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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Serenity/Firefly fic: Sticking to the Plan (4/5)

December 28th, 2017 (03:14 pm)
touched

feeling: touched

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE


-o-

It was shaking.

The movement was sort of disconcerting -- not quite right. Mal was used to the shaking and shimmying of a ship, the uncertain lurches of engine glitches, the startling stops of unexpected turbulence. They were his lullaby, the simple movements of space that could rock him to sleep like a baby in a cradle.

But this was different. This was...subtle. Soft. Closer.

And then he remembered he wasn’t on Serenity.

Then he remembered he was in a dying shuttle.

Then he remembered Simon.

He came to with a startled gasp, eyes blinking rapidly in the hazy light. The lantern had dimmed somewhat, and the area was scarcely lit, shadows dancing on the walls.

The chill in the air was more pronounced now, and Mal suppressed a shudder as he drew his blanket tighter around him. No wonder he’d been shivering. It was getting damn near cold as space leeched the small craft of everything it had left.

But it wasn’t just his shivering, he realized with a certain clarity. Because he was cold, but he wasn’t that cold, and Simon had been next to him--

Simon.

Sitting up, Mal fumbled for a minute, trying to get his limbs to cooperate with him. The air felt thin, burning sharply in his lungs as he dragged it in. But Simon--

Simon looked horrible.

His face was pale -- paler than normal -- and slicked with sweat, even in the increasingly cold air. His shivering was visible, shudders racking his trim frame. Mal knew that freezing to death weren’t no pretty way to go, and suffocating was even less pleasant, but if he didn’t know better, he’d say the doctor was riding a fever something fierce.

But how could he be running a fever when they were starving and freezing to death? He hadn’t been sick when they’d left, and Mal couldn’t recall the doctor bothering to get his hands dirty in the fight--

There was a low moan, and Simon’s body twitched, his head jerking to the side as if startled.

Concerned, Mal leaned over. “Doc,” he called. “Doc.

The younger man mumbled something that Mal couldn’t make out, his head tossing a little, eyes darting beneath blue tinted lids.

The doc was there, trembling just beneath the veil of unconsciousness. The trick was getting him to wake up, especially when Mal had to admit, the circumstances weren’t all that inviting. Still, Mal wondered if the boy’d wake up for River. Probably even Kaylee. Even the Shepherd if he asked all polite-like.

Sighing a little, Mal resigned himself to it. “Simon,” he said, with resolution in his voice. He placed a tentative hand on the doctor’s shivering shoulder. “Time to wake up, you hear?”

For as difficult as the boy was, for as many orders as he conveniently overlooked when it suited him, Simon fine breeding seemed to come with a share of useful traits. No doubt Simon had been a proper son, obeying his parents, following the orders of his teachers. Sure, he’d risked it all for River, but that was what made it so damn heroic -- because it wasn’t in his nature. Proud, elitist, but still knew his place when it counted.

It counted now. Simon knew enough not to foul up a heist and apparently when only half conscious, his default was still to obey.

The boy shuddered again, pronounced and visible. His mouth opened with a gasping breath which grated low in his lungs. Then his eyes popped open, pupils large and sluggish as his eyes blinked blearily into the hazy light.

Consciousness seemed to be a shock to the boy, something like terror on his face. It was hard to see much in that light, and Simon seemed to be well on his way to panic as he struggled vainly for air.

“Easy, easy,” Mal said, awkwardly putting his hand back on the boy’s arm. It was a restraint more than a comfort, though how the younger man might take it, Mal did not care to know. “Just relax.”

Simon sucked in deeply, head rolling for a moment. “What -- where--?”

“The shuttle,” Mal reminded him, trying not to feel worried at the seeming show of disorientation. “Still drifting in space.”

The words seemed to take a moment, but Simon relaxed by degrees, head stilling as his eyes sought Mal. The doctor’s body was rigid, straining with effort. He wet his lips, his jaw trembling, but there was a glint of understanding in his face. “Body heat,” he murmured. “Should be...using...body heat.”

Mal made a scoffing noise, trying to laugh. “You asking me for a snuggle? ‘Cause I’m not sure that’s right proper for a captain and his doctor to do during on-duty hours.”

Simon blinked, the humor lost on him.

Mal sighed, grunting a little as he leaned over with effort, grasping the boy’s shoulder with a certainty he wished he believed. “But don’t you worry none,” he said. “Seems to me there’s always room for a few exceptions to any rule.”

Simon’s eyelids drooped, his body sagging a bit. “Sleep is okay,” he whispered. “Breathing...evens...out. Less heat.”

Mal didn’t have the know how to doubt the doc’s assertion on that one, but it wasn’t overly reassuring. He knew they were feeling the affects now, knew it like the tightness in his chest and the haze in his brain, but something else was off. He didn’t reckon Simon had that poor of a constitution. It’d only been just over two hours. They had time left, and yet Simon looked like he already had one foot in the grave.

