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

December 28th, 2017 (03:15 pm)
flirty

feeling: flirty

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE


-o-

Mal came to with a start, cold air filling his already cold lungs. The ensuing shudder rattled him, ripping through his sore body with a ferocity that made him wince.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, using one hand to rub at his chest. He was still against the wall, more or less, but sloped over, neck tilted at an uncomfortable angle. His legs were in front of him now, looking awkward in the dimming light.

With a wince, Mal straightened himself, trying to wrench his neck back into something resembling a normal position. His stiff muscles protested and he couldn’t so much as elicit a good crack to make himself feel better.

Resigned, Mal grimaced, swallowing hard against the dryness in his throat. They had plenty of supplies, he recalled. There wasn’t much sense in starving himself to death while he froze from the inside out.

Blinking, Mal tried to clear his vision enough to find his bottle of water. It was a slow sort of focus, and Mal remembered that freezing might not be the way he’d go after all. The lack of oxygen was certainly a contender.

He spied the bottle of water to his left, and it only took him two tries to pick it up. He drank thirstily, the cold water spreading throughout him with the bittersweet reminder that he was in fact still alive.

Alive and kicking, no matter what the ‘verse was throwing his way.

But damn, it was cold.

He finished his drink, tossing the bottle aside, shaking with a new intensity. Even in the muddiness of his brain, he knew it was getting worse. It was impossible to know just how much heat they’d loss, but Mal would wager most of his part of the cut that they were rapidly approaching the freezing mark.

Which would then render their water useless, though at that point, Mal wasn’t sure it’d matter a whole lot.

It was something, just how quickly this was going down. When the ship had been crippled, they’d had something like hours, maybe half a day. In the tiny confines of the shuttle, it was at an accelerated rate.

That might be okay if Mal was convinced that there was no other solution. Going down with his ship wasn’t so bad. Heading out in the shuttle was a bit less dramatic, but Mal would take what heroics he could get at the end. But losing one of his crew in the process...

Mal’s mind moved sluggishly, lighting on the other salient point of interest he had left. Simon.

Blinking, Mal shifted his body, wincing as his stiff muscles turned toward where the young doctor was on the floor. He didn’t look to have moved much, body still, blankets unrumpled.

The doc had never had much in the way of healthy complexion -- the boy always seemed to have the pale hue that marked those who faithfully served the Alliance -- but he looked even paler than normal. Too pale. Too still.

Mal’s breath caught, his heart lodging in his throat. He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, with how Simon had been it was possible...

Wetting his lips, Mal swallowed convulsively. There was only one way to find out.

With hesitation, Mal moved closer, leaning over the boy. Closer, Simon didn’t look much better, and Mal felt himself trembling as he reached two fingers out to feel the boy’s neck.

At first, all he felt was cold, cold skin, like ice beneath his own frozen fingers. He forced himself to still, straining to listen over the rapid pounding of his own heart.

Then, Simon gasped, a rattling breath so sudden that Mal yelped in surprise, stumbling backward.

Simon’s eyes were wide and darting, mouth open as he thrashed meagerly. The doc was more than a bit disoriented, and as Mal watched hazily, he knew the boy wasn’t the only one.

Still, all things considered, Simon was going to use up all their oxygen in some kind of panic attack if Mal didn’t move.

Moving was easier said than done, though, and he blinked heavily as he tried to remember how it worked.

Movement. Comfort. Control. Mal was the captain, Simon was his crew. He could do this.

With a start, Mal came to attention, fumbling forward once again, using his hands to press down on Simon’s shoulders. “Easy, easy,” he said, stern but gentle.

Simon bucked against him, a string of unintelligible murmurs escaping his mouth.

“Come on, doc,” Mal said. “I’d threaten to sedate you, but I’m ‘fraid I couldn’t find the right drug to do it with, so maybe you should just calm down.”

Simon’s thrashing stopped suddenly, his brow furrowed as he focused on Mal’s face. “The shuttle,” he said, his voice no more than a whisper. His eyes flicked around before settling back on Mal. “It’s colder.”

Mal cracked a grin, easing his grip and settling back a bit. “You never fail to impress with those keen observational skills.”

Simon didn’t seem to hear the quip. Though, with a sense of humor like the doc’s, it was really hard to tell.

Yet, no matter how it was, this really wasn’t much of a laughing matter, all things considered.

With effort, Simon swallowed, his eyes narrowing as he seemed to focus on Mal’s face. “You look...pale,” he said. “Some...discoloration.”

Mal raised his eyebrows. “That might be a bit of the pot talking to the kettle.”

“It’s...affecting you...isn’t it?” Simon said plainly.

Whether the doc meant the cold or the air, Mal couldn’t be sure. But it really didn’t matter. They were both doing a number on him, not that that was really here nor there at the current moment. He shook his head, smiling. “Nothing to worry about,” he said. “Temp’s falling a bit, but it’s all according to plan.”

Simon nodded a little, eyes unfocusing just a bit. “The plan,” he said absently.

Mal leaned over him again, putting himself purposefully in Simon’s field of vision. “The plan where Serenity finds us out here, sees our heroic exploits of survival, and bring us home and laud us with something hot to drink and warm baths,” he explained, his voice louder, a bit sharper to get the younger man’s attention once more.

There was a glint of recognition in the boy’s eyes. “The plan,” he repeats, with something of certainty in his voice this time. “Just follow the plan.” His mouth quirked into a smile, but it was strained and said. “Even I can’t...mess it up.”

Mal sat back a bit, easing himself against the wall and bringing his legs close to his chest. “Even you,” he agreed with a self-satisfied nod.

“I’ve spent...my life following other people’s plans,” Simon said, his voice breathless and stilted. “The Alliance. My father. Even the people who...who helped me break River out...it was their plan.”

“Sometimes we create orders, sometimes we take ‘em,” Mal said shortly. “Ain’t no shame in that.”

Simon’s face crumpled in something like regret. “Sometimes I didn’t...didn’t even think,” he continued. “On my own...never would have...never would have made it.”

The words were wistful, sad. Ashamed.

“Only stand I ever...ever made was for...for River,” he said haltingly. He closed his eyes for a long moment, and when he opened them again, there were traces of tears. “Too late, though.”

