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Serenity/Firefly fic: Sticking to the Plan (3/5)

December 28th, 2017 (03:12 pm)
pleased

feeling: pleased

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE


-o-

Mal would never let on, but sometimes being the captain was doing a whole lot of nothing but making it look like everything. He could read screens and punch buttons and run diagnostics with the best of them, and sometimes he even knew what the information meant. But push came to shove, sometimes all the information in the world didn’t mean much of anything.

The fact was, this was bad. This was very, very bad, and worse yet, there wasn’t a thing Mal could do about it. Literally nothing. Maybe if Kaylee were here, she would have been able to work on some of the electrical systems, buy them a little more juice to tide them through, but that wasn’t Mal’s area of expertise.

Mal’s area of expertise was finding a crew to get him through and coming up with a plan to get them there. It involved planning and reconnaissance. Working with people and moving them into position.

Sometimes it meant taking the fall. Sometimes it meant biting the bullet. Sometimes it meant making sacrifices.

Sometimes it meant staring at a console and pretending like he was doing something.

Shifting in the pilot’s chair, Mal glanced over his shoulder. Simon was fiddling around the back, making piles of equipment, sorting through the mess that was their temporary lifeboat. He couldn’t be totally sure that Simon would know exactly what was helpful and what wasn’t, but he had to delegate. That was what captain’s did. And it kept him from throttling the younger man, something which Mal still had a somewhat strong desire to do.

Of all the people to get stuck with. He’d made a certain peace with Simon, though it was tentative at best. The doctor served a purpose on his ship, and Mal could work with that. He didn’t have to like someone to see their inherent value to the crew at large. And Simon could pull off a few tricks of his own -- if the boy let himself, he had the makings of a decent criminal, though the pesky Alliance mentality did tend to hampered him a bit.

The boy wasn’t much of a fighter, but he didn’t run from a fight, and Mal could respect that, even if it made him somewhat of a liability. But the doc was a smart boy, and in time, it was possible that he’d grow to be an even more functional member of his fugitive crew.

Looking back at the console, looking at the fading energy readings, Mal also figured it was entirely possible that Simon would get them all killed and would probably annoy them all to death with his arrogant and stubborn personality to top it all off.

All of this was Simon’s fault, after all, and Mal was not really one to forgive and forget. And it didn’t help none that he was essentially useless to Mal now. What good was an Alliance trained doctor while drifting in a dying shuttle? At least Shepherd Book would have something resembling words of comfort to offer him. Hell, even little River might be a bit entertaining as they grew closer to death.

But Simon?

Was just going to make him wish he’d let the explosion kill him.

At least, that would be what Mal thought if he weren’t the captain. Captains were far too official to be prone to such negative thought against one he called his own, no matter how true it might have been.

There was a clatter behind him, and Mal closed his eyes and willed himself to stay calm. Killing Simon might give him a bit more oxygen but it would be hell to explain to the crew.

There was another clang and a soft curse.

Mal sighed, turning around but wishing he didn’t have to. “Everything okay back there?” he asked pointedly.

Simon was fumbling with a crate, putting some tools haphazardly back inside. “Just finishing up,” he replied somewhat meekly.

Mal sighed, muttering a string of invectives under his breath. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he stood, making his way toward the back. Leaning against the wall, he made himself ask the question. “So what have we got?”

Simon was pushing the tool container back into place, and he stood, wiping his hands absently on his pants. “Most of it isn’t useful,” he said. “I mean, all the tools and whatnot.”

Mal crossed his arms over his chest. “So what is helpful.”

Simon played for a moment with the hair behind his ear, before letting his hand fall to his side with a shrug. “Food and water, obviously, though if the oxygen levels are going down as quickly as you say, it won’t make much difference. Staying hydrated will only help us breathe better, though.”

“What else?” Mal prompted.

“Enough blankets to conserve some heat. I found some packs which we can use to create more warmth if we pack them close in to one another,” he explained, gesturing to a pile on the other side of the shuttle.

“Sounds smart enough,” Mal agreed.

“Oh, and I found this,” Simon said, turning. He bent over and picked up a box, pulling out a lantern as he did. “It runs on batteries and I checked -- they seem to be functional.”

Mal nodded at it, a bit impressed. He’d forgotten about that. They kept them standard in the shuttle in case they got stranded on the ground. Some planets weren’t regulated quite as nice and the nights could get mighty cold. The lantern gave off both heat and light. It was an asset in times such as these. “What about the space suits,” he asked, nodding toward the wall where they were hanging.

Simon’s face fell and he hesitated, putting the lantern back on the floor. “One’s intact,” he reported. “The other was damaged in the explosion.”

Mal worked to keep a straight face. If one was out of the question, they were both out of the question. It would be justice on some level to leave Simon to die, but he couldn’t abide by it as long as Simon flew under his command. There wasn’t even need to think about it.

