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Serenity/Firefly fic: Sticking to the Plan (1/5)

December 28th, 2017 (03:09 pm)
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feeling: blank

Title: Sticking to the Plan

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: No beta. Set post series, pre movie. Fills my medication square for hc_bingo.

Summary: Mal and Simon go on a simple mission, but the ‘verse is never kind to Malcolm Reynolds.

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE



-o-

As far as plans went, this one was about as good as any. Mal wasn’t picky about things like that. He just wanted something that would keep them safe, would keep them off the radar, and would make them money. This one had the potential to meet all three, so that really was good enough for him.

Notwithstanding, of course, that the moon they were visiting was mostly a layover for travelers moving out toward the black. That wasn’t all that unusual, but the place was overrun with gangsters and violence was to be expected more often than not. So that made the whole keeping safe thing a bit of a gamble, but considering how far off the radar the place was and how much money they might make from this gamble, it sure seemed like a risk worth taking.

Though, considering how poorly their last string of jobs had went, just about anything was a risk worth taking. They needed to get paid on this one, so Mal was willing to walk into a mess of a trouble because as long as it didn’t involve the Alliance, it was probably trouble he could shoot down before it shot him.

And besides all that, it was a marginally legitimate shipment of medical supplies. At least, it had been before it had been pilfered by some lesser types on the moon. Now the facilities further out in the black wanted their supplies and were willing to pay Mal a nice price for procuring it. And better yet? The criminals who’d snatched the stuff hardly knew what they had so working out a trade had been easy.

Easy. Mal liked easy plans. So easy that the rest of the crew could handle their standard shipping job a system over while he handled this.

“I still don’t understand how this job is considered legal,” Simon said, interrupting his thoughts.

Mal scowled over the controls, keeping his eyes fixed out into the moon approaching in the window. “I said it was more legal,” he answered tersely.

Simon’s nose was slightly wrinkled. “I didn’t realize there were various degrees of legality.”

Mal sighed. At least this would be an easy job were he not saddled with a doctor wound so tight he literally might explode from sheer stuffiness alone. It could be kind of nice to have a doctor around when he was bleeding to death, and to be fair, that happened more often than Mal wanted to own to, but the rest of the time, Simon Tam was almost more trouble than he was worth. And that wasn’t even considering the Alliance trouble the boy brought upon him.

But, crew was crew, and no matter how infuriating and annoying and downright snobbish the younger man could be, Mal was stuck with him. At least until he found a reason not to be. “We’re getting the supplies to the right place and that’s what matters.”

Simon nodded, though he clearly was not convinced. He was watching Mal carefully, with studied glances toward the window as if that could make a bit of difference to the boy. Simon was only good for two things: doctoring and laughing at. Navigating and plan making weren’t particularly among them, though Mal wondered how much of that was a sheer lack of effort rather than a lack of aptitude. The job on Ariel had been pretty damn impressive, even if the boy did have a rather pathetic streak in any kind of conflict that involved anything resembling fighting.

“So the fact that we’re getting paid...” Simon ventured.

“Benefits you as much as me,” Mal finished for him, maneuvering the controls to prepare to enter the atmosphere. They lapsed into silence as Mal eased them down, the shuttle hitching as it hit a patch of turbulence. Then he cast a purposeful glance toward the doctor. “Or do I need to remind you again how difficult make it for me around here.”

Simon’s smile was forced. “No, I think you make that abundantly clear,” he said. The doctor hesitated, pressing his lips together for a moment. “So if this is some kind of payback...”

Mal’s eyebrows went up as he thrust the shuttle downward. He wasn’t as smooth as Wash, but he could get the job done. “Payback?” he asked. “You really think me that petty?”

Simon’s plaintive look was answer enough.

Mal straightened in his seat a bit as he worked the controls. “I admit, that was a might messy with your little friend the bounty hunter,” he conceded. He looked purposefully at Simon. “And you nearly did mess up a damn near perfect plan.”

Simon huffed. “I wasn’t just going to let him take her.”

“And you thought the rest of us would?” Mal asked pointed.

Simon’s expression flattened. The boy did have a talent for putting his foot in his mouth. “Sometimes it’s just hard to tell,” he admitted quietly.

“You take care of us, we’ll take care of you,” Mal told him simply as he skimmed over a line of trees, looking for an opening just outside of town. “That’s how this works. We don’t even have to like each other for that kind of arrangement.”