It wasn’t like Mal to offer comfort. He wasn’t the type who coddled, especially not the doc. He might afford words of kindness in times of mortal peril, something of sweet battlefield lies for a fallen comrade. But Simon wasn’t one he often counted among his comrades, at least not like he did Zoe or Wash or even Jayne. He didn’t owe the boy protection like he did Kaylee. He didn’t warrant the same care that Inara or even River did.

But Simon. Mal was hard, but he weren’t that hard. Not yet.

“River’s alive and well, thanks to you,” Mal reminded him. Then he shrugged. “Well being, of course, a relative term.”

Simon didn’t laugh, though. “Should have...should have done more,” he said, his weak voice insistent. “Don’t even know...how to protect her.”

“You got her to Serenity,” Mal said. “No man can fight the Alliance alone, trust me, I know. We all have to take the help we can get in times like these.”

But Simon’s look was faraway, fixed on something undefinable on the shuttle’s ceiling. “Should have had a plan,” he said, almost thoughtfully analytic now. “A plan of...my own.”

Mal swallowed bitterly, his smiling facade faltering. “They ain’t all they’re cracked up to be,” he muttered.

Simon didn’t seem to hear him, or the boy didn’t care to listen. “I don’t know how...you do it,” Simon said, shaking his head. There was almost awe in his tired words. “You keep making...plans. Even when they never work...work out right, you make...plans.”

Mal’s throat felt tight and he swallowed with difficulty. “The more I plan, the less control I have,” he said. “It’s just the idea of it that matters.”

Simon smiled somewhat, distant and soft. “Plans are...safety nets,” he said in a musing tone. There was something almost melodic in his voice, and for a second, it reminded Mal of River. River was graceful and easy and sometimes it was hard to see the similarities between the two Tam siblings. River had her own logic, but Simon never quite seemed to have the easy sense of letting go that River so plainly enjoyed.

But now, Mal could see something of it. Hidden beneath the layers, visible when the boy’s defenses were dropped.

Simon almost smiled before his voice breathed again. “Easy to follow, script life.” The younger man closed his eyes for a long moment, wetting his dry lips slightly. “People matter more.”

The logic was strained, but somehow Mal could follow it.

Simon’s eyes opened, lids low and gaze veiled. The boy was dimming, slipping away, and Mal didn’t know how to accept it or deny it. But Simon wasn’t asking either of him. In fact, Simon wasn’t asking anything at all. The boy’s next words were simple, strained and stark. “I’m sorry.”

People liked to apologize when they were dying. They liked to make amends, to set things right. Mal had been around death enough to know that.

But hearing Simon apologize to him...was a hard thing to hear. Not because he thought the doctor had nothing to say sorry for, but because that wasn’t the way Simon was. It wasn’t the way they were.

And hell, it meant that Simon thought he was dying, and truth Mal had no yet reconciled himself to.

Face taut, Mal shook his head.

“You’ve always...come back,” Simon continued with doggedness. “You should have...left me. I should have...listened.”

Mal shook his head. “No.”

Simon just nodded. “You have...good plans.”

“I ain’t accepting your apology,” Mal snapped, voice rough.

Simon looked surprised, eyes widening.

It almost physically hurt, the implications of it all. Mal didn’t have to like the boy to respect him. Mal didn’t have to be his best friend to feel responsible. Mal was cold, Mal was jaded, but he wasn’t heartless. And he sure as hell hadn’t gone through all of this to sit here and watch the boy give up.

That flare of anger was what he needed, was what he held onto. To keep fighting. To make Simon keep fighting. “You think you can give me some deathbed confession and make it all right again?” Mal asked with more than a hint of accusation in his voice. “You owe me more than that. Once we get back to Serenity, once you get back on your feet, then you can say you’re sorry, then you can make it up to me just like you need to.”

The shock on Simon’s face couldn’t make him reel it in. It was coming out now, the only way Mal could think of. “You keep it together,” he said harshly. “You made a mess, you clean it up, and so help me, I’m holding you to that. I will hold you to that.”

Simon blinked at him, shivering almost uncontrollable. The boy’s mouth opened, then closed. A passing thought seemed to flit through the boy’s eyes, but it drifted away and Simon let out a shaky breath, before dragging in a lung full of cold, saturated air.

Mal waited for Simon’s response. He waited for defiance, for acquiescence, for anything.

But Simon blinked again, eyes barely slits as his lips parted and his body seemed to fall lax once more.

Mal wet his lips, a shred of doubt niggling at him. “Simon,” he said, reaching a hand down to touch the boy’s cold shoulder. “Simon.”

Simon trembled, his eyes drifting shut, and the boy slipped into unconsciousness without so much as a word of retort.

All Mal could do was watch. Watch was Simon’s body got weaker. Watch as Simon’s responses got less coherent. Watch as his plan, his coveted, glorified plan, fell apart like the farce that it was. Mal was a good leader, damn good at rallying the troops to fight an impossible cause, but sometimes all the orders, all the threats, all the well wishes -- didn’t matter. Sometimes the cold was too much, the air was to thick, and Mal had no choice but to sit back and wait like any mortal man.

-o-

Time was slow. Normally Mal might think that to be a good thing, each precious moment lasting for what it was. But the minutes seemed like hours, stretching on and on while Mal waited in futility.

He dozed, drifting off when his body got so cold that everything just went numb. He awoke intermittently, brought back to awareness by the jarring of his own trembling body and the chattering of the teeth inside his head. It seemed like an eternity was passing, but when Mal checked the time, it had been no more than an hour.

Serenity would have to get here soon, though Mal’s mind was getting fuzzy on the math. But much longer, and Mal wouldn’t have much left to hold onto, shaking and chattering as he was.

As bad off as he was, his own condition wasn’t as bothersome as Simon’s. The boy hadn’t been awake for awhile now, and it was getting hard not to resign them both to the lingering fate. Mal probably would have appreciated the company, even from the likes of Simon’s blue blood tendencies. It would at least make the time seem a little less interminable.

Still, wishes were wishes, and a lack of conversation was really the least of Mal’s problems. Because if Mal’s time was running short, Simon’s was just about spent. The boy wasn’t shaking anymore. His face was waxen, touches of blue in the lips and around the eyes.

