Everything Running Like Normal
by Nicole Clevenger (c) January 2003

Notes and disclaimer: Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy were the ones to start it, but we're the ones who'll keep this boat in the sky. No money has or ever will come into my hands because of this little diversion. Feedback, however, would be exquisite and is all the payment I need. This is a longer version of the post "Out of Gas" events that Kaylee mentions in my ficlet "Not Thinkin' 'Bout It." (Because who can you steal from if not yourself?) Reading of that is not required for understanding or enjoyment of this, but if you haven't seen "Out of Gas" you'll probably be mightily confused. (Of course, maybe you'll find yourself that way anyway.) Oh, and there's a spot of two of graphic violence - but then, it is Firefly we're talking about here.
This was originally going to be my contribution for the Firefly Improv #2, and the words for that particular challenge (real, stain, numb, throb) can all be found in the opening sequence.


"On your knees."

"Excuse me? Could be my hearing ain't working so good at the moment. 'Cause I coulda sworn you just said --"

"I said kneel, dah bien." It was the hard kick to his side rather than the words that made him obey. Mal found himself looking up at the other captain, trying to force his sluggish thoughts into some kind of coherent plan. The man had what he needed, but it was looking like he was going to make him pay for it. And pay. And pay.

"All right," Mal said, trying to keep his voice casual as he weighed his options. The other captain had brought along five others, seriously tipping the odds. Plus he'd been breathing a whole lot of carbon monoxide for the last several hours, which was making him a bit light-headed. Add that to his now throbbing side, and the situation wasn't looking too good. "I'm kneelin'. You feelin' like a big enough man yet?" he asked, pleasantly as he was able.

Another strong kick was his answer. The sharp starburst of pain stole his breath and nearly took his consciousness with it. He let his head hang down against his chest, fighting for air. "... see that's a 'no' then..." he gasped out.

He took as deep a breath as he could and looked up. There were two of the pirate captain now, and he shook his head roughly. The motion sent everything into a spin, but at least the other man went back to the singular. "As fun as this all is, we had a deal. Now why would you want to go an' --"

The pirate barked orders to his crew, ignoring the man kneeling on the floor. "Bring anyone on board back here. Cargo too. If the crew gives you any trouble, kill 'em."

"Waste of time. Told you there ain't nobody aboard." He was sweating, tickling down slowly between his shoulder blades. But it'd been so cold. All the blankets he could find, and he still couldn't stop shivering. He remembered that. So why was he so gorram warm all of a sudden?


The familiar voice made him blink, look up. One of the men was dragging Kaylee into the hold, pulling her along despite her struggling. "Cap'n, what's happenin'?"

For a moment he just looked at her, open-mouthed. The fire in his side was making it hard to think, but he knew Kaylee wasn't supposed to be there. She was... she'd gone... Wang ba dahn, it didn't matter. She wasn't supposed to be there, on Serenity looking just like she did every other day. Was supposed to be gone, like the rest of them...

He couldn't remember why this was wrong. He just knew that it was.

"Nobody aboard? This little thing don't look like nobody." The captain's look was blatantly lecherous; Mal struggled to his feet, only to be met by a hard punch to the same injured side. He went down like dead weight, unable to do more than just lie on the floor and bite his bottom lip to keep the moan from slipping out. The darkness was trying to close in and he considered letting it do just that. The deck felt so blessed cool against his skin...

Kaylee's voice brought him back. "Cap'n, can you hear me?"

She sounded so scared. That was what made him open his eyes in the end. "I hear ya, little Kaylee," he forced out, pushing himself up off the cold deck plating. He was about to try and get to his feet when Kaylee gasped. Mal looked up to see the pirate captain holding a long knife against her white throat.

"Back on your knees."

Truth be told, he wasn't sure he could've made it to his feet anyway. His voice sounded like gravel in his ears. "The business was 'tween you and me. She's got no part in things."

The other man laughed. "Oh yeah, yeah she does. See, she's gonna pay for your weakness. Captain."

The look in her eyes when he did it - that was the worst part. That mix of betrayal with confusion was somehow far worse than the impossible amount of blood that flowed freely from the slash across the girl's throat. All that blood, running fast out of the body dropped lifelessly to the floor.

He realized he wasn't breathing only when he started again with a choked gasp.

"The danger always comes. You can't protect us," said the whisper in his ear.