Simon gave a small smile. “Is that supposed to be somehow reassuring?”

Mal took them down, setting them down with a jolt. He flipped the switches, starting shut down. “No, it’s how it is,” he replied. Then he turned, looking fully at Simon. There was no doubt the young man was out of place and probably always would be. He dressed too proper, spoke too clean, and had the kind of morals that didn’t have no place outside the Core. But right then, he was the best Mal had for backup and that was all that mattered. “So you remember how this is supposed to go?”

The earnest look on Simon’s face faded into distaste. His fingers were spread against his thigh and he edged himself to the end of the seat. “Something about meeting up with unsavory criminals and hoping not to get shot.”

Mal rolled his eyes, standing up to get what he needed. The gun was already loaded and on his hip, but a backup might be nice. And he needed the payment to make the exchange. Playing the middle man meant lower stakes but a mess of prep work. “You seem to forget awful quick that of all the unsavory characters out in this ‘verse, you are in fact among the worse,” he said, with a long glance at Simon.

He had the decency to look chagrined. “I’m just trying to protect my sister.”

“And I’m just trying to get paid,” Mal agreed with a smile.

Simon gave a poor approximation of a grin in return. Behind the fuss and the fancy ways, it did seem to bother the boy that he was one of the most desirable fugitives on their vagabond ship. Looking somewhat dejected, the boy turned his gaze away. “So how exactly are we supposed to procure this wayward shipment?”

“I’ve got my contact and we’ve got the payment,” Mal explained, mentally going over the exchange in his head. He shifted the money to his other pocket, to make it harder to get to. “Do the exchange quick like, and we can be back on the shuttle and to Serenity in less than three hours. Smooth and simple.”

Simon’s eyes wandered before settling on Mal’s face again. “How often do these plans actually go smoothly?” he asked.

Mal set his jaw, refusing to let the boy goad him, be it purposeful or not.

“We go in and out, you hear?” he told Simon sternly.

Simon did not look impressed. “If it’s in and out, why do you need me again?”

Mal inclined his head. “For someone who is awful book smart, you’re pretty slow on the uptake this time around.”

Simon’s expression was weary. “I tend to like to double check my facts before I willingly walk into a life and death situation.”

Mal shrugged a bit at that, rotating his gun belt ever so slightly. “You’re here, because last time I took the goods and ran, I ended up with a shipment full of fakes. The fakes don’t heal no sick, and they sure as hell don’t make us no money.”

That much seemed to make an impression on him. He sighed, getting to his feet. “Are you sure River’s safe?”

With a groan, Mal leaned over the controls, finalizing the shutdown and prepping to leave. They’d need the full range of lock down procedures on a moon like this. “She’s safer than you are,” he assured the doctor. “Serenity’s run that same shipment line for three months counting now.”

“I just don’t like being away from her,” Simon said softly, and Mal could hear the traces of regret in the younger man’s voice.

Simon had always been protective of the girl, that much had been plain. And he was downright stupid when it came to protecting her, all chivalry and concern without a single notion of how to do it right. He might have bought River’s way out of the Academy, but the boy was not equipped for life on the run. Hell, he was always getting kidnapped by locals, beaten by sundry folk, and jumping in front of bullets when there weren’t no need. It was so gallingly stupid that it almost made Mal want to leave him behind.

Problem was, the boy was so selfless about it. That one didn’t seem to have a mind for self preservation, not when it came to his little sister. And even if Mal couldn’t understand how easily Simon could be taken down, he couldn’t help but respect the fact that the boy had a good cause. Even when it brought them to conflict, there weren’t much doubt in Mal’s mind that Simon Tam was trying to do the best thing he could.

That kind of nobility was something to behold -- and something to keep in check, too. It was likely to get them all killed someday. Sometimes Mal had to think Jayne was right, that they should cut the Tams loose.

But it wasn’t that easy, and Mal was damned if he knew why. Maybe it was the Shepherd’s incessant appeal to do the moral thing. Maybe it was Wash’s common sense compassion that helping them was just right. Maybe it was Kaylee’s inexplicable attraction to the boy that gave him value Mal didn’t think he inherently had. Maybe it was Inara’s passionate defense that Simon and River deserved better than the back of his hand. Maybe it was Zoe’s understated respect for the fact that even when Simon Tam was a pretentious son of a bitch, he was still a good man.

