Title: In the Ice
Summary: River and Mal are injured and trapped in a job gone awry...
A/N: My apologies to anyone with any medical knowledge. Though I have a brother/ER Doc readily accessible I did no research to make these injuries or their effects on the characters plausible. Also, hopefully it's obvious this is on the lighter side.
Disclaimer: These characters and this universe belong thankfully to Joss Whedon
Mal backed up carefully until he hit the icy wall while the echoes still bounced and rumbled around him. The darkness was disconcerting; particularly in contrast to how bright the sun had reflected off the snowy landscape moments before the avalanche. He waited for his eyes to adjust; they hadn't been plunged into total darkness. There were enough machines littered about the cave that Mal could just make out River's silhouette - standing... so she was okay. Mal shut his eyes and tried again to contact Serenity. And again. The coms weren't working. Too much interference, just as they'd been warned.
"River... report." It was so easy to fall back into military terms with his pilot. She accepted orders as if they were commandments. It was like being with a younger, spookier Zoe... who could kill him with her brain.
If Mal's eyes had been open, he would have rolled them. He shifted against the ice while he tried to stall the blood escaping from his side, "Great," Mal nodded, "I'm glad you've got a handle on things. Good thing I'm stuck in an ice cave with my psychic pilot to tell me it's ruttin' cold cuz I couldn't have figured that out by myself, no way." Mal felt his arm pulled away from his wound by slender, chilly hands and opened his eyes to glare at her, "Leave it be."
"Let you die, you mean?" River raised her eyebrows in question, then disappeared from his field of view.
Mal heard fabric ripping in the silence, but couldn't seem to concentrate. The deafening noise of the cave-in still echoed in his eardrums. "No one's dying here," Mal shook his head, annoyed, trying to clear the ringing. Brisk hands roughly pushed aside his coat and shirt.
"Already have. Two bodies - close. Alliance Scientists - fell during a survey a few years back." River paused thoughtfully, while she looped a strip of the canvas bag their cargo had been in around Mal's chest twice, "They thought it was cold too."
"Well we aren't going to die. Serenity's a hop, skip and a jump away... course we have no way of contacting them. Only problem we've got is that we're... stuck blind and dumb in a huge cavern of snow under this forsaken planet..." Mal sucked in air through his teeth as River knotted the pressure bandage and adjusted his layers over it again. He took a tight breath, "Tell me there's a way out."
"There's a way out," River moved away from him, he heard her boots scraping on ice, "Just not yet."
"When? Are we going to have to wait for pollution to melt the caps?"
"Perhaps you shouldn't talk."
Mal snorted, "Damned if that wasn't the nicest way anyone's ever told me to shut up... You reading anything River?"
"I think... Zoe thinks we're playing and we're following the leader."
"You... think..." Mal kept his voice calm, "River, I'm not exactly at the top of my game right now. You're going to have to solve some of your own riddles this time."
"I see the sun but the cold is brighter - distracting... an angry sharp cloud that freezes my toes."
Mal banged the back of his head on the ice, "Would you stop talking about the cold? I know it's cold. The two corpses know it's cold... we all know it's cold. Tell me how we get to see the sky again."
River's voice, hurt, echoed softly the farther away she got, "It isn't always easy to distinguish between what is the future and what is just my desire for the future. It all happens in the same place, you know."
Mal accepted the rebuke with a nod, but tried to keep her on topic, "Yeah. Okay. If you're going to come up with a plan - why don't you... get on that." Mal closed his eyes again, tried to get a handle on their situation. How far underground had this cave been before everyone had started shooting? How had the landscape changed; how long before Zoe would figure out the job had gone bad. Mal dropped his chin to his chest, hadn't they been doing this long enough to figure something was always going to go wrong?
"You'll need to lay down now, Captain."
"Lay down, Captain. In the vision, you're laying down." There was a scrape and then a flare of light.
Mal opened his eyes to slits. She was inspecting the mining equipment at the far end of their cave - where the roof had collapsed, "Yeah, right, good try."
"Lay down, Captain or I will lay you down," River called in a quiet sing song voice.
Mal was already sliding down the pillar, "Don't threaten me girl. It pisses me off."
"Pride goeth before the fall."
Mal growled, "You just always have to have the last word don't you?"
"Don't have to. Just happens that way."
Mal slid on the ice until he was laying on the remains of the bag that had once contained the precious wheat they'd been betrayed for. He called over to River, "Did you know this was going to happen?"
River didn't answer and he squinted over at her again, "River! Did you know this was going to happen?"