His head reflexively snapped around to face the voice, sending everything into a vertigo whirl again. River stood beside him, her eyes searching his face for something. He vaguely recalled that she wasn't supposed to be there either, though what that meant now he wasn't certain. He had to get her away before what happened to Kaylee -- Kaylee...

River didn't once look at the body or the other men. They didn't react to her presence either. "One by one, we die. Lined up for the hoodless execution like toy soldiers outgrown."

He couldn't focus, couldn't think. Why was the girl there? Why wasn't she reacting to what was going on around them?

"Found another one, Captain."

Wash was being pulled into the room, the shoulder torn on his garishly patterned shirt. Mal could feel in his gut what was about to happen next, and he managed to surge drunkenly to his feet. He tried to will the numbness in his head to slide down and quench the searing pain in his side, but his body was having none of it.

He fell, sinking slowly back to the deck. They were laughing, grating and harsh. But there was another voice, another laugh that lilted above the others. Softer, feminine. A laugh he couldn't place at first. His head swung heavily around.

River knelt at the edge of Kaylee's pooling blood, the palms of her hands caressing its surface like warm water. She lifted them to Mal, showing him their surfaces died red. The solemn look on her face conflicted hideously with the pleased laughter. "This isn't real. They've stained the inside of your head."

There was a whine, almost a ringing. It was coming from everywhere, it seemed, and getting louder. River turned and crawled away from him on her hands and knees, bloody handprints trailing behind her. On Mal's other side, Wash begged to be saved. His eyes were riveted to the dark smears on the floor. The whine was getting louder, mercifully drowning out the pilot.

"We all die," River whispered. "You can't keep us safe from the wolves..."


Malcolm Reynolds woke up alone and disoriented in his own bunk. "Go se," he muttered, as he rubbed his eyes harshly and tried to pull recent events back in line. His eyelids felt like they were made of sandpaper, which coincided appropriately with his throat feeling like he'd just crawled through a desert without so much as a canteen.

He moved to sit up, sending spirals of pain outward from his side. For a moment he was back in the nightmare, Kaylee's lifeless eyes still pleading for him to save her...

Kaylee was fine. Zoe was fine, even though things had been a bit tricky for a while. Inara, Wash, Jayne, all of them were fine. The ship was fixed, and they were already on their way to line up another job. All of them. Safe. Home.

//You can't keep us safe from the wolves...//

"Shut up, girl. You're nothin' but a gorram dream." Mal pushed himself up carefully, favoring the tender gunshot wound. "Wonderful. Now seems I'm talking to myself too..."

Assuming nothing cataclysmic had happened while he'd slept, they'd be arriving planetside in... He craned his neck to check the time and felt something pop. Ten minutes. Ten minutes? He got up quickly, pulling clothing off as he went. He hadn't bothered to change upon returning to his quarters from the infirmary. He'd been so ruttin' tired. Tired enough even to briefly consider that maybe checking himself out against the Doc's orders might not have been the best of all best ideas. Then he'd passed out on the bed before he could do much more considering.

The shirt was a lost cause for sure. The lower half almost entirely covered in blood, a red now turned crusty dark brown. Another look showed the waistband and one side of his pants to be in the same state. Mal pulled them off in a hurry, forgetting for a moment about the injury itself; he was forced to sit on the bed again as tiny sparkles of light danced around inside his head.

When he started to shiver, he told himself that it was just the cold.

He got up again, got dressed. The ruined clothes were kicked into the corner, to be dealt with later. He made it to the cargo bay with a half-minute to spare.


Simon wondered again why he'd come.

They'd been sitting in that hot little room for over an hour already, drinking and joking and getting no closer it seemed to discussing the business at hand. He'd volunteered to accompany the Captain out of some misguided sense of professional concern, as if he wasn't completely out of his depth in a situation like this. This bizarre, dirty play that his life had become. This exhausting nightmare of dark corners and new, horrifying dangers and constant, constant fear.

He didn't know the rules here, though some days he fancied he might be learning. But then something would come along like a fireball tearing through the corridors of his world, instantly shredding all his illusions and reminding him that he didn't belong out in the black. That any attempts on his part to make a life out here were just mere arrogance.

So there he sat, a fingerprint smudged glass in front of him still two-thirds full, trying not to draw attention to himself and wondering how much longer this was all going to take. Even if he weren't so ready to leave, he wasn't sure how much longer the Captain had left. Though Mal was doing a fine job of keeping up his end of the conversation, Simon's trained eye could pick out the signs of his fading reserves. It was, after all, the reason he'd insisted on coming along in the first place. Though he didn't have the slightest idea what he would do if the other man didn't make it through the meeting.