Not that Mal had plans on admitting any of that. Instead, he opened the airlock and straightened once again. “Just keep your head down,” he said roughly. “Don’t make eye contact and you won’t be able to provoke anyone.”

Simon gave him a look. “Contrary to my history with you, I do not seek conflict.”

Mal snorted, shoving his loaded gun into his holster. “Are you suggesting that my charming personality just brings out the worst in you?”

“You do have a certain way about you,” Simon said.

Mal shrugged, loading another gun expertly before holding it out to Simon. “And believe it or not, you are the only crew member I’ve had to clock more than once,” he said.

Simon eyed the gun disdainfully. “I’m not taking that.”

Keeping the gun out, Mal’s expression didn’t flicker. “This moon ain’t like your core planets, doc. You best be taking the gun.”

“I’ve been apart of this enterprise long enough to understand how these things work,” Simon told him plainly. “But I have no plans on shooting anyone.”

Mal grunted and rolled his eyes. “It ain’t you I’m worried about,” he said. “If they think you don’t have the druthers to shoot someone, they’ll take a crack at you first, no questions asked. I’m a quick draw, but I’ve got my eye on the prize, and so I can’t guarantee you the protection you’ll need. And coming back without you might upset your little sister somewhat, and she’s one I would rather not see riled.”

Simon’s face puckered with a smile. He took the gun, tucking it gingerly into his pants. “Well that is certainly reassuring, thank you.”

Mal nodded toward the gun. “Just don’t shoot yourself or nothing.”

Simon did not look amused. “Just don’t get yourself shot,” he replied.

Double checking the money in his pocket, he gave the boy a look. “That a threat?”

“Just an observation after flying with you this long,” Simon said. “You do seem to have a certain attraction for trouble.”

Mal tilted his head. “Seems to me that the last bullet you removed was from your own leg.”

Simon sighed. “Perhaps you’re rubbing off on me.”

“Well, now,” Mal said, straightening himself. “That’s a disturbing thought.”

“For once, the feeling is mutual.”

Mal forced a smile, opening the door. “And here I thought miracles didn’t exist,” he mused. He gestured toward the door with false grandeur. “After you.”

Simon eyed him critically, but said nothing, moving past him and stepping out of the shuttle. Collecting a breath, Mal pressed a few buttons, securing the systems and the craft, before following after Simon.

After all, as far as plans went, this one really was shaping up to be about as good as any.

-o-

Plan or no plan, Mal didn’t much care for ports. If he were truthsome, he didn’t often care to be planetside for long. All the people -- it made him uneasy. There were too many marks, too many people who might be marking him.

Just too many people. The rich, the poor. Soldiers, farmers. All trying to find their way.

It made him feel vulnerable, exposed. It was all very unsettling. He never kept his hand far from his gun when he was walking on real ground. And ports, with all the coming and going -- they were worse. It was hard to figure out who to trust, who might try to stab him in the back. Mal was always sort of waiting for the other shoe to fall in his life, and in ports, there were just too many opportunities.

So he kept it brief, to the point. He knew where they were going, and he didn’t plan on any detours. Fortunately, Simon was many things, but he was no more keen on interacting with the common folk than Mal was. If anyone was more scared of getting found out than Mal was, it was most definitively Simon, top of the Alliance’s most wanted and all.

He steered them clear of the port authorities, not that authority meant much on a place like this. Still, contraband was contraband, and even if the morals were a bit lax in these parts, Mal still had no desire to get himself arrested.

Pace quick, Mal kept his head high, his eyes alert. With a wayward glance back at Simon, he assured himself that this was going to plan. A few more steps and they’d be clear of the port and that much closer to their goal, just like they’d planned.

Until a man stepped in front of him.

Mal’s first instinct was to go for his gun, but when he got his hand around it, he saw that the man was unarmed. More than that, he didn’t look like much of a threat. The chubby man was balding with soft brown eyes that were looking with true imploring right at Mal.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the man said, with the utmost respect. “I know it’s a bit of an imposition, but can you tell me how long a trip it is from here to the Rentari system?”

Mal frowned a bit. “Just passing through myself.”

The man was looking at him earnestly. “I understand, of course,” he said. His body shook with a small cough; then the man gave a nervous laugh. “I’m just trying to find a place for my family to settle and I’m afraid work’s been hard to find.”

No doubt that was true, but Mal had his own mouths to feed back on Serenity without picking up no trouble that simply wasn’t his.