“Alright then,” Mal said with resolve. “We got our beacon out. I’ve shut off any nonessential systems to spare whatever’s left of the battery power. We might as well bundle up and hunker down while we wait.”

Simon nodded, looking idly at the pile of blankets. “Is that our plan then?” he asked.

Mal gave a small shrug, leaning over to picked up a blanket. He tossed it over the chair, sitting down with a sigh. “We might get lucky with a passerby,” he said. “Very least, we might find someone to piggyback the message.”

Simon picked up a blanket of his own, lying it neatly over the other seat. He sat down a bit gingerly. “You do think they’ll find us, though.” It was a statement, but Mal could hear the question underneath it. For the boy’s bravery, he had the common sense to be afraid.

Mal liked to think of himself as a practical man, and he would make the best decisions for the very real circumstances. But he did not accept defeat until it was laid so hard upon him, he had no choice. Even then, it was never surrender. Just a grudging acceptance of a fact he could not change.

Mal did not believe in failure, no more than he believed in his own mortality. These things were real, of course, but Mal would never hold to them until he had no choice.

“The range on the beacon ain’t bad,” he said, letting his gaze wander toward the view screen. “Zoe’s got good instincts. They’ll come.”

It wasn’t a ringing endorsement, but it was all Mal had. Simon seemed to know enough not to ask for anything more. Instead the doctor settled in, pulling the blanket somewhat over himself and letting his gaze drift about the cabin. After a moment, he smiled a little, turning his eye back toward Mal. “You know, when I finished my residency, I was offered a place with the Alliance on board one of their cruisers,” he said. He shook his head, a wistful expression on his face. “I seriously considered it. I thought it would be exciting.”

It was a funny thought, though not one that was entirely amusing. The notion that the doc would ever really fit in on a ship was like trying to imagine himself as a legitimate business man. But the thought of Simon in the steely blue Alliance uniform? With one of those gorram little hats? A little too easy to see to be amusing.

“I’m not sure how much adventure the Alliance types have,” Mal noted, rubbing his hands over his arms. “All their rules and regulations. Pretty sure there must be a clause against enjoying oneself in there somewhere.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Simon said with a small sigh. “Keeping the peace, visiting worlds.” He paused, looking at Mal squarely. “Chasing pirates.”

“Ah,” Mal said with a grin. “Bringing justice to the verse. Quite noble of you, I’m sure.”

Simon snorted a bit. “I thought so, for awhile anyway. It always seemed like the best way to test my skills. To see how I could operate without an entire hospital to back me up.”

It would have been something, indeed. Simon was gifted with medicine, of that there was no doubt. It was just the rest of the younger man’s character that sometimes gave Mal reason for concern. “So why didn’t you take it?” he asked suddenly.

Simon’s expression went blank, and he looked away. He scratched absently at a spot behind his ear. “My father...said it would be a waste of my talent,” he explained, his tone almost apologetic. He looked up with a sheepish smile. “Apparently he didn’t pay for my entire education just I could squander it on a wayward dream.” His voice trailed off, and he swallowed.

It was hard to say which was more difficult to take: Simon’s idealistic notions of being a do-gooder to the verse or the implication of tragedy that was an overzealous father. Mal had his share of broken dreams and deferred desires. It made Simon’s seem trifling.

Yet, it was an emotion Mal understood. He had to think, if this boy could just get it. Understand just how much of a privilege he was born with and how it really wasn’t a privilege at all. Mal never wanted to own to that, that there was something good to come from the Alliance’s good graces, but he was hard pressed to deny that he did not crave the ability to prosper, the thing he’d lost in Serenity Valley.

He and Simon had nothing in common, not a speck, not a trace. And yet, here they were. Outlaws bound by a common enemy and crewmates joined by a common space.

Sometimes he had to think, it would have been easier to just leave Simon and his sister months ago. But Mal never did things the easy way. Bound crewmates, but never friends. The boy had something to learn and if Mal’s estimations were right, there weren’t no more than four hours for him to get it through his thick-skulled Alliance head.

“It ain’t all play out here,” he said, his voice hard. “Living and dying. Alliance or not, it’s serious business.”

Simon looked surprised. “I know that,” he said. “I was just--”

“Do you?” Mal interrupted. “Know that?”

Simon wet his lips. “How could I not?”

Mal shrugged. “Well, I’d have thought so myself, but you keep pulling these stunts. Going off and getting kidnapped, shot. Now we’re half blown to hell because you had your mind set on something.”

“We’ve been over this,” Simon said, his defenses flaring. “I was just helping.”

“We help our own,” Mal said sharply. “I ain’t saying it’s pretty, I ain’t even saying it’s right. I’m saying that’s what we have to do to survive.”

“Two minutes,” Simon reiterated, his voice tinged with passion. “Just because we have to go to the brink of humanity to survive does not mean we must abandon our humanity altogether. That’s what makes it so important. It’s all we have.”

Mal shook his head. “No, all we have is four hours before we run out of air. Biology don’t care if you’re human or if you’re savage.”

