”

He didn’t care for the way Riddick’s arms were wrapped around River, holding her upright against his chest. Chato and Waylon holding her hands came across as a bit odd but then River’s eyes opened, and he swore they glowed blue and red-gold and green against those dark pupils.

It last all of two minutes, River breathing deeply, all four of them frozen as if they’d stuck in one place. Riddick moved first, his arm tightening around River’s waist, forehead pressed to the crown of her skull. The full length of her body held back against his. A low thrum seemed to fill the air around him. Them. Whatever.

Waylon’s hand flexed around River’s and he straightened from his half slouch as if mentally admonished to stand straight. Something that might have been a rumbling purr vibrating his throat, if crocodiles purred…Mal really didn’t know about that.

And Chato… His eyes opened and stared straight at Mal, fire burning in their depths while he inhaled and exhaled. He looked like nothing more than a fire breathing dragon taken human form, straight out of the old fairy tales. And dragons hadn’t ever been considered the friendliest of creatures.

For thirty seconds it felt as if the whole ‘Verse held its breath.

Until River relaxed back against Riddick, Chato blinked and Waylon leaned back with a shrug.

“Uh…’Tross…” Mal couldn’t be exactly certain but he thought this was a little more unusual than River’s ‘normal’ anchoring to someone when she was in need.

“Hmm… yes Cap’n Daddy?” Oh yeah, she’d anchored herself to Riddick most likely. She only got that half-there half-not tone when she was anchored or doing a really deep Read of someone. But this time, her voice held a deep thrumming power.

“Everything all right?”

“Silly question,” River sighed. “Please give us…at least…half an hour…for…”

“Anchor, right, got it,” Mal nodded. They were getting some curious looks from the Purplebellies, though most of them had seen River talking with the men earlier or heard tell of it from their fellows. Well a drink would take some time, hopefully enough that River’s brain would be back to an even keel. “GQ, get you a beer?”

“Yeah,” The head of Alpha squad nodded. “Anything stronger and we could be compromised.” He slid beers down to his men while Bryan did the same with his.

“Waylon,” Mal tilted his head as Killer Croc leaned back against the wall and casually hit the music player so it started up with a quietly catchy tune. “Something to drink? End of the world, no better time for it,” He grinned at the huge meta.

The grin he got in return might have been terrifying if he hadn’t fought alongside the man, “Beer.” He agreed.

“There he is,” Harley slid a beer down to him and looked at Chato, “How about you, hot stuff?”

“Water,” El Diablo didn’t quite smile but he eased onto a barstool next to Deadshot.

“That's a good idea, honey.” Harley nodded and poured him a glass before glancing at Katana, “Ninja, you want some saké?”

Katana shook her head, ignoring the nickname, “Whisky.”

Deadshot picked up his glass and gestured with it for the same, “What am I, twelve?”

Mal poured himself a glass of the same, handed Captain Boomerang the pint of Fosters he’d requested and raised a glass, “Here's to honor among thieves.”

“I'm not a thief,” Katana did not toast. The girl took everything too damn seriously.

“Kinda a joke,” Mal explained kindly. “Like old bold soldiers. No such thing.”

“There are old soldiers,” Leila started.

“And there are bold soldiers,” GQ continued.

“But there are no old, bold, soldiers,” They concluded in unison.

“Oh.” Katana tentatively raised her glass and sipped.

Mal sipped and watched as Harley drank from the insanely girly drink she’d concocted completely with little umbrellas and fruit garnish. Floyd must have been feeling more discouraged than he’d let on at first, “Well, we almost pulled it off.”

“Despite what everybody thought,” Mal nodded.

“Everybody being Flag,” Harley rolled her eyes.

“Worst part of it is, they're gonna blame us for the whole thing. And they can't have people knowing the truth. We're the patsies. The cover-up,” The assassin groused. “Don't forget, we're the bad guys.”

Mal smirked, “Well…I generally aim to misbehave so…”

That got the soldiers chuckling a bit while Floyd sighed, “For two sweet seconds...I had hope.”

Chato shook his head, “You had hope, huh? Hope don't stop the wheel from turning, my brother.”

“You preachin’,” Digger leaned around Floyd to look at Chato.

“It's coming back around for you,” El Diablo shook his head. “How many people you killed, man?”

“You don't ask nobody no question like that, ese,” Deadshot stared the tattooed man in the eye. Everyone knew that Deadshot had killed…well, the number was probably too high for anyone but Deadshot and River to calculate really.

“You ain't ever whacked down no women. No kids,” Chato shook his head.

“I don't kill women or children,” Floyd informed him flatly. Something he had in common with Riddick, from what River had let drop. Made Mal like him a bit better, though he found the assassin easy enough to deal with so far. Floyd hadn’t really tried any pushback though, so who knew what the man would be like with a little more ornery in his tone.

“I do,” He held up his hand, a woman of smoke and flame forming in his palm. “See, I was born with the devil's gift. I kept it hidden most of my life, but...The older I got, the stronger I got.” He shrugged, “So I started using it. For business, you know. The more power on the street I got, the more firepower I got. Like that shit went hand in hand. You know, one was feeding the other. Ain't nobody tell me no.” A flash of a wistful smile, “Except my old lady. You know, she used to pray for me. Even when I didn't want it.” He shook his head, “God didn't give me this. Why should he take it away?”

He put a glass over his palm and the woman of dancing flames fell to her knees, smoke rising from her body, Mal could almost see her dying, the real woman, curvy, dark haired, knowing eyes and tender mouth, “See, when I get mad, I lose control. You know, I just... I don't know what I do... Till it's done.”

“And the kids,” Digger’s voice, choked, broke the awful silence. Mal wouldn’t have pegged the rather crass, Jayne-like thief as being attached to, or having a soft spot for, children but the man seemed honestly horrified by the idea of killing kids.

“He killed them,” Harley sounded shaken for a moment. “Didn't you?” She stared at El Diablo like he was simply a foolish boy playing with fire. “Own that shit. Own it!” She shook her head impatiently, “What'd you think was gonna happen, huh?”

“Hey, Harley,” Floyd tried to rein her in, for all the good it did him. “Come on.”

Digger, maybe in an effort to shock her into silence, “Why is it always a knife fight every single time you open your mouth?”

“What you were just...” Harley would not be muffled or gagged or stopped. “Thinking you can have a happy family... And coach little leagues and make car payments? Normal is a setting on the dryer. People like us, we don't get normal!”

Mal put a hand on her shoulder, “Harley.” He shook his head when she looked up. He’d seen what Harley and Digger hadn’t. River.

“She’s right,” His yǎng nǚ did have a knack for taking folks by surprise. All eyes flew to River’s face, that elegant voice. “There is no normal for people like us. There are no happy endings in this type of life.” She reached across the bar and pulled a bottle of bourbon and two glasses towards her, pouring herself and Riddick a drink. “Not for them as choose it.” She lifted a toast to Mal and the Purplebellies, “Not for them it’s chosen for.” She nodded to the meta-humans and criminals. “Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back. All we can do is live life as best we can, and when Death comes to smile at us…we say, ‘not today’.”

“You don’t think there’s any hope?” Leila tilted her head, almost sad.

“Hope…” River shrugged. “Maybe it’s possible to find some sort of life, family, love. But once you are in this life, a normal existence…”

“It ain’t enough,” Riddick said gruffly from behind her. “Settle down, work a nine to five, be bored and ready to shiv someone in a week. And there’s no hiding you’re different from everyone around you. Be on the run in two weeks. Better to make your own life. Outside of normal.”

“So you’ve just given up on…what…everything?” GQ didn’t get it, not completely and Mal shook his head at him.

“If you’re different, you want things regular society don’t understand,” He explained gently. “Don’t matter if you’re a Meta, an Independent or if you’re just…wired strange. Alliance’s made it clear, ain’t a place for us in those bright shining worlds. An’ if you live on the Rim or Border…well, you’re not good enough for the Core so there’s obviously somethin’ wrong with you. You live as best you can. Find love, family, kindred, among others like you, living similar lives.”

“Don’t mean we’ve given up,” Riddick growled his arms holding River close making it clear where his hopes lay. “But it means we know we ain’t ever gonna ‘fit in’ an’ we’re done tryin’ and apologizin’ for when we can’t. That’s just the way things are in the ‘verse. Nobody gets out alive.”

“In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky, that's the place where I trace my bloodline and it's there I read on a hillside gravestone you will never leave Harlan alive,” River’s murmur nearly went unheard, but Riddick nodded his agreement.

“Gotta embrace who you are,” Harley added.

Leila nodded slowly and might have replied but the door creaked open and Flag entered the bar. He strode right up and sat heavily next to Deadshot. Mal slid a glance over at River to see how she was taking this development and she shrugged slightly. See how it plays out then.

Harley, predictably enough, was the first to throw down, “We don't want you here.”

“You get to the part in that binder saying I was sleeping with her,” Flag asked in a broken voice.

“Yeah,” Floyd nodded slowly, and Riddick did the same. “I never been with a witch before,” Floyd continued. “What's that like?” Flag shook his head and the assassin explained, “Apparently that's why the creatures chase him all the time. 'Cause the witch is scared of him.”

“The only woman I ever cared about...Is trapped inside that monster,” Flag confessed. “If she isn’t stopped it’s over. Everything is over. Everything.”