But then Mal looked to where the man was gesturing, back toward his family. A wife and two girls, sitting huddled on a bench, no more than two bags for the whole lot of them. The girls, as dirty as they were, had big, wide eyes and curls in their hair. The older one was coughing into her hand, and the younger one was clutching something that had to be a doll, though it was hard to tell from how worn the raggedy thing looked.

He had to work on his criminal skills a bit more. His heart was far too soft.

Looking back at the man again, he sighed. “Rentari is a haul from here, and the work’s no good. Someplace a little closer to the Core will have menial labor. Won’t pay much, but there’ll be schools and the like for your girls.”

“Adelaide,” Simon offered from next to Mal. “It has an Alliance outpost and is the most developed of the Circulian system. I’ve heard that they have numerous factory jobs there.”

The man nodded, a warm expression of gratitude on his face. “Thank you, thank you,” he said. Then he coughed, clearing his throat heavily. “My family and I thank you.”

Such expressions of thanks weren’t common, and even if Mal wouldn’t take time to acknowledge it, it was a nice change of pace. Hell, a job where someone wasn’t shooting him all to hell was something worth remembering.

But still, he had a reputation to uphold. He couldn’t be known as a do-gooding philanthropist and expect to get tooth and nail jobs. So he kept his head and kept on walking, trusting that the good doctor would keep pace.

It had to be a good sign, though. He could use some good luck.

“Do you think he’ll be okay?” Simon asked from next to him. The younger man was glancing over his shoulder.

“Ain’t no way of telling,” Mal said, rolling his shoulders and keeping his focus. He scanned the crowd, aware of possible threats.

Simon turned back around, almost reluctantly. “It is rather hard to see families like that, so far out on the brink.”

Mal inclined his head, eyes staying outward. “Happens more often than you think,” he said. “Though I must say, your response was what had me surprised.”

Simon frowned. “I don’t--”

“Adelaide?” Mal asked purposefully, giving Simon a long look. “Since when did you become an expert on outlying planets?”

“Adelaide has a strong Alliance influence,” Simon explained. He gave a small shrug. “I enjoyed astronomy in school.”

Mal huffed with laughter. “It does strike me as somewhat odd.”

Simon raised an eyebrow. “That I enjoyed astronomy?”

“That you of all people are still herding the masses back to the Alliance.”

Simon’s face paled somewhat. He looked away for a moment, walking alongside Mal in silence. Then he squinted up at the sky. “I don’t agree with everything they’ve done, but not everything the Alliance has done is bad.”

Mal had to snort.

“So much of the technology we take for granted. The very medical advances I myself have been privileged to learn. They have value.”

“But at what cost?” Mal asked. “What freedoms do we lose for these wonderful things of yours?”

“All progress will have some cost,” Simon offered.

“And what they did to River?”

Simon’s mouth snapped shut, looking stricken enough that Mal almost felt guilty.

Almost. But guilt wasn’t part of the plan. Getting the goods and getting paid -- that was part of the plan.

The doctor trudged next to him, for once silent. And even if Mal couldn’t admit that he was sorry for the words, he would readily admit that he wasn’t sorry about the consequences. A little less jabbering could only make this thing go a little bit smoother.

With that thought in mind, Mal gave a cursory glance over his shoulder, reassuring himself that all was going well so far. Jerking his head toward the exit, he said, “Head up, keep it cool. Don’t give no one no reason to look twice at us.”

Simon’s expression was close to a grimace, but he nodded, offering no further commentary.

All was well that ended well, so Mal squared himself, kept his fingers primed, and headed out into the city.

-o-

Calling it a city was a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, there were buildings and there were people, but the entire thing looked worse for wear and skeletal at best. The locals were keen on mopping up some profits from the port, with stands and stores close to it, but just one block beyond and the whole thing looked as desolate as the planet Mal had grown up on.

To make matters even more interesting, the client was a shade more scurvy that Mal had expected. And that was saying something, because he’d come to expect the worst, especially on small nothing moons like this.

Though, all things considered, it as pretty damn amusing to see Simon flopping around like a fish out of water. The boy still couldn’t be trusted to adequately pull off a heist, and even if that made him a liability, Mal had to admit he took a certain perverse pleasure in watching the boy squirm.

And squirm he did. The entire moon seemed to make Simon uneasy. It had all the qualities of a dust bowl, long flat vistas and ragged, undeveloped mountains. The settlement they were in was a whole lot of nothing, small clapboard buildings and a single developed space port.