Simon seemed to flinch at that, frowning. “I had to go back for them.”

“You chose to go back for them,” Mal reminded him strongly.

“I didn’t think--” Simon began.

Mal’s eyes flashed angrily, because there it was, the gorram rub. Mal wasn’t the forgiving sort, not when it came to the people he trusted to do better. A client could shoot him and it weren’t nothing to him, but when Jayne had crossed him for the right price, Mal had been prepared to do his worse to the mercenary. Simon’s naivete could only take him so far before Mal had to call him on it -- before it got them all killed. “That’s right, you didn’t think,” he snapped. “Which is why we’re stuck out here, slowly dying with our best hope not nowhere near close enough. Because you didn’t think.”

The words were harsh, purposeful, and damn right truthful, and the boy’s face bore the brunt of them with crumbling resolve. He swallowed, looking away for a moment. When he looked back at Mal, his eyes were softer. Honest. “They were going to die.”

Mal worked his jaw. “They weren’t no concern of ours.”

Simon shook his head. “They were sick. They needed help,” he said simply. “That’s always a concern of mine.”

“And what about the rest of the crew?” Mal challenged. “They need this shipment so they can make some money and get some food. What about them? Where would they be if we got ourselves blasted out of the sky?”


Simon looked away again.

Mal didn’t feel compelled to take compassion on him just yet. “What about them the next time they need a doctor? What about River? Where would she be without you?”

Simon eyes turned to him, wide with hurt and surprise. And the boy looked all of twelve for a moment, far too young and far too naive. It had been a low blow, Mal was well aware of that, but Mal realized that the choice to go back had not been made flippantly or callously. It hadn’t been made with any thought at all, and not because the doctor was too full of himself to think things through. The boy was quite possibly full of himself, but that wasn’t what this was, and Mal knew it. Simon had needed to go back because that was what Simon did. That was who he was.

The man was inherently decent, even despite himself. Nose in the air, but hands always ready -- always needing -- to help. It was a damn unsettling contradiction, and Mal wondered absently how many years on the run it would take to break the doctor of his nasty penchant for humanitarianism.

Hell, all these years later, and Mal couldn’t be sure he was totally broken of his.

It was a hard moment, not one Mal relished, but he didn’t know what to say. He’d tried the makings of hope and he’d gone and lost his temper over it all, and there wasn’t much left. He’d said it all, they both knew the truth. They were holding out for a miracle in a world where that kind of thing just didn’t happen. This was a world where little rich boys trade in their trust funds to save their sister. Where soldiers fight the good fight and lose anyway. Where two minutes could cost them the rest of their lives.

A world without hope. A world without justice. A world Mal had fought against and lost, and the verse liked to remind him of his own futile efforts every chance it got. From clients screwing him over, to maniacs trying to steal medicine, to a blown coil and nearly going down with the ship. If Mal didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all.

Simon coughed suddenly, the motion catching the doctor by surprise and he doubled over with it. It was a hacking cough, grating and deep in the younger man’s chest and Simon broke it off with a wince.

Mal frowned. “You okay?”

Simon was rubbing his chest, looking back toward Mal, his expression veiled and withdrawn. “Just a little cold in here,” he murmured hoarsely.

Mal’s eyes narrowed uncertainly. It was more than a bit chilly, but there was something in the guarded expression that didn’t sit quite right with the captain.

Simon seemed to hold back on another round of coughing, shifting in his seat instead. He seemed to fix his eyes on some indefinable point in the shuttle, studiously keeping his eyes averted from Mal.

Not that Mal could blame him. Mal had pulled his punches knowing full well how hard they would hit. He was right, of course, but he had to admit that that didn’t necessary make Simon wrong.

Two minutes, though. That was costing them just about everything.

So why did he feel guilty? He’d already decided that guilt wasn’t part of the plan. There just weren’t no time and place for things like regret.

Except there was. Not even four hours to go, and Mal was fresh out of things to do. Except sit there and feel like a heel for kicking a man when he was down.

He sighed. He was getting soft, no doubt. Maybe he could write it off as oxygen deprivation if anyone asked him about it later. “It was the right thing to do,” he said finally.

Simon looked at him, confused. “What?”

“Going back to help that family,” he said. “That was the right thing to do.”

Simon’s brow creased, a vague expression of uncertainty on his features. “I’m not sure I follow.”

Mal groaned, rubbing his hands over his legs. If he was going to make amends, he was really going to go for it. “It really ain’t all that complicated,” he said shortly. “I understand why you felt like you had to go back.”

With a frown, Simon shook his head. “Then why are you giving me such a hard time for it?”

“Because sometimes we don’t have the luxury of being right,” he said, his voice harsh, quiet. Not mean this time, just truthsome. Because it was the thing he couldn’t let go of, no matter how much he wished he could.