“But not nearly as entertaining,” Mal said, working to keep his voice light. “Maybe you’d like to tell me about that book after all? Or maybe explain what you were thinking when you thought about joining an Alliance freighter?”

There was a brief moment of understanding in Simon’s eyes, and Mal could see the younger man struggling to appease Mal’s request. It was a gift of Mal’s, knowing how to work each crew member just so to get what he needed out of them. He knew how to talk sweet to Kaylee and bribe her with smiles and affection. He knew how to pass an order to Zoe, no questions asked and no confusion brokered. He knew how to bait Wash, make him rise above his laid back personality.

And Simon was logic. Granted, not necessarily the same logic Mal would abide by, but it had a sense to it nonetheless. Give him a reason, make it a conversation that had to be followed. If Mal could lead the way, Simon would follow from A to B to C, as long as he understood the steps as they went.

But not even logic was enough this time around. Simon’s eyes glazed a bit, his brow knitting as he tried to keep it together.

“I don’t pay you to sleep,” Mal tried again, his voice getting sharper. “You have to stay awake to earn your keep, for both you and your sister. I ain’t in the habit of sheltering strays unless it’s of use to me.”

That was true, or maybe Mal just wanted it to be true, but it still an order Simon couldn’t follow. The doctor’s eyes focused for one brief moment, his mouth working no more than a whisper: “Sorry,” he breathed. “I didn’t...I didn’t...”

Then the younger man’s gaze skittered away, eyes lost and face slack as he panted for air.

Mal grabbed him, hauling him upright. “You didn’t what?” he demanded, his voice harsh. “You didn’t what?”

Simon’s eyes drifted to him again, pupils wide in the darkness. He coughed, the tremor shaking him up and down and rattling Mal to his very core. “I didn’t want to...leave...like this. River would...River would be mad.”

The lilting tone did nothing to distinguish the meaning, but Mal felt its impact clear enough. He shook his head, swallowing the stale air hard. “No,” he said. “It shouldn’t be affecting you this strong yet. We’ve got over an hour. Maybe two. Come on, Doc. Simon.

But as he leaned closer, even in the scarce light, the easily distinguishable yellow cast to the doctor’s eyes was unmistakable. Then Simon’s eyes fluttered shut as the younger man settled into what would be an uneasy sleep.

Mal watched him drift away, willing his heart to keep itself in check. Because he knew what he’d seen, he knew what he thought it meant, and there just wasn’t a way to make it all parse without making it mean something bad.

Yellow around the eyes. Textbook definition.

Mal didn’t have a mind for medicine, but he could put two and two together and come up with four just like the best of them.

It explained the coughing, leastways and why Simon was far more tired. And it fit. With Simon helping that family. With Simon’s seeming inevitable need to make things more complicated. With Mal’s best laid plans that never seemed to hold together they way they were supposed to.

Mal sighed, leaning back on his heels, letting his head drop back as he closed his eyes toward the ceiling. “One break,” he muttered. “Is that so much to ask? Just one break.

Because the shuttle was seeping the last of their heat like a sieve and the oxygen was getting lost in all of the carbon dioxide and Simon had a highly contagious and inevitably deadly disease and Mal was pining his hopes on his strong constitution and an emergency beacon.

No, Mal was pining his delusions on these things, and there were only so many lies he could tell himself until he didn’t even believe his own plans and miracles like he was supposed to.

Opening his eyes, Mal looked at Simon again. He sighed, watching as his breath circle out in front of him before dissipating into the coldness. “Two minutes, my ass,” he said, shaking his head. “More proof that no good deed ever goes unpunished.”

Mal could almost hear Simon’s plaintive retort, some musing on ethics and morality and the gorram Hippocratic Oath or some such nonsense.

Settling back against the wall, Mal took some comfort in that as the minutes went by.

-o-

When it came to dying, Mal preferred it to be a quiet, solitary kind of thing. The idea of going out was none to pleasant to him, but the thought of going out messy and loud around others just meant that he’d be blushing red as he passed from this life. When you were losing your life, Mal liked to think the one thing he’d have left is the stoicism or his privacy, whichever the situation decreed.

In that way, a dying shuttle probably wasn’t the worst way to go. And really, Mal had all his senses about him still. But Simon...

Well, Simon was reminding him why all that quiet stoicism was really the way he wanted it to go. Watching as the boy got worse was unsettling to say the least, especially since Mal knew that normally the doctor was not prone to such emotional ramblings. It was one of the few attributes Mal could appreciate about the boy.

And Simon had none of it now. He had none of his strength or his arrogance, none of his intelligence or his skepticism. No, right now the boy was just lying on the floor of the shuttle, dying.

Mal sighed, letting his head roll against the wall until he was looking at the ceiling. It was all a stark reminder that there wasn’t much need for heroics in the ‘verse. Doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing, none of it made a difference in the end. Maybe helping that family was something of a satisfaction, but Mal wasn’t sure it was worth dying for.