Chapter Text

He might be mistaken but it seemed like Flag had gotten some sort of epiphany amidst his soldierly temple of righteousness. Riddick looked down at the woman in his arms and she nodded, a half smile on her face as Flag continued speaking.

“You're free to go,” The cortex cracked and broke against the brass edge of the bar as Flag slammed it down. “There’s a normal human woman buried inside the monster. The only thing she did wrong… she wanted to learn about our histories, so she went where the Alliance had found a new archaeological site. They swore it was safe for civilians. The Enchantress woke and took her, invaded her mind. She’s a good woman. Wouldn’t hurt anyone if she could help it.”

River nodded, her hand on her sword, “If it weren’t for my brother, I might be like her, under the thumb of Parliament, my will replaced with theirs. If I can’t ease her suffering, remove the Enchantress, I can at least try to end it. Keep the Enchantress from taking other worlds.”

Mal looked at Riddick, Floyd and the rest of the Squad, “Reasons we agreed to do this ain’t changed. Just got a little more personal for some of us. And a tad more difficult.”

Riddick nodded, “And maybe, according to River, we’ve got an ace up our sleeve. Might give us a better chance of success.”

Floyd sighed heavily, “Well I’m damned if I’ll let some nutjob belongs in a bughouse take over the ‘Verse. My daughter deserves better than that.”

“Wait, agreed?” Flag blinked as GQ picked up on that tidbit with a thoughtful tilt of his head.

Riddick smirked at him, “What? You really thought you had all of us on a leash?” He chuckled wickedly and tilted his head down to River, “This one here…she hunted me down just so we could break in and get Mal out.”

“Nobody went through processing when you left Belle Reve,” Flag went bug-eyed. That just got the entire Squad laughing.

“Nope,” Digger grinned at him maniacally. “Kinda puts a whole new light on things don’t it?”

“Why?” GQ shook his head. “We’re here,” He gestured at the Purplebellies. “Because we’re soldiers, and we fight to protect our people.”

“Same damn reason,” Mal took another sip of his drink.

“We all got people to protect,” Floyd nodded.

“’Course, that weren’t plan A,” Riddick shook his head. “We woulda been long gone but you had craptastic timing, landed right when we were leaving. Waller in your ear. So…”

“Go along, so we don’t get shot out of the sky,” River continued. “And explain why you’d come to Belle Reve. Explained the mission. And get agreement to help.” He inhaled her scent, glad she hadn’t pulled away after anchoring in him, despite being surrounded by folk they didn’t know all that well. How they felt, or didn’t feel, about each other, how anchoring affected him, nobody’s business but theirs. But the need to hold her close didn’t change with their surroundings. Touch soothed the Furyan and Reader both.

“Like I said, we’ve all got a stake in this ‘verse,” Floyd looked at Flag. “All you upright do good types, you haven’t cornered the market on that. We gotta live here too. And so do our people. We don’t want some crazy witch taking over the ‘verse any more than you do.”

Clearly none of the Purplebellies had thought of that. Including Flag. Riddick barely kept from snickering as the Alliance soldiers realized that the Squad had been following Mal without any coercion but the idea that if they didn’t the ‘Verse wouldn’t be worth living in. Against him he could feel River’s shoulders tremble in silent giggles.

“What about you,” One of them jerked his head at Riddick. “Richard B Riddick, mass murderer, you’re known for working alone. No attachments. Why are you following him?”

“Pretty much the same reason,” Riddick shrugged. “Plus a few of my own, that quite frankly are none of your tiān shā de business.” He glared pointedly, eyes glowing in the shadowy light and sipped his bourbon.

“What’s this ace up your sleeve,” Flag asked quietly. Well tactics were his bailiwick, or they’d better be, for a Colonel.

“River?” Mal nodded to his daughter.

“Accidentally anchored to all three of them simultaneously,” River gestured at the three metas surrounding her. “With their power and unique abilities, my mind guiding them, I believe we will have an edge over the Enchantress.”

“She’s got her heart back by now,” Flag told her, for the first time since their initial meeting speaking as an equal. “If you can take it out, her power is…diminished.”

Riddick filed that bit of information away as Flag took something out of his armor and handed it to Deadshot, “Your daughter writes you every day. Every single day.”

“You had these the whole time,” Floyd, despite having seen his little girl before this whole mess, was visibly touched by the letters. “You had letters from my daughter the whole time?” The laid-back attitude he’d affected thus far fell away, “We’re going to end this. Everybody's gonna know what we did. And my daughter is gonna know that her Daddy is not a piece of lè sè.”

None of them were prepared for River to stiffen in Riddick’s arms, a harsh shudder rolling over her skin, and a pained moan rising in her throat as she stared into nothingness. The voice that emerged from her lips sounded nothing like her own, coldly impassioned, echoing with power, “With my heart returned, I can finish my weapon. Now tell me how to destroy your armies.”

She jerked in pain, agony rising like steam from her skin, that otherworldly voice fading to Waller’s cold human tone, “Do your worst, bitch.”

Ō, zhè zhēn shì ge kuàilè de jìnzhǎn,” Leila groaned.

River’s voice became her own again and she pressed her face to his neck as Riddick pulled her closer, wrapping her in his arms as she recovered, “She has her heart…will do her worst…so much more than Waller could imagine. So much of her power hidden, secret…” He could feel her spine stiffening, forcing herself to steady as she continued, “All the knowledge Waller possessed, Alliance defenses, satellites, bases… the Enchantress will use that…”

Floyd cursed, anyone with a brain understood just how dangerous the Enchantress accessing Waller’s knowledge could, and would, be. “Wángbā dàn de biǎo zi.”

“Oh this is so not good,” Harkness seemed to have lost his mocking mania, at least for the moment. Riddick couldn’t help but agree. Understatement though it might be.

“Let me guess,” Floyd sighed. “We’re going straight for the swirling ring of trash in the sky. Because of course we are… Makes perfect sense. Crazy witch, crazy shit in the sky.”

“We would not die in that man’s company that fears his fellowship to die with us,” River shrugged philosophically.

“It ain’t fear,” Riddick gave her a gentle squeeze.

“No, not fear,” River nodded. “We few, we happy few.”

“We band of brothers,” Harley finished softly and got her first smile from the rest of the Squad since she’d laid into Chato. “For he today who sheds his blood with me will be my brother.”

“That’s right,” Floyd gave her a hand as she climbed over the bar.

“Yeah,” Mal shrugged, half smiling as he met Riddick’s eyes. “Let’s get to it.”

The ‘swirling ring of trash in the sky’ as Floyd so quaintly termed it, centered over the train station in the middle of the city. “We think that thing’s a weapon,” Flag explained quietly as they stood in an alley across from the building in question.

Mal tapped Harkness on the shoulder and gave him an easy smile, “How about you show us what your fancy toys can do Cap’n Boomerang.”

The grin Mal got back through the scruff defined mischief and he took a deep breath hoping this wouldn’t backfire. But Harkness grinned, “Been waitin’ for someone ta ask. Ain’t been much call for my brand o’ fun.” He pulled out a heavier than usual looking boomerang and a small cortex, barely more than a screen and some buttons.

A solid throw later and the ‘toy’ was airborne, giving them a birds-eye view of the main atrium of the station. “Here…” Mal nodded as two beings masquerading as people came into view. “Lower.”

“Damn,” Harkness cursed as a viney beam of light surged from the big one’s hand and destroyed his device.

“We gotta take out the big one,” Riddick looked at Mal. “She’s crafty, the one doing the planning. He’s the muscle.”

“I left a gorram big demo charge down there in that subway,” Flag looked at GQ and the other Purplebellies.

River pulled her cortex out of the satchel on her hip and pulled up a schematic, a city plan it looked like and Mal looked at it over her shoulder, “There’s a flooded tunnel, leads right underneath the building.” She looked up at the rest of them.

“If the Purplebellies can recover the charge, swim under that thing’s feet,” Mal felt the beginnings of a plan form in his mind.

“We get in its face and distract the hell out of that gǒu niáng yǎng de so the swimmers can blow the bomb,” Riddick added with a glance at Chato.

“That’s how we take it out,” Mal nodded. “Difficulty will be keepin’ the Enchantress occupied.”

“Battle upon two fronts,” River murmured quietly. “But it can be done if need be.”

Mal looked at her thoughtfully, “Let’s walk and talk.” He suggested. “We gotta get into the building unseen, then somewhere the Purplebellies can deploy and hopefully, retreat safely away from the bomb.

GQ looked at his men and then at Bryan, and Bravo, “Who’s got the better swimmers.” He asked quietly. “I’ve got a few, but most of us are infiltration by land or air types.”

“We can handle it,” Bryan nodded. He looked at Mal, Flag and the rest of the Squad, “If you’re going to distract that thing, and keep the witch busy, you’ll need all the firepower you can get.”

“So Alpha, we’re with Captain Reynolds,” GQ motioned to his men and Mal nodded.

“You get that bomb set and you all clear out,” He ordered Bravo’s men. “No way to enjoy a ‘verse free of the Enchantress if you get yourselves dead. Don’t wait around.”

“We got you,” Bryan nodded and consulted River’s schematics briefly. “Entry point is here, and here’s the submerged tunnel,” He verified, and River nodded.

“Not too far where we will need to be in order to enter discreetly, keep company until we must part ways,” River half smiled.

Bravo team began to ready their gear as they walked, quietly discussing the possible hazards they might face, and River dropped back to regard Mal with those dark all seeing eyes.