"I knew your friend was conflicted. And I knew if Zoe had come, she would not have made it back."
Mal nodded patiently, "Okay. So - that crap about you needing to be on this job -"
"Didn't lie. Just omitted the why."
"And the damn fool reason you kept that why to yourself was...?"
"You would still have met with them. You had no choice. Zoe would not have let you go alone and you would have regretted that..."
Mal clenched his jaw, the logic of this girl was going to be the end of him, "So you figured you might as well come along for this little ride to hell?"
River sighed heavily, "I figured that I was your best chance of staying alive."
"Yeah well, you're doing a bang up job so far," Mal said bitterly.
He heard her boots come toward him and then the shuffling of fabric as she sat down beside him, leaning her back against the wall of ice. A bright ribbon of light passed over his eyelids as River set the blue flare carefully down beside them, "I didn't say the plan was perfect. He really didn't intend it to go this far. He was hoping you'd surrender the rest of the grain."
"What kind of damn fool would think that?" Mal tried to sit up as a thought occurred to him, "Serenity - is Gootch still going after Serenity?"
"I killed him... with the gun he shot you with," River put a firm hand on his chest and pushed him back to the ice, "I'm sorry. He was a friend."
"He wasn't." Mal said sharply, "For the record, you feel free to shoot anyone who shoots me, dong ma?"
"What about his men - they gonna try for my ship?"
"Not enough numbers. Not enough ambition, not enough strategy; Bunch of lazy cowards really." River slowly slid down to the ground beside Mal and sighed again as she pressed against his side.
Mal looked down at her, "River, this is no time for snuggling."
River stared up at the ceiling, "Actually - body warmth will become quite essential in the next two hours. Ironically one has to remove all their clothes to effectively keep another person warm in these conditions."
"Have you lost your mind?" Mal prodded her lightly with his elbow, deepened his voice, "River, I know you're chilly - but I need you to get back over there and use that genius brain of yours to find us a way out of here."
River closed her eyes briefly, "Can think just as well from where I am at."
Mal strained to lift his neck, "River - are you hurt?" When she didn't answer Mal pushed himself onto his side and moved her arms away from her chest, looking for blood.
She inhaled sharply and swatted at his hand, "Wasn't shot. Don't you think I am capable of anticipating the trajectories of bullets?" Mal opened his mouth to reply that there had been quite a few to keep track of, but she continued, "It was the falling chunks of ice-earth that were difficult to maneuver."
Mal looked at her grimly, "River..."
"Two broken ribs, internal bleeding... probably bleed out before you."
Mal dropped his head back to the ice, "Gorram it River!"
River made a shushing noise, as echoes bounced around and passed them deep into the cave, "Considering my admission, I'd think you would make an effort not to bring down any more unpredictable chunks of ice-earth."
Mal muttered curses under his breath until his breath was harder to catch. He was having a hard time thinking passed this new information. How many people were going to follow him to their deaths? The familiar sense of guilt nagged and pulled at him. But there was no time to wallow. No time.
Mal searched for her hand and held it with his bloodied one, "You in a lot of pain, Darlin'?"
"No more than you."
"You can feel what I feel?"
"Yes. Inconvenient at the moment."
"You can't turn it off?"
"Only silence is in the black," her tone was wistful, "I never appreciated silence before-"
Mal was quiet, but she didn't continue. She never talked about before she'd gone to the Academy and he'd never asked. He'd always figured it was like his life before the war - too far away and now, too painful even to remember. Any other time, he'd respect that. But seeing as how things were looking, Mal surrendered to his curiosity, "Do you remember... before?"
"Yes. But, sometimes... what I see is too sharp to look at. Sweet memories lead to unexpected pain, bad memories lead to worse... best to just let her lie in peace."
Mal nodded, turned his head away, meant to get on with escaping; but he looked back to her upturned face. What had River gained by changing fate? Zoe's life for hers? And why did he feel so grateful for it?
River's slow, steady breath seemed to fill the silence before she spoke into it, "Zoe is deep in your heart."
"That don't mean I would have chosen you to die," Mal said gently, ignoring the fact that she'd been reading his mind without permission.
"But you'd regret it less."
Mal crushed her hand in his, "That ain't true." At least, Mal didn't want that to be true.
River hummed a line from an old folk song as if nothing important was being said, then, answered simply, "You know I have nothing outside Serenity. No future without you. I don't take offense."
Mal shook his head, "River..."
"It's okay" River smiled dryly, "The situation serves as motivation to repeatedly keep you from getting shot, maimed, blown up, stabbed..."