Not that Mal had delusions that he would live forever. Or even that his death would mean something.

But still. Dying. Like this. After surviving all he had. Just seemed like kind of a letdown, all things considered. All in all, maybe Simon had it right after all. The boy didn’t have to sit here and dwell on the futility of his pathetic end.

“Least ways you don’t see it coming,” Mal muttered with a twinge of bitterness toward Simon.

He didn’t expect a response so when Simon grunted and said, voice slurred and rushed, “Know it more than you think.”

Startled, Mal straightened, wondering for a minute if he’d imagined it. Things were getting a bit fuzzy around the edges and a tad frosty in the extremities.

Simon shifted, eyes still closed. He snorted wetly, face scrunching in pain. “You’re the one who can’t see, never sees. Only what you want to see.”

Mal struggled to clear his head and make sense of it. “Say what?”

Simon shook his head. “You’re my father, but you don’t know everything,” he rambled on.

Mal blinked at that one. Of course he wasn’t the boy’s father. No way, no how, so what was Simon talking about?

“So many expectations,” Simon continued, his body writhing a little, his head shaking as if in protest. “I met them...I met them...all. ‘s not good enough. Nothing’s good enough.”

Delirium, Mal realized with a sudden clarity. Not his own just yet, but Simon’s. Course Mal had seen it before. When sickness or injury took hold, no man could be held accountable for the things he said or did, the things he thought of or wanted. Mal wasn’t heartless in times such as that, but he never liked it.

Mal would have thought they’d have some time before the crazies set in, but Simon’s condition was going down faster than Mal knew how to deal with. He couldn’t say for sure, but if Mal could place a wager, he’d ride it all on the yellow eyes and congested chest.

Just in case Mal’s situation wasn’t bad enough, of course.

Worse, Simon just seemed to be getting warmed up, figuratively speaking.

“You think...you think I’m lost,” Simon said with an indignant scoff, his chest heaving with the effort. “But I know...I know what I’m looking for. I know...priorities. Sacrifice. More than a word, more than...a word. Just a word...to you.”

It was an awkward thing, even more so than before. Mal didn’t know much of the boy’s life -- he hadn’t been asking and Simon hadn’t been telling. He’d guessed the boy was privileged. Life on Osiris, a place at a top hospital. Simon had all the looks and mannerisms of a boy raised proper and distinguished. Alliance born and bred, probably enough to make any father proud.

So to think of familial strife was a bit surprising, in all truth. Simon looked like any family’s golden boy, which is why Mal had it in his mind to hate the doctor so completely. It wasn’t like Simon Tam was probably hard up for admirers in his life.

But Simon’s face was sad, mouth turned down even in his delirium. “Shouldn’t have to choose. Should never have to choose. Spent my life...my life making you...making you happy. Doing my best...for you. I asked you...for one thing. One thing, one time. For River.” Simon’s face tightened, fists gripping at the blankets wrapped around him. Eyes squeezed shut, Mal tried not to flinch when a tear leaked out. “And you said...no. Just...no. One thing and...and you said no.”

Swallowing, Mal looked away, wishing there was someplace else to be, something else to do. This wasn’t his place, especially not with Simon. These were not confessions meant for his ears, and he had no sense of what to do with them except wish to hell he wasn’t here.

“Family should be there...family should be there,” Simon said, more strongly this time. His breathing was agitated, his expression tense. “No matter...no matter what. Family should...family...”

The boy’s voice drifted, his features relaxing somewhat as the delirium waned with his energy.

Mal kept himself still, eyes purposefully averted away. It was sometimes a hard thing to reconcile in Simon, the way he was all Alliance and still a fugitive. Simon was a golden boy who had fallen from grace. Mal had never considered what the Tam parents might have thought of all this. If they missed their son, if they worried about their daughter. If they had any concern or sense of how their children were.

Losing family was hard, Mal knew that. Losing family while they were all still breathing -- that was a different kind of pain, a different kind of weight.

Simon’s voice was softer now, barely audible. “Don’t tell...don’t tell River. Let her...believe. She needs to believe. She needs to believe...family. Not for me...for River. River.”

The regret in Simon’s voice. The yearning. The love. Simon was many things including a general pain in Mal’s ass, but he was loyal to his causes. Damn near stupid in his dedication. To think Simon would lay it down for two minutes for a family he didn’t know. How much more for his sister. How much Simon had given up to get her out. to hide her on Serenity.

What Simon’s life was now, what it had been. Sacrifice was more than a word for Simon Tam. It was the essence of his life, a cause the boy would die for.

A cause the boy might actually die for.

Mal couldn’t help it; his eyes turned back toward Simon, heart lurching in his chest.