“Doesn’t see all, merely more than most others,” She Read the thought out of his brain and Mal smiled.

“More’n the rest of us Lil Albatross,” He agreed. “Got a notion, wondered if it had crossed your mind.”

“Can the anchor draw upon the strength of a meta and use it as her own,” River had clearly considered the possibility though she remained silent for a few minutes, mulling it over a bit more.

He had no doubt she’d seen everything he’d been thinking/wondering. Chato had the heaviest amount of firepower at his disposal, literally, and he never thought that’d be something he’d see. Riddick and Waylon were the strongest physically. Floyd, Katana, Harkness and Harley were nothing to sneeze at in a fight either.

“It is possible,” River answered him finally. “Uniting them, channeling their power, is more likely, but it is possible to use the connection and enhance her,” she corrected herself quickly, “my strengths.”

“Need an anchor Shorty?” Waylon rumbled. Of the three metas he happened to be closest, Chato and Riddick were discussing potential strategies against the Enchantress’s big male ally.

“Does,” River nodded and Mal watched as she gratefully took Killer Croc’s hand and sighed as if finally relaxed a moment later. He guessed half an hour anchored to Riddick might have been more helpful if she hadn’t inadvertently Read Waller when the Enchantress had taken the woman’s mind.

“Occurs to me that holding hands through a fight ain’t exactly subtle, or easy,” He commented finally. “How’d you think that’ll work?”

“Touch is not necessary,” River replied, her voice slightly absent. Mal knew that tone like he knew Serenity’s silhouette, River’s mind was racing, running calculations, figuring the odds. “It is a comfort, but not strictly needed.”

“If Riddick an’ Diablo are gonna fight the big guy, you can stay linked up with me,” Waylon offered in a more amiable way than one would ever suspect was possible upon seeing his frankly terrifying face. “See if it helps. Borrow some a my power.”

“Battle is no time for experiments,” River shook her head. “But we may not have a choice.”

“Do what you gotta do,” Waylon advised. “Won’t be anything left of us if the witch gets her way.”

Mal nodded, “Truer words ain’t ever been spoken.”

River watched the Bravo team Purplebellies ready their oxygen masks and compressed air tanks while she remained linked to Waylon and checked her weapons. Riddick hadn’t much liked it when he’d turned and seen her holding onto KC’s big hand but Mal had shot him a look and for once Riddick hadn’t spoken his mind.

Borrowing, channeling, using a meta’s power as her own, or channeling the power of others through someone else, all these things were possible thanks to Blue Sun and its Academy. Stripping her amygdale had more far-reaching effects than simply making her a Reader.

The mind, above all, strives to defend itself, adapts, blocks, develops ways to compensate for injury or other debilitation. Her mind… she’d never consider herself to be a true meta, born with such powers, but sometimes, a creation can become more than what it was made to be.

No one could become a metahuman without the right genetics. And occasionally something extreme to activate those genetics, like the meta she’d Read of in Waller’s mind. Someone called Barry Allen, the Flash. Waller hadn’t been clear as to what had activated the meta-gene but it seemed as if Barry Allen had fallen afoul of a large amount of electricity or another form of energy.

Could the mind force a gene to activate in order to protect itself from the repercussions of injury? Had that been one of the goals of the Academy? To create meta-humans they could control?

Terrifying thought, considering Waller’s goals for the Squad, if she believed she could create meta-humans of her own…

She would have to be stopped. Permanently if steps were taken in that direction. River made a mental note to keep track of Waller and her activities. Necessary anyway, considering her own status as a person of interest to the Alliance, but more in depth monitoring would be required.

And if Waller ever learned what River could truly do, she just might, and rightfully so, be more afraid of River than the Enchantress. The Enchantress, while deadly, had limits to her power. The limits might be beyond what anyone would consider possible to counter but they were limits, nonetheless.

In the depths of River’s mind, like a spool of thread unwound from that stripped amygdale, her mental capabilities grew. She could borrow Waylon’s power, his strength, and infuse it into her own limbs, without truly stealing away even a gram of his abilities. Channel Chato’s fire through her hands. Feel Riddick’s Wrath. Enhance her senses with his Furyan talents or Waylon’s animal nature

There’d be a price to pay of course. Nothing in the ‘verse was free. Exhaustion, pain, and all the attendant weakness that accompanied such fatigue. Her abilities were finite after all. Just like the Enchantress. River knew her barely evolved talent didn’t match Enchantress, no more than a fly could match a horse. But with the help of other metas, more powerful, more practiced, for a time, she’d be able to face Enchantress. Face her and force her back. Through Riddick or Chato if need be. But it could be done.

Waylon had guided her as she thought, not necessary but he’d kept others from bumping into her as they moved towards the outer area of the station. Stairs nearby held water up to the third step from the floor and the Bravo Purplebellies were readied themselves in earnest.

“You got this Shorty,” KC grinned at her, a mouth full of sharp teeth and affection as he let go of her hand. “You do what you gotta. We’ll do the same.” He turned to the Purplebellies, “I’m goin’ with you.”

Bryan and his men seemed a little offended the huge meta thought they were incapable of setting a bomb underwater, “We got this.”

“I’m not askin’ bro,” Waylon informed him as he began to remove his jacket and shirt. “I live underground, ya’ll are just…tourists.”

River grinned and nodded at the soldiers, “He’s right. Can move faster, stronger, made for moving through the water. A valuable ally and not to be snubbed.”

Waylon nodded at her, “Watch your pì gu shorty.”

“You do the same,” River nodded back as he lowered himself onto all fours and just as his name suggested, entered the water with disturbing speed and grace.

She turned back to the area where the rest of them stood once Bravo had all entered the water and Riddick held out his hand in a silent invitation and command. Raising an eyebrow at him and moving to his side, River simply leaned against his hip and ribs. “One does not command a cat. Or a woman,” She reminded him gently.

Leila grinned at her from her spot between GQ and Mal, loading her guns and making sure she had spare magazines. “Too right,” She agreed.

“Wasn’t a command,” Riddick muttered and wrapped his arm around her waist. She’d noticed the more time they spent with others, the more he seemed to stake his claim to her. Not that she minded really, touch had become a comfort for both of them.

“We cannot change our nature,” River gave him a smile. The murmur of Japanese caught her attention and she looked past the glass divider to where Katana knelt, speaking to her sword.

“The man who killed her husband used that sword,” Flag told them quietly. “His soul is trapped inside of it. She talks to him.”

River nodded, “She says to him, that should she die in battle they will be reunited finally.”

“Yeah, made her a promise, that I’d use the sword on her, if she fell. So she could be with him,” Flag’s hands never stopped moving though his expression turned bleak. “I do not look forward to keeping that vow.”

“Hey…well, you know what they say about the crazy ones,” Digger commented as he tested the edge of a knife.

“Huh,” Harley looked up from her gun with a question on her face.

“Not you Harley,” Floyd grinned as he rolled his eyes. Harley, with her usual mischief, grinned right back at him. River spared a moment to pray that the two of them wouldn’t join forces. Perhaps a wasted prayer since she doubted Floyd would be able to stand Harley’s shenanigans for more than five minutes. But still… better to pray. Just in case.

“What do they say,” River wondered, Harley’s wicked smirk prompting her. She could Read it but she’d rather not and it was always fun to make Mal uncomfortable. It made him forget imminent danger when he became embarrassed.

Harkness grinned lewdly, “Well they say the crazier the woman the better a lay she is.” He clarified as if he thought she might not understand the slang, “Crazier means better in bed.”

“Understood the first time,” River smirked at him.

“Guess that means ole Riddick there’s gettin’ quite the ride,” Now Harkness was trying to press her buttons.

Mal winced, “Adopted daughter Cap’n Boomerang. Do not talk about how my yǎng nǚ might be sportin’ with that big hún dàn she calls a bàng jiār. Please.”

Digger held up his hands as if to show his good intentions, somewhat hampered by the knives he’d been holding and wicked smile, “Nature a the beast mate.”

“Well,” Flag pushed off the wall he’d used as a backrest.

“Let’s do this,” Mal agreed.

River took a deep breath and looked up at Riddick, “You and Chato, you’ve agreed to distract the…Incubus.” She pulled the name out of the air it felt like. “Do not let him sacrifice himself. We will need him.”

“Do my best,” Riddick nodded. He looked over at Chato, “You hear that?”

“Don’t get myself killed,” El Diablo nodded.

“Do not,” River ordered. “We will need every bit of strength, including yours, if we are to defeat her.” For a moment she flashed to Waylon, felt what he saw, “The swimmers are attacked.” Every eye flashed to her as she took a breath. “They continue on,” She murmured. “Waylon’s skill and strength is greatly helpful.” A collective sigh of relief from the Squad and Purplebellies and Mal nodded.

“Let’s move.”

Chapter Text

The journey through the underground station…eerie didn’t even begin to describe. River stared at the bodies and frozen explosions of pitch black and for a moment her eyes showed black. “Ghosts, of those who died here at the hands of the Incubus.” She murmured and shook her head, “Cào nǐ zǔ zōng shí bā dài. Dead before they could even scream.”