It was almost over, Mal knew. Simon had broken all the rules for his sister, fought against the Alliance and won, and he was going down like this. In a freezing, airless shuttle in the vast vacuum of space.

An inconsequential death for a load of cargo that would only pay them for the next month and a small family of four that they would never see again.

Top three percent, a surgeon on Osiris, Kaylee’s infatuation, River’s lifeline. The boy mattered to people, mattered to his crew. Mattered to Mal.

And all Mal could do was sit there and watch him die.

Suddenly, Simon’s breathing stuttered, the harsh grating sticking for a moment before the doctor’s chest shuttered and picked up again. It was a loud sound, wet and desperate as it lilted again.

Mal wanted to look away. He wanted to close his eyes to it. But sometimes making a stand was the right thing to do.

Instead, he scooted closer, going to his knees next to Simon’s prone form. The younger man’s mouth was open now, straining vainly for air. His body was tense, even in deep unconsciousness, and with the failing breaths, Mal could hear a pain whine.

It was a horrible, slow, painful death. To slowly run out of air, to have his lungs freeze from the inside out. This was no gentle release into the dying light, this was a slow tearing of life from the body, bit by bit, until there would be nothing left at all.

Mal had seen men die. He’d seen them go fast and he’d seen them go slow. He’d even seen the likes of those he cared about, but that didn’t make it much easier. For all the issues he’d had with Simon, he did not wish this on the boy, and he did not wish to let him die alone.

He’d said once that everyone died alone.

It certainly weren’t the first time he’d been wrong. Though, the way this was shaping up, it very well might be the last.

Simon’s breath hitched again, his chest hyper-extended with effort. The boy made a choking sound, fleeting and frantic.

“Shh,” Mal said, hushing him. One of his hands reached out to Simon’s head, smoothing across it with a semblance of comfort. “Just relax,” he mused. “Just relax.”

His voice was nothing more than a whisper, quiet in the dead, cold air. Simon struggled for a moment longer, before his entire body relaxed with an exhale, a long, drawn out movement.

Then, there was nothing.

The beeping of the dying console. The flickering lights. Mal’s own heart beating in the endless, resounding stillness.

And nothing more.

-o-

Mal wasn’t sure how long he sat there, hand on Simon’s cold brow. Seconds. Minutes. An eternity. It didn’t matter much. There was nothing more he could do, nothing more he wanted to do. For all the times he’d failed, for all the things he’d lost, he wasn’t sure he was ready to face this.

Not that there was a way to run from it. Simon was still lying there, still and pale.

The boy was dead. His chest didn’t move, his body didn’t stir. All that intelligence, all that arrogance, all that dedication, just gone.

Mal wasn’t sure how much longer he had. An hour. Maybe more. Maybe less. Degrees of nothingness. He couldn’t fathom a reason to care. The best he could hope for was that Serenity found them and their loot before some other scavenger got the better of them. He didn’t much care what happened to his body, but he liked to think all this wouldn’t be for nothing. And River might need the closure, assuming the girl was coherent enough for it.

His head was light and he found himself tipping forward. He managed to catch himself before landing on Simon’s body, blinking rapidly to try to clear his muddled vision.

The lack of air was getting to him, even worse than the cold ache in his bones. Things were getting frayed around the edges, and he was hearing stuff to top it all off. This incessant beeping, again and again and again--

Mal jerked upright. That wasn’t no hallucination. That beeping was real.

The fact was so surprising that for a brief second, Mal didn’t know what to do. Then, almost as if on autopilot, he lurched to his feet, stumbling toward the console. His eyes blurred as he tried to read the panel, trying to see what it was trying to tell him. He squinted, trying to make sense of it.

He blew out a heavy breath, laden with frustration and spared a glance at the window.

And saw the best damned thing ever.

Serenity. Within range. Right there.

If this was a hallucination, he certainly wouldn’t complain. Hell of a way to die, though. Staring at the face of a miracle as it all faded away.

Mal looked over his shoulder with effort where Simon was still laid out. There was an unnatural hue over the boy’s face, something vaguely inhuman and wrong about it all.

Casting his eyes back toward Serenity, Mal felt himself slipping, consciousness leaving him just as he heard the sound of something thudding on the hull of the shuttle.

-o-

Then, air.

Fresh, sweet, warm. Filling up his lungs with a pure richness that almost made Mal want to cry. It was something, really, how easy it was to take the simple things for granted. His ship, his crew, his life. All fleeting things, barely tethered to his existence by intangibles Mal was not sure he cared to comprehend. He didn’t much care how it all worked, just that it did.

Though there was something a mite peculiar ‘bout all this, even if it seemed a bit difficult to discern. But somewhere beyond the relief of living and breathing, Mal was reminded of something else. Something pressing, something...

“I need that shot of epinephrine now.

It was Zoe, of course. All business and to the point. She was good like that, the best damn right hand a captain could ever want.

“Just a second, just a second,” Inara was mumbling, and that really weren’t like her. She sounded flustered. Sort of made Mal wish he knew why.

Why. There was a reason why, and Mal just had to think a little harder. The air was moving the fog away from his brain and he realized that he was on the floor. Cold and metal beneath him, awkward as hell, and certainly not his first choice of accommodations. And she smelled funny. He wasn’t on Serenity.

The shuttle.

He was on the shuttle.

With Simon.

Before Simon...

His eyes snapped open, searching desperately at the ceiling above him. The emergency lights were out now, but there was light from someplace out. Bright and glaring, almost blinding him.

Then there was a movement and a voice. “I think the Captain is coming to,” Book said as Mal’s eyes focused on his face. The Shepherd was smiling, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

There was cursing and scuffling from someplace off yonder. “The epinephrine,” Zoe growled. “Inara.

Another movement caught his eye. A graceful motion, a light dallying of feet and flowing robes. Inara’s face turned toward him, just for a moment. Her dark eyes were round and wet, and she looked younger than she was as she turned back toward her task.

He craned his head, following Inara as she moved away from him.

She didn’t go far, just across the shuttle. Going to her knees, Mal watched as she picked up Simon’s arm and injected something into it.

The movement didn’t make Zoe pause, though. His first officer was on her knees next to Simon, arms straight and moving quickly, up and down, up and down. Then she paused, kneeling over until her lips met his and she blew.