Family. The only alliances that counted. The only people you could trust. Mal’s blood was all dead now, lost in the war. But those he had found afterward. Zoe and Wash and Kaylee. Even Jayne. Mal didn’t believe in sentimentality, but he believed in protecting those who mattered, defending those he called his own.

But to what end? Simon had given it all up for River, and she was a broken, scarred child. They were trailing their way across the galaxy on a smuggling ship, except of course when Simon was too busy dying in a shuttle drifting in space.

To no end. It was the same truth Mal had started with. There weren’t no point in dying and there weren’t much way to control living. The ‘verse dealt the hands as it saw fit, and Mal was always scraping at the bottom to get through. He didn’t have to feel for Simon Tam. Not a rich boy from Osiris who’d had it all. More wealth and more luxury than Mal would even be able to comprehend. That boy didn’t warrant such things as sympathy or respect...

Except...

The sound of Simon’s voice. The wet track of a tear down his face. They all wanted the same things. To belong. To believe. Family.

It was a cold comfort in a freezing ‘verse, but to find not a kindred spirit, but a place to understand someone else. A place to start understanding.

Mal closed his eyes again, head falling back.

A place to start right when they might both be out of time.

Teeth gritted, Mal shook his head. He hadn’t counted on this. It wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was to stay alive, to be rescued. But now Simon was delirious, with gorram yellow eyes and congested lungs. And worse, the boy hadn’t even told him. Rambling on about some nonsense, and Simon hadn’t even had the decency to say he was sick to Mal’s face.

He looked at Simon again, barely holding back a sigh. “When you wake up, son, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.” Starting with the yellow eyes and ending with the cough, and hopefully skipping all the delirium in between.

-o-

Fortunately, Mal didn’t have to wait long.

Unfortunately, it still seemed like a long time, even if Mal knew it wasn’t. That was the hard thing about being stuck on a dying shuttle. Time was in a vacuum, leaking out slowly with the heat and the oxygen, and Mal wasn’t sure which one he missed the most.

There’d been a few false alarms. Simon had broken into drunken song at one point, reliving some medical school victory that made Mal momentarily question what he thought he’d known about Simon. The boy had even offered some sort of long winded explanation to what Mal could only guess were law enforcement officials, and Mal found it a wonder that there was a side of Simon that existed that didn’t have a stick perpetually up his ass.

But when Simon finally opened his eyes -- really opened them -- Mal brought himself to attention as best he could, inching closer to the boy.

“You with me yet?” he asked curtly.

Simon blinked, swallowing hard and then wincing. “I feel...,” Simon began, voice raspy before it got cut off by a hacking cough that almost had Simon curling on his side as it tapered off.

“I’m getting the sense of how you feel,” Mal told him tersely. “I’m more looking for why.”

Simon laid gingerly on his back again, looking bleakly up at Mal. “Why?” he croaked.

“The coughing,” Mal pointed out roughly. “I get that it’s cold in here, but ain’t no way you’d get a cold that quick. It’ll freeze you first before it drowns you.”

Simon gave a half hearted shrug, his expression evasive. “The conditions are...extreme,” he offered. “It wouldn’t be...unheard of.”

Mal scoffed readily. “And the yellow eyes?”

If it were possible, Simon blanched.

“It ain’t hard to see when you know what you’re looking for,” Mal said.

Simon was quiet, eyes studying the ceiling in a studious attempt to not look at Mal.

Mal sighed, his frustrations barely in check. “You ain’t got nothing to say for yourself?”

Simon pursed his lips. “I--” The doctor’s defense was cut off by another cough, stronger than the first. And this one didn’t let up, racked the younger man until his whole body was shaking, hands clutched uselessly at his midsection as he strained with the effort.

There was a brief pause, but the coughing picked up again, and Mal cursed as the boy’s pale features turned red, neck muscles corded with stress.

As deftly as Mal could under the current conditions, he moved forward, moving his cold joints to help prop the boy up as he cough with one hand. With the other, he sought something to ease the burden, to help keep the boy up. Being upright would help, he had to hope.

Simon didn’t resist, just kept coughing as Mal yanked a pack over, positioning it quickly beneath Simon before repositioning the boy back on it. He kept one hand steady on Simon’s shoulder as the hacking continued for a long moment.

Too long. Mal felt himself begin to worry the boy might choke on his own coughs, suffocate right then and there, when finally the coughs eased off.

Mal watched, waited, while Simon recovered with slow, shallow breaths. His fingers were trembling, chest heaving, face slowly draining from red to sickly pale once more.

Mal sighed, his anger dissipating. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he finally asked wearily.

Simon eyed him, sheepish and restrained.

“I wasn’t sure how it would respond to the conditions,” Simon explained weakly. “It’s a virus that attacks the lungs, limits...air movement. It infects space ports because of the--” He broke off, coughing for a moment. The coughing tapered off and he met Mal’s eyes again. “Cold, filtered air. The body is too focused on staying...warm, getting air...the virus can tighten its...its grip.”