“You do the right thing more often than I think you care to admit,” Simon reminded him. “The medical supplies after the train job. Taking Shepherd Book to the Alliance ship for treatment. Taking your friend’s body back home.”

Mal stared hard at the console. “They were stupid moves,” he said. He glanced toward Simon. “Every one of ‘em. We’re lucky that I haven’t gotten us all killed.”

“But sometimes making a stand is the right thing to do,” Simon said.

Mal knew about making stands. He knew about putting it all out there, leaving it all on a cause because he believed that cause was worth it.

And he remembered standing in Serenity Valley, his friends and soldiers around him, dead and dying when the cause shriveled up and died. No amount of faith could save it -- and Mal knew, because he had given it everything. Every last bit of himself had been laid bare in that valley, exposed and left among the dead.

When a man didn’t have no belief to anchor him to the moral ground, the only thing left was to turn tail and run. Not because it was right, not because it was wrong. But because a man without something to believe in was a man just trying to stay alive.

For six years, that was how Mal lived. He took solace in his ship, his crew. Transient and makeshift, like the pieces of what remained of his soul. He lived for the dollar because the dollar helped him live, and don’t ask, don’t tell had separated him from the truly evil men in the black.

It was a hard lesson, one Mal kept having to learn with every job they scraped by on. Almost losing Kaylee, seeing Book get shot. Dealing with Jayne’s would-be betrayal, see Zoe laid out. Serenity being dead in the water. Reminders that nothing good was ever meant to stay and that sometimes a cause is good, but not good enough to fall on his sword for.

“Keeping my crew alive, that’s the right thing to do,” Mal told him, the words hard and true. “I don’t want to begrudge no one their chance at freedom and life, but when it comes down to it, we all have to choose between the right thing and the way to survive. Sometimes that means stealing. Sometimes that means running. Sometimes that means not looking to close at the people you see.”

“So you plan it then,” Simon said. “The running.”

“Oh, no,” Mal said quickly with a shake of his head. “I don’t plan the running. That’s just what I do when my plans don’t quite work up to snuff.”

Simon looked thoughtful. “So the fact that we run quite often--”

“Don’t mean nothing to you,” Mal cut him off tersely. He paused, then shrugged. “’sides, we ain’t running now, are we?”

“No, we’re definitely not running,” Simon agreed.

“See?” Mal asked, unable to control the grin sneaking across his face. “Then this is a good plan.”

Simon nodded, frowning a bit. “Well, I certainly hope so,” he said. He cleared his throat deeply, then swallowed hard. He paused for a moment, forehead knit together. His eyes darted up toward Mal with a sense of hesitancy. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Mal raised his eyebrows, cocking his head. “Is that an honest to God apology I’m hearing?”

Simon gave him a half smile, fiddling with one of his sleeves. “I have the mindset of a doctor,” he said with a small shrug. “Sometimes I think I fail to appreciate the necessary priorities of a captain.”

Mal hadn’t been looking for an apology, probably because he never tended to get them even when he deserved them. There was something to say for manners, after all.

Not that Mal would ever own to that. No way, no how. Instead, he frowned, let his face darken despite itself. “Then I suppose you’ll follow my orders no questions when I tell you to sit there and conserve oxygen as best you can.”

“Sit there and do nothing,” Simon repeated thoughtfully. Then he smiled, a small twinkle of humor in his eyes. “Seems like that’d be pretty hard to screw up -- even for me.”

Mal chortled, looking back over his meaningless console. “That’s what I thought about this job,” he said. He flashed a wide grin at Simon. “But you are quite the overachiever.”

“I do what I can,” Simon agreed sardonically.

“That you will,” Mal muttered under his breath, because it was the most either of them could do. Mal’s only hope was that it would eventually prove to be enough.

-o-

Mal could see his breath now, small puffs of air unfurling in front of him. The window was frosted around the edges, obscuring the view of the bleak expanse beyond.

It hadn’t been more than an hour, and already Mal could taste the heavy weight of CO2 in the air. The air temperature had probably dropped almost 20 degrees. If it kept up at this rate, Mal wasn’t sure they’d last the four hours he’d predicted.

He cast a glance toward Simon, wondering if the boy would figure it out. Mal considered telling him; he strongly believed in letting a man die with dignity.

But it was hard to want to deliver such news, especially to a member of his crew. Regardless of his personal feelings toward the doctor, Simon was still something of a responsibility, and the gorram boy liked to make it a challenge when he could.

Even now, Simon was just sitting there, reading. Almost like there weren’t nothing wrong.

The whole way about the boy was sheer ridiculousness. The boy was purebred, all his defaults were proper and prim. Nearly drove Mal mad just to watch him, curled up in his blanket, turning the page, one after the other. The fact that he’d brought a book at all was something to consider, and that he would choose to spend his last hours in this ‘verse reading.

Well, it near defied any logic Mal understood.

“You know, you don’t have to stare at me,” Simon said suddenly, not even looking up.