Riddick shook his head, “Try to ignore them.” He advised. Not much else they could do. He’d seen a lot of weird shit in his life. Bio raptors, Necromongers, even more disturbing human behavior in the various slams he’d visited. But this…this was something new. Half vegetable, half mineral and half animal…one too many halves but that felt like the only way to describe what he saw. Starburst of black, shining like obsidian, frozen spiderwebs and sideways stalagmites, tentacles sharpened to spear-like points reaching out for the humans as they passed through the tunnel tiled in white. “Tā shì suǒ yǒu dì yù jì nǚ de mǔ qīn,” He cursed quietly.

Floyd had taken the spot next to Flag’s side, Katana and Leila behind them, while Riddick and River led. Mal, Chato, Harley and Digger followed while the Purplebellies guarded the rear. Spent shells rang faintly as they moved with their boots and unidentifiable things and glass crunched underfoot. He and River moved silently, choosing their steps but no one else could match their stealth and in his ears every chime of metal and crush of glass echoed against the white tiled walls.

Maybe to break the silence, maybe to remind Flag that he wasn’t a soldier but an equal, Floyd initiated the conversation, “You must really love this girl.”

Flag had a smile to his voice, “Man, I thought love was bullshit. Dead serious.” He shook his head, “Desire, mutual benefit, whatever. I mean, I get that, but… actual love? I mean, I rated that with aliens. Real ones, not metas.”

That got a low chuckle from Mal and the rest of them and Riddick tilted his head back to see Flag nearly grin, “Lotta believers. No proof. And then I met June.”

Riddick never would have thought he’d have anything in common with a by the book Alliance soldier like Flag. But the man had just pretty much described to a T how Riddick had viewed love. Fairy tales. Fantasy. Illusion. Delusion. Nothing real.

And then he spent a year with River Tam, working with her, talking, anchoring her and feeling fire and lust flood him each time. He’d never spent that much time with a woman before. Never wanted to. Now he couldn’t imagine any other woman he’d rather be with. No one he wanted more. Was that love? And what the hell would a textbook sociopath know about love anyway?

Floyd took a deep breath, “Do what you gotta do.” He advised sympathetically.

“Yeah,” Riddick looked behind him again. “We got your back.”

Yì wú fǎn gù.” River’s solemnity faded momentarily as she flashed a grin back at the two men, “And we are due the third miracle.” That simply confused Floyd and Flag but he got it.

Riddick nearly chuckled as he recalled his thoughts the first night he’d caught a glimpse of River Tam across that crowded bar. “Guess we are at that.” He saw the stairs River had pointed out on the schematic and held up his hand to remind everyone that the enemy had ears too and everyone grew quiet as they approached the stairs.

the Enchantress had taken over the huge main atrium of the station. They’d gone through their tunnel to the stairs leading up to the huge hall and paused there for a moment. “You’re gonna fight with us,” Riddick looked at Chato. “No last minute panicking?”

“And if I lose control?” The man seriously didn’t want to hurt them. Which Riddick could appreciate. He liked his skin in its original condition, not char broiled. River stifled a chuckle as she caught that thought and he grinned. Cào dàn he liked that they shared a similar sense of humor.

“We might just have a chance,” Floyd commented as he passed them.

“Got River right here, she can grab hold of your mind, help you bring it down,” Riddick reminded him.

“All right,” Chato nodded.

Huge square pillars marked the border of the atrium and they managed to round the corner and distribute themselves behind the stone. Mal found himself next to Harley, peering around the corner at a tall willowy woman clothed in smoke and spiderwebs, dark hair, pale skin, a corona of power surrounding her. He hoped River wasn’t listening to him too closely because he could not stop the incessant stream of curses running through his mind. If he worked at it, he could keep from vocalizing said swearing but with what he was seeing it’d be a near thing.

“Hey,” Harley’s soft voice asked next to him. “Everyone can see all this trippy magic stuff right?” He bit off the curse that sprang to his lips involuntarily and glanced back at Harley in curiosity. Why wouldn’t she see it? Big, amazed eyes pulled away from the swirl of green and shadow to meet his gaze.

“Yeah,” Mal assured her. “Why?”

Harley gave him a wryly sheepish grin, “I’m off my meds.”

“You, young lady, are dangerously charming at times,” Mal shook his head. He did not need to adopt another girl. Especially not a girl River had said exceeded her own brand of violent crazy. And definitely not a girl who came with an even more violent, insane male counterpart. Especially not a girl he’d seen several times in close conversation with River. The two of them and their history aside, he really didn’t want two genius women ganging up on him. Which would for certain happen if he got ideas about taking Harley in.

“I got my moments,” She winked at him as if she knew exactly what he had been thinking. Right. Not a Reader. A genius head doctor. And not the scalpel and bone saw type.

Floyd’s sense of humor left a bit to be desired at the moment, “That’s your old lady, huh?” He nodded at Flag.

“Yeah,” If Flag’s nod got any more terse his neck would snap.

“Well you need to handle this shit, all right?” Floyd shook his head, “Get up there, smack her pì gu, tell her to knock this shit off.” The man acted more like a cat than River did, poking and prodding at exactly the wrong and right time. He’d heard it said that cats had the ability to be annoying and endearing simultaneously. Gorram, Deadshot seemed to embrace that quality with a vengeance.

“I do not think that’d be wise,” Flag returned.

“Floyd,” Mal pointed a finger at him, his mouth jerking up in an unwilling grin. “If she finds us because I’ve busted my gut laughing I will haunt your pì gu until you can’t aim.”

“Sorry Mal,” Deadshot gave him a grin that had not an ounce of repentance in it.

“You know…I could do with my life being a little less interesting, all things considered,” Mal muttered.

“This is what you call interesting,” Harkness muttered with a shake of his head.

Serenity’s definition of interesting,” Riddick commented, dark amusement in his low voice. Little River must have been telling tales if the big gǒu niáng yǎng de knew what he meant.

“Definition,” Digger asked as Mal shook his head.

“Oh god oh god, we’re all gonna die,” River quipped.

“Oh,” At least Harkness got it. “That kinda interesting. Could do with less of that meself.”

Floyd just grinned while Flag took a deep breath, “I’m gonna draw out the big one. My boys will detonate the bomb underneath him.”

Mal nodded and from behind him heard Harkness, of all things, making a pass at Katana, “You know, we should get a drink sometime.”

“Like a trained ape, without the training,” Mal muttered. And who’d have ever thought he’d be quoting Simon Tam, otherwise known as one of the must straight-laced, uptight, rigidly mannered males in the ‘verse.

When she spoke, her voice echoed with rain and wind, soft as thunder and loud as a kiss. Pure power, the kind that had come long before humans and could exist long after, “I’ve been waiting for you all night. Step out of the shadows. I won’t bite.”

Mal shook his head as Harley tilted hers to the side as if considering it and with a ‘what the hell’ shrug, began to round the pillar they stood behind.

“—The hell,” Flag muttered.

Floyd shook his head, “Grab her.”

Mal reached out and snagged Harley by the waist before she could make a target of herself pulled her back behind him. “Hang onto her,” He advised Chato who had helpfully come up behind them. The pyrokinetic nodded and pushed Harley’s hand down so her pistol wasn’t aimed right at Mal’s head. “Thanks,” Mal muttered.

“Why are you here,” the Enchantress’s voice seemed to reach inside him and twist, pushing into each crack and spreading them wide to gaping wounds. “Because the Soldier led you?” Hard to tell if she meant Flag or him, might be Flag, as nasty as she sounded. Sibilant, sensual darkness, spreading over them, a mist of sound. “And all for Waller? Why do you serve those who cage you?”

Mal shook his head, he had a bad feeling and looked back at River whose eyes had gone dark as the Enchantress continued speaking, seeping into his bones like poison. “I am your ally. And I know what you want. Exactly…what…you want…”

Once it was said that the prairies of Shadow stretched out so far under such a clear sky that a man could see from here to God’s plan. Blue skies overhead, the scent of cattle and horse, along with the droppings of the aforementioned animals, grain and sweat.

He stared, couldn’t help himself, stared at the land around him, the wood and wire fence he’d been mending, the dirt road leading to the edge of the property and looked back. The long low house he’d been raised in, double roof to keep off the heat, gutters to collect the rain, porches surrounding all four walls. One of the dogs under the porch yipped as a rider appeared on the horizon and the screen door to the kitchen opened.

Dark brown hair with some lighter streaks of silver now, hazel eyes, a bit wrinkled at the corners from smiling too much. Near as tall as he was, her hands rested on her hips, arms akimbo as she called to him, “Malcolm Reynolds, I’ve been hollering your name for goin’ on ten minutes. Now come in for lunch or go hungry.”

“Yeah Ma,” He responded automatically. No one ever argued with Eileen Rose Reynolds. Not if they wanted their ears to go unscathed.

Chato’s voice, echoing through his mind. “I can’t change what I did.”

Riddick’s low growl, “And I can’t change what I am.”

“What we endured and who we are,” River’s voice supporting them.

“And neither can you,” The three of them, in unison and he was standing in the train station, Shadow and all that lived on her, a Black Rock and ghosts except in his memories.

“It’s not real,” Chato gripped his shoulder.

“Āi yā… I know. Wǒ cào I know…” Mal took a deep breath and used the moment to strap his heart back into one piece. Around him, the others were having similar problems.

Harley looked overjoyed, high as a kite but happy with it, “He married me.”

Floyd muttered, “I killed the bat.”

“No, you don’t want that,” Riddick growled the denial.

“What?” Harley looked dismayed, “I want that.” Mal guessed her vision had been a bit sweeter than Deadshot’s.