They’d left the shuttle at the far end of the port and walked the rest of the way. A little sun always felt right good to Mal. As much as he loved Serenity, the fresh air seemed invigorating, even in the pounding heat.

Simon did not take to the heat quite as well, and the boy still insisted on wearing his uptight doctor wardrobe, and Mal could only wonder how long it would be before those crisp white shirts went by the wayside.

Though all of that was fun (and Mal liked his fun), watching Simon shift uncomfortably from one foot to another while the client sized them up was damn near priceless.

Because the word client did him too much justice. The man was slight, small in stature and without an ounce of fat on him. He probably didn’t weigh more than River, but he had twice as much hair, though not much of it on his head. The scraggly beard fell to uneven lengths down his front and his bushy arms were almost comical to see, were they not punctuated by a vicious looking gun in his hand.

The man had introduced himself as Brand, but whether that was a first name, last name, or nickname, Mal had no idea. His beady little eyes were damn creepy, especially since one seemed to have a habit of wandering without the other. It made for a nice effect, Mal would be pressed to acknowledge, though it did all make him wonder how the likes of this fellow got his hands on the shipment at all.

Simon hadn’t said more than five words since they’d gotten into town, and three of those had been to ask Mal if he were entirely serious about this venture.

Mal was one hundred percent serious, no doubt about it. And Simon had followed along after, a bit slack jawed as a horse cross the road in front of them and promptly took a crap. He could only hope that the two guns strapped to his own hip and the one poised awkwardly in the young doctor’s pants would be enough to keep them from trouble. So far, so good. Things were going pretty much according to plan. Their shifty eyed contact had been right on time, shipment ready to see behind the back of a bar just off the main street.

“It’s all there,” the man said, his drawl thick and rough.

Mal held up his bag of money. “Payment is what we agreed,” he said.

“Then how’s ‘bout we see it?” Brand demanded.

Mal tossed the bag, but kept one hand close to his gun. “Check it, it’s all there,” he said.

Brand caught it, opening it and looking through it. He took out one of the pieces, squinting at it in the sunlight. He gave it a thoughtful lick before dropping it back in. “The good stuff,” he said with a satisfied sniff. He smile and nodded heartedly at them. “Looks good, boys. Nice doin’ business.”

“Well, hey, one second now,” Mal said, fingering his gun. “The deal ain’t done ‘til we see the goods.”

Brand’s smile faded, settling into a skeptical scowl. He kicked at the two containers at his feet. “You can see it,” he said with a huff. “’Sall right here.”

“You got to test yours,” Mal said with a conciliatory nod. “Hope you don’t mind if we give our part the same once over.”

Brand’s eyes narrowed, the one eye twitching wildly away. He didn’t much like it, Mal could see, but if he had any sense when it came to business, Brand would have to agree. The scraggly man nodded, then shrugged a little, feigning indifference. “Ain’t no skin off my back,” he said. “Have at it.”

Mal nodded toward Simon, his gaze never leaving their dusty client.

Simon hesitated, but made his way over toward the goods. With nothing more than a quick glance at Brand, the doctor kneeled, undoing the top.

For his part, Brand watched the movements with the utmost concern. His good eye was trained, a scowl steadily deepening on his gnarled face.

Simon picked up a vial, holding it up to the sunlight. Giving it a shake, he watched it carefully before unscrewing the top and lifting it to his nose.

“Now what in tarnation is he doing that for?” Brand asked. “Label says what it is, true and simple.”

Simon froze for a moment, his eyes flickering back toward Mal.

“Don’t mean nothing,” Mal said as easily as he could. “Boy here’s got some medical background. He’s just making sure all’s in order.”

Simon screwed the cap back on, placing the vial carefully back in the case. “It’s real,” he reported, putting the lid back on. He pushed to his feet, wiping his hands on his pants. “It’s even in its undiluted form, so we know it’s from a legitimate backer.”

Brand’s face darkened into something akin to anger. “Say what?”

Simon turned to him. “Your shipment is pure, just as advertised,” he said.

“Course it’s pure!” Brand exclaimed, his voice hitching precariously.

Simon retreated, making his way back to Mal’s side without so much as another word. At least he knew to keep his trap shut for the time being.

Mal inclined his head, hoping that would be that. They hadn’t insulted the man, the terms were sound, and they’d both brought what they’d agreed on. It had all the makings of a done deal, if he could just get Brand to walk away.