Mal startled, clearing his throat and looking back at the controls awkwardly. “Just a peculiar thing, is all,” he said finally.

Simon raised his eyebrows.

“The reading,” Mal clarified.

Simon glanced up, letting his eyes linger. “I wasn’t under the impression there was anything I could do to help.”

Mal shrugged. “No, I mean, neither of us do,” he said. He paused and frowned.

Simon looked expectant.

Mal sighed, pressing his lips together. “Just seems like an odd thing to do, is all. Find out we’re dying, so you pick up a book and read away your finale hours.”

Simon forehead wrinkled. “I thought you had a plan.”

“I do,” Mal replied defensively. “It just doesn’t involved...reading.”

“So it involves staring blankly at a console for nearly an hour,” Simon deduced.

Mal frowned, trying to look cross. He had thought his ruse had been rather convincing.

Simon smiled, a little apologetic. “Having River as a sister has always made me somewhat observant of things around me, even when I’m trying to focus on other things. If I wasn’t looking, River would be trying to climb out the balcony of our home or use my study pads to build a house for her dolls.”

“Yes, well, the little one does have a certain way about her,” Mal agreed, feeling a spark of fondness at the thought. There’d always been something about the girl, something in her brokenness Mal could understand. Something in her unusual way of coping that he saw in himself.

Simon shook his head, a wistful expression on his face. “In so many ways, she was always a big brother’s worst nightmare,” he said. He motioned with one hand to the cold air around them. “Into everything, always tagging along. And never failed to show me up any chance she got.”

“I think I might have liked to see that,” Mal quipped.

Simon gave a small laugh. “Everything she did was so extraordinary, that nothing I could do would even compare.” He paused, looking down at his hands. “But she never did it for spite. It never even crossed her mind. The only reason she excelled was because everything was so singularly exciting for her. It made me excited just to be around her.”

There was still something to that, Mal supposed, but it wasn’t the same. It was that sense of memory, that lingering loss that defined the doctor. The boy was still clinging desperately to what was in order to make do with what they had now. “She’s still quite something,” Mal offered.

Simon looked almost, as if he’d almost forgotten that Mal was still there. “Most definitely,” he said. His brow furrowed for a moment. “I see glimmers of it, almost lost behind what they did to her.”

“She’s a bit out there,” Mal agreed. “But I reckon she’s doing better, even if some of her notions are awful peculiar.”

Simon smiled at the thought. “The ship is good for her,” he said. “Stability. A sense of home.”

“My boat is good for that,” Mal said, not bothering to hide the pride in his voice. “It ain’t all fancy, but it’s got heart. Which is more than I can say for those first class Alliance vessels you thought you wanted to be on.”

“It was a fantasy,” Simon said with a slight shrug. “A childish whim.”

“That’s the way the Alliance is in its entirety,” Mal pointed out. “Flights of fancy that can’t be sustain, no way, no how. For all their airs, I can’t imagine living in the Core. Too much right and wrong. Seems like a constricting way to live and my life’s far too short for such constraints.”

“It’s not all bad,” Simon said with a thoughtful frown. “The Core planets have rich cultural offerings. Some of the most impressive sites in the whole verse.”

“And they’re sure to tell you just how to appreciate it,” Mal sniped back. “Or do we need another reminder in how the Alliance used River like they did. Made you their enemy number one.”

The surprise was less this time, but the hurt was much the same. “It has given me plenty of reason to pause,” Simon said.

“Time on the run will do that to a man.”

“I don’t know how to reconcile it,” Simon said softly. He fingered the data pad thoughtfully. “I spent my entire life on Osiris. I went to the best schools, experience all the best the Alliance had to offer. Museums. Art. Architecture. I grew up learning about all the wonderful achievements of the Alliance, grew up believing them to be the true beacon of civilization, even out in the black.”

Mal shifted, not knowing what to say.

Simon smiled a little, bittersweet as he stared off into nowhere. “I thought the Alliance was mankind’s best and only hope. The things they accomplished...but what they did to River. What they leave untouched in the outlying planets. The things they accomplish in the name of a cause without looking at the people.” He shook his head, swallowing hard, wincing as he did. “I always thought I would want to go back, that I would want to resume my life as I left it back on Osiris, but now...I’m not sure I could, even if I was able.”

The boy was being awful truthsome, and it was downright uncomfortable. This was not Mal’s area of expertise, no way, no how. Yet, there was something to it Mal recognize. The feeling of isolation of two soldiers in a trench. The inevitable camaraderie of two souls staring down toward the black.

These were all the truths he’d wanted to shove in Simon’s face since the beginning. All the insults and all the flaws he’d been itching to point out with one big fat I told you so to top it all off. But the regret in the boy’s voice, the ageless sense of loss -- well, that made it hard to relish, to say the least.

“There’s a reason why it don’t do no good to believe in a cause,” Mal said.

Simon watched him carefully. “Then what do you believe in?”

“Nothing if I can help it,” Mal told him, squaring his shoulders somewhat.