It was a jarring thing to see, and then Mal recognized it for what it was. CPR. Old school first aid, but the classics never died. They’d both been trained on it during their stint in the war, but Zoe had always been a better one at study.

Zoe straightened again, resuming her compressions. “Where is Kaylee and the med kit?” she asked roughly, her voice strained and winded.

“It shouldn’t be long now,” Inara said.

“Well, I don’t know how long he’s been down,” Zoe snapped before she leaned over again, breathing for Simon. She came up with a gasping breath. “Can’t say how much time the doc even has left to keep trying.”

Simon was dead, Mal remembered. He remembered watching the boy’s last breath, seeing the life leave his body. Even now, he just lay there, like a shell. Mal knew the power of modern medicine, but he also knew the power of death. What it felt like to watch someone die. How it never quite seemed right and yet always seemed real final-like.

So all the life-saving stuff, sort of seemed like cheating.

Considering Malcolm Reynolds was a liar and a thief, it sort of seemed right up his alley.

Though problem with living dishonest was that even an honest day’s work didn’t mean a payoff. In fact, sometimes, the times they put in the most was when they got the least out of it.

Zoe was giving it everything. Her face was scrunched, focused and tight. Trying to save a life. Trying to save Simon’s life. They were family, his crew. His and each other’s.

But miracles. They were always hard up on miracles, no matter how hard Book prayed. No matter what lies Mal told. Mal could steal for a living, but he couldn’t steal back a life from the black, no matter how much he wanted to.

Then Kaylee was there, shaking and running and crying and ramblin’. Talking about oxygen levels and how fast she’d had to run and please, please, please, is he going to be okay?

Zoe didn’t answer, just ripped open Simon’s shirt. She fixed the charge, then laid it to the younger man’s chest.

Simon’s body arched off the ground, and Mal swore he could feel the electrical current through the air, spiking in his own sore chest.

Simon had asked him once, about how he kept going. Mal said as long as the ship was still running, it was enough. Not much, but enough.

He couldn’t be sure that was true no more. Not when he was lying on the floor of a shuttle watching everything just slip, slip, slip away.

Book was whispering a prayer, the invocation like a faint song lilting in Mal’s head. A haunting melody he knew once, maybe still did, Maybe not.

Mal blinked and the world slowed down, falling out of focus like he’d just been hit in the wake of a flash bomb.

Zoe pressed the paddles to Simon’s chest once again and Simon’s body responded, jolted off the ground before falling still again.

Fighting for a lost cause. Seemed to be Mal’s thing. Run, run, run, until there wasn’t any place left. It was cowardly to run; it was practical. But when his back was in the corner, Mal would always fight. Words or bullets, maiming or killing, he had to fight for what mattered. That list was small these days, but not empty.

The Shepherd’s voice was the only thing now, defining his existence. Our Father, protect us with your unfailing love. Save us with your great mercy.

And Simon’s body was shocked again.

Heal the body. Touch the soul. Redeem us, oh Lord. Make us whole.

Mal weren’t one for prayers, but as his vision faded out, his only thought was amen.

And if God answered, Mal would never know as unconsciousness came to him again.

-o-

This time it was warm. Comfortable and familiar, like curling up in his bunk on an off morning. The distant whir of the engines was an easy lullaby, serene and encompassing, like the steady beating of a heart.

Things were never wrong when it was like this. There wasn’t much in life Mal considered safe, but this was pretty damn close. His ship. His home.

His family.

And the memory rocked him so hard that he nearly fell off the bed he was lying on.

“Sir, sir,” Zoe’s calm professional voice came to him with a strong grip on his shoulder, pushing him back down.

He blinked rapidly, swallowing against the dryness in his throat. “Zoe,” he said, almost surprised he could speak at all. It was all happening kind of fast, the pieces coming to him in bits. Parts were missing, parts were incomplete, and some of the parts he just didn’t want to think about. It was instinct to fall back to his roots. “Report.”

Anyone else might have laughed at him, reprimanded him some. But Zoe, she was the type that understood these things. There was concern in her eyes, but her tone was all business. “We’ve got the shuttle aboard and Kaylee is working on cataloguing the repairs. Wash has a course set closer toward the core where we can restock and get back on our feet.”

Mal kept blinking, trying to take it all in. “The doc?”

Her facade flickered, but only for a moment. “Stable, but still unconscious. Medical scans aren’t showing anything in the way of damage, but none of us know much about how to read those scans. He seems to have an infection in his lungs and we’re working him on a normal cocktail of antibiotics to cover our bases.”

With effort, Mal hefted himself to a sitting position, steadying himself on the wall while the world tilted with the movement.

Zoe’s hand reached out again, almost touching, but not quite. “And you’re just fine, sir, in case you were wondering,” she told him pointedly. “Some oxygen and we think we got the worst of the CO2 out of your system.”

Mal nodded, almost deaf to the report on his well being. Instead he swung his legs of the side, catching a glimpse of Simon for the first time.

The doctor was on the bed in the middle of the room, stretched out and still. The head was slightly elevated, and he was tucked in neatly with a thermal blanket. His face was still pale, but with a flush of fever in his cheeks. The blue discoloration of his lips and eyelids was gone, and for a second, all Mal could do was watch as Simon’s chest rose and fell, rose and fell.

“You got him back,” he said, unable to hide his disbelief.

Zoe’s face was serious and drawn. “Took longer than I would have liked, but there’s no way in telling if it had any impact until he wakes up. I’m worried about the congestion in his lungs, though. We’re a few hours out and he’s not shaking it.”

Mal frowned, getting shakily to his feet. Things dimmed for a moment, but he found his legs and pushed forward. When he was next to Simon’s bed, he looked down intently. The younger man’s hands were folded neatly across his stomach, and even with his sketchy vision, Mal could see the blue beds of his fingernails. “It’s Rocelle’s,” he said.

Zoe walked up, standing next to him. “What?”

“Rocelle’s,” Mal said again. Then he turned toward the medical cabinets, opening up the one where they kept the medicine.

“Sir, how can you possibly--”

“Doc treated a family with it back on Rocelle’s,” Mal explained, riffling through the vials. “Told me the symptoms.”

“If it really is Rocelle’s, then we have to hurry,” she said. “That don’t take long to put a healthy man under and in Simon’s condition....”