Or what the men facing them would do to the two of them.

He tried to keep the hypothetical scenario from playing out in his mind, focusing his attention on what Mal was saying. "No, none of that. But I still say haulin' cattle is a mite more trouble than it's worth. Still, cargo is cargo..."

"That it is," the older man across the table - who, for some reason Simon was vaguely afraid to discover, went by the name of Gator - agreed. For the fifth time that hour, Simon studied the long scar running across the man's cheekbone. It had been deep, and looked as if it had become infected at some point. The mark was raised and dark, giving his left eye a permanent squint. When the dark eyes slid over to meet his, Simon looked down quickly, breaking the eye contact. He wondered if there was going to be trouble because he'd been caught staring.

Before Gator could say anything, Mal smoothly deflected his attention. "Speakin' of cargo, seems now might be a good time to tell us why you wanted this little party. You mentioned needin' somethin' moved?"

The man glanced Simon's way once more, and the doctor forced himself not to fidget. He wondered what Gator was thinking. Mal had introduced Simon as his pilot, shooting the doctor a silencing look to cut off his reflexive protest. Up until the last five minutes, that persona had kept him pretty much ignored throughout the entire meeting. He held his breath, hoping to go back to that state.

Gator's eyes moved back to the Captain, and the man took another large drink before replying. Mal sat calm and apparently relaxed, though Simon couldn't help but take note of the way his left arm was held stiffly against his side. He doubted it was apparent to any one on the other side of the table in the dim light - that or the tiny beads of sweat that had formed along the man's hairline. No, he supposed that to Gator and his men, Captain Malcolm Reynolds appeared just as collected as he was trying to be.

He kept his eyes on the Captain as the men discussed the deal and its terms. When they got up to go, Simon's ears caught the suppressed grunt of pain as the Captain pushed himself out of his chair. But there was no mistaking the message in the look Mal gave him.

He wondered yet again why he'd bothered to come.

They were almost to the door when Gator stopped them, trying to persuade Mal to stay for further drinking. From his vantage point at Mal's side, he was the only one who could see the captain close his eyes, a look of utter exhaustion darkening his features. When he spoke, his voice sounded far closer to normal that Simon would've expected him capable of in that moment.

"Now, Gator, you can bet I'd like to, considerin' how far back you an' me go," he said over his shoulder, not turning back. "But the sooner me an' my pilot here leave, the sooner your merchandise gets to where it's goin'. We've only got your best interests at heart here, as you can plain see."

Without waiting for an answer, Mal began to walk again. Simon kept pace, his shoulders tense with the fear that they were going to be stopped at any minute.


When they got back to Serenity, it seemed to him like half the crew was waiting. Actually, it was really only Kaylee and Jayne, but Mal felt their eyes weighing on him sure as if everyone else had been there too. He forced his body out of the hunched, cramped position it had been in all the way back, standing straight despite the effort.

He was the gorram Captain of this boat, and he was going to act like it.

The Doctor was hovering at his side like he'd been for the last several hours, and it was wearing on Mal's last calm nerve. Ignoring him, Mal turned to Jayne. "Gator's boys should be bringin' our new cargo 'long any minute. Show 'em our hospitality, would ya?"

Jayne grinned at him over the shine of the blade he'd been inspecting while waiting. "Right. Would that be the kind where we make nice, or the kind where we shove 'em through our engines?"

"Seeing as how they're payin' customers, how 'bout we go with the makin' nice."

The big man shrugged. "Your call. What're we haulin', anyway?"

"Perfume. Expensive perfume." The look of disgust that crossed Jayne's face would've been comical were he in a better mood - which he might have been, if it didn't feel like someone was punching him repeatedly in the side. He made a firm resolution to avoid getting shot again in the near future.

"Perfume?" Jayne repeated, as if Mal had just stood there and announced that this time they were foregoing the cattle in favor of moving the dung instead.

"That's right. And I don't want nobody openin' any of it neither." His eyes found Kaylee's; she smiled as if caught and looked down at her boots.