It was an answer Simon seemed to be expecting. His own shoulders fell a bit. “That just gets...lonely. Doesn’t it?”

Mal shook his head. “No, it’s dying for a cause that’s lonely,” he said. “But living for the people around you, keeping the hearts of those you call your own beating is the one thing I figure that’s worth fighting for.”

“Family,” Simon said.

Mal gave a tight nod. “The things we’re born with don’t matter anyhow,” he said, and he thought of his mother’s ranch, the friends he’d had growing up. He thought of the open land around his home, the animals and the sun. Things he’d had, things he’d lost. “It’s the things we have in this moment. No more, no less.”

Simon nodded, somewhat thoughtfully. “So the fact that we’re stuck in this shuttle with just the two of each other...?”

Mal reddened a little, shifting. “With Serenity looking for us, of course,” he clarified quickly.

Simon kept his face quite serious. “Of course,” he said. “Serenity is your home, after all.”

“She ain’t much to look at, but she gets the job done,” Mal said amenably. “Just the way I like it.”

“You know, sometimes I find it enviable that the things you trust in, you trust in completely, few as they may be,” Simon said. He laughed lightly. “I find myself increasingly wondering if there is anything in this verse that I can hold onto at all. Beyond River...it all seems like too much to hold onto, and even with what’s happened to River.” His small smile fell, replaced by a more forlorn look. “I don’t know what I’m holding onto sometimes.”

And they had crossed the line again, from friendly conversation to pass the time to more truth than Mal wanted to deal with. This wasn’t him, this wasn’t what he did. But he knew that sometimes when he was dug out in a fox hole, these were the things they talked about. The talk of what-ifs and what-ofs, saying all the things that are too frightening to own to because the thing that loomed beyond was even worse.

Death did funny things to a man. Made him soft when all there was were jagged pieces. Made him expressive when it was only disjointed sentences and unfinished thoughts. Made him open when the walls were built too high to scale.

Mal cleared his throat, clearing the emotions away as best he could. “To the job, then,” Mal said. “The ship’ll come, and then we go back to occupying our small place in this ‘verse, no more, no less.”

Simon nodded a little. “A medical fugitive on a smuggling crew,” he said. Then he laughed a little. “Not exactly the place I’d thought I’d be.”

“Better than a jail cell,” Mal figured.

“Better than having River at the Academy,” Simon added. “I sometimes--”

But the boy broke off into a cough, loud and hacking. He used one hand to cover his mouth, the other tightening around the pad. Simon seemed to work to control the cough, turning his chair forward as if to gain some privacy while the hacking tapered off. After taking a few experimental breaths, he looked back at Mal, smiling tightly.

Mal wasn’t of the doctoring sort, but there was something haunting about that cough, something noteworthy in the expression on the doctor’s pale face. He couldn’t place it, but it rubbed him just wrong. “You sure you’re okay?” Mal asked.

Simon coughed again, but seemed to hold it back with effort. “Yeah,” he said, his voice sounding strained. “The air is getting a little hard...hard to breathe. I imagine we’ll start to feel it more now.”

Mal frowned. It wasn’t a lie, Mal knew because he could feel the wrongness of the air as it worked through his lungs, but the doctor’s reply worried him nonetheless. Simon always seemed to be holding something back, and while most of the time Mal really didn’t want to know, there were other times when it felt like it was probably pertinent.

Still, being locked on a sinking lifeboat was trial enough, and Malcolm Reynolds was no more an emotional man than he was a hero. “The cold ain’t helping none,” he said curtly, rolling his shoulders at the chill settling over him.

Simon clutched at the blanket around him a bit. “We’ll have to get the lantern out soon. The heat is dropping rather quickly.”

“We could try moving some,” Mal suggested. “All this sitting -- it’s not doing us any good.”

“Sitting conserves the air,” Simon said wistfully, letting his head rest back against the wall. “We just have to decide if we’d rather freeze to death--” He paused to cough, deep in his lungs. “--before we suffocate.”

Mal tried to laugh, but it felt hollow in his gut. “I was really rather leaning toward not dying at all.”

Simon turned his head toward him, a look in his eyes that Mal couldn’t quite place. Something of resignation, he thought, but didn’t know. Then he let his eyes drift away. “Right, the master plan.”

“We’ve done our part, messy as it may be,” Mal said. “Now we just have to wait for the beacon and Serenity to do theirs.”

Simon nodded but didn’t look at him. “A plan is a plan,” he said. He sighed, letting his head roll back against the seat, turning his pad over on his lap. “It’s more than I’ve got, so I’m not about to complain.”

Mal nodded, as if he actually believed it. “So, is it at least any good?”

Simon lifted his head, cocking it for a moment. “What?”

“What you’re reading,” Mal said with a nod to the pad.