"Yeah, I get it. I get it." Mal let it pass though something churned in his chest. He choked out a bitter laugh, "I'm glad I give you purpose."
River turned onto her side, slid on the ice until her face was even with his, "Don't regret what I wouldn't change myself."
Mal turned his head to stare into her eyes, he didn't deserve this sort of loyalty. He didn't deserve her. But none of that mattered. He was her Captain and, deserving or not, it was his responsibility to lead her, "Enough of this talk, River." He lifted their hands to his chest, "Stop spouting poetry and start figuring how to get us back home."
"So?" He raised his eyebrows at her, played as if conducting business laying down on an ice floor while both of them bled to death was an everyday occurrence, "Are you going to tell me what's over there, or do I have to guess?"
River closed her eyes and listed everything the miners had left on their side of the avalanche. Mal went over and over the list in his mind, trying to find the miracle... the way - anyway out of here. He focused first on ways to boost their signal to Serenity. But all he could seem to do is check off the things that wouldn't work. So if there was no way to Serenity, they had to find a way to walk out. But there was no getting out the way they had come in and if two surveyors hadn't been able to get themselves out - he didn't know...
"Oh," River said suddenly.
"What, you leave the stove on?" Mal quipped as he turned to her, but the words died on his lips as he saw her smile - small and just slightly mischievous. Adrenaline and hope spread through him like light, "Darlin' I've seen that look in your eye before, tell me you just saved our lives."
"No - you did. Or, you would... if you knew what the two men in the slush pit had on them when they died." River grinned at him, "Brilliant Captain."
Mal shrugged awkwardly as he grabbed the flare and pulled himself into a sitting position,"It's a gift. Come on then, tell me about my brilliant plan... and it better not involve hauling dead bodies along with us looking for fifty year old landmarks..."
"Promise." Mal marveled at River as she got to her feet almost as gracefully as when she wasn't mortally injured. She held out a hand to him and he took it, not bothering to hide his difficulty standing.
"They didn't get lost - they fell and were never of sound mind again to get out," River explained as she walked toward the back of the cave where a ribbon of shallow water snaked through the ice. She lead him along a snowy shelf right above the water as if she'd worn the path herself while Mal kept his end up - the blue torch only illuminating the snow enough for Mal to follow, quite literally, in River's footsteps. River paused, turned to him, "Wait here." She knelt, then eased herself into the icy slush. He followed her progress the best he could with the flare, but within a few feet he could only track her by the sound of the ice moving and crunching around her. Then, a different sound - a softer sound of leather being moved and then, moments later River appeared at Mal's feet, her hand extended, waiting for help up out of the slush.
She had a black official looking bag slung around her neck that she opened eagerly with shaking hands. Mal saw her fingers were nearly blue as she proudly lifted a black electronic pad out of. With a touch of a button a green three dimensional map of the cavern where they were standing grew from the pad. River manipulated the controls, shifting it slightly so that little red lines drew paths through the cavern - six snake like lines all indicating a different way back to the surface.
Mal stared at it and then River, "Now that... is a beautiful thing."
River eliminated all but the shortest route, but Mal could see it wasn't going to be an easy trek; it would have been a struggle on the ice even uninjured. As it was, it was blindingly difficult. It took every ounce of concentration Mal had not to be careless with his footing, to keep his mind sharp and his body moving. The initial rush of success had long gone and they were only half of the way to their goal. Mal reached out to River with his thoughts - too tired to make out the words. She turned to him and Mal's heart dropped - even in the pale light, her face was drawn and waxy. "We need to rest," Mal muttered before succumbing to a sharp coughing fit. River just nodded and slid carefully to the ground. Mal eased himself beside her. The moment they stopped moving the cold pricked at Mal's face and neck - freezing his sweat.
They waited in near silence for their bodies to recharge; their ragged breathing amplified in the small space. Despite the pain, Mal found it was going to take monumental effort not to fall asleep. Mal put his arm around River intending to give her a brisk rub of warmth, but failing on account of his own debilitating exhaustion. So he just left it there, weighing on her shoulders like a soaked log. He didn't bother inspecting his wound or how much blood was soaking through the makeshift bandage. Mal knew he had to get his mind going if he was ever going to be able to convince his body to move again.
He focused on River's lashes as he could see little else beyond the flare, "It's cold."
River shivered and dropped her head to rest against the warmth of his neck, "Told you."
Mal pulled her closer, "Yeah, bao bei, you told me." She didn't respond and her head dropped heavier onto his shoulder. He nudged her, "Come on, don't do that... River... River!"