"Aw, Mal... That stuff's so... dangerous." All three turned to the mercenary with a look of disbelief. Jayne looked uncomfortable. "It's just that... hell, even if one of them girls don't get it into their heads to go sniffin' around -"

"Hey, I never said I was gonna -"

Jayne continued, right over Kaylee's interruption. " - gorram stuff could break open or somethin'. An' then the whole boat'll end up smellin' like Inara's shuttle." He looked horrified - not an expression any of them could remember seeing on Jayne any time recently. "I don't think I could take it, Mal."

Mal caught Simon's muffled snicker from somewhere behind him. The ghost of a tired smile touched his own lips. "Yeah, we do live on the edge, don't we?" He clapped Jayne on the shoulder. "I guess you're just gonna have to be brave."

Jayne looked at him for a moment, as if about to make another plea. Realizing he was beat, he shrugged Mal's hand off and stalked away, grumbling. "Don't say I didn't warn you people..."

He turned to Kaylee, who was leaning against a stack of supply crates. "What 'bout you, little Kaylee? You got some complaints what want voicin'?"

Kaylee graced him with one of her bigger smiles and shook her head. "Nope. I'm shiny, Cap'n."

He didn't smile this time, but for a minute his mood lightened all the same. Kaylee had that effect on him. It still amazed him that her perpetual cheerfulness hadn't yet worn thin, though. Something like that should be annoying as all get-out, but somehow Kaylee managed to pull it off. He just hoped nothing ever came along to take that charming disposition away...

"How's the boat runnin'?" Mal asked quickly, stopping that line of thought before it went somewhere unpleasant.

"Serenity's just fine, too. She needs a little work still, sure, but - thanks to you, Cap'n - she's doin' just fine."

A nearly imperceptible tremor ran through him. The dream he'd managed not to think about for the last few hours suddenly pushed itself to the forefront; for just a second, Kaylee looked at him with a dead, accusing glare. Mal rubbed his eyes roughly with his fingertips.


He shook off the echoes of the nightmare. This was not the place; there was plenty of time to enjoy all this self-torture in the privacy of his own bunk. It took a moment to pick the thread of their conversation back up, but he got it. "I'm countin' on you to see that she stays that way, got it?" Kaylee nodded, watching him more closely now.

//Can't keep us safe from the wolves... //

He wanted to turn around and tell Simon to get that sister of his out of his head. He wanted an ice-cold shower with actual running water. Mostly he just wanted to collapse and let the drift of dreamless unconsciousness carry him for a while.

But he wasn't about to do it there, in the cargo bay. Time to make his escape before he ended up face down on the deck again - this time with witnesses. "Let Wash know we're gone soon as the cargo's stowed, will ya?"

"Sure, Cap'n."

He hadn't made it more than a handful of steps before the toe of his boot caught something that wasn't there and nearly sent him sprawling. Simon was at his side before he could make a graceless landing; he'd almost succeeded in forgetting the doctor was in the bay.

If there was one thing Malcom Reynolds wouldn't stand for, it was being coddled. He'd been shot before. He wasn't a gorram invalid. Before he'd even fully recovered his balance, he yanked his arm out of the doctor's grip. "Ow lun dan jhew hai," he cursed, breathing fast and trying not to let show how badly the sudden violent movement had hurt. Simon opened his mouth as if to say something, but the glare Mal sent him changed his mind.

Without another word, he left the cargo bay. No one tried to stop him.


Dust so thick it lay like paste in his mouth; every breath a wheezing effort. At times the thought of water seemed even more beautiful than the thought of survival, like he'd be more than willing to give up breathing if it meant that he'd die with that cool, clear liquid going down his throat.

He'd dozed off, a precious few minutes of sleep. Zoe was keeping watch for a time, threatening to knock him unconscious herself if he didn't take a break. Faced with such assurances, he'd given in. Rest was to be grabbed where one found it.

His awakening was abrupt, coming to in half-alert confusion when the man next to him blew into pieces. He was in a crouch, gun in hand, scrambling toward Zoe before his eyes were even fully open. Such was the way in the War - even in sleep, you never completely relaxed. Warning bells sounded in his gut as he approached the hunched figure behind the rocky cover. Part of him wanted to turn and run even as he drew closer, to keep from seeing whatever it was he was about to see.

She was alive, but only just. A stomach wound, blood dripping over and around her hands. "Aiyah," he mumbled. "Zoe, no..."

He added the pressure of his own hands, but it didn't seem to make a difference. No matter how tightly he pressed his fingers together, still the blood leaked between them to absorb into the thirsty dirt. A gut wound would take a person slow and painful; he winced with every gasp heard over the din.