Simon picked it up, giving it an absent look. “It’s a medical journal,” he said. “There’s been a recent development of treatment for spinal injuries that is quite fascinating. Shows a lot of promise, though I do wonder how permanent the fusion process is and if artificial vertebrae can hold up--”

Mal looked at him, eyebrows raised.

Simon cut off, shutting his mouth with a knowing smile. “You were just being polite,” he said with a nod. He tossed the pad on the console in front of him. “Sorry.”

“Well, I figure it’s good to keep ourselves a bit distracted,” Mal said as conversationally as he could.

Simon nodded, looking around the dim shuttle. “That’s going to get harder,” he said. “The CO2 levels will be affecting our thinking soon.”

Mal blew out a breath, pushing away from the console. It was a fact he knew, of course, but sitting around doing nothing while he died simply wasn’t his style.

Simon turned, swiveling in the seat. “What are you doing?”

Mal leaned over, shuffling through the supplies they’d set aside. He pulled out the lantern, flicking the switch and watching as it lit up. It cast hazy shadows on the walls, and Mal could feel its warmth, meager as it was, almost immediately.

With a satisfied smile, he put it down. “Seems like we could use the boost,” he said. He shrugged. “’Sides, I’m not sure what we think we’re waiting for.”

Simon smiled, small and reserved. He stood, taking his blanket with him. “It probably is getting to about that time,” he agreed, walking closer to the lantern. “We need to keep close to the heat for the maximum benefit.”

With effort, Simon seemed to lower himself, and Mal couldn’t help but noticed the how pale the younger man looked in the new glow of the lantern. After a moment, Simon settled, wrapping himself in his blanket and drawing his knees toward his chest. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting his head rest back against the wall.

“That goes for you, too,” Simon said, eyes still closed.

“What?” Mal asked, feeling like he’d be caught unawares.

Simon opened his eyes, looking at Mal with a certain dullness that did not become him and it didn’t seem right. Not at all. “You need to stay close to the lantern,” he said. “The longer we can keep our bodies from expending too much energy to stay warm, the longer we’ll last.”

It was sound logic, and that was something Mal could stand behind.

Or, sit behind, as things were.

With a sigh, Mal lowered himself down, easing against the wall a few feet from Simon. He sat there for a moment, soaking up the meager heat as best he could. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Letting his eyes linger toward Simon, he wondered if there was something more to say. But Mal was not a man of many words and they’d already used more than their share and they still had a few hours to go. If he thought about it, maybe there was a reason for that, maybe there was value in talking now in case there weren’t no chance to talk later, but Mal didn’t admit defeat. He didn’t surrender and he never accepted failure.

Running, retreating, and clinging to survival, hell, yes, of course. Just had to keep on. Just had to keep it together.

His gaze drifted toward the ceiling, trying to suppress a shiver. This was all it was. Survival. Holding on for Serenity. For family, for home.

Mal let the heat hold him, even in the growing cold, as the minutes drifted on.

-o-

Dying was slow and cumbersome work. So much to think about, but nothing to do. So much to regret, but nothing to fix. The chance to look back over everything and know exactly what went wrong, but no way this side of Heaven to make any of it right.

They were shivering now, crowded close to the faint glow of the lantern. It was awkward, in all honesty. When Serenity had been crippled, his reasons for sending everyone away had been mostly altruistic. Though, he would admit, as much as the thought of dying alone did not sit well with him, the thought of dying with someone else made him more than a little uneasy. With Zoe, it would be easy because neither of them would talk about it. Wouldn’t have to. Wash would keep things light. Kaylee would be a ray of sunshine until the end. Even Jayne would give him a certain kind of distraction that he could count as a solace. And Inara...well, he had some ideas about what he would do to pass the time with Inara, should they both be coming to mortal peril.

But he was with Simon. Not even River, who might be amusing or helpful in times such as this. But Simon.

His first instincts had been not to trust that boy and even as they were approaching their last, it was hard to shake that. He didn’t fancy dying, and he certainly didn’t know how to go about it when closed up in a shuttle with a stuck-up core doctor who he’d never understood nor never really wanted to. He’d defend Simon, he’d risk his hide to go back for the boy, but that didn’t make them friends.

And it sure as hell didn’t make them good at small talk.

Mal supposed it was a small blessing that after their last conversation, Simon had taken a hint and quieted down a bit. For as lilly-white as the boy’s belly was, he didn’t seem much better with words than Mal was. A sparkling vocabulary couldn’t make up for an inherent lack of people skills, and the slow and inevitable task of dying didn’t exactly lend itself to chitchat.

Course, it didn’t lend itself to anything. Except dying in a slow and cumbersome fashion, which was exactly what Mal was trying not to dwell on. He’d seen it in the war. The ones that fixated all particular like on their coming demise were always the ones to bite it first. The stupid stubborn sons of bitches who acted like death and losing just weren’t options didn’t necessary last much longer, but they were always laughing until it was over, one way or another.