“She’s trying to play games with you man,” Chato looked over at Flag and Lawton.

Riddick’s chest was doing a glowy blue handprint thing as he nodded, his growl vibrating with power, “It’s not real. Tā mā de wǒ shī míng liǎo. But it ain’t real, no matter how sweet it’d be.”

“He’s right,” Mal nodded and Flag echoed him. For a moment Mal wondered what Flag had seen. What had the Enchantress shown the others? What pain from their past had been torn out of their hearts and used for her twisted purpose? What desire that they knew could never be satisfied.

Digger had bent over, breathing hard, “Cào dàn!”

“It’s not real,” Flag took a deep breath grim with purpose.

Mal exchanged looks with Chato and nodded. She knew they were there, no sense hiding. He motioned for GQ and Alpha squad to stay where they were. Better that they aim from some cover. Leila gave him a wink as she crouched next to the soldier with the broken arm and Mal couldn’t help grinning back as he rounded the pillar and walked with Chato, Riddick and River down the stairs to the main atrium.

That voice… he hoped that Flag’s June didn’t sound remotely like the Enchantress. That voice seemed to sink claws into his chest and pull out every pain and sorrow to be ground under her heel. “How long have you been able to see?”

Chato answered her, “My whole life.” Riddick nodded grimly and River lifted her chin, staring the Enchantress down. “You can’t have them,” El Diablo challenged. “These are our people right here.”

Well the man had balls that was for damn sure. Mal smirked as he descended the stairs. Didn’t seem to make much never mind to Enchantress though, “But it is our time.” She gestured to the world around them, “The sun is setting and the magic rises. The metahumans are a sign of change.”

“Lady,” Floyd shook his head pointing at her emphatically. “You are evil!”

Enchantress didn’t seem to take that too well, speaking in another language, unintelligible to everyone. Okay, everyone but River.

“She commands, ‘Brother, make them bow to me’,” River translated. “And Incubus comes.” Then she got a look at what she’d called Incubus, “Shén me zài tiān mì de xié'è de tā mā de.” She had to have picked up that particular curse from Riddick, Mal thought absently. She hadn’t been talking like that before he’d been put in Belle Reve.

Mal forced his feet to stay where they were instead of walking backwards like they wanted. Incubus, as River called him, made Riddick, the largest male of Mal’s acquaintance, look small. “Nǐ tā mā de tiān xià suǒ yǒu de rén dōu gāi sǐ.”

Dà xiàng bào zhà shì de lā dù zi. Somehow he looked smaller on the cortex,” Digger muttered.

“Oh… wā kào…” Floyd shook his head

Āi yā,” Harley stared.

Katana drew her sword and River did the same, Riddick already pulling his gun as Katana asked, “Who is this…some tiān shā de èmó come from hell…”

“Oh, tā mā de wǒ shī míng liǎo; this is gonna be bad,” Flag was already aiming as the thing stalked towards them. The man had a positive gift for understatement.

“Yeah, we should run,” Floyd agreed guns already out and shooting. The thing’s arms seemed to extend, or maybe that was a trick of Mal’s eyes as ropey vines of energy shot towards them and they all dodged out of the way.

Taking cover seemed to be the thing to do, though Mal did manage to smack his chin on a stone column base and bite his cheek. “Leastways I didn’t split my lip,” He muttered as he took a shot at the thing. “Coulda been ugly.”

Flag shouted into his earwig, “Bravo! Bryan come in. We’re in position.” Mal couldn’t tell if the Colonel got a response, if he did River wasn’t repeating it. His little girl had her sword in one hand and her pistol in the other. Every shot she fired hit the big gǒu niáng yǎng de and yet still did no damage.

Finally Mal’s earwig squawked, “This’s Jakeb. Bryan’s down. We’re almost in position.”

“Thank the tā mā de dear and fluffy lord,” Mal did his best to not shout while conveying to Flag that the men were in position since Flag had the schematic and he didn’t. Unfortunately with all the noise, he was forced to resort to his best ranch hand yell to get the man’s attention. “They’re almost there!”

Flag heard him, finally, and after a quick look at the schematic, gestured, “We gotta get him in that corner. That’s where the bomb will be.” Mal nodded, easier said than done.

Boomerang, Katana and River along with Riddick were trying to keep Incubus busy, Katana even cutting off the thing’s hand with her sword. Which worked just fine, except he regrew it in five seconds. Mal got to join in the fighting for the half minute he lasted before getting swatted into Flag. Floyd had already gone through a clip of bullets and all he’d gotten for his trouble was a backhand and an empty clip. “Chato come on, we can do it,” Riddick shouted as he dodged a blow and threw one of his own. The firewielding meta had been holding back, unable to attack without hitting one of them, though the gun in his hands had been getting plenty of work.

“We’ll get him there,” Chato agreed. “I lost one family, I ain’t gonna lose another.”

“You’re sure the two of you can,” Mal knew what Chato could do, but all he’d seen Riddick manage was knife work and shooting. Granted, it had been impressive knife work and shooting but still.

“Let me show you what I really am,” Riddick growled. Mal had to admit, in the middle of everything, which included dodging magical extending ropey arms, the growling still had a very unsettling effect.

“Over here!” Chato ran forward, Riddick right behind him, and flames roared from his hands.

Incubus backed away, and then kicked Chato in the ribs sending him flying across the room. Mal cursed and with Floyd began to shoot at the giant. They couldn’t do much, as was evidenced by Digger and Harley flying in another direction and not of their own volition.

And then Riddick made his move.

Chapter Text

She could feel Mal’s shock, Chato’s anger… Floyd’s determination and Digger’s outrage while Katana and Harley radiated grim resolve. Flag alternately despaired and hoped. The Purplebellies behind them like a wall of stoic determination as they fired upon the enemy.

Riddick… Riddick… burned with fury. Wrath embodied him, pulsed over his heart, limned his body in unearthly fire. And he had yet to unleash the full extent of his power.

Below her, Waylon’s mind hummed, despite the attacks, in his element he thrived. The remains of Bravo squad struggled with the bomb while he guarded them.

Incubus roared as Riddick stood unmoving against his blows. And returned the favor with several punches and kicks of his own, the shivs he was never without left glowing gaping wounds.

Chato came out of the small room Incubus had kicked him into, fire surrounding his body, changing him, a skeletal being made of flames, a headdress like a mane growing out of his skull, shouting his own challenge back. Between he and Riddick they traded punches with the giant while the rest of them peppered it with gunshots as much as possible.

Thankfully Enchantress seemed to ignore them in favor of whatever spell she was crafting in that roiling energy. That could not be good but none of them could afford to let up on Incubus long enough to attack Enchantress.

River heard Waylon before Mal heard Bravo’s signal on the earwig. “Now!” She shouted at the two fighters. “Get him to the corner.”

Chato was coming close to losing control, lacking Riddick’s disciplined focus and control, he rained fire down on the Incubus. He had driven Incubus into the corner where they needed him but wasn’t backing out so the charge could be blown. His rage getting the better of him, all he could see was the enemy.

Riddick couldn’t pull him away without being burned himself. Chato’s flames were so strong the heat could be felt across the room. “Chato!” River called his name and with an effort linked to his mind, remembering how it felt to aid him channeling his power. Calm, soft and cool, a gentle breeze in his mind, reason coming back to him slowly until his extraordinary form began to fade back into his human shape. “Get out of there!”

“Blow it now!” Chato shouted as he kept his flames burning on Incubus and stepped back.

“Bravo squad, now! Blow it!” Mal shouted into his earwig.

River felt more than saw Chato and Riddick brace, Riddick moving behind Chato as the flames roared and the pyrokinetic took several steps away from the corner. “Everybody down,” Flag roared, and the Squad took whatever cover they could.

The explosion, when it came, obliterated everything in its path. Chato and Riddick, at its edge, flew backwards through the air, landing in crumpled heaps against a fallen pillar lying on the stairs. The Enchantress wailed in her own language, an anguished cry for the only being she cared for besides herself. Some of the oppressive atmosphere seemed to fade, the air lightening around them.

At least for the moment.

“Get your pì gu up,” Riddick pushed himself to his feet as he admonished El Diablo. Chato, for whatever reason, seemed a little more rattled by flying through the air than Riddick. A look at the rest of the Squad revealed them to be in decent shape, if bruised and scraped.

“Yeah,” Chato braced against the pillar and climbed to his feet. “Dunno how much firepower I’ve got left at the moment though.”

“Tired doesn’t mean empty, so nut up,” He was in no mood for pessimism. Everyone else was doing the same, getting to their feet and approaching the Enchantress.

“You next,” Floyd stared at the witch. It clearly hadn’t escaped his notice that none of Bravo squad had climbed out of the hole left in the floor. Neither had Waylon. Taking out Incubus had cost them. And now they only had one person (if you could call the Enchantress a person) on whom to inflict their ire.

Cào dàn now he was thinking like River. Woman and her expansive vocabulary was a bad influence on him. Next thing he knew he’d be taking tea with china and cucumber sandwiches and people might forget what he was.

“My spell is complete,” the Enchantress spoke again. Oh joy, echoing tones and shadows that filled his ears. Just what he wanted. Sensitive ears and a witch that couldn’t seem to be evil and silent at the same time.

River moved towards he and Chato, a hard set to her jaw while Mal and the others drew closer and the Enchantress kept speaking. At this rate he’d kill her just to shut her up. “Once you and your armies are gone, my darkness will spread across this universe. And it will be mine to rule.”