Zoe's eyes found his and locked on. "Sir..."

Mal shook his head. "Shhh... Now, Zoe, you just lie still. There's got to be a doctor 'round here somewhere." He lifted his head, peering hard through the haze in a frantic search for a familiar shape. But in the light from the irregular flashes of weapon fire, the only shapes he saw weren't moving.

She coughed, blood bubbling up to darken her lips. "C'mon, Sarge," she wheezed. "You know our medic was killed a few days ago..."

"You sure?" He fought to keep his voice from breaking, as if they weren't sitting there discussing her impending death. "I think I can see him over -"

Zoe coughed again, a painful series of spasms that lasted far too long. "You always were... bad liar..." Her eyes rolled back in her head; her body went slack in his arms.

Mal jumped to his feet, not giving a thought to leaving cover. "Medic!" he yelled, desperate to be heard by someone over all the noise. "We need a gorram medic over here!"

"It's too late," came a calm voice behind him.

He spun around so quickly he almost lost his balance. Simon had Zoe's mutilated body on an infirmary bed, a long white sheet in his hands. The doctor moved as if to cover the body, but stopped as a thought occurred to him.

"Did you want one last look? I thought you might, considering this is, after all, your fault."

Mal flinched. "I didn't -"

Simon watched him, his face betraying nothing. For all the emotion he showed, it might have been a stranger lying there. "Exactly. You didn't."

His eyes fell on Zoe's body, glued there even though he begged himself to look away. Simon continued speaking, each word like a punch to the stomach. "You didn't save her. She trusted you, and you let her die. We all trusted you."

His fault. His responsibility. His failure. A sharp pain tore through his side, blinding him in its intensity...

...and then he woke up.

Nausea clawed its way up his throat. He scrambled across the room, barely making it in time. Several minutes of dry heaving only served to aggravate his already burning side, and he collapsed back against the wall, closing his eyes.

The Zoe dream had endless variations, with several new twists surfacing only recently. This latest version was one of the milder ones, actually. Sometimes she was shot while talking with him, and the last time she'd taken the bullet in the back of the head. Sometimes she blamed him herself, sometimes other people - like Simon - appeared to do it for her. Usually the dead figures of their fallen comrades rose again while they played out the battlefield scene, reaching for him in the strobing flashes that lit the valley.

He'd never told Zoe that he sometimes had dreams of her death, had since they'd fought together. He saw no reason to bring it up now.

//Get it together. Just another dream, is all... //

His thoughts were fuzzy, the tiny room too warm. It took him a minute to realize that the rhythmic thudding in his ears was actually someone knocking at his door.


When Zoe did a quick mental rundown of all the things she might enjoy doing at that moment, invading the Captain's privacy was not top on the list. Yet there she was, knocking again at the metal door hatch.

Trying not to be concerned because he wasn't answering.

She knew he was in there, but she reasoned there could be plenty of explanations as to why he wasn't answering his door. Sleeping, for one. Or maybe he just wasn't looking for company. She could understand that. The Captain was a private man.

Still no answer.

Must be that he wanted to be alone. Probably had a lot of thinking to do; if it weren't for Wash, she'd most likely be making herself scarce too. They'd been through a lot in the last couple of days, all of them nearly dying out there in the middle of nowhere. Sure, she'd only heard about most of the events, but her own brush with mortality had been plenty close enough to give her a whole lot to mull over in the dark hours. She could only imagine what demons were haunting Mal.

She'd just decided to let him be when the door swung inward. The pale face peeking over the top of the ladder looked exhausted, bruised smears under the eyes reminding her of a time before. He looked at her for a long moment, saying nothing. When he turned and climbed back down the ladder without a word, she understood it to be her invitation.

Her boots rang muffled on the rungs as she descended into the small cabin. He sat carefully on the edge of the bed amid rumpled sheets, watching her. Zoe stood there, in front of him, realizing that she didn't really know what she was supposed to say.

She was a woman accustomed to keeping her thoughts to herself, holding her own counsel until she chose to speak. Even with this man who knew her better in some ways than did her own husband, she was careful never to reveal everything. Bottom line was, Zoe was a person who thought before she said something. Still, she didn't plan the first words she heard coming out of her mouth.

"You look like hell, sir."

Mal favored her with a wry grin, albeit a shadow of the version he normal showed. "You come knockin' at my door just to tell me that?"

