Every River
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The job doesn't go smooth: why does the job never go smooth? Mal needs pulling out of the fire again. Post-BDM oneshot.


Author’s Note: I would like to make it clear to all concerned that I don’t usually write short fiction. In fact, until this February my only other effort at a short story in any fandom or original setting turned into a 75,000 word novella, and I have frequently expressed the opinion that it would take me over five years to learn the (IMO exceptionally difficult) craft of writing short stories, which is about as long as it took me to learn how to write full-length novels. However... I have now discovered the ‘verse... and this has been a good thing in more than the obvious respect, as I now have finished two completely unrelated shortfics that are not going to turn into longfics, and have another one more than halfway there. At least writing the things is a step in the right direction – afterwards I can start focusing on how to write them well. That’s for later on, though. So here you have a somewhat unpolished example of the art. Almost a ‘rough diamond’, in fact, though I hesitate to self-publicise.

I wrote this in mid-March but my ISP disconnected my dial-up without prior warning and it’s taken me this long to convert to broadband. Nobody ever go with Virgin again, they’re a pain in the pigu. I missed

This is sort of a songfic. Except that it isn’t. Well... the situation is, as Mal or Inara would put it, complicated. It’s a shortfic that managed to be inspired by a song, despite the fact that the fic is almost pure action and the song is an archetypal ballad so the two actually have about as little in common as possible. The lyrics are reproduced at the end of the story.

Rating: PG-13 for violence, some of it graphic.

Pairings: none. Specifically, this is not Mal/River.

Spoilers: some for the BDM, as this is set afterwards.

Disclaimer: the characters are Joss Whedon’s and the copyright to Firefly and Serenity belongs to Fox, Mutant Enemy, Universal and probably some other people too. The song lyrics were written by Calum and Rory Macdonald and are copyright Runrig and Chrysalis Records. I do not profit from this fanfic.

Archive: Want, Ask, Take, Have, Credit.


Every River

At one moment she moved like delicate fancy-pants music, trickling on her tiptoes down the lopsided brokendown staircase as easily as she might run along a highway. Next moment she was like the St Elmo’s Fire that was blazing outside in the rainstorm to catch in ships’ workings as it arced from hull to thruster, speed and beauty tied up in one little box as she raced across the cellar towards the vault door with her eyes fixed unerringly on one particular grating in the ceiling.

A step later she slammed her hand into the leading Blue Sun goon’s throat and kicked his friend in the head hard enough to send him crashing into the legs of numbers three and four. Kinda easy to forget what she really was, just watching her move. Easy to imagine she was a dancer or one of those weird-ass girls who stood on other people’s heads at circuses, instead of a living weapon.

Mal shifted position again but there was no way he’d get that bit of jutting metal out of his back. Certainly not without unhooking his left leg from the bar across the air-con chute – and as it was the only thing holding him up, no way in hell was he doing that. Trouble was that suspended head-down in a passage barely wide enough to take him wasn’t the best angle for shooting. Sitting rutting target.

“Sure, easy job,” Jayne huffed from behind and above him. At least he’d the sense to mumble over the fight noise and the heavy rain’s pattering. “Walk right in. They never check folks on the way in. Get out the smart way – oh, yeah, through a grate that ain’t gonna be electrified, and sure the backup route’s good to go.” Mal risked twisting round to glare the merc into silence, but the big man wasn’t even looking at him, just scowling the other way up Mal’s chute like it owed him a drink. Since he couldn’t fit up it without scraping his shoulders raw, and couldn’t go down it without getting shot, and likely couldn’t go back the way they’d come either, yeah, he might be right to be a little pissy. “’M gonna stuff Fanty’s head up Mingo’s ass when I see ‘em –”

A louder bang beneath them cut him off. Mal stared down through the grid. River stood in the middle of a quartet of dead or dying paid thugs, two feet to the right of his temporary prison, with a gun in each hand pointing directly at the door to the Blue Sun complex’s secure level. Sounded a lot like some backbirth’d just blown something up back there. “Jayne!” Mal hissed.

“Wha’?” he snapped, looking down.

“Hang onto my leg.” He felt two heavy hands lock round his ankle a second later. He wriggled down another inch and pressed his nose against the grille’s centimetre-square holes. When he squinted to the right he could just see the door swinging open.

Five armed guards crowded there, facing River with mingled expressions of fury and shock visible beneath their helmet facepieces. Five guns, out and ready. She’d two. Beating a string of men hand-to-hand wasn’t like a firefight at ten paces. Mal could have sworn he saw her fingers shift on her triggers; but then a sixth man shouted from behind the others, “Take her alive!”

Mal fumbled at his right side. His holster was stuck between him and the chute wall. Maybe if he wriggled a bit he’d reach it. Jayne grunted, above him, but Mal ignored him. Guy’d complain about anything some days. His elbow was almost wedged tight but he got his fingers onto the edge of pistol butt. Just a little further! He swung forwards and left, trying to get his whole hand round the gun – and he realised he was suddenly two inches lower than he should have been. He froze. Half a second later he felt his ankle slide through Jayne’s sweaty grip. He landed hard on the grating. Steel screamed. The nails gave out and he plummeted ten feet to the cellar floor.