She didn’t have to finish the statement. Mal found the vial, pulling it out and picking up the injector from the counter. He loaded it with shaky fingers, double checking it before he turned back toward Simon. “It’s a two minute inoculation,” he said simply. “Two minutes and we can save his life.”

Zoe didn’t reply, but she didn’t have to. Mal picked up Simon’s arm, pushing up the sleeve. He found a good spot, in the crook of he arm, pressed the injector down and released the drug.

The injector hissed, letting its drugs go, and Mal gently returned Simon’s arm back to his side.

The adrenaline of it all was fading, and Mal was reminded that he had nearly just died himself with a wave of vertigo. Simon’s cut features went blurry and Mal wavered. He was brought back to himself by a hand on his arm.

“Sir, maybe you should lie down.” Zoe’s suggestion was more an order than anything.

As much as he wanted to disagree, his waning strength was a compelling case to the contrary.

Zoe was moving him now, subtle and easy so as he didn’t even know he was moving back to his bed until he was sitting on it. “We can handle it from here,” Zoe assured him, and there was something softer in her voice this time.

He forced himself to look up, getting a good look at his second in command. Zoe was a woman who had fought in the trenches, who had faced the Alliance and stood strong. She was a soldier, a strong leader, and her loyalty still astounded him. Why, after all this time, she still stood by him. It was something Mal wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to understand.

“How did you know?” he asked, his voice no more than a croak.

“Know what?”

Mal met her eyes steadily, searching for the honesty he could always count on there. “How did you know to come back?”

Her eyes darted away, just for a moment. “River felt something, couldn’t say exactly what,” she explained. Then she raised her gaze. “But she threw such a fit that we couldn’t just ignore it. We got closer, picked up your beacon and set a course. We weren’t sure we’d gotten there in time...”

Mal grinned, a little drunkenly, patting her on the arm. “You did good,” he assured her. “You all did good.”

-o-

Sleep was different this time; softer somehow. Lighter, dreams wafting in and out of his subconscious. Easy this time, insubstantial and disconnected so that when Mal woke again, he actually felt better.

Better, he thought to himself with a lung full of air. Now there was a novel thought.

It came back to him quickly this time, in a clarity and detachment he’d lacked before. It had been a damn close thing in the shuttle, and Mal could appreciate it now that the carbon dioxide was playing games with his head.

He took another breath, garnering whatever reserves he’d managed to build up. Something he’d learned over his years playing chicken with the ‘verse was that survival was only half the equation. Moving on was a whole different game, one of self reflection and lessons learned.

And what had he learned?

First, never trust smarmy contacts, no matter how low or high their IQ might be. Granted, that was a lesson he’d learned years ago, yet he still couldn’t seem to avoid falling into situations that necessitated the opposite.

Second, figure out a way to ensure that the ship or the shuttle or whatever it was Mal was relying on to survive didn’t suffer an explosion and try to kill him. Twice in the couple of months was a bit ridiculous, actually. If Mal thought about it too hard, he might sort of take it personally.

Three, two minutes was a hell of a long time. Enough to screw up a plan, enough to save a life. Enough to watch a life slip away.

Mal sighed, looking across the medical bay to where Simon was still laying. Two minutes was a whole lot more than two minutes, sometimes. Sometimes two minutes was life and death, right and wrong, friend and foe. Two minutes to make a plan work or completely fall apart.

“Cap’n!” Kaylee’s voice broke his thoughts. “You’re awake!”

Leave it to Kaylee to state the obvious, and not only that, but to say it like it was a miracle or some such. Mal would never trade his mechanic for anyone else, but sometimes her enthusiasm was as encouraging as it was unnerving. Too much positive energy was a counterpart to his overt pessimism, but really he just hated to think of the girl being disappointed.

The last day in mind, she probably came pretty damn close to such disappointment. Which was why Mal had to work double time to put himself together. Not for his sake, but for hers.

Pushing himself to a sitting position, Mal finally saw the girl, perched on a counter near the entrance. Her eyes were bright, face split into a smile, making her look even younger than she was.

Mal shrugged his shoulders, which still felt stiff and slow, trying to keep an air of nonchalance about him. “It do appear that way,” he said tightly, a small smile tugging at his lips despite his best efforts to reign it in.

She jumped off the counter, moving closer to him with a exuberant bounce in her step. “Zoe said she ‘pected you to come around soon,” the girl prattled on. “We’ve been taking shifts, making sure you all don’t wake up alone or nothing like that.”

Mal eased himself off his bed, carefully to keep his face composed even as his joints protested the new movement. “Well that’s right thoughtful of you.”

It was her turn to shrug, but the mischievous glint in her eye told him all he needed to know. “Ain’t no place I’d rather be,” she said airily.

Mal eyed her with sudden scrutiny, his old habits coming back to him. He only had so much time to indulge the emotional side of this, and now that he was awake and well, other concerns became apparent to him. “Shouldn’t you be fixing the shuttle.”

Kaylee’s face went blank for a moment, clearly taken aback by his segue. “I don’ see how that’s much of a priority right now.”

Mal’s look was disapproving as his role as captain came back to him with newfound ferocity. “That shuttle’s still part of my ship,” he said, matter of fact. Because injured or not, they still had to keep on course, stay with the plan. The shuttle was a critical piece of life support, but it was an important back up, and Mal had never wanted it to function properly more than he did now.

Kaylee’s mouth opened, then closed, confusion on her face. It was apparent that the girl didn’t know whether to be happy or annoyed by this turn of conversation. “Someone needed to monitor you two!” she protested. “We can’t take things like that for granted.”

Mal motioned to himself with crisp confidence, even a touch of snark that assured him he was adequately recovered to reclaim his role as captain without any setbacks. “But as I’m now fully recovered, you can get back to your job.”

Her eyes went wild for a second, hands out in placation. “But Simon--” She cut herself off, momentarily embarrassed as she realized the pitch of her voice. She hemmed herself in, continuing in a more controlled voice, hands at her sides. “Simon still ain’t woken up yet.”

Worry distracted Mal from his revitalized purpose, just for a second, and he looked at Simon again. The boy was still, and though his face looked pale, Mal had to think it was an improvement. The touches of blue were gone, his breathing evened somewhat. It was better, but somehow Mal found it hard to be fully reassured. “How is he?” he asked, unable to hide his niggling doubts.