She turned her back on them, the ultimate insult, contemptuous disregard for any possible danger they might present to her. That was to say none whatsoever, at least in her opinion. He’d have thought she might have a sense of caution considering what had happened to her brother. But apparently not. The Enchantress gestured upwards and power shot from her hands like lightning. The whirl of angry light and shadow turned dark and somehow more purposeful. A storm cloud filled with lightning, roiling in dreadful resolve.

Wind and rain filled the atrium, lashing their skin and the air seemed to turn dark and angry. Riddick glanced over at Mal, “We got anymore bright ideas?”

“We gotta cut her heart out,” Flag called back.

“Oh yeah, ‘cause that’ll be easy,” Digger snarked. And even as he spoke the Enchantress turned.

“No sense waiting," Riddick growled as the witch glared at them and somehow… the only word he could use to describe it… she diminished, crouched on one of the short square dividers on the stairs. Above her the spell rolled and churned, electricity sparking angrily.

Something was coming, something else, glaring at them came across as slightly impotent. And impotent this witch was not. Disappearing in a shower of hot sparks… yeah that seemed more in keeping with everything they’d seen of her so far. Unwelcome but more what he expected.

Reappearing, again with hot angry sparks, in their midst. Also more in keeping with their experiences. Riddick cursed as the Enchantress turned into a whirling dervish of punches, kicks, appearing and disappearing and in general acting as if the Squad were a bunch of toys she could throw around like a child having a tantrum.

Once she’d knocked all of them on the ground at least once, including him, Riddick wasn’t too proud to admit, she disappeared again.

“Where is she, the xié 'è de tā mā de jiàn huò,” Harkness had been the latest to get kicked to the floor and sounded slightly winded as he pushed himself up again.

“I can’t see her,” Mal shook his head, one hand pressed to his side and through the wind Riddick could smell pain. He likely had some broken ribs.

“While we’re fighting, that thing is laying waste to the whole tiān shā de ‘verse,” River pointed out.

“Where is she,” Flag looked around a bit wild-eyed.

Harley shook her head, “I don’t know.” And even as she said it the Enchantress’s evil laughter surrounded them and Harley cursed, “Tā shì suǒ yǒu dì yù jì nǚ de mǔ qīn.”

The twin swords, long black triangular blades of shadow and obsidian, were new, Riddick thought absently as he defended himself. Punching the witch should have been satisfying but when she just spun and disappeared it didn’t have the same feel. Chato alternated a hand of flames and the Iskellian he’d picked up, but he didn’t have any more luck hitting the witch than anyone else. Floyd managed to block the swords with the weapons he wore on his forearms, and even managed a punch of his own.

Of course in return she kicked him into a stone wall and if she hadn’t knocked him out, Floyd was giving a good imitation of momentary unconsciousness. Harley and River tag teamed her, with Harley damn near getting her head sliced off. Mal took his swing, ducked hers and sat down hard, not entirely by choice.

While the Enchantress advanced on Mal, River sliced at her with her sword and Harley hit her across the back with her bat. The Enchantress spun and Harley actually tried to hide her bat behind her back. “Uh oh.”

River and Harley went flying towards Chato and Riddick, River rolling to her feet while Harley took a moment to gather her breath before she got up. Flag hurled himself into the fight, maybe as a distraction, and Floyd shouted as the Enchantress tried to stab the soldier in the back, blocking the attempt with his forearm again. Katana spun and slashed and in return was rewarded with a shove hard enough that the swordswoman stumbled, fell and actually lost her blade.

Harkness, maybe because he had a soft spot for Katana, or maybe not, threw one of his boomerangs at the witch only to have her disappear before it could strike and reappear three feet above him, driving down with her blades. Harkness got another of his bladed boomerangs up to block her swords and hold her off but despite Floyd emptying two cartridges into her back couldn’t heave her off.

He’d seen shadows moving during the fight but hadn’t been able to pay as much attention to their surroundings as he liked. So Riddick found himself as surprised as the rest of the Squad when Waylon grabbed the witch by her ankles with a growl and threw her against the wall.

“Was her turn,” Riddick muttered as Waylon picked her up and threw her once more only to have her disappear again as he let go of her ankles.

The Enchantress stood beneath her churning spell, “Enough.” Her eyes glowed and sparks danced around her as she glared down at them. Every weapon they held flew towards the bottom of the stairs with an impatient wave of her hand.

River pressed her hand to his and Riddick felt the familiar sensation of her anchoring to his mind. For once the end of every nerve firing with pleasure came in second as the Enchantress continued to speak. “Of all who have faced me…You have earned mercy. For the last time… Join me…or die.”

River let go of Riddick’s hand and stepped forward. She could feel him fight the urge to grab her back. She had a plan, he could tell, whether or not it would work… well, their luck had to change sometime.

“Not much of a joiner but,” River glanced over at Harley. “Perhaps we should.” Thank Book’s God that Harley knew her, remembered River’s elaborate pranks and the play-acting they’d done to accomplish them in school. She couldn’t do this without Harley. And they hadn’t gotten to plan this out nearly as much as she’d have liked.

“Hey,” Floyd frowned at the two of them when Harley started to nod her agreement.

“She’s trying to take over the ‘verse,” Mal added as if they’d forgotten.

“So?” Harley walked towards River, “What’s the ‘verse ever done for us anyway?” River flicked her fingers and Harley stepped slightly in front of River. She had excellent skills as a screen, and being the more flamboyant of the two of them, drew attention naturally.

“It hates us,” River added decisively. “We are alternately mocked and reviled. Or used and imprisoned.” She looked at Riddick, “Never given a choice in our lives that wasn’t between a rock and a hard place.”

She walked with Harley towards the stairs as Harley held up hand to shade her eyes from the sparks and wind, allowing her old friend to remain a half step in front of her. Brilliantly Harley took on the tone of a supplicant, “Hey, lady? I…I lost my puddin’. But you can get him back, right?”

River watched as the Enchantress descended the steps, speaking as if a mother to a child. A psychotic mother to a crazy child but still… “I can my dear… Anything you want.”

River forced herself to remain solemn as she walked. For all her insanity, nothing had messed with Harley’s intelligence, her memory or her innate gift for manipulating people. Even an ancient meta-human of immense power could be tricked. The Enchantress wanted a trusting foolish child, Harley gave her one, “You promise?”

“Yes, child,” the Enchantress paused on the steps, her gaze moving towards River. “But this one, you have something else in mind… I can feel your rage, the power of it fills you.”

“Freedom,” River nodded. “A lost world restored. A black rock made whole again.”

The Enchantress had to be getting her information from Waller still for she knew exactly to what River referred. “The world of Shadow, a dead planet, to be given new life,” She mused. “A fitting gift for such a powerful woman. It pulses within you.”

“But I cannot make a black rock green with life again,” River offered letting sorrow drip from her voice. “You can. But will you? Now?”

“Life… while my spell brings destruction to those who destroyed that world,” the Enchantress actually gave it consideration. River kept her eyes on the witch, hope written on her face, grateful the Enchantress couldn’t Read her mind. Harley and River had many a discussion in school about giant egos and the ways to manipulate them into desired behaviors. Flattery had been a widely used, and hugely successful method. Thank Book’s dear and fluffy lord for Harley’s fantastic memory.

“Is it possible,” Mal seemed to be getting an inkling of what River and Harley were trying to do. “Can you, actually do that? Bring my world back to life?”

“I can,” the Enchantress turned her gaze on him, and River could feel her Bà ba almost flinch. “Should I do this, you would join me?”

“Ma’am, if you could bring my world back to life, make it green again, yeah, I’d throw in with you,” Mal ignored Flag’s outraged gasp and Floyd’s hiss of his name.

“My… and those you have led here will they follow you?” the Enchantress eyed the rest of them as she descended another step, slithering as a snake in her movements.

“My woman throws in with you…” Riddick drawled thoughtfully. “Yeah. Though I ain’t much for the bowing and begging thing. Doesn’t do much for me.”

“The arrogance of Furya, warrior, join me and rebuild your race in the age of magic,” the Enchantress whispered sibilant and low.

“Have not said if you will,” River reminded her, dark eyes as entreating as she could make them. Which as Simon and Mal could testify to, were pretty gorram beseeching.

“Yes my dear, I will, as a token of good faith, and in gratitude for the allies you bring with you,” the Enchantress gestured towards the spell, green and blue lightning flying from her hands. River watched it fly and let her mind follow it, feel the intent of it, and half smiled as Shadow began to bloom.

“What has been done will not be undone,” She whispered and offered the witch a half smile before turning to look at Chato and Waylon. “Join us. The Alliance will never stand against her and we could be free.”

Chato’s hands were limned with flames, “My family was human. All she’s done is kill people. Turn ‘em into monsters.”

River reached down and picked up Katana’s blade, half turning in unspoken threat, “Do not.” She cautioned, hardening her voice.

“I would have none who are not willing,” the Enchantress descended to stand beside Harley and River. “But you, my allies… You need only bow…and serve beneath my feet.”

River looked at Harley and nodded, they’d never get a better chance. Harley offered the Enchantress a tremulous smile, “I like what you’re selling, lady.” She took a deep breath, “There’s only one teeny problem.”

The Enchantress looked at her and River struck, panther fast and slashed downward, the Wrath of Furya climbing along the blade like blue fire. “You messed with our friends.”