He twisted over mid-air and hit the ground rolling. The impact still knocked all the breath out of him and jarred every bone and most of his teeth. Half-dazed, he got to his hands and knees. The squelch as he put his left hand in a puddle brought him most of the way back to himself. He peered at the door. Two of the guards were staring at him like he was a space alien. The rest were watching River. “Freeze!” the mouthy one barked. “Girl, drop your weapons. Surrender or we shoot!”

Mal looked up at River through the sparkly haze in his vision. Her gun hands were lowered and she was staring down at him. Her hair halfway shrouded her face but he still saw the thoughtful look. Thoughtful. Not afraid. “Pick two,” she whispered, and she turned back to face the Blue Sun security men, staring at them like she could see through them, right into their souls. Fair estimate.

Pick two. Pick... and he realised what she meant. He’d landed with his left side to the guards and his right hidden behind his body. He dropped an inch or two back into full crouching position, faking injured – hell, he didn’t really have to fake it; he’d bruised himself something fierce, and damn it if Simon didn’t have much to help with that – and pulled his right hand back to his side.

“River Tam, you are bound by law –”

“You can’t do that,” River said flatly. Mal peeked past her long skirt and checked out the guards. Pick two, she’d said. He’d take the closest. He thought hard about their faces, their positions, the angle he’d have to use, the linking move he’d have to make. How the hell did a man get so used to doing the impossible so quickly?

“You’re assisting in an armed robbery!”

“You want me,” she went on like she hadn’t heard. “You don’t want me in a cell.”

The security guard – he wore a crown insignia over the corporation lapel pin; an officer – glared at her. “You’re Blue Sun property till you reach your majority. The authorities’ll release you to us, like any stolen goods.”

River stared at him. Mal couldn’t see her face but he knew her working act. There’d be no emotion in her eyes, just calculation – and her left hand snapped up and she shot him through the head. A streak of blood splashed the wall and the other guards, and the officer collapsed back into a puddle of brains and gore.

There was no time to wonder if River had read his target choice. Mal drew and fired through the arch his arms made and launched himself to the left just in time to miss a returning bullet. River fired her twin pistols once and rolled forwards as two more of the guards crumpled in front of her with blood spurting from their necks.

Mal’s guy had fallen, but was groaning too loud to be dead; the other two ducked to either side. One dived behind the officer’s corpse, sending a crazy left-handed shot at Mal’s head as he hit dirt, forcing him to throw himself flat on the filthy floor to evade. The other somersaulted just as River had done and shot wildly at the girl as he got his feet beneath him again. She was still righting herself and the first bullet went way wide. But as she turned and came back at him, both guns singing like death’s heads in the wind, the last gunman half-rose behind her and fired. She cried out and collapsed against the doorframe with blood trickling down her bare right arm.

Tianxia suoyoude ren dou gaisi – that was my mark. That was my fault! River’s last mark was rising, ready to take her in charge, ready to take Mal out before any more inconsiderate bullets made it from his gun. Last chance. Gotta get it. Now! Mal twitched up his right hand and fired. The guy bent over screaming with both his hands clutched to his gut. But the other pushed himself over his human barricade with his gun up and pointing at Mal’s head –

River sprang up from her feinted faint and fired two rounds into the guard’s back. At the same moment, Jayne dropped feet-first down the air vent and landed with a handgun out and ready. No need. River never missed her marks. The guard collapsed onto his face with air hissing out of his ruined lungs and blood spewing from his mouth. His dying bullet flashed past Mal’s face and buried itself in the wall.

Mal climbed unsteadily to his feet and stared at the mess, unpleasantly lit by blazing filament lamps from the other side of the complex door and the cellar’s blinking flashes of failing fluorescent tubes and raucous lightning from outside. Five seconds. Maybe six. All it had taken to turn an escape into a murdering spree. And now he and River Tam were staring at each other over five, or maybe six, corpses that might have seeped acid instead of blood for all the sting they gave off, lying amid puddles from leaking guttering that slowly grew as if they wanted to wash away all the death.

“The hell you do that for, girl?” Mal shouted. She sniffed, looking down her nose at him as she shook out her long limbs, almost the same as her too-pretty brother before the shine’d been knocked off him. Only made Mal madder. “Ain’t you a concept of orders?”

“The mission parameters were elastic enough for several valid interpretations.”

“Interpretating ain’t your job! You fly, you fight, you do what I rutting tell you!” Lightning flashed down into the cellar again like a mad god’s nightclub flares.

“’Scuse me –” Jayne tried. Thunder almost blotted out his words.

“Your orders were for me to act as rear guard. I guarded the rear.”

Serenity, you feng le genius, not here,” he snapped.

She snorted now instead of sniffing, and ran her eyes down him like she was a queen and he a ragged beggar. “Guarding your rear. Saving your ass. Explain the distinction, please, Captain.”

“Mal, River –”

“We didn’t need no saving! We’d a solid plan!”