He’d already said more than he’d wanted to. He’d already listened to Simon more than he’d ever imagined himself tolerating. It was confounding, that was what it was. The lack of oxygen, the cold, the whole gorram situation. It was rigged to deprive Mal slowly of his manhood. There wasn’t a master plan in the ‘verse that required that much nonsensical gabbing.

So what to do, what to do. On the floor, he didn’t even have a console to play with, which left staring. And cleaning his fingernails, which were quite atrociously dirty. He fiddled with a hole starting to come in his pants, wondering if he could talk Kaylee into patching it up for him. She was good at that kind of thing, always attaching patches to her own clothes when she had the chance.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Simon coughing. Again.

Mal had to glare, but it was just as much concern as it was annoyance. “Sure you’re feeling alright?” he asked shortly.

Simon glanced at him, surprised for a moment. Then his face darkened, his expression guarded. Shifting, Simon fiddled with his blanket, swallowing hard. “Fine,” he said, but his voice was thick and gravelly, like there was something not so pleasant in his throat.

Mal did not attempt to hide his skepticism. “I think maybe I’d like a second opinion on that one, doc.”

The younger man offered back a wan smile. “Fortunately, since I am the only qualified medical personnel on board, you’ll just have to take my word for it.”

Clever, but Mal had to notice that it wasn’t an outright denial. That probably didn’t mean much, but it was not a pleasing doubt all the same. “Just want to make sure we keep it that way,” Mal said, trying to joke. “I never aimed to hire a doctor, but it’s been right convenient to have you on board sometimes.”

Simon nodded a little, eyes wandering around the shuttle. “Makes me wonder how you managed to survive before.”

Mal scoffed. “We just had to be so much more careful,” he said. “Now we can just jump in front of the bullets with no cares in the world since we got ourselves a fully licensed doctor to fix us up nice and pretty.”

“I’m not sure I’m licensed,” Simon said, somewhat thoughtfully. He rolled his head back toward Mal. “I mean, not since my fugitive status.” He punctuated the thought with a cough.

Mal nodded. “Yes, I can see how that might rile the medical board a bit.”

Simon smiled tightly. “More than a bit,” he said. “Though I do seem to have that effect on people these days.”

Mal tutted. “You? No!”

Simon shook his head, his smile turning weary. He coughed again, harsh and violent.

Mal straightened a bit, turning toward the doctor for a better look. “You sure you’re okay?”

Simon nodded, his eyes squeezed shut for a moment. When he opened them again, he wet his lips. “Fine, fine,” he said dismissively. “Though, you don’t mind my asking, why do you really let me stay on board?”

“You earn your pay,” Mal pointed out, his default response strong.

Simon wasn’t buying it. “My troubles can’t hardly be worth the service I provide,” he said. “Surely your life was easier...”

Mal made a sound in his throat. “Thought we already determined that I didn’t always do things the easy way.”

Simon seemed to consider that for a long moment. “I just...if anything happened, you would let River stay, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t throw her off?”

The question caught Mal off guard. It wasn’t something he thought on. Sure, the thought of leaving Simon’s ass had cross his mind once or twice, and life without either Tam would be easier...but, kick River off?

And more important: “If what happened?” Mal asked, his voice cutting angrily as he sat up straight.

Simon blinked, eyes wide. “Just...a hypothetical--”

“A hypothetical pile of gorram crap,” Mal snapped. “I told you we had a plan.”

Simon’s mouth opened for a moment, then closed. He looked away, nodding quickly. “Of course,” he said. “I just...wondered, was all.”

“Keep your wondering a little less morbid,” Mal said hastily, feeling his hackles begin to lower a little. He settled himself primly against the wall, feeling the heat of his adrenaline rush taper off in the growing chill. “Anyhow, you screw up my plan by going off and dying all premature, I’ll kill you myself.”

Simon laughed breathlessly, a small puff of smoke in the air. “Yes, sir.”

Mal nodded. “That’s better,” he said, and tried to believe that it was the truth. Simon didn’t disagree and for once the boy was not of a contrary nature, which probably should have been reassuring.

But there was something about this, something about the cold, something about Simon’s cough. Something about his questions, his thinking, and Mal weren’t no reader, but he could read a situation as well as any normal minded man could.

A fatalistic doctor with a cough in a slowly dying shuttle. Could be just that. Could be more.

Mal didn’t know.

Mal didn’t want to know.

He just hoped Serenity would hurry the hell up and find them before he had to figure out which way was which.

Though, right then, it was getting hard to care about much. The doctor was right about the air, it was different. Wrong. It clouded his brain and muddled his thinking. And the cold made him downright sleepy.

He yawned, trying to will it all away.

But the glow of the lantern made it hard to see and next to him Simon’s eyes were already closed.

A little nap, he wondered. Might not be so bad. It wasn’t the point of no return, not yet. Sleep might make the idle hours go faster until their rescue came.

And their rescue would come. Mal didn’t have to be awake to know that for certain.

With that thought, warm and nestled in his chest, Mal let himself slip away.