Harley reached in and yanked out the glowing green heart of the witch.

And all hell broke loose.

He’d freely admit he had no clue what his yǎng nǚ and her crazy friend were up to. His heart just about gorram stopped when they began to move towards the Enchantress, talking about joining her. Then River asked about Shadow and he saw the wicked little smile on her face as she turned to look at him… his Lil Albatross had a plan. So he’d fallen in line, like he tended to do when his little mind reading genius had a plan. Over the years he’d learned life was a lot simpler, and there was a lot less yelling, when he went along with River’s plans.

If he’d just met she and Riddick five minutes ago Mal still would have been able to tell that the two of them were involved somehow. The two of them didn’t even need words to communicate. All River had done was give the big hún dàn a look and he’d backed her play.

The others weren’t in on it and hadn’t caught on either but none of them knew River as well as he, or apparently Riddick, did. It worked out though, because when River picked up that sword it appeared as if she were threatening Chato on the behalf of the Enchantress. He’d give odds she’d planned it that way.

What no one expected, and thus came as a complete shock, was the blue energy of Riddick’s power to extend along the blade. And no one anticipated Katana’s oh-so-special-soul-sucking-sword to practically explode into smoke and blue flames almost in River’s face. Or for River to be flung across the room and, for once, not land on her feet. Riddick might have teleported he was at her side so tiān shā de quickly.

“Her heart’s out,” Flag shouted over the rain and wind.

“We can end this,” Mal nodded towards Flags pack. “How many more bombs you got?”

“A few,” Flag grabbed the bag. “Figure to throw them into the spell? Kill it?”

“Yeah, if Waylon can throw them up there, Floyd’ll be able to hit the thing easy,” Mal nodded.

Behind them, what was left of Bravo and Alpha teams opened their weapons up, shooting at the roiling mass of cloud, smoke and lightning.

Everything went according to his plan. Harley tossed Floyd her gun, Waylon threw the bombs into the spell.

It made a nice little explosion. Very impressive. Unless you were trying to destroy a spell meant to tear the ‘verse apart so an evil witch could remake it in her image.

Yeah, unless you were trying to do that. In which case the explosion…not so very impressive.

The Enchantress’s laughter rang through the air, “There is nothing you can do. All your pitiful efforts. Your machines are nothing. To come so far, dare so much… only to learn you are helpless against magic.”

“Not so tā mā de helpless as you think,” Riddick had a snarl to his voice that set every hair on the back of Mal’s neck stand on end. In his arms he held River, her dark eyes fixed on the witch’s shadow and spiderweb draped form. Chato and Waylon stood on either side of them, crouching beside Riddick as he set River down and took a knee.

“Ace in the hole,” River murmured, and power thrummed in her voice the way it had in the bar. “The strength of Waylon. The power of Chato. The wrath of Riddick. And me. Take in the ocean of power and narrow it down to the River. Channel it.”

“Through me,” Riddick’s voice. Granted, Mal didn’t know the man well, but he hadn’t ever heard that particular tone before. And he recalled that River had called Riddick’s glowy blue fire Wrath.

He’d seen Riddick fighting Incubus. Outlined in glowing blue, larger than life, disturbingly dangerous. He’d seen the weird glowy blue heartbeat on Riddick’s chest. He’d noticed that light seemed to glow hotter when the big man got aggravated.

This was something new.

Like a shockwave, but not. Blue fire expanding out from Riddick’s chest, pulsing like Riddick’s heart. River cried out, and Riddick’s hand captured hers, holding it tightly, and incredibly the blue…stuff increased.

When it hit the dark churning cloud of the spell the collision of energy sounded like a shockwave. Mal had to rethink his little explosion being impressive. Whatever River and the trio of male metas had done…

Well… being unconscious was a perfectly valid choice of occupation. Wasn’t it?

Chapter Text

For once he wasn’t unconscious. Riddick shook his head as the Wrath slowly faded back to its normal existence. Ever since Shirah had woken it, woken him, he’d been conscious of the Wrath in him. He’d learned control even more perfectly than before, in an effort to not unleash what River called spirit energy whenever his temper flared.

River’s touch on his mind withdrew, and he heard Chato and Waylon exhale slowly. She’d let go of them too, shaking her head. “It worked,” That tremulous smile, slow and sweet, and River leaned against him with a long slow sigh of relief.

“Not bad, for a last-minute plan,” Chato gave them a half smile.

“Not last minute,” River shook her head.

“She an’ Harley’d been talkin’ some,” Riddick added smirking his amusement as he stood and helped River up. Not that she needed it but still, any excuse to put his hands on her, even on so innocuous a part of her as her hands. He’d seen she and Harley have rapid but intense discussions and when the two women had made their move it hadn’t taken much thought on his part to back it. River and Harley had a history, he figured odds were with them.

“Figured the odds of her offering us her ‘mercy’ were high,” River nodded. “Mind games…to manipulate a megalomaniac. Flattery and submission. Play upon her ego.”

“That what that talk about Shadow was about,” Waylon asked as he looked around the room. “We got a roomful of slumberin’ folks.”

“Wrath does that, and I’d guess more so with the two of you boosting it,” Riddick shrugged. They’d wake up in a few minutes, most likely.

River addressed Waylon’s first comment, “A calculated gamble, that she would be unable to resist proving the depth of her power. A chance to make her expel energy of her own volition. Conflicting with a spell of destruction. Hoped to weaken her, if not the spell, then wear her down.”

“That she stopped fightin’ us when she did argues she was getting tired,” Riddick picked up his blades and guns from the floor while the others did the same and everyone else roused. Was time acting oddly as a result of Enchantress’s spell or something else?

“Only a moment or two passes,” River murmured. “Echoes of the bond, stretches time, plays with perception. Normality returns.”

“Yeah,” He could feel it. The other two slowly withdrawing, and as the feel of them faded the rest of the world sharpened.

Katana had ‘borrowed’ River’s sword and held it poised over the Enchantress’s heart, Harley looking on in concerned curiosity. The woman didn’t have typical reactions to anything seemed like. Mal stumbled to his feet and nearly overbalanced leaning over to get his weapon. Flag and the others were hoisting themselves up, bracing against fallen masonry and he could hear the Purplebellies stirring and calling checks to each other on the outer perimeter.

Harkness took a while getting to his feet, reaching under a fallen pillar for some bit of shiny, or not, as he stood with the witch’s heart in his hand.

“Let me join my brother,” The Enchantress had diminished further. Tattered and dirty, tangled hair and malevolent eyes, crouched like a primate on the ground. Stone had melted around her, creating an oddly shaped divot in the pillar base, like the bottom half of a sarcophagus. But magic still rose off her skin like an oily mist tainted with shadow.

Flag held up a hand, “Katana, no!” He moved towards Digger, extending his hand for the heart, “Give me that.” Riddick knew his play, hoped it would work even though the odds were against it. The Enchantress wouldn’t ever give in to a mere human.

The Alliance officer held the glowing beating heart in both hands, a weird amalgamation of roots, vines and flesh. The threat seemed obvious enough, “You bring June back.” Flag stared at the Enchantress, “You bring her back.

“She’s not coming back,” How the woman could still look down her nose at them when they’d beaten her pì gu and held her heart to prove it… Some people never learned. Crouched on the ground like a Cro-Magnon and she couldn’t keep from taunting Flag.

“I’ll crush this,” Flag didn’t want to do it. Didn’t want to kill this woman, magic overlaying the face of his lover. Clear as day in his voice, ragged and anguished. “Do you hear me? You bring June back, or I’ll crush this!”

“Go ahead,” the Enchantress taunted. “You don’t have the balls.” Harley’s eyes had gone huge with shock and what seemed like sorrow, while Digger and Floyd watched silently.

Mal came up behind Flag, one soldier supporting another, while Flag’s face twisted with grief and his hands ground the heart to powder. He let it fall to the ground, nothing more than dust and dirt as the Enchantress fell back, just as lifeless a husk as her heart. The last of her magic rose from the dust, a glittering smoke that faded in seconds.

The rest of the Squad looked down, despite everything, the beginning with Flag’s obvious disdain for them, the lies, the near death experiences every other hour, they’d understood what drove him, once he finally told them the truth. None of them were unsympathetic to his feelings, but no one knew how to express that, or if they did, were unwilling to break the solemn silence of his grief.

Flag had nearly bent in two, crushing the heart, and rose unsteadily, as if he’d aged eighty years in that thirty seconds. The soldier turned away from the sight of the dead woman, his steps slow and unsteady, coming face to face with Mal who simply nodded and stepped aside.

Riddick drew River close, pulled her back against his chest and wrapped his arm around her waist, letting his hand spread over her ribs for the comfort of feeling her breathe and the beat of her heart.

River tilted her head and Floyd, who’d been staring at the corpse like he couldn’t believe it was finally over, frowned as the ‘body’ twitched. “Uh…Hey Flag…”

The Colonel turned, slow and pained, as if uncertain he’d heard anything and of two minds to respond if he had. His eyes closed, unwilling to see the reality of his dead lover in the body of the vanquished enemy. No one had expected to see the Enchantress move, much less raise her hands to rip at her own face, pulling muddy skin away like a torn mask and heaving a deep breath as if she’d been suffocating. Flag’s eyes flew open and energy suffused him again; the expression on his face, shock, relief, joy so profound it felt near embarrassing to see something so private, “June.” He seemed to sag and his last few steps towards her brought him to his knees.