“You said it would take the family back on the moon a few days,” Mal pointed out.

Simon shifted, as if trying to find a comfortable position while propped up on the packs. “Oxygen helps...helps purge the infected cells. We’re breathing...high levels of carbon...carbon dioxide.” He broke off with a small cough, drawing his brows together with effort before he continued. “Speeds the...the progression.”

It was more than a bit of an understatement, but it didn’t seem necessary to chide a dying man. Mal’s jaw worked, trying to find an even emotion between frustration and fear. “You said it was contagious, highly so. If that’s the case, why haven’t I gotten it?”

Simon raised his eyebrows, but there was no surprise in the younger man’s face. Simon knew all of this. He’d already asked himself these questions and come up with the answers. He’d just held out, because that was the kind of gorram stupid thing he would do. “This is my...my first time in this system,” he breathed. “I’d guess...you’ve built an...an immunity.”

“You didn’t think to get yourself inoculated before we went rock side?”

Simon gave a weary half-shrug. “This was...last minute...no time to...research...”

It was true enough, because that was the way jobs came to them these days. They were few and far between and this one fell on their lap before Mal had a chance to vet it properly. It shouldn’t have been a problem. In and out, a little nonsense with the locals, but then those two extra minutes to treat the family--

Mal’s mind flashed on something. “You have the treatment,” he said suddenly. “What you gave the family. I don’t know much about doctoring, but if you tell me what and how much, I’m pretty sure I can get it in your system.”

Simon’s eyes were tired and dull with fever and the ghost of a smile on his face was one of resignation. “Don’t carry more than...a vial with me...used it all...”

It seemed like the way of the ‘verse. Taking every one of Mal’s perfect and sound ideas and turning it on its head so it didn’t hold no water. Mal was tired of that, tired of losing, if only for the sheer principle of it all.

Lose an argument, lose a cause. Lose a family, lose a home. Lose a platoon, lose a war. Lose a crew member, lose a friend.

Inexplicably, Mal felt his eyes burn as his vision tunneled out. The air was even worse now, and it felt thick as it clogged in his lungs, burning down his throat. He had been willing to die in a burned out valley. He’d thrown himself into the line of fire many a time, for a friend, for a job, for his ship, for the sake of being alive. And it was getting away from him now, drifting away like the shuttle hurtling headlong through space. No direction, no purpose. Lost and aimless. Pointless.

This was pointless.

Dying for a simple job and two minutes of being a good man. Dying with a man he didn’t even like, a man he barely even knew. Just dying. Somehow it didn’t even matter all the hows and whys, just that it was happening, it was slipping away, slowly, imperceptibly, over the edge into the vast oblivion of the black.

A cough rattled him, and for a second Mal wondered why he didn’t feel it in his lungs. Then he realized it wasn’t his cough.

He blinked and his awareness snapped back, fuzzy around the edges, but there. Simon was curled slightly in on himself, panting as he looked up. “The air,” Simon said. “Is it...getting to you?”

If Mal still believed he had something of a conscience, it would have panged right then. Not that he’d done wrong by the boy, but there was a sense that he hadn’t really done right by him either. Of course he understood where Simon would be outside of Mal’s good graces -- dead or captured, maybe both, but not in that order. The boy was as naive as he was analytical and the doctoring services did not cover the pay, the board, and the burden of carrying the Tams.

And it wasn’t Mal’s fault they were here. The two minutes had been Simon’s idea. Simon’s mission.

But Simon was still the outsider. No matter how Mal defended the boy and his sister, no matter how many times he bailed them out, they weren’t quite family yet. Not like Zoe and Wash. Not like Kaylee or Jayne. Not even like Book. Or Inara...

Mal had his reasons. He had his justifications. But Simon had risked life and limb, and was lying on the floor of the shuttle dying for a far nobler cause than Mal had fought for in the last ten years of his life. But he couldn’t shake the nagging notion that his don’t ask, don’t tell policy with the doctor was more because of Mal’s stubborn refusal to like anyone who reminded him of himself.

“Nothing to worry about,” Mal ground out, knowing full well it was a lie. Time was running short for both of them. “Just a little dizzy.”

Simon nodded absently, his eyes drifting away for a moment before another cough ripped through him. The convulsions tapered off and Simon closed his eyes for a long moment before looking back up at Mal with as much determination as the boy could possibly muster in a time like this. “There’s another....another option,” Simon said with effort.

Another option. Mal didn’t know any other options except this: keep going. Keep fighting. Just keep on until there was nothing left at all. It had worked before, not for victory but for survival.

“I know,” Mal said with a tight nod. And his blind hope rose again, stubborn and indefatigable. He believed only in the miracles that kept him from despair. It was the reason he hadn’t surrendered in Serenity Valley. The whole logic behind staying with his ship when everyone else believed it to be a death sentence. The impossible didn’t happen often, but it happened enough. “Serenity will find us.”