"Just resting," Her words were slurred, just slightly.
"Yeah well, no resting yet. That's an order. Wait til you hear the whinge of your brother's voice." Mal laughed at his own joke. "You're sure they didn't take the shuttle, huh? Don't that seem a little to lucky for the likes of us?"
"Unless I've started hallucinating."
"No, but now seems a good time to mention," River's voice was tired and emotionless, "It's very possible that in the three years since this survey was done any number of things could have blocked the tunnel. Avalanche, man, earthquake, flood..."
"Yeah, yeah. Well, if this one doesn't go anywhere, we'll just keep trying those little paths until we get one that leads us out," It was absurd and Mal knew River knew it. They would be lucky to make it far enough to find out of this tunnel still lead to the surface, "So... back to the shuttle..."
"They didn't see it. I landed well away from any of their trails... which is why it was so difficult to meet them. Remember? You said, 'Gorram it, River - why'd you land us in a ruttin' obstacle course.'"
"Yeah, yeah, I remember. And I still don't know why," Mal squeezed her shoulder, "I thought you didn't know this was going to happen."
River didn't answer, just lifted her head from his shoulder, "We should move now. Before we forget we need to."
"Yeah, come on, one last push." Mal gave River an encouraging pat before steeling himself for movement. By the time he'd gotten himself all the way to his feet, River still hadn't moved. He was sweating with exertion, and now worry made him nauseous. He didn't think he could carry her... and he damn sure wasn't going to leave her.
River opened her eyes and stood, "I'm fine."
Mal frowned as she stepped passed the flare and back on track, "You get a ... second wind or something?"
River shook her head, kept them moving, "The Academy had ways of teaching us how to manage pain."
"Yeah, I imagine they did - those sick-minded bastards."
"It's come in handy now and then."
"Doesn't make it less wrong."
River hummed non-commitedly.
"I'm growing attached to the map," Mal huffed. He was pretty proud of his progress, slow as they were going, they were moving steadily. Their progress was tracked by the electronic map - a little red dot slowly dragging along the line to freedom. Of course, he may be getting a tad giddy from blood loss, exhaustion or freezing - he didn't know ... that wasn't a good sign, "We should... name it..."
"What kind of name is Nicademus?"
"Better than Rover."
"Hey - Rover was my dog's name - and stop reading my mind."
"Then stop thinking."
"No problem." Mal squinted - God help him, light was straight ahead - out of nowhere it cut through the darkness, "I see... somethin'."
"That's not the right exit. We still have a mile to go."
"No, we still got there to go. I'm not arguing with sunlight."
"Map was wrong."
"Who cares about the map? I hate the map."
"Don't let him hear you say that," River stumbled, then collapsed to the ground - Mal nearly fell right on top of her. He kept his balance, barely, by slipping along the ice that lined their tunnel.
Mal dropped to his knees at her side and cleared her hair away from her face, "Come on, River, sweetheart, come on - a few more steps."
"Ready or not..." She kept her eyes closed, but smiled wistfully, "I hear the whinge of my brother's voice."
Mal pat her shoulder, worried she had started hallucinating after all, and was just about to try and drag her the rest of the way when he heard footsteps in the snow. He un-holstered his gun and waited warily.
"Sir? You ready to stop playing hide and seek, now?" Zoe's voice followed by Zoe herself, Jayne right behind her.
Mal just stared at them for a second,"How'd you find us?"
Zoe raised an eyebrow, "I take it things did not go to plan."
Mal shook his head, "Get the doc. River's bleeding internally."
"Looks like you're bleeding externally," Jayne cocked an eyebrow at him while Zoe doubled back for the Doc, "Can you walk?"
Mal shook his head, "Yeah. I can walk. Go help Zoe get a gurney." Mal rested on the melted wall of their tunnel and stared at River's body as Jayne's footsteps pounded away. What the hell, she'd been right after all. Not that that made it all right to go behind his back and try to save his life like that. No, they were going to have to have a little talk about the way she handled the knowledge that came to her. Mal sighed. Such big responsibilities housed in such a small frame... It was passed time she started sharing some of her burden. Like it or not, Mal was going to set some new ground rules for River Tam... if her fancy pants brother ever got his ass back here to patch her up, that is.
"Don't worry, Captain," came River's tired voice, "Really just need a rest. You can critisize my decisions all you want... after... I nap."
Mal felt the tension in his chest ease some. He smiled weakly and ran a bloody hand down his face, then let his hand rest on her side affectionately, "It's a date."