To help, Mal smiled. Or, tried to anyway. It was hard to tell sometimes. “Then we’re good to go,” he said with as much of a friendly-like tone as he could muster.

Brand did not seem overly convinced. “Well, now, boys, you all are making me wonder if this exchange is quite the deal I thought it was,” he said, his eyes narrowed. It was a strange effect, the slitted eyes and the bugged out look. Made him look a bit like a demented insect.

“You agreed to the terms,” Mal said simply, because he wasn’t sure this man would grasp much more beyond basic logic. He rested his hands on his belt, his fingers twitching ever so slightly toward his gun.

“That was ‘fore you brought in a doctor to double check it all,” Brand said. “If we’re goin’ to be all ‘ficial ‘bout it, I may need to reconsider some of the terms.”

“Just covering my bases,” Mal assured him. He glanced sideways toward Simon, who was standing stiffly next to him, face blank. “And trust me when I tell you the boy ain’t nowhere close to official.”

Brand’s lips thinned and he appeared to be considering something -- and it seemed to be quite a strain on him, too. Mal fought the impulse to just shoot him and be done with it. As convenient as such an approach might be, he couldn’t be sure that this slimy fellow didn’t have folk nearby.

There was enough hesitation for Mal to push his luck. If this fellow wanted a conflict, he would have picked it by now. Mal hadn’t given him enough cause, even if Simon did have far too much of an aristocratic look to him. They could still get out of this clean. “Tell you what,” Mal said, holding out one hand in placation. “Let me reach into my pocket--”

Brand tensed, fingers on his gun.

“And pull out something that might assuage your doubts a bit,” Mal continued in a deliberate tone. His fingers moved slow and careful, reaching into his pocket. He built wiggle room into most of his deals -- it was worth letting the other guy think he was milking him a bit if it got him out of there without any holes.

Brand was watching him, close and careful, and it took Mal a few long seconds to pull the second pouch free. He held it up, giving it a shake. The coins inside jangled and Mal smiled, tossing it toward Brand. He settled back, fingers still neutral but ready, and he made sure his position was just in front of Simon, just to be sure.

The other man caught the bag, opening it and giving it a look.

Looking back up, Brand leveled him with a glare that suggested no love lost between them. The critical look seemed about as much as the scroungy fellow could muster, and Mal took it as the condemnation of his character that it was meant to be. Though it did tickle him ever so slightly that Brand’s frown only deepened as he looked briefly at Simon. Even the dimmest in the ‘verse could smell the Alliance reek that seemed to follow that boy, no matter how high he was on the Alliance’s Most Wanted list.

But money trumped doubt. A little extra cash could overcome even the strongest sense of dislike. Mal was counting on this man to value his pocketbook over his itchy trigger finger. And given the dirt and grime on the man, Mal thought that itchy probably was a literal reality.

“So now,” Mal continued. “If we’re all squared away, we’ll take our goods and you take your cash and we’ll go our separate ways.”

Brand glanced at the goods, giving the box a kick. He pocketed the second pouch, his back straightening as best it could. “Been a pleasure then,” he said. A slow smile spread across his wizened face, and something unsettlingly twinkled in his eyes. “I look forward to doing business again real soon.”

Mal worked to keep himself in check -- it wouldn’t do no good to blow the deal when he was just about to close it. And yet, working with this fellow? Was something to consider. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, of course, but Mal couldn’t figure a reason. This client didn’t have the product base and as lucky as this schmuck had gotten this time around, Mal knew this ‘verse well enough to know that good luck didn’t tend to strike twice for the likes of them.

Still, Mal wasn’t one to burn bridges. Unless he was drunk enough and the Alliance was involved. Possibly if he was just having a bad day.

The first two were no gos here, and the third was a yet to be determined. He still had a nearly ten hour layover with Simon of all people.

“Course,” Mal agreed. He motioned to Simon, nodding at him to pick up the cargo. Simon hesitated, giving him a short-lived look of pleading, before he stepped out and retrieved the goods. When he was back by Mal’s side, Mal offered up the most friendly look he could give. “You have a nice day, then.”

Brand’s smile was wide and there was something just off about it. With the haphazard beard and the wayward eye and the scarred up face -- Mal couldn’t place it, but it set wrong in his gut. And Mal knew how to trust his gut, knew when it told him to run, it was time to split and knew when it told him to cut losses and turn tail, that there weren’t any other viable options worth considering.