“Hypotheses require independent testing. You relied on inaccurate prior results. The twins don’t understand the scientific process – or maybe they wanted to run a different experiment.”

Jayne pushed past the pair of them and hauled shut the two-hundred-pound door hard enough to make the hinges squeal like a baby storm that had fled downstairs to hide. Only then he pulled Vera loose of her strappings. “Like how long the ‘verse’s new hero Malcolm Reynolds’d survive with a gang of Blue Sun guards choking him with his best merc’s gunbelt?” he demanded.

This time River’s smirk was malicious. She raised a single finger on her left hand and wiped the trail of blood off her right arm with a magician’s flourish. The only thing beneath it was a cut smaller than her little fingernail. “Left my gunbelt on the ship.”


“Shoulda left your gorram rest of you on the ship,” Mal growled over another roll of thunder from outside. Yeah, the universe was all right way up again. River Tam used as many fancy words as she had when she was psychotic, Jayne Cobb saw the cash potential just about damn everywhere, and his employers were out to fleece or betray him. Just like before Miranda, before the ‘verse had turned round and shoved its finger in his face and said, ‘Your planet needs You!’ Difference was that now he was trying to work a rim where half the folk thought he was above work and half thought he was below it, and he faced next best thing to mutiny whenever he turned round.

Simon running right over his mission plans by slipping Zoë an extra sedative just before landing. Kaylee humping the doc and the no-shipboard-relationships rule in one; engines really made the girl horny. Inara making a nuisance of herself every gorram second by anything from looking out semi-legit jobs to booking their fuel stops ahead of the ration queue and hiding his shirts on the pretext of washing them – he’d stop her in a word if it wasn’t kinda endearing. Jayne answering back every second sentence; well, that was normal. Only normal thing on the ship.

Because now there was River. Sane. Frightening.

Was the first time she’d left him staring down a gun barrel while she picked her best finishing blow. Wouldn’t be the last, now he’d let her do it the once. Her brother’d worked so long to get her back. Hadn’t thought on how much trouble she’d be once she got there.

“You do what you’re told next time,” he snapped down at the oddly patient-faced girl. “Or so help me I’ll dump you on the next dirtball we hit and to hell with what happens next!”

“Do you want me to leave Serenity?” she asked, looking up at him guilelessly as if the answer wasn’t even important.

He opened his mouth to yell at her that he never wanted to live through another second of her mad exploits again, but closed it before he could start to speak. He wasn’t sure what to say. Her mindreading freaked the hell out of Jayne, but he didn’t mind it. Had a few problems with having to rely on it, but that was his way. Sure as hell explained why he had problems relying on her.

She was better than capable, but he wouldn’t make her his constant get-out clause any more than he’d use Jayne or Zoë in that way. He wouldn’t do that to them because they were people, not slaves, and she was not only a person but one of the two most frustrating women he’d ever met. He’d no right to exploit her. It’d make him no better than a purplebelly, or a pimp.

And he knew she needed him. She was all kinds of smart and a top-rate fighter, but she didn’t have his canny way of treading on the rim and in the black. She was part of his crew, and the whole thing worked two ways; he had to protect her with whatever he had, because she gave all that she had to him. Freely, like a child giving to its father.

“I don’t know,” he said helplessly.

“Good answer.” River smiled at him, like the sun emerging from a cloud, and ran back up the staircase into the thunderstorm’s arms.



You ask me to believe in magic Expect me to commit suicide of the heart And you ask me to play this game without question Raising the stakes on this shotgun roulette

Every river I try to cross Every hill I try to climb Every ocean I try to swim Every road I try to find All the ways of my life I'd rather be with you There's no way Without you

But you came to me like the ways of children Simple as breathing, easy as air Now the years hold no fears, like the wind they pass over Loved, forgiven, washed, saved

Every river I try to cross Every hill I try to climb Every ocean I try to swim Every road I try to find All the ways of my life I'd rather be with you There's no way Without you



Tuesday, April 25, 2006 1:45 PM


Electric and very shiny. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, April 25, 2006 4:48 PM


Now this was just shiny, Eloisa....and I mean it in the most complementary way:)

I especially loved your finishing point of Mal and River arguing over Mal's orders vs. her interpretation, and how the 'Verse hasn't changed really since Miranda...except River is now a whole lot more frustrating to deal with. Oh so Joss-like it its irony and message.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006 2:32 AM


Ah, such a beautiful, almost poetic exploratin of hat dynamic beyond the fascination or the sweetness of protector and genius. Two difficult people and their difficult relations, the downsides and uncertainty of it all.

I adore when people can create real, honest character tension that does NOT have to be about sex, especially these two.

But really, the writing of the entire thing is the most gorgeous of all. You have a lovely way with words.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 7:41 AM


Lovely way with words for sure! Wow. I missed this posting when I was out of town, glad I found it eventually!

Sane River is fabulous! I shy away from post-BDM because I'm not sure how to handle her, but you nailed it. Her brainy-freaky take on Mal's orders are a hoot.

Nice clear, gripping action sequence too, and that's hard! Thanks for posting this!


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