Simon shook his head, his nose scrunched with effort. “The suit,” he said. “It can buy you the time...the time you need.”

“We ain’t talking about that,” Mal said curtly. He didn’t have many principles, but he had enough of a conscience to pretend like the option wasn’t even on the table. It was what he reckoned kept him human, kept him sane, kept him from being just as bad as the rest of the dark and evil things in the black. “I don’t leave no man on my crew to die.”

Simon coughed feebly. “I’m already dead,” he said, and then he stilled, looking up at Mal with a crystal clarity that sent a shiver through Mal’s entire body. “It’s just...practical. The smart thing...to do.”

The doctor wasn’t trying to be mean, Mal knew that, but the words hit him like shots to the gut, one right after the other. Because he was right. The gorram boy was right. Mal had defended lost causes and lost everything, and proved himself to be a survivor. He’d kill a man to survive. He’d leave another behind to save his own skin. He allowed bad things to happen to other people if it helped him.

But his crew. He’d been willing to kill Jayne for betrayed it. He’d risked exposure to the Alliance to get Book treated. He’d even gone back for Simon and River when they’d all be better off without them.

Simon’s eyes blinked, his gaze glazing over. His body seemed to sag a bit. “Wouldn’t blame you,” he whispered. “Just tell...tell River...”

His words broke off with a cough so violent that his entire body convulsed. It was a hard cough, racking the younger man so badly that Mal reached out to steady him. “Hey, hey,” he said, fumbling for words that would be soothing. “Just easy now. Easy now.”

The coughing continued, easing a little and Mal worked to help Simon settle back. For once compliant, Simon laid back as the coughing tore through him with sporadic intensity, eyes closed and forehead taut with pain.

“You’ll be able to tell River yourself, you hear?” Mal said, girding his voice with everything he had left. “You’ll tell her when Serenity finds us. It’s all according to plan.”

Simon didn’t reply, just nodded, eyes still shut. The coughing faded into grating breaths, sucked in and out of the boy’s pale, open mouth. He looked bad -- worse than before -- and the tension slowly dissipated from the younger man’s face as he slipped into unconsciousness right in front of Mal’s eyes.

Mal didn’t let go, though. Not for a long moment. He held on until Simon breathing even out as best as it could and the look of pain was lost in the blankness of Simon’s cold tipped features.

Then, Mal sat back, working hard to keep his own breathing under control. Because it was just too much. Too much. He wasn’t one who was prone to despair -- he’d spent too long with that, too long pining for what should have been, too long wondering what could have been if he’d picked the winning side. Despair got people killed, it let people die. He’d given up despair with his belief and allowed himself to fall rudderless to the course of fate, since it was all he had left.

He couldn’t fight for a better future. He couldn’t build a better life. These weren’t things that were extended to him, and anyone who believed they were entitled such things were living in a fantasy. It was the lesson Simon Tam was still struggling to believe, even as he lay dying on the floor of a shuttle.

But truth was that fate won out. Whether he fought against it or went with it, Mal was right where the ‘verse reckoned he should be, and sometimes that made it easier. It didn’t seem as wrong to steal when he didn’t have no say in it. It was easier to kill when it was fate that determined which people should die, and which ones should live.

Because it had to be fate. There wasn’t another explanation for it. None whatsoever. At least none that Mal wanted to hear.

He just wanted his corner of the ‘verse and to ride it out until his bullet found him.

Today. Tomorrow. Maybe in ten years. Maybe he’d beat it. Maybe he’d survive this, too.

But at what cost. What cost. What was the cost of progress? What was the price of staying just the way he was?

And how much of it was just a facade, a well crafted lie that was so polished that he damn near believed it himself. Malcolm Reynolds didn’t believe in fate. He didn’t believe in letting anyone tell him what he could do. He was still a soldier, no matter how much he wanted to leave the war behind. It was still in him, the battles still raging because he hadn’t admitted defeat. Not yet. Not ever.

A little contraband wasn’t the only way to go, but it was the only way he wanted to go. If for no other reason than because they said he couldn’t.

He’d fought against the Alliance so long, that sometimes he forgot that fighting against something wasn’t the same as fighting for something. He’d been playing the role of the rebel that he often conveniently overlooked that he needed to have a cause. Because a rebel without a cause was an accident waiting to happen. He did not imagine the verse to be a safe place to begin with, and if he was risking life and limb and those of the people around him, he had to have a pretty damn good reason.

The Alliance had taken his land. They’d taken his planet, they’d taken his freedom. They’d taken the sky in so many ways, and when all he had was he his boat and his crew, he had to remember that there were still battle lines worth holding. Some things to never retreat from. A place to plant his flag and hold ground until they blasted the ground out from under him. He’d defend it, or die trying.

His ship was one of those things, he had no thoughts to the contrary on that. Zoe, yes. She’d seen him through the worst of it, and came out on the other side still standing with him. You could buy loyalty like that. You could pick family that strong.