“Zoe says he seems to be responding to the treatment,” Kaylee told him softly. “Vitals still seem a little off or something like that, but she’s hopeful. We just can’t say for sure...you know. Until he wakes up.”

They just couldn’t say for sure. Mal swallowed bitterly, his captain mask hardening. Simon couldn’t have been dead for more than two minutes, two minutes without air, two minutes -- and it might make all the difference. Mal didn’t like to entertain the thought, that in a ‘verse with enough medical technology to bring the dead to life, they may have just been two minutes too late for Simon.

“She tried some kind of...brain scans but she didn’t know much ‘bout how to read it,” Kaylee admitted, a touch of remorse in her voice. Her gaze lingered on Simon. But then the girl nodded, looking at Mal with new earnestness. “But he’ll be okay. He has to be okay.”

The way she said it, so plaintive, so hopeful -- Mal couldn’t disagree even if he were inclined. He was a realist when it mattered, but sometimes hope was one of those intangible musts in his life. The hope of the next job, the hope of the next payday. The hope of another day lived free among the stars. The hope that while the things he had in the ‘verse were few and far between, they were still his when the day was done. Hope that he could keep them together, he could keep them alive.

Kaylee was always more than a bit sentimental and even if Mal didn’t want to see it, it was clear she pined for the boy. And who was Mal to tell her that two minutes could change all her hopes?

“You’ve done all you can,” Mal assured her gently. This was what Kaylee needed. She didn’t need orders or passive aggressive confrontations. She just needed to hear that it was alright, it was all going to go according to plan. It didn’t matter if Mal didn’t have a plan or if he was making it up as he went, she just needed to believe in it, believe in her purpose, and it would all worked out. “Now it’s time to get back to the shuttle, do some repairs. We never know when we’re going to need one.”

“But he shouldn’t be alone,” she followed up with new intensity and the fact that she disagreed showed how much this mattered to Kaylee.

“He won’t be,” Mal promised, not just for her sake, but his own.

There was a look of confusion on Kaylee’s face.

Mal put a hand on her arm, gripping it just for a moment. “I’ll stay.”

“You’ll stay?” she repeated, almost surprised.

“He’s my crew,” Mal said simply.

Kaylee would understand that, the weight of those words. Even if she didn’t like it, Kaylee knew him well enough to respect it.

She cast another glance at Simon, full of longing and worry, before nodding in resignation. “You’ll call me when he wakes up,” she said. “Right?”

“That’s the plan,” Mal agreed.

Kaylee hesitated a moment more. Then she offered one last smile to Mal. “It’s good to see you awake, Cap’n.”

Mal took a steadying breath, pushing the rest of his weariness aside. Kaylee had time for such weaknesses, she had space for it. It was part of what he loved about the girl, part of what he wanted to protect. But Mal didn’t have such luxury. It had been true back on the shuttle, and it was just as true now.

Resolved, he nodded, keeping himself together, confident. “It’s good to be awake.”

Kaylee smiled again, but Mal could see the traces of reservations she still had. Kaylee had taken this hard, as they all likely had. He didn’t even want to consider what machinations the Shepherd and Zoe had put in place to keep River under control. His crew was hurting, literally and figuratively, and it was up to Mal to make it right as best he could.

Malcolm Reynolds always was a glutton for lost causes, after all.

As Kaylee left, Mal forced himself to stay strong, to stick to the plan even when he didn’t know quite what the gorram plan was anymore, because if he didn’t, he couldn’t be sure who would.

-o-

Turned out that waiting in a nice functioning ship wasn’t all that much easier than a dying shuttle. Granted, it was warmer and somewhat less perilous, but the absence of danger made the minutes seem even longer.

Mal knew that a watched pot would eventually boil; it just never seemed like it was going to happen.

He believed Simon would wake up, he really did. There didn’t seem to be much room for failure at this juncture. He just didn’t know when or what he’d be like when the time finally came, and those uncertainties were an unpleasant bit of company during his wait.

They weren’t his only company, however. The entire crew made the rounds, almost on the hour. Shepherd came back and said a prayer. Wash made some joke Mal almost remembered to laugh at. Inara pressed a warm hand to Simon’s head, offering some incantation Mal had heard from her before. Even Jayne poked his head in, asked how the doc was doing, before grunting something Mal took as good luck and leaving.

River lingered the most, wandering in and out almost on a whim, her almost there presence barely noticeable. The girl seemed strangely quiet, but far from serene. There was an anxiousness about her, pent up within her damaged mind so tightly that Mal could feel it coming off her in waves. While most stress seemed to push her into insanity, this turn of events had her subdued. River often seemed to know things they didn’t, so Mal had no way of knowing of her quiet was a good thing or not. But as long as she wasn’t tearing things apart with worry, Mal would take what he could get.

Dutifully, Kaylee stayed away, and Mal made a mental note to make sure he kept his promise to her, even more than the rest. Zoe stayed for the longest, offering Mal a comprehensive overview of where they were at and where they were head, and, most notably, how their job was going.

Turned out that their mission for the supplies on Binumrun had been a success. They were a day out from making their rendezvous with the buyer, and it was all on course to be a pretty payday. A picture perfect job.

‘Sides the whole almost dying part, of course.

Leastways Zoe seemed fairly certain Simon was waking up, though she did not venture a prediction as to when.

Which left Mal alone again. Waiting.

As the rest of his life seemed to fall in place according to plan, he was waiting for this one last loose end to get tied up so he could move on to his next near disaster.

This wasn’t all his fault. It had been Simon’s two minutes that had left the vulnerable. It had been Simon’s impossible stubbornness that had nearly screwed them both to hell.

Mal sighed, looking at the boy again. Simon’s color was continuing to improve, the hue of fever dissipating and the translucency of his sin abating. He never did think the doctor looked like a particular picture of health, but it was getting better and Mal didn’t need a medical degree or fancy Alliance training to know that.

It was hard to be mad at the boy, though Mal knew he had some right to be. Mal had been right, they didn’t have time for the luxury of being a good Samaritan. Mal would do the right thing when he could, sometimes even when it was inconvenient, but not when it wasn’t his business or when he wasn’t to blame. He could let the atrocities in the ‘verse go because they weren’t his to fix.

But Simon didn’t see it like that. Of course Simon couldn’t see it like that. Everything was that boy’s domain. It was an audacious, egocentric humanitarianism, so like a true Alliance citizen.

Mal shook his head, rubbing a hand over his face and walking away from the medical bed. Simon was more than a product of his upbringing, though. If Simon was just another Alliance drone he wouldn’t have defied his father. He wouldn’t have broken River out. For Simon, right and wrong was instinct, along with the preservation of the things that mattered most to him. Simon wasn’t afraid to do what he thought was right, even when it risked himself and pissed off those around him. Mal didn’t doubt for a second that if the question was to save River or the rest of the crew, Simon wouldn’t even hesitate.

And the thing was, and this really was the thing, Mal could understand that. More than that, he could respect it on some level. Because Mal knew -- he knew -- if their positions were reversed, he’d do the exact same thing.

If he were a doctor, if had had that ability to see the suffering and know how to fix it, Mal might have demanded those two minutes, contrary to any plan in place. Because that was what Mal did. He made the right decisions that he could control. He sought to bring the most good to the people within his care.

Mal stopped pacing at the counter, resting his hands on it and rallying himself with a steadying breath.

The truth was there, close to him now. It was ready to explode in his mind with the bright flash of one of Jayne’s grenades and the precision of Zoe’s gun.

Simon Tam got under his skin. The boy annoyed him to no end, infuriated him and pushed all his patience and tolerance to the brink. For every genius move the doctor had, he pulled stunts too idiotic to warrant explanation. For every time he helped Mal out, he then turned around and screwed all of Mal’s plans straight to hell. Proud, self confident, protective, and closed off.

In short, there weren’t nobody else on the crew that was the spitting image of Mal like Simon was. Different pasts, but same futures. Disparate talents, but the same gorram flaws.

Jaw tight, Mal girded himself, turning back around. This wasn’t the kind of stuff he was good at. Thinking about things like this, challenging himself on this level. He liked to fix his problems with a well crafted scheme and a finely tuned weapon. But sometimes there just weren’t any evasive maneuvers to get him clear of the emotional fallout from having a crew.

Simon was part of his crew. Same as River and Book and Inara and Kaylee and Jayne and Wash and Zoe. The people he called his own. The ones he’d protect, he’d fight for. The ones he’d go back and rescue, he’d lay it all on the line for. He didn’t have to like them. He just had to call them his own, abiding by everything that entailed. Because Mal wasn’t a good man, but he was a good captain, and he understood what responsibility that entailed.

Sometimes it meant running. Sometimes it meant stealing. Sometimes it meant giving orders. Sometimes it meant kicking back and laughing. Sometimes it even seemed to mean awkward bedside vigils, for whatever they might be worth.

Sometimes it meant losing. Sometimes it meant winning.

Today, it would mean winning. Mal was standing there in the infirmary, pacing and breathing even when it was nothing more than dumb luck and the shred of a plan that earned him that much. Simon was alive, and that was better than dead. And of all the questions yet to be answered, Mal had to believed even when he didn’t hope to have faith in much of anything, that Simon would be okay.

Because Mal was. And if he could pull it out of his stubborn ass, he had no doubts Simon could, too.

Which was why he was none too surprised to find Simon looking at him.

For a second, all Mal could do was look back. The doctor’s face was quizzical and confused, wheels turning sluggishly behind half-lidded eyes. The boy was probably trying to put it all together, trying to parse out the shuttle ride, the illness, the infirmary, and Mal staring right at him.

Mal grinned. “’bout time you woke up.”

Simon’s brow furrowed, a frown tugging at him lips. He swallowed with effort, mouth opening, and the boy winced for his work.

Mal sauntered a bit closer, knowing it would be hell to focus after waking up from everything Simon had just gone through. He kept himself at a distance still, arms crossed over his chest in an air of nonchalance. “I was considering operating just to see if it would make any difference, and since I’m not rated for such things, it’s probably best you decided to come to.”

Simon’s confusion deepened into a scowl. “Respiratory infections don’t need surgery.” The words were taut and breathless, ground out with ragged intensity that Mal felt more than he heard.

Mal snorted. That answered the question of if Simon was all there or not. Pissy, prissy, and always a doctor. The boy was weak, still recovering, and just fine. “Well, then, that’s right good to know,” he said. “So you think the round of medication we gave you ought to do the trick.”

Simon’s mouth closed and his eyes looked away, searching the room. “How long have we been back?” he asked, and his voice was stronger this time, but still sounded a bit congested.

“Just over a day,” Mal said.

Simon looked at him again, swallowing hard. “You’re okay? No lingering effects from the carbon dioxide?”

Mal raised his eyebrows. “Zoe gave me the best bill of health she could muster, though seeing as our doctor was a stone’s throw from death’s door, I ain’t had anything more official than that.”

Simon nodded. “Well I’d like to see for myself,” he said, shifting a little. He seemed to make some kind of attempt to sit, but found himself breathless. Resigned, he looked sheepishly back toward Mal. “Perhaps later.”

Mal nodded, feigning as though he’d actually thought Simon could have pulled off an examination under the current conditions. “Right, later,” he agreed. Then he shrugged. “You know, maybe after you get yourself cleared to even get out of bed at all.”

Simon’s expression darkened. “I’m fine.”

Mal gave him a look.

With a sigh, Simon looked at the ceiling. “Though maybe a look at my vitals would be a bit helpful.”

“Or maybe just resting and letting the rest of us tell you when you’re good to go might be helpful,” Mal suggested sternly. “’Cause you might be able to lie to me about how you’re doing, but I have a feeling it might be a tad harder with River.”

Simon’s eyes locked on Mal again. “River,” he said. “Is she alright? This hasn’t worried her, has it?”

“Oh, no of course not,” Mal said easily. “Since you know her brother almost dying wasn’t stressful for her at all.”

It was a testament to the fact that Simon really was feeling better; he picked up on the sarcasm. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“You seem to be forgetting some of the more important details,” Mal said.

Simon’s jaw worked and he frowned again. “I didn’t mean to worry her.”

It was all Mal could do not to roll his eyes. The boy still didn’t seem to be getting this, what this conversation was all about. Not about pointing the blame at Simon’s illness or even the fact that he had the entire crew tied up with worry about how he was faring. But that this had almost gone so much worse. That Simon had almost died, and he was fretting over the parts that didn’t matter. “Well, you did,” he said flatly.

The surprise on Simon’s face was answer enough. The boy still didn’t get it. This had been a near death experience for all of them, and the only person who wasn’t taking it seriously enough was Simon.

Mal blew out a frustrated breath. “Worried us all. Your two minutes nearly blew every plan we all were counting on right out of the water.”

“I had to help that family--”

“It’s not about the family,” Mal interrupted roughly. “We do what we need to do, but that don’t mean that we don’t have responsibilities to each other.”

Simon’s face was tentative. “I don’t understand.”

Mal narrowed his eyes. “What’s not to understand, son? You were dying back there on that shuttle and you didn’t think twice to tell me about it. How can I make a plan if I don’t have all the information? What was I going to tell everyone else if you didn’t make it? What was River going to do? Kaylee? What was I going to do about a doctor? You’re a part of a crew now, you’re part of this crew. What you do doesn’t just affect you, it affects us all.”

It was all coming out, the frustration and the anger and the resentment. Because Simon was a part of this crew, and if Mal was going to accept it, it was about time Simon did, too. Completely and wholeheartedly. Because what they’d shared on the shuttle, when Mal had held Simon’s hand as the boy had died -- that weren’t the stuff of strangers.

Simon was staring at him, eyes wide. His face was still pale, cheeks sunken, and he looked too young again. For all his schooling, for all he’d been through on the run, part of Simon was still too naive for his own good.

Mal shook his head, feeling his anger dissipate. It was only partly rational, and he knew it. There was a lesson about family and community in there, but this was more than that. This was about Mal’s sense of control and Mal’s refusal to see Simon for who he was. Not just as the pain in the ass doctor, but as the young hopeful boy he was.

The boy Mal knew well because he’d been the same once, a long time ago. Before the war, before his planet had been overtaken by conflict.

How many wars would it take until Simon turned out just like Mal? Cold and jaded, broken and desperate. How many losses would the boy have to endure until he ran his life on half-assed plans and a makeshift crew to get him through.

Mal would never like Simon, no more than Mal could ever like who he used to be, who he was now. But Simon had to see where he fit, not just who he wanted to be, but who he had to be.

“You should have told me about the illness,” Mal said finally, voice hard and quiet.

Simon held his gaze. “There was nothing we could have done differently.” He ventured the words carefully, but decisively.

Mal laughed a little, tired and bitter. “But I sure as hell wouldn’t have done it all the same if I’d known.”

Simon seemed to consider that. Then he paused, looking away. “How bad did it get?”

These were details Mal didn’t want to remember. He kept his feet planting firmly on the ground, keeping himself erect and unmoving. “Bad enough.”

It was vague, but Mal was certain Simon got the gist. When he looked back at Mal, there was something of regret in his eyes. “I don’t suppose you’re looking for an apology.”


“I don’t suppose you’re looking to stop being damn near impossible to afford passage to.”

Simon gave him a small smile. “It is my fervent wish to avoid near death experiences,” he offered meagerly. Then he smiled slightly. “For awhile, anyway.”

“You’re beginning to owe me quite a lot,” Mal agreed sternly.

Simon sighed again, eyes drifting back at the ceiling. “I also don’t suppose a thank you will cover it.”

“No,” Mal said curtly. “I don’t suppose it does.”

Simon closed his eyes for a long moment. He opened them again, looking at Mal tiredly. “Then for now I guess I’ll just stick with the plan.”

“And what plan is that?”

Simon smiled, but his eyes had a faraway look and his features were resigned. “To follow orders as long as I can.”

That was as much as Mal could ask for; and keeping Simon on his boat was as much grace as he could afford.

With a nod, Mal said, “I’ll hold you to it.”

Simon’s eyes blinked, longer this time, his breath seeming to deepen. “Yes, sir,” he said, but the words were slurred with the beginnings of sleep.

As the boy’s eyes blinked closed and stayed there, Mal’s postured caved, the emotions at bay nearly overtaking him. He closed his own eyes, and willed himself to keep it together. It had been a long few days, too long, and Mal was not one prone to such emotionality, but this was hard. This was hard.

To live this life, walking on the edge the way he did, barely holding himself on solid ground. Keeping those around him upright was even more of a challenge and since adding Simon and River to the crew, it had only gotten more difficult.

But the right thing mattered. Sometimes it was just second nature. In the end, people mattered more.

Mal opened his eyes again, his throat feeling tight. Simon had fallen asleep again, but it seemed lighter this time, peaceful and healing. The doctor would need his rest to recover, and Mal tried to remind himself that this was the victory he’d been looking for.

That didn’t make it any easier. Because he didn’t know what to do with it all. Didn’t know what to do with Simon, didn’t know how to deal with these people in his life. He wasn’t sure anymore what was expendable and what wasn’t. Could he have really left Simon back on that planet? Could he really turn Simon over to the Alliance? Could he cash Simon and River out for the payday Jayne so clearly wanted for them?

And yet, could he really keep harboring them -- or even Book or Inara for that matter. The more people he had around him, the more mouths he had to feed. The more lives he had to save. The more he had to lose.

Mal shook his head, feeling his own tiredness rise again. He wasn’t totally recovered yet himself, and the aftermath of this accident made him feel old. Especially in contrast to Simon, nothing but a boy, much like Mal once was.

Simon was the hardest to protect, not just because of the warrant out on him, but because of who he was. There was no way around that, and even after all they’d been through, it was hard to look at the boy with much affection.

Of course, there might be a day when the two of them could live more amicably, maybe even friendly like. They had their moments of camaraderie, fleeting and far between though they were. But Mal wondered if time went on the way it did, if there were enough successful jobs, enough meals around the same table, that maybe he’d find a way to make it work with Simon, to make it parse just like it did with the rest of them.

But Mal knew the opposite was also true. That a day may come when push came to shove and then to punch and that’d be all there was writ. Two men like them weren’t necessarily made to coexist, especially not in a context of a captain and a subordinate. If their abrasions could wear each other down, they could also wear each other out, and Mal did not know which way it would go. Never enemies, but never friends. Maybe family, maybe strangers.

Time would tell, Mal figured. For today, though, this victory was enough.