Zoe shrugged, hooking her thumbs through her belt loops. Her eyes darted around the area, then back to the slumped figure on the bed. The close air smelled faintly of sweat and sickness. "Doc asked me to come by. Says he was here before, but you wouldn't let him in. Seems it was a good thing River wasn't with him, because you were shouting all manner of things not fit for a child's ears."

A look of utter confusion crossed his features; it was clear that he didn't remember any such thing. She watched him press the heels of his hands against his eyes. "I did what now?"

Fever, her emergency first-aid training said. Infection. She remembered her momma, screaming from her bed for her long-dead brother after the sickness had got her. She remembered several young soldiers lost in their seas of delirium, talking to their families, their lovers with dying breaths.

She'd never seen much point in doing a lot of remembering.

"How you feeling, Captain?" A touchy subject, one she usually avoided.

The curt, one-word answer reminded her why she tended to stay away from it. "Fine."

It was as if she could see the cracks spiderwebbing out away from her feet, through the ice she was standing on. They'd always watched each other's backs, but they'd both learned that there was a line. Only so far you could push before friendship became intrusion. And they liked it that way.

Still, she took another tentative step on the weak ice. "Don't suppose you'd want to talk about it?"

He lay back on the bed, throwing an arm over his eyes. "Don't suppose I would."

And that was that. She didn't have the language to force him on it, to break through the barriers he'd put up. Truth be told, the attempt made her uneasy. If he wanted to open up to her, he would. Until then, who was she to trespass.

Not to mention that anything he might say would probably bring her around to more remembering.

When he didn't move again, she decided it was time to leave. But at the bottom of the ladder she stopped and turned back. He still had his eyes covered, but she sensed he wasn't asleep. "You think we might be seeing you around at meals again, sir? Crew's beginning to miss their captain."

She didn't wait for a response.


He dragged himself to supper, despite being neither hungry nor in the mood for conversation. But Zoe'd been right: If for nothing else, the crew needed him around to pretend that everything was running like normal. So he'd put on some fresh clothes and a reasonably pleasant expression and joined them as they were sitting down to the meal.

Kaylee greeted him with a warm smile; Zoe nodded, her smile residing mostly in her eyes. Simon was watching close enough to make a man uncomfortable; Wash gave him a small wave. Jayne didn't bother looking up from his food; River seemed too intent on the hem of her sleeve to notice his presence or anyone else's.

Book was the only one brave or stupid enough to ask him how he was; he brushed off the inquiry smoothly as he could, while trying hard not to limp to the table.

There wasn't much in the way of conversation. He guessed that the rest of them couldn't help thinking, like he was, of not too long back when they'd sat here before. Having a meal like any other, until the power'd gone out. No, recent events didn't bear much going over.

He was doing his best not to think about it, not to think about the others not thinking about it. Instead he pushed the monochrome food around his plate, wondering if there was something he should say to all of them. Something he could say. But pretty inspirational prose had never been one of his strong points.

Lost in his thoughts, he hardly noticed when River started speaking quietly, her voice a background murmur. It wasn't until the word "wolves" filtered through and grabbed his attention that he looked up to see she was looking dead on at him. As if he and the girl were the only people in the room.

"They've stained the inside of your head," she said, those knowing eyes of hers seeming to pierce his brain.

At the repetition of that nightmare phrase, an icy dread ran cold through his body. He was up out of his chair so fast he almost knocked it over, a stumbling step backward the only indication that his mind was screaming for him to flee. How could this girl know about his dreams? How could she possibly echo what she'd said to him in his head several nights before? This was a trick he was in no shape to handle, especially with his tired, overloaded system repeating nothing but this sudden need for escape. The room began to go grey and soft around the edges.

It was when he saw Simon approaching him slowly - wary and cautious, like one would approach a rabid dog - that he was able to snap his focus back to the present. They were all watching him, waiting. And River wouldn't blink.

His voice was rough and angry, a thing belonging to someone else. "That girl's always runnin' her mouth off where she ain't got no business." Simon's eyes followed his, as if he thought Mal might be referring to someone other than his sister. River stood there, her eyes still on Mal, her head tilted slightly to the side like she was listening to something none of them could hear.

He had absolutely no wish to hear what she might come out with next. Nor did he particularly want anyone else to hear it, he'd wager. The others were all looking down at their plates - except for Jayne, his amused eyes darting between the three standing figures as if it was all just so much entertainment.