Wash came with her in a set, and even besides, there was a moral practicality about the man and that didn’t begin to touch on his skill flying the ship. Even Jayne, as long as the price was right, proof that sometimes even the basest of instincts could still work out right (least, nine times out of ten). Kaylee and her love of all working parts, be they metal or flesh. Book, a man of belief. Inara, who sold herself and still kept her standards higher than Mal could ever reach.

Simon and River. The aspiring doctor and his done crazy sister. The last to join, the hardest to carry. Fresh, live warrants followed them wherever they went, and Mal was used to trouble, but Simon’s high horse was something of a trial to him.

And yet, they were all his. His crew.

His family.

He’d lost what family he’d had when the war started, and this was what he had left. A hunk of metal in the sky to call home and a band of misfits to call his own. Not much, but enough.

Enough. Sometimes he had to remind himself of that.

And he wasn’t about to start losing that now.

But how? What could he do? The shuttle was a dead heap of metal and the vacuum of space was ever near to them. There’d been on sign of anyone to help them, no sign of anything Mal could cling to as a honest hope. He could hold on a little longer, but Simon didn’t have that much time. Not even an hour.

He’d deployed the beacon. With comm systems down, there wasn’t much he could do to boost the signal, and even if there was, he had no means of going outside without risking complete depressurization. With only one working suit, that would be one hell of a risk. Maybe in another hour, he’d consider it, but it seemed too soon to be playing Russian Roulette with their lives.

There had to be something. There was always something.

But what? The range of the beacon was what it was. Unless he could give it some extra torque or something, send it spiraling a little faster -- but he didn’t have any engines.

But he did have thrusters. Not much, that was true, but enough for one last burn. One last crazy burn. The energy stored up in them couldn’t be diverted to another system. It was just sitting there, untapped. It would outlast them, if Mal let it.

He glanced at Simon. The doctor was getting worse, his strained breathing filling the icy air.

It was a risk, he knew. If the burn ignited too hard, they could catch fire and it’d all be over. And he was counting on being able to have some control, but without navigation systems online, that would be a crap shoot at best.

But if it worked...

Mal’s eyes lingered on Simon again, thought about his promises, Simon’s questions. His plan.

If it worked, then maybe he would prove himself not to be a liar after all.

-o-

It was hard work in the cold. His fingers ached with movement, and the controls were stiff, droplets of condensation pooling over them. Everything was somewhat blurry, like the ‘verse was just slightly out of focus, and Mal trusted his instincts. He wasn’t a mechanic genius like Kaylee and he certainly wasn’t a miracle pilot like Wash, but he had a mind for these things, and he trusted that.

The lantern was dead now, and the ice was building up faster on the walls, almost covering the window. Mal had to scrape it off just to get a good look. And he needed a good look if this fool plan was going to have a hope of succeeding.

And there was a hope of succeeding. Just not a very big one. They all said Kaylee was the eternal optimist, but Mal knew he had his delusions all the same.

Because it was a pretty stupid plan. Almost too low tech to even consider it feasible. But he understood the way space worked. He knew that something set in motion would just keep going in the same direction unless something knocked it from its course. Something about the Laws of Physics and the absence of atmosphere.

To point, they were drifting in a haphazardly direction. When they released the beacon, it followed the same trajectory, only maybe at a faster clip since it was smaller. But give the age of the shuttle and the diminished power of their rig, the beacon would get very far. Which meant it was still in visual range.

True, that was a bit of a long shot, but Mal liked to believe in miracles at all the wrong times. If he could see the beacon, he could burn his thrusters one last time and ram the thing with enough force to send it tumbling at a much faster speed.

If it went a little faster, it could get a little farther. If it got a little farther, Serenity would pick up the signal that much faster. Which mean that rescue would come all the sooner.

Whether or not it would be soon enough -- Mal wasn’t dallying in the details. If there was even the slightest chance that it might work, that Serenity would catch wind soon enough -- then it was worth it.

And if it all went south...

Well, then Mal wouldn’t have to worry. Sort of a win-win in that way.

Thing was, he had one shot. There wouldn’t be much in the thruster, and Mal wouldn’t know how close he was to being out of gas until the gorram thing sputtered to a halt. He’d have to bring the shuttle around, get the beacon into view and make one desperate pitch toward it. As far as plans went, that one was pretty simple.

Of course, it would help if the controls stopped blurring in front of his face.

Mal blinked rapidly, trying to keep his stiff fingers moving. If the shuttle didn’t have the power, that was one thing that Mal would have to accept. But failing on account of his own human frailties was not acceptable.

Flicking a switch, Mal readied his fingers on the controls. The burn would be a bit wild without navigation online, and he had to keep it together.

He shook his head, willing the cobwebs away. He had to keep it together.

With no other options that Mal considered viable, he pressed the button and held on tight.