But what was it telling him now? The deal was done. The money had changed hands, they had the product, and all they needed was a clean break to call it done. It wasn’t a long walk to the shuttle, but damn, Mal would feel better when it was over.

There was another moment of hesitation, friendly smiles aside, neither of them were looking to turn first. But there had to be movement, there had to be something of a begrudging trust, and Mal knew he had to be the bigger man, mostly because he wasn’t sure this sort had the intellect to pull such a thing off.

It was a risk to walk away first, but Brand had his money and then some. They had sealed their deal, they’d exchanged no unpleasantries. It was time to go. Because if Mal stuck around much longer he might end up pulling his gun just because of the tension in the air. He did not relish that thought.

Stiffly, he rested his hand heavily on the hilt of his gun, patting Simon on the arm as they turned. The boy looked vaguely bewildered -- criminal mind and all, Simon still wasn’t quite made for conflict of this nature. A successful job would do them all good.

Mal started walking, erect and purposeful, trying not to imagine his backside getting riddled with holes.

Simon walked in front of him, fingers tight on the goods, and he glanced back, wide-eyed and curious.

Mal glared, and willed the boy to just keep walking. It wasn’t too long, but it was long enough and they needed to move. It was all about the bottom line, finishing it out. It was what Mal did. It was all Mal had.

One foot in front of the other. That had been the whole thing since the war had ended. One foot in front of the other, out of the empty space, through the town square. Simon kept pace, not looking back again.

The plan was working. That was such a novel concept that Mal almost didn’t believe it. But they were getting away, a clean trade, goods in hand, and all in one piece. It was a hell of a nice change of pace, and Mal almost didn’t want to breath for fear of jinxing it. Because Mal made lots of plans. And he had to change lots of plans. And lots of plans fell through because if Mal could plan on anything, it would be the damn near impossible circumstances that made plans unrealistic flights of fancy more often than not.

So when they actually made it to the shuttle, Mal was downright surprised. He didn’t even let himself breath until the shuttle door closed.

Mal closed his eyes, just for a moment, and thought something of a prayer to a God he didn’t believe in. Because when the best laid plans turned out right, it was near reason to celebrate in Mal’s mind. And to think the rest of the crew had doubted him. Mal had had to order Zoe to stay with Serenity she’d disliked the stink on this one so much.

But Mal had been right. It’d worked. And once they got cleared to fly, they were home free.

He opened his eyes again, grinning widely. Striding forward, he clapped Simon on the arm. “And that’s how we do it,” he said. “We need to work on your poker face a bit, but I’m pretty pleased to see we got you in and out of a job without any violence taking place. I was beginning to worry you were an incurable magnet for trouble.”

Simon frowned. “You do know that we virtually robbed that man,” he said. “This case is worth ten times what we paid him.”

Mal cocked his head, taking the goods and putting them on the chair. He opened the box, double checking the contents. He trusted the doc to know if the stuff was legit, but Mal needed to assess just how much was there to know they were going to get their payment in full. “Are you forgetting the part where our friend back there came across these goods in a less that legal capacity?”

Simon crossed his arms over his chest with a sigh. “It just seems like questionable business,” he said. “If he catches wind of how much he lost--”

Mal gave the doctor a disparaging look. “That’s a mighty big if there, doctor,” he said. He looked back at the box, counting the vials quickly.

“We have enough people out there after us, I’m not sure we need another,” Simon pointed out, a bit crossly.

Mal snapped the lid shut again, picking up the box. “A small clarification,” Mal said pointedly. “You have enough people out there chasing your trail. Me? I’m just the regular small time criminal. The Alliance will catch me if I stumble into them, but when it comes to enemies, I’ve got just as many friends. And I don’t reckon Brand is going to have the attention span to track us with as much travel as we do out of this system.”

Mal was right, of course, but Simon didn’t look ready to concede the point. Instead he shifted, pursing his lips ever so slightly. “Well, we’ll be out of here soon enough, I suppose,” he said.

“That’s the spirit,” Mal said readily. “I’ll just need a few to power her up--”

Simon shook his head. “No, wait, we need to go back.”

Mal laughed as he walked toward the cargo area to stow the goods. “Right, and I need to go chat up the authorities just for kicks.”

But Simon shook his head again, more insistent this time. “I’m serious,” he said.

Mal’s humor faded and he stopped, straightening to gauge the doctor fully. “You’re the one bellyaching about this job, and now you want to go back?”