His arms went around her as if he couldn’t help himself, standing and holding her tight against him, while she raised her face to feet his in a desperate joyful kiss. “She’s gone,” Her voice had none of the sibilant overtones of the Enchantress, no echo of power in her words. Just a normal human woman in the arms of her lover. Riddick caught sight of Harley, the sorrow on her face fading as she watched the two of them, when she smiled he could see who she’d been before the Joker had created Harley Quinn.

“I thought I killed you,” Flag admitted brokenly.

“I thought I killed you,” She returned, clinging to him.

More kissing, not that he blamed them, he wouldn’t mind a quiet room with his woman to do the same thing. But…since they were distracted… Riddick bent his head to press his mouth near River’s ear, “I’m thinking a strategic retreat is in order.”

“Wise decision,” River agreed and caught Floyd’s eye. He in turn, nudged Harley who poked Mal in the side. Mal jerked his head at Harkness and got a nod in return. Chato and Waylon had already taken several steps back, joining the others while Riddick and River turned and came face to face with Waller.

“How are you not tā mā de dead jiàn huò,” Riddick shook his head. He’d heard steps behind him, an unfamiliar stride and he could be certain River had known Waller stood there. His partner had tensed minutely and he knew that meant someone not an ally at their backs.

“Like a cockroach, could survive a nuclear blast,” River sneered, and Riddick saw the rest of them quietly withdraw. Great, he and River, once again, were the distraction.

“Now, now,” Waller waved her little cortex with the faces of the Squad on the screen. “Let’s not lose our heads.”

“We just saved the ‘verse,” Riddick growled.

“A thank you would be nice,” River added, and he could almost hear her eyebrow arching sardonically.

“Thank you,” Waller returned flatly.

“You’re welcome,” Riddick growled. He slanted a look at River and found his woman staring at Waller with narrowed eyes.

Her voice, when she spoke, was pure Mal in cadence and expression, “This report is maybe twelve years old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried ‘til River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear, 'cause there's a universe of folk that are gonna know it too. They're gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people.” She paused a moment, just slightly, before continuing, “You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. 'Cause as sure as I know anything I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground, swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.”

“Is that little speech supposed to mean something to me,” The Operative of Parliament’s stare didn’t change.

“Should,” River’s smile matched Waller’s for chill. “My Captain’s words, before we sent the Miranda Wave.” Waller’s expression changed minutely, and River nodded, “You’ll go through all your cameras and the waves sent, and you’ll see what’s been done here. And being you, it’ll enter your mind that what’s been done can be duplicated.” Riddick felt his chest vibrate in a low mean growl at the implication and his woman patted his forearm in reassurance before she continued. “I’ll be watching you,” She looked up at Riddick and back at Waller. “We will be watching you. And the moment you or Parliament tries something like the Pax, or the Academy or any other experimentation aimed at making people better…”

“Your life is forfeit,” Riddick finished her thought with relish. “And all the firepower in the world won’t be enough to stop us.”

“All we need is one good day,” River agreed. “And you’ll be gone from this ‘verse as if you’ve never been. I doubt anyone would mourn you.”

Riddick nodded his agreement, “But don’t bother with your little screen. Not like it’ll do much.”

“Even Richard B Riddick will die if his head is blown off,” Waller clearly didn’t get it, regaining her aplomb with her belief in the threat she thought she held over their heads.

“No nanite explosive,” River’s soft voice held more of a threat than his. “Not in any of us.”

Waller rolled her eyes, “Bluffing is for poker games Miss Tam. There’s no way any of you left Belle Reve without being processed. Therefore you have a nanite explosive implanted in your neck.”

“You really think a zhēnde shì tiān cái like her couldn’t figure a way around your security,” Riddick snorted derisively.

“Belle Reve is impenetrable,” Waller stuck to that belief, stubborn as a mule.

River laughed, coldly amused and she stared at Waller like she was a cockroach in truth and glanced up at him, “She forgot. Forgot that I was in close quarters with an Operative for several hours after Miranda. They made me, but Parliament has never understood what I can do, what I learn from people around me.”

“Yeah, see, an Operative called River Tam brought Richard B Riddick to Belle Reve for your…collection,” Riddick smirked at the newest version of an Alliance Operative in front of him.

“Belle Reve is home only to ghosts now,” River agreed. “Hard to process anyone out when the guards have bled out on the ground.”

Riddick took great pleasure in just how pale the black woman could get, her skin ashy with shock and fear as she realized she was within arm’s reach of the most notorious killer in the ‘verse. Sometimes fear just smelt so tā mā de good. “So you can keep holding that little screen like it’ll do you some good. Press all the commands you want…”

“It will avail you naught,” River regarded the Operative with cool disdain. “And if you do not let us pass… well…”

“I’ve been itching to sink my shiv into someone for the entire tiān shā de day,” Riddick smirked at her. “Done our bit, saved the ‘verse. You’ve got other things to worry about.”

River nodded her agreement, “Such as how the Enchantress knew of the secret facilities and satellites.” He loved the little smirk on her lips as she reminded the Operative of just how much Waller knew, that she was in the presence of a Reader, and now River knew it too.

“And just how you’re going to cover all this up, doubt you could manage it completely,” He began to lead River past her. “Might want to see exactly how much Doctor Moone remembers of the whole shebang.”

Waller’s dark face had somehow gone even paler (she looked as if she might be sick) with their implications and her eyes had immediately gone to Flag and the woman in question. GQ and Leila along with the remains of the Bravo and Alpha teams began to trickle into the atrium, passing he and River with a respectful nod. Leila winked at them as she passed and bumped into River.

His woman’s wicked smile was a sight to see. Typically, when she spoke it had nothing to do with whatever Leila had passed her. Not that he minded the topic of conversation she’d chosen, “You trusted me.” She looked up at him. “Trusted me to help you.”

“Just like you trusted me," Riddick returned. She’d given him that gift nearly from the jump. Sparring with him, allowing him to touch, anchoring in him and ultimately believing he would be a true partner. Trust hadn’t been something given to him so often that he took it for granted. Or would easily betray.

“Didn’t have good experiences with psychics,” She reminded him. As if he could forget. But River had nothing in common with the freaky gǒu tuǐ zi Necromongers. Her touch on his mind didn’t feel like hooks pulling and tearing at his brain.

“Not much of a comparison there,” He shook his head. “You ain’t ever once hurt me. One of the few people who haven’t.”

“Could have overcome her. Seduced her. Didn’t.” River seemed to think that held some particular importance.

“You said no,” Riddick reminded her. Well, it hadn’t been a hard ‘no’, more like a ‘not now; let’s revisit the question later’ sort of no. And with the job they’d had in front of them he couldn’t blame her. Bad enough he got distracted by her pretty pì gu, not to mention her tā mā de gorgeous legs. Both of them distracted would end in disaster and a slam would be the best they could hope for.

“Had you made the smallest attempt to seduce me, you would have succeeded,” Well if that wasn’t a kick in the head. River glanced at him and half smiled, “But you didn’t. You respected my wishes. Got to know me. Became my friend. Partner.” The ‘and maybe more now’ went unspoken. At least he hoped like hell that was in her thoughts. But now that the job was done, he was gonna give that seduction a serious attempt. Her smile widened and he figured she’d picked up on that thought pretty clear. Good.

“So how’re we leaving this ruttin’ planet,” He asked curious to hear her ideas. Given his druthers he’d steal a boat and take off, but she might have other plans. Job was done. Time to see if he’d been misleading himself with all these possessive thoughts and feelings. If he’d been reading too much into everything he’d been allowed with her. Or if she wanted the same thing he did. Seemed like she did. But he knew better than to take anything for granted.

“Meet up the Squad, select a likely ship,” River’s lips twitched. “Alliance boats are in disarray from the attack. Head for the docks. Easy to sneak in and liberate a ride. Wait a bit to leave so we are unnoticed. Gives everyone time to arrive.”

He waited until they’d gotten out of the building before he asked, “So what did Leila pass you?”

“She’s a Browncoat,” River smirked. “Alliance citizen on the outside, Browncoat inside, recorded all events. Passed me the data chip. To broadcast everything that happened.”

“You’re gonna pull another Miranda Wave,” Damn he wanted this woman. No one else, after all of the crazy they just went through, would have the presence of mind to plot under the nose of Purplebellies. Or plot and plan to expose what the Alliance would inevitably attempt to conceal.

“The Alliance will be corrected, kicking and screaming if I must, but they will be enlightened,” River smiled up at him. “You like trouble…but maybe this is too much?”

“Hell, I’d be bored to tears with anyone else,” Riddick grinned down at her. “Let’s find a boat and get off this rock.”

“Before the Purplebellies notice we have all gone,” She agreed.

“Dunno, Waller and Flag seemed pretty distracted, and GQ didn’t seem to care we were leaving. Mal and the others had to have walked right past them,” He reminded her.

“Still best to make haste, those who have not fought with us will have no compunctions,” River’s voice firmed, and he couldn’t help but agree.

“Well let’s kick on then,” Riddick grinned at her as he broke into a run. With a burst of speed she passed
him and he quickened his pace. She might be trouble but damned if he didn’t like it. One thing for certain, he’d never be bored. Wouldn’t be a bad life at all.

Now to get off this gorram planet. And get started on that life.