The thrusters flared to life with a surge of power that took the shuttle hard to the left. Mal grappled with the controls, working to bring her under control. The shuttle dipped and veered, trying to pull from her spin with short, choppy bursts of energy.

The inertia was formidable, but Mal was stronger. Clenching his teeth, he brought her around, giving the thrusters another push while he wheeled them around, searching for any sign of the beacon.

It was dizzying, the banking and the dipping, but then -- there. There it was.

Mal hit the brakes, cutting the energy, the beacon’s simple gray form wafting in front of the screen. It would be an easy move forward, as long as they had enough juice to get it done.

There was only one way to find out.

With numb, shaking fingers, Mal beared down, pushing forward on the throttle with all the strength he could muster.

The shuttle lurched, and something in the metal groaned, before the small boat shuddered mightily.

It wasn’t going to work, Mal thought for a horrible second. So close, and not close enough.

Tears pricked at his eyes at the injustice of it.

He muttered a curse in a puff of air, and he shook his head. “One more,” he pleaded into the coldness. “One more time. Please.

To punctuate the emphatic request, Mal jerked the controls once more, giving them a shake for all they were worth like a child throwing a tantrum over a broken toy. Futile and immature.

And it worked.

Rutting hell, it worked.

The shuttle jolted forward gracelessly, working the thrusters without any finesse or refinement. It was not his most beautiful flight, and no doubt Wash would be appalled, but it was enough.

With the burst of speed, the shuttle connected squarely with the beacon, sending it off into oblivion with new found vigor.

Mal laughed, short and harsh, the cold air catching in his throat. Victory.

It was a short lived thing, though, and as the thrusters looked for power that simply weren’t there, the shuttle hitched unevenly, before tumbling drunkenly into the expanse.

The swell of adrenaline was a heady thing, warming his extremities with spikes of life that were so real they almost hurt.

It had worked. Plain and simple. Mal wasn’t sure why it was such a surprise except that it was. He believed his own hype or at least pretended to so well that sometimes even he forgot that he was full of hot air most of the time.

What he wouldn’t give for that now. This time there was substance to back his talk and the cold air of reality was freezing him from the inside out.

Worse yet, for all that victory was, it wasn’t the whole story. It was never the whole story. Win a battle, lose a war. Save the hour, but lose the day.

Push the beacon a little farther, a little faster, but still be stuck on a dying shuttle with nothing more to do but sit around and try to look pretty as the end approached.

It was why Mal focused on the short term goals. On taking the small victories where he could. Because the big picture was just exhausting, it was depressing.

And yet, it was all he had left.

He’d done all he could. He’d planned and lived up to his part. And now the realization was settling in on him that there really wasn’t anything left he could do. He’d played his game, hedged his bets, and laid out the best hand he could.

It was the verse’s turn, he supposed. Mal had no way of knowing how this would turn out until he saw what kind of cards were held against him.

In short, now all he could do was sit and wait.

Which, truth be told, had never been his forte.

Numbly, his fingers relaxed from the controls, feeling tingly as they rested in his lap. He looked out at the space just beyond the window, spinning lazily in front of him.

Just wait.

Wetting his lips, Mal swallowed, trying to find some semblance of resolve. It was easy to talk himself into a fight. Girding himself for something of an unknown long haul was a bit more difficult. There was no rush of adrenaline, no details to preoccupy himself with.

Just empty space, cold air, and time to kill.

Literally.

Stiffly, Mal glanced behind him where Simon was asleep on the floor.

All he could do was sit and wait while Simon slowly died, while Mal’s own life was slipping away.

It was a horrible feeling, like being in that valley watching the war end, but without the sweetness of victory. Like being in Serenity with a hole in his side and the button in sight, but no way to touch it.

Funny how his life always came back to these impossible moments. Malcolm Reynolds, forever destined to be screwed, one situation at a time.

It occurred to him suddenly that he was shivering -- hard. His entire body was shaking with it, the cold aching deep in his bones. He was not a young man anymore; the rigors of this life did wear him thin, thinner than he ever cared to own to.

With a longing look at the flickering lantern, he reckoned he’d done all he could at the conn. It was time to hunker down, ride it out, and pray there was something to come on the other side of this ordeal.

It was slow work, making his way back over toward Simon. The fleeting adrenaline made him feel even worse than before, ragged and weary. Sliding down against the wall, Mal pulled his knees to his chest, curling in on himself as best he could for warmth.

He glanced again at Simon, still under his blankets. The boy was breathing, quick and shallow, eyes flickering beneath closed lids.

Breathing in through his nose, Mal tried to smile. It wasn’t worth much, but it was all he had. “Don’t you worry none,” he said, voice rough in the vapid air. “Just gave the signal a boost, and it’ll do the trick. Serenity will come.”

Mal nodded, as if to reassure the unconscious boy on the floor. He closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall. “She’ll come.”