Simon’s features hardened in a way that made Mal’s inside roil. The boy always did have certain sticking points, lines in the sand that he held to no matter what. Some of them made sense to Mal, like protecting River, but other times they seemed unfeasible to Mal’s way of thinking. The times Simon held out, the times he took a stand were so contrary to any of Mal’s instinct that it was as perplexing as it was infuriating.

“It’s not related to the job,” the doctor clarified, his tone almost apologetic, but still without give. He dropped his arms to his sides with something of a shrug.

“Then it’s not related to us,” Mal said forcefully.

“Just ten minutes,” Simon said, using one hand to rub his other arm. “That’s all I need.”

All he needed. That was like saying that all he needed was to tap dance on an Alliance freighter. Like all he needed was to strike a pose for an Alliance security camera.

No way, no how. Mal didn’t survive by indulging wayward whims, not even his own.

“We got our goods, now we take our leave,” Mal said simply, leaving no room for argument. “That’s how it’s done.”

Simon, for all his schooling and sophistication, did not seem capable of picking up a simple hint. The boy was like a dog with a bone, “There are people here who need us.”

“There are people back on a boat the next system over that need us,” Mal pointed out. “So I’m not entirely sure where you’re getting this sudden notion of community obligation from.”

Simon did not look amused. True to character, he persisted. “That family back there, at the station,” he said. “The one with the two little girls.”

Mal remembered them, but he wasn’t about to acknowledge that. He kept his mouth shut, his posture erect. He wouldn’t give an inch unless he was ready to grant the mile, and right now the only thing Mal wanted to grant was a quick punch across the jaw to shut the doctor up until they were already in the air. No one would blame him. Probably not even River.

“They have Rocelle’s.”

Mal flattened his lips. Rocelle’s was a disease, and a nasty one at that. With treatment, it could be cured, but Mal had known more than his share of people in the black who died from it.

True enough, that hadn’t been the answer he’d been expecting, though it did make a certain sense. Simon had a keen sense of his own precarious position. He wouldn’t risk conflict for just anything. But as strong as his self-preservation was, the boy was still a doctor, through and through. Of all the reasons to take a chance, doctoring came in second only to River for Simon.

Which made things problematic. It was easy to hate on the boy for being a selfish, stupid prick. It wasn’t nearly as easy to ream him out for being human.

Still. Mal collected a breath. “How can you possibly know that without even examining them?”

“The cough and the fever could be any number of things,” Simon said. “But the yellow rim around the irises of their eyes? And the blue tint on their fingernails? Textbook presentation. The youngest one is about two days from her deathbed. Less if they do get space bound.”

The facts sounded true enough, and for all of the doctor’s less savory qualities, flat out lying wasn’t really among them. There was a reason why Mal liked to keep things on a need to know basis. The less he knew, the less he had to care. “We have to get out of here and make our checkpoint. ‘Sides that, our little shuttle here is a sitting duck out there and the locals really ain’t got the best of reputations, if you know what I mean. We were lucky to get out without any conflict, I’m not sure I want to be risking that to play do-gooder.”

“It’s a two minute inoculation,” Simon said. “Two minutes and we can save their lives.”

“Then why didn’t you do it before?” Mal asked angrily.

“I didn’t want to mess up the plan,” Simon said.

“But you’re messing it up now!” Mal exclaimed.

“Two minutes,” Simon reiterated, with passion this time. “Please.”

And damn it all if the doctor didn’t have a point. Two minutes. Two minutes. And Mal had seen that family. Cute kids and all. Curly hair and the younger one had been clutching her doll. She wasn’t no more than the age of five. Two minutes and she’d live to see six.

Mal wasn’t a hero, and he didn’t fancy himself to be a particularly good man, but two minutes...

He sighed, adjusting his grip on the goods. Only a gorram idiot would head back out instead of taking leave when he could. This system had a reputation for violence, especially against those who happened through. Shuttles had a tendency to disappear or get blown to bits, and no one ever quite knew how.

Though, Mal did have a history of idiocy, so it wasn’t without a certain precedence.

With a glare, Mal bent over, stowing the goods. “Two minutes,” he ground out. “And for the record, I still think this is a very bad idea.”

Simon’s eyes lit up, a smile on his lips. “Just let me get my bag.”

Mal resisted the urge to roll his eyes, and hoped he wouldn’t regret this when it was over.