Mal opened his mouth, a half-formed rebuke about a person's obligation to mind his own damn business on his lips. But there were no secrets on a ship this small, and Jayne didn't go in much for social niceties anyway. He decided it was time to retreat, and quickly. Let the rest of them think what they wanted. Without him.


He woke from a dream of endless empty metal corridors. They'd taken Serenity from him, and the only way he could get her back was to repair the engines. It had all been clear when he'd been staggering on and on through the dark, cold boat, bleeding everywhere as the part in his hand grew heavier and heavier, but upon waking the clarity had faded to vague dream sense. Still, he remembered the reality well enough. And his body certainly felt like he'd been wandering for hours.

Even if his clock claimed he'd only been asleep for forty minutes.

The idea of trying to sleep again held no appeal. Mal sat up slowly, running a hand through sweat-drenched hair. He was tired of being tired, tired of being in pain. Tired of feverish nightmares, of weakness, of not feeling entirely comfortable on his own gorram boat. But mostly he was just tired of his bunk, where he'd spent almost all of his time since the incident with River a few days before.

It was late, though, and most everyone was probably in bed. No danger of tripping over anyone, of having to answer questions best avoided. A walk would help him clear his head, maybe allow him to sleep a little easier. Some time spent alone in Serenity's comforting darkness, reminding himself of her curves and angles. Reacquainting. Reclaiming.

//My boat,// he thought as he moved through her humming, breathing passages. He put a palm flat on a wall, feeling the engine's vibrations. //My boat.//

He loved everything about this ship. Her size, her sounds, her smells. The way she moved through the black, keeping them safe and breathing and on their way to wherever they chose to go. The small spaces perfect for hiding things from anyone not meant to be looking, the cargo hold large enough to carry anything they needed to haul. The clang of his boots on the ladder rungs and deck plating. The way she felt at times like this - full of life, yet somehow as empty as if he was the only person aboard.

He loved the fact that she belonged to him.

//My boat,// he thought, running his hand along the wall as he walked on.

By the time he'd reached the engine room, the hand on the wall was acting more to steady him than trailing along. His side was radiating fire, and each breath seemed more difficult than the last. For a moment he could hear Simon's voice in his head, complete with medical lecture - until he told the Doc in no uncertain terms to shut up. Still, the steady thrumming of the engine beckoned, and he decided a bit of a rest wouldn't be the worst idea.

Kaylee was in the room, looking so like a natural part of things that he almost looked right past her. Mal hesitated in the doorway, thinking about leaving. But there wasn't really any place else he wanted to be right then, and the thought of sitting for a while was still very appealing. He moved quietly along the edge of the room, finally sliding painfully down to sit on the floor with the wall at his back. He didn't check to see if she was watching him; instead he rested the back of his head against the smooth metal, closed his eyes and listened to Serenity's heart beat.

Mal could feel Kaylee's presence, just like he could feel the other seven. Even Inara, separated off in her fancied-up shuttle. He was glad it was Kaylee he'd happened across. He didn't think any of the rest of them would let him sit here in peace like this, if they were there instead. Sure, they'd mean well. But it'd be talking all the same, and all he really wanted to do right now was sit.

Besides, seeing little Kaylee working gave things a sense of normalcy. At least until it occurred to him that it was far too late for anybody to be up and working. He opened one eye, half-expecting her to be staring at him from across the room. But she'd gone back to whatever she'd been doing, not looking at him at all. He supposed he should ask why it was that she was up when everyone else had gone off to bed. Maybe he would, in a minute.

The dream of her brutal death - a days old whisper memory - reared up suddenly from whatever depths it had been buried. He swallowed hard, opened both eyes to watch her; she worked on, not noticing.

He stayed that way for a long while, reassuring himself that she was really there. Safe, like Serenity. They'd come through the crisis, survived the danger. As they'd survived every time before. As long as they could keep flying, everything would be all right.

Sure, a time would come when they wouldn't survive - such was the nature of life, especially a life like this. But he was going to fight with every ounce of strength he possessed to keep that time a long way off. To keep them in the sky.

Mal closed his eyes again. He could hear the metal-on-metal sound of tools and machinery meeting. He could hear the gentle hum of electricity running through the space around him. He could hear the everyday creaks and groans of the boat as she slid through the black. And, underneath it all, he could hear the faint sound of Kaylee breathing.

He thought maybe he'd be